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Reset the Heart: Unlearning Violence, Relearning Hope

 

Mai-Anh Le Tran
Abingdon Press, 176 pages
Reviewed by Susan G. De George

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, people took to the streets, rallying against the systemic injustices that are becoming more and more visible. Mai-Anh Le Tran observed that as pastors organized their churches to respond to this insidious violence, they ran into the same problem over and over. Their religious communities were unable or unwilling to respond through ongoing faith-driven action.

In “Reset the Heart,” Le Tran tries to understand why our theology and beliefs often don’t find embodiment in prophetic, resurrectional practices and explores what renewed practices might help us move toward insurrectional hope. She combines a vast knowledge of theory, a concrete analysis of current educational flaws, an understanding of the ways in which religious identity and practices intersect with issues like systemic violence and the reflections and stories of ministers from the St. Louis area.

The book first focuses on why Christian communities are complicit in a dominant culture that gives preference to “disimagination” and puzzles through how we currently teach faith. Le Tran reinterprets and updates Charles Foster’s five basic flaws of church education for the 21st century. She shows how, for example, instead of Foster’s loss of communal memory and a growing generational disconnect, Christian educators are now encountering “mentacide,” the erasure of historical memory caused by the suppression of memories of injustice and suffering.

The second half of the book focuses on the question that provides the book’s title: What does it mean to reset the heart for faith “in the afterburn of whatever is this week’s #Ferguson?” What new or renewed practices can help us move from violence to insurrectional hope? Acknowledging that faith communities will have to wrestle with fear, discomfort and risk, Le Tran’s offerings focus on communicability, redeemability and educability.

Vignettes from ministers who have witnessed examples of an individual practice provide illustrations for specific suggestions. These pastoral reflections are, however, the weakest part of the book. While they seem to be offered as a way to bridge the gap between academia and those teaching faith at a congregational level, they don’t delve into the processes by which an individual group of Christians became able or willing to use suggested practices. How, for example, did Brody’s congregation come to a place where they were willing to broaden table practices and dismantle barriers? How was Stacey’s congregation able to shift from critical inquiry to spiritual ritual? Being given more insight into the actual processes that guided these transformational moves would have been very helpful. I was disappointed that this was missing since it seemed a crucial step in considering how to help congregations move to faith-driven action.

Nevertheless, “Reset the Heart” takes on a question that should be pressing on all who work with or are part of a church community, provoking us to move from abstract religious teaching to creative, faithful ways of embodying hope in our sanctuaries, on our streets and in our neighborhoods. It does this by giving us both the underpinning theory for such a shift as well as specific suggestions of practices for individual congregations who want to unlearn violence and relearn hope. It provides a very good starting point for religious leaders who want to help Christians move from their faith to their feet.

Susan G. De George is stated clerk of Hudson River Presbytery and professor of religious studies at Pace University in New York City.

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