Cole Arthur Riley
Convergent Press, 224 pages
Published on February 22, 2022
There is a dish my partner makes that our daughter loves enough to lick the plate when finished, accompanied by a deeply satisfied “Mmmm!” Something about the dish hits all the right flavor notes, compelling her to soak up every last bit. This image came to mind with each vignette in This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us. In this collection of “storied contemplations” by Cole Arthur Riley (the author of the popular @BlackLiturgies Instagram account), every page is peppered with exquisite turns of phrases and observations of the spirit. Questions are raised too – about dignity (“What is shalom but dignity stretched out like a blanket over the cosmos?”) and place (“Isn’t it something that in Genesis, God makes a home for things before God makes the thing?”) – with the answers presented like a kaleidoscope through which to behold God’s presence, activity and imagination.
Her insights come from one who is willing to face pain – individual and collective – and to grapple with the inconvenient truths and uncomfortable musings the pain raises. She describes the demands White Christianity makes of Black Spiritual presentation, saying, “We are told that the pinnacle of piety is niceness, and we are shamed out of conflict, protest, agony … our agony will never be allowed to disrupt the illusion of unity.” She critically dissects the violence of a spirituality that divorces the soul from the body: “whiteness knows that the more detached I am from my body, the easier that body will be to colonize …” and describes how early survival tactics can serve to keep us in bondage, adding, “When you have felt chronically unsafe in your own home, the safest things can feel like terror.”
It was serendipitous to read this as I prepared for our Christmas Eve service with the omicron variant moving swiftly across the U.S. This Here Flesh stirred me to remind the community gathered (physically and digitally), that we must make peace with our bodies, receive the grace to rest from our labors, and recommit ourselves to our collective liberation. With prose that reads like poetry, This Here Flesh is beautifully written, emotionally honest, and deeply soulful. It would serve well as a liturgical resource, a launchpad for reflection with clergy colleagues, and reading for a congregational small group concerned with spiritual depth.
It isn’t quite enough to call This Here Flesh an autobiography or even a “coming-of-age-narrative,” as some reviewers minimalize it. There is something deeper here, echoing the womanist reflections of theological giants like Katie Canon and Renita Weems. Even as she draws on those who left the stained-glass windows behind them – James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Emily Dickinson – she calls us to awareness of the holy present in our skin. Arthur Riley is concerned with healing, rest, liberation, and reparative work — timely topics for anyone in ministry these days. She is unflinching as she speaks her truth, and the collective truths of Black people, and is so honest in it that I’m reminded of my preaching professor, Frank Thomas, who would often say, “If you go deep enough, it will become universal.”
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