"Tsotsi" means "thug" in South African dialect. Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae, in a remarkable debut) is a thug, all right, from the slums of Johannesburg. He glares constantly, as if always boiling with rage. He is cruel, violent, and humorless. He surrounds himself with other thugs, and together they go to the central train terminal, where they find their victims. They rob people who are unguarded enough to flash a wad of bills when they are paying for a newspaper. When they return to their slums, they spend their stolen money gambling at dice, and when it runs out, they go steal again. Tsotsi seems to be practically unredeemable. And then something unexpected happens.
With Easter Week, spring break and other incentives to use our time to read something inspiring, we recommend the following:
Were You There? Finding Ourselves at the Foot of the Cross, by Erik Kolbell. Louisville: WJKP, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22778-3. Hb., 163 pp., $14.95.
What would you have done were you there during Jesus' passion? Would you have provided comfort, as did Mary? Would you have betrayed him, as did Judas? Would you have abused the power entrusted to you, as did Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate? Kolbell skillfully puts us into the story of Jesus' passion and death in such a way that we are there--and that then is somehow now, too. Retelling Jesus' passion from the perspective of multiple characters, he offers rich insight into Jesus' story, and into our stories, as well.
by Wes Avram. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005. ISBN 1587430886. Pb., 156 pp., $14.99.
In the first of the sermonic essays in this collection, Wes Avram recounts a story from a physician's memoirs about a young man who lost his leg to bone cancer. The young man went through long and difficult therapy to learn to live without his leg. During his physical therapy, the doctor sometimes asked the young man to draw a picture of how he was feeling. On one occasion he drew a picture of a cracked vase, depicting his feeling of being broken right at the center of his being. As the years went on, the young man gradually accepted his new life and learned to find joy again. Much later, the doctor met the patient again, and had an opportunity to pull out of his files the old picture of the cracked vase. The former patient took the picture back and said, "This isn't finished." He added something to the drawing. "'Now it's complete,' he said and turned it back to the doctor. He had drawn rays of light shining from inside the vase. He said, 'Now I know that the crack is where the light shows through.'" [p. 31]
Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, by Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006. ISBN:0-310-26574-6. Pb., 247 pages, $12.99.
Read this book; it will strengthen your Lenten preaching. Free of Charge is the Archbishop of Canterbury's "Official 2006 Lent Book." In the Forward, Archbishop Rowan Williams says, "This is a book about worshipping the true God and letting the true God act in us." Volf captures the essence of his book in a more engaging way in the Postlude, a conversation with a skeptic who questions all Volf's assumptions, even his view of God. Volf responds, "I don't mean to insult you, but I wrote this book mainly for myself and maybe for folks like me, not for you. Most books I write, I write for myself as a spiritual exercise almost. And to tell the truth, my biggest problem is not with the arguments that may pull the rug from beneath the whole Christian way of life. In a sense my biggest problem is not an argument at all." (p.229)
Volf and the skeptic continue the dialogue. Volf says, "I am what we Christians used to call a 'sinner,' though we are now a bit embarrassed by the term." (p.230) "In the book, I argue, among other things, that we should embrace our enemies as Christ has embraced us. Well, an 'enemy'- a small one -- arose in my life after I wrote the book, and I sensed in myself the propensity to return in kind and exclude rather than forgive and embrace. And then I heard myself saying, 'But you argued in your book ...' It was like an academic version of the still small voice my wonderful and godly mother so often speaks about."
"Did that help?" the skeptic asked.
"It did! It reminded me that I was failing, that I wasn't true to God and to myself. It helped me resolve to act differently, to love my 'enemy.'" (p. 232)
As I was preparing this review of David Kelsey's provocative treatment of redemption, none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, was already bandying about the word in the media. Explaining his refusal to commute the death sentence of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the governor-cum-theologian said, "[Williams'] redemption may not be complete."
It is clear that the governor was operating under a certain definition of redemption, clearly popular in our hyper-individualistic culture, bathed as we are in self-help. In our cultural milieu, redemption is a human act of will, something that Mr. Williams ought to be able to "do," and, barring that redemptive accomplishment, he somehow forfeits his right to live. Lest any in the faith community believe that this understanding is remotely Christian, Kelsey's book comes along and reminds us that redemption is not a self-help project or a human project at all; redemption is a gift of grace, an act of God, and we are simply invited to live into this redemptive space in response.
Both are about journeys from the cosmopolitan United States to the jungles of another continent. In both, the central characters are nice, trusting, non-violent, and affectionate. In both, the first foray ends in great disappointment, but perseverance pays off when the second attempt succeeds. In both, there is a kind of determined optimism, almost to the point of suspending disbelief. In both, love triumphs, but it's not always romantic love that matters, but the genuine caring that binds one being to another despite their unlikely alliance.
For those who are skeptical and dismissive of Oprah Winfrey, it is particularly challenging not to be condescending of a religious book that seeks to evaluate Oprah and her influence on our society. In The Gospel According to Oprah, Marcia Z. Nelson provides us with a thorough theological evaluation of Oprah and her empire that invites us to re-evaluate this "pop-icon," and possibly learn and appropriate lessons from her.
Oprah's influence is unparalleled. Her show is broadcast in 108 countries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; she claims 10 million viewers in the U.S. alone; her magazine has 2.7 million readers. Her empire includes movie production, Internet, and product endorsement. Her core message, "improve yourself, make a difference, and learn from life's lessons," is consistent and strong throughout all areas of her work.
In the Reformed tradition, we believe that any dichotomy between sacred and secular is a false one. We claim that God is actively involved in all spheres of life: church and culture, pastor and pop-icon. How is it that we might see Oprah as an instrument of God? It is hard to dismiss Oprah's generosity: more than $175 million donated to causes and organizations that promote human development. The testimony of countless people who claim to be living more full lives because of Oprah is equally compelling. Oprah has raised consciousness about critical social issues such as child abuse.
Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden. (Proverbs 30: 18-19)
There's a decided disadvantage to making a movie of a play. It's probably going to look "staged"--lots of conversation, lots of character interaction, plot development through dialogue, but it all feels confined to tight quarters. There are a couple of decided advantages, though, of converting a successful play into a movie: the snappy repartee is already audience-tested, and the ending is going to feel like a finale.
"A Good Woman" is based on Oscar Wilde's 1892 play, "Lady Windermere's Fan." There's a mature kind of jocularity here, as if it's the older folks who are funny, intelligent, and wise, and the younger folks are physically handsome, but tend to be victimized by their own immaturity, ardor, and impulsiveness. But, of course, there's no fool like an old fool, and the young have to be prevented from being impaled by their own principles.
by Timothy B. Tyson. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005. ISBN 1400083117. Pb., 368 pp., $14.
Many words will be spilled over this review of Timothy B. Tyson's autobiography, Blood Done Sign My Name. All of them are intended to encourage you: read it; invite your congregation members to read it; listen deeply to what it says to you, in you, and about you.
Tyson provides one of the most engaging autobiographies this reviewer has read. He integrates his coming of age story into the crime of murder, committed in an apparent spirit of racial supremacy. He challenges us to see more than is comfortable and to admit all that we know but dare not speak.
Tyson's generous personal story, woven with his clear and accessible exposition of complex civil rights history, captivated me. He cleverly negotiates the distance between past and present, between his story and the story and laces it all with theological assertions, challenges, and hope. Tyson avoids the dangers of nostalgia by delving into the messy complexities of racism and our continuing grasp toward, but not of, reconciliation. Chapters are measured with insightful humor and grit, making the recounting of pain caused by the sins inherently consequent given racism in our culture and in our church more palatable.
It's 1965. Vietnam was on television, and so was Lyndon Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the Civil Rights movement, and racism in America was both subtle and overt, particularly in the Deep South. Bouffant hairdos. Motown sound on the radio. And college basketball was a white man's game.
It's not that there weren't some black players. But the ones who toughed out the taunts from the stands had to endure the unwritten expectations of Division One competition: You can play one black at home, two on the road, and three if you're desperately behind. But a whole team of blacks would be undisciplined, would only be capable of the "playground" game, no teamwork, all "showboating."
Don Haskins was a successful high school girls' basketball coach. Sure, he had dreams of coaching a men's program at the college level, and he was amazed when he was offered the position at Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso). He didn't realize they had no recruiting budget, little talent to work with, and few expectations even of itself. He set out to change all that. He wanted to go recruit some good players. So he scoured the playgrounds, not only in Texas, but also in places like Gary, Indiana, and Harlem. He told those black kids that if they followed his program, they would play. And so a dedicated group of seven black players all accepted scholarships. And Haskins (played capably by Josh Lucas) went about trying to shape them into a team.