On the Lived Theology Reading List: A Christian and a Democrat

A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, by John F. Woolverton and James D. BrattA Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt

A work begun by religious historian John Woolverton (1926-2014) and recently completed by James Bratt, A Christian and a Democrat is an engaging analysis of the surprisingly spiritual life of one of the most consequential presidents in US history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When asked at a press conference about the roots of his political philosophy, FDR responded simply, “I am a Christian and a Democrat.” This is the story of how the first informed the second—how his upbringing in the Episcopal Church and matriculation at the Groton School under legendary educator and minister Endicott Peabody molded Roosevelt into a leader whose politics were fundamentally shaped by the Social Gospel.

A Christian and a Democrat chronicles FDR’s response to the toxic demagoguery of his day, and will reassure readers today that a constructive way forward is possible for Christians, for Americans, and for the world.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“This timely, inspiring portrait of the role of Christianity in the life and presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt helps us better understand one of the influential leaders of the twentieth century. Woolverton has made a great contribution here that should lead us to reevaluate our view of the role of faith in the progressive movement, the Democratic Party, and American politics generally, while also stoking our imagination for how Christian principles might guide us today.”—Michael Wear, author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America

“Rare is the opportunity to read a biography by someone who ran in the same circles as the author but who was not an acquaintance. Through a collective biography of FDR’s many influences and their religious backgrounds, we learn that Franklin Roosevelt had the Social Gospel imprinted on his character. His boarding school teachers, as well as those of his wife Eleanor and his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, raised him with a strong sense of responsibility toward the less fortunate. This Social-Gospel-sense of “Christian charity” drove both his concern for the poor and his rejection of authoritarian methods of establishing justice. Woolverton and Bratt depict a man whose ‘simple faith’ drove his decisions in both domestic and foreign policy. It was this faith, they suggest, that helped save the prospects for democracy in the United States.”—Janine Giordano Drake, University of Providence

“With James D. Bratt’s deft revision, this study of Franklin Roosevelt’s religious life by respected Episcopal historian John Woolverton arrives at just the right time. Woolverton’s warm but frank spiritual biography describes a president who practiced a Christianity based on hope, charity, and faith and grounded in a deep sense of mutual responsibility. This book is a reminder that American Christianity might have followed an alternative trajectory into the twenty-first century.”—Alison Collis Greene, Emory University

For more information on the publication, click here.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography, by Carlos EireA Biography

The original book entitled The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila is an autobiography of sorts, a confession written for inquisitors by a nun whose raptures and mystical claims had aroused suspicion. In it, St. Teresa details one of the most remarkable accounts ever written of the human encounter with the divine.

In The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila: A Biography, Carlos Eire tells the story of this incomparable spiritual masterpiece, examining its composition and reception in the sixteenth century, the various ways its mystical teachings have been interpreted and reinterpreted across time, and its enduring influence in our own secular age. The book has had a profound impact on Christian spirituality for five centuries, and has also been read as a feminist manifesto, a literary work, and even as a secular text. But as Eire demonstrates, Teresa’s confession is at its core a cry from the heart to God and an audacious portrayal of mystical theology as a search for love.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Carlos Eire analyzes Teresa of Avila’s Life and chronicles its reception from the late sixteenth century to the present with profound erudition, insight, and conviction. His carefully documented survey of trends in editing, translation, and artistic production makes a significant contribution to the history of the book and readership, as well as women’s writing, spirituality, and the Catholic intellectual tradition.”—Jodi Bilinkoff, author of The Avila of Saint Teresa: Religious Reform in a Sixteenth-Century City

“Carlos Eire leads readers expertly and learnedly through the composition of the Life and its fortunes over the centuries. Not only does he slice, dice, and classify with the skill of a medieval theologian, he does so with the wit of a philosophe and with an unusually sensitive understanding of the mystical Teresa. I loved this book even more than I expected I would.”—Craig Harline, author of A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation

“Eire has an uncanny ability to write scholarly work in an engaging and accessible style. He knows how to get to the heart of the matter. This is the story of a mystic and her book but also a story of how reactions to extreme religious experiences have changed—and been deployed—over centuries.”—Alison Weber, author of Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity

For more information on the publication, click here.

Carlos Eire is a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University in 1996. He specializes in the social, intellectual, religious and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

To Reimagine Community As Art

I often feel at odds with my love for art and my understanding of the work of justice. There is a lot within the culture of art to criticize: the eliteness, the consumerism, the cost. Even when it comes to the artists who use their art as a platform to speak address issues in society, I find myself wondering, “Is there not a more direct way to address this problem?”

However, despite my cynicism, I cannot deny the authority of art and beauty over humankind. Art draws me in. I enjoy it, I study it, I make my own. Working at a gallery this summer, I have been able to think more about my own views on art. I am learning to appreciate the complexities of beauty and why we humans are so obedient to it. I think that we are drawn to stories of creation: the coming-together of smaller pieces to form a new a larger whole.

The Walls-Ortiz Gallery has a project that demonstrates this artistic coming-together very well. For a while, the gallery hosted weekly yarn circles, where neighbors were invited to knit and crochet together. The beginners learned from the experts, and we all produced various handmade squares of green, blue, yellow and brown yarn. After many were collected, we stitched them all into a patchwork of colorful textures to encase the tree trunks of the young trees growing outside of the gallery entrance.

They call this project the Yarn Bomb and I love the idea of it I love the conversations that the Tree Sweaters have encouraged and I love that people now stop to admire our trees. They give the neighborhood an extra spark of color. Above all these things, I love the Yarn Bomb because each covered tree trunk is proof of community. Just like beauty can be made by the coming-together of smaller pieces, community must be as well. To me, the Tree Sweaters show beauty and community at the same time, in the same way.

To me, this concept of coming-together is redemptive. It gives an immeasurable collective value to each small component, both in a work of art, and in a community. I have not, before this, made a connection between the qualities of art and the qualities of community, but I find both entities essential to the world of faith. I am trying to start looking at community as a manifestation of beauty. It helps me attribute value and dignity to each person involved in an aesthetic kind of way instead of a rational one. It allows me to reimagine the existence of community, like art, as a medium of worship. Like the trees that we dressed in yarn, I want circles of fellowship and faith to enhance the space that they exist in, to add a humble splash of color. How remarkable would it be if passers-by could look at such a community and see the intentional and continuous coming-togetherness of a piece of artwork? Like the pedestrians who admire the trees, I want the beauty that people see in our communities to prompt them to ask, “What is this? And can I help?”

The gallery team celebrating the completion of the Yarn Bomb

Stitching the squares together

Julian Bond Transcribe-a-Thon

By Eduardo Montes-Bradley – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The University of Virginia is embarking on a project to make social justice and civil rights icon Julian Bond’s collection of documents accessible to the world through a crowdsourced transcription effort. #TranscribeBond is the first stage in the ultimate production of an online, digital edition.

The Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, Center for Digital Editing, UVA Scholars Lab, and Virginia Humanities are collaborating on this transcribe-a-thon. A reception introducing the scope and goals of the digital project will be held at the Carter G. Woodson Institute on August 14 in room 110 of Minor Hall. On the following day (August 15) from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., registered participants will head to one of five locations on Grounds and in Charlottesville to transcribe a wide and varied sample of his papers, starting with his speeches.

Join us to contribute to this historic project by transcribing a wide and varied sample of Bond’s papers!

RSVP here

Locations:

  • The Woodson Institute, 110 Minor Hall, UVA
  • The Scholars’ Lab, Alderman Library, UVA
  • The Virginia Center for the Book at the Jefferson School, 233 4th St. NW, Charlottesville, Va.
  • Shenandoah Joe, 945 Preston Ave., Charlottesville, Va.
  • McCue Center, Virginia Athletics, 290 Massie Rd, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903

In addition to the transcribe-a-thon, UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library will hold an exhibit of original materials related to Julian Bond. The exhibit will be held on Thursday, Aug. 15 from 12:00 pm to 2:00 p.m. in the Byrd-Morris Room of the Special Collections Library.

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Creation and Culture Care

In an Arts & Minds program, conversation is one of the leading forces. Conversation is the pathway to unpacking meanings embedded in the artwork. As an intern, I have the chance to sit on the outside and watch the conversations develop right before my eyes. Meaning weaves itself together naturally, revealing the moving relationship between art and shared experience. When attending Arts & Minds programs in Spanish, however, my attention was brought to the underlying importance of the program, which extends beyond the program’s art speculation.

When I attended a program this week that was entirely in Spanish, my usual routine was no longer plausible. I wasn’t able to do much more than smile and say hello as people entered the museum. As we stood in the lobby of El Museo Del Barrio, one of the teaching artists and a mentor of mine, Nellie, whispered to me that they were talking about Virgin Mary. I gasped and smiled, ahhh!, as if this piece of information suddenly tuned me into their conversation. However, this tiny piece of information did, in fact, make me feel more included. I found myself latching onto little clues such as this.

As the program went on, the language barriers became less visible. We went into the exhibition and gathered around a piece of art. I held onto the tones of the participant’s voices, their gestures, the laughter that would break out when that one woman on the left would say something with a skeptical look.

In Makoto Fujimura’s book, “Culture Care”, Fujimura writes about the importance of gathering together in the face of art. And one thing he presses is the importance of everyone, of all abilities, to be nurtured by art. In my previous blog posts, I have recounted Vanier’s influential perspectives of art and inclusivity. Fujimura emphasizes these lessons, teaching them through the message that, “culture care is to provide care for our culture’s “soul”, to bring to our cultural home our bouquet of flowers so that reminders of beauty- both ephemeral and enduring- are present in even the harshest environments…”

Attending Arts & Minds programs have revealed to me how important it is for all citizens to have the chance to gather together and express oneself through art. And through this, connect with the beautiful humans who are also present. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. Many people who live with Alzheimer’s Disease experience difficulties following conversations, along with hearing and speaking challenges. This put me in their shoes in a very unexpected way. In programs with patients who have more developed versions of dementia, some of them have a hard time speaking – some don’t speak at all.

Many people are unsure of what to do with people with Alzheimer’s, whether it be out of fear or with the lack of resources. Fujimura emphasizes that as artists, it is our responsibility to implement programs and care for all people’s creativity. Fujimura writes, “we may need to learn to cultivate these reminders of beauty in the same way flowers are cared for and raised. Culture care restores beauty as a seed of invigoration into the ecosystem of culture. Such care is generative: a well-nurtured culture becomes an environment in which people and creativity thrive.”

Afterwards, Nellie, one of the teachers with Arts & Minds (and one of my role models) came up to me. She said, “it’s humbling, isn’t it?” I agreed. It is humbling to sit in a room where everyone’s lives are so different from yours. The Arts & Minds program in Spanish gave me the distance to see more of my own difference, and to be humbled. As I clung to the little clues outside of language, the laughter shared and the moments of quiet, I saw a big group of friends persisting through their shared experience of something seen as hopeless or tragic.

Fujimura writes that, “Culture care is the imaginative effluence of being a faithful follower of Jesus in any time or place. It’s hope to borne into places where hope that is truly hope must be realistic, slow, disruptive, and limited.” We must extend our care to places such as Arts & Minds, where we confront and feel our differences. Through the act of creation, a connection emerged through all of us. Creation is God’s gift to us, and as an artist, it is our spiritual duty to spread creativity to all communities of people.

Under the light of creation and art, our differences glow.

Ode to the City

Ode to the City Part I

and today
I am reminded
that you will never be mine.

the child who’s nested in her mother’s skirt
the light that bounces up down
up down in central park
there was that one good cry on my way uptown
and the skinny man at the deli

I cannot steal you because I cannot see you
and you are not to take

you offer us all that you have
and it fills up our eyes lips hands
flaming
hands swimming
in your eternal sky

Ode to the City Part II

Ode to the City Reflection

When I set out to create this piece, I started with paints. I changed some key details in my second version amidst my growth and realizations of my place here in the city. In the original version, it also depicted a wrist reaching into a set of buildings. However, the wrist was bound by silver chains. The hand was grasping a melting shape representative of an earth. Living in New York City has been one of the greatest gifts – though with many gifts, we worry that we aren’t consuming enough of it. Receiving all of it. I often build up physical locations, romanticize them, wait for them to change me. This results in disappointment and fulfillment.

I aimed to capture this anxiety in my short poem at the beginning of this entry. And I aimed to capture that in my second version of the picture.

These key changes shift the attention from keeping the city to myself to acknowledging the way the city gives itself to us. There is a spirit that lives here, that follows us wherever we go. Once I leave this city, I will not have lost anything. It will be within me. When looking at this in a more spiritual context, it expresses the boundless love and impact that the love of a God offers us. While we often make efforts to hold onto physical and visible beings, this will never be ours. However, the love that exists beyond our grasp is what will be ours forever.

Dancing in the Kitchen

Besides serving in the kitchens at the Haven, I am also leading a series of improvisational, community dance workshops in The Haven’s Sanctuary space in order to investigate how dance and ritual theory can be used as a tool in the process of maintaining and constructing communities. When I speak of dance, I am speaking of community dance. Unlike ballet, community dance is supposed to be highly accessible, fun, and easy. Finding a definition for community dance, however, is not so easy. Whatever the reason for this difficulty, I’ve spent some time seeking out a good one.

This past week, I reached out to Emily Wright, a local dance-scholar studying the links between dance, community, and religion (how lucky am I that this person lives in Charlottesville!). Emily encouraged me to start by defining dance itself, before I try to define its deeper linkages with religion and community. She asked me, “What do you think dance is?” I nervously mumble-jumbled something incoherent, and then evaded the subject entirely by turning the question back on her.

Emily mentioned that her definition of dance is primarily situated upon conscious, aware movement. I understand her definition to mean that anytime we slow down enough to be aware of our movements as they relate to ourselves (dance is fascinatingly reflexive), to others, or to our spaces, we are dancing. Initially, I had thought that awareness is the very element dance would lack in its purest form; I thought that the process of maintaining awareness would cause the dancer to become estranged from the dance. I associated awareness with the brain, and therefore I was afraid that such a definition would place a disproportionate emphasis on cerebral knowledge, forcing the dancer to become disembodied.

But then I realized, as Sondra Horton Fraliegh notes in Dance and the Lived Body, that while dancing, the body can be at different times either the subject or the object of our awareness, and that both of these experiences qualify as ‘dance’. Fraleigh defines these two modes of awareness in terms of the body-subject and the body-object, and she adds that these modes of dance describes the way in which the dancer physically engages with their surroundings.

Emily says that dance can be as simple as reaching up for a glass from your cupboard, so long as you are consciously focusing on and being aware of this action and how they you are performing it in space. This example, of course, made me think of my work in the kitchen: reaching up (and down and sideways) for pots, glasses, mugs, knives, cutting boards, spatulas, trays, food, brooms, cloths— you name it! So, can dance be as simple as reaching up for a pot, cutting with a knife, or cracking an egg? I think so. But whether this dancing falls under body-object or body-subject depends, of course, on how you reach, cut, or crack,

Say we’re cracking eggs over the grill for hungry guests. The ease and efficiency with which a volunteer cracks eggs into the grill can be seen in their movement. If someone has never cracked eggs before, it will take them more time to fry a dozen eggs than it would an experienced volunteer, because the amateur volunteer is assessing for the first time how their body turns to retrieve the eggs, how their hands pick up and crack the eggs, how far to throw the egg shells. The amateur volunteer is slow because they are in the process of listening to their body, taking mental notes, and storing these notes away into their muscle memory. In this case, the amateur volunteer is in a sort of liminal state in which they are aware of developing a relationship to space. In this state they develop a “reflective position” and “become aware of [their] body as something to be reckoned with”.1 The new volunteer is in the process of deconstructing typical movements and becoming aware of new movements. Thus, he or she is in the body-object mode.

The experienced volunteer, on the other hand, operates smoothly and efficiently in the body-subject mode, because their knowledge of the space has already become ingrained in their muscle memory. They have developed that relationship to space, and are therefore aware and knowledgeable about its various, moving components. Their bodies understand the demands and the limitations placed on them in that space, and have already adjusted to move with considerable ease and efficiency within, and perhaps despite, these constraints. This level of understanding allows the volunteer to work much like Fraliegh’s dancer: “spontaneously and in the present moment… not anticipating or imagining it.”2 .The experienced has become aware of the movements necessary to the present situation, and therefore can move forward through the day in a relatively care-free way.

Okay, so dance is about deconstructing day-to-day movements to build up new movements, and the dancer is either becoming aware or has become aware of these new movements. These two insights, I think, serve as the scaffolding for my definition of community dance. My hope is that through community dance, community members can deconstruct negative modes of interaction in order to construct more positive modes of interaction amongst each other. I hope that when we are dancing in community, we are becoming aware of better, alternative ways of relating, so that eventually, we will have become aware of these behaviors well enough to utilize them in our day-to-day lives.

________________________

1. Sondra Horton Fraleigh. “Dance and the Lived Body: A Descriptive Aesthetics”, p. 13.

2. Ibid. p. 14.

It’s not a Science – It’s an Art!

As an intern with the Project on Lived Theology, I am serving five days a week in the kitchen at the Haven, a non-profit day shelter located in downtown Charlottesville, VA. The other morning, David Selzak, our Kitchen Manager, demonstrated to us newcomers how to cook a large pot of grits. We weren’t given any exact measurements – we just watched David empty the contents from the box of grits into a hot, white cloud emerging from a large pot. As he stirred, David reminded us, “It’s not a science – it’s an ART!” Apparently, we would be able to “feel” with a spoon whether we had achieved the correct proportions of butter, water, salt, and grits.

Now, there certainly are a few tasks for which exact measurements are given, such as what temperature food must reach upon being reheated, or how many iodine tablets to use for dishwashing, for example. Most of the time, however, what should be done is not as explicitly stated. In any given minute I’m making dozens of snap judgements and bending backwards to meet the situation at hand. Most of the time, I’m “feeling” right from wrong, good from bad.

If there were a volunteer handbook, I think it might describe a world in which our doors open punctually at 7:30 and close promptly at 9, in which no more than one scoop of sugar may be allotted to every guest, and in which no special requests may be serviced (such as the request to make scrambled eggs when the grill is churning out fried eggs). None of these rules, however, are so severe, nor should they be in my opinion.

Such strict enforcement is not proportionate to the demands of our little operation. We serve breakfast to 55 to 90 guests every morning, and therefore we do not have to manage the kitchen like a military. Were we to serve hundreds of guests every morning, I imagine we would have to tighten the ropes in order to maintain order as well as prolong resources, but this is not the case. While 55 to 90 guests certainly makes for fast-paced work, this number still leaves us some breathing room.  I’m able to learn the guests’ names, for example, and sometimes I get to know their stories. I’m able to perceive guests as individuals rather than units on an excel sheet, and because of this, I am often compelled to make extra eggs after we’ve turned the grill off, or go to the back and chop of fruit for someone who’s arrived too late for breakfast. This spontaneity might push back against formal rules, but I believe they make way for the trust and compassion we want to cultivate in our communities.

As I consider more the art of dialogue in service and community engagement, I turn to Martin Buber. Paul Mendes-Florh explains that Buber’s “ethical principles…function heuristically: they illuminate the path whose exact contours and direction we must survey through ‘dialogue’ that is, in a spontaneous, undogmatic response to the calling of every situation.”1 As I understand it, life, work, and service – like that pot of grits – is undogmatic: a bit improvised, but with an idea (a feeling!) of what’s good.

______________________________

1. Paul Mendes-Flohr. “Introduction”. In A Land of Two Peoples; Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, p. 20.