Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones

I debated whether or not to spend the time writing a review of “Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones.” (New York: Banner Press, 1999) I read it in an evening over the weekend and immediately put in my box of books to sell. (Where it still sits).

But I thought it at least deserved a cursory review.  This is not the normal book I read.  I appreciate Jim Wallis and Sojourners and the emphases that they make.  And as I thumbed through it, I saw lots of references to him and some critical remarks of Bill Bennett (on whom I am fairly neutral). 

I totally believe it is fair to make social and economic critiques from the pulpit.  The Old Testament prophets did it.  John the Baptist did it.  It’s not popular, but I believe there is a definitely place and need for that.

And so a few weeks back when I was at Powell’s Books in downtown  imagePortland perusing the Preaching section (as I am wont to do whenever I am at Powell’s) this little work caught my eye. 

Especially the subtitle: “We Need Morality, but Not Traditional Morality.”  OK. 

And then as I read the back cover, I saw that the book was written by the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.  Hmmm…. never heard of communist leaders preaching--at least from a pulpit-- before. 

So, since it was a used book and relatively cheap, I broke loose with a few bucks and decided to give it a try.

I didn’t need to.  I can’t figure out why the book was in a preaching section other than the title.  The section identifier on the back of the book was Politics/Ethics.

Bob Avakian is a child of privilege—his father was an Alameda (CA) County Judge and member of the Berkeley (CA) School Board.  Avakian imageattended UC-Berkeley in the 1960’s.  It was there that he was radicalized.  He continued to grow in importance in revolutionary circles throughout the 1970’s.  In 1979 the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping came to the US to meet with Pres. Jimmy Carter.  Avakian was involved in violent protests against what he saw as China’s reversal of its communist economic policies (he was correct in his evaluation).  Violence ensued and felony charges were brought against 17 people,  including Avakian.   Through a number of other events, Avakian came to believe that the US government was going to assassinate him and so he went into self-exile in France.  All charges were later dropped against him. 

Avakian’s whereabouts today are unknown, although he did do two speaking engagements on the east & west coasts of the US in 2003. 

Basically the book is made up of two essays.  One (“Preaching From a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Behind William Bennett’s ‘Virtues’”) and the second (“Putting an End to ‘Sin’: We Need Morality, but Not Traditional Morality”) are both diatribes against religion from either the right or the left.  He “examines Bennett’s book and also writings by Jim Wallis of Sojourners and finds both wanting. 

I had thought that the “Bones” of the title referred somehow to the bones in Ezekiel:

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’ ”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.  (Ezek 37:1-10)

Not so much. 

The book is basically a diatribe against religion of any sort.  The pulpitimage of bones represents religion that is lifeless and kills those around it.  It is made up of the bones of the people it exploits and destroys. 

Avakian’s description of religion is that it describes something that is “higher than life”, but is in actuality based on falsehood. 
He says that religion and art both share this characteristic of presenting things that are “higher than life.”

“Yet, as important as it is to recognize this identity between religion and art, it is even more fundamentally important to grasp the difference between them.  While much of art requires ‘the suspension of disbelief”—the willingness to accept that things which do not actually exist and are not actually happening are existing and happening--it requires this only in a limited and relative sense, only in relation to the work of art itself  Religion, however (including religious art), requires and demands that people do actually believe that its fantastic representations of beings, things, events and forces really exist, when in fact they do not….

If religion were to present itself in the same way and with the same expectations and requirements that art typically does—if it were to allow and encourage people to have the ultimate recognition that its fantastic creatures are not real—then it would no longer be harmful and a hindrance to the all-around development of humanity in the way it is now. But it would also no longer be religion.  In this era of world-historic transformation and in the future to come, humanity will never be able to do without the imagination and without; it must and will do without—and do much better without—religion. 

I have devoted way too much space to this little book.  It was a (sort of) interesting read if only to hear the take of a true-communist believer about religion. But it was more of the Marxist line that has been standard for 100 years or so. 

The only thing I would say is: if you are wandering down the aisle of a used book store and find a book entitled “Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones,” keep on moving down the shelf.  There is much more helpful fare. 

1 comment:

daniel said...

Thanks for the warning. I think the background information you gave on Avakain is and interesting point to make. Karl Marx himself had no relationships that were from the oppressed bourgeois society that he claimed to represent. Marx was a part of the elite aristocracy and I notice a bit of this trend with future "leaders" of the communist movement.

what other books are in your "for sale" box?

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