This is the third in a series of posts reviewing books written by candidates for Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Two earlier posts reviewed books by Ian Douglas and Tom Breidenthal.
The book is not, perhaps, Michael Curry’s chosen métier. If there is one thing you know about the bishop of North Carolina, it is that the man is a preacher. Based on any number of YouTube videos, it is clear that the sermon is his preferred format. And what a blessing those sermons have been to the Episcopal Church!
But this is a series about books. So we turn to his recent book, Songs My Grandma Sang, published earlier this year by Church Publishing. (An earlier book, Crazy Christians, grew out of a sermon he gave at General Convention in 2012. I have not managed to get a copy of that book—it’s out of stock in various places online—and Songs provides plenty of material for reflection.) A number of things are immediately clear.
First, unlike the earlier titles reviewed in this series, this book was authored while Bishop Curry was a bishop. Presumably, being a bishop makes significant demands on your time and leaves little time for writing books. That gives this book a feel that is, in places, fresh and lively but also, in places, slightly repetitive and slapdash. Given that the book was published this year, one can surmise that it was written with some sense of the presiding bishop election in mind. Far more than any other book reviewed in this series, I found myself wondering how much we could read a program for his potential service as presiding bishop in these pages.
Second, the book doesn’t say if these chapters were first sermons but they certainly feel like it. At the very least—and this no doubt accounts for their freshness—these themes were almost certainly first developed in a homiletical context. Bishop Curry takes to heart the dictum attributed to Karl Barth that a preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. He references Malala Yousafzai, the movie 42, and much else that is in the news and culture.
In Songs, Bishop Curry exegetes the songs his grandmother—the granddaughter of slaves and a devout Christian—sang in her daily life. These are African-American spirituals but also hymns from other parts of the tradition, such as “In Christ There is No East or West” or “God of Grace and God of Glory.” I like the concept. There is a huge amount of theology in our hymns and it is fun to read as a talented bishop draws out that material, weaving in Bible passages, church teachings, and his own family history. Some of this is really very moving, such as the story of his mother’s long illness and death when he was a teenager or conversations with his daughters about becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church.
But it’s not just exegeting hymns. Bishop Curry has a message to share. I’d describe it as something like this: Jesus of Nazareth shows us a new way of life based on God’s love that we are called to witness to and follow in. “Faith,” he writes, “is not about liberal or conservative leanings but about following the way of Jesus” (p. 117). Jesus, he writes,
came to show us the way to become more than we ever could, or would, be on our own. Another way to say it is that God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to show us the way to be right and reconciled with the God who created us all, and with each other as children of that one God and Father of us all. (p. 13; he says something almost identical again on p. 46 and again on p. 54—it must be important!)
The Bible verses he most commonly cites are Jesus’ summation of the law as love God and love your neighbour as yourself (at least four times) and the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (at least three times).
He describes the outcome of this vision in terms of God’s glory:
Let God truly be glorified
By a world in which children do not go to bed hungry
By a world in which creation is reverenced and cared for
By a world in which love is the law by which we live
And where we have learned to lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.
This is a compelling vision. Reconciliation is at the heart of what Jesus was about. God truly is a God of love. The lion and lamb will lie down with one another.
And yet, and yet, and yet. As I read this book, I felt a question building up within me. When was Bishop Curry going to move beyond outlining the what (the compelling vision) and on to the how? The Christian tradition offers more than just a vision. It offers the means of achieving that vision through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To return to the first block quotation above, Bishop Curry writes that Jesus shows us “the way to be right and reconciled” with God and neighbour. Yes, yes, and yes. AND Jesus actually effects that reconciliation in his death and resurrection. But crucifixion and resurrection receive astonishingly little attention here, though there are no shortage of hymns and spirituals about these central events.
There are a couple of moments when this silence is obvious. In summarizing the teachings and ministry of Jesus, Bishop Curry concludes, “Here is the foundation of it all. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (p. 54) and proceeds to quote Jesus’ summary of the law. Excellent! But what is the unique significance of Jesus here? When Jesus offers that summary, he is quoting the Old Testament law where both commandments initially appear. Why is Jesus so special that we should follow in his way?
Later, Bishop Curry writes:
“God came into the world to change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. God did not come into the world to leave it the way God found it. God came to change it, to change us, to change our society, to change our global community, and to show us the way of transformation, the way of new life, the way of the reign and kingdom of God in our midst.” (p. 127)
Yes, yes, and yes. But how? These are questions that are at the centre of the Christian tradition and are at the heart of what makes the Christian gospel truly good and truly new.
But they are not generally answered in this book. What we get instead is repeated exhortation to follow in the way of Jesus. Good. I aim to follow in the way of Jesus. But what helps me follow in the way of Jesus is not repeated exhortation to be more than I already am but God’s grace made known through Christ and the consolation, encouragement, and hope that it brings. Exhortation, on its own, is quickly wearying.
As I was reading this book, I was reminded of the books of the current presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. In reviewing two of her books a few years ago, I made a similar argument: she wonderfully painted the vision of “God’s dream” but was less strong at showing us how to get there. Based on his writings, Bishop Curry represents continuity with this theological vision.
It may be that having a different presiding bishop from a different background bearing this message (and offering different emphases) will be a tremendous change. Songs was fun and easy to read. I share the vision. But I was also left feeling I wasn’t getting the whole story. More than anything else, that left me disappointed at a missed opportunity.
UPDATE: And Bishop Curry was elected! It is an undeniably exciting moment in the history of the church. Watching Bishop Curry in action this week in Salt Lake City confirms what I wrote in the first paragraph of this review: the man is an inspiring preacher with a powerful and clear vision. The Episcopal Church is in for a wonderful ride.