Book Review: by Steven Miller
Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness
by Gordon C. Stewart
WIPF & Stock: Eugene, OR, 2017, 145 pgs.
Psalm 46 tells us, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Gordon C. Stewart, in his collection of essays entitled Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, meditates on what this means. Is this quietism and withdrawal from the world? Possibly sometimes. But if Jesus bestirred Himself to drive moneylenders from the Temple, how still was He? What consequences would have been inflicted on the sneering Goldman Sachs representatives testifying about their role in the Great Recession described in “American Oligarchy – 4/29/10”? Are stillness and engagement mutually exclusive?
Reverend Stewart did summer internships as a street outreach worker in Philadelphia, worked with a poverty law firm in Minneapolis, and has served in seven congregations and ecumenical campus ministries. Anyone who contributes to Sojourners’ “God’s Politics: Blogging with Jim Wallis and Friends” fits the category of liberal Christian. He recognizes the common ground in the gun debate of fear of the threats of chaos and insecurity and that guns are different realities for rural and urban populations, “The Common Ground Beneath the Gun Debate” and “Reframing the Gun Debate.” However, a description of a call for support from the National Rifle Association indicates he sees the threat from guns, not gun control, “Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel.”
Essays reflect views to be expected from someone with Stewart’s background. He celebrates nature and deplores those who threaten the environment, “Stillness at Blue Spring”, “The World in an Oyster,” and “Climate Change and the Nations.” He deplores a criminal justice system and attitudes which send minorities to prison and death row and makes existing while black perilous, “The Execution of Troy Davis,” “Hands Up! Don’t Carve!” and “Homeland Militarization.” Islamic and other fundamentalisms are seen as evil but the bombings and other military action in retaliation are condemned as, well, “Being Human”, “Creating Hell in the Name of Heaven,” and “Losing Our Heads.” The many sins of capitalism are seen in the context of its victims and protesters, “The Wall Street Tattler”, “American Oligarchy—4/29/”.
The best essays highlight voices of stillness and moments of reflection. Friend Dr. Kosuke Koyama, to whom the book is dedicated, speaks at commemoration of Hiroshima about how the sin of exceptionalism led Japan to self-destruction and threatens the world today, “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism.” Sitting in an Amish rocking chair, Stewart reflects on the forgiveness and kindness extended to the family of a man who murdered Amish school children, “Jacob Miller’s Amish Rocking Chair.” He faces the death of a friend and asks Muslims for prayers and sees that death can be a mercy, “The Waiting Room” and “When Breath Flies Away.” An Airbnb rental in Paris is the apartment of a late Tunisian Sufi poet and novelist whose rooms are filled with books, “The Anguished Heart of God.” He imagines Jesus healing a madman in a Capernaum synagogue in a time too early to have heard the advice that “worshippers should wear crash helmets,” “The Man Who Knew.”
Multiple essays reflect on Stewart’s heritage, especially the coffin makers and others of South Paris, Maine, a town where one is known in relation to the relatives who remain. He sees the tension in St. Augustine, Florida between the local civil rights activists and the celebrities like Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee (SCLC) who drew more attention. Is it possible to have two Freedom Trails? And is the Civil Rights struggle something historical which happened in the distant past and no longer relevant to later generations?
The essays are preceded by quotes and poems illustrating the theme of the entry. Some of the quoted are well known like Henry David Thoreau, Arnold Toynbee, Wendell Berry, Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Camus, and Matthew Arnold. Others are welcome discoveries such as Willem Zuurdeeg, a Dutch writer whose parents fought in the Resistance trying to make sense of the fact that civilized Germany could have produced the Nazis,and Stewart’s friend, Steve Shoemaker. The quoteshelp frame efforts to make sense of the world and extract truth from the chaotic events of life.
A collection of essays will, by its nature, be episodic and even disjointed. It is a series of snapshots not a continuous film. Otherwise, it would be a treatise on philosophy or theology. It would be less like life. Although reasoned, the vignettes appeal to emotion which is our ultimate decision-maker. It is a worthwhile work. One may quibble here and there as one will in a conversation, but there are profound truths throughout the work.
As a Baha’i who believes in the oneness of religion, I was hooked at the first essay, “Tide Pools and the Ocean.” Like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, it is easy to mistake one’s tide pool for the ocean, fail to celebrate each tide pool’s unique features, and not see what each really has in common. A good collection of meditations will have something for everyone.
~Steven Miller, President of Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and participant in a, perhaps, unhealthy number of discussion groups, is a sole practitioner attorney practicing labor and employment for management. He has a B.A. and M.A. from George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University) and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.The Minnesota Scholar, Volume 13, Number 2, Dec. 2018.
“All authors want their names to go down in history; I want to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney.” — Mickey Spillane.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Jan. 7, 2017.