The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Skinner House Book Reviews

May/June 2000

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About Skinner House: Skinner House, the official imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is named for the Rev. Clarence Russell Skinner, the foremost Universalist theologian of the 20th century. Skinner House publishes books on UU history, theology, biography, worship, and social justice. Skinner House books may be ordered by mail or phone from the UUA Bookstore, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108; (800) 215-9076.

The Gift of Faith
By Jeanne Nieuwejaar. $8.

Reviewed by Betsy Hill Williams

Even if their childhood experience was entirely different, most readers of this book will easily identify with the deep emotional security Jeanne Nieuwejaar evokes as she describes her religious experience growing up in small-town New England. Nieuwejaar has a deep nostalgia for a world where the pace is slower, where the vision and responsibility for community are shared, where dearly held values are celebrated instead of threatened by the surrounding culture. She challenges us to touch this longing, to name and then reclaim the essential elements that give it power. Times have changed; a grounding religious experience does not come easily or naturally anymore, but we haven't ever ceased to be spiritual beings. We still need wholeness, healing, and celebration.

Nieuwejaar asserts that families can center their lives around a rich and sustaining religious community, but not without effort. Only after parents examine and clarify their own attitudes can they make the necessary commitment to care for their children's religious lives in addition to their physical, academic, and social lives.

Nieuwejaar's compelling (if not so simple) antidote is to develop the habit of churchgoing, to set a regular time and place to make the holy tangible and real. Parents, she maintains, can insist that the whole family attend church regularly, thereby making it clear that the habit is a valuable part of the family identity. Protests are to be expected—pre-adolescents naturally oppose anything their parents suggest, especially something as "uncool" as church—but providing strong roots ultimately enables children to leave home safely and securely as they grow into adulthood.

With this book Nieuwejaar clearly hopes to help others enjoy the same grounding religious experience she had as a child. She wants to help parents gain greater clarity about their own religious views and churchgoing habits, to anticipate the stumbling blocks that will be strewn in their way, and to anticipate the rewards awaiting their commitment to religious community.

What If Nobody Forgave? and Other Stories of Principle
Edited by Colleen McDonald. $12.

Reviewed by Betsy Hill Williams

Religious educators and parents never really know what's going to stick with kids. Barbara Marshman, UU religious educator and contributor to this collection of children's stories, describes running into a man whom she had taught Sunday School 30 years earlier and who now could retell with uncanny accuracy the worship stories she had told him as a child. Those stories had been the most important part of his childhood churchgoing experience.

When I heard about Marshman's chance encounter, I was a DRE responsible for developing children's worship, and I longed to have some stories like the ones she must have told her RE students—stories with just the right amount of "moral," action, imagery, and even some surprises to keep the listener's attention. In order to become a story-teller, not just a story-reader, I needed stories engaging enough to inspire my listeners' imaginations and flexible enough to allow for my creative interpretation without losing their meaning. I needed a collection like the one Colleen McDonald has put together in What If Nobody Forgave? and Other Stories of Principle.

In her introduction McDonald urges the reader to develop storytelling skills and recommends several helpful strategies for getting started. Equally useful are the questions to think about that follow each story, along with suggestions for children's activities and a list of other published stories on similar themes. In their variety, the questions and suggestions show great sensitivity to different learning styles and activity levels.

As the book's title suggests, the stories—both realistic and fantasy—are grouped according to three of the seven UU principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and the goal of world community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. The stories explore topical issues such as ableism and homophobia, along with timeless ones like forgiveness and death. Suitable for a wide range of ages and settings, both religious and secular, this collection will be a welcome addition to the library of any adult who hopes to reach children through the medium of good story.

The Bridge Called Respect: Women and Men Joining as Allies
By Tom Owen-Towle and January Riddle. $16.

Reviewed by Fred Small

Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle and communications professor January Riddle propose in this book that men and women negotiate a truce in the gender war. Playing off the literal meaning of respect—"to look again"—The Bridge Called Respect suggests exercises, questions, and rituals to help men and women take a second look at each other. Participants in the "building bridges workshop" described by Owen-Towle and Riddle first separate by gender to voice their wounds and wishes, then reunite to share lists of gender stereotypes. Using the fishbowl format, in which each group converses while observed but not interrupted by the other, women and then men speak to what they fear and what they like in the other gender.

In another exercise the authors suggest that men and women complete the thoughts "I have lost—" and "I am searching for—" and talk about what brings them to tears of sadness, joy, regret, or rage, where they are going on their spiritual pilgrimage and who is going with them, and what they ignore or hide in their relations with the other gender.

Although they quote Emma Gold-man's famous demand for a dancing revolution, the authors could be lighter on their feet. Abstraction ("an embodied philosophy of relationality") and jargon ("traditional dominant-subservient gender role binds") slow the tempo. And while they poke fun at the game of "who's more oppressed?" the authors say they know who's to blame. "Every man contributes to a social system that frightens women and controls their lives," Owen-Towle declares. Men, he says, are "wounders, and we must answer for that." The book proposes repentance for "gender wrongs," but only males need repent, judging from the one example offered. When Owen-Towle and Riddle assign collective guilt, their heretofore sturdy bridge grows shaky.

Stories soften hearts and change minds better than theories. When women and men can speak truth as we have lived it—pain and persistence, courage in the face of withering fire—compassion transcends difference. The chasm is crossed.

Standing before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, 1776-1936
Edited by Dorothy May Emerson, June Edwards, and Helene Knox. $40.

Reviewed by Cynthia Grant Tucker

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who railed against the "damned mob of scribbling women" whose books were selling better than his, would have plenty to groan about were he to pick up a copy of Standing before Us. This prodigious collection comprises writings by more than 50 reform-minded women, all closely identified with the religious traditions that later merged to become Unitarian Universalist. Penned between 1776 and 1936, these prophetic writings show what can happen when females ignore their brothers' censorious comments and heed the dictates of conscience, justice, and progress.

In addressing the needs of imperfect humanity, these writers, as the book's introduction explains, were doing no more than putting their liberal religious beliefs into action. The foundations of their religion—the concepts of individual worth and human dignity—gave the women sanction to step outside their assigned domestic sphere and make their perspectives known on public platforms and published pages. Some of the authors in this collection are represented by private writings— diary and journal entries, personal letters, and meditations—but, as readers will learn from the authors' biographical sketches, few of the women balked when given a chance to crusade in the public arena.

Standing before Us has four main divisions, each focusing on a major topic of women's prophetic discourse, and each introduced by a helpful historical overview. The section "Call to Reform" features sisters who fought such constructions as the oppressive "cult of true womanhood." "The Search for Education" lets us hear how formidable women debaters disabused experts who said women had brains too small to warrant the schooling given to men. From the texts in "The Struggle for Racial Justice," readers will understand why the abolitionist Unitarian minister the Rev. Samuel May called the movement's women "the presiding geniuses in all . . . councils and public meetings, often proposing the wisest measures and suggesting the most weighty thoughts, pertinent facts . . . and apt illustrations." "Reform in Religion" reflects women's realization that "the overweening patriarchy . . . was also embedded in their churches, contradicting the ideals of freedom, reason, tolerance, hope, and social justice preached therein." In this section, "usually in a spirit of loving admonition," they offer ideas for more welcoming, habitable faith communities.

The writings in this book, the editors tell us, show women "fighting for air," trying to figure out how to live in a world bent on controlling them. We can only be grateful that these scribbling sisters—like the team of scholars who stand them before us—knew that their ideas were far too important to keep corseted and concealed.

Norbert Fabián Capek: A Spiritual Journey
By Richard Henry. $20.

Reviewed by Charles A. Howe

Norbert Capek is most generally known to North American UUs as the creator of the flower communion widely used in our congregations. Some of us have also heard of his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis; fewer of his leadership in building the world's largest Unitarian congregation, the center of a strong movement in the pre-World War II Czechoslovak republic. But largely unknown are the details of Capek's remarkable life and his work for religious, political, and social change—work so threatening to the Nazis that it led to his arrest and execution.

Author Richard Henry made six trips to Prague to research the book. The account begins in 1870, with his birth in a South Bohemian hamlet. His travels carry him successively to Vienna, Saxony, and Moravia, then New York and New Jersey, then to Prague in the newly created Czechoslovak Republic, and finally to Dachau. Religiously, he starts as a Roman Catholic, becomes an evangelical Baptist, then a liberal Baptist, and finally a Unitarian.

An indefatigable speaker, teacher, writer, editor, pastor, and musician, Capek was a strong force for religious, political, and social change, and Henry tells his story skillfully and engagingly. As backdrop, Henry paints with great clarity the dramatic changes taking place in Central Europe in the years between Capek's return from America in 1921 and his death in 1942.

By recapturing so well the life and spirit of one of our martyr-heroes, Richard Henry has given us a great gift.

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