Book(s) of the Week: Playing Catch-Up, Part 2
This project is probably not sustainable any more. I’ll try to keep reading and tell you about it until the end of the year; however, I’m now the proud father to a 2 week old girl and I am finding very little time to read.
Without further ado, more books I read this summer and didn't bother to tell you about ...
Book 28: Secularism and Cosmopolitanism by Étienne Balibar
Genre: Philosophy / Critical Theory
I want to tell you about this book. The problem is that I am not entirely sure I understand all of it! Balibar is one of the most important critical theorists of our time and a lot of his ideas have trickled down to me second and third hand, so I thought I should try and read his work myself. This recently published work is a translation of a series of lectures he gave in Beirut in 2009 called "Cosmopolitanism and Secularism". It was originally published in French in 2012. These lectures are supplemented here with translations of two sets of essays. One group was written between 2005-2006 (prior to the lectures) exploring the relationship between the West's monotheistic heritage and secularism. The second group are short writings that occur after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France.
At the crux of the argument is Balibar’s contention that the modern liberal nation-state depends on the assumption that it is at once secular and cosmopolitan. These, it turns out, are contrary ideals. Secularism, on the one hand, demands that all religious traditions be subsumed by a shared national identity that is blind to religious creed. Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, suggests the deepest respect for cultural and religious plurality.
Secularism is ultimately a problem for two reasons. First, while it claims to govern and limit the role that the sacred plays in public political life, it actually becomes sacred itself. A new civil religion emerges that calls for a deep piety and devotion to the state itself. For this reason, Balibar calls for a “secularization of the secular”. Second, secularism makes the false assumption that religions are subspecies of the same genus and that they can all be relativized by a universal theory of how to relate politics and religion (i.e. secularism). The problem, however, is that secularism fails to recognize that different religions are “conflicting universalisms”. Cosmopolitanism means that these conflicts must occur and co-exist while secularism means that these conflicts must be dissolved.
For Balibar, much of the discussion is concretized in France’s burka ban and its attempt to impose secularism in the name of liberal democracy ini a manner that fails to take seriously its commitment to cosmopolitanism. To this end, Balibar sees promise in a number of movements within different religious traditions that have the potential to bring religious reform (e.g. liberation theology) while also carving out a positive space for religion in the public sphere.
Book 29: Borderline by Stan Goff
This is a very important book for Christians who are trying to think through the relationship between Christianity, violence, and patriarchy. Stan Goff, a retired special operative with the Navy SEALs, has written one of the more interesting theological works of the last 5 or so years. Combining deep research with personal stories and inside knowledge in order to argue that American Christianity has valorized a type of militaristic masculinity that distorts the gospel at the expense of women especially. Working from the Crusades forward, Goff argues that Western Christianity more broadly has paved the way for a type of alliance between Church and Country that often uses state-sponsored violence in God's name. The work is very well-written and thought-provoking. Goff's Special-Ops bona fides are first class and his self-understanding of the Catholic faith well-reasoned.
Book 30: The Comedians by Graham Greene
Last month, I gave a lecture about the fiction of Graham Greene. I re-read a lot of Greene's work in preparation. Then, just for fun, I read a novel of his I had not yet read. The Comedians is one of Greene's "entertainments", meaning that he didn't consider it one of his more serious novels alongside of The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, or The End of the Affair. Even so, it follows a similar pattern to a number of his novels; a British ex pat living in a third-world country at dawn of post-colonialism. In this case, our protagonist, Brown, owns a hotel in Haiti at the beginning of Papa Doc's reign. Brown is like so many of Greene's protagonists; he's having an affair with a married woman under her husband's nose; he is not ideological at all, however, he is torn between the American and Russian war to remake the world in their own image. Papa Doc, backed by America, installs a fairly repressive dictatorship and Brown finds himself sympathizing with communist dissidents.
Book 31: The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Genre: Short Stories
This collection of short stories, by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, are centered on the lives of Vietnamese immigrants and second-generation Vietnamese-Americans. It begins with a clever story of a ghostwriter who lives with the ghost of her dead brother, and moves on to stories about people living with the ghosts of the Vietnamese War, to hard-working Vietnamese families who are torn between the tensions of retaining their old world heritage with their desires to assimilate in America.