Neighborly Theology: A Review of Amy Laura Hall’s “Writing Home, With Love”

On the day that I read Professor Amy Laura Hall’s Writing Home, With Love, I was sent home three hours early from work. In Greenville, South Carolina, things start shutting down not when the snow starts to fall, but when people are adequately convinced that the snow might actually fall. This is also, more or less, true of Durham, North Carolina. I remember sitting in the Divinity Library one evening and receiving an e-mail informing the Duke community that classes were cancelled for the night and until 10AM the next morning. I looked out the window and, to my surprise, the snow had not yet started. In my hometown of Huntington, Indiana, school was only cancelled if the roads were basically impassable.

Hall’s new collection of essays is an important effort to remind those of us doing the work of theology that we must resist the desire to make our theology somehow universal — one size fits all, if you will. “Blizzard,” “white out,” and “treacherous conditions” do not mean the same thing to people in Greenville and Durham as they do to people in Huntington and Chicago. Likewise, our theology should be localized. If “local” is too much of a buzzword, perhaps I should say our theology should be “neighborly.” And, throughout this collection of essays, written for Durham’s local newspaper The Herald-Sun over the course of two years, Hall tries “to weave the gospel through all of the essays…in ways that will be useful politically and personally for my neighbors of faith and my neighbors who think faith itself is the primary problem” (p. 4).

In Writing Home, With Love, Hall addresses topics that happenings in her community raise — topics ranging from schools to surveillance, superheroes to shopping malls — and offers what she calls “missives of love” to her neighbors. That these localized essays are now a book may seem counterintuitive to her conviction that theology is “neighborly.” Doesn’t the publication of these essays on a national, even international, platform defeat the purpose of writing locally? Not at all. First of all, the essays were born purposefully from localized experiences. Second, communities across America are facing similar questions to the ones being raised in Durham. Hall’s responses may indeed help folks in those communities to respond more wisely, and to engage one another more lovingly. Third, moreover, the most wonderful gift that Hall has given us in these essays is her example. Whether or not the kinds of events being addressed by Hall are similar to those in our own places, she shows us what it means to be a theologian attentive to the community in which you are rooted. Or, as she says, “my missives of love are not a vow against “globalism,” whatever precisely “globalism” means, but a commitment to stand where we are and find out more about where the heck we actually are in each local region” (p. 2).

I should say that I am a biased reviewer. While at Duke, I took a class called “Love and the Christian Tradition” with Professor Hall. She is the only professor I can recall who quoted Rage Against the Machine to help clarify her theological convictions. And she introduced me to the writings of Marilynne Robinson. Because I was, basically, in a Rage Against the Machine cover band in high school and because I now love Robinson’s work, Professor Hall is, in my opinion, nearly above reproach. But it is not for these reasons that I think this is an excellent book. No, these essays shine thanks to Hall’s smart, engaging writing and her pedagogical method that invites questions and conversations.

In order to show what I mean about Hall’s writing, I think it best to simply highlight some of the passages that exhibit her knack for writing. These selections come from throughout the book and give you a sense for her “neighborly” themes and her absorbing style.

“There are truths that need to be told about the history and present of Durham. Pretending we all get along or that we can easily learn to get along is insipid. I trust the miracles of unexpected friendships and stories truthfully told will continue, God willing” (p. 61).

“For Christians, incarnation is supposed to be a marker of who we are. Letters can be truly loving, even emailed ones. Photos can be crucial for telling real or pretend stories. Characters on screen or page can be balm when you are lonely. But Christians have at the epicenter of our faith that there is no substitute for the real thing called together” (p. 63).

“Augustine explains that such lying divides a person. But he goes deeper than this. He writes about how lies can involve a collective agreement to be stupid. People can together tell lies to one another about the past or the present, about a government or a family or any discernible entity to discuss. Lying can become a pattern of willed unseeing. This also divides people from within, because human beings were created to want to seek truth together. It is a basic component of real friendship—to seek new ways to understand ourselves and the world. Augustine says that when we walk around lying we split ourselves from within and block true friendship” (p. 78).

“The use of the label ‘conspiracy theorist’ is an insidious trend. To dismiss someone as nutty because they are asking questions about opacity, money, and power is to leave us with shallow thinkers who give simple diagnoses and palatable solutions— ‘thoughtful’ conservatives and ‘practical’ liberals. The etymology of ‘radical’ relates to the word ‘root,’ and I am hungry for both radical journalism and transparent, open collaboration to counter the standard narratives about war in the US. This requires a willingness to question the elevator music that plays in our heads, whether we are watching Fox News or MSNBC” (p. 86).

“Democracy depends on cacophony—on the discord of disparate voices. Hero narratives assume cacophony is a problem to be overcome, whether by a man in a cape or by a great speech given by a great man on a big stage. Craving a leader who stands above me is an impulse I must resist, if I am going to be a citizen in a democracy or even if I am just going to be a constructively critical human being. Or, if I am going to remain Christian. Churches sometimes crave a hero as much as Fox audiences (evidently) crave a big Reagan airplane. When we do, we should read and read again the beginning of Acts, when the church receives a very different kind of power. People who were not supposed to speak to one another, or speak up at all, talked all at once” (p. 92-93).

From these few examples, I hope you can see Hall’s skill at crafting well-written sentences. But another part of what makes her writing superb is her ability to read other people’s work and, to use a garage band metaphor, “riff on them.” Throughout her essays, she draws on the Bible, church mothers and fathers, philosophers, sociologists, journalists, musicians, politicians, activists, and friends. They all have something to offer the conversation. And Hall’s ability to draw these sources together in order to tell a complicated story through them and to make it accessible for the average reader is quite an accomplishment. How many other people can you think of that could make Aquinas readable for the public? Let alone use Aquinas alongside Spotlight and a play by Henrik Ibsen to argue the case for supporting local, independent journalism? In Hall’s class, I was taught to read closely and charitably. These essays give us a strong illustration for how that might be done by a theologian.

Alongside Hall’s excellent writing stands her inviting pedagogical method. This is, again, something she taught us during class, mostly through example. She does make a few comments within her essays that address her pedagogical philosophy. In the essay called “Learning Depends on Time Together,” Hall suggests that trust is vital to learning. Trust is “built minute by minute, session by session, in person” (p. 96). How can we expect students or parishioners to learn from someone they do not trust? In another essay where she resists the trend toward online teaching, Hall writes, “At my best, as a teacher, I try to hear, and sort out, and reconsider, and hear again, and remain open. Granted, teaching this way sometimes makes me nearly sick with fear, but I re-enter the pedagogical fray and facilitate the eyeball-to-eyeball, soul-to-soul conversations that happen at the intersection of truth” (p. 42). Teaching, the best kind anyway, is deeply relational and is not one-sided. Hall’s essays expose her openness to hearing other’s opinions and developing her own. She practices what she preaches.

I strongly urge anyone involved in the task of “practical theology,” “theological ethics,” or “public theology” — so, anyone who preaches or teaches in the church — to take and read Writing Home, With Love. Like me, you may not agree with Hall on all points. I am not, for instance, convinced that having a “dream team” of people “stranded in purgatory” is something a Methodist should tell people about (p. 51)! But we do not read only to agree. As Christians, we read as a practice of “faith seeking understanding.” We must not emphasize “understanding” to the detriment of “seeking.” Through this collection of essays, Amy Laura Hall offers us an example of how to do just that, and how to do that in a neighborly way.


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