READ THIS BOOK: September 2017

Segovia_Fernando headshot
Fernando F. Segovia

Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our September recommendation is offered by Fernando F. Segovia, Oberlin Graduate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Professor Segovia recommends Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky (New York-Oakland-London: Seven Stories Press, 2017) and its companion film “Requiem for the American Dream.” directed by Peter Hutchinson, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott (PF Pictures, 2016).



Re-collections and Re-visions

Beginning next year and for the next four years, 2018-2021, a number of key events having to do with what was, arguably, the most significant development in Christian Studies—theological and ethical, biblical and historical, liturgical and pastoral—of the twentieth century will mark a major anniversary. I am referring to the fiftieth anniversary of Liberation Theology, the first contribution emerging from what was then known as the Third World and is today characterized as the Global South. To speak in terms of a singular point of origins would not be appropriate, given the breadth of this movement. It is far better, therefore, to speak of a set of launching events.

Three come to mind in particular. The first, taking place in 1968, was the Second General Meeting of the Episcopal Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in Medellín, Colombia. Out of this gathering, which followed shortly upon and was directly inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1961), came the first formal articulation and appropriation of the preferential option for the poor as a working principle for the church of Latin America.[1] The second, occurring in 1969, was the publication of A Theology of Human Hope by the Brazilian Presbyterian theologian Rubem Alves. This work was originally titled “Toward a Theology of Liberation” as a dissertation submitted to the faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. [2] The third, taking place in 1971, was the appearance of Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas by the Peruvian Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez.[3] Both the focus on poverty and the concept of liberation had been under discussion for some time among Latin American bishops and theologians, including Gutiérrez himself.[4]

Central to Liberation Theology was a driving sense of religious-theological discourse as contextualized: emerging from, reflecting, and addressing a context—local, regional, global. Such a stance called for a threefold movement: a critical analysis of context, society and culture; a critical analysis of the Christian tradition, the biblical writings and the ecclesial tradition; and a critical analysis of praxis, programs and strategies.[5] The context would be analyzed with a focus on poverty; for this task the tools of the social sciences were to be invoked. The context-as-examined would be analyzed under the lens of the Christian tradition for evaluation and orientation; here the methods of historical criticism would be used. The praxis to be adopted would be analyzed in the face of the context-as-examined and in the light of the context-as-traditioned; for this task the tools of social action and transformation would be marshaled, both in terms of overall vision and concrete measures.

This fundamental insight into the structural framework and demands of religious-theological discourse remains, in my opinion, valid—most incisive as well as most revealing. At the same time, this threefold mediation stands in need of ongoing review, involving reconceptualization as well as reformulation, for neither the set of components (context, tradition, praxis) nor the set of studies thereof stand still, but are always in flow. In effect, the overall critical analysis of fifty years ago would be altogether out-of-date now. To begin with, society and culture today are strikingly different, at every level, as are the models of the social sciences to be deployed. Similarly, the critical approaches to the Christian tradition have undergone radical transformation and expansion, yielding very different views of both the biblical and the ecclesial traditions. Lastly, the programs and strategies to be pursued today are quite different as well, as are the models for social action and transformation.

It is in the light of such reflections that I offer this volume-documentary recommendation for reading. Chomsky’s reflections on the concentration of wealth and power can be very profitably used toward a contemporary exercise of the first mediation: a critical analysis of society and culture in the United States of America. Its focus is timely: the crisis of increasing inequality as a result of such concentration. Its scope is broad: the local as involving the regional and the global at all times, given the nature of the country. Its style is ideal: to the point, with utmost clarity. The combination of volume and documentary would serve as an excellent first step in configuring the context in and for the articulation of any religious-theological discourse today.

What Chomsky sets out to do is to trace the fate of the ideology of the American Dream—a dream built largely on social mobility—from its historical vision of promise, progress, and belief to its present perception of collapse, stagnation, and disillusion.[6] This is a narrative of decline, therefore, for which the dynamics and mechanics of increasing inequality between the rich and the rest are blamed, due to the ever-expanding control of multinational corporations and the rule of the profit-for-the-few principle. It is also, however, a narrative of hope, insofar as the dynamics and mechanics for a renewal of the American Dream are set forth, appealing to vigorous exercise of popular democracy and the rule of the common welfare. This narrative is unfolded in terms of ten principles that are said to govern “the concentration of wealth and power”: reducing democracy; shaping ideology; redesigning the economy; shifting the burden; attacking solidarity; running the regulators; engineering elections; keeping the rabble in line; manufacturing consent; and marginalizing the population. In each case, the present state of affairs is described in terms of historical development, subjected to ideological critique, and counterpoised with a contrasting vision—all yielding, in the process, a treasure trove of information on the workings of the country through the passage of time, the ideology of national representations, and the availability of alternatives.

The first and last chapters provide the rhetorical-ideological framework for the proposal. The first, “Reduce Democracy,” explains how, from the beginning of the country, a constant struggle has existed between two “countervailing tendencies”: an impulse for freedom and democracy coming from below, the people (the Jeffersonian path), and an impulse for power and control coming from above, the rich (the Madisonian path). In the course of this struggle, the country has witnessed periods of progress and periods of regression. While the 1960s represented a period of activist democratization, what has followed has been, out of fear, a period of activist backlash. It is this reaction, argues Chomsky, that has emplaced the present crisis of inequality in wealth and power, through a variety of strategies and techniques detailed in the chapters to follow. The final chapter, “Marginalize the Population,” shows the consequence of this crisis: a movement from below, arising from the people, marked by anger. Such rage, however, is unfocused and destructive—directed not at the cause of the crisis but rather at everything, especially the most vulnerable, and hence ultimately against their own interests. The solution is a different kind of activism and mobilization, based on the impulse for democracy and freedom. This calls for a different set of strategies and techniques as well, similarly laid out in the intervening chapters. To wit: a society—local, regional, global—based not on maxims of wealth and greed, but on principles of sympathy, solidarity, mutual support.

In coming to terms with the critical analysis of society and culture, I would argue, recourse to the arts would prove most helpful. There is a way in which literature, film, and the visual arts can capture and express a context that no work of analysis can match. One need only think here of the power of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) regarding the Great Depression of the 1930s. In this vein I would recommend three short stories that I have found to be most helpful in describing our era of collapse, stagnation, and disillusion. The first is local, about the U.S.: “King Cole’s American Salvage,” written by Bonnie Jo Campbell and part of the collection American Salvage (New York-London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009). The background is provided by the Michigan of the Rust Belt in which broken characters endure, barely, in the midst of devastation. The second is global, about Korea: from the pen of the Korean American author Krys Lee, “The Salary Man,” in the collection Drifting House (New York: Penguin Books, 2012). It recounts the relentless degradation of a company man in Seoul who, laid off by his company in the wake of the 1987 Crisis, loses all that he had—family, home, dignity. The last is transnational, about migration from the Dominican Republic to the U.S.: “Negocios,” written by the Dominican-American Junot Díaz and part of the collection Drown (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996). The background is the contrast between the American Dream of migrants and the harsh social-cultural realities awaiting them in the pursuit of this dream. Together, they bring Chomsky—and our times—to life.

If such is indeed the situation in which we find ourselves, directly or indirectly, what about religious-theological discourse? What does one do, and how does one proceed? I leave it as an open question, yet one that cannot be eluded from the perspective of liberationist religious-theological discourse. I limit myself to a word on religious-theological education. I find that such critical analysis of context has been sorely missing in the curriculum as a whole. Allow me to take Vanderbilt Divinity School as example.[7]

  • From the late 1960s through 1979-1980, the curriculum had but one required introductory course for all, “Introduction to Theological Education” (later “Introduction to Theological Studies” and “Christian Faith and Ministry”). The latter would take up “the contours of theological studies and the character of theological thinking as these relate to problems of personal identity and the Christian faith.”
  • With the adoption of the “Minister as Theologian” curriculum in 1980-1981, a number of foundation courses in theological disciplines were reintroduced, along with a course titled “Faith and Ministry in American Life.” Its goal was “to inquire into the nature of faith and ministry in the contemporary world,” and this would entail readings on “the religious pilgrimages of significant Christian (or religious) leaders as well as “writings that provide a good introduction to crucial problems facing faith and ministry in our day, viz., racism, sexism, poverty.” This course was discontinued after 1984-1985.
  • Toward the end of the decade, it was substituted by “Religion in American Life,” introduced in 1988-1989, in the wake of the student protests of 1986-1988. The course focused on the sociology of religion, with some attention given to issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—in “analytical” rather than “ideological” fashion. It was described as “a study of contemporary and recent historical aspects of the American religious and cultural situation, in order to discern the context, trends, and major issues confronting the churches and their various ministries.” The course was dropped after a couple of years, given “a problem with staffing.”

While one can discern a certain movement toward inclusion of social-cultural context in and through the 1980s as introduction to the curriculum, it is evident, quite apart from their short-lived nature, that no rigorous critical analysis of “American Life” was incorporated or presupposed in these offerings.

Is there no room, I wonder, for such critical mediation to be undertaken within the curriculum in sustained and systematic fashion, especially now, when knowledge of context is almost nil? Is there no way out of a liberal humanist paradigm that has lain behind all such curricular visions and changes? Perhaps not. Above all in the age of corporate academia. Yet, if there were, Chomsky would make for ideal reading as a beginning step, for critical analysis of context would demand ever so much more, in economics and beyond. That is my recommendation for reading.


[1] Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, The Church in the Present-Day Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council: II Conclusions (2nd ed.; Washington: D.C.: Division for Latin America—United States Catholic Conference, 1973). See especially the “Document on the Poverty of the Church.”

[2]A Theology of Human Hope. Washington: Corpus Books, 1969. Alves followed this up with a paper in which the term “liberation” did appear. See Rubem Alves, “Theology and the Liberation of Man,” in In Search of a Theology of Development. Papers from a Consultation on Theology and Development held by Sodepax in Cartigny, Switzerland, November, 1969. (Geneva: Committee on Society, Development and Peace, 1970) 75-93.

[3] Teología de la liberación: Perspectivas (Lima: CEP, 1971). The English translation was published in 1973: The Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1973).

[4]On earlier use by Gutiérrez, see both the presentation given at a meeting of priests and laity in Chimbote, Perú, in 1968 (“Toward a Theology of Liberation”) and the article published in Theological Studies in 1968 “Notes for a Theology of Liberation.”. For the former, see: Alfred T. Hennelly, ed., Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990) 62-76; for the latter, Theological Studies 31 (1970) 243-61 Theological Studies 31 (1970) 243-61.

[5]A most thorough and sophisticated analysis of this threefold mediation was provided early on in Clodovis Boff, Teología e practica (Petrópolis: Editora Voces, 1978). English translation: Theology and Praxis: Epistemological Foundations (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987).

[6]For a spectrum of conceptions of the American Dream, see Edmund S. Phelps, “This Thing Called the American Dream,” Project Syndicate, 28 August 2017 at:–phelps-2017-08?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=e8bef8a0bc-sunday_newsletter_3_9_2017&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-e8bef8a0bc-105585741. Accessed 28 August 2017.

[7]For this information I have relied, besides my own experience, on the essays of Howard Harrod and Edward Farley to the history of the School edited by Dale A. Johnson (Vanderbilt Divinity  School: Education, Contest, Change [Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001]: 178-96 (“Social Transformation and Theological Education at Vanderbilt since 1960”) and 265-81 (“Tracking the Course of Studies at Vanderbilt”), respectively.