Barbara Green

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Thoughtful of the Past
Book Review by Ellen Miller

"Yours is the challenge to make our past urgently present and our present deeply drawn in the past, so that nothing is lost."

On the surface Mindful is the story of a journey: it's 535 B.C.E. and about forty people are returning from the Babylonian Captivity to Jerusalem. It is fascinating to see how the group lives and manages such a trek - the American pioneers crossing the heart of the continent must have had it easy by comparison - not only in terms of daily life but more importantly, in terms of how they deal with their past, with their traditions, somewhat in abeyance during the years in Babylon, that they will be looking to as they start life in anew in Judah. There to assist them with this challenge is Tizkor, who has a remarkable gift: she can enter what she calls the Caves of Memory. This wonderful image suggests a vast and mysterious storehouse of stories and songs, phrases and poems that her remote forebears had spoken. It's not clear to Tizkor precisely how this old and deep knowing of the Caves works. Her challenge is to not only find there what will be useful to a particular situation, but also to share it with the group, and to encourage them to regard it, reshape it, reinterpret it for their present circumstances. Sometimes in the process she learns a new story which can be added to the Caves; and the reshapings are clearly stored there as well. It is dynamic. To the 21st century reader, what we are seeing is the Bible before it became the Bible; how it might have developed in oral tradition, and how a mostly illiterate people would have accessed the material and ultimately shaped it into what we have today.

A crisis of sorts occurs when the possibility of writing things down emerges. This has not been an issue to date as hardly anyone can read. But this is starting to change. Tizkor initially resists, championing the fluidity and flexibility of the material as she finds it in the Caves. Those who do not have her gift, but could learn to read, press for a clear version, accessible to all. To those of us accustomed to the Bible as a book hundreds of years old, and easily available to most people, this is an astonishing argument!

These considerations of the use, power, vitality and importance of the past are the heart of the book. And the reader is invited to enter into the process as well. We are reminded that this exact sort of engagement with the wisdom of the past is available and necessary to us today.

But there's a good story here as well, and many engaging characters for whom we come to care in the course of the book. An enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

Ellen Miller


Book Review by Sandra Schneiders, IHM

Reading Mindful by Barbara Green is an invitation to reflection on the mystery that has fascinated people at least as far back as Augustine: the workings of memory. We tend to think of memory as the faculty that deals with the past. But Green shows us how the past is really constructed at least as much under the pressure of the present and the invitation of the future as by "what really happened," precisely because we do not really know what happened until we have lived what it has produced and are offered a new world by what it might produce. In an age when religiously inspired polarization threatens our culture from conservative and liberal directions, the (only partly) fictional characters in the novel act out versions of fidelity to or rebellion against "the past" which unfold the consequences of different understandings of loyal belonging and mature individuation and their relationship. Green's characters manage to introduce the perspectives of the young who have litte past and much future, the old who have much past but little personal future and who are therefore most invested in the future of the community, and the current generation of leaders who are necessarily enmeshed in the present in ways that tempt them to opt for security at the price of vision or risk a rashness that has no future. Other characters introduce the gender dynamics involved in interpreting tradition. The main character in the novel, whose name derives from the Hebrew "remember", is a visionary whose remarkable insight is an interpretive treasure for her people and whose embeddedness in the community as mother, spouse, and friend keeps her from the seer's perennial temptation to surrender to the unreal. Although the novel is a solidly grounded imaginative reconstruction of the processes which produced t he biblical book we know as Deuteronomy it also illuminates the ongoing process by which a community in any time and place struggles to mediate the tensions among its past experience codified in its tradition, its dreams and ideals of what it can become, and the constraints of reality in an imperfect world. If more people could enter into this dynamic and allow it to influence their own individual and community experience there might be a path forward out of mutual shouting matches between entrenched ideologues toward a future of reflective and principled dialogue that defines the common good not as "my way or no way" but as "our way in God's presence just might be God's way in our world." This is a must read for people who care about tradition, community, prophecy, idealism, civility, and the future and know the role that interpretation plays in these affairs.

Sandra Schneiders, IHM