People of the Books: Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt

I am so very far behind in book reviews and so very much in stasis mode in my life right now, not least because there’s a lot of Big Time-Consuming Stuff going on at work.  I’ll never know why all deadlines are at the same time.  I mean, I know there are only so many days, but surely we could figure out a way not to put them all in October.  Right?  No?

Fine.  I need to get this book review off my desk since the book itself has long since been returned to Talkative.

He loaned Reframing Hope:  Vital Ministry in a New Generation to me months and months ago on the heels of hearing that I was reading some other book I’ve since forgotten, which is definitely an encouraging thing to say about a book.  So this was sitting in my living room until finally I packed it with my lunch at my New Adult Job (which, when eating lunch out of a bag, feels a lot like middle school did) to read over the break.  It was a great book for that purpose, really, as Merritt’s writing voice is incredibly easy, accessible, and clear.  Also funny, which is always a bonus.  Importantly, you can read it in a semi-noisy cafe when you’re aware of being on a schedule.  (Translation:  not gut-wrenchingly emotional or mind-bendingly deep, yet still informative and engaging.)

So, the thing about this is that it was written by a woman.  By an under-40 woman.  By an under-40 woman in a pastoral role in the Presbyterian church.  Gasp!  And she never lets you forget any of these things, because she understands that hitting that target is what has created the market for her voice.  I get that, but it got rather frustrating to me as an also under-40 woman (albeit in the Methodist church), because I don’t tend to define myself by my sex or age.  It’s true that it’s a running joke among my friends that I fail at both categories, but still, I felt rather overwhelmed by the amount of times Merritt pointed out her generation and gender ties.

There is much here at which I found myself nodding, particularly about the way technology has redefined our concept of relationship and sacredness, about how we understand our history as people of the Church, about what it means to be in community.  I felt rather lost as an old codger type when she would go into longish praise moments of all that new virtual communities and technological advances can do for the Church because, well, I just don’t think it’s all that great.  I also felt rather lost in how often Merritt was definitely addressing like-minded Gen X/Millenials in the pastorate, because that really doesn’t fit me.

However, there’s a lot of humor and warmth here, which is great.  As I said, Talkative loaned this to me, so his notes are all over the pages, and honestly I think I would have liked this book a lot less without his running commentary probing her assertions and illustrations.  He pointed out a lot of things I would have glossed over, like the many times Merritt lauds the recent return to a connection with church history but then skips over the entire Middle Ages and Renaissance when discussing what that history is; or how she urges community and transportation and innovation in a way that can be done in larger cities but not really all that well in spread-out, rural places; or how she continually delights in the accessibility of information in this technological age but doesn’t really acknowledge that facts are not quite the same as truth.

Talkative can be quite intelligent, when he tries.

It’s a good little volume, it is, and it definitely spurred some interesting ideas for me about what it means to be working within or around the Church in the 21st century.  But there’s a huge disconnect, I think, between the folks like Merritt who are super excited about what’s coming and the people like me who see how much we’re ignoring in what is.  But then, I would totally be sitting on my front porch, shaking my cane at kids and telling them to get off my damn lawn.  If I had a porch.  Or a lawn.


Rating:  3.5/5 stars              3-5-stars

2 thoughts on “People of the Books: Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt

  1. I’m so glad we can be historians together, Magister. I think the judgment will depend on how it turns out; if it crashes and burns, people can knowingly nod and talk about how foolish the online thing was. It’s funny that you bring up an aversion to the “product of their time” saying—another friend of mine was just ranting about the same thing the other day, arguing that we use that to excuse the unexcusable but also to laud ourselves in some superior fashion that our times are somehow more civilized/knowledgable/understanding.

    I’m still heartily amused that I keep a blog when I truly am such a Luddite, but then I don’t really do it “right” in terms of marketing or altering it or really trying to do anything other than ramble on it. So perhaps my curmudgeon status is safe.


  2. My historical background makes me constantly question how people in the next century will interpret the things we are saying now. Will they shake their heads at all this talk about building online community? Will they ask themselves why we strayed from the obvious task of building real community with real people in face-to-face encounters? Or will they applaud us for finally understanding how to connect in other ways? Or will it depend on how this all turns out?

    I do hope they don’t take the easy approach of saying, “Well, they were a product of their times.” I don’t believe in calling people “a product of their times.” What we call “the times” is an often oversimplified generalization we make, based on highly selective data, in which we try to summarize what people were like during a particular historical period. Then, by a wonderful circularity, we say they couldn’t help but be like that, because that’s the way people were during that period. There is never one, or two, or three answers to the question of “what people were like,” but we make such generalizations so that our limited minds can learn from the past. When we’re living through it, life is so big and fluid and open-ended that it is all but impossible to reduce and freeze and enclose it within even the grandest of generalizations. But we do it so carelessly when we’re looking back at the people who lived before us.

    All this is just preparatory to saying something very simple: I hope later generations realize there were people like you–young people who felt very old and out of place among all this talk about the wonders of the online world. And who, ironically, aired their dissent in a blog!


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