Midway through her book Call it Grace, Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, issues the following invitation: “look at your life honestly—what you’ve done, or not; how you’ve loved, or not; what tragedies you’ve lived through, or not; what joys you have discovered, or not—and then ask yourself what truths about life have surfaced for you over time…What glimpses of the divine have you occasionally caught?” If we have the courage to do this, Jones assures us, “then theologians can help give you the language for what you’ve discovered and assist you in pulling those truths into a meaningful story about reality."
I have been theologian-adjacent my whole life. I am the granddaughter and great granddaughter of Presbyterian ministers; my great grandfather’s sermons, which he wrote longhand in an almost microscopic cursive, are collected in a leather notebook that sits on a shelf in my mother’s den. As a religion major in college, I took courses taught by Professor Coleman Brown, who was a theologian himself (and Union graduate), and I read Neibuhr, Tillich, Heschel and King. In my early career I worked for a large private foundation that supports theological schools. I am good friends with more than one pastor. My sister has a Masters of Theological Studies and is the founder of a program that brings her theology courses to students currently incarcerated in New Jersey’s prisons.
Despite the fact that I can’t swing a cat without hitting a theologian, if someone asked me to explain to them what theology IS, I would have difficulty answering. A rough equation—philosophy plus God?—might embarrassingly be the best I could muster. Serene Jones seems to have written her book for me, a person largely illiterate in things theological but nonetheless convinced of their value. In a world that has lost its theological fluency, Jones is attempting to recover these ideas as a crucial part of our everyday conversation.
Luckily for the reader, her approach is not didactic. Call it Grace is not so much a primer on theology as it is a way of animating it. At its base, it’s a memoir, a telling of Jones’ life story overlaid with a theological lens. As such, the book is full of the people that populate her world: Okie relatives, ex-husbands and lovers, fellow activists. But the most compelling episodes, the ones that truly bring theology to life, are those that directly involve Jones herself. An encounter with a sexually abusive grandfather is unpacked through a reading of John Calvin. Mysticism helps make sense of a harrowing near death experience in India. Her struggle to save a financially failing seminary is examined in the context of liberation theology and the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In each of these deeply personal stories, Jones’ lived experience serves to explicate the theological at the same time that her theology informs the experience. Through this interplay, she renders theology a living, breathing and dynamic way of interacting with the world.
Unfortunately, the book also contains several segments where Jones, herself, is at a remove from the incident she is exploring—speculation about ancestors who may have been present at a lynching, the accidental death of working class ex-boyfriend, the wounding of her brother-in-law in the Oklahoma City bombing during a time when she lives on the East Coast. While the reader is not left doubting her emotional claim to these events, her attempt to link these experiences to the theological lacks the immediacy and authenticity of the stories that feature Jones herself.
Despite these clunkier passages, Jones’ book does a good job of making a case for theology as a tool to find “meaning in a fractured world.” To the extent she that is successful in awakening this hunger in the reader, the book could also have benefitted from including more of the specifics of particular theologies. Jones is a gifted teacher. Passages in which she took the time to summarize an individual theological perspective, whether that of Howard Thurman or French philosopher Luce Irigaray, are not only interesting, but allow the reader to better grasp how these perspectives might influence everything from daily interactions to global challenges. And although she does not say so directly (Jones is adamantly non-prescriptive throughout), we are left to understand that taking the time to read these writers, and others like them, would be time well spent.
In a culture that is reading less and less, this may not, finally, be a realistic hope. Perhaps Jones intuits this and simply seeks to reintroduce and make more robust a set of concepts that receive relatively little attention in a sped-up, secularized world: mercy, justice, sin and grace. And on this score, Jones delivers—perhaps no more so than at the conclusion of her book. The narrative draws to a close with a difficult episode involving shocking family secrets divulged at the end of a parent’s life. So devastating are these revelations that they shake the foundations of her family’s longstanding and formidable faith, leaving a creeping cynicism and emptiness in their wake.
Thanks to Jones’ training, the book does not end here. With clear-eyed realism and a lack of sentimentality, Jones draws deep on theological wisdom to push beyond a sense of despair. Returning to the ideas that have sustained her throughout her life, she asks, “How do we learn to breathe together if we don’t accept the connecting power of breath…how do we as ask for or receive forgiveness if we have no sense of sin? How do we know grace if our imaginations have rendered our world graceless?” Fortunately for us, Jones and others like her are engaged in the difficult work of keeping these ideas alive. These modern-day theologians invite us to imagine a world conversant in the practice of meaningful compassion, one characterized by a substantive and active love.
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