Chapter 4: Reading Guide

Chapter 4: Crucifixions

1/ Beginning with Mark’s Gospel and the iconic song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, Chapter 4 presents a constellation of images more than it advances an intellectual argument—appealing not just to the head so much as the memory, imagination, and heart. Is it effective? What most strikes you in the chapter? What images, ideas, or insights resonate especially with you?

2/ Describe your reactions to the song “Strange Fruit.” (For links to a number of recordings, see Music and Art for Chapter 3.) What does the song evoke for you?

3/ “Brothers and sisters, this should not be, and I am deeply sorry.” As in Chapter 3, the author emphasizes the “costly grace of contrition, repentance, and mourning,” drawing parallels between suffering in the black community and the crucifixion of Jesus. Is Pramuk’s case for the “stirring of white conscience” valid, persuasive, effective? How does the author’s identification by analogy with the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ crucifixion impact or shape your response to this material?

4/ As in Chapter 3, the author alludes to a kind of prayerful consciousness (anamnesis) that includes not just the “memory” but the “real presence” of the dead. Is this mystical sensibility part of your experience? How might a living sense of those “on the other side” of death shape our sense of freedom and responsibility in daily life or the broad choices we make?  

5/ Pramuk cites a student who writes, “The song does not give us anything to be hopeful for, but the act of singing it does” (p. 60). What is the core insight here? How would you put it into your own words?

6/ Review the section called “The Beauty and Paradox of the Cross.” (You may wish also to view Pramuk’s YouTube recording of the spiritual “Down at the Cross” here.) What strikes you most in these pages? What central religious insight (or experience) is the author inviting the reader into? Does the cross, whether as history and/or as symbol, give us real (metaphysical) insight into the nature and being of God?

7/ Alongside the works cited in this chapter, can you think of other examples, past or present, of “the public and more subversive aspects of art”? (p. 65, and also n. 30, p. 181)

8/ “What is most difficult for the Christian is to live in the boundary between Good Friday and Easter and to be able, through memory and experience, to affirm the reality of both.” Pramuk gestures here to what Thomas Merton, following Julian of Norwich, calls the “eschatological secret” of Christian faith. What does this quote mean to you? Does it “make sense”, and if so, how? (Rationally? Experientially? Only as a “leap” of faith?)

9/ Which of the endnotes for Chapter 4 most interest you, and why?

10/ Review David Tracy’s idea of a “classic” and Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “dialectical image” (n. 16, p. 179). Can you think of works of art or music that bear a “surplus of meaning” and resonate across time, communities, and cultures? (Here you may wish to view Pramuk’s YouTube performance and discussion of the “classic,” via Scott Joplin’s piece, “Solace”.) Likewise, more darkly, what are some examples of the “dialectical image,” as Benjamin describes this. Does “Strange Fruit” qualify?

11/ To what extent do you share, or reject, Emilie Townes’ concern (n. 33, p. 181) about the “rhetoric of victimization” in public discourse surrounding the black community or other communities of color?

12/ The author notes a number of black comics and the often jarring or disruptive power of their comedy, especially for white audiences (p. 62, and n. 34, p. 177). Would you agree? Granting the immense variety of “black art” and the impossibility of classifying or lumping it all together, who are the African American artists whose work you most appreciate? Is there something distinctive that links their work, in style or substance? Is the question itself valid?  

13/ In notes 35, 38, and 39, Pramuk expands on Chapter 4’s imaginative identification of Jesus with the black church through a kind of positive theology or “theopoetics” of the cross, and culminating with the question posed by Jon Sobrino, “What must I do to help take the crucified peoples down from the cross?” From where you stand, who are “the crucified peoples” today? In your view, is Sobrino’s question really as central as the author suggests to the life of Christian discipleship, to “working out our salvation”?

14/ Review Phil Ochs’ quote about the value of “the struggle itself” (p.65) and Thomas Merton’s oft-quoted letter to young peace activist Jim Forest (n. 43, p. 183). What is the author suggesting here and in the final part of the chapter, citing Arrupe’s famous “Fall in love … and it will decide everything”? What do these passages say to you?  

15/ In the inaugural blog post for this website, Pramuk reflects on Robert Henri’s classic work The Art Spirit (1923) and Thomas Merton’s book Raids on the Unspeakable. Read the post and reflect on it together in light of your discussion of Chapter 4. Would you agree with the author’s suggestion here that music, art, and poetry are sometimes better positioned and more effective in offering “raids on the unspeakable” than is strictly “rational,” moral-ethical, or political discourse? Why should this be so?

Be sure to check out “Music and Art” for Chapter 4, with links to many rich resources for further meditation, reflection and discussion.

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