God Knows There's Need: Christian Responses to Poverty

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The subject of poverty is rich in meanings and associations, among them hunger, stench, disease, disfigurement, shame, revulsion, and loss. It is a topic that has preoccupied the mind and hearts of the faithful since the inception of Christianity.

In this insightful volume, Susan R. Holman blends personal memoir and scholarly research into ancient writings to illuminate the age-old issues of need, poverty, and social justice in the history of the Christian tradition. Holman weaves together stories from late antiquity with three conceptual paradigms that can bridge the gap between historical story and modern action: sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying sacred kingdom. In the first four chapters, the author explores how personal need influences the way that we look at the world and the needs of others. Beginning with the story of her own encounters with need and her discovery of the world of early Christian texts on poverty and religious response, the author re-tells these historical narratives in new ways, and traces their influence on post-Reformation history. The second half of the book uses a complex amalgam of images and stories to consider several recurrent themes in any religious responses to poverty and need: poverty and gender, the dilemma of justice in material distribution, ascetic models of social activism and contemplation, the language of human rights and the "common good," challenges of hospitality, and the role of liturgy in constructing a vision for restorative righteousness.

Tying these historical texts to modern responses to need, Holman begins with her own encounters with need and describes her discovery of the existence of never-before-translated early Christian texts on responses to poverty, hunger, and disease. Holman's embrace of the historical perspective will prove useful in interdenominational and ecumenical dialogue on religious responses to social welfare needs. Through their sensitive exploration of nuances and tensions, these essays invite reflection, conversation, and response for scholars and students as well as concerned laypeople across a range of Christian faith communities.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Very few books manage to combine sensitive and accurate historical scholarship with deep personal engagement and indeed exposure; this is one of them. Susan Holman courageously bridges the gap between the scholarly study of early Christianity and the challenges of Christian discipleship today with a real depth of insight and no trace of romanticism about the past. A unique achievement."—Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

"Susan R. Holman reaches into the shadows of Christian patristic history to ask questions of breathtaking immediacy. Her spirited interrogation of poverty forms a compelling personal quest laced with wry intelligence. Meticulously researched portraits bring key patristic figures and their struggles vividly before us. Her determination to seek not a solution, but a relation, to poverty shines through on every page. Her book is a rare find, the fat of guilt and good intentions burned away in the transparency of a passionate and demanding inquiry." —Patricia Hampl, author of The Florist's Daughter

"Masterfully interweaving stories and discussions of poverty and social justice from the late antique, medieval, and modern world, Holman exposes the reality of poverty and the moral demands it places on us. With deep knowledge of the fathers, methodological sophistication, and genuine sensitivity towards the poor, she challenges us 'to cross the gap between past and present,' to bring the insights and lessons of the past forward and incorporate them into our own efforts to fashion a more just world. Her book is a fascinating, enjoyable, and relevant read." —James E. Goehring, Professor of Classics, Philosophy, and Religion, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA

"Susan Holman writes like a poet keenly engaged with historical texts and contexts and alive to the problems we face today in engaging with the world's needy people. Passionately engaging the problem of society's response to the needy, she weaves a subtle and beautiful tapestry of Syrian, Greek, and Latin patristic sources, modern critical thinkers, her own experience, and many poignant stories ancient and modern. She takes us from the mind to the heart, and compels us to respond to the sick, the hungry, and the homeless today. A model of how religious persons can retrieve their tradition to heal the world's wounds, this is a stunning book. The most significant book I have ever read on the Christian response to the needy." —Richard Valantasis, Institute for Contemplative Living, Santa Fe, NM, and Professor of Ascetical Theology and Christian Practice, Emory University

"[God Knows There's a Need] can be seen as a reflective breathing space, a retreat between hard covers for those whose response to need is too often reduced, perforce, to filling in a local-authority grant application." —The Tablet

"[Holman's] empathetic remembrances show us how to recreate ancient Christians' responses to poverty, making them live for the church today."—Theological Studies

"An important addition to any social justice reading list."—Catholic Library World

"Provocatively thoughtful. . . [an] articulate, personally-engaged historical study."—Interpreatation

Publishers Weekly

Although a concern with poverty is writ large in the New Testament, scholars have paid scant attention to the ways in which early Christian writers addressed economic inequities in the first four centuries of the Common Era. Combining a passion for social justice with lucid exegesis of patristic authors like Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Basil of Caesarea, Holman (The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia) demonstrates that the poor have always been with us and that the church has devised strategies for taking care of them. Holman argues that these writers engaged a response to poverty that involved sensing the needs of the poor; sharing the world with these poor in ways such as, but not limited to, giving alms; and embodying the sacred kingdom, or bringing the brokenness of the impoverished bodies into the body of Christ. For example, the famine that struck Cappadocia in 368-369 left many homeless, ragged and hungry. Gregory of Nazianzus responded by exhorting Christians that these disfigured persons are "part of you, even if they are bent down with misfortune." Holman helpfully offers fresh insights into the ways that church history can illuminate social activism. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The poor you will always have with you, says Jesus Christ in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. In God Knows, Holman (academic research writer & editor, Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Ctr. for Health & Human Rights, Harvard Sch. of Public Health; The Hungry Are Dying) surveys how Christians have historically responded to poverty and discloses her own journey to awareness. The result: a unique fusion of memoir and research. Holman filters each example of Christian reactions to human need and social welfare through three paradigms: sensing need, sharing the world, and embodying the sacred kingdom. Holman's historical analysis of ancient writers (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom) will prove to be didactic for 21st-century social activism and ecumenical approaches to addressing poverty. It will find its appropriate home with students of religion, theology, and social work.

In the River They Swim also addresses the Gordian knot of poverty and features a foreword by Rick Warren, who reminds readers of this sober truth: three billion people live in poverty. Government handouts are not the answer; instead, the "enterprise solutions" offered in these essays are empowering, for they provide knowledge, training, and opportunities for the poor. Contributors speak a combined 20 languages, and they include Rwandan president Paul Kagama, American Express VP David Rabkin, and Malik Fal, who heads Microsoft's Business Marketing and Operations Group, which spans 49 African countries. Contributors share their personal journeys of working in abject conditions, along with their tribulations and successes in implementing enterprise solutions to poverty. In short, thiswork is a global and holistic approach to a perennial problem, and the message is clarion clear: governments, businesses, and churches must align, collaborate, and innovate to combat destitution. Overall, this eclectic and challenging title is recommended for both students and lay readers.
—C. Brian Smith

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195383621
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan R. Holman is an academic research writer and editor at the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health. She is the author of The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia.

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