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Out of the wilderness: books that explore a vast range of black religious experiences.

Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele W.W. Norton & Company, April 2004 $24.95, ISBN 0-393-05784-4

The daughter of a Scandinavian mother and a Nigerian father, Faith Adiele grew up on her maternal grandparents' farm in the state of Washington. Eager to experience a world that seemed so far removed from her rural corner, Adiele traveled as an exchange student to Thailand and found an invigorating antidote to American attitudes that pushed her so insistently into a box labeled by her race and gender. It was an empowering period in her life, one in which she glimpsed her potential to adapt, persevere, triumph. As a scholarship student at Harvard years later, she found herself weeping and hiding for days, losing control of her emotions and jeopardizing her schoolwork. She plotted an escape that would return her to the self she had once been--a resilient young woman too darn stubborn to fail.

This is how Adiele came to spend a Lenten season in a Thai forest temple. Her body wrapped in yards of white cotton, her head shaved and eyebrows shorn, she faced insects and rats and flying snakes, and learned to meditate for 19 hours at a stretch, sublimating ego, breathing through doubt, hunger and restlessness, making friends with fear and loneliness to ordain as a Buddhist nun.

In Meeting Faith, Adiele examines the many small moments thai led her to the forest. "It has taken me all this time---more than a decade to understand the strange decision made one afternoon in the dreaming shade of a Thai temple, as pale butterflies knocked against my warming flesh," she writes of her choice to ordain. "Despite arising from failure, my decision was an act of resistance, of downright defiance. I chose life"

Her ordination, ostensibly undertaken as part of a research project on the maechi (Buddhist rams), would explode every notion she held about who she was and the limits of what she could endure. But this is no humorless retelling of a spiritual quest. Adiele's account of her life her life-before, during and after the season of her ordination--is witty, mutinous, unflinchingly self aware. Her irreverent observations of herself as "the hungry American" are an effective foil for the spiritual awakening she experienced. Her coming to faith is all the more moving because she never loses sight of her core self, the Faith who enjoys sleeping in, relishes Pop Tarts, and dislikes discomfort of any kind.

A professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, Adiele is an assured storyteller. Her closely observed details often startle with their exactness, their way of articulating that which you intuitively perceived but never quite understood. One might wish that the presentation of this fascinating memoir were a little less busy: Excerpts from Adiele's journals bracket the main text, along with scholarly notes about Buddhism. I found myself wishing that the journal entries had instead been offered as an appendix, so that I could abandon myself to the story without forever going off on tangents. But perhaps the very act of following tangents is an apt metaphor for Adiele's ordination. The marginal notes offer multiple points of entry to the story, suggesting that one can arrive at faith by many different and unexpected paths. Indeed, for Adiele, ordaining as a Buddhist nun had little to do with being a Buddhist or a nun. As she writes, "Though I lived the role more seriously than anything in my life, being a Buddhist nun ... was about hacking a difficult path through the jungle, clawing my way from one paradigm to another. The change was the journey itself, and anyone can get there, down any trail." The trail Adiele ultimately chooses is one richly worth following.

--Reviews by Rosemarie Robotham

Rosemarie Robotham is senior editor-at-large at Essence magazine and author of the novel Zachary's Wings (Scribner).

African American Religious Thought: An Anthology Edited by Cornel West and Eddie. S. Glaude Jr. Westminster John Knox Press, January 2004 $59.95, ISBN 0-664-22459-8

Budding scholars in religion and African American studies will embrace this book with gratitude--no more surfing the university's online library catalogue, praying for hidden manna--and veteran academicians will appreciate the carefully carved prism of thought included in this anthology. Cornel West and Eddie. S. Glaude Jr. have taken a massive, fluid subject like African American religious studies and capsuled it into a "must-have" collection.

The authors point to history; theology and cultural criticism as their guides in shaping the selections in the anthology. They also assert that African American religious thought is at a "crossroads," and that the works featured are emblematic of that point of imprecision. West and Glaude offer the essays as a "new direction for the field," and an attempt at answering the question, Where do we go from here? What the anthology offers is a threshold invitation for further inquiry, setting the stage for a volume two.

Overall, African American Religious Thought is academic in tone and scope--by default, mind you--and its selections deserve a wider audience that it may receive. Fortunately, one of the book's achievements is the prominent positioning of gender discourse, West and Glaude have culled a voluminous supply of scholarship for an appetizing smorgasbord worth pulling up a chair to.

--Reviewed by Alvelyn J. Sanders

Alvelyn J. Sanders is a frequent contributor to BIBR.

Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age by Jerma A. Jackson, The University of North Carolina Press May 2004, $49.95, ISBN 0-807-82860-2

Before there was Shirley Caesar or Yolanda Adams, there was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose career is profiled in this new work. The author, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents a detailed history of the role of gospel music in African American religious tradition. Jackson specifically focuses on the ways solo gospel music, known for its up tempo and rhythmic quality, emerged to become a huge commercial success throughout the United States beginning in the early 20th century. Jackson's treatise moves far beyond the realm of the spiritual nature of the music and delves into how Thomas Dorsey (known as the Father of Gospel Music) and others were not only Holy Spirit--driven, but also profit driven as their music moved beyond the walls of churches to nightclubs and other secular settings.

In particular, Jackson highlights the contributions of African American women to gospel music Rosetta Tharpe's performance at the renowned Cotton Club ha 1938 propelled her national notoriety and took gospel music where no man or woman had carried it before. Jackson contends that for women, who were banned from the pulpit, gospel music was the vehicle that allowed them to "preach."

Jackson thoroughly explores largely uncharted territory. The souls of scholars, historians and students of gospel music will surely sing at work that not only moves the spirit, but also educates the mind.

--Reviewed by Kathryn V. Stanley

Kathryn V. Stanley is FAITH editor and a regional editor in Atlanta for BIBR.
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Title Annotation:Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun; African American Religious Thought: An Anthology; Singing in My Soul: Black Gospel Music in a Secular Age
Author:Stanley, Kathryn V.
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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