Books reviewed by James Woodward

A counter-cultural act

Living Well and Dying Faithfully – Christian Practices for End of Life Care, John Swinton & Richard Payne (Editors)Honouring Elders: Aging, Authority and Ojibwe Religion
Michael D. McNally, Columbia University Press, 2009 (978-0-231-14503-9), pp382, pbk, no price marked.

This is an extraordinarily fascinating book; an insightful and scholarly exploration of Native American attitudes towards aging and eldership. Like many Native Americans, Ojibwe people esteem the wisdom, authority and significance of old age. This stands in sharp contrast to attitudes towards older people in both America and Europe where both society and church seem locked in denial and prejudice about age.

The Auishinaabe people, indigenous to the Upper Great Lakes, and are tribal communities with a particular regard for old age and its religious significance and authority. The method of examination is a careful synthesis of ethnography and social theory. It is a model of excellence as a case study of how social ethics works out in the context of a community. The argument is that the way we cherish and deepen the life of a community is by giving authority to older people. It follows, therefore, that attention to age offers health, wholesomeness and sustainability to communities when they create social space for the authority of age.

Six chapters draw upon archival and ethnographic sources as well as two years fieldwork and examine the significance of ageing in an Anishinaabe understanding of this life course, the authority of eldership in this particular culture and religion. McNally asks his reader about how old age is viewed and what is the meaning and spiritual authority of older people in society.

The particular skill of this book is to combine this historical dimension with contemporary conversations about the place of age in our society. McNally states the importance of treating age as a category of analysis.

All this stands in sharp contrast to Northern American or European attitudes to age and older people. While there are some examples of integration and reflection of ageing in faith communities, there is a fundamental task of radically reshaping our theological attitudes to knowledge by listening to the narratives of older people in order to re-shape and practice wisdom about both living and dying. It is possible (as McNally demonstrates here) that spiritual renewal lies with older people? Older peoples’ space, withdrawal with the cultivation of silence offer the possibility of the elder as moral exemplar. In this period of age there is a vitality of wisdom within which a community can promote ethical and healthy life. There is a moral imperative in theological learning to listen to voices different from our own dominant narrative. The voice of older people and integration of their voices is a counter cultural act that has the possibility of change.

James Woodward

Published in Reviews in Religion and Theology Autumn 2010