Don’t expect an exhaustive consideration of grace in Unexpected Grace. I am not quite sure if this is a strength or a weakness in this work by Bill Kramer. His intention may be for readers to discover for themselves the connection between his stories and the concept of grace. To really appreciate what he is doing, you have to accept Unexpected Grace, in just this way, as a collection of stories. If you do this, you may be pleasantly surprised and find a new resource for use in a variety of courses.
The book is divided into four parts. As the first part opens the reader is drawn into preparations for a meeting of prominent theologians in New York City, but the mundane concerns of preparing for such an event are suddenly shattered. The date is September 11, 2001. You are quickly thrust into the main character’s observation of the incredible transformation in ordinary New Yorkers as their personal survival instincts are overcome by mutual concern. It is sometimes difficult to know whether some of the high-charged spiritual expressions that ensue are the direct renderings of the main character’s thoughts or the development of the author. It is more likely that these lines were gleaned in the dialogical play that one can only assume must have been the ground from which so much of this book sprang.
As Kramer views a significant event through the eyes of another, he appears to be probing her past for signs of a perceptual outlook that was ready to meaningfully envision such a confluence of events and thoughts. What comes to be apparent is that in the aftermath of 9/11 society operated in a manner, replete with equality and responsibility, which was never before experienced. To a certain extent, this story is an exposé of the challenge of responding to opportunities of grace which is overcome by an interesting idea, “the power of compassionate purpose” (73). This story would be a good reading assignment for a class on evil, pain and suffering, or the search for meaning.
Part II is entitled: "Friendship In, Prejudice Out." From this title it is not clear whether the focus is on race relationships or friendship. In the first place the work is a valuable insight in the dynamics of forming friendships. Kramer’s primary subject explains that through friendship one’s concept of self expands to include the other within the perception of self. Much of the focus is on research which found that intergroup relationships, including trans-racial relationships, show all the same factors found in the formation of a friendship. The psychological model, described as “the other in the self,” is activated when one friend determines that the other friend is different from all other members of this person’s out group (106).
The interesting thing about this section of the book is that it does for the reader what the theory claims to do for the study participants. It draws one into a shared experience, even if only vicariously, so that the reader senses a personal stake in the experience of the other, the two subjects of the study. "Friendship In, Prejudice Out" could work well in a seminar on equality and justice since it presents many of the essential concerns of this topic area. In addition, the educational process is mediated through the experiences of real people, which keeps any discussion from becoming too sterile, too ivory tower. This story might also make a good reading selection to open a course on race relationships or racism. It presents so many elements of inter-racial interaction without stopping the conversation before it has begun.
The third part of the book, "Guided by the Holy Spirit," is both about research on altruism and about the scientist who reveals her dialogue with God. The main character advocates carrying on this dialogue through a kind of back and forth play of images. She also looks for divinely inspired intuitions that urge her in one direction or another when uncertainty arises. Beyond a pseudo-voyeuristic look into her spiritual life, the most interesting feature of this side of the story is the gauge she uses for determining a correct choice. She asks herself whether it will move her closer to a peaceful equilibrium state or further away. Through this process she is able to affirm that it is by experiencing God in one’s life, and not just having a mental conception of God, that a religious outlook becomes transformative.
The second story within this story concerns the scientist’s studies. Her thesis is that those who receive some great blessing are most likely to pass it on, but as the narrative unfolds she has to adapt her initial expectation. The arousal of guilt or shame adds an unanticipated variable. In situations where these feelings occurred there was less inclination to pass a “blessing” forward. The final iteration of her study confirmed that it was humility and not religiosity that was the most direct and consistent determinant of altruism. She was also able to reveal the interconnectedness of concepts like forgiveness, love, and humility. In regard to the final quality, she finds that building up or strengthening the ego is the most important step toward humility. The subject area of this part of the book complements the other focal topics, but it is not readily apparent where this portion would be useful in the development of a course. It might provide some decent anecdotal support for research on altruism or humility.
The final story in Unexpected Grace takes up the topic of empathy, under the title" Scanning for Empathy." The scientific study that underpins the observations of empathy involves using an MRI to measure body temperature increases in response to watching video-taped interviews of people with serious and sometimes terminal illnesses. The primary theory is that a person’s past yields a collection of imagery that is called upon to form an empathetic response when such a response arises. While more information on this area would have been intriguing, the findings soon turned attention to a feature of empathy that is generally recognized. The scientist in question observed that at high levels of distress there was a nearly even split between those who sustained an empathetic response and those whose response faltered. She could not fully account for this but suggested that one reason might be a survival mechanism since too much distress affects health. The conclusion with greatest application, in light of faltering empathy, is that those who come across as most in need of help, for instance in a medical situation, are the people with the highest levels of need-expression. These are the same people who are least likely to get an empathetic response and thus might go without an adequate medical response. In the end, the main character indicates that love is the common ground in empathy, but the case is never made clearly enough to support this determination.
Kramer has written this collection of stories masterfully, but they have to be appreciated as individual stories and not for a cohesive line of thought or argument. The clearest common theme is that each takes up a subject near and dear to the mission of the publisher. I await a follow-on work that develops these themes into a meaningful model of the human experience of grace.