Christopher PRAMUK. Hope Sings So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013. Pp. 200. ISBN 978-0-8146-8210-4. Reviewed by Andrew T. McCARTHY, Anna Maria College, 50 Sunset Lane, Paxton, MA 01612

This is a book to get excited about, and it is a book that offers hope for a more harmonious society. Christopher Pramuk’s Hope Sings so Beautiful is a joy to read and a source of deeply contemplative material for anyone who is concerned with relationships across the “color line.” Based on the theological virtue of hope, the book uses a series of cultural encounters and artifacts as the backdrop for discussing human engagement with difference and commonality. He offers insights into the experiences people have on either side of the color line, as well as guidance on the perspectival shift that is possible for people of good will. Perhaps, one of the most important contributions of this work centers on language. Not only does he present his musings with aesthetically moving literary facility, but he also offers examples of language for entering deeper into what can be delicate and risky conversations.

Pramuk brings together a series of “graced encounters” manifested in music, art, literature, and theology, to nourish the hope of transforming perspectives. In chapter 7 he links two important concepts, theological imagination and hope. Hope is dependent on imagining the anticipated better situation. Using the horrors of the Holocaust as a backdrop, he observes the stories of women who overcame the despair of the system through acts of hope. He finds that a similar hope is kept alive in the racially divided South by women who keep the image of God very present within themselves. Later, in Chapter 9, he provides us the final image of hope as he points out that the heavenly banquet, an eschatological event, could not be segregated. Revealing hope as more than just a latent emotion, Pramuk associates it with the transformation of perspectives which is needed to cross the color line.
The author deftly sets out the challenges to a complete openness to the stories and experiences of others, and he does not downplay the incumbent risks. He particularly captures the dynamic of the encounter across racial lines. Even though using language of whiteness and blackness, he broadens the openness to dialogue. He describes the categories of approach to race, opting against generalizing categories in favor of a person-centered approach. In this manner, everyone coming into the conversation is a person with a unique story, not a representative of this injustice or that oppression. Some of the most important cross-over experiences seem to occur in relation to suffering and shared worship. He goes on to explore the tensions between assimilation and distinction, noting the cluttering effect of cultural pre-suppositions. One proposed antidote to this is silence. One must sometimes be quiet in order to see and hear as the other sees.

The objective of Pramuk’s work is not to prescribe a specific perspectival shift; it is to help the reader discover his or her own shift through encounter. The author seeks to reveal the deeper ties that bind human beings beneath the shallow, socially constructed categories, drawing on a mystically inspired sense of organic inter-relatedness across existence. His second chapter urges a broader vision, given credibility by the God of life. He includes examples of revelation which act to interrupt one perspective and yield another as epiphany. This follows from his notion that images and memories can be either constraining or freeing. In Chapter 6 he uses the compositions of sight-impaired musician Stevie Wonder to challenge how fully we really see the world around us. In this process he raises the commonplace concept of paying attention to the development of a “radical openness to the life-worlds of others.”

Christopher Pramuk writes beautifully of his own experience using a lens that brings surplus meaning to his experience. In his language he never obscures injustice. Language can construct as much oppression as institutions, but he consistently uses language in a manner that facilitates discourse directed toward bringing down the walls of opposition. As evidenced by evocative phrases like “terrible beauty,” he calls for a conscientious change to the “language-worlds” in which we choose to live. To that end, he urges that we turn to the deep variety of human experience to derive the language, the analogies, to communicate the graced encounter with God and one another.

Hope Sings so Beautiful is a wonderful book to read. In coursework it holds the possibility of achieving the perspective shift described above. For those who have experienced such a shift it is a source of confirmation and validation. Pramuk’s structural approach and anecdotes can form the foundation for those carrying out a similar project and his use of language is invaluable for anyone wanting to keep hope in the racial dialogue.