Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin DuMez

Summary: American Christianity has slowly adopted a Jesus that looks and acts a lot like John Wayne, and that has distorted Christianity.

When I first heard about Jesus and John Wayne, I had it connected to books on Christian Nationalism, like Taking America Back for God, maybe because that is how Matthew Lee Anderson framed his review in Christianity Today. That isn’t entirely wrong, but I am not sure it gets the main point of the book any more than framing it as an Anti-Trump book as this review does. The book opens with a vignette about Trump’s 2016 statement “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Jesus and John Wayne isn’t so much about Trump, or John Wayne, as much as it is about how since the 1950s, Evangelicalism in particular, and Christianity more broadly, has culturally embraced a concept of militant masculine Christianity, a ‘bad-ass Jesus’, as a central image for its discipleship and evangelism strategy. The movement to save America (yes Christian Nationalism is a component of the book), has been a reactive one. Whether it is communism (they are atheists, so the US needs to add ‘Under God’ to the pledge), or feminists (so we need to emphasize complementary gender roles and patriarchal authority), or loose sexual morals (so we emphasize purity and ‘kiss dating goodbye’), the point is that the Christian church in the post World War II era has not created a positive message of Christianity so much as looked at culture and done the opposite. Except when it hasn’t.

The ‘when it hasn’t’ is also essential. Because culture has embraced the individual macho man, whether it is John Wayne as the soldier or cowboy or the behind the scenes savior like Jack Bauer or James Bond, or the father with a very particular set of skills that will pursue his daughter’s kidnappers in Taken, the individual who can save us is part of the American mystique.

Jesus and John Wayne is a history book. It is tracing the 75-year history of the development of Evangelical conceptions of gendered leadership, which has resulted in widespread support of a president who does not match Christian theological or virtue ideals but is “somebody who is able to fight back” or phrased differently, ‘the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump.’ The main focus of Jesus and John Wayne is the gendered conception of leadership and the way that the emphasis on exaggerated gender role divisions has distorted Christianity.

I am not going to trace the full history developed in the book. It traces the development of opposition of ERA and abortion, the embrace of Reagan (as an overt parallel to John Wayne) and his manly man soldier doing what needs to be done in Oliver North, the rejection of ‘softer’ parenting styles with James Dobson and the Pearls, Promise Keepers’ focus on men taking back leadership of the family, the later rejection of Promise Keepers as too tender and the embrace of ‘No more Christian nice guys’ and ‘spiritual badasses.’

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory GuideSummary: The how and why of intersectional theology.

There is lots of conversation right now about Critical Theory especially as it is related to the more recent development of Critical Race Theory.  I am far from a scholar about either, but I have done long form reading and a lot of short-form, podcast, and video learning, and to my untrained eye, Intersectionality is the most helpful and arguably the most misunderstood aspect of Critical Race Theory (CRT).

I am not going to fully explicate this book. I would need to read it again to do a better job at that. But I do have 50 highlights or notes that are public from the book.  One of the aspects of discussing Intersectionality that is difficult is that there is a lot of particular languages that have different uses depending on the section. The implication of that is that it is rare for there to be pithy quotes, not just because of the jargon or technical language, but because internally to many quotes, there has to be the nuanced explication of what is and is not being said at any point. I found myself often highlighting not just whole paragraphs, but often whole pages to make sure I had enough to make sense of the idea later when I want to look back.

A good example of this is the following quote that sets up the book:

For most of Christian history, written theology has been the purview of educated, heterosexual, white, Western men. Challenges to the homogeneity of Christian theology arose in the mid-twentieth century through theologies of liberation that gave historical and social context to those doing the theologizing. Latin American, feminist, minjung, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologies emerged to contest the assumed neutrality and objectivity of white, male theologies. Recognizing the importance of social location for how theology is done and its contents, these theologies centered the marginalized and articulated theologies from below. While the center shifted to diverse identities, these theologies still tended to be mono-focused, or what feminist scholar Vivian May calls “gender-first” or “race-first,” an approach that gives priority to one facet of identity as explanatory for experiences of oppression. And so, white feminists often wrote about gender as if it were a monolithic category, overlooking or minimizing the ways race and sexuality shape individuals’ experiences of gender. Latin American liberationists wrote within a context of struggle in Central and South America but did not address the role of gender in the ethnic and class struggles of Latin America…Rather than applying “single-axis” thinking, intersectional analysis relies on “both/and,” an analytical lens that allows for the complexities and contradictions of holding positions of dominance and subordination at the same time and having those concurrent locations mold and fashion experiences that are not race or gender or race plus gender but are rather the confluence of race and gender into something that is both and neither.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled TimesSummary: Commentary on Lamentations and a primer on the importance of lament.

I have joined a Be the Bridge group that is meeting via video call every other Saturday morning. Part of the method of BTB is to have each person present some historic event of racial injustice as part of creating a shared history which leads to real lament. I was asked to put together a summary of Prophetic Lament because I had already read the book. Because it had been a few years since I have read it, I wanted to re-read the book to prepare.

I did a lot more highlighting than I did on my first reading because I was trying to get quotes and ideas for the presentation. I am not going to write up a full new review, but I am going to link to my presentation and link to my highlights (42 of them).

I know it is not quite the same thing, but the American church often feels like the InsideOut movie, where Happy thinks initially that the best thing is for the girl to be happy all the time and for her to make sure Sadness is kept on the sidelines. Instead, by the end of the movie, Happy realizes that there is a real role for Sadness to play in the life of their girl and that repression of emotions other than happiness only backfires.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Sheila Wise Rowe

Summary: Trauma is real; some of that trauma is based on racism or white supremacy; the hard work of healing is essential, not just for individuals but also for communities and future generations. 

I have recently joined a Be The Bridge group. Part of the method of the group is to acknowledge history and lament that history. I was asked to do a short presentation on lament. Because I had meant to anyway, I started re-reading Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament. The opening of Prophetic Lament was helpful, but I was seeking out other resources and saw the chapter on Lament in Healing Racial Trauma. After I finished that chapter, a friend commented about how helpful she found the book as a whole and how she was leading a small group through the book. So I decided to move the book up on my list.

Part of being slow to pick up Healing Racial Trauma is my identification of racial trauma primarily with racial minorities. Most of the examples of this book are of racial minorities, but that does not mean that this book is not for those with less melanin. The strong theme throughout the book is that healing is not only for yourself (although it is that as well) but also for your community and future generations. Breaking cycles is tremendously hard, but if we want healthy communities, churches, institutions, and families, we have to do the work of breaking cycles. That means that we have to do the hard work of internal healing, which is related to communal healing.

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America by Khyati Joshi

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in AmericaSummary: Discussion of the cultural and real privilege of being a White Christian (or at least conversant in Christianity) in America.

I recently read Taking America Back for God, a book about Christian Nationalism, and when I was writing up my review, one of the books recommended was White Christian Privilege. I did not know anything about the book or author, but it seemed to fit in my recent reading, and I picked it up.

The author is a second-generation immigrant from Southeast Asia. She grew up in Atlanta and now is a professor specializing in race and religion. The premise of the book is explained by the title well; religious liberty is illusionary in the US because it primarily is rooted in the freedom to be Christian. White (Protestant) Christians are the default state, and others tend to be religious in relation to Christianity. (Robert Jones’ book The End of White Christian America tells the opposite side of this story.)

White Christian Privilege is not going to be received well by many that believe that Christianity is under attack or persecuted. And there is some small sense that demographic change is impacting the dominance of White Christians to some extent (the demographic trends are the primary focus of Jones’ book). But demographics do not show the privilege that Christianity has baked into the United States culture and history.

There are legitimate arguments about whether the US was founded as a ‘Christian country,’ but culturally, Christianity was normative (the default cultural expression.) While there have been Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims from very early in US history, Christianity has been dominant. So Christian assumptions about how religion works have also been normative. Christian holidays are national holidays (and Hindu holidays are not, and often not even known). A Hundi woman that wants to celebrate Diwali will have to request time off from work, but Christmas is a national holiday, and the workweek is oriented around the Christian calendar. These assumptions are not consciously chosen or intentionally discriminatory, but they do have an impact. (Similar to the way that crash test dummies were modeled initially after adult males and only later have changes been made to include women and children when it became clear that the single choice of crash test dummies negatively impacted women and children).

The narration of religious liberty cases from the Supreme Court was particularly striking because I heard several people recently talk about how the Supreme Court has ruled so clearly for religious liberty recently. But the choice of which cases to include as religious liberty cases in those recent articles has been biased toward Christian cases, and religious liberty cases for others were not counted as losses.

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself by Marlena Graves

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself Summary: An exploration of Kenosis, voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s.

Kenosis has a long history. Biblically it is rooted in Philippians 2 with Jesus ‘giving up’ his divine being and ‘adopting’ a human form. The language has always been challenging because it is inadequate to represent what is going on fully. Jesus did not cease to be divine when he became human. And the adoption metaphor has weaknesses because there is history with its use as a means of denying that Jesus was entirely God, or that he was created not eternal.  But despite the inadequacy of the language around Kenosis,  the concepts underneath it, are important. Jesus’ prayer, ‘not my will, but yours be done’ was not a denial of his divinity but the fulfillment of it. If Jesus could empty himself of his will in a biblically appropriate way, then we, as fully created, should also think about how we appropriately give up our own will.

Part of the problem of discussing Kenosis isn’t just the inadequacy of the language, but the history of abuse. Kenosis has been used to justify abuse and oppression throughout Christian history. It has been used to tell slaves to submit to masters, or to perpetuate economic or cultural inequity. It has been used to support gnostic leaning beliefs around the sinfulness of the body or patriarchal attitudes toward women. It has been used to deny people the rights of justice in regard to sexual and other forms of abuse inside the church.

It is in part because of this misuse of the concept that I am reluctant to read white males talk about Kenosis, and why despite a bit of reluctance to initially pick up The Way Up Is Down, it is important that this book is written by a Puerto Rican woman. As I have said frequently, I am midway through my training to become a Spiritual Director. The literature of spiritual direction and spiritual formation is overwhelmingly from a White male perspective. Most of my non-assigned reading has been an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my assigned reading. Marlena Graves is a pastor and professor of spiritual formation. She is not a spiritual director as far as I am aware (it is not explicitly mentioned in the book that I remember), but the type of spiritual wisdom that is throughout the book is in that vein.

A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity by Vince Bantu

Summary: Exploring early Christianity’s history, beliefs, and geography.

Christianity has always been a global religion, despite many believing that it is only recently that the universal nature of Christianity has learn.  A Multitude of All Peoples is not the first book of this type, but of the couple that I have read, I think it is the most helpful. Philip Jenkins’ Lost History of Christianity looked at the demographic history of Christianity. Still, it did not engage the theological content of Christianity as well as A Multitude of All Peoples does. Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a narrower type of book, not just only looking at Africa, but also trying to justify more research into early Christianity in Africa.

The book opens with a discussion of the importance of understanding that Christianity has always been a global religion instead of the misplaced understanding that Christianity only came to Africa and Asia from European missionaries. Christianity misconstrued as only a western religion, is a severe stumbling block to formally colonialized or oppressed people. Also, the long history of Christianity’s relationship to culture needs the history of local adaptation and enculturation, both in positive and negative ways, to give insight into how Christianity works in culture. Bantu ends the book with some of this discussion, and while I read more to understand his result better, his interaction with other perspectives is helpful.

Bantu has a couple of significant strengths. One is that he is concentrating not just on those Christians that spoke Greek or Latin or interacted with European Christians like Augustine or Athanasius, but also those that spoke languages that are relatively new to western study. There was a far more detailed history here than what was in either of the two other books.

Second, A Multitude of All Peoples looks at the theological disagreements, not just as religious, but also linguistic, cultural, and political. This plays out too often when Christians moved into roles of power within a state and then used the power of the state to persecute their political or theological opponents with the same tools of oppression used against them. Egyptian, Shenoute of Atripe, justified violence against non-Christians and even against other Christians as the will of God. (He killed one of his fellow monks during a physical punishment.) Part of this is how Christians viewed the state. Bantu shows that Eusebius identified the Roman Empire, “an eikon of the Kingdom of God.”

The view of the state and the church becomes so entwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other. This happened not just within but also outside, as political enemies saw Christianity (or particular expressions of Christianity) as so connected with the state that it caused  (or justified) Christian persecutions. For instance, the Persian Empire persecuted Christians because of the Christian connection to Rome, or Mongol protection of Christianity resulted in Christianity being wiped out in China after the fall of the Mongol Empire. (Constantine sent a letter to the Persian emperor suggesting that Christians in Persia would be more loyal to Rome than to Persia and suggested at the same time to Christians that it was God’s will that they are politically loyal to him because Rome was a Christian empire.)

Some Recommended Books Around the Topic of Race

I have read fairly widely around various issues of race, but certainly, there are far more books that I have not read than that I have read. So a book not listed here is likely not here because I have not read it or haven’t written about them. I fully realize that this is an overwhelming list. Don’t think of it as something to be completed, but as a resource to find books that particularly interest you.

I strongly believe that books and topically reading should be personalized. Everyone has different interests and different backgrounds. Because of that, no list of books should be assumed to be universal.

I also am biased toward reading books by Black, Brown, Indigenous, or other people of color on issues of race, not exclusively, but primarily.

I am also biased toward history and biography more than ‘self-help’ styled books. It is not that books that are oriented toward psychology or sociology or in other modes trying to explain racial issues are not important, they are, but without a background in the actual history, there is often missing information that impacts the conversation.

I am also primarily putting this list together for White people to read about race.

Links below are to my posts on the various books.

Various Starting Points and Categories

Survey History: The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby – This is a book oriented toward US history and framed for Christians, talking primarily about Protestant history. It is a good overview, just over 200 pages, and designed as a starting place. There is also a video curriculum if you want to use that instead of the book.

Primer to Talking about Race: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – Oluo writes like a blogger with short chapters, lots of stories and illustrations, and clear definitions. I think this book handles concepts of privilege, intersectionality, and microaggressions as well as any introductory book I have read. This quote gives a good sense of the book “A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.” An alternative would be How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi.

Racial Identity: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race By Beverly Tatum – The 20th Anniversary version of this book has a 70-page introduction covering the racial history of the 20 years from the original publication and it is a great addition to the book. This is a wide-ranging book, but where it shines is descriptions of racial identity acquisition, education, and youth issues around racial identity and good discussion about cross-racial dialogue. An alternative from a memoir orientation is Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice which is about a Potawatomi woman trying to grapple with her Native American heritage and identity.

White Authored Book on Race: Good White Racist?: Confront Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice by Kerry Connelly. This is a no-nonsense book, not intended to make White people feel good about race, but to particularly focus on why so often, White people want to be perceived as ‘one of the good ones’. The message of the book is “the very first rule in antiracism work: stay in the room, even when it gets hard and uncomfortable.” Good White Racist is a Christian book. Other examples that I also would recommend as alternatives are White Awake by Daniel Hill or America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis or if you are looking for a secular author White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

Building Relationships Across Racial Lines: Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation by Latasha Morrison – Story matters a lot to the way that many understand racial issues. This is part memoir, part organizational mission, part ‘how to reach across racial lines’. It is hard to separate Latasha Morrison’s story from the work of Be The Bridge and her passion is the mission of the organization and that mission has a clear method. An alternative book in a similar vein is Black and White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship at a Time by Teesha Hadra and John Hambrick.

Bible Study: Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk With the Apostles by Amos Yong – It has been nearly a decade since I first read this commentary on Acts. It is not particular about race, but it does pay attention to how Acts is situated around crossing boundaries, ethnicity, gender, class, and other lines. Yong’s commentary is a great example of how White Americans can misread the bible and so I suggest pairing the commentary with Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien. Misreading Scripture again is not about race, but about culture and the issues of culture do matter. Two more supplementary books that are helpful would be One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? and Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings.

Graphic Novel Formatted History:  March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell – This is a trilogy of graphic novels that tells the civil rights era through the story of John Lewis. He was a central figure and the format of the graphic novel works very well, not just for young adults, but also for adults. The same artist did The Silence of Our Friends, which is historical fiction based on the father on one of the authors. And a graphic novel version of Kindred, which I don’t think is quite as good as the full novel but still worth reading. Kindred is a novel about a Black woman in the 1970s that is sent back in time to save her White slave-owning ancestor and who is enslaved in the process. There is also a short book on John Brown.

Theology: The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings – If you are interested in a more theological book, this is where I would start once you have some of the basic ideas and concepts of racism. This is a theological exploration of the origins of race similar to Stamped from the Beginning but tracing the theological history. An alternative that I recommend just as highly is The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H Cone. I find it hard to recommend Cone if you do not read his memoirs because if you do not understand his life and motivations, it can be hard to fully understand his theology. If you are going to read one memoir, read his last Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody but if you have time to read both, read My Soul Looks Back first.

Stokely: A Life by Peniel Joseph

Summary: A biography of a young civil rights icon who called for ‘Black Power’. 

After reading Peniel Joseph’s excellent joint biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, I picked up his biography of Stokely Carmichael, mostly because it was on sale (as of posting, it is still $3.49). I had heard of the name of Stokely Carmichael, but little else. Like many, his is an incredible story.

It is hard to get over how young he was for the main part of his civil rights career. He started working nearly full time as a civil rights activist through NAG (during the school year at Howard) and for SNCC during the summers in Mississippi and Alabama. He was first arrested during the Freedom Rides before he turned 20. At Howard, he was mentored by Bayard Rustin and many of his professors, including Toni Morrison, who later became his editor.

After graduating in 1964, he moved to Mississippi and began working on voting rights projects through SNCC. He quickly became the project director in Mississippi and then in 1965 moved to Lowndes County Alabama. It was during this point when his organization started using a black panther as its mascot. Only a year later, Stokely Carmichael, at just 25, became the head of SNCC.

Carmichael was clearly a gifted speaker and organizer. He kept SNCC funded primarily through his speaking fees. Because he was dependent on those fees to pay the staff and fund the organizing, Stokely spent a lot of time speaking at predominately White colleges which could afford higher fees. The struggle to fund black-led organizations is not new and even for someone known for his Black power stance he faced the struggle of both a desire to work with Whites and a desire to be a Black-led and Black-oriented organization.

Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity by Miguel de la Torre

Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass ChristianitySummary: A call to decolonize our faith.

This is my first book of Miquela de la Torre. It is unlikely to be my last. It has now been about three weeks since I fairly quickly read Burying White Privilege. The large movements of the books are not unfamiliar to my previous reading.

Dr de la Torre is not writing against people who have less melanin in their skin, instead (like most writers and thinkers working on issues of race in the church) he is more nuanced:

When I write white Christianity, you might think that I am generalizing and essentializing a broad Euro-American demographic group based solely on the pigment of their skin. However, ontological whiteness has nothing to do with skin pigmentation. This is important, so I will say it again: the word white in my usage has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Instead, it has to do with worldview, a way of being, thinking, and reasoning morally. A white Christian can be black, Latinx, Muslim, or atheist. While it might be easier for those with whiter skin to embrace white Christianity, those of us who would never be considered white by our physical appearance have also had our minds so colonized that it is difficult to break free from this white, Christian milieu.

He starts by looking at the narratives of Jesus as anticolonial narratives. “Jesus does more than simply show empathy for the poor and oppressed. He does more than simply express some paternalistic concern. Jesus is the poor and oppressed.”

There is a long middle section that describes what ‘whiteness’ (the culture of white superiority) and then the necessity of self-deception that is required to maintain that culture of whiteness. I certainly highlighted portions of these middle areas (I have 28 highlights for the book that you can see here). The book was written after the election of Trump and there is a lot of frustration expressed about Trump and the support of White Christians for Trump.