Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can’t Be Taught (and Why That’s Okay) by Carl McColman

Unteachable Lessons: Why Wisdom Can't Be Taught (and Why That's Okay) by Carl McColmanSummary: Some lessons need to be experientially learned. 

It would be wonderful if there were some curriculum, or better yet, some magic trick, where everyone would completely learn wisdom. But that is not how wisdom or life work. Many lessons, as frustrating as it is to many parents, have to be experienced.

Carl McColman has had a lot of experiences. And with himself as the primary subject, he recounts how even when he theoretically could see the wisdom in the distance, he still often had to experientially learn before he was able to start to put these lessons into practice.

The book opens with his introduction to a 7-year-old girl that would become his stepdaughter. She was significantly disabled from a stroke and other congenital disabilities. McColman had to learn how to be a husband and father experientially. Some mistakenly suggest that things like marriage or parenting are the only ways to learn maturity. McColman doesn’t do that, but he does show how those roles did force him to think differently about his life and how to reorient his priorities.

Starting Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Getting Ready, Feeling Safe, and Getting the Most Out of Your Sessions by John Mabry

Starting Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Getting Ready, Feeling Safe, and Getting the Most Out of Your Sessions cover imageSummary: Basic introduction to the concept of Spiritual Direction and what to expect before you get started as a spiritual director.

I am not completely sure how I picked up a copy of this. I think maybe it was a giveaway from the author. I don’t think I agreed to review it. But as I was glancing through my books looking for something else, I found a copy of the PDF and I quickly read through it last week. I am one three-page paper short of finishing my certification as a spiritual director, so I am interested in how different people present the concept.

Most protestants are not real familiar with the concept. Generally, I say it is a form of discipleship. Loosely connected to the early desert fathers and how older monks led younger monks into the work of being contemplative once the monastic system was more established. Generally, most Catholic and Episcopal/Anglican priests are required to have a spiritual director. This is someone that helps pay attention to spiritual matters. Post-Vatican II, there arose a new emphasis on spiritual direction and more attention to spiritual direction for laypeople.

I was trained in spiritual direction through an Ignatian stream of spiritual direction. Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises, which was designed originally as a 30-day retreat for people to grow closer to God, often as part of a process of discerning a vocation. I think the best simple definition that I have commonly heard is that spiritual direction is a regular relationship with someone that helps to serve as a second set of ears to hear God’s direction for your life.

In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning by Nicholas Wolterstorff

In This World of Wonders: Memoir of a Life in Learning cover imageSummary: A wonderful memoir of a philosopher that has attempted to live his Christian life well. 

My reading often goes in trends; I have gone back to reading biographies and memoirs right now. I have often complained about the distortions of hagiography, the old saint stories that were often stripped of the real humanity of the subjects to create an exemplar that we can follow. Of course, there is value in seeing the stories of our elders and the saints who have come before us. But I also think there is real value in seeing the person’s full humanity because the life of the Christian is not perfection. Memoirs are notorious for only presenting part of the story in ways that serve the author. That will always be a danger, but memoirs also can reveal internal realities that are difficult for biographies to handle. That is why I want to read Eugene Peterson’s memoir, the Pastor, and his biography, A Burning in My Bones, because of the distance of the biography and the intimateness of the memoir complement one another. But most people will not have biographers.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is not a household name. He is a philosopher who taught for 30 years at Calvin before moving to Yale and various other part-time positions before retiring. He is well enough known and important enough in the philosophy world to justify a Wikipedia page, but as a non-philosopher, I probably would not know of him except through his book on grief, Lament for a Son. Lament for a Son is a classic book on grief, written in the wake of the death of his son Eric in a climbing accident when he was 25. Eric lived in Europe and near the end of his Ph.D. work, with his younger brother on his way to stay with him for the summer when he passed away. The section of In This World of Wonders about Eric’s death and the book Lament for a Son was such a good example of the memoir’s strength. Wolterstorff admits errors and shortcomings and his blindness, because of grief, to the needs of those around him. But he also reflects well from a distance on how that time has impacted him and his work from that time.

Much of the value of In This World of Wonders is the story of how Wolterstorff’s academic work was related to his life story. The repeated discussion of the interaction of art and craft is related to his father’s art (pen drawing) and the craft of his woodworking. The role of justice and love is related to his work’s real-world experience of Apartheid, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and other areas of injustice. Wolterstorff’s work on the liturgy was related to his work in the local church. His work on the philosophy of education is related to his own work at the college level in understanding the curriculum of the liberal arts and his work in private Christian schooling for younger students.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman book cover imageSummary: A brief biography of Harriet Tubman, not dumbed down, just brief.

A couple of years ago, the movie Harriet came out and helped raise the status of Harriet Tubman. There has also been the ongoing discussion of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, which will have taken 16 years from the start of the process to the actual bills being produced if the current timeline holds.

In 2003-2004 there were two good academic biographies, Bound for the Promise Land and Harriet Tubman: Road to Freedom. But outside of those two biographies, most writings about Harriet Tubman were children’s picture books or short low-quality biographies. She Came to Slay fills the void by being a short biography (less than 200 pages) while being really well written and historically current in its research. Erica Armstrong Dunbar is a history professor at Rutgers and knows her craft. She Came to Slay’s description references Notorious RBG, a similarly short but high-quality biography.

There is much about Harriet Tubman that we do not know, but much that we do. She likely helped around 70 people escape slavery through the underground railroad and supported the planning of others. Her work in the civil war supporting the formerly enslaved that escaped to the Union lines and saved many. And she led a military raid during the civil war that freed many more enslaved people through military intervention than her work in the Underground Railroad.

Against the Hounds of Hell: A Life of Howard Thurman by Peter Eisenstadt

Against the Hounds of Hell: A Life of Howard Thurman Summary: Most extensive biography of Howard Thurman to date. 

I have been on a project to understand Howard Thurman over the past several years. I have read two collections of his sermons, his autobiography, a shorter religious biography, and his Jesus and the Disinherited twice. Peter Eisenstadt is well qualified to write this biography. He has an earlier book on Thurman’s trip to India and meeting Gandhi and, with Walter Fluker, is the editor of the Papers of Howard Thruman project. They have released five volumes of Thurman’s papers, and the second volume of his sermons will release next month. I am slowly working through the first book of his sermons from that collection.

Howard Thurman is one of the most important figures in 20th-century Black history that many people have not heard of. Thurman was born in 1899. His grandmother, who played an important role in raising Thurman, had been enslaved. Thurman was extraordinary, a mystic, called one of the best preachers of the 20th century by Time Magazine in the 1950s, an academic, a popularizer of non-violence, and a mentor and spiritual director to many. One of the reasons that many do not know of Thurman is that he resisted public leadership within the civil rights movement. Thurman was at Morehouse with MLK Sr, and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman was roommates at Spellman with Alberta Williams King. Similar to his role as mentor to MLK, much of his most influential work was private mentoring and spiritual direction to students or friends.

Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry and Robert Doherty

Contemplatives in Action: The Jesuit Way by William Barry book cover imageSummary: A brief exploration of Jesuit spirituality 

No regular readers of my reviews will likely miss the fact that I have spent the past couple of years studying to become a spiritual director in the Ignatian tradition. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because I have come to understand that I tend to learn in a dialectical approach. I want to have traditions in dialogue. My undergrad was an evangelical college, my seminary was predominately a mainline protestant school and my spiritual direction program was at a Jesuit college. Part of what is helpful about this approach is that I bring resources from outside of the tradition for conversation with the tradition. What can be difficult is getting enough of an understanding of the new to understand it on its own terms and not as a caricature from previous experience.

This dialectical approach fits well with the focus on Contemplatives In Action. Barry and Doherty focus on the tensions that they suggest form Jesuit spirituality, the both/and that inherently leads to tensions that some always will want to calm. The title takes on the first tension, the tradition of Catholic orders to be either contemplative or action-oriented. Ignatius and later Jesuits strongly resisted the call to pray through the hours as almost all other orders did. Ignatius thought that long hours of prayer, while helpful, would keep the Jesuits from their work with the people, the primary focus. But the tension with that action orientation is that Jesuits are most known for giving the Spiritual Exercises (a highly contemplative approach to spiritual direction) and Christian education.

Other tensions include attention to personal experience and emotion with what Ignatius calls dispassion. In Ignatius’ use, this is not dispassion as in uncaring or negligence, but dispassion as in getting to the point where you are willing to accept any of multiple options that God may be calling you toward. Jesuits have a reputation for being overly analytic and dispassionate in the first, negative sense, but that is contrary to Ignatius’ intent. “Jesuit spirituality is distinguished from other spiritualities by this personal attention to feelings, desires, dreams, hopes, and thoughts.” It is only through that attention that the “defining characteristic of Jesuit spirituality,” Ignatius’ Discernment of the Spirits, can really be practiced.

Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers by Shea Tuttle

Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers by Shea Tuttle book coverSummary: A religious biography of Mister Rogers. 

It has been two months since I have posted a review on my blog. I have been on a vacation but mostly working on finishing up my certificate program in Spiritual Direction with six units of classes. I have read many books for class, but little for fun.

In the midst of books for class, I squeezed in the short audiobook of Exactly As You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers. I am very familiar with Mister Rogers. In addition to the recent documentary and biopic, I have read Kindness and Wonder, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, and the full biography The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers. None of these books are perfect, but each has value in rounding out a human Fred Rogers.

I have been drawn to biography and memoir lately. Maybe it is a recent class on the spirituality of aging, but I am looking for examples of how people attempt to follow God honestly over a lifetime. I think hagiography was originally designed to inspire people to live their lives devoted to God. Ignatius was converted to a life of devotion to God by reading a book about the saints and a book about Jesus. This year I have been inspired by the flawed humanity of Eugene Peterson, Tish Warren’s struggle with depression, AD Tomason’s advocacy of counseling and healing, and Nate Powell’s struggle to parent well as his tries to be an activist. I am not looking for perfection; I am more comforted in the struggle than in the success.

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

he Sum of Us by Heather McGhee cover imageSummary: Racism harms not just racial minorities but the country as a whole. Thinking of race as a zero-sum game prevents changes that would help everyone.

The Sum of Us plays on the zero-sum game many think our modern racial reality is limited to. A few days ago on Twitter, I saw a comment on a review of the book Reparations by Kwon and Thompson. The comments said that expansion of minority students into high-quality colleges meant that he had not gotten into the school he wanted. I responded that very few White students had not gotten into a college solely because of racial preferences. The response back was a classic zero-sum game response, “There are a limited number of students in universities. If some of them are selected based on race, then someone was denied entry.” First, there is not a limited number of students in universities. If there is a greater demand for university admissions, more seats will be opened up. But second, even now, where many colleges and universities have pledged to work for more diversity in admissions, there are still influences that prioritize white students, like in the case of legacy admissions being the real reason that more Asians were not being accepted into Harvard, not policies to attempt to admit more underserved racial minorities (as is discussed here and here).

What most interested me about why Heather McGhee started researching this book how much it made sense of political gridlock. When she was on staff and then the head of a policy think tank in Washington DC, McGhee advocated policies that would help many people in the US. But she ran into opposition that was willing to vote against policies because of concerns that the policies would help minorities too much. Simply making intellectual policy arguments and financial return arguments on investment did not move the deep-seated bias that many are not aware are moving them. This type of idea comes up frequently in economic psychology (The Righteous Mind or Predictably Irrational). Still, I am also interested in this for issues around both race and spiritual direction. How do we help people see race more clearly, or how do we help people see deeper emotional issues instead of the surface-level intellectual issues around their faith and practice.

Heather McGhee has a central metaphor, the many municipal pools built in the 1920-40s across the country but then were closed and often removed rather than allow integration. Communities were worse off, not just because of the lack of a community pool, but because there was a willingness to destroy a part of a community infrastructure that harmed everyone rather than allowing Black community members to share in the pool. What McGhee is reporting matches what Kevin Kruse reported in White Flight about racial attitudes of White Atlantans. According to Kruse, when a space or activity was integrated, the common assumption of White people was not that this space is not an integrated park or school or public transportation or community, but that it became a Black-only park or school or public transportation or community. Kruse suggests that this is what gave rise to the rise of libertarian opposition to common good spending. McGhee is approaching from a different perspective.

Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher

Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment cover imageSummary: A discussion of the second set of ‘Rules of Discenrment’ by Ignatius.

In Ignatius’ classic Spiritual Exercises, a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat, Ignatius has a number of annotations or suggestions for spiritual directors. Some of the most helpful and discussed are his Rules of Discernment. These rules guide understanding whether something is from God or satan (or at least a distraction from God.) Ignatius’ rules are split into two groups. The first group is discussed in Gallagher’s earlier book The Discernment of Spirits. Spiritual Consolation discusses the second set of rules.

The second set of rules largely focuses on spiritual consolation and desolation and how the more mature believer may be tempted by satan differently than a less mature believer might. The central insight in my mind is that generally, satan seems to tempt less mature Christians by desolation, making them question God or their path. But in this second set of rules, Ignatius focuses on the idea that satan tempts more mature Christians by placing additional good opportunities or ideas in their path as a way to distract them from the better option.

One example in the book is a deacon that has come to a new parish and is helping it clean up its finances, become more focused in ministry, do fundraising, etc. But as he is there a while, he realizes that the youth programs are inadequate, and no one is taking a real interest in youth and their discipleship. So he considers if whether he should stop his work with administration and finance and refocus his time on youth. It is not that either is bad. Both may be what God is calling him to. But either adding too much onto your plate so that you cannot do either well, or working on both but losing time and energy for personal devotion and prayer is a bad long-term result.

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chanequa Walker Barnes

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation cover imageSummary: Centering Black women’s experience as a model for racial reconciliation. 

Over the nearly 2 years since I Bring the Voice of My People, it has been consistently recommended by a range of people as one of the most important books in the field of Christian racial reconciliation. It has taken me too long to read it, but now that I have, I join my voice and agree, this is not only a book that should be read widely, I think it becomes one of the primary books that I will recommend early in White people’s grappling with issues of race in the church.

Part of the book’s strength is clear definitions and lots of examples and stories, like the definition of racial reconciliation and womanism early in the book.

A working definition that can guide readers in the first half of the book is this: Racial reconciliation is part of God’s ongoing and eschatological mission to restore wholeness and peace to a world broken by systemic injustice. Racial reconciliation focuses its efforts upon dismantling White supremacy, the systemic evil that denies and distorts the image of God inherent in all humans based upon the heretical belief that White aesthetics, values, and cultural norms bear the fullest representation of the imago Dei. White supremacy thus maintains that White people are superior to all other peoples, and it orders creation, identities, relationships, and social structures in ways that support this distortion and denial. p32


Taking its name from the word coined by Alice Walker, womanist theology can be defined as . . . the systematic, faith-based exploration of the many facets of African American women’s religiosity. Womanist theology is based on the complex realities of [B]lack women’s lives. Womanist scholars recognize and name the imagination and initiative that African American women have utilized in developing sophisticated religious responses to their lives. p32

The two main purposes of this being a Womanist view of racial reconciliation, according to Walker-Barnes, is a focus on Intersectionality and a focus on the wholistic view of healing and liberation. One of the best books I have read to introduce the reader to the concept of intersectionality is So You Want to Talk About Race. Still, I Bring the Voice of My People, not only does as good of a job introducing the concept of intersectionality, but it also brings many practical examples of why intersectionality is essential to racial reconciliation in the church and any discussion about race in the US. Again, many people have a poor understanding of what Intersectionality is. And Walker-Barnes, I think, frames it well.

Identity is not just additive; it is multiplicative. If I were writing it as an algebraic equation, I would write it like this: RacialGenderIdentity = Race + Gender + (Race*Gender) In other words, African American women will share some experiences with African American men by virtue of their race, and they will share some experiences with all women by virtue of their femaleness. But their location at the intersection of race and gender predisposes them to experiences of gendered racism that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of African American men (and certainly from White men), White women, and sometimes even other women of color. p33