After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings

Summary: An exploration of theological education as spiritual formation emphasizing its need to create belonging and explore how it has historically promoted white male normativity and individualism.

I have read several articles and a couple of books by Dr. Willie James Jennings, but I was not sure this book was really for me. On its face, it is a book about theological education. I am not in theological education, and I do not anticipate ever being a professor or teacher. I decided to finally pick it up after someone on Twitter talked about it as a discussion of spiritual formation, whether in or outside the academy. I am interested in spiritual formation. I commend listening to Dr. Jennings’ interview with Tyler Burns on Pass the Mic podcast or Wabash Center’s Dialogue on Teaching Podcast, which have very different interviews but are helpful to get at what the book is doing.

Jennings posits that Western education in general, but theological education has a model that emphasizes three virtue: possession, control, and mastery. These three virtues are generally assumed to be ‘masculine’ virtues, and as Jennings discussed in his previous book, Christian Imagination, these virtues are also identified with the colonization project. Because we are an individualized culture, these values are about asserting the individual as the one who is master and self-sufficient. To counter this image of the self-sufficient master of educational knowledge, Jennings takes the image of Jesus, who gathers together many who would not choose to be together if it were not for the desire of all of them to be near Jesus. Jennings’ corrected imagination rooted in Jesus’ ability to gather people together suggests that the point of theological education in particular, but western education in general, should be rooted in belonging, not exclusion, hence his subtitle, An Education in Belonging.

Part of what Jennings is addressing here is that the soul is not formed primarily through information. We are not, as James KA Smith suggests, ‘Brains on a stick’. Theological education, while it does include information, must have as a primary focus spiritual formation. And that spiritual formation, because it is a significant aspect of theological educators’ work must be concerned not only with the theological education of its students but also of its faculty and staff and the institutional aspects of its community.

What’s Your Decision?: How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity: An Ignatian Approach to Decision Making

Summary: An exploration of decision-making using Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment as a guide.

Part of what I have wanted to explore this year is Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment. I have asked around to get book recommendations, and What’s your Decision is one that was recommended.

The Rules of Discernment are not only about decision making, but that is how they tend to be used from what I have seen. So What is Your Decision is a good practical guide on the use of the rules of discernment. It is filled with stories and examples, which makes the somewhat vague and abstract rules tangible.

What I like is that it keeps the decision-making focused on spiritual reality while not over-spiritualizing everything. And in an era where we tend to think of decision making as an individual activity, Ignatius, and the authors of this book, remind us that we live in community, and not only are decisions made better by outside input, those decisions impact those around us, and we should both hear from those around us and take into account the impact of our decisions on others.

These are three fairly brief quotes that I highlighted that I think give a sense of the discussion. (I have 14 highlights on my Goodreads page if you want to see more.)

“The evil spirit wants us to forget that we are fallible, limited beings; sharing our decisions with another person will keep us grounded in reality.” (p 96)

A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson by Winn Collier

Summary: The first full (and authorized) biography of Eugene Peterson

I have long been a fan of Eugene Peterson. There is something about him and his imagination of what it means to be the church and what it means to pastor people that resonates with me deeply. When his memoir came out, I read it twice in less than six weeks and then again about six months later, and I have read it at least once since then as well. I can’t think of any other book that I read three times in less than a year. So when I heard about a new biography, I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy.

It has been about a month since I started and about 2-3 weeks since I finished the book. I have been sitting with it. My last meeting with my spiritual director primarily talked through my response to it. One of the thoughts that came to me as I was reading was that in many ways, without really using the language of spiritual direction (although he does have one book where he does talk about spiritual direction), I think his pastoral method was spiritual direction. If you are not familiar with spiritual direction, that doesn’t mean anything. But to me, who is in training to be a spiritual director, it was revelatory to what draws me to his approach so strongly.

The early chapters, on Peterson’s childhood and family, felt light and almost verging on hagiography. There were problems identified, especially the distance between Eugene and his father and between his father and mother. But his childhood was presented as near idyllic. Collier points primarily to Eugene’s mother as his spiritual teacher, in part because the church does not seem to have mattered much at all. But something drew Peterson to God in ways that we can see both here and in The Pastor. But in neither was I really satisfied that it was explored enough.

In the college, seminary, and early years of the pastorate, I think there is a much clearer grappling with the whole of the man that became, eventually, the Eugene Peterson that many of us hold as a saint and mentor. I am not going to retrace his story in detail. I will re-read A Burning in My Bones again when it officially comes out on March 23, and maybe I will write about the book again then and trace it a bit more clearly.

I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire by Melba Pattillo Beals

Summary: The faith-filled memoir of a woman who rose to fame as one of the Little Rock 9, but who continued throughout her life to work through the ways race has continued to play a role through systems and culture whether or not it was legally mandated. 

I have been a bit in a reading slump. There are many ‘important books’ that I want to read, but I don’t have a lot of motivation to actually read them. I don’t want to blame the global pandemic overly, but over the past three months, my kids have been at home more than they have been at school, both because of school vacations, school closures, and quarantining because of covid exposure. My traditional method of resolving reading slumps is to change genres. Fiction or story-based history or biography often is the cure I need to re-invigorate my desire to read again.

I Will Not Fear is a book I picked up years ago when it was on sale but never read. Last fall, I noticed that it was part of Audible Plus (their program of including back catalog books for free as part of membership). But it wasn’t until January that I actually picked the book as a follow-up to the John Lewis biography. Melba Beals is not a household name. But many of us have a rough understanding of the Little Rock Nine, the nine high schoolers that integrated Little Rock Central High School. Initially, the state national guard was deployed by the Governor to block the Black students from the school entrance on the first day. A mob gathered to protest the integration harassed the students. The description of the threatened rape and lynching of the students and Melba and her mother being literally chased through the streets is harrowing.

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery by Cheri Mills

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American SlaverySummary: A lenten devotional based on the testimony of people that escaped slavery. 

There has been a slow recovery of the practice of Lent in parts of the Protestant world that has not traditionally celebrated the liturgical year over the past couple of decades. I want to commend three devotionals that I have used, although I have not read all of any of them yet. Each of them is a 40-day devotional.

Lent is a season of reflection and preparation for Easter. Traditionally, it is a period that includes fasting, repentance, prayer, and penance. Each of these devotionals is focused on knowing the history of the US, particularly the history of Black oppression, slavery, and the cultural embrace of racial hierarchy, which posits that those with lighter colors of skin are inherently superior to those with darker colors of skin. The purpose of these is not guilt, but awareness of. history for the purpose of repair and reconciliation. Without a shared historical story, there cannot be a shared future story. Each of these has slightly different focuses.

The newest is the Lent of Liberation, which was released a couple of weeks ago. The Lent of Liberation has a basic format of a quotation from slave narrative, usually about 3/4 of a page, a related biblical quotation, and then about 1-2 pages of reflection on the biblical passage and the historical reality of slavery and oppression. The focus of Lent of Liberation is to draw attention to the African Decendents of Slavery (ADOS) and the continued impact of slavery on the present world as well as the ways that Christianity is oriented toward reconciliation and the Imago Dei (image of God) within all people and how historic Christianity has not practiced that fully. The author Cheri Mills is a church administrator, founder of the 1 Voice Prayer Movement, and prayer director at Simmons College of Kentucky, an HBCU.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler

Summary: An exploration of White Evangelicals and Racism, primarily focusing on recent history.

Anthea Butler is a professor of religion and history at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a book that I keep seeing advanced readers recommend. (White Evangelical Racism does not come out until March 22). In many ways, it feels like a good follow-up to Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise because while both have some overlap, Color of Compromise primarily focuses on the complicity in racism by the church before the civil rights era with some content after that point. In contrast, White Evangelical Racism primarily focuses on Evangelicalism from the Moral Majority rise and after. Reading them together is complimentary.

One of the complaints that Butler is clearly trying to avoid is the ‘but not all White people’ complaint. Repeatedly Butler affirms that she is talking about those White Evangelicals that she is talking about, not all of them. But she has strong words throughout the book because there is a willingness for many to be complicit.

“…when evangelical writers claim to they not understand the overwhelming nature of evangelical support for right wing and sometimes downright scurrilous Republican canidates and politicos, they fail to reckon with evangelical history.” (p9)

Like many other historians, Butler suggests that the story of Evangelicalism in the US can’t be told without discussing racism and that many evangelical historians do not want to tell that more complicated story. (p 12) With the recent analysis of President Biden’s inauguration speech, there has been a discussion about the difference in the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism and what some see as potential positives of a type of civil religion.

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham

Summary: A exploration of John Lewis’ life, focusing primarily on his time in SNCC and before. 

I know Jon Meacham is a well-known biographer, but as someone that really likes biography, I have not read any of Meacham’s other books. This made me a bit reluctant to pick up this book on John Lewis. Because I was interested in John Lewis, and because the only books I have read are the excellent March graphic novel biographies and because my library had this on audiobook, I picked it up anyway. Because His Truth is Marching On is primarily about John Lewis’ early years, I still want to find a more full-length biography and read some of Lewis’ own books.

The biography feature that I most appreciate is the focus on Lewis’ Christian faith as a factor in his civil rights work. Obviously, it is not the only factor, but I think it is an under-appreciated factor in many civil rights leaders. It is also striking to realize how young John Lewis and Stokley Carmichael, and many other civil rights leaders were. John Lewis was 26 when he was voted out as the chair of SNCC. He obviously had a long career after that point, but he was so young to have accomplished as much as he did by that time.

How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby

Summary: A practical, focused guide to opposing racism through the ARC model (awareness, relationships, commitment).

Jemar Tisby has long been fighting against racism. He has an NYT bestselling history survey, The Color of Compromise. He is the co-founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. He is in the final stages of his Ph.D. in history, focusing on 20th-century racial history. And he co-hosts the Pass The Mic podcast.

This is a very different book from Color of Compromise. Color of Compromise is a survey of the American church’s racial history, especially its compromise concerning accepting racism in exchange for cultural power. Tisby says clearly in the introduction that How to Fight Racism responds to the standard question that he frequently gets, especially from White Christians, after presenting the problems of racism. How to Fight Racism is a book-length response to ‘what can I do.’ 

The broad structure of the book is ARC (see link for a graphic detailing the concept). ARC is not linear, but a broad strategy that will look different from person to person and community to community. But generally, healthy response to racism will include some mix of ongoing awareness, relationship building, and a long-term commitment to systemic change. This may sound theoretical, but it is very practically focused. There are many stories to illustrate the suggestions. And while you certainly do not need to be a Christian to get value out of the book, it is a Christian book that is rooting the reasoning and methods of fighting racism in a Christian background.

The Carpenter’s Son by Arnie Gentile

Summary: A fictionalized story of Jesus and his family and then escape to Egypt and Jesus’ early life.

I am not sure I really appreciate the difficulty of Christian fiction. Or maybe I do and that is part of why I tend to read so little of it. Fiction regardless of genre or background needs to tell a compelling story. It has to provide the reader with something, escape, adventure, excitement, insight, longing, a glimpse of wonder. But Christian fiction has to do that and also portray faith and God not just according to the author’s perspective but also in a way that others will accept.

Books about Jesus are even more difficult. Jesus is both God and fully human. He was someone that was physically real, experienced actual bodily reality, and was still sinless. How can that be portrayed? As an infant, he had to eat and cry and poop and get sick and have foods that he liked and ones he probably liked less. He had to learn to walk, which means he would have had to fall down and make mistakes. The line between mistakes and sin complicated one. Some mistakes are clearly sin. Some are legitimate accidents, but some of those accidents are also sins of communion because of a lack of case or attention or awareness. I do not want to police the difference but as I read The Carpenter’s Son I did think about the difference. A child that throws a block out of- frustration, but not understanding the consequences of that action has made a mistake in judgment and emotional control, but can there be growth and maturity without experience? Regardless of intention or theology, a story of Jesus will offend. If nothing else some will object because they believe it is a violation of the second commandment to portray God.

The Carpenter’s Son is mostly, but not entirely, focused on Joseph. He has visions and tries to follow and trust God but he does not always understand or trust his own perceptions. There are meetings with older men asking for advice. (Joseph is portrayed as a young man, not much older than Mary. As opposed to a much older, likely widower, that some assumed.) Joseph loves Mary and seeks to protect and care for and listen to her as well, but it is Joseph that has the deeper internal dialogue.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Summary: Piranesi’s house is ancient and infinite. Filled with statues that never duplicate, but only one other person who is alive.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was excellent. It is unusual that I read a book of fiction multiple times, especially one that is nearly 900 pages. For some reason, I never have read her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I have looked forward to Piranesi, but it took several months for it to come up from the library.

Piranesi is a book where you are not supposed to really know what is going on for much of the book. The story takes time to develop. The main character is competent at survival and keeps a map in his head of hundreds of giant rooms within the house that is his world. But there is a bit of a fog about his history.

In some ways, this feels like a literary version of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento. That is praise, I really love that movie. But the revelation of what is going on comes to the reader as it comes to Piranesi. It is a very different book than the fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I have not read much fiction this year. But it would be on a list of my fiction favorites.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook