I have stopped doing traditional ‘best of’ lists the past couple of years. Instead, I have written about what has impacted me in different areas. I also have been tracking, as part disclosure and part accountability info about the authors, I am reading. My authors were too White and too male again this year. Overall, I read about 66% male authors and about 60 White authors. And about 85% non-fiction. Part of this is schoolwork; I have only been assigned White authors and only one woman throughout the whole program. This is the program’s weakness, and I have been supplementing on my own, but not enough. Reading diversely takes me more intention than I am giving it (as I have said every year I have reported this).
I do not think I will ever be finished confronting history. There is always more depravity to discover and more history that we, as a culture, have chosen to spend less time exploring. The four books here are a good overview of the areas that I need to keep confronting.
- Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/O Social Justice, Theology, and Identity by Robert Chao Romero was a very accessible overview of 500 years of history outside of the Black/White binary or racial history that tends to be my main historical focus. I need to keep working on expanding my reading here, but I really recommend Brown Church as a brief, well written, and helpful overview of Latnia/o theological contributions and history.
- Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr was written as a companion book to his PBS series. It pairs really well with Eric Foner’s Reconstruction because Foner is primarily writing a political history, and Gates is primarily writing cultural history.
- Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez has reverberated across my Twitter world. It has come up in conversations regularly, and I have definitely recommended it to many. It is a history of gender in the White Evangelical church over the past 75 years. That may seem like a narrow topic, but when paired with Taking America Back for God, which I will talk about below, there are some significant connections made between how the White Evangelical church has handled gender, politics, power, abuse, and institutions that need working out in this necessary but narrow history.
- Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity by David Swartz is the story of how American Evangelicals have shaped and been shaped by world Christianity. It is far from a complete picture, but pulling out examples works well to illustrate the areas in some depth while not writing a 1500 page tome. There are several major themes, the messy history of how the story of the founding of World Vision gets told (leaving out the Korean founder in most tellings), how the Lausanne movement brought together Evangelicals from around the world, but was resistant to western control, the way that US ministry interests impact what gets funded and how the messaging around funding gets communicated by the US funders, how US racial caste issues impact global missions and the way that the US has become a missionary receiving country as well as other themes weaves together a different type of historical narrative.
I am continually in need of other perspectives because it is too easy to become trapped in thinking that my way of thinking or being is the only possible way. History one way of expanding perspectives, but that is a very narrow method, I also need constructive methods of building new perspectives.
- Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley deserves its wide praise. It won book of the year from both Christianity Today and the Englewood Review of Books, and it is on many ‘best of’ lists this year. I have read not just this, and the large number of articles that McCaulley has written this past year, but also listened/watched a 20 something hour class that he recorded over the summer. Reading While Black is partially his own story of being one a Black New Testament professor and how he constructively approaches biblical interpretation as a son of the Black church but also designed for White Christians and others to overhear what contributions that the Black church is making to the health of the global church if the global church is willing to listen.
- Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World by E Randolph Richards and Richard James is one of those books that I think almost every biblically literate Christian needs to pick up. Part of the importance of thinking about biblical interpretation is that we all have a culture and background. Without thinking clearly about that starting point, we can easily fall into ‘plain reading’ of the bible that strips the historical context and subtext of scripture from the text and inserts our own subjective assumptions. As with anything, much of communication is assumed. When you read a news story or a fiction book, assumptions may or may not be expressly hinted at but are essential to understanding the whole context. Some of the ways that we modern Western Christians misunderstand scripture is by not understanding the Biblical cultures focus on honor/shame or how God and others are often referred to in terms of being a patron or how our current individualist bias misreads a biblical era’s collectivist culture. This is a more targeted book than Richards’ earlier Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. And I think probably the more important of the two books. They can be read in either order, but I do recommend both.
- Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude is a book I need to read again but needs to be on this list. Baldwin has been one of those authors that I have tried to read at least one or two books a year for the past four or five years. In many ways, Baldwin may be more prescient than when his books first came out, in part because of Baldwin’s ability to speak clearly about white supremacy. As a first-rate cultural commentator, Eddie Glaude opens up Baldwin in ways that only a good professor can. As a student, I can get so far on my own, but I need help to see the more subtle references and themes and connections that I miss.
- Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell is a classic in the area of Critical Race Theory. CRT is the new pop culture topic that many have opinions on, but few have done much real reading on. This is a unique book; mostly, it is presented as short parables or fictionalized dialogue. Bell’s point isn’t to lay out a legal brief or write narrative history or sociology. His point is to engage the reader’s mind and heart, not just present them with information. I am not sure this is the first book I would read to introduce someone to CRT, but more people need to read these classics to understand what CRT is and is not.
- Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw lays out a justification and method for writing theology that takes intersectionality seriously. It is not a quick read because the authors try to define exactly what they are trying to say carefully. There were many points where I was trying to highlight an idea and realized that to really get the whole idea, and I needed to highlight a full page.
When the words white supremacy are used, context matters. Sometimes it does refer to groups like the KKK or Proud Boys or those who are members. But generally, when I use the term, I mean the idea of a racial hierarchy, where white people are assumed to be superior. One of the themes of my reading this year has been that we cannot deal with the racial issues of this country without addressing the belief in white supremacy or white superiority, especially within the church. The very nature of the theological idea of being created in the image of God is that all of us are created in the image of God. Individuals have different skills and talents, and gifts. But when this is applied to groups, it inevitably creates a hierarchy. These books deal with different aspects of white supremacy.
- White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us by Daniel Hill follows his earlier White Awake. I re-read White Awake this year as part of a discussion group I participated in and was struck again by how important work around understanding what white self-identity is. But this follow-up book is about nine spiritual practices to expose and confront white superiority within the church and society. Racial Reconciliation is a good long term goal, but there cannot be real reconciliation if the reality of an underlying culture of white superiority is unchallenged. David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church is roughly on the same theme from a slightly different perspective. Both are worth reading.
- The Color of Christ by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey is a history of how Jesus Christ has been understood and portrayed in story, theology, popular culture, or image throughout the United States’ history. This may seem like a fairly narrow history, but it is an important aspect of confronting white supremacy, especially within the church.
- Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry defines what Christian Nationalism means and how it operates sociologically. This book has sparked a lot of discussion and obfuscation. The premise is simple; over the past 10 or so years, Perry and Whitehead have been developing a theory of Christian Nationalism and a means of testing that. Their research suggests that White Christians have a significant group within it that are Christian Nationalists, which influences how they practice their Christianity and how those theological assumptions impact public policy, church structure, and their perspectives on the world. According to Perry and Whitehead, the strength of belief in Christian Nationalism is the best predictor of whether a White Christian would vote for Trump or not. It also overlaps with belief in patriarchy (which is why reading this with Jesus and John Wayne is helpful), objection to immigration and interracial families, and strong biases toward law and order politics.
As I hinted above, I am nearly done with a certificate program in Spiritual Direction. My main focus has been racial issues and discipleship, and this program in spiritual direction has helped me significantly. About one-third of my reading this year has been directly or indirectly related to spiritual practices. I am increasingly convinced that part of the church’s problem today is that evangelism has become too much a focus, instead of discipleship, and that the methodology of mass evangelism has influenced how we think of discipleship. I think that is fundamentally backward. As the church, we should primarily focus on discipleship and understand it not as information that can be mass communicated but as a practice and relationship. And approach discipleship as a personalized and individualized reality as any relationship is. Evangelism is a natural outgrowth of mature disciples. Discipleship is not a natural outgrowth of evangelism. I am only going to highlight three books on underutilized spiritual practices, but I will also highlight three additional books that are more generally on discipleship that I think are well worth reading.
- Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah. This is my second reading of Prophetic Lament. It is a commentary on the book of Lamentations, but generally a call for returning to the biblical practice of lament. I can think of no other practice that should be more central in the time of a global pandemic than lament. But instead, we are resistant to actually feeling pain.
- Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green is about teaching discernment. Green is a spiritual direction teacher, and this book is about teaching spiritual directors how to think about discernment. But I am convinced that part of the problem with our current reality is a lack of understanding of discernment and how we should seek God. This is one of the best books I have read on discernment, and I would love to get suggestions for others.
- Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church by Barbara Holmes is about the importance of contemplation and not too narrowly presuming what contemplation is all about. I could also point to Soul Care in African American Practice by Barbara Peacock for a similar book.
- Three more general books on discipleship that I read this year and I recommend are How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People, The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus, and The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself.
I am in continual need of inspiration from my elders. I most often seek this out by memoir or biography. This year I primarily found that in Howard Thurman. I read his memoir, With Head and Heart, a collection of his sermons, a biography, Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography. I am also nearly finished with the second reading of Jesus and the Disinherited, his most well-known book. Some other biographies/memoirs I enjoyed this year were:
- Accidental Preacher: A Memoir by Will Willimon
- Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston
- Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtis
- Summoned from the Margin by Lamin Sanneh
- The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. by Peniel Joseph