Posts By Adam Shields

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H Cone

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H ConeSummary: A explication of the theological roots of spirituals and the blues. A good example of why White seminary students need to be reading Black and other authors of Color. 

Over the past couple years there have been several minor controversies in US seminaries about assigned texts. Masters Seminary (started by John MacArthur) about a year ago had a former student write about the fact that he had not read a single book by a Black author during his seminary studies. That prompted a response by another former student that was (is?) a staff person at the seminary. The response includes this quote:

“I don’t mean to be dismissive of their contribution, but African-American Christians are a small portion built upon the main foundation, that just so happens to be, according to God’s providence, a white, Western European/English one.”

A more recent controversy came up because in the context of a NY Times article about racism in the church, an SBC seminary professor talked about assigning James H Cone and that created calls for the professor to resign, which prompted this response from him. It is yet another example of the systemic problems within the Evangelical church that is ignorant about non-White culture and because of that lack of cultural understanding and a lack of good history, perpetuates a belief in White cultural superiority as the quote above does.

I first read James H Cone during my seminary years almost 25 years ago. But within the past couple years I have read four of Cone’s books and continue to think that White Evangelicals need to grapple with the theological contributions of Black and other theologians outside of the White Evangelical space. I am continually surprised that the case needs to be made for this, but at the same time, I know that personally it is easy to fall into reading the same White, mostly male, authors. This is part of why I have been attempting to keep my reading to no more than 1/3 White authors this year. It takes attention because it is easy to fall into reading what others around me are reading or reading what is most recently on sale, or the new thing that everyone is talking about. And that is probably a White guy.

All of that long introduction brings me to Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues. You cannot read more than a few pages in any of Cone’s books without finding a reference to music. Someday I would like to put together playlists to accompany each of Cone’s books that would put the original songs in order so that readers can hear the songs in full context as they read.

The Spirituals and the Blues is a short theological book that takes seriously the historical context of the music that has shaped the Black church and then theologically explicates the themes of the music. This is a brief book, only about 150 pages.

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike #4) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)Summary: A year after Robin was nearly killed by a serial killer, both Robin and Strike are still trying to figure out how to work together and deal with their respective relationships, and attraction to each other.

I think Lethal White is the best book of the series so far. Robin is really the central character, although Strike is certainly present. Galbraith/Rowling has finally stopped trying to make the crimes more lurid and allow the focus to be on the main characters and not the bad guys.

Lethal White was probably a bit long if you were reading primarily for the mystery. But I don’t read mysteries for the mystery, I read them for the characters, and this is a book that is primarily focused on character development. Robin is suffering PTSD from nearly being killed by a serial killer in the previous book (on top of her earlier rape and other near death experiences). This book has her going undercover multiple times and allows her to grow as an investigator.

Strike is still pretty much Strike. His leg is his main limiting/humanizing feature. If not for a prosthesis, he would be nearly a superhero. And while I do get annoyed with how often his leg hurts in the book, I think this is the only way to really show weakness.

The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau Bell

The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau BellSummary: Memoir and thoughts on life by Kamau Bell

One of the things that I really love in this book was how subtly that important content can be shared. Kamau Bell sucks us adults by talking about TV and comics from when he was a child and the role that his love of superheroes played in his identity development. But that just primes you for his adoration of Doc McStuffins as one of the greatest shows in the history of TV. Not just important for Black girls to see a character that looks like them on TV, but one that is also for my children (who also love Doc McStuffins) and help break down the concepts of white normativity. White kids need to see that not everything is designed just for them.

I had a long twitter conversation the other day about the importance of diverse authors and subjects in seminary education. It didn’t work, after spending way longer than I should, I gave up because the guy simply did not see how representation matters. I think that if I had previously read this section, and he had been willing to read it, I think this would have far better communicated the importance of representation than I did.

That is one little story from The Awkward Thoughts of W Kamau Bell, but I think it is a good illustration of the strength of the book. Bell is telling his story, but he is also talking about what is important to him as a comedian and as a person.

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks

The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David BrooksSummary: A flawed, but worth reading argument for pursuing meaning and rejecting hyper-individualism.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick The Second Mountain up. I watched several interviews with him and many those interviews were interesting, but they seemed like they were talking about a couple different books, they range from personal self help book, to ‘an extended graduation speech’, to a version of Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Having finished the book, I understand all of those descriptions, but none of them were quite right. And while I am glad I read the book, I do think that is part of the problem of the book.

I was also reluctant because while I generally liked his last book Road to Charater, I thought there were significant weaknesses with the book and I did not want to relive a ‘do better’ encouragement book. Once I decided to pick up The Second Mountain, I was pleased that he offered an apology for the weaknesses of the The Road to Character that roughly addressed my issues.

There are many great quotes in The Second Mountain. They are often even better in full context than as stand alone quotes. Like, “Happiness can be tasted alone, but permanent joy requires an enmeshed and embedded life.” He riffs off of CS Lewis’ and others distinction between happiness and joy. The whole book is really about pursuing joy and the other deeper things in life and not just happiness and the other fleeting things in life. It is not that the fleeting things are unimportant, but that they are not fulfilling.

The book is really in two parts. The first part is making his argument for this concept of the Second Mountain. The first mountain is success in life while the second mountain is the pursuit of meaning. If you have read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward it is a similar, but not exactly similar point.

The second part is the four commitments that lead to the Second Mountain, but also are those things that fight against the hyper-individualism that is really the underlying theme of the book. The four commitments are to Vocation, Marriage, Faith (or philosophy) and Community.

Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity

Between the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates and ChristianitySummary: Seven essays on Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity. 

I appreciate Ta-Nehisi Coates. And I was intrigued when I saw this book because Coates is a vocal atheist. I think he is respectful of Christianity, but he rejects Christianity largely because of its followers. It is a position that I easily understand, even if I do not reject Christianity for the same reason.

Books that are collections of essays are hard to do well. They are almost always uneven in their writing quality. And rarely hold together and build on one another well. And most of the time the sum is less than the individual parts.

I think there were two or may be three essays here that were pretty good. None of them were awful. But in general, while there was thoughtful aspects of to Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity, I would recommend just reading Coates directly.

One of the aspects that I know has irritated Coates and because it keeps coming up, has begun to irritate me as well, is the issues of Coates’ ‘hopelessness’. There were two essays directly about this and two more mentioned it. (Spread the essays out, two essays, both about Coates and Hope right at the end was odd.) Coates has said that he doesn’t believe he is hopeless, he believes that he is a realist. Reinhold Niebuhr led a movement of ‘Christian Realism’ that to me feels more like what Coates is trying to communicate.

Captain Marvel: What Makes a Hero by Pamela Bobowicz

Captain Marvel: What Makes a Hero by Pamela BobowiczSummary: Both an introduction to female heroes and an exploration of selfless values.

My four year old son has started discovering Marvel superheroes. A couple days ago we were using some of his left over birthday money to pick out a few new kid’s oriented Marvel books. I picked out this one at the same time, both because I want my son to know that Superheroes are not all male and for my daughter to have female superheroes as role models. It is important that both my son and my daughter see women as potential superheroes.

I do not often post about the books I read with my kids, but I am both encouraged and a little bit angry about this book. The book itself is great. It has a 2 page introduction to 14 different ‘heroes’. Each introduction has enough to sort of introduce who the character is (some really need more introduction) and something about the value that the character holds. The values focus on selflessness, fighting for the weak and powerless, being innovative (for the greater good), working together, supporting others, etc.

Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free by Jonathan Walton

Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive: And the Truth That Sets Us Free by Jonathan WaltonSummary: An exposure of how ‘White American Folk Religion’ and Christianity are not the same things.

It is not surprising at this point, or it should not be, that many Christians seem to be confused about how Christianity and the American Dream overlap and contradict. Often Christians are discipled to believe that the abundant life that Jesus talks about is actually fulfilled in the American Dream.

Jonathan Walton is not confused, and so, somewhat provocatively, but I think accurately has set out to separate the American Dream from Christianity by illustrating what is ‘White American Folk Religion’ and what is Christianity.

As with any project, like this, some people will identify with some of these lies more than others. What I find easy lies to believe will not necessarily be the same as what you do. If I were writing the book I would probably have a slightly different list. But the working out of these does expose how we have been discipled by patriotism more than Christianity quite often. James KA Smith talks a lot about secular liturgies that disciple us, Jonathan Walton is really doing the work of exposing these secular liturgies so that we can work to reframe our beliefs and actions around actual Christianity.

Screenshot 401In general, Walton is telling this story autobiographically. Each chapter is a different lie, and so he identifies how he has previously believed or been impacted by the lie then deconstructs the lie and replaces it with right belief and right behavior (similar to how James Bryan Smith approaches understanding and resounding to God in The Good and Beautiful God. In most cases I think this method is a strength of the book. It is disarming when the author focuses on his sin and confesses it as a way to help us see our own sin that may be slightly different, but still related. There a places however, where I think that he was reaching a bit too far to make the connection and could have better used different people as illustrations so that there was a closer connection. But overall, I do think the method was helpful.

Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

Beauty by Roger ScrutonSummary: A brief introduction to what beauty is, why it is important and why we need to understand it.

I listened to this on audiobook, which was fine, but may not have been the best choice. While this is part of the Very Short Introduction series, it is still a book that is ultimately philosophy. About 2/3 of the way through I picked up the kindle edition, both because I know I need to re-read the book, but also because Scruton was referencing a number of paintings and many of those are in the Kindle edition.

The pictures are black and white even in the kindle version, so the reader cannot really get a full sense of what is being shown, which does matter for a discussion of the artistry and beauty of the paintings, but it at least is a reference.

I have been wanting to read more about beauty for a while and consistently when I look around, Scruton’s book Beauty is recommended as one of the best introductions. The Very Short Introduction series is very uneven, but Beauty is an example of what all of the books should be like. He is not avoiding discussion of the academics, but the point of the book is to talk about the actual subject. A number of the other Very Short Introduction books I have read have been about the academic study of the subject, not the actual subject. I do not really want to read about what academics have argued about over African History, I actually wanted to understand something about African History.

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

A Legacy of Spies by John le CarréSummary: A follow up, along with back story for le Carré first big novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

About the time the movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came out, I started reading John le Carré. Over a couple years I read most of the George Smiley novels. There are a few I have to finish, but honestly I thought I had finished them all until was looking when I picked up A Legacy of Spies.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold I think was my favorite. I have re-read it again since the initial reading. I really like le Carré’s writing, but there is a hopelessness to the book that is brought about by the moral ambiguity and the methods that the spies in the books use. George Smiley attempts to be right. And he knows what is right. But he doesn’t always do what is right to accomplish the right ends. Despite this, Smiley has an awareness of what right and wrong are. But that is not true of his bosses or the lawyers or politicians or frankly anyone else that is around him.

The Legacy of Spies is a follow up to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It is set long after the initial book ends. Part of the point is that those that are now looking into the work of that earlier era do not have any of the real memories of what the era was like.

Legacy of Spies centers around Peter Guillam, a protegé of Smiley’s and one of the very few that actually knew what was going on with the story that was told in The Spy Who Comes in From the Cold. There is a good bit of back story here that fills in some holes, but also reminds those that read the Smiley books long ago, what the story was all about.

Can “White” People Be Saved?: Triangulating Race, Theology, and Mission

Can Summary: Provocative and helpful look at how race impacts Theology and Missions.

I have been VERY slowly reading Can White People Be Saved. Over the past three and a half months that it took me to work through a little over 200 pages actual text I spent a lot of time thinking and re-reading.

I did not do this with every single talk, but with most chapters, I would read the chapter, then watch the talk and then sometimes read the chapter again. I think I watched most of the talks and responses and Q&A periods that are online. And I read all of the text.

Any conference book will have some chapters that are more interesting to a particular reader than others. But I was pretty engaged in most of the talks. The first two I think were the two that I spent the most time on. The title talk Can “White” People be Saved by Willie James Jenkins comes round about the subject to say yes ‘White’ people can be saved, but similarly to the rich young ruler whom Jesus said needed to sell all that he had. Jenkins, as is common among many that are talking academically or from an activist position is not talking about all people that have light skin color that most call White, but of those that have claimed White identity as their marker, an identity that views racial superiority as implicitly true. There is nuance and care here, but I think the basic talk, as provocative as it is, is also essential. Many people that call themselves White do not understand the cultural assumptions that they are bringing to their Christianity, and how those assumptions impact how they think about Christianity. As Jesus said to the rich young ruler, you may have followed the law, but there is something that is hindering you from God.

The second chapter, by Andrea Smith, is talking about Decolonizing Salvation and processing Christianity through Indigenous eyes. This is probably the chapter that I felt most blindsided by. I have read a little bit about Indigenous theology, but only a little bit, and the issues brought up, like how Indigenous people tend to not identify with the Exodus story as many Liberation theologies do because of the history Indigenous people in the US. This is a chapter that completely makes sense to me once I read it, but it also concerns theological areas I had never considered because I did not have enough cultural awareness of Indigenous issues.