Book Reviews

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James Beitler

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by [Beitler III, James Edward ]Summary: A look at how five Christians have used rhetoric to impact the church.

One of my goals over the next couple of years is to think more clearly about how people’s minds are changed. I purposely say that in the passive voice, because while you can influence the changing of minds, you cannot as an outsider change someone else’s mind. What can be done is to build a relationship, listen, and speak. The how of all three of those does matter.

Seasoned Speech is mainly about the concept of rhetoric, something that I am not sure I have particularly looked into previously. I have had public speaking and preaching classes, but those have been about structure and form more generally than rhetoric.

James Beitler in Seasoned Speech took CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson and looked at how they rhetorically communicate their faith. I have read something of all of these authors, although never a full-length book by Tutu and only Sayers’ fiction. Beitler’s chapters on each of these authors focused relatively narrowly. Lewis’ chapter was mostly on speaking in vernacular and knowing the audience and the speaker’s limits. Sayers’ was mostly about using fiction and getting into the story. Bonhoeffer’s chapter was mostly on being prophetic in a way that readers may not want to hear, especially in thining about communicating through sermons. Tutu was using positions and life to communicate (with the illustration of his anti-apartheid work and then later his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). This is true of several of the authors being discussed, but especially in the Tutu chapter, the ‘being with’ someone is essential to communicating to them. Robinson challenges the concept of using an argument to compel belief. (It is somewhat ironic that Robinson does use argument in her non-fiction works, but those non-fiction works are far less compelling than her fiction.)

Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck

Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel according to Johnny CashSummary: Pop culture connections to the gospel and biography the way it is supposed to be done.

I have long been a subscriber to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Seeing glimpses of God in art is one of the best ways I know of to communicate about Christ to people that are not Christians. But what I am interested in pop culture connection is the way that we can understand Christian imagery through artistic works. Unfortunately, in my mind, books that have the subtitle “Gospel According to…” tend to be more focused on evangelism and twisting art to fit a message. Trains, Jesus and Murder, is an exceptional example of the ‘Gospel According to…’ types of books.

There are a few that are similar, Rowan Williams’ book on CS Lewis’ Naria, the recent book about Mister Rogers, and even in a way, James KA Smith’s latest book on Augustine are all examples of seeking out God in a persons art or work without distorting the work. One of the aspects that I think is essential in doing this style of book well, is being honest about weaknesses. Johnny Cash was far from perfect. His less than ideal image is part of what has made his legacy enduring; he made outlaw country a thing. His struggle with addiction is well known, and like Brennan Manning, it was a life long struggle.

Johnny Cash was also a saint, or at least he tried to be. He wrote multiple books on Christianity, he made movies about his faith, and he was generous to many around him. Part of what Beck is communicating is that Cash was impacted by his older brother’s death when Johnny was young. His older brother was going to be a preacher, and Johnny Cash, despite is outlaw image did want to share the gospel widely in his way.

Beck’s central theme is that for the Man in Black, the gospel is about solidarity.

The gospel according to the Man in Black is a gospel rooted in solidarity. The cross of Christ, in this view, is an act of divine identification with the oppressed. On the cross, God is found with and among the victims of the world. More, given that crucified persons were considered to be cursed by God—“Cursed is anyone who is hung upon a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23)—God is found in Jesus among the cursed and godforsaken. Again, the first place to look for Jesus is in hell. By standing with the poor and beaten down, the music of Johnny Cash shows us how a gospel of solidarity begins as an interpretative activity: the cross is a way of seeing and reading the world. Specifically, the cross helps us answer this most important question: Where is God?

…That is the gospel according to the Man in Black: drawing near to and loving the lost, unnoticed, unremarkable, excluded, powerless, broken, condemned, and despicable. Solidarity is a love that grows warmest in the coldest places. That vision prompts us to take the second step in the dance of divine solidarity. After we read the world to locate God among the victims and the oppressed, we are called to action, to move ourselves to stand with those who are suffering. As Bonheoffer said, God “goes right into the middle of it.” God draws near.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday LifeSummary: Seeking spiritual depth from ordinary life.

I have been reluctant to pick this up because so many have recommended it. I know I shouldn’t do that, but contrarianism is part of who I am. I also picked it up toward the end of the year when I was already way over my self imposed limit on reading more White authors. It seemed relevant at the time to the paper I was working on for my spiritual direction class. Although I ended up cutting the section of my paper that I referenced Liturgy of the Ordinary because it was too long, it did help me focus the essay.

The general focus of the book is to seek to find God in the mundane because the mundane is where we are most of the time. One of my objections to the book is also one of its strengths. Reflections like this are necessarily personal and encultured. We cannot make broad reflections that our outside of our culture and experience because they are then not ours. We are Christians, not abstractly but within our culture and experience.  So while I assumed going in that this book would be White, middle class, educated reflections, there was still some frustration with falling into stereotypes, and some pleasure when there were sections that I did not expect.

Even though Liturgy of the Ordinary is only three years old, it feels like so many people have previously read it that I can see its impact in other books and especially other articles. Part of that perception of widespread impact is that what is happening in the book is not actually new. I picked this up as a counterpoint to William Berry’s Finding God in All Things, which is an exploration of Ignatian spiritual practice and very similar in broad theme.

There is a lot of grace in the Liturgy of the Ordinary, and that grace is necessary and helpful; ordinary life can be hard. Rev Warren’s discussion about getting into arguments with her husband and needing to seek forgiveness, of having human limitations, of needing others, is part of what it means to be human. Humans are limited creatures and part of Christian discipleship is to embrace the limitations and live within them. Our culture wants us to perform and rise above our human limitations, but part of what Christ’s incarnation should show us is that even Christ, the true God made man, was human and had human limitations. Jesus needed sleep; he needed rest and time alone, he needed friends and community, and he could not have been born without a mother, and he could not have been a human without being a baby that had to be cared for.

End of the year thoughts and recommendations

2019 marks 10 years of blogging most of the books I have read. This year, like most years, I met some of my reading goals and not others. I read good books that have stuck with me and books that were less memorable.

Reading Goals

My main goal this year was to increase the diversity of authors and to keep the percent of White authors to less than 33%. I failed at that goal since my annual rate was 47%. Two contributing factors in the failure was starting a program to study spiritual direction and only having White authors assigned and only reading white authors as supplemental books to those assigned. I am sure there are books on spiritual direction written by non-White authors, I have not found them yet.

The second problem was just not being conscious enough of monitoring. I was conscious of focusing primarily on increasing Black authors, but that needs to be more than just in books about race. And in increasing the racial diversity I did not pay enough attention to gender and decreased my percent of women authors from 42% in 2018 to 31% in 2019.

2020 Goals

My goal next year will be to keep White authors to 45% or less while increasing the number of books by Asian, Latinx and Native American authors to at least 10% (a really small goal, but one I have not met for the past three years.) And I will try to get the gender balance to be actually balanced instead of overwhelmingly male.

I am going to have a goal to read a sermon a day. I am going to start with Fleming Rutledge, Howard Thurman, Eugene Peterson and then I will seek out some others. If you have any suggestions let me know.

Most impactful books

Last year I tried dividing the books that impacted me into different categories of how they impacted me. Last year’s categories do not really work this year. The books I find most impactful were fairly serious and generally either biography, history, theology or about racial issues. Mostly they were pointing out areas where I have blind spots, ignorance or weakness. I am going to have categories but I am not sure if they will be helpful or not.

Racial Ignorance

I have been reading fairly widely around racial issues for about five years now and I keep discovering new depths to my ignorance and bias, four books stand out here:

I have not written about Unsetting Truths yet because I want to read it again before I write about it, but as much as reading about slavery and the history around slavery impacted my understanding of racial history, Unsettling Truths and Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys and Andrea Smith’s chapter in Can “White” People Be Saved showed me how much I need to inspect my theology and understanding around colonialism, Native American history, and even basic historical facts.

Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors by Anne Marie Miller

Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse SurvivorsSummary: Part her own story of sexual abuse at the hands of a pastor and part guide to being with survivors of sexual abuse in your context. 

I have ‘known’ Anne Marie Miller for a very long time. I started reading her blog around 12 years ago. I have read all of her books. She ended up marrying the cousin of a high school friend of mine. I have appreciated being able to pray for her regularly as I follow along with her life via social media and the occasional email. I am not coming at Healing Together dispassionately. I was an early reader of one of her earlier books, one where she first detailed her sexual abuse.

Anne Miller is an example of a number of (primarily) women that have taken their abuse public because the desire for a better response by the church. Her abuse was at the hands of a church staff. Rachael Denhollander’s was at the hands of a sports doctor; others have been abused by teachers, parents, etc. Regardless of the context, the pain and trauma continue, and the context will be forever tainted. Church-based sexual abuse is particularly a problem because the church should be one of the places that are most responsive to sexual abuse survivors. But even a casual understanding of sexual abuse can see that churches often re-victimize abuse survivors.

Healing Together is doing several things. One is Anne’s own story. I primarily listened to the audiobook of Healing Together with Anne reading. I did that intentionally because I wanted to be able to hear her voice tell her own story. Anne is still recovering from a freak accident where she lost several teeth and has had to have multiple surgeries to reconstruct her jaw. Because I have known her for a while, I can hear some of that damage in her voice, but the audiobook is certainly still a good option for this Healing Together.

The second focus of Healing Together is understanding of what sexual abuse is, how the legal system works, simple definitions of terminology, and a guide on how to be in solidarity with abuse survivors. Her context is the church but this is not just a church-based guide. It is a guide that would be helpful for anyone, whether you are aware of abuse in your context or not. The reality is that whether you know it or not, you know people that have been sexually abused.

Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever by Gavin Edwards

Kindness and Wonder: Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever by Gavin EdwardsSummary: Half biography, half inspirational insights into how to learn from Mister Rogers. 

I am not unfamiliar with Mister Rogers’ story. In addition to regularly watching old episodes of his TV show with my four and six-year-old, I have read four books by or about in over the past couple of years and watch several documentaries. But in spite of the familiarity, I continue to want to pick up books about him because, as the subtitle suggests, Mister Rogers continues to matter.

The full biography, The Good Neighbor, released last year, gave the most complete picture of Mister Rogers’ full life, but it was not perfect. There is room for more biographies. Kindness and Wonder did not attempt to duplicate the work of The Good Neighbor. Still, even in the short length of the biographical section, Kindness and Wonder included details I had not heard before, and I went a bit deeper into some aspects of his life than The Good Neighbor did.

Kindness and Wonder engaged Fred Rogers’ Christianity well. Mister Rogers would not have been the same Mister Rogers without his faith and that comes through clearly in the second section. The second section has ten lessons we should learn about Mister Rogers. This is the type of cultural engagement that I would like Christians to do better. It is not merely ‘do better’ advice or self-help, but attempting to prod the readers toward selfless maturity. Some lessons impacted me more than others.

This quote from the chapter ‘Be Deep and Simple” I think is an excellent example of the lessons offered.

Consider this passage by Fred Rogers: “How our words are understood doesn’t depend just on how we express our ideas. It also depends on how someone receives what we’re saying. I think the most important part about communicating is the listening we do beforehand. When we can truly respect what someone brings to what we’re offering, it makes the communication all the more meaningful.”

How Not to Get Shot: And Other Advice From White People by DL Hughley and Doug Moe

Summary: A standup around the idea of thinking about the advice that White people will give to Black people about how to not get shot. 

How Not to Get Shot is probably best as an audiobook. Hughley knows how to present it for laughs and when to pull back and be sober. The book is mostly satire, but he does pull back relatively often from straight satire to comment on how ridiculous some of the advice is. Quite a bit of the nearly 4-hour audiobook is advice that you have either heard, thought (said), or can imagine someone you know saying.

Hughley has helpful section such as: comply with the police, don’t talk back, remember that the cops are scared, don’t match the description, what type of music to listen to, how to name your children, don’t rush to judgment if you do get shot, etc.

The main point is that the best way to not get shot is to not be Black. But since that isn’t really an option, his use of satire to help White people understand the ridiculousness of the common rhetoric around police and other shootings is thought-provoking, while being funny.

I think there is value in standup comics talking about racial issues. Humor is one way to lower defenses and get people to actually think about something that is rhetorically difficult.

How Not to Get Shot: And Other Advice From White People by DL Hughley and Doug Moe Purchase Links: Audible.com Audiobook, Kindle Edition, Paperback

Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image by Philip Yancey and Paul Brand

Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God's ImageSummary: An allegory about the body and the body of Christ.

Describing this as an allegory is not quite right, but I heard Yancey describe it as an allegory in a podcast interview and I think that gets at a truth that other descriptions do not. There is not an allegorical story here (like Pilgrim’s Progress), but the book is largely taking the wisdom of Paul Brand’s years as a surgeon and a researcher into Lepersy and uses that knowledge to apply to the individual Christian life and the body of Christ.

Philip Yancey has rewritten and modernized the two books Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and In His Image into a new and updated book, Fearfully and Wonderfully. The science and many of the illustrations are recent, but the wisdom and stories from Brand are those from the older books.

Even though I read the older ones as a teen, I still regularly think about the central ideas, especially around pain frequently. I am not sure I would have picked this book up if it were not part of the Renovare Book Club, but because it was, I started reading the hardback. I sent the hardback to a friend and finished the book in audiobook.

The Radical King edited by Cornel West

The Radical King edited by Cornel WestSummary: If all you remember from Martin Luther King Jr is his “I have a dream…” speech, The Radical King will round out his legacy.

Last week I finished up an audiobook collection of Howard Thurman’s sermons, prayers, and teachings. What I loved about it was that it was actually Thurman’s voice. The quality was not up to current standards, but there was value in hearing his actual voice. The problem with the collection was that it was mostly snippets of content, rarely more than 10 minutes of any particular talk.

The Radical King, edited by Cornel West has the opposite problem. This is full-length sermons or speeches, but they are read by modern celebrity narrators. All of the narrators do a fine job and the audio quality is excellent, but it is not King’s voice and King’s voice is one of the most recognizable of the last century. The reality is that for both of these collections, there are just limitations based on what is available. Cornel West is trying to give insight into the breadth of King’s thinking. Radical seems to promise a bit too much, King was radical for his time, but while there was an article celebrating, Norman Thomas, a prominent socialist, there was also more than one instance of King showing why he was not a communist or socialist.

The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time

The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our TimeSummary: A collection of portions of Howard Thurman’s sermons, prayers, talks, and teaching.

Jesus and the Disinherited is Howard Thurman’s most influential book. It is the only book of Thurman’s I have read so far, but I have an autobiography and a collection of his meditations and sermons that I will get to eventually.

When I think of Thurman, I think of him primarily as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. And because King died in 1968, and Jesus and the Disinherited was published in 1949, I think of Thurman as someone from the first half of the 20th century, but Thurman lived until 1981.

The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman is a collection of sermons, prayers, and talks with introductions to different sections by Alice Walker, Vincent Harding, and several others. The openings were helpful because many of the contributors relate personal stories about Thurman as part of their sections.

Because these are all actual recordings of Thurman and not narrations of his written work, the quality is not as high as most audiobooks. However, the ability to hear him, in his voice, makes up for any weakness in audio quality. Many of these are from his time as pastor of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples. This church was an early, intentionally interracial church, started in 1944 (before the Kneel in Protests across the country.) Thurman was co-pastor with Alfred Fisk, a White man, until 1953 when he became the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston College.

The main negative of the collection is that there is very little content more than five to ten minutes long. I would have like many more full-length sermons. I am not sure if the choice to primarily collect snippets was in the interest of a broader range of content, or issues of audio quality. Whichever it was, the decision leaves the listener without full context in many cases.