Posts By Adam Shields

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 

2020 Reading Report

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).

Confronting History

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.
Other Perspectives

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.
White Supremacy

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.
Spiritual Practices

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.

Inspiration

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:

White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us by Daniel Hill

Summary: An exploration of why Christians need to expose the evil of white superiority, not just attempt to increase diversity. 

As with Rediscipling the White Church I have a somewhat ambivalent approach to reading Daniel Hill. He is an excellent writer, and I really do appreciate what he writes. But I am also reminded that part of why he is needed to voice racial justice is part of his subject matter. In his first book, White Awake, his voice is needed because so many White Christians are resistant to hearing about issues around racism and White racial identity from non-White voices. And the book White Lies is needed because simple exposure to diversity does not actually root out white superiority problems (a euphemism for white supremacy as a cultural system) within the church without it directly being addressed. I am ambivalent, not because his voice is not useful (and certainly not because he isn’t a skilled writer or thinker), but because White voices like his are necessary because of the very nature of White belief in the superiority of White culture, which requires White voices to condemn White superiority for White people to be able to hear the problem.

I think it is important to use clear language and say that no one within the United States culture is not impacted by racism. I, as an individual, have feelings of White superiority. While I want to work against those feelings and to work to make sure those are never translated into actions, it is why I regularly point back to George Yancy’s language, “the best that I can be is an anti-racist racist”, and as a male, “an anti-sexist sexist.” And as a Christian, an anti-sin sinner. Because we are not solely individuals, but within a culture and community, regardless of my own attitudes, biases, thoughts, and actions, I cannot control how others respond to me. When I, as a stay-at-home Dad, take my kids to the grocery store (in pre-covid times), the response to me as a parent is different than the average response to a stay-at-home mother who is doing the same thing. I am routinely praised for being a good Dad for doing simple tasks that every mother also does without praise. When I walk around a store, the lack of undue attention because I am a middle-aged White male is not a result of anything I have done, but because of cultural assumptions and realities. But my lack of desire to be racist or sexist has nothing to do with the reality that I still receive benefits whether I want them or not.