Book Reviews

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 

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.

St. Ignatius Loyola and the Remarkable History of the First Jesuits by John O’Malley

Summary: A five-hour course introducing the Jesuits.

Part of what I keep returning to with my study of Ignatian Spiritual Direction is my need to fill in the holes in my understanding of some of the basics. For instance, “who are the Jesuits, and what is their history ?” I have had John O’Malley’s longer The First Jesuits and his shorter Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present recommended to me. But neither of those was available on audiobook and I needed something to listen to as I was doing some busy work, so I picked up this audiobook lecture course.

At five hours it gives an overview, but it is just an overview. O’Malley is a historian and professor at Georgetown, but he is also a Jesuit. It is not that I don’t trust his opinion, but that I need to get some history from non-Jesuits as well. I have some introduction to the spiritual perspectives of Jesuits from James Martin, but I really want more history to place them in context and to see why they seem to be so loved and hated depending on who you ask.

I have read Ignatius’ autobiography and am familiar with his spiritual exercises, but this still filled in a lot of holes (and opened up plenty of awareness of holes I was previously unaware of and still need to fill.) The movement toward audiobook lectures as a whole is good. But like everything, the quality depends on who is doing the lecturing. This was neither the best nor the worst I have heard. At five hours, I think it was probably too short. But I was glad to pick it up based on the price and I will also pick up one or both of O’Malley’s books on the Jesuits relatively soon.

Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography by Paul Harvey

Takeaway: Amazingly, there has not been a good biography of Thurman in so long.

This is the third book by or about Howard Thurman I have read this year, and I have started a re-reading of the fourth. Howard Thurman is not as well known as I would like. But he was an influential mentor, teacher, and pastor throughout the 20th century. Thurman was born and spent his childhood in Daytona Beach. (He was less than two weeks older than CS Lewis but lived nearly 20 years longer.) Because there was no high school in Daytona Beach that permitted Black students, he was forced to move away from Daytona to go to high school. (There were only three high schools for Black students in the whole state of Flordia.) He then went to college at Morehouse and Crozer Divinity School (the latter two of which Martin Luther King, Jr also went to a generation later.) He graduated as valedictorian at both.

He served several years as a pastor in Oberlin, Ohio, before returning to teach at Morehouse (and Spellman) and work as its chaplain. Four years later, he became Dean of the Chapel at Howard Univerity, where he served for 12 years. In 1944 he became pastor of one of the first intentionally interracial churches in the US, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Fransico. He served as pastor there for 9 years before becoming the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he served until his retirement in 1965. He moved back to San Francisco, working as a writer and speaker, and mentor until he passed away in 1981.

As much as his work was groundbreaking and important on its own, Paul Harvey shows how Thurman was continually frustrated with his inability to pastor and lead churches and the university system’s religious education as he wished. He was a mystic and thought deeply about what I would consider the sociology of religion.

Howard Thurman is probably best known for three things. In 1935, he, his wife, and another couple went on a tour of India. The tour brought four Black Americans to India to interact with and learn about the caste system and learn about non-violent resistance. The group was the first African Americans to meet Gandhi, and Thurman’s reports back about non-violent resistance both inspired the Civil Rights movement and led to several others also visiting Gandhi.

The second related thing that Thurman is well known for is his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman was at Morehouse at the same time as Martin Luther King Sr. And Sue Bailey Thurman, Thurman’s second wife, was a college roommate of Alberta Williams King, MLK Jr’s mother. Despite that family relationship and the fact that there was a year overlap where MLK Jr and Thurman were both at Boston University, it appears that they only spent two extended days together. One day was at Thurman’s house watching baseball while King was a student. And a second day was about a decade later when King was in the hospital recovering after being stabbed. Despite a fairly regular correspondence, they never did spend extended time together beyond that. Thurman gave one of the eulogies at MLK Jr’s funeral.