Book Reviews

Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores by Dominique DuBois Gilliard

Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice That Restores by Dominique DuBois GilliardSummary: Theological Reflection on the problems of mass incarceration, especially in regard to racism and poverty.

Rethinking Incarceration is a book well worth reading. I think the main problem of it is that it is trying to do too much. There is 199 pages of main content and in that, Dominique Gilliard tries to have shortened version of New Jim Crow, trace the (mixed bag) line of Christian reform movements within prison, make a theological argument for restorative model over retributive model, and convince people that systematic racism is a part of the whole history of the criminal justice system. The amount of content that is squeezed into the short book does leave him open to critiques in a few area where one aspect or another could have been fleshed out a bit more.

I glanced around at negative reviews last night and many of them seem to focus on three areas. First, Gilliard takes aim at Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory. I think he make a good point at why he is targeting PSA, but I think he also falls into the trap that many PSA proponents have of thinking of atonement theories as the actual work of Christ’s death and resurrection instead of metaphors and mental maps of what is going on with the atonement. If he had kept a tighter focus on PSA as one of many facets of the atonement, he could have pointed out the way that PSA lends itself toward justification of punishment, and God as judge metaphors, and how that influences how we think of criminal justice system theologically. I also think he would benefit from interacting with Fleming Rutledge’s book Crucifixion (I am currently reading this). She does not dismiss PSA as a model but believes that it is over emphasized and her corrective, without dismissal, would be a helpful model.

Faith: A Journey for All by Jimmy Carter

Faith: A Journey for All by Jimmy CarterSummary: A short, but wide ranging book about not only Jimmy Carter’s faith, but his approach to Christianity, culture, how his faith impacts his politics and how his Christianity influences his work and life.

Many people think that Jimmy Carter has had the most influential post Presidency of all of the United States presidents. Just a few days ago, Jimmy Carter became the oldest President in history. Faith is Carter’s 30th book and I think the fourth of his that I have read.

I picked up Faith for two reasons, first I picked up President Carter: The White House Years when it was on sale a few weeks ago and I wanted to read another short book by Carter before I started a fairly long and detailed history of his presidency. I also picked up Faith as an audiobook because he won a Grammy for the book, his third win and fourth nomination.

As much as I like Carter, and appreciate what he was trying to do here, this was not his best book. A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety I think was a much better and more balanced book.

Faith is trying to do too many things, and too often repeats what he already said in previous books. It is not that there are not interesting parts, but Carter spends too much time in areas where I think he is not at his best. I like Cater’s stories and his recounting of what he is passionate about. It is not that he is not passionate about his faith, but his social action, not his theology is where I most want to hear from him.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race By Beverly Tatum

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race By Beverly TatumSummary: Good summary on racial issues especially focusing on child and adolescent racial identity development and many educational issues related to child development or psychology.

I continue to be amazed at how many different aspects of racial issues that I have not considered or explored even in basic areas of race as I continue to explore the impacts of race on modern society.

I have known about the title Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria for years, but have not picked it up, both because I knew that the book was a bit dated and because I did not really understand what the book was about.

Primarily, although not entirely, this is a psychology book on child and teen racial identity development. There is more than that, but the focus on both child development and how race impact identity development are very good reasons to pick this book up. If you are a White parent that wants to help your children think clearly about racism and racial dynamics, but are concerned about how to do that in a developmentally appropriate way, there are lots of hints here on how to do that well.

But there are also all kinds of additional subjects that are introduced well that make Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria a very good introduction to racial issues today. First, this is a 20th anniversary edition and there is a 71 page prologue that in a relatively quick overview gives context for what has changed over those 20 years. In the introduction Beverly Daniel Tatum details what parts of the book has been updated and what parts have been largely left alone. But after reading it, it feels very current with recent research and recent examples. I do not know what the original version was like, but this is a book that feels current.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonSummary: A classic story of a Black woman’s life in Jim Crow era.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic African American novel. Like many other books, I think I need to read it again to fully appreciate the skill of the novel now that I have the initial overview. I listened to the novel  and I think that was a good idea because of the use of dialect. But I think I probably missed some of the skill of the novel because I listened and did not read it.

I watched the Crash Course Literature episode on Their Eyes Were Watching God and John Green detailed several aspects of the book and Hurston’s biography that I did not know (for instance that she grew up in a town that the town in the book is based on.) But he also highlighted the difference between the authorial voice and Janie’s voice (the protagonist) and I think I probably missed parts of that because I was listening.

(Spoiler Alert) Because this book is now over 75 years old, I am going to discuss content. Janie has been raised by her grandmother, a former slave. Both Janie’s grandmother and mother were raped and conceived children. So when Janie’s grandmother catches Janie kissing a local boy, the grandmother in an effort to protect Janie in the only way she can, marries Janie off to a much older man, a well off farmer, Logan. (The wikipedia summary is pretty good.)

How the Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns

How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News by Peter EnnsSubtitle: In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers—and Why That’s Great News

I first read Peter Enns in 2011 as part of a discussion of his Inspiration and Incarnation. I was very frustrated with the book. But after processing and in context of spending about a year reading about and thinking about hermeneutics, I basically agree with his main points. The three follow up books to that, all more focused on the lay reader than the academic reader, have been helpful.

I think How The Bible Actually Works is where I would suggest most people start with Enns and his project. In an overly simplistic summary, Enns is suggesting that the best way to read the bible is to pay attention to how it works internally and historically and how early readers read it. And that means we acknowledge that the bible speaks with diverse voices. That it is often ambiguous and sometimes contradictory. And that the point is not to give us clear rules of life, but to help teach us wisdom.

“Reading the situation—not simply the Bible—is what wisdom is all about. It’s also, as we’ll see, what the life of faith is about. Sometimes it’s best to answer a fool, sometimes not. Which option is best at this unscripted moment depends on all sorts of factors that are impossible to anticipate, and so each time I read a nasty comment, I have to decide in the moment what the best way forward is in this situation.”

Like Enns’ other books, I think How the Bible Actually Works  is going to be misread by many. First, the title is tongue in cheek. There is a lot of humor in the book. Enns’ podcast is called, “The Bible for Normal People” with the tagline, “The only God ordained podcast”.

Second, while Enns is trying to help the reader think about the bible differently, he is not reducing the bible to only wisdom literature or as in the quote below, reducing Jesus to just a sage. He is introducing those ideas, not reducing them to only those ideas.

The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick Parr

The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age by Patrick ParrSummary: Exploration of King’s years at Crozer Seminary, from the time he was 19 to 21.

The Seminarian is the first book to deal particularly with Martin Luther King’s seminary experience. MLK was young, only 19 when he graduated from Morehouse College and started his seminary program. Crozier was also his first extended time away from home and a predominately White institution, although by the time of his graduation, about half of the small class was Black. But the institution, the professors, the administration the curriculum was White.

The Seminarian is well written and organized. It is well documented and in areas where there is necessarily speculation, that speculation is well explained and clearly understood as speculation. In addition to talking about King’s coming to maturity and grappling with his call to ministry and covering the curriculum and education at Crozier, there are two main contributions that I think The Seminarian provides to King scholarship (at least at the lay level).

First, there is lots of discussion and documentation of King’s romance with Betty Moitz, a White woman and the daughter of seminary cook. (King worked in the cafeteria so also knew Betty’s mother well.) That romance, which was very guarded, proceeded very slowly, but ended before it went too deeply. It appears that King reluctantly broke the romance off because he was encouraged to by his friends who were concerned that King would both not be able to be a preacher in the Black church with a White wife and that King would not be able to move south at all with White wife. It appears that King’s family never knew about the romance. Parr did speak to Betty Moitz and other friends of King’s at the time that did know about the romance and the discussion is something new to King scholarship.

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer

Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin Kruse and Julian ZelizerSummary: A recent history from 1974 focusing on the increasing polarization as a result of four ‘Fault Lines’, income inequality, racial division, changing gender roles and change sexual norms.

History and the tools of the historian are important to understanding both history and how we got to the place where we are. Kruse and Zelizer are writing a recent history with their tools as historians. I was born in 1973, the year before this really starts and so it was a helpful, especially for the first 20-25 years old where I have some memory but not as much context as I do about the more recent history.

Fault Lines is a brief overview of the past 45 years focusing on the polarization that is a result of increasing diversity and increasing cultural and political power of women, racial minorities and LGBT people and the backlash against those changes. That framing I think is helpful, but incomplete. But I am also not sure how to be more complete without the book ballooning to a thousand pages.

I think there can be disagreement with where the authors start. There fault lines cited certainly didn’t start in 1974. Racial and gender issues were definitely earlier. Sexual mores have long been changing. Income inequality did start spiking around that time, but did fuel previous political issues. But 1974 was a reasonable starting place.

There is lots of information that I had either forgotten or did not know. But this is a fairly introductory overview.  From what I understand, it is based on an undergrad class that the authors teach at Princeton. In areas where I have a bit more knowledge the gloss I think is a bit superficial in places. For instance the blame for the 2007 financial crisis was placed on subprime loans, which were a contributing factor, but there was actually more money lost from middle class borrowers that over extended their credit than from low income subprime borrowers that defaulted. The complexity of the discussion gets better as the further it goes, but that initial explanation I think was actually wrong, not just incomplete.

What I appreciate is both the readability and the role that pop culture and tech play in the history. The pop culture and tech are not fluff, they really do play an important role in politics and history of the late 20th and early 21st century and Fault Lines both cites them for their political and historical influence and I think to give human interest to the story.

Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for all the Followers of Jesus by John Armstrong

Costly Love: The Way to True Unity for all the Followers of Jesus by John ArmstrongSummary: The emphasis on love is not just doctrinal, or practical, or pragmatic, it is central to the way of Christ.

I sometimes have problems trying to figure out how to write about books where I know the author, and I deeply appreciate the message. It would be easy to just write gushing appreciation, and I do appreciate the book and its content as well as the author. But this book deserves more than that.

Love is often thought of by Christians as something trite or simply niceness or softness in theology (a movement toward liberalism). But Christ’s words about love are not advocating niceness. And Jesus saying we should be known for our love is not advocating some doctrine-less ‘anything goes’ understanding of faith. Love, the type that puts others first and includes enemies among those that must be loved, is anything but trite.

There are a number of writers that have written movingly about God’s love and our response to that love. In general, they are not writing abstractly, but in response to a deep relationship to God. They are writing because they have both felt God’s love in them and they have understood God’s call to community and others as a direct response to God’s love of us. In the end, while Christianity does value doctrine, and church structures, and service to others, etc., Love is about relationship and when we move to describing Christianity in any non-relational terms we start moving away from the central role that Love is designed to play in our faith.

Like many others good books on aspects of Christianity, Costly Love is a book about discipleship. Discipleship is about transformation long term, not data processing. Information and theology can help us understand God and others and love more deeply, but theology without praxis is never really full Christianity. Love is not something that can only be thought about, it has to be practiced with actual people.

John Armstrong is not advocating human-only discussion in Costly Love. When he is finished diagnosing the problem of a lack of love, he suggests that the solution is that, “We need a fresh encounter with God-Love so that we can be transformed by the spirit of God so that we can love others with that God-Love.” Later he says, “But we don’t need to seek, love, we have already been given that love by God. Instead we need to seek to remove the barriers to love. We learn to love by loving.” (My attempts as quoting quickly since I listened to this on audiobook.)

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James BaldwinTakeaway: I need to read this again.

Go Tell It On the Mountain is my second Baldwin fiction book and my fourth book by Baldwin. Baldwin’s fiction and non-fiction styles feel very different. That may be more about what books I have read, but so far, I like his essays, more than his fiction.

I started Go Tell It On the Mountain as an audiobook. But the audiobook was difficult to follow. The structure of the book changes perspective and narrative frequently and there was just not enough cues in the audio to note that there was a change, let alone what the change was. So I gave up on the audio and read the print the rest of the way. The print was less confusing, although there were still places where jumps in action occurred and I feared that I had missed something and would re-read to realize that I had not missed anything.

Like several other authors, I can feel Baldwin’s talent. He writes beautifully and with power. But I do not love the stories. I know I am not supposed to love the stories because they are not about beautiful things or people. But still it is difficult to read about people in pain constantly. Now that I understand the structure more clearly I think I can read it better and pay more attention to the language and the narrative. Especially the last section feel’s similar to Flannery O’Connor’s dictum about needing to shout to the hard of hearing.

The is a book soaked in biblical allusions and direct references. I really do not know how someone would read this and make sense of it without a very good working knowledge of the bible.

This line, “If God’s power was so great, why were their lives so troubled?” does seem to be the central theme. God is real here. But the father figure (Gabriel), while attempting to follow God and being clearly used by God, is also abusive. In many ways, it seems that the real question is, if God is real why is Gabriel not changed.

Almost at the end, the Gabriel (John’s step father) is confronted by his sister over his past and current sin. The father responds, ‘“God’s way,” he said, and his speech was thick, his face was slick with sweat, “ain’t man’s way. I been doing the will of the Lord, and can’t nobody sit in judgment on me but the Lord.’ It is this type of father/church figure that I think that Baldwin in real life is reacting against.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame AlexanderSummary: Blade, the son of a famous, but notoriously addicted rock star, tries to find his way to adulthood. 

My first narrative verse book was Brown Girl Dreaming. I have been looking forward to reading Kwame Alexander since because I knew that he wrote novels that are written in verse. There are others as well, that I will make my way to eventually.

I have never really liked poetry. But I know that part of it is because I do not like reading slow. I want to read fast and keep moving. Solo and Brown Girl Dreaming were well worth reading. With both I have started with the audiobooks so that I can hear them read properly. I will go back eventually and read them in print, but the right reading of poetry I think is part of my problem with poetry.

Solo is also a musical book. So in addition to the narrative verse, it is about a musician and it includes original music written for the book. The audiobook includes that, which is yet another reason to listen to the audiobook.

Blade is 17, the school salutatorian. A natural with a guitar, and the son of a famous but addicted rock star father. His mother died when he was 9 and he has not gotten over that, nor has his father or older sister. Blade resents his family even as he loves them. His father has given him wealth and many things, including a love of music and access to it. But he also has messed up his life, including the fact that his girlfriend’s father will not let them see one another because of the screw up that is his Dad.