Book Reviews

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

he Sum of Us by Heather McGhee cover imageSummary: Racism harms not just racial minorities but the country as a whole. Thinking of race as a zero-sum game prevents changes that would help everyone.

The Sum of Us plays on the zero-sum game many think our modern racial reality is limited to. A few days ago on Twitter, I saw a comment on a review of the book Reparations by Kwon and Thompson. The comments said that expansion of minority students into high-quality colleges meant that he had not gotten into the school he wanted. I responded that very few White students had not gotten into a college solely because of racial preferences. The response back was a classic zero-sum game response, “There are a limited number of students in universities. If some of them are selected based on race, then someone was denied entry.” First, there is not a limited number of students in universities. If there is a greater demand for university admissions, more seats will be opened up. But second, even now, where many colleges and universities have pledged to work for more diversity in admissions, there are still influences that prioritize white students, like in the case of legacy admissions being the real reason that more Asians were not being accepted into Harvard, not policies to attempt to admit more underserved racial minorities (as is discussed here and here).

What most interested me about why Heather McGhee started researching this book how much it made sense of political gridlock. When she was on staff and then the head of a policy think tank in Washington DC, McGhee advocated policies that would help many people in the US. But she ran into opposition that was willing to vote against policies because of concerns that the policies would help minorities too much. Simply making intellectual policy arguments and financial return arguments on investment did not move the deep-seated bias that many are not aware are moving them. This type of idea comes up frequently in economic psychology (The Righteous Mind or Predictably Irrational). Still, I am also interested in this for issues around both race and spiritual direction. How do we help people see race more clearly, or how do we help people see deeper emotional issues instead of the surface-level intellectual issues around their faith and practice.

Heather McGhee has a central metaphor, the many municipal pools built in the 1920-40s across the country but then were closed and often removed rather than allow integration. Communities were worse off, not just because of the lack of a community pool, but because there was a willingness to destroy a part of a community infrastructure that harmed everyone rather than allowing Black community members to share in the pool. What McGhee is reporting matches what Kevin Kruse reported in White Flight about racial attitudes of White Atlantans. According to Kruse, when a space or activity was integrated, the common assumption of White people was not that this space is not an integrated park or school or public transportation or community, but that it became a Black-only park or school or public transportation or community. Kruse suggests that this is what gave rise to the rise of libertarian opposition to common good spending. McGhee is approaching from a different perspective.

Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits by Timothy Gallagher

Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment cover imageSummary: A discussion of the second set of ‘Rules of Discenrment’ by Ignatius.

In Ignatius’ classic Spiritual Exercises, a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat, Ignatius has a number of annotations or suggestions for spiritual directors. Some of the most helpful and discussed are his Rules of Discernment. These rules guide understanding whether something is from God or satan (or at least a distraction from God.) Ignatius’ rules are split into two groups. The first group is discussed in Gallagher’s earlier book The Discernment of Spirits. Spiritual Consolation discusses the second set of rules.

The second set of rules largely focuses on spiritual consolation and desolation and how the more mature believer may be tempted by satan differently than a less mature believer might. The central insight in my mind is that generally, satan seems to tempt less mature Christians by desolation, making them question God or their path. But in this second set of rules, Ignatius focuses on the idea that satan tempts more mature Christians by placing additional good opportunities or ideas in their path as a way to distract them from the better option.

One example in the book is a deacon that has come to a new parish and is helping it clean up its finances, become more focused in ministry, do fundraising, etc. But as he is there a while, he realizes that the youth programs are inadequate, and no one is taking a real interest in youth and their discipleship. So he considers if whether he should stop his work with administration and finance and refocus his time on youth. It is not that either is bad. Both may be what God is calling him to. But either adding too much onto your plate so that you cannot do either well, or working on both but losing time and energy for personal devotion and prayer is a bad long-term result.

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation by Chanequa Walker Barnes

I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation cover imageSummary: Centering Black women’s experience as a model for racial reconciliation. 

Over the nearly 2 years since I Bring the Voice of My People, it has been consistently recommended by a range of people as one of the most important books in the field of Christian racial reconciliation. It has taken me too long to read it, but now that I have, I join my voice and agree, this is not only a book that should be read widely, I think it becomes one of the primary books that I will recommend early in White people’s grappling with issues of race in the church.

Part of the book’s strength is clear definitions and lots of examples and stories, like the definition of racial reconciliation and womanism early in the book.

A working definition that can guide readers in the first half of the book is this: Racial reconciliation is part of God’s ongoing and eschatological mission to restore wholeness and peace to a world broken by systemic injustice. Racial reconciliation focuses its efforts upon dismantling White supremacy, the systemic evil that denies and distorts the image of God inherent in all humans based upon the heretical belief that White aesthetics, values, and cultural norms bear the fullest representation of the imago Dei. White supremacy thus maintains that White people are superior to all other peoples, and it orders creation, identities, relationships, and social structures in ways that support this distortion and denial. p32

and

Taking its name from the word coined by Alice Walker, womanist theology can be defined as . . . the systematic, faith-based exploration of the many facets of African American women’s religiosity. Womanist theology is based on the complex realities of [B]lack women’s lives. Womanist scholars recognize and name the imagination and initiative that African American women have utilized in developing sophisticated religious responses to their lives. p32

The two main purposes of this being a Womanist view of racial reconciliation, according to Walker-Barnes, is a focus on Intersectionality and a focus on the wholistic view of healing and liberation. One of the best books I have read to introduce the reader to the concept of intersectionality is So You Want to Talk About Race. Still, I Bring the Voice of My People, not only does as good of a job introducing the concept of intersectionality, but it also brings many practical examples of why intersectionality is essential to racial reconciliation in the church and any discussion about race in the US. Again, many people have a poor understanding of what Intersectionality is. And Walker-Barnes, I think, frames it well.

Identity is not just additive; it is multiplicative. If I were writing it as an algebraic equation, I would write it like this: RacialGenderIdentity = Race + Gender + (Race*Gender) In other words, African American women will share some experiences with African American men by virtue of their race, and they will share some experiences with all women by virtue of their femaleness. But their location at the intersection of race and gender predisposes them to experiences of gendered racism that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those of African American men (and certainly from White men), White women, and sometimes even other women of color. p33

God’s Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to God’s Will by Mark Thibodeaux

God's Voice Within: The Ignatian Way to Discover God's Will cover imageSummary: An exploration of Ignatius Rules of Discernment primarily focused on exploring decision making.

As I have said before, I am exploring the concept of discernment, especially around Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment this year. Similar to What’s Your Decision, God’s Voice Within is an introduction to the Rules of Discernment focused on decision making. God’s Voice Within is a bit broader in approach than What’s Your Decision, but they are different enough that I think they can be companion books, at least to compare how the two attempt to present Ignatian decision making.

Two quotes to set the stage:

“Discernment would be simple if we could identify the five, or twelve, or twenty-five fail-proof steps to making good choices. But choices are not the result of mere rational exercise; choices come out of who we are as well as out of what we think. That is why discernment is not a system but a process, and it’s a process we must learn, and apply, and then learn some more.” p1

and

“Ignatian discernment, then, isn’t so much about what to do but about who to be. It’s about becoming a person in tune with the movements that lead toward God. The doing will flow from the being.” p6

Thibodeaux is not talking about a system of decision making; he is more focused on a lifestyle or process of continually seeking after God, which leads to an orientation of seeking after God’s will in all areas of our life.

Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now by Brenda Salter McNeil

Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now cover imageSummary: A semi-autobiographical look at the book of Esther from the lens of US racial justice.

I have long looked up to Brenda Salter McNeil. She doesn’t know me at all. But when I was in college, more than 25 years ago, I participate in the college’s urban summer program, working with homeless families in a long-term shelter in Houston for a summer. In part, that experience led me to pursue a master’s in Social Service Administration a few years later, and my entire work career has been non-profit consulting and management. Several of my friends also participated in the summer program in later years. One of those friends worked with Brenda Salter McNeil in Chicago. My friend could not speak more highly about the now Rev Dr Brenda Salter McNeil. But also, as a young White woman working in a Black community in Chicago under Dr McNeil, she felt clearly impatience around racial issues and a strong prodding to ‘get it’.

About the same time, I was attending an intentionally interracial church in Chicago, Rock of Our Salvation Evangelical Free Church. Raleigh Washington led the church, and Glenn Kehrein led the slightly older Christian Community Development Corporation. Together they wrote the book Breaking Down Walls about racial reconciliation. Not too long after I left the church because I moved to a different part of the city for grad school, Raliegh Washington left the church to work for Promise Keepers as their VP of reconciliation. I kept in touch with several from the church and for my master’s thesis, I looked at the different ways that church-based community development work understood the relationship of the non-profit ministry to the work of the church. The Rock of Our Salvation/Circle Urban model was one of the three models I profiled and I interviewed Glenn Kehrein for that thesis a couple of years after Raleigh Washington had left. The Promise Keepers’ model of reconciliation, which I talked about with Glenn, and which has been written about frequently as a step, albeit a limited one, toward racial reconciliation, was incomplete.

Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest by Nate Powell

Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest book coverSummary: A memoir of parenting and activism over the past five years.

Nate Powell is best known as the March Trilogy artist, a collaboration with John Lewis to tell the story of his early years as a Civil Rights Activist through the end of his days at SNCC. A new series telling John Lewis’ story after his days at SNCC will start coming out in August.

This interview at Paste in 2015 says that after his kids were born, he has a hard time doing more than 250 pages of art a year. Graphically, he tends toward black and white with occasional splashes of color for effect. In many ways, he has become one of the best-known artists in the country—the first to win a National Book Award and the winner of many other awards. There are a ton of good articles on Powell. He has also talked many times about the near impossibility of making a living as an artist. Even one that is as well known as he.

Save it for Later is a memoir. I preordered as soon as I heard about it, and like many books that I buy because of the author, I intentionally did not read much about it before I read it. I was unprepared for how much of the book was about navigating parenting as an activist. And it was that part that really spoke to me as a reader.

You cannot read my book reviews regularly and not know that I am somewhat of an activist myself. As I discussed yesterday, part of what motivates me is that I cannot parent as I want to if I do not deal with my own issues first. I am an activist in part because I want my kids to be activists. I want my kids to work for change in the world and see their responsibility to work for change for the sake of others. I took my kids, 3 and 4 at the time, to the 50th Anniversary march remembering MLK’s funeral. They came with us to several marches and prayer services in response to Floyd, Aubry, and Taylor’s deaths last year. I discussed with my daughter the death of Daunte Wright and the protests going on this morning.

Powell is five years younger than I am, but his kids are slightly older. He is a stay-at-home father as well. In this memoir, he draws his kids with animal heads in a brilliant move of protective reality. He communicates the difficulty of informing his kids of the world’s problems because he thinks it is important, and struggling with how much to tell them at what age. There is a point where he recounts a conversation between himself and his daughter about the police. He wants her to know that policing is corrupted and racially discriminatory, but he does not want her to fear the police.

The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended

The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You've Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended Book CoverSummary: There are many bad books written about marriage and sex in the Christian book market. 

If you had asked me to recommend a good book about sex and marriage from a Christian perspective, I am unsure what I would have said before this. Gary Thomas’ Sacred Marriage is decent, but there are weaknesses because it is a book about discipleship more than anything else. Beyond that, I know there there are lots of bad books about marriage and sex. Some that have good parts but are concerning on the whole. And a whole raft of books that may be okay in some situations but often are stereotypical, oriented toward gender essentialism, do not take into account abuse or other more complex situations, or are just frankly dated. It is not that there are not nuggets of truth in many of those books; for many who are reading books about marriage and sex, they are too naive about sex and marriage to know how to sort through what is good and what is not.

There are three general times when I have read many books about sex and marriage, right before and after getting married, when marriage is tough for one reason or another, or when my wife and I have led small groups for newly married couples. I don’t want books that have some good and some problems for the first two situations because, frankly, I probably would get the two reversed. And as I read books when we were leading small groups for newly married couples, I had difficulty finding things I could really recommend. (And the newly hired small group pastor that came in toward the end of our second year leading those small groups didn’t think that we should be talking about sex at all, so we stopped leading those groups.)

Coming into The Great Sex Rescue, I knew there were problems with several Christian books on sex and marriage. There were some that I immediately threw away once finishing them, like Everyman’s Battle (it is trash and should never be recommended). And some that I read through and knew were problematic and wouldn’t recommend. But as a man, I definitely was reading them from a male perspective. One of the most important reasons we need to be reading books from various author perspectives is that I can’t see what I can’t see without a guide. One of the book(s) discussed frequently is For Men Only and For Women Only. When for Women Only came out, I read it and notated where I thought it was right and wrong about me as an individual. I particularly knew that books based on surveys and that include stereotypes can be helpful for discussion. Still, without an understanding of the particular person that you are married to, they are limited.

The Great Sex Rescue is designed to take the messages of many previous Christian sex books and put them in the context of current polling and research, facilitated with the range of individual stories from follow-up interviews and turn around what is often one-sided advice and make it more helpful. The reframing of ideas at the end of each chapter is probably the most helpful aspect of the Great Sex Rescue. It is not a book that is just pointing out what is wrong; it is also committed to figuring out how to present a positive message.

For instance, there are few things that Christian books on marriage and sex are more sure of than men being more interested in sex than women are. Almost all books assume men wanting sex more often than their wives as the default reality of Christian marriage. But current polling suggests that roughly a quarter of women have higher libidos than their male spouses. And nearly another quarter of women say that they and their spouses have approximately equal libidos. This means that the default assumption (which may be true slightly more often than not) is false nearly half of the time. An assumption that is wrong nearly half of the time, presented as nearly always true, is then not mostly right, but an assumption that should not be presented in the first place.

Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Kwon and Thompson

Summary: A call for reparations in the context of US slavery, largely making a case for an American Christian audience. 

There are few things less popular than the concept of reparations. According to two general polls, 26% of the US supports reparations. It is much less popular among White Evangelicals, around 4%, according to sociologist Samuel Perry. I do not think that Kwon and Thompson believe that this is going to be an easy case to make. And I want to commend Brazos Press for publishing the book because I can’t imagine that an explicitly Christian case for reparations, something that is only supported by 4% of White Evangelicals, is going to become a best seller.

The center point of the claim for Reparations is that “White supremacy’s most enduring effect, indeed its very essence is theft.” They use white supremacy here and throughout the book in the sense of a racial hierarchy with a cultural belief in white racial superiority. The sense of theft here is also broad but nuanced, “…theft is best understood not merely in terms of wealth but also in the more comprehensive terms of truth and power.”

One of the complaints about the book that I predict is that Kwon and Thompson frequently use language that is associated in the minds of many with Critical Race Theory and Social Justice. The complaints will be about the method of argument more than the content of the argument and the reality of the harm done, or the need theologically for repair because of that harm. One of the book’s strengths is that Kwon and Thompson attempt to define what they mean all through the book clearly. It is hard for me to adequately evaluate how well they accomplish this for readers that are new to these concepts since I am not new to this discussion. But the concept of whiteness and the social construction of race do matter significantly to the case that Kwon and Thompson are trying to make.

The process of this expanded meaning of Whiteness mirrored the expanding of Blackness; as Blackness took on new meaning, Whiteness took on its opposite. Where Blackness signified inferior personal capacity, Whiteness signified superior personal capacity. Where Blackness signified inferior moral deficiency, Whiteness signified superior moral virtue. Where Blackness signified the margins of society, Whiteness signified a rightful claim to the center. To be White came to mean not only having lighter skin, but also possessing elevated personal capacity, inherent moral virtue, and an assumed place at the center of the social order. And, as with Blackness, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the presence of this newly invented notion of Whiteness was clearly visible in American cultural life.”

Reparations are not a new concept, even if there has been renewed interested. John Hepburn, in 1715, wrote a pamphlet, The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, which called explicitly for reparation using Christian theology before the US was founded as a country.

“I am of Opinion, that such Sins cannot be repented of without Restitution made to them that they have wronged; for until the Cause be removed, I know not how the Effect should cease. But they that live and dye without making Restitution to them that they have wronged, how they can expect the Forgiveness of God…”

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us by Layton Williams

Summary: Unity is important for Christians, but there are times when unity can mask issues of justice and legitimate disagreement.

I probably would not have picked this up if it has not been included in Audible Plus Catalog (which means it is free to listen to for audible members.) Generally, I am strongly in favor of ecumenical work and of the church as a whole recognizing itself. I am part of a group called The Initiative, designed to facilitate understanding and cooperation between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.

I am a part of several groups trying to build a similar understanding and cooperation among Christians of different racial groups. But you cannot seriously participate in groups like this without thinking about lines you will not cross. One of the significant and accurate charges in White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler is that White Evangelicals often claim to be against racism but rarely are willing to make racism a line which they will break fellowship over. One example in that book is MLK Jr directly asking Billy Graham not to appear on the platform with a noted segregationist in 1957, a request that Graham refused.

Not all unity is a positive unity. Unity can be achieved through various means, and sometimes the means to unity actually subverts the cause of Christianity. If visible unity requires suppression of people or their personhood, then that unity is a false unity. But even that is not nearly nuanced enough. There are times when it seems appropriate for a person to choose to voluntarily not exert their own rights for the sake of unity. It becomes more difficult when a larger group, especially a group of historically marginalized people, is required to not exert their rights as a Christian for the sake of unity.

Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren

Summary: Discussion of grief and the spiritual life framed with the Compline prayer from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

I am a big fan of the book of common prayer. There are many different books of common prayer, and I am not particularly devoted to one or another, but I am devoted to the value of prayers being common, of structured prayer (especially when prayer is hard), and the routine of prayer and scripture that takes you through both the liturgical year and the lectionary. I do not use the BCP every day, but I do most days. When I first started using BCP, I bought a kindle book with all the scripture inline so that there was no flipping, based on the 1979 Episcopal BCP. But the compiler of those dated kindle versions stopped producing them after a couple of years, and I bounced around for a while. I stumbled on a podcast of the 1928 BCP, which randomly was taken over by a Facebook friend and so I spent a year or two primarily listening to podcasts of the service. More recently, I have been using the 2019 ACNA BCP and creating a PDF of the morning service and sending it to my Supernote A5X, and that works really well both for a full service with everything nicely laid out and a larger format than a kindle. And there is a podcast of the same service, so I sometimes will listen along or listen instead of reading.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Prayer in the Night. I had read Tish Harrison Warren’s earlier Liturgy of the Ordinary, and while I did not dislike the book, it was so strongly hyped that by the time I got around to reading it, there was no way for the book to have lived up to the recommendations. And Prayer in the Night, if anything, has received even more positive press. I don’t think I have seen a single negative review or post about it. I probably would not have read it if it were not part of the Renovaré book club. I have participated in the book club for the past couple of years, so I picked up Prayer in the Night.

Prayer in the Night is framed around the compline prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.