Book Reviews

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan Smith

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan SmithSummary: Story can help us envision God as beautiful, good and true in ways that proposition cannot fully show.

I have read five previous books by James Bryan Smith so I was initially not going to pick this up assuming that there was not much here that I had not absorbed previously. But I found it on sale for audiobook when I was out of audiobooks and I realized that one of my reading goals for the year is to read more about beauty and three months into the year I have not read anything about beauty.

James Bryan Smith is a professor focusing on spiritual formation and is in the line of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Immediately after finishing this I picked up a review copy of a new biography of Dallas Willard (Becoming Dallas Willard which I am loving.)

Smith’s focus in his earlier Good and Beautiful trilogy was to help refocus our attention on God, the God who loves us, wants good for us, and forgives us. He does that in part by identifying ‘false narratives’ about God that we absorb, God as magician or angry God or judgmental God.

The slightly different focus of The Magnificent Story is to think about story as more important than analysis. Much, but not all, of the book is focused on scripture as story about God. This isn’t a book on hermeneutics, but a book on how to understand the power of story to impact the way we understand God.

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne RobinsonSummary: More essays to explore history, science and politics from a serious Christian.

I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I have read all but one of her novels, and to be honest the reason I haven’t read the last is that I don’t want to have read all of her novels. But I have read Gilead twice and the most recent, and my favorite, Lila, three times. I have also read two of her previous collections of essays. I am more mixed on her essays. I had decided not to read Robinson’s most recent until I read James KA Smith’s review in Comment. His review is such a good example of what a review is supposed to be, and such an interesting comparison between Ta’Nehisi Coates and Robinson that I picked up the audiobook the same day.

But regardless of the praise from Smith, the problems I have with Robinson’s What We Are Doing Here is still the same basic problems I have with Robinson’s other essays. She is an incredible writer. Although the essays here, which were mostly talks given over the past two years edited together into a book, have an odd sort of repetition. She literally quotes the same quotes and cites the same ideas multiple times. Individually, I think most of them are great. But put together, they are somehow less than the individual parts.

Robinson is known as a writer. But her interests mean that she is writing about things that are outside of her academic background. She is fascinated by Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and how we talk and think about science and politics. She is clearly much smarter than I am and so I love being able to listen to her musings about things that I would not have ever considered apart from her. I really do love how wide ranging of a thinker she is. At one point she is talking about another author writing outside of their main field and quips that she isn’t going to complain about that since she frequently does the same thing.

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveSummary: “There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King.”

Over the past 15-20 years there has been increasing discussion about the meaning of the word ‘gospel’. At the top level most everyone can agree that the ‘Gospels’ are the four books that open the New Testament and the ‘Gospel’ is the message of Christianity. Gospel is derived from the Greek euangelion which means good news. Understanding what is, and is not, ‘the gospel’ matters, it isn’t just semantics.

I pushed back pretty hard against Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel because he didn’t have an ending to what needed to be included in the gospel and while I affirm that we have to actually use words, the gospel does not require a belief in 7 day creation or male only understanding of the role of pastor to be the gospel.

Scot McKnight I think had a helpful corrective to the ‘gospel movement’ with King Jesus Gospel which refocuses the meaning of the gospel on Jesus Christ’s Lordship. NT Wright’s Simply Good News takes a similar approach focusing on Jesus as King and restorer.

But each of these authors batting around the term gospel seem to focus primarily on gospel as intellectual content. Allen Yeh in his chapter in Still Evangelical focuses the problem not on the meaning of the actual word gospel (or evangelical) but the bias toward orthodoxy without paying enough attention to orthodpraxy. This isn’t a new charge. Lesslie Newbigin in his 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture focuses on how the gospel has been rooted in the West in a particular view of culture and practice.

I could easily keep going on. I have 163 reviews at that include the word gospel. The meaning of gospel or the focus of the gospel or the practice of the gospel matter because we believe that our Christianity matters. This is not a discussion that is going away and this is not a discussion that is solved by Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.

Reconstructing the Gospel is playing on the title of the book The Third Reconstruction which Wilson-Hartgrove co-wrote with William Barber. Both of these books reference the historical period of Reconstruction which in popular historical understanding is a period of failed political intervention after the Civil War. Recent historians, like Eric Foner have been re-writing that popular understanding of Reconstruction for the past 20-30 years.

Souls of Black Folks by WEB DuBois

The Souls of Black Folk by WEB DuBoisSummary: Series of 15 essays that range from personal (death of his son and his early teaching experience) to approaches toward racism (a break with Booker T Washington) to historical and sociological exploration.

As far as I can remember I have not read a full book by WEB DuBois previously, although I know I have read a couple of essays. He is a fascinating character. He was born during reconstruction and earned a PhD from Harvard in 1895. He helped to found the NAACP and became the director of Publicity and Research, which included being the publisher and editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, which hit a circulation of 100,000 in 1920. In the 1920s DuBois became involved in the Pan African movement and promoted Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement before breaking with Garvey over political issues (DuBois disagreed with Garvey’s position that African Americans should move to Africa to become the new leadership of Africa.)

His life really is complicated and there is far too much that is important. But at 93 he moved to Africa and after the US suspended his passport in 1963 he officially became a citizen of Ghana where he died at the age of 95. I want to read a good biography of him, if anyone has a suggestion I would like to hear it.

The Souls of Black Folks is a fairly early work. It was published in 1903, just 7 years after finishing his PhD. It is far more wide ranging than I would have guessed. And without making this a 2000 word post, there isn’t really any way to cover all of it.

A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ by Michael Card

A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ by Michael CardSummary: Freedom in Christ is found through calling him Master.

Years ago when I attended a small church in the years after I finished seminary, I used to occasionally preach. I do not think I was ever more than a mediocre preacher at best, but I did enjoy preparing sermons, if for no other reason than giving myself a place to process what I was thinking theologically.

A friend that I met with regularly was also a pastor and preaching professor at a local seminary. I remember asking him about how to talk about scriptural slavery as I was working on a sermon around one of New Testament passages about slavery (I don’t remember which one).  Roughly half of my congregation was African American and I was concerned about how to preach about slavery as a White Christian preaching to actual descendants of slaves. My concerns were pretty much dismissed initially but several weeks after I preached the sermon my friend came back and we had a good conversation about how he had dismissed my concerned largely because he had just not really thought through the implications of my question. My memory is that I did what many other White Christians have done and minimized the slavery and made the passage more about being a servant (the difference in interpretation being a slave does not have options while servants choose to work, which has real theological implications to the difference in approach and is a much more individualistic approach.)

A Better Freedom is a book I wish I had read before preaching that sermon. Michael Card works through the historical realities around slavery in the Roman world, the biblical context of Philemon and a few other passages around slavery, and race based slavery in the United States and his experience of the Black church (he attends a historically Black church.)

Affirming the Apostles Creed by JI Packer

Affirming the Apostles Creed by JI PackerSummary: A Reformed exploration of the Apostles Creed, designed for small group discussion.

I have an appreciation of the work that JI Packer did throughout his life. I have read a couple of his books, but in many ways I appreciate the influence that he had on people more than his writing directly. Most of what I have read by Packer, and I think it is just his famous Knowing God, Rediscovering Holiness, Taking God Seriously and Affirming the Apostles’ Creed, is theologically good, but somewhat grumpy in tone and much more Reformed than I am.

I knew that going in and that is in part why it has taken me 9 years after I picked this up free to actually finish it. I have started it twice before and never got past the first couple of chapters.

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in AmericaSummary: Sociological look at why Evangelicals are still divided racially.

Divided by Faith is not a new book, it is nearly 20 years old at this point and I have been meaning to read it for years. Consistently it is the first book I see recommended to White Evangelicals that are seeking to explore racial issues particularly within the Christian church. Having read it now, I can see why it is recommended and I also strongly commend it, but I also think it is dated and could use with an updated version.

The preface and opening chapter lays out the problem of a racially divided church.

“We have taken it as our charge to tell as honest, accurate, rigorous, and enlightening a tale about our topic as possible. In so doing, we were led to move beyond the old idea that racial problems result from ignorant, prejudiced, mean people (and that evangelicals are such people). This is simply inaccurate, and does not get us far in trying to understand why racial division in the United States persists.”(p. ix)

In Divided by Faith, Emerson and Smith tell the story of the United States as a ‘racialized society’. They use that term as a starting framework. Race is important, not only to discussions of slavery or Jim Crow or the Civil Rights era, but also today. Quoting another author, they note, “we are never unaware of the race of the person with whom we interact.” Categories of race may be socially constructed, as has become common to say, but socially constructed does not mean imaginary.

An important note in their presentation of a racialized society is that Smith and Emerson want to pay attention to the adaptation of racial practices. Racial practices are,

“(1) are increasingly covert, (2) are embedded in normal operations of institutions, (3) avoid direct racial terminology, and (4) are invisible to most Whites.” (p9)

Smith and Emerson want to neither suggest that racial practices are less important than at other points nor that there have not been significant improvements to the daily lives of minorities since earlier eras. Racial practices have changed, but the reality of racial practices has not diminished.

The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity by Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattic

The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christinaity by Christopher Gehrz and Mark PatticSummary: The orientation of our faith matters a lot to the way we interact with the world.

Pietism has a negative connotation much of the time. But as I went through the book and heard the authors’ description of what they mean by pietism, I realized that I have some strong pietist leanings. And in some ways I think I am probably more accurately described as pietist than evangelical. Pietism is plagued, sometimes rightly, with a reputation for legalism. But pietism, like the term Methodist and Puritan and even Christian was a pejorative that was later adopted by the movement.

The Pietist Option’s title is riffing off of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, but the book is much more influenced by Philipp Spener’s 1675 book, Pia Desideria, than a response to Dreher. The themes of that book, which really defined the pietist movement, are worked out here in a modern context.

Pietism, for the authors is focused on:

  • A more extensive listening to the Word of God
  • The common priesthood for the common good
  • Christianity as life
  • The irenic spirit
  • Whole-person, whole-life formation
  • Proclaiming the good news

The authors, a historian of Pietism and a pastor from a pietist influenced denomination, are writing pastorally more than academically. Their orientation is that reform and renewal need to be constant, but the tone and orientation of our faith as well as the visibility of our love for other Christians and those outside the faith needs to take on a greater prominence.

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth by Michael Bruner

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O'Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth by Michael BrunerSummary: An exploration of Flannery O’Connor’s writing, theology and influences.

A Subversive Gospel is the type of book that will never find a large audience, but that I thank God (literally) that Christian academic publishers still publish.

This is my year of exploration of Flannery O’Connor, which I am probably doing it all wrong. I have only read her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and her Prayer Journal before deciding to read all of her fiction this year. I picked up a quick biography at the end of last year to give me a bit of context before I started. And then I was recommended A Subversive Gospel. A Subversive Gospel is oriented toward someone that is quite familiar with her work, especially The Violent Bear it Away, which is the most discussed work in A Subversive Gospel.

I did stop about 2/3 of the way through the book and quickly listen to the audiobook of Wise Blood to get a sense of O’Connor’s novel style. I will probably read A Subversive Gospel again, or at least parts of it, after I finish reading O’Connor’s fiction. Most of the book, while referencing her writing, I think was good preparation for reading her books. I am glad I read it when I did, so that I will hopefully get more out of, and enjoy the books more, because I understand them more.

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick PhillipsSummary: The story of how Forsyth County, GA expelled all African Americans in 1912 and continued to not have any African American residents until the late 1980s.

I stumbled on Blood at the Root at my local library and is the type of local history that I probably need to read more often. Forsyth County, Georgia is not far from where I live now. I attend church that opened a multi-site location in Cumming, the county seat of Forsyth County. Cumming was a small rural town in 1912, but it part of the suburbs of Atlanta now and I know several people that live there.

In 1912, there were two allegations of rape against Black men in close succession. Allegations of rape of white women by black men was a common part of lynching. It is not that no allegation of rape by Black men was true. But that given the Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of African American in the era of lynching, it is unlikely that many of the allegations of rape were true.

The two rape allegations (one allegation of a rape attempt and a second where the woman was found seriously injured and she died two weeks later). There were several mob actions by Whites against Black residents that required state troops, a lynching, and a show trial that resulted in death sentences for two men (one 16 year old is the youngest to ever be executed in Georgia).

Over the next several months, Night Riders, harassed the African American population of Forsyth County (approximately 10% of the population) and eventually all Black residents of the county left, many abandoning property or selling it at significant loss of value.