Book Reviews

Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity by David Swanson

Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True SolidaritySummary: Stop emphasizing visual diversity and focus on solidarity. 

Among those interested in racial justice, there is significant interest in how to help people become interested in racial justice. I frequently have used the metaphor of evangelism both because there is a sense of a message being that is necessary, and there is some sense of the Holy Spirit awakening the person to be open to that message.

David Swanson’s main focus in Rediscipling the White Church is discipleship, not evangelism. Somewhat similar to my own interested in racial justice and spiritual direction (a method of discipleship) evolving in parallel, Swanson is emphasizing that the way to correct a distorted church is an emphasis on correct discipleship.

Dallas Willard claims that a disciple is, most basically, an apprentice “who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.” While there is more that could be said about what a disciple is, for our purposes a Christian disciple follows Jesus to become like him and to do what he does.

Swanson is building on the work of Dallas Williard, James KA Smith, and others that remind us that discipleship is not about intellectual knowledge acquisition, but building habits.

Building on Augustine’s understanding of people as desiring creatures, philosopher James K. A. Smith writes that it’s our habits that “incline us to act in certain ways without having to kick into a mode of reflection.”7 Remember my implicit bias at the beginning of the chapter? Because we are not first and foremost thinking beings who rationally engage with every encounter, it is our habits which shape our imaginations or, in Augustine’s vocabulary, our loves. My unconscious assumption about who wrecked my cement was inculcated in me through a set of racially oriented habits. We aren’t usually aware of our habits.

The central point of the book is that Swanson wants to transform the goal of discipleship around racial justice is solidarity (regardless of how visually diverse a congregation is) and not some abstracted racial reconciliation or unity.

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Blum and Harvey

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in AmericaSummary: History of the visual and descriptions of Jesus throughout the history of the United States.

I have been interested in The Color of Christ for a while, but I had not picked it up until Audible.com included it as part of the Audible Plus Catalogue. This new benefit allows members to listen to a couple thousand (mostly older) audiobooks for free.

The Color of Christ is a history of how Jesus has been portrayed and discussed throughout the history of the United States. My main takeaway is that while many have thought of Jesus as white, the actual images of Jesus as white, are relatively recent. Puritans had a strong iconoclast orientation as well as an understanding of the second commandment as including all representations of Jesus. While other Christian communities in the US were more likely to allow for pictures of Jesus, those groups were less culturally influential. It was not until around the 1820s that increased Catholic immigration and other forces started to weaken the cultural prohibitions to representing Christ.

Similar to what was illustrated in Jesus and John Wayne, the way that many argued against the Puritan opposition to representing Jesus Christ was as a means of Christian education. About that time, changes in printing technology allowed for low-cost pamphlets and books to include images. There is an interesting tidbit about the development of Mormon theology. Initially, Joseph Smith spoke about Jesus speaking to him through a bright light. But in later revisions of the story (in the 1820s), it was the tangible physical Jesus, who he described as White with blue eyes. That White Jesus became essential to the development of Mormon theology.

There are so many historical details that were new to me in this book. Part of what was new was Native American pastors that spoke out against white supremacy, slavery, and the lack of Christian ethics. Samson Occom wrote one of the first hymnals in the US and helped found, and fundraise for a school that was originally supposed to be for Native Americans but became Dartmouth. William Apess was a Native American pastor in the early 19th century. He passed away at only 41 but had written several books, including an autobiography and spoke out against the mistreatment of Native Americans and Black slaves and for the importance of being both a Christian and a Pequot.

Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley

Summary: Exploration of how reading in the diverse Black Church Tradition works in several practical examples. 

About a year ago, I first heard of Esau McCaulley. I do not remember if I heard of his new appointment to Wheaton College New Testament faculty (my alma mater) or if I saw him at the Jude 3 Conference first. Regardless, I have paid close attention to him since. He has written many articles this past year for Christianity Today (including this month’s cover article on policing adapted from this book), the New York Times (where is he is contributing opinion writer), Washington Post, and others. And he had an interview podcast with ten episodes so far. I am also about halfway through a free podcasted seminary class, The Bible in Color, which has some overlapping content with the book. My point of noting all of this is that once you have read this book, there is more to follow up with. And that I was not entering the book brand new.

Reading in Black is not trying to survey the entirety of Black biblical tradition of biblical interpretation, but to give an introduction to the fact that there is a diverse tradition of biblical interpretation that matters. The book opens to tracing, somewhat autobiographically, why the Black biblical tradition matters. And the book ends with a ‘bonus track’ on some of the development of the academic Black biblical tradition. And he notes that the three general streams of the black church “revolutionary/nationalistic, reformist/transformist, and conformist” tend to only include academic expressions of the first and the last. McCaulley is more in the middle and wants to encourage more work in that reformist/transformist stream. Part of that first chapter that I have seen myself, is how important it is to be historically conversant in the actual words of the Black church, not just what has been said about those words.

Between that opening and closing are five chapters that illustrate what it means to interpret the bible as a Black man in the Black church tradition. The chapter that was developed into the article at Christianity Today, is an exploration of the New Testament and the theology of policing. It centers around Romans 13, the passage that is frequently trotted out as a basis of supporting the political status quo, and shows why social context matters, but also how social context is not the only thing that matters when reading scripture. (That last bonus chapter explores the limits of social context in biblical interpretation more.) The Black church tradition has emphasized that the bible is not a string of proof texts, but an overall narrative that centers the liberating work of Christ throughout history. This means that interpreting Romans 13, apart from the reality that the subjects of authority are still made in the image of God, impacts how we see justice. Abstracting authority from the imago dei allows us to support dehumanizing tactics by removing the humanity of the subject of the authority from the ethical discussion.

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache #16)

Summary: As Gamache and his wife visit Paris to await the birth of their grandchild, crime continues to happen.

Louise Penny is one of my favorite fiction authors at this point. I can’t think of another author that has managed to keep my attention 16 books into a series. I am been reading far too few fiction books lately. There are many reasons for that, but I do believe that fiction is essential. It is how we understand parts of the world that are not our own as well, giving words to help us make sense of the elements of the world that are our own. I was thrilled that Netgalley has started offering audiobook to review. I was desperate for a change of pace, and while a crime thriller isn’t what I would call relaxing, it was the change of pace I needed. I finished the 14-hour audiobook in three days. I would not recommend jumping into the 16th book in the series; there are too many details that you will miss.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are visiting their two children and their families, both of whom now live in Paris. Armand inherited a small apartment from the woman that raised him after his parents died when he was 9. And his godfather, recently introduced in the past couple books, also has an apartment here. His godfather is now a mostly retired 95-year-old billionaire who was once an impoverished German teen who reportedly worked with the French underground during WWII. Through his excellent business sense and a sense of justice, Stephen Horowitz brought down companies and became wealthy.

Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Carolyn Weber

Sex and the City of God: A Memoir of Love and LongingSummary: Follow up to the earlier memoir, Suprised by Oxford.

I do not remember why I originally picked up Suprised by Oxford. It was probably a book I chose to review. But in the decade since it came out, I have read it three times, I believe. I have given away several copies, and I have recommended it to many. I think I will read pretty much anything that Carolyn Weber writes. She is a writer of both skill and insight.

Sex and the City of God is a follow up to both the love story with God and TDH (Tall, Dark, and Hansome.) If you are reading this as a follow up to Surprised by Oxford, which I recommend, you know that they are going to get married eventually. That lack of suspense did not impact my reading or my enjoyment of the story.

Like Suprised by Oxford, there are plenty of references and allusions. As you might expect from the title, Augustine is a particular conversation partner. Weber balances the story of her relationship with her now-husband with the relationship with her creator. This is intentional throughout because she wants to parallel how marriage is like our relationship with God. I do like the spiritual exploration in real life metaphors. It is part of how I like to think about both religious life and how I want to ‘seek God in all things.’ Christianity Today had a positive review but had a few reservations because the reviewer thought that at times there was a tension between the story and seeking God in that story.

Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude Jr

Begin Again: James Baldwin's America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own Summary: Exploration of why James Baldwin resonates so strongly.

Begin Again is the second of Eddie Glaude’s book that I have read. I appreciate Democracy in Black but thought when I read it that it may have been written a couple of years early because it was writing about how democracy still perpetuates racism during the Obama years. And reading it in the Trump years meant that I thought he was right, but not quite pointed enough.

Because there are few writers that I am fascinated by more than Baldwin (although he is not an easy read), I was interested in a trusted guide. That is what Eddie Glaude was seeking to do. He was both explicating Baldwin, but also placing him in context for a modern reader who is reading Baldwin years after his death and a half-century after he impacted the world.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin DuMez

Summary: American Christianity has slowly adopted a Jesus that looks and acts a lot like John Wayne, and that has distorted Christianity.

When I first heard about Jesus and John Wayne, I had it connected to books on Christian Nationalism, like Taking America Back for God, maybe because that is how Matthew Lee Anderson framed his review in Christianity Today. That isn’t entirely wrong, but I am not sure it gets the main point of the book any more than framing it as an Anti-Trump book as this review does. The book opens with a vignette about Trump’s 2016 statement “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Jesus and John Wayne isn’t so much about Trump, or John Wayne, as much as it is about how since the 1950s, Evangelicalism in particular, and Christianity more broadly, has culturally embraced a concept of militant masculine Christianity, a ‘bad-ass Jesus’, as a central image for its discipleship and evangelism strategy. The movement to save America (yes Christian Nationalism is a component of the book), has been a reactive one. Whether it is communism (they are atheists, so the US needs to add ‘Under God’ to the pledge), or feminists (so we need to emphasize complementary gender roles and patriarchal authority), or loose sexual morals (so we emphasize purity and ‘kiss dating goodbye’), the point is that the Christian church in the post World War II era has not created a positive message of Christianity so much as looked at culture and done the opposite. Except when it hasn’t.

The ‘when it hasn’t’ is also essential. Because culture has embraced the individual macho man, whether it is John Wayne as the soldier or cowboy or the behind the scenes savior like Jack Bauer or James Bond, or the father with a very particular set of skills that will pursue his daughter’s kidnappers in Taken, the individual who can save us is part of the American mystique.

Jesus and John Wayne is a history book. It is tracing the 75-year history of the development of Evangelical conceptions of gendered leadership, which has resulted in widespread support of a president who does not match Christian theological or virtue ideals but is “somebody who is able to fight back” or phrased differently, ‘the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump.’ The main focus of Jesus and John Wayne is the gendered conception of leadership and the way that the emphasis on exaggerated gender role divisions has distorted Christianity.

I am not going to trace the full history developed in the book. It traces the development of opposition of ERA and abortion, the embrace of Reagan (as an overt parallel to John Wayne) and his manly man soldier doing what needs to be done in Oliver North, the rejection of ‘softer’ parenting styles with James Dobson and the Pearls, Promise Keepers’ focus on men taking back leadership of the family, the later rejection of Promise Keepers as too tender and the embrace of ‘No more Christian nice guys’ and ‘spiritual badasses.’

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory GuideSummary: The how and why of intersectional theology.

There is lots of conversation right now about Critical Theory especially as it is related to the more recent development of Critical Race Theory.  I am far from a scholar about either, but I have done long form reading and a lot of short-form, podcast, and video learning, and to my untrained eye, Intersectionality is the most helpful and arguably the most misunderstood aspect of Critical Race Theory (CRT).

I am not going to fully explicate this book. I would need to read it again to do a better job at that. But I do have 50 highlights or notes that are public from the book.  One of the aspects of discussing Intersectionality that is difficult is that there is a lot of particular languages that have different uses depending on the section. The implication of that is that it is rare for there to be pithy quotes, not just because of the jargon or technical language, but because internally to many quotes, there has to be the nuanced explication of what is and is not being said at any point. I found myself often highlighting not just whole paragraphs, but often whole pages to make sure I had enough to make sense of the idea later when I want to look back.

A good example of this is the following quote that sets up the book:

For most of Christian history, written theology has been the purview of educated, heterosexual, white, Western men. Challenges to the homogeneity of Christian theology arose in the mid-twentieth century through theologies of liberation that gave historical and social context to those doing the theologizing. Latin American, feminist, minjung, womanist, mujerista, and queer theologies emerged to contest the assumed neutrality and objectivity of white, male theologies. Recognizing the importance of social location for how theology is done and its contents, these theologies centered the marginalized and articulated theologies from below. While the center shifted to diverse identities, these theologies still tended to be mono-focused, or what feminist scholar Vivian May calls “gender-first” or “race-first,” an approach that gives priority to one facet of identity as explanatory for experiences of oppression. And so, white feminists often wrote about gender as if it were a monolithic category, overlooking or minimizing the ways race and sexuality shape individuals’ experiences of gender. Latin American liberationists wrote within a context of struggle in Central and South America but did not address the role of gender in the ethnic and class struggles of Latin America…Rather than applying “single-axis” thinking, intersectional analysis relies on “both/and,” an analytical lens that allows for the complexities and contradictions of holding positions of dominance and subordination at the same time and having those concurrent locations mold and fashion experiences that are not race or gender or race plus gender but are rather the confluence of race and gender into something that is both and neither.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled TimesSummary: Commentary on Lamentations and a primer on the importance of lament.

I have joined a Be the Bridge group that is meeting via video call every other Saturday morning. Part of the method of BTB is to have each person present some historic event of racial injustice as part of creating a shared history which leads to real lament. I was asked to put together a summary of Prophetic Lament because I had already read the book. Because it had been a few years since I have read it, I wanted to re-read the book to prepare.

I did a lot more highlighting than I did on my first reading because I was trying to get quotes and ideas for the presentation. I am not going to write up a full new review, but I am going to link to my presentation and link to my highlights (42 of them).

I know it is not quite the same thing, but the American church often feels like the InsideOut movie, where Happy thinks initially that the best thing is for the girl to be happy all the time and for her to make sure Sadness is kept on the sidelines. Instead, by the end of the movie, Happy realizes that there is a real role for Sadness to play in the life of their girl and that repression of emotions other than happiness only backfires.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience by Sheila Wise Rowe

Summary: Trauma is real; some of that trauma is based on racism or white supremacy; the hard work of healing is essential, not just for individuals but also for communities and future generations. 

I have recently joined a Be The Bridge group. Part of the method of the group is to acknowledge history and lament that history. I was asked to do a short presentation on lament. Because I had meant to anyway, I started re-reading Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament. The opening of Prophetic Lament was helpful, but I was seeking out other resources and saw the chapter on Lament in Healing Racial Trauma. After I finished that chapter, a friend commented about how helpful she found the book as a whole and how she was leading a small group through the book. So I decided to move the book up on my list.

Part of being slow to pick up Healing Racial Trauma is my identification of racial trauma primarily with racial minorities. Most of the examples of this book are of racial minorities, but that does not mean that this book is not for those with less melanin. The strong theme throughout the book is that healing is not only for yourself (although it is that as well) but also for your community and future generations. Breaking cycles is tremendously hard, but if we want healthy communities, churches, institutions, and families, we have to do the work of breaking cycles. That means that we have to do the hard work of internal healing, which is related to communal healing.