Book Reviews

No Name in the Street by James Baldwin

Summary: Memoir and social criticism, mostly focusing on 1963 to 1969, but with excursions to his childhood. Lots of reflection on the deaths of MLK, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and others. 

I picked up No Name in the Street because it was so heavily referenced in Eddie Glaude’s recent book Begin Again. No Name in the Street is mostly social commentary and memoir. Like The Fire Next Time, it is two long essays, with no real breaks. I plan to pick up a Baldwin biography next to get some distance and a clearer life picture.

I am continually mesmerized by Baldwin’s writing. I do not think that it too strong of a description. Baldwin draws in the reader and writes with such passion and clarity. Reading Baldwin can set my mind spinning. So much of his writing feels so very current. But at the same time, he was just a bit older than MLK and Malcolm X and about 10-15 years older than younger Civil Right Era leaders like Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and John Lewis. Baldwin writes in a way that seems very current, but about history that he lived through. Especially in No Name in the Street, when he was writing about his (still recent) reactions to the large number of Civil Rights Era leaders’ deaths, it gives a weight to this book that I found hard. I put it down several times because as important as the words are, Baldwin is a weighty writer.

The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus by Rich Villodas

Summary: Discipleship focused on five values: Contemplative rhythms, racial reconciliation, interior examination, sexual wholeness, and missional presence. 

About ten years ago, I remember being struck as I read John Stott’s last book (also on discipleship) how much culture impacts how we understand discipleship. Stott had chapters on environmentalism and international ecumenical cooperation (focusing on nuanced and negotiated written agreements and statements of faith). Some books on environmentalism talk about discipleship issues and some books on ecumenical cooperation also talk about the need to disciple people into church unity. Still, in general, those are unusual topics for a general book on discipleship. Stott was writing in a context where those were not unusual topics of discipleship. Stott’s UK background and the US background are different, so books on discipleship have different emphases.

Rich Villodas is a pastor in NYC. Three of the list of his discipleship values will be found in many books. Two of his discipleship values are less common. According to Barna, White Evangelicals have become more interested in racial issues and are more opposed to discussing racial issues. There is an increasing divide within the White Evangelical world regarding justice issues more broadly, but racial justice in particular. Pew shows a 15-20% drop in the percent of the population that self identifies as Evangelical over the past decade. (And I antidotally suspect that it may be an undercount, but it may also just be my cohort.)

The reality is that it is becoming increasingly clear that the demographic dominance of White Evangelicals of the cultural conversation is waning. If for nothing other than pragmatic reasons, there is increasing awareness among some about the need for ethnic diversity within the church. As part of an aside in an online lecture from Esau McCaulley on theology and race, he noted that seminaries and colleges that primarily have catered to White theological training will have to change, or some of them will die, solely because of demographic trends.

The Deeply Formed Life is not taking a pragmatic/utilitarian approach to the need for racial reconciliation among Christians. He is rooting it as a central value, particularly because of our racially and culturally divided age. John 13 quotes Jesus as saying, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” But evidence of that love is often lacking.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla Saad

Summary: Journaling based exploration of racism. 

When discussing racism, a lot of pushback is focused on titles and approaches. And while I think there are some problems with this, it is important to get something that people will hear in the early stages. If a person cannot hear a voice or book or movie, it is unlikely to help them.

Many object to Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility because of the title and approach. Several people have recommended Me and White Supremacy as an alternative. So I read it with an eye toward the book to recommend to people that are early into the understanding of racial issues. For the most part, I agree that this is likely a better book for most people, but not everyone. First, the title still has ‘white supremacy’ in it. Generally, I tend to use ‘white superiority’ instead of ‘white supremacy,’ but the underlying meaning I agree with.

Me and White Supremacy is a 28 study, largely based around journaling questions. Layla Saad first tried the material out on her Instagram followers. And my recommendation is all about whether you are the type of person who will seriously take the questions. If you will not write out answers, or at the very least, think about them, then you will not find any value in the book. But if you engage with the questions and really think about your answers, then I think this is a beneficial book in laying out terms and ideas for anti-racism.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (Oxford Time Travel #1)

Summary: Time travel gone wrong.

I have not been reading nearly enough fiction lately. Doomsday Book was recommended by a friend a year or two ago. It came out nearly 30 years ago while I was in college and in an era where I was not reading a lot of science fiction.

Kivrin is a young ‘historian’ at Oxford. Historians go back in time to study a particular historical period. Most historians go back a couple of centuries because the further back, the more unpredictable the exact time you are being sent becomes. There is a problem with ‘drift,’ and you can be hours or days or weeks off your predicted location, impacting your retrieval. Part of the science of time travel is that the system prevents you from impacting future history and creating paradoxes.

Kivrin is interested in the Midevil era. Her mentor, Mr. Dunworthy, does not like the idea of sending her to the Midevil era, not because she is unprepared or just because she is a woman in an era that was not kind to women, but because the department that oversees Midevil historians is incompetent. Problems happen.

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church by John O’Malley

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane ChurchSummary: A brief history of the movement toward Vatican I and the council itself. 

I seriously considered not blogging about this book. Vatican I is an area that I have almost no background knowledge, so I cannot comment on the quality of the book. I had a friend recommend to me another book by John O’Malley, and as I was saving the book to my future reading list, I saw that Vatican I was free to listen to in Audible because of their new member benefit.

I know I have extensive holes in my knowledge of history. And in this case, that includes not knowing hardly anything about European history after roughly Elizabeth I and hardly anything about Catholic history between Trent and Vatican II.

Luckily, nearly half of the book was about the history and cultural influences that led to the start of Vatican I. So the book seemed to place the context of the subject well so that even someone like myself can benefit. Vatican I did not end, the Franco-Prussian war moved to Rome, and the council was evacuated. Officially Vatican I did not end until the start of Vatican II. Several of the decisions of the council may not have happened if the schedule had been different. There is quite a bit of criticism of Pope Pius IX, but that criticism also seems tempered from how strong it feels like it could have been.

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.