Book Reviews

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Summary: Two essays from 1963.

Since I saw the documentary I am Not Your Negro, about James Baldwin, I have been wanting to read more of him. This is my second book this year and I am planning on reading at least one of his novels before the end of the year.

I knew that many people compare Ta-Nehasi Coates to James Baldwin. But it was not until I read We Were Eight Years in Power that I realized that Coates’ Between the World and Me was a conscious effort to write a modern version of The Fire Next Time. Coates wanted something that was short, powerful and personal. And that is what The Fire Next Time is.

There are two essays here. Between the World and Me is more consciously emulated after the first, a short letter to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration. (Coates writes Between the World and Me as a letter to his son.)

The much longer (roughly 80% of The Fire Next Time) section is Down at the Cross. This is an essay about Baldwin’s understanding of the implications of historic racism for him personally. Much of it is about his grappling with faith. Christianity, which is where Baldwin started as a boy preacher, gets a lot of credit for saving Baldwin so that he could become a writer. But Baldwin eventually moves on because the Christianity of his world is not Christian enough to actually address the problems of race either by focusing on the radical repentance or the radical forgiveness that would be necessary to deal with the sin and result of racism.

Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir by Stanley Hauerwas

Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir by Stanley HauerwasSummary: Hauerwas theological and personal memoir.

I have been on a memoir kick this year. I tend to read through a genre or subject areas quite a bit and then set it aside for a while. This year my memoir reading has been consciously seeking out wisdom from elder Christians.

I picked up Hannah’s Child looking for something like Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor or Thomas Oden’s memoir A Change of Heart. I have not previously read much by Hauerwas. The only full book that I think I have read is Resident Aliens, which I read in my first year of college, over 25 years ago. I have some relationship to him because a friend of mine studied with him and I absorbed some of Hauerwas’ positions through him.

Hauerwas is unique. He grew up as a working class boy from Texas. He was clearly brilliant. But also seems to have fallen into his life in a number of ways that he was not consciously choosing. The title, Hannah’s Child, is a reference to his own mother’s desire for a child after infertility and her prayer modeled on the biblical Hannah and her dedication of Samuel to the Lord’s work. Hauerwas clearly sees his mother’s prayer and God guiding him into his life as a theologian.

Hauerwas started his teaching at Augusta College (in Rock Island, IL where I lived from 6th grade to high school graduation.) From there he spent 10 years at Notre Dame and then the rest of his career at Duke. That progression and the different characters of the schools and the people around him really did shape him and that comes out clearly in the book. (After the book came out he retired from Duke in 2013 and was appointed to a Chair of Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen.)

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi CoatesSummary: A reflection on eight years of Atlantic Essays during the time of Obama.

When I first heard about We Were Eight Years in Power, I was excited for a book from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the Obama years. Coates both is a serious critic of Obama and someone that has strongly defended him. I am going to continue to look for a book like that in the future.

We Were Eight Years in Power is not really that. Instead it is a repackaging of a number of essays by Coates from the Atlantic. Coates first essay for the Atlantic was about Bill Cosby and his conservative lectures to the black community to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That initial essay eventually led to Coates becoming a staff writer for the Atlantic and a number of cover stories that many will have already read.

The three most famous are his Reparations article, his article on Mass Incarceration and his essay earlier this year on Trump as the first consciously White (post Obama) president.

Previously to reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I had read most of the essays. It was still worth re-reading the essays. But what I found most interesting was Coates introductions to each essay. These were sometimes biographical or historical, telling the reader about his life or the country when he originally published the essay. Almost all of them included an evaluation of the content, usually pointing out weaknesses in his approach or places where he wishes he had expanded the analysis or where he got part of the essay wrong.

That analysis was helpful both to give context to why he wrote the individual essay, but also to give context to his larger project and how, for good and ill, racial issues were important during the Obama years.

Coates talks quite candidly about his discomfort with being the main or only writer on race issues that many Whites have read. He has a clear perspective. One that is famously not particularly hopeful. But it is realistic to the current age and to the data as he sees it.

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer by Ed Cyzewski

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer by Ed CyzewskiSummary: An Evangelical discovers contemplative prayer.

Ed Cyewski is a freelance author. He is roughly my age, a stay at home Dad, a seminary grad and from what I have read, I think we would get along. I have read four of his books (links below) and picked this one up right after it came out. Although it took me months to get around to reading it.

Cyzewski grew up nominally Catholic, but came to a real faith as a teen through Evangelical outreach. He left the Catholic church and rejected it, partially out of Evangelical bias against Catholicism, but also because of some of his own history.

This book is focused on making contemplative prayer accessible to Evangelicals. For Cyzewski, that has meant coming to terms with some of the Catholic practices that he rejected earlier. My own movement toward contemplative prayer is less about coming to terms with than discovering as new.

A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden

I am reposting this 2014 review of A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99
A Short Life of Jonathan EdwardsSummary: A short, readable, popular biography of Jonathan Edwards.

A couple months ago George Marsden’s A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards was the free audiobook at Christianaudio.com.  I picked it up, but was a bit skeptical because I read 3/4 of Marsden’s large academic biography of Edwards, Jonathan Edwards: A Life.  I put down the large biography as I moved to Georgia nearly 8 years ago, and for some reason never picked it back up to finish and then ended up giving it away.

But as Marsden says in the introduction, this is not an abridgement of the larger biography, but a completely new book that was written intentionally as a popular level short biography.  This book is only about a quarter of the length of the longer one, but is surprisingly comprehensive given its short length.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Chief Inspector Gamache #13)Summary: Gamache, now head of the Sûreté du Québec gambles.

The Chief Inspector Gamache series has been consistently the best mystery series I have read. It is rare series, 13 books in, that still keeps me engaged. And I think the last two books, while a bit unbelievable as mysteries, are probably the best two books of the series.

Armond Gamache has been a career homicide detective. The past several books he has been in an out of the Sûreté. Two books ago he took down the corrupt head of the Sûreté. The last book he was the head of the training academy where he again rooted out corruption. Now he is the head of the whole Sûreté and he turns his attention to the drug trade.

What I have loved about the series is the characters. I am not particularly interesting in the actual mysteries except as a means to see the characters. Penny falls into the common mystery series trap of thinking that she needs to make each successive crime bigger to keep the attention of the reader. (I think this is a false trap. Crimes do not need to be bigger, but the growth of the characters needs to be bigger.)

While I am not particularly interested massive governmental corruption or international terrorism plots or organized crime, I am interested in how those challenges impact Gamache. One of his faults is keeping the responsibility and information too close to his vest. This is a book where he is forced to plan with others a little bit. But because of previous corruption he keeps that circle very small.

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L’Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)

Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle (Crosswick Journal #4)Summary: The last of the series of memoirs, about her husband and their marriage.

Memoirs are about recounting and processing different of life. I appreciate that L’Engle has four different memoirs that are themed. I do not know of any other author that has done this. The first is about being a writer, mother, teacher and creative person. The second is about her own mother and the grief she feels at her decline. The third is about her faith using the liturgical year and a method of organizing.

And Two-Part Invention is about her marriage to Hugh. All of these books are really about Madeleine of course. But we are created by our interactions and integration with others. Marriage impacts us because it is a relationship of choice that at its best is for a lifetime.

There is a lot of background on Madeleine before her marriage. And the years between meeting Hugh and the current story she is telling. The story main story is about Hugh’s dying. I suppose that is a spoiler, but he died over 30 years ago. It is a remembrance and dealing with grief. Marriage, when not interrupted through divorce, is ultimately interrupted by death. That is the normal way of life.

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David Gushee

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David GusheeSummary: A brief memoir about how Gushee’s attempt to follow his calling moved him out of Evangelicalism.

David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)

The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.

Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.

Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.

David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.

He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel Hill

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel HillSummary: The nature of what it means to be White in American, especially as a Christian, is not looked at nearly enough.

When I was thinking about graduate school I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be challenged in my faith and culture and that I did not want to go to an Evangelical seminary. That was helped by the fact that there were very few options for the type of program that I was looking for. The University of Chicago was one of about six schools in the country that had a  program for a dual masters with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work (officially it is a Masters in Social Service Administration, but it is an MSW equivalent).

That decision was made in large part because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I grew up in a solidly Evangelical wing of the Baptist world and I was comfortable in my theology. I didn’t need more Evangelical theology and experience, I needed to experience the church beyond the Evangelical world.

Going to University of Chicago was a very good decision. I know I could get more out of my education if I were more mature with more life experience. But at the time, being exposed to other sincere Christians that were Catholic, mainline, and even one classmate that was a non-theistic Unitarian expanded my view of the church.

I still clearly remember a class while I was in the School of Social Work on race and ethnicity. The professor talked about how we often do not understand our culture until we are separated from it. If you are from the South and move to the Northeast, you will understand parts of what it means to be Southern that you did not understand before. This similar to getting married. What you assumed was true of every family, becomes clear that it was unique about your family.

I did not at the time think of the lesson primarily through the lens of Whiteness, but through the lens of my Evangelical-ness. While at Wheaton I was not completely comfortable describing myself as Evangelical because of some of the nuances of what that meant in that location. But at University of Chicago I claimed Evangelical much more clearly because it was a unique category. I wanted to be Evangelical there because of the many misunderstandings of what Evangelical meant to my non-Evangelical classmates. All groups have nuance and often those outside the group only see the stereotype, not the nuance.

White Away: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White is a very helpful look at the category of whiteness as a Christian. Part of the reality of the United States is that most White people are mostly around White people. We may have one friend that is a person of color. But most of us do not have a wide network of non-white friends and business associates. Most White people live in communities that are predominately White and go to churches that are predominately White and work at jobs with predominately White co-workers.

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Churches and Institutions

Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Churches and InstitutionsSummary: Minorities consistently talk of the feelings of alienation within White church culture. We should listen.

Part of what should be convicting is the consistent voice of love of the church by minority believers AND the stories of alienation or outright racism from White believers as individuals or as institutions. The fact that they are often paired together should mean that as White Christians, we need to listen to what it is that alienates minorities, especially those that are potential leaders.

Anthony Bradley is a professor and consistent critic of racism within the Reformed church. He has earned his place at the table, but often White believers want to reduce him to ‘angry Black man’. When you read what he has put up with in order to serve the church (and I have not read any of his longer books that he has written only shorter social media posts and blog posts), it is a wonder that any minority believers stay within the White church.

Aliens in the Promised Land, a book of essays introduced by Bradley, was published in 2013 in the midst of one of his bouts of active persecution. As with any set of essays, there are some essays that grab you more than others. But other than the essay by Carl Ellis, which was fine, but about urban minority youth discipleship and felt a bit out of place, I thought they all added to the book well.

There really are a number of different issues and Aliens in the Promised Land did well to address them. First, this is not just a Black and White issue. Amos Yong’s essay as an Asian in a ‘post-racist’ evangelicalism and several essays from a Hispanic and Latino authors illustrated to me that minorities are much more aware of the needs of different streams of minorities than many Whites who tend to reduce racial issues to Black and White.