Book Reviews

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America by Khyati Joshi

White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in AmericaSummary: Discussion of the cultural and real privilege of being a White Christian (or at least conversant in Christianity) in America.

I recently read Taking America Back for God, a book about Christian Nationalism, and when I was writing up my review, one of the books recommended was White Christian Privilege. I did not know anything about the book or author, but it seemed to fit in my recent reading, and I picked it up.

The author is a second-generation immigrant from Southeast Asia. She grew up in Atlanta and now is a professor specializing in race and religion. The premise of the book is explained by the title well; religious liberty is illusionary in the US because it primarily is rooted in the freedom to be Christian. White (Protestant) Christians are the default state, and others tend to be religious in relation to Christianity. (Robert Jones’ book The End of White Christian America tells the opposite side of this story.)

White Christian Privilege is not going to be received well by many that believe that Christianity is under attack or persecuted. And there is some small sense that demographic change is impacting the dominance of White Christians to some extent (the demographic trends are the primary focus of Jones’ book). But demographics do not show the privilege that Christianity has baked into the United States culture and history.

There are legitimate arguments about whether the US was founded as a ‘Christian country,’ but culturally, Christianity was normative (the default cultural expression.) While there have been Native Americans, Jews, and Muslims from very early in US history, Christianity has been dominant. So Christian assumptions about how religion works have also been normative. Christian holidays are national holidays (and Hindu holidays are not, and often not even known). A Hundi woman that wants to celebrate Diwali will have to request time off from work, but Christmas is a national holiday, and the workweek is oriented around the Christian calendar. These assumptions are not consciously chosen or intentionally discriminatory, but they do have an impact. (Similar to the way that crash test dummies were modeled initially after adult males and only later have changes been made to include women and children when it became clear that the single choice of crash test dummies negatively impacted women and children).

The narration of religious liberty cases from the Supreme Court was particularly striking because I heard several people recently talk about how the Supreme Court has ruled so clearly for religious liberty recently. But the choice of which cases to include as religious liberty cases in those recent articles has been biased toward Christian cases, and religious liberty cases for others were not counted as losses.

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself by Marlena Graves

The Way Up Is Down: Becoming Yourself by Forgetting Yourself Summary: An exploration of Kenosis, voluntary self-emptying, a renunciation of my will in favor of God’s.

Kenosis has a long history. Biblically it is rooted in Philippians 2 with Jesus ‘giving up’ his divine being and ‘adopting’ a human form. The language has always been challenging because it is inadequate to represent what is going on fully. Jesus did not cease to be divine when he became human. And the adoption metaphor has weaknesses because there is history with its use as a means of denying that Jesus was entirely God, or that he was created not eternal.  But despite the inadequacy of the language around Kenosis,  the concepts underneath it, are important. Jesus’ prayer, ‘not my will, but yours be done’ was not a denial of his divinity but the fulfillment of it. If Jesus could empty himself of his will in a biblically appropriate way, then we, as fully created, should also think about how we appropriately give up our own will.

Part of the problem of discussing Kenosis isn’t just the inadequacy of the language, but the history of abuse. Kenosis has been used to justify abuse and oppression throughout Christian history. It has been used to tell slaves to submit to masters, or to perpetuate economic or cultural inequity. It has been used to support gnostic leaning beliefs around the sinfulness of the body or patriarchal attitudes toward women. It has been used to deny people the rights of justice in regard to sexual and other forms of abuse inside the church.

It is in part because of this misuse of the concept that I am reluctant to read white males talk about Kenosis, and why despite a bit of reluctance to initially pick up The Way Up Is Down, it is important that this book is written by a Puerto Rican woman. As I have said frequently, I am midway through my training to become a Spiritual Director. The literature of spiritual direction and spiritual formation is overwhelmingly from a White male perspective. Most of my non-assigned reading has been an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my assigned reading. Marlena Graves is a pastor and professor of spiritual formation. She is not a spiritual director as far as I am aware (it is not explicitly mentioned in the book that I remember), but the type of spiritual wisdom that is throughout the book is in that vein.

A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity by Vince Bantu

Summary: Exploring early Christianity’s history, beliefs, and geography.

Christianity has always been a global religion, despite many believing that it is only recently that the universal nature of Christianity has learn.  A Multitude of All Peoples is not the first book of this type, but of the couple that I have read, I think it is the most helpful. Philip Jenkins’ Lost History of Christianity looked at the demographic history of Christianity. Still, it did not engage the theological content of Christianity as well as A Multitude of All Peoples does. Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a narrower type of book, not just only looking at Africa, but also trying to justify more research into early Christianity in Africa.

The book opens with a discussion of the importance of understanding that Christianity has always been a global religion instead of the misplaced understanding that Christianity only came to Africa and Asia from European missionaries. Christianity misconstrued as only a western religion, is a severe stumbling block to formally colonialized or oppressed people. Also, the long history of Christianity’s relationship to culture needs the history of local adaptation and enculturation, both in positive and negative ways, to give insight into how Christianity works in culture. Bantu ends the book with some of this discussion, and while I read more to understand his result better, his interaction with other perspectives is helpful.

Bantu has a couple of significant strengths. One is that he is concentrating not just on those Christians that spoke Greek or Latin or interacted with European Christians like Augustine or Athanasius, but also those that spoke languages that are relatively new to western study. There was a far more detailed history here than what was in either of the two other books.

Second, A Multitude of All Peoples looks at the theological disagreements, not just as religious, but also linguistic, cultural, and political. This plays out too often when Christians moved into roles of power within a state and then used the power of the state to persecute their political or theological opponents with the same tools of oppression used against them. Egyptian, Shenoute of Atripe, justified violence against non-Christians and even against other Christians as the will of God. (He killed one of his fellow monks during a physical punishment.) Part of this is how Christians viewed the state. Bantu shows that Eusebius identified the Roman Empire, “an eikon of the Kingdom of God.”

The view of the state and the church becomes so entwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other. This happened not just within but also outside, as political enemies saw Christianity (or particular expressions of Christianity) as so connected with the state that it caused  (or justified) Christian persecutions. For instance, the Persian Empire persecuted Christians because of the Christian connection to Rome, or Mongol protection of Christianity resulted in Christianity being wiped out in China after the fall of the Mongol Empire. (Constantine sent a letter to the Persian emperor suggesting that Christians in Persia would be more loyal to Rome than to Persia and suggested at the same time to Christians that it was God’s will that they are politically loyal to him because Rome was a Christian empire.)

Some Recommended Books Around the Topic of Race

I have read fairly widely around various issues of race, but certainly, there are far more books that I have not read than that I have read. So a book not listed here is likely not here because I have not read it or haven’t written about them. I fully realize that this is an overwhelming list. Don’t think of it as something to be completed, but as a resource to find books that particularly interest you.

I strongly believe that books and topically reading should be personalized. Everyone has different interests and different backgrounds. Because of that, no list of books should be assumed to be universal.

I also am biased toward reading books by Black, Brown, Indigenous, or other people of color on issues of race, not exclusively, but primarily.

I am also biased toward history and biography more than ‘self-help’ styled books. It is not that books that are oriented toward psychology or sociology or in other modes trying to explain racial issues are not important, they are, but without a background in the actual history, there is often missing information that impacts the conversation.

I am also primarily putting this list together for White people to read about race.

Links below are to my posts on the various books.

Various Starting Points and Categories

Survey History: The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby – This is a book oriented toward US history and framed for Christians, talking primarily about Protestant history. It is a good overview, just over 200 pages, and designed as a starting place. There is also a video curriculum if you want to use that instead of the book.

Primer to Talking about Race: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – Oluo writes like a blogger with short chapters, lots of stories and illustrations, and clear definitions. I think this book handles concepts of privilege, intersectionality, and microaggressions as well as any introductory book I have read. This quote gives a good sense of the book “A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.” An alternative would be How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi.

Racial Identity: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race By Beverly Tatum – The 20th Anniversary version of this book has a 70-page introduction covering the racial history of the 20 years from the original publication and it is a great addition to the book. This is a wide-ranging book, but where it shines is descriptions of racial identity acquisition, education, and youth issues around racial identity and good discussion about cross-racial dialogue. An alternative from a memoir orientation is Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God by Kaitlin Curtice which is about a Potawatomi woman trying to grapple with her Native American heritage and identity.

White Authored Book on Race: Good White Racist?: Confront Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice by Kerry Connelly. This is a no-nonsense book, not intended to make White people feel good about race, but to particularly focus on why so often, White people want to be perceived as ‘one of the good ones’. The message of the book is “the very first rule in antiracism work: stay in the room, even when it gets hard and uncomfortable.” Good White Racist is a Christian book. Other examples that I also would recommend as alternatives are White Awake by Daniel Hill or America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis or if you are looking for a secular author White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

Building Relationships Across Racial Lines: Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation by Latasha Morrison – Story matters a lot to the way that many understand racial issues. This is part memoir, part organizational mission, part ‘how to reach across racial lines’. It is hard to separate Latasha Morrison’s story from the work of Be The Bridge and her passion is the mission of the organization and that mission has a clear method. An alternative book in a similar vein is Black and White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship at a Time by Teesha Hadra and John Hambrick.

Bible Study: Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk With the Apostles by Amos Yong – It has been nearly a decade since I first read this commentary on Acts. It is not particular about race, but it does pay attention to how Acts is situated around crossing boundaries, ethnicity, gender, class, and other lines. Yong’s commentary is a great example of how White Americans can misread the bible and so I suggest pairing the commentary with Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien. Misreading Scripture again is not about race, but about culture and the issues of culture do matter. Two more supplementary books that are helpful would be One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? and Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings.

Graphic Novel Formatted History:  March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell – This is a trilogy of graphic novels that tells the civil rights era through the story of John Lewis. He was a central figure and the format of the graphic novel works very well, not just for young adults, but also for adults. The same artist did The Silence of Our Friends, which is historical fiction based on the father on one of the authors. And a graphic novel version of Kindred, which I don’t think is quite as good as the full novel but still worth reading. Kindred is a novel about a Black woman in the 1970s that is sent back in time to save her White slave-owning ancestor and who is enslaved in the process. There is also a short book on John Brown.

Theology: The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings – If you are interested in a more theological book, this is where I would start once you have some of the basic ideas and concepts of racism. This is a theological exploration of the origins of race similar to Stamped from the Beginning but tracing the theological history. An alternative that I recommend just as highly is The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H Cone. I find it hard to recommend Cone if you do not read his memoirs because if you do not understand his life and motivations, it can be hard to fully understand his theology. If you are going to read one memoir, read his last Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody but if you have time to read both, read My Soul Looks Back first.

Stokely: A Life by Peniel Joseph

Summary: A biography of a young civil rights icon who called for ‘Black Power’. 

After reading Peniel Joseph’s excellent joint biography of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, I picked up his biography of Stokely Carmichael, mostly because it was on sale (as of posting, it is still $3.49). I had heard of the name of Stokely Carmichael, but little else. Like many, his is an incredible story.

It is hard to get over how young he was for the main part of his civil rights career. He started working nearly full time as a civil rights activist through NAG (during the school year at Howard) and for SNCC during the summers in Mississippi and Alabama. He was first arrested during the Freedom Rides before he turned 20. At Howard, he was mentored by Bayard Rustin and many of his professors, including Toni Morrison, who later became his editor.

After graduating in 1964, he moved to Mississippi and began working on voting rights projects through SNCC. He quickly became the project director in Mississippi and then in 1965 moved to Lowndes County Alabama. It was during this point when his organization started using a black panther as its mascot. Only a year later, Stokely Carmichael, at just 25, became the head of SNCC.

Carmichael was clearly a gifted speaker and organizer. He kept SNCC funded primarily through his speaking fees. Because he was dependent on those fees to pay the staff and fund the organizing, Stokely spent a lot of time speaking at predominately White colleges which could afford higher fees. The struggle to fund black-led organizations is not new and even for someone known for his Black power stance he faced the struggle of both a desire to work with Whites and a desire to be a Black-led and Black-oriented organization.

Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity by Miguel de la Torre

Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass ChristianitySummary: A call to decolonize our faith.

This is my first book of Miquela de la Torre. It is unlikely to be my last. It has now been about three weeks since I fairly quickly read Burying White Privilege. The large movements of the books are not unfamiliar to my previous reading.

Dr de la Torre is not writing against people who have less melanin in their skin, instead (like most writers and thinkers working on issues of race in the church) he is more nuanced:

When I write white Christianity, you might think that I am generalizing and essentializing a broad Euro-American demographic group based solely on the pigment of their skin. However, ontological whiteness has nothing to do with skin pigmentation. This is important, so I will say it again: the word white in my usage has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Instead, it has to do with worldview, a way of being, thinking, and reasoning morally. A white Christian can be black, Latinx, Muslim, or atheist. While it might be easier for those with whiter skin to embrace white Christianity, those of us who would never be considered white by our physical appearance have also had our minds so colonized that it is difficult to break free from this white, Christian milieu.

He starts by looking at the narratives of Jesus as anticolonial narratives. “Jesus does more than simply show empathy for the poor and oppressed. He does more than simply express some paternalistic concern. Jesus is the poor and oppressed.”

There is a long middle section that describes what ‘whiteness’ (the culture of white superiority) and then the necessity of self-deception that is required to maintain that culture of whiteness. I certainly highlighted portions of these middle areas (I have 28 highlights for the book that you can see here). The book was written after the election of Trump and there is a lot of frustration expressed about Trump and the support of White Christians for Trump.

Soul Care in African American Practice by Barbara Peacock

Soul Care in African American Practice Summary: Introduction to Soul Care (Spiritual Direction) and spiritual disciplines in the African American church setting. 

I am now roughly halfway through my training to become a spiritual director. I am trying to pick up at least one book a month, not assigned, to round out my training. Over the past few months, I have read books about soul care/spiritual direction to children, an Evangelical intro to Ignatian spiritual direction, a memoir of Howard Thurman, and a collection of his sermons, and a book on prayer. The point of these various looks is to expand my vision of what spiritual direction is and to gain insight by understanding how others have practiced spiritual direction.

Barbara Peacock is writing about spiritual direction from the African American Church perspective. It is both not widely known in the Black church but also not unknown. (One of my classmates is AME.) Spiritual direction books are often split between providing some direction to the reader and describing features of direction more generally. Soul Care in the African American Practice uses mini-biographies as a framing for different soul care practices. There are ten profiles of well known and less well-known figures in the Black church and how their lives illustrated various spiritual practices that either they taught on or exemplified. The practices include Lectio Divina, rest, prayer in suffering, contemplation, etc.

Part of what is helpful in most Black church writing is the connection of the spiritual life to practical experience. The history of the Black church and of the Black experience in the United States is part of what it means to be a Black Christian. Dr Peacock is no different.

Kellemen and Edwards wrote, “If spiritually famished African Americans were going to convert to Christianity, then they had to convert on the basis of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as revealed in the Bible, not on the basis of Christianity revealed in the lifestyles of the Christians they knew.”21 African Americans who depended solely on the spirituality of their slave masters were apt to be deceived and confused.

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity by Robert Chao Ramero

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentitySummary: A well-written overview of issues of Latina/o theology and spiritual practice of the past 500 years.

Like many, I have primarily focused on Black and White issues of race. And like many, I know the weaknesses of not paying more attention to the nuances outside the Black/White binary. Romero centers the title as Brown Church because Latinx or Hispanic or various other overview designations are not either White or Black and, as such, are in that ‘liminal space between’, therefore Brown.

Robert Chao Romero is a Latino scholar and is one of the few that have worked to keep an understanding of spiritual matters in the academy’s perspective on Latinx Studies. Some of the problems of keeping religion in the academic study is the fault of the church, after all, there has been a distortion of Christian faith when it has essentially said, “It’s okay for us to decimate and enslave millions of ‘Indians’ and thousands of African slaves because we are saving their souls by sharing Christianity with them. Without us they’d just go to hell.” (pg 12)

The academy, on the other hand, tends to distort Christianity and see it only as an oppressive force and not see it as a force of change and empowerment. Romero opens up the book with several vignettes about actual people he knows (many of them students) that made writing the book salient. And those personal reasons for writing carry through in the passion of the book. Brown Church is easily in the top handful of books I have read this year, and I have highly recommended it.

Brown Church is broken into eight chapters and is only just over 200 pages. Romero packed an enormous amount of content into a relatively short book. The first four chapters are more historical overview while the last four chapters are more in-depth looks are particular aspects of biography (Oscar Romero and Cesar Chavez) and theology (Liberation Theology and social justice).

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States Summary: Christian nationalism is a better predictor for voting for Trump than identifying as an Evangelical.

Yesterday I pulled up Miroslav Volf’s For the Life of the World podcast because it was interviewing Jemar Tisby. I am very familiar with Jemar (and his book Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism). But I thought this was still a good interview and especially if you are not familiar with his book and work.

Because I was driving, I let it keep playing to last week’s podcast because I had not heard it. Volf was interviewing Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, sociologists of religion, talking about their recent book “Taking America Back for God”. The book is about Christian Nationalism. And the podcast gives a very good overview but doesn’t delve deeply into the argument. I immediately bought the audiobook and just finished listening to the book.

Short version: these two have developed a measure of Christian Nationalism and have used it in large scale surveys in 2007 and 2017 as well as compared it to other measures of Christian Nationalism. They believe that Christian Nationalism is the best predictor of voting for Trump in 2016 and will also be a good predictor for 2020. They also believe that White Evangelicals is not a good predictor of voting for Trump because many while many Christian Nationalists are evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Christian nationalists.

Christian nationalists and those that lean in that direction make up a majority of Evangelicals, and there are many factors in why that is true, but Christian Nationalists are present in many parts of the Christian church and even some that do not identify as Christian, but who view Christian nationalism as a type of American identify. Where I find the argument interesting is in the other associations with Christian nationalism, that overlap with (but are not necessarily the same as voting for Trump).

According to the authors, there are three aspects of Christian nationalism, power, boundaries, and order. (These are tendencies, so not every person that is a Christian Nationalist is deterministically someone that agrees to all of the following and those that follow any or all of the following are not necessarily Christian Nationalists, but they do hold explanatory power). Christian Nationalists tend to see political power as important and are primarily interested in the results of nationalism’s expression, not as much in the means to get there. So using Trump as an example, they don’t care that much about the ‘pussy-grabbing’ and racist language, although they may find it distasteful, as long as the judges are appointed and the power is wielded.

Secondly, (White) Christian Nationalists draw boundaries. They are not in favor of immigrants, especially refugees, who they see as likely to be Muslim or in other ways counter to their view of what it means to be an American. They distrust Muslims in particular because they are afraid of terrorism and violence, but also other immigrants from places like Central or South America (who tend to be Protestant Christian at fairly high rates) because they are still “other”. And within the US, Christian Nationalists tend to have a White normative view of what it means to be American, so Black and other racial minorities in the US are still ‘other’ and not ‘real Americans’.

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah

Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of DiscoverySummary: Discussion of the role of the Doctrine of Discovery in shaping not only the development of the US but also the Christian church. 

Usually, I write about books reasonably quickly after I read them. I do this, not just because I like to discuss books and encourage others to read them, but as a type of public spiritual discipline where I try to write about thoughts so I can look back at them later and process books publicly as a means creating some open accountability for my Christian faith. So generally, I read a book, and within a few days, I have written at least something about it. But I first read Unsettling Truths just over six months ago, and I knew I was not yet ready to write about it. I needed to reread it.

Unsettling Truths is about the papal bulls that are referred to as the Doctrines of Discovery. Briefly, the papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, in 1452 declared that Christians (King Alfonso of Portugal) could “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” Inter Caetera, in 1493, said Spain could claim any populated land as their territory if the population were not Christian. There is context to those papal bulls, but the background is not relevant to how those have been used later to further colonialism, white supremacy, manifest destiny, and even US legal precedent for land ownership.

I have primarily been addressing racial history and current reality through Black/White racial dichotomy and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. It is not that I do not have an interest in other perspectives, but that I tend to follow the next trail on the path, and that has mostly been about issues of anti-Black racism. Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah are here to remind the church that, while those are important, they are not the only important issues in US racial history. Unsettling Truths is exactly the type of book that you need to read if you primarily or only see racial issues in the US through the Black/White dichotomy.

Unsettling Truths is also an explicitly Christian book. Both authors are former pastors. Soong-Chan Rah is currently a professor primarily focusing on global Christianity, church planting/growth, and evangelism. Mark Charles is presently an independent presidential candidate. The entire book is about Christianity.

Many of us are familiar with the rough outlines of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. Many of us are less familiar with the history of Native American oppression. We can start with the early founding of the US:

While the Declaration of Independence may initially assert that “All men are created equal,” thirty lines below that assertion, indigenous people are referred to as “merciless Indian savages.” The Founding Fathers could use the seemingly inclusive term “all men” because they had a worldview informed by the Doctrine of Discovery that gave them a very narrow definition of who was actually human.