Book Reviews

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism book coverSummary: A classic book by one of the originators of the Critical Race Theory movement. 

A few weeks ago, I presented an intro to Critical Race Theory to my Be the Bridge group. The presentation is available here. While I created it with the intention of it having many links to articles and podcasts for further investigation, it was designed to be in addition to my audible presentation. It is of only mixed value without any audio. One of the group’s co-leaders suggested that I read Faces at the Bottom of the Well because I had not read any longer works by Derrick Bell, only a couple of articles.

I must say that this is unlike any other book on Critical Race Theory I have read. Faces at the Bottom of the Well is a mix of fictional dialogue, like Plato’s dialogues, and parable-like short stories. The short stories ran from simple discussion or working out of policy ideas to the final short story Space Traders, a sci-fi exploration of how much the country values its Black citizens (and why).

One of the common critiques of Critical Race Theory is that it is oriented toward viewing humanity as depraved. I always find this an odd critique from Christians. Traditional reformed perspectives of Christianity view all people as depraved. But the misunderstanding, I think, comes at how the depravity works. In CRT, the main point is that racism is not centered around individual animus against people of a different racial group, but systems that lock the disparity in. Those systems and how racial hierarchy is locked into those give Faces at the Bottom of the Well the subtitle, The Permanence of Racism.

The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living by Timothy Gallagher

The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living book CoverSummary: An overview of the first 14 ‘rules’ of discernment. 

Regular readers will know of my posts know that I am working on a training program to become a spiritual director. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because while the Evangelical and broader Protestant world has been rediscovering Spiritual Direction over the past 10 to 20 years, the Catholic stream of Christianity has never lost access to this tool of discipleship. Ignatius (late 15th and early 16th century) wrote the Spiritual Exercises as a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat.

One part of that guide was two sets of ‘rules’ for discernment. These rules (guides) to help people in their discernment are split into ‘first’ and ‘second’ week rules, or the types of rules that were most helpful for people early in their retreat or people later in their retreat. You can roughly think of these as a type of spiritual maturity. However, Ignatius would not have assumed straight-line growth (in other words, once you are in the second week, you will not always be in the second week.)

Gallagher is only talking about the first set of 14 rules in this book. It took a while for me to start to make sense of the rules of discernment. I started by listening to the book, which gave me an overview. I then read the book a second time, mostly in print, but a little bit of listening. But just as important is that toward the end of my second reading. I downloaded a PDF of the rules and made it a part of my morning reading. And for a week, I read them every morning and highlighted or made notes about how they related to one another or rewrote some of them in my own language. I am far from an expert, and I do not think of them as the ‘be all, end all’ of discernment. But the process of getting them deeper into my brain by reading them regularly (I think I still need to probably read the about once a week for the next couple of months) and think about how they related to one another and try to use them in my own life does matter.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World

Summary: An exploration of individualist culture (like the modern US) and collectivist cultures (like the biblical era) and how that leads us to misread scripture and misunderstand biblical concepts.

There is no way for me to adequately capture Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes in a simple review. There is no question it is among the best books I have read this year. I looked back at the pre-release PDF copy that I read, and I made notes or highlights on over 100 pages of a 300-page book. I also have recommended the book dozens of times since I started it.

Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is a follow-up book to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, which I also recommend, and have read twice. Both books are pointing out how our presuppositions and the (often unwritten) assumptions of the authors and original readers impact how we understand scripture. While the Western Eyes book looked at 9 areas briefly, Individualist Eyes spends more time focusing just on three inter-related concepts, Individualist vs. Collectivist cultures, honor/shame vs guilt/innocence, and patronage.

One of the problems of reading scripture is how we have been shaped to understand the culture of the  Ancient Near East by modern authors. It is common to hear that the Greek and Roman world did not value life or participate in charity. But Individualist Eyes complicates that picture because patronage, which is a type of community care, and charity, was common. Collectivist cultures do care for their community, but patronage systems thrive when there is a large wealth disparity and a low level of governance. The wealthy use their wealth for others to illustrate virtue. Those who are helped give gratitude, loyalty, and service to the patron. The Father and Jesus are both compared to patrons. Jesus’ comment, ‘if you love me you will follow my commands’ was a reference to a requirement for his patronage. Jesus feeding people was likened to patronage in the benefits it gave the people.

Where Jesus and Paul and other early Christians were radical was not in care for the poor and disenfranchised, it was in removing the boundaries between who you cared for. Patrons would care for the poor and desperate of their own family, social group, or ethnic or religious community. But the early Christians put social obligations to care for others as a family across those boundaries. NT Wright’s biography of Paul talks well about how the early church crossed boundaries. In addition, our modern sensibilities emphasize the importance of ‘no-strings’ gifts or charity. But communal cultures view the strings as part of the reason for gifts or charity. Those strings bind people together in relationships. There can be a misuse of that binding, and so Proverbs and other places give warnings at times, but part of covenant thinking, expressed clearly in the Old Testament and the New is that there is an ‘if…then…’ thinking in how our relationship with God works, a patronage relationship.

At the same time, Jesus (and later the early Christians) redefined the reciprocity of relationships. In Matt 5 when Jesus if someone wants to sue you for your shirt, give them your coat as well. I have heard that explained as a form of shame, which could be true, but it was more likely to be about trying to turn an “adversary into a friend.” (p 82)

Our cultural toolbox has limitations. In Western Christianity, there is an emphasis on sin and guilt. The Holy Spirit does use guilt to produce repentance, which should produce change. But many modern “Asian cultures don’t even have a word for guilt.” (p130) Instead, collectivist cultures tend to use shame as a boundary for appropriate behavior in order to draw people into the right relationship with the group. On the other side, honor functions as one of the tools to reinforce a group’s values and identity, also creating inclusionary boundaries.

One of the strengths of Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes is that it not just illustrates the concepts, but then uses those concepts in scriptural interpretation, highlighting areas where we modern individualists misread scripture. It is common that we ‘honor’ David for being a good shot in killing Goliath. But ancients would have honored David for trust God to fight for him. “We are not supposed to say ‘David killed Goliath.’ We are supposed to say ‘God killed Goliath.'” (p 149). Or in 1 Cor 13:4 and many other places:

Paul is indicating his achieved honor. In my individualist culture, boasting has negative overtones. “Don’t boast,” my grandmother warned. “Boasting is wrong.” That’s our values at work. So we quote Paul when he says love does not boast (1 Cor 13:4)…We fill in the gaps about why they are condemned: they are condemned for boasting, because boasting is wrong. Yet, if we look closely at these verses, Paul is not actually condemning boasting but boasting for the wrong reasons…Boasting in Paul’s culture…was to indicate achieved honor. Furthermore, since honor is collective, everyone else in Paul’s group also benefited from his boasting. For individualists, boasting is a way to put yourself ahead of your peers. For collectivists, boasting is a way to put you and all of your peers (group) ahead. (p 150-151)

The Horse and His Boy by CS Lewis

Summary: The only one of the Narian books that is primarily focused on the people of the world where the country of Narnia is located. 

Earlier in the pandemic, I had grand plans of reading to my children chapter books of my childhood every day. We read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and a couple of other books. But the reading came to a stop with The Horse and His Boy. My children never engaged well with the story. They were becoming bored with nightly reading. And I was losing my motivation to read while trying to manage my work from home job, managing virtual schooling of what was then a Pre-K and Kindergarten student, and trying to keep the house somewhat organized.

We finished about fifty pages last spring. Last Friday night, as the chaos of the election ensued, put down my phone and picked up my kindle, and read the last 75 pages in a single sitting. The Narnia books really are short. So many children’s books that I think of as fairly long can be read in an hour or two and really only have a couple of main plot points.

For the Horse and His Boy, the story is basically six scenes. 1) Background and introduction to Shasta (the boy). 2) The escape of the horse (Bree) and Shasta from their enslavement. 3) Finding and getting to know Hwin (another talking Horse) and Aravis (the girl). 4) Getting through the big city and the two side threads happen during that task. 5) The race through the desert and to tell the King of the secret attack. 6) Shata’s introduction to the other Narnian animals and creatures and the battle. And then there is a short conclusion.

Armchair Mystic: How Contemplative Prayer Can Lead You Closer to God by Mark Thibodeaux

Summary: An easy to read, story, and suggested exercise-oriented introduction to contemplative prayer. 

Again, as I tend to do, I read a book that I had for a class in conversation with another book. I was assigned Armchair Mystic: How Contemplative Prayer Can Lead You Closer to God by Mark Thibodeaux. And I read it in conversation with How to Pray by Pete Greig. Mark Thibodeaux is a Jesuit parish priest in New Orleans. The version I read was the 20th-anniversary edition, and he wrote the book based on the graduate school research into contemplative prayer. However, it is oriented toward a non-technical approach toward prayer.

Both books are very story heavy and use many illustrations to talk about prayer. In both cases, they are talking about various types of prayer, and they both agree that the main priority of prayer is a relationship with God. Prayer is often challenging to talk about, not just because it is mystical, but because prayer is experiential more than theoretical. But prayer, as much as it is experiential, tends to be talked about in theological terms. And in many cases, it seems to me that we frame our experiences in regard to the theology so that even if the experience of prayer is similar, the theological perspective on that prayer may be very different.

One of the places where there is tension is the role of our work in prayer and God’s work in prayer. Both Greig and Thibodeaux emphasize that prayer is God’s work. It also talks about the importance of making prayer a habit and something we do daily, even if for a short period. We are transformed through prayer, not through occasional but extended periods of prayer, but with consistent daily prayer over years. I want to affirm that prayer is God’s work, but I think that there are points when this is overemphasized because we do have a role.

Once, at a youth Mass, I noticed someone wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m not a saint yet, but I’m working on it.” What a contradiction in terms! The saints don’t work at being saints. The saints are those who give up! They are the ones who admit and accept their failure to be holy, and allow God to do holy things within them. They do not “achieve” sainthood; they receive it as a free gift from God. Like Archbishop Romero, they say to God, “I can’t. You must.” Like Saint Paul, they joyfully proclaim, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).

Thibodeaux is right to say that sainthood is a gift from God. But as Paul says in 1 Cor 9:24-27, we have a role. Paul uses sports training metaphors to suggest that there are things that we should be doing to ‘not run like someone running aimlessly.’ I do not want to use too strong of language here because Thibodeaux is countering a real problem: trying to manipulate or achieve a type of status that is not centered on a relationship with God.

How To Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People by Pete Greig

How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People by Pete Greig Book ImageSummary: Good intro to prayer using the acronym PRAY: Pause, Rejoice, Ask, Yield.

Pete Greig is the founder of the 24/7 prayer movement. As a movement that has been around for over 20 years and replicated all around the world. In an interview with the Renovaré Book Club, Greig said that he finally feels capable of writing this type of book after writing several previous books on disappointment with God, unanswered prayer, and facing his wife’s cancer.

I have had both positive and negative interactions with forms of the 24/7 prayer movement. Aspects take God’s power seriously, and devotion and parts seem to focus on thinking about prayer in ways that seem more akin to magic. There also elements of the 24/17 movement that dabble in Dominanist theology and are more like Christian Nationalists than I am comfortable with.

That being said, I did not see the negative aspects of 24/7 prayer in this book, although I would not have phrased some parts of prayer as he did. I am a real believer in the importance and power of prayer, even if I am reluctant around many abuses of prayer. The point of prayer for me is a relationship with God. To focus on power of prayer places the result of a relationship before the relationship. It is not the same, but it feels related to sex outside of marriage. Sex is designed for marriage as a bonding agent and procreation. But sex outside of marriage changes the purpose and instrumentalizes sex to distort the relationship over the long term.

Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church by Barbara Holmes

Summary: An exploration of contemplation in the Black church.

Part of the importance of reading widely is opening up our perspectives to correction. Joy Unspeakable is both discussing the contemplative practices of the Black church but redefining contemplation for those in and outside the Black church

I did not read Joy Unspeakable quickly. l slowly read the book over a couple of months. I probably read it a bit too slowly but I finished it as I was halfway through Armchair Mystic, a book assigned for my Spiritual Direction program. Armchair Mystic is attempting to teach the basics of contemplative prayer. On, the whole it is a helpful book but it is rooted in a white western concept of contemplation.

“Black people for far too long have been forced to refine our message according to what is comfortable for the mainstream. We have made a distinctive choice not to do it…Our goal is to be free and authentic, not to pacify others.” Joy Unspeakable redefines or explores aspects of contemplation that have been under-appreciated. There are more traditional ideas like music and traditional liturgy and prayer and historical legacy. But more important to me is the non-traditional, activism, the leadership of Obama, BLM, and the subversion of older activist models, modern music, hip hop, blues, jazz, etc.

When the word contemplation comes to my mind, I think of Thomas Merton and his lengthy and illuminating discourses about the practices that include complete dependence on God. But I also want to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and his combination of interiority and activism, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman and their inward journeys. I want to present Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan, and the unknown black congregations that sustained whole communities without fanfare or notice.

The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

Summary: A novel describing the thoughts and life of a young country priest in France. Set in the post WWI era, it feels connected to the modern world and distant from our modern world. 

I do not know when I first heard about the very famous novel Diary of a Country Priest. But it has been years. I do not think that I started looking for the book until it was listed in Eugene Peterson’s book about books he recommends to read. Until recently, the 1936 novel has not been available for a price I was willing to pay. But it looks like there has been a copyright change, and now there is a $0.99 Kindle version. There is also a free PDF that just scanned and not a very high-quality version.

Part of what I enjoyed was the look at the strain of being a country priest in an era before the widespread use of phones or cars. There is one scene where the priest is given a ride on a motorcycle. But as unusual as it is to read about this earlier era, and while cars and phones matter to pastoring today, the reality of how people act does not feel too distant. With the culture of the earlier era, a rural French setting is different, but not so different that it is unimaginable.

The Discerning Heart: Discovering a Personal God by Maureen Conroy

Summary: A book for spiritual those training to be spiritual directors focusing on developing discernment and using a number of case studies to guide spiritual direction training.

The Discerning Heart is a book that was hard to track down. It is out of print and when I finally found a copy for my classes, I was sent (and charged) for two. I am ambivalent about the book. I would probably rate it about 3.5 stars if I were rating it. There were sections that were very helpful. But the case studies got very repetitive and they didn’t feel like real conversations.

Where she was helpful was a good discussion on consolation and desolation (Ignatian technical terms) and their relationship to discernment. Conroy on page 13 says that “The experience of consolation and desolation is the foundation of discernment”, but that base level assumption is simply outside the realm of understanding for most Evangelicals that I know. One of the central areas that Evangelicals will need to be convinced to participate in Ignatian Spiritual Direction is that emotions are not contrary to spiritual reality. There are those working in this area like Pete Scazzero’s work in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality and Jonathan Walton’s derivative work in Emotionally Healthy Activism and Richard Foster and the late Dallas Willard’s work in discipleship through the organization Renovaré. But those are not mainstream movements at this point.

I started reading this as I was reading Jesus and John Wayne, a history of the past 75 years of how Evangelicals conceived of the implications of leadership, gender roles, authority, and discipleship. The book’s final chapter pulls out many of the players that were discussed earlier in the book. Those leaders had consensual affairs, raped employees or church members, covered up rape or child abuse of others, abused their organizational power or authority, misused funds, destroyed their or other’s families, demeaned the name of other Christians (or non-Christians) falsely, or other sins. Cases where pastors called out a particular sin, but then engaged in it, or allowed it when convenient were common. Not every person mentioned in the book advocating ‘militant masculine Christianity’ engaged in the above list, but a very high percentage did.

Jack by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead #4)

Summary: Jack, the prodigal child of Gilead, is in St Louis. This novel is set before the events in the earlier novel Home.

Marilynne Robinson is one of the more famous modern novelists of our age. And considering this is only her fifth novel, she has had a remarkable career. The Gilead books are intertwined. They can be read alone or out of order. But they all have some relationship to John Ames. The elderly pastor of a small church in Gilead Iowa, the main subject of the first book of the series.

The second book, Home, is mostly about Robert Boughton’s family, John Ames’ best friend and fellow pastor in the same town. It is told from the perspective of Glory, the daughter who has returned home to care for her ailing father. But nothing in the Boughton family is not about Jack, named for John Ames, but a prodigal who finally returns for a visit.

I need to go back and reread Home. Of the three previous, it was my least favorite. Not because any of Robinson’s books are not well written, but because I love the story of grace that is more central to Lila and Gilead. The character of Jack is part of a story of grace, but one I have always been less interested in. Rev Boughton grieves and prays for his son. The town can see how Jack’s hurts and harms, not just himself, but everyone around him. It is not always that Jack intends to harm. Quite often, the harm comes through bad luck. But it is easy to blame Jack for his bad luck.