Book Reviews

Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter by Sidney Poitier

Life Beyond Measure: Letters to My Great-Granddaughter by [Poitier, Sidney]Summary: Letters to his granddaughter with a mix of family history and life advice.

Of course, I am aware of Sidney Poitier’s acting. But I had no understanding of his life story. I picked this up blind from the library.

Sidney Poitier grew up on Cat Island. A small island in the Caribbean, without electricity, running water, or cars. When he was 10, his family moved to Nassau where he first tried ice cream and first saw a movie (both recounted in the book.) He also got into trouble and was sent to live with his older brother in Miami when he was 15.

Again he got into trouble and at 16 moved to NYC and worked a series of dishwashing jobs, before a brief stint in the Army and more dishwashing jobs. He was functionally illiterate at this point. A waiter at one of the restaurants he was working at taught him after work over a series of weeks until his reading improved enough that he could work at it on his own.

Poitier saw a newspaper for an actor when he was looking for a new dishwashing job and figured that acting would be less work than dishwashing. He failed on his first audition, but later convinced an acting teacher to take him on. His tenacity and talent eventually led to stage acting jobs, which led to a few movie roles. At 24, he was in Cry Beloved Country. He was first nominated for an Academy Award in 1958 for Defiant Ones but did not win an Academy Award until 1964 with Lillies of the Field.

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March

Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom by Lynda Blackmon LoweryThis is a short children/middle grade memoir of the Selma voting rights protests. Most of the focus is on the march which lasted a couple of days. But there is context that starts a few months prior.

The audiobook is just over an hour, so this is very short. I checked it out of my library when I was looking for something quick.

I think it is a good intro to Civil Rights history as a first person narrative by a young person. So would be worth reading out loud or with kids starting in about 3-4th grade and probably could be read independently with discussion for student older than that up to about 7th-8th graders.

The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity by Mark Noll

The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity by Mark NollSummary: A readable textbook about North American Christianity.

Mark Noll is an author that I will always respect and read. I had him for two undergrad classes and I audited a class with him when I was in grad school. I have read a number of books by him since then. His book The Civil War as Theological Crisis significantly shaped me and I have read it three times now.

The Old Religion in a New World is a textbook. Interestingly, Noll was commissioned to write a German language textbook on North American Christianity. That became this book, although he says he significantly reorganized and edited it.

What I most appreciate about this book is that Noll is particularly paying attention to the comparative aspects of North American Christianity. It is in the comparisons that interesting aspects stand out. Different geographical areas were settled by people from different areas of Europe, who had different religious traditions. Geographies do matter. The Catholicism of Maryland is not the same as in Canada, and while he does not spend a lot of time on Mexico, his brief sketch of the Christian history of Mexico shows a very different Christian development from the US and Canada.

I am very familiar with Christian history of the US (I had Noll for a Christian History of the US and Canada class). But there was still a ton of new information here.

Noll is an Evangelical Reformed Protestant. And many Evangelicals (and Reformed) present their history abstracted from the larger Christian context. This is not an abstracted presentation. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Black Church, Pentecostalism, and more are all presented as interacting and learning and sometimes change from one another.

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis

America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New AmericaSummary: A broad overview of racism in American told from the perspective of Christianity and our call toward justice.

The preface to America’s Original Sin opens with a description of the shooting and Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Just a few days before that I read that section, I watched the documentary Emmanuel that also recounted that shooting. Wallis hoped that in the aftermath of the shooting there would be a change in the way that we talk about race and racism within the church and country as a result. But four years after the shooting, there has not been a fundamental shift in the conversation. The Confederate Flag was removed from the South Carolina Capital grounds, the SBC condemned the flying of the Confederate Flag at its annual meeting that next year. But it is hard to point to any other fundamental changes in the conversation.

That lack of change is not particularly surprising given the history of Christianity in the US, but I do think that as we read books like America’s Original Sin, it is important that we pay attention not just to the theological affirmations of what we as Christians should be doing, but also the history of what we have done. The Emmanuel AME Church shooting should have been a wake up call to the church, but it wasn’t. There are hundreds of other points history, including the church kneel in rallies in the 1950s and 60s that should have been significant wake up calls, but they haven’t been.

I probably would not have picked America’s Original sin up if a group in my church had not been reading it, but I wanted to participate in the discussion, so I read it. I respect Jim Wallis and I thought the book was worth reading. In general, I try to primarily read minority voices when I am reading about racism. There are other books that also have introductions to Christianity and Racism that are similarly good. Every book has its own orientation and focus. And Wallis does have a real history working for racial justice within the church.

But at the same time I do not agree with how all of that shakes out in every point. I think that many that are resistant to discussing racism within the church or even acknowledging racism as a real problem either in or outside of the church are going to be turned off by Wallis’ politics. It is not that I disagree with all of Wallis’ politics or that I disagree with how this Christianity influences his politics, but like it or not, Jim Wallis is identified primarily with the Evangelical political left. So I think that limits who will pick up this book and how those that do, will respond. There is certainly need for the political left to deal with its own racism. And if Wallis had more directly targeted the racism of the political left (as Robin DiAngelo particularly focused her book, White Fragility, toward liberal Whites, I think this could have been a more helpful book.

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, illustrated by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett

Superman: Red Son (New Edition)Summary: A reimagined Superman, played out as a Cold War story with Superman landing in the 1950s Soviet Union.

As I say in almost all of my posts about graphic novels, this is not my area. I read books that are recommended by people who it is there area, like Seth. It was not Seth that I heard this from first. I heard about it first on a podcast that I do not remember. And then it was in the Christ and Pop Culture best of 2018 series. And there have been others that have recommended it once it was on my radar screen.

I like remakes. I know many people do not, but I like the reimagining of stories. A shot by shot remake is not particularly interesting to me; but a different take, a new character perspective, an alternate timeline, etc., is often interesting.

Complete reimagining like this tends to focus on upsetting our assumptions. Superman in his original conception was the ultimate American, the image of the American Dream. Superman: Red Son imagines Superman as the ultimate communist. One that not only believed in the ideals but tried to enact them and oppose those that were working within communism only for their own power.

I thought the ending was well done and I think really the only option for this type of story. The art was good, but I read this more for the story than the art.

The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race by Willie James Jennings

Summary: When the sociological construct of race was developed, Christianity was the dominant intellectual force. Jennings traces how theology impacted and influenced the development of racism and how theology was used to justify racist acts. 

In the past 8 years since The Christian Imagination was released, I have seen a diverse group of Christians say that this is the most influential theology book of the last decade. I am not going to disagree, although I do not have the depth of theology of make that type of statement.

I do not usually quote the description of books when I am writing, but I am going to here because I cannot think of a better way to describe the book.

Why has Christianity, a religion premised upon neighborly love, failed in its attempts to heal social divisions? In this ambitious and wide-ranging work, Willie James Jennings delves deep into the late medieval soil in which the modern Christian imagination grew, to reveal how Christianity’s highly refined process of socialization has inadvertently created and maintained segregated societies. A probing study of the cultural fragmentation—social, spatial, and racial—that took root in the Western mind, this book shows how Christianity has consistently forged Christian nations rather than encouraging genuine communion between disparate groups and individuals.

Weaving together the stories of Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry, the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta, the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso, and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano, Jennings narrates a tale of loss, forgetfulness, and missed opportunities for the transformation of Christian communities. Touching on issues of slavery, geography, Native American history, Jewish-Christian relations, literacy, and translation, he brilliantly exposes how the loss of land and the supersessionist ideas behind the Christian missionary movement are both deeply implicated in the invention of race.

I was aware of the concept of superssionism prior to this book (the idea that Christianity superseded Judaism and replaced God’s covenant with Israel by a new covenant with the church.) But it is just not something I have thought much about. Christianity has failed to reject supersessionism clearly and there has always been a stain of supersessionism, from the overt Marcionism and Manichaeism that were both rejected as heresy, to the much more subtle replacement theology that arose later. It has really only been since World War II and the Holocaust that Christianity has widely started seeing supersessionism as a theological problem. Jennings makes the case that the ethnic prejudice against Jews that was rooted in supersessionism and was strongly present throughout the middle ages, gave theological cover for a different type of ethnic superiority that gradually developed into the concept of race and the racial hierarchies that undergirded colonialism, race-based slavery and White supremacy.

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams

Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams

Summary: An excellent book about the missing part of Bonhoeffer’s story within many of his biographies.

Essentially for the past month I have not written anything about my reading. Starting almost exactly a month ago, I went on a silent Ignatian retreat as part of a prerequisite for starting a graduate school program to become spiritual director. Between that retreat, work, kids being home for summer, a quick vacation and everything else, I just have not sat down and written anything. I write more for myself than anyone that happens to stop by this blog, but to have that record, I have to actually write. Weeks, months or years later, I want to know what I thought when I read a book when I read it, not just what I remember at any particular time.

I went on the retreat with Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus and Willie James Jenning’s commentary on Acts, finishing both the during the five days of my retreat. Not every Ignatian retreat is like mine, but I was focusing on hearing from God, and this book, and Jenning’s commentary on Acts, were what I think God wanted to say to me.

I really know almost nothing about the Harlem Renaissance. I should, but that is a portion of my education that is lacking. The third chapter on the imagery of the Jesus, especially a Black Jesus, during the Harlem Renaissance was so very helpful. I need to read more about the Harlem Renaissance not just because it is an area that I should know about, but because my grandmother actually lived in Harlem during that era.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Pride by Ibi ZoboiSummary: A retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern Brooklyn.

Retellings or reimagining of classic stories is a staple, both for author development and for mining stories for new insights.

Pride by Ibi Zobi, author of American Street, is retelling Pride and Prejudice, a book I have only read once, five years ago. This version opens with a riff off of the classic opening:

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Zoboi isn’t just inserting a new setting or adding in monsters to the original language. She is retelling the story but with much of feel of the original. There isn’t quite as much humor in Pride, but it felt natural even as the original was set in a very different social space that I didn’t think could be recreated today.

The prejudice was more about family pride in the original and the different social stations that had more weight than is common today. The class and social differences today do not have quite the same weight, but that social commentary still came through.

This is a light story, a quick audiobook. Something to cleanse my palate from the too heavy books on race and theology that I am reading. It is the type of book that I am glad my library carries because I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. But the book and the audiobook were well done.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marble

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning MarbleSummary: A fascinating life cut short.

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X around the release of the Spike Lee movie. And either right before or after that, James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America, but that has been a while ago.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the first biography of Malcolm X I have read. Manning Marble passed away after the book was completed, but before it was published. He posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize in History for the biography in 2012.

Marable is presenting a complex picture of Malcolm X. There is no shying away from his power of his personality or his tendency toward being a demagogue. There is some controversy about the book because enviably, there has to be a comparison with the historical accuracy of his ‘autobiography’. Marable contends that Alex Haley was far more than just a ghostwriter, but the shaper of the story. He also contends that Malcolm X exaggerated his early life of crime to better show his transformation as a result of his conversion.

Malcolm’s life really was a full one. He spent a ton of time traveling, far more outside the US than I would have guessed. You cannot help but wonder what his life would have been like had he not been killed. Thematically, Marable is pointing out how frequently Malcolm X changed over time. But he also is careful to not grab on to the end of his life as an ideal or final position. The early part of his life and his time in the Nation of Islam was also important.

Like many great men, Malcolm X was fairly distant from his family. His marriage to Betty was troubled. She did not fit into his perception of how women should act. Her independence and his frequent travels did not lead a simple relationship, and Marable concludes that both likely had affairs. Ironically it was Elijah Muhammed’s affairs and many illegitimate children that seems to have started Malcolm X’s leaving the Nation of Islam, but it wasn’t until near the end of his life, after he left NOI that Marable thinks he first had an affair.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn WardSummary: Sin begets sin, systems feed on those around them, history matters to the present.

Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves its praise. This is not a genre that I traditionally read. If it involves ghosts, I probably have not read it. I tend toward fiction that is more oriented toward fantasy, science fiction or mystery in general. But ghosts here make a lot of sense. They bring history into the discussion of the black experience.

I realized with The Darkest Child that part of what makes Black fiction powerful and often difficult to read in its tragedy is its embrace of the cascading nature of sin. Sin begets sin so that there is often the choice only between whom the harm is going to hurt.

Sing, Unburied, Sing follow several different narrators. Jojo is a 13 year old trying to be a man. The primary caregiver of his toddler aged sister, he is being raised primarily by his grandfather, Pop. His grandmother is dying. His father is in jail. His (White) grandfather refuses to acknowledge his existence. His uncle was killed by his (White) father’s cousin. His mother, Leonie, is trying to do what she can, but she also escapes into drugs.