Book Reviews

All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson

All That's Good: Recovering the Lost Art of DiscernmentSummary: Discernment is a spiritual gift, something that all Christians should work to develop, and a role of a community of Christian practice 

Any regular readers of probably know that I started a graduate certificate program in Spiritual Direction last fall. I intentionally chose to do my training with a Catholic university because I wanted to challenge my blind spots. Most of the books we are assigned are by Catholic authors, and I often pick up a book by a Protestant author to read in conversation. Because I have previously read All That’s Good, I knew it would be helpful to read with Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green. Both books are about developing or teaching discernment, but they approach the topic very differently, and the tension between that difference was constructive.

All That’s Good is the third book in a trilogy of books about discipleship. Weeds Among the Wheat is a manual for Spiritual Directors to teach and partner with their directees in discernment. For the average person, I would recommend All That’s Good as the better book to read, both because it is targeted at a more general reader and because it is full of stories and illustrations that are more applicable for the average person.

I think what is most helpful about All That’s Good is that 1) Anderson views discernment as a practice to be developed, 2) that for judgment to be fruitful, we need to know not just what is wrong, but even more important, what is right, and 3) that the tough thing about discernment is that often we are choosing not between what is right and wrong but from a range of things that are themselves are good, but attempting to find what is best right now.

Both Anderson and Green approach developing discernment as an essential part of developing maturity. Anderson talks about helping her children learn to shop, not based on impulse, but a range of issues including need, quality, goodness, etc.. Green draws on Paul’s illustration in I Cor 3 of trying to move people toward solid food and away from milk. And Anderson says, “In other words, you develop discernment by becoming a person who knows how, not simply what, to think.” Both authors view discernment as moving from simple rules toward a more mature and nuanced understanding of ethics and discipleship.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C Oden

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western ChristianitySummary: Much of the early church was African. The west has largely forgotten its African character and misremembered the importance and reach of the African church. 

One of the important points here is very similar to the one made in this article about the rise of the Nation of Islam that it has been the misuse of Christianity that has led to African (or African American) rejections of Christianity as a White religion. European Christians, especially post Hegalian, viewed the early church fathers as necessarily being European in character because they were essential to the development of Christianity. This ignores the reality that most of the early church fathers were ethnically and culturally African. Most of them spoke Greek and/or Latin, but that is because those were common trade languages. Today we would not say that Bishop Desmond Tutu was European in character because he speaks and writes in English. And that also ignores those that were not writing in Latin or Gre,ek such as St Anthony, who was illiterate, but the only surviving letters we have from him (that were dictated) were in Coptic.

A point which I had not heard before was that the consular format of the early church councils, which are today the basis of what is and is not considered orthodoxy and heresy, were developed by African Christians for use in Africa before they were used in the broader ecumenical councils.

Where I think that Oden gets into a problem is evaluating modern movements. He is a good theologian and historian but tends to paint modern movements too broadly to be helpful. In his section on ecumenicism, there are people that fit into his critique, but many that do not. And because he is not nuanced enough in that critique (and I want to be clear that this would be very difficult), I suspect there are people that will dismiss the clearer theological and historical work as also suspect.

Reflections by Rosa Parks: The Quiet Strength and Faith of a Woman Who Changed a Nation

Reflections by Rosa Parks: The Quiet Strength and Faith of a Woman Who Changed a Nation book cover

Summary: Very brief thoughts by Rosa Parks about her life. 

I noticed this book was on sale for Black History month and realized that I had never read the copy that I purchased last year when it was on sale. Reflections by Rosa Parks is a book you want to buy when it is on sale. It is not that it is a bad book, but it is a very short book. The physical book is the 6 by 7 gift-book size. The audiobook is 80 minutes long.

Despite its short length, it is worth reading. Rosa Parks was in her 80s when she wrote Reflections. It feels like she dictated the book because its prose sounds spoken. There are 12 short chapters. The first several are about her early life and the bus boycott. From the sixth chapter on, the chapters are either about the people in her life or her thoughts on life. Her faith exudes in the pages. She has no interest in being a prominent focus, and humbly shifts the focus to the people around her or her faith.

It is precisely that humility that I think makes this book work. It is not a masterwork. It is a simple story and thoughts of an important, but a mostly unknown woman. She talks about the fact that her refusal to get up has been construed as her being tired after work. She says she did not get up because she was physically tired, but because she was tired of racism.

What I had not realized was how quickly she moved to Detroit. She was fired from her job as a seamstress at a department store weeks after the boycott started. And while it doesn’t say this, it seems likely that her husband probably was threatened as well. They moved to Detroit in 1957. Despite living in Detroit, she participates in the March on Washington in 1963, the Selma to Mongomery march and other Civil Rights work.

Doors Into Prayer: An Invitation by Emilie Griffin

Doors Into Prayer: An Invitation by Emilie GriffinSummary: A collection of short thoughts on prayer.

Doors into Prayer is not a book I would have picked up on my own. It is well worth reading, but I would not have picked it up except that it was part of the Renovaré Book Club. (The next book is Interior Castles.)

I do not participate much in the online discussion, and I do not attend a local in-person discussion (although those are available for interested people). But I do read the supplementary articles and listen to the podcasts. Most of that is paywalled and only for those that participate in the group, but this is a free talk that Emilie Griffin gave at a Renovare conference that is worth listening to (Dallas Willard joins her for some Q&A at the end).

In a paywalled podcast, Griffin says that she wanted to write a book on prayer that was good for standing in line or other short reads. Something that can be read in a few minutes and not tightly connected to the material around it. And that is what this is.

I think of it kind of like those readers digest humor stories. Most topics (chapters) are less than two pages. And while I often read two or three at a sitting, I rarely wanted to read more than that. These are things you want to read and then step away and think and/or pray about.

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston

Dust Tracks on a Road: An AutobiographySummary: The memoir of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.

It was not until last year that I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, the best known of Zora Neale Hurston.  Last week, The Zora Canon, a list of the 100 best books by Black women, named in her honor, was released. It took me a little while to get into the memoir, and there are several essays at the end that I am not sure really improved the memoir, but her storytelling really shown through. Somewhat similar to Julie Andrew’s first memoir Home, the story stops at the point where her career starts to take off. Unlike Julie Andrew’s who recently released a second memoir, Zora Neale Hurston never did. She still died in poverty and largely forgotten until she was ‘rediscovered’ again by a new generation of writers that have brought her back into public consciousness.

The memoir opens with her family history and her early life. The shadows of her life on Their Eyes Were Watching God, either in her own life or in the lives of those around her, was transparent. I don’t know if she was trying to highlight parallels or not, but it is hard not to see them. I would recommend reading Their Eyes Were Watching God before Dust on the Tracks.

I am only going to highlight two points. She talks about how she devoured any books that she could get to. At one point she talks about a box of books she received:

In that box was Gulliver’s Travels, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Dick Whittington, Greek and Roman Myths, and best of all, Norse Tales. Why did the Norse tales strike so deeply into my soul? I do not know, but they did.

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by James Beitler

Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church by [Beitler III, James Edward ]Summary: A look at how five Christians have used rhetoric to impact the church.

One of my goals over the next couple of years is to think more clearly about how people’s minds are changed. I purposely say that in the passive voice, because while you can influence the changing of minds, you cannot as an outsider change someone else’s mind. What can be done is to build a relationship, listen, and speak. The how of all three of those does matter.

Seasoned Speech is mainly about the concept of rhetoric, something that I am not sure I have particularly looked into previously. I have had public speaking and preaching classes, but those have been about structure and form more generally than rhetoric.

James Beitler in Seasoned Speech took CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Desmond Tutu, and Marilynne Robinson and looked at how they rhetorically communicate their faith. I have read something of all of these authors, although never a full-length book by Tutu and only Sayers’ fiction. Beitler’s chapters on each of these authors focused relatively narrowly. Lewis’ chapter was mostly on speaking in vernacular and knowing the audience and the speaker’s limits. Sayers’ was mostly about using fiction and getting into the story. Bonhoeffer’s chapter was mostly on being prophetic in a way that readers may not want to hear, especially in thining about communicating through sermons. Tutu was using positions and life to communicate (with the illustration of his anti-apartheid work and then later his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission). This is true of several of the authors being discussed, but especially in the Tutu chapter, the ‘being with’ someone is essential to communicating to them. Robinson challenges the concept of using an argument to compel belief. (It is somewhat ironic that Robinson does use argument in her non-fiction works, but those non-fiction works are far less compelling than her fiction.)

Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash by Richard Beck

Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel according to Johnny CashSummary: Pop culture connections to the gospel and biography the way it is supposed to be done.

I have long been a subscriber to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine. Seeing glimpses of God in art is one of the best ways I know of to communicate about Christ to people that are not Christians. But what I am interested in pop culture connection is the way that we can understand Christian imagery through artistic works. Unfortunately, in my mind, books that have the subtitle “Gospel According to…” tend to be more focused on evangelism and twisting art to fit a message. Trains, Jesus and Murder, is an exceptional example of the ‘Gospel According to…’ types of books.

There are a few that are similar, Rowan Williams’ book on CS Lewis’ Naria, the recent book about Mister Rogers, and even in a way, James KA Smith’s latest book on Augustine are all examples of seeking out God in a persons art or work without distorting the work. One of the aspects that I think is essential in doing this style of book well, is being honest about weaknesses. Johnny Cash was far from perfect. His less than ideal image is part of what has made his legacy enduring; he made outlaw country a thing. His struggle with addiction is well known, and like Brennan Manning, it was a life long struggle.

Johnny Cash was also a saint, or at least he tried to be. He wrote multiple books on Christianity, he made movies about his faith, and he was generous to many around him. Part of what Beck is communicating is that Cash was impacted by his older brother’s death when Johnny was young. His older brother was going to be a preacher, and Johnny Cash, despite is outlaw image did want to share the gospel widely in his way.

Beck’s central theme is that for the Man in Black, the gospel is about solidarity.

The gospel according to the Man in Black is a gospel rooted in solidarity. The cross of Christ, in this view, is an act of divine identification with the oppressed. On the cross, God is found with and among the victims of the world. More, given that crucified persons were considered to be cursed by God—“Cursed is anyone who is hung upon a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23)—God is found in Jesus among the cursed and godforsaken. Again, the first place to look for Jesus is in hell. By standing with the poor and beaten down, the music of Johnny Cash shows us how a gospel of solidarity begins as an interpretative activity: the cross is a way of seeing and reading the world. Specifically, the cross helps us answer this most important question: Where is God?

…That is the gospel according to the Man in Black: drawing near to and loving the lost, unnoticed, unremarkable, excluded, powerless, broken, condemned, and despicable. Solidarity is a love that grows warmest in the coldest places. That vision prompts us to take the second step in the dance of divine solidarity. After we read the world to locate God among the victims and the oppressed, we are called to action, to move ourselves to stand with those who are suffering. As Bonheoffer said, God “goes right into the middle of it.” God draws near.

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren

Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday LifeSummary: Seeking spiritual depth from ordinary life.

I have been reluctant to pick this up because so many have recommended it. I know I shouldn’t do that, but contrarianism is part of who I am. I also picked it up toward the end of the year when I was already way over my self imposed limit on reading more White authors. It seemed relevant at the time to the paper I was working on for my spiritual direction class. Although I ended up cutting the section of my paper that I referenced Liturgy of the Ordinary because it was too long, it did help me focus the essay.

The general focus of the book is to seek to find God in the mundane because the mundane is where we are most of the time. One of my objections to the book is also one of its strengths. Reflections like this are necessarily personal and encultured. We cannot make broad reflections that our outside of our culture and experience because they are then not ours. We are Christians, not abstractly but within our culture and experience.  So while I assumed going in that this book would be White, middle class, educated reflections, there was still some frustration with falling into stereotypes, and some pleasure when there were sections that I did not expect.

Even though Liturgy of the Ordinary is only three years old, it feels like so many people have previously read it that I can see its impact in other books and especially other articles. Part of that perception of widespread impact is that what is happening in the book is not actually new. I picked this up as a counterpoint to William Berry’s Finding God in All Things, which is an exploration of Ignatian spiritual practice and very similar in broad theme.

There is a lot of grace in the Liturgy of the Ordinary, and that grace is necessary and helpful; ordinary life can be hard. Rev Warren’s discussion about getting into arguments with her husband and needing to seek forgiveness, of having human limitations, of needing others, is part of what it means to be human. Humans are limited creatures and part of Christian discipleship is to embrace the limitations and live within them. Our culture wants us to perform and rise above our human limitations, but part of what Christ’s incarnation should show us is that even Christ, the true God made man, was human and had human limitations. Jesus needed sleep; he needed rest and time alone, he needed friends and community, and he could not have been born without a mother, and he could not have been a human without being a baby that had to be cared for.

End of the year thoughts and recommendations

2019 marks 10 years of blogging most of the books I have read. This year, like most years, I met some of my reading goals and not others. I read good books that have stuck with me and books that were less memorable.

Reading Goals

My main goal this year was to increase the diversity of authors and to keep the percent of White authors to less than 33%. I failed at that goal since my annual rate was 47%. Two contributing factors in the failure was starting a program to study spiritual direction and only having White authors assigned and only reading white authors as supplemental books to those assigned. I am sure there are books on spiritual direction written by non-White authors, I have not found them yet.

The second problem was just not being conscious enough of monitoring. I was conscious of focusing primarily on increasing Black authors, but that needs to be more than just in books about race. And in increasing the racial diversity I did not pay enough attention to gender and decreased my percent of women authors from 42% in 2018 to 31% in 2019.

2020 Goals

My goal next year will be to keep White authors to 45% or less while increasing the number of books by Asian, Latinx and Native American authors to at least 10% (a really small goal, but one I have not met for the past three years.) And I will try to get the gender balance to be actually balanced instead of overwhelmingly male.

I am going to have a goal to read a sermon a day. I am going to start with Fleming Rutledge, Howard Thurman, Eugene Peterson and then I will seek out some others. If you have any suggestions let me know.

Most impactful books

Last year I tried dividing the books that impacted me into different categories of how they impacted me. Last year’s categories do not really work this year. The books I find most impactful were fairly serious and generally either biography, history, theology or about racial issues. Mostly they were pointing out areas where I have blind spots, ignorance or weakness. I am going to have categories but I am not sure if they will be helpful or not.

Racial Ignorance

I have been reading fairly widely around racial issues for about five years now and I keep discovering new depths to my ignorance and bias, four books stand out here:

I have not written about Unsetting Truths yet because I want to read it again before I write about it, but as much as reading about slavery and the history around slavery impacted my understanding of racial history, Unsettling Truths and Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys and Andrea Smith’s chapter in Can “White” People Be Saved showed me how much I need to inspect my theology and understanding around colonialism, Native American history, and even basic historical facts.

Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors by Anne Marie Miller

Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse SurvivorsSummary: Part her own story of sexual abuse at the hands of a pastor and part guide to being with survivors of sexual abuse in your context. 

I have ‘known’ Anne Marie Miller for a very long time. I started reading her blog around 12 years ago. I have read all of her books. She ended up marrying the cousin of a high school friend of mine. I have appreciated being able to pray for her regularly as I follow along with her life via social media and the occasional email. I am not coming at Healing Together dispassionately. I was an early reader of one of her earlier books, one where she first detailed her sexual abuse.

Anne Miller is an example of a number of (primarily) women that have taken their abuse public because the desire for a better response by the church. Her abuse was at the hands of a church staff. Rachael Denhollander’s was at the hands of a sports doctor; others have been abused by teachers, parents, etc. Regardless of the context, the pain and trauma continue, and the context will be forever tainted. Church-based sexual abuse is particularly a problem because the church should be one of the places that are most responsive to sexual abuse survivors. But even a casual understanding of sexual abuse can see that churches often re-victimize abuse survivors.

Healing Together is doing several things. One is Anne’s own story. I primarily listened to the audiobook of Healing Together with Anne reading. I did that intentionally because I wanted to be able to hear her voice tell her own story. Anne is still recovering from a freak accident where she lost several teeth and has had to have multiple surgeries to reconstruct her jaw. Because I have known her for a while, I can hear some of that damage in her voice, but the audiobook is certainly still a good option for this Healing Together.

The second focus of Healing Together is understanding of what sexual abuse is, how the legal system works, simple definitions of terminology, and a guide on how to be in solidarity with abuse survivors. Her context is the church but this is not just a church-based guide. It is a guide that would be helpful for anyone, whether you are aware of abuse in your context or not. The reality is that whether you know it or not, you know people that have been sexually abused.