Blogger Review Books

These books have been provided free for review. The review is mine and has not been influenced by

Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Kwon and Thompson

Summary: A call for reparations in the context of US slavery, largely making a case for an American Christian audience. 

There are few things less popular than the concept of reparations. According to two general polls, 26% of the US supports reparations. It is much less popular among White Evangelicals, around 4%, according to sociologist Samuel Perry. I do not think that Kwon and Thompson believe that this is going to be an easy case to make. And I want to commend Brazos Press for publishing the book because I can’t imagine that an explicitly Christian case for reparations, something that is only supported by 4% of White Evangelicals, is going to become a best seller.

The center point of the claim for Reparations is that “White supremacy’s most enduring effect, indeed its very essence is theft.” They use white supremacy here and throughout the book in the sense of a racial hierarchy with a cultural belief in white racial superiority. The sense of theft here is also broad but nuanced, “…theft is best understood not merely in terms of wealth but also in the more comprehensive terms of truth and power.”

One of the complaints about the book that I predict is that Kwon and Thompson frequently use language that is associated in the minds of many with Critical Race Theory and Social Justice. The complaints will be about the method of argument more than the content of the argument and the reality of the harm done, or the need theologically for repair because of that harm. One of the book’s strengths is that Kwon and Thompson attempt to define what they mean all through the book clearly. It is hard for me to adequately evaluate how well they accomplish this for readers that are new to these concepts since I am not new to this discussion. But the concept of whiteness and the social construction of race do matter significantly to the case that Kwon and Thompson are trying to make.

The process of this expanded meaning of Whiteness mirrored the expanding of Blackness; as Blackness took on new meaning, Whiteness took on its opposite. Where Blackness signified inferior personal capacity, Whiteness signified superior personal capacity. Where Blackness signified inferior moral deficiency, Whiteness signified superior moral virtue. Where Blackness signified the margins of society, Whiteness signified a rightful claim to the center. To be White came to mean not only having lighter skin, but also possessing elevated personal capacity, inherent moral virtue, and an assumed place at the center of the social order. And, as with Blackness, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the presence of this newly invented notion of Whiteness was clearly visible in American cultural life.”

Reparations are not a new concept, even if there has been renewed interested. John Hepburn, in 1715, wrote a pamphlet, The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, which called explicitly for reparation using Christian theology before the US was founded as a country.

“I am of Opinion, that such Sins cannot be repented of without Restitution made to them that they have wronged; for until the Cause be removed, I know not how the Effect should cease. But they that live and dye without making Restitution to them that they have wronged, how they can expect the Forgiveness of God…”

Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren

Summary: Discussion of grief and the spiritual life framed with the Compline prayer from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

I am a big fan of the book of common prayer. There are many different books of common prayer, and I am not particularly devoted to one or another, but I am devoted to the value of prayers being common, of structured prayer (especially when prayer is hard), and the routine of prayer and scripture that takes you through both the liturgical year and the lectionary. I do not use the BCP every day, but I do most days. When I first started using BCP, I bought a kindle book with all the scripture inline so that there was no flipping, based on the 1979 Episcopal BCP. But the compiler of those dated kindle versions stopped producing them after a couple of years, and I bounced around for a while. I stumbled on a podcast of the 1928 BCP, which randomly was taken over by a Facebook friend and so I spent a year or two primarily listening to podcasts of the service. More recently, I have been using the 2019 ACNA BCP and creating a PDF of the morning service and sending it to my Supernote A5X, and that works really well both for a full service with everything nicely laid out and a larger format than a kindle. And there is a podcast of the same service, so I sometimes will listen along or listen instead of reading.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Prayer in the Night. I had read Tish Harrison Warren’s earlier Liturgy of the Ordinary, and while I did not dislike the book, it was so strongly hyped that by the time I got around to reading it, there was no way for the book to have lived up to the recommendations. And Prayer in the Night, if anything, has received even more positive press. I don’t think I have seen a single negative review or post about it. I probably would not have read it if it were not part of the Renovaré book club. I have participated in the book club for the past couple of years, so I picked up Prayer in the Night.

Prayer in the Night is framed around the compline prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Permission to Be Black: My Journey with Jay-Z and Jesus by AD Thomason

Permission to Be Black: My Journey with Jay-Z and Jesus Cover imageSummary: An exploration of the relationship between relational, emotional, and spiritual health and being Black in America.

It has been a week or so since I finished Permission to be Black. I have been trying to figure out how to write this review in a helpful way. I am a white guy in my late 40s; I did not grow up listening to Jay-Z; Thomason did not write this book to or for me. I did, however, really enjoy the book, and I think it is constructive.

Part of the reality of grappling with a racialized existence from the majority culture is that as I strive to diversify my reading, there can be a difference between reading widely and ‘the white gaze.’ In reading widely, sometimes I can perpetuate my own prior biases instead of confronting them. (As I wrote about in this article at Christ and Pop Culture magazine.) I have been intentionally diversifying my reading for years. While I do not claim perfection, I think I am doing better and understanding what is for me, what is not, and how to figure out how to read something for benefit when it is not centered on my white experience. In writing this post, I struggle with talking about a book that can feed into white superiority if read wrongly.

A reason that is frequently cited for not liking the current direction of discussing race Ibham Kendi and others start with the assumption that racial disparities are wholly the result of racial discrimination. That assertion on its face seems fairly uncontroversial. But it was the central point of a recent review on the Gospel Coalition website of Kendi’s book How to be Antiracist. The reviewer and many commenters disputed the possibility that all racial disparities could or should be thought of as the result of racial discrimination. Their claim seems to be that the assumption that racial disparity is the result of racial discrimination disallows data that contradicts that point and removes responsibility for how to respond to discrimination from racially discriminated communities.

I think both parts of that are easy to respond to. What is required is pushing the view of the data further back. For instance, a commenter on a friend’s Facebook page blamed the higher average property tax rates Black homeowners in the US pay on the local governments and the Black and other minority cultures that allow those local governments to charge those higher tax rates. I would counter that this blames the victim of the higher tax rates (and the local government) instead of looking at the US’s housing history. The history of housing includes white flight, creating new municipalities without the historic debt of the older central cities and suburbs, which are often strapped with pension and other debt that cities incurred before white flight. That is one small example of not going back to the root causes of disparity, which I believe is what Kendi is advocating in saying that racial disparity is the result of racial discrimination. The second part of the claim is that discriminated communities have a moral and ethical responsibility to respond well to discrimination. And while I do not want to dispute that we all have a responsibility for our own behavior, there is often no similar request for oppressing communities to respond well with appropriate reparations for the oppression.

I have all of this too-long introduction because Permission to be Black is a call to seek healing from the pain and trauma of generational discrimination. Thomason is not citing a deficient Black culture, as some who believe in white superiority would posit, but racial discrimination and its widespread impact. But I want to affirm that I do not believe that there is a moral, ethical, cultural, or social deficiency within the Black community. Still, there is a greater level of trauma, including generational trauma, because racial discrimination has been perpetuated for generations.

A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson by Winn Collier

Summary: The first full (and authorized) biography of Eugene Peterson

I have long been a fan of Eugene Peterson. There is something about him and his imagination of what it means to be the church and what it means to pastor people that resonates with me deeply. When his memoir came out, I read it twice in less than six weeks and then again about six months later, and I have read it at least once since then as well. I can’t think of any other book that I read three times in less than a year. So when I heard about a new biography, I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy.

It has been about a month since I started and about 2-3 weeks since I finished the book. I have been sitting with it. My last meeting with my spiritual director primarily talked through my response to it. One of the thoughts that came to me as I was reading was that in many ways, without really using the language of spiritual direction (although he does have one book where he does talk about spiritual direction), I think his pastoral method was spiritual direction. If you are not familiar with spiritual direction, that doesn’t mean anything. But to me, who is in training to be a spiritual director, it was revelatory to what draws me to his approach so strongly.

The early chapters, on Peterson’s childhood and family, felt light and almost verging on hagiography. There were problems identified, especially the distance between Eugene and his father and between his father and mother. But his childhood was presented as near idyllic. Collier points primarily to Eugene’s mother as his spiritual teacher, in part because the church does not seem to have mattered much at all. But something drew Peterson to God in ways that we can see both here and in The Pastor. But in neither was I really satisfied that it was explored enough.

In the college, seminary, and early years of the pastorate, I think there is a much clearer grappling with the whole of the man that became, eventually, the Eugene Peterson that many of us hold as a saint and mentor. I am not going to retrace his story in detail. I will re-read A Burning in My Bones again when it officially comes out on March 23, and maybe I will write about the book again then and trace it a bit more clearly.

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery by Cheri Mills

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American SlaverySummary: A lenten devotional based on the testimony of people that escaped slavery. 

There has been a slow recovery of the practice of Lent in parts of the Protestant world that has not traditionally celebrated the liturgical year over the past couple of decades. I want to commend three devotionals that I have used, although I have not read all of any of them yet. Each of them is a 40-day devotional.

Lent is a season of reflection and preparation for Easter. Traditionally, it is a period that includes fasting, repentance, prayer, and penance. Each of these devotionals is focused on knowing the history of the US, particularly the history of Black oppression, slavery, and the cultural embrace of racial hierarchy, which posits that those with lighter colors of skin are inherently superior to those with darker colors of skin. The purpose of these is not guilt, but awareness of. history for the purpose of repair and reconciliation. Without a shared historical story, there cannot be a shared future story. Each of these has slightly different focuses.

The newest is the Lent of Liberation, which was released a couple of weeks ago. The Lent of Liberation has a basic format of a quotation from slave narrative, usually about 3/4 of a page, a related biblical quotation, and then about 1-2 pages of reflection on the biblical passage and the historical reality of slavery and oppression. The focus of Lent of Liberation is to draw attention to the African Decendents of Slavery (ADOS) and the continued impact of slavery on the present world as well as the ways that Christianity is oriented toward reconciliation and the Imago Dei (image of God) within all people and how historic Christianity has not practiced that fully. The author Cheri Mills is a church administrator, founder of the 1 Voice Prayer Movement, and prayer director at Simmons College of Kentucky, an HBCU.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler

Summary: An exploration of White Evangelicals and Racism, primarily focusing on recent history.

Anthea Butler is a professor of religion and history at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a book that I keep seeing advanced readers recommend. (White Evangelical Racism does not come out until March 22). In many ways, it feels like a good follow-up to Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise because while both have some overlap, Color of Compromise primarily focuses on the complicity in racism by the church before the civil rights era with some content after that point. In contrast, White Evangelical Racism primarily focuses on Evangelicalism from the Moral Majority rise and after. Reading them together is complimentary.

One of the complaints that Butler is clearly trying to avoid is the ‘but not all White people’ complaint. Repeatedly Butler affirms that she is talking about those White Evangelicals that she is talking about, not all of them. But she has strong words throughout the book because there is a willingness for many to be complicit.

“…when evangelical writers claim to they not understand the overwhelming nature of evangelical support for right wing and sometimes downright scurrilous Republican canidates and politicos, they fail to reckon with evangelical history.” (p9)

Like many other historians, Butler suggests that the story of Evangelicalism in the US can’t be told without discussing racism and that many evangelical historians do not want to tell that more complicated story. (p 12) With the recent analysis of President Biden’s inauguration speech, there has been a discussion about the difference in the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism and what some see as potential positives of a type of civil religion.

How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby

Summary: A practical, focused guide to opposing racism through the ARC model (awareness, relationships, commitment).

Jemar Tisby has long been fighting against racism. He has an NYT bestselling history survey, The Color of Compromise. He is the co-founder of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective. He is in the final stages of his Ph.D. in history, focusing on 20th-century racial history. And he co-hosts the Pass The Mic podcast.

This is a very different book from Color of Compromise. Color of Compromise is a survey of the American church’s racial history, especially its compromise concerning accepting racism in exchange for cultural power. Tisby says clearly in the introduction that How to Fight Racism responds to the standard question that he frequently gets, especially from White Christians, after presenting the problems of racism. How to Fight Racism is a book-length response to ‘what can I do.’ 

The broad structure of the book is ARC (see link for a graphic detailing the concept). ARC is not linear, but a broad strategy that will look different from person to person and community to community. But generally, healthy response to racism will include some mix of ongoing awareness, relationship building, and a long-term commitment to systemic change. This may sound theoretical, but it is very practically focused. There are many stories to illustrate the suggestions. And while you certainly do not need to be a Christian to get value out of the book, it is a Christian book that is rooting the reasoning and methods of fighting racism in a Christian background.

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)

All the Devils Are Here by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache #16)

Summary: As Gamache and his wife visit Paris to await the birth of their grandchild, crime continues to happen.

Louise Penny is one of my favorite fiction authors at this point. I can’t think of another author that has managed to keep my attention 16 books into a series. I am been reading far too few fiction books lately. There are many reasons for that, but I do believe that fiction is essential. It is how we understand parts of the world that are not our own as well, giving words to help us make sense of the elements of the world that are our own. I was thrilled that Netgalley has started offering audiobook to review. I was desperate for a change of pace, and while a crime thriller isn’t what I would call relaxing, it was the change of pace I needed. I finished the 14-hour audiobook in three days. I would not recommend jumping into the 16th book in the series; there are too many details that you will miss.

Armand Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie are visiting their two children and their families, both of whom now live in Paris. Armand inherited a small apartment from the woman that raised him after his parents died when he was 9. And his godfather, recently introduced in the past couple books, also has an apartment here. His godfather is now a mostly retired 95-year-old billionaire who was once an impoverished German teen who reportedly worked with the French underground during WWII. Through his excellent business sense and a sense of justice, Stephen Horowitz brought down companies and became wealthy.

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.