Blogger Review Books

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Good White Racist?: Confront Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice by Kerry Connelly

Good White Racist? Confronting Your Role in Racial Injustice

Summary: A White Christian talking to other White Christians about racism.

If you have read my post on The Myth of the American Dream, you know I am ambivalent about Good White Racist and several other books I have been reading lately. They are good books, among the best I have read from Christians, which I appreciate. But the fact they exist, in some ways, is a sign of the reluctance of White people to learn from minorities who have been saying many of the same things for a long time.

The description of the book opens with the following:

good white racist noun
1. A well-intentioned person of European descent who is nonetheless complicit in a culture of systemic racism
2. A white person who would rather stay comfortable than do the work of antiracism

One of the positives that immediately struck me was the preface. There are several pages devoted to acknowledging the people that have previously taught her all of the things she will later say. The Black women (primarily) that have taught her personally and paved the way academically to write about race. There is humility with that opening that caused me to text it to some friends immediately and think that maybe this book would be different.

And then the introduction opens, “Hi. I’m Kerry, and I’m a racist. (This is where you’re supposed to say, ‘Hi, Kerry.)'” She continues in the next few pages noting that White people trying to address race often “talk a great game on the one hand while maintaining the racist status quo on the other.” Like White Fragility, this is a book primarily is targeted toward people that have some awareness of the reality of racism, but also consider themselves a ‘Good White person.’ As she says, “It is our job–white people, not anyone else’s–to acknowledge this power dynamic and dismantle it, making space for the power of others to emerge.”

A friend posted a quote from Martin Luther King Jr’s book Where Do We Go From Here:

“Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”

The importance of the book is that Good White Racists:

“…benefit from that assignment in a social system that privileges whiteness…are generally nice people who intellectually do not approve of racist behaviors but who practice them anyway…[and] are concerned (possibly obsessed) with two things: their own comfort and their own inherent goodness.” (p15)

What Good White Racist points out throughout the book, is that paying attention matters, and the desire to not pay attention is exactly the problem that prevents real change. (Similar to the theme of Myth of the American Dream).

The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power by DL Mayfield

The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and PowerSummary: Is the American Dream and Christianity compatible?

A couple of years ago, I learned that the word ambivalent means “having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.”  I realized that I have been using the word wrong before that. Since then, it keeps coming to mind. I have contradictory ideas about The Myth of the American Dream. It is a great book. I exported my notes and comments on it, and I have 66 pages, 1/3 of the book that has a comment or underlined section.

The narrative structure spoke to me because while I have never met DL Mayfield, she puts voice to many things I have felt. I have been following her writing for years, her cover story at Christianity Today on Lynching, her Washington Post piece on the revolutionary nature of Mary’s Magnificant and too many more articles to list. The Myth of the American Dream, like following her on twitter or reading her work, is about putting out her pain and desire for the world to be different, more like the kingdom of God, on display to stir up something, anything in the reader.

The Myth of the American Dream I can’t think of apart from the coincidental trilogy of books I read along with it. Along with this book, and Good, White Racist is Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. It is a couple of years old, but it has a similar structure of telling the story of how ministry, as traditionally done, doesn’t work. Both books point out the weaknesses of unfettered capitalism, and individualistic consumerism contradicts with care for the other. They have different settings, Possessing Everything is about urban Indianapolis with mostly Black and Hispanic poor communities. Mayfield’s lives in suburban Portland, with refugee communities struggling to find a place in the midst of gentrifying liberalism. Both bring up education and the problems of white saviors and real introspection about how we can harm as we attempt to serve.

With both the writing was excellent and the focus on how traditional White Protestant ministry often seeks to do for or reconstruct communities to look like we think they should instead of how God sees them. I do not know how to write about this book because I have far too much to talk about. How do I summarize nearly 70 pages of notes and highlights?  At the beginning of the book, she says, ‘this is a book about paying attention.’ And that is probably the best summary. The American Dream is about not paying attention to those who are not doing well—ignoring protests or poverty, or the systems that allow some of us to have much and many others to have almost nothing. It is not about who is working hardest. I can assure you that my work is not hard, but the ‘essential worker’ making minimum wage is working hard.

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places by Michael Mather

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places Summary: Story filled book on the reimagining of what it means to serve a community. 

I have read many books on ‘urban ministry’ or community development.  I have a master’s degree in social service administration, and my job is non-profit consulting. Having Nothing, Possessing Everything is not a unique take, but it is well told. In an overly simplified form, this is a church that has taken the Asset Based Community Development model (look to develop the strengths of the community more than bringing in resources to address the weaknesses.) I broadly support the ABCD model, but it is not simple to implement well (or easily replicable), and some use the model as an excuse not to address systemic issues or immediate needs.

I think the story focus of Having Nothing, Possessing Everything does an excellent job of exploring what is and is not meant here. Mather takes on traditional social ministry, unconstrained capitalism, consumerism, and the lack of resources in a helpful way. I wish he dealt more directly with race, although it is in the background throughout the book.

At the end of the book, there is an exploration of a set of six principles that I think are helpful. They are the principle that guides both how partnerships work and the ideals of the church

  1. Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it
  2. Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors.
  3. Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this.
  4. We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek.
  5. Money must flow into the neighborhood.
  6. Practice neighbor love.

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.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David Blight

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David BlightTakeaway: Well written biography of a fascinating man.

I first came across David Blight when I listened to a podcast of his Yale College History class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. I have not read any of his books previously, but based on my enjoyment of that class and my interest in (but completely lack of knowledge about) Frederick Douglass I jumped on an advanced copy. I did not adequately leave enough time for this very long book and bought the audiobook.

It is hard to be too glowing about Frederick Douglass. Largely self taught, Douglass eventually wrote three autobiographies, was a publisher of two different newspapers for roughly 20 year together. Douglass was the first Black man appointed to a job that required Senate approval. He was later appointed minister to Haiti (roughly equivalent to ambassador). He may have spoken in front of more people than any other single person in the 19th century in the United State. And after the death of his first wife, he married Helen Pitts, a White woman, making theirs the first really prominent interracial marriage.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is the only large biography of Frederick Douglass that I am aware of. David Blight is well qualified. He has written introductions to Douglass’ autobiographies. Blight has written about slave narratives (former slaves writing about their history as slaves and/or their escape) as well as the underground railroad. Blight also won the Bancroft Prize (one of the most prominent awards for history writing) for his Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. That book that is largely about historic memory is especially evident as Blight discusses how Douglass remembers himself and his life and how that changes over time.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is not just about an interesting character of history, but it is a complex portrayal of Douglass. One of the points that was made in Harriet Tubman’s biography, Bound for the Promise Land, was that Tubman, as many other historical characters, is easily minimized to the one thing that people know about them. Frederick Douglass is known as a former slave and abolitionist. Some people may know about his autobiographies and maybe even have read one of them. But Blight presents a much more complex character, with Douglass’ strengths and weaknesses. And there are lots of both strengths and weaknesses.

The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities by Adrian Pei

The Minority Experience: Navigating Emotional and Organizational Realities by Adrian PeiTakeaway: If Christians want to reflect the diversity of the kingdom, then organizations have to acknowledge the reality of the minority experience and make changes.

Books on race or history around race or even race within the Christian world are not new, but there are few books within the Christian community that are particularly focused on minorities within the predominately White parachurch world. The only other book that is somewhat similar to Adrian Pei’s The Minority Experience that I have read is the book edited by Anthony Bradley, Aliens in the Promised Land. However, these are two very different types of books.

Aliens in the Promised Land was an account by a number of Christians working in predominately White church or church based organizations, many of them educational institutions. That first person account from a number of different people, of different racial or ethnic backgrounds and working in different types of organizations, lays the groundwork for why White Christians need to be listening to minorities within predominately White church. But by its nature, the book is more focused on personal description than larger systemic issues. Adrian Pei’s The Minority Experience includes personal examples and memoir, but the focus is organizational development..

I have entirely too many highlights and notes to adequately trace all of the themes that Pei develops through the book, but I want to note four that were particularly striking to me.

First, Pei is focusing on systems because he is focused on organizational development. It is not that personal ignorance or animus are unimportant when talking about the minority experience within organizations, but “Systematic power is often hardest for people to accept or understand, because it is largely invisible. Also, it is far easier to blame an individual than a system because a system doesn’t have as clear a culprit and solution.” (Kindle Location 550)

Pei also clearly outlines the difference between segregation and separation. “Segregation is an act of power imposed upon a minority group against their will, not a voluntary attempt to form a community of support.” (Kindle Location 520) One of the trends in discussion around racial and ethnic issues is that many Whites point to separation as a form of racism without understand the difference between preventing minorities from participation and the gathering together of minorities for support.

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequis

Summary: A realignment from attendance based worship to participatory Christianity.

I was both interested in reading the Eternal Current and hesitant to read it. In some ways I feel like I have been on a similar journey as Aaron Niequist. I have been following him for years on social media and through his wife’s (Shauna Niequist) writing. We have different places in the Church (he is a worship leader and musician and church leaders, I am a stay at home Dad). As I have watched his work with The Practice and read an occasional article or interview or heard about him from some mutual acquaintances, it has felt like we have been moving in similar directions.

As I read The Eternal Current, it is clear we have also been reading similar books. NT Wright, James KA Smith, Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, along with lots on Catholic, Orthodox and historic Christian authors. We both started spiritual direction about 5 years ago. We both attend megachurches that we are reluctant to leave, but also do not find completely fulfilling.

Aaron Niequist led a project of Willow Creek Community Church, The Practice, for several years. It was a project that was attempting to put into place a more liturgically informed and historically aware practice of Christianity. Willow has been oriented toward reaching non-Christians for the past 30-40 years. But it has also been aware for at least the last 10-15 years how it has been weak at developing people as Christians. Aaron, based on his passion, and probably at least a bit on his relationship as the son in law of Bill Hybels, started a worship setting that was focused on spiritual development in a historical and liturgical mode.

I cannot really review this book without commenting on Bill Hybel’s status as the former pastor of Willow Creek. Yet another article came out about Hybel’s sexual harassment of a staff member at Willow on Sunday. That makes at least 10 women that have publicly accused Hybel’s of sexual harassment. In addition to the article on Sunday, the head teaching pastor at Willow, which moved into place early because of Hybel’s resignation, himself resigned abruptly Sunday. He had asked to resign earlier because of differences of opinion on how to deal with the allegations against Hybel between himself and other leaders, but after the NYT article on Sunday, he did not show up at church, it was announced that he was sick and then Carter released a statement later in the day.

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships by Suzanne Stabile

The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships by Suzanne StabileSummary: An orientation to the Enneagram focused on relationships.

The Path Between us is my third book on the enneagram this year. I have been skeptical about the enneagram, but the more I read the more I can see the value of the enneagram as a framework for understanding both yourself and others.

In the end personality tests and psychological models are not really for navel gazing, but for assisting us to become a better people and to related to others better. The Path Between Us has roughly the same summary of the enneagram as The Sacred Enneagram and Mirror for the Soul, but the focus of the three is quite different and I think while not the most introductory, The Path Between us has the right focus of helping the reader related to others well.

Each of the chapters has the same basic format, a description of each of the numbers of the enneagram and several illustrations and quotes about that number. Then a description of how that number relates to other people of different numbers and the same number. There are notes about what numbers work together well and how to overcome common problems between numbers.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan NobleSummary: In order to be a Christian within culture, we need to understand what the culture is. Which means we need to be rooted in historic Christianity as a means of disrupting the effects of culture.

The old illustration about two fish being asked how is the water, and then one asking the other, ‘what is water?’ is my best description of Disruptive Witness. We are part of a culture, but we need tools, and language, to help us understand, and describe, the culture around us.

Part One of Disruptive Witness uses Charles Taylor and others to describe and understand our culture from the perspective of Christianity that is always within a particular culture. I have read a number of books about Taylor’s ideas, and I think that Disruptive Witness is one of the most understandable presentations of Taylor’s ideas.

Part Two of Disruptive Witness is focused on what we should do now that we understand some of the benefits and problems of culture. These are largely spiritual practices of the historic church that can help disrupt the effects of culture. 

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held EvansSummary: A broad overview of Rachel Held Evan’s hermeneutics of reading the bible, written for people who don’t really use the word hermeneutics.

I very much value Rachel Held Evans. I do not have all of the same questions and issues that Evans has had. I grew up in a different context, I am male and therefore was not restricted in similar ways as she was. I grew up in an evangelical wing of a mainline denomination, so I did not have the fundamentalist tendencies that her church background did. The problem of evil, which I treat seriously, has never been threatening to my faith in the same way that it was to her faith. But I valued her voice as one that helps me with perspective.

Evans is getting older. The original memoir-y looks at young adult faith and coming of age cannot go on forever. And while I don’t think her books were always primarily deconstructing, Inspired is consciously an attempt at constructing. I do not want to presume motive or changes, but she is 35 now. She has a young son and a newborn daughter. She has chosen a church home. So I think that it is likely that the settled nature of young middle age has her thinking about how to construct faith of those around her not just ask questions and pose problems (not that there is anything wrong with asking questions and posing problems.)

Inspired is focused on how to read the bible, or at least how she has learned to read the bible, in a new way. She is primarily approaching the bible as story. Looking at what is there, but in a new way. Evans is primarily known as a memoirist. She is not a scholar, but a writer and writing with a writer’s sense of how stories are supposed to be read and understood.