Blogger Review Books

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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.

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.