Blogger Review Books

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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.

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel

James Baldwin and the 1980s: Withnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph VogelSummary: Baldwin continued to grow and think keeping into the 1980s. 

As someone born in the early 1970s, I am aware of the 1980s, I lived the 1980s, but I have not studied well the 1980s. James Baldwin and the 1980s was helpful, not just in better understanding James Baldwin, but helping me think about the 1980s as history.

Baldwin has become the historic voice of the Black Lives Matters moment. The new documentary I am Not Your Negro and the rise of Ta’Nehisi Coates means that book on Baldwin will get attention that they may not have previously. James Baldwin is mostly known for his earlier work. But he continued to write and teach and create into the 1980s.

James Baldwin and the 1980s has five main chapters, each mostly focused on exploring one of the works that Baldwin created in the 1980s.

The most interesting part for me was the cultural/religious history of the 1980s in the 4th chapter. As someone that identifies as Christian and has been through seminary and reads about theology for fun, I am not sure that I agree with all of the assertions about the Religious Right and James Baldwin. But the important, and interesting part, is that this was written at all. I think that part of what is interesting to me is that the religious right got a significant amount of Christianity wrong. And I think that James Baldwin misunderstood Christianity, in a similar way, as many in the religious right.

His critique of televangelists and the moral majority I think has sway, not because it is wrong, but because it is at least partially right theologically. But I also think it is wrong in significant ways. As a Christian, I agree that the implicit racism of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority was contrary to Christ’s teachings. But I also think the his misunderstands part of the church’s teaching. Confining sex to marriage and monogamous relationships is not denying the body as the book, and Baldwin asserts, but a part of what it means to hold sexuality as sacred.

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John Perkins

One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race by John PerkinsSummary: At 87 years old, the message John Perkins will be focusing on the rest of his life is the importance of racial reconciliation within the church.

One Blood is John Perkins’ last book. So I read it conscious of several of several others books that I have read that were consciously the last books written. John Stott’s last book was about discipleship. Johnny Cash’s last album was about death and regret. This book is about racial issues within the church.

I wish that everyone was familiar with John Perkins. (If you are familiar with him you can skip to the second half where I actually get to the book.) He grew up the son of a sharecropper. His mother died when he was two years old of Pellagra, which is a disease that is most often caused by such a poor diet that the person is essentially starving to death. When he was 16 his older brother, after returning from serving in the military during World War II was killed by a local police officer. Perkins was sent to California because his family feared that he would be killed as well.

When John Perkins was 27, his son Spencer invited him to church and he first became a Christian. Three years later (in 1960) he and his family moved back to Mendenhall, Mississippi to start Voice of Calvary. That ministry expanded to include an early Head Start program, social services and bible training program. In 1965, John Perkins started registering African Americans to vote and helped form a food cooperative to care for people that were blocked out of their jobs as a result of registering to vote. In 1967, his children were the first to desegregate the local high school. In 1969, he lead an economic boycott of White owned businesses, which directly lead to his false arrest and torture at the hands of local police officers. That torture required the removal of part of his stomach and life long health problems.

Later John Perkins and his wife Vera Mae started similar ministries in Jackson, Mississippi and then in Pasadena California. In 1989, he co-founded the Christian Community Development Association which gathered together similar organizations around the country that were mostly evangelical leaning theologically and agreed on the basic principles of the 3 Rs (relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution). Most recently the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation was created as a training center for Christian community development and leadership.

Although Perkins only formally completed third grade, One Blood is his 11th book that he wrote or co-wrote. I recommend his Let Justice Roll Down, a 2006 memoir as the best place to start with his books.

John Perkins is an elder statesman of both Christian Community Development and the Civil Rights era. We should listen to what he has to say because he has earned the right to say it through his life’s work. This is not an abstract theorizing about racial issues. We do not have many civil rights icons left.

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary MoonSummary: Spiritual maturity requires growth and formation.

I have been intentionally reading a number of Christian biographies over the past year or two. Christian biographies for me are about spiritual formation. I do want to know about the people I am reading about. The story is important. But I read good Christian biography/memoir to learn about spiritual formation.

Becoming Dallas Willard is exactly that type of biography. Dallas Willard helped to spark the modern Christian formation movement so it is not surprising that Gary Moon wrote a biography that was oriented toward tracing his spiritual formation. We are never finished with spiritual formation. Spiritual formation in some ways becomes more important as we age and mature spiritually because ending well and passing on the faith requires a level of humility and graciousness that invites those that are younger to the path of spiritual formation.

I have previously read three books by Dallas Willard. So I was roughly familiar with Willard’s writing but I did not know anything about his life other than his relationship to Richard Foster early in Foster’s pastoral career. Investing in others was a theme of Becoming Dallas Willard. I know Willard more through his intentional investment Richard Foster, John Ortberg, Jan Johnson, James Bryan Smith and others than I knew of him. Having read Becoming Dallas Willard I can see the influence that he had in the writings of these others that I have been more directly influenced by.

Willard had a fascinating life. The lives of earlier generations are often fascinating because they are so different from our own. Willard was a child of the late depression and early World War II days, roughly the age of my younger set of grandparents. He went to Tennessee Temple for his undergrad degree, where my grandmother’s brother was a long time professor. And I know many that went to either  Baylor (his masters) or University of Wisconsin (his PhD in Philosophy), but no one that went to both. Despite the differences in generations and life experience, Willard’s life was not so different that I can’t relate to him.

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion by Jonathan Wilson-HartgroveSummary: “There is no way to preach the gospel without proclaiming that the unjust systems of this world must give way to the reign of a new King.”

Over the past 15-20 years there has been increasing discussion about the meaning of the word ‘gospel’. At the top level most everyone can agree that the ‘Gospels’ are the four books that open the New Testament and the ‘Gospel’ is the message of Christianity. Gospel is derived from the Greek euangelion which means good news. Understanding what is, and is not, ‘the gospel’ matters, it isn’t just semantics.

I pushed back pretty hard against Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel because he didn’t have an ending to what needed to be included in the gospel and while I affirm that we have to actually use words, the gospel does not require a belief in 7 day creation or male only understanding of the role of pastor to be the gospel.

Scot McKnight I think had a helpful corrective to the ‘gospel movement’ with King Jesus Gospel which refocuses the meaning of the gospel on Jesus Christ’s Lordship. NT Wright’s Simply Good News takes a similar approach focusing on Jesus as King and restorer.

But each of these authors batting around the term gospel seem to focus primarily on gospel as intellectual content. Allen Yeh in his chapter in Still Evangelical focuses the problem not on the meaning of the actual word gospel (or evangelical) but the bias toward orthodoxy without paying enough attention to orthodpraxy. This isn’t a new charge. Lesslie Newbigin in his 1986 Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture focuses on how the gospel has been rooted in the West in a particular view of culture and practice.

I could easily keep going on. I have 163 reviews at that include the word gospel. The meaning of gospel or the focus of the gospel or the practice of the gospel matter because we believe that our Christianity matters. This is not a discussion that is going away and this is not a discussion that is solved by Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s new book Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.

Reconstructing the Gospel is playing on the title of the book The Third Reconstruction which Wilson-Hartgrove co-wrote with William Barber. Both of these books reference the historical period of Reconstruction which in popular historical understanding is a period of failed political intervention after the Civil War. Recent historians, like Eric Foner have been re-writing that popular understanding of Reconstruction for the past 20-30 years.

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth by Michael Bruner

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O'Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth by Michael BrunerSummary: An exploration of Flannery O’Connor’s writing, theology and influences.

A Subversive Gospel is the type of book that will never find a large audience, but that I thank God (literally) that Christian academic publishers still publish.

This is my year of exploration of Flannery O’Connor, which I am probably doing it all wrong. I have only read her short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find and her Prayer Journal before deciding to read all of her fiction this year. I picked up a quick biography at the end of last year to give me a bit of context before I started. And then I was recommended A Subversive Gospel. A Subversive Gospel is oriented toward someone that is quite familiar with her work, especially The Violent Bear it Away, which is the most discussed work in A Subversive Gospel.

I did stop about 2/3 of the way through the book and quickly listen to the audiobook of Wise Blood to get a sense of O’Connor’s novel style. I will probably read A Subversive Gospel again, or at least parts of it, after I finish reading O’Connor’s fiction. Most of the book, while referencing her writing, I think was good preparation for reading her books. I am glad I read it when I did, so that I will hopefully get more out of, and enjoy the books more, because I understand them more.

Raising White Kids: Brining Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey

Raising White Kids: Brining Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer HarveySummary: A practical, example filled discussion of how to parent White children in a racially unjust America.

My children are young, 2 and 4. I am not particularly young (middle 40s). Both my wife and I have spent most of our careers working in or around education with predominately minority students. We want our own White children to both have the advantages of relating well to many different types of children and to appropriately be advocates for racial justice issues. So I eagerly accepted a review copy of Raising White kids.

In a mid point of Raising White Kids I think the author hits dead-on the real fear a lot of parents have.

“Nerves are normal. So many examples I have shared in Raising White Kids Include Moments of profound discomfort. Urging parents to face head on and precisely create more opportunities to teach our kids about racism means inviting them to accept the inevitability of discomfort. Discomfort may come from worrying about what other adults think, as we swim against a color-blind tide. It may come from worrying out attempts risk getting it so wrong we may screw up our kids in the process! It may come when our children ask questions we can’t quite answer or say things that push us out of our comfort zone. But a bird’s-eye, big-picture view of the positive effects and powerfully healthy outcomes of supporting our kids and being truthful can help us persist.” (page 130)

Much of the advice of Raising White Kids is very practical based on lots of examples good discussion. But at root, this is a book that says that unless adults directly confront their own racial issues and attempt to overcome them, then we cannot expect our children to come to a different place in life. Simple exposure to diversity, which is hard enough, isn’t enough to insure that White kids will not absorb the cultural beliefs that White is either better or normal. (At one point she describes common racial beliefs life smog that you just can’t completely get away from.)

I think the most important chapter for me, one that I have not seen much about in other places (or just hasn’t really sunk in if I have read about it previously) was her chapter Diversity is Confusing. The basic theme of the chapter is that White kids in diverse setting, with at least some racial intelligence, know there is something problematic about being White. Harvey cites a study about a diverse high school where there were thousands of hours of interviews with students. Non-White student would clearly identify how they understood themselves racially. But White students would joke about it, or refuse to answer, or equivocate in some way. It is this point that I think is most important about the book. It is not just that we need to give our kids racial intelligence so that they do not offend or oppresses other children, although that is important. We also need to help them create a self understanding as what it means to be White.

Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning

Still Evangelical?- Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological MeaningTakeaway: The meaning of the word evangelical is complicated. The groups it refers to still are present, even if there is reform necessary.

I am ambivalent about the word Evangelical. Theologically I am a bit on the edge of the term, depending on how it is defined. Sociologically, I am a bit further away from the term if it is used to describe a political grouping (Religious politically conservative Whites.) Historically, I grew up in an Evangelical section of a mainline denomination while participating with solidly evangelical youth groups of friends before heading to Wheaton College before going to seminary at a decidedly non-Evangelical institution (University of Chicago Divinity School). I currently am a member at an evangelical non-denominational mega-church. So I have some historical background, theological bias, but politically I am a Democrat and incredibly frustrated with the political definition of Evangelical, especially around racial issues.

I initially wasn’t going to read Still Evangelical. But I appreciate Karen Swallow Prior even if I disagree with her at times. In spite of my reluctance I picked up a review copy and expected to be mostly frustrated. It is not that I wasn’t occasionally frustrated. But I also really appreciated the choice of authors and the directness of the discussion about the weaknesses of the Evangelical movement, especially locally within the United States. It is a rare collaborative book like this that is actually well put together and balanced. Still Evangelical really is balanced. It has very pointed and direct criticism, but also a lot of love for and hope for the church as a whole and the Evangelical church in particular.

The subtitle is ‘Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning’ (of the word Evangelical.) And these are insiders. Not every name is a household name. But all of them have paid their dues and are solid Evangelicals by history, by institution, and by love of the church.

It is a rare book published in the Evangelical world that is has as many chapters by minorities and women as by White males. The diversity of the authors matters to how positively I feel about the book. After the introductory chapter by Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Seminary and the editor of the book, only one of the first five chapters was by a white male, although three of the five last chapters are by white men. (Two additional names are listed in the Amazon description that are not in the pre-release edition that I have.)

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi CoatesSummary: A reflection on eight years of Atlantic Essays during the time of Obama.

When I first heard about We Were Eight Years in Power, I was excited for a book from Ta-Nehisi Coates about the Obama years. Coates both is a serious critic of Obama and someone that has strongly defended him. I am going to continue to look for a book like that in the future.

We Were Eight Years in Power is not really that. Instead it is a repackaging of a number of essays by Coates from the Atlantic. Coates first essay for the Atlantic was about Bill Cosby and his conservative lectures to the black community to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That initial essay eventually led to Coates becoming a staff writer for the Atlantic and a number of cover stories that many will have already read.

The three most famous are his Reparations article, his article on Mass Incarceration and his essay earlier this year on Trump as the first consciously White (post Obama) president.

Previously to reading We Were Eight Years in Power, I had read most of the essays. It was still worth re-reading the essays. But what I found most interesting was Coates introductions to each essay. These were sometimes biographical or historical, telling the reader about his life or the country when he originally published the essay. Almost all of them included an evaluation of the content, usually pointing out weaknesses in his approach or places where he wishes he had expanded the analysis or where he got part of the essay wrong.

That analysis was helpful both to give context to why he wrote the individual essay, but also to give context to his larger project and how, for good and ill, racial issues were important during the Obama years.

Coates talks quite candidly about his discomfort with being the main or only writer on race issues that many Whites have read. He has a clear perspective. One that is famously not particularly hopeful. But it is realistic to the current age and to the data as he sees it.

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David Gushee

Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism by David GusheeSummary: A brief memoir about how Gushee’s attempt to follow his calling moved him out of Evangelicalism.

David Gushee is one of those authors that I know about but until I read his book Changing Our Mind, I do not think I had read more than a couple articles by him (mostly at Christianity Today.)

The transcript of a speech at the end of the 2nd edition of Changing Our Mind (the 3rd edition is now out) is what made me what to pick up this book. Gushee’s dissertation was about German Christian response to the Holocaust. Gushee in his speech drew parallels to how ethical thinking was impacted by the understanding of actual people harmed.

Last week I saw that this memoir was coming out. I picked up a review copy and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have been craving memoirs of my elders lately. After finishing the four volumes of Madeleine L’Engle’s memoirs I was intending to pick up Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. Gushee’s memoir jumped in line.

Seeing how people work out their faith over time, in good and bad times, is very encouraging. And watching how people of deep faith come to different conclusions in their theological and ethical positions while retaining a robust devotional and theological life also is a good reminder of the greatness of God, and of our own limited perspectives.

David Gushee grew up a nominal Catholic. As a teen, Gushee came to faith through a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia. Quickly feeling the call to ministry, he went to undergrad at William and Mary and then seminary at Southern Seminary. Gushee had not been prepared for the internal politics of the SBC that was in the throes of a significant theological battle.

He moved from Southern to Union Seminary in New York City, from a school that was fighting about how conservative to be, to one that was the center of Liberation Theology. For three years on campus and then three years off campus, he started to gain an understanding what it means to be too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives.