Blogger Review Books

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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.

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 in 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 cannot 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 Bookwi.se 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.