Blogger Review Books

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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: Bringing 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.

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel Hill

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White by Daniel HillSummary: The nature of what it means to be White in American, especially as a Christian, is not looked at nearly enough.

When I was thinking about graduate school I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be challenged in my faith and culture and that I did not want to go to an Evangelical seminary. That was helped by the fact that there were very few options for the type of program that I was looking for. The University of Chicago was one of about six schools in the country that had a  program for a dual masters with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Social Work (officially it is a Masters in Social Service Administration, but it is an MSW equivalent).

That decision was made in large part because I had an undergrad degree from Wheaton College. I grew up in a solidly Evangelical wing of the Baptist world and I was comfortable in my theology. I didn’t need more Evangelical theology and experience, I needed to experience the church beyond the Evangelical world.

Going to University of Chicago was a very good decision. I know I could get more out of my education if I were more mature with more life experience. But at the time, being exposed to other sincere Christians that were Catholic, mainline, and even one classmate that was a non-theistic Unitarian expanded my view of the church.

I still clearly remember a class while I was in the School of Social Work on race and ethnicity. The professor talked about how we often do not understand our culture until we are separated from it. If you are from the South and move to the Northeast, you will understand parts of what it means to be Southern that you did not understand before. This similar to getting married. What you assumed was true of every family, becomes clear that it was unique about your family.

I did not at the time think of the lesson primarily through the lens of Whiteness, but through the lens of my Evangelical-ness. While at Wheaton I was not completely comfortable describing myself as Evangelical because of some of the nuances of what that meant in that location. But at University of Chicago I claimed Evangelical much more clearly because it was a unique category. I wanted to be Evangelical there because of the many misunderstandings of what Evangelical meant to my non-Evangelical classmates. All groups have nuance and often those outside the group only see the stereotype, not the nuance.

White Away: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White is a very helpful look at the category of whiteness as a Christian. Part of the reality of the United States is that most White people are mostly around White people. We may have one friend that is a person of color. But most of us do not have a wide network of non-white friends and business associates. Most White people live in communities that are predominately White and go to churches that are predominately White and work at jobs with predominately White co-workers.

Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow and AJ Gregory

This review was written by Contributor Vikki Huisman

Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms by Tim Tebow book reviewI’m not a football fan by any stretch of the imagination but I do know who Tim Tebow is.

Or at least I thought I did.

If asked, I would have said, “Isn’t he the guy who keeps getting cut from NFL teams and does that bow after he scores a touchdown?” The answer to that question is both yes and no.

I decided to read Tebow’s soon-to-be released book, Shaken: Discovering Your True Identity in the Midst of Life’s Storms in an effort to bond with the only football fan in my home, my 16-year-old son. Although my son wasn’t impressed with my reading material, I did find myself impressed with the former NLF quarterback who is now playing baseball for the New York Mets.

Shaken gives the reader an inside look on what it was like as Tebow worked hard at staying grounded in his faith and working on his NFL dreams in the midst of disappointment, intense criticism and non-stop media scrutiny.

Although I’ve read spiritual memoirs that have resonated with me on a more personal level, I’m hard pressed to find someone in the public realm who publicly professes their faith and has dealt with the amount of publicity and disappointment that Tim Tebow has. Most of us have dealt with unfulfilled homes, unrealized dreams, rejection and heartbreak. Tebow shares the life lessons he’s learned privately while living under a public microscope; building his identity in Christ, not the world.

Table in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost and Found Again by Preston Yancey

I am reposting this 2014 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $0.99.
Summary: An early memoir of finding God through the church.

I am not sure when I started following Preston Yancey on twitter. I think it has been in the last year and I think it was because he is part of a group of people that I have been following as they are embracing the Anglican church.

So starting at the end, in fact, only a couple weeks ago, Preston publicly said he is pursuing ordination in the Anglican church. That is the end of the story. The beginning of the story is of a pastor’s kid going to college and ready to save the world. As a freshman, he and his roommate decided to start a church. As much because of their youth and distraction and poor relationship skills as anything else, the church fails within the year.

That failure, which seems to be at least partly hubris, was the start of the lost phase of the book. Life is not simple. What is easy is not always what is right. Growing up is about standing on our own and finding our own way, but often just as much, about realizing that we don’t have to find a new way, the ability to choose what others have also chosen is a way of showing maturity as well.

It is hard for me not to compare this to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.  Preston Yancey is young, he is writing a memoir at 25. So there is some of the dumb stuff that every young adult does and regrets. Like Miller, Yancey is breaking away and challenging the ideas and church of his formative years. Yancey is not trying to make his way to God outside of the church, but through the church. This is far healthier and I think increasingly common from my vantage point.

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer with Anna Haggard

Reposting this 2013 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99.

The Spiritual Danger of Doing Good by Peter Greer with Anna HaggardTakeaway: Serving God and others can be its own reward, and that is the root of the spiritual danger.

I have spent my whole adult working career in the Christian non-profit world.  I have witnessed a number of situations where there has been burnout, mistreatment of staff (in the name of doing good), failure of leadership, leaders ending badly and more.

Peter Greer is the CEO of Hope International, a micro-credit non-profit working in 16 countries in Africa, Asia, South American and Eastern Europe. In a very readable, and story laden book, Greer (and his co-author Anna Haggard) walk through 14 different spiritual dangers that particularly affect those that are trying to do good, especially doing good in Christ’s name.

I remember reading an article while in grad school that people in service professions, especially those that view themselves as doing good, can actually be more likely to lie and mislead those around them because they feel they deserve it or because their good works off-set any ‘small mistakes’ that they make.  That article had a lot of influence on the ways I thought about doing good work.  This is only one of the areas that Greer mentions, but he does give a lot of examples of how we can miss what we are actually striving for in the process of doing good.