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.
Mayfield brings to mind the many comments of the Old Testament prophets that remind us of how we treat the poor and marginalized and how that relates to those that are now poor and marginalized. What I appreciated about both Possessing Everything and The Myth of the American Dream is that they are focused not on ministry to, but being neighbors to the poor and marginalized.
“Asking people to do good, to give, to be charitable, becomes easy in these kinds of societies; asking them to be neighbors with those they most wish to help is not since it points out an inconvenient truth that most of us try hard to forget all the time: some of us have worked hard to make sure we are only neighorrs with certain kinds of people, and now we have to live with the results.”
Mayfield cites Lisa Sharon Harper, who reminds us that the American Dream wants us to pay attention to the wrong thing. Scripture tells us to, ‘train my eyes and ears toward those who have been saying consistently that all is not well’. The American Dream wants us to pay attention to the rich and powerful, the good life and to ignore others, if not outright condemn them for their poverty and weakness.
One of the significant strengths of The Myth of the American Dream is that Mayfield is not telling the reader what to do. This is not ‘three steps to solve global poverty’ or ‘five steps to bring about justice in your community’ book. Mayfield shows us how to lament what is wrong, her role in it, and the inability of many Christians to even notice. Under much of the book is the reverberations of racism and xenophobia. Many White authors share ‘dumb White guy’ stories or condemn those that just don’t get it, Mayfield does not, she laments. Lament is a very biblical idea. It isn’t about shame or spinning our wheels, trying to ask what we can do now. Lament is about crying out to God, and even better, crying out to God in community.
The Myth of the American Dream is not what I would call a ‘feel-good’ book. But it is a hopeful one. It is hopeful not because ‘with God’s strength all problems will be solved’ but because the is awareness of God’s kingdom and the very upsidedown methods that God tends to use.
All of this brings me to the ambivalence that I feel about this trilogy of books. These are excellent books, among the best books I have read about these issues. But I have read many of the same books these authors have. I know where the ideas behind the quotes are coming from. In large part, there are Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) that have done the background thinking. Or they have done the individual mentoring that is required for almost every White person that is writing in areas like this. All three of these authors are citing their sources, highlighting the work of others that has helped them to see what they did not see before. They are telling good stories that hopefully will be read and help change other White people as well. But each time I read one of these books (and many others as well) I am reminded that generally, White people read other White people and the standard books being cited among these types of books, the BIPOC authors and ministry leaders that have done the background work, will not be read as much as these White authors will.
The Myth of the American Dream is a great book. But so was Twelves Lies that Hold America Captive and Unsettling Truth or dozens of other books that have not gained a widespread audience. Buy and read and learn from DL Mayfield’s book. And then read the many books that she cites and has learned from so that we can start communicating to publishers and bookstores that White readers will read books that were written by people that are not White.