Summary: A exploration of John Lewis’ life, focusing primarily on his time in SNCC and before.
I know Jon Meacham is a well-known biographer, but as someone that really likes biography, I have not read any of Meacham’s other books. This made me a bit reluctant to pick up this book on John Lewis. Because I was interested in John Lewis, and because the only books I have read are the excellent March graphic novel biographies and because my library had this on audiobook, I picked it up anyway. Because His Truth is Marching On is primarily about John Lewis’ early years, I still want to find a more full-length biography and read some of Lewis’ own books.
The biography feature that I most appreciate is the focus on Lewis’ Christian faith as a factor in his civil rights work. Obviously, it is not the only factor, but I think it is an under-appreciated factor in many civil rights leaders. It is also striking to realize how young John Lewis and Stokley Carmichael, and many other civil rights leaders were. John Lewis was 26 when he was voted out as the chair of SNCC. He obviously had a long career after that point, but he was so young to have accomplished as much as he did by that time.
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.
Summary: A fictionalized story of Jesus and his family and then escape to Egypt and Jesus’ early life.
I am not sure I really appreciate the difficulty of Christian fiction. Or maybe I do and that is part of why I tend to read so little of it. Fiction regardless of genre or background needs to tell a compelling story. It has to provide the reader with something, escape, adventure, excitement, insight, longing, a glimpse of wonder. But Christian fiction has to do that and also portray faith and God not just according to the author’s perspective but also in a way that others will accept.
Books about Jesus are even more difficult. Jesus is both God and fully human. He was someone that was physically real, experienced actual bodily reality, and was still sinless. How can that be portrayed? As an infant, he had to eat and cry and poop and get sick and have foods that he liked and ones he probably liked less. He had to learn to walk, which means he would have had to fall down and make mistakes. The line between mistakes and sin complicated one. Some mistakes are clearly sin. Some are legitimate accidents, but some of those accidents are also sins of communion because of a lack of case or attention or awareness. I do not want to police the difference but as I read The Carpenter’s Son I did think about the difference. A child that throws a block out of- frustration, but not understanding the consequences of that action has made a mistake in judgment and emotional control, but can there be growth and maturity without experience? Regardless of intention or theology, a story of Jesus will offend. If nothing else some will object because they believe it is a violation of the second commandment to portray God.
The Carpenter’s Son is mostly, but not entirely, focused on Joseph. He has visions and tries to follow and trust God but he does not always understand or trust his own perceptions. There are meetings with older men asking for advice. (Joseph is portrayed as a young man, not much older than Mary. As opposed to a much older, likely widower, that some assumed.) Joseph loves Mary and seeks to protect and care for and listen to her as well, but it is Joseph that has the deeper internal dialogue.
Summary: Piranesi’s house is ancient and infinite. Filled with statues that never duplicate, but only one other person who is alive.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was excellent. It is unusual that I read a book of fiction multiple times, especially one that is nearly 900 pages. For some reason, I never have read her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I have looked forward to Piranesi, but it took several months for it to come up from the library.
Piranesi is a book where you are not supposed to really know what is going on for much of the book. The story takes time to develop. The main character is competent at survival and keeps a map in his head of hundreds of giant rooms within the house that is his world. But there is a bit of a fog about his history.
In some ways, this feels like a literary version of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento. That is praise, I really love that movie. But the revelation of what is going on comes to the reader as it comes to Piranesi. It is a very different book than the fantasy of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I have not read much fiction this year. But it would be on a list of my fiction favorites.
I have stopped doing traditional ‘best of’ lists the past couple of years. Instead, I have written about what has impacted me in different areas. I also have been tracking, as part disclosure and part accountability info about the authors, I am reading. My authors were too White and too male again this year. Overall, I read about 66% male authors and about 60 White authors. And about 85% non-fiction. Part of this is schoolwork; I have only been assigned White authors and only one woman throughout the whole program. This is the program’s weakness, and I have been supplementing on my own, but not enough. Reading diversely takes me more intention than I am giving it (as I have said every year I have reported this).
I do not think I will ever be finished confronting history. There is always more depravity to discover and more history that we, as a culture, have chosen to spend less time exploring. The four books here are a good overview of the areas that I need to keep confronting.
Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/O Social Justice, Theology, and Identity by Robert Chao Romero was a very accessible overview of 500 years of history outside of the Black/White binary or racial history that tends to be my main historical focus. I need to keep working on expanding my reading here, but I really recommend Brown Church as a brief, well written, and helpful overview of Latnia/o theological contributions and history.
Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr was written as a companion book to his PBS series. It pairs really well with Eric Foner’s Reconstruction because Foner is primarily writing a political history, and Gates is primarily writing cultural history.
Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez has reverberated across my Twitter world. It has come up in conversations regularly, and I have definitely recommended it to many. It is a history of gender in the White Evangelical church over the past 75 years. That may seem like a narrow topic, but when paired with Taking America Back for God, which I will talk about below, there are some significant connections made between how the White Evangelical church has handled gender, politics, power, abuse, and institutions that need working out in this necessary but narrow history.
Facing West: American Evangelicals in an Age of World Christianity by David Swartz is the story of how American Evangelicals have shaped and been shaped by world Christianity. It is far from a complete picture, but pulling out examples works well to illustrate the areas in some depth while not writing a 1500 page tome. There are several major themes, the messy history of how the story of the founding of World Vision gets told (leaving out the Korean founder in most tellings), how the Lausanne movement brought together Evangelicals from around the world, but was resistant to western control, the way that US ministry interests impact what gets funded and how the messaging around funding gets communicated by the US funders, how US racial caste issues impact global missions and the way that the US has become a missionary receiving country as well as other themes weaves together a different type of historical narrative.
I am continually in need of other perspectives because it is too easy to become trapped in thinking that my way of thinking or being is the only possible way. History one way of expanding perspectives, but that is a very narrow method, I also need constructive methods of building new perspectives.
Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley deserves its wide praise. It won book of the year from both Christianity Today and the Englewood Review of Books, and it is on many ‘best of’ lists this year. I have read not just this, and the large number of articles that McCaulley has written this past year, but also listened/watched a 20 something hour class that he recorded over the summer. Reading While Black is partially his own story of being one a Black New Testament professor and how he constructively approaches biblical interpretation as a son of the Black church but also designed for White Christians and others to overhear what contributions that the Black church is making to the health of the global church if the global church is willing to listen.
Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World by E Randolph Richards and Richard James is one of those books that I think almost every biblically literate Christian needs to pick up. Part of the importance of thinking about biblical interpretation is that we all have a culture and background. Without thinking clearly about that starting point, we can easily fall into ‘plain reading’ of the bible that strips the historical context and subtext of scripture from the text and inserts our own subjective assumptions. As with anything, much of communication is assumed. When you read a news story or a fiction book, assumptions may or may not be expressly hinted at but are essential to understanding the whole context. Some of the ways that we modern Western Christians misunderstand scripture is by not understanding the Biblical cultures focus on honor/shame or how God and others are often referred to in terms of being a patron or how our current individualist bias misreads a biblical era’s collectivist culture. This is a more targeted book than Richards’ earlier Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. And I think probably the more important of the two books. They can be read in either order, but I do recommend both.
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie Glaude is a book I need to read again but needs to be on this list. Baldwin has been one of those authors that I have tried to read at least one or two books a year for the past four or five years. In many ways, Baldwin may be more prescient than when his books first came out, in part because of Baldwin’s ability to speak clearly about white supremacy. As a first-rate cultural commentator, Eddie Glaude opens up Baldwin in ways that only a good professor can. As a student, I can get so far on my own, but I need help to see the more subtle references and themes and connections that I miss.
Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism by Derrick Bell is a classic in the area of Critical Race Theory. CRT is the new pop culture topic that many have opinions on, but few have done much real reading on. This is a unique book; mostly, it is presented as short parables or fictionalized dialogue. Bell’s point isn’t to lay out a legal brief or write narrative history or sociology. His point is to engage the reader’s mind and heart, not just present them with information. I am not sure this is the first book I would read to introduce someone to CRT, but more people need to read these classics to understand what CRT is and is not.
Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide by Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan Shaw lays out a justification and method for writing theology that takes intersectionality seriously. It is not a quick read because the authors try to define exactly what they are trying to say carefully. There were many points where I was trying to highlight an idea and realized that to really get the whole idea, and I needed to highlight a full page.
When the words white supremacy are used, context matters. Sometimes it does refer to groups like the KKK or Proud Boys or those who are members. But generally, when I use the term, I mean the idea of a racial hierarchy, where white people are assumed to be superior. One of the themes of my reading this year has been that we cannot deal with the racial issues of this country without addressing the belief in white supremacy or white superiority, especially within the church. The very nature of the theological idea of being created in the image of God is that all of us are created in the image of God. Individuals have different skills and talents, and gifts. But when this is applied to groups, it inevitably creates a hierarchy. These books deal with different aspects of white supremacy.
White Lies: Nine Ways to Expose and Resist the Racial Systems That Divide Us by Daniel Hill follows his earlier White Awake. I re-read White Awake this year as part of a discussion group I participated in and was struck again by how important work around understanding what white self-identity is. But this follow-up book is about nine spiritual practices to expose and confront white superiority within the church and society. Racial Reconciliation is a good long term goal, but there cannot be real reconciliation if the reality of an underlying culture of white superiority is unchallenged. David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church is roughly on the same theme from a slightly different perspective. Both are worth reading.
The Color of Christ by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey is a history of how Jesus Christ has been understood and portrayed in story, theology, popular culture, or image throughout the United States’ history. This may seem like a fairly narrow history, but it is an important aspect of confronting white supremacy, especially within the church.
Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry defines what Christian Nationalism means and how it operates sociologically. This book has sparked a lot of discussion and obfuscation. The premise is simple; over the past 10 or so years, Perry and Whitehead have been developing a theory of Christian Nationalism and a means of testing that. Their research suggests that White Christians have a significant group within it that are Christian Nationalists, which influences how they practice their Christianity and how those theological assumptions impact public policy, church structure, and their perspectives on the world. According to Perry and Whitehead, the strength of belief in Christian Nationalism is the best predictor of whether a White Christian would vote for Trump or not. It also overlaps with belief in patriarchy (which is why reading this with Jesus and John Wayne is helpful), objection to immigration and interracial families, and strong biases toward law and order politics.
As I hinted above, I am nearly done with a certificate program in Spiritual Direction. My main focus has been racial issues and discipleship, and this program in spiritual direction has helped me significantly. About one-third of my reading this year has been directly or indirectly related to spiritual practices. I am increasingly convinced that part of the church’s problem today is that evangelism has become too much a focus, instead of discipleship, and that the methodology of mass evangelism has influenced how we think of discipleship. I think that is fundamentally backward. As the church, we should primarily focus on discipleship and understand it not as information that can be mass communicated but as a practice and relationship. And approach discipleship as a personalized and individualized reality as any relationship is. Evangelism is a natural outgrowth of mature disciples. Discipleship is not a natural outgrowth of evangelism. I am only going to highlight three books on underutilized spiritual practices, but I will also highlight three additional books that are more generally on discipleship that I think are well worth reading.
Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soong-Chan Rah. This is my second reading of Prophetic Lament. It is a commentary on the book of Lamentations, but generally a call for returning to the biblical practice of lament. I can think of no other practice that should be more central in the time of a global pandemic than lament. But instead, we are resistant to actually feeling pain.
Weeds Among the Wheat by Thomas Green is about teaching discernment. Green is a spiritual direction teacher, and this book is about teaching spiritual directors how to think about discernment. But I am convinced that part of the problem with our current reality is a lack of understanding of discernment and how we should seek God. This is one of the best books I have read on discernment, and I would love to get suggestions for others.
Summary: An exploration of why Christians need to expose the evil of white superiority, not just attempt to increase diversity.
As with Rediscipling the White Church I have a somewhat ambivalent approach to reading Daniel Hill. He is an excellent writer, and I really do appreciate what he writes. But I am also reminded that part of why he is needed to voice racial justice is part of his subject matter. In his first book, White Awake, his voice is needed because so many White Christians are resistant to hearing about issues around racism and White racial identity from non-White voices. And the book White Lies is needed because simple exposure to diversity does not actually root out white superiority problems (a euphemism for white supremacy as a cultural system) within the church without it directly being addressed. I am ambivalent, not because his voice is not useful (and certainly not because he isn’t a skilled writer or thinker), but because White voices like his are necessary because of the very nature of White belief in the superiority of White culture, which requires White voices to condemn White superiority for White people to be able to hear the problem.
I think it is important to use clear language and say that no one within the United States culture is not impacted by racism. I, as an individual, have feelings of White superiority. While I want to work against those feelings and to work to make sure those are never translated into actions, it is why I regularly point back to George Yancy’s language, “the best that I can be is an anti-racist racist”, and as a male, “an anti-sexist sexist.” And as a Christian, an anti-sin sinner. Because we are not solely individuals, but within a culture and community, regardless of my own attitudes, biases, thoughts, and actions, I cannot control how others respond to me. When I, as a stay-at-home Dad, take my kids to the grocery store (in pre-covid times), the response to me as a parent is different than the average response to a stay-at-home mother who is doing the same thing. I am routinely praised for being a good Dad for doing simple tasks that every mother also does without praise. When I walk around a store, the lack of undue attention because I am a middle-aged White male is not a result of anything I have done, but because of cultural assumptions and realities. But my lack of desire to be racist or sexist has nothing to do with the reality that I still receive benefits whether I want them or not.
Summary: A five-hour course introducing the Jesuits.
Part of what I keep returning to with my study of Ignatian Spiritual Direction is my need to fill in the holes in my understanding of some of the basics. For instance, “who are the Jesuits, and what is their history ?” I have had John O’Malley’s longer The First Jesuits and his shorter Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present recommended to me. But neither of those was available on audiobook and I needed something to listen to as I was doing some busy work, so I picked up this audiobook lecture course.
At five hours it gives an overview, but it is just an overview. O’Malley is a historian and professor at Georgetown, but he is also a Jesuit. It is not that I don’t trust his opinion, but that I need to get some history from non-Jesuits as well. I have some introduction to the spiritual perspectives of Jesuits from James Martin, but I really want more history to place them in context and to see why they seem to be so loved and hated depending on who you ask.
I have read Ignatius’ autobiography and am familiar with his spiritual exercises, but this still filled in a lot of holes (and opened up plenty of awareness of holes I was previously unaware of and still need to fill.) The movement toward audiobook lectures as a whole is good. But like everything, the quality depends on who is doing the lecturing. This was neither the best nor the worst I have heard. At five hours, I think it was probably too short. But I was glad to pick it up based on the price and I will also pick up one or both of O’Malley’s books on the Jesuits relatively soon.
Takeaway: Amazingly, there has not been a good biography of Thurman in so long.
This is the third book by or about Howard Thurman I have read this year, and I have started a re-reading of the fourth. Howard Thurman is not as well known as I would like. But he was an influential mentor, teacher, and pastor throughout the 20th century. Thurman was born and spent his childhood in Daytona Beach. (He was less than two weeks older than CS Lewis but lived nearly 20 years longer.) Because there was no high school in Daytona Beach that permitted Black students, he was forced to move away from Daytona to go to high school. (There were only three high schools for Black students in the whole state of Flordia.) He then went to college at Morehouse and Crozer Divinity School (the latter two of which Martin Luther King, Jr also went to a generation later.) He graduated as valedictorian at both.
He served several years as a pastor in Oberlin, Ohio, before returning to teach at Morehouse (and Spellman) and work as its chaplain. Four years later, he became Dean of the Chapel at Howard Univerity, where he served for 12 years. In 1944 he became pastor of one of the first intentionally interracial churches in the US, Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Fransico. He served as pastor there for 9 years before becoming the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he served until his retirement in 1965. He moved back to San Francisco, working as a writer and speaker, and mentor until he passed away in 1981.
As much as his work was groundbreaking and important on its own, Paul Harvey shows how Thurman was continually frustrated with his inability to pastor and lead churches and the university system’s religious education as he wished. He was a mystic and thought deeply about what I would consider the sociology of religion.
Howard Thurman is probably best known for three things. In 1935, he, his wife, and another couple went on a tour of India. The tour brought four Black Americans to India to interact with and learn about the caste system and learn about non-violent resistance. The group was the first African Americans to meet Gandhi, and Thurman’s reports back about non-violent resistance both inspired the Civil Rights movement and led to several others also visiting Gandhi.
The second related thing that Thurman is well known for is his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. Thurman was at Morehouse at the same time as Martin Luther King Sr. And Sue Bailey Thurman, Thurman’s second wife, was a college roommate of Alberta Williams King, MLK Jr’s mother. Despite that family relationship and the fact that there was a year overlap where MLK Jr and Thurman were both at Boston University, it appears that they only spent two extended days together. One day was at Thurman’s house watching baseball while King was a student. And a second day was about a decade later when King was in the hospital recovering after being stabbed. Despite a fairly regular correspondence, they never did spend extended time together beyond that. Thurman gave one of the eulogies at MLK Jr’s funeral.
Summary: A classic book by one of the originators of the Critical Race Theory movement.
A few weeks ago, I presented an intro to Critical Race Theory to my Be the Bridge group. The presentation is available here. While I created it with the intention of it having many links to articles and podcasts for further investigation, it was designed to be in addition to my audible presentation. It is of only mixed value without any audio. One of the group’s co-leaders suggested that I read Faces at the Bottom of the Well because I had not read any longer works by Derrick Bell, only a couple of articles.
I must say that this is unlike any other book on Critical Race Theory I have read. Faces at the Bottom of the Well is a mix of fictional dialogue, like Plato’s dialogues, and parable-like short stories. The short stories ran from simple discussion or working out of policy ideas to the final short story Space Traders, a sci-fi exploration of how much the country values its Black citizens (and why).
One of the common critiques of Critical Race Theory is that it is oriented toward viewing humanity as depraved. I always find this an odd critique from Christians. Traditional reformed perspectives of Christianity view all people as depraved. But the misunderstanding, I think, comes at how the depravity works. In CRT, the main point is that racism is not centered around individual animus against people of a different racial group, but systems that lock the disparity in. Those systems and how racial hierarchy is locked into those give Faces at the Bottom of the Well the subtitle, The Permanence of Racism.
Summary: An overview of the first 14 ‘rules’ of discernment.
Regular readers will know of my posts know that I am working on a training program to become a spiritual director. I intentionally choose a Catholic program because while the Evangelical and broader Protestant world has been rediscovering Spiritual Direction over the past 10 to 20 years, the Catholic stream of Christianity has never lost access to this tool of discipleship. Ignatius (late 15th and early 16th century) wrote the Spiritual Exercises as a guide for spiritual directors to give a 30-day retreat.
One part of that guide was two sets of ‘rules’ for discernment. These rules (guides) to help people in their discernment are split into ‘first’ and ‘second’ week rules, or the types of rules that were most helpful for people early in their retreat or people later in their retreat. You can roughly think of these as a type of spiritual maturity. However, Ignatius would not have assumed straight-line growth (in other words, once you are in the second week, you will not always be in the second week.)
Gallagher is only talking about the first set of 14 rules in this book. It took a while for me to start to make sense of the rules of discernment. I started by listening to the book, which gave me an overview. I then read the book a second time, mostly in print, but a little bit of listening. But just as important is that toward the end of my second reading. I downloaded a PDF of the rules and made it a part of my morning reading. And for a week, I read them every morning and highlighted or made notes about how they related to one another or rewrote some of them in my own language. I am far from an expert, and I do not think of them as the ‘be all, end all’ of discernment. But the process of getting them deeper into my brain by reading them regularly (I think I still need to probably read the about once a week for the next couple of months) and think about how they related to one another and try to use them in my own life does matter.