The Black Presidency by Michael Eric Dyson

The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Michael Eric DysonSummary: A first run take of the role of Obama’s race in how he acted as President and was received as President. With lots of critique of his Presidency. 

After reading Michael Eric Dyson’s latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop, I immediately picked up The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America (released Feb 2016.) This is a bit of an odd book. It has biography, political commentary, social/cultural history, leadership analysis, long commentary on speeches and policy and some politics of the modern African American political and civil rights leadership. More than anything else, this uses Obama as a lens to see what being Black in America means.

So much of The Black Presidency was fascinating, but introduction of the idea of black leadership as either politician or prophet was a new idea for me. Dyson contrasted the traditional two roles, placing Obama squarely in the politician side and much of the frustration with Obama by African Americans as a frustration that he was not in the prophet mold of African American leadership. Obama has gained much from the rhetorical flair of the African American church, and many of his speeches have taken on the cadence of a pastor. But in the end, he has chosen politician, and the corresponding policy work, as his main focus.

The Black Presidency opens with the recounting of a gathering of friends and leaders that were gathered together before the speech in Selma celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. Dyson, Jessie Jackson, Andrew Young, Al Sharpton sat together in the church office prior to Obama’s speech at Brown Chapel AME Church, three generations of African American Civil Rights leaders. Dyson quotes Young, “Look, there’s a lot on his plate. And he’s got to deal with these crazy forces against him from the right. I think that Obama has done the best he could under the circumstances.” While that might be seen as a thesis statement of sorts for the book, Dyson goes far beyond looking at what is politically possible. Some of Dyson’s critiques are of things that were clearly not politically possible. Or at least, not politically possible along with some of the other political decisions. In the end, I think Dyson is balanced, if not in every critique and praise, at least in the book as a whole, on both the possibility of a Black President and the reality of Obama as a Black President.

There are three other areas that I think particularly White readers will find insight into both Obama and the African American experience. Respectability politics is a phrase that I have increasingly heard used condescendingly from younger African Americans. Dyson works through both the necessity, historically, of respectability politics (the internal policing of African Americans, but also other marginalized groups, to show that their values are mainstream and compatible with the majority values) and the limitations of respectability politics in modern civil rights movement. Dyson talks about Obama as a scold, particularly toward African American men, in ways that he was not with other minority groups. That discussion, particularly for White readers that are unaware of the frustration with Obama by the African American community, it helpful.

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric DysonSummary: Loosely structured as a sermon which calls White Christian America to repentance and change.

After reading James Baldwin’s Notes on a Native Son I decided to look for a modern author’s take and found Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. I was so impressed that I immediately picked up The Black Presidency (which I think may be even better than this one.)

Dyson rose to prominence as a cultural critic when I was in grad school. He was friends with my Systematic Theology Professor, Dwight Hopkins, so I had a positive impression of him. But in the 20 years of being aware of him, I have not actually read anything that he has written. Part of that was that Dyson became well known for his cultural criticism of hip hop and rap music. Something that I have only recently started to listen to.

Over the past year or so, I have been a regular listener to the podcast, Pass the Mic, from the Reformed African American Network and more recently their second podcast, Truth’s Table, that highlights three African American Women. Those two podcasts, and the private Facebook groups associated with RAAN, has been helpful places to hear perspectives about the world from theologically conservative (more theologically conservative than I am most of the time) African Americans. I already lean socially fairly liberal. However, their voices help me to see how much my theology and politics is informed by the lack of diverse voices in my life. (And my own racist attitudes and sin.)

Dyson structures this Tears We Cannot Stop as an extended sermon. The structure is fine, but probably makes more sense in audiobook form (with Dyson narrating) than in print. Initially, this felt like a Christian version of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. It had a similar critique of White America and had some of Dyson’s personal history as well.

The Great Divorce by CS Lewis

I am reposting this 2016 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $1.99.
The Great Divorce by CS Lewis Book ReviewSummary: CS Lewis imagines Heaven and Hell.

Fiction is important for working through difficult ideas. I think many people underestimate the power of fiction to help readers understand difficult concepts.

This is my second or third reading of the Great Divorce. Lewis is not writing a systematic theology of heaven and hell and the afterlife. He is instead exploring  some of our preconceptions. Lewis is not only a very talented author, but he has a way of approaching topics that seem to be continuously relevant.

The book opens with the narrator in a great city that is always at dusk. He rides on a bus to what we understand as the gates of heaven. Theologically Lewis is on somewhat shaky ground here. Lewis believes in purgatory, but many of his readers do not. The narrator and the other passengers are being given the opportunity to leave purgatory and enter heaven. But many of them choose to return and for them it will be their eternal hell.

Water To Wine: Some of My Story by Brian Zahnd

I am reposting this 2016 review because the Kindle Edition is on sale for $2.99 until the end of day Friday.
Water To Wine: Some of My Story by Brian ZahndSummary: Christian maturity needs to be a real goal. But writing about that maturity can be difficult.

Brian Zahnd is a pastor of a large church that helped to start more than 20 years ago. I first read his book Beauty will Save the World (about the beauty and mystery of Christianity) about four years ago. Then two years ago I read A Farewell to Mars (about his movement toward peace, he does not like the term pacifism because of its political connotations).

Earlier this year Zahnd published Water to Wine, a very autobiographical look at how he found a fuller understanding of Christianity when he embraced the historic and sacramental nature of the Christian church. Zahnd is about 10 years older than I am and a pastor. But he is putting to words what I, and I think many others, are feeling. The evangelical or charismatic church that has lost its connection to the historic church and the church’s historic practices of the sacraments is a church that has lost its grounding.

Zahnd is careful in his book. He is not minimizing his history or how the church has helped many come to faith. But he is saying that for him, his faith needed something else in order to move to a more mature faith. Part of the difficulty here is talking about Christian maturity in a way that does not minimize people’s faith that are on their way to maturity but not there yet.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol ZaleskiSummary: A joint biography of a group of writers that impacted the 20th century, perhaps more than any other group of writers.

Several years ago I read a ton of books by and about CS Lewis. I am still fascinated by Lewis, and there is still more to read by or about Lewis, but at this point much that I read about Lewis is repetition. So I was a bit reluctant to read The Fellowship because one of the complaints about it, is that it is too much about Lewis and not enough about the others. That complaint is valid. Although the Zaleskis managed to include new information about Lewis and the others, once I got past the initial introduction of the characters.

The Fellowship is not a short book. I listened to it on audiobook and it was over 26 hours (nearly 700 pages). While I did set it down a couple times, it was interesting and well written. Primarily I was interested in the biography of Charles Williams. He was one of the earliest Inklings to pass away (1945), but he was an important, but odd, member. Williams was the only member that was not highly educated (never competing a college degree). Gut as an editor at Oxford University Press, Williams came up through an alternative system of learning about writing. Williams was certainly odd. He was fascinated with the occult and magic and seemed to have a certain sexual appeal that he took advantage of, potentially to the level sexually abusing some women. At the very least he was a serial adulterer.

William is just one example of a mix of people that surrounded JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Both Lewis and Tolkien, were clearly orthodox Christians, and at least after Lewis’ conversion, they were both very conventional in their morality. But many of the others around them were not. It was not just Williams. Barfield was fascinated by, and a proponent of, Anthroposophy, a pseudo-scientific, semi-religious rationalistic philosophy. Most manifestations of it were clearly not compatible with orthodox Christianity.

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael Wear

Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America by Michael WearSummary: Thoughts on issues and politics from a young staffer in the Obama White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Michael Wear seems like someone I would really like in person. We share a fairly similar politics. People that I know, that know him, like him. And while he is more than a decade younger than I am, he seems like he has learned much in those years about the way the world works and has managed to not become cynical, but instead has maintained the capacity for hope, while understanding the fallenness of humanity.

Reclaiming Hope is part memoir, part political theology, part history of the Obama presidency. Michael Wear was a young college student when he was attracted to the new young politician on the political landscape. Obama had roared onto the scene in 2004 and by 2007 Michael Wear and worked his way into the campaign. (Obama was my State Rep and then State Senator and then US Senator, so I was aware of him long before many on the national scene. I remember having him as a guest lecturer at one of my grad classes in spring 1998 and talking to him afterward about a problem I was having with my non-profit work. I came home to my wife and announced that Obama was going to be president someday.)

Wear worked on Obama’s presidential campaign in faith outreach and then was hired as one of the youngest West Wing staffers in modern history, to work in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Wear left the West Wing to head up the outreach to faith groups in the 2012 campaign. Finally, he worked for the inauguration committee for Obama’s second inauguration before stepping away, burned out, disillusioned, but hopeful for a better way.

Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti: Home by Nnedi OkoraforSummary: After spending a year at college, Binti goes home to face her family.

Science Fiction is the perfect genre to explore so many different ideas. Binti and this follow up book Binti: Home are both mostly about what it means to grow up, leave home and be changed by the process so that you are not sure that you can go home again.

I read the award winning novella Binti a few weeks ago and enjoyed the followup novel just as much. Binti has been at Oomza University for about a year (she left to go to college on another world in the middle of the night without telling her family.) Her family is part of an African tribe that trades with the world, but does not leave their village.

(Spoilers for the previous book ahead.)

People to Be Loved by Preston Sprinkle

People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle book reviewTakeaway: Regardless of whether you theologically agree with Sprinkle’s position, the title and tone of the book is right. This isn’t just about an issue, it is about people.

I have been working through books on the church’s approach to issues around sexual orientation (slowly) over the past several months. I have reviewed several books that have taken a position that is more inclusive and now I am reviewing what I think is the best book I am aware of that takes a more traditional position.

Preston Sprinkle has a PhD in New Testament and has been a professor, but is now a full time writer. Although this is the first book of his that I have read, he has a reputation for writing theologically sophisticated books on difficult issues that are readable by a wide audience.

People To Be Loved walks a pretty clear line of asserting a traditional understanding of sexual ethics (sex is reserved for marriage and marriage is only for heterosexual couples), but also prodding those that agree with that message to be much more open and loving toward those that outside of that understanding.

After a good introduction by Wesley Hill, another New Testament professor who holds similar convictions, but is a celibate gay man, Sprinkle sets up the tone of the book. Homosexuality is not a theoretical issue and there is not a monolithic ‘gay culture’. There are many people that identify as gay or have same sex attractions and this is an important issue because we as Christians love them as individuals.

The next section is a slow careful exploration of scripture. One of the problems for non-theologian, non-bible scholars evaluating the arguments around this and other similar issues is that some of the arguments are pretty technical. Sprinkle does not shy away from being technical when necessary. But it does make it hard to evaluate the evidence. It is why we need to read several books from each side to get a better understanding of the weight of evidence.

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son by James BaldwinSummary: A collection of literary and personal essays written in the mid 1950s by James Baldwin.

I recently went to see the documentary I am Not Your Negro. After watching that very good documentary I finally picked up Notes of a Native Son, which I purchased a while ago but I have not read.

The first section are literally and film criticism essays (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, A Native Son and Carmen Jones.) I have not read or watched any of these, although I knew the basic outline of the story of the first two. This section would likely have been much better if I was familiar with the works being talked about.

Section two and three were some of the best essays I have ever read and I want to go back and read them again.

The three essays in section two are about growing up and living in Harlem, his brother’s musical group’s ill fated trip to the South as entertainment for a political campaign and a eulogy for his father. The eulogy essay is the best essay of the book I think. Eulogies often gloss over the negatives of a person and highlight what will be missed. Baldwin’s father was not going to be missed much, although once he was gone, Baldwin was able to deal with his love for him. Baldwin’s father died on Baldwin’s 19th birthday and Baldwin left soon after to move to Paris.

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

Takeaway: Class matters. The idealism of a classless society and the myth that everyone can move up the social ladder with a little hard work has never been true for the majority in the United States.

Class matters. That shouldn’t be a controversial idea, but it is. It is controversial because it flies in the face of the American myth. It is possible to point to many that have risen up from their poor roots to achieve more than those that grew up around them. But the very pointing out that you know someone that grew up poor and is now rich only serves as a reminder that it is not the story of the majority.

White Trash is a provocative book. I do not think it is a particularly untold story as the subtitle suggests, but I think it is an under-represented story. Early US immigration was primarily fueled by lower classes. Early history of government is a master class in how the powerful can manipulate government to remain in power and use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.

From the early days of America, there was an understanding of poverty as something that was ‘congenital’. Prior to Darwin, Isenberg widely quotes founding fathers and essayists using language of animal husbandry. Whether the image was of dog breeding or horse breeding, the point was that if you have a cur, it is probably because the animal was of bad stock.