So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma OluoSummary: “A lot of people want to skip ahead to the finish line of racial harmony. Past all this unpleasantness to a place where all wounds are healed and the past is laid to rest.” (Page 140)

Race can be difficult to talk about clearly. Many Whites are reluctant to talk about race because they do not want to accidentally say something offensive. Many minorities are reluctant to talk about race because they are tired of the conversations that do not seem to actually get anywhere. In So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo steps into the gap with a primer on race discussions.

With each new book I read, I have a tendency to say, ’this is the best so far’. This is in part a bias toward newness. But I think it is also my tendency to see where each new book I read brings something slightly different and unique to the discussion.

So You Want to Talk About Race is very straight forward. The first chapter defines race. The second chapter talks about what racism is. The third chapter talks about why we should talk about race and the fear of doing it wrong (short version, if you want a real relationship, you have to talk about real issues.) Each of the chapters cover a fairly narrow topic and build on the previous topic. Privilege, intersectionality, police brutality, affirmative action, school to prison pipeline, the ’N’ word, cultural appropriation, hair, microaggressions, anger, the myth of the model minority, I got called a racist, etc round out the book.

There are a lot of books on race. And very few of them would not be helpful to at least someone. One of the benefits of a wide variety of books from a wide variety of authors is that they can target particular audiences and bring different perspectives to show that there is not a single perspective on race and racism.

So You Want to Talk About Race has one of the better treatments on intersectionality. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what intersectionality is. A recent blog post I read suggested that intersectionality is a competition to see who is most oppressed, the winner gets to tell everyone else that their opinions do not matter. That, of course, is a ridiculous misunderstanding of the concept.

In an overly short form, intersectionality is the concept that different types of discrimination impact people differently and they cannot be all handled the same. For instance, a woman that experiences sexism is discriminated differently from someone that is in a wheel chair. It would do no good to tell the woman that is discriminated against because of her gender that the way to solve her problem is to have more accessible workspace with more ramps and bathrooms and a good health plan. But in addition to recognizing that there are different types of discrimination, one person may be discriminated against in multiple different ways at the same time.

A Mind to Murder by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries #2)

A Mind to Murder by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries #2)Summary: An unliked, but somewhat unknown office manager is killed and there are too many suspects.

PD James is frequently cited as one of the best modern mystery novelists. So I am going to try to work my way through them over time. But like many series, I have been warned that the series takes a little while to warm up. 

A Mind to Murder is set in a community mental health facility. The office manager is killed on a Friday evening while a number of clients and staff are still present and Adam Dalgliesh, from Scotland Yard, needs to interview them all before they can leave. 

The book is about halfway over by the time the initial interviews are over. It is a slow beginning and a bit tedious. But I suspect that is on purpose to show real life detective work and to build some suspense. 

With both this and the previous book, the action and explanation at the end I thought was a little rushed. Both books were fine. Neither seemed particularly striking. If I had not heard so many good things, I would probably give up on the series. But I can get at least the first five from my library on audiobook, so I will keep trying.

A Mind to Murder by PD James (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries #2) Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan JacobsTakeaway: Education as virtue development has been on the horizon for a while.

I feel inadequate to comment on The Year of Our Lord 1943. I spent about two weeks reading it. I have been thinking about it for a week since I read it. And I think I probably should go back and read it again before I try to write about it. But do not really have time to do that. This is a book that needs a second reading. It is not that Alan Jacobs is hard to read. He is not difficult to read, he writes clearly and well. And he is not dense in the way that some writers are dense. But every time I read Jacobs I appreciate that I am not really as well read or as smart as many people in this world. Jacobs puts ideas and people together in ways that I just would not on my own. Which is why he is so helpful to read.

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen (A Royal Spyness Mystery #12)

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding by Rhys Bowen (A Royal Spyness Mystery #14)Summary: She gets married. Finally.

I have really enjoyed these light cozy mysteries as a change of pace. Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding is the twelfth in the series. Like any series, there is some unevenness in the books. And although I do think this is one of the better books recently, there are parts that drive me nuts. Georgie’s continued assumption that Darcy is cheating on her, when every time, it is part of his job as a spy or another very explainable reasons is tiring. Georgie is smart and this thing about making her doubt herself all the time doesn’t really work. Some self doubt is natural, the extent of her doubt in Darcy is not.

In the last book, as someone in directly line to the throne (35th, but still direct), Georgiana had to receive permission from the King and Parliament to remove herself from the line to the throne so that she and Darcy could marry (since he is Catholic). Having been given that permission, this book is about the planning for the wedding. I already said above that the wedding happens. There have been enough delays in this series already, so I at least would want to know if it was going to be delayed again.

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell KingSummary: Fred Rogers was the person the person you saw on tv. 

It is surprising that it has taken 15 years since his death for an actual biography of Fred Rogers to be written. At the end of the book, the author Max King, says that the family took a good bit of convincing to participate in the biography because Mr Rogers had been resistant to a biography when he was alive. Max King convinced the family of the need for a biography, not because he wanted to be the one to write it, but because he understood the importance of a good biography to legacy of Mister Rogers. Once the family was convinced of the need, they wanted King to be the author.

The Good Neighbor is Max King’s first book. he was a journalist for 30 years culminating in being the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1990 to 1998. Then he became the President of the Heinz Endowments, which helped to fund of the Mr Rogers programming. When he retired from the Heinz Endowments in 2008 he was asked to lead The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at St Vincent College where he is still a fellow. From his position at the Fred Rogers Center he was able to see the importance of Mister Rogers legacy and be in a position to write with access to both documentary evidence and people that were around Fred Rogers.

The Good Neighbor was released on the same day that the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was released to DVD/Blu-ray home sales. I did not see the documentary in the theater, but I have now watched it three times since the digital release. Max King is one of the figures that was interviewed on the documentary. These two projects, along with the Tom Hanks feature film on Mister Rogers that is scheduled for release in 2019, coincide with the 50th anniversary of the start of Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

The Good Neighbor is traditional in biographical form. It traces Fred Rogers’ family history, his childhood, teen and college years and early TV career in a fairly straight line. Once the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood starts its main production the straight line narrative breaks down and never really fully comes back together. As I was reading I kept thinking about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. In a somewhat similar way to Steve Jobs, Fred Rogers was so completely identified with his work that it is virtually impossible for a biographer to write without long discussions of that work. The Steve Jobs biography discussed the company and the products, the Good Neighbor discusses not just the production of the show and the structure of what became his non-profit production company, but also his work in childhood development, puppetry, the rise of PBS and many other topics that were informed by Fred Rogers but were more than just biography.

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.

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'ConnorTakeaway: I have no idea.

One of my reading projects this year has been to read all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction this year. I have previously read A Good Man is Hard to Find, but I will probably re-read it again. But I have no idea what to think about O’Connor now that I have finished all of her fiction.

She is a skilled writer. It is easy to see that she is writing not just for a surface meaning, but for the re-readings as well. There is depth there that many writers cannot pull off.

But there is also a twistedness that is hard to take. It is not just that many of these stories end in ironic tragedy, but that there is an intentional turning everything upside down. There is much to appreciate about the upside-down nature of the stories. A woman farmer that complains about a stray bull is, of course, gored by the bull. I saw that coming a mile away. But the path to the inevitable end seems to matter. And the upside-down nature of the stories I believe is representative of her understanding of Christianity.

Part of what I do not know how to process is what much of this means. As I was reading around after finishing, one blogger called the title story one of the most anti-racist short story ever written (which does seem to be more than a little hyperbolic), while many others concentrate on her refusal to meet James Baldwin when he was in Millegeville or her antipathy to the civil rights movements or her racist jokes that were not uncommon in her letters.

It just feels much more complicated than the either/or. Alice Walker, probably best known for her novel Color Purple has a chapter on O’Connor in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. For about a year, Alice Walker, when she was 8 and O’Connor would have been 28, lived just a few miles from O’Connor’s farm and remembers passing it, although she did not know anything about O’Connor at the time. In 1974, Walker and her mother went to visit their old home, a falling down shack in the middle of a pasture, and then the O’Connor farm.

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books by Grant Voth (Great Courses)

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books by Grant Voth (Great Courses)Summary: A mix of ‘read this instead of that’ guide to Great Books, with half of the time devoted to great book outside of the cannon.

I am a fan of the concept of Great Courses, lectures from good lecturers about interesting subjects. These are similar to repackaged college lectures, not TEDTalks. Most of the ones I have liked best are subjects that I have some familiarity with, but not too much. I have been somewhat reluctant to do the literature lectures because I either have read the books and I am not sure I want to read more, or because I haven’t read the books and felt like I would miss too much.

I very much appreciated How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which was more about how to think about reading and how literature works. Skeptics Guide to Great Books was not really like that. I had two literature courses in college, but only two and I always feel like I am missing something in my process of reading, especially when I am reading the great books.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Great Books was not really what I was looking for, but it was helpful in its own way. It gave me introductions to 7 books that I was unlikely to have picked up on my own. These were all books that were suggested as ‘read this instead of that’. The focus of these was lesser known great books that did much the same thing as other great books, but were shorter and/or more approachable.

The second half of the course was on books that are outside of the cannon of great books because of their genre, but are still worth reading. Of these last five, I have read three was was broadly familiar with the content of the remaining two. In many ways the discussion of the books that I was familiar with was more enjoyable than the discussion of the books I did not know. Part of it might have been the subject matter. Hearing about how Le Carré ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or PD James’ Cover Her Face changed the face of spy and detective novels gave me context outside of those novels for why what was in the novels matters.

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff

Lament for a Son by Nicholas WolerstorffSummary: A father’s lament after his son’s death.

There is no way I can really ‘review’ a book about a father’s lament for his son’s death in a rock climbing accident. This is one of those classic books that people give someone that has just experience a death.

American in general and I think Evangelical in particular do not grieve and lament well. Part of what Wolterstorff talks about how the bad advice or bad theological wisdom that people give to grieving people, like, ‘they are in a better place now’ or ‘God called them back home.’ I very much appreciated Wolterstorff calling BS on that type of false piety. Death is an evil that in part Christ’s coming is here to overcome.

I do not think that we can really prepare for the future tragedies in our life. But I do think that we should read about and listen to grief. Whether it is the lament over the death of a spouse like CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed, or the death of a child like Lament for a Son or the combination of multiple griefs in Still by Lauren Winner, grief is particular but has some elements that are shared.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark Noll

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark NollSummary: An exercise in what it means to encourage the life of the mind, bounded by the creed, with the example of history, and with illustrations of how that can work out in practice.

I deeply respect Mark Noll, not just for his history and the quality of his teaching (I had an undergrad class with him at Wheaton and a graduate class with him at University of Chicago), but also for his broad encouragement of intellectual life outside of his field of history. His Scandal of the Evangelical Mind continues to have ramifications in the Evangelical world.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind is in many ways a follow up to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The extended postscript on the edition I read gave a direct update to where Noll has been encouraged since Scandal as well as areas of continued need. But the rest of the book was a guide to how Noll thinks we should encourage the life of the mind among the Evangelical world.

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind was published in 2011 and I wonder how it would be different had Noll written it in 2018. Part of the weakness of Noll’s project has been that he has mostly encouraging the life of the mind of academics and theological leaders within the Evangelical church. It is not that he is unaware of average lay person or that he does not think that the development of the life of the mind of the laity is important. But that the pitch of Noll’s work catches the interest of those that are already intellectually active.

Someone else may have originally said it, but I remember Alan Noble commenting on twitter about the split in Evangelical leaders in their support of Trump. Noble suggested that broadly, the academic and theological leadership as well as much of the ministry focused leadership has been against Trump from the start. But much of the political leadership and culture war leadership has been supportive of Trump. Others have made a different point about the split in between the clergy that have been more likely to not support Trump than the laity of the Evangelical world.

Noll is encouraged that the life of the mind is trickling down, but he did agree in his postscript that his original charges in Scandal did not acknowledge enough the general anti-intellectualism of American culture more broadly. So as much as I appreciate Noll’s work on the intellectual life of the Evangelical world, his impact has been limited and while the Trump phenomena is not a result of that limitation, it likely is an illustration of the phenomena.

As a whole I alternate between being really appreciative of the concept of this book and the fact that Noll is attempting to work out on paper how we encourage the intellectual life within the bounds of Christianity and being frustrated with how he does it.