Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams

Bonhoeffer's Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance by Reggie Williams

Summary: An excellent book about the missing part of Bonhoeffer’s story within many of his biographies.

Essentially for the past month I have not written anything about my reading. Starting almost exactly a month ago, I went on a silent Ignatian retreat as part of a prerequisite for starting a graduate school program to become spiritual director. Between that retreat, work, kids being home for summer, a quick vacation and everything else, I just have not sat down and written anything. I write more for myself than anyone that happens to stop by this blog, but to have that record, I have to actually write. Weeks, months or years later, I want to know what I thought when I read a book when I read it, not just what I remember at any particular time.

I went on the retreat with Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus and Willie James Jenning’s commentary on Acts, finishing both the during the five days of my retreat. Not every Ignatian retreat is like mine, but I was focusing on hearing from God, and this book, and Jenning’s commentary on Acts, were what I think God wanted to say to me.

I really know almost nothing about the Harlem Renaissance. I should, but that is a portion of my education that is lacking. The third chapter on the imagery of the Jesus, especially a Black Jesus, during the Harlem Renaissance was so very helpful. I need to read more about the Harlem Renaissance not just because it is an area that I should know about, but because my grandmother actually lived in Harlem during that era.

Pride by Ibi Zoboi

Pride by Ibi ZoboiSummary: A retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern Brooklyn.

Retellings or reimagining of classic stories is a staple, both for author development and for mining stories for new insights.

Pride by Ibi Zobi, author of American Street, is retelling Pride and Prejudice, a book I have only read once, five years ago. This version opens with a riff off of the classic opening:

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.

Zoboi isn’t just inserting a new setting or adding in monsters to the original language. She is retelling the story but with much of feel of the original. There isn’t quite as much humor in Pride, but it felt natural even as the original was set in a very different social space that I didn’t think could be recreated today.

The prejudice was more about family pride in the original and the different social stations that had more weight than is common today. The class and social differences today do not have quite the same weight, but that social commentary still came through.

This is a light story, a quick audiobook. Something to cleanse my palate from the too heavy books on race and theology that I am reading. It is the type of book that I am glad my library carries because I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own. But the book and the audiobook were well done.

Cheap way to get a Kindle

I have been wanting a waterproof Kindle for a while. But I had the first generation Kindle Oasis and it was hard to justify spending $250 for waterproof.

But last week the Kindle Oasis 3 was announced. The main change is the addition of amber LEDs so you can change the color temperature of the light to be a more warm (yellow) light and less cold (blue) light.

Because of the announcement about the Kindle Oasis 3, Amazon has discounted the Kindle Oasis 2 to $199 for wifi version with 8GB storage, or $299 for the 32 GB version with wifi and cellular connection (both $50 off).

If you have an Amazon Prime credit card (or are willing to sign up) you can get 20% off (given as a credit toward future Amazon purchase.). If you are willing to sign up as a new customer, you get $70 credit. That reduces the $199 kindle to $129. (I got the version without ads so it was actually $219.99)

You can always get 25% off if you trade in an old Kindle. So if you have an old kindle to trade in, then you get a minimum $5 credit with the 25% off. That 25% was taken off of the $219, so it went to $165. Then the $70 credit plus the $5 credit for the old kindle dropped the $165 to $90.

I ended up having $9.90 in taxes, so that went to $99. And I will get a 20% credit. I assume that will be only from the $99, but it might be from the $165. So it will be somewhere between $20 and $33 in future credit.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marble

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning MarbleSummary: A fascinating life cut short.

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X around the release of the Spike Lee movie. And either right before or after that, James Cone’s Martin and Malcolm and America, but that has been a while ago.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention is the first biography of Malcolm X I have read. Manning Marble passed away after the book was completed, but before it was published. He posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize in History for the biography in 2012.

Marable is presenting a complex picture of Malcolm X. There is no shying away from his power of his personality or his tendency toward being a demagogue. There is some controversy about the book because enviably, there has to be a comparison with the historical accuracy of his ‘autobiography’. Marable contends that Alex Haley was far more than just a ghostwriter, but the shaper of the story. He also contends that Malcolm X exaggerated his early life of crime to better show his transformation as a result of his conversion.

Malcolm’s life really was a full one. He spent a ton of time traveling, far more outside the US than I would have guessed. You cannot help but wonder what his life would have been like had he not been killed. Thematically, Marable is pointing out how frequently Malcolm X changed over time. But he also is careful to not grab on to the end of his life as an ideal or final position. The early part of his life and his time in the Nation of Islam was also important.

Like many great men, Malcolm X was fairly distant from his family. His marriage to Betty was troubled. She did not fit into his perception of how women should act. Her independence and his frequent travels did not lead a simple relationship, and Marable concludes that both likely had affairs. Ironically it was Elijah Muhammed’s affairs and many illegitimate children that seems to have started Malcolm X’s leaving the Nation of Islam, but it wasn’t until near the end of his life, after he left NOI that Marable thinks he first had an affair.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn WardSummary: Sin begets sin, systems feed on those around them, history matters to the present.

Sing, Unburied, Sing deserves its praise. This is not a genre that I traditionally read. If it involves ghosts, I probably have not read it. I tend toward fiction that is more oriented toward fantasy, science fiction or mystery in general. But ghosts here make a lot of sense. They bring history into the discussion of the black experience.

I realized with The Darkest Child that part of what makes Black fiction powerful and often difficult to read in its tragedy is its embrace of the cascading nature of sin. Sin begets sin so that there is often the choice only between whom the harm is going to hurt.

Sing, Unburied, Sing follow several different narrators. Jojo is a 13 year old trying to be a man. The primary caregiver of his toddler aged sister, he is being raised primarily by his grandfather, Pop. His grandmother is dying. His father is in jail. His (White) grandfather refuses to acknowledge his existence. His uncle was killed by his (White) father’s cousin. His mother, Leonie, is trying to do what she can, but she also escapes into drugs.

The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips

The Darkest Child by Delores PhillipsSummary: Tragic story of brokenness begetting brokenness in the midst of systemic evil. 

I am not sure where The Darkest Child caught my eye. Maybe it was just browsing at my library. I have been on the waitlist for it at my library for months. I expected a young adult book, but this is a book with young adult characters and adult themes and realities.

Tangy Mae Quinn is one of 10 children, all of different fathers. Her mother, Rozelle, was first pregnant at 13 and found herself on her own. Set in rural Georgia early in the civil rights era, Tangy Mae and her siblings are surviving as best they can. Tangy Mae is bright, top of her class, despite missing a lot of school.

The Darkest Child is a brutal story. There is rape, forced prostitution of children, lynching, death, racism, wanton cruelty and much more. But there is also love and with almost all of the characters, even the cruelest and basest behaviors, have a glimmer of understanding that gives the reader sympathy or understanding for the position they have been put in, even if the act is clearly wrong.

What comes through clearly is the interrelated nature of sin. One sin, begets another, which impacts someone else, and the impact cascades throughout a community. But also hope and light also can come from one act that leads to another and another. The interrelatedness of sin and hope is real. We are never only in a space of sin without God’s light and we are never only in God’s light without the reality of sin breaking through in this life.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming by Michelle ObamaSummary: A memoir, including her years as First Lady, but not particularly focused on the politics. 

I have heard a number of people commend Becoming to me, so I assumed it would be well written and I would enjoy it. Becoming was not over hyped. I have read a number of political memoirs, and I think this is probably the best of them, although that may be in part because she is not running for anything and she is not a particularly political person.

Becoming is primarily focused on her early years, and her life before becoming First Lady. The two years before Obama took office and the two terms in office are roughly the last third of the book. I was both more interested in her early years and in her as a person than the politics, so this was great for me.

I used to live in Hyde Park. Barak Obama was my State Rep then State Senator before being elected to US Senator right before I moved out of Hyde Park. I met Barak only one time, when he was a guest lecturer for a class in the spring of 1998. I went up to talk to him after class because I was having a problem with some non-profit work I was doing for my job and he was happy to talk through it briefly and let me know he would be happy to help if I needed help. I remember going home to my wife and saying I had met a future president.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi EdugyanSummary: I am not sure how to summarize this book.

Washington Black was on a number of best books of 2018. It finally got to be my turn from the library this past week and I quickly read it. I am still not sure what I think of it frankly.

Washington Black is a young slave boy working the fields with his caregiver Kit in the sugar cane fields of Barbados in the 1830s. Seemingly at random, they are ordered into the master’s home to serve the relatively new master and his brother’s dinner. That chance led to Washington Black being conscripted into working for the master’s visiting scientist brother, Christopher (Titch). Titch is a quiet abolitionist, but still takes advantage of the slave labor he has access to and uses the wealth of the family (from slaves) for his scientific investigations. Over a short period of time, Washington (Wash) learns to read and more importantly with his access to pencil and paper and books he discovers that he has a talent for drawing. Titch eventually discovers this and their relationship, while still Master and Slave becomes more complicated.

Due to a plot detail, the two of them leave the island and so starts the story of the next 10 years of Wash’s life. There is loneliness, isolation, a semblance of freedom, romance and love. But also a lot of really strange random events that are pieced together to make up the story.

Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Warrior by Nnedi OkoraforSummary: Sunny Nwazue, an American born Nigerian teen discovered in the last book that she has both powers and dangers she couldn’t dream about, the story continues.

Akata Warrior is the sixth book by Nnedi Okorafor I have read in the past couple of years. Okorafor is a fantasy author that occasionally mixes science fiction ideas and grounds her books in African folklore and culture. Her stature is rising and I have heard frequently over the past few weeks about her being mentored by George RR Martin. I am frankly more interested in her ventures in the comic book world, where she is both writing her own comic and one about Shuri, the Black Panther’s sister, than I am about her relationship to Martin.

I was first introduced to Okorafor through Binti trilogy and then Who Fears Death. The Akata series is the third story line. I have enjoyed all of them, and they are all different, while feeling like they are by the same author. Okorafor is writing with a distinctly African folklore and cultural background, while being accessible to others. She has lived in the US on and off for decades. The African (Nigerian mostly I believe) folklore gives a unique voice to fantasy and science fiction that tends to be based most often on British or at least northern European cultural roots. And Okorafor also focuses on female protagonists in a genre that is decidedly male focused as a whole.

I approached the first book in the series, Akata Witch as a young adult book. I think I probably still would classify the series as young adult, but I am not sure. Young Adult tends to have some themes that are about coming of age, growing independence, relationship to parents (or not), and some limits on how much sex or violence or language is included. The content is appropriate for young adults, but I am not sure that the story is really a young adult story as much as it has young adult characters. This second book seems older.

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H Cone

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H ConeSummary: A explication of the theological roots of spirituals and the blues. A good example of why White seminary students need to be reading Black and other authors of Color. 

Over the past couple years there have been several minor controversies in US seminaries about assigned texts. Masters Seminary (started by John MacArthur) about a year ago had a former student write about the fact that he had not read a single book by a Black author during his seminary studies. That prompted a response by another former student that was (is?) a staff person at the seminary. The response includes this quote:

“I don’t mean to be dismissive of their contribution, but African-American Christians are a small portion built upon the main foundation, that just so happens to be, according to God’s providence, a white, Western European/English one.”

A more recent controversy came up because in the context of a NY Times article about racism in the church, an SBC seminary professor talked about assigning James H Cone and that created calls for the professor to resign, which prompted this response from him. It is yet another example of the systemic problems within the Evangelical church that is ignorant about non-White culture and because of that lack of cultural understanding and a lack of good history, perpetuates a belief in White cultural superiority as the quote above does.

I first read James H Cone during my seminary years almost 25 years ago. But within the past couple years I have read four of Cone’s books and continue to think that White Evangelicals need to grapple with the theological contributions of Black and other theologians outside of the White Evangelical space. I am continually surprised that the case needs to be made for this, but at the same time, I know that personally it is easy to fall into reading the same White, mostly male, authors. This is part of why I have been attempting to keep my reading to no more than 1/3 White authors this year. It takes attention because it is easy to fall into reading what others around me are reading or reading what is most recently on sale, or the new thing that everyone is talking about. And that is probably a White guy.

All of that long introduction brings me to Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues. You cannot read more than a few pages in any of Cone’s books without finding a reference to music. Someday I would like to put together playlists to accompany each of Cone’s books that would put the original songs in order so that readers can hear the songs in full context as they read.

The Spirituals and the Blues is a short theological book that takes seriously the historical context of the music that has shaped the Black church and then theologically explicates the themes of the music. This is a brief book, only about 150 pages.