The Proof of the Pudding by Rhys Bowen (Royal Spyness Mystery #17)

The Proof of the Pudding by Rhys Bowen cover imageSummary: A very pregnant Georgie hosts her first dinner party with her new chef and that leads to a new mystery. 

I enjoy reading long series as long as I do not get too bored with the characters. The Royal Spyness series is in the 17th book, similar to the Inspector Gamache series. They are very different types of mysteries. The Royal Spyness series is very much a light cozy mystery series. There is almost always a murder, but Bowen leans into cozy feel of the series. The series took a long time to get from Georgie having a romantic interest to marriage and now her first baby. I am enjoying a more confident Georgie.

Rhys Bowen has referenced classic mysteries before, there are several references to Dorothy Sayers books. And this one both references Agatha Christie’s books and has Agatha Christie as a dinner party guest who helps to solve the mystery. That could feel gimmicky, but it is handled well here, and I thought it helped move Georgie to a more healthy, maturing adult. She is not in her early 20s anymore. She is married and will have a baby by the end of this book (that is really not a spoiler).

I appriciate that Darcy (her husband who works as an off the books spy for the British Foreign Office) does not try to protect her and keep her away from murder here, but instead encourages her to solve the crime. There is a balance between realism of a woman in the 1930s and the reality of a modern reader who expects women to be able to act without supervision at all times.

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If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority by Angela N Parker

If God Still Breathes, Why Can't I?: Black Lives Matter and Biblical Authority by Angela N Parker cover imageSummary: An introduction to hermeneutics through the lens of Womanist Biblical methods.

Generally, when I read a book, I try to write about it within a few days. This has become a spiritual practice of mine, not just because I like to encourage reading but also because I want to incorporate what I am learning. Part of that incorporation is writing about the book so that I can put on paper what was important to me. But sometimes, I get busy with my paying work or other aspects of life, and at some point, I am just too far away from a book to do it justice. In the case of If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? I read it in February 2022 and then again in December 2022. It was certainly one of my favorite books of 2022, but because I hadn’t written about it, it was hard to talk about why succinctly.

I have had a running book club since 2020 or 2021, depending on whether you count the Be the Bridge groups that it grew out of or the later discussion of Color of Compromise that started an actual book club. Since then, I am told we have discussed 12 books. I have wanted to get a group to talk about If God Still Breathes for a while, and this spring seemed like a good time.

If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I? is a fairly short book, only 128 pages and about 3 hours. But there is some weight to it. It was the most challenging book we have tackled so far. Most of the group was new to Womanist thought, so there was that aspect of difficulty. Only a couple of other group members had taken formal college-level Bible classes either. Mixing womanist thinking and biblical hermeneutics introduced many in the group to a lot of new vocabulary. One of the members expressed how happy he was to be reading on Kindle because there is a built-in dictionary.

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When God Became White: Dismantling Whiteness for a More Just Christianity by Grace Ji-Sun Kim

When God Became White cover imageSummary: A mix of history, memoir, and theology to discuss the problem of God being portrayed as White and how this has communicated Whiteness (an ideology of racial hierarchy).

I have been looking forward to reading When God Became White since I heard it announced. I have only read her Intersectional Theology, but I own three of her books and I hope to read at least two of them this year. (Invisible, The Homebrew Christianity Guide to the Holy Spirit, Healing Our Broken Humanity). There are several reasons why I was looking forward to When God Became White. First, I wanted to explore the concept of Whiteness from a more theological perspective. Emerson and Bracey’s Religion of Whiteness explores it from a Sociology of Religion perspective, and I am familiar with its historical development from authors like Ibrahm Kendi and philosophical development of whiteness from authors like George Yancy. There are others working on theological development of the concept of Whiteness, but I expected (and found) that Grace Ji-Sun Kim broke out of the Black/White paradigm of discussing Whiteness and I knew from listening to a number of interviews and her writing that she would bring a gender critique as well.

The strength of When God Became White is its exploration of her own story and the way the Asian experience more broadly. The discussion of Whiteness is often limited to the White/Black binary. Throughout the book she discusses Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ thats her mother kept in an honored place in their home above the couch (Color of Christ by Harvey and Blum has a lengthy discussion of the history and impact of Sallman’s painting.)

“The white Jesus on our wall was a depiction to me of how God looked as well. I pictured God as an old white man, just as everyone else did. There was no reason to question that notion. It was everywhere: in paintings, stained-glass windows, and storybooks. I never questioned it. I didn’t even think twice about whether Jesus was white or not. It was not in my consciousness to question anything that was taught by my mother or the church. Both pushed a white Jesus, and I just took it as the truth.”

“What I didn’t know then that I know now is how influential that picture was on my own theology and faith development. That image of a white Jesus was imprinted on my brain and body so that I could not even question whether Jesus actually looked like that. It was a given, as it was the most famous picture of Jesus. I went to visit family in Korea twice during my youth, and even my family members there had the same picture of the white Jesus in their homes. The Korean churches also had the same picture of white Jesus. Furthermore, when I traveled to India during my seminary years, all the churches that I visited had this same white Jesus picture. This confirmed to me that this must be the real Jesus, as it is universally understood to be the image of Christ. I just took it for granted that Sallman’s Head of Christ must be the real thing.” (P8)

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Unruly Saint: Dorothy Day’s Radical Vision and Its Challenge for Our Times by DL Mayfield

Unruly saint cover imageSummary: A biography of a radical Christian who took seriously the call to help the marginalized.

Dorothy Day is someone that I have known about for a long time, but someone who I have not known much about. I have read one of DL Mayfield’s previous books and I know that she takes seriously the call for Christians to serve and live with the marginalized so I thought she would be a good author to read about Dorothy Day. (I have also read a book by her husband, a counselor.)

Unruly Saint is not a lengthy biography, about 250 pages. And most of its focus is on the founding of the Catholic Worker and its early years. Mayfield’s personal reflections on Day and her use of the research on Day as a way to grapple with her own Christian faith I think is one of the strengths of the books, but also one that may not appeal to everyone. I particularly read a lot of biography and memoir because I want to know how others have thought about what it means to live a good life or discern how to they can live in a complicated world. Reflective biographies like this give me insight not only into the subject of the biography but the author.

I was aware of the basic shape of Day. I knew she was a writer and that she founded the Catholic Worker Newspaper and various others activities to serve the poor during the Great Depression. I knew she was a radical and had been a communist prior to becoming Catholic. I knew that she had a child and was a pacifist. But I think that was really the extent of what I knew walking into this biography.

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Brown Faces, White Spaces by Latasha Morrison

Summary: A survey of systems that perpetuate disparity, inequity, or racism in various areas of society.

One of the aspects that is most frustrating to me within the church is the controversy that is liberation. Some people and parts of the church do not believe that liberation is a significant theme of what the church should be doing. There are various reasons for that. Some believe that liberation will only occur at the second coming of Christ, and some of those believe that working toward liberation will actually prolong Christ’s return. Some do not believe that the church’s work should involve physical realities and that the only liberation that should occur is spiritual liberation. So, it is not surprising that Latasha Morrison opens with a chapter on liberation, grounding the book in her survey of the themes of liberation found throughout the Bible. But honestly, the chapter just made me mad. I was angry not at what she said, but that she has to actually argue that liberation is something that the church should be involved in. This is such a central theme to both scripture and historic Christian theology that no book should need to make the case that liberation is something that we need to do.

The rest of the book is framed around nine areas of society where liberation needs to occur. She sets up a simple framework of Preparation, Dedication, and Liberation. Preparation is learning about and understanding society’s problems so we can correctly address them. Dedication is the steps that we take to address those issues while girding ourselves for long-term efforts. And that is done with the goal of liberation for all people. Morrison is addressing these areas because they are areas that have been traditionally seen as “White Spaces” and they have a legacy of systemic inequality or discrimination.

This framing reminds me of Kevin Kruse’s book White Flight, which is about the history of White Flight in Atlanta. One of the main points that Kruse makes in the book is that White people saw segregated spaces (parks, schools, transportation, etc.) as white spaces before desegregation. However, after integration, due to their cultural belief in white racial hierarchy, the spaces did not become shared spaces where all people had equal access, but as Black spaces where White people were no longer given priority. Kruse’s thesis is that this view of public space is a significant impetus for the rise of political libertarianism and decreased investment in public goods. If public spaces no longer privileged White use, and White people did not “feel comfortable” in shared spaces, and White people began to use private spaces that were economically or geographically segregated as a proxy for racial segregation, then White people would stop supporting the use of tax funds on shared public goods that they had previously supported. Michelle McGhee has a similar approach in her book Sum of Us, where she tries to get White people to see that racial equity is not a zero-sum game.

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Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America by Michael Winship

Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America cover imageSummary: A relevant history of a theological reform movement that became political.

Every once in a while, I come across history revealing areas where I did not realize I had a big hole, but once identified, many connections get made. I have read a number of English history books, but once I read Hot Protestants, I realized that they all seemed to stop around Elizabeth or James and not pick up again until George III. I had never read a book on the English Revolution and did not realize where that was in the timeline.

Hot Protestants is a history of Puritanism, a revival movement within the Church of England. Part of what struck me was how explicitly Puritans understood England to have a similar covenant as ancient Israel had with God and how that theological commitment led to many of their social and political commitments.

“Fasting was a public responsibility as well as a private one. It was widely accepted that a Christian country like England was a successor to ancient Israel. Just as Israel had the true church before the Jews rejected Jesus, England had God’s true church, thanks to the Reformation. Like Israel, England was in a covenant with God, and like Israel, it would be blessed or punished to the extent that it followed or defied God’s law. Therefore, when it strayed, it needed to collectively implore God’s forgiveness, just as the ancient Jews had done. The Church of England ordered public fasts when faced with signs of God’s wrath—plague, famine, war, and the like.34 Church of England fasts, however, were called too infrequently to satisfy puritans, and unless undertaken in a puritan manner, they were too formal and short to generate and express the humiliation and repentance that a jealous God expected. Puritan ministers asserted the dubiously legal right to call public fasts on their own. Zealous Protestants would travel 10 or 20 miles for a puritan fast, which could easily last an entire day between the many long prayers and sermons from the ministers present.” (p35)

Part of what kept coming up in my mind as I read Hot Protestants is that current advocates of Christian Nationalism seem to have a very similar theology and practice. Puritans understood their role as not only revivalists but also social reformers. Those social reforms were not simply to improve society but to enforce social norms to fulfill the covenant with God. Magistrates had wide latitude to enforce religious laws that either had not existed or had not been legally enforced. The Church of England restricted ordination and the role of revival preaching, but those restrictions chafed against people (both men and women) who felt the call of God. England did not have legal freedom or religious consciousness as the United States does, and because of covenantal thinking, religious and civil legal violations became intertwined.

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It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God by Mark Love

It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us: Acts, Discernment, and the Mission of God cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of discernment in the first 15 chapters of Acts. 

The title of the book, It Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and To Us is taken from Acts 15:28, which is part of the letter written to the gentile Christians after the Acts 15 council. After the council, this letter summarized what had been decided. What is clear from the context is that this was not simply a decision of a single leader, or a small group of leaders, but of the broader church. The main thrust of It Seemed God to the Holy Spirit and To Us is to explore the book of Acts to get clues into how the early church practiced discernment and how other spiritual and relational practices in the church helped to facilitate that group discernment process.

Mark Love is intentionally exploring these early church practices for the purpose of helping the modern church learn from them. So this is not just a biblical studies book, but a book for the church today. Central to his thesis is that, “…Pentecost gives birth to…a community living in [a] new social arrangement of the kingdom of God–a church.” (p22)

I am going to quote a long passage from early in the book because I think it sets the stage for how he understand the role of the book.

“I am demonstrating several convictions I have about ministry in how I deal with these texts. First, ministry finds its life in a deep engagement with Scripture. Ministry emerges naturally through a long habitation with Scripture. Good ministry is an art, requiring a well-funded imagination. In shaping a theological imagination, Scriptures must be more than a tool one uses to solve puzzles. Instead the deep structures of texts—the way they move, their rhythms, the peculiar way they name things—must become deep structures for ministers as well. This deep imagination, related to Scripture, is exactly what we find in Acts 15 when James summarizes the discernment of the community in relation to the inclusion of Gentiles.” (p25)

Love also assumes that most churches are not designed for practicing communal discernment.

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Theologizin’ Bigger: Homilies on Living Freely and Loving Wholly by Trey Ferguson

Theologizin' Bigger: Homilies on Living Freely and Loving Wholly cover imageSummary: Essays exploring the role of hermeneutics and theology for the Christian life.

I am the kind of person who picks up an audiobook of theology because I have a full day of work to do in my yard, and I need something to keep me motivated. Theologizin’ Bigger is exactly what I needed to keep me going.

There are a lot of books that I will listen to while working and then I will get the broad overview and decide if they are worth coming back to more slowly in print later. This is a book that I think is worth revisiting in print later, not because it is hard to understand but because it is well-written and deserves careful reading.

There are 17 chapters split into four sections, and I don’t know which is my favorite. I spent a lot of time grappling with hermeneutics (how we understand the role and message of the Bible) about 10 or so years ago. I went to seminary in my early 20s. I am glad I did because it was easier to do grad school when I was young, but there are questions that I didn’t have in my early 20s because I did not have the life experience yet. For me the role of scripture was a question for my late 30s. I was aware of a number of technical issues around the Bible and biblical interpretation, but it took me longer to see more bad uses to really start grappling with the ways that the methods of our bible reading were a real part of the problem of Christianity. The chapters of on the bible may seem simple, but they are not simplistic.

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Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics by Joshua Mauldin

Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics cover imageSummary: A reappraisal of Barth and Bonhoeffer’s thinking around modernity and politics.

I regularly recommend the Audible Plus lending library, where Audible members can borrow several thousand audiobooks at no additional costs beyond the membership. Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Modern Politics is a book that has been on my to-read list for a while, but currently, the Kindle version is over $70, and the Hardcover is $66. While I borrowed the audiobook, if I had purchased it, it was less than $10 when I picked it up. I am never going to make sense of that type of pricing disparity.

I was glad I listened to it, even if it may be a book that would be better read in print. It was a helpful book to think about and even had some aspect of discernment (and an ongoing reading project of mine) that I had not anticipated. But I do want to note that I did not love the narration. The British narrator did not pronounce some of the names and theological, philosophical, or political terms correctly. It is not just variations between American and British pronunciations. More importantly, I thought the tone of the narration was just off, but not so much that I didn’t listen to the whole book in just a few days.

Mauldin is concerned about the state of democracy and is using Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s political thought to grapple with how they addressed the changes in Germany. To start, Mauldin looks at the critiques of modernity by Brad Gregory, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Stanley Hauerwas. I read After Virtue recently and have read several books by Hauerwas over the years. However, I did not have any background on Brad Gregory. The introduction to their ideas was thorough enough that I felt like I was clear.

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The Religion of Whiteness: How Racism Distorts Christian Faith by Michael Emerson and Glenn Bracey

The religion of whiteness cover imageSummary: An exploration of how Whiteness (the belief in white racial superiority) functions as a type of religion in the Durkheimian sense. 

I have been waiting to read this book for about four years now, ever since I heard that Michael Emerson was working on follow-up research to his Divided by Faith book. I read the Beyond Diversity report by Barna about some of the early research. And I have widely recommended this video where Michael Emerson introduces his Religion of Whiteness concept. And while it is now dated, I still very much recommend his book, co-authored with Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, because its use of the White Evangelical toolkit as a model to describe the cultural tools of handling race as White Evangelicals has been so influential to how many have spoken about Evangelicals and Race in the 25 years since the research for that book was done.

To understand the book, you need to understand both what is meant by Whiteness and what is meant by Religion. This is a good summary of what they mean by Whiteness:

“That is, whiteness is the imagined right that those designated as racially white are the norm, the standard by which all others are measured and evaluated. It is the imagined right to be superior in most every way—theologically, morally, legally, economically, and culturally. It is that power, now centuries upon centuries old, that is worshipped, felt, protected, and defended. As the legendary scholar W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1920: “ ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then, always, somehow, someway, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is ownership of the earth forever and ever. Amen!” (p42)

And for religion, Emerson and Bracey are using Emile Durkheim’s understanding of religion. They quote Durkheim’s definition of religion:

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