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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A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks

A Quilted Life: Reflections of a Sharecropper’s Daughter by Catherine Meeks cover imageSummary: A memoir from sharecropper’s daughter to academic to retired anti-racist educator. 

I do not know how I ran across Catherine Meeks’ work. She was a professor at Mercer and then Wesleyan College. She worked as an organizer for the city of Macon and was the founder of Lane Center for Community Engagement and Service. Then, she retired in 2008 and started another career as an anti-racist trainer within the Episcopal Church, eventually founding the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She again retired from that role this past December. In 2022, she received the President Joseph R. Biden Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Volunteer Service Award medal.

What I enjoy about reading memoirs and biographies is that I see the complications of lives, not just the awards or recognitions they receive. Catherine Meeks was born to a sharecropper and a teacher in rural Mississippi. Her mother worked as a teacher throughout her childhood, but it took her 18 years to finish her college degree. Her father was illiterate and died when she was a child. The background of growing up in poverty during Jim Crow matters to the rest of her story. But this is not simply a Horatio Alger story of growth and success. Esau McCaulley, in a podcast interview that I cannot find right now, talked about the problems of writing a memoir as a successful Black man. He talked about the fact that people want a happy ending. And even when there is a happy ending, the happy ending can be used as proof against those with a less happy ending.

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When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion by Laura Anderson

When Religion Hurts You: Healing from Religious Trauma and the Impact of High-Control Religion by Laura Anderson cover imageSummary: High-control religious communities can create harm, but there are ways to move toward health

Harm from religious communities and individuals is not a new concept. However, recent increased attention to sexual abuse within the Protestant church and earlier public Catholic cases has drawn attention to the ways that church government and church systems can foster abuse of all sorts. Laura Anderson is primarily writing to help people recover from high-control religious communities, but there are principles here that are broader than that.

Anderson is not avoiding the term trauma (it is in the subtitle), but she is also trying to suggest that there are different levels of harm and that the response to that harm can be different. Two people can grow up and experience the same home, but one can be traumatized by practices that are not traumatizing to the other, even if the practices were applied to both. Part of the difficulty is that the word trauma has shifting meanings, so a more general “harm” can be helpful to apply to more than just legally documented abuse.

One of my takeaways from When Religion Hurts You is that high-control religious communities control as a means of protection and mission. There are evil people who are trying to control people and build their power for their own selfish purposes. But I think more often, people are attempting to help others and fulfill the church’s mission from their perspective. This happens by setting up boundaries to prevent harm, which becomes rigid rules that can themselves become harmful.

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American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church by Andrew L. Whitehead

American Idolatry: How Christian Nationalism Betrays the Gospel and Threatens the Church cover imageSummary: A helpful, somewhat personal look at how Christian Nationalism is a type of idolatry that distorts Christianity. 

I am very much on board with the idea that Christian Nationalism is one of the more significant problems facing both the US political reality and the US church. But I also think that some critics of the idea of Christian Nationalism have a point when they suggest that some presentations are vague and unclear. Part of the problem is that many critics are not sociologists, and so are resistant to the reality of social science working in tendencies toward behavior. I have an undergrad degree in sociology and understand that sociology and other similar social sciences work with correlations that are often only partially explanatory. Other factors are always at play. And even two people with the same history, culture, and even biology (twins) may not believe or behave the same way. Social science broadly works in tendencies. All things being equal, if these factors apply, this result is more likely than if these factors do not apply.

As an example from Christian Nationalism, those that rank higher on the Christian Nationalism scale tend to view the world through a lens of racial hierarchy. But if a person who ranks higher on the Christian Nationalism scale has a significant relationship with others of a different race (maybe through adoption or marriage or in a church setting), that individual may agree with many tenants of Christian Nationalism but not view the world through a lens of racial hierarchy. That individual does not mean that the correlation between Christian Nationalism and belief in the racial hierarchy is false more broadly; it just means that they have other factors in their life that combat that aspect of Christian Nationalism. This year, Justice Jackson wrote in a concurrence (highlighted by Sarah Isgur), “Other cases presenting different allegations and different records may lead to different conclusions.” Jackson’s phrase is precisely the point here, while tendencies remain, individual cases may not be the same because no two cases are perfectly identical; however, there is value in exploring the ways that the tendencies work.

I am also reading American Idolatry in light of two books and a podcast. I read American Idolatry in print and overlapped it with the audiobook of Mark Noll’s history of the bible in the US from 1794 to 1911. Many of the uses of the bible in history would lend themselves to Christian Nationalist uses today. Some of those should be considered Christian Nationalism, and some should not. What is helpful about reading American Idolatry in light of America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911, is that longer trends both support and give pause to how we think of Christian Nationalism in this particular political moment. There have been points in US history that have had concerning Christian behavior. And the bible has long been used for political purposes (that is the point of Noll’s book).

Andrew Whitehead is careful throughout the book not to label those that tend toward Christian Nationalism as something other than Christian. He wants to say that there may be “an idolatry” that is a problem in the use of Christian Nationalism for control and power, but that these people are still Christian. And I largely applaud him for that and think that “othering people” can dismiss the problem or our role in the problem. That is where the podcast I referenced comes in. I have long followed Michael Emerson and listened to his interview on the Know It, Own It, Change It podcast. Emerson has repeatedly said in several interviews and articles that his research indicates that many White Christians have ceased to be Christians and have begun following a Religion of Whiteness. And having read much from Emerson on this point, I agree that his evidence is persuasive (similar to Robert Jones.) Still, while I want to take seriously Emerson’s (and Jones’) points that there does seem to be a line across which you cease to be practicing Christianity and instead are practicing a different religion, the bias should be to consider these differences within Christianity.

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The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis by Karen Swallow Prior

The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis cover imageSummary: An exploration of how images and metaphors influence Evangelical thought (or don’t.)

The Evangelical Imagination is the fourth of Karen Swallow Prior’s books I have read over the past 11 years, the sixth if you include the two classics in which she wrote the introduction. I have been in a private Facebook group and “friends” on social media for most of that time. I looked back, and basically, this is what I said to introduce the last books of hers that I read.

Part of what I appreciate about Karen’s writing is that her writing is personal. She is not just writing abstract “Christian Living” books, theology, or literary criticism; she is a character in the story she shares as she is writing theology, literary criticism, and moral formation. In large part, her work explores virtue, and she uses her work as a literature professor to give tools to that exploration.

I could write a thousand words discussing Prior’s past decade and the struggles she has been through, from very personal harassment by leaders within her denomination to leaving two jobs as a professor to literally being hit by a bus. (I understand everyone must include that line in a review of her work or an introduction to her in an interview.) I hope she will write a memoir sometime in the next 10 to 15 years, but I want people to read about The Evangelical Imagination, not my outsider’s perspective of her life so I won’t get into the personal stuff.

Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will be 30 years old next year, and that is the book I think many will bring up as they discuss the Evangelical Imagination. Noll raised the question about whether there really was an Evangelical Mind and speculated about what it would take for proper attention to be paid to the life of the mind for the Evangelical. It was a book that almost everyone that wants to grapple with evangelicalism needs to have read. It is an important book, but James KA Smith’s work has indirectly questioned Noll’s thesis. It is not so much that Smith disagrees with Noll’s assessment but that Smith is raising questions about what we should do because we are not simply “brains on a stick” but individuals with a more complicated relationship to our minds.

Prior is extending Smith’s work and using Charles Taylor’s idea of the Social Imaginary to explore how a stunted imagination impacts our ability to address what it means to think and see the world around us. We all know Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” This rough idea of the Christian Imagination was explored more than 20 years ago in Emerson and Smith’s Divided by Faith. Emerson and Smith suggested that the reason Evangelicals cannot move past racial division is that their “toolkit” did not allow them to see the problem clearly but only through the lens of 1) freewill individualism, 2) relationalism, and 3) anti-structuralism. Smith and Emerson attempted to point out that the social imaginary of White Evangelicals impacted their ability to deal with race. Karen Swallow Prior is pointing out the social imaginary of Evangelicals more broadly and directly drawing parallels (for good and bad) to the Victorian age, where so much of the social imaginary of Evangelicals was developed. Most modern Evangelical do not know about those parallels and need someone to point them out.

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Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality by Zachary Wagner

Non-toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy male sexuality cover imageSummary: Can men have a non-toxic masculinity, and what would that look like?

Non-Toxic Masculinity is a book that I decided not to read initially. And then Josh Butler’s book and TGC article came out. And Patrick Miller stonewalled Sheila Wray Gregoire and then eventually apologized. So many other things happened recently that are mainly about toxic masculinity that I decided to accept a review copy.

Up front, I am not the target audience here. I am 50 and have spent nearly 15 years as a stay-at-home uncle and then dad. I have not once earned more than my wife. I am firmly in favor of women’s ordination. My senior sociology project in the mid-90s was about the acceptance of rape myths among students at evangelical colleges. I have long thought that many men are toxic. I read Everyman’s Battle on a friend’s recommendation and immediately threw it away as trash precisely because it treated women as the problem instead of rightly paying attention to evangelical sin avoidance as the problem. I favor men working toward being less toxic, but I am highly suspect of any gendered approach to discipleship for men.

I was too old for the main purity culture teaching; I had been married for several years when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out. The term dodging a bullet is probably too weak of a statement when I have talked to people about the harm of purity culture. In my mid-20s, despite being a fairly outspoken egalitarian, a seminary professor and a friend separately challenged me because they thought I was adopting a kinder, gentler form of sexism. I can remember talking about the problems of porn (and this was long before smartphones) and suggesting that part of breaking the power of porn was to firmly establish that women in those videos should be treated as “mother, sister, daughter.” My friend challenged me to think about how that framing still established women in relation to men and not as a child of God or imago dei. My professor challenged me to think about how I was thinking of marriage as a means of equipping me for others things. I argued with both of them but eventually came to realize that they were right.

It wasn’t good enough to be a kinder, gentler sexist that categorizes women by their relationship to other men (by default, still maintaining a gender hierarchy). And it was not good enough to think of marriage as a means of maturity building. I do not live up to my ideals, but from that point, I have attempted to live as if all hierarchy violates God’s good creation, whether it be gender, race, class, or other types of hierarchy.

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Christianity and Critical Race Theory: A Faithful and Constructive Conversation by Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou

Summary: Two academics with pastoral experience process the potential help that Critical Race Theory can bring to the church.

If you are “very online” and active on social media, you likely have encountered discussions about Critical Race Theory. Similarly, if you are active in local school board meetings, you have likely seen community comments about the dangers of critical race theory in education. If this is true for you, you likely already know Christopher Rufo’s work opposing CRT, which seems to have prompted Trump’s executive order on CRT. And it is even more likely that you are aware of Rufo’s tweets where he is explicit about rebranding CRT. One of those tweets says, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think “critical race theory.” We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Rufo was late to the concern about CRT. Christians like Neil Shenvi started raising concerns about the related but different Critical Theory more than two years earlier, which resulted in a resolution from the SBC around Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality in 2019. And all of this was following the backlash to the increasing interest in addressing racism within the Evangelical Christian world. In 2018, The Gospel Coalition and the SBC public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, jointly hosted the MLK50 Conference on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. This was closely followed by the Together for the Gospel Conference (T4G) giving significant time on the program to addressing racism, like this talk by Ligon Duncan.

Looking back, it appears that 2018 was the high point of the Evangelical church’s willingness to speak publicly about race, and since that time, race has become a more complex topic to address publicly. However, even the 2018 conferences were too late because a month before the MLK50, the New York Times had an influential article about the Black exodus from predominately white Evangelical churches and institutions following the overwhelming support of Donald Trump by White Evangelicals.

This is probably too long of an introduction, but I think the context is essential to how I am reading Christianity and Critical Race Theory. I am no one important, but I have been involved in discussions around racial issues and the evangelical church for a long time. And I was active in those early online discussions about Critical Race Theory. I watched MLK50 and took my (then) three and four-year-old kids to the 50th anniversary of MLK’s funeral in Atlanta. I spent years trying to get my predominately white church to more directly address racial issues more and have small groups and training on race. (I have been leading a small group that started as a Be the Bridge Group and continued for several years.) I have read books and articles by Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, Kimberle Crenshaw, and others.

I think many will not come with my background in Christianity and Critical Race Theory, and I can’t read the book as if I did not have the background that I do. Christianity and Critical Race Theory’s authors are particularly well positioned to write this book. Robert Chao Romero and Jeff Liou are both pastors. Both of them have an academic background that is relevant to the book. Romero has a Law degree and Ph.D. and is a Chicano/a and Central American Studies professor at UCLA. Jeff Liou is the director of theological formation for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and is a professor of Christian Ethics with a background in political theology, race, and justice. These authors are Christian Evangelical insiders with academic backgrounds involved in Critical Race Theory long before the recent interest. Romero has a good history of Latino Theology published by Intervarsity. And Liou’s position with Intervarsity also shows his insider status.

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Man Born to be King by Dorothy Sayers, Annotated by Kathryn Wehr

Man Born to be King Annotated Edition cover imageSummary: A series of twelve radio plays that ran on BBC radio from Dec 1941 until Oct 1942. 

Any attempt to portray Jesus artistically has to make artistic and theological choices. Those choices will be debated, but at the same time, if the story of Jesus cannot be shared, then people cannot hear. On the other hand, the natural choices are to make Jesus more understandable to a culture. That is not inherently bad, but those choices to make Jesus understandable will reduce Jesus in ways that make him less of a challenge to the culture. And so there is a catch-22, where to be so concerned about misportraying Jesus means that we keep the story of Jesus hidden, but to not be concerned enough about misportraying Jesus means that we can distort who Jesus is and make him into someone he was not.

I know this point may be a bit controversial. Still, generally, the more culturally and socially dominant an artist is, the more likely the distortions will accommodate Jesus to culture, which will tend to draw Jesus to bless hierarchy and culture. While generally, those that are less culturally or socially dominant will tend to portray Jesus in a way that rebukes culture. This is not a hard and fast rule but a tendency. In reality, no one is whole dominant or oppressed. Sayers was a woman in a sexist society that was very interested in maintaining class structures. It was unknown to most during her life, but after her death, it was revealed that she had a child out of wedlock, who was raised as her nephew. So she also had an acquaintance with social shame. She also was part of a culture and country that was militarily powerful, where racial hierarchy was practiced, and which thought of itself as a powerful world-leading country. There are places where I think that Sayers had blind spots and distorted Jesus and places where I think she did a good job showing a facet of Jesus that people may have missed.

For context to know how I approached the radio dramas, I read every word of this annotated printed edition (I recieved a digital copy of the book from the publisher for review). And I listened to all the radio plays from a copy I purchased from Audible, originally recorded in 1975. The audio and this print edition are not exactly the, but the differences are fairly minor. One of the common annotation points is to note some of the changes from the earlier edition of the play to the original broadcast version, but it does not compare to later versions.

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The Last Shadow by Orson Scott Card (The Shadow Series #6)

the Last Shadow book cover imageSummary: A conclusion (?) to the spin-off Shadow series about Bean and his family bringing them back into the Ender Quintet. 

I have seen The Last Shadow both marked as the sixth book in the Ender series (starting with Ender’s Game) and the fifth book in the Shadow series (starting with Ender’s Shadow). It plays both roles. As I commented with The Last Tourist (odd that both have the same naming convention), it is just easier to read books that are written more closely together. The Shadow series was started in 2003 and Ender’s Game is a 1985 novel that was based on a 1977 short story. What I did not know until the author’s comments at the end of the book, was that initially Card had a contract to write the novel Speaker for the Dead, but realized that once he started writing that book with its roots going back to the short story version of Ender’s Game, he needed to elaborate and change some of the plotlines to prepare for the later books.

As I have commented before, I am not sure there is any book I have read more than Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card has played around with the story since its novelization in 1985. He released a revised version in 1991 that took into account the fall of the Soviet Union. He revised it again slightly for a 20th-anniversary release in 2005. And he released an audio play version in 2013 that referenced some of the subsequent short stories and included new scenes and perspectives. And in 2011 there was a film adaptation. I am very familiar with the series and have even read the companion book that pays tribute to the ways that the novel has impacted scifi.

Despite my love for the “Enderverse”, I have been a bit mixed about Card’s writing over the years. Card has embraced his libertarian political ideas with the two books Empire and Hidden Empire about a second American Civil War. And Card’s Mormon theology regularly comes through in his writing, not just in his religious book series but frequently in his social commentary, especially around family.

A story has to be able to stand up on its own, not just as a plank in the world-building of a series. For the most part, I think The Last Shadow cleaned up some of the mess of the Children of the Mind. The original characters of Ender’s Game are essentially all gone except for Jane and some cameos by others. Miro from the 2nd-4th books of the series plays a significant role as does Peter from the fourth book and then the children and grandchildren of Bean that were introduced in Shadows in Flight.

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Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Kwon and Thompson

Summary: A call for reparations in the context of US slavery, largely making a case for an American Christian audience. 

There are few things less popular than the concept of reparations. According to two general polls, 26% of the US supports reparations. It is much less popular among White Evangelicals, around 4%, according to sociologist Samuel Perry. I do not think that Kwon and Thompson believe that this is going to be an easy case to make. And I want to commend Brazos Press for publishing the book because I can’t imagine that an explicitly Christian case for reparations, something that is only supported by 4% of White Evangelicals, is going to become a best seller.

The center point of the claim for Reparations is that “White supremacy’s most enduring effect, indeed its very essence is theft.” They use white supremacy here and throughout the book in the sense of a racial hierarchy with a cultural belief in white racial superiority. The sense of theft here is also broad but nuanced, “…theft is best understood not merely in terms of wealth but also in the more comprehensive terms of truth and power.”

One of the complaints about the book that I predict is that Kwon and Thompson frequently use language that is associated in the minds of many with Critical Race Theory and Social Justice. The complaints will be about the method of argument more than the content of the argument and the reality of the harm done, or the need theologically for repair because of that harm. One of the book’s strengths is that Kwon and Thompson attempt to define what they mean all through the book clearly. It is hard for me to adequately evaluate how well they accomplish this for readers that are new to these concepts since I am not new to this discussion. But the concept of whiteness and the social construction of race do matter significantly to the case that Kwon and Thompson are trying to make.

The process of this expanded meaning of Whiteness mirrored the expanding of Blackness; as Blackness took on new meaning, Whiteness took on its opposite. Where Blackness signified inferior personal capacity, Whiteness signified superior personal capacity. Where Blackness signified inferior moral deficiency, Whiteness signified superior moral virtue. Where Blackness signified the margins of society, Whiteness signified a rightful claim to the center. To be White came to mean not only having lighter skin, but also possessing elevated personal capacity, inherent moral virtue, and an assumed place at the center of the social order. And, as with Blackness, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the presence of this newly invented notion of Whiteness was clearly visible in American cultural life.”

Reparations are not a new concept, even if there has been renewed interested. John Hepburn, in 1715, wrote a pamphlet, The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, which called explicitly for reparation using Christian theology before the US was founded as a country.

“I am of Opinion, that such Sins cannot be repented of without Restitution made to them that they have wronged; for until the Cause be removed, I know not how the Effect should cease. But they that live and dye without making Restitution to them that they have wronged, how they can expect the Forgiveness of God…”

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