Officer Clemmons: A Memoir by Francois Clemmons

Officer Clemmons: A Memoir cover imageSummary: Many people know about Francois Clemmons because of his relationship with Mister Rogers, but this is Francois Clemmons’ story.

I picked up a hardcover of Officer Clemmons when it came out several years ago, but I just never got around to reading it. I was looking for a change of pace and picked up the audiobook a couple of days ago, and the audiobook is the right choice for this book. I am highly in favor of authors reading their nonfiction books in most cases. And this is an excellent example of why. Francois Clemmons knows his own story, and he can narrate it with the right emotion and inflection. He occasionally (not as much as I would prefer) sings when discussing one of the songs in the book. The story comes alive in a way that I do not think would have happened for me in print.

I have read many books by or about Mister Rogers, as did Clemmons. He says in the opening that when he decided to tell his own story of Mister Rogers, he read every book he could find and determined that his contribution could be telling the story as a Black Gay man because none of the other books had that perspective. Officer Clemmons is primarily a book about Francois Clemmons, not Mister Rogers—several reviews I have seen complained about that point. Francois and Fred Rogers met when Francois was in graduate school in Pittsburg and had a job as a singer at the Rogers’ church. It was Fred Rogers wife Joanne that Francois came to know first. And she and the music director at the church made sure that he met Fred. But that part of the story does not come until more than halfway through the book.

I am glad that there are many memoirs of people that were of the age to be in the civil rights era. People of that era are passing away quickly, and we must pay attention to their stories. Francois was born to a sharecropper family. The early violence, both racial and domestic violence, matters to his story. Early in the book, he tells the story of how the local landowners pressured his grandmother for sex for years. She complied because the threat of violence and repercussion were real. She was protecting her family and doing what the culture expected. At one point, her husband said she was not there when the landowner came to get her, and the landowners just shot him in cold blood. There was no legal intervention. No police came, and no inquiry was made. And this was not counted in any of the counts of lynching. At this point, Francois’ grandmother had never lived anywhere other than that home, a home that had not been painted in her memory. There is more to the story that is also tragic and important, but the proximate cause of Clemmons’ family to move from the south to Youngstown, OH, was ongoing domestic violence from his father. His grandmother tried to protect Francois’ mother and siblings from the violence, including shooting and wounding his father when his father attempted to force them to move back home.

In many ways, Youngstown was better, but it was not perfect. Racism was still prevalent even though the schools had been desegregated. And domestic violence was still a factor in his life. Eventually, after his stepfather beat him quite severely for going to a concert, he moved out into a friend’s home, a local pastor’s family. His parents attempted to go to the school to force Francois to move back home about a month after that last beating, but Francois resisted. In front of the principal and his parents and the pastor, and his wife, that was allowing him to stay with him, he took off his shirt to show the scars and bruises of the beatings. The (white) principal negotiated for Francois to continue to live with the pastor and his wife and for his parents not to interfere with the threat of reporting the violence to the police.

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Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen edited by Michael Christensen and Rebecca Laird

Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life cover imageSummary: Discernment is an essential part of Christian life. 

I am very mixed about posthumously completed books, especially those that are edited together. On the one hand, there are books like Dorothy Sayers’ Thrones, Dominations that was found years after her death and was edited and completed by Jill Paton Walsh and then continued on with books that were written only by Jill Paton Walsh, and I think that gave a new life to Peter Wimsey in a way I appreciate. But there are works that are not up to the author’s quality during their lifetime.

This is my third posthumous book by/with Nouwen; in this case, the editor/authors may not have waited long enough before publishing it. Nouwen passed away in 1996. And there have been several revelations about his sexuality and other issues that were not discussed during his life. I plan on picking up a biography soon because while I have read several of Nouwen’s books, I only know his life from what he wrote in the books I have read, and I need more.

For this book in particular, Nouwen spends a lot of time discussing the discernment about moving to L’Arche and the discernment of the people in leadership at L’Arche. All of that reads quite differently in light of the abuse that has been revealed over the past several years by Jean Vanier and others connected to him. Father Thomas Philippe was Vanier’s spiritual mentor and the head of a heterodox and spiritually abusive group. The Vatican investigated Philippe in the 1950s, and he was forbidden from exercising any priestly ministry or giving spiritual guidance because the Vatican found the abuse allegations credible. But he continued to lead his group through Vanier and was known as the cofounder of L’Arche. Nouwen specifically mentions Philippe as a holy man and his teaching of how God speaks through those around you as part of the discernment process. Philippe used abusive practices to spiritually manipulate women into sexual relationships with himself and others in the group.

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A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings by Martin Luther King Jr

A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings cover imageSummary: A collection of sixteen sermons, an original introduction by Coretta Scott King, and a new introduction by Raphael Warnock. 

I have been slowly working through the audiobook of A Gift of Love for a couple of months. I tend to listen to a sermon about once a week as I am on a walk. I enjoy having audiobooks that I can dip into occasionally when I do not feel like anything else. Most of these sermons were compiled in 1963. And then, two more sermons were added along with a new introduction when it was re-released in the King Legacy edition. I have not looked to see which were the new sermons added.

None of the sermons in the collection are bad, but personally, the second half was more engaging than the first half. Some of King’s sermons felt more like speeches instead of sermons. But most of them were clearly a sermon given to a church and were in the black theological tradition, not the progressive tradition. There is a difference in the discussion of sin and the role of hope that differs from the progressive and the black theological traditions. That is not to say that some do not merge those traditions well. But I think King was at his best in these sermons when he spoke clearly about the reality of sin in a Christian theological register. This was not fire and brimstone preaching but a clear acquaintance with the reality of how sin impacted the world. Sin was not abstract. Sin was real and it impacted people that King knew, himself included. This was also not just individual or personal sin; sin here was a system or a force, not just individual wrongdoing or animus.

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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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America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 by Mark A Noll

America's Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794-1911 cover imageSummary: An exploration of the role of the Bible in American public life from the rise of the new country until just before WW1.

I have read Noll’s work widely. And have had three classes with him in undergrad and graduate school. I am familiar with his work, and I respect him greatly. So it is not lightly that I think that America’s Book I think is my favorite of his books. Part of this is that it is just masterfully done. I can’t think of many books of this size that I read as voraciously. I have always appreciated Noll’s writing, but this book felt more incisive, important, and better written. But as I was thinking about it as I was finishing the book, I realized that part of it was the framing of the story concerning race. Noll is not new to examining how race has impacted American religious history. He has written two books that were particularly about the role of race, God and Race and American Politics and The Civil War as Theological Crisis, but with In the Beginning Was The Word and now in America’s Book, the history of American Christianity is much more intentionally the multicultural and multi-religious history of the US. The main focus of America’s book is looking at the different ways over time that the Bible (primarily the KJV for most of this time) was used by different communities within the United States. So minority communities (whether it is minority religious communities or minority racial communities) are central to telling the story of the differences in how the Bible was used.

America’s Book is the second in a planned trilogy. In the Beginning Was the Word looked at the public use of the Bible in North America before the American Revolution. Diversity of use was important to that story, but part of the thesis of this book is that after the revolution, there was an attempt to come together as a Bible culture. The American Bible Society (ABS) was founded early in the 19th century and became the dominant publisher, not just of Bibles, but of all books and pamphlets. (America’s Book makes me want to read John Fea’s history of the American Bible Society) There was a somewhat successful (depending on the region) push to get a bible in every home in the United States. The ABS was committed to publishing the KJV without notes or commentary, which prioritized the KJV (against the Catholic Douay Rheims and other translations) and was an attempt to avoid sectarian debate.

Noll sets up the main initial debate over the use of the Bible not between Catholics and Protestants (Catholics were a tiny minority initially) but between the “Custodial Protestants and the Sectarian Protestants”. In Noll’s conception, Custodial Protestants are those that “took for granted the comprehensive intermingling of ecclesiastical, governmental and social interests–as well as their own leading position as intellectual and moral preceptors.”(p54). There was a tension between the assumptions of European Christendom translated to the United States, where some sense of religious liberty existed. As sectarian Protestants became numerically and culturally stronger, especially after the second great awakening, the common understanding of the church’s role within the community fell apart, as did the bible’s role. Noll is not evaluating the rightness of sectarian versus custodial Protestantism. Noll subtly points out the difference between those custodial Protestants that took responsibility for the community and those that understood their role to be, in some sense, a divine right to rule based on chosenness.

That chosenness (my term) was part of the problem that arose as the discussion over slavery became more prominent. Slavery was the largest but not the only cause of the fracturing of how the Bible was used. As he points out in The Civil War as Theological Crisis, the Civil War broke more than just the legal entity of the United States, it was a theological fight as well. The other main fractures around the use of the Bible were its use in public schools and how Americans understood their self-conception. Early Americans saw themselves broadly as Christian and centered around a Protestant identity, which used the KJV as a rhetorical, literary, and cultural touchstone, but there was always more diversity than what that identity could hold. Noll has three successive chapters in the middle, all titled “Whose Bible?” that look at how Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Native Americans, Women, and other naysayers were not content with the status quo identity as a Protestant KJV-only social identity.

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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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Shroud for a Nightingale: An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery by PD James

Shroud for a Nightingale cover imageSummary: One mysterious death, and then another, among nurses-in-training, brings Adam Dalgliesh to the John Carpenter Hospital and the Nightingale House, where the nurses live and train.

I am continuing to work through the Adam Dalgliesh mystery series slowly. I am not sure how long PD James wrote the series, but the books I am working on how were written in the late 1960s. So far the books have been fairly out of time. You know they are in the 20th century, but no cell phones or computers exist. It is only at the very end that there is a cultural reference that dates the book. It matters to the story, so I will not reveal the reference, but I have appreciated the writing being somewhat out of time.

The series is less physiological than my current favorite mystery series, Inspector Gamache, but I am enjoying the very slow development of Dalgliesh as a character. Part of what I thought about with this book is that Dalgliesh’s moral and ethical character is essential. Moral and ethical character matter in almost every role in life, but particularly with positions of authority and justice, the person filling those roles matters. One of the officers working for Dalgliesh is a prominent character in this book, and that officer does not have exemplary character for the job. The comparison between them is being set up for what I assume with be a plot point in a later book.

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Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Belsey

Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction cover imageSummary: A brief exploration of a complicated topic.

I am not adequately trained to discuss poststructuralism (or any philosophical idea.) But that is one reason that I like these Very Short Introduction books. They give an introduction to the concept so that you have a broad idea of the concept, which allows you to pursue it more fully later (or not.)

Like most of these books, the main content is about 150 pages. I listened to this on audiobook, which may not have been the best choice, but it is what I had. I did not realize when I picked it up that a new edition had been published. In something as recent as Poststructuralism, the 20-year-old 1st edition was likely dated in ways I do not understand.

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Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church by Nijay Gupta

Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church cover imageSummary: A biblical exploration of women’s role in scripture. 

Again, as I have said before, I am approaching Tell Her Story as an egalitarian that supports women’s ordination. I do not need to be convinced of the biblical record supporting women’s ministry roles. But I picked up Tell Her Story for two reasons. One, I watched an interview on the Holy Post with Nijay Gupta, and I have wanted to read one of his books for a while (my father recommended a commentary he wrote, and I just have not gotten around to reading it yet.) Second, I want to understand what was different about this book so I can rightly recommend the right books to the right people. I am strongly oriented toward personalized book recommendations.

So I am writing here primarily about the purpose of Tell Her Story in the context of the other books I have read on overlapping themes. Tell Her Story is more focused on the broad biblical record of women. I had a class on women in the Bible a few years ago, and while the focus was different, there was not much new to me here. But I do think that many have not understood either the actual role of Deborah (where the book opens) or how many female names are part of Paul’s letters or the broader New Testament.

I (I think like many evangelicals of my age) was largely taught formally and informally that Deborah held a place as the judge of Israel (ruler before kings were instituted) because men of Israel were in sin. Deborah was placed as a judge to shame men who were in sin for not leading. That is a common but harmful reading of the relevant passages. I do not remember ever hearing that Deborah was called the Mother of Israel before the class I took. The church I grew up in (where my father was a pastor) was egalitarian. Still, the youth group I attended with a friend and my college and general Christian media were dominated by complementarian views. So even as someone who grew up egalitarian and for women’s ordination, I absorbed bad biblical teaching that undercut women in ministry.

Nijay Gupta (professor at Northern Seminary) opens the book with Deborah even though the book primarily focuses on the New Testament because she is an excellent example that while the cultures of the ancient near east where the Bible was set were predominately patriarchal, Deborah was a documented exception to that general trend.

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