I think about Christian unity a lot. I’m convinced that unity is one of the first implications of the Gospel though it is often the first implication to be overlooked, reduced, or explained away. As much as I’m theologically convinced about the priority of unity I’m even more convinced emotionally. Belonging to multi-ethnic congregations for the past five years and finding identity within a diverse community of Christians has been enough to convince my heart that unity is far more of a benefit than it is a goal. It’s true that unity involves hard work but it is also a profound joy.
The challenge and joy of Christian unity is tied up in our belief that unity involves those who are incredibly different than myself. Unity is Christian when the community is made up of diverse others, individuals who were once them but are now us. Most Christians in my experience are great with the idea of diverse unity. We believe our churches to be hospitable to all kinds of people regardless of a person’s race, ethnicity, culture, history, etc. So why aren’t our churches more diverse? The answers generally given to this question just barely acknowledge the real challenges to unity. Instead we default to cliches about cultural preferences and styles of worship. Experiencing the robust unity we read about in the New Testament requires setting aside simplistic answers and acknowledging the real hurdles that keep us from experiencing the formational and joyful community that is meant to define us.
Christena Cleveland has written a book that does exactly this. Professor Cleveland teaches social psychology at St Catherine University and is fluent in the norms and challenges facing churches that strive for diverse unity. Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart takes on some very specific and pervasive dynamics that face any church striving for unity. There are few academics that mine their disciplines for the good of the church as well (and accessibly) as Cleveland does in Disunity in Christ. The result is a book that does three things very well.
First, Cleveland draws heavily from her area of professional expertise, social psychology, to explain some of the reasons we find unity so hard. This was new territory for me. I’m used to thinking theologically and historically about these things. Disunity in Christ provides an entirely new set of lenses through which to examine the obstacles to unity. Most of the book’s chapters are built around insights into social dynamics and psychology, each with clear implications for the church. For example, Cleveland writes about the “gold standard” which involves a strong bias to spend time with those most like ourselves thereby ensuring that we see ourselves as the benchmark by which others are judged. When unacknowledged, the gold standard creates a dynamic in which those unlike us are only truly welcomed once they become more like us.
Second, Disunity in Christ is written by an author who is committed to the church. That is, her language and examples clearly have in mind those within local churches. Cleveland demonstrates an enviable ability to flow in and out of different church traditions, writing to a genuinely diverse audience. It was very refreshing to read an author on this subject who can speak knowledgably and authentically about the differences made by race, culture, and history. No tokenism here!
Finally, despite the overall bend of the book to point out the “hidden forces that keep us apart”, Cleveland manages to keep the tone hopeful. This is harder than it might sound. The further you dig into the challenges to unity – and Cleveland digs deep – the more discouraged one is tempted to become. While Disunity in Christ is by no means primarily theological, Cleveland writes as a believer- both in the Gospel and its power in the face of even the greatest forces of division. Her hopeful tone allows the reader to take seriously these forces without ever becoming overwhelmed by them.
As the pastor of multi-ethnic church I have a shelf full of books that I turn to regular for insight and clarity when things get muddled. Disunity in Christ has been added to that shelf of valuable books. I expect to return to it regularly.
Playing God by Andy Crouch is a really good book. I’d heard the author allude to this project a couple of years back, if memory serves, and had been anticipating it ever since. As a white man who serves a multi-ethnic church in a predominately African-American neighborhood, I’ve thought about power a lot. I was curious what Crouch would say about it and am happy to report that his insights are fresh, theologically nuanced, and utterly intelligible. I assume many people will read this book and be helped by it.
There will be plenty of thoughtful reviews of Playing God; rather than add to that pile I’ll share a few reasons why this book benefitted me and a few questions it raised.
As Crouch points out repeatedly, power, when it’s talked about at all, is generally perceived negatively. For most of us, power is assumed to be a a zero sum game: one’s attainment of power is equal to another’s loss of power. Crouch points back to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as the most influential proponent of this view. In Nietzsche’s world we each strive to extend our power over all space, competing with others on the same quest. In intentional contrast to Nietzsche, Crouch describes true power as the process of creating space for others to flourish. This, he says, is the vision we find in the Bible and represents power’s gift.
Many readers, like myself, will not have realized how influenced they have been by Nietzsche’s cynical view of power until they read Crouch’s compelling case for a much more hopeful perspective. Later in the book the author helpfully (very!) differentiates power from privilege, dynamics I’ve made crudely analogous in the past. This is a somewhat common topic in our church; I’m convinced that white privilege is the achilles heel of most multi-ethnic churches. Playing God, with it’s more hopeful view of power, gives me more nuanced ways of pointing out the destructive traits of privilege while making space for the positive uses of power that are worth moving toward.
The same paradigm-shifting nuance is true in the chapter about institutions. As a church planter, I’ve interacted with a lot of people who express particular wounds from experiences with churches. I’ve come to believe that every institution and organization is bent toward this sort of wounding potential. Institutions, after all, are made up of people capable of inflicting harm on others, sometimes intentionally and oftentimes not. (A note: I was glad the author devoted a chapter to the “principalities and powers” as this theological insight about systems is often neglected by evangelical-ish authors. I’d have liked there to be more about this; perhaps some interaction with Jaques Ellul on this important subject.) While acknowledging the strong tendency for institutions to slide toward self-preservation and the harm such a slide entails, Crouch remains - here it is again – hopeful:
Institutions are the way the teeming abundance of human creativity and culture are handed on to future generations. So posterity, not just prosperity, is the promise of GOd to Abraham: countless descendants and blessings poured out on entire nations not yet born. Posterity, not just prosperity, is God’s promise to David, a succession of sons in his line on the throne. And posterity was what the average Israelite prayed for as well – “may you see your children’s children!” – a wish that before death one would see the evidence that shalom and abundance would continue in one’s own line after death. There is nothing quick about shalom. True shalom endures.
Playing God has much to commend it, far more than the few examples I’ve pointed to here. It also raised a few questions for me.
As much as I appreciated the hope about power that spills from the pages of this book, I couldn’t help wondering about how optimistic the author is. OK, optimism probably isn’t the best word and Crouch does a great job of outlining the abuses of power with personal stories and cultural observations. But still, from where I stand, and despite the compelling case made by Crouch, it’s hard to share his hope about power. In the structures and systems of our city, power’s evil offspring (Crouch very helpfully identifies these as injustice and idolatry) simply seem to morph from one form to another over time. The results are generations of disenfranchisement, violence, and oppression. Not only these of course; there are always instances and communities of goodness and beauty. And yes, there are many, many people and churches using their power to create space for flourishing. But these individuals and institutions always seem, sometimes quite literally, outgunned by other sources of power.
I wonder too about the way Crouch talks about the distinction between evangelism and justice. While strongly affirming the need for both, he makes the same move other evangelical-ish folks do. He writes, “In short, working for justice is cool. Proclaiming the gospel is not.” This, I think, is quite incorrect. Many of the examples Crouch gives about justice work take place outside the USA. They are wonderful examples of the sort many Christians (these days, at least) strongly support. But the notion that justice is cooler or more acceptable than evangelism seems to expose a narrow (or geographically distant) view of justice. When I think of justice for many of my neighbors I think of changes to policy – education funding, gun control, law enforcement, economic development, drug policy – along with robust acknowledgment of and response to historic injustices that would be far from popular or cool with the majority of those holding the bulk of our culture’s power.
But these are mostly quibbles and I’m reading Playing God from my own biased location. I hope many will read this book, that it will start many conversations, and, best of all, call churches to steward the power promised us by God’s presence for the flourishing of all our neighbors.
My review of Nicole Baker Fulgham’s book, Educating All God’s Children, has been posted at the Englewood Review of Books. You’ll see that I really liked this book and I recommend it highly to anyone interested in education in America.
There will be forty-nine fewer public schools in Chicago when fall rolls around in a few months. These shuttered neighborhood schools were casualties in the ongoing war of education reform. Pensions, property taxes, charter schools, teachers unions, segregated neighborhoods, and city government all have their places in this complicated war. The children have a place too; more often than not, they are the victims.
As a Christian I watched the back and forth leading up to the school closings with one specific question in mind: How do individual Christians and local congregations respond to the education crisis in my city and around the country? If there is any doubt that public education is in crisis then Nicole Baker Fulgham’s book, Educating All God’s Children, should convince the most dubious skeptic. Early on she outlines the inequities most of us have become accustomed to: far greater percentages of Asian American and White students gradate high school in four years than do African American and Hispanic/Latino students; noticeably fewer African American forth-graders preform basic math skills compared with White students. Many of us have heard these sorts of statics often enough that we no longer really hear them; Educating All God’s Children makes sure we listen closely while beginning to imagine a different future.
It is the author’s great accomplishment that her book is accessible, informative, and – no small success given the topic – enjoyable to read. Take, for example, the second chapter that addresses the causes of the current education crisis. Fulgham identifies three major categories that impact student achievement: poverty; race, culture, and language; parents and families. Within these broad categories we find historical nuance, personal anecdotes (the author’s education within Detroit’s schools in the 70’s, teaching in Compton in the 90’s, and more recent advocacy work all figure helpfully throughout the book), and concise ways of understanding complex issues.
Read the rest at the Englewood site.
My review of Dangerous Calling by Paul David Trip in the January print edition of Christianity Today has now been posted on their website.
There is a disheartening rite of passage every young pastor faces. And though it was almost 10 years ago, I remember my own moment clearly. “Have you heard?” asked my senior pastor when I arrived at the church office that morning. I hadn’t. So he proceeded to tell me about the well-known pastor whose moral failure had made the morning headlines. I remember two things about that moment: my pastor’s grief and my inability to focus the remainder of the day. Though neither of us had met the man or been greatly influenced by his ministry, this pastor’s public shame still felt deeply personal.
“Have you heard?” As the years have passed I’ve come to dread that question, yet it—and the sad stories behind it—is frustratingly common. The hushed conversations between pastors at these moments reflect an unsettling worry: that in our discredited colleagues, we see possible reflections of ourselves. We too have known temptation. We too inhabit a church culture that can seem to hinder our own discipleship by elevating ministry production over spiritual fruit.
During the year I collect a list of the books I read and then, in a completely unscientific process, choose the five I most highly recommend to you. This year I read 27 books – a pittance compared to some of your lists, but still enough to make choosing five a small challenge. Previous years’ lists can be found here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. What about you? What books did you read in 2012 that you can recommend to us?
I don’t read enough fiction – and this book is historical non-fiction – but the The Warmth of Other Suns was the narrative I most enjoyed this year. Wilkerson is masterful at taking the bits of history to tell a story that is so important to the demographic and cultural texture of America today. Important, yes- but the history told in these pages is regularly overlooked. By showcasing three individuals who made the trip north or west from the Jim Crow South, Wilkerson brings into focus the massive migration of African Americans that has shaped the country we know today. Our church is situated in a neighborhood with deep ties to the stories in this book so I found it especially interesting. (One of the three characters the author follows is Ida Mae Brandon Gladney who moves from Mississippi to the South Side of Chicago.) Ultimately though, The Warmth of Other Suns is an American story, one told exceedingly well by Wilkerson.
Jacques Ellul has been a footnote author for me over the past decade: an author who is regularly cited in appreciated books. Regularly enough that at some point the footnote must be traced back to the original source. Ellul was a French sociologist, philosopher, and professor of law who is known for his writings on technology, among many other topics. He was also a Christian whose theological work – in my cursory observation – is either seen as increasingly relevant in our technological age or anachronistic. I lean toward the former. In this book Ellul gives us his Biblical reading of the city: its origins, symbolism, role in redemptive history, and location for Christian witness today. Some see Ellul as a pessimist whose view of the city leaves no room for positive change or reform. I suppose there is some truth to this but I read him differently. The vision found in The Meaning of the City is one that allows Christians to bear witness to Christ regardless of perceived reform. For the growing number of young, Evangelical-ish Christians who see the city as the place to change the world (for God), Ellul provides a necessary corrective. We witness to Christ in the city because of God’s love for the city and we continue to do so whether or not things turn out as we hope because, ultimately, we are simply called to bear witness. The One with the power to change operates outside our time and plans and one day His heavenly city will replace all that continues to plague the residents of earthly cities.
I recommended this book more than any other this year. Desiring the Kingdom is the first book of a planned three-part series and the second book is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered. James K. A. Smith is a professor of philosophy and theology at Calvin College and, as the book reveals, an astute observer of American cultural practices and artifacts. The book opens with a description of a typical American mall from the perspective of an alien who believes this massive edifice and those coming and going from its doors must form some sort of religious center. Smith shows how humans are primarily desiring beings. We do what we love rather than what we think or even believe. Others have made this point and Smith’s important contribution is in showing how these desires are formed within us. Liturgy is an important concept in this formation and the author shows the cultural liturgies that compete with those observed by congregations. These are liturgies with radically different ends, liturgies that aim to form distinct desires among their practitioners. For a long time I’ve thought about the occasional dissonance between a congregation’s spoken theology and the accepted practices (liturgies) that hinder the implementation of this theology and Smith has given me additional tools to think carefully about this unfortunate tendency. There are questions I have after reading this book – Is a congregation’s liturgy limited to a worship service? – that I hope Smith will address in the next two books. But those questions are mostly evidence of just how convincing I find Smith’s thesis and how helpful.
Life Itself, Roger Ebert (2011).
I read a few different memoirs this year and Roger Ebert’s was by far the most enjoyable. I remember watching Siskel and Ebert’s movie reviews during high school- I didn’t watch very many movie’s then but was still fascinated by these two witty critics who made a living… watching movies? (Check out this great oral history about that unlikely show.) In more recent years I’ve begun to appreciate the world of film more and Ebert has been one of the writers who has pointed me to the many great options beyond the megaplex. Life Itself is worth reading for so many reasons: Ebert’s descriptions of journalism in a bygone era; his reflections on religion as an atheist married to a Christian woman he adores; the many, many stories of the women and men who make movies, each told without a trace of the cynicism or celebrity worship we’ve come to expect from such stories. But what makes this book truly fantastic – why I’ll read it again – is Ebert’s writing. These pages contain more than interesting remembrances of a more than interesting life. It’s the words and sentences Ebert selects and crafts that make this book a page-turner even to those who care little for the films with which the author will forever be identified.
I said more about this book on the blog than any other this year. My friend Richard and I blogged our way through the book and it was gratifying to hear of others who were reading along. Briefly, author Michelle Alexander makes evident the hard-to-grasp and harder-to-believe systems, policies, and narratives that have led to the mass incarceration (and huge racial disparities) that has become common in America. The statistics Alexander provides will make you angry- and that’s the point to some extent. The America beloved by so many and the one experienced by those portrayed in The New Jim Crow are two different Americas. What will it take for those who’ve been privileged to know the supposed best of this country to see through that privilege to the appalling injustice on the other side? Alexander’s book has been that catalyst for many already and, I hope, for many more.