Once again, in a completely haphazard manner, I’ve collected my five favorite books of the past year. These books were not necessarily published in 2013 – though three of them were – but they were among the books I most enjoyed during the year. I read about thirty books in 2013 and I don’t hesitate to recommend these five to you. Please leave a comment if you can recommend to us any books from your past year’s reading list.
A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching, Paula J. Giddings (2009).
After I finished Gidding’s biography about Ida B. Wells, I felt compelled to make the short pilgrimage to her Chicago home. I parked off of King Drive, looked up at the old home, and tried to imagine the frenetic activity that house experienced at the hands of its famous occupant. Despite almost single-handedly championing the anti-lynching campaign at the turn of the twentieth century, most of us are woefully ignorant of this critical figure in the early Civil Rights Movement. Giddings points out some of the reasons for our ignorance. Most obviously, Wells was a woman in a man’s world. While the older Fredrick Douglas was generally an ally and advocate for Wells, her contemporary, W. E. B. Du Bois, was mostly ambivalent to her work, going so far, according to Wells, as to leave her name off the list of the founders of the NAACP. Despite this, Wells worked tirelessly as an author, journalist, and speaker despite very real risks to her life and the lives of those close to her. Another reason we forget about Wells is that she lived before what most of us think of as the Civil Rights Movement and the gains she and her contemporaries made (whether related to race or gender equality) don’t seem as spectacular as the accomplishments of those who came a generation or two later. A Sword Among Lions is a small step toward reminding us of this American hero. Ida B. Wells should should never be forgotten; her insight and courage in the face of such hostile circumstances cannot relegated to the past.
My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman (2013).
Christian Wiman wrote the most beautiful book of the year. Not the most beautiful of the books I read but of any book published in 2013. (Go ahead, find a more beautifully written and expressed book. I’ll wait.) Wiman was, until recently, the editor of Poetry Magazine and his way with words is evidence of his poet’s vocation. This is a memoir about Wiman’s return to Christianity after a long absence from the rollicking faith of his family. The ways Wiman talks about faith seem equally informed by his poetry, his location as a modern person (as he understands that), his love for his wife, and a devastating experience with cancer. It’s the last one that features most visibly throughout the book, though Wiman is far too careful a writer to ever use his illness to manipulate the reader. Instead we feel the author’s doubt, grief, and physical agony even while we’re surprised with him at faith’s quiet return. I’ve written on this blog about stages of faith and the tendency to experience these transitions as God’s absence or as the erosion of faith’s foundations. This Bright Abyss is a book I will recommend not only for it’s beauty, but also for the view it provides of a faith that exists not only in spite of doubt, grief, and uncertainty, but because of them.
And They All Sang, Studs Terkel (2005).
I’m predisposed to like this book. When he was attending the University of Chicago’s law school, Studs Terkel would take the train through Bronzeville and make stops at some of the clubs and record stores. I spend a lot of time in Bronzeville and I sometimes try to imagine the neighborhood as it was when Studs made those stops- the people he met and the music he heard. Studs was one of the first to play the great Mahalia Jackson on his Chicago radio show and this book is filled with conversations he had over the years with equally notable sings and musicians. Studs did more over the course of his life than most of us will, but he’s remembered for telling the stories of ordinary people in his collections of interviews organized around different themes: work, war, race, etc. Any collection of Studs’ interviews is an entry into other times and places; the man had the ability to ask the right, generally succinct question, and then get out of the way. He allowed his subjects to speak from their own very specific locations, trusting that the reader would make their own connections. The result in They All Sang is collection loosely organized by genre that covers music people I’d never heard of, along with some I had, talking about subjects and times I was sometimes familiar with and other times not. It’s all made accessible and interesting by Stud’s insatiable curiosity and the belief that everyone has a story worth hearing.
Unapologetic, Francis Spufford (2013).
In his Books and Culture review, Alan Jacobs calls Unapologetic a “sweary and funny and lovely book.” Francis Spufford’s non-defense of Christian faith is certainly more than these but also not less which makes the book such a surprise. Have you ever read a book about Christianity’s validity that begins (and mostly ends) with emotion? The author’s cheeky British wit and irreverence toward certain taboos and sacred cows only add to the pleasures this book contains. I’m not an apologetics guy. Books that claim to defend Christian faith hold almost no interest for me, nor do I usually understand the need to defend faith in the ways these books attempt. Christianity, as I understand it, requires God initiated faith, something that is impossible to defend or explain with language and assumptions outside of the faith. Also, Christianity contains it’s own internal logic, what might be described as the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a logic that, at many points, will be out of step or unintelligible to those who’ve not stepped into the Faith. I understand the importance of showing Christianity’s historical place and consistencies, not to mention the constant need to locate the Bible in it’s cultural context. However, the impulse to convince people who don’t share Christianity’s assumptions about how the world works that Christianity best explains how the world works seems a generally fruitless exercise. And it’s the opposite of what Spufford does in Unapologetic. Instead, he mixes his own encounters with faith with retellings of the Christian story to show the emotional resonance of Jesus and his story. Emotions here are not the opposite of intellect; rather, Spufford shows how Christian faith resonates with his entire personhood. There are a few assumptions here that I didn’t agree with, but I these didn’t take away from Spufford’s surprising and necessary non-apology.
Reading for Preaching, Cornelius Plantinga (2013)
I try to choose books for this list that will appeal to most readers of this blog. I actually don’t think this book about preaching is an exception. Cornelius Plantinga is theologian and seminary president who doesn’t write like either. This is a book about reading and preaching that isn’t overly-serious about its subjects. Plantinga clearly cares about preaching and he makes the case well that preachers ought to be thoughtful readers, yet he approaches these things with warmth and a light hand. This sort of book could make a preacher feel guilty for what he or she is not doing in preparation for that weekly appointment in the pulpit. There is not guilt in Reading for Preaching, just a gracious invitation to the world of sentences and stories for the benefit of the preacher and hers or his congregation. As much as Plantinga cares about good preaching, he’s equally taken by reading and this is where the book will be enjoyed by readers who’d rather die than preach. All types of reading are discussed in these pages; the author doesn’t privilege codex over reading online or so-called literary fiction over a newspaper article. All of these have their place in the life of the reader and Plantinga helps us see why and how we might consider these different forms of writing more thoughtfully. After all, most of us read and mostly forget. We live in the author’s world for a few minutes or a few weeks and then, aside from an anecdote or two, we move on. Plantinga wants preachers to recall more of their reading, to find ways of interacting with facts, ideas, and imaginations such that the other Book comes alive. His thoughts about how to do this are helpful to readers who want the books they read to be more than temporary distractions.
Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, scratching out a modern epistle in the margins of a newspaper. The Letter from a Birmingham Jail was a direct response to a letter published in the local newspaper written by a group of Birmingham clergy who were critical of the civil rights movement which had upset the balance in the “Magic City”. Rev. King’s response was nuanced and not without charity. It was also very direct.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail is especially fascinating for its open criticism of those Christian leaders who considered themselves progressive yet who distanced themselves from the Civil Rights movement. Rev. King’s logic and critique reveal the strange and disappointing relationship between white Christians and their pastors and the experiences of their African American brothers and sisters in the Faith. As Edward Gilbreath shows in his new book, Birmingham Revolution, the relationship is no historical artifact. Rev. King’s critique retains its prophetic edge today.
Gilbreath acknowledges that Rev. King’s life, including this important episode in Birmingham, have been extensively documented, analyzed, and interpreted over the years. So why another book? Gilbreath’s unique and helpful contribution comes from his journalist’s eye, his commitment to Christian faith, and his long experience in white and black churches. From this vantage point he weaves a captivating narrative that pulls from history and contemporary events and shows the ongoing relevancy of Rev. King’s letter.
To show why the letter still matters Gilbreath ranges far and wide: NPR stories; many interviews, including with those who participated in the Civil Rights Movement; The Boondocks; his own personal experiences of race and injustice. He combines an unflinching eye with a light touch and the book moves quickly, subtly building the case that Rev. King’s observations and questions should be applied to the justice issues of our day. Throughout the book we meet lesser-known heroes of the movement- Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is one the author is especially drawn to, and for good reason! We’re left wondering about who our contemporary foot soldiers are. Who are the women and men whose faith directs them toward such courageous compassion and critique?
Early in the book Gilbreath writes,
Just like Luther’s memo nailed to the Wittenberg Church door, King’s jailhouse epistle is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about theology, justice and freedom. If we allow it, we’ll find King’s freestyle meditation will take us on a sweeping journey form the Birmingham, Bible Belt, Deep South of 1963 to the postracial, post-Christian, Red State-Blue State cacophony of twentieth-first-century America and beyond.
Glibreath is just the right guide and Birmingham Revolution maps the journey with precision, imagination, and just the right amount of hope.
On Saturday February 22 Edward Gilbreath will be our church’s guest for a half-day conference that will be open to the public. We’d love to have you join us. I’ll share the details next month.
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.