Five Favorite Books of 2017

A thoroughly subjective list of what I enjoyed reading this year.

One way I know that it’s been a great reading year is by how hard it was to narrow the list of the books I’ve read in 2017 down to just these five. And I’ve left off some fantastic stuff, including The Color of Law which I’ve probably recommended more than any other this year but which I’ve already reviewed. Others worth your attention include The Pietist Option (review forthcoming at The Englewood Review of Books), Eight Years We Were in Power (a collection of, mostly, already published essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates but worth the read for the new introductions to each chapter and how it charts a particular experience of the Obama years), and The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch (Maggie and I read it together and it’s provided loads of good conversation fodder for how we’d like our family to engage “easy everywhere” technology.). I’ve been reading deeply on housing segregation and policy (again, The Color of Law) and have learned a lot from Making the Second Ghetto by Arnold R. Hirsch and, particular to our church’s community, Jim Crow Nostalgia by Michelle R. Boyd. Gentrifiers by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill is the best I’ve read on that impossibly complicated topic.

As always, not much fiction in my reading though one novel makes this list. There were some good memoirs – The Shepherd’s Life and H is for Hawk – and I’ve included the excellent new Dorothy Day biography here. I reread Day’s beautiful memoir during Lent and found it just as remarkable the second time.

The books on this thoroughly subjective list represent some of my more satisfying and eye-opening reading experiences this year. I hope one or two of them can provide you with similar moments.


Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty by Kate Kennessy (2017)

Dorothy Day The World Will Be Saved By Beauty

Kate Hennessy is Dorthy Day’s granddaughter, the daughter of Day’s only child, Tamar. The biography she’s written capitalizes on her grandmother’s name to draw us in but ends up being much more than a portrait of the woman who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and wrote a still-popular spiritual biography. While the author covers this ground, her real interest lies in the relationship between the larger-than-life Day and the quiet daughter who grew up amid the chaos of her mother’s work and the eclectic social networks that formed around her. In many ways Tamar is Dorothy’s opposite and we sense how the affection they shared was also fragile, how the woman who communicated to the eager and idealistic masses found it a struggle to connect with her own daughter. For all of Day’s exceptional traits and experiences, she ends up being a pretty average parent.

I’m drawn to biographies, like this one, that manage to honor their subject without deifying them. Even better when the person’s faith is taken seriously and not explained away. Hennessy does both and much more and the result serves as a beautiful introduction to a woman many of us thought we already knew.

Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley (2012)

Shalom and the Community of Creation

Earlier this year a new friend recommended that I begin reading Randy Woodley, a Keetoowah Cherokee and professor of faith and culture. In Shalom Woodley offers a theology of creation and peace through an indigenous lens and his vision is fresh, compelling, and regularly convicting. While the book covers a lot of ground, the themes circle back to the pervasive significance of creation. Christian people, the author wants us to remember, cannot think about who we are apart from the world where God has placed us. He reminds us that, “Jesus, like so many in his day, was comfortable in a constant conversation with natural creation. He was not estranged from the creation in the way most of us in the western world our today.” In contrast, “the Euro-western mind” usually doesn’t see the creation as the start of “a continuous conversation with the Creator. The western view of creation has proven to be pitifully anthropocentric and utilitarian. Christianity has simply followed suit.” I’m afraid our current political moment has provided a large segment of American Christianity to confirm Woodley’s assessment which makes a book like this one even more essential.

We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang (2016)

We Gon Be Alright

In this short collection of essays Chang has written a sharp critique of our times. He proves to be an especially astute observer to – and participant in – some of the more painful and culturally divisive moments of the past few years, including the protests in Ferguson. In that essay he avoids large-scale cultural criticism, instead choosing to hold our attention on Mike Brown’s lived experience in that Missouri suburb.

In “The In-Betweens” Chang writes about his experience of being Asian-American: “You went days and weeks feeling like you had never been seen. You were conspicuous and invisible at the same time.” From his lived reality in a country that reduces its racial insight to a blunt black-white binary, the author stakes out his own ground, and what he claims is essential to our times. In the same essay he writes about immigration: “‘Migration’ centers bodies. ‘Immigration’ centers bodies of law. The immigrant is therefore always troubled by questions of status: ‘legal’ or ‘illegal.’ When the immigrant is between the migrant and the citizen, their freedom – and others’ freedom, in turn – depends on the answer.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)

Death Comes for the Archbishop

This quiet novel is a sort of historical fiction. It’s two main characters, the first Roman Catholic archbishop of New Mexico and his close friend and vicar, are based on real men and other figures from history make occasional appearances. Cather imagined their lives through a series of roughly chronological vignettes; the narratives are generally contained to a chapter. Both men are generally portrayed sympathetically, including their expressions of faith. They’re imperfect and their humanity shows, but generally it seems the author wanted her readers to respect these two men of the cloth. And maybe it’s that I’m accustomed to literature in which the clergy is ignored, portrayed as out-of-touch, or assumed to have some devious motives or maybe its just that I’m a pastor looking for some role models, but it’s always satisfying to find a member of the clergy written as, you know, a person. (See also Marilynne Robinson’s GileadHome, and Lila.) But even if you’re not a pastor or don’t care much for pastors, Death Comes is worth the read, the perfect antidote to our loud and demeaning times.

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (2014)

The Half Has Never Been Told

One of the many strange things that surfaced this year was the many American citizens who hold romanticized views of the Civil War and the antebellum South. White nationalists have rallied around Confederate monuments, those same monuments have provoked fierce debate, and a candidate for the Senate suggested that life was better for everyone during slavery. This on top of the perennial argument that the Civil War was never actually about slavery but about states’ rights.

Though Baptist’s book was published a few years ago, reading it feels as though he anticipated this moment and replied with a devastating response. His thesis is simple: The financial rewards of American capitalism (in the south and the north) never would have been possible without the free labor extracted from kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Slavery, the author claims, was not on an inevitable decline in the face of northern industrialism; it was the foundation of industry and the appetite for more agricultural land and enslaved bodies showed no signs of abetting before the war.

The books does many things well, but two are worth highlighting. First, the author blends loads of data about the spread of slavery and its economic benefits to the nation with intimate narratives about those whose terrorized labor remains this nation’s great shame. Second, Baptist always focuses on the experience of those who were enslaved. His stories include names and histories as well as the visceral sense of survival under the harshest circumstances. The resilience and resistance of the women and men who are centered in Baptist’s narrative deserve to be told of again and again.

Book Review: The Color of Law

The Color of LawA new $23 million bicycle bridge is being built in our church’s neighborhood of Bronzeville in Chicago two blocks from an elementary school. The bridge will be beautiful, and when it is completed cyclists will cruise past the school on their way to the bike path. Maybe some of them will notice the crumbling entryway to the elementary school and wonder how our city can find money for a pedestrian bridge while our schools are asked to do more with less. Maybe they’ll notice the empty lots where public housing high-rises used to stand or the low-rise mixed income developments that are slowly replacing them. Maybe they’ll wonder why this neighborhood is mostly African American and why the neighborhood to the west has historically been white.

Richard Rothstein asks these kinds of questions in his meticulously researched and well-written book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. A research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, Rothstein points out that most Americans tend to talk about segregation as being de facto, something that simply happened as the result of individual choices and preferences. Important decisions by the Supreme Court have shared these assumptions and have thus been reticent to address the destructive implications of segregation in our nation’s neighborhoods and schools. But Rothstein convincingly demonstrates that segregation in America has never been de facto; the segregation that the cyclist pedaling through our neighborhood observes is in fact de jure, a social reality constructed by our laws and public policies.

Through the middle of the twentieth century racial discrimination was federal policy. African Americans were unable to apply for federally insured mortgages, and the Federal Housing Administration would not insure any housing development that planned to admit black families. These policies extended to the first public housing developments which were first constructed for working-class European immigrants. As the need for black labor increased in northern cities, the demand for housing grew and these developments slowly opened to black residents, but they remained segregated. As European immigrants made their way in white America, they were able to move out of the housing developments, leaving behind racially concentrated pockets of poverty which were then exacerbated by new federal policies that capped the income level of the residents while simultaneously underfunding them.

Read the rest at the Covenant Companion

Friends are Better than Books

On the (obvious) limits of books written about urban ministry.

A friend recently posted a link on his Facebook page to a webpage cataloguing a list of “Top Christian Books on Reaching Cities.” I’m not linking to the page as the entire site is a bit confusing and the list itself seems flimsy as pointed out in my friend’s commentary: “How to justify educated, upper middle-class white folks moving to the city to plant churches that end up gentrifying neighborhoods.” You can imagine, given his sarcastic description, what he thinks about the list. I’ve not read any of the recommended books, so I can’t speak to their content, but the list does strike me as overwhelmingly white, male, and mostly coming from a particular evangelical tradition. There may be some helpful books on that list but I wouldn’t know.

However, because I’ve pastored in Chicago for 9 of my 14 years of ministry, I am interested in why lists like this one exist. There’s clearly a market for books that attempt to help Christians reach cities with the gospel. (We’ll leave, for this post, the question about what is imagined by that seemingly innocuous word, reach.) I’m sitting next to my well-stocked bookshelves as I write this and I can’t find a single book about urban ministry among my many, many books. I have to imagine that certain pastors have been helped by such books but I’ve never once felt the need to read about urban ministry over these years, especially from the perspective of those authors – often white – who aren’t homegrown to the contexts about which they write.

Making the Second GhettoNow, I read a lot and many of these books are uniquely relevant to the life and ministry of our urban congregation. This year, for example, I’m doing a deep dive into housing policy and federally-mandated segregation. Books like Making the Second Ghetto,  GentrifierThe Color of Lawand Jim Crow Nostalgia are helping me to see our city and neighborhood more accurately and to think more carefully about our presence within a city that continues to experience the harsh results of hugely complex economic and social forces.

I also read a lot that isn’t geared to urban realities but, given my context, I work to apply those books – wether theology, sociology, history, etc. – to our city and neighborhood. There’s nothing unique about this; it’s the kind of thing pastors in our neighborhood do all of the time. Sometimes the contextual application comes relatively easily while other books require the thoughtful reader to spit out a lot of bones to get to a bit of meat. So it goes. The idea that I would limit my reading to books written specifically for my context or demographic seems odd, thought I suppose this is how much of Christian publishing operates.

So I’m ambivalent about books lists like this one but I do feel very strongly that no list can remotely approximate the wisdom of friendships with those who know more than me. When I think about urban ministry I’m rarely thinking about a book or article; I’m almost always thinking about a person or a congregation whose authority has shaped my vision and commitments. The danger – not small in my experience – of book lists like this one is that it gives the reader, often a white pastor with good intentions, the sense that he or she has read enough to do good ministry. But it’s not possible! Nothing can replace the embodied wisdom and accountability that comes from friendship, mentoring, partnerships, and collaborations in which the long-term residents and congregations set the agenda, goals, and metrics of success.

Maybe this takes more time than working through a list of books, but it’s also so much better. And frankly, it’s not all that complicated, though I suppose someone could write a book about it… or maybe they already have.

5 Favorite Books of 2016

I took a few seminary classes this year which explains some of what’s on my 2016 reading list. None of those made my top-5 list, but a few could have: Kelly Brown Douglas’ The Black Christ and Sexuality and the Church were great introductions to womanist theology, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative proved immensely relevant during the election, and The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition, edited by Ida B. Wells in 1893, was a fascinating look at a specific Chicago moment. Some of my reading in the latter half of the year was directed at trying to understand the president-elect’s appeal – Carol Anderson’s White Rage and the fascinating Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance – and some was geared toward trying to form my imagination outside of this pressing political moment.  All in all, it’s been a great book year and there are some I’m gladly reading into 2017: Augustine’s City of God and Teju Cole’s collection of essays, Known and Strange Things among a few others on the night stand.

Here are five of my favorites from 2016 that I’d happily recommend to just about anyone.


The South Side by Natalie Moore (2016)

south side_MECH_01.inddNatalie Moore is a terrific Chicago reporter with the NPR station who has now written one of the definitive accounts of the city’s south side. I’d recently finished the massive and essential Black Metropolis when I picked up The South Side and it was great to read Moore as she interacted with Drake and Catyon’s work from the 1940’s while exploring more recent dynamics in our section of the city. While Black Metropolis is a bit of a slog – fascinating stuff but, still, pretty thick with detail – Moore’s narrative moves quickly and will engage even those barely familiar with Chicago and its complexities. She does this by telling her own story in the city as an entry into the wider forces which shape neighborhoods and communities.

Moore loves Chicago like so many of its long-time residents do: she isn’t blind to the massive inequities that plague many residents but neither does she overlook what makes the city so great, so inhabitable. She covers violence, education, housing, gentrification, and more with a gaze that is equal parts reporter’s objectivity and best-friend’s pride.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson (2016)

white-rageI might have read this book regardless of the political moment, but the presidential election sent me scrambling for it. Carol Anderson is a professor at Emory University and, although her subject isn’t Donald Trump explicitly, her look at previous moments in American history places the now president-elect in a particularly context. Anderson’s thesis is as simple as it is disturbing: “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement.” Not that this rage is especially visible: “It’s not the Klan. White rage doesn’t have to wear sheets, burn crosses, or take to the streets. Working the halls of power, it can achieve its ends far more effectively.” This subtle racism was one of the more frustrating parts of my conversations with Trump supporters this fall. Barring smoking gun evidence, most of these folks simply couldn’t see how race played a role in Trump’s ascendancy or, for that matter, the anxiety he produced in so many people for whom America has never been so great.

But this is the great strength of White Rage. By reviewing previous moments of white backlash to black advancement, Anderson helps us see the predictable pattern we’re now experiencing. She takes us through reconstruction, the Great Migration, desegregation, Civil Rights legislation, and the nation’s first black president and shows that, in each of these instances of significant black achievement, there have always been systematic and racially-oppressive responses.

A quick personal addition: Anderson’s book helped me see more clearly than before the gigantic gap between those who can acknowledge this history and those for whom it is tantamount to treason. Time and again this year I’ve experienced blank stares and utter confusion from those whose love for country won’t allow the truth of it to change their minds. White Rage helped me understand this dynamic though no book, I’m afraid, exists to tell us how to transcend it.

James Baldwin’s  Collected Essays (1998).

baldwin-collected-essaysThis one is kind of a cheat since it’s a collection of all of Baldwin’s non-fiction and I could have picked dozens almost at random for this list. There’s just so much good, beautiful, prescient writing in these essays. I’m not sure Baldwin was ever forgotten, but he has seemed incredibly relevant during these past few years of protest and unrest; he’s ripe for rediscovery.

Baldwin is always eye-opening; he makes places visible and people knowable. He does this in his travel essays and in his reflections about childhood in Harlem. He’s great on religion, especially the Christianity of his youth but also on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam as well as King and the other preachers of the Civil Rights Movement. But it’s his insight into race – there in most essays, but never excessively so – which regularly grabbed me by the throat. He shows the reader around the experiences of many black people, dignifying the struggles and victories without ever succumbing to hagiography. And then he writes about white people and whiteness and white supremacy and I find that he understands these things far better than most white people do, myself included. This isn’t especially surprising because my majority culture self doesn’t have to think about whiteness. Baldwin, however, does more than understand- he rips the veil off, exposing the rotten assumptions that pass for normal and neutral in this country. And he does this while showing incredibly sympathy and understanding for white people. I’ve already returned to these essays and expect to frequently in the coming years.

 

Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper (1952)

leisureI stumbled onto this book in a short Christianity Today review and I’m so glad I did. Our church has some sermons about sabbath coming up and now, in addition to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic Jewish mediation on Sabbath, I have a German/Christian/Philosophic perspective to draw from. Writing during the years following World War II, Pieper was concerned with the growing honor given to productivity and efficiency which he saw as undermining the kind of culture for which humans were created. Culture, he believed, requires capacity for leisure which in turn requires divine worship.

The tendency to reduce people to their work (“What do you do?” is a first question we ask new acquaintances) is at least as common now as it was when Pieper wrote. If anything the problem is more acute today when we describe people as resources, objects to be used. He acknowledges that leisure – or Sabbath – will seem to us “morally speaking, unseemly: another word for laziness, idleness and sloth.” Given the pride most Christians take in breaking the fourth commandment, I think he’s right about this. This little book shows how wrongheaded we are about this and why the good life God intends for us is one that includes and prioritizes leisure.

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki (2008)

a-different-mirrorI was first told about this book while helping with a workshop about racial injustice for cross-cultural missionaries this summer. We had been discussing the tendency to reduce conversations about race to a black and white binary when A Different Mirror was suggested as a kind of antidote.  Ronald Takaki, a professor of Ethnic Studies, tells America’s story through the experiences of a variety of different communities. Here we read how Native Americans, Irish immigrants, Chinese laborers, resident Mexicans, and enslaved Africans came to make their homes in this country.

There’s no way for a multi-cultural history to be comprehensive, but Takaki provides a good, engaging overview. He includes the individual stories and voices which make good history come alive. Importantly, there is a lot of significant American history in these chapters that many of are only kind of aware of, if at all. These tend to be the stories and communities that only got passing mention in most of our history classes and textbooks. Anyone who wants a fuller view of this country’s past will do well to add this history to the one we already know.

Advent: Hope

Advent has become one of the most important seasons of the year for me. My recognition of this ancient Christian season – beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas – was born out of my frustration with the hyper-consumerism associated with the holidays. The discovery, as one who’d not grown up with an awareness of the church calendar, was a means to reclaim the weeks leading up to Christmas as a time for reflection and practices that prepared me to celebrates Christ’s birth.

More recently I’ve come to rely on the themes of waiting that are a part of Advent. These weeks remind me of those like Mary, who anticipated the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. Each year I’m reminded that Christians are also a waiting people, longing for the day of our Savior’s return when all is made well and new, when justice and mercy are expressed with a perfection beyond our comprehension.

michael-washingtonI have found certain Advent devotionals to be helpful during the season, so I was thrilled when my very good friend Michael Washington decided to turn a series of beautiful Advent reflections into his first book. Hope: Meditations Before, During and After Advent is a gift for the church, especially in these days where hope can seem hard to grasp.

Michael’s book is unique among the devotionals focusing on Advent with which I’m acquainted. First, he chooses to focus solely on the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel. He moves slowly and meditatively through these verses, often lingering for a few entries on one verse. Second, he includes 90 reflections with the assumption that the reader may begin before Advent or end a few weeks after. I’ll make another suggestion: Given the shortness of these meditations, it would be easy to read one in the morning and another before bed. Or a third could be added at midday. Third, Michael chooses to be brief in each mediation. This economy doesn’t hinder the depth or insight of the mediations, but it does make the book exceedingly accessible, including for those who have no experience with Advent.

I’ll say a final thing to commend the book to you. Michael is a good writer and an even better observer of the human experience, particularly as it stumbles about the encounter with God. What he considers in these pages reveals this gift and  because of it we are better prepared for Advent and to the longed-for event to which the season points.

Vacation Reading

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That’s a lot of books! Are you going to read all of them during your vacation? Of course not! One of the best things about reading is dipping in and out of books promiscuously with little concern about when any one of them will be finished.

Aren’t you going away for part of your vacation? Why not get an e-reader rather than lugging around all that codex? Shut your mouth! Next question.

Those are some serious looking titles. Is this your idea of light summer reading? Are they? I dunno. Have you ever read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Not exactly highbrow stuff. Wonderfully silly, actually. That’s the entire 5-part series in that photo.

You’ve been droning on about Donald Trump on social media- I almost expected there to be a couple of take-downs in that stack of yours. I know, I know. I’m sorry. But not really. The J.D. Vance one is the closest to my grief about that guy and I’m hoping it’ll bring me a bit of knowledge and empathy.

Any of these you’re especially looking forward to? I’m loving the McPherson book about the Civil War. I think Ta-Nehisi Coates mentioned in a while back and it’s lived up to expectations. I didn’t know how stupid I was about that war. But of the ones I’ve not started I’m probably most excited about The Fire Next Time. I loved Jesmyn Ward’s last book and am intrigued with this edited collection of younger writers on race.

It’s kinda strange that you’re interviewing yourself, right? Hey, you’re the one asking the questions.

Embracing the Other

My review of Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s recent book, Embracing the Other, has been posted at the Englewood Review of Books.

She borrows from the Asian concept of Chi to “imagine God [in a way] that captures energies of divine love that are the divine essence and permeate the community of creation.” The goal of this reimagining project is a way of pursuing justice for all that, unlike so many theological expressions, does not privilege some at the expense of others. While affirming the historic understanding of the triune God, Kim leans heavily into the Biblical narratives of the Holy Spirit, from the Old Testament ruach to the Pentecost experience of the early church. Spirit God, in Kim’s language, subverts the colonized and systematized structures that have kept Asian American women and others from full participation in the family of God.

You can read the entire thing on the Englewood site.