Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me | Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates has written a book that is beautiful, tender, and painful.¬†Readers will¬†wince for reasons that will depend on how they’ve¬†experienced this country’s obsession with race.¬†Between the World and Me ought to solidify Coates’ as our generation’s James Baldwin, something I’ve been saying for a couple of years though that comparison is way more credible coming from Toni Morrison. The book comes out tomorrow¬†and there are already many thoughtful reviews; don’t be fooled by how many of them are glowing, bordering on fawning. Critical hyperbole aside, it’s simply a book that deserves many reflective readers.

One of the interesting things about Coates is his complete lack of religious faith. He was raised outside any faith tradition; Afrocentrism was the closest thing to religion given to him by his family. In this way he differs from Baldwin who grew up with a mean preacher as a father and who could engage with Christianity and its racist¬†American expressions from firsthand experience, if from an agnostic’s distance. Because Coates writes comfortably¬†within¬†his atheistic vantage point there are natural points of reasonable¬†confusion when he considers Christianity. Take, for example, his reaction in New York Magazine¬†to the public offers of forgiveness offered by members of the murdered church members in Charleston to their loved ones’ killer. “Even the public forgiving, so soon after the slaughter, seemed unreal. ‘Is that real? Coates said, watching the service. ‘I question the realness of that.’‚ÄĚ

Coates’ question about the authenticity¬†of this forgiveness is understandable and he seems to wonder about it sympathetically. He’s not angry at these grieving families, just confused about their motives and intentions. In the same interview the author contrasts President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and¬†its push toward grace with Coates’ own, less hopeful, outlook.

Coates’s writing takes an almost opposite position: that religion is blindness, and that if you strip away the talk of hope and dreams and faith and progress, what you see are enduring structures of white supremacy and no great reason to conclude that the future will be better than the past.

James BaldwinHere Coates begins to sound very much like Baldwin, whose fatigue with American Christianity was on full display in his 1962¬†New Yorker¬†article, “Letter from a Region of my Mind.”

Thus, in the realm of morals the role of Christianity has been, at best, ambivalent. Even leaving out of account the remarkable arrogance that assumed that the ways and morals of others were inferior to those of Christians, and that they therefore had every right, and could use any means, to change them, the collision between cultures‚ÄĒand the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom‚ÄĒhad rendered the domain of morals as chartless as the sea once was, and as treacherous as the sea still is. It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

The confusion and disinterest Coates’ shows toward religion generally and Christianity particularly can be chalked up to his distance from it, though I imagine he’s had more than enough exposure to America’s versions of Christianity. Baldwin is harder for Christians to explain away because his knowledge was personal. He wrote with an insider’s knowledge and what he’d seen wasn’t pretty.

There are many¬†reasons to read¬†Between the World and Me and probably even more to dig¬†deeply into the Baldwin canon. But for Christians of all races these authors need to be listened to especially closely for the precise ways they reveal our deficiencies. What sort of deficiencies? Broadly speaking we might read these non-believing prophets for their ability to spot our hypocrisy. But we already expect this, don’t we? Perhaps more helpfully is how Baldwin and Coates reveal the weakness of our supposedly supernatural faith. Forgiveness and hope are central to Christian faith- there is no Christianity without divine forgiveness and eschatological hope. Yet for Coates, and undoubtedly many, many others, the¬†beliefs that appear so radically central within Christianity have been displayed to those outside the Faith as little more than coping mechanisms, excuses to avoid dealing with the real world.

So which are they? Life-altering beliefs about the universe and its Lord or spiritual distractions to make a difficult life slightly more tolerable?

Christians, most of us anyway, want to believe the former but Coates and Baldwin won’t let us off so easily. I’m thankful for this. Their criticism is an invitation to a faith that is deeper and more true than what has often been expressed¬†in this christianized and racialized country.

The Political Disciple

The Political Disciple | Vincent BacoteMy friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, has written a book that ought to be of interest to a surprisingly wide selection of readers given it’s modest length- fewer than 100 very readable pages. Any book that discusses Christianity and politics is bound to raise questions so¬†Dr. Bacote clarifies and limits his scope right from the beginning. “[T]he big question I am trying to answer is: Can there be Christian faithfulness in the public realm? If politics refers to our lives as citizens, then what does it mean to be Christian and a citizen of a county, state, country, or world?”

I say that¬†The Political Disciple will be interesting to many readers – regardless of one’s interest in politics – because of how Dr. Bacote engages the topic. In large part this involves his own story of discipleship, including the questions many of us have asked about what aspects of so-called secular society, including but not limited to politics, are worthy of Christian engagement. By telling portions of his own particular story story Dr. Bacote invites us¬†to consider our own interaction with the complexities of American citizenship. And while he’s quick to point to how ugly citizenship can be, giving a few pages to the sadness he felt at the not-guilty verdict at George Zimmerman’s trial, Dr. Bacote thinks American Christians have a long way to go in our thoughtful engagement with political life. “[W]e should at least begin with the commitment to be good citizens before resorting to revolution.”

Of course, what a particular Christian thinks being “good citizens” means will determine whether our non-Christian neighbors experience our citizenship as good or not. One such friend contacted me last week as he listened to a NPR story about conservative pastors running for political office as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage. For this good friend, these pastors’ notion of being good citizens felt anything but good. Thankfully, Dr. Bacote ends the book with three areas of faithful citizenship that should resonate with Christians while remaining good for all of our neighbors. These areas are lament, tempered expectations, and humility that anticipates suffering.

You’ll need to read the book to see how he unpacks these three areas and I hope you will. American politics generally seems fractious and alienating and Christian involvement in politics often bears the same unimaginative characteristics. In contrast, the political vision in these pages is gracious, humble, and imaginative. Dr. Bacote had better watch out; if this vision catches on he might need to write a longer book.

Currently Reading

The stack, more neatly ordered than normal.

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but I noticed the other day how many books have accumulated on my bedside table, desk, and our coffee table so it seems like a good time to mention the titles here. Maybe you’re looking for something to read this summer. Maybe something here will fit the bill.

A few of these are collections of essays, my consistently favorite genre. This being the case, it seemed right to finally dip into the original. I like having at least one book that will follow me around for a few years and having finished The Black Metropolis it was time to begin The Complete Essays by Michel de Montaigne. So far so good, though I maybe should have gone with the two volume set; this edition could damage the reader who dozes off mid-essay.

The collected essays of James Baldwin is less cumbersome and thoroughly enjoyable. He seems no less prescient in these days of Black Lives Matter movements than he must have in his own day. A friend gave me John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays,¬†Pulphead. You’ve probably read Sullivan somewhere – this account in GQ of a Christian music festival is a classic – and if not this collection would be a good place to start.

Earlier this week Maggie gave me¬†The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. I’ve not read Pinker before, but this book was on my list and, after a couple of chapters, I think his perspective on a well-worn topic will help whatever small writing skills I have.

A friend from church and I are reading Howard Thurman’s classic,¬†Jesus and the Disinherited this summer. There are stories of Rev. Dr. King carrying¬†his well-worn copy of this book in his briefcase as he made his way throughout the south. A small taste from the first chapter:

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless people.

I think Thurman will compliment another book I hope to make my way though this summer,¬†The Christian Imagination¬†by Willie James Jennings. Jennings is one of a very few scholars who interacts with the theological roots of race and racism. It’s important and relevant work for our churches and Jennings writes clearly about topics that, by their very nature, mean to remain murky.

My friend, Dr. Vincent Bacote, kindly sent me a copy of his latest book, the slim and very readable The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life. This is a topic Dr. Bacote has thought about a lot and I hope the book will be read widely by Christians who want to interact more precisely with American politics.¬†I hope Dr. Bacote won’t mind that his Abraham Kuyper-influenced¬†book is brushing up a collection of writings from early pietists. My denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, has strong pietist roots and I’m enjoying dipping into the passionate writings of these men.

Finally, I’ve started Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way. I’m woefully ignorant when it comes to First Nations’ perspectives on Christian theology and Twiss, who died recently and unexpectedly, is proving to be a trustworthy guide.

Unquestionably, this is too many books to be reading at once. To be fair, a handful of these are simply available to visit occasionally. So how about you? What are you reading these days that you can recommend?

5 Favorite Books of 2014

I’ve done these year-end, haphazard lists of my favorite books for a bunch of years now, mostly to remind myself of the past year’s reading. I finished fewer books than normal this year, in part because of a seminary class last winter. I’ve not included the book that would have topped the list, the Library of America’s collection of James Baldwin’s essays. I’m still happily working through those 800 pages and finding it so relevant and helpful during these days of protests.

What did you enjoy reading this year?

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Charles Marsh (2014).

Strange GloryDietrich Bonhoeffer continues to be a someone I turn to regularly- his books¬†on discipleship and community are well worn on my shelves and his letters from prison are a voice I need to hear regularly. I think one of the things that continues to draw me to the German theologian is the access we have to his personal life. Reflections by his friends and associates over the years have more recently been joined by a good documentary and a very readable biography. Now we have another biography, this one by¬†Charles Marsh who has long been a student of Bonhoeffer. (I heard him read from a paper about Bonhoeffer at a theology conference and it was clear how long this scholar has studied and been inspired by his subject.) Marsh is the rare scholar who who presents history in a compelling manner without downplaying any of the important nuance- his¬†The Beloved Community about the Civil Rights movement is a great example of this achievement and another book to add to your list. Marsh’s biography digs relatively deeply into Bonhoeffer’s time New York and especially Harlem where he was influenced by Abyssinian Baptist Church. There’s more work to be done on this period of Bonhoeffer’s formation (this recent book looks promising) but Marsh helps us see the important connections between the African American church and Bonhoeffer’s ability to resist the Nazis from a very early date. It’s a connection we need to pay attention to today.

On Immunity: An Inoculation; Eula Biss (2014).

On ImmunityIn her first collection of essays, Notes from¬†No Man’s Land,¬†we have the best writing on race by a white person. Well, at least I can’t imagine writing that is so beautiful and aware about an American subject so ugly. In her second book – part history, part memoir, part social criticism¬†– Biss turns her keen observation on immunizations. Huh? It seems a strange topic to be sure, but the book is full of insight and reflections on the assumptions and metaphors that have shaped American people’s fears of being contaminated by disease. Much of what is written about immunizations these days is preachy and condescending; Biss is neither, in part because of her the¬†anxieties she experienced – and discloses in the book – as a new mother. I learned quite a bit about immunizations that I hadn’t considered before. For example, while it tends to be middle class families who in recent years have refused immunizations for their children, it is poor children who suffer these choices. This is due to something called herd immunity in which a small percentage of under-immunized children (often poor children whose families struggle to keep us with the immunization schedules) are protected from disease once a large percentage of the general population has been immunized. A middle class child is less likely to suffer the consequences of not being immunized than is her under-immunized, poorer classmate. Anyway, the book is full of these kinds of insights, delivered is Biss’s beautiful and disclosing prose.

Lila; Marilynne Robinson (2014).

LilaI’m real biased on this one as I’ve read and own most of what Robinson has written. This novel was anticipated highly by a lot of folks and you can easily find summaries and reviews online. The book comes back to the stories of a few individuals in a small town in Iowa previously covered in¬†Gilead and¬†Home. Here we get the perspective of the title character, a drifter turned wife to the old preacher featured in the other two books. She’s a fascinating character, unpredictable and somehow relatable. This latter trait is no small feat by Robinson – she allows Lila to be incredibly¬†unique¬†without ever sliding into a metaphor – and is accomplished by Lila’s voice, especially her probing questions. The good reverend (and he is¬†good which must be¬†one of the more surprising¬†elements of these books) does his best with her questions about ultimate things, but like the rest of us there’s only so much that he can say. For someone like Lila, who has experienced the worst of this world, can his restrained yet hopeful answers ever be enough? There’s not much that happens in a Robinson novel, not noticeably anyway. But her ability to see the rapid twitching below the surface, the back and forth that is emotional life, is unparalleled and is all the action I require in a good novel.

God, Sexuality, and the Self; Sarah Coakely (2013).

God, Sexuality, and the SelfSarah Coakley is smart – like chair of a department at Cambridge smart – and I know she means for this first in a four volume systematic theology to be accessible to ordinary readers like me, but dang! Despite all that surely went over my head, I deeply appreciated this book and professor Coakley’s approach. And that approach? Here’s the opening paragraph:

Institutional Christianity in in a crisis about ‘sexuality’. Its detractors in the supposedly secularized and liberal climes of Northern Europe who nonetheless yearn for what they call a satisfying ‘spirituality’, see this crisis as a sign of its failure to engage the contemporary world. Its conservative defenders, to be found mainly in religiously observant parts of North America and throughout the southern hemisphere, take it as an indication of cultural decadence and a deficiency in scriptural¬†obedience. Probably both sides are right, but perhaps neither, exactly; this book notably does not aim to slave the problems in the terms currently under discussion. Instead, it aims to go deeper; to come at the issue that is now called sexuality through a different route – that of the divine itself.

This approach is what makes this book so important, and, hopefully, the ensuing volumes so promising. Coakley is suggesting that Christians have access to ways of being and talking about so-called sexuality that are available only through our attachment to God. Thus, for Coakley, prayer and the Holy Spirit are not afterthoughts to conversations about theology, they are at the center.

A final note: In addition to a mind-boggling academic career, Coakley has served as an Anglican priest throughout her career. Despite the thick ideas found in this book, she clearly has the church in mind as she writes. This is not an academic who has become enchanted with her voice or ideas; she’s writing for people like me and you and for the unity of Christ’s church.

God, Christ, and Us; Herbert McCabe (2003)

God, Christ, and UsI could, and maybe should, read this collection of sermons and lectures by Herbert McCabe every year. McCabe, who is a relatively new name, died in 2001 and was a Catholic priest, writer, and academic. This book is all I know of McCabe’s style and it may differ in other books, but in this collection he is direct and clear. He says things about Christianity that make me think, Well of course, but who¬†says that? For example,

And the point of the cross is not that it is any kind of achievement. It is not heroic; it is absurd. Jesus is saying (and Peter understands this) not that he is going to have a heroic courageous death but that he is going to be defeated, going to fail, to be humiliated. This is what shocks Peter and this is what should shock us if we really grasped it.

And this from another sermon:

Death, human death, is in the first place an outrage. I mean it is outrageous in a way that the death of other animals is not; because in human death nature takes back more that it has lent to us. Every human death is a kind of murder.

This book would be real comfortable on your night stand or stacked with your Bible for morning reading. The writing is simple but never simplistic and, most wonderfully, the gospel is always made more strange and more beautiful in these pages.

“…to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous.”

I feel it would be presumptuous of me to describe the ways of God. Those that are all we know of Him, when there is so much we don’t know. Though we are told to call him Father. And I know it would be presumptuous to speak as if the suffering that people feel as they passed through the world were not great enough to make your question much more powerful than any answer I could offer. My faith tells me that God shared poverty, suffering, and death with human beings, which can only mean that such things are full of dignity and meaning, even though to believe this makes a great demand of ones faith, and to act as if this were true in any way we understand is to be ridiculous. It is ridiculous also to act as if it were not absolutely and essentially true all the same. Even though we are to do everything we can to put an end to poverty and suffering.

I have struggled with this my whole life.

This is Rev John Ames in a letter to Lila, the title¬†character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel. Early in the book Lila¬†says to Ames, “I just been wondering lately why thing happen the way they do.” She’s looking for some kind of help¬†and the pastor struggles to answer. But here, when he finally does, is one of the better replies I’ve heard to this unanswerable question.

“I assume that experience is the experience of God.”

Q: Some Christians talk about experiencing God. Do you experience God in some way?

A: I assume that experience is the experience of God. If you think of experience as what is given to you‚ÄĒI mean day to day, the weather of your existence‚ÄĒthat, I take it, is intelligible, and has purpose of a certain kind. One of the things I like about John Calvin is that he always talks about people as being presented to us, or even given to us. What he means is that any encounter with another human being is like God posing a question. The answer is what God wants, assuming that God loves and is loyal to the person he has presented to you, which is a very profound ethical question. This might seem over-intellectualized, but to me it‚Äôs much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It‚Äôs not a place of refuge, it‚Äôs a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.

–¬†Interview: Marilynne Robinson on the language of faith in writing.

I picked up Robinson’s new book,¬†Lila, at our local bookstore the other day without knowing when I’ll have time to get to it. Now it’s sitting on my desk tempting me away from other reading assignments.

Life in the City: Why not Give Up?

A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday¬†with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.

There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.

I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.


State St & 35th St, looking south.

In¬†The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”

There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how¬†cities intend¬†to (de)form them.

Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.

God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]

This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real¬†a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.


Mural across from Reavis Elementary School.

Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands.¬†We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.

Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.

There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation.¬†Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.


Promontory Point, looking north.

In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was¬†bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”

In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully¬†of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing¬†to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.