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).
Dietrich 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).
In 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).
I’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).
Sarah 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)
I 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.
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.
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—I mean day to day, the weather of your existence—that, 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’s much more meaningful than Zen or something like that. It opens the world. It’s not a place of refuge, it’s a place where the exhilarations of reality are presented to you, almost at the level of demand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The “protest ” novel, so far from being disturbing, is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene, ramifying that framework we believe to be so necessary. Whatever unsettling questions are raised are evanescent, titillating; remote, for this has nothing to do with us, it is safely ensconced in the social arena, where, indeed, it has nothing to do with anyone, so that finally we receive a very definite thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation; and “As long as such books are being published,” and American liberal once said to me, “everything will be all right.”
– James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1949).
Baldwin is my teacher this summer. In this essay he has in mind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin- what they are meant to do and what they actually do for their readers. The section above reminded me of the recent collective reaction to Donald Sterling. For Baldwin it was a certain kind of book that provided the progressive citizen with the “thrill of virtue.” We are more likely to derive such assurance from the public figure’s racist comment or outdated assumptions about the world. I doubt Baldwin would be any more impressed with our tame outrage than he was by those taking solace in their enlightened literature.
I made sure to sit by the airplane window during some recent travel around the pacific northwest. I knew the scenery would be spectacular – made even more so by the sunrises of my early departures – and I wasn’t disappointed. Though my small window I could see Rainier, Hood, and other mountains rise to their snowy peaks, spectacular in the early morning sunlight. It was awe-inspiring.
The woman next to me wasn’t impressed. Her attention was kept by the game on her tablet. Doesn’t she know what she’s missing? I wondered. I silently judged her until realizing that I’d been looking more intently at her tablet, trying to figure out the game she was playing, than the landscape below. How quickly the amazing becomes mundane.
In his new book, Drew Dyck pushes hard against this tendency to turn away from the spectacular for bells and whistles of our own making. Yawning at Tigers is Drew’s successful attempt to remind American Christians that the God we claim to follow cannot be domesticated. Theologically nuanced and very accessible, the book repeatedly puts forward a vision of God that elicits awe: holiness, love, transcendence, and immanence are all clearly articulated. Hardly a page goes by where Drew doesn’t fill in these potentially fuzzy words with stories that bring them to life.
This is a serious book in the way any attempt to describe a holy God must be. “God’s holiness is deadly, incompatible with life, especially for sinful mortals like us.” Yet Yawning at Tigers avoids heavy-handedness because Drew is more interested in describing God than in defending him.
There’s an important assumption running throughout the book: “Rarely do we hear about God’s mystery and majesty, let alone whisper a word about his wrath.” Of course, depending on the reader’s experience this assumption will ring more or less true. There are plenty of congregations with a high view of God’s transcendence and righteousness. Even so, I think Drew is right to point out this broader tendency within much of American Christianity and those who’ve avoided this pendulum swing away from certain of God’s characteristics will benefit from the well-rounded vision of God found in these pages.
The Christian’s hope is tied to a holy God becoming like us for our salvation and the world’s rescue. In Jesus we have the ability to consider and worship this righteous God without being overcome. Yawning at Tigers is an invitation to consider again our dangerous God. His perfection and holiness stands ready to provoke awe and wonder within a people who’ve become bored by bells and whistles.
Things have been relatively quiet on this blog; a seminary class and work-related travel have squeezed the margins lately. But I’ve still found small spaces to write, including for other sites. Here are two short pieces that were recently published.
First, a book review for Christianity Today:
[United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity] is about a tricky and somewhat discouraging topic, considering how segregated U.S. churches remain. Yet [Trillia] Newbell focuses her attention in other directions. Not that she ignores the challenges or ugly histories that typically hinder attempts at reconciled community. It’s just that she chooses to highlight the appealing elements of diversity, whether theological or relational. Many readers will find this approach inspirational, an antidote to what Newbell calls “the difficulties of genuine diversity.” But lacking from this approach is much analysis of why Jesus-loving, Gospel-believing Americans have contentedly attended segregated churches for generations. Embracing “genuine diversity” means we must also get our arms around the privileges and prejudices that have kept us apart.
And then a blog post for our denomination’s Commission on Biblical Gender Equality:
I can forget that our normal is exceptional for others until I overhear someone mentioning how grateful they are for the women who lead our church. They are remembering times and places where these leaders’ voices, experiences, and gifts wouldn’t have been welcomed- not in the same normal way they are within our community.