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

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys

Rescuing the Gospel from the CowboysI learned a lot while reading Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, but finding a succinct way to describe the book and what I learned is proving difficult. Though it wasn’t his first book, in some ways this one feels like the opening salvo from an author who had a lot more to say. Sadly, Richard Twiss died before this book was published. I suspect his legacy and teachings will be represented well by his friends, but many readers will finish this book with a peaked interest that cannot be met by the author. This is our loss, though from the little I know about Twiss – I heard him teach twice – I suspect he wouldn’t be too concerned.

In some ways Rescuing the Gospel reads like a summary of a lifetime of academic and personal research. The book is this and more. Readers like me, who have little background with Native American expressions of Christianity, need to be prepared to step into this world with little handholding. At times the book can feel a bit “inside baseball” but Twiss offers enough context to keep us novices from getting lost. At its heart this is a book about the myriad of ways Native American peoples have suffered the short-sighted and ethnocentric evangelism efforts of the dominant American culture. Twiss compellingly includes first-hand accounts along with his research to show how ugly these approaches can be.

These stories were entrusted to me to take care of as gifts. They are accounts of personal pain, oppression, faith and spiritual growth representing the parallel journeys of thousands of Native/Indigenous people in North American and around the world. Their pain is the direct result of the colonialism, paternalism, and ethnocentric theology…

In contrast to what can only be called colonialism, Twiss articulates a “Decolonizing Contextualization Movement.” It would be a mistake to understand this movement as simple window-dressing on the previous Christian mission strategies among Native Americans. Though this movement prioritizes tribal practices and customs like native dance and the pow wow, these are reflections of theological convictions, namely that God was at work among the indigenous people of North America long before anyone called it North America. For Twiss and others like him, the gospel requires a continuity with the past that honors culture and history.

There is, of course, a history of doing theology this way. The early Christians were fond of looking back at their favorite Greek philosophers for resonance with their Jewish savior. It is evidence of a Christianity that was captive to race and empire that kept (and still keeps!) missionaries from expecting similar resonance from Native American people. It is also evidence of the need for a profound and ongoing repentance that must exist within those of us in the dominant culture.

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.

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.

Yawning At Tigers

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.

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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.

Yawning at Tigers Drew DyckIn 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.

5 Favorite books of 2013

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).

Ida A Sword Among LionsAfter 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).

My Bright Abyss WimanChristian 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).

And They All SangI’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).

UnapologeticIn 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)

Reading for PreachingI 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.

The Downside of Digital Immortality

Last month John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, lamented a loss of books via his Twitter account: “Went to garage to get a book from a box of African American history and lit. Mildew. Aggh. Aggggh.” Aggh is right! We book lovers know the sinking feeling that accompanies such a discovery, be it mildew, a child’s busy hands, or – all too common – the lent book that never returns.  John’s tweet, and the sympathetic condolences it elicited, got me thinking about the risks inherent to our attachment to things, especially books of the physical variety.

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A few of the books in our living room.

I continue to have little interest in e-readers for a bunch of reasons, including a couple I’ve written about before.  But doesn’t John’s experience with the garage mildew make a good case for digital books? As I understand it, these texts are saved in “the cloud” so that, should your reading device succumb to the elements, your books are never in danger of being lost.  The e-book is immortal, always available to its owner.  It cannot be lost.

This appears to be a great improvement over the decay and loss-prone cover and paper variety of book.  But I wonder.  Doesn’t the lament over the lost book say something about its goodness as a physical thing? Such a loss would surely be experienced differently if it took place in the digital world.  I imagine being frustrated with the technology but unconcerned about my ability to find the book.  And let’s assume for a minute that an e-book could actually be lost, dissolved into the digital ether.  I have to believe the loss would still be experienced differently than a well-loved, dog-eared copy of a favorite book that has long sat on the study shelf or even in a box in the garage.  The physical book has memory attached to itself, whether in the form of hastily appropriated bookmarks, notes scrawled in the margins, or the simple power of an object to recall forgotten thoughts, conversations, and emotions.  Assuming an e-book could actually be lost, that loss would be an inconvenience and little more.

And so I’m left to accept that some objects are valuable enough to risk their loss and the accompanying sadness. The promise of permanence made by the digital text ends up eliminating much of what many of us look to our books for.