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.

5 Favorite Books of 2015

I read thirty books this year– not nearly as many as some of you, but respectable for me. A few were assigned by editors for review and some of these were lost on me, but for the most part I’d recommend my entire list to you. Still, each year I’m in the habit of picking five that are especially worth your attention. Here are this year’s five, in the order I read them. I’d be interested to know what you read in 2015 that is worth recommending.

Spiritual Friendship; Wesley Hill (2014).

Spiritual Friendship by Wesley HillEarlier this year I preached a series about friendship. This was something I’d wanted to do for a while but, each time I tried to prepare, found I had little Biblical imagination for the topic. I knew it was an important theme throughout Scripture – “I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) – but couldn’t recall reading or hearing anything theological on the topic. Hill’s book was not the only book about friendship I read, but it might have been the first and it began to make connections for me that I may have otherwise missed.

Hill, a theologian, writes as a “celibate gay Christian” who, over time, has come to see his sexual orientation as a gift for the church. This book seems to prove the point. While Spiritual Friendship will be encouraging to anyone committed to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, the book pushes far beyond sexuality to hold friendship up as a relational category worthy of our best efforts and thoughtfulness. The book’s title points back to a 12th century book by Aelred of Rievaulx who was one of the first to reflect theologically on friendship as a distinctly Christian way of relating to others. (I highly recommend this small book to you as well. Despite it’s age, the dialogical style and a helpful introduction make it relatively accessible.) Reading these books was something of a revelation to me, like uncovering long-forgotten wisdom. Within Christian subcultures that can idolize marriage and biological families, Hill reminds us that Christians have a much broader definition of family. And within this generous definition there is a special place for those individuals who love one another as friends. “If blood is thicker than water,” writes Hill, “then Eucharistic blood is thickest of all.”

Men We Reaped; Jesmyn Ward (2014).

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn WardOne of the difficult and disorienting realities I notice in our city is that African American women and men are subject to violence in ways that are utterly foreign to most white people. There are the spectacularly tragic cases that make the news – Chicago police killed a college student and a 55-year-old woman the day after Christmas – and then there are the quieter, more common stories of friends and family members succumbing to violent ends.

Jesmyn Ward noticed this contagious violence when five young men – each from her small hometown in Mississippi – died within four years. These deaths included her brother’s, whose story weaves through her own as she traces their childhoods and adolescence through landscapes that are sometimes kind and often dangerously inhospitable. The book is a memoir, beautifully written, and so avoids sweeping conclusions about why Black and Brown people in this country are subject to such vague and persistent trauma. But Men We Reaped does better than give us statistics and explanations; here we have the beautiful and sad stories of three-dimensional people whose lives are no less meaningful for the wicked predictability of their untimely ends.

Between the World and Me; Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015).

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesI’ve talked more about this book than any other this year. Earlier I wrote about how Between the World and Me and me reminded me of how James Baldwin wrote about the impotence of white Christianity. Coates has written a memoir, his second, in the form of a letter to his son. The book is consciously post-Ferguson, made more poignant as we see video-recorded police brutality through Coates’ adolescent son.

As an atheist Coates does at least two things masterfully that Christians should notice. The first is the priority of flesh and blood in these pages.

But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

There is no easy theorizing or theologizing here; Coates is relentless in reminding the reader that the natural end of racist violence is the destruction of individual bodies. Though Christians would theoretically want to add to Coates’ description of the body, the reality is that we have often said less. In our priority of spirit and soul, we are guilty of a particularly racist gnosticism.

The second thing Coates does is to tell the truth about Black bodies and the suffering they endure as if there were no white people reading. I’m not sure the author would put it this way, but there seems to be a purposefulness about how direct and honest he is. There are no escape routes for the good white person, only complicity. (In a group conversation about the book, a young African American man admitted his discomfort about how plainly Coates writes in a book that will be read by so many white people. I understand this to be intentional on the author’s part- an intentional ignoring of the inescapable white gaze.) As a Christian I’m forced to ask why Coates’ atheism seems a more stable platform for truth-telling than so many forms of American Christianity. I happen to believe that Christianity contains within it the resources for such piercing and courageous truth, but rediscovering these resources will necessarily begin with repentance which, not coincidentally, would be one of the appropriate responses to this beautiful book.

Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home; Pope Francis (2015).

Laudato Si- On Care for Our Common Home by Pope FrancisIn this short book Pope Francis has made unmistakable something that should never have been debatable in the first place: care for the natural environment is a moral act, one that Christians are meant to have a natural affinity for.

Laudato Si is a uniquely Christian take on our environmental crisis. As such Pope Francis highlights things like humanity’s commonalities, the impact of climate change on the poor, the non-utilitarian nature of people, a realistic assessment of technology’s ability to solve environmental destruction, and an appreciation for how creation reflects aspects of God’s character. The book is gracious and pastoral but its greatest strength is making plain the distinctively Christian contributions to the environmental movement. There was a well of course sense as I read the book along with some sadness that the thoughtfulness and compassion exhibited by the pope isn’t always what Christians are known for when it comes to caring for our common home.

Citizen: An American Lyric; Claudia Rankine (2014)

Citizen by Claudia RankineAs with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Claudia Rankine’s collection of poetry is intensely focuses on the particularities of Black and Brown bodies and experiences. The book’s heavy, glossy pages include occasional selections of art and various prose poems, many related to widely known moments of recent racial injustice. But the bulk of the book is given to stories, told to and arranged by the poet, of particular moment of racial dissonance and prejudice.

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!

I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn’t mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

I don’t read enough poetry to say much more about this book other than that it completely pulled me in. The poetic prose, artwork, and singular moments created an atmosphere that, from a variety of angles, asked the questions implied by the title: Who is a citizen in this country? Who decides? Is citizenship in America a goal worth pursuing?

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.’”

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—and the schizophrenia in the mind of Christendom—had 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.