“There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. “

The first element of this [Christian] uniqueness is that the Christian faith glorifies as Son of God a man who was degraded and dehumanized by his fellow human beings as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state, and that he died in a way designed to subject him to utmost contempt and finally to erase him from human memory.

The second unique feature of the Christian gospel… is its central message of the justification of the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6). In this, the biblical story differs radically from any other religious, philosophical, or ethical system ever known. Every other system, including rabbinic Judaism and some varieties of gnostic teaching from within Christianity itself, assumes some sort of distinction between godly and ungodly, righteous and unrighteous, spiritual and unspiritual. In its radical form, the Christian gospel declares, “It is written, ‘None is righteous, no, not one; / no one understands, no one seeks for God”… and “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10-11, 22-23)…

The only provision in religion for the ungodly is to turn to religion. There is no good news in religion for those who have not turned or cannot turn. A crucial aspect of the radical newness of the Christian gospel is the word it speaks precisely to those “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
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This comes from the first couple of paragraphs of the last chapter in Rutledge’s exquisite book about the crucifixion and the many atonement motifs the church has imagined in order to attempt to understand the scope of what God accomplished on that cross. These two paragraphs are representative of something the former pastor does so well: while diving deep into the theology she never loses the plot; the particular distinctiveness of the Christian story runs from beginning to end of her study.

There were countless moments of new or fresh insight in the months I spent with this book but there were at least as many times when I thought, “Yes! Exactly. This is why I’m a Christian.” Time and again Rutledge turns her attention to the worst of our sinful human instincts and shows how the crucifixion is more than enough to withstand them. Situated within an apocalyptic war between God and the forces of evil, Jesus’ faithfulness unto death is the decisive word that God’s cosmic salvation has won the ages.

“…the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.”

The realization of creation’s inclusion in God’s reconciliation project should disturb us, for we have done great violence to the earth and its inhabitants. By assaulting creation we have assaulted ourselves and thwarted God’s will for the world. Based on a fault theology of dominion, the church has helped to perpetuate the idea that the earth and its nonhuman inhabitants are primarily “natural resources” to satisfy humanity’s needs and fancies without caution or compassion. misinterpreting dominion as domination, broken humanity has cleared forests, blown off mountaintops, dumped waste in oceans, hunted animals for sport, created factory farms, and experimented cruelly on monkeys and rats. Such violent crimes against creation describe not just the distant past but the tragic present… I find humanity’s assault upon the earth and its fellow creatures nearly unbearable; the thought of the church participating and even sanctioning it pushes me right over the edge.

– Al Tizon in Whole and Reconciled. I won’t say much about this book now as I’m writing a review to be posted elsewhere, but Al’s wisdom is what the church urgently needs today. I was so impressed by how broad and holistic he could be – this passage comes in a section about reconciling with creation – while always remaining specific and applicable. I hope a whole bunch of American Christians and their pastors read this book carefully.

Five Favorite Books of 2018

Once again it’s been tough to narrow down the books I read and enjoyed this year to just five. And as much as I recommend the books below, the entire exercise is pretty subjective; there are some terrific books that I’m passing over here. For example, He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman is every bit as beautiful as his last book and, similarly, reads somewhere between memoir and meditation on mystery, desire, and faith. I started the year with Ron Chernow’s thick biography on Ulysses S. Grant. Maybe it’s because I keep returning to this era of American history – I’m currently in the new Frederick Douglass biography – but I found the story of this famous general and, in Chernow’s estimation, misunderstood president to be totally fascinating. The section about reconstruction after the Civil War was especially interesting and, inevitably, maddening. Marylinne Robinson’s new collection of essays is excellent and I finally finished Augustine’s City of God, a book I probably should have begun again as soon as I finished. My friend José Humphreys’ new book, Seeing Jesus in East Harlem, is many things – memoir; theological reflection on geography, race, culture, church, and more; the church-planting guide we need – but it is first of all beautiful and eye-opening.  Anyway, you get the idea: the books below are great and there are a bunch of others that could have joined them on my little list.

What I read this year was significantly impacted by the book I’m writing. The first four books on this list are ones I’ve engaged with in one chapter or another, but their appeal should be much larger than my relatively narrow focus on race and discipleship. My manuscript is due early next year and I’m looking forward to picking up some of the books that have had to sit on the shelves this year.

As always, I’d love to know what good stuff you read this year.


 

Raising White Kids: Bring Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey (2018).

Raising White Kids

I wasn’t expecting to like this book as much as I did. While I really appreciated Jennifer Harvey’s previous book, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, I wasn’t sure what to anticipate from a book that focuses so narrowly on white children. After having highlighted passages on just about every page, I’m now ready to force this book upon every unsuspecting parent of white children I come across! There a few things that make this book so engaging and Harvey such a trustworthy guide. First, her starting point is a commitment to racial justice – and raising white children with this commitment – rather than vague appeals to appreciating cultural diversity. The difference this makes is hard to overstate. Second, though her concern in this pages is for white children along with their parents and guardians, Harvey is herself situated among a racially diverse community. Her voice, in other words, is shaped and tempered by the wisdom that can only come from being in a genuine relationships with people of color. It’s not hard to find white authors who approach topics like this one with the tone-deafness and blind spots that betray the racial homogeneity of their own experiences. Thankfully the reader will find none of this in Raising White Kids. Finally, Harvey never oversimplifies. She allows what must be complicated and even incomplete to remain so. Her goal when it comes to raising racially conscious white children has more to do with character than a long list of specific competencies.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter (2011).

The History of White People

It took me some time to make my way through historian Nell Irvin Painter’s study on the development of white people as a recognizable category of people. In part this had to do with how totally comprehensive she is but I was also slowed down by the regular realizations of just how strange the very fact of white people is. If there’s one thing that comes up over and over again in Painter’s many short chapters, it’s that there was never anything inevitable about racial whiteness; the construct itself represents this devious mix of malicious intentionality and the strange accidents of history. Most interesting to me were Painter’s portrayals of the key figures who advanced the development of whiteness or who embodied these developments in some way. People like Emerson and Teddy Roosevelt join other lesser-known figures to help us see the very human side of something that has become so systemic that it takes a book like this one to remind us of how absurd the entire thing is.

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown (2018).

I'm Still Here

I realize the first three titles in this list have some variety of “white” in their title, but such has been the nature of my reading this year. And yes, I’ve already written about my friend Austin’s book, but I couldn’t help by mention it again. For a book that I read in one sitting  – both times I read it – I’m Still Here covers a lot of ground. It’s a testament to Austin’s wisdom that she includes so much depth in a succinct space. One of the themes she covers with insight is the experience of black people and other people of color in organizations that are white. Those of us who are white and lead organizations of any kind can benefit greatly from how these experiences are narrated with tenderness and nuance. Sure, sometimes its large and visible moments which force a largely white organization to confront the assumptions and biases its hidden from itself. But, as Austin shows, just as often its moments that seem much smaller from the organization’s vantage point but which, of course, wreak havoc in the life of the person of color who must bear the weight of the racism.

I’ll say one last thing about this book. Earlier this year I helped with a weekend racial reconciliation journey through the American South. During our final debrief, one of the participants, an older woman who’d grown up in a institutionally segregated southern town, pulled out Austin’s book. As she described how important I’m Still Here has been to her I couldn’t help but thank God for what a gift Austin has given to so many of us.

Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community by Simon Chan (2006).

Liturgical Theology

When I began writing a chapter about liturgy for my book I reached out on social media for suggestions and this was one of the recommendations that came back. (Each time I’m tempted to quit social media I’ll have an exchange like that one!) I ended up drawing pretty heavily on Chan’s work, in part because I came to this chapter aware of my own limited knowledge about how the church has thought about the Sunday liturgy, but also for how he frames the liturgy within a very robust ecclesiology. In the first chapter, “The Ontology of the Church,” Chan asks this framing question: “Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself?”  For the author the answer is the latter which to many Christians may not seem all that significant, but it’s a game-changer in terms of how we think about the purpose of the church. The implications for liturgy – for how the church worships – are many, but it was this unexpected starting point that hooked me from the beginning.

Black Elk The Life of an American Visionary by Joe Jackson (2016).

Black Elk

Over the past few years, under the direction of a friend who is Oglala Lakota, I’ve been reading Native American authors and trying to slowly fill in the massive gaps in my knowledge about the history – and ongoing presence – of the many people and nations who inhabited North America long before my ancestors arrived here. This summer, on our drive home from Washington State, our family spent an afternoon at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. It ended up being a pretty powerful experience for me: listening to the Native ranger talk about the battle interspersed with his own more current experiences, walking through the quite hills past markers of fallen soldiers, trying to remember my little knowledge about what happened before and after this one particular moment.

Black Elk participated in that battle and earlier during the summer I’d picked up some paperbacks that narrate his reflections and experiences. This biography fills in a of the backstory to this particular healer and holy man whose life has to be read to be believed. Black Elk traveled the world, fought alongside his people, experienced immeasurable loss all while bearing the burden of a spiritual vision that pointed toward a day of peace for all people. It was a remarkable life and many more should know about this fascinating and important man.

Children, Discipleship, and the Painful Way of Jesus

Is it a lost cause?This morning I wrapped up a draft chapter about children’s ministry for the book on discipleship and race I’m working on. I began my ministry serving children, but that’s been quite a few years ago so it was good to spend a couple of weeks reading and thinking deeply about the church’s kids. There were a number of books and articles that were helpful to me – Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids is a treasure and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin have written a great book about incorporating children in worship – but a theme in Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? is probably what will stick with me the most.

Dawn writes repeatedly about the ways American culture forms us to avoid pain. She says that “one of the glaring characteristics of contemporary U.S. culture is the insistence that life be comfortable, easy, entirely without any kind of suffering.” Though she doesn’t make this connection, it seems to me that this tendency is especially pronounced within white churches whose experiences of racial privilege become conflated with our discipleship to Jesus.

The expectation that we must avoid pain is, as Dawn points out, totally incompatible with Jesus’ own experience. “Jesus himself suffered in every way imaginable – not only the pain and shame of the cross, but also homelessness, foreign oppression, the need to escape terror and live as a refugee. He lived as one who had no place to lay his head.” And then, of course, there was the crucifixion.

What Dawn is pointing out – and what I hope to contextualize to the goal of discipling white children away from racism – is how our discipleship to Jesus will inevitably lead us through pain. We must invite our children and their parents to come to see their pain – to really see it – as an opportunity to meet the crucified Savior more intimately and to then follow him more closely on the way to redemption.

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here Austin Channing BrownI recently reread Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown. I’ve written before about the way Coates’ writing often provokes people to ask whether he is hopeful, particularly in the realm of racial equity and justice. I’ve suggested that because what so often passes as hope for Americans is actually more like optimism, Coates’ apparent hopelessness is a more Christian expression of our reality than the one espoused by many Christians, privileged ones like me in particular.

Austin has also noticed this obsession with hope in how people look to Coates for some sort of comfort. She writes, “People read his words about America – about its history, about its present, about the realities of living in a Black body – and then demand hopefulness. It boggles the mind.” Indeed, though from the vantage point of those whose privilege has shielded us from this nation’s racism, maybe not. As Coates observers,

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.

And so, rather than face the realities which Coates describes, we ask about hope. Or, rather, we ask to be given hope. To be soothed with hope.

As with Coates, Austin’s book demonstrates the madness of these questions. In particular, it is her descriptions of working within predominately white spaces that gives us an idea about the assumptions behind these questions. There is something obscene about asking the person who has described the system of oppression that constantly crashes upon her body to make me feel better. Yet, time and again, this is how it goes down. When we ask about hope, many of us are actually saying,  Let us not talk anymore about your suffering or our complicity with it. Tell me, instead, that I will be OK.

For Austin, in order to remain engaged in the work of justice – not to mention the pursuit of dignity in a racist and sexist society – what passes for hope in this country had to die. “The death of hope gives way to a sadness that heals, to anger that inspires, to a wisdom that empowers me the next time I get to work, pick up my pen, join a march, tell my story.” This death, in other words, is not something to fear. And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery.”

On the other side of this death, says Austin, is the shadow of hope. From within this shadow we believe and work having shed all optimism. “It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointments and then getting back to work… It is knowing that God is God and I am not.” Though she doesn’t quite say it, I think the shadow of hope that Austin describes is one in which faith is given an honored seat. Whereas American hope demands proof, no matter how deceptive, the shadow of hope allows us to move forward, even in the deepest shadows, by way of faith.

Austin has given us something far better than the hope so many have clamored for. She’s given us the truth.

Educating or Exploiting?

What are we doing hereA couple of weeks ago, over a late lunch of wings and fries, a member of our church pointed out to me that the community colleges that offer vocational training – food service, auto mechanics, etc. – are mostly located in our city’s black and brown neighborhoods. My friend, an African American man, noticed this as he was looking for a school to take paralegal classes; he found that they were all located miles away from his family’s home on the South Side.

I thought about this while reading “An American Scholar Now”, an essay in Marilynne Robinson’s new book, What Are We Doing Here? She writes, “The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy, the economy of the future.” The essay is a reflection on the turn away from liberal arts education toward something more pragmatic and technical. She goes on,

This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some regions and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to this use, to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is not suggestion that the gifts they might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge have place or value in this future world, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training.

There’s so much in these few sentences. For one, Robinson points to how some vague national competition shapes how we imagine educating our children. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in rooms with committed teachers and principals listening to a bureaucrat drone on about the fact that these days our kids aren’t just competing with children in another city but with students across the world. (For some reason China is usually emblematic in these pep talks, evoked with a sense of impending dread.) It’s not that education itself is valuable or that educators have a role in helping students discover “the gifts they might bring to the world.” No, the metaphor is almost always competitive- education as a means to an end where some win and others loose.

Robinson is thinking about higher education but, from my vantage point, the same assumptions have overtaken our public education system. And this is where my friend’s lunchtime observation is more acute. In the same way that, in Robinson’s terminology, training rather than education is more accessible in black and brown neighborhoods, so this pragmatic and competitive approach is more likely to be foisted upon lower income communities than their wealthier equivalents. While private schools and affluent suburban public schools tout small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios, our public schools are evaluated by whether they maximize efficiency through standardized testing and highly disciplined classrooms that can be managed with the bare minimum of adult instruction. Students who might otherwise be suspended are kept in school so that the precious federal dollars which are tied to attendance will keep flowing.

I suppose none of this is surprising. Elsewhere in her essay Robinson writes that in America, “The Citizen has become the Taxpayer.” She’s thinking about how we consider our responsibilities toward one another, but the images can extend to how we think about our children. Are they future citizens, capable of contributing their gifts to a world that wants and needs them, or simply tax payers into a system built to maximize efficiency and productivity? Are they people or resources? The answers should matter to all of us, but as my friend points out, they will carry far more significance to the children whose communities have generally been viewed as resources to exploit rather than people to cultivate.

Five Favorite Books of 2017

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

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

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


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

Dorothy Day The World Will Be Saved By Beauty

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

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

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

Shalom and the Community of Creation

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

We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang (2016)

We Gon Be Alright

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

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

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927)

Death Comes for the Archbishop

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

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

The Half Has Never Been Told

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

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

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