My Year With Books

How long is a year? A few days ago our oldest son counted off the few remaining days until the beginning of a new year and that remaining time seemed both impossibly short and interminably long. We sat around the dinner table that same evening wondering about whether our boys might begin the semester online rather than returning to their classrooms. Should our church take a break from in-person worship for a couple of Sundays, returning to the less-than-ideal days of virtual church? This year has seemed very long.

This summer, just before the boys made their return to school after the long disruption, I picked up two books which had been written during the pandemic. Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie both take some aspects of our shared sorrow as their backgrounds. For Adichie the pain is especially pronounced; her beloved father died at a moment of global lock-down. Her searing and specific reflections of those days were a reminder of how these pandemic days have left their mark on each of us, even if the impact is not proportionately felt. Mostly these authors left me in awe that from the eye of the storm they were already making some kind of tentative meaning of it.

Making meaning of these past two years has been a pervasive temptation for me. I want to stand in front of our congregation and say something insightful, something which helps us to pull back the veil of chaos and reveal something we can make sense of. The temptation is to say more than is possible to say and to say it far to quickly. It wasn’t intentional, but thankfully I read a number of books that chastened this instinct: Soul Care in African American Practice, A Spiritual Formation Workbook, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Planting a Church Without Losing Your Soul, and A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves. In their own ways, each of these was a warning against prescriptive language. No matter how much I might want to be useful, the Christian instinct in these sorts of days is simpler; we are asked to describe to God and one another our daily experience of trouble and joy and to trust that God is present to each no matter how small or spectacular.

Two of these sorts of anchoring books were especially helpful. St. John Chrysostom wrote the sermons found in On Wealth and Poverty sometime in the late fourth century from his position in Constantinople. Each of the sermons takes the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as its text to show the dangers of wealth to his congregation. For example, “As for you, my beloved, if you sit at table, remember that from the table you must go to prayer. Fill your belly so moderately that you may not become too heavy to bend your knees and call upon your God.” The latter sermons were delivered after an earthquake hit the city, leaving the people fearful and questioning God’s intentions. While the archbishop is much quicker to explain God’s motives behind the disaster than I could ever be, his love for his people, particularly the vulnerable, in the middle of such a painful time is obvious. He asks, “When the earthquake came, I reflected with myself and said, where is theft? Where is greed? Where is tyranny? Where is arrogance? Where is domination? Where is oppression? Where is the plundering of the poor? Where is the arrogance of the rich? Where is the domination of the powerful? Where is intimidation? Where is fear?”

About a thousand years latter St. John of the Cross wrote The Dark Night of the Soul. In it he reflected on the seasons of spiritual distance many Christians feel between ourselves and God. Framing these experiences as a divinely ordained part of the process of spiritual maturation, St. John suggests that there isn’t much to do during these times other than to accept the desolation as part of a good God’s plan to make us less dependent on our own experiences and more at rest in the simple reality of God’s presence with us.

Both of these St. Johns ask us to believe in the goodness of God under great duress. Poverty, earthquakes, the dark night, and the the like become fertile ground for a faith stripped of its unnecessary supports. There has been a lot of talk about deconstructing faith this year and I’m not the person to add much to that conversation. I am, however, convinced that too many of our Christian traditions have forgotten the hard-won wisdom of previous generations. We’ve failed to tell our younger people that following Jesus will always involve wilderness and exile. The stripping power of revelation – whether of my own heart or of a people who’ve lost their way – is always painful even as it is always necessary. God will not leave us comfortable in our hypocrisy. What if we told younger Christians to expect these seasons of revelation, to welcome them even? Might we remember that discomfort and desolation are often a sign of God’s loving activity in our lives?

I was thinking about these things in July when I had the good fortune to spend a week in East Harlem. One day, a few months earlier, I’d been sitting at my desk and slowly became aware of how tired and lonely I was. After so many months of relative isolation, it dawned on this introvert how starved I was for friendships unmitigated by a screen. So, with my wife’s encouragement and the church’s support, I spent a week in one of my favorite cities. Each day my plans were limited to one long, lingering meal with a different friend. Most mornings I spent some time working on a project related to the dark night before heading out to good food with some wonderful people. The city felt strangely normal; this was during the window between vaccinations and the next viral wave. When I walked into the gargantuan Strand Bookstore it was shocking to see so many people browsing the stacks. I collected my books, including Against Everything by Mark Grief, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, and Stephen King’s On Writing, and walked over to Union Square. Sitting there, surrounded by the regulars and the tourists in the company of my little stack of books, was about as normal as I’d felt for a while.

Spending time with The Dark Night and On Wealth and Poverty was important during a year when, in some corners at least, the pastoral vocation took a beating. For example, Christianity Today produced a podcast about the spectacular collapse of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and listening to how its pastor grasped for power felt representative of a lot of the church hurt I’ve watched people suffer in recent years. A collection of sermons by Rev. Gardner C. Taylor was a quiet reminder of the slow and patient work which characterizes good pastoral work. (It’s my practice, on the Saturday nights before preaching, to read one sermon by another preacher. In addition to Taylor, I’ve let the sermons of Fleming Rutledge and Martin Luther King put me to sleep.) In different ways a collection of Dorothy Day’s writings, Winn Collier’s biography of Eugene Peterson, and Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Jack, did the same. Books like these help me imagine being an open-handed pastor who rejects our culture’s values of manipulations and control for something more attuned to God and to life. “The pastor,” writes Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, “is God’s spy searching out ways of grace.” May God give us more of these sorts of women and men to shepherd his church.

There was another group of books, this one having nothing to do with church, which also nourished my pastoral imagination. I’m spending time with different nature writers for – hopefully! – an upcoming project and I regularly find the themes and metaphors in these books for gentle and brave ministry practices. Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm is one of those writers. A World on the Wing, We Are Each Other’s Harvest, Saving Us, and The Heartbeat of Trees provided glimpses into worlds of trees, Black farmers, climate, and forests and each, in their distinct ways, show the interconnectedness of all living things. In the way of fiction, I loved The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book that completely sucked me in and inspired a day trip to the giant redwoods during a recent trip to northern California. It also pointed me to Finding the Mother Tree, the book I’m ending this very long year with. In Belonging: A Culture of Place bell hooks does similar biological work but with people, testifying to the deeply human need to be related kindly to a place and the many forms of life it sustains. This is a book I’ll return to as I continue working out my own thinking about how we’re meant to care for God’s creation even as it cares for us.

It’s a difficult thing, isn’t it, stepping into a new year facing the same terrible memories of the previous two years? Most of the people I talk with these days are holding fatigue and frustration just below the surface. Simply trying to keep up with the latest protocols feels like an impossible task with monumental consequences. Spending time with these books during this awfully long year has been the dose of perspective I needed. Whether through the lenses of saints long departed, nature bearing up under so much human neglect, or stories – imagined and true – of ordinary people navigating strange and desperate circumstances, these books have helped me to see a bit further down the road than I’d have been able to otherwise. And that’s the gift of reading, right?

Here’s the list of everything I read in 2021.

Five Favorite Books from 2019

I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a bad year of reading, but if there is, this wasn’t it. I got to review some very interesting books: The 21 (see below), Passionate for Justice, and The Color of Life for The Englewood Review of Books and Whole and Reconciled for Missio Alliance which, along with I Bring the Voices of My People (see below), has influenced my perspective on racial reconciliation. A friend recommended Beyond the Abortion Wars which I in turn also recommend for tender and charitable engagement about a reality which can seem impossible to talk about in mixed company. I loved David Blight’s biography about Frederick Douglass and I learned so much from The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer’s stark and beautiful reminder that Native American life continues with a diversity of expressions all over this country. I could go on: N.T. Wright’s biography about Paul was the perfect companion for our travels in Greece, The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates surpassed my high expectations, and I finally got to Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. I’ve been doing a bit of bird watching and Maggie gave me God’s of the Morning as a birthday gift. Oh, and I finished The Crucifixion by Flemming Rutledge early in the year. A genuine masterpiece!

So, as I do each year, here are five of my favorites from a list full of favorites. There is biography, theology, history, and whatever The 21 is on this list. I hope there’s something here that piques your readerly interest.

The 21 by Martin Mosebach (2019).

When I wrote a review of The 21 for The Englewood Review of Books earlier this year, I began with this:

I am ashamed to admit that I had forgotten about the twenty-one men whose beheading in Libya by ISIS fighters was broadcast around the world in 2015. In the ensuing years my memory has constricted to the frenetic pace of our world’s rolling timeline of disasters and tragedies, whether close to home or, as with those young men kneeling before their masked captors, on a lonely beach on the other side of the world. It was the cover image on Martin Mosebach’s recently translated book, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, that jostled my mind. On it we see a procession of bound men in orange jumpsuits, their heads bent under the heavy hands of their captors, dressed head to toe in black. Even those readers who had forgotten this story, or had somehow managed to miss it the first time, will understand that this choreographed march will end terribly for the men in orange.

Of all the books I read this year, this may be the one that has most stayed with me. Mosebach’s account of the men’s deaths and their lives has worked its way into my memory. I’ve found myself mentioning these stories throughout the year, awed by the Coptic Church’s risky witness to Jesus.

Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in African and the West by Esther E. Acolatse (2018).

Originally from Ghana, Esther E. Acolatse brings her perceptive eye to this study on the different ways Christians in the West and global South think about supernatural realities. Engaging with theologians like Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Wink, and Karl Barth, the author holds up western assumptions about the spiritual life against the experience and perspective of churches in Africa. Seeing these differences as one of the major points of distance between these regions, this is a project worth undertaking.

Acolatse wants to call all Christians back to accounts of spiritual warfare found in Scripture. “Accounts of evil from the global South currently lack appropriate attention to personal complicity and guilt as well as structural dimensions; but accounts from the global North also emphasize the individual and structural dimensions without giving sufficient attention to extra human components.” It’s this larger hermeneutic of the spiritual powers that she is after in these pages.

This is an academic book with all of the accompanying analysis. But Acolatse is not a dispassionate observer; there is a conviction that runs through the book, occasionally erupting in passion. A longer quote will illustrate this.

It is probably that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times – through to our current times – has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral, morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-Glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended… We seem to have exegeted (almost exorcised) the power out of the Logos and propped it up with philosophy.

I’ve come to think that, for those of us engaged in the work of racial reconciliation, a strong emphases on the spiritual nature of evil and oppression is vital. Forgetting this leaves us confused about the true nature of our fight. Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit is a helpful and at times jarring reminder.

A Surprised Queenood in the New Black Sun by Angela Jackson(2017).

I like the idea of reading poetry more than I actually like reading poetry. But that has changed some in recent years and the poet who is responsible for this is Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks was a life-long resident in the communities where we live and do ministry and reading her helps me not only imagine what the neighborhoods were like fifty or sixty years ago, but also what I have missed today.

In A Surprised Queenhood the author, also a poet, tells us Brooks’ story. This was a woman seemingly born a poet; it was the thing she always wanted to be. We learn too about her community, Bronzeville, and the many currents then shaping this community to which black citizens were migrating from racial terror in the south. We also see how Brooks’ conception of being a black poet changed over the years, how younger artists and poets shaped her vision and voice.

An older pastor once told a gathering of pastors that each of us should have “our” poet. By this I think he meant we should have that one poet whose work we continue to turn to for help in gaining some perspective about our own lives and circumstances and our own small place in the world. This is what Brooks has done for me. As a small example, here’s one of her short poems, provoked by the lynching of Emmett Till. And be sure to watch this creative rendition of what is probably her best-known poem, “We Real Cool.”

The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till

(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett’s mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

The War Before the War by Andrew Delbanco (2018).

I began the year with David Blight’s really great biography of Frederick Douglass and ended it with Delbanco’s history of the Fugitive Slave Act. In fact, I’ve recently found myself spending a lot of time in the years surrounding the Civil War. The more I learn about the debates and political maneuverings leading up to the war and the responses and betrayals following it, the more I feel that I understand some of the instincts motivating our own fraught American moment.

Delbanco takes the Fugitive Slave Act, passed eleven years before the war began, as a lens through which to view and interpret the roiling debates and civic, religious, and cultural clashes leading to it. At the heart of these debates is the simple question of personhood: Can an enslaved person who liberates herself be thought of as having stolen herself? Can you be held accountable for freeing yourself when the place you were held captive never saw you as fully human? To most in the south the answer was clear and the demand that fugitives be prosecuted and returned rang loud and clear. To many in the north the answer was murkier. Even those who found slavery reprehensible were often willing to accept the status quo as a matter of law and order. Delbanco reminds us that the war between the states, and the horror which led to it, implicated both the north and south.

I Bring the Voices of My People by Chanequa Walker-Barnes (2019).

Chanequa Walker-Barnes is a uniquely qualified guide to the world of Christian racial reconciliation. Having led in these spaces, she now reflects from a theological vantage point that finds much to critique. For example, with other students of the movement, she views multi-ethnic churches as regularly defaulting to white cultural norms and inevitably avoiding the sources of racial injustice. This is an important and very necessary criticism.

But Walker-Barnes is not content only to level critique. Rather, this book is a vision of what reconciliation could be, especially if the voices and experiences of women of color were to lead the way. So, for example, this way forward is unafraid to identify white supremacy as the source of racial injustice, rather than the relatively benign relational separateness that is so often the focus in white-led reconciliation ministries. (I couldn’t help rehearsing my own book as I was reading. While I can’t be sure, I think that my own suggestions about addressing racial injustice fall in line with Walker-Barnes’ justice focus.)

Throughout the book I wondered if the author would ever abandon the language of reconciliation. Such has been the tendency over the past 3-5 years in the circles I travel. But no.

For me and many others, only one thing keeps us on a journey in which we are destined to encounter people who devalue our personhood: captivity. That is, we are held captive by the understanding that reconciliation is core to the gospel, that it reflects God’s intention for humanity, and that it is central to our identity as Christians.


Will there be racists in heaven?

I wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

A few weeks ago a friend retweeted a well-known bishop who is vocal in his opposition to racism who had declared something along the lines of: I’d rather not go to heaven if I’ve got to be there with white evangelicals. To this my friend added, “I hope to have a good conversation with the bishop about this a few thousand years from now.” To his witty response, I commented,

Reminds me of a large group conversation I was in yesterday…

Person: “Will there be racists in heaven?”

Me under my breath: “I sure as heck hope so or I’m in a world of hurt.”

I’m still thinking about this short exchange. I think my friend’s response was right: I expect many of us will be surprised about who we’re spending eternity with. And I think mine was too: If sin of any kind – including racist ones – is going to keep someone from heaven than I’m out.

And yet. I think there’s more to wonder about here.

During the same meeting I mentioned in my Twitter comment we found ourselves discussing which Christian doctrines are worth going to the mat for and which fall into an agree-to-disagree category. Or, to use the language of the bishop’s provocative tweet, which Christian beliefs can be considered central-enough to salvation that they might impact a person’s salvation? In our meeting the example of racism was brought up. Might one’s posture toward racism be an example of something that, however odious and deadly, might be considered a non-essential to Christian orthodoxy?

You can imagine that there were some differing opinions on this question. Those of us for whom racism remains largely in the abstract – a sin to resist and repent of – were willing to consider it a matter of great importance, but perhaps not raised to the level of orthodoxy. (I don’t know for sure, but I imagine for some of us white Christians this open-heartedness has to do with those family members we love who remain happily ensconced in their racism. It’s tough for us to talk about the theological significance of one’s beliefs about race when the people we’re talking about are grandma and grandpa.)

And then there were those whose experience with race and racism is absolutely real. They experience in their bodies the desecration of the imago Dei and there is nothing secondary or peripheral about it.

In her important new book, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision for Racial Reconciliation, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, writes plainly about the heretical nature of racism and white supremacy.

Racism is an interlocking system of oppresion that is designed to promote and maintain White supremacy, the notion that White people – including their bodies, aesthetics, beliefs, values, customs, and culture – are inherently superior to all other races and therefore should wield dominion over the rest of creation, including other people groups, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.

Racism, Walk-Barnes points out repeatedly, is not a matter of private prejudice or relational separateness; it is a matrix of beliefs and behaviors which systematically elevate some at the expense of another person’s suffering. Viewed – experienced – thusly, it’s hard to make a case that racism is anything other than a central concern of Jesus’ gospel. And so it must be for all of his followers too.

Living Justly Amidst Moral Complexity

I’ve started a personal newsletter which, so far, I’ve been posting weekly. I’ve not yet figured out its connection to this blog, but something I wrote for it seems to fit here. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

I’m reading Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In it he shows how central the nation’s debate about slavery was to its understanding of its identity. In the introduction he writes,

It is too simple to tell this tale as a fable of good versus evil, not because of any ambiguity about the evil of slavery itself but because – given the facts of antebellum politics, the compulsion of economic interests, and the constitutional protections slaveholders enjoyed – it was far from clear how the evil could be destroyed. “Humanity cries out against this vast enormity,” Herman Melville wrote in 1849, “but not one man knows a prudent remedy. By “prudent” he meant some way of destroying slavery without destroying the union itself. Nor was this a matter of two competing goods: abolition on the one hand versus union on the other. There was reason to believe that destroying the union would actually strengthen slavery rather than weaken it. If the constitutional guarantee of the right of slave masters to recover their runaway slaves were to collapse, an outraged South might go its own way, emboldened to build a slave-based empire beyond the limits of the United States.

Delbanco’s point about the complicated factors facing abolitionists has me thinking about the responsibilities facing those who oppose today’s injustices. Do we too often frame these fights simplistically, as though they are matters of easily chosen right and wrong? Imagine, for example, being an abolitionist or free Black person in the decades before the Civil War. What if your efforts led to greater power for the slave states and, thus, more enslaved people overall? What is your responsibility amidst such awful ambiguity?

I wonder, though, if the real moral complexities identified by Delbanco are experienced differently by Christians. People like Frederick Douglass, to take just one example, never wavered about the imperative to reject slavery no matter the political costs. For him, as David Blight shows in his recent biography, his reading of Scripture and personal experience of the wickedness of slavery, made him impatient with those who allowed murky political possibilities to slow down the work of liberating actual people. Might one of the things that sets Christians apart in the battle for justice be that we move forward in the face of the many unknowns, convinced that we’ll never know enough and assured that the righteous God goes before us?

“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.

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.