We are grateful for those who read, and even shared with others, our previous BookNotes, that list of what I take to be some important fairly recent books on race and racism that we’ve stocked in the last year. There were some good ones I missed, some I didn’t list because we had already pushed them a bit, and a few that are forthcoming, soon to be released that we will mention soon enough. But it was still a strong, current list.
I want to add this short addendum to that last BookNotes. I feared getting a bit long and I didn’t want you to lose interest so I wrapped it up prematurely. Here, now, is a quickie shout-out to six more important books about this topic that simply must be mentioned. The one I’ll start with is one I’ve already written about (and I even did a little facebook video announcement the day it came, just one month ago.) It is by Cole Arthur Riley, a friend that Beth and I both admire; it is her debut release, and I hope, not her last.
This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us Cole Arthur Riley. (Convergent) $26.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.80
Cole Arthur Riley is a very talented writer and has hit a home run with this intergenerational memoir laden with poetic and creative reflections, Bible lessons, personal stories, ruminations on other great literature. It is filled with lament and laughter, too, making it a very compelling read. It do not mean to make it sound cheap like some bodice ripper or pulp fiction but it is a page-turner. She moves from creative reflection to hard, even painful stories of her family, to intimate details from her girlhood — her dad braiding her hair, her ashen knees, her taking up ballet with other little girls but having the wrong color shoes, her weird feelings listening to an overheated and overly graphic preacherman. She tells of contemporary stuff — eye surgery, her struggle with a chronic illness that has her in a wheelchair during a very special trip to Paris, her husband tying her shoes, her interest in combining a life of spiritual contemplation and rigorous social activism, their re-naming their new property outside of Ithaca which had been named after the owner in 1820 (“we didn’t like the idea of adopting the name of a man who might’ve hated me or my Blackness or our love.”)
Her gramma is in the book a lot and it is a privilege to get to know her a bit. She treated Cole tenderly and honestly and she has some remarkable spunk. (“Chile, I grew up on Spam and Daniel and the lion’s den” she says when talking about her own abuse and finding some solace in Bible stories.
In wise lines, Cole reflects on these remarkable insights — not exactly character lessons, but deep wisdom of how things can be — from her gramma; in wondering why God did protect her from hunger (or the abuse from a man in the family, known only as “the man who was not her father”) she writes that “her belief in the existence of God was durable, which did not reduce her anger but enlarged it.”
Her father is an even more colorful figure than her gramma, and it is worth the price of the book to learn of their relationship. He was a hustler, struggled with some hard stuff, seems to have a heart of gold. The father-daughter stuff here is, in the style good memoir, shown, not told, which is to say she bears witness their life together and the stories — like the stories of her grandmothers abuse (religiously and sexually and socially) — are redemptive. I have post-it notes in my copy of the manuscript citing passages I could quote (or read out loud if I were doing a book talk on it) and many are beautifully told episodes about her dad. I won’t spoil it for you, but you should know that this is curious sort of intergenerational memoir, and one that fiercely believes that stories such as these matter. I made me glad for her vivid memory, for her extended families willingness to tell the stories (it is apparently quite the custom, as many of these tales have been recited often, she notes) and for the hard work (mentioned only briefly at the end) of interviewing family members and getting these oral histories while there was still time. Yes, as she puts it near the stunningly beautiful final page, “stories are our greatest teachers.”
I believe my ancestors knew things about freedom I can’t even begin to articulate myself. Maybe liberation is not as linear as we assume. Each generation may seem more liberated, but there are always new forms of bondage — virtue signals, digital radicalization, activism perfected by a disordered appetite for influence. It is much better, then, to learn what freedom sounds like. Just because you’ve found it once doesn’t mean you will never wander again. We must teach our children and our children’s children what it means to be free. What it feels like to be whole. To exhale. And stories are our great teachers.
This Here Flesh is arranged in a way where each chapter carries a theme. It is not (as with her popular Black Liturgies instagram) primarily a devotional, let alone short quotable for serious inspiration. Nor is it straight memoir. It is a combo of reflection, story, exegesis —of her life, her past, the Bible, her changing faith — and delivered with exquisite lines.
Most chapters start with what might be considered a creative writing entry. Some will adore these poetic ruminations, these artful word-images that bring to mind what the highbrow lit crit folks call magical realism. Like a good poem, these ought not to be rushed through, and, mystified, I’ve returned more than once to a few. Next comes a story, full of lively lines, great stories, powerful images. But these segue easily into reflections on what Ms Riley seems to think about the world, her faith, her journey towards a deeper, honest sort of spirituality and her own interior life. Much of the book is an interrogation, as the deconstructive scholars say, of standard fare evangelical religiosity.
She has never been a card-carrying, straight-arrow, evangelical theologian (thanks be to God, some of her friends will cry!) but yet she knows that world well. Some of her most passionate entries — I’d call them tirades but that sounds negative; sermons but that sounds too self-righteous, calling them discourses sounds too aloof — are in reaction to unkind or uncreative ideas and habits she’s noticed within that subculture. (I chuckled when she mentioned hipster guys who use beard oil and read C.S. Lewis. I was less amused when she rightly chastised those in the movement integrating faith and work for being, as most admit, seem to be aligned solely with the well-monied professional class and less interested in poor and blue collar workers or those who are under- or unemployed. And I understood, I think, when she described being in a one-on-one Bible study at McDonalds as a college student and reported that she didn’t want Jesus in her heart, but wanted to meet him in the streets.)
In the pages of this nice hardback there are magically creative moments, very good storytelling, vulnerable self-reflection, and, yes, some rants. She insists — you’ll love it if you agree, but if you don’t, you may be persuaded by her truth telling passion —on much about the value of place, the goodness of the body, the importance of delight, the joy of wonder, the legitimacy of rage, the power of memory, the healing power of joy, the need for lament. I could go on; this young woman is a blessing to behold, as is her fervent commitments to peace and justice, to honesty and dignity, to liberation and freedom.
In a reflection on the story of Hagar (in Genesis 16) — which she admits she doesn’t like as it is mostly cruel — Ms Riley says, after noting that Hagar’s linage would be destined to exist in tension and struggle,
I am learning to attune myself to Hagar’s words in the story. Hagar names God “the God who sees”…Hagar’s story reminds me of the profound healing that can occur when someone is given the liberty to have their story told, their suffering named. To belong to a God who asks, Where have you come from?
Most of us will not have our stories told in such a public way, but reading alongside others, indwelling a bit with them in their own story, so generously told, is a great gift. I think This Here Flesh is just such a gift as we listen in on the family stories shared, as we feel with her her anxiety and regret, as we are offered glimpses into the life behind the popular “Black Liturgies.” We are stimulated as we follow Riley’s sharp mind as she interacts with novelist Alice Walker or theologian Miroslov Volf or mystic philosopher Simone Weil or the well chosen lines of poet Lucille Clifton. It is just such as gift as she tells us of her life, her hopes, her very flesh.
All The White Friends I Couldn’t Keep Andre Henry (Convergent) $26.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.80
As I write, this book has just released and I have not finished my copy that came a bit early. I knew a tiny bit about the frustrations (to put it mildly) this guy went through in his short time as the editor of the mostly white Relevant magazine (although there is a story from his time there that so bizarre one wonders what spirit has captured some folks.) I wanted to list this one in that previous BookNotes column, but it was just too new. I can say just the barest bones comments about it, but I believe this much to be true.
This is a powerful, powerful, book. It comes with a “warning” from the author (and from a few of the many who have offered endorsing blurbs.) As an aficionado of back cover blurbs, I sometimes grow weary of those who say a book is going to upset the status quo, that you will never be the same after savoring its pages, warning not to read it if you don’t want to be changed. I am not a cynic, not even about these overinflated endorsements (since, well, I’ve been tempted to be a bit breathy sometimes myself about such things.) In this case, I sense that this is all quite true. This is going to be a book that is easy to read, but hard to handle. He recounts conversation after conversation where white people (and some black friends, too, interestingly) say pretty dumb things, hurtful things. He has grown weary and has become a firm anti-racists with no time for this kind of slander or complicity with racist worldviews. The author, who writes for the Religious News Service, does a newsletter (which you should know about) which is called “Hope and Hard Pills.” He offers hope, to be sure, but there is what we might politely call candor. Or, what some might call some deep shit.
You might catch the theme of the book from the title — it is, in fact, the story of Henry’s decision to stop arguing about racism, to give up the illusion of being nice and forbearing and seeking common ground with gracious civility. (These are my words, not his.) His goal is to offer a proven path forward for people of color and it is not the way of merely getting along. One reviewer, a well known black author, says it is “militant, revelatory, and revolutionary in so many ways the world needs right now.”
Yet, his is not the way of power grabs or violence or inappropriate anger. Henry is, in fact, a student of nonviolence and has deeply considered how state-sanctioned violence (from overbearing police to colonial war-making) must be resisted with unflinching nonviolence. It is unclear to me if he most deeply draws on the traditions and ethics of Biblical pacifism — think of the Mennonites like Yoder or Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, say — or if he is motivated more by the broader movement of moral resistance of black church leaders like MLK, Bayard Rustin, or Vincent Harding. I do not, I’m a little ashamed to admit, know most of the names he cites in his footnotes. (Some of that is a generational thing, I suppose — I’m an old white guy in Pennsylvania, he’s a young, media-savvy LA activist, and is riffing off a dozen important underground journalists, protestors, organizers, artists, and emerging street-level spiritual leaders.) But I’m willing to learn. How this young guy came to a soul-filled political awakening is important to understand, I think, and I am eager to study this carefully.
One very interesting thing about All the White Friends…is how very global Andre Henry is. Although the book would have been written a year ago, a glance at the footnotes shows that some of his conversation partners are Eastern European — talk about timely when it comes to scheming ways to resist imperial power. One of the scholars he cites is Srdja Popovic of the respected Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (with whom he studied at the Kennedy School at Harvard, btw.)
Listen to this from Erica Chenoweth, author of the Oxford University Press book, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know
Poignant, urgent, and spot-on . . . In a narrative that is part memoir, part manifesto, and part how-to, Henry brilliantly weaves together his encounters with anti-Blackness and his political awakening with powerful observations about how nonviolent struggle can confront and transform racism. Don’t miss this profoundly important book.
I know that most of our BookNotes audience is white. I know many tilt towards the center, priding ourselves with our sober balance. This zealous book — although I think written mostly for black folks tired of these draining conversations and experiencing trauma from experiencing the news of the murders of names we all know — will be helpful for readers of all social circumstances and races. Writer Lauren Duca (of Teen Vogue, who has been called “the millennial feminist warrior queen of social media”, says it a mix of “memoir and manifesto.” Right on!
Forgiveness and Reparation, the Healing Journey Mpho Tutu van Furth (Fortress) $12.75 OUR SALE PRICE = $10.20
We have mentioned these small, thin, compact sized books in the recent “My Theology” series, before. There are more than a dozen of them — we are fond of Alister McGrath’s Return from a Distant Country and Malcolm Guite’s The Word Within the Words and I intend to read the recent Spirit Life by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. I look forward to “My Theology” released in May by Scot McKnight and Joan Chittister and John Swinton.
Forgiveness and Reparation may be, frankly, the most globally significant of them all. Mpho’s last book was one co-written with her famous daddy, The late Reverend Desmond Tutu. Like the others in this “My Theology” series, the author tells her story, explores how she got to the theological passions she has, and why her theology has the tone and texture it does. Here, she offers her principal tenets and her vision for reparations as “rightly engaged is part of a spiritual process of forgiveness and reconciliation.” Of course, this leads to questions of atonement and restorative justice and the need for acknowledgment of the damage done to the enslaved and colonized. As anyone familiar with her work, or Father Tutu’s, this process includes a “restoration of the lost humanity of the perpetrators and the repair of violated relationships.” You will learn the meaning of “Ndicela uxolo” even as many learned the power of Ubunto as a theological concept.
At under 80 pages (and including original poems and prayers) Forgiveness and Reparation, the Healing Journey is a challenge and a clarion call, short, gracious, Biblically-wise and vital.
Recovering Racists: Dismantling White Supremacy and Reclaiming Our Humanity Idelette McVicker (Brazos Press) $18.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.19
PRE-ORDER NOW NOT YET RELEASED // DUE April 12, 2022.
We wanted to highlight this now, and invited you to pre-order it —it is due out within the next few weeks. I’ve got an advanced copy of this and I am pleased to tell you that it is an amazing, vibrant, challenging piece of work. My goodness, what a story!
Idellete (the name of John Calvin’s wife, by the way, for those who like historical trivia) McVicker is a white, South African Woman and here she shares her journey away from racism, helping us realize that “grappling with the legacy of white supremacy is a lifelong work that requires both inner transformation and society change.” It is, as she puts it, “a long walk.”
After training as a journalist in South Africa, she lived in Taiwan where she wrote for daily newspapers. I think this gives her a certain style — reporting honestly, yes, delving deep as an investigator, yes, but also writing clearly, passionate but concise. Much of this is memoir as she tells her story, describes her own involvement in racial injustices, and how she has come to work for equity and repair.
She is the founder of SheLoves Media Society (an online forum for Christian women, a SheLoves magazine and the “Dangerous Women” membership community.) Her name might ring a bell for some who have heard of the “Let Us Be Women Who Love” curriculum which is cited in Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist. Bessey, herself a remarkable writer, says, “Idelette is one of my greatest teachers, and I recommend her work with my whole heart.”
“Idelette has done the work,” says Lisa Sharon Harper in the powerful foreword. She certainly has been earning from the best teachers, reading books by African and African Americans and others who have much to teach us. (In fact, she cites Mpho Tutu and Andre Henry, from his “Hope and Hard Pills” column, and authors as diverse as Ruby Sales to Ada Maria Isai-Diaz to Isabel Wilkerson to Anthony De Mello to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Kaitlin Curtice. I admire her learning, her transformation, and her energy to help us all grow into deeper repentance of our racial assumptions, attitudes, and apathies. I love the subtitle of Recovering Racists — “Dismantling White Supremacy and Reclaiming Our Humanity.”
A beautiful, honest invitation to a better way of being human in which we embrace each other fully–I hope you’ll accept it. — Kaitlin B. Curtice, author of Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God
A heartbreakingly honest and gloriously transparent account of the other side of racism, the one most of us deny. I hope and pray that everyone everywhere will read this book. — Danielle Strickland, communicator, advocate, and author of Better Together
An absolute must-read for white people seeking to be recovering racists and anti-racists. — Karen González, immigration advocate and author of The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong
Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World —and How to Repair It All Lisa Sharon Harper ( Brazos Press) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
I wrote this a few weeks ago suggesting that this would be a fine book to study during Lent, a reflective, moving, story, inviting us all to repentance and renewal in the work of restoration. It has to be on any list of the best books about this released in the last year or so. Here is some of what I wrote:
We have announced this a time or two, first inviting folks to pre-order it (thanks to those who did) and then, again, when it came out. I even mentioned it on that little video I did on facebook, the day This Here Flesh by Cole Arthur Riley released. And yet, I’ve still not done it justice. Fortune was a hard book to read in an odd way. It was not gratuitous about the pain of the whip or the fear of lynching that African Americans have felt in their very bodies and it was not even that detailed about the abuses poured upon people of color in the late 20th and today. No, the brokenness this book describes is plainspoken and informative, passionate, yet, but written in a restrained way, getting at the “way race broke my family” in a way that is inviting to all. Who doesn’t want to know something about their family ancestors? Who doesn’t get a bit touched by those Ancestory.com ads? And who doesn’t cheer for an underdog, facing plenty of obstacles in finding the backstory of family heritage. Those of us older enough to remember recall why Alex Haley’s Roots was such a huge best-seller, before and after the much-watched TV show that exposed all America to the hard history of enslaved peoples here in so-called God’s country.
The title of this book is the name of a relative of Lisa’s, one whose story she traces in one of several chapters, each bearing the name of an ancestor. The book is mostly a family story, but it is grounded in the present as Lisa wonderfully describes her journey to archives and websites and museums and follows old roads to find old homesteads and imagine that this, this, this right here was where some relatives once lived. Most of the book is set in the past but she narrates it through the three decades it took her to explore ten generations.
In this way readers are drawn in, eager to know more, almost as Lisa herself was piecing it together, finding this true story, recalling that anecdote, holding on to that family heirloom, discovering these records or those news clippings. It is common enough stuff, but she tells it well. She has us on the edge of our seats in a few sentences about waiting for DNA results.
But — let us speak honestly, here — most white or even non-white Americans who do their ancestry detective work, do not have to consult purchase orders and billing ladings for the purchase of their ancestors. And for black people in America, this damnable fact is true: most family records are smeared and smudged (metaphorically but perhaps literally) with blood. Lisa does not overstate the horror of this, looking up records of who was purchased by whom, and only hinted at how it made her feel to do this particular kind of detective work. It is, though, what makes Fortune a different sort of book than most others who have told their dramatic story of finding their ancient relatives and where in the older worlds they came from. In this sense, Fortune is gut wrenching, not because Lisa is melodramatic or overstated; again, she is not. Still, it is, as they say, what it is.
And some of what it is, is exciting and lovely, learning about great-greats, marriages, travels, and the birth of little ones. She learns of cousins and stories of creativity and endurance. Lisa weaves her family member’s stories in with her own, placing it all in the context of the unfolding history of modern times. Ms. Harper has been through a lot — we have gotten hints of some of it in her Very Good Gospel. There is more revealed in Fortune. The great Ruby Sales has a blurb on the back simply saying that “Harper is a masterful storyteller.” Amen to that.
I had read this in an advanced manuscript, and when the hardbacks came we were delighted, but I had my spiral bound manuscript all marked up and pages dog-eared. So I didn’t open the hardback right away and then I discovered the bonus — there are photographs of some of the people she writes about (Lee Ballard, born in 1836, Phillip Fortune, born in 1835, Reinaldo and Anita Weekes (wearing a great hat), up through a fabulous picture of Lisa’s mom Sharon Lawrence with Lisa as a baby, a picture taken in 1969.) You will actually lay eyes on Hiram, who you have read about, and Richie Lawrence and Willa Belle Jenkins visiting Junias on a military base in Michigan during WWII. I’m not usually a fan of pictures of people we don’t know in an autobiography but these are the people this book is about. I was so excited to see these, and it drew me back into the book for my second reading.
There is some very good stuff as the story draws to a close about repair. Obviously no simple religious “reconciliation” will do without a full account of truth and justice. She explores the meaning of guilt and the nature of forgiveness. She writes helpfully a bit about reparative justice. She cites a few good public theologians and social ethicists (and of course, tells of Desmond Tutu’s important work in South Africa, citing his powerful No Future Without Forgiveness.) Her message about the beloved community is moving and compelling and not without a challenge to be more active to the work.
Which makes this, my friends, a great book to read any time, but perhaps especially as a Lenten practice, to enter in to the story of another with such intentionality, to learn what she learns, to care, to be challenged.Is if fair to say this is, in some way, part of all of our stories, for better or worse? We owe Lisa a debt of gratitude. She waded in (as Sweet Honey in the Rock sing it, citing Harriet Tubman.) As one writer put it, “Fortune recovers the beauty of her heritage, exposes the brokenness that race has wrought in America, and casts a vision for collective repair.”
Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: A Biblical Theology of the People of God Jarvis J.Williams (Baker Academic) $24.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $19.99
When I saw this book first announced last year I was both thrilled and a bit intrigued; what more can be said about this since there are so many books extolling the Biblical and theological value of a multi-ethnic church and how the local congregation, complicated as it may be, should strive for modeling cross-cultural relationships and, obviously, racial justice. Whatever it would bring, I sure liked the title, and any author who thinks of the people of God in that frame — a diverse people, a Kingdom people, needing Biblical theology — is an author I’d want to take seriously.
Well, Redemptive Kingdom Diversity does indeed bring something very helpful to these conversations about diversity in the local parish. Dr. Williams is a professor of New Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written some solid, conventional, scholarly works (a commentary on Galatians, a book on the atonement, and one called One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology.) In this book he offers a comprehensive Biblical survey of the diverse people of God (from Genesis to Revelation.) This shows the multiethnic nature of the story of God’s covenant with the people and the multiethnic nature of the gospel itself. As Craig Keener, a New Testament scholar a respected writer (from Asbury Theological Seminary) notes that it “provides a resource for discussing and preaching about Christian interracial unity by explore Biblical questions regarding the identity of God’s people in Christ.”
Here is the Table of Contents so you can see how this unfolds, in under 200 pages:
- The People of God in the Pentateuch
- The People of God in the Historical Books, Wisdom and Poetry, and Prophets
- The People of God in the Gospels and Acts
- The People of God in Paul’s Epistles
- The People of God in the General Epistles and Revelation
- Synthesis: The People of God in the Old and New Testaments
- The People of God and Orthopraxy
Jarvis has made clear what many lovers of the Scriptures have always known, that God’s desire to create a multiethnic, just, and God-honoring kingdom for his glory is a truth that bursts forth from every page of the Bible. For those who want a guide that traces this theme as it winds its way through the twists and turns of Scripture, this book is for you.– Esau McCaulley, Wheaton College; author of Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope
Redemptive Kingdom Diversity revisits the multiethnic nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ in Scripture within the framework of God’s redemptive purpose throughout both testaments. Its call to inclusion of all races in the church is most timely and urgent as the church continues to battle the age-old sin of racism. — M. Sydney Park, Beeson Divinity School, author of Honoring the Generations: Ministry & Theology for Asian North American Congregations
There is, as you can see above, a good final chapter applying his canonical, Biblical overview to race, racism, and ethnicity today. As a gospel-centered, evangelical black man with strong teaching gifts and (besides being an academic professor) a caring pastoral calling, serving in the South in a largely white denomination, Dr. Williams has much to say that is well worth hearing. As a passionate but exceedingly careful Bible scholar we should listen to him for he allows Scripture to shape our views. As Dr. Anthony Bradley of The Kings College in New York says, “This is the first book evangelicals hold read on race in the church.”
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