Category Archives: Christian Life

Rise Up! Poems of Protest, Poems of Praise, by Andrew Wilbert Fitz and Mari Fitz-Wynn

Call and response: a powerful form of protest. Andrew Wilbert Fitz was the child of a couple born into slavery, the middle of eleven children. He lived through two world wars, went to college, patented new inventions, and wrote poetry. His granddaughter, Mari Fitz-Wynn, has curated a collection of his poems and added her own, responding to his call across a century, sharing his sorrow at our human sins and reflecting his strong Christian faith with her own.

Mari has arranged this collection so that her grandfather speaks first with his poems, then Mari presents a poem of her own, sometimes on the same theme. Using various verse forms, the poems are often meditations on scriptural passages, and Mari, in particular, has structured several of her poems as liturgies that could be used in communal settings. Praise for the beauty of creation is woven throughout, from the exultation of “Creation and I” to the joyful skipping verse in “Nature’s Symphony.” There are poems of encouragement, motivating the reader to use their God-given gifts and to generate ideas that will further the Kingdom on earth. One of the most powerful selections is “Dead Soldier,” which Andrew addressed to the young men in their graves, saying, in part:

“… tell of the heartless heads of government,

the kings, the princes, and the presidents,

who sent you forth to die for an empty cause

despising God and all His sacred laws.”

Throughout this collection are poems of lament, an outpouring of sorrow rarely heard in white churches today, although the Hebrew scriptures are filled with lament, particularly in the Psalms. Throughout the millennia, believers have cried out to God in private grief, but also in communal prayer that God would acknowledge injustice and send healing and comfort. Andrew’s parents spent their early years in bondage, and later he went on to serve in World War I and live through Jim Crow and the Civil Rights struggles of the mid-twentieth century. He saw that the government enforced these evil laws and that the white church rationalized the terror from the pulpit. He asks, “How long shall prejudice be mixed with prayer?” Mari, lamenting that our world still labors in sin, responds with her “Hands Up—A Litany,” asking for freedom from fear and concluding with praise.

I had the pleasure of working with Mari Fitz-Wynn at our library, as well as with her two grown children, Kiefer and Rooney, who wrote an afterword to this book. They are all kind and quiet souls, and her kids have gone on to pursue brilliant careers. After her husband passed away fifteen years ago, Mari began speaking at home education conferences and other venues and participating in creative entrepreneurial projects. In addition to this volume of poetry, which contains a foreword written by the Poet Laureate of North Carolina, Mari has published two books and many articles.

This inspiring collection may be purchased on Amazon or from Faith Journey Publishing, a company dedicated to giving a voice to mature Christian women of color.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book, given to me by the author. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. I do not receive remuneration from the purchase of this book.

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The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

How does the modern Protestant define faith? For many, faith is considered to be an intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal creeds, rather than trust in a living God. In the past century, especially, the Christian life has calcified into checking boxes on a statement of belief, rather than a relationship with a being who is far beyond our comprehension. Gone is the mystery, the paradox, or the humble recognition of human limits.

Pete Enns is the Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University and earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. Early in his career, he had all of his theological ducks in a row, but while on a plane to give a presentation, he watched Disney’s A Bridge to Terabithia, where the unbelieving girl said that she didn’t believe that God would make his own son die if he was so busy running the whole world. Pete thought to himself, would a loving God force his own son to die a painful death? And he was thrown into a quagmire of doubt, which is not a comfortable place to be when you’re a pastor.

Throughout the book, Pete opens up all of the hermetically sealed boxes that today’s evangelical Christian keeps tucked safely away. How can the earth possibly be 6,000 years old? Why did God want the Israelites to kill all those people? Does he care about me, then? Why is the Bible so ambivalent on the question of slavery? If God loves us, why do children die and why are there wars?

When Pete began to wrestle with these issues himself and to bring them up in his classes, the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary began to view him with suspicion. He published a book on the Old Testament in 2005 (Inspiration and Incarnation) of which his administration did not approve, and while he was struggling to hold onto his job, his daughter had to be sent to a therapeutic boarding school for an overwhelming anxiety disorder. His life began to unravel, and he entered what Douglas Adams calls “the long, dark teatime of the soul.”

The Sin of Certainty is Enns’s exposition of his own journey away from and back to faith—or, as he would say, trust—and he boldly wades into dangerous waters. One of our pastors recommended this as the number one book he would give to people who are deconstructing or reconstructing their faith. Enns certainly leaves no stone unturned. He is completely knowledgeable about scripture, of course, since that is his vocation, but he also writes conversationally and even humorously about his own life and the state of the church. Near the end, he has a couple of sections called, “When ‘Uh-Oh’ Becomes ‘Ah-Hah’” and “Cultivating a Habit of Trust.” He believes that it is important to become comfortable with uncertainty and with changing your opinions as life happens. As Switchfoot would say, “We are always in motion, like the winds, the tides, the ocean….”*

To put cards on the table, I really like Pete Enns. David and I were several years into our reconsideration of many religious issues when we read his How the Bible Actually Works when it was published in 2019. It was pivotal in my journey to have someone who loved the Bible and had studied it for decades tell me, in effect, “but hey, it was not handed down on stone tablets. Here is the real story.” Pete Enns and Jared Byas also host a podcast called The Bible for Normal People, to which I regularly listen. They have great guests and ask hard questions. I am not always in agreement with them, but they are never boring.

When David and I read How the Bible Actually Works, we thought that we were alone in our struggle and that we would never know any other believers who were pursuing God on this path. We were wrong, thank goodness. If you are questioning manmade teachings that you have been forced to think are essential to salvation, please know that there are so many kind, intelligent people who love Jesus and are not evangelical Protestants—millions of them who have lived over a couple of millennia, as a matter of fact. You are not alone, and The Sin of Certainty is a good place to start.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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*”We’re Gonna Be Alright,” by Switchfoot, from the Native Tongue album. It also says: “…And it’s ok to doubt/ To learn what you think ain’t what you thought.”

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Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor became a priest in the Episcopal Church in the years when few women thought of such things. She became a clergyperson in Atlanta, where she was worn out by the constant demands of urban church life. Eventually, she admitted to herself that her marriage had been on the back burner for so long that it was cold and her heart had become numb toward those to whom she was ministering. All the while, she had been expending all of her energy in performing the good deeds that were expected of her. She couldn’t remember her spiritual passion.

Barbara found a new position in charming Clarkesville, Georgia. The tiny, historic church building spoke to her, and after she and her husband had been there for a few years, they built a home in the gentle mountains nearby. The challenges of a small, rural congregation are different from a city parish: more intimate, but often claustrophobic. Over the years, Barbara won many accolades for her preaching and writing, and the congregation grew exponentially, to the point that she and her assistant were holding several services each Sunday and talking about a building program. After finding herself frazzled and exhausted again, Barbara began to question the role of the church. Was this what Jesus intended for his followers? For that matter, was she even making disciples for Jesus? After many years of dedicated service, Barbara decided to leave her position. Since the Episcopal church advises their separated priests not to visit their former churches, and Barbara and her husband wanted to stay in their beloved home, she left the church entirely.

Despite the title, most of this volume is more of a memoir of Ms. Taylor’s years as a priest, and she only comes to the questions about faith, the Bible, and the modern church in the last part of the book. After leaving the priesthood, she became a religion professor at a university nearby, and she approached spiritual studies with a wide-open point of view. Her husband had always been a spiritual adventurer, and he once invited some local tribes to use their property for a multi-day religious observance. Barbara began her questioning with that experience, and then she committed to acquainting her students with world religion in ways that they would not typically encounter in rural Georgia.

David and I lived in northern Georgia for a number of years, and we often spent Saturday afternoons strolling through the antique shops of Clarkesville. I now know that Ms. Taylor was priest at Grace-Calvary Church during that same time period in the 1990s. Although the book cuts off very shortly after she left Grace-Calvary, she has gone on to write many others that continue her story and delve more deeply into the issues. I was surprised to discover that I already own two other books by Barbara Brown Taylor, the newest in my teetering pile of to-be-read titles and another, older title on my bookshelves. Clearly, I need a cataloger. Taylor’s approach to life is so thoughtful and her writing so accessible that I will surely move her other books to a higher spot on the list.

A moving and candid memoir by a woman of faith.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own.

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December Reading

December passed in a blur of decorating and frantic knitting, but there was also reading! Audiobooks are perfect for needlework and cooking times. Here are some fiction and nonfiction adult books, two of which were terrific on audio. Someday, I may blog about podcasts, which accompany hours of my handcrafts, too.

How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith

The history of our nation cannot be told without talking about slavery, but a great deal of that history is hidden by the “official” story we all learn in school. Clint Smith takes a unique approach to the history of slavery by traveling to various locations that are integral to the story, interviewing local people, and relating the memories passed down by the slaves’ descendants as much as possible. Some of the places are well known, such as Monticello and New Orleans, but it may be a surprise to find out that the second-largest slave market in America—second only to Charleston, SC—was in Manhattan, and that, at a certain point in time, the rate of slave ownership in New York was higher than in the South. Smith also visits such places as Blandford Cemetery, a resting place for Confederate soldiers, during a remembrance ceremony where he holds very difficult conversations with those who cling to memories of the Old South, and Angola, a maximum-security prison that used to be a plantation and now houses thousands of black prisoners. Their unpaid labor blurs the line between slavery and incarceration.

We visited Monticello for the first time in late November on the way home from my niece’s wedding, and this book—along with other excellent new works on the topic— was prominently displayed in the gift shop. We were impressed by the Jefferson Foundation’s ability to continue to showcase the great accomplishments of the former president while being completely open about his unapologetic enslavement of hundreds of human beings. Jefferson may have written about the horrors of slavery, but he did nothing to free the slaves that he owned, except for his own children. Great care has been taken to represent Sally Hemings’s life and the stories of all her children and their descendants. In the 1990s, the foundation started the Getting Word project to gather the life stories of the 607 enslaved people of Monticello and their descendants. We hoped that Clint Smith would talk about Monticello in his book, and indeed, it is the first chapter. Smith agreed that the Jefferson Foundation was making progress in opening up the history of slavery in our country’s founding, but apparently, this has not always been the case. Until the DNA results of the Hemings descendants were confirmed to be related to Jefferson in 1998, the Monticello guides would not discuss the possibility of the president’s relationship to an enslaved woman.

We listened to an audiobook edition of the book, which is read by the author. Some of the chapters show hopeful progress in our reckoning with our past, while others reveal the dark underbelly of our history, still churning with hatred and division to this day. Fascinating and important.

Once Upon a Wardrobe, by Patti Callahan

Megs’s little brother, George, has a weak heart, and in 1950s England, there is no treatment. George has just read the new book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and his greatest wish is to find out where Narnia comes from. Megs is a brilliant maths scholar at Oxford, and she sets out to find the answer to her brother’s burning question. Walking to The Kilns in the middle of winter, Megs meets the Oxford professor, C.S. (or Jack) Lewis, and his brother, Warnie. Over many chats by the fireside, Jack and Warnie tell the tale of their sometimes difficult childhoods, their early stories, and the fantasy world they created. The next Narnia tale is coming out soon, but George will probably not live to read it. Her parents worry that George gets too excited about this fantasy land, but the stories that Megs retells from her notebook are the very things that give George’s life meaning.

Solitary walks in the snowy wood, cozy teas at The Kilns, and an impetuous trip to a ruined Irish castle: this is a perfect winter’s tale with a sweet romance mixed in. Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis (reviewed here) is probably a stronger story, but Once Upon a Wardrobe is a sort of prequel that fills in the blanks in Lewis’s young life.

Adorning the Dark, by Andrew Peterson

Since I am a children’s book selector, I knew Andrew Peterson as the author of the wildly popular “Wingfeather Saga.” His book for adults, Adorning the Dark, is a meditation on the creative imagination and an encouragement for those who wish to be sub-creators, as Tolkien would say, after the great Creator of all things. It is also a memoir of someone who considers himself primarily a songwriter, recounting his struggle to put words and melodies together in a way that would support himself and his growing family. He and his wife found an idyllic piece of land outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and one of my favorite stories is of an English master gardener who came to stay with them during a conference, then mailed back a detailed schematic of their property with outdoor “rooms” designed to make even more beauty in the wilderness. This volume is an inspiring, thoughtful read.

N.D. (Nate) Wilson is one of the contributors to the latest addition to the saga, Wingfeather Tales. If you can find it on YouTube, Wilson’s conversation with Betsy Bird and Jeanne Birdsall on this topic of creativity is not to be missed. Ditto Wilson’s children’s books, beginning with 100 Cupboards.

If you have children in late elementary or middle school, the “Wingfeather Saga,” beginning with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, is a fantastical yet homely tale in the style of C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Peterson is also the founder of the Rabbit Room Press, publisher of the beloved book of everyday liturgies, Every Moment Holy.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of Adorning the Dark, and I listened to library audiobook copies of the other two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Rachel Held Evans

Rachel was the best little Christian girl. She won prizes in AWANA for her knowledge of the Bible. She looked for things to do for others so that she could be a servant. She pitied everyone else because they were all going to burn in hell. By her own admission, she was pretty insufferable. When she reached a certain age, though, she started to notice that some things just didn’t make sense in the worldview she’d been given by her parents and her church, so she started to ask questions. This did not go over well with her Sunday School teachers, but her very religious parents supported her curiosity and allowed her to pursue answers to her quandaries. It took a long time to shed the Good Evangelical Girl persona, but in time, Rachel Held Evans was able to write about her faith journey, and she became famous on one side of the church and infamous on the other.

Rachel Held Evans was the author of Searching for Sunday and The Year of Biblical Womanhood, among other works. She started the Evolving Faith conference with her friend, Sarah Bessey, and spoke and worked tirelessly for groups that the church had marginalized, especially the LGBTQ community. She was the mother of two little children when she suddenly contracted an infection, then had an allergic reaction to the medication. She died at age 37. Her death stunned the Christian world. She had just started on what looked like a brilliant career, and then she was gone. I recently listened to her speaking on a podcast from just a few months before her death, and she and the host were talking about her upcoming projects. None of us are promised tomorrow.

Two new books by Rachel are being published posthumously this fall, one for adults and one for children.

Wholehearted Faith

As you might imagine, a prolific writer has a lot of manuscripts and fragments in computer folders, desk drawers, and sundry other places. After her death, Rachel’s husband, Dan, gathered up some of them and asked Rachel’s friend, Jeff Chu, to help get them to publication. Jeff edited and organized the manuscripts, plus he filled in those she had left unfinished. This volume is a collection of essays on a variety of topics, written in Rachel’s friendly, thoughtful voice. Some of them recount her childhood and faith journey, while others muse on the complexities of life and the corruption of the church.

Her chapter called “From Death to Life” is especially compelling. It is a long chapter that starts with self-deprecating humor. She admits that her Enneagram type 3 personality can turn a fun game into a fight to the death, and how that drive for success affected her life and her faith. She grows more serious toward the end as she shows how the drive to be successful in our country has influenced the church, and she reminds us that those afraid of death do not believe in the resurrection. If the death of the American church is inevitable, she recounts the many ways that it could be resurrected more gloriously, and she concludes by stating that death is not the end of the story. I would love to quote these beautiful passages, but I read an advance reader copy, so that is not allowed. In November, though, you can read them yourself.

For those who loved Rachel Held Evans or for those troublemakers who ask questions, this is a deep and moving collection from a writer whose canon closed too soon.

What Is God Like?

I did not know that Rachel Held Evans was friends with one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Matthew Paul Turner. Since she had little children, Rachel had started to write her ideas about God for a very young audience just two months before she died. At that time, she and her husband, Dan, had a three-year-old son and a new baby girl. Dan asked Turner to bring this unfinished work to completion. Using images and emotions from nature and children’s daily lives, she describes God in open, nonspecific ways that convey love and safety to little ones. Her language is inclusive and trinitarian, showing a mother on one page and a father on the next, three dancers of various genders and ethnicities, happy children playing outdoors or creating artwork, all using “he” and “she” pronouns equally. The illustrator, Ying Hui Tan, stays close to Turner’s usual style, with floaty, swooping figures and diverse skin tones.

This beautiful book will be helpful to parents who wish to convey reassuring ideas about God to young children. There is no reference to sin and punishment or even to any particular religious tradition. Evans prefers to introduce children to the mystery and lifelong pursuit of the divine, which may be a tall order for children at an age when their thinking is fairly concrete. Parents who are more sectarian might take note that this volume will not reinforce the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Whether parents find this book charming or not will be according to the style of their own pursuit of the divine.

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So, be open with your questions and share your gathered wisdom, because God already knows, but the rest of us might need to hear it.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of Wholehearted Faith and a library copy of What Is God Like? Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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New Grandma’s Review Roundup

In June, I was thrilled to become a new grandma, although it was almost three months early and my knitting projects were still in progress! After all, I have double the projects with newborn twins, sister and brother. What with trips to the hospital for cuddles, library work, and keeping the yarn flowing, I am listening to more audiobooks and writing fewer reviews. Here are some quick picks from a wide range of titles.

My Contrary Mary

Such fun! This alternate history of Mary, Queen of Scots and her young marriage to Francis, heir to the French throne, is somewhat complicated by the fact that, in this version of the world, some people can turn into animals and some cannot. Naturally, the ones who can’t hate the ones who can and vice versa. Don’t bother looking up the dates on Wikipedia, this story is about what the writers want to have happen in the unfortunate monarch’s life. The team of Brodi Ashton, Cynthia Hand, and Jodi Meadows bring us another rollicking tale, supposedly written for teens but with many adult fans, certainly among my own acquaintance. I listened to this one on audio, because the reader, Fiona Hardingham, is fabulous and adds another dimension to the experience. My favorite by this group is still My Plain Jane (reviewed here) perhaps just because of the petulant voice of the ghost.

The Eternal Current, by Aaron Niequist

Many Christians are leaving traditional churches these days, not because they don’t believe, but because they cannot find life in the dry, rote services they find there. Jesus gave us traditions that are earthy and real, and they were embraced by the early church, but somehow lost over the centuries. Pastor Aaron Niequist and a group of like-minded believers formed a group called The Practice which began meeting each week to recapture historic and new traditions of Christianity. This book, subtitled How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning, is also a podcast to help readers flesh out the concepts and even the methods for the various practices. For example, the members of Niequist’s group all expressed a desire to participate in communion more often and in more meaningful ways. Jesus obviously taught this meal to his disciples, but most Protestant churches today only have communion once a month or even less, using little plastic cups of grape juice. Niequist isn’t condemning these churches; rather, he is asking: “How can we do this better? What did Jesus intend?” If the name Niequist rings a bell, his wife, Shauna, is also a writer and appears with him on the podcast occasionally. Her book, Present Over Perfect, is reviewed here. One of our pastors mentioned this book as being instrumental in the direction of our church, so if you are also longing for meaning, reach out to me and I’ll give you more details.

Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light, by Helen Ellis

The author of Southern Lady Code brings us another collection of humorous essays, this one centering on the lives and relationships of women past a certain age. Think hot flashes. Helen Ellis can be hilariously funny, but she can also be quite coarse. The author reads the short audiobook herself, which is always a treat. I listened to this one while prepping dinner for just a few days. Entertainment for the fiercely feminist, but proceed with caution.

Love People, Use Things, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

I was expecting the Marie Kondo element, but the 7 Habits vibe, the heavy dose of Dave Ramsey, and especially the memoir took me by surprise. Also the kick in the pants. The guys from The Minimalist podcast start off by helping you to deal with your extra stuff, and then Joshua launches into a life history with lessons that he learned along the way. Ryan ends each chapter with a summary and some questions to get you thinking. They take a deep dive into relationships and values, delivering far more than a cleaning manual. Good stuff if you want to give your life a thorough airing, plus I gave away six boxes of donations just from my dresser drawers and closets.

We Are the Brennans, by Tracey Lange

Sunny Brennan left her large, Irish-American family five years ago to live in California. When she drank too much and crashed her car, she reluctantly agreed to come back home to her three grown brothers, her ailing dad, and her former fiancé, who is now married with a little son. She had only planned to stay while she healed, but her family soon had her helping at the pub, where she began to suspect that her oldest brother was hiding something. He’s not the only one. Sunny has been keeping a painful secret that has changed all of their lives forever. So much family drama! An engrossing read with love triangles, squabbling siblings, and crimes new and old. Sunny’s mother is firmly planted on my Most Despicable Characters list.

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The usual disclaimer: I read or listened to advance copies of all of these except The Eternal Current, which I own. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Making of Biblical Womanhood, by Beth Allison Barr

Most people throughout history have been lulled into thinking that the way things are today is the way they have always been, but when speaking of a woman’s place in the church, historian Beth Allison Barr shows us that this is not the case. Barr’s particular field of study is the middle ages, and she takes the reader on a tour of history since Jesus’s time to see how women were perceived in each era.

Beginning with an alternate reading of Paul’s instructions about women in the church, Barr points out the many passages in Paul’s epistles that show women as apostles, deaconesses, and other leaders in the early church. Continuing into later centuries, we have many records of abbesses and other respected women leaders. One of the most interesting transitions Barr explores is that the women before the Reformation became honored saints by renouncing marriage and women’s traditional roles, whereas after the Reformation, the church honored women who were good wives and mothers, and as such, could not devote themselves to full-time ministry.

The author demonstrates how western cultures influenced the expectations of female roles by the evolution of sermons and biblical translations. She also compares passages in the ESV and the NIV today, and then traces those same passages back to see how they were translated in earlier bible translations, such as the Vulgate and the Geneva bibles.

I read this title almost immediately after Jesus and John Wayne (reviewed  here), and, although both authors are arguing against the oppression of women in today’s Protestant churches, Du Mez is describing the evangelical movement through the past century of American history with a political lens. Barr, on the other hand, examines women’s roles in the entire Christian church since New Testament times through a historical lens. While this may not have the same “ripped from the headlines” quality, it is deeply engrossing and sometimes surprising.

Beth Allison Barr received her Ph.D. right here in the neighborhood at UNC Chapel Hill and is now assistant dean at the graduate school of Baylor University. Woven delicately through her historical research is her personal story of how her husband lost his job as youth pastor at their church because he suggested that they could hire a woman pastor. Previously, he had offered the name of a male friend for the open position of church secretary, and the church leaders’ reaction let him know that they considered the job to be beneath a man’s dignity. If only this were a rare attitude, Dr. Barr wouldn’t have written this book.

Interesting reading from a perspective rarely seen in popular nonfiction. Love the nod to Warhol on the cover.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Jesus and John Wayne, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez

If that title doesn’t grab you, the subtitle, How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, surely will.  Dr. Du Mez is a historian at Calvin University, so writing a book with this theme took a great deal of courage. Although she does not hesitate to take on the recent political scene, particularly at the very beginning and end of the book, most of the volume develops the history of evangelicalism in the United States, starting in the early twentieth century.

kristin-kobes-du-mez-4Those of us who were late to the evangelical scene may not be aware that the evangelical movement has changed over the past century. During the second world war, fundamentalists and evangelicals came together to found the National Association of Evangelicals, which now encompasses 45,000 local churches in 40 denominations. Du Mez points out that denominational distinctives, which were important in the beginning, began to blur in favor of a more united and powerful coalition. Fundamentalism grew stronger, and then the reformed churches came to the fore in the past 30 years or so. She shows how the movement has consistently moved in a more misogynistic and politically right-wing direction, often forsaking doctrine for an increase in power, until, at this point in American history, the evangelical church is inextricably tangled with the Republican party, leaving it open to manipulation by right-wing politicians who presume that evangelicals will support their candidacy and policies.

One aspect of this history that surprised me was the rise of evangelical consumerism. It didn’t surprise me because I didn’t know it existed; rather, it surprised me to find that I was in the midst of it without noticing, like a fish in water. Everywhere we look, we can find t-shirts, mugs, wall signs, bumper stickers, and truckloads of trinkets with Bible verses or cute Christian sayings on them. This is not even including the books of varying quality, vacation packages, and media that call themselves “Christian.” Winning the white, middle-class, Christian market is a coup for any business, and the hedonism of our spending is purely American.

Du Mez also tracks the rise of parachurch organizations later in the twentieth century, particularly those concerning families and men. Almost all of the family ministries demanded male headship in the home, and many of the men’s ministries were based on military activities and physical training. Du Mez questions the relationship between Jesus’s teachings and guns. She points out that evangelicals, as a group, are reliably pro-war, and during George W. Bush’s presidency, 41% of evangelicals were in favor of torture, more than any other group in America. Furthermore, two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe that the United States should accept refugees, also more than any other group in the country. Both of these statistics are shocking for people who claim to read and believe the Bible, where Jesus preached love and nonviolence. There are also countless verses about caring for refugees. As she notes on page 321, “Despite evangelicals’ frequent claims that the Bible is the source of their social and political commitments, evangelicalism must be seen as a cultural and political movement rather than as a community defined chiefly by its theology.”*

john-wayne-2Somewhere along the way, evangelicals replaced Jesus with a John Wayne-like image of the perfect Christian man: rugged, arrogant, and domineering. While this could have been a reaction to the meek and mild Jesus with silky blond hair portrayed in popular paintings, there is a lot of daylight between those two images, and neither one is true. Du Mez shows that as the patriarchy grew stronger and stronger, the churches and parachurch organizations that adopted complementarianism most heartily began to leak reports of sexual abuse. Furthermore, the leaders across the entire movement were so close that they covered up for one another. Here, as in her entire history, the author is careful to present evidence. Throughout the book, from the 1980s onward, I knew all of the players, and she is not hesitant to name them. It was a shock. For decades, no one was forced to take responsibility, and in extreme cases, the victims were made to apologize. Finally, the #MeToo movement reached the church, and pastors and “Christian” leaders were called to account.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the evangelical movement today is how it has become unmoored from Jesus’s teaching and has taken on a separate identity that blends religious rules with politics and power. As the author notes on page 325, “For conservative white evangelicals steeped in the ideology, it can be difficult to extricate their faith, and their identity, from this larger cultural movement. As one man who grew up awash in evangelical masculinity and 1990s purity culture later reflected, ‘I lived and breathed these teachings, and they still shape me in ways I don’t understand even 20 years after rejecting them intellectually.’”*

There is so much more in these pages than I can relate here, and this is just one account of the cultural movement that has so many people running away from evangelicalism. Let us hope that they are not running away from Jesus.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

*Since pagination is flexible in ebooks, the quotes may be found on different pages in print editions.

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The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

Somewhere in my study of the Sermon on the Mount last year, which lasted for months and kept on evolving, I came to the conclusion that I had to read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. If one does a lot of reading in a specific field, eventually the same names will pop up over and over, and you begin to get the uncomfortable feeling that everyone else is in on something you’ve missed.

In the first chapter, Willard launches into research studies demonstrating the decline of the church and religion in general, and although the book was written in 1997, we would only see an increase of “nones” and “dones” if the study were conducted today. After setting up his reasons for the book, however, Willard’s writing becomes much more winsome, and he moves into the main points of his thinking.

First, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he spoke in the present tense. “The kingdom is among you,” “the kingdom is within you,” and so on. Willard believes that the church will not make disciples if the kingdom is a pie-in-the-sky heaven that is in the future but does not affect our daily life. We must learn to live in the kingdom now.

Secondly, Willard delves more deeply into kingdom living in several chapters on the Sermon on the Mount. There are so many wise insights here, only one of which is that the Beatitudes are not a list of aspirations. Nor do they espouse Salvation by Situation. “Blessed are those who mourn” does not mean that we should seek to be mourners, and Willard deplores centuries of Christian sanctimony that caused people to avoid happiness and laughter by misunderstanding this verse. His teaching on anger and malice—and the chilling difference between the two– is worth the price of the book by itself.

Thirdly, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but the church seems merely to want to make converts. Willard spends some time exploring discipleship, and in the last chapter, he lays out a practical curriculum on how to become a disciple of Jesus.

This hefty volume of fine print took me almost three months to read, not least because it is so chock-full of startling insights that one can only read a small amount without pausing to consider this latest bit of wisdom. Although it is complex and theologically rich, the entire book is so hopeful and positive that the reader comes away not only knowing God better, but, more importantly, loving God more.

For those who wish to deepen their spiritual journey, this classic book is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Be the Bridge, by Latasha Morrison

Latasha Morrison, a North Carolina native, moved to Austin, Texas, to serve on the staff of a huge church. She was the only person of color—not on the staff, in the whole church. No worries, she was up on White culture. She watched Gilmore Girls and Friends and sang Hillsong tunes. However, at one point, while talking to her father on the phone, she realized that she had not seen or talked to a Black person in over a week. After a few well-meaning but cringe-inducing conversations with people in her church, she realized that White people did not understand Black culture at all, and when she decided to gently educate them, she realized that she didn’t, either.

Neil Gaiman once said, “Like all oppressed people, [they] know more about their oppressors than their oppressors know about them.”* He was speaking of children, but it applies universally. For their own safety, the oppressed study their oppressors carefully, but since the powerless seem unimportant, the powerful do not care enough to learn about them. Latasha realized that her ancestors’ history had been erased from all of the textbooks that she had used in school. She was told that her forebears were sharecroppers, but there had to be more to it than that. She set out to learn her own rich and tragic history, and the reader of Be the Bridge will learn with her.

This book is designed to be used by the more than a thousand groups of “Bridge Builders” that Morrison’s ministry has created, so a list of discussion questions closes each chapter. In addition, there are prayers for the various topics, as well as a few liturgies that the groups can follow. The book does not have an instructional tone, though. Morrison is an enthralling storyteller, relating episodes from her own life and from history. She also brings in the perspective of various people from Bridge Builder groups that may mirror the experiences or feelings of her readers.

David and I read this book aloud and discussed our own encounters with racism and race relations from our childhoods in the segregated South to the present. Although we did not agree with all of Morrison’s conclusions and prescriptions, we learned an enormous amount about Black history. Just one example is the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a horrifying event that marks the first time the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens. Neither David nor I had ever heard of it. There were many other such revelations in these pages, as well as encouraging stories of people who are taking steps to overcome the damage of our past.

I picked up this book shortly after the George Floyd tragedy, at a brief moment in time when the nation seemed ready to openly examine our past and to listen to the voices of those who were peacefully protesting injustice. That hopeful moment has since been burned in the flames of rioters and stolen by the crimes of looters. However, the church must always be about the work of reconciliation and justice, eschewing partisan politics and rising above the headlines of the day. Morrison’s book was written in 2019, before Floyd’s death and before the Coronavirus lockdown changed our perspective on normal life. Churches everywhere are engaging in Bridge Builder groups. Morrison reports that 92.5% of America’s churches are completely segregated. It is way past time for us to admit that this is not normal and cannot possibly be God’s will for His people.

Whereas David Swanson’s Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here) is meant more for pastors and church leaders, Be the Bridge is for all Christians who want to understand the suffering of Black people in America and to see the church in the forefront of reconciliation.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

*Neil Gaiman’s Zena Sutherland lecture, May 4, 2012.

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