Review: Becoming Sage

becoming sage

Becoming SageMichelle Van Loon. Chicago: Moody Press, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of what Christian growth looks like in the second half of life.

One of the dirty little secrets of Christian discipleship is that most of the resources that have been developed focus around the early years of the Christian life, and most around the issues of the first half of life. What is a Christian to do who lives beyond his or her forties?

Michelle Van Loon proposes in this book that we move from what a Christian believes and does to growing in the wisdom won of hard life experiences, in other words becoming sage. Drawing on the work of Hagberg and Guelich, she argues that most church discipleship programs address the first three of six stages of Christian growth: 1. “God I believe in you”; 2. “God I belong to you.”; and 3. “God, I’m working for you.” At mid-life, we often hit the wall and all the earlier answers seem to stop working. She calls this “God where are you? I’m alone in the dark.” We face loss and we move from certainty to humility. If we persevere, we move into Stage 5 where we pass along what we’ve given, and Stage 6 as we prepare for and move toward the conclusion of our lives (“Lord, I’m coming home”).

Van Loon explores the process of growing sage through our changing relationship with the church and how we deal with wounds and disappointments. She describes our changing relationships with family and friendships that fade or endure and new ones that develop.

She explores that changes that inevitably happen to us bodily. She observes:

Becoming sage means growing into the tension of wasting away and being renewed. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and. As unlovely as the notion of suffering and decay are, Paul tells us here that eternal glory is being created through them.

Change happens with our money and our intangible treasures as well. We come to terms that we can’t take anything with us, and need to think how we leave these things behind well.

One of the most perceptive chapters is on the “U” curve of happiness. She discusses acedia (often known as the “noonday demon”), a kind of weary sadness that comes over many in midlife. Van Loon doesn’t have simple answers for this but rather the persevering faith that allows Christ to deconstruct and transform our relationship with Him.

She describes the movement from doing to being, from being “world changers” with the hubris this carries to those who by quiet faithfulness heal the world. We learn to impart what we learn and begin to prepare for facing our own home-going, our own death.

People hitting midlife are leaving the church. Some decide that when the answers they learned in their early years as Christians don’t work or satisfy, that there is nothing there, particularly when the church offers nothing, no vision of the second half of life. The issues Van Loon discusses often aren’t discussed. How do we deal with the disappointments of the church itself. How do we come to terms with the bodily changes that remind us of our mortality? How do we fruitfully invest what we’ve earned and learned? How do we prepare to die well when no one talks about this? Van Loon breaks the conspiracy of silence and casts a rich vision of the second half of life, a vision of becoming sage, going deeper into Christ and Christ-likeness in a lifelong journey of discipleship.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The #MeToo Reckoning

the metoo reckoning

The #MeToo ReckoningRuth Everhart. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A discussion of sexual harassment and assault in the church, the impact on victims and the response of many churches more focused on institutional reputation than protecting victims and justice for the perpetrators.

Ruth Everhart tells two #MeToo stories of her own in this book. In the first, she was raped at gunpoint in college. Part of her healing was testifying against her rapist, seeing him convicted and sent to prison. In many ways, the second incident was harder. Serving as an assistant pastor under Zane Bolinger, a respected senior pastor, she became the object of inappropriate attention, culminating with being forcibly kissed in her own office.

The early chapters of this book use this incident to trace how the dynamics of sexual assault often play out in churches, beginning with the patriarchal power exercised by Bolinger in assaulting her. She describes her efforts to seek redress from the church’s personnel committee, how they accepted the pastor’s account that he had acted from “pure Christian love,” burying the assault in pious language that protected the abuser and the institution. She concluded that she had to leave.

Perhaps the most chilling part of this narrative was the subsequent consequences in her former church. It did not have to do with Reverend Bolinger, who was gone by this time, at least not directly. A young man had been sexually abused by a church member. Everhart describes the conspiracy of secrecy that followed that did not report abuse to the authorities or even to the congregation and that elicited a “confession” that failed to acknowledge responsibility. The culture created by Bolinger, one of autocratic leadership that covered over anything detrimental to the church’s reputation continued. Healing only began with a process of bringing what had been hidden into the light, eventually resulting in the perpetrator’s conviction, and a new policy for handling allegations of sexual abuse.

Everhart then goes on to describe her efforts to bring Bolinger up on charges before the denomination and the mixed results that illustrate how such proceedings often try to bring healing without justice, that neglect the basic issue of sincere apology, and the preservation of power and institutions (including protecting the institution from legal exposure above protecting victims). Subsequent chapters detail the connection between purity culture and rape culture in the church, patterns of betrayal and deceit by perpetrators, not only on victims, but on manipulated church leaders, and the challenge, particularly for women, of finding a voice to speak up, to press for justice.

Everhart interweaves biblical narrative with her own and others narrative. Abuses of power and sexual abuse run through scripture, in the stories of Tamar, of David and Bathsheba, and others. She shows God’s concern for the victims, some incorporated into the ancestral line of Jesus. Everhart also speaks frankly and practically about what denominations and churches can do to care for survivors rather than institutions, from honest language (“rape” instead of “had sex with”) to involving the whole church in how churches will respond to sexual abuse.

There has been a #MeToo reckoning taking place in our culture, from exposing assault by physicians to gymnasts and other athletes, to movie moguls and political figures. The Catholic Church is paying huge damages for past abuses. Bill Hybels, longtime leader of Willow Creek Church, was forced to step down due to a pattern of improper sexual behavior. These are stories now being played out in many churches. Everhart’s book ought to be a must-read for every church governance board. The church in the greatest danger is the one that says, “it won’t happen here.” Those are the ones that practice institutional denial when it does, including shaming, or shunting aside the survivors of abuse. Those are the ones that wittingly or unwittingly create a culture where abuse can continue unchecked–until the reckoning.

Everhart does not want your church to be among these but rather among those who create brave and safe spaces where these matters are spoken of with candor, where survivors can find support rather than shame, where “brightline” policies are in place that discourage or identify potential abusers early, and if abuse occurs, it is made public and prosecuted, not covered up. This is a book filled with hope for survivors and gritty encouragement for leaders who are ready to set aside patriarchy and power for protecting and raising up the vulnerable, who are willing to expose the ugly underside of human behavior to Christ’s truth and justice.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Great Alone

the great alone

The Great AloneKristen Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

Summary: A family moves to the wilderness of Alaska, hopefully for a new start for Ernt Allbright, a former POW in Vietnam, only to discover that in a beautiful and dangerous wilderness, the greatest danger may lay in their own cabin.

Ernt Allbright has inherited a piece of land in wilderness Alaska from a fellow POW who didn’t make it. Ernt did, but he was not the same fun-loving man Cora married when she found herself pregnant with Leonora, “Leni” to everyone who knew her. Ernt is volatile and paranoid, dominated increasingly by survivalist ideas, and unable to hold a job. Today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. That wasn’t talked about then.

Alaska could be a new beginning. They pile into a VW van, 13 year old Leni with her books, finally arriving into the town of Kaneq on the Kenai peninsula. Almost immediately the town takes them under their wing, teaching them what they must know to survive the beautifully dangerous place they are in. Canning vegetables and fruit, smoking salmon, trying to bag a bull moose. Winter is long, and survival is tough. But it seems like the new beginning could happen except for some disturbing signs. At a town welcome, Ernt immediately hates the town father, Tom Walker. And then the nights get longer, and the moods get darker, and while they learn of the dangers without, the greatest danger is Ernt himself.

Meanwhile, Leni throws herself into the chores, the one room school, and the rugged beauty of this place. After one winter, the town intervenes and compels Ernt to leave each winter to work on the pipeline while Cora and Leni maintain the homestead. The one classmate her age is Matt Walker, Tom’s son. They become friends.

Then one of the Alaska tragedies occurs. Matt and his mother are on a hike over ground they knew. Crossing a frozen river, the ice breaks and Matt’s mother is swept away before his eyes while he can do nothing. He goes away to Fairbanks to stay with his sister, and work through the horrible loss with a counselor. Leni writes him and her letters, his sister’s love, and the counselor’s work brings him through. He returns to Kaneq for his senior year of school, and a friendship blossoms into love.

Dangerous love. Large Marge, the gritty general store owner has taken Leni under her wing, providing her a job, even as the enmity between Ernt and Tom Walker grows. This love is the lighting of a match to a powder keg. The greatest danger may be to Cora, who absorbs the anger and physical abuse of Ernt. The whole town knows, and wants to help, but Cora will not press charges. Leni struggles between how she might endanger her mother, and her longing for Matthew’s love, and an escape to college, from this sick family system. And Matthew, having lost one love, will not let go, a reality that will play out in costly ways.

The book takes us inside spousal abuse, helping us understand why spouses may bear so much abuse and not flee. There is fear, and ugliness, and yet also love, a distorted love that stays and conceals despite the danger. It also captures the rugged beauty that draws people to Alaska, some running away from something, others running to something. But it is more than beauty. The struggle for survival either makes or breaks people. It makes Leni as well as Cora, whose strengths are often hidden even from her in her subordination to Ernt, and yet will emerge.

It’s also a book about the various forms of love, from the twisted love of Ernt and Cora, the love of mother and child, and the love of Matthew and Leni. Even more, it is the love of a town that will not be divided by Ernt’s paranoia, a town that finds quiet, rugged ways to love without violating boundaries, the commonsense love that binds a community together in “the great alone.”

One of the best books I’ve read in recent years was The Nightingale. This is a very different book but joins The Nightingale in that category for me. Hannah’s description of the beautiful and terrible landscape, her memorable characters (I absolutely loved Large Marge–every community needs someone like her), and riveting plot all captured me. We experience it all through the eyes of Leni, her struggle, her wonder, her growing love, and growing awareness of what is not right in her home. As she matures we see her live in the tension of heart-breaking hard and necessary choices, and holding the one she loves, the place she loves in her heart.

Review: See-Through Marriage


See-Through Marriage, Ryan and Selena Frederick. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.

Summary: A fulfilling marriage is one that is transparent, about our joys and desires, our past and our failures, where all these things are brought into the light.

This book builds on the idea of 1 John 1:7:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

The authors maintain that in marriage, the most fulfilling marriages are honest marriages, where there are no secrets, where couples learn to bring to each other their joys and sorrows, their sins and failures, their desires and preferences. Part of what makes this scary is that we hide what we think will make the other love us less. Yet the vulnerability that tells the truth offers the chance to be loved even more–loved for who we are. Hiding actually distances us from each other.

They explore the lies we tell each other, the ways we hide, and what real transparency looks like. Transparency involves knowing ourselves–spiritually, psychologically, and physically. Transparency leads us into oneness. They explore the implications of this for our sexuality, for our communication, our friendships, and our experience of Christian community.

They face us with a choice:

   Being completely known and still completely loved is perhaps the greatest human desire. We long for a connection so deep and so unshakable that no matter who we are or what we do, we will still be counted as lovable. The desire drives us all forward, but not always to the same destination. It either will drive you to present a version of yourself that is more readily loved and accepted by others or will drive you into the shadows in hopes of not being exposed for who you truly are (pp. 46-47).

They tell stories of how they and other couples faced this choice and what it looked like to face fear and step into the light of transparency with each other. They offer questions at the end of each chapter for personal reflection or study together.

The patterns of transparency or hiding that couples develop early in their marriages are vital to the health of a marriage. This seems like a book particularly framed for couples in the early years of marriage, though it can be helpful at any point. This is not so much a book for a marriage in trouble, where the help of a counselor may be important, but rather a book that both prevents problems, and paints a vision of what marriage is meant to be.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: The Murder on the Links

the murder on the links

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), Agatha Christie. New York Harper Collins, 2011 (first published in 1923).

Summary: A man who writes Poirot from the north of France of his life being in danger is found dead by Poirot under circumstances similar to another murder many years earlier that is key to Poirot unraveling the case.

For golfing fans, I hate to disappoint you, but apart from a murder taking place in a grave dug where a bunker for a golf course was to be sited, there is little about golf in this mystery. What you will find here is Agatha Christie at the height of her powers in one of her early Poirots, creating an intricate plot taking us in a succession of turns and suspects before the revelation of the true murderer.

I won’t take you on all the plot turns but will lay out enough to hopefully entice you to read one of Christie’s best. Hercule Poirot is in England with his companion, Arthur Hastings, when he receives a letter from the north of France from millionaire Paul Renaud, speaking of his life in danger, and requesting Poirot’s help. Poirot and Hastings immediately depart, only to arrive with the police on scene, investigating the murder of Monsieur Renaud. Madame Renaud had been found tightly bound by two strangers who questioned Monsieur Renaud and then took him out. His body was found in a newly dug grave stabbed in the back with a letter opener given to Madame Renaud by her son Jack, who had been sent to sail to South America.

Part of the fun in this story is the rivalry between Poirot and Giraud, the Sureté detective who crawls around everywhere but dismisses the piece of led pipe near the body, the dismissal of Jack to South America and the chauffeur, leaving only three female servants and an old gardener, a door left open, a piece of paper that was part of check with the name “Duveen.” Who was the mysterious visitor in Renaud’s study the evening before his death? Why payments of 200,000 francs from him into Madame Daubreuil’s account, a neighbor who frequently visited? Why were their footprints matching the gardener’s boots in one bed, while the other had none?

While Giraud keeps investigating, Poirot, troubled with similarities to a murder involving a Madame Beroldy, goes to Paris. Meanwhile, a young woman, “Cinderella” who Hastings previously met runs into him, hear’s the story of the murder and wants to see the scene. Afterward, the murder weapon goes missing, only to turn up in the back of a second corpse, a tramp dressed in nice clothes that in fact had died long before the weapon was thrust into him.

Then we learn that Jack had actually been in town the night of the murder. Jack was in love with Marthe Daubreuil, Madame Daubreuil’s daughter. We also learn that Jack’s father had changed his will, cutting Jack out because he insisted in his love affair, even though he had a girl he dumped, the twin sister of “Cinderella,” Dulcie Duveen, the woman who had been in Renaud’s study the night he was murdered.

As you can see, there are a whole host of suspects. Giraud fixes on Jack Renaud, who all but admits to the crime. Yet Poirot is not so sure. Not all is as it seems, but this plot has more twists and turns before the denouement, including a period where Hastings, for love, works against Poirot. This is one you want to read closely, paying attention to the clues, following the turns, trying to spot the red herrings. This is great, good fun–Christie at her best!

Review: Longing For Revival

Longing for Revival

Longing for Revival, James Choung and Ryan Pfeifer. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A practical work on revival that begins with defining what it is and why we ought hope for it; second, what it means to experience revival; and third, what it means to lead in a time of revival.

The word “revival” conjures up all sorts of associations from “revival meetings” to the “sawdust trail” of frontier revivals, to the experience and writing of Jonathan Edwards in New England. For me, it recalled the Jesus Movement, of which I was a part during my high school years. Spontaneously, throughout the U.S., there was a movement of God that resulted in a great turning to Christ of many in the youth culture of the day. Many of us are still following Christ fifty years later, and particularly, in this time of turmoil, and in this time of declining numbers in many churches and the exodus of many youth, we long to see something like this again. But dare we believe for such things?

The two authors of this book, a current and a former campus staff minister with InterVarsity/USA (the organization in which I am also employed, in the interests of full disclosure), write about their own journeys of moving from a holy discontent with the status quo to a breakthrough faith that believes God and begins to experience revival, both personally, and by the power of God, in ministry. They begin with a definition of revival that has been accepted within InterVarsity circles as our working definition of what we mean by revival:

A season of breakthroughs
in word, deed, and power
that ushers in a new normal
of kingdom experience and fruitfulness

They then unpack this definition, noting the importance of “season,” the significance of having word, deed, and power with love at the center, of new normals, for example, where it is the expected reality to see people regularly come to faith, and where the nearness of the kingdom, the presence and rule of Jesus is apparent. This is followed by several chapters tracing the breakthrough U curve: beginning with holy discontent, there is an initial descent to untested faith, then a descent into crucified hope, where our own dreams and expectations die, a crisis of faith where we hit bottom, the revival of hope, not in our own dreams but in God and his capacity to lead us into a new season, followed by breakthrough faith enabling one to minister in word, deed, and power in the confidence of who we know God to be.

The writers then lay out four steps in the experience of revival, exploring how we live in faithful expectancy, yet look for a work only God can do. They walk us through consecration, the setting of ourselves apart to God, to long for more of his presence in our lives; calling, using the example of Peter stepping out of the boat, hearing the Lord’s invitation, obeying in faith, and experiencing the Lord lifting up, as we pursue something new and audacious; contending in prayer and fasting, not to earn something through our spiritual efforts but learning to persist and not give up until we see God act in power; and finally, character, particularly the humility that guards us by reminding us that it is not about us but about Christ, keeping us from being derailed personally, and in leadership.

Choung and Pfeiffer assume that many of those reading this will be leaders. They emphasize the importance that leaders don’t keep the work of leading revival to themselves but have an “all play” mentality. Choung talks about an experience of speaking at a retreat where he desperately wanted to give a call to faith, but agreed to let student leaders do this in small groups, resulting in twenty-seven non-Christians out of thirty-one coming to faith and students who had never invited a student to believe seeing their friends respond. We often oppose planning and the mysterious powerful work of God. These writers explore how the two may walk hand in hand and enhance each other. They offer five questions to guide groups in communal discernment, crucial to groups moving together united in head, heart, and action:

  1. Is it biblical?
  2. What did you hear in prayer?
  3. What if fear wasn’t involved?
  4. Does it produce the fruit of the Spirit?
  5. What does the Christian community say about it?

Finally the authors cast a vision for a revival that is about kingdom building, not empire building. It is not about our organization or church, or national power. It is about the advance of the rule in Jesus moving out from ourselves to our community, our region, our nation, to the world.

Pardon some autobiography. After my experiences of the Jesus movement and my college years, I began working with InterVarsity. As I moved into leadership and to a new city in the early 1980’s I became involved in the Concert of Prayer movement, an effort to seek God’s reviving work. For a time it appeared to gain momentum until I saw many Christians (and perhaps myself) swept up in the Reagan revolution and the hopes of Christian influence in politics. Later, I found myself in a place of disillusion, both that God hadn’t brought the revival for which I hoped and that instead, I witnessed a church increasingly captive to partisan politics rather than the kingdom of Jesus. For most of the time since, I think I opted for the “faithfulness” which settles for the subnormal rather than the new normal of revival. I invested in students and faculty, saw some come to faith, and built and led teams that planted new ministries. But I stopped believing in revival, even though I longed for it, all the more as I’ve witnessed the unraveling of the social and political fabric of our country, and the ravages not only on body but on spirit of this pandemic.

In early January, the national staff of InterVarsity gathered in Orlando, the title of this book serving as our theme (we all were given copies of it). During a day of prayer and fasting, I became aware of how I had surrendered to despairing of revival and made a decision to dare to believe again, to be a “watchman” in prayer waiting for the dawn. I felt God breaking the hard cynicism that had encrusted my heart over thirty-some years.

This book showed me that what happened back in the 1980’s was the death of my own hopes. It gives me hope that God wants to do something new. It also challenges me to the expectant work of consecration, calling, contending, and character. I believe that the only hope for our campuses and our country and our world is not a vaccine, it is not electing or re-electing a president, but the revival of which these authors speak. If you share that conviction, I believe this book will both engender hope and offer practical direction to turn your holy discontent into breakthrough faith.

Summer 2020 Book Preview–Faith and Life Edition

wp-1592436005457913129448171043576.jpgI look forward to some extra time for reading during the summer as schedules slow down, and I get to dip into an interesting book while I sip a cool beverage. I’ve received a number of books from Christian publishers in recent weeks, and here are some that really look interesting. If you are looking for a book to deepen your faith and enlarge your sense of how believing shapes all of life, the books here might be worth a look.

good man

Good ManNathan Clarkson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020. In a time when we wonder what it means to be a good man, Clarkson explores the qualities of character that define a man who finds his identity in Christ.

A week in the life of ephesus

A Week in the Life of EphesusDavid A. DeSilva. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. Ephesus played an important role in early Christianity, and this imaginative historical fiction rendering from a fine New Testament scholar promises an understanding of the context Christians facing the challenges of empire.

why science and faith

Why Science and Faith Need Each OtherElaine Howard Ecklund. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020. Ecklund explores the virtues arising from the pursuit of science and the practice of faith and how they mutually enhance each other in the pursuit of truth.


How to Read Daniel, Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. The book of Daniel can be confusing. The book helps us understand the context and the genres, especially apocalyptic, of the book.

unto us a child is borh

Unto Us a Child is BornTyler D. Mayfield (Foreword by Walter Brueggemann). Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2020. Christians often read and hear passages in Isaiah through the lens of Advent. Mayfield considers those readings alongside how our contemporary Jewish neighbors read and hear the same passages.

the lost art of dying

The Lost Art of DyingL.S. Dugdale, MD. New York: Harper One, 2020. A Columbia physician who treats older patients who she has seen end their lives in over-medicalized procedures that prolong dying and strips them of their dignity. She draws on experience, faith, and a reading of Ars Moriendi (The Art of Dying) written at the height of the plague in the late Middle Ages to help us live and die well.

wait with me

Wait With MeJason Gaboury. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020. Without offering easy answers, Gaboury explores the common human experience of loneliness, and the possibility that this may be an invitation into a deeper relationship with God.

uncommon ground

Uncommon GroundTimothy Keller and John Inazu. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2020. In the midst of our highly divided culture, these two authors explore with ten others how we might find ground to engage others in the culture while remaining faithful to the gospel.

Working in the presence of God

Working in the Presence of GodDenise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2020. Spiritual practices are not just for monastics but also for Christians in the workplace. This book offers a number of such practices that help people experience God’s presence in their work.

leading lives that matter

Leading Lives That Matter, 2nd edition, Edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2020. A collection of texts from a wide array of writers on the theme of what is a life well-lived.

the Holy Spirit

The Holy SpiritGregg R. Allison & Andreas J. Kostenberger. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2020. An in-depth study of the biblical theology of the Holy Spirit.

The Jesus of the Gospels

The Jesus of the Gospels, An Introduction, Andreas J. Köstenberger. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020. An introductory survey of the four gospels by a top flight New Testament Scholar.

Several of these are long, thought-provoking works. I’ve heard the author of The Lost Art of Dying speak on this subject on several occasions. In July I get to interview the author of Wait With Me, and in August, one of the authors of Uncommon Ground, John Inazu. David A. DeSilva is an old friend, a great teacher, and I look forward to see what he does in writing historical fiction. I’ve been impressed with other works from the Theology of Work project, and Working in the Presence of God promises to be yet another one of these. Elaine Howard Ecklund’s approach to science and faith issues as a sociologist looks like an unique approach, based on shared virtues.  I’m set with good reading for the summer!

Review: Brown Church

brown church

Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and IdentityRobert Chao Romero. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the five hundred year of Latina/o Christianity and its resistance and response to colonialism, dictatorships, U.S. imperialism, and oppression toward farm workers and immigrants.

Imagine you had grown up in a vibrant church that translated faith into community development and advocated for those who were marginalized by majority culture. How would you respond if a respected university teacher, or a justice movement on your campus told you that your religious experience had been shaped by colonial imperialists who used religion as an opiate to suppress your people?

That is the challenge, in various forms, that the author states faces Latinas/os from Christian backgrounds. Robert Chao Romero argues that there is another side to that history, a church born of resistance, that views Latina/o culture as a gift of God, that is awake to the racism and injustice of its history, and has brought together love for Christ and commitments to justice for a marginalized people.

Romero does that by taking us on the five hundred year journey of the Brown Church, “Brown” reflecting the mixture of descent that makes up Latina/o people, that is neither Black nor White, but has a distinctive history and character and contribution to the body of Christ.

He begins by rooting this account in God’s Galilee strategy. Galileans were the marginalized of Israel when the real power was in Jerusalem and Judea. And Nazareth was on the margin of the margins. The people of Galilee were considered a “mixed” breed and inferior. This is the place Jesus called “home.” This is where he formed his movement and called his followers. He proposes that this plan was co-opted by a European, colonialist, white supremacist outlook that corrupted the church.

Yet a movement of resistance has existed from the beginnings of Spanish colonialism, beginning with Friar Montesino’s denunciation of colonial injustices on the island of Hispaniola in 1511. From here, he traces the growth of the Brown Church through the stories of Bartholomé de Las Casas and the visions of Juan Diego of La Virgen de Guadelupe, who witnessed that the oppression was not God’s intent. He introduces us to Guaman Poman whose faith led him to advocate for indigenous autonomy, and Sor Juana, a great Latina scholar of humane letters who dared to rebuke the heresies of the established church.

Romero looks at the treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo in 1845 between the U.S. and Mexico, ceding the lands of the American Southwest, creating a group of people in these lands with a liminal status, neither black nor white, but “brown.” Romero traces the Brown church in the US to an ex-communicate priest in New Mexico, Padre Antonio Jose Martinez and the lay orders he formed, los Penitentes and las Carmelitas, who provided spiritual and community leadership to Latinas/os in this liminal space, not quite yet American citizens.

He then jumps forward to the farm organizing work of César Chávez. He tells a story of the spiritual roots of Chávez’s life often not included in the history, from his “Abuelita theology” to the Catholic social teaching and community development training he received with Fr. Donald McDonnell. Chávez’s non-violent approached was sustained by faith, fasting and servant leadership, until after 1975, when under the influence of the teaching of Synanon, he became increasingly self-focused and authoritarian and lost most of his following.

The final chapters take us through the social justice theologies of Latin America from Liberation Theology to evangelicos like Rene Padilla and Samuel Escobar and the Misión  Integral that combined evangelism and social justice rooted in the authority of the Bible. He tells the story of Oscar Romero, his conversion and conscientization, as the once conservative priest who became the advocate for the poor against the powers of El Salvador, against the American backed military government, until executed during a mass. Finally, he chronicles contemporary Latina/o theological movements in the United States from Pentecostal theologians like Condé-Frazier, Maldonado-Peréz, Villafañe, and Garcia-Johnson to community organizers like Alexia Salvatierra, Noel Castellanos, and Ray Rivera.

Romero does what I find a rare thing in Christian scholarship. He offers a well-documented scholarly work that flows. He brings people and movements to life, and creates a narrative thread in developing the idea of the Brown Church that holds the whole together. Here is a scholar who can tell a story!

Romero concludes with nine statements that define the Brown Church. The strength of this work, summed up in these statements is that he gives identity and character to a people who have existed on the borderlands. He shows how this marginalized people have recaptured distinctives of the Galilean Gospel that shapes their lives, but is also a gift to the rest of the church, held captive to imperialism, the empty power of the colonizer, and to racist ideologies that divide the body of Christ rather than form the beloved community. Reading this for me opened my eyes to the riches of devotion, of action, and of theology within the “Brown Church”–a theology shaped by life on the margins reclaiming the world-changing witness of the “marginal Jew,” Jesus Christ.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Cromwell: The Lord Protector

Crowmwell the Lord Protector

Cromwell: The Lord ProtectorAntonia Fraser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973.

Summary: A biography of Oliver Cromwell, a military and parliamentary leader during the English Civil Wars, rising after the death of Charles I to Lord Protector.

Oliver Cromwell, not unlike his ancestor Thomas Cromwell is a tragic figure. Both men had great strengths, and great flaws. Antonia Fraser’s classic biography of Oliver Cromwell draws a highly detailed portrait of the man in all his actions that reveals both his greatness and his flaws, and the tragedies, both in and beyond his lifetime to which these led.

Fraser traces this life from its beginning as a child of landed gentry from Huntingdon, elected to Parliament in 1628. During this time period he underwent a religious conversion to Puritanism that shaped his thought and life profoundly. After Parliament’s recess for eleven years, he became the member for Cambridge in 1640, sitting in the Short and Long Parliaments, and during this period became the outstanding military leader that led the Parliamentarians to victory over the king in the first English Civil War.

Fraser characterizes the greatness of his military ability as a combination of battlefield discipline instilled through training, and the ability to “seize the moment” when enemy weakness gave the opportunity for victory. The victories at Marston Moor and Naseby hinged on his decisive actions leading to the end of the first Civil War. This was followed by inconclusive efforts to establish a constitutional monarchy.

It was only when the Second Civil War was concluded with the fall of Pembroke castle and the Royalist Scottish Army’s defeat at Preston at the hands of Cromwell, that things turned decisively against Charles I. His stubbornness was met by Cromwell’s beliefs in providence, justified by his military victories and justifying the death of Charles, by whom so much blood had been shed. Charles I went to his death January 30, 1649.

Fraser follows all the deliberations of how to compose a government, beginning with the Commonwealth in 1649, of which Cromwell was one of the Parliamentary leaders. This was interrupted for Cromwell by a military expedition to Ireland, where he presided angrily over the slaughters at the Catholic strongholds of Drogheda and Wexford, a taint on his career. His victories there opened the door to a Protestant land grab. In the following year, Charles II, crowned king in Scotland, threatened the Commonwealth. Again, suffering in precarious health, Cromwell meets the threat at Dunbar and Worcester (further acts of God’s providence) resulting in Charles II’s flight to France.

His return to what was known as the “Rump” Parliament ended with another angry speech, resulting in dissolution of the Parliament and Cromwell becoming Lord Protector–royalty in plain clothes. We see his struggle over five years to form a government shaped by religious principle, and respected among the powers. His own failing health and the government’s financial struggles doomed his efforts. Dying, he loses a beloved daughter and bequeaths the Protectorate to his son Richard, who had none of his strengths. This last less than a year until Richard fled England as the King was recalled. He lived abroad and under an assumed name most of his life.

There was good reason for his flight. Although not widespread, the King did avenge his father’s death, executing the lead figures, and exhuming Cromwell’s corpse, first hanging it, and then beheading it, the head remaining on a stake for decades. Fraser devotes significant attention the the exhumation and eventual disposition of the body and the head.

This is a long book and I found that Fraser’s accounts of the military leadership seemed to have far more energy than the political accounts, that seemed rather tedious at times, albeit exhaustively complete. What she gives us is a complex and complete account of Cromwell, from the warmth of his family relations and those with many friends, the brilliance of his military leadership, punctuated with episodes of anger and precarious health, and the religious certitude, that was both a comfort to his soul, and a contributing factor in the execution of a king, and an attempt at a radical government. One wonders if he would have been better to leave political leadership to others, nearly always a good idea for military figures. To me, Cromwell came off as one you might admire but never like, and maybe not trust, for fear of coming up on the wrong side of providence.

[Note on editions: My review is of an out of print edition published by Knopf. The link to this title is an ABE Books link to used editions. In the U.K., the book is still in publication as Cromwell: Our Chief of Men published by Orion Publishing]

Review: Good* White Racist

good white racist

Good* White Racist, Kerry Connelly (Foreword by Michael W. Waters). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores how whites may be complicit with a system of racism while being well-intentioned and how white efforts to sustain a sense of “goodness” help perpetuate racial divides.

Kerry Connelly opens this book with admitting that she is a racist. A good white racist. She’s not a white supremacist. She thinks racism is evil. She is a Christian who loves Jesus. Yet the very desire to think ourselves good, she would argue, prevents us from seeing the ways we are complicit with the history and systems of racism in the United States. Often, she acknowledges, that, paradoxically, it is our attempts to defend our goodness, that keep us from leaning into the hard work of understanding our complicity, and the even harder work of discerning what it means to “pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Her appeal in this book is that we would be the good people we want to be and lean into that hard work rather than keep defending our goodness.

She begins by walking us through our national self-perception of goodness, at least among whites. We don’t even notice that it is “white.” She looks at the construction of “whiteness” that we are often not conscious of, and how, over time, many ethnic minorities assimilated into whiteness, or otherwise were set apart as inferior. She unpacks the tactics of gaslighting: denial and detraction, distraction, disclaiming, and disappearing. She discusses the power of language, and how whites may not use the “N-word,” regardless of the use of it by others. She looks at the assumptions built into our education system, from the “discovery” of America onward. She looks at common justifications (often a form of distraction) such as “I don’t see race–I’m colorblind.” She explores our tendency to call the police when we see blacks in “white” spaces when all they are doing is living their lives while black (I had a colleague who found herself staring down the barrel of a policeman’s gun because she was watering a neighbor’s lawn while the neighbor was out of town, and had the police called on her). She explores how this plays out in white churches, including the large white evangelical church she left after the 2016 election. She concludes with the work we must do, beginning with the five stages of grief, and the personal, interpersonal, and collective work that must be done to oppose racism.

This is a challenging book to read. The content is challenging as is the writing style. Connelly may be “good” but she is not “nice.” She can be blunt, and what one reviewer calls “snarky.” She is liberal with her use of profanity, but contends that if we are offended more by the profanity than the profane injustices about which she is writing, we’ve just offered exhibit one of what is the problem. Here is one sample:

I also know this isn’t easy. God knows it’s not easy for me every time I discover another racist thought floating around my head or realize another way I’m complicit in the system. I know that I’ve probably already made you a little uncomfortable, if not outright pissed off. That’s okay. Let’s just sit with that a hot second. Because honestly, our discomfort is not the problem. It’s our absolute refusal to roll around in that discomfort that’s the problem. It’s the fact that we’d rather run from the room screaming “I’m good! I’m good! I swear to God I’m good!” than actually sit and practice a little bit of honest self-reflection (p. 6).

If you want to remain comfortable, don’t read this book. “Doing the work” is just not comfortable. Period. It just doesn’t feel good to realize that you are not as good as you thought, or are complicit with injustices that have deprived many of our citizens of equal protection under our laws or an equally enjoyed life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But if we do not begin here, we will not begin at all.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.