Review: Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeTa-Nehisi Coates. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015

Summary: Coates extended letter to his son following the Michael Brown verdict on the struggle for the dignity of his people against the violence to their bodies by those who “believe they are White” and part of a pursuit of a Dream built “on looting and violence.”

Th-Nehisi Coates fashioned this work as an extended letter to his son, Samori (whose name means “struggle”) following the decision that there would be no indictment against the policeman involved in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Samori, on hearing the news, simply responded “I’ve got to go” as he went to his room and wept.

This letter is Coates attempt to articulate what it means to believe in the beauty and dignity of one’s people in a world where the black body is often the object of violence. He describes growing up on the West side of Baltimore with a severe father who often beat him, declaring that it would either be him or the police, where Black children had to be “twice as good.” He describes the sobering moment when another boy pulls a gun on him, and his realization that violence to the body could snuff out a life and nullify all his effort in a moment. He recounts his engagements with “those who believe they are white,” whose pursuit of an American dream, has come at the cost of “looting and violence” against the black body.

He shifts the scene to Howard University, a Black Mecca where every form of what it meant to be a beautiful and great people was celebrated, often in a walk across the Yard, the green space on campus. He recounts his intellectual life in the Moorland Library, his loves, and the girl he lost to Prince Jones. He falls in loves again with the woman who gave him his son.

After leaving Howard, and having his own encounter with the fearsome Prince George police, he learns that the beautiful young man he knew as Prince Jones was followed by these same police in plain clothes across the D.C. area, and killed when supposedly he had tried to run them down.

He struggles as a young writer and father in New York, when a white woman pushes his young son aside to get on a subway. He stands up to her, and describes his subsequent conflicted feelings as he realizes how much he has risked his son’s safety while standing up for his son’s dignity. There are other moments in Chicago, covering the humiliation of an eviction in North Lawndale.

Coates recounts a respite during a trip to Paris, where for a brief moment he experiences what it is like to live without fear for violence against his body. And then he narrates his encounter with Dr. Mable Jones, the mother of Prince. She rose from being the child of sharecroppers to being chief of radiology in a Philadelphia hospital. She bought cars for her children including the Jeep in which Prince was killed. The conversation reflects both her Christian faith and deep grief that all for which she worked could be lost in a moment to law enforcement officials who would not be held to account.

Coates, who has rejected any religion, is provoked to wonder:

“…I thought of my own distance from an institution that has, so often, been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. I wondered this, at that particular moment, because something beyond anything I have ever understood drove Mable Jones to an exceptional life.”

In his concluding words to his son, however, he does not have much hope to offer the son who he obviously loves deeply, but only the struggle expressed in his name:

“And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom. Struggle for the warmth of the Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”

I found myself reacting in a number of ways to this work. One was to just sit and absorb it and try to imagine a life lived every day with the awareness both of the preciousness of one’s body, and that it could be snuffed out in an instant by powerful others. I had to sit with the incredible pressure of constantly thinking I had to be twice as good because of the color of my skin. I had to sit and think what it must be like to want a different life for one’s children, and yet recognize that one’s own struggle, and peril, will be theirs as well.

The closest it seems that Coates gets to the transcendent is his descriptions of The Mecca of Howard, and his time in France. But I wondered what it must be like to glimpse goodness, truth, and beauty only to find it submerged in the ever-looming danger of structures that oppress, and powers that may kill, and a life of struggle against them.

Coates helps me to see how evil is the social construction we call “race.” He does this by speaking of people who believe they are white, who paint themselves white. One of the most sobering realizations that comes through is that this social construction not only is deadly for those labeled “black,” but also that the construction is deadly for “whites” as well. A former pastor once made the comment that “the American dream is killing us.” Racism is a burden for those who call themselves white. It drives us into suburbs, an automobile and energy dependent culture, the costs of maintaining a system of mass incarceration and much more.

I find myself thinking about the almost wistful longing Coates has for the faith that shaped Dr. Mable Jones life, and yet the sadness that such a faith could not protect her son. Coates challenges me that my work is not to persuade him of the Christian vision so much as to confront and repent from an American Dream that necessitates the struggle that he and his son alike face, and that is indeed our deathbed. It is time for such dreams to die, and for those who embrace the faith of Dr. Jones to lean into the call to the peaceable kingdom and beloved community. I think Coates is right that it is we “Dreamers” who need a conversion.


Review: Perfectly Human

perfectly human

Perfectly HumanSarah C. Williams. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: A personal narrative of a couple facing a pre-natal diagnosis of fatal birth defects, their decision to carry their daughter to term, their process with family and friends, and the larger issues their own decision raised for them.

Sarah Williams had struggled through a horrendous pregnancy of nausea, even as her children anticipated a younger sibling. A routine, twenty-week pre-natal screening turns suddenly serious. A specialist diagnoses thanatophoric dysplasia, a skeletal deformity resulting in a chest that is too small to sustain proper lung development, and a baby unable to breathe upon birth. The expectation of the medical professionals is that they would terminate the pregnancy, and this is Sarah, and her husband Paul’s, first instinct as well. Except that she felt God speak to her that May evening: “Here is a sick and dying child. Will you love this child for me?” Subsequently she reflects: “…it became less a question of my loving the baby as me watching God love and then following him in his love.

Close friends and their pastor rally around them. Others respond less helpfully, from insistent faith that God would cure the defects to criticism from academic colleagues for even thinking of carrying such a “sub-optimal” life to term. We also see things from Paul’s perspective, and how men are often closed out of this process, when they also love and grieve their child.

Most touching are the ways they deal with this as a family. They talk honestly with the children, who each respond in different ways as they love and grieve their baby sister. The family names her Cerian, a Welsh name that means “loved.” One of the children records her heartbeat. The family goes camping, and then stays with Sarah’s mother Wren, who provides a place of spiritual retreat as Sarah approaches delivery, complicated by hydramnios, a buildup of amniotic fluid because the baby is not swallowing enough.

The narrative of her induced birth is powerful. Sarah had nearly died as the baby pressed against a major blood vessel. The time has come to let go of the baby but she fights against her body until she “sees” a horse and rider, who she understands to be Jesus, come for her baby.

She deals with the rawness of her grief and that of her family. No effort is made to spiritualize it but we see grieving people helping each other to figure out how to remember Cerian, and to learn from the love they were called into. Sarah writes:

“During the nine months I carried Cerian, God had come close to me again unexpectedly, wild and beautiful, good and gracious. I touched his presence as I carried Cerian, and as a result I realized that underneath all my other longings lay an aching desire for God himself and for his love. Cerian shamed my strength and in her weakness she showed me a way of intimacy.”

The book is pro-life without pitting mothers against babies, without judging or advocating. The author acknowledges that others facing the same situation might choose differently and she refuses to judge those choices. An epilogue does wrestle with these issues, more with questions about the choices we have taken upon ourselves because of our technology that suggest that our humanness, and sometimes that of others, reflects our own self-definitions and self-creations. Cerian showed her a different way:

“Limitations, finitude, suffering, weakness, disability, and frailty can be gifts. Far from robbing us of our humanity, without a place for these things we are less than human. Ultimately, personhood is not a work of self-definition and self-creation. Instead, it is a gift.”

This is a work of exquisite, intimate, and aching beauty that also raises profound questions without becoming preachy or censorious. It also reflects the power of a community of family and friends. The inclusion of Paul and his own struggles and growth in the process reminds us that pregnancy is also about men, not imposing their will upon a woman, but through conception, stepping into the joys, the griefs, and the sacrificial love of being a husband and father. Paul rails against the ways he is institutionally excluded, and chooses not to remain aloof but as deeply involved as a man can be in these things, allowing both love and loss to touch his own heart. Williams shows care with words, using them well to articulate self-understanding and insight. To read this narrative is alternately to wonder and to weep, in our own longings for we know not what, at the perfectly human gift of Cerian.


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

Review: Educated


Educated, Tara Westover. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A memoir a young women raised by survivalists in rural Idaho, physically abused by an older brother, self-taught until entering Brigham Young, beginning a journey taking her to Cambridge, Harvard, ultimately at the cost of severing family ties.

She holds a Ph.D from Cambridge, has studied at Harvard, as well as receiving her B.A. from Brigham Young. And before her first classes at Brigham Young she had never set foot in a school classroom. She is Tara Westover. She was one of seven children of Mormon survivalists living in a beautiful mountain setting in rural Idaho. Tara did not have a birth certificate. Her father embraces theories of the Illuminati who had pervaded the Church and all government institutions.  He rejected all traditional medicine other than his wife’s herbal potions, which Tara helped mix as a child. Food, gasoline, and guns were stockpiled and Tara slept with a “head for the hills” bag in anticipation of the End Times. An older brother, “Shawn” (a pseudonym), having suffered multiple head injuries, violently and sadistically abused her, stuffing her face in a toilet, calling her “whore,” and breaking bones. No one intervened.

Westover’s memoir has been on a number of “best book” lists and has been a recommended read by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. For all that, this is a painful book to read, yet inspiring at the same time. Tara’s exposure to unsafe working conditions in her father’s scrapyard and construction projects, the verbal abuse and emotional manipulation she experiences from her father and the physical violence of her brother are horrendous.

Yet her journey, from performing in local plays, to getting jobs not dependent on her father, to the effort to teach herself enough to pass college entrance exams, and her near-miraculous admission to BYU and subsequent scholarships hint at a voice, an agency within, a sense of self not controlled by her highly controlling family.

She quickly discovers the holes in her efforts at self-education and what little schooling she received from her parents. In one of her first classes she reveals her ignorance of the Holocaust. Yet those gaps become the impetus for curiosity, and not only educational discovery but self-discovery. She discovers symptoms that match her father suggestive that he suffered some form of bi-polar illness.

Another form of inspiration comes in the form of mentors who recognize the intelligence hidden in this uneducated girl–a bishop in her church who provides financial assistance and lets her talk, a professor who encourages her by taking her on a summer at Cambridge, a Cambridge academic who affirms the quality of her scholarship, a counselor who helps her put her life back together when the tension between what her family and upbringing say she ought to be, and what her own inner voice aspires to become so great she experiences a breakdown.

Reading the book helped me understand how abuse victims who have experienced horrid abuse can blame themselves rather than their abusers. Tara internalizes their view of her and the world (including her brother’s epithet of “whore”). It shows us how even deeply dysfunctional families can still have deep bonds to and upon each other. The memoir helps us experience with Tara her struggle to come to terms with the reality that she was not the problem, and with that awakening the necessity to refuse her father’s “blessing,” which signified maintaining a relationship with her parents, indeed her identity, on their terms. It meant severing ties with her parents and some of her siblings in order to affirm her own voice, her own life.

Much like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (review), both extended family and educational mentors play an important role in Tara’s life, providing a safe space for her developing sense of self. We also see the power of education at its best as her academic work helps her understand her own experience. Some will respond critically that her education resulted in both estrangement from family and walking away from her faith. It seems to me that both family and faith as she experienced these were toxic (she is clear to distinguish this from Mormonism in an author’s note). It is also the case that there may be future chapters of this story to be written. If this book is any indication, Westover’s account will be one of strikingly compelling prose.

Review: The Irrational Season

The Irrational Season.jpg

The Irrational SeasonMadeleine L’Engle. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1976).

Summary: The third in a four book collection titled The Crosswicks Journals consisting of reflections shaped around the church year, and memories of different season’s in the author’s life.

Madeleine L’Engle’s work is receiving renewed attention with the release of the film version of A Wrinkle in Time. I first discovered this story, and those that followed in college. Later, these were among our favorites in “read aloud” times as a family. Eventually I discovered that this was only a small part of this author’s work, which included children’s stories, fiction and science fiction, poetry, journals, a trilogy commenting on Genesis, and various collections of essays. Running through all of this is the author’s hard-won Christian faith

This work, the third in The Crosswicks Journals series of autobiographical memoirs, is a collection of reflections organized around the church year, from Advent to Advent. The work begins and ends with what she describes as her struggle between atheism and faith, her struggle to believe in something as incredible as the Incarnation. Her reflections take us through the church year–her struggle with the Slaughter of the Innocents that Christ both escaped, and embraced in the cross, reflections on the outworking of the Beatitudes during Lent, a beautiful icon of Mother and Child and the Cross hung on her property deliberately destroyed by a gunshot at close range, and the resurrection of hope at Easter, her thoughts on the Holy Spirit, who she describes as the person of the Trinity she most understands (unlike most of us), reflections on the Trinity, and the grace of community she experienced in a rural congregation, and musings on the Transfiguration as her setter chases a swallow in a meadow.

The journal is full of rich, beautiful, and earthy wisdom. She writes extensively about marriage and sexuality in her chapter on Epiphany:

“It takes a lifetime to learn another person. After all these years I still do not understand Hugh; and he certainly does not understand me. We’re still in the risky process of offering ourselves to each other, and there continue to be times when this is not easy, when the timing isn’t right, when we hurt each other. It takes a lifetime to learn all the varied ways of love, including intercourse. Love-making is like a Bach fugue; you can’t go to the piano and play a fugue the first time you hold your hands out over the keys.”

In several chapters she writes on the “Noes” of God, and how in our own lives the cross must precede the resurrection, and the “no” of God often precede God’s “yes.” She shares this reminiscence of the time when she was seeking a publisher for A Wrinkle in Time:

“Experience is painfully teaching me that what seems NO to a man from man’s point of view, is often the essential prelude to a far greater YES. The Noes which have been said to me may be as small and inconsequential as the opportunities given me for peacemaking, but they are mine. During the two years when A Wrinkle in Time was consistently being rejected by publisher after publisher, I often went out alone at night and walked down the dirt road on which Crosswicks faces, and shouted at God; ‘Why don’t you let it get accepted? Why are you letting me have all these rejection slips? You know it is a good book! I wrote it for you! So why doesn’t anyone see it?’

But when Wrinkle was finally published, it was exactly the right moment for it, and if it had been published two years earlier it might well have dropped into a black pit of oblivion.”

I, for one, am glad that it didn’t and that this particular “No” of God let to this wonderful “Yes.”

L’Engle has faced criticism for her universalism, about which she writes in this work. She affirms, “No matter how many eons it takes, he [God] will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love.” I do not agree with L’Engle, but I do not think this is reason not to read,  her works. A few pages earlier, she vigorously defends the bodily Resurrection of Jesus and its centrality to Christian faith. Throughout, one finds wisdom tested by the vicissitudes of life–pain, failure, suffering and loss–as well as the embrace of all that is good in life from private moments with one’s love, to glorious dinners, to childbirth, to a last, precious visit with a dying saint. In our most honest moments, we find ourselves with Madeleine, vacillating between atheism and a vibrant faith. Her reflections remind that we are not the only ones to face this, and that if we are in the darkness of a “No” from God, that it is not the last word, but the prelude to his “Yes.”

Review: Washed and Waiting

washed and waiting

Washed and Waiting (revised with new Afterword), Wesley Hill. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016 (originally published in 2010).

Summary: An updated narrative of a celibate, gay Christian man, including thoughts about the recovery of the place of celibacy and the importance of spiritual friendship.

Wesley Hill was one of the first to articulate a distinctive perspective in discussions on homosexuality and Christian faith. At a time when people on one side were simply advocating against same-sex intimacy, and for ministries helping gay and lesbian persons develop opposite sex attractions, and those on the other side were affirming LGBT persons in their identities and choices of who they would love, Hill took a different stance. He admitted that he was attracted to men and self identified as gay in orientation, but that as a Christian he was committed to a celibate life, the only option he believed open to him.

When Washed and Waiting was first published in 2010, it gained a great deal of notice for its honest and painful narrative of Hill’s growing awareness that there was something “different” about him, even as he also became aware of God’s call to ministry. He narrates how hard it was to “come out” to a trusted professor who responded with grace, and connected him with a counselor who began to help him sort out what to do with this. He learned the importance of having people in his life wherever he went who knew his story and were willing to share his journey. He describes the peculiar sense of loneliness and shame he believes many LGBT people feel, even while seeking, and often finding community.

In the original work, he explains why, not seeing a change in orientation likely for him, he chooses celibacy. For him, it is not just the prohibitions, which he believes are clear, but also the larger story of creation, fall, and redemption he finds himself in, and the place given to marriage in that story. He also sees his own condition as emblematic of life between the already and the not yet, where we are washed in the waters of baptism (1 Corinthians 6), but living in what can be the painful tension of embodied life touched by the fall, waiting for the redemption of those bodies spoken of in Romans 8.

He punctuates his story with vignettes of Henri Nouwen and the poet priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, both who experienced homosexual attractions and chose celibate lives. One has a sense in reading of both the real pain these men knew, and yet the real gift their lives became as they lived within the washed and waiting tension.

Hill’s afterword takes on the challenge of his critics of writing such things as a young man with much life ahead. In “Washed and Still Waiting” we hear more mature reflections ten years after the original manuscript. Hill’s focus is on the celibate call. He contends first, in a society where you are thought not to be fulfilled without sexual intimacy, for restoring the dignity of the celibate calling, noting the biblical commendation of celibacy including the examples of Jesus and Paul as well the honorable instances of celibacy in church history. He also thinks there needs to be frank discussion of stewarding one’s sexuality while refraining from sexual intimacy. Finally, he discusses the importance for the celibate of living in community, and enjoy within that “spiritual friendship” (an idea he develops more fully in his book Spiritual Friendship, also reviewed on this blog).

Hill’s work is helpful in several ways. He helps us understand something of the journey of gay persons — the unsettling awareness, feelings of loneliness and shame, “coming out,” and growing in a Christ-shaped acceptance of himself. It strikes me that his was an instance where Christians around him got it right, lavishing grace rather than shame, and giving him the space to come to his own convictions within caring, yet hardly perfect communities which is the most any of us gets. Finally, he challenges us with the reality of the struggle any of us faces who truly tries to live into the tension of the already and the not yet–those of us who refuse the Christian success dreams of white suburbia and the prosperity gospel. He writes:

“More and more, I have the sense that what many of us need is a new conception of our perseverance in faith. We need to reimagine ourselves and our struggles. The temptation for me is to look at my bent and broken sexuality and conclude that, with it, I will never be able to please God, to walk in a manner worthy of his calling, to hear his praise. But what if I had a conception of God-glorifying faith, holiness, and righteousness that included within it a profound element of struggle and stumbling? What if I were to view my sexual orientation, temptations, and occasional failures not as damning disqualifications for living a Christian life but rather as part and parcel of what it means to live by faith in a world that is fallen and scarred by sin and death.”

While I do not share Hill’s sexual orientation, I identify with every other word in this paragraph. Who of us cannot, if we are honest with ourselves and before God? The calling Hill speaks of here is both gift and challenge to us all, and the only way for any of us to life. We stand together, washed and waiting.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Vanished Homes

The home I grew up in. (Photo taken by Carol E Campbell)

It has been four to five years since I last drove down my home street. At that time, it was clear that a number of houses, including the one I grew up in, were vacant. Siding had been stripped off part of our old house. I had the sinking feeling that I was watching the death of a loved one.

The other day, my sister-in-law wrote to me that the old house was no more, that there was simply a vacant lot where it once stood. Somehow, I knew that was coming. Yet just eleven years ago, in 2006, it was one of the best kept houses on the street. My parents put a lot of love and care into the house they lived in for 65 years in which they raised three children. They finally sold it when health reasons suggested that it was time to move into a retirement community. That it took less than eleven years to destroy that home reflects the tragedy of Youngstown — the depopulation that followed years of corrupt and self-serving political leadership and rapacious industry that took the labor of the city’s workers, took the profits, and left the city desolate. A city of just over 60,000 can’t sustain a housing stock built for 170,000. The truth is empty houses are targets of opportunity, and the natural elements combined with human elements will quickly destroy even the best kept home, once abandoned. At least the city is tearing these homes down.

Yes, I’m angry that this could happen to what was once a perfectly good home. Not that I want to go back — when we’ve moved we’ve given thanks for what the home has meant to us, prayed a blessing over it for those who would follow, and not looked back. We are not going to be knocking on the doors of owners of places we once lived to look around!

But it is sad that the place filled with so many memories is no more. These were some of mine, which I write down against the day I may not remember them or be around to do so!

  • There was the front porch that was the coolest place on many summer evenings–a place of family conversation, listening to Indians games, cold glasses of lemonade, the old metal porch swing.
  • The front door with the button lock in the door that would mean you’d need to use a kitchen knife to get the door open. My mom was really good at that.
  • The living room where we shared so many Christmas mornings around the tree Dad so exquisitely decorated, albeit with lots of cussing and muttering when the lights would tangle or he couldn’t get it to stand straight! My mom always sat in her yellow wing chair, that now sits in our family room, police radio on the table beside her.
  • The dining room, where we shared so many Thanksgiving dinners. Eventually the buffet and table of my grandparents filled the room. I also used to love to listen to the shortwave receiver that was part of the radio/record player console and hear stations from Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.
  • The kitchen, with the old stove and the table around which we shared so many meals, so many stories, political discussions, and sometimes arguments. There was usually a dog dish around, and a dog we’d sometimes slip things from the table.
  • Down the stairs was a basement. I remember the HO slot car layout along one wall that I would spend hours with my friends racing cars. In one corner was my dad’s desk, where he would bring home work, pay bills, and listen to his polkas when they bothered mom. In later years there was a pool table that my son and my father played many games together. We captured a picture of them at it, probably one of the last times they played.
  • Along another wall was an old workbench and table, and above them a pegboard with tools and shelves with baby food jars filled with nails, screws, nuts, bolt, etc. I used to love to tinker there with scrap pieces of wood, making rubber band guns. The furnace and water heater were in the middle of the basement. The washer on another wall with laundry tubs. They never bought a dryer, hanging clothes on the clothes lines strung back and forth from the basement rafters. In one corner where our front and side walls met was a coal cellar, from the days when the house was heated by a coal furnace. It was where summer stuff was stored in winter, along with Christmas decorations, and other odds and ends, including an old Western Flyer bike we rehabbed for me.
  • We had three bedrooms upstairs and I slept in one or the other at some time in my life. My parents was on one side of the front, and I had a small bed there in my early years. I moved to the back bedroom to make room for my sister. I used to love looking out the window where I could see downtown. I had a battery powered electricity kit, and later built contraptions with an Erector set. Finally, when my brother married, I moved to the other front bedroom that had more space. This was where I had the stereo I bought where I would listen to WDVE from Pittsburgh and would play rock music as loud as my parents would let me.
  • There was a light in the hallway we left on at night, under which the dog usually slept. Across from it was a bookcase filled with encyclopedia volumes where I could explore the world for hours on indoor days. That bookshelf, though not the encyclopedias, is just to my left as I write this post.
  • Outside was the garage, which my dad and his father-in-law put up on supports while they built a foundation, filled it in and raised it 4-5 feet. I can only imagine how hard they worked to do that. What I most remember about that garage was that one or the other of us was always breaking windows, until dad made me replace and repair them myself. Somehow, I didn’t break any more after that.

I feel like I’m just getting started. We were a real family in that house, with all sorts of ups and downs, many good memories, and some not so good, but all part of the fabric of my life. Yes, it saddens me that the structure is not there and that this is a story that has been repeated numerous times in many good places around the city. But that house and all the memories we made in it lives on in my mind, in the stories we tell our families about those days, and in the people each of us are. And perhaps the great, good places so many of our homes and neighborhoods were might offer hope to those homesteading in the city, and trying to rebuild parts of the city. May they make many new and good memories in those places!

Review: Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

Summary: Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement.

Michael Wear got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after following his rise in politics following the 2004 Democratic convention speech that brought Obama to national attention. After the election, he was appointed as a staff member in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Joshua DuBois. He worked in this office, contributing to efforts to provide tax breaks for adoptions and commitment of the administration to actively fighting human trafficking. He completed his service in the Obama administration heading up the 2012 faith outreach efforts during the presidential campaign. This book discusses that work, which ended with the second inauguration, after which he launched a consulting firm.

It begins with the idealism that surrounded the election of Obama, and the early hopes of an inclusive politics. He highlights Obama’s defense of the inclusion of Rick Warren against people who opposed him for his support of California’s Proposition Eight. An administration that started with a concern to include differing views at the table changed as the Affordable Care Act legislation worked its way through Congress. Concerns about abortion, and the unbending resistance on the contraceptive mandate aroused a sense that the administration was engaged in a war on religion.

Likewise, Wear wrestles with seemingly sincere statements about religious faith and support of traditional marriage by candidate Obama, only for him to “evolve” to a different position, eventually supporting gay marriage, with evidence that this had been the end goal all along. It causes him to wrestle with some of his own work, including speech-writing research that drew on his knowledge of religious audiences.

In reading this, one has a sense of missed opportunities, by both the Obama administration and the political opposition, that led to a hardening of attitudes and deepening of divides. Yet for all this, Wear is neither bitter nor disillusioned. His last two chapters concern the theme of hope. The first of these concerns the error of placing hope in politics. Here he recounts a fascinating interchange between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile over this subject. In the final chapter he talks about the important role Christians, who do not put their ultimate hope in politics, can play in reclaiming hope for engagement in the process–hope that is committed, seeks justice, and is humble. He contends there is important work to be done and for Christians to come together around in both racial justice issues and religious freedom.

This last was particularly striking. It seems like these often are treated in a mutually exclusive fashion–you can only be for one or the other. Yet we are in fact in a country where there are both deep racial inequities, and where religious freedom faces real threats. Rather than accepting partisan binaries, why not stand together in a both-and fashion on this and other issues? Similarly, he contends that since marriage has been extended to same sex partners, why not strengthen the incentives for others to marry as well and revisit the ease with which we grant divorce?

Against a temptation in the current toxic climate to withdraw, he writes:

    “In the face of hopelessness, Christians cannot withdraw from their neighbors, under the impression that they are unwanted and so grant what they think the world wants. We do not love our neighbor for affirmation, but because we have been loved first. Now is not the time to withdraw, but to refine our intentions and pursue public faithfulness that truly is good news.”

Wear has given us a thoughtful book about political engagement, one where we see his own growth, and yet one that does not end, like so many, in disillusion or bitterness. He models the deep resources Christian faith brings to sustain a resilience when one faces deep disappointment, opposition, or simply the realization that the road is a long one. While written out of the context of a Democratic administration, it is not a partisan version of faith in politics, but one that any thoughtful Christian, no matter their party affiliation, may read with profit.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Change of Heart

Change of HeartA Change of Heart, Thomas C. Oden. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Thomas Oden narrates his personal and theological journey through social leftist thought, neo-orthodox and process theology, and trends of ecumenism, feminism, and small group psychotherapy until a personal conversation led to repentance and an embrace of classical, patristic Christianity (paleo-orthodoxy) and landmark works in patristic scholarship and the North African origins of Christianity.

Thomas Oden no doubt would go down as one of the most significant theological scholars of the late twentieth century. Authoring numerous books on pastoral and systematic theology, late in life he led a monumental publishing project, the Ancient Christian Commentary Series and a three-volume series on the influence of early North African theologians on European Christianity. In this volume, he narrates the course of his life, which hinged on a pivotal conversation and the changes of heart and scholarship that resulted.

The first part of the book (roughly the first 130 pages) reflects the course of his life up through the 1960s. From his birth and boyhood in rural Oklahoma, we see the rich fabric of family life and faith, challenged for the first time with the ordeals of Depression and World War 2, with older friends who did not return. We see Oden’s turn in college to pacifism and the leftist ideologies favored by mainline youth ministries. He speaks at several points of the common journeys as Methodist youth he and Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled and the common influences of people like Saul Alinsky and Joe Matthews. He eventually pursues doctoral work at Yale and later travels to Europe, intersecting with Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Gunther Bornkamm, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. This section of the book reveals an Oden imbibing successive “movement” theologians and immersing himself deeply in World Council of Churches ecumenism. All of this led to his appointment at Drew, and to a life-changing friendship with Jewish scholar Will Herberg. He describes a meeting with Herberg to receive Herberg’s critique of his latest book, Beyond Revolution:

    “Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, ‘You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas.’. . .

“Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgment on the last day. He said, ‘If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.’ ” (pp. 136-137).

This led to the “change of heart” referred to in the title, beginning with repentance from the obsession with originality to a dreamed epitaph saying “He made no new contribution to theology.” He moved from the contentious theologies of his peers to the consensual approach to theology of the early fathers. In the circle of New York intellectuals gathered around Richard John Neuhaus bringing together thoughtful evangelicals, Catholics (including then Cardinal Ratzinger) and Orthodox, Oden discovered a different ecumenism energized not by the latest radical theology but rather the classical Christianity articulated in creeds and councils.

This turn to the church fathers and away from the latest progressive causes led to painful breaks with some of his Drew colleagues, but also to the landmark publication project of The Ancient Christian Commentary Series, a commentary series based on the idea of a catena of citations of the church fathers on the biblical text. In the midst of this project, he describes his loss of Edrita, his college sweetheart with whom he was married for 46 years. We see the deep grief of one parted from his beloved only by death, the comfort of the birth of a granddaughter two weeks later and the healing that came in praying the hours, believing that somehow he was communing with both the Lord and Edrita.

The book concludes with the development of a finding implicit in his study of the fathers–the critical role African theologians played in the first five centuries of Christianity, a heritage that has implications for the West, profoundly for Africans and for Christian engagement with the Islam that supplanted it in North Africa. In addition to his writing, Oden founded the Center for Early African Christianity.

I found this to be a powerful narrative of Oden’s life but also the follies of many of the successive theologies of the twentieth century, theologies that distanced Oden from the centrality of the crucified and risen Lord for an empty and unsatisfying activism. His turning makes me examine how deeply I am listening to Christians across the centuries, and not just the “latest thing.” I found myself warned of the danger of being the “know-it-all pundit”. And it left me with a profound sense of thankfulness for Oden’s Jewish friend who risked affection to tell the truth. What a gift this resulted in not only for Oden but for the church.

A colleague, Mark Hansard, also reviewed this book recently. For another take on it, I’d invite you to check out his review.

Thirteen Years Ago

September 11, 2001. I was in Cleveland because I had been asked to speak at the funeral of a good friend that afternoon. I was staying with friends and I left their home a few minutes before 9 a.m. to meet another friend for coffee. It was a cool crisp, late summer day with azure blue skies–it was like this all over the northeast. I had the local public radio station on when the first reports of a plane crashing into one of the World Trade Center Towers came on. As I remember, at first they thought it was simply a small plane. No one could conceive of crashing a commercial jet liner into a building. That is, no one until the second hit and was captured on numerous media.

“9-11-11 WTC Tribute In Light from Jersey City, NJ” by Kim Carpenter – Flickr: 9-11-11 WTC Tribute In Light from Jersey City, NJ. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – 

My friend and I talked in fits and starts between watching the coverage and then witnessing the sickening fall of first one tower, then a second. We knew this couldn’t be good, especially for those in the floors above the crash, or anyone else still in those buildings. The stories of tragedy and heroism only came later, as did news of the crash into the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that crashed in PA (which probably made a U-turn right over our heads in Cleveland).

I had some time to still wait before the funeral and so I did what millions of others did that day–call home. All we could do is share our mutual disbelief at the horror unfolding before our eyes–replayed again and again during those days. All we could do is assure each other of our love, clinging to that in the midst of a flood of emotions and confusion. I wanted so bad to be home.

When I arrived at the funeral for my friend, I saw the friends I had stayed with and our first words to each other was about how the world had changed since we had had breakfast together. Little did we know yet of how much would change. But for that space of time, I had to set it aside to pay tribute to my friend, and my friend’s faith in the face of his own death, conscious at the same time of the thousands of others who had very little time that morning to confront those same realities.

As I reflect today, I remember the courage and tragedy of that day–of passengers on Flight 93, of first responders who gave their lives to rescue others, of phone calls from planes and buildings to speak of love and to say good-bye. I also think of the courage and tragedy of the years since. I think particularly of so many young men and women who responded to our country’s call to put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan or supported efforts in these countries. Some only came home in caskets while others returned bearing physical and mental wounds from their service. We must remember them and continue to see that they receive all the support and care they need, as far as it is humanly possible, to bring healing.

I also think of what we’ve lost as a nation. We’ve sacrificed privacy for protection as we’ve become a heavily surveilled land. We’ve sacrificed investment in our infrastructure, the education of our citizens, and cutting edge research in non-defense related areas to meet real or perceived threats in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the insurgencies we’ve faced seem like hydra-headed monsters–cut off the al-Qaeda threat only for ISIS to arise. We’ve mortgaged our children’s future to pay for the safety and defense of our place in the world.

What I hope we have learned and gained as a nation is a greater sense of that place and our responsibilities in the world, and I hope we find that humbling, and not exalting. All our military and economic power will not make the world behave and act as we wish–it may only engender greater hate and resentment. All our dependence upon our government to protect us has not made us a freer people. I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and make it better–that is also an American myth that I think we would do well to question. I don’t think we can walk away from the challenges we face and the commitments we have made. But I wonder if this is in fact a good day to consider the challenge of Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (NIV)

Goodness, justice and mercy are ideals we espouse, at least in the abstract. Humility, not so much, but to acknowledge at very least that we are not “the greatest thing on earth” and to recognize our answerability to Someone greater (as well as our place among the other peoples made by this God) might be a far better response to this day than nationalistic chest-thumping.

We remember.