Review: A Bigger Table

A Bigger Table, Expanded Edition with Study Guide, John Pavlovitz (Foreword by Jacqueline L. Lewis). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.

Summary: Traces the author’s journey into a bigger vision of and practice of Christian community that is far more inclusive in welcoming people and chronicles the stories of a bigger table and the lives it has touched.

This is an expanded version of a book first published in 2017. John Pavlovitz is a popular pastor and blogger who wrote this book as a narrative of his own journey into a ministry, starting with youth, that welcomed many who previously had not felt welcome. These were youth from different backgrounds, races, and especially, those who identified as LGBTQIA. This paralleled an internal journey from a vision of traditional church where there were things to be believed and not questioned, where you kept those questions and doubts to yourself. As Pavlovitz understanding about sexuality shifted, even though his ministry was thriving as kids encountered the love of Christ, he was fired from the congregation where he was serving.

This opened the doors to a new ministry of building bigger tables. His model was Jesus who set a big table at which “sinners” encountered radical hospitality, true diversity, and total authenticity. Establishment types, political radicals, sexual sinners, working class people, women as well as men were all welcome. The only ones who were not comfortable were the religious establishment. Pavlovitz argues for an “agenda-free” community that isn’t out to “convert” or “minister” but simply share life around Christ.

He argues that for Jesus, love matters more than theologies and apologetics and worldviews. He describes the response that opened up when he wrote about how he would love a child of his own who came out, and the stories and conversations with mama bears and mama dragons that followed, the mothers who advocate for their LGBTQIA children. He writes of the revolution that comes when we shed what he sees as false fears:

Fear of believing the wrong thing

Fear of not praying enough

Fear of joining the wrong denominations

Fear of not exegeting Scripture correctly

Fear of not evangelizing our neighbors enough

Fear of Muslims and gays and atheists

Fear of beer and Harry Potter and cuss words and yogo and mandalas and voting Democrat

Fear of a God who is holding hell over our heads–

Fear as our default setting

John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, (p. 166)

In the end, what Pavlovitz wants is a church that is the most diverse place on earth.

I found myself say “yes” at many points where he named some of the pathologies of the church, and the way our distorted theologies resulted in stunted, unloving lives in the world. I also grieve with him that the church is a dangerous place for many young people to open up about an LGBTQIA identification. It is also a dangerous places for others to talk about pornography or romantic fantasy addictions or adulterous affairs that are corroding marriages. It is also dangerous because we often cover rather than confront abuse in various forms. We tolerate bigotry and embrace of statist ideologies of the left and the right.

It was striking to me to read the afterword in the new edition. It seemed to recognize that there are dangers to the open table. Some are the dangers of political ideologies that would exclude persons of color or immigrants among believing people. Pavlovitz calls for pastors to exercise courage to stand up against a fear-based, loveless Christianity and for the diverse people welcomed to the table.

My concern in this book is what I believe is an either/or binary or dichotomy between radical love and good theology. I think it leads increasingly to a pastor having to open and also guard this welcoming table on their own authority, solely on the strength of their own incarnation of Christ’s love. While theologies can be sterile, distorted, and loveless, the authority of the biblical narrative centered in Christ can challenge idolatries of nationalism, racism, various forms of discrimination and injustice and also challenge all of us to Christ-shaped sexuality. Sadly, the narrow focus in some churches on the sexuality of LGBTQIA persons serves as a convenient dodge for allowing Christ to redeem and shape the sexuality of all of us in a supportive community.

The revised edition of the book includes a study guide for churches to use to begin to think about how they can remove barriers to a bigger table. While I do not agree at all points with the theological moves Pavlovitz has made to have a bigger table, the conversation he proposes for churches and his critique of the pathologies he experienced are worth taking on board.

________________________________

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

Review: Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?

Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?, Antipas L. Harris. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores and answers the title question, showing the misreading of scripture and the affirmation of diverse cultures in scripture.

“Is Christianity the White Man’s Religion?” This question has been asked and the idea asserted by followers of the Nation of Islam, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, and the Five Percent Nation, among others. It is a question facing not only Blacks, but also other peoples of color. Antipas L. Harris, the president and dean of the Jakes Divinity School affirms not only the rich heritage of the Black Church but also demonstrates that this assertion seriously misreads the Bible and its affirmation of diverse cultures.

First, though, he shows the seriousness of the challenge. He notes the departure from the church of social justice-minded millenials as they have witnessed evangelical embrace of conservative politics and pushback against peaceful protests, often opposing the affirmation that Black lives matter. He observes the rising interest in alternative religious groups. He pinpoints the need for the church to address the issue of identity. Does Jesus care about people of color? What does the call to share in the holiness of Jesus mean for one’s identity?

He observes how our reading of scripture has been dominated by a white, Eurocentric interpretation when the Bible arises in a very different culture and context and needs to be interpreted based on that context. He contends that the white Jesus of Hollywood is not the darker skinned Jesus of the Near East. Within the New Testament, Christianity spread to Ethiopia and North Africa. The gospel writer Mark was from Cyrene, in northeast Libya. From Genesis to the New Testament, there was a good deal of ethnic mixing, including in the lineage of Jesus with Rahab the Canaanite, Ruth, the Moabite, and Bathsheba whose husband was a Hittite. He also gives the lie to the curse of Ham being upon Blacks and justifying slavery.

He invites us to read the gospels through dark lenses, to consider how the both the jubilee message of Jesus and his sufferings resonated with former slaves and those who faced the lynching tree. He concludes with inviting us to see the colorful Bible, and to take this message to the streets, to partner with parachurch organizations (PCO’s) to reach disaffected youth, and that Christian leaders must focus on the humility of Jesus and “redeem the faith from perceptions that it’s no more than a mechanism of power in the hands of good ol’ boys.”

Each chapter concludes with a brief “Living it Out” reflection. A strength of this book is that it distills the best of good scholarship to answer the charge that Christianity is the white man’s religion.” It is a good book to read with someone asking the question. Yet this is far from a sterile argument. Harris invites each of us, black or white, to read the Bible with new glasses, to see how God extends his love across diverse peoples and cultures and that the message of the Bible is good news for people of every color. And he invites us to allow that reading to change us.

________________________________

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: You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed Me

You Welcomed MeKent Annan. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Describes the global refugee crisis, the opportunities that the church has to extend welcome, and the fears and misunderstandings that prevent us from doing so.

There are as many as 66 million refugees in the world today. Currently, the U.S. is slated to accept fewer that 22,000, the lowest number in decades while much smaller countries have accepted as many as 2.5 million. Kent Annan, who directs the humanitarian and disaster leadership program at Wheaton College was asked by his son whether we are for or against refugees. A good question indeed, considering these numbers.

Starting with the simple statement of Jesus in Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” Kent Annan explores why the church should be for refugees and how we can extend welcome. He does much of this by telling stories. He begins with the idea of how these people could be any of us, helping us through these stories to recognize the common humanity we share with refugees, reminding us that scripture tells us that it could be angels we entertain when we welcome these strangers.

Annan explores fears that we have about opening our doors more widely to immigrants. Through both stories and statistics, he shows that these fears are misplaced. We have a 1 in 364 billion chance of being murdered by a refugee in a terrorist attack, a 1 in 10.9 billion chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack by an illegal immigrant, while we have a 1 in 14,000 chance of being murdered by anyone, a 1 in 303 chance of dying in an auto accident, and 1 in 7 chance of dying of cancer. Immigrants and refugees in this country contributed $63 billion more than they cost this country over the last decade. Urban neighborhoods into which immigrants move often see a reduction in crime and revitalization.

Annan also helps us empathize by sharing stories of the refugee experience. The snapshots he relates involve departures from unsafe or politically insecure situations, often leaving careers and possessions behind. Often, their flight involves harrowing and life-endangering journeys. Many spend years in refugee camps awaiting resettlement while undergoing rigorous vetting.

He gets practical in terms of what can be done, including information about agencies assisting refugees in the U.S. (some whose existence is threatened by our country’s reduction in the number of refugees it will accept). He urges us to become part of a human chain of being good neighbors, committing to hope, to reconciliation, and to grace.

Finally, drawing from the name of a relief organization, Annan pleads that to be for refugees is to say “here is life.” To welcome refugees is to participate in God’s in-breaking kingdom where we were welcomed and have found life through the Life Giver. We exchange fear for hope, hate for love, scarcity for abundance.

In each chapter, Annan offers practices that can set us started on the road to welcoming refugees and immigrants, making the book useful for a church mission team or study group. An appendix provides descriptions and contact information for the major refugee organizations working in the U.S. The book admits but doesn’t try to solve public policy problems. It helps us empathize (as much as a book can do) with what it is like to be a refugee, and encourages us to find out personally. It focuses on what church people can do to learn and act. I suspect if  a growing movement came forward and said “we want the country to increase the amount of refugees we welcome and we are willing to do the hard work of helping them settle,” that could have public policy implications.

This is a short book that does not try to do to much. And perhaps there is wisdom in this. If we will not heed and wrestle with Jesus’s words, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I’m not sure the need at this point is for more words.

___________________________

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.