Review: Unsettling Truths

unsettling truths

Unsettling TruthsMark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Shows how “The Doctrine of Discovery,” an outgrowth of a Christendom of power rather than relationship has shaped a narrative of the United States, to the dehumanizing  of Native Peoples, slaves, and other non-white peoples.

Columbus discovered America, right? Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans “settled” America and drove out the “Indians” who threatened their settlements. That’s what I learned in history class. 

That’s not how the Native Peoples of Turtle Island (what they call North America) saw it. They were invaded and had the land of their ancestors taken from them, were displaced, often with genocidal marches, to inferior lands. Unfortunately, victors usually write the history.

The two authors of this work show the complicity of the church in the “Doctrine of Discovery” that justified the settlement of Native lands, and the subjugation of Native Peoples that resulted, as well as the dehumanizing treatment of African slaves. They trace this back to the transition the church underwent under Constantine, when church and state became Christendom, and Constantine’s “faith” was written into the narrative by Eusebius. The crusades led to classifying “infidels” as inferior human beings and the church baptized the early explorers efforts as “evangelistic,” and the early settlers appropriated Israel’s land covenant and Jesus’ “city on a hill” to articulate their justification for “settling” the Native lands.

The most disturbing part of this narrative is the genocidal effects of this settlement reducing a population of approximately six million to under 240,000 at one point. Some was disease. Some was warfare. Some was outright massacre, like Wounded Knee, and some, like the Trail of Tears or the Navajo and Apache removal to Bosque Redondo, when thousands died. Proportionally, the death rate of the latter was greater than the Holocaust.

Another “unsettling truth” was the equivocal character of the “Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln. There is a plaque at the base of the Lincoln Memorial that records these words of Lincoln:

“I would save the Union. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not to save or destroy slavery.  If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

An uprising of Dakota initially led to 2 of 40 being sentenced to death. Lincoln expanded the criteria for death sentences resulting in the execution of 39. Subsequently, Lincoln signed into law a bill nullifying treaties with the Dakota and Winnebago tribes in Minnesota and mandating their forced removal to the Dakota Territory. Bounties were set on those who who tried to escape the roundup.

The authors conclude with how we react to these unsettling truths, including the efforts of Christian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian to save the man.”. One of the most interesting ideas, but also one on which I’d like to see more research is what they termed Perpetrator Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS). They contend that Native Peoples and African Americans are not the only ones traumatized by the Doctrine of Discovery. White America is also traumatized. The authors propose that this may explain the “triggering” effect of the election of Barack Obama as president. They also propose that healing can come only through lament, relational apologies to the Tribal People whose lands were taken and the children of slaves forcibly brought here, and with Tribal peoples, and acknowledgement of thanks to them as hosts in a land where we are guests. That’s only a beginning, but a necessary one.

The “unsettling truths” of this book don’t appear in traditional histories, and I’m sure there are those who will contest them, particularly because of the sweeping nature of this account, from the beginnings of Christendom to white trauma. While there is extensive documentation in the form of endnotes, the case of this book would be helped with a bibliography of further readings for each chapter. From other readings, I found much to warrant this cumulative case. Furthermore, the authors write both unsparingly, and yet with the hope that their narrative will contribute to the equivalent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The question is whether there will be leaders in local communities as well as national bodies willing to acknowledge the truth, make honest and sincere apologies to the peoples whose lands they occupy.

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

 

 

The Month in Reviews: July 2016

The Nightingale

I noticed a few trends in my reading this month. One was that I read more fiction than in the usual month, including works by Kristin Hannah, Agatha Christie, and Rohinton Mistry. The last author overlaps another trend, and that is reading non-Western authors. Rohinton Mistry is from India, Nabeel Quereshi is American-born of Pakistani descent, and Soong-Chan Rah was born in Korea and now lives in the U.S. I’ve also enjoyed reading a couple women theologians, Michelle Lee-Barnewall and Marva Dawn. All these voices stretch me to see a bigger world than my roots as a white male from the Midwest of the United States. I also had the chance to plunge into David Maraniss’ excellent biography of football icon Vince Lombardi, a social history of the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century and a few other books as well. So, here are my July 2016 reads:

The Nightingale

The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. The story of two sisters, estranged from each other and their father, a poet and bookseller, broken by World War I and the loss of his wife, as they face the Nazi occupation of France, how each resists this brutal regime, and how they find reconciliation and a kind of healing in the end. (Review)

Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian

Neither Complementarian nor EgalitarianMichelle Lee-Barnewall. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016. Argues on the basis of the biblical texts for a reframing of the discussion of the relationship of men and women from one of power versus equality  to one that focuses on the elements in the biblical texts around reversal, inclusion, unity and service. (Review)

When Pride Still Mattered

When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. The biography of Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi, showing a man striving for excellence in, and caught in the tensions of the three priorities in his life: faith, family, and football. (Review)

In the Beginning GOD

In The Beginning, GOD, Marva J. Dawn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. A series of reflections on the texts of Genesis 1-3 focused not on questions of beginnings and the controversies that surround these chapters but on what they show us of God and how this may lead us into worship. (Review)

Mapping Your Academic Career

Mapping Your Academic Career, Gary M. Burge. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Traces the career trajectory of a college professor, identifying the factors that mark the successful passage from one “cohort” to the next, the risks to be negotiated in each season of work, and key resources for career development. (Review)

Answering Jihad

Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, Nabeel Qureshi. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. Contends that there is a basis in the foundations of Islam for violent, and not merely defensive, jihad, which neither can be ignored, nor assumed of all Muslims, but calls for a proactive response, particularly of Christians, of love and friendship with the hope of breaking the cycle of violence. (Review)

The Big Change

The Big Change, Frederick Lewis Allen. New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2016 (forthcoming,  originally published in 1952). A social history of the United States from 1900 to 1950 chronicling the expansion of the middle class, the technological changes that occurred, and the impact of two World Wars and the Depression. (Review)

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. A commentary and exposition of the book of Lamentations that advocates for the restoration of the practice of lament as part of the worship of American churches, particularly majority culture evangelical churches. (Review)

One nation under God

One Nation Under God, Bruce Ashford and Chris Pappalardo. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2015. Explores whether and how it is appropriate for Christians in the American context to engage in politics,  how one brings one’s faith into this, and applies this to seven contemporary issues. (Review)

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules, Fil Anderson (foreward by Brennan Manning). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.  Anderson traces his own spiritual journey of moving from rules- and performance-based religion to an intimate relationship with God where he was unafraid of revealing his true self. (Review)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydAgatha Christie. New York: HarperCollins, 2002 (originally published 1926). Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, who is killed after learning that the woman he loved, who has taken her life, had poisoned her first husband and was being blackmailed to cover up the fact. (Review)

A Fine Balance

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Centered around the flat of Dina Dalal, inhabited by two tailors and a student with a larger circle on the periphery, the novel charts the “fine balances” the people of India sought to maintain through the Emergency Rule of Indira Gandhi–balances of both physical and spiritual. (Review)

Best of the Month: This was a tough one. I was torn between Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Hannah’s The Nightingale. Both are well-written books dealing with profound themes. I will give the nod to Hannah’s book as a better read. Both books actually explore “the fine balances” of survival under tyranny and the razor’s edge between hope and despair. Hannah’s book was the one that kept me up at night thinking about what I had read.

Quote of the Month: One of the runners up for best of the month this month was Soong-Chan Rah’s Prophetic Lament. He made this challenging observation about the imbalance between celebration and lament in most American churches:

“What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of a theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”

Coming Soon: I will post a review tomorrow of Japanese-American artist Makoto Fujimura’s wonderful new book, Silence and Beauty, a reflection upon Shusako Endo’s novel, Silence, and the intersection of Christianity and Japanese culture. I’m also currently reading Julie M. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America, an intriguing account of the explorations of the American west commissioned by Jefferson during his presidency, and how he used these to assert America’s hold on these lands. I’m also reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One, having read his sequel on Genesis Two and Three, and Richard Horsley’s Covenant Economics, a biblical study of how the covenant shaped (or didn’t) economic relationships in Israel, and in the communities of followers of Jesus. I’m looking forward to reading a gift from my wife, Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, a novel exploring the life of Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalinist Russia.

Hope you are able to squeeze a few more “summer reads” into your life before school or work pick up for you!

 

 

Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: A commentary and exposition of the book of Lamentations that advocates for the restoration of the practice of lament as part of the worship of American churches, particularly majority culture evangelical churches.

Have you every experienced terrible suffering, or terrible loss, or have witnessed horrible events such as have dominated our news of late and been deeply moved to turmoil and grief that cries out to God, or even the four walls around you, “how long?” Now, when was the last time that you did this as part of a service of worship in your church, if you regularly attend one?

Soong-Chan Rah contends that this was an important part of the worship life of ancient Israel that has been lost in many of our churches in North America. We focus on triumph and victory and success. We see problems and we go around the world to solve them. And we begin to believe we are the answers to the world’s problems–whether they be the problems of the inner city or the problems of the countries in the majority world.

Rah contends that our celebration and praise must be balanced with lament. He writes:

“What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of a theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”

Rah seeks to redress this imbalance by an exposition (part of InterVarsity Press’s Resonate series) of the book of Lamentations, a book attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Rah contends that in addition to Jeremiah, the book incorporates the voices of the sufferers left behind in Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the city walls and took into exile the best and the brightest and the wealthiest of the city. What were left were women, children, the elderly and other marginalized people to mourn over the death of their city and the loss of loved ones as they struggle to survive.

The book is organized according to the five chapters, or “laments” of the book, with several chapters devoted to each lament. Chapter 1 mourns the death of the city. Chapter 2 struggles with what it means that all of this has come about by the providence of God. Chapter 3 which is three times as long as the other chapters forms a climax to the lament and calls us into deep identification with the suffering. Chapter 4 reminds us of the hollowness of all human achievements in the eyes of God. Chapter 5 concludes with a corporate lament that looks to God for answers even when their don’t seem to be any answers.

Along the way Rah provides textual and historical insight into the book, discussing the “dirge-like” character of these laments, appropriate at the funeral for a city, the death of a vision of national greatness. He helps us understand the acrostic structure of the first four chapters, including the threefold intensification of this pattern in the climatic chapter 3. Perhaps of greatest value is that Rah helps us identify some of the voices of the marginalized, particularly the women who have lost husbands, perhaps children–who often are the voices of suffering.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the book is Rah’s pointed applications of the book to the American church, particularly dominant culture, white evangelicalism. We have failed to listen to the voices of lament around us, from the native peoples robbed and subjugated and exterminated and marginalized, from African Americans forcibly enslaved, raped, lynched, and then “freed” to live in a racialized society, and other poor and marginalized in our society. Instead of taking their laments to heart and understanding our own complicity and our own paradoxical enslavement to hate and privilege, we deny the problem, or plant our own urban churches or give “handups” which assumes a certain superiority. What we do here, we do around the world, instead of acknowledging the riches of every culture and our partnership with other believers. We make enterprises out of even our justice ministries while failing to face either our cultural or political captivities.

Lament is the place we come to, according to Rah, when we realize that none of that is really working, when even our well-intended efforts contribute to the inequities of the world and that we are deeply impoverished in the midst of our affluence. It is a place of both repentance and the grace of God.

This is an uncomfortable book, and like Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism (reviewed here), an incisive critique of American evangelicalism. Don’t read this if you are looking for a “feel good” book! But if your heart aches because of the predominance of violence and hatred despite so much “progress,” if the glitzy celebrations of your church life don’t seem in touch with the ragged realities of our land, and if your stomach turns with the pronouncements and alliances of some of our religious “leaders,” then a book on lamenting and making the prayers of Lamentations our own might be timely. It was for me.

 

Review: The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity
The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-chan Rah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something wrong with much of American evangelicalism in its current form. Many churches are declining. We have moral scandals. Evangelicalism continues to splinter into weird offshoots like the emergent church and various other post-modern expressions. And many quarters of society hear the term and revile us (I say “us” because theologically this is where I would truly locate myself) because of our over-identification with conservative political stances and indeed for becoming a pawn of conservative interests.

Soong-chan Rah writes that it is not evangelicalism that is on the decline, but rather white evangelicalism that is culturally captive to Western cultural values. Not only is there rapid growth of churches taking place throughout the non-Western world, but because of the immigration of so many of these people groups to the West, they, in many cases, are bringing with them a vibrant evangelical faith, and the churches they are establishing are among the most rapidly growing.

The book consists of three parts. The first describes the captivity of the white church, observing our individualism that makes the gospel and the Bible all about me; our consumerism and materialism that Christianizes affluence; and our continuing racism evident even in Christian publishing circles. On this last, he tells the sad tale of a publisher of Vacation Bible School materials who themed one such set of materials “Rickshaw Rally”, using all sorts of stereotypical and demeaning Asian stereotypes. When criticized, the publishers responded that the Asians shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. In particular, there is the presumption in all this of white privilege–the propensity of whites in organizations and churches to simply consult other whites and do things without consideration or consultation with other cultural groups.

In the second part of this book, Soong-chan Rah explores how pervasive this captivity is as manifest in our church growth and megachurch strategies, the Emergent church, and in our cultural imperialism, our unthinking export of Western ways of doing things around the world. He praises Bill Hybels for his recognition that the Willow Creek model had failed to produce fully-orbed Christian disciples of Christ. And he scathingly criticizes the Emergent church movement as young whites dissatisfied with boomer evangelicalism who are simply creating young white churches reacting against the worst of the previous generation without engaging a broader cultural mix.

He goes on in the third part of the book to prescribe an alternative, which is that the white, culturally captive church needs to learn from and humble itself before the cultures from the Majority world and learn from them. He proposes that we learn a theology of suffering from the African- and Native American churches. He believes the immigrant church can teach us approaches to holistic evangelism from their experience of addressing comprehensively the needs of their own immigrants coming to the west. And he believes second generation people can serve as “bridge” persons between the West and the rest as those who in some ways are in both, and neither, of these cultures–the culture of their parents, and Western culture.

This is a challenging and blunt book which it needs to be. When, in one of his examples, a dying congregation accepts a bid by a white congregation for half the price being offered by a Korean congregation, one recognizes that niceness just won’t cut through the fog and the chains of the captivity he is describing. I believe Rah is spot on in his diagnosis of white evangelicalism and the way forward.

My only question as I read this book is whether the author and those leading the vanguard of this “next evangelicalism” are aware of the dangers of new forms of cultural captivity and privilege to which they could fall prey? Perhaps this is implicit in the incisive critique of these realities in white evangelicalism, but it was not stated. The truth is, these are human conditions present in every culture, not simply white conditions. Culture shapes every form of Christianity, either ordinately or inordinately. Ordinately, this is a thing of beauty as the mosaic of Christians from around the world come together to create a beautiful, God-composed work of art. Similarly, positions of power and influence may be used to effect great good and great service, yet also may be warped to new forms of privilege.

My own hope is to see the dawning of a multicultural evangelicalism where we learn from and humbly submit to each other (beginning with the submission of white churches), and guard each other from hubris and the pitfalls of cultural captivities of every sort and the temptation to privilege in all its forms. May we not simply exchange captivities but move to a greater freedom for all the children of God!

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