Tag Archives: book review

W.E.B. Du Bois: American Prophet

I received a free copy of this book but I am not required to do a review for it. But I am anyway.

W.E.B. Dubois: American Prophet by Edward J. Blum

WHAT I ENJOYED ABOUT THIS BOOK:

What can I say? I started this text as a cynic in all honesty. I had read and been transformed by DuBois’ biographies done by David Levering Lewis (which are gigantic volumes by the way). Lewis had ingrained in me the idea that DuBois was an atheist, he was a Communist. But there wasn’t really citation, it was just a well known fact. DuBois was portrayed as a bitter revolution who left this country for the shores of Africa. DuBois’ depiction was one of a quitter. Well, using facts like actual prayers and church attendance records kept by the government on DuBois, Blum breaks down the “secular orthodoxy” of Lewis’ books. I am now persuaded that DuBois was probably more of a theist who was committed to social justice. I don’t want to give any spoilers away because I highly recommend this book, but why did it not ever occur to historians to track down speeches DuBois gave at Christian colleges and universities? Or to look over his written prayers? Or to read his novels as narrative theology like we do with C.S. Lewis? Does race has something to do with it? Does it have to do with religion? Perhaps both! I will let you decide for yourself (no actually I haven’t!). 😉

WHAT I DID NOT ENJOY: It was WAYY TOO SHORT! I wanted more, more more. I am greedy, I know! I am already re-reading this book again. I hope that Blum follows up on this with a look at DuBois’ literary contributions.

Answering The Contemplative Call

Or otherwise, the reasons I would make a terrible mystic

Washington Mystics logo

Washington Mystics logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As part of an agreement, I am reviewing the book: Answering The Contemplative Call by Carl McColman in exchange for a free e-book copy of this text.

Disclaimer: I decided to get out of my comfort zone and read a book on spirituality and the contemplative life.

What I Enjoyed About This Book: As a Christian who is most of the time, narrowly focused on justice issues (I’ll admit it), the book was informative about Christian mysticism. It is a good introduction to a history of Christian mysticism. I agree with McColman that:

“I believe a truly contemplative spirituality needs an activist dimension (just as a peace-and-justice-oriented spirituality requires a contemplative dimension).”

Churches need both the spiritual, silent priestly side of religion as well as the prophetic, confrontational side of religion. While I liked the privileged position that the Christian mystics were given in this book, the author’s admittance that these persons was limited by their contexts and life experiences, goes even more appreciated (that is, they do no hold up as universal authorities):

“Moreover, just as not all mystics speak to all people, neither are the mystics infallible. Their writings are shaped by their own limitations and eccentricities. Some are dull, overly abstract, excessively penitential, hostile to those who see things differently, and marred by such ongoing problems as sexism, hatred of the body, and irrational fear of the devil. Of course, no one is perfect, so the errors of a mystic do not render his or her other ideas worthless—but we need to use discretion and careful reasoning when we read the writings of the mystics, so that we can embrace their wisdom while gently laying aside teachings that lead nowhere.”

Lastly, I liked the few citations of the Church Fathers. Not really the application of their theology, but a few quotations here and there, even one from Clement of Alexandria. That, and at the conclusion an emphasis on Scripture, and the acknowledgement of differences between kataphatic (revelation/declarative sayings about God) mystics and apophatic (negative/”God is not” sayings) mystics was helpful.

What I Did Not Enjoy In This Text:

Two Words: Cultural Appropriation, or rather four: White Liberal Christian Hegemony.

As I have written about on this site before, the notion of Orientalism is the idea that objects and concepts from “The East” are things to be consumed (without context, without pointing out particularity)by Westerners. For example, problematic renderings of Buddhism such as:

“Waking up, whether gently or abruptly, is a classic way of describing the launch of a meaningful, intentional spiritual life. This is not just a Christian metaphor, either. The word Buddha literally means “the awakened one.” “

And

“If you have been exposed to non-Christian meditation practices like Zen, you will know about the use of cushions and sitting on the floor in a lotus or half-lotus position (or even just with your legs gently crossed).”

Those are only two examples of cultural appropriation in the name of religious mysticism. To be awakened, let’s say in the Christian tradition is connected to stories in Scripture, from Elijah raising the widow’s son to the prophet’s encounter with angels in exile. There is no universal human experience or gaze with which we can speak. Christianity has a theistic understanding of what it means to be awakened, Buddhism doesn’t. Even the nicest sounding of religious pluralist can manipulate stories and narratives that consume others’ stories, taking away their inherent dignity and worth.

Also problematic is the treatment of First Nations’ culture:

“While core shamanism may not be a perfect way to
understand and enter into the wisdom of the shamans of the world, it nevertheless has helped to ensure that shamanic practices are studied, practiced, and appreciated in the post-indigenous cultures of the world, hopefully for generations to come.
For the Christian mystical tradition, the “indigenous culture” is found in monasteries, convents, friaries, and hermitages.”

Um what? There’s something called “indigenous culture” that can be culturally appropriated by convents and monasteries? And we can talk about these “post-indigenous cultures” without talking about what exactly makes them “post”? You know, history….reservations…..Trail of Tears…War…Christopher Columbus….rape culture….empire….but I digress.

That’s not to say that mysticism itself is culturally exclusive. A number of books, for example, have examined the life of Howard Thurman, Howard Thurman: The Mystic As Prophet, and Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman.

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Unfinished Business by Keri Day

If you would like to download the PDF version of this book review, please see the following link to Scribd:

Book Review: Unfinished Business by Keri Day: Scribd

Unfinished Business on Amazon.

Book Review: Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America by Keri Day. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 2012.

I would like to thank Orbis Books for sending me a review copy of this book. In the first part of this book review, I offer a brief summary of Day’s work. I don’t want to give to many spoilers away, just enough for the audience to want to read more as I highly recommend this text. In the second part of my review, I would like to offer a brief theological proposal as it pertains to transcendence, economics, and ecclesiology.

Summary:

When I first met Dr. Day, it was at the student interview. Brite Divinity School was searching for a Black Church Studies professor and ethicist, and I had concerns about an assortment of economic justice issues in the Fort Worth area, and yes, even the Texas Christian University community. After Day gave her presentation, we the students were allowed to have an question and answer time. I asked Dr. Day what were her thoughts on the prosperity gospel. Although I do not recall her answer at that time, I would like to believe that this book, Unfinished Business is an answer to my inquiry. Day introduces her project by defining terms such as Black Church; in this case, Black Church means the activity of Black churches in the United States (3). Right away, I think that this definition establishes an inclusive ecclesiology and history. Rather than strictly defining Black Church/Black Church traditions as monolithic or as only those denominations established by African Americans, one could include in Day’s definition of Black Church, the number black churches within predominantly white denominations. Keri Day questions historians in their view that the Black church has always served as a prophetic witness (Chapter 1), and whether it is a Wilderness Experience or Surrogate world, Day argues these terms have been over-utilized when discussing Black Church. Whether we are talking about radicals like Adam Clayton Powell or Dr. Rev. MLK Jr. or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, at the forefront of civil and economic rights struggles have been the progressive strain of Black Baptist tradition. I wonder if there is something theological here, that makes Black Baptist both the most radical and possibly regressive (when it comes to women’s ordination especially) more adaptable to political activism. I’ll give you a hint: the Free Church tradition!

I like the term that Day uses for the Black Church, as a community of transcendence. While I will talk further about the theological implications of this notion, the way that Day and Victor Anderson understand transcendence, as seeing ultimate value in the world, being open to this value, and rejecting Ayn Rand selfishness in order to work for the good of others (28). While this use of transcendence does allow for womanist and liberationist theologians to be open to the experiences of others outside of the church, the use of the term “church” itself is exclusive to the Christian experience. Transcendence, in this light however, can be very helpful in discussing the Church’s relationship with the World, other social institutions that are non-confessional but that have become spaces for poor black women to use their agency.

In the second chapter, Day gives an overview of the history of Faith-Based initiatives and arguments for and against charitable choice programs/FBIs when it comes to public policy. As a strict church/state separationist, I find the Faith-Based Initiative whether it is ran by President Bush or Obama to be offensive and more likely a bribe from the state to religious institutions to silence them. Day is right that the danger of the Faith-Based Initiatives lies in the promotion of neoliberal values as absolute, without any challenge or critique. I think that’s the danger in charitable choice/FBIs in the first place; since the state and the economy are tied together since there has not been, as Optimistic Chad noted months ago, a separation of corporation from state, CC/FBIs silence criticisms of both the government as well as the economy.

My favorite chapter was chapter 3, which included a critique of Dinesh D’Souza. Day recognizes that D’Souza is an example of how free market values get racialized into racial social Darwinism, that the poor black people are this way because their culture is naturally inferior (page 52-53). Ronald Reagan’s attack against black welfare queens was a purely racially ideological move; it is ideological because it goes against all logic, and the facts. Whites have had the most benefits from social programs. Especially during legal segregation and the New Deal, whites received their Social Security checks on the backs of poor blacks. Day also ends her criticisms by exposing the new Jane Crow, how the state invests money in imprisoning black women (page 79-80). I was also shocked to learn that some states are going out of their way to link forced sterilization of black women with welfare policy (81-82). In the culture wars, social conservatives are the ones who oppose sex education classes in public schools and they are the ones who want cut backs in welfare. When it comes to race, however, commitment to whiteness, neoliberal values and advanced capitalism are to be preferred over pro-birth/anti-sex ed religious commitments.

Keri Day’s constructive proposal is found in the last three chapters. She has a discussion on the Poor People’s Campaign (its history and its failures in terms of gender inclusion), a discussion on redefining the prosperity gospel informed by the womanist principle of wholeness, and lastly an informed chapter on asset-building for the impoverished here in the U.S.

Overall, I would recommend this text for academic and church audiences.

A Brief Theological Proposal On Ecclesiology

I would like to return to the idea of Black Church as a Community Of Transcendence. The conversation about the “Woman Thou Art Loosed” portion of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ ministry gave me a lot to think about. To be honest, I actually felt convicted since I see it has highly problematic, but given the state of the world, where Don Imus can be a racist/sexist bigot and still have his own tv show on Fox Business, there are some benefits to the idea of women seeing themselves as “God’s leading ladies.” However, this is only a short-term solution to the long enduring problem of racism and sexism in America. What may need to happen is that the Black Church see itself as being in the Image of the Triune God, a Community of Transcendence initiated by a God who is Infinite, Incomprehensible, and at the same time Incarnation. The Black Church must resist things like racial stereotype of being the large group of angry black men (“prophetic”) and the Faith Based Initiative because that means others have defined our role in the world. The Black Church should be the community of the “I Am Somebodies”; for the Black Church, as it is for the Church Universal, it is YHWH the Redeemer and Liberator who sends Christ to give us meaning in the world.