Book Review: Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Reggie L. Williams)

Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie L. Williams (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014) 170 pages including extensive endnotes.

Through the years I have developed somewhat of a credo for my reading/education: I cannot learn anything from someone with whom I agree 100%. I may be encouraged, challenged, edified, reminded, or entertained, but very, very, rarely can I be educated. When I want to learn something, I must reach outside my circle of experience and understanding. In terms of fulfilling that credo, Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

I first came to meet Dr. Williams in a seminar hosted by Wheaton College on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and culture in April, 2012. I was finishing up my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Theological Seminary and much to my joy and everlasting gratitude, Fuller allowed me to create a guided study of the theology of Bonhoeffer. The professor assigned to guide me in this study was Dr. Glen Stassen who was a professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller, and a devoted Bonhoeffer scholar. Dr. Williams completed his Ph.D. under Dr. Stassen, so in an academic sort of way there were a number of stars that were aligning themselves that would finally come together during this seminar.

Dr. Williams’ topic at the seminar was on the impact of the year Bonhoeffer spent in New York, 1930-31, and in particular, his exposure to the world of Black Christianity in Harlem. If you are interested in Bonhoeffer, you can read all the seminar’s lectures in the book, Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture (Downer’s Grove, IVP Academic, 2013). If you want to be fully educated about Bonhoeffer’s experience with the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, you need to read Williams’ complete exposition in this volume, listed above.

To be perfectly honest, reading this book was difficult for me. I am, to a very large extent, the product of the very protected and dominating white culture that Williams identifies in this book as the evil that Bonhoeffer witnessed in Harlem. Reading what Bonhoeffer witnessed during his year in New York was not pleasant. (Note: I had read Bonhoeffer’s account numerous times, but reading the same words through the eyes of Dr. Williams was enlightening – in a very disturbing sense. I had read Bonhoeffer’s words, but through Dr. Williams I actually felt them. It was, as I said, disturbing.)

To provide an exhaustive review of this book would require much more space than I typically aim for in these blog posts. Suffice it to say that Dr. Williams writes as an insider to the injustice Bonhoeffer identified in his work at Abyssinian. While this is truly an academic product, it is also a labor of love – and a gripping account of Bonhoeffer’s experience in Harlem. Williams provides a lucid explanation of the “Black Christ” to whom Bonhoeffer would have been exposed to in Harlem, the economic and cultural background of the Harlem Renaissance, and draws a clear line of contact between that experience and Bonhoeffer’s work with and for the hated Jewish community in Nazi Germany.

This book would be an extremely valuable purchase if you are interested in: Bonhoeffer and his life; Black theology and its impact not only on Bonhoeffer, but also later 20th century theology; racism, ethics, and/or the role of the gospel of Christ in confronting culture in any age. My only criticism of the book is that it tends to read in somewhat of a stilted manner, and not at all like the wonderful manner in which Dr. Williams speaks.

I actually was able to speak to Dr. Williams following his presentation at Wheaton. I was desperately seeking a topic for my dissertation, and somehow I managed to catch Dr. Williams when he was not the center of a huge group of people (NOT an easy task!) I explained my situation as hurriedly as I could, and to my great surprise and pleasure, Dr. Williams took a number of minutes to question me about what I had studied, what I was attempting to accomplish, and what ideas I already had. In about 15 minutes I felt an inviting warmth and welcome that touched me deeply. I know that experience has influenced my reception of Dr. Williams’ book – and so I want to stress again – this book identifies the racial divide that continues to trouble the Lord’s church. If you are unwilling, or unable, to look in the mirror and examine your own life in light of this reality, do not bother buying or reading this book. If you are willing, and if you can invest in the effort to examine your own ideological weaknesses, then I highly recommend this book.

N. T. Wright – An Author Every Minister Needs to Read

Nicholas Tom (N.T.) Wright is one of those authors that everyone has been influenced by, whether they have read him or not. This is because those who have read him either agree with him completely and spread his teachings far and wide; or they disagree with him, imagine him to be the anti-christ with horns on his head and a pointy tail behind him, and therefore caricature what he has written, and spread that caricature far and wide. What makes him so controversial is that he is a retired Anglican bishop who holds many conclusions that are strikingly opposite to that of the majority of members of the Anglican, and especially the American Episcopal, church. [I might add as a snarky aside, that because that number is dwindling so quickly, it really should not matter.] I obviously believe both positions to be false, but I also believe N.T. Wright is an author that every minister, and every concerned church member, should read. Let me explain why.

I read theological books for two reasons. One, I like to read books written by authors who hold positions similar to mine, but who are more advanced in some areas that I am not familiar with, for the purpose of comfort and reassurance. It is just nice to curl up with a nice cup of tea and read a book and not have to parse out every phrase and paragraph to decide whether I agree with the author or not.

Second, I read authors who hold views differing from mine (in varying degrees) because I want to learn. It is an axiom of mine that you simply cannot learn anything from a teacher with whom you agree 100%. For one example – in regard to the book of Revelation I hold an a-millennial position – neither pre-millennial nor post-millennial. I simply cannot learn anything by reading the arguments of other a-millennials. I can be encouraged by them, or reassured by them – but I cannot say that they teach me anything. Same with the subject of baptism. I have eight books on the subject of baptism in my library – and while some present the subject of believer’s baptism in ways I have not fully considered, they really teach me nothing of which I have not already been convinced. If I want to learn something about infant baptism, for example, I have to go to someone who holds that position. Same with virtually every subject in my library.

Which brings me back to N.T. Wright. I was basically ignorant of Wright’s writings up until a couple of years ago, and then it seemed like everywhere I turned there was someone referencing Wright’s work, either in fawning praise or scathing rebuke. I decided to see what all the fuss was about so I bought one of his books, Surprised by Hope. I quickly understood what all the fuss was about. I recently added one other book, The Resurrection of the Son of God. I have not been disappointed with either purchase.

The most important thing I learned about Wright is that he is a scholar – a preeminent scholar. Reading his book on the resurrection of Jesus I was blown away with the depth of scholarship involving pagan and second temple Judaism views on the afterlife. That book has profoundly questioned my previous understanding of how we view our life after death – and while I may not agree with every point Wright makes, I cannot simply dismiss him because he actually presents solid evidence, and not just pious suppositions, for his conclusions.

Reading Wright first-hand has allowed me to draw some conclusions about his opponents. I have come to realize that people dislike or reject Wright for the following reasons:

  1. They have not read his books first-hand, and are simply parroting other criticisms. This I find to be the most ridiculous and childish of responses. In what is both a marvelous example of irony and a pathetic display of theological illiteracy, I saw someone attack Wright by approvingly quote John Piper – one of the most hard-core Calvinists to ever write a book. I know this particular opponent of Wright would reject every aspect of Calvin’s (and therefore, Piper’s) teaching, and yet, there he was, gleefully parroting Piper’s rejection of Wright, just because it was someone who disagreed with Wright. I guess the enemy of my enemy is my friend – at least if my enemy is N.T. Wright.
  2. They are intensely jealous of his scholarship and his popularity. This is especially true of a petulant group of theological Lilliputians who simply cannot stand the thought that some people can actually think on their own, and who admire Wright, even while disagreeing with him on some significant issues.
  3. They simply do not understand him. I find Wright to be very easy to read, but I have about 14 years of theological education behind me. Some might be put off by Wright’s scholarship and the depth of his learning. I’m sure some of his books are written for a more “popular” audience, but there is nothing in the two books I have that cannot be understood if you read carefully.
  4. They have read Wright carefully, and genuinely disagree with him for what they believe to be solid biblical/theological reasons. This number is sizable, but even his academic peers disagree with him in far more respectful tones than most of the churlish invective I read from those who occupy reasons 1 and 2.

For the record, I do not agree with every position Wright holds. After all, he was a bishop in the Anglican Church, and therefore he approaches Scripture and certain ecclesiastical questions from an entirely different perspective than I do. I especially disagree with him on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. But even there I learned something from him.

I oppose both a sycophantic adoration of Wright and a petulant rejection of him. He is one of the most prolific and preeminent scholars writing today, and so his conclusions must be carefully considered. Whether you know you are dealing with Wright or not, chances are some of the arguments you hear being discussed come from his pen. So – that is why I suggest that every minister, as well as every concerned member, needs to read at least some of his works.

Book Review – Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (David Alan Black, ed.)

Perspectives on the Ending of Mark : 4 Views, Edited by David Alan Black (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 141 pages.

Okay, this book may be a little geeky for some, but I will not apologize one teensy little bit for it. I have had a lifetime love affair with textual criticism (well, at least since my undergraduate days), and the problem of the ending of Mark is a well-known and much-debated subject. If you are interested in such issues, this book is as easy to read and as complete as you will find – especially compressed into 141 pages.

This book is made up of five essays. In the first, Daniel B. Wallace defends the position that Mark intentionally ended his gospel at 16:8. Maurice A. Robinson defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 is the original ending to the gospel. J.K Elliott defends the position that we simply do not have the original ending to the gospel – it has been lost (at least until it is found). David Alan Black defends the position that Mark 16:9-20 was not the “original” ending to the gospel, but is Mark’s work and was added to the gospel some time after an original copy (ending at 16:8) was circulated. And finally Darrell L. Bock summarizes all the preceding essays, basically agreeing with Wallace that the gospel ended at 16:8.

From what I have read (comprehensively, although far from extensively), nothing new or earth shattering is presented in these essays. Each author summarizes his position and presents the evidence that best supports his conclusion. This is not a written “debate” per se, so there is not a significant amount of addressing the position held by others, although there is some of that sprinkled throughout the essays.

The one new theory that I learned came in Elliott’s essay. He pointed out that in the “Western” order of the copying of the gospels, Mark comes last. (The apostolic authors Matthew and John come first, Luke third). What we now know as Mark 16:9-20 was appended, not to the gospel of Mark itself, but as a summary of all of the resurrection appearances in each of the gospels. Because it came at the end of Mark (which, by the way, he believes was damaged somehow), the so-called “Long Ending” became the ending that was copied onto subsequent copies of the individual copies of the gospel of Mark. Interesting theory, for sure, but it just has too many holes in it to satisfy my curiosity, and I think Elliott offers it as an outlier option, not one that he puts a lot of stock into.

I have to say that of the first four essays, I found Black’s essay to be the most original (pardon the pun) and most entertaining. He really does make his argument come alive through his telling, although, I must admit that he does not convince me. On the one hand, his idea is just plausible (and crazy) enough to have occurred, but on the other hand, there is some really fanciful imagination in the telling of the story.

The ending of Mark is, in my opinion, the most significant of the major textual problems in the New Testament. Growing up in the Church of Christ I was routinely challenged by the decisive tone of Mark 16:16 – if you want a passage defending the practice of baptism you do not have to look much further! But, also as a child growing up in the Churches of Christ where we were told to “do as they did” and to “call Bible things by Bible names,” I was confused as to why I never heard a sermon on Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (ESV) These verses are not promises made about the apostles, or those specially gifted by the apostles. These verses are specifically directed to “. . . those who believe.” So, I have always had a “love/hate” relationship with Mark 16:9-20.

I am not anywhere close to being educated in textual criticism enough to know the answer to whether Mark 16:9-20 is original or not. From my own study, it is not likely that Mark would end his gospel with the women being afraid, and there being no confirmation of the resurrection of which Jesus spoke so plainly. On the other hand, the textual evidence suggests very strongly that verses 9-20, although known at a very early stage of copying, were also questioned as to their authenticity.

As Darrell Bock points out in his concluding essay, we can be absolutely sure that there is no doctrine related to salvation taught in these verses that is not taught clearly elsewhere in the New Testament. The clear statement regarding the importance of baptism is instructive to me – but the snake handling and the poison drinking are equally troubling to me. Luckily, I have many, many other passages which instruct me about baptism, and nary a single one that tells me I have to make friends with a Cottonmouth Water Moccasin.

Bottom line – I give this five stars out of five and two thumbs up. There might be brief sections that are too technical for the average reader, but not to fear – I believe the main points the authors make are very clear. The evenness of the book is remarkable – this is a very well edited product! Go ahead, feed your inner Geek. This is definitely a good purchase.

Book Review – “Grieving A Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Albert Y. Hsu)

Albert Y. Hsu Grieving a Suicide: A Loved One’s Search for Comfort, Answers, and Hope (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017) Rev. ed. 195 pages with discussion questions, a one session discussion guide, and notes.

My library is seriously stacked one-sided. I have commentaries, technical studies, historical volumes, and numerous language study books. One section of my library that is noticeably thin is the section on counseling. In an attempt to rectify that situation I was thumbing through some catalogs and my eye fell on an interesting title – the title listed above. Suicide is not a topic frequently discussed in preacher training courses, and outside of stray chapters here and there, is not much written about either. I decided to take a chance.

One of the best decisions I have made in book purchasing!

This book is a beautifully written, fundamentally sound piece of writing. Hsu is himself a survivor of a suicide, and he writes with compassion and directness. A huge pitfall for such a book would be to turn the subject into a shallow, emotionally laden wallowing in trite, worn-out phrases that help no one. Hsu’s book is anything but – as a survivor he weaves his story in and out of virtually every chapter, but not in a voyeuristic way. What the reader senses is the companionship of a kind and stable friend.

The book is divided into three sections: Part one deals with the aftermath of a suicide and the emotional and physical changes that occur. Part two addresses three key questions the suicide raises: Why did this happen? Is suicide the unforgivable sin? and Where is God when it hurts? Part three turns then to life after a suicide: the spiritual component of grief, the need to participate in a healing community, and a final chapter on the lessons of suicide.

The book is written from a clear Christian perspective, and I was impressed with Hsu’s straightforward and even-handed use of Scripture. My only quibble, coming strictly from my theological perspective, is Hsu’s willingness to consider the forgiveness accorded to murder/suicides, but his final conclusion merits thoughtful consideration: we simply are not in the position of God to make the final judgment of whether a person receives God’s forgiveness or not. My own personal opinion is that Hsu pushes that human limitation further than I am willing to go (I think the Scriptural record is more clear regarding the necessity of repentance), but I was impressed with Hsu’s language and outlook throughout.

The book is written by a suicide survivor to other survivors of suicides, and not specifically to ministers, but the pastoral emphasis throughout the book is invaluable. This truly has been one of the best purchases I have made in many months, and I HEARTILY recommend the book if you have been affected by a suicide, if you know of someone who has been hurt by a suicide, or if you are in a ministry situation where you most likely will be affected by a suicide. If I had a rating scale, this book would easily get six stars out of five.

A Serious Question – Who Influences You?

I just read an advertisement about a book that sounded interesting to me – until I read down to the obligatory “praise” section where the reviews of well-known authors or preachers are prominently displayed. I looked at the names of the first two fawning minions and decided, nope, that book was not for me, regardless of how interesting the content of the book first appeared.

Am I alone in my estimation that if a book is praised by someone with whom I have absolutely nothing in common, then I will probably not like the book? I mean, on one hand that sounds so churlish, so immature. I do not even like the way it sounds, and I’m the one who feels that way.

On the other hand, Jesus taught that the way we know what is in a person’s heart is by examining the fruit of their life. The fruit of an author’s life includes (although is not limited to) his or her books. The fruit of a preacher’s life includes (although is not limited to) what he proclaims as the word of God, and what he publicly approves of.

If an author or preacher rejects the biblical teaching regarding sexuality and marriage, if he or she rejects the biblical teaching regarding salvation or sanctification, if he or she approaches the Scriptures from a point of view 180 degrees opposite of my understanding of the inspiration of Scripture – how can I then take his or her word regarding the value of a book and use that affirmation to go out and buy that book?

I totally get that in the book marketing business, reviewers are chosen in proportion to their share of the book selling market. I genuinely do not want to avoid or reject a quality piece of writing just because the publisher invited some doofus to review the book and give some patronizing applause in order to sell a few hundred more copies.

I do not want to drop any names here (because I could list quite a few), but I do read reviews and promotions carefully, and if the preponderance of the acclaim comes from on particular stream of moral or theological understanding, then I can rest assured that the content of the book will not be something that I want to waste my time on. Likewise, if I read a review or a positive advertisement from someone I trust to be a serious student of the word, even if I disagree with that person on certain points, I am more willing to buy that book.

Anyway, this might just be me, and you may buy your books based on an entirely different set of criteria.

How do you select your books? And, how do you decide if you will purchase a book especially if you are not familiar with the author, and are equally unfamiliar with the quality of the reviewers?

Don’t Read That Book!

I did something today that I never thought I would do. It was so out of character that I feel dizzy. It was so out of character that I am looking around for Rod Serling. I think I may need to go lie down for a while.

What was my crime, my despicable act of self-renunciation? I threw a book away before I finished reading it. I was not even half-way through reading it. I was duped into thinking it was worth my money and my time. I have been violated. I wasted both time and precious money on something that was worth neither. Oh, the humanity.

The experience has left me seriously jaded. Usually I can sniff through all the hype and advertising that accompanies new book promotions. For some reason this one slipped through my radar. But, whatever does not kill you makes you stronger (or so the saying goes), and you can bet I will not soon be so gullible. The experience also got me to thinking about the money we spend on books (and, perhaps even to a greater extent, movies), so I thought I would pass along some helpful hints from my sorely bruised ego.

Don’t buy, or read, a book just because a lot of people have bought, or read, the book. The Book of Mormon and The Shack have both sold millions of copies – and neither is worth the paper it is printed on. There are plenty of good books in the fiction category. Don’t fill your mind with trash.

Don’t buy, or read, a book just because it is published by a major, reputable publishing firm. This is usually a good barrier against literary riffraff, but this is where I got sucker-punched. If possible, pay attention to who is endorsing a book (these days, no book is published without a half-dozen or more “celebrity” endorsements). There are some names that telegraph to me that the book is solid gold – and there are some names that if I see them attached to a book, I know it is solid waste landfill material.

Don’t buy or read a book just because a “popular” writer has his/her name attached. It is a dirty little secret in the book printing business, but ghost-writers abound, and you would probably be surprised at how many really well known “authors” are just as curious at what is written in a book that has their name on it as you are. They may give a brief outline, and they may read it first and offer some suggestions and fine-tune some points, but they are not the “author” as much as the “approver.”

You may be curious as to the title and/or author of the book I threw away. Well, I am not going to give the book or the author the free advertisement. For me to throw a book away, especially in the middle of reading it, should be enough to let you know it was awful.

My theme in this blog is “ascending lower.” One of my major theses is that we can never climb higher unless we are willing to subject ourselves, to go lower, and to allow others to teach us. I do not want to change that, but at the same time, it must be emphatically stated that there must be a limit to our self-limitation. We cannot expose ourselves to garbage without smelling like garbage. We cannot expose our mind to literary junk and hope that somehow we can transform it into a piece of art.

Let us always choose the path of submission, of willingly choosing to go lower. But, please, for the sake of everything that is good and holy and beautiful, do not fill your mind with trash!