This isn’t, as summers go, an easy one. With ongoing waves of gun violence roiling the nation and two presidential nominating conventions more likely—to mix metaphors—to turn up the heat than to calm the waters, an escapist junket into banal beach reading might seem a reasonable tonic. But that hardly seems to be the direction of some of our Bearings contributors, who are turning to weightier writing to sharpen the mind and stir the spirit as the presidential election draws nigh.
For many of us, that of course focuses our reading on racial justice. Martha Spong, for instance, is recommending Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I would join Martha in insisting that Coates’ almost instant classic “is both an exquisite memoir and a painful indictment of racism and white supremacy in the United States.” She adds, “Coates puts things I knew, things I sort of knew, and things I never knew into heartbreaking context; I hate that it’s the truth, but I cannot deny it.” Adam Copeland is likewise recommending Coates as required reading for ministry leaders and congregational communities. He says, “Rarely does a book shout so loudly for inclusion in the canon. It will be read in classrooms for years, but the questions it raises for the church—about race, class, policing, justice, and the American story—are particularly apt.”
Kelly Baker swims similarly turbulent seas. She recommends two books, one recent, one a classic to which we do well to return often: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Kelly confesses, “I’ve started and stopped reading Citizen a few times because Rankine unflinchingly documents over and over again the consequences of racism on one’s mind, body, and life. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the toll of systemic and casual racism.” As for Sister Outsider, Kelly says that Lorde’s “discussion of silence’s failure to protect us continues to linger with me day by day. She urged us to speak up because silence abets oppression. We need to follow her example. We need to continue to speak loudly that Black Lives Matter, so that some day everyone will believe this to be true.”
I’d add to this collection of righteous summer reading recommendations a couple titles that are on my own growing stack. Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America traces the intersection of Puritan ideology, colonization, and slave trade in North America beginning in the sixteenth century. Warren demonstrates the deeply rooted and conflicted ideologies of slavery and freedom that remain central in American identity and life. Along with this, Robert P. Jones’ The End of White Christian America just arrived in my mailbox. While I haven’t yet cracked open its cover, it surely promises to be an illuminating read for anyone hoping to understand the roles of religion and race historically and in today’s religious landscape.
Less heavy, but nonetheless important, fare is offered by Adam and Martha as well. Adam says that Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists, by Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, is a book that “drips with religion, but not the kind Bearings readers might expect.” He continues, “Millburn and Nicodemus are (secular) minimalists. They espouse a fascinating asceticism, marketed with millennial make-it-happenism and mixed with Internet self-promotion. It’s an easy read, but one that sticks with you as a telling signpost of contemporary culture.”
Martha’s second recommendation—Karolyn Lewis’ She: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry—is for clergy in particular. Martha explains, “Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary … tells the God’s honest truth that women need to hear about a life in ministry. She exhorts clergywomen to know the Biblical and theological basis for defending their ordination and offers up straight talk about sexism.”
And while we’re on the topic of leadership, Alyssa Lodewick has been reading a classic in the field: Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Alyssa believes that the work, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “offers thought-provoking advice and counsel for all those charged with leading people and organizations—especially during times of change.” As she reads, Alyssa keeps coming back to this quote:
You appear dangerous to people when you question their values, beliefs, or habits of a lifetime. You place yourself on the line when you tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear … The hope of leadership lies in the capacity to deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions in a way that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignore it or kill the messenger (12).
Much like Adam Copeland’s Bearings post “What’s the Point of a Pastor?”, Leadership on the Line has encouraged Alyssa to reflect upon how ministers might successfully balance their roles as prophets—as leaders who are called to “deliver disturbing news and raise difficult questions”—with their roles as pastors and caretakers.
Leadership on the Line acknowledges that all of us, including pastors and leaders, are human, and therefore prone to hurt, anger, and fear. And that’s precisely why Jordan Shaw recommends Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. According to Jordan, “Bolz-Weber does a great job reminding us that those people who get under our skin are God’s way of nudging us forward, changing our perspective, and learning how to move more deeply into Christian Community.” As we seek to deepen our relationships with one another and God, Jordan recommends Richard Rohr’s Eager to Love, which highlights the importance of Franciscan Spirituality in the 21st century. Given his own ministry experiences, Jordan believes that Rohr’s “willingness to encourage us to reconsider the rules and limitations of the institutional church in light of a deep appreciation for listening to the Holy Spirit is … where we are at in the life of the mainline church right now.”
Bob Grove-Markwood has been thinking about community and ministry as well, encouraged by Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky’s midrashic commentary The Road to Redemption: Lessons from Exodus on Leadership and Community. Bob writes, “When asked to recommend summer reading, I am likely to think of a poetry collection I love. But this summer, I am more aware of those faith leaders looking for navigation aids for ministry in the midst of radically changing and challenging religious and spiritual landscapes. While Visotzky provides no geographic maps, he offers an accessible and insightful guidebook for those of us who experience ministry as a journey of discovery. This work offers a contemporary reading of this familiar Bible story, approaching it as a narrative that sheds light on ‘community formation and the growth of its leadership.’ In the shadow of the violence of recent days, learning how to orient our communities to travel a road to redemption may feel elusive for those of us in faith leadership roles. Yet, Vizotsky reminds us, this is what Moses learned, and what we may learn: ‘Redemption lies not in the crossing of rivers nor in the ascent of mountains, but in being there with God.’”
Pamela Shellberg’s first reading recommendation also has to do with navigating a mysterious landscape: the terrain of aging and dying. In her words, “Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is a really important book for those who are tending to aging family members, are beginning to consider their own aging in new ways, or who, by profession, are ministering to older people and their families. A doctor himself, Gawande gives a clear and constructive critique of how the issues of aging, particularly in the North American context, are usually considered from a strictly medical perspective, and differently than they are in other parts of the world. Providing a different frame for aging than that of a set of medical problems to be treated, Gawande’s often deeply personal reflections and his informed professional critique illuminate the limitations of how aging is responded to in this country—of how medical professionals are trained, of how assisted living services are constructed, and how families are encouraged to respond and take responsibility. I found this book immensely helpful—and also profoundly challenging—in how it highlights the ways in which the agency, independency, capacity for risk-taking, and often joy of people in their later years are sacrificed in a value system that focuses on safety and medical cures as markers of their well-being.”
Pam also recommends the only novel on our list, saying, “I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto a number of years ago, but find myself drawn to picking it up again now in these days of rabid and violent ‘other-ing.’ The fictional account of a hostage situation in an unnamed Central American country is a story of people whose circumstances ultimately render roles, status, and privilege completely meaningless, allowing for relationships to develop from a deeper place of common humanity. It is a story of paradoxes—liberation in imprisonment, discovery of identity in full loss of social markers, the flourishing of love in the most desolate places. This is not a Hallmark-card sentimentalizing of the power of love, but a clear-eyed critique of all the forces of darkness that conspire against it. As such, it is instructive for how the power of love might be unleashed among us today.”
Just in case the above books don’t offer enough food for thought, a number of Bearings contributors have had books published recently. Any of the following would be welcome beach companions:
Keith Anderson, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World
Adam J. Copeland, editor, Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College
Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones
Mihee Kim-Kort and Andrew Kort, Yoked: Stories of a Clergy Couple in Marriage, Family, and Ministry
We expect that all of the above will make for heady summer reflection, but we’d love to add your recommended titles to the list. Please drop a note in the comments.