Book Review: Red State Christians

I’ll confess it. When I learned of Angela Denker’s book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump (Fortress Press, 2019), I felt the tension between interest in a colleague’s work, a commitment to amplifying the voices of other clergywomen, and exhaustion with profiles intended to provoke my compassion for people who, I assume, don’t have much sympathy for LGBTQ+ people like me. Denker is both a pastor ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post, and Sojourners, and as I hoped, she brings both her theological insights and her journalistic gifts to this wonderful book, which I highly recommend.

Denker traveled the country to interview Christians in communities that we might assume are full of Trump voters, and that was the case in almost all of them. Regional histories and economies play as much a part in their varied motivations as do theological and social commitments. She takes the reader to metroplexes, affluent suburbs, and declining small towns. Denker offers a fair representation of the people she meets, yet throughout, she offers the reader both her counter-arguments to and in some cases her areas of agreement with the points-of-view of conservative Republicans who represent that majority of self-identified evangelical Christians who voted for Trump. Their motivations include Christian Nationalism, attachment to guns, opposition to abortion, and a love for a particular ideal of America. The foundation of racism and White Supremacy is apparent in many of the ideas shared by the people Denker interviews.

Her visit to El Paso is particularly poignant in the wake of the recent Wal-Mart shooting. There the churches are living in the midst of what is sensationalized by the President in speeches and on social media; people cross the border to work and to shop and to visit with family and friends. When we are up close to other human beings, how can we dehumanize them and still call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ? Yet even some of the Hispanic families in El Paso support Trump, and Denker unpacks levels of privilege and internalized racism that illustrate how difficult it will be to reach common ground even on topics that seem obvious (to me) on Christian principles.

I live in a Red community in a Purple state, not too far from one of the communities profiled. The book reminded me that while I sometimes despair that conservative and progressive Christians will ever find common cause in a broad sense, I actually live among and worship with Trump voters, and we do manage to find ways to communicate with one another, because we are already in relationship. It’s not always comfortable, and there are some compromises I can’t make. Denker’s engaging journey around the country encourages me to keep being in relationship and hoping that others will see in me the humanity Denker so aptly portrays in Red State Christians.

I received a complimentary copy from the publisher as part of the launch team. I also recommend the discussion guide available from the publisher, which would be a great resource for congregational read-alongs.


Book Review: A Gracious Heresy

I’ve heard the story from my Presbyterian colleagues about the Rev. David Bailey Sindt, who stood up at the 1974 General Assembly with a sign that read, “Is anybody else out there gay?” Other mainline denominations have their semi-famous gay icons, but what of the gay and lesbian people who took their own stands on less-remembered occasions? 

Connie L. Tuttle was one of them. The first out lesbian to graduate from Columbia Theological Seminary, Rev. Tuttle stood in protest during an Atlanta Presbytery meeting in the 1990s, compelling those in attendance to remember that they were discussing people, not merely policy, as they considered Amendment B. That event forms the spine of her memoir, A Gracious Heresy: The Queer Calling of an Unlikely Prophet(Resource Publications, 2018). She had no official standing to speak at the meeting, yet she stood, in a visible yet silent protest. 

Tuttle tells her at times tumultuous life story in frank prose. She does not spare herself and thereby gains the credibility that allows her to tell the truth, as any worthy prophet would, about the people whose preferences and prejudices affected her along the way. The narrative is grounded in the events of the world, giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a young woman formed by the social and political climate of the late 1960s. Her childhood experiences as an Army brat exposed Tuttle to a non-denominational and accepting form of church, and that is what she hoped to find when, as a 20-something lesbian single mother, she began searching for a spiritual home and found it for a time in a Presbyterian congregation. In response to a strong sense of calling, she went to college in her 20s at Agnes Scott, with the goal of then going onto seminary. 

Call is not so much words as it is feeling. Not the imposition of feeling but the rise of relationship beyond words. (p. 23)

Tuttle’s writing voice communicates a sense of her energy and drive, whether she is remembering cooking for a community meal, taking a road trip, or learning how to be present to patients as a chaplain. Throughout she shares a vision of community in which people care for and nurture one another, despite the unkindness she faces from sexist and homophobic church and academic leaders. (For those who know anything about the Southern Presbyterian Church in the 1970s and 80s, many familiar names appear in the text.) She takes us into classrooms and meetings with faculty, including a story from her first day of classes, when the professor teaching “Formation of Ministry” informed the students they must guard against “zipper problems.”

Shocked, I looked around. Zipper problems? Two things bothered me about this statement. One: there were enough women in the room for him to have come up with a different euphemism. Or did this just refer to male clergy? And two: WHAT? You mean to tell me that the people who are supposed to model the highest standards of ethics are no more than clay-footed mongrels panting after any women in heat? (p. 143)

As I said above, her tone is frank, and that frankness was much-appreciated by this reader. Sexism and homophobia have not gone away in the decades since Tuttle graduated from Columbia, in the church or in the wider world. I take great encouragement from her determination to push back even then, and from the cause of that determination: she had a call to follow, and she was going to find a way to respond to what God put in her heart. 

When asked to describe her gifts for ministry during an assessment required for her seminary graduation, Tuttle explained that her wide experiences prepared her to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, particularly those who had been hurt by the church.

I want my life to be prophetic and my actions to be pastoral. (p. 182)

What a worthy aspiration!

Connie Tuttle was never ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She went on to found Circle of Grace, “a small, progressive, ecumenical, feminist, Christian house church” in Atlanta, Georgia. She is part of the RevGalBlogPals blogging community; you can find her writing at The Gracious Heretic. I recommend her book to all who love to read call stories, and especially to readers who wonder why LGBTQ+ people stick with the church. (Short version: God called us.) Rev. Tuttle may be a heretic; she is certainly a prophet; she is also a hero.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. (Cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)


Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living

Let me start by saying that Improv terrifies me. Even as an audience member, I clench, more focused on what might go wrong than on what is actually unfolding. When compelled to improv in acting classes, both as a student and later as an adult, I felt like someone who just could not speak the language.

I do, however, approach every book I open with the belief it may have something important to say to me, whether an idea that sparks new understandings or a disagreement in perspective that challenges me. I’m open to possibility. My friend, author MaryAnn McKibben Dana, would have to tell you for sure, but after reading her excellent new book God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), I think I may just be taking a “Yes, And” approach to reading, if not to improv itself.

Many of the principles developed in the book resonated for this reader.

First, about God:

Rather than being remote and impersonal, God’s nature is to collaborate – to improvise – with God’s people. And when that improvisation occurs, it moves in the direction of inclusion and mercy and grace. (p. 49)

On the value of listening and how improv can deepen it:

Getting the gist is now our default practice, to the exclusion of deep understanding and shared wisdom…

True listening trusts there is enough time to consider, absorb, and be changed. Onstage, a good improviser trusts that a little bit of awkward silence isn’t nearly as bad as making a hasty move that doesn’t honor what their partner has offered. (p. 64)

On the role of the self-critical internal Voice that limits our risk-taking:

The Voice, also called the censor, is guided by two over-arching sentiments: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” These sentiments stop us mid-risk and keep us safe on the beaten path rather than in the improvisational mystery, which is scarier, but ultimately more interesting and satisfying. (p. 134)

And on getting to work:

Good ideas don’t have much shelf life. It’s much better to use them as quickly as possible, before they turn to ashes. (p. 142)

These and many other passages are underlined in my copy of the book, which is useful for looking at one’s life, but also a great tool for churches that might hesitate to take a risk in a changing world. To encourage exploring the principles of improv, the book includes a set of exercises for individuals and groups. Stories from scripture and contemporary life illustrate the principles. MaryAnn is a gifted aggregator, bringing together her experiences in class and on stage with the wisdom of teachers and scholars in a way that elevates her thesis. Being open to say “Yes, and” widens our sense of what is possible, makes our lives richer, and is faithful to the God who invites us to collaborate. Will we take the risk? I hope so.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. I cannot guarantee that the page numbers indicated above are the same in the final version.


Horses Speak of God, by Laurie Brock – a review

“Sit deeply.”

After being thrown by her horse, Laurie Brock received that counsel from her riding instructor, a story she tells in Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed (Paraclete Press, 2018).

“Sit deeply and ride.”

I’m not a horse person. They are beautiful; that’s a fact. I rode horses on a family friend’s farm as a child and loved the experience, but I later had a scare at a riding lesson and never rode again. All this is to say I picked up Laurie’s book not even knowing how limited my knowledge of riding is. I appreciated the way she described the specifics of gaits and gear, as well as the temperaments of horses broadly and the horses she rides in particular.

Brock is an Episcopal priest and writes about her development as both a minister and a rider, here in a chapter on Fear, in which she describes the aftermath of being thrown by her horse, Nina. Just as she gets back on the horse, Brock encourages us to persist in faith.

When God meets us in our relationship and says, “Fear not,” God isn’t telling us to act as if we aren’t scared. Instead, God reminds us that fear will not be the only emotion or the conclusive one. When we are scared and fearful, we join a long line of faithful disciples who responded initially with fear, but stayed around. (p. 39)

In a chapter on vocation, Brock describes Nina’s role as a great teaching horse for riders who are new, and the instructor who recognized “she is an amazing lesson horse.”

Our vocations, our calls from God, work almost the same way. We experiment, perhaps discovering both what we are suited for and even what we are not called to do. We will need insight from others. Usually others can see our vocation before we can. Others can also see what might not be our vocation before we admit that we might not be suited for this particular ministry of God. (p. 45)

Brock’s book centers the reader in the necessity of balance and breath, routine and repetition, in our physical existence and our spiritual lives as well. Her relationships with Nina and the other horses she rides, grooms, and loves speak to our relationship with both the embodied and the transcendent. In the world of riding, some actions feel intuitive, while others require us to do what seems strange. We cannot grow without persistent practice, whether as riders or people of faith. It is not enough to approach our incarnate God with our intellect. Will we show up to meet God the way Brock settles on her horse, ready to move together, to be as one? 

I recommend this wonderful book to both horse-lovers and far off-admirers like me. Horses speak of God, and so does Laurie Brock.

I received an advance manuscript of Laurie’s book and wrote an endorsement, as well as this review.


Raising White Kids (book review)

In her book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon), Jennifer Harvey offers practical parenting advice designed to help parents of white kids enter bravely into conversation with their children about systemic, structural, and individual racism. Harvey is a professor at Drake University and the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Wm. B. Eerdmans).

When I was growing up in 1960s and ’70s Virginia, my moderate-to-liberal parents did all they could to shield me from the racism around us. They did not differentiate in the respect that should be shown to adults of any race, or use derogatory language of any kind about People of Color. Yet we lived our lives in white social and professional circles. Most of the Black people I knew when I was small were domestic workers; despite my parents’ efforts, I knew these adults were different if only because I was not instructed to call our beloved-by-me housekeeper “Miss Catherine,” or the kindly janitor at church, “Mr. Henderson.” At the private schools I attended later, I rarely had more than one Black classmate. Many conventional ideas supported by structural and systemic racism which were not promoted at home got into my head through the culture, directly or indirectly. Overt racism such as “jokes” I knew to find offensive, but stereotypes seeped in, and our lack of conversation at home about the reality of racism left me to figure things out alone.

I moved from Virginia to very white Maine as a young mom and raised three children there – born in 1986, 1990, and 1995. I would have been very glad to have Jennifer Harvey’s book as a conversation-starter with other parents twenty+ years ago, when I had only a dawning sense of the need to be race-conscious myself. For me it was grounded in my faith, which is not a viewfinder used in this particular book. My thought process circa 1993 would have been something like: “If I believe that God loves all people, and I do, then it naturally follows that all people have equal value in God’s eyes, and if we don’t value all people equally, we need to get to work on it.” That line of thinking became fleshed out as I attended seminary beginning in 1994, interacting with classmates from varied backgrounds, including a Black classmate who also grew up in my Virginia hometown. The unfolding realization for me that we didn’t know the same places and people because of the virtual apartheid we lived in as children caused a radical change in my understanding.

Of course it came as no surprise to my classmate.

As my children made their way through school, we saw Portland become a tiny bit more diverse. The existing Southeast Asian community grew the old-fashioned way, and their children entered school as English speakers. As my two younger children started school, Portland welcomed waves of refugees from African, Eastern European, and Arab countries. I liked the diversity of the schools they attended, but wondered why my sons never seemed to make friends with – or even have classes with – kids who were not white. When the topic of race came up, I tried to respond in ways that were inquisitive and developmentally appropriate, but I had no tools other than a style of parenting that took that approach in other areas.

Harvey’s book is necessary and timely at the same time our conversation is far too late and still too white-centered. I understand the need to write for white parents who are, in 2018, where I was in 1993. They may have a sense that things should be different, but not know where to start, and not be aware of how influenced they are by systemic, structural, and individual racism in the national atmosphere. Harvey makes a convincing case that the kind of color-blindness my parents tried to teach fifty years ago still will not accomplish the goal of true anti-racism work. Harvey is gentle (some other reviewers think *too* gentle) in naming the “vexed” condition of being white in the midst of a movement to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism. Any concept defined in relationship to whiteness will still center whiteness.

I appreciate the content of Harvey’s book and can recommend it to pastors and parents who seek a starting point for conversations about race with their children and with each other. This is beginning level race-consciousness with clear explanations that are repeated so they will sink in deep. She relies on the good work done by others and shares many resources that will be helpful. I think the chapters are a little long for our short attention spans, but that is partly a function of the repeated emphasis on the important points of each chapter. Her writing is accessible, and her personal stories make it clear that she is in the midst of both the parenting work she describes and the resistance work we so desperately need.

The work before us is clear. It’s important to talk with our white children in developmentally appropriate ways about the realities of our nation’s history and our current times. Pretending everyone is the same will not bring us to a new tomorrow.  Celebration of diversity is problematic, when “diverse” simply means “not white.” As parents and people of faith, white people need to search not just our hearts and minds but our calendars and our “friends” lists, because if we talk to our children about racism but we are only in relationship with other white people, we are not moving ourselves or them toward a more race-conscious society.

I received two copies of this book from Abingdon Press in exchange for my unbiased review and with the understanding I would give one of the books away. Please comment here or on Facebook for a chance to receive that copy.


Bible Sisters (a book review and giveaway)

I am always looking for devotional material. I particularly like books that will carry me through a season, whether in my life or from the liturgical calendar. Looking back I remember that I read a particular book in a Lent of discouragement or during a summer of discernment. A good devotional can be a support and a partner in the walk of faith. Bible Sisters: A Year of Devotions with the Women of the Bible (Abingdon Press) offers a year of companionship, and because it is undated, the reader can begin at any point on the calendar and have a companion for the 365 days to come.

Scroll down to enter the giveaway!

The author, the Rev. Dr. Gennifer Benjamin Brooks, brings her scholarship and life experience to bear in each of the brief reflections on a short scripture passage, tailoring the material to the lives of women today. I’ll confess I immediately thumbed to the back to look for indexes and liked what I found, listings both by scripture and by name (or “The woman who…” in the case of unnamed women). Some women who appear in major Biblical stories appear on more than one day, giving both the author and the reader a chance to look at the same story from different vantage points.

Having recently led a retreat on the stories of the women who anoint Jesus in all four gospels, I was interested to see how Brooks included them, and from there I skipped around to find other favorite Bible women. I especially appreciated Brooks’ take on Martha in Luke 10:40, where she begins, “I have always felt that in the telling of the incident, Martha was not treated fairly.” She brings us into the moment with Martha, whose efforts to bring order out of chaos are unaided by her sister.

If you don’t know your Hebrew Bible women well, the book will be an education.

I would recommend the book for anyone curious to learn more about women in scripture as a devotional practice, and ready to learn from a scholar. This is not a “Jesus Calling” book that tries to speak for God but rather like talking with a smart friend about women long ago who faced the same kinds of challenges we strive to meet with faith today.

To enter a giveaway of the book leave a comment here or on my Facebook page, or retweet the post link, before 9 p.m. Eastern on Monday, May 22nd. I will use a random number generator to choose a winner.

Brooks is Ernest and Bernice Styberg Professor of Preaching and director of the Styberg Preaching Institute, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois, and she is an elder in full connection, New York Conference, The United Methodist Church.

Many thanks to Abingdon Press for reaching out to RevGalBlogPals with copies of the book for review. I received two copies (one to give away) in return for my honest review.


Deliberate Acts of Kindness (a book review)

Ever wonder how to get started in some kind of volunteer service? In this increasingly unchurched era, many people who might have plugged in through a faith community in the past don’t have that obvious set of connections, yet they feel a pull to do good. We see it in the generosity expressed through donations to GoFundMe and Kickstarter. People have an impulse to help other people. But how can we know where to start?

Meredith Gould,  author of Desperately Seeking Spirituality and The Social Media Gospel, offers a road map to the service seeker in Deliberate Acts of Kindness: A Field Guide to Service as a Spiritual Practice (ClearFaith Publishing). This is a revised 2nd edition – the first published in 2002 – that takes into account the rise of social media and new means of communication. For my readers who are already plugged into the life of the church and its web of service opportunities, the information shared may seem unremarkable, but that simply points up how out of touch folk engaged in the institutional church can be from those who don’t see a list of volunteer suggestions in a printed bulletin each Sunday morning. Where can those service seekers begin?

Meredith Gould

Gould has it covered, from a brief introduction to the broad theological stances of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, to tools for discernment, to pragmatic assessments of whether a particular service opportunity really is the one to which we are called. Have you started volunteering and been asked to serve on a non-profit board? Gould supplies a great list of questions to ask before agreeing. Finally, she explores the shadow side of service in some depth. In this time of great need combined with a decline in church participation, she offers an important resource to be shared with both the young unchurched and the rebooting “dones” searching for ways to be of use without doing so through membership in a church.

The length of the book does not allow for depth in the descriptions of different faiths. I would be interested in further discussion with the author about her description of Christian beliefs around heaven and hell, for instance, which are not as firm as she describes on my progressive end of the theological spectrum, where Christian Universalists reside.

While this is a great guidebook for someone just beginning to seek out service opportunities, I think it’s also a great check for churches wondering if they are using their volunteer hours well. What gifts do we have collectively? Where can they best be put to use? Are we serving from a genuine call, or have we gotten into a rut or become resentful of a long-standing commitment?

The book is valuable as a practical resource, but also as a deeper tool for discernment. Contemplative writing exercises throughout the book are well worth the cost ($18.00 for a slim volume), worth pursuing as an individual 0r as a tool for a church group trying to figure out where God might be calling a particular institution right now. As always, I find Meredith Gould’s matter-of-fact approach to her topic deeply helpful.

I received a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.