Books of the Year that Was (2021 ed.)

Another year (“really, it’s only been a year?”) has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books. As with each year’s list (see 2020201920182017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2021 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

As a seminary student (with a full-time job and four kids), I also always want to give a special shout-out to our library’s excellent selection of audiobooks (via services like Hoopla and Libby) that I listen to on my daily commute and weekly trips back and forth between Chattanooga and Atlanta, without which I would not get to go through nearly as many desired books as I’d like. Also, I don’t put all my seminary assignments here, but some do rise to the surface of recommended reads.

Christian Theology and Practice

Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren
Warren has a gift of quietly, simply putting her finger on the way deep truths are waiting at the edge of the everyday. Her first book (The Liturgy of the Ordinary) sought these out in the mundane joys and habits of life at the scale of home and family; Prayer in the Night looks for them in the moments of sorrow, suffering, and unfulfillment. Weaving personal experiences and illustrations with the liturgy of Compline, she offers up a plea for the practice of turning to God in the dark, of making prayer from our fear, pain, and anxiety as well as our thanks, praise and longing.

Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg
In the midst of the heartbreaking, seemingly never-ending stream of revelations of physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse within the church over the past several years (which, let us be clear, are likely only distinguished from past times by enhanced opportunity in an information age for victims to speak out), Diane Langberg has been a voice of consistent, faithful application of Christian doctrine to the issue of abuse. In this book, she aims at the root, providing skillful and hard-won (from decades of counseling and mediation experience) reflection on what it means to exercise power as image-bearers of God. In a world where power is more often used to crush, oppress, abuse, and obscure than to serve and uplift, those of us who claim the name of Jesus ought to be living out the way of the New Jerusalem, not wallowing in the worst excesses of our fallenness.

Talking Back to Purity Culture by Rachel Welcher
I first “met” Rachel Welcher through her work as poetry editor for Fathom Magazine (where she has graciously published a couple of my poems this year), and decided to read this book she published last year. Both my wife and I were blessed by this winsome, frank, reflection on the beauty of the biblical sexual ethic. In particular, her meditation on the ways Christians have often deeply harmed others (and the reputation of Christ) by ham-fisted attempts to communicate and enforce that ethic was spot-on. You cannot separate sexuality from the overall call to holiness and faithfulness in community that the church represents. I am certainly the target audience (someone who came of age and went to church youth group during the 1990s purity movement), but Welcher makes her case with tender pastoral care that makes it applicable to others, both younger and older. This has also given us many tools for thinking through how to help shepherd our four daughters through adolescence and toward adulthood with honesty and hope.

The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Scheiss
If there has been a common thread among Americans (based on the small sample of American humans I know and spend any degree of time with), all of us are deeply political. Few of us, though, have spent too much time reflecting on how our faith in Christ affects our political views and actions, and even fewer of us are deeply attentive to how our politics is affecting our faith. In this succinct and helpful overview of the spiritual and cultural formation at work in our political life, Kaitlyn Scheiss pokes at the particular idols that pull on our hearts in this sphere, and the ways that the good news of the kingdom of God knocks these down. She summarizes much of the weighty scholarship on this topic into accessible language (if, perhaps, making a few sweeping generalities along the way) and actionable strategies for keeping Christ over our political predilections and not the other way around. If churches could get members from various social/political camps to read this together and discuss, some real growth and health might result.

You Are Not Your Own by O. Alan Noble
Noble makes no less of a bold claim than that modernity (broadly, the Enlightenment: secularism, individualism, political self-determination, and technological and economic insulation from many physical demands of life) runs in many ways counter to God’s design of human beings. Nowhere, he suggests, do we feel this disjointedness more acutely than in the crushing demand of perpetual identity formation and maintenance. He examines the lay of the land through contemporary sociological research, philosophy (Ellul, Taylor, and others), and literature (Eliot, Plath, and others) to demonstrate the ultimate hopelessness of self-belonging, and then points us back to union with Christ as the stable ground of life. There is a lot of pastoral wisdom here, as Noble provides some helpful categories for analyzing 21st century social ills in ways that the church is designed to respond to and digs up ways the church itself has (unconsciously and consciously) adapted to the present age through modes of Christian practice that actually work to undermine identity in Christ.

History/Biography

A Burning in My Bones by Winn Collier
I was a latecomer to Eugene Peterson—the finished version of The Message came out while I was in college; while I edited a couple of magazines for pastors, I watched review copies of his Spiritual Theology series roll in, but never gave them a reading (or column space). That changed last fall, when, in a dry period of spiritual life in the muddy middle of a seminary program, a tough season at work (and, you know, a global pandemic and domestic political crisis), I decided to pick him up. That spiritual theology series (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eat This Book, The Jesus Way, Tell it Slant, and Practice Resurrection) was a balm to my soul. In these books, I found a richly scriptural work on what it means practically to follow Jesus, and I’ve recommended them to lots of people since. Reading this biography gives contour to the ways Scripture and experience shaped Peterson into a person who could, in his 70s, write such healing words to me. Collier shows us a driven, but patient, man—someone with a capacious academic mind, a deeply pastoral heart, and varied interests, who could have just as easily become a poet or a butcher or a carpenter as a pastor and author—whose burning ambition, recorded over and over in the privacy of his diary was to become a saint. May we all be so motivated.

Buried in the Bitter Waters by Elliot Jaspin
As he recounts story after story of county-wide racial purges through the 1880s-1930s (which often include horrific terrorism, lynching, and acts that in any other context would be described as open warfare), Jaspin unveils another facet of white Americans’ history of calculated resistance to co-existence with descendants of enslaved men and women as social equals. This fine piece of journalistic digging and historical inquiry is another step in the painful but life-giving process of remembering grievous national sins that many of my own ancestors would have preferred never come to light.

Paul: A Biography by N. T. Wright
I’m sticking this here so as to sneak in another theology read into a different category, but, as the title implies, it’s also an apt resident of the biography column in its own right. Wright has crafted what essentially amounts to a roving commentary on Acts and the Pauline epistles, trying to tease out the character and motivations of Paul the man through what we have preserved in Scripture of his comings and goings and his own words. In the process, he makes a fine case for understanding the character and practice of the early church as rooted in the Old Testament/second-temple Judaism.

The Outlier by Kai Bird
Most presidential biographies have something to teach about character, organizational leadership, etc.; they’re not just for “history junkies.” Bird’s work does not disappoint on either count. He gives good context to explain how the unpopular Carter presidency bridged the turmoil of the late 60s, Vietnam, and Watergate to the relative stability of the 80s and 90s, with a commitment to doing what needed to be done, political consequences be damned. Carter’s promises to do what was right and tell the truth (along with his work ethic, grounded idealism, and engineer’s mind) was what the country wanted in the wake of the aforementioned turmoil, but those commitments (which he fulfilled with remarkable consistency) and character traits in the face of intense economic and foreign policy challenges forced many decisions that angered the establishment and various voting blocs, which swept him out of office with gusto. It is little wonder that fair-minded, decent, honest people often stay out of politics—either you become as corrupt as a the systems you seek to reform or you stick to your guns and fall flat on your face. The silver lining is that history takes a longer view than election cycles, and Bird demonstrates that many of the successes for which later administrations took credit (curbing inflation, deregulation of airlines and utilities, reduction of dependency on foreign oil and gas) actually flowed from Carter’s actions. This, interestingly, is where Bird focuses, with the significant humanitarian and diplomatic achievements of Carter’s post-presidency given only scant attention in the book’s epilogue.

Sociology/Cultural Observation

Strange Rites by Tara Isabella Burton
The notion that Western Culture is no longer defined predominantly by Christianity is today a banal truism obvious to nearly everyone except those with a vested interest in turning anxiety and nostalgia into a political movement or fundraising pitch. What is more interesting is how G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism that “when men cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything and everything” plays out in this new reality. Though at times it gets a little too close to the handwringing tone of decline narratives, Burton’s Strange Rites explores just this phenomenon. Through engaging journalism and deep forays into the plethora of emerging subcultures of belief (from Wiccans to Harry Potter fanclubs, and even darker corners of the soul), she humanizes the turbulent religio-cultural waters we’re swimming in today in ways that churches would do well to think on as we seek to retell the story of Christ in ways that actually make sense to our neighbors.

Taking America Back for God by Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead
I’d wager few people had heard the term “Christian nationalism” before this year, but it’s hard not to see it everywhere once you start thinking about it. Perry and Whitehead present a rigorously researched examination of the religious impulse in American politics (across the political spectrum and, across generations) that effectively demonstrates both that “Christian” Americans are not a monolithic voting bloc and that “Christian” politics and actual adherence to the way of Jesus do not often overlap. If you’re looking for a book-length op-ed, this will disappoint you, though. It is essentially a thoughtful and (mostly) dispassionate discussion of sociological findings, complete with regression analyses and methodology descriptions.

The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson is most celebrated as a Pulitzer-winning novelist, but I’m often moved just as much by her essays, which often probe beyond cliche to expose rich veins of wonder hiding in plain sight. In this collection, she tries to take up the minority report of the liberal project, pushing back against the the various “isms” of the past three centuries to hold space for a more expansive view of reality. In her own words: “We assume that nothing is what it appears to be, that it is less and worse, insofar as it might once have seemed worthy of respectful interest. We routinely disqualify testimony that would plead for extenuation. That is, we are so persuaded of the rightness of our judgment as to invalidate evidence that does not confirm us in it. Nothing that deserves to be called truth could ever be arrived at by such means. If truth in this sense is essentially inaccessible in any case, that should only confirm us in humility and awe.”

The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee
Even most people who dispute claims of systemic racism in contemporary America would concede that Jim Crow policies of past decades did indeed represent systemic and systematic oppression of people based on the color of their skin. What McGhee demonstrates here is how those legal and social structures born out of past racial animus and racist policy are drivers of social, economic, ecological, and other problems that today afflict people of all ethnicities in the U.S. Though I’m not confident that the policy solutions to these entanglements are as simple and straightforward as she seems to believe, this is an insightful work worthy of consideration.

Literature/Poetry/Memoir/Criticism

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
Trying to read more contemporary and international literature is hard when you only read English (maybe Spanish in a pinch—not much contemporary literature is being written in biblical Hebrew or Koine Greek). Adiche’s story of young lovers separated by continents amid political upheaval in Nigeria is a well-rounded tale (save for some uncritical acceptance of contemporary Western sexual mores that, for me at least, leads to some inconsistencies within characters) that weaves anti-colonialist, anti-racist, and feminist themes into its cultural exegesis of British, American, and Nigerian societies and subcultures as skillfully as the braiders whose shop supplies the setting of much of the narrator’s reminiscence layer strands of hair.

Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos
Like many of my favorite mid-20th-century Catholic novels (and I have a thing for mid-20th-century Catholic novels), This is really a theology book, but one that presses deeply into the nature of vocation, the humility of faithful service, suffering and death, and the disconnect between culture-bound churches and the way of Jesus. What Bernanos achieves through this simple, first-person narration of a life of seeming insignificance is luminous.

Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas
Stanley Hauerwas is one of those people that sticks up to give a splinter to anyone making sweeping statements about the state of American theology—he doesn’t fit too cleanly in any category (he once called himself “a high-church anabaptist”) and has always embodied a delightfully contrarian posture toward the main stream of Christian political and ethical discourse. In this memoir, we see him as an old man sifting through the streams of his life looking for clues as to how he became who he is, from a low-income upbringing in Texas to the heights of the American Academy. His perseverance through decades-long marriage to a woman slowly succumbing to debilitating mental illness is heart-wrenching. His self-effacing tenor is by turns incisive and humorous, and filled with quips of wisdom you’d expect from any self-respecting grandpa.

Norwood by Charles Portis
What a strange, funny little novel. The plot is pointless, the characters aren’t very lovable, and yet, I don’t hate it. Like in his most famous work, True Grit, Portis demonstrates his facility with idiosyncratic characters capable of accomplishing unbelievable feats through single-minded devotion. Whereas True Grit‘s Mattie Ross is a heroine rising above her age and gender to pursue justice, Norwood Pratt is an antihero, bumbling his way through other people’s stories to get payment on a minuscule debt in a way that perfectly captures the self-interest and pointless consumerism inherent in so much of American life.

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Again, given my affinity for (obsession with?) mid-20th-century Catholic fiction, you’d think I’d have read this one before. I didn’t like it as much as I thought I should, however. It is good, but so earnest and bleak that it almost doesn’t work for me as a novel. It is not as delicately wrought as Brideshead Revisited or quite as viscerally powerful as Greene’s own The Power and The Glory, both of which cover similar themes of wayward souls brought back to the heart of Christ at the end. Somehow, though, it manages to do what these novels do so well—depicting spiritual transformation without trivializing or sermonizing—a rare skill worthy of celebration.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
I’ve been a Berry fan for over 20 years, but was slow to warm to his fiction. Re-reading this novel (which I still consider his finest), I liked it much more than the first time around, largely (I think) due to the fact that the world it records is even further from the experience of most today. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Now they’re all gone, and so Berry’s fiction evokes memories of memories and helps me appreciate his skill as a tale-spinner. Jayber Crow is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness, even as Berry’s standard themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century are entwined throughout.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
Revisited this (after having first read it 15 years ago) at the urging of a friend. It holds up so well—brimming with joy and wonder while giving modernity a cheeky middle finger. It is the rare work of apologetics that achieves its goal—making the author’s “side” appear winsome instead of just seeking to anger the “enemy.” The palindromic aphorisms Chesterton is so fond of do get old after a while—It’s clearly his favorite stylistic move, and repeated ad nauseam throughout. This is not a real quote, but its structure gives the sense: “The blubbering idiots claim they have the truth, but the truth is that it was always idiots blubbering.”

Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
I think this book should be required reading for the church. Re-reading it for the first time since it came out in 2008, I’m struck both by how much of my life and ministry work is shaped by these (robustly biblical) arguments. Wright contends that many Christians cling to “going to heaven when you die” as an escape from the world instead of embracing a theology of resurrection that sees the risen Jesus as the first fruit of God’s ultimate redemption and the church’s mission as proclaiming Christ’s dominion over all. In short, he firmly believes that we are “saved to” service for the glory of God as much as we are “saved from” sin. Wright is at his finest as he attempts to ground the church’s efforts in the present day (from evangelism to social justice, art, and conservation) solidly in resurrection theology and liberate them both from modernist progressivism (which places the emphasis on the work instead of God) and traditional evangelicalism (which sees Christian ethics and vocation mainly as an addendum to saving souls for heaven).

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This rambling journey through the souls of a small Russian town hits hard as ever. The problems of faith, identity, and purpose that the characters wrestle with are evergreen, and felt more keenly today by more people (I’d wager) than they were when Dostoevsky wrote. It’s a book that, though it takes hours upon hours to read, demands multiple readings to even begin to glean its riches. This time around, however, what sticks out to me most is the theme of grace—of extending (or withholding) open-handedness toward the mistakes and anxieties of one another in light of what we shall all be some day before God. As Alyosha explains near the end, “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and shall tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened!”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In revisiting Hurston for the first time since college, I’ve learned much more about her overall life project of preserving folkways and folktales from now nearly-extinct groups across the South, as well as her refusal to allow her work to be co-opted into political or social causes that she felt would diminish its artistry. These layers of nuance give her enduring parable of the Black experience in America a deeper, more studied resonance. Their Eyes Were Watching God is allegory of the highest caliber, with some of the sharpest narration in all of American literature.

Also-reads

These books are not “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order are all the other books I also read in 2021. As a reminder, you can also find me on goodreads.com for more regular updates, as well as brief reviews of all these titles.

A Little Book for New Theologians by Kelly M. Kapic
A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans
Canary in the Coal Mine by William Cooke
Congratulations, Who Are You Again? by Harrison Scott Key
For God So Loved, He Gave by Kelly M. Kapic
He Saw that It Was Good by Sho Baraka
Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy
Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr
Reparations by Duke Kwon and Gregory L. Thompson
Suffering and the Heart of God by Diane Langberg
The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
The Committed by Viet Than Nguyen
The Deep Places by Ross Douthat
The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Wray Gregoire
The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire
The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 by Justo L. González
The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry
The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans & Jeff Chu
Why We Drive by Matthew Crawford

Church in a Minor Key: Lament

To begin, I should strongly voice my joy at seeing so many churches in America working toward recovery of a biblical ethic of life that matches their commitment to the authority of Scripture—and the reaffirming of many churches that have been striving toward this all along. In a fraught cultural moment, I am praising God daily for congregations that follow after the full counsel of God, not just offering a reassuring supernatural pat-on-the-back to the culture.

That said, I’ve got a small bone to pick—a friendly *ahem* to my brothers and sisters— I think it’s important that our music match our message, and I’m concerned that we don’t try hard enough to do that.

Put more bluntly, why don’t we sing more songs of confession and lament? Wrestling with sin and its effects (both individually and corporately) is a major theme of Scripture, including the part designed for our worship together: Psalms. By most counts, nearly half the psalter is focused on individual or communal lament, even more if you include penitential and imprecatory psalms. Kelly M. Kapic, in Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, writes: “Biblically, we discover that lament is a legitimate, even necessary form of fellowship with God when we are in a place of pain. The Bible repeatedly affirms lament to be an honest and expected expression of our battle with the brokenness of ourselves and the rest of the world” (p. 29).

God clearly wants our sorrows offered up to him as surely as our joys, yet most of us sing the Psalms (or more modern songs based on them) infrequently, and when we do, we tend to stick with Psalms of ascent, enthronement, or thanksgiving. Of course, all the Psalms have a place in our public worship and private devotion, but it is perhaps time to lift up lament to restore a balance to our corporate songbooks.

So why don’t we sing more songs of a darker mood?

At least part of the reason comes from our Protestant focus on preaching of the Word as the key aspect of public worship. Our church leaders tend to put our energy into crafting the sermon and then building the rest of the service around that. This is a good habit, but too often it results in the musical accompaniments receiving less attention as part of the worship (sometimes, I get the sense that many congregants attach reversed importance to these, but that’s another subject). We spend hours poring over Scripture and commentaries to craft a 30-40 minute sermon, but we pull the 30 minutes of songs from a standard basket of tunes that our congregation has grown accustomed to singing.

When it comes to lamenting sin and the brokenness it brings to our people and our cultural institutions, we leave the pastor to do the heavy lifting through preaching. Too often, though, we set up our pastors for an impossible task. Prophetically preaching against sin and injustice is difficult. It is appreciably more difficult when it is introduced by 3 major-key songs about rejoicing in the Lord and bookended by another praising Him for our salvation. How much more effective could that preaching be at carrying this load when underscored by music and lyrics that reflect the tone and text of the sermon? This requires worship leaders to do the same quality of digging and study as preaching pastors, resisting the urge to stick to the same familiar rotation of songs.

Another, more troubling, factor here is that our “basket” of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs is very light on lament. Much of the Western (particularly American) church songbook reflects incomplete views of the Christian life. We need to remember that our song choices are not neutral, and that our songs often come freighted with the blind spots of the past. Sometimes this results in nothing worse than a bit of discord between a song service of gospel triumphalism and a sermon of lament; sometimes it seems almost completely tone-deaf to the emotional/spiritual tenor of a worship gathering, with the music all but encouraging us to forget and ignore the message.

In broad strokes (there are plenty of exceptions), our hymns from the 18th and early 19th centuries have a tendency to focus on a triumphal understanding of the completed work of Christ and personal devotion to Him, reflecting a postmillennial confidence that the culture itself was Christian and needed only encouragement down that path (nevermind the existential problem of the church’s widespread blessing of chattel slavery). Once Darby and Scofield popularized premillennial dispensationalism, the gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to focus increasingly on a disembodied (yet very present) hope of glory, reinforcing piety as the main mode of faithfulness here and now. I don’t really have a good theory for why so many of the songs of the mid-late 20th century are so relentlessly cheerful, other than perhaps that they reflect a time when majority-culture churches were turning a blind eye to civil rights abuses, unjust war, and the effects of the sexual revolution—far be it from functional dualists to write songs of gritty, embodied anguish.

Historically, churches in the dominant culture of any given context have a tendency to drift from a consistent, holistic Christian witness that closely follows the “true narrative” of Christ (per Hauerwas). When this happens, we forget to trust Christ for all things, and only lean on him in areas where the culture fails to meet our deepest needs—we have “a gospel of of the gaps” (per Carl Ellis). This reduces the church to caring primarily about the metaphysical aspects of our faith, and so our corporate worship knows little of the deep concerns of this life.

Music has tremendous power to help us remember truth. That’s why we include it in our worship in the first place. What truths we choose to commit to memory via music matters. Our music, just as much as our sermons should shape us to weep with those who weep, turn our hearts to love the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the lost. Our music should call our attention to our own complicity in systemic sins by our love of comfort.

Again, Kapic says:

When contemporary churches cease to sing laments as part of their regular catalog of songs, instead only choosing happy or upbeat music, the people of God lose their ability to lament well: our muscles for godly mourning atrophy. We become ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws at us. Without space for genuine lament, false veneers and bitterness easily take root, eventually bringing destruction in their wake. Suffering surprises and isolates once-active worshippers, often driving them away. When the homes of believers are hit by chronic pain or mental illness, they often find the contemporary church strangely unhelpful, even hurtful. A hurting family no longer fits the American Christian model of growth, happiness, and victory. When the church is robbed of its regular pronouncements, prayers, and songs of lament, then, like a shepherd distracted by the stars in the sky, it fails to protect and nourish the vulnerable sheep entrusted to its care. Rather than receiving special care and protection, the wounded believer is left alone to doubt and despair. The church that responds by entering their lament, however, participates in the healing that the wounded find at the feet of the compassionate Father. There we lay them; there we cry out with them; there we together long for healing and hope (p. 38).

So how do we begin to work against the grain here, and reintroduce the needed discipline of lament into our corporate worship? For starters, we just need to rummage a little father down the song list for the tremendous songs of weighty emotion that we so naturally gravitate toward in liturgical seasons of longing (Advent and Eastertide) and at times of overt grief (funerals). The African American tradition of Spirituals and classic hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and “Be Still My Soul” are a great place to start. Many modern hymns, such as Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “The Power of the Cross” get closer to the mark as well. I can’t think of another songwriter working in the corporate worship space that gets the spirit of lament as well as my friend Wendell Kimbrough, and the Porter’s Gate project he’s been a part of as well.

There are many others as well that we can learn from by listening to (even if they’re not designed for singing together)—the work of artists like Amanda Opelt (another friend), Propaganda, Sho Baraka, and Josh Garrels comes to mind as examples of bringing musical expression to the harder realities of life. And there’s plenty of room for new songs and songwriters here!

Again, this is a friendly nudge, and certainly not unique to me. I’m encouraged by what I see and hear already, and long for more. Songs that proclaim the fulness of the gospel (including the sorrow!) in ways that show God’s love to a hurting world are a needed witness for the church in every age. When we are in our greatest need of Christ, we are least likely to find him through the abundance of overly joyful music we’re apt to encounter at a given church on a given Sunday. Press on!

Image: Quarry & Fog, Hamilton County, Tenn., September 2018.

A True and Better Way to Be

The last of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

Nothing I’ve said in this series is truly original to me (or even to this millennium, in terms of Scriptural exposition), and there is much more left unsaid. Why then does the suggestion that the church could and should do more to elevate and affirm the dignity of our sisters cause so many Christian men to squirm?

Perhaps it is better to ask why anything going by the label of “feminism” (however accurate) under a Christian header is likely to draw condemnation from theological conservatives—in long, deconstructive blog posts, sharp Tweets, and nuanced sermons—while blatant sexual abuse and an entrenched culture of misogyny requires a society-wide mass movement to even begin receiving a second look. Increasingly, it must look to those outside the church as though any attempt to use Scripture to prop up a hard-and-fast division of gender roles is little more than a fig leaf for powerful men who want to keep women from that same power so that they can continue to abuse them whenever, wherever, and however they choose.

The body of Christ should be at the forefront of overturning this imbalance, but Satan is no fool, and he has divided us here as in so many other places. The congregations and denominations that give this a running shot are typically already well down the road of letting the world interpret Scripture for them on multiple other points, undercutting their witness and effectiveness in changing the larger church conversation. A Christ-like feminism has to look to Him and His Word as its sources, not “dumpster-diving” for ideas in the trash bin of history, as Carl Ellis would say.

Scripture is shot through with a robust vision of both male and female dignity and power, affirming God’s good design and honoring His authority. This is not a tacked-on or optional back-reading that has to be shoehorned into a Christ-centered understanding of the Bible, but quite foundational to the Gospel message. As we explored in the second post of this series, if denouncing violence and mistreatment of women seems, through our theological lenses, as so much creeping liberalism, our understanding of gender relationships has indeed been built around evil and oppression—not Scripture—all along.

A vision of Christ’s love for women, seeking their dignity, protection, and flourishing is not hard to find in the gospels. Christ pauses His “important work” to have compassion on desperate, shamed woman and heal her (Luke 8). Christ pours out the joy of living water on a woman running from her past (John 4). Christ protects a sinful woman from the over-harsh judgment of a hypocritical mob of men so that she might receive grace to repent (John 8). Christ allows a woman who has been used up and cast out byJohannes_(Jan)_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_Google_Art_Project men to bathe his feet with perfume and wash them with her hair (Luke 7). Christ entrusts the testimony of His resurrection to a woman, who could not even bear witness in a court of law in that day (John 20).

Christ’s very existence in human form is our model (Phil. 2:5-11). Incarnation is the opposite of both abuse and paternalism. It inverts the world’s idea of power, subsuming infinite strength and privilege into loving, sacrificial service. Christ empties Himself, voluntarily sheds the trappings of power to exercise it most fully in submission to the lowly and bearing the most unjust of deaths for us.

In God’s grace, this present apocalypse—this unveiling of secret sins—should be seen as an instance of judgment that begins in His own household (a la 1 Peter 4:17), purging us and fitting us to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). May He rip away all our idols of toxic masculinity (and toxic femininity) that deface the image of God with broken alternatives. May He use it to lift up the work and voices of men and women who can demonstrate Christ’s restoration to the used, abused, and sorrowing. May the church repent from reflecting the worst of our culture and grow to leading us all in the way of Christ—defending the weak, freeing the captives, holding evildoers to account, and teaching a true and better way to be—as many already are, and have throughout her history.

This is the way to “get the straight of things,” to take justice and righteousness from the realm of “taste” back to the center of what it means to faithfully follow Christ together.

One Next Step
If we’ve come to grips with the scope of the problem, and begun to own the diagnosis that God’s church is experiencing an “epidemic of denial,” what do repentance, corporate lament, confession, and mutual accountability look like?

I’ll return again to my friend quoted in the first post of the series. I’ve left her voice anonymous out of respect for her privacy (though she’s more than welcome to change that at her discretion). She is a biblically grounded, faithful follower of Jesus, an active member of a church in a theologically conservative denomination, and employed at an internationally recognized ministry organization. If you need all that context in order to hear what she says, though, instead of being willing simply to listen to the concerns of a daughter of the King, you’ll understand why I’ve tried to write what I’ve written.

“As a woman in the church who is oh so very tired, I’ll say this: if you are pastor or leader within the church, particularly in theologically conservative circles where women do not hold direct positions of leadership, it’s essential that you acknowledge this moment. We need you to acknowledge what it’s like. If you aren’t, you are shirking your pastoral responsibilities.

“Start simply. As a first step, add five sentences to your congregational prayer next week. Each week, your sisters hear prayers about natural disasters, shootings, abortion, or decisions and crises facing our immediate church body. Expand your horizons with something as simple as:

‘Jesus, in the midst of seemingly endless stories and revelations of how our sisters experience hurt and degradation, even and especially in the church, I pray for my sisters in this room. Would you give them peace and courage in the absolute reality that they bear your image and are precious to you. As their brothers, we repent of the ways each of us individually and collectively have been passive, dismissive or perpetrators of transgressions against our sisters. We have failed to reflect your image in how we have treated them. God, bind up the broken-hearted in this room, and help all of us to be agents of your mercy and holiness toward one another.’

“If you think that this prayer would set off a firestorm of controversy within your church, you need to pray it all the more. Because your sisters even more desperately need it, and your brothers need to hear it, too.

“I can tell you with complete vulnerability and honesty, if I heard this prayer, I would burst into tears of relief. And I guarantee you I wouldn’t be the only one.

That’s where I pray we can go next.”

Image: Christ in the House of Mary & Martha by Jan Vermeer

Cultivation vs. Coercion

Third of four pieces reflecting on some of the cultural threads at work in the mistreatment of women, particularly within the church. Part 1. Part 2.

Even if the unjust treatment of women by men is not a result of our faith (rightly considered), Scripture certainly still has much to say about it. Right there in the Garden, at the moment of our descent into sin and shame, God pronounced a curse on the very works of cultivation for which He created us. Because we trusted the word of the serpent over the design of the Lord, the ground would no longer respond well to the man’s tending, and the man would no longer respond with love to the work of the woman in his life.

A key component of this curse toward the woman is that the man will not only resist, but that he will “rule over” her (Gen. 3:16). Relationships crafted to demonstrate God’s goodness and creative spirit are instead handicapped by a visceral power dynamic—one more expression of our central sin of pride. Our confidence is no longer in our submission to God, but in the strength and wisdom we think we possess.

As Andy Crouch has pointed out in his excellent work, Playing God, our call to cultivate and care for all God had made was enabled by His gift of power; power meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused.

Unjust power is an audacious grift, an attempt to usurp God’s authority without the foundation of His omniscience and lovingkindness—in other words, an idol. And we are so, so slow to give up this false god of coercive power over others. Its tentacles weave through our works, allowing mankind to create unspeakable evils and corrupting even our best efforts. Such is the root of our mistreatment of women and the church’s ignorance or toleration of a broken status quo. The same can be said of racism, abortion, marginalization of the weak, disabled, and elderly, perpetuation of poverty, proliferation of war, and every other systemic sin.

In this light, pornography is revealed as an extension of sexual abuse, warping desires and feeding the beast of consumption for those who lack the social power to do such unspeakable things in the real world and get away with it. Women appearing in that footage are often paid next to nothing or, in many cases, actually held in some form of slavery, making the visual delivery of their bodies as a “product” a direct result of their actual abuse at the hands of others. As the Avett Brothers sing in “True Sadness”: “Angela became a target / As soon as her beauty was seen / By young men who tried to reduce her down / To a scene on a x-rated screen / Is she not more than the curve of her hips? / Is she not more than the shine on her lips? / Does she not dream to sing and to live and to dance down her own path / Without being torn apart? / Does she not have a heart?

Perhaps the epidemic of pornography in our churches (that now swallows up women, in addition to men) both contributes to and flows from the softer dehumanization we’ve grown accustomed to. Brokenness is always cyclical.

A healthy feminism is the staunch opponent of all such coercion, but much of what passes under that name has instead been a cheerleader for the same sorts of acts, provided that they are perpetrated by women instead of against them. If gender is merely a social construct, then difference itself is the only injustice. A feminism aimed there, that encourages women to seek equality by acting in the same sinful consumption that men have gotten away with—striving for social, cultural, and sexual dominance—misses so many of the deeper evils.

I’d argue, in fact, that our present moment is a much the death of that movement as it is the death of silent suffering at the hands of pigs and patriarchs. The emergence of a what has been described as “rape culture” on university campuses suggests that men still hold the balance of power in any pitched battle for sexual freedom.

What of Marriage?
In such a cycle of coercion and abuse, what value can there be to marriage? Is it not just one more social structure in which women are forced to subsume their person and will to the desires of men?

Going back to Genesis, we see marriage described not as a display of power, but an act of mutual care and cultivation: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25). When Paul takes up this matter in Ephesians 5, he calls it a “profound mystery” that does not merely reflect God’s good design of Creation, but portrays God’s mercy in repairing what has been broken through Christ’s “marriage” to His church.

For most that object to this reading, though, it is Paul’s words a few verses before that cause them to stumble: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5:22-23). Some see this as proof positive of the evil of marriage, and others tie themselves in hermeneutical knots trying to explain how Paul unfairly introduces a hierarchical structure to a beautifully egalitarian institution. It seems clear, though that we have to interpret this instruction in light of the “profound mystery,” and not the other way around.

Submission is only submission if it is an act of will cutting against the grain, just like the counterpart command for men to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). We are to emulate Christ, not Pharaoh, who used the people to make him wealthy and comfortable; Christ, not Solomon, who multiplied pleasures to himself; Christ, not even Elijah, who abandoned his calling when he was discouraged. Any other model of marriage is not only dysfunctional, but diabolical, in that it mars a God-ordained portrait and sends a false message about Christ.

Loving my wife as Christ loved the church is not a “natural” act, and certainly not a “masculine” one (at least in the cultural sense). It is something that I would never conceive of, let alone attempt, without the transforming power of Christ. Likewise, submission is not the normative state of “femaleness”, but the conscious entering in to a Christ-like act of sacrifice by a strong, free, individual. It is a call to mutual obedience (within the marriage covenant) not a ratification of the world’s status quo. What spiritual value is there in submitting to your husband if you live in constant dread of all men everywhere? Only a strong woman can submit well. What spiritual value is there in leading your wife if you are called to lord your privilege and power over all women? Only a weak man needs to be so propped up.

Of course, marriage is meant to mirror Christ redeeming the church, but not to the exclusion of his redeeming love toward His daughters themselves. In this picture, a groom is a reflection, not a replacement, of Christ. Our brothers and sisters who pursue full lives of godly service in singleness are no less powerful images of God than those called to participate in that particular re-enactment of redemption. I’ve seen so many single women among my friends and family* offer brilliantly faithful service to the church, in the face of immense cultural pressure to marry, serve outside of their gifting, or abandon the way of Christ to seek their pleasure in the world. Such a life is not second-class, but boldly sacrificial and worthy of praise.

Part 1: Tasteless, but Excusable? Dehumanization, Women, and the Church
Part 2: Men and Women, Image-Bearing, and Scripture
Part 4: A True and Better Way to Be

*Why I’m not similarly acquainted with very many young single men is a sociological conversation for another time.

Image: Samaritan Woman Meets Jesus, Byzantine Icon