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Devil on the Cross

Devil on the CrossDevil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This novel was written on toilet paper while the author was in prison and is the first modern novel written in Gikuyu. Ngũgĩ is often mentioned as a likely Nobel winner plus I had read about this novel in a work of postcolonial theology. So I was looking forward to it and was disappointed.

The story critiques capitalism and colonialist exploitation but it does so in a heavy handed way that reminded me of The Man Who Was Thursday or The Great Divorce--novels that get too heavy handed and preachy in making their points.

There were engaging moments and the final chapter was searingly powerful.

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The New Abolition

The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social GospelThe New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel by Gary Dorrien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After emancipation leaders in the Black church had to cope with new realities--segregation and lynching. This is the story of the generation that developed the Black Social Gospel and laid the groundwork for the liberation efforts of the Civil Rights generation of the middle twentieth century. Besides DuBois, many of the people covered in this volume are mostly unknown. And the stories of political struggles and personal relationships equal the stories of the early centuries of Christianity as the difficult but good work is done to create a theology relevant to the people.

The Black church may have saved Christianity by focusing our attention on the liberation of Jesus and expunging our modern theology of its inherent white supremacy. This is part of the story of how that happened.

I have only two complaints with the book. I did not like the organization. Chapters might cover 100 pages with chapter sections running to 30 pages. Better to break into more chapters. And the book was neither a linear chronology nor a series of foci on major figures but a strange blending of the two which was at times confusing to me.

The very final section includes a very good theological analysis of the cross in this tradition (borrowing heavily from James Cone). I wish the author had included more theological reflection like this throughout the volume.

Overall, a magisterial work and well worth the months of effort I put into it.

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Deadline Artists

Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper ColumnsDeadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns by John P. Avlon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Off and on for the last three years this has been my downstairs-bathroom-reading. A delightful and informative collection of great newspaper columns that illustrates the artistry of this genre. Two I have remembered most. One by Charles McDowell in which he wrote about the day that Nixon resigned and how normal it was for most people. That column is a powerful statement of the strength of our Republic. And the other is Jimmy Breslin's column about Parkland Hospital on the day that JFK was assassinated. Both columns tell the story of major events by looking at minor characters.

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The Bible is with the Poor

George Washington Woodbey
George Washington Woodbey,
 was  a black minister who ran for lieutenant governor of Nebraska in 1896. He later became a Socialist speaker and according to Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition, "He got a movement going in Omaha, speaking every night in the streets and parks. A Nebraska comrade later told Socialist organizer A. W. Ricker, 'Omaha had never had the crowds that attended Woodbey's meetings.'" I'm intrigued to learn more about this chapter of Omaha history.

The Bible is loaded with normative ethical statements bearing on politics, Woodbey stressed.  More precisely, the Bible is loaded with Socialism.  Woodbey marshaled biblical texts opposing rent, interest, profits, love of money, and the exploitation of the poor.  Rent is a violation of the fundamental biblical principle that the earth was given to all of humankind as a home.  To violate the law of common ownership is to commit sin.  Socialism, Woodbey argued, was a modern political expression of the biblical right to cooperative ownership and control of the land.  In the Bible, the land belonged to God and the Israelites were tenants upon it.  In modern capitalism, a handful of "cunning" types stole possession of the earth to live off the labor of others. Woodbey contended that only Socialism came close to the biblical law suspending agricultural work in the seventh year and canceling all debts in the Jubilee fiftieth year. . . In biblical times, the aim of the Jubilee was to prevent huge debts from accumulating "for parasites to live upon from age to age, as they do today."

He even understood the connections between economics and environmentalism:

Isaiah 24 was another staple of Woodbey's street preaching.  Verse 5 pictured the earth lying polluted from the ravages of its inhabitants, who broke God's laws, violated the statutes, and broke the everlasting covenant.  To Woodbey, this text was mostly about economic injustice--the defilement of creation by economic greed.

Woodbey believed in open borders: "I am in favor of throwing the entire world open to the inhabitants of the world.  There are no foreigners, and cannot be, unless some person came down from Mars, or Jupiter, or some place."

Dorrien describes:

Woodbey spoke the same language about "new abolition" and "new emancipation" that the NAACP liberals used, but he insisted that emancipation had to cut deeper and wider, liberating the vast masses of the poor from poverty. America was supposed to be a democracy, but Congress and the courts defended the right of individual capitalists to own what the public needed. To Woodbey, there was little difference between the capitalist and slaveholder uses of government.  Both relied on government to protect their ostensible rights to dominate people lacking effective rights.

Dorrien writes that Woodbey grew frustrated with atheist Socialists and anti-Socialist Christians.  Woodbey proclaimed, "The Bible, in every line of it, is with the poor as against their oppressors."

Barbarities of Fundamentalism

Walter Francis White

Walter Francis White led the NAACP from 1931-1955.  He could pass for white and exploited that as an investigator.  As Gary Dorrien writes, he "undertook assignments in the South, passing for white to investigate lynchings.  Risking his life repeatedly, White investigated forty-one lynchings and eight race riots."

In 1929 he published Rope and Faggot: An Interview with Judge Lynch in which he concluded that "lynching mania could only have occurred in a Christian society."  He "equated racist terrorism with fundamentalism."  He wrote:

It is the Christian South, boasting of its imperviousness to the heretical doctrines of modernism, that mutilates and burns Negroes, barbarities unmatched in any other part of the world.

Note: Omaha had a horribly violent lynching in the early twentieth century.  Protestant Fundamentalism probably does not explain that lynching.

White wrote, "Baptist and Methodist preachers were the very best material for Klan organizers."

White grew up at First Congregational Atlanta.

"The Source of Power" was the last post in this series on The New Abolition by Gary Dorrien.


AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This novel did do two things I found interesting: 1) Provide some interesting social commentary on the United States from the perspective of a black African immigrant and 2) Give some perspective on contemporary life in urban Nigeria. However, I did not think it was a good book, in either sense of that term.

I believe most good books--the classics that persist through time--are those which have moral depth and wrestle in some meaningful way with the profound issues of life. I thought this book skated across the surface. Sebastian owns children's book with greater moral depth.

Second, I didn't think it a very good story or characters. The characters were often shallow and at times almost cartoonish in their one dimensionality, and I believed the turns of the plot were often quite predictable and maintained very little narrative interest.

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The Source of Power


"Until he started school at the age of seven," Gary Dorrien writes about Adam Clayton Powell, Senior, who was born in in 1865, "he had one piece of clothing, a shirt made of a bleached flour sack.  His bed was a bag filled with cornhusks. In decent crop years he ate corn and wheat; at other times he had to subsist on dried apples and black-eyed peas."  But he was whip smart.  On his first day of school, he memorized the alphabet.  He soon memorized the Gospel of John.

Powell characterized himself as a Progressive and not as a Fundamentalist or a Modernist.  Dorrien writes, "Progressives worshipped the biblical God of love and embraced the social gospel of Jesus without submitting to literalistic tests of orthodoxy."  He was known for bridging the divide between intellectual preaching and emotional worship and grew the churches he pastored.  Dorrien writes, "He was theologically liberal and evangelical, an exponent of biblical criticism and biblically centered, and politically pro-Washington and anti-Washington."

And also developed a wide array of church programs and ministries.  "To save a man is to get him out of a bad environment and to put him into a good one with Jesus Christ as his example, ideal, and inspiration."

"When you get a man into heaven, he is not worth anything more to his family and the world; but when you can get heaven into him, you have done a great deal for Christ and humanity."

Praying "with a heart cleansed of carnal rubbish, the little Ultimate Reality in [a person's] soul rises like the tide to meet the great Ultimate Reality, which is God, and he becomes conscious of the fact that he is in touch with the source of power."

During the onset of World War I he declared, "While we love our flag and country, we do not believe in fighting for protection of commerce on the high seas until the powers that be give us at least some verbal assurance that the property and lives of the members of our race are going to be protected on land from Maine to Mississippi."

Dorrien writes, "True patriotism, he preached, was love of one's country plus something higher--an unselfish devotion to the highest ethical and spiritual ideals."  Powell said, "Patriotism is not only a love for one's country and nation but a love for weak suffering people everywhere."

Powell advocated pressing for civil rights during the war, while other leaders like DuBois cautioned waiting.  Powell ultimately believed the war made things worse for black people.

He wanted Abyssinian Baptist Church to employ only black builders when they built their new building in Harlem, but they could not find enough.  He was angry and apologized for his attacks on Booker T. Washington's emphasis on industrial education.

Dorrien writes "If one proposed to follow Jesus, Powell urged, one had to take up the costly, fellow-suffering discipleship of the Sermon on the Mount."  It was this theme which deeply influence Dietrich Bonhoeffer who attended Powell's church while a student.  Given that this theme as worked out by Bonhoeffer has been one of the most influential in theology in the last century, it is far past time to give the source its due.

There is a disappointing paragraph in which Dorrien details Powell's homophobia.

In politics he wanted great leaders: "I am appealing for men who will get in touch with world currents and world movements, men with cosmopolitan spirits, men whose purview has been so broadened that they can say, 'The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen.'"  One sighs to think of our current leadership.

He was an early proponent of Gandhi, who of course came to influence the next two generations of African American civil rights leaders.

I was appalled by this statement of Powell's "Had not thousands of Negro ministers preached the meekness of Jesus to their people, they would have long ago suffered the tragic fate of the Indians."  What of the religious tradition of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey?

But I liked this one, "These spirituals are the finest revelation of the will and heart of God outside of the Bible."

As World War II began he said, "The greatest danger to the civilization of the United States is not Germany, Japan, or any other foreign country but the vitriolic hate which exists between the white and the colored living withing its borders.  This hatred is at an all-time high and is mounting higher every day."

Dorrien writes, "Powell stressed that he had been a hoodlum, so he knew what it felt like.  The church had saved him from a short, destructive, and meaningless life.  Now the church had to pour itself out for a generation of nihilistic wreckers."  Powell proclaimed, "Don't shoot them.  Don't send them to a reform school.  Don't brutalize them, but brotherize them."

During his 29 years pastoring Abyssinian Church, the congregation grew from 1600 to 14,000 members.  In a charge to his son and heir, Powell said:

Preach with all the power of your soul, body, and mind the old-time simple Gospel because it is a fountain for the unclean, food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, clothing for the naked, strength for the weak, a solace for the sorrowing, medicine for the sick, and eternal life for the dying.

"The Superior Individual" about Nannie H. Burroughs was the last post in this series.

A spring morning

It is a fresh, crisp spring morning with just enough coolness in the air, cool that's been missing the last few days, cool that has refreshingly returned.

I brewed some tea and sat on the back patio and listened to Bob Dylan's Nobel lecture for a second time today:


Then, I read some stanzas from Desire Moving Through Maps of Matter by Adonis and encountered this great question:

"How can I convince al-Ghazzali to see his soul with Nietzsche's light?"  


The next line: "I'll remind him: You've been traveling toward the world since its creation but you have not arrived."

The next stanza:

In the cafe
I ignore the noise.
I read Nietzsche and imagine him as a flood--
Yes, I should yield to the flood of meaning
bow like a sunflower, befriend the sun
or surrender to the lilies of desire
that float on the lake of my body
and empty myself to become the child
I had wanted to be in the future.

A worldview of deep history and tradition--a religious, literary, philosophical worldview--frees us from the exigencies of the present moment and all the Trump clap trap.  He is an insignificant nothing, a pathetic little man, in the great sweep of civilization.

The Superior Individual


"Preachers, teachers, leaders , welfare workers ought to address themselves to the supreme task of teaching the entire [African-American] race to glorify what it has--its face (its color); its place (its homes and communities); its grace (its spiritual endowment)," wrote Nannie H. Burroughs the founding leader of the Women's Convention Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention and one of the founders of the Black Social Gospel in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition.  I'm glad to have discovered Burroughs through this book.

Of her Dorrien writes, "Burroughs brushed off conservative male constraints and middle-class family conventions, stressing something that made her controversial in the National Baptist Convention (feminist ideology), something that defined her career (the dignity of working-class women's labor), and something that defined her denomination (race pride)."

The annual women's convention were largely made up of working class women, domestics in particular.  "Women came to the convention to be inspired by each other and to draw strength for the fight against poverty and abuse."  The auxiliary was organized to counter the sexism in the church, this despite the fact that, according to Burroughs, "The women are carrying the burden. . . .  They've made possible all we have around us--church, home, school, business."

She taught that working class African-American women were morally superior to most people, particularly white people. "Let us at all time and on all occasions remember that the quiet, dignified individual who is respectful to others is after all the superior individual."

She believed in an active church.: "If a congregation did nothing to improve the life of its community, it had not business being a church and no community should support it."  In churches there was "too much Heaven and too little practical Christian living."  She advocated the teaching of moral character.

She was called "the female Booker T. Washington" but Dorrien notes that she sided with DuBois on the need for protest politics.  He writes that "respectability and social justice politics fit together for Burroughs."  Then he quotes Evelyn Brooks Higginbothm in discussing Burroughs, "The politics of respectability, while emphasizing self-help strategies and intra-group reform, provided the platform from which black church women came to demand full equality with white America."

This historical fact made me wonder two things: 1) since church women were so essential to the civil rights marches and protests, Burroughs role is probably significantly underestimated; and 2) when I was taught about the Washington-DuBois debate in tenth grade American history, how interesting it would have been to also learn about Burroughs feminist synthesis of the two.

Like many of these early 20th century theologians, she anticipated movements from later in the century.  For instance, "I believe it is the Negro's sacred duty to spiritualize American life and popularize his own color instead of worshipping the color (or lack of color) of another race."

Burroughs advocated natural color and natural hair, long before that became a trend.  However, she was also against interracial marriage and jazz music.  She thought that the latter would demoralize people and lure them away from holy living.

Like many black leaders of her era, she was a Republican.  She was also a sharp critic of the New Deal.  Dorrien writes, "The Democratic Party, to her, became a perfect nightmare under Roosevelt, still dedicated to racist barriers in the South, but now committed to coddling an underclass of dependents."  She equated the welfare programs with "moral slavery."

But she also understood the need for revolution.  When Harlem explored in 1935 she wrote "They have been goaded, hounded, driven around, herded, held down, kicked around and roasted alive.  In Harlem the cornered rats fought back."

I enjoyed this point--"She waved off the 'great noise about the race problem,' countering that there was no such thing.  There was only the fact that white Americans treated black Americans despicably."  A nice, straightforward cutting to the point.

She was also not naive, writing "Yes, we are living in a dark period and it is going to be worse for a while, but I believe that God will lead his people through."

I definitely want to learn more about Nannie Burroughs.