What We’re Reading: 2018 edition

It’s been a while since we shared our favorite titles! Some of these are books we read quite a while ago and I never got around to recommending, and some are still fresh in my mind. I will try keep my words to a minimum, and in some cases I might just include a favorite quote from a book and cross my fingers in hope that you will be inspired to read it.

Over the past year, I’ve felt especially compelled to learn more about the lives of people who are marginalized, to listen to a new set of stories. Part of my motivation for this is due to the blatant racism around me. I feel quite strongly that I cannot confront or even observe the issues before me here with any degree of integrity if I don’t spend time listening to the voices and stories of people in my own homeland. I’ve learned a lot so far, and I’ve learned that I have SO much more to learn about these issues. (I also get a bit antsy about the fact that I don’t have more access to a library. The online library is wonderful but not extensive–if any of you folks are willing to do a Kindle loan to me, drop me a line, please!)

So, you might notice a bit of a theme in our reading material, and that a good deal of authors are either people of color, or people who have worked in some of those spaces where marginalized people can be found.

I can’t begin to tell you how relevant these reads have been to our own life. And I wish I could persuade everyone in the American church to take the time to read and consider these books. Below is my humble attempt to do just that. Thanks for reading along!

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Your Heart is the Size of Your Fist

Martina Scholtens

“Is this the whole family?” I asked, as the visit wound down. “Is anyone missing?” I’d learned not to assume that the family in front of me was intact. Older children sometimes remained in their home country to complete university. Sometimes an infant born after the family registered with the UN had to be left behind because the parents didn’t know they had to complete additional paperwork.

Hani repeated my question in Arabic, and the entire family began to weep. It was a chorus: sobbing from Nadia, unrestrained bawling from Layth, low moaning from Junah, rapid speech from Yusuf as tears ran down his face. I sensed there was relief in the crying, as if they’d been waiting for an invitation to spill over.

Crying no longer alarmed me. Some days every patient cried. The box of tissues on the counter got as much play as my stethoscope.

The story was this: . . . .”

Go and read the book if you want to hear the rest.

And can I make a suggestion? Don’t let the stories within these pages remain only as stories in your mind. These stories represent people, and there is a good chance these people aren’t living far from you. Find them. And let them welcome you into their lives. I pray you’ll welcome them into yours, too.

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Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World

Amy Peterson

…I was discovering that restlessness is not always a virtue. For anyone to have a meaningful presence in the world, at some point the desire to go must transform into a desire to stay.

The longer I live overseas, the more objections I have in regard to the way Christian mission work is carried out. Amy Peterson tackles some of these concerns head-on in this spiritual memoir about her own experience as a missionary on a two-year stint in Southeast Asia. After setting out with hopes of becoming a missionary hero, a series of difficult circumstances force Peterson to grapple with some of the unhealthy norms surrounding Christian missions culture.

The book is a blend of narrative and an examination of missions work and its history. It is full of provocative questions, particularly in regard to the vocation of a Christian, and what it means to be “useful” for God. This book is an important conversation regarding what it means to have a crisis of faith as someone who is supposed to be an ambassador for that faith. As one person who reviewed it said, “this book is a uncommon telling of a very common story.” This is true, and the missionary hero archetype of the western church is often the reason these sorts of stories remain untold. The church, especially the parts of the church that are keen on missions, needs to take more time to listen to these stories.

Even if you don’t get a chance to pick up Dangerous Territory, I hope you can take time to read excerpt of the book here: “Rethinking the Language of Short Term Missions”.

But commitment was different than surrender. Commitment was about me, what I would do for God. Surrender was about God could do in me. What if God wanted to do something in me, and did not want to use me at all?

It was easier to commit than to surrender. It was easier to work for him than to simply accept my identity and walk in the workd as the Beloved of God.

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Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions

Valeria Luiselli

“And perhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

Trevor Noah

“We live in a world where we don’t see the ramifications of what we do to others because we don’t live with them.”

If you’ve ever seen The Daily Show, you’re probably familiar with Trevor Noah. His memoir, Born a Crime, is a fascinating window into the complexities of South African culture, not to mention the complexities of growing up in poverty. I believe this book is an important read. The thing that disappointed me about the narrative is Noah’s occasional use of meaningless profanity. I believe profanity has its place in language, but in this case, I think he may have lost/offended the audience who most need the insights within this book. Nevertheless, I would still urge you to read this book if you can look past the profanity and into a story that is quite important.

“My whole life was flashing before me…because if I picked the wrong table I might get beaten or stabbed or raped. I’ve never been more scared in my life. But I still had to pick. Because racism exists and you have to pick a side. You can say that you don’t pick sides, but eventually life will force you to pick a side.”

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Subversive Jesus

Craig Greenfield

“There is something deeply unethical about using people’s poverty to force them to listen to our message.”

“An empire that produces beggars needs transforming.”

Greenfield’s book tackles ethical questions about what it means to be a Christian from a powerful part of society. The book is filled with compelling anecdotes from his time working in Vancouver’s Lower East side, and also from his work in Cambodia. I found it fascinating because I am somewhat familiar with the Lower East side in Vancouver, and the traditional approaches to the issues there. It was easy to picture the scenes he described. His critique of church relief work is necessary, and it comes not a moment too soon. I’m of the opinion that anyone who runs/works in a homeless ministry should be required to read this book.

Greenfield is part of an organization called Alongsiders, a mentorship program for kids in vulnerable places. His blog is full of great insights. And you can also follow him on Twitter.

“In order to understand what Jesus meant when he said he came to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captive, and sight to the blind, I would need to face my own privilege and my own complicity in the powerful systems that marginalized the poor and oppressed and kept them poor.”

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Why America Misunderstands the World

Paul R. Pillar

In recent years I’ve come toe-to-toe with the arrogance of some assumptions Americans make about the wider world; I’ve observed this in my own heart, and in conversations with others. I’ve come to realize that American culture suffers from an incredible lack of self-knowledge, some of which is due to the historic and geographic circumstances of the nation itself. This book has provided some excellent answers to why that is, and it explains some of the historical basis for why Americans/American culture tends to misunderstand the rest of the world.

American exceptionalism is a pervasive cultural norm, and it is toxic. Those of us who are Christians should be interested in examining the ideas surrounding American exceptionalism, and the consequences of those ideas in our own communities, churches, and especially in our own souls. We should be concerned about the way we conduct ourselves in the world, and the power we have wielded inappropriately, to the detriment of vulnerable people. If you’re feeling brave enough to engage in some introspection about American culture and some of the downsides of our global influence, I would urge you to read this book.

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The Best We Could Do

Thi Bui

“This—not any particular piece of Vietnamese culture—is my inheritance: the inexplicable and extraordinary ability to RUN when shit hits the fan.

My Refugee Reflex.”

I don’t feel like a yearly reading list is complete without including a graphic novel. I generally find graphic novels compelling, but this one was especially so for me because of my own experiences knowing people who have boarded boats and fled in the night.

This novel is an important read for a few reasons:

1) It illustrates the fractures that happen within traumatized families.

2) It offers a small window into the lives of resettled refugees in America and the losses they experience as they try to start over (interesting fact: did you know that resettled refugees have to pay the U.S.A. back for their plane tickets, among other things?).

3) We need to hear more stories of people in places that have been touched by U.S. military involvement, so that we do not repeat history.

4) It’s a good reminder that no one really knows what price they are about to pay when they are running for their lives, and that the price is often paid for by several generations of people and in the meantime, a culture is lost.

Thi Bui intersperses her personal story with summaries of Vietnam’s history, particularly the background behind the war. Make yourself a cup of tea before you settle in because The Best We Could Do is pretty much impossible to put down.

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I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Austin Channing Brown

“Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. It’s not a comfortable conversation for any of us. It is risky and messy. It is haunting work to recall the sins of our past. But is this not the work we have been called to anyway? Is this not the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth and inspire transformation? It’s haunting. But it’s also holy.”

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Strangers at My Door: An Experiment in Radical Hospitality

Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove

“I know I don’t need to be on my own,” he proclaims.

It is a call to repentance. Mac has come to save us from our habit of independence, to teach us to run with all we’ve got toward the all-consuming higher good of real community.”

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Bringing Up Bebe

Pamela Druckerman

“What really fortifies Frenchwomen against guilt is their conviction that it’s unhealthy for mothers and children to spend all their time together. They believe there’s a risk of smothering kids with attention and anxiety, or of developing the dreaded relation fusionnelle, where a mother’s and a child’s needs are too intertwined. Children—even babies and toddlers—get to cultivate their inner lives without a mother’s constant interference.”

“I live in a world of worst-case scenarios” confesses the author, an American expat who is raising her children in Paris. This book is a fascinating ethnography of French parenting. (by the way, if anyone else has read it and wants to discuss it, drop me a line!)

Because I am raising my own children cross-culturally, I find myself picking and choosing what aspects of Myanmar and American culture I want to incorporate into my childrearing, and what aspects to reject. The longer I am overseas, the more I am grateful I get to raise my kids with an additional cultural perspective; I do think some aspects of the American parenting culture are rather fraught/anxious/competitive, as Druckerman points out. Not everything about French parenting as described in this book appeals to me (I think their opinions about food restrictions are rather horrifying, to be honest, and I wonder about eating disorders), but I found it to be a refreshing read, just to look at parenting from another perspective. Also, I kinda wish I’d heard about this book when my kids were infants, so that I could try out the French sleep-through-the-night technique.

“It turns out that to be a different kind of parent, you don’t just need a different parenting philosophy. You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”

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Love, Undocumented: Risking Trust in a Fearful World

Sarah Quezada

“Lack of relationship is a breeding ground for fear. Fear and anxiety pervade the conversation about immigrants and refugees….fear is escalating isolation, which yields even more insecurity and uncertainty.”

If you would like to develop an informed opinion regarding the particulars of documented/undocumented migration to the U.S., I recommend this book. Quezada tells us the story of her relationship with her now-husband Billy, and the education it provided her in the United States immigration system. Her story and her expertise on the issues surrounding migration and the U.S.-Mexico border are invaluable, and she doesn’t sensationalize her story; she tells it in order to educate the church. We all need to be reading more books like this in order to inform our civic and Christian role in the conversation, and our views in regard to those on the other side of our borders.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson

“They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

This book is an amazing body of research, but it also reads like a novel: that in itself is good enough reason to pick it up if you haven’t already. But aside from that, The Warmth of Other Suns covers an important chapter in the history of America, and one I had never heard of. The more I learn about the world, the less I am surprised this piece of history was missing from my education, but you can be sure my daughters won’t finish their American history education without having read The Warmth of Other Suns.

Finally, here are some other great books we’ve read lately. We recommend these as well, even though I’m not taking the time to talk about them at length.

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Frances Fitzgerald

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America

Ronald Takaki

Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life

Tish Harrison Warren

Temperance Creek: A Memoir

Pamela Royes

Reading the Bible with the Damned

Bob Ekblad

To the Golden Shore: The Life of Adoniram Judson

Courtney Anderson

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