4 Books That Tell a Complex History

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David Brooks used a phrase on PBS NewsHour that caught my attention. He spoke of the "complexifying of U.S. history."

The idea is simple: U.S. history is more complex than many of us thought or were taught. The U.S. (and Canadian) story is many-layered with both good and bad stories to tell. Telling the complexity of our history brings both pain and argument.

But it's not only the complexifying of U.S. history that we are facing. This past year, evangelical history became more complex. Kristin Cobe DuMez's book Jesus and John Wayne, Aimee Byrd's book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, and recent podcasts such as "Who Killed Mars Hill?" all complexify evangelical history.

When we complexify history, we open up doors that many don't want to open. We also open doors to some heated arguments—that we may wish to avoid. 

Whether we are happy, angry, or indifferent about this complexifying of history as people in the Reformed tradition who engage culture, we want to understand the culture around us. The complexifying of history is one of the megatrends in our culture at this moment. 

Recently I've read four books that add to complexifying our history. Here's a summary of each. You may cheer these authors on, or you may disagree profoundly with them, but wherever you stand, these books make U.S. History and Church history more complex.

An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

The wonder of "An Indigenous People's History" is viewing history through the eyes of people native to the Americas. But more than this, it is to see the rich cultural development, the complex societies, and a different worldview of those who had their land taken. While discovering the history of the first people on the American continent is deeply rewarding, Dunbar-Ortiz's presentation of how the settlers and later the U.S. government dealt with Native people is deeply unsettling. Dunbar-Ortiz connects this history to our present-day.  This connection will be an extreme stretch for some, a curiosity to others, and a clear-eyed showing of reality by still others.

A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki

The genius of A Different Mirror is telling the story of multiple racial groups and their experience of America. Takaki highlights the stories and experiences of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and other ethnic groups. Many have never heard this history and these stories. Takaki tells a multilayered narrative that shows the good and refuses to shy away from the bad parts of U.S. history as it impacts the different ethnic groups. For those looking for a 30,000-foot view of U.S. history through a different mirror, Takaki is an excellent place to start. As with all such histories, some will find his portrayal of the U.S. uncomfortable.

Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson

Kwon and Thompson take on the controversial idea of reparations. They root their call for reparations in a deep history of inequalities and the injustices in the lives of African Americans. Kwon and Gregory spend a good portion of the book laying out this history and help the readers to see how such injustice is not an ancient story but a close in time reality. From a theological perspective, they look at the idea of communal responsibility for these inequalities and injustices. The authors' call is for the white church to lead the culture by taking the first steps in providing reparations and so take the next steps to heal racial brokenness. This book has stirred up more than a few people already and has led to an interesting theological debate between the authors and Kevin DeYoung. 

The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth by Beth Allison Barr

What if Paul never said, "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (1 Corinthians 14:34–35 NIV11) I was listening to Barr's book when she made that statement. I almost had to pull off the road to listen to her understanding of the passage (yes, she believes it is in the Bible and that Paul wrote it, but did he say it? I'll leave it there for you to work through). The 1 Corinthian passage is just one place that Barr takes us on a historical, Biblical, and personal journey into her understanding of why evangelicals see and treat women the way they do. 

As with all books that complexify our history, this one has stirred up more than a few conversations. 

This blog is provided by Larry Doornbos, director of Vibrant Congregations. Vibrant Congregations assists congregations in taking fresh steps in ministry and mission. We are a joint endeavor of the CRC and RCA. For more resources and our upcoming Church Now Conversation, visit Vibrant’s website.

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