As an avid reader, I pluck books from shelves to escape into stories and experience the beauty of language. But I also read for other reasons, like gaining perspective, and, more recently, as a spiritual practice. Over the past 11 years, I have blogged about almost every book I have read. This habit allows me to reflect, process, and see how God works in the world through many lenses—theology, history, fiction, science. Over the past couple of years, I have intentionally read predominantly minority, mostly Black, authors.
In her book The Dangers of Christian Practice, Lauren Winner shows that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses as a shadow of their strength. Winner gives the example of a slavemaster praying for compliant slaves, the death of slaves that opposed her, and for a segregated heaven as an example of how spiritual practices can be distorted in their use. Prayer is good, but the use of prayer may be bad. Or, in my case, reading as a window into God’s work in the world and in me is good. But if I’m not open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I may find myself using characters and stories merely to confirm my biases.
Take, for example, Bri—the protagonist in Angie Thomas’s 2019 book, On the Come Up. Sixteen-year-old Bri is striving to become a rapper, following in the steps of her late father. Early in the book, Bri competes, and shines, in a rap battle at a local club. Her natural talent and hard work result in success. But, as in any good story, conflict arises.
The internal conflict of the book is a classically simple yet complex dilemma—Bri thinks she is more grown-up than she is. She tries to take care of her family by developing a music career that will raise them out of poverty. Bri’s desire to care for her family, while noble, is the striving of a teenager who doubts that her mom’s insistence on education and personal virtue add any value to her potential music career. Bri’s lack of maturity—and latent anger from her father’s death, her mother’s former drug addiction, and her family’s current poverty—lead her to make many bad decisions.
Externally, Bri’s conflict revolves around school and home. At home, her mother, still overcoming the legacy of an earlier drug addiction after the death of her husband, loses her job through no fault of her own. That job loss eventually forces her to drop out of college to qualify for food stamps to feed her family—a story that is not particularly unusual. Bri’s college-graduate brother cannot find a job except at a local pizza place, which, in Bri’s mind, exposes the sham of education as a means to social and economic uplift. At Bri’s arts-focused magnet school, she is assaulted by security guards, who suspect, because she is Black, that she is selling drugs. The trauma of the assault, the shame of being accused of being a drug dealer, and Bri’s inability to defend herself against the false rumors and physical violence heighten the story’s conflict.
On the Come Up is set in the same neighborhood as Thomas’s earlier novel, The Hate U Give. In both books, the protagonists are simultaneously extraordinary and every-person stories. Thomas shows how complicated being a teen can be in an inequitable world. Racism, poverty, and other external systems are characters in Thomas’s stories that open windows that a White audience can gaze into, beholding an unfamiliar world.
But, perhaps as any spiritual practice worth its salt will do, I have also had revealed to me the dangers in my own heart—the temptation to remain bound to my perspective, the desire to blame real people for failing to live storybook lives, and the urge to appropriate non-White voices to confirm my prior biases.
Jonathan Walton, in his book Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, explores the twin problems of the American Dream and human equality. Walton confronts the “work hard, and you’ll succeed” ethos of the American Dream with Christianity’s adoption into God’s family (which is not performance-based approval). Thomas and Walton share a similar message—advocating maturity and subverting the myth of the meritocracy. Walton’s book helps shine a light on how invisible cultural values degrade the Christian message. In any cross-cultural excursion, we must have a guide to help us see where our blind spots lead us in the wrong direction. Even within narratives of our own country, we may need supports that provide analytical tools to understand differences in culture and values.
Bri tries to perform, not just for the money or fame, but to prove herself worthy of her father’s legacy. Bri’s mother aims to provide for a family that she worked so hard to get back, simultaneously trying to prove to a judging world that she has changed. And Bri’s brother fears venturing out to show his skills and that his family won’t make it without him.
In an interview with PBS, Angie Thomas’s former creative writing professor says Thomas wanted to “show that beauty within her community can transcend the damage it faces.” As a White reader, the potential damage I can do to the story is to heroize Bri or Starr (from The Hate U Give) simply because they are the subjects of books. I can read into the endings and imagine the successes each young woman will experience throughout her life because I have spent hundreds of pages getting to know her, and I want good things for her. The romantic threads of the stories, I presume, will play out, perhaps, in healthy marriages. Intelligence and drive will turn into successful careers. Traumas will be overcome and transform into fodder for community movements.
But these assumptions project my preconceptions onto the stories and threaten to alter the books that Angie Thomas has actually written. If I center myself as the arbiter of the novel, instead of the characters themselves as the center of the story, I miss the fact that Thomas’s books do not end neatly. If I continue to see them as examples of the meritocracy that disproves the ongoing reality of racism, then I have missed the thread of racism as a systemic destructive power that runs through both books. If I do not allow for the existence of racism as a systemically lethal force, I will not have heard the whole of Thomas’s message. If I imagine these two protagonists as exemplars, I can wrongly assume that if only others worked hard, they too could have the success that I envision for Bri and Starr in my internal unwritten story of their futures.
Clinging to my perspective while reading endangers my practice of reading as a method of gaining insight. That danger, however, should not keep me from diverse books. After a few years of reading predominantly minority authors, I am more committed than ever to the importance of diverse reading as a tool for gaining insight into the world. But, perhaps as any spiritual practice worth its salt will do, I have also had revealed to me the dangers in my own heart—the temptation to remain bound to my perspective, the desire to blame real people for failing to live storybook lives, and the urge to appropriate non-White voices to confirm my prior biases, the false reality that our worth is found in what we achieve and not in being created in the image of God.
In Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance, Reggie Williams writes about the year Deitrich Bonhoeffer spent in New York City studying at Union Seminary. Bonhoeffer was dismissive of the theological education at Union, but Abyssinian Baptist Church drew him in. There, his theological vision was reconstructed through learning about Christ and the role of the Church within the community. Bonhoeffer came to understand the problems of Nazi leadership differently from many that also opposed Nazi control of the Church because of his exposure to Black oppression and racism in the United States. It was the strength of the Black church that taught him that the role of the Church (universal) was to stand with the oppressed and against dehumanization. “Bonhoeffer reasoned that suffering must be borne for it to pass,” Williams writes. “And Christ bears his own in the practice of vicarious representative action bearing neighbors’ burdens. That is Christian discipleship, and it is a Christ-inspired motivation for justice.” (Kindle Location 2479)
Bonhoeffer refused to study simply to confirm his biases. Instead, he leveraged his study toward real-life experience. While my calling may not be innovatively resisting Nazism, it’s the same as Bonhoeffer’s in this simple way: I should desire that the people I interact with on the page, fictional and non-fictional, not just affirm me in my preconceived notions, but truly form me—through insight, compassion, and understanding—further into the image of Christ.