On the Lived Theology Reading List: My Body Is Not a Prayer Request

Disability Justice in the Church

Amy Kenny, a disabled Christian and Shakespeare Lecturer who “hates Hamlet,” wants to remind the church that it worships as Lord a man whose wounds—or at least their scars—survived his resurrection. While many Christians see disability as something to be fixed, Kenny sees it as a potential revelation of God.

Kenny starts the book by recounting a harrowing encounter she had with a woman who accosted her at a church service with the message that God wants to heal her. Kenny demurred. The woman accused her of a lack of hope and faith. Kenny wants to believe in the good intentions of Christians like this woman. Their understanding of the Bible, however, she flatly rejects. She finds that “churchgoers have been too hasty to dismiss passages of Scripture where disability is celebrated as a blessing or a prophetic witness,” such as when Jesus says it is better to enter the kingdom of heaven disabled than be thrown into hell fully-abled (see Mark 9:43-47).

Kenny’s good humor throughout the book is admirable. Each chapter ends with a top-10 list. Chapter 1, for example, “Disability Curatives,” ends with a list of “Top Ten Recommended Remedies.” Curious? Get the book and be entertained as well as enlightened.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

Amy Kenny’s My Body Is Not a Prayer Request is holy ground. Kenny writes with devastating humor and uncommon depth that will remind readers of Anne Lamott. You will laugh, weep, and fume with rage–all on the same page. The words she writes will matter to you. They will change the way you see–everything. Kenny’s courage to say the things that need to be said is only matched by the skill with which she wields her proverbial pen. All hail this new and necessary voice.

—Lisa Sharon Harper, author of The Very Good Gospel and Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World–and How to Repair It All

By times wise and tender, then grab-you-by-the-lapels prophetic truth-telling, Kenny’s passion, anger, and hope for disability justice is utterly embodied. I found this book to be not only a call to justice but an invitation to deep blessing. I will be pressing this book into the hands of every ministry leader I know.

—Sarah Bessey, editor of the New York Times bestseller A Rhythm of Prayer and author of Jesus Feminist

In My Body Is Not a Prayer Request, Amy Kenny describes with wit and candor her experiences as a disabled Christian in worship services and Bible studies, but also in places like the DMV, high school, the doctor’s office, and Disneyland–showing, lamentably, how ableism at church looks just like it does everywhere else. She raises up the way of Jesus to practice holistic healing in the face of ableism’s holistic harms. Drawing from diverse biblical narratives and insights from disability studies, Kenny issues a convicting invitation to the people of God to live up to our deepest values and to stop excluding the necessary gifts of our disabled kindred, for the good of all. I will be giving this book to my disabled and nondisabled friends alike.

—Bethany McKinney Fox, author of Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Evangelical Disenchantment

Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt

A renowned historian of the popular appeal of evangelicalism (especially Methodism) in the 18th and 19th centuries and the dean of Harvard Divinity School, David Hempton turns in this book from social history to biography. He profiles nine prominent creative artists, social reformers, and public intellectuals who left the evangelical fold in the 19th and 20th centuries. Noting that “nothing reveals as much about the inner workings of institutions as their complaint departments,” he calls his subjects’ narratives “referrals to the complaint department of the evangelical tradition.”

Hempton’s complainants are the novelists and essayists George Eliot and James Baldwin, the memoirist Edmund Gosse, the public intellectual Frances W. Newman (brother of John Henry), the painter Vincent Van Gogh, and the social reformers Sarah Grimke, Theodore Dwight Weld, Frances Willard, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Hempton tries as much as possible to let them convey their complaints in their own words and works. He wants not to moralize on their journeys of faith and doubt, but to understand “how their negotiations of faith informed their private and public lives.”

That he draws their disillusionment sympathetically is not to say that he endorses it. He is careful to note that his subjects are decidedly in the minority within evangelicalism, and he has no intention of promoting their critiques at the expense of the manifold reasons why the vast majority of evangelicals “have lived and died contentedly within their faith tradition.” He seeks to understand, not to judge or to prescribe—a rather welcome attitude in a political and religious climate that has grown only more acidic since the book first appeared, in 2008.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

A beautifully written and artfully constructed book that draws intriguing conclusions about the nature of evangelical Protestantism.

—Mark Noll

This book charts new territory by close examination of a series of case studies of people previously well-known but not previously compared. Hempton succeeds wonderfully well in producing compelling mini-biographies.

—Thomas Kidd, author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America

Hempton tells these stories with excellent skill, insight, and fair-mindedness. These accounts of loss of faith of prominent figures illuminate not only their personal struggles but also some fascinating relationships between evangelicalism and mainstream public culture, especially in Great Britain and the United States.

—George Marsden, author of Fundamentalism and American Culture

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Read Until You Understand

The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature

From Dante Stewart’s reading list comes this blend of memoir, aesthetics, political philosophy, and literary criticism by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. Named a “best book of the year” in 2021 by both the PBS NewsHour and Publishers Weekly, Read Until You Understand takes its title from a note Griffin’s father, who died when she was nine, wrote her as a child.

Griffin’s father had her study the United States’ founders and founding documents even before she started school, having her memorize the opening of the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the names of the country’s presidents. Her father was “a natural-born storyteller,” and because she adored him, she “experienced learning as love.” This book is her love letter to what she has learned from Black writers, orators, and artists from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder, Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison.

Griffin credits her lifelong engagement with Morrison as the inspiration for the questions that animate her book: “What might an engagement with literature written by Black Americans teach us about the United States and its quest for democracy? What might it teach us about the fullest blossoming of our own humanity?” Read until you understand.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

Quietly captivating…This is a life lived among books, and reinterpreted through them.

— Carlos Lozada, Washington Post

A book like Read Until You Understand takes courage to produce…Griffin’s evangelizing of Black literature does what the best sermons do: It sends you back to Scripture—Baldwin, Coates, Morrison, David Walker and others—to discover or rediscover them, to ponder and treasure them anew.

—Monica Drake, New York Times Book Review

The insight and joy bursts from Read Until You Understand authored by one of the greatest literary scholars of our time. Thank you Farah Jasmine Griffin for this sage gift, for packaging all these sage gifts for us.

— Ibram X. Kendi

Farah Jasmine Griffin is one of the few great intellectuals in our time! This wise and powerful memoir is a masterpiece. Griffin beautifully weaves her profound devotion to the life of the mind with her deep and abiding love of Black people and culture. Her magical words enchant and empower us like those of her towering heroes—Toni Morrison, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, and Wilhelmena Griffin!

— Cornel West

Farah Jasmine Griffin’s vivid, passionate, and powerful tribute to the great gifts of Black culture offers a deep dive into such fundamental human themes as freedom, justice, rage, death, beauty, and love, as lived and celebrated through her own experience, music, and creative art, and that of countless others in the community she embraces, from the legacy of Black history to her own family, her wide explorations of literature and art, and her close friendships with many artists and writers.

Elaine Pagels

Read Until You Understand gives us Farah Jasmine Griffin in full and mighty sail. Keen cultural analysis, storytelling, and gorgeous lyricism combine in this book that makes a genre of its own. In recollection there is profound insight here; we have a portrait of a rich Black community in place and time, and of the teachers Griffin finds in neighborhood, family, books, and music. The sounds, words, and wisdom that Black folks make also make us, and no one expresses that with more beauty and power than Griffin. This book is a talking book, a teaching book, and a treasure.

— Elizabeth Alexander

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Spirit in the Dark

A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics

From Dante Stewart’s reading list

Josef Sorett is interested in the ironies of secularismso much so that his next book, The Holy Holy Black, will carry the subtitle The Ironies of an American Secular. In his first book, Spirit in the Dark, he is interested more specifically in how the ostensibly secular and secularizing literature of Black cultural movements in America in the years between the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s and the Black Arts movement of the 1960s was inextricable from religion.
Sorett, professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia University, traces what he sees as the false conflict between African American literature and religion back to Benjamin Mays, whose first book, The Negro’s God (1938), lamented what he (Mays) saw as a increasing tendency toward atheism in Black literature emerging from the New Negro Renaissance.
Sorett could not disagree more: “African American literature has since its advent and across its history been cut from a religious cloth”even during the New Negro Renaissance. Sorett goes even further, contending that “black literature…is an extension of the practice of Afro-Protestant Christianity.” Sorett confesses that he once hoped to find that Black writers offered an alternative to Christianity. Instead, he found that religion, specifically Christianity, has always been an essential ingredient in the distinctiveness of Black literature and culture. Hence Spirit in the Dark is A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics, and adds those aesthetics to an ever-growing body of inquiry into the ironically religious dimensions of secularism.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Sorett unveils the contours of a literary history that remained preoccupied with religion even as it was typically understood by authors, readers, and critics alike to be modern and, therefore, secular. Spirit in the Dark offers an account of the ways in which religion, especially Afro-Protestantism, remained pivotal to the ideas and aspirations of African American literature across much of the twentieth century.”

— Reading Religion

Spirit in the Dark is a finely honed compendium of black American writers and the breadth of their religious influences. That black intellectuals and artists were also sometimes dogmatic religious adherents, eclectic spiritualists, and irrepressible agnostics is not an unknown observation, but what these identifications meant for modern black expressive culture has gone mostly unsaid. Until now. A richly historical study, Spirit in the Dark is a valuable resource indeed.”

— Maurice Wallace, English and Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, University of Virginia

“In this magisterial book, Josef Sorett takes us into those black literary spaces that have heretofore been described as secular and reveals how those who reside therein imagine the beautiful in light of the religious. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, Sorett pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the workings of the ‘spirit’ and, in doing so, unsettles our understanding of black religion and literature. This SPIRIT moves in this book. It is a must read!”

— Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Reading Black Books

How African American Literature Can Make Our Faith More Whole and Just

Claude Atcho pastors and teaches in Charlottesville, Virginia. He knows what it means to read Black books in the teeth of white supremacy, even as his and other churches struggle for racial justice. It means more than quoting Martin Luther King Jr., on social media. It means attending to Black stories. Reading Black Books helps Christians think theologically with some of the Black stories captured in classic African American literature.

Atcho pairs the work of nine seminal 20th-century African American poets and novelists with a theological category for inquiry. In each chapter (Richard Wright gets two), Atcho offers not only a close literary reading but also a theological reflection on a primary literary text, from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (“Image of God”) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (“Sin”) to Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (“Salvation”) and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (“God”). The book’s end-of-chapter discussion questions make it especially handy for classrooms and church groups alike.

Reviews and endorsements of the publication include:

“Reading Black Books is an exemplary work of literary criticism and Christian wisdom. In elevating and illuminating the important voices examined in these pages, Claude Atcho brings a great and greatly needed gift to the world. The books examined here offer ways of seeing more clearly our full humanity: the heavy weight of injustice, the elusive meaning of suffering, the profound dignity of all people, and the wondrous power of good stories well told.”

― Karen Swallow Prior, research professor of English and Christianity & Culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary; author of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

“Claude Atcho’s  Reading Black Books is brilliant and thought provoking. He has brought fresh eyes to some of the great works of African American literature, while also encouraging deep theological reflection. There are holes in the lived theology of many Christians that Atcho has used Wright, Ellison, Morrison, Hurston, and others to help fill. A must-read for anyone who loves reading literature and thinking deeply about God.”

― Kathryn A. Freeman, writer and cohost of the Melanated Faith podcast

“Written with the passion of a book lover and the urgency of a preacher, Reading Black Books not only reminds us of the richness and vitality of classic works like Invisible Man, Passing, and Beloved; it also connects the form and themes of these writings to God’s sovereign story of justice and righteousness. This is Christian literary criticism at its best, offering both artful appreciation and gospel witness.”

― Josh Larsen, author of Movies Are Prayers; editor at ThinkChristian.net

“God’s people do everything as Christians–even read literature. Atcho conducts a theological reading of popular Black novels and poetry to unearth the joys, sorrows, and longings that have often marked Black life, examining them through divine revelation. This volume either puts words to your own experience or to someone’s you love with the ultimate goal of finding hope in Christ. Reading Black Books answers the abiding questions from Black literature with theological insights and a pastoral heart that marks every page.”

― Walter R. Strickland II, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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