Category Archives: culture

Go Set a Watchman Between the World and Me

There are a few spoilers about themes and one scene in GSAW in the text that follows.


Last Tuesday morning I headed to my local bookstore to buy two brand-new books, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. They were both good reads, and interesting to read together as they both directly addressed the subject of race.

The literary world has been abuzz since it was announced that Lee was publishing an unedited manuscript, an early draft of the novel that would be our beloved To Kill a Mockingbird.

Generally, as a novel, I am not sure that Go Set a Watchman works apart from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is so dependent and tied to it that I find it hard to believe the story that it was a first draft. It feels more like a sequel that was too heavy-handed to publish without significant editing to help Lee do more showing and less telling. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book; Go Set a Watchman is an interesting read.

Early readers of Go Set a Watchman were aghast at the fall of Atticus, a hero to so many. But it is obvious that Atticus did not fall, as much as Scout discovered that her father had feet of clay. It is one of the universal experiences of growing up, to discover that a hero is not the person you thought him to be, but a flawed and complicated individual.

The racism that Atticus demonstrates is very representative of his day and class, with a paternalism that many saw—and continue to see—as good. Their racism becomes whitewashed by their intentions and is then easily explained away. As Coates says, “There are no racists in America, or at least none that the people who need to be white know personally.”

What Scout discovers is that race is a much bigger deal in Maycomb than she innocently believed. The turning point is when she visits Calpurnia, the black household maid and cook who raised her. As Scout experiences the coldness and distance between them, she is shaken to the core, thinking, “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks. She raised me, and she doesn’t care.”

When whites have all the power in a relationship and in the culture, how does that shape that relationship and that culture? What if that has been the case for generation after generation? These fundamental and core problems make simple things like Scout declaring herself color blind an insufficient response to racism.

This is why America needs the prophetic voice of writers like Ta-Nahisi Coates. His perspective and his worldview are so alien from my own, his words force me to grapple with things previously foreign. In order for things in our country to change, we need Coates to write, and the majority culture needs to listen.

Between the World and Me is a small, slim book. There are so many passive-aggressive missives these days that calling the book an open letter feels wrong, but it is a letter to Coates’ adolescent son about what it means to be a black man in America and an homage to similar letters written in the past.

The letter is often intimate and personal, the stories are intentionally visceral and provocative. There is an urgency to Between the World and Me that could be summarized in part with Coates’ own words. “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.” This dark reality could be crushing but there is levity and hopefulness in the midst of it, glimmers of joy.

There is a moment in To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus tells his daughter a truth we’ve all heard. “First of all,” he said, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Maybe it is better to acknowledge that the best way to do that is to listen, really listen to other perspectives. I will never truly know what it is like to be someone else because I can’t climb into his skin and walk around in it. Instead of trying too hard to work on his behalf paternalistically, I should get out of his way and let him speak for himself.

A Good Song For Monday Morning

“Hold One When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” from Stars’ new album, The North, which came out last week. Find it and other new music on my annual Spotify playlist.

Public Service Announcement

You can watch every single episode of Reading Rainbow on YouTube. Not sure how long this will last, but as long as it does, it is our kids’ official summer screen time.

“I can go anywhere / Friends to know / And ways to grow / A Reading Rainbow.”

Has anyone tried the iPad app? If we had one, I probably would. I trust LeVar. Incidentally, his guest role on Community was amazing.

Hear It Before You Can Buy It

Stream Fort Atlantic’s debut album in it’s entirety at Paste before it goes on sale next week. It’s so good, y’all.

Something to Listen to, Something to Read

I’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks and I feel like my blog has suffered. With no time to write to you about my continued failure at Easter, or provide in-depth book analysis, or what-have-you I offer you:


Fort Atlantic’s sampler EP available to download for free on Noisetrade is really fantastic. Fort Atlantic is a new project by Jon Black and friends and Dualtone is going to release the full-length debut album at the end of May. Right now you can pre-order it as a limited edition nintendo cartridge modded to hold a USB drive (so amazing and very fitting.)

Abstinence is Death is the best thing I have read about Christianity, sex and singleness in a long time. I’ve thought about it a lot this week, and hope that we can speak with our single friends (and eventually, our children) with wisdom and honesty instead of false promises.

Brokenness Aside

Will your grace run out
If I let you down
‘Cause all I know
Is how to run

‘Cause I am a sinner
If its not one thing its another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
You are the Savior
And you take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful

Will you call me child
When I tell you lies
Cause all I know
Is how to cry

I am a sinner
If its not one thing its another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
You are the Savior
And you take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful

Little Things

Sad I won’t be at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin this weekend.

Common graces in pop culture that have been cheering me up:

A lot of good new music has been released so far this year. Here are some of my favorite songs.

I am a World Book Night giver and tomorrow I get to pick up 20 copies of The Book Thief to give away to people who don’t currently read for fun.

Sherlock. Catch up on netflix before the US series 2 premiere in a few weeks.

Vulture kindly compiles funny moments for us in Last Night on Late Night.

Why Cities?

Memphis Skyline HDR [Mantiuk]

photo by flickr user exothermic.

Christianity Today’s This is Our City project released a five-minute documentary this week entitled “Marking the Place of Sin and Grace: The Meaning of Our City Monuments” – I’d highly recommend you watch it as soon as you are able.

The city of Richmond is used as an example of how Christians can work for the transformation of their cities, redeeming places of past sin and remembering them with grace. It is especially relevant to those of us who live in the South, but there is something to learn regardless of which city you live in.

I am a city person. I recognize that not everyone is wired that way. But this short film reminded me of one of the reasons I love cities. Cities have a story, both a history and a hope for a future. In that way, a city is inherently dynamic and organic, even before you consider the liveliness of residents living in close proximity.

America’s cities often have Christians as part of their stories, founders and leaders who made the city great. Many Christians also contributed to the decline of their cities by neglecting them in time of need and leaving cities for the suburbs. And so, it is redemptive and moving to me to see Christians engage the city by choosing to live, work, worship, start schools and raise children in an urban context.

In Birmingham, we lived about six blocks from one of its most famous monuments, the statue of Brother Bryan at Five Points, the cultural center of the city. James Alexander Bryan was a Presbyterian minister known for his tireless advocacy on behalf of the poor and marginalized, his giving spirit and his fervent prayer life. He eschewed titles and preferred for everyone to call him Brother Bryan.

During his fifty-year tenure as the minister of Third Presbyterian in Birmingham’s Southside, Bryan embodied the parish mindset, serving everyone from prisoners to prep school students with dignity and care. Halfway through his ministry, the Birmingham Age Herald wrote of Bryan, “we who have watched his footsteps see the tracks which he has left among the desolate and distressed.” He founded two soup kitchens and lived just long enough to see a dream fulfilled when Birmingham’s first homeless shelter opened. It is named Brother Bryan Mission in his honor.

This generation of urban Christians may feel like pioneers, but we stand on the shoulders of giants. Our cities were known, loved and oftentimes even built by great men and women who lived out the gospel, day in and day out. If you look hard enough, you can find evidence of their love that still remains.

When we moved to Memphis last summer, a new friend urged me to read about the city’s yellow fever epidemics to understand Memphis better. In the summer of 1878, the epidemic was so powerful that over half the population left the city in a matter of days. But many clergy members, Protestant and Catholic, chose to stay behind ministering to the sick and dying, caring for both bodies and souls. They also served hundreds of newly orphaned children.

Over 5,000 people died of yellow fever in Memphis in a few months’ time, and numbered among them were many pastors as well as nuns from both Catholic and Anglican orders. When I pass the great stone churches of downtown Memphis, I am reminded of their stories, told in telegrams and journals and by witnesses to their acts of love and mercy. Like the story of Sisters Constance and Thecla, who refused to lie down when they realized they had the fever, knowing the beds would have to be burned if they died, and preferring to save the mattresses for the comfort of others. I remember the incarnational ministry of each one who stayed, acting as the hands and feet of Jesus to those who were too poor or unhealthy to flee Memphis for safety.

These examples of love and mercy are an encouragement to all of us, and Christians are needed everywhere to live out our faith among their neighbors, with love and vulnerability. But right now, there is a particular need for Christians to work in cities, binding up broken places in the name of Christ. There are fewer professing Christians in most cities than in the suburbs, and more work to be done.

We should all delight in seeing neighborhoods revive and thrive. Urban revitalization is trendy inside and outside the church, but Christians can play a crucial role in ensuring that gentrification is done with justice, so that all residents experience the benefits of a neighborhood’s improvements.

As for our family, we are still learning what it means to be Memphians and a part of this city’s particular story. The more I understand its past, the greater my hopes for its future. I am encouraged by how many Christians here love this city and how much redemptive work is already being done: creative, innovative, community development. It is an exciting place to be, a place where working for the shalom of the city feels right, knowing that the labors of Christians in Memphis today is leaving evidence of Christ’s love and grace that will encourage the next generation and may even shape the story of Memphis.

(I highly recommend a book I finished this month called Triumph of the City if you are interested in why cities are so important from a sociological and economic standpoint. Even if you aren’t called to live in an urban neighborhood, from its completely secular perspective, it might convince you of why urban ministries and church planting efforts are so crucial for the future of the church and worthy of support and prayer.)

An Old Song, But a Good One

Ron Sexsmith’s “Gold in Them Hills” always comes on shuffle for me when I really need to hear it. I don’t love the music video, but I always try to link to the official videos when I can.

If you are looking for some new music, I am cultivating another TCL spotify list this year. I try to chose one song from new albums that I like and update it from time to time with new releases.


A thoughtful blog post often provides me with fodder for meditation for hours or even days. There are a lot of newer or new-to-me blogs I’ve been appreciating lately so I thought I’d do a little round up for you. These are all blogs with lots of contributors, so you never know quite what to expect.

Good Letters, the blog from Image. The recent entry from Kelly Foster on The Tenth Leper and the one from Sara Zarr talking about the effects of starting antidepressants are both fantastic.

Her.meneutics, the women’s blog from Christianity Today, gives women’s perspectives on news and issues noteworthy to the Christian woman. I have been pleasantly surprised when I venture into the comments on the good dialogue it produces.

Think Christian, with its tagline of “no such thing as secular,” addresses a very broad range of subjects from a theological perspective and engages readers to think Christianly about all of life.

This is Our City is a project Christianity Today launched to highlight how Christians are engaging their cities. The posts are longer, magazine-style articles, and it is updated a little less frequently.

Sometimes I Share

Here’s a fantastic song I’ve been listening to a lot lately. It encourages me.

| Hold On by the Alabama Shakes |

The Fellowship of Fragility

I already tweeted a short quote from this Op-Ed by Stanley Fish, but it is so good I want to preserve it here at greater length:

“And what have I learned along the way? Three things, closely related. The first is that people are often in pain; their lives are shadowed by memories and anticipations of inadequacy, and they are always afraid that the next moment will bring disaster or exposure. You can see it in their faces, and that is especially true of children who have not yet learned how to pretend that everything is all right and who are acutely aware of the precariousness of their situations.

The second thing I have learned is that the people who are most in pain are the people who act most badly; the worse people behave, the more they are in pain. They’re asking for help, although the form of the request is such that they are likely never to get it.

The third thing I have learned follows from the other two. It is the necessity of generosity. I suppose it is a form of the golden rule: if you want them to be generous to you, be generous to them. The rule acknowledges the fellowship of fragility we all share. In your worst moments — which may appear superficially to be your best moments — what you need most of all is the sympathetic recognition of someone who says, if only in a small smile or half-nod, yes, I have been there too, and I too have tried to shore up my insecurity with exhibitions of pettiness, bluster, overconfidence, petulance and impatience. It’s not, “But for the grace of God that could be me”; it’s, “Even with the grace of God, that will be, and has been, me.”