Words have immeasurable power. They have the power to soothe the soul or wake it into action. Likewise, a good book can do just the same. As a voracious reader, many books have impacted my life, whether allowing me to make sense of the storm around me or by awakening me from complacency and into interaction with the world. The three books that I am going to showcase here have so powerfully impacted me that they changed the framework of my life, inspiring me to move to an entirely new city, become an adult, and gain greater peace in respect to the darkness and uncertainty around me.
Before I start listing books however, I need to clarify something. While it may be comforting to read things that endorse one’s personal worldview, if you want to move beyond complacency into action, you need to read books that challenge your worldview – books that make you uncomfortable. When our perspective is challenged, we’re given a chance to consider things with greater circumspection and honesty; and this, in turn, serves to deepen our convictions and beliefs, if only we’re brave enough to try. These three books pushed me off the cliff of comfort and into perplexity, but ultimately into the light of new understanding, new perspective, and a new way of acting in the world around me.
1. “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander
Let me start with a very important clarification: I am a white boy from suburban Ohio who grew up in an ultra conservative family. I was immersed in ritual, tradition, and a black-and-white understanding of the world. There was little to no diversity in the area I grew up in. My high school’s student body was almost entirely white: there were only three people of color in my graduating class. Growing up in such an environment, racial stereotypes proliferated. I really had no understanding of how to interact with individuals who were of a different race or color than I. Moreover, I held some prejudiced, binary views – mainly because I never knew how to critique my own thoughts. For example, during a debate in high school, I argued that all single mothers were in their position because of drugs and alcohol. I also believed that anyone living in poverty willingly chose it, and that ghettos and inner city environments were the manifestation of this choice.
Looking back at this now, I see how ludicrous these beliefs were. Fortunately my opinions began to evolve in college, thanks to certain professors who exposed me to a new way of looking at things. One such professor required his class to read “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. In her book, Alexander argues that while segregation under Jim Crow laws has long since been over, segregation and division in society is still present through systemic injustices like gentrification, racial profiling, police violence, and harsh drug laws which rule out individuals with felonies from ever getting ahead in the system, thus creating part of the cycle of poverty.
This was a radical new way of seeing the world. It mercifully infringed upon my ultra right-wing, black and white stance. Where I had believed that people were poor because of their own free will, I was now seeing that this issue was much more complex than I’d believed: that, while personal choice may be part of the dilemma, it isn’t the whole picture. I found that I couldn’t even argue with the book or my professor, because they both had their facts straight. There was nothing I could do but accept that this issue was more nuanced I’d made it out to be, and change my viewpoint. Ultimately, this change sparked growth. This was the start of my deconstruction.
2. “The Divine Magician” by Peter Rollins
During my college years I became much more accepting of the fact that much of life exists in shades of gray. I was excited to go out into the world and make a change, and was full of optimism (and idealism). It didn’t take long before I encountered one of life’s most basic lessons: namely, that you cannot change the world over night. I left college believing I would land a teaching job easily: I was turned down for job after job. This rocked me. I began to doubt many of the beliefs I held dear, especially those religious beliefs that I was raised with. This season of confusion was further intensified by the sudden death of my grandmother. Frighteningly, heaven didn’t seem like such a certainty. Neither did God.
During this time someone introduced me to a writer named Peter Rollins. Peter Rollins is a philosopher from Northern Ireland, and his philosophy and theology are deeply shaped by the Troubles, a period of great instability in Irish History when those who were Ulster Catholic were caught in a violent conflict with the IRA, the Irish Republican Army.
In his book the “Divine Magician,” Rollins embraces a theology of uncertainty. To Rollins, the beauty of religion is not in its promise of an after life, but in its promise of the here and now. Rollins appeals to the framework of a magician’s magic trick to illustrate the sacred as it is imbued in reality. Every great magic trick has three parts: The Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. Essentially, a magician shows you something ordinary (the pledge), he turns it into something extraordinary (the turn), only for you to find out that in reality, it is only something incredibly ordinary once more (the Prestige). Look at it like this: a magician takes a quarter. He shows you the quarter and states he is going to make it disappear. This is his pledge. He then does some slight of hand and just like that, the quarter disappears. This is the turn. He then does another slight of hand, and we find out that the quarter did not disappear, but was behind your ear the entire time. This is the prestige.
From a spiritual perspective, Rollins talks about these three aspects of “magic” being present in all of reality. For example, in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Christ took something rather commonplace – death. This death, Rollins argues, is manifested in our drive to possess: our drive to seek out those things which are going to fulfill us, i.e., our own personal utopias. Rollins says that we feel this death whenever we are confronted with the lack we feel in every moment of every day. On the Cross, Rollins argues that Christ entered this lack, manifested in his words, “My God, My God, Why have you Forsaken me.” In becoming this lack, Rollins argues, Christ laid the blueprint for our lives: we are called to embrace the lack – to enter into it – and the uncertainty that lies within.
By embracing the uncertainty of life and the knowledge that we cannot be fulfilled on this earth, we experience freedom—freedom from consumerism, freedom from systemic injustice, freedom from the anxiety that insatiability brings. This concept was instrumental at this point in my life when everything was uncertain and surrounded in darkness. Now, with this idea in mind, I could concentrate in the present moment. I could exist and embrace the depth of life and the lack I was feeling. In this way, I experienced the Prestige. I experienced the sacredness of the present moment, and this enriched my experience of relationship with others: I no longer needed to “know” in order to embrace.
3. “Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne
While Alexander’s “New Jim Crow” dismantled my societal myopia and Peter Rollins’ “Divine Magician” grounded me in the present, Shane Claiborne’s “Irresistible Revolution” taught me how to live in a more radical manner. Claiborne himself realized that if he was going to truly love his neighbor, he had to live radically from day to day. This took Claiborne to many crazy places and into many unusual experiences, including living with the homeless in Philadelphia and sleeping on the streets with the destitute in Calcutta.
Perhaps one of the most profound parts of the book is when Shane states that when he was a conservative, he used to thank God that he was not a liberal. Then he became a liberal, and he would thank God he was not a conservative. As he grew, he realized how flawed and divisive this thinking was. Instead, he wanted to focus on unity and bringing groups of people with different viewpoints and backgrounds together. Claiborne has founded an intentional community in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood, called “The Simple Way,” which allows the impoverished of Philadelphia to come in under his roof and simply be.
Claiborne’s radical love showed me that if I am to believe in a spiritual reality, I need to believe in the concrete goodness of my neighbor. Moreover, I must take steps to get myself in a position of radical love: this kind of transformation doesn’t occur passively. Since reading this book, I have followed that call to live and teach in the Cleveland area, and am daily looking for ways to increase my ability to have a voice, such as writing and entering casual conversations with people.
I don’t believe that there are truly evil people; I believe there are hurt people. I believe we are wounded healers, and I believe that if we are to follow the radical call to love, we are called to enter other people’s hurt. When we do that, we are called to simply be—to show empathy. It isn’t a matter of fixing anyone: it’s a matter of simply being with them.