Wyt(sma) Privilege: a ★★★★★ book review

Recently a friend and mentor, who is a person of color, posted on social media of a recent invitation he had to explain white privilege. To white people.  My friend is a justice advocate, an activist, and well-known Christian leader. He declined the invitation to write about something he doesn’t have. He decided instead to spend his creative energy supporting leaders of color instead of educating us white folk.

4482But Ken Wytsma, on the other hand, is uniquely gifted and qualified to describe white privilege. He is a pastor in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he lectures in philosophy), an author of several quality Christian books, a father of four, and founder of the Justice Conference. He is also pretty darn pasty white. He was asked by Helen Lee at IVP to write a book on White Privilege that would help bridge the gap between those on the forefront of race relations and us white evangelicals who are only beginning to awaken to our racist history (3). In response to both her request and a couple of recent examples of racial bias (in the media, and against folks he knew personally), he wrote The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Wytsma probes the reality of privilege and race, theology and justice and the responsibility of the privileged.

In Part 1, Wytsma reviews the history of race and racial attitudes in America. He describes immigration policies which favored white Europeans, the history of racism in European thought, slavery and Jim Crow, law enforcement practices (e.g. how the War on Drugs disproportionately attacked communities of color), and how urban development has reinforced modern segregation.  He offers a pretty solid analysis of America’s racial story—how we got here and how people of color still are affected by ongoing systemic injustice.

Part 2 brings this American story into conversation with our theology and the values of the Kingdom of God. Wytsma challenges the church’s silence about race and the status quo and calls us to more prophetic engagement (94).  He describes how justice is integral to the gospel of Jesus and his cross, and he challenges our transactional and individualized view on faith and spirituality (and the ways privilege plays into it).

In Part 3, Wytsma discusses how white Christians can become more aware of their implicit racial biases, make space for diversity in sharing power and laying down our privilege. This involves intentionally listening and making space for the other, lamenting our troubled history, confessing, and beginning the hard work of dismantling privilege.

This is the fourth book I’ve read from Wytsma and thus far, I think this is, without a doubt, his best book. He discusses the issues of race without making himself the ‘expert’ and without offering pat answers to tough questions. Wytsma gives space for the complexity of race and privilege:

Everyone wants to think they have a good understanding of race. We often treat it like a yes-or-no category. Are you a racist?  No. Therefore, are you good with race? Yes. The problem is, it’s not a yes-or-no category but something with a hundred layers of nuance. . . . As a white man writing a book on privilege, I’ve had to admit from the beginning that my understanding and knowledge of racism end when conversation turns to the firsthand experiences of people of color. (132-33).

Growing up, I wasn’t aware of how I benefited from privilege and all the ways that communities of color were affected by institutionalized racial bias and ongoing systemic injustice. I’m still learning, mostly because I have friendships with people of color that have opened my eyes to some things I may not have otherwise seen. But I have other friends and family which are unaware of the dynamics of privilege and race (either through willful ignorance or because their social circles are almost entirely white). Privilege is at play in American race relations. Opportunities that have been afforded us white guys have not historically, and are not, even now, extended to people of color. We can’t dismantle privilege if we aren’t able to name how it has penetrated our culture and the church. Wytsma does a wonderful job confronting our troubled history and faulty theological assumptions.

This is a short book (only about two hundred pages) so therefore unable to say everything that needs to be said about race and privilege. Wytsma addresses dynamics between whites and blacks most directly, and touches on the Native American/ colonial experience (with a nod toward the late Richard Twiss). He deals with how white privilege affects other minorities more tangentially (i.e. the experiences Latinos and Asians are not in sharp focus here). This isn’t a criticism so much as naming the limits of what Wytsma is able to accomplish through this book. I’d also note that this book is more conceptual than practical, aimed at enlarging our understanding of racial dynamics more than providing a road map of what to do about it.

Everybody I know values diversity and multi-culturalism until it costs something. We love when minorities come to our (mostly white) church, but often we demand minorities change and conform to our way before they really belong. Dismantling Privilege involves real partnership, listening and sharing of power.  It means listening to and sharing in the burdens of those who have suffered discrimination and shame. It means to change. I recommend Wytsma’s book for anyone interested in moving beyond how the dynamics of racism affects us, to effecting real change. All royalties from this book go to The Voices Project, an organization working to empower voices of color.  I give this book Five stars ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author and publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Create! a ★★★★★ book review

If I were to copy anyone, I’d copy Ken Wytsma. He is lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he teaches philosophy and justice), creative advisor for non-profits and founder of the Justice Conference. Additionally, he is the author of three great books. His latest, Create vs. Copy, digs deep into the theology and practice of creativity. So yeah, I’m overawed and would love to copy Wytsma. Only I couldn’t (and shouldn’t).

9780802413499Create vs. Copy doesn’t have much to say  about copying, outside its introduction and first chapter (SPOILER ALERT: don’t do it!). Wytsma’s focus is on creating. Creativity leads us to blazes trails, innovate, and try new things(14). Copying does not (although there is space for creative borrowing).

The book unfolds in two parts. Part one presents a theology of creativity. Part two explores the practices which bring creativity to life. Of course it isn’t quite that neat. Wytsma’s thoughtfulness about the ‘why’ behind the creative process underpins his practical suggestion; practice bleeds out of his theology.  The whole book is an invitation toward creative action.  Here is a closer look at what to expect:

Part 1

In chapter one, Wytsma quotes Genesis 1:27, observing the one aspect of God’s nature described in the verse is this: God creates (24). So Wytsma identifies creativity as part of what it means for us to bear God’s image. This means all of us:

Yes, artists, but also everyone else. While artistic ability is a talent few possess (and/or cultivate with time and hard work), creative capacity is something all of us are born with. Put another way, artists are skilled with unique talents, but creativity is part of what makes us human. (27)

Chapter two, “Continuous Creativity,” begins with Wytsma’s  reflections on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Increased Entropy) which states “All closed systems tend to move toward a state of greater disorder and dissipated energy” (37). Wytsma connects this with our experience:

This dissipation is familiar in nearly every area of life.  If not renewed, donor bases will erode over time. Congregations will shrink. Family dynamics will tense up. Relationships will fade. Leadership strategies become stale and ineffective. Even our bodies and minds lose their vigor (38).

But entropy characterizes closed systems and creativity is our means to crack them open to allow life back in (39). Wytsma links the work of ongoing, continuous creativity to our image bearing and Gods redemptive plan: God created the world, is in the process of creating, and will create a new heaven and a new earth (42-43); we were created as creative, are creating and are reaching forward with our creative potential. Wytsma closes this chapter with practices for incorporating creativity at home and work (48-52).

Chapter three gives shape to how creativity brings life to our decaying systems. A closed system leads to narrowing horizons, creativity is aimed at making space for life to flourish (51-53). The process is organic: a narrowing horizon is a fear-inducing-context or problem requiring a solution; by responding with intentional creativity (a pattern of life emerging from a nourished imagination) innovation occurs (67).  Chapter four describes the outworking of this theology of creativity and innovation in our globalizing world.

Part 2

In chapter five, Wytsma explores the ways imagination helps us see what is and what should be. As we age, our capacity to imagine possibilities is constrained by our culture and peer group (110).  Our creative impulse atrophies, but Wytsma contends, through its exercise, we can reignite our creativity (114).

Chapter six probes the role of imagination in creative process. The comprehensive imagination names our ability to understand the relevant data for seeing  current problems (120-121). Our artistic imagination helps us envision what could be (122). Our practical imagination helps envision and enact solutions which will work, leading to innovation (122-123). Wytsma also identifies challenges to our imagination (i.e. knowing what ideas to ‘prune’ and convincing people that imagination isn’t the purview of the few).

Chapter seven identifies the process of intentional creativity as both movement and alignment (136). Movement means doing something. “Our natural response to change is to buck against it, to dig in our heels, to wish things would stay the way they are or go back to the way they used to be” (136-137). But inaction leads to the dissipation of entropy, and our best ideas will come in the midst of our work. Drawing on Robert Epstein, Wytsma suggests we sharpen our creative skills by taking notes of new ideas, seeking out challenging tasks, broadening our knowledge, and surrounding ourselves with interesting things and people (138-140). Yet undirected creativity without healthy constraints won’t get you where you want to go (142). Our creativity is aligned when we  understanding our role in “God’s creative, redemptive work” (143). Wytsma observes, “When our values guide our whole creative process—imagination, intentional creativity, and innovation—something beautiful happens” (147).

The final chapter discusses ‘generous creativity’: the  ways in which creativity is collaborative, ‘in-processs’ and is aimed at relationship more than results. One example of creative-collaboration is how each chapter is punctuated with Paul Crouse’s stunning illustrations, making this book  practical AND beautiful. A brief conclusion summons us to creative action (don’t just be a copier or a critic).


 

I was predisposed to like this book. I am artistic and have read Wytsma’s previous books appreciatively. I also love the interactive aspects like the additional reading suggestions from Ken’s blog and reflection questions appended to each chapter. But this book  was also very helpful for me. Despite my love of creativity, my last leadership role was in an entropic system where I failed to lead a process toward vitality.  I didn’t know how to lead innovation. Wytsma gives shape to how the creativity makes space for life to flourish. As a rookie pastor this would have saved me a lot of grief (in a way  vision-casting exercises didn’t).

According to Wytsma, all of us have the capacity and ability for creativity; however he favors leadership in his examples. He states, “Those who create blaze trails, take risks, and try new ways. . . . They lead. . . .Copiers by definition, will always follow” (14). Creativity is defined as leading; copying means following. Maybe so, but not everyone leads (processes or people).  More ought to be said about creative following. For leaders and artists, creativity is explicit. It is what they need to do in order to thrive in business, art and life. In other vocations creativity is implicit. How does creativity play out in the lives of accountants (creative accounting isn’t good, right?), nurses, housekeepers, or whatever?  Creativity is essential to all our image-bearing,  so I wish there were more examples from ordinary lives.

None of this detracts from my enjoyment. This was a fun,fruitful read which pushed me to think and act with more creativity in ministry and life.  I give this five stars and recommend it for leaders, artists, innovators, and yes, copycats, followers and ordinary folk. It calls us to embody the spacious and life giving. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Create vs. Copy as part of the launch team for the book. I was asked for my honest review. The book is slated for release on March 1, 2016 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and can be ordered directly from the publisher’s website.

 

The Leap of Paradox: a book review

If you want a simple, step-by-step approach to the Christian faith don’t read The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. Like his earlier volume, Pursuing Justice, Wytsma examines an idea from many different angles. In the former book he looked at the mosaic of justice. Here he turns around the jewel of ‘faith’ in all its mysterious and messy glory. This isn’t a book about easy faith with pat answers.  Wytsma is much more interested in the paradoxical nature of faith–how walking by faith calls us to ‘live the questions’ (13).  In the place of answers, Wytsma calls us to something deeper: trust in God.

That Wytsma examines  a topic from various angles shouldn’t be too surprising, he wears a few different hats. He is the lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon and a philosopher who teaches at Kilns College. As the founder of The Justice Conference he moderates a discussion on biblical justice and how to care for the vulnerable. He is also a C.S. Lewis aficionado. So in these pages Wytsma offers reflections that are pastoral, theologically rich, philosophically deep and practically engaged. There are a number of rich insights here, though not always ‘easy reading.’

Wytsma begins his paradoxical look at faith by examining Joshua’s defeat of Jericho. The plan that God gave Joshua was to walk around Jericho with the ark and blow horns, watch the walls fall down and take the city. From a strategic perspective this is a terrible plan, but through it God demonstrated that the victory was his and not the might of Joshua and Israel (4). The Jericho example sets us up for the nature of faith–where we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes the stuff God calls us to makes no sense, from a human point of view. Wytsma writes, “Walking by faith doesn’t bring the control or sense of satisfaction we desire, and over time, it guarantees a measure of suffering. Walking by faith on the other hand, can feel like walking blind–an even more dangerous idea–and we know that it, too, will involve suffering. Both alternatives seem undesirable.” If that was where things ended, faith or no faith carries no special promise. But Wytsma goes on, ” It is the faithfulness, the promise, and presence of God that give us a way out of the catch-22″ (16). God, and God alone provides a way through the paradox.

In chapter three Wytsma (with a great deal of Kierkegaard) describes he nature of  authentic faith as trust in God, though we don’t understand him (26). In chapter four he discusses how Christian wisdom may look like folly to the uninitiated and therefore close-communion with God is required for us to know that we are on the right track. In chapter five, Wytsma examines the imperative of justice for all who claim Jesus as savior. Chapter six examines how the pursuit of happiness (in the ancient sense) encapsulates all that is necessary for human flourishing and therefore is a necessary component of the virtuous and godly life. Chapter seven examines the interplay between doubt and faith, Chapters eight and nine examine personal calling where chapters ten and eleven examine the wider cultural landscapes. Chapter twelve examines the role of church and the final three chapters unfold the eschatological dimensions of faith.

I appreciate many of the insights Wytsma has here. I am a new pastor who has been preaching on discipleship through Lent and I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of discipleship. Wytsma has been a good dialogue partner and has pointed me to other theologians too. Where a lot of pastor/authors are light on content, and where justice practitioners sometimes lack thoughtfulness it is refreshing to read  a book from a justice-loving-pastor which is meaty, challenging, theological and inspiring. This is a comprehensive guide to the pursuit of God and it gives space for questions, doubt and uncertainty while still calling us to greater trust and obedience. That I appreciate.

My convoluted (and small) critique of this book is that I think he emphasizes the personal dimensions of faith at the beginning of the book to the exclusion of  its communal aspects. Wytsma doesn’t explore the church until chapter twelve. Eschatology comes later. Yes, I know he is a pastor and he cares about justice (which he addresses beautifully in chapter five), I just wish the company of witnesses was named earlier and given their due throughout. I give this book a solid four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

The Mosaic of Justice: a book review

Say you wrested a shard of glass from its setting in a beautiful mosaic, took it home and placed it on the table and declared to anyone in earshot, “This is a magnificent piece of art!” Ken Wytsma  says, “No matter how lovely that single shard was it in no way captures the glory of the whole” (6). And yet often our treatment of justice, is a mere single shard treatment:

Justice is like a mosiac. It’s not only about single pieces–it’s about all the pieces working together in a stunning whole. All too often we believe that our desire to pursue justice can only be lived out or understood in a single shard. Criminal justice. International development. Creation care. Education. Anti-trafficking. Works of mercy and love.

All of these shards are vital parts of God’s mosaic of justice. (Wytsma, Pursuing Justice 6-7)

Wytsma’s book Pursuing Justice explores the multifaceted nature of justice and helps us get a sense of God’s larger vision for Justice. Wytsma, who launched the annual Justice Conference is passionate about presenting justice in all its full-orbed flavor.  So he explores how justice helps us know God and live in light of the good news, gives us meaning significance and happiness, confronts our own religious hypocrisy, and challenges our consumerism. worship,He also explores how justice, needs to be done justly and wisely to be truly just, and the ways that jutice enables real relationship between people and people and people and God.

The chapters of this book are punctuated with interludes—interviews, poems, pictures and poetic prose which evoke our concern for deeper justice. Wytsma tackles some heavy issues (i.e. sex trafficking and sexual violence, racism, poverty, etc. These little ‘interludes’  help maintain a hospitable place to explore the issues.

I liked this book a lot and plan to refer back to it. It is rare to find an author that opens up the concept of justice so completely. I mean, Wolterstorff, kind of does but he isn’t accessible to the general reader. Wytsma on the other hand has graphics, stories and personal examples which are compelling. I give this book five stars and recommend this to anyone wishing to explore the meanng of God’s justice and what it means to act justly and love mercy. ★★★★★

I received this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.