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Williams, Juan, & Dixie, Quinton Hosford (2003). This Far by Faith: Stories from the African-American Religious Experience. New York: Morrow. 336 pp., ISBN: 0-0601-8863-4, $29.95.
Faith as a vehicle for personal empowerment and social transformation is the central thesis of the book, This Far by Faith: Stories From the African American Religious Experience. Co-authored by Juan Williams, senior correspondent for National Public Radio and author of the book, Eyes on the Prize, and Quinton Dixie, professor of religious studies and African American studies at Indiana University, the book traces the evolution and trajectory of African American faith based experiences from the early 1700s through the civil rights era.
Using a combination of archival, anecdotal, pictorial, and interview sources, the authors weave an engaging narrative that demonstrates the centrality of the Black church in the emancipatory and organizing endeavors of African Americans throughout their history in the United States. The text is written in a smooth narrative style that flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter, highlighting central and influential figures from key historical periods. These characters range from well known figures like Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King, who used Christianity to challenge racist and oppressive doctrines, to lesser known but nonetheless pivotal characters like Ibrahima Abdul Rahman who used Islam to battle physical and spiritual bondage.
The juxtaposition of Christianity and Islam as two central expressions of African American religious experience is accomplished through the discussion of characters such as Noble Drew Ali, Elijah Muhammad, Henry McNeal Turner, and Martin Luther King and at times seems to be disproportionately emphasized in the text. At the same time, some aspects of traditional African spiritual beliefs, for example ancestor reverence, the petition of deities, and spirit possession are also addressed.
Readers seeking to understand more about the relationship between the pre-enslavement religious and social traditions of African people and those currently in use by African Americans may have a problem with a discussion that begins with slavery. By beginning with a discussion of slaves and the slave trade, the text could be seen by some as negating the fundamental humanity of African people and the importance of processes used to facilitate their enslavement. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the religious conversion experience is so fundamentally tied to the process used to enslave African people that an understanding of both is critical to discussions of African American identity and social organization. Understandably the authors shy away from assuming an ideological posture with respect to this aspect of African American history, suggesting simply that enslaved Africans were not passive in adopting foreign religious customs. But their explanation of the meaning of conversion only goes so far as to suggest that in adapting to a new religion, enslaved Africans were able to use their conception of God in a way that enabled them to reconcile and eventually overcome the contradictions of their lived experience.
In spite of these concerns, the book does a good job of showing how African Americans regardless of class, denomination, or religious affiliation have been inspired by the concept of faith. It will definitely have value for readers who desire to know more about the trajectory and evolution of African American religious experiences in the U.S. and will also appeal to those seeking a comprehensive treatment of the experiences of African Americans within institutionalized religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Smiley, Tavis (Ed.) (2002). Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America. New York: Doubleday. 256 pp., ISBN: 0-3855-0514-0, $22.95.
Tavis Smiley in Keeping the Faith (2002) has artfully gathered inspiring firsthand short stories of hope written by African-Americans who have struggled. Those whose eyes moisten at the testimonies of inspiration and courage in Chicken Soup for the Soul or Reader's Digest will tear-up at these powerful essays as well. Each one is between one and four pages in length and is an easy read. The underlying theme of the book underscores the power of love and courage in the face of adversity and tragedy. There are 89 stories included in seven chapters organized into specific themes such as Black love, faith, grief and healing, hope and overcoming, and family, friendship, and heritage.
Smiley, an NPR talk-show host and author of several acclaimed books, shares at least one story in each chapter. His mother writes the last story in the book, which not only gives a mother's perspective on the eight stories her son has told, but brings together the enormously empowering theme of struggle and triumph told firsthand. The younger Smiley describes difficult times in his own life—becoming a foster child because of a beating for something he didn't do, lessons learned while unemployed and penniless after college, and being fired from Black Entertainment Television (BET). Dr. Cornel West shares how he confronted and overcame three of the biggest crises in his life: terminal cancer, public humiliation by the president of Harvard, and divorce. Iyanla Vanzant reminisces about her life, from growing up in poverty to practicing law in Philadelphia to authoring seven books to now reclarifying her life's vision after losing her television show when the Twin Towers fell on September 11th. Danny Glover shares his life's struggle with dyslexia. Dozens of others share inspiring tributes to husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, teachers, and mentors. Stories are often blended with Black history, the Black church, and a faith based on the Christian Scriptures.
Black love is described and celebrated as a powerful force of forgiveness and support in spite of shortcomings, and second only to "God's love." Biographies at the end of the book give brief summaries on each of the presenters. Keeping the Faith is an emotionally moving book, a celebration of overcoming, an affirmation of inner strength and of spirituality. It is a book of inspiration that reaches beyond its African American roots to touch people from all walks of life.
Garland, Diana R. (2003). Sacred Stories of Ordinary Families: Living the Faith in Daily Life. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 265 pp., ISBN: 0-7879-6257-0, $19.95.
Covering as wide a spectrum of families as we know describes "family" today, Diana Garland recounts the results of her research with 110 families—exploring their lives together and their experiences of faith. She looks at faith in the lives of individuals and families from two perspectives: how people understand and make sense of their worlds and how they chose to act and behave based on their beliefs and understandings. In addition, Garland describes how family resiliency and family spirituality influence one's involvement in a community of faith.
Garland defines stories as "sequences of events that happen to people and how those people try to influence the course and consequences of those events." In sharing stories of her own as well as those of the family members whom she interviewed, she covers a wide range of themes, including how stories convey messages of trust or mistrust; how they reinforce patience or impatience with each other; how they provide messages of hope or threat; and how they communicate a willingness or lack of willingness to be of service to others—either within the family or in the broader community. Garland adds that stories change and evolve. Parts may be embellished and dramatized or downplayed and omitted, depending on the audience, the story teller, and the needs and concerns of the family at a particular time. She notes that the facts are not as important as the meaning that is conveyed.
Chapters include Melodies for Daily Life, The Challenge of Being Family, Binding Families Together, Faith that Sustains, The Challenging Practices of Living Faith, Kitchen Linoleum as Holy Ground, The Congregation as a Community of Families. Garland concludes with a section that covers Your Family Stories: Questions for Reflection; Thinking about Families and Faith; and A Discussion Guide for Groups (each of which relates specifically to the seven chapters of the book). Finally, she provides a detailed listing of the key references that relate to each of the seven chapters.
I found this book to be personally and professionally enriching. The stories recounted in the book offer substance for thought and reflection. They stimulate the mind and touch the heart. More importantly, they also put me in touch with a number of my family stories—those I heard growing up, and those I tell when I am with my adult children and grandchildren, or with my extended family members. Family stories don't just entertain or fill time, they preserve a part of the past and influence the future. They impact how family members understand the world around them and choose to act in it. I give this book four (out of four) stars.
Albrecht, Gloria (2002). Hitting Home: Feminist Ethics, Women's Work, and the Betrayal of "Family Values." New York: Continuum. 176 pp., ISBN 0-8264-1442-7.
In her preface to Hitting Home, Gloria Albrecht explains, "This is a work that combines social theory with social research, aggregate descriptions with individual portraits, and all for the purpose of developing a feminist ethical response to work and family issues (p. 7). At first glance, this book may seem unrelated to the theme of faith & families, but it is not. As a Christian social ethicist, ordained Presbyterian minister, and university professor of religious studies, Albrecht takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the history of gendered work in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, incisively analyzing the economic and political milieux—from classical liberal to neo-liberal, from traditionally conservative to neo-conservative—that have led to the Christian right's claim of family values as "their" issue.
In Hitting Home, Albrecht cleverly uses the domain of women's work as the lens through which she systematically presents her case for a feminist liberatory ethics of valuing women and families. In chapter 1, Framing the Issues: Contexts, Methods, and Commitments, the author lays out a contextual systemic view that fits philosophically with contemporary ecological family theory. She also describes her methods of social analysis and the feminist commitments that guided her work. The value of this chapter to family scientists is that it provides a transparent window into the discipline of social ethics, a field that offers valuable insights for the study of families in society but which is not often accessible either to family scholars or our students. In chapter 2, Now That Women Work ... and chapter 3, The Cost of Kids, the author examines changing economies and social norms that affect the material well-being of women, children, and families. Chapter 4, Spending Time When Time is Money, provides a feminist critique of the capitalist notion that "time is money." Given the recent focus of many family researchers on the issues of both work and time, Albrecht's book is an invaluable interdisciplinary perspective on these issues.
Reproducing the emphasis on Hitting Home in her aptly titled final chapter, Albrecht outlines three moral principles of a liberative Christian economic ethics: (a) the full equality of women as participatory citizens and moral agents in a political economy that values women's work regardless of their relationship, marriage, and child-bearing choices; (b) the incorporation of traditional feminine virtues, such as caregiving, into the political economy in such a way that there is social justice for women, children, and families; and (c) the recognition that families—in their diversity—are an important site for the reproduction of a just society.
I highly recommend Hitting Home to family researchers, graduate students, and policy makers who want to decipher the rhetoric of "family values" in the U.S. The book is replete with stories of real people whose experiences expose so-called "family-friendly" business practices and Christian right "moral imperatives" as antithetical to women's equality and the well-being of families in postmodern America.