Editors note: the following book review appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.
Isaac Adams. Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve had conversations with quite a few pastors across the country, men desperately trying to walk their churches through our divisive and tribalistic times. None of the issues that divide Americans and, as a result, divide American Christians, is as fraught with peril as the conversation about race. I’ve listened as white pastors and pastors of color have shared how excruciating it is to lead their people.
Which is why many pastors, understandably so, are increasingly cautious if not quiet about the topic. They see no way to win. To pursue biblical, racial reconciliation is seen by some as being too woke and by others as being not woke enough. One pastor has seen these struggles up close and offers a pastoral word for the body of Christ. Adams is a church planter in Birmingham, AL and the founder of United We Pray, a ministry whose sole mission is to pray about racial strife in America.
Talking About Race: Gospel Hope for Hard Conversations is a unique book. Admittedly, in the opening pages, Adams doesn’t pretend to offer detailed policy or political prescriptions for America’s lingering racial problems, but he does offer guidance and pastoral wisdom on how to engage these conversations where perhaps they should begin: among the people of God. For weary pastors, this book might just be the respite and guide you’ve been looking for in your ministry.
Adams begins with this: “In this book I’m trying to speak pastorally, as I’m primarily writing this book as a pastor—not as a sociologist, psychologist, or historian . . . as a pastor I’m trying to address the mind, I’m also trying to address the heart and soul of the matter . . . All of this to say, stats shift; God’s Word doesn’t. As as a pastor, I’m going to have that unchanging Word be the lamp for our feet and the light for our path as we journey through this book” (xxii).
It is this pastoral heart that frames the structure of the book, written addressing a fictional, predominately white congregation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Lincoln Ridge Bible Church. The chapters address characters, who will look a lot like people we know, perhaps even ourselves as we read. There are two sisters, one who is passionate about racial justice, another who is passionate about addressing the excesses of the anti-racism movement. There is a black assistant pastor, weary of the burden of this conversation as a minority in a majority space. There is his friend, a white lay leader, who leans conservative and is often skeptical of the racial narrative. And there is Jane, an Asian-American Christian who has recently moved into the area. Oh, and there is the pastor, who wants to shepherd his church well. The book centers itself in the immediate aftermath of yet another officer-involved shooting, the killing of a black man in Chicago by a white police officer.
Adams writes chapters addressing each of these characters and their predictable reactions to this news story. He writes with pastoral sensitivity to each, finding areas to commend them, offering gentle areas of rebuke, and urging them to listen and learn from their fellow church members who might disagree. As I read through this book, I found myself listening, learning, and lamenting from Adam’s wisdom to each person. Along the way he addresses both the hesitancy of some white Christians to acknowledge the ongoing issues of racial injustice while also resisting some of the well-meaning — but perhaps unbiblical — approaches to fighting racism. Adams’ heart bleeds with desire to see God’s church reconciled and unified, to see both justice and love prevail. He urges the people of God to love each other, to listen intently, and to avoid assigning bad motives to those with whom we disagree. And Adams is not offering a kind of fake unity that avoids hard questions. This is most evident when he talks about both diversity and unity.
Adams agrees diversity should be a desire for local churches who wish to embody the image of ethnic reconciliation described in Ephesians 2:14–16 and pictured in Revelation 5 and 7, but also acknowledges the difficult reality in many areas around the country where historical patterns have created homogenous communities. Adams urges local churches to work toward diversity but avoid making it an idol (101). He also issues this warning, that a false sense of peace that both abandons gospel truth or papers over hard conversations is not genuine unity (107). There is a way to seek peace at all costs instead of engaging in hard, loving conversations that might actually help brothers and sisters grow closer to each other and to Christ.
The book’s brief treatment of theological triage is helpful as well, urging Christians to remain steadfast on the essentials of orthodoxy, but to also be willing to have a vision of unity that allows for disagreements on the best approaches to sensitive cultural issues. “It’s much nicer,” Adams writes, “to go to church with everyone who agrees with you on what you care about. The trouble is, that kind of unity doesn’t really say much to the world about the value of Jesus as compared to those other things” (106). Amen.
If there is a weakness to Talking About Race, it is that Adams resists addressing cultural, historical, and statistical issues of race and justice in America, but it’s a weakness by design. His mission is not to add one more book to the pile of books in our rhetorical wars, but to help the only institution designed by God to reflect his kingdom, the only one for whom Jesus died, the only bride Christ has chosen. This is a book for local churches and the pastors who lead them. As someone who cares deeply about the unity of the body of Christ and seeing God’s people reflect, more and more, the reality of beautiful ethnic unity described in Heaven, I can hardly recommend a book more highly.
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