Book Review: Christopher W. Brooks, Urban Apologetics

Brooks, Christopher W. Urban Apologetics: Why the Gospel is Good News for the City. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2014. 176 pp. Pb; $16.99.   Link to Kregel

Christopher W. Brooks is a graduate of Biola’s Master’s program in Christian Apologetics and is currently the senior pastor of Evangel Ministries in Detroit. This short book summarizes the sort of apologetic for the Christian faith Brooks does as a part of his ministry in downtown Detroit. While Brooks is involved in urban ministry, this book is targeted at a more broad audience and will appear to anyone looking for a basic introduction to some of the issues facing the church today.

Urban ApologeticsAfter initial chapter on the relevancy of the Christian message Brooks describes apologetics in evangelism as related disciplines. Before a Christian can become an effective apologist they must become a passionate evangelist (41). Brooks sees this method as essentially following the pattern of Jesus, who brought his message to where people are crossing cultural and traditional boundary lines in order to confront them with the Gospel. Brooks recognizes that one of the greatest roadblocks to evangelism is hypocritical behavior on the part of Christians. Many people who are apathetic about the gospel have experienced hypocrisy when in dealing with Christians in the past  and are therefore less interested in hearing the Gospel in the present (51). Chapter 3 deals with Christian morality in general. Brooks briefly describes relativistic and postmodern approaches to ethics. He contrasts the social uncertainty generated by these approaches with the Christian view of God as a higher moral agent and ethics rooted in God’s character.

Chapter 4 deals with what many would consider to be the greatest ethical difficulty Christians face today, abortion. Brooks addresses some of the important issues such as when life begins, the intrinsic value of human life, and the rights of the unborn from a scriptural perspective. It is remarkable however that he does not include up-to-date statistics describing the problem of abortion in an urban context. The most recent statistical data he cites is dated 2003, although this report supports Brooks’ theme. While there has been a steady decrease in abortions among white women, there has been a rise in abortions for black women over the same time period.

Chris BrooksChapter 5 deals with sexuality primarily with homosexuality. After providing some historical background to the present debate, Brooks examines six biblical passages that directly address homosexual behavior. His brief study of these passages supports the traditional Christian view of homosexuality. After surveying these texts, Brooks devotes several pages to the social impact of homosexuality, primarily of the effects of HIV and AIDS in urban communities. This struck me as odd since HIV/AIDS is not restricted to the homosexual community. Certainly this argument could be extended towards all sexual ethics, although that is not done in this chapter.

In chapter 6 Brooks deals with the urban crisis of family. Here he describes the problems faced by churches attempting to do discipleship in communities where there is virtually no emphasis on marriage or parenting. He briefly describes the biblical family model and compares this to the crisis urban churches face. The statistics concerning urban families in this chapter are in fact frightening, although I would have expected Brooks to relate this failure of the family in urban neighborhoods to a break down in social ethics. It is the task of the church Brooks argues, to model positive marriages and to clearly present the biblical message that marriage and parenting is important. Brooks says “the pulpit is arguably the greatest platform for urban revolution and change” (106).

Chapter 7 he deals with religious pluralism in the attraction of non-Christian religions in the urban context. For anyone doing ministry and intercity like Detroit, Islam is clearly the leading competitor to Christianity. Brooks therefore spent several pages describing Islam in some challenges and myths concerning Islam confronting the church. In addition to Islam, Brooks indicates there is a rise in skepticism in American life. Some of this comes from intellectually respectable sources (such as books and blogs), but most Americans have become increasingly apathetic towards religion in general. Instead of atheists many are “apatheist;” they simply no longer care whether there is a God or not. I’m not sure Brooks (or anyone) has an answer to this apathetic attitude in America. It seems to me that this great challenge faced the modern church should be approached as Jesus approached the sinners, with humility and grace.

His chapter on social justice (chapter 8) is particularly interesting in the light of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri. Conservative Christians are usually nervous when African-Americans begin to speak about social justice. Brooks therefore begins his chapter with Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 58. Calvin believed “the Bible charged believers to stand against injustice, while challenging us to model the lifestyle that shows generosity and care for the poor” (132). Brooks therefore briefly describes six major social justice issues the church must address. These include economic fairness, educational quality, immigration reform, sanctity of life, women’s rights, and religious liberty. This list is remarkable since most of social justice activists would not include sanctity of life or religious liberty.  Brooks suggests “Christians ought to take seriously the call to action given to us by our Savior to protect all people, including homosexuals, from abuse, violence, and ask of hatred” (137). If we are failing on these issues Brooks says we lose credibility for doing evangelism. After having described several approaches to economic justice Brooks speaks positively towards capitalism something unusual when speaking about social justice (143).

Brooks offer some thoughts on doing urban apologetics in the local church (chapter 9). Unfortunately the church in an urban environment often has to take the place of parents. The church therefore is responsible for training constructing and developing believers until they reach maturity. In addition to parenting the local church can partner with other organizations to create a platform for ministry.

In an appendix, Brooks deals with interest in Islam and other new religions especially among African-Americans in urban environments. This is interesting to me because I was unaware of things like Moorish science temple of America or the nation of gods and earth or the Black Hebrew Israelites. Certainly the Nation of Islam is well-known, but some of these other smaller groups are not at all known in White suburban America.

Conclusion. This is an excellent introduction to several apologetic issues that are of interest in any environment not just an inner-city, urban, African-American church. What I found remarkable about this book is that there was less specific information on doing African-American ministry than expected. Having read interviews with Christopher Brooks in the past I expected a more targeted apologetic. There is some of this in this chapter on sexuality, but the statistics he cites are just is true for suburban in teens as inner city. Another example might be challenges faced for people attempting to reach urban teens. In a recent interview, Brooks commented “the Christian hip-hop artist is the modern equivalent of the ancient prophet” (CT interview). I particularly liked the way he put this but I don’t see that kind of attitude in this book. This is not a problem since the book is not on the “doing ministry in a black community.”

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: When Things Were Black and White

I usually do not review fiction on Reading Acts, but I want to make an exception for this little book. I met Dan David at a local folk music event several months ago and we have played music several times since. A few months ago he handed me a copy of his recently self-published book, When Things Were Black and White: A Story from Detroit. (The book is available for Kindle as well.) He told me to read it and pass it on to someone else. I read the book with a bit of trepidation, since most of the time when someone hands you a book they wrote and self-published it is not all that great. But Dan’s book is very well written and edited and does not read like an amateur making a stab at a writing career. (The fact that Dan is an English teacher helps a great deal!) While it struck me first as a kind of “Wonder Years in Detroit” (minus Winnie Cooper), there are some deep themes in the book with which I deeply resonated. I want to touch on one or two of them and draw some implications for the church in America.

When Things Were Black and White is a story cultural change in the early sixties, told through the eyes of a seven or eight year old boy named Detlef. The boy’s father is a police officer in Detroit who retires early and becomes the pastor of a small inner city church slated to be shut down. He pastors two such churches before moving out to the suburbs to start a new church at the end of the book. While there are a number of episodes in the book which are included to help create the world of the early sixties in the reader’s mind, this is not a sentimental memoir or nostalgic journey to David’s childhood.  The title appears to refer to a time when things were simpler, decisions were easier because things were “black and white.”  But the title has a deeper meaning.  This was a time when America was Black and White, and it was a scary time for a child to learn about the world.

One of the key themes which runs through When Things Were Black and White is the troubling issue of racism in the church. Detroit was particularly effected by racially motivated riots in the sixties, so Dan David looks at race through the eyes of a young boy who is clueless about the sort of bigotry which fuels hatred among members of his community. His father has no patience for his bigoted neighbors, but America in the early sixties was rife with bigoted and racist speech.  Anyone who remembers 40 odd years ago knows that there are words which were not only acceptable, but used even by religious leaders.

In the book, the young Detlef is shocked to discover that one of the men from his church is a racist. Mr. Lorraine helped around the church and was kind to the kids in the neighborhood, but he hated black people and occasionally voiced “wild and fear-filled predictions” of what will happen to the all-white neighborhood once black people began to move in. Even the teachers at his elementary school are racist, thinking that black people will be happier “with their own kind.” Teachers and students are opposed to integrated schools, fearing that the black children who are bused to their all-white school will destroy everything.

Detlef sees through this, believing racism as a cowardly act: “The rest of the neighborhood racists seemed incredible cowards. The were like jackals, brave enough when they were in the pack, but skulking and cowardly when caught alone” (184).  Influenced by his father, he comes to realize that the bigots in his school are foolish to hate someone based on their skin color. At one point in the book the family moves to Chicago, where Detlef has more problems with poor white people than he did with the black students in Detroit.

I find this a particularly convicting point, since it is well known that the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning when people go to churches which seem as though they are built along racial lines.  I have visited churches in the south where unacceptable racist language was used frequently among the “Christian” white kids.  There is a kind of cowardly implicit racism in most churches (probably running both directions), creating churches which are ethnically non-diverse.  This is not at all a good thing, especially since those who are in Christ are neither “Jew nor Gentile,” Paul says.  Nor are they Black and White, Asian, Hispanic, or whatever.

In Christ we are supposed to set racial differences aside.  Looking at the world of the mid-sixties through the lens of Dan David’s book, I cannot really say that we have set those differences aside some fifty years later.

When Things Were Black and White is a great title, since the church was “black and white” then.  This little book is a window into that now distant world of the sixties, a time which seems so strange and unenlightened to me.  I would like to think we have come along way since the racism of those days, but it is not as far as we need to go.