Orbis Books, 192 pages | Published August 30, 2023
In a late-in-life interview, James Baldwin said, “I know that we can be better than we are.” Greg Garrett invites readers of The Gospel According to James Baldwin to join him on a hero’s journey to unlock the power of these words, offering Baldwin’s life and work as a balm to a troubled American society.
These words become the thread that binds Garrett’s book together, allowing us to follow him on a journey driven by “… this desire to understand the world and my own place in it.” Garrett, an author and educator, acknowledges that he is the polar opposite of Baldwin in race, religion, sexual orientation and socioeconomics. Yet his engagement with Baldwin’s writing and voice elicits an expansion in his humanity, allowing Garrett to not only understand his place in the world, but to find commonality with Baldwin, leading to a kind of communion with the ground-breaking author and civil rights activist.
Garrett follows Baldwin as he maps culture, faith, race, justice and identity, finding solidarity with Baldwin in the realm of faith. To find their voice, each abandoned the institutional church, only to find its teachings embedded in their messages of repentance and reconciliation. Garrett agrees with Baldwin on the questions that lead from bad faith to one based on wisdom and truth: “Who is God, who am I, what is sacred community, how are we supposed to live, why exercise faith?”
In the chapter “Baldwin on Race,” Garrett shows how Baldwin continues to share the church’s language: “If I were still in the pulpit … I would counsel my countrymen to the self-confrontation of prayer, the cleansing breaking of the heart, that precedes atonement. This, of course is impossible,” Baldwin wrote. Garrett counters, “Perhaps multitudes can’t, but individuals can, and must.”
While this book is spiritually arresting, it is not the most pleasant read; it forces readers to absorb hard truths while looking in the proverbial mirror, and it was painful to revisit many of these difficult truths. Baldwin and Garrett share a skepticism that racism in American can be dismantled, illustrated by a 1963 meeting between Baldwin and other Black leaders with liberal Attorney General Robert Kennedy — it ended abruptly when Kennedy reacted to the unexpected Black rage with disillusionment. Garrett summarizes, “(i)t was indeed possible that White Americans had been White too long, (Baldwin) said. That they might not want to give up their privilege.”
Garrett knows his limits, confessing, “… because I don’t live with the reality of racism directed against those in Black bodies, I need to hear how it harms people I love and respect for the issues to truly come alive for me — and remain alive long enough to challenge me and to force me to work for change.” While he clearly feels challenged to “do better,” it would have come through more powerfully if Garrett matched Baldwin’s intimate tone. However, I recommend The Gospel According to James Baldwin broadly — to multicultural churches, antiracism cohorts seeking open community and to all who are eager to build a better world.
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