Category : Books

(CC) Dorothy Sayers and her equally fascinating friends

n Mo Moulton’s ambitious yet intimate book, at least a half dozen contemporaries of Dorothy L. Sayers emerge as figures who are as fascinating as the novelist, translator, and playwright was herself. Moulton, who teaches history at the University of Birmingham, spent nearly five years combing archives across England and the United States to round out the previously sketchy portraits of these women, most of whom appear as mere walk-ons in Sayers biographies.

Although several of these women surely deserve full-length biographies of their own, The Mutual Admiration Society celebrates collaboration rather than star performances. In describing their collective contributions to the fields of education, health care, politics, the arts, and literature, Moulton also shines the spotlight on their various forms of sexual expression. Although this element may make the book seem especially relevant today, even more timely is its articulation of the MAS’s shared political and cultural vision.

The book opens with a glimpse of the group’s inaugural members—Sayers, Charis Barnett, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, and Dorothy Rowe (“D. Rowe”)—conversing over cocoa early in their time at Oxford University’s Somerville College. The group expands, and Moulton vividly writes about each woman’s social, religious, and economic background, conjuring up not only the rigor of their academic environment but also the sense of fun they enjoyed. Accounts of ghost story-telling sessions, practical jokes, stage plays, and romantic crushes (some on each other) endear the characters to us even as we marvel at their vast capacity for intellectual engagement.

Moulton’s descriptions of the toll of two world wars draw us further into the women’s circle….

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History

(CLJ) Jessica Hooten Wilson–Flannery O’Connor Versus the Marvel Universe

In his 2007 Commencement Speech delivered at Stanford University, Dana Gioia proposes an experiment “to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.” He would follow this question with another: “How many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name?” While many of us can name celebrities in the former category, our culture has deprived of us of the ability to name prominent artists or thinkers. Gioia argues that the loss is twofold—we neither honor those whose work is long lasting and transcendent nor do we uphold models for “a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money and fame. Adult life begins in the child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.”

In concert with Gioia, I wonder if the curators of our imagination are not training us away from virtuous living towards autonomous evaluations of value. Last year, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese lit into the Marvel industry:

Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes . . . That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

In other words, the industry that shapes the American imagination the most caters to the lowest common denominator, our bank account, selling us what we want versus challenging us towards higher questions, deeper thinking, or richer emotional responses. We are being catered to like domesticated animals by a film industry that wants to exploit our basest instincts and capitalize on them financially. James Matthew Wilson, in speaking about licentious poetry that cares nothing for form or content but is published in mass quantities, refers to the problem as “shopping in bulk.” There may be one taste of an indulgence that was pleasurable on its own—not that it validates the taste necessarily— but when the example is proliferated over and over again, the series of similar mundanities anesthetizes us to any taste for something more. Scorsese foresees his critics: “If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree . . . If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” It is a frightful thing to imagine we are being cultivated without our discernment.

What is it about the Marvel Universe that enraptures us?

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Poetry & Literature

(TLC Covenant) John Bauerschmidt–Sympathetic Imagination

We need the capacity for sympathetic imagination, and not just if we are historians or novelists, or students of these genres. We live in a time of stunted imagination, in the midst of the clash of civilizations and the culture wars of our own society, where the virtue of sympathy itself languishes. Imagine the novels of Dickens, peopled by the caricatures of each other that populate our political discourse! Oliver Twist would be tedious and unreadable, containing a succession of stick-figure bad guys, instead of being full of three-dimensional evil doers like Bill Sikes and Fagin and their associates. Aren’t we glad that the Artful Dodger survives his brush with the law? These figures are tragic precisely because we have sympathy with them. Dickens himself recognized and countered the criticism that came with a sympathetic treatment of what was morally disturbing. Sympathy does not make us sympathizers in the sense of political dupes or fellow travelers, but it does allow us to connect.

Sympathetic imagination is not only historical and literate; it is humane. Christians ought to be seasoned practitioners of the art of imaginative insight, able to make connections with others and to imagine their lives and values. A sympathetic imagination doesn’t make us traitors to our own fundamental commitments as human beings, or as Christians, but it does allow us to extend ourselves to others in ways that make for graceful connection. We must not settle for disconnection. A sympathetic imagination is essential to understanding, not only distant times and places, but also to living with our neighbors here and now.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History, Psychology

(TGC) Albert Mohler–The Decadent and the Damned? Ross Douthat’s Timely Vision of Western Civilization

Indeed, Douthat employs decadence as a diagnosis of “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”

As expected, Douthat lays out his case with skill and nuance. The age of economic expansion that began with the Industrial Revolution and ended sometime before the end of the 20th century is over. We should have seen it coming, Douthat writes: “At some point, every advanced-for-its-time society has ceased advancing; there is no reason to assume that the modern world is inherently immune from the torpor that claimed the Ottomans and imperial China in the not-so-distant past.”

But decadence also comes with sterility, and Douthat’s chapter on falling birthrates around the world is the most authentically dystopian part of his argument and analysis. This dystopia comes with two fundamental facts—there will be fewer babies, and there will be many more old people. The problem for society is that babies use up a lot of resources for a time, but then they become net producers for a much longer time. When it comes to the aged, the costs may well be even higher at the end of life, but without the promise of future contributions. An aging society is a society winding down, and this entropy is spreading nation by nation. It is a spiritual crisis.

The fact that human beings are making fewer babies is a far deeper problem, spiritually speaking, than the fact that Hollywood is stuck in a cycle of sequels.

Beyond stagnation (mostly economic) and sterility and repetition, Douthat also points to sclerosis (mostly political). His commentary is both perceptive and also sobering. He sees our “once-effective political order becoming impervious to constructive change.” That is a hard argument to refute, and Douthat wisely refuses to argue that it’s a truly recent development. This sclerosis was a long time in the making, and few significant political forces are even interested in reversing the process.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Marriage & Family, Politics in General, Religion & Culture

(FB) Charles Fain Lehman Reviews Ross Douthat’s ‘The Decadent Society’

Each of Douthat’s “four horsemen of decadence”—economic stagnation, collective infertility, political sclerosis, and cultural repetition—represents structural choices to sacrifice the future for the present. Weak innovation is driven by selecting short-term returns over investment, and by a publish-or-perish paradigm that makes careers but not discoveries. Collapsing fertility rates reflect deferred childbearing, spending the future social and personal benefits of children to ensure individuals’ present stability. Sclerosis is produced by a political class that clings to its own power, at the cost of training a future elite. And cultural repetition is in large part a product of Hollywood playing it safe, churning out blockbuster pablum instead of investing in something that might fail.

In other words, what is meant by “decadence” is in part “risk-averseness.” Where once we dared to do impossible things in the hope of a better tomorrow, now we pour everything possible into simply preserving the status quo.

The book’s last section sees Douthat imagining ways we could break out of this feedback loop. Through three chapters, he considers a societal collapse driven by mass strife over immigration, a la Michel Houllebecq; a rising Africa driving “renaissance,” and a return either to the will to power through renewed space exploration, or the will to meaning through a religious revival.

Even in the case of catastrophe, Douthat seems to see such regime-shattering possibilities as fundamentally positive. The return of history, even in its worst forms, might be better than the eternal now. As writer Tara Isabella Burton put it in her own review, “What we need, Douthat implies, is a renewed eschatological vision of what history, and what we, are for [emphasis in original].” It is little surprise that among Douthat’s many positive reviewers is arch-techno-optimist Peter Thiel, who writes that, “If there is a problem with the book, it is that Douthat does not press his own theme [of returning to the future] urgently enough.”

For all the book’s many strengths, there is one question to which Douthat gives perhaps inadequate treatment: Why has decadence happened?

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Children, Economy, Marriage & Family

(1st Things) Peter J. Leithart reviews Tom Wright’s new Book ‘History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology’

Christians confess a meta-paradox: This broken signpost is where God reveals himself, where heaven is present on earth. Here God suffers the ultimate injustice, his beauty effaced. Here the God who is love is crushed by brute force. Here Truth is drowned out by Pilate’s scoffing question and the shouts of the mob. Because Jesus rose from the dead, though, this broken signpost becomes the source of universal renewal: fresh springs of justice, new depths of beauty, a kind of powerless power, a freedom that isn’t limited by chains or imprisonment, a social body of mutual edification. New creation emerges out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as the ordinary lives of ordinary followers of Jesus become a “natural” revelation of the presence and power of God.

The church’s confession is contestable and contested, and Wright won’t permit a retreat into fideism. Once we refuse to foreclose the possibility of resurrection and new creation from the outset, we can treat Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, and the church’s history as “historical” phenomena, subject to historical investigation and confirmation. Jesus the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone of a renewed natural theology.

Wright’s wide-ranging book is primarily about the two topics of his title, history and eschatology. On both, his central arguments are convincing. “Natural theology” should attend to history, and since Jesus is a historical figure, it needs to attend to him. Wright is also correct that New Testament eschatology is about the renovation, not the removal, of creation. Jesus, Wright knows, shakes natural theologians, and every other sort of theologian, out of our slumbers. Once we admit the Gospels into the historical record and really grasp Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies, we’ll see more than we’ve dreamt of, a strange world where the sky cracks, veils tear, and gravestones roll away.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Eschatology, Theology, Theology: Scripture

(Christianity Today) Philip Jenkins reviews Tom Holland’s new book–Did the teachings of Jesus launch a sweeping revolution in human consciousness? Maybe, but we need better evidence

Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is a substantial work that makes a straightforward case. In Holland’s view, the teachings of Jesus constituted an ethical revolution that would gradually transform human consciousness, to the extent that we today find it hard to imagine credible alternative systems. When we see Christians, past or present, behaving in ways we may find abominable, in matters such as war, slavery, colonialism, or patriarchy, our disgusted attitudes must themselves be understood as products of that sweeping revolution. Without the existence of Christianity, it would not occur to us to abhor such things, whoever the perpetrators might be.

Beyond any single policy or attitude, Christianity mattered because it taught respect (or even veneration) for the poor and the oppressed. That implied the historically unprecedented exaltation of humility, forgiveness, and love. Moreover, the faith created the practical urge to offer aid and relief, to assist the poor, and (among other things) to reject infanticide. Christianity is the essential foundation of the liberal West, of democracy, and of notions of human rights. As the book’s jacket copy proclaims, “Concepts such as secularism, liberalism, science, and homosexuality are deeply rooted in a Christian seedbed. From Babylon to the Beatles, Saint Michael to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.”

These are bold claims, to which I will certainly offer some caveats. What is not debatable is the very high quality of the book as a whole, and its appeal to anyone interested in Christian history. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative, Holland tells his story through 21 vignettes, each representing a particular historical moment, which he uses to advance his larger argument. Those together constitute three distinct eras of the church: Antiquity, Christendom, and a period he calls Modernitas, extending from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the present day.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture

(New Criterion) Keith Windschuttle–Gertrude Himmelfarb & the Enlightenment

In 1983, Himmelfarb published The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, and in 1991 the sequel Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, arguing that, instead of imposing unregulated Dickensian institutions and dark satanic mills on the lower orders, the Victorians had redefined poverty as a moral issue that demanded both compassion from society at large and a sense of responsibility from the poor themselves. In describing the latter, she made an important intervention in the language of morality. She did not use the term “Victorian values,” as almost every historian of the subject did at the time. The Victorians themselves, she pointed out, did not use the word “values.” This anachronism only arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to relativize morality. It implied that anyone’s values were the moral equivalent of anyone else’s. Some values could not be better than others, only different. Instead, she insisted on using the term “virtues.” In a much-quoted passage Himmelfarb wrote:

Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.

To the Victorians, she argued, virtues were fixed and certain, not to govern the actual behavior of all people all the time, but to serve as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong, or immoral, she said, not merely misguided, undesirable, or, that weasel-word, “inappropriate.” From the historical record, she could point to the consequences of today’s misuse of moral principles:

In recent times, we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief. In retrospect, we can see that the social pathology—“moral pathology,” I would call it—of crime, violence, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and drug addiction is intimately related to the “counterculture” of the 1960s that promised to liberate us from the stultifying influence of “bourgeois values.”

As well as detecting profound consequences from small manipulations of language, Himmelfarb’s historical eye also allowed her to understand the broad intellectual contours of the periods she studied better than almost any of her peers. She went on to use that understanding to illuminate the basis of ideological divisions with her own time. This was best demonstrated in her daring but highly successful history of the Enlightenment in Britain, France, and the United States.

In 2005, she published The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. It is a provocative revision of the typical story of the intellectual era of the late eighteenth century that made the modern world. In particular, it explains the source of the fundamental division that still doggedly grips Western political life: that between Left and Right, or progressives and conservatives. From the outset, each side had its own philosophical assumptions and its own view of the human condition. Roads to Modernity shows why one of these sides has generated a steady progeny of historical successes while its rival has consistently lurched from one disaster to the next.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History

(WSJ) Charlotte Allen–God Goes Missing in ‘Little Women’: The Oscar contender is distinctive, but leaves out a critical part of the story

This weekend director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is up for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is the seventh feature film to be made from Alcott’s book and perhaps the most distinctive. Unfortunately, the latest film leaves out an important theme from the original text: faith.

The previous six movies hewed more or less to Alcott’s strictly chronological narrative structure, which follows the four March sisters—Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy—from their teen years to their late 20s. Ms. Gerwig’s film instead offers a deconstructed version. The events in Alcott’s book are presented as flashbacks in a deliberately scrambled order that reflects not chronology but the thematic aims of Ms. Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay.

By violating Alcott’s narrative structure Ms. Gerwig also undermines the writer’s framing of the story as a tale of moral growth in a world at odds with living a Christian life. In particular, Alcott tied her story through explicit references to “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” John Bunyan’s entertaining and hugely successful 17th-century allegory of the journey of a man named Christian—and later, his wife and sons—through the travails of this world to the Celestial City. Bearing the burdens of their sins, they encounter such colorful characters as Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair, and pass through such traps for the soul as Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Well into the 20th century “Pilgrim’s Progress” was, after the Bible, the most-read book in many Anglophone Protestant households.

In Alcott’s “Little Women” each of the March girls has besetting sins that she must overcome through constant striving.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History, Movies & Television, Religion & Culture

(Kate Bowler) The Burden of Love

Says Lewis, “There is nothing we can do with suffering, except to suffer it.”

We know that advice from other people can sound a lot like well-meaning white noise. Or like a line separating the grieving from everybody else in the normal world. It makes me wish we learned a bit more from cultures who carve out space for mourning, like the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva” where friends and family gather for seven days together in silence. Or how people in Greece and Portugal encourage widows to wear black for months, creating a reminder for others of their loss.

We all need a bit of permission to allow ourselves time and space to feel the weight of loss, and move through it in our own way. My friend and former cello teacher lost her husband last year, and the week after the funeral, to the chagrin of those thought she should be taking a break, there she was at the piano accompanying the services as she always did. That was her way of living through her loss, with keys under her fingers, helping others the way she always did.

So my dears, what can then be said of grief except that is the burden of love? It can’t be defined or drawn, only suffered. But what must be said, what must be given, is the permission to feel it. All of it. Not as a state, but as a process. No one can tell you what that process must be for you, just now. So gently, gently, let it lead you through.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Church History, Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, Pastoral Theology, Psychology, Theology

(PD) Allen Guelzo–The Irony That Our Creed Is Our Culture: On Reno, Lowry, and National Conservatism

For these arguments to succeed, especially with other American conservatives, Reno and Lowry have to convince us of three things:

  • That the American republic was not, as Tom Paine claimed, a project that “began the world over again”; that we were instead an evolution of English norms, culture, and language, so that the Revolution (in Lowry’s words) “sought to protect the traditional rights of Englishmen”; and that the invocation of the Declaration of Independence’s preamble, with its universalistic appeal to natural rights shared equally by all humanity, has been exaggerated.
  • That (in Reno’s words now) “the free market promises spontaneous order” but in actuality promotes a self-satisfied swamp of “dissolution, disintegration, and deconsolidation,” and then calls these “openness”; that the liberal interest in economic deregulation is in fact the mirror image of the progressives’ cultural deregulation; and that capitalism and technology have reduced society to a collection of “little worlds” that imagine they have no need for virtue.
  • That no polity can live by the bread of “rights” alone, but requires love—love of country, of family, of truth, of transcendence (these are what Reno, following Durkheim, describes as the “strong gods”); that nations cannot be merely accumulations of self-interested parties; and that there is a “common interest” in the life of the nation that (as Lowry puts it) “is deeper than any specific power struggle” and which “makes possible the social trust that lubricates everyday life.”

These are no small concerns, and they are fed in many hearts by the sneers of a thin-souled and contemptuous cosmopolitanism, by educational systems that aspire feebly to little more than “critical thinking,” and by immigration policies that cannot seem to distinguish between huddled masses yearning to breathe free and outright colonization. Indeed, there were many moments in reading both books when I resonated with the losses they so tellingly itemize.

Yet their arguments must also come to terms with the reminder, on the back of every one-dollar bill, that the American republic is a novus ordo seclorum

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Theology

(1st Things) Bruce Riley Ashford–My Ten (Or So) Favorite Cultural Critics

In 1974, British theologian Lesslie Newbigin returned to England after four decades of serving as a missionary to India. Back in Europe, he wrestled with a pressing question: How to preach the gospel to the West? He believed the Western church had unconsciously been captured by secular ideology. Rather than viewing the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, the church had bought into various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives. The church, Newbigin argued, must once again “soak” itself in the Bible, challenging the axioms of modernity with the axioms of Scripture.

The task of bringing the West into a missionary encounter with Scripture remains today. We must analyze Western culture to understand what is happening and why. We must attempt to discern the reigning idols of our day, how they twist the affections and thoughts of society, and how they warp our cultural institutions. This will help us better understand how to bring the gospel to the secular West.

Toward that end, I offer this list of eleven of the most perceptive cultural critics of the last two centuries. The list includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, poets, and literary critics. Some are well-known, others are quite obscure. Some are Christians, others are not. All were born before 1950 and each offers a salient evaluation of Western society and culture that remains relevant for our task today.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Philosophy, Poetry & Literature

Thinking Strategically About Book Choices; An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

Bishop, I sense you’re a voracious reader. Would you use that term to describe yourself?

I would say as a parish priest I was, but as a Bishop less so, because the schedule and demands – which are voracious – have truncated that.

How many books do you read a month?

Far less than I wish, unfortunately. About two a month.

What are you reading right now?

This summer I’m rereading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I’m also listening to two lecture series on the tragedies of Shakespeare and looking for opportunities to attend performances of those plays. Remarkably, we’ll be at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in August, and they’re performing Hamlet and Macbeth. There’s also a haunting performance of Lear by Anthony Hopkins in a movie version.

I’m also reading Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins’s Poetry by Peter Milward and The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers. (Thomas was a Welsh Poet and Anglican Priest). So I’ll reread his poems along with this recent biography.

How do you go about deciding what to read?

Often I will choose a reading project. When I was in parish ministry, I did this all the time. I’d read books in three areas: preaching and teaching, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

For preaching and teaching I would read 8 to12 books per year in theology, commentaries on the scriptures, homiletics or preaching. For leadership I’d read books from the secular world whether it be a book by Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, James Burns, John Maxwell, etc., as well as in the Christian world and certainly biographies of leaders in various walks of life. The other arena was books on pastoral care, what’s known as pastoralia. That was for many years what I did in terms of my calling or vocational reading.

Read it all.

Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * South Carolina, Books, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry

(AJ) ‘Coming to God without freedom is not coming to God’: Philosopher Charles Taylor on seeing God in church decline

Why are fewer people going to church?

It’s very hard to put your finger on this, but this is what I’m trying to work out: that there’s another kind of spiritual life, spiritual searching, going on to a great extent in our contemporary West—sometimes it’s in totally different religions, or totally non-religious—and that this somehow is taking off at the expense of an earlier way of expressing one’s spirituality, which involves being members of national churches or in the case of a very diverse country like Canada, at least a church which you know is very big and solid in some parts of the country.

It’s not that religion is disappearing, or spirituality is disappearing; it’s taking different forms. If you put yourself in the mindset of people, in particular of younger people, who are concerned about the meaning of life, concerned about becoming better people, more loving, more open, etc., and are seeking in some way some discipline—it could be meditation, it could be various things—if you put yourself in the mindset of these people, when they go to the pews the least bad thing is that they don’t feel it’s very relevant! The worst thing is they feel that their whole way of approaching this is not really appreciated and it may be seen as threatening the people in the pews. Now of course this is perhaps more the case—I’m a Catholic—in the case of the Catholic church [laughs], where you have these very backward-looking people who are screaming abuse at [Pope] Francis and so on [laughs]!

That’s the extreme case, where you actually feel, “I’d better rush out of this place [laughs]! Or I’m going to be badly treated.” But the least worrying or problematic [for those outside the church] is just that this is not a concern that people [in the pews] recognize, this searching concern. “Everything is all settled, and we’re all together in these pews affirming it.”

Read it all.

Posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Books, Canada, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Secularism

(CC) Jason Byassee–How Katherine Sonderegger finds delight in a humble God

[Katherine] Sonderegger’s key theological commitment is to what she calls divine “compatibilism.” God and creatures do not compete over shared space. God can be present fully without displacing material creation. God can work in history without overriding human freedom. The key example for her is the burning bush of Horeb. Divine fire does not annihilate or destroy. It is modest, lowly, hidden to most eyes, appearing in a mere desert shrub. God is humble enough to be unseen.

Divine compatibilism is a common theme in other theologians, such as Coakley and Kathryn Tanner. It declares a noncompetitive relation between a genuinely transcendent God and creatures. The new note I detect in Sonderegger is the emphasis on God’s joy in all this. The One God is pleased to be hidden, this is his “particular and glorious epiphany—to be the Unseen, Utterly Unique, Invisible One, hidden in the midst of his people.”

Omnipotence would seem a harder divine attribute to sell. Theopassionism, the notion that God suffers, is “almost modern day dogma,” she notes, acknowledging the influence of German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, best known for his book The Crucified God. But Moltmann must be wrong, Sonde­regger argues—Christology cannot be the sole measure of divine omnipotence.

Sonderegger prefers the vision of onetime archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, who pictures divine self-emptying on the cross not as an abdication of power but as a different version of power, a “condescension inconceivably tender.” Sonderegger is blistering in her rejection of modernist objections to divine intervention in the world: there must be some divine agency at work in defeating Pharaoh and in Jesus on the cross, she says, or else there is nothing for human beings to bow down to.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Theology

(NR) Yuval Levin–The Historian as Moralist: The remarkable life’s work of Gertrude Himmelfarb

The passing of Gertrude Himmelfarb, who died on December 30th at the age of 97, is a loss felt keenly by all who had the good fortune to know her.

To family and friends, she was known as Bea Kristol, and embodied character and decency, good humor, and good sense. To Americans with an interest in our country’s intellectual life, she might have been best known as the wife of Irving Kristol. This always suited her humility (let alone her pride in Irving), and you would surely gain some real insight into the aims of the original neoconservatives by reflecting on the fact that Irving Kristol’s wife was a scholar of Victorian England.

But as such a scholar — one whose life’s work spanned an amazing seven decades of wise, independent-minded, reliably fascinating, and brilliantly expressed historical analysis — Himmelfarb has never been sufficiently appreciated. There will no doubt be many remembrances of her unique mix of personal warmth and dignity in the days to come, from many who knew her far better than I did. But a reflection on the ambitions and significance of her work is very much in order too.

She was among the most important American historians of the last century. Her path-breaking work illuminating the intellectual life of 19th-century Britain not only helped transform our understanding of what the Victorians were up to but also provided a rich vocabulary for describing the place of the moral in the social and political lives of liberal societies. And in the process, she helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Theology

(LARB) The Outer Fringes of Our Language: A Conversation with Werner Herzog Robert Pogue Harrison interviews Werner Herzog

ROBERT POGUE HARRISON: In your conversation with Paul Cronin in 2014, you say, “Read, read, read, read, read. Those who read own the world; those who immerse themselves in the internet or watch too much television lose it. […] Our civilization is suffering profound wounds because of the wholesale abandonment of reading by contemporary society.” Could you share with us some of your thoughts about your relationship to reading books and the value of the literary?

WERNER HERZOG: In a way, it has been something that is guiding me throughout my life. Beyond this auditorium, there are many more students at Stanford University, and many of them do not really read — including film students. They read a book about editing, but they haven’t read, let’s say, the dramas of Greek antiquity. And I keep saying to them you have to read. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read. If you do not read, you will become a mediocre filmmaker at best, but you will never make a really good film. And almost everyone that I know who has made very strong, very good substantial films are people who are reading all the time. I see three, four films a year, maybe sometimes a little bit more during a festival, but I do read.

And of course, I’ve written prose and some poetry. I am fairly certain that my written work will outlive my films.

Is that right?

It’s very, very clear. There’s no doubt whatsoever in me.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, Language

A Good Christmas Reminder: A bit of George Lindbeck’s review of the Myth of God Incarnate (1977)

The tone of the authors is fervent. They believe in experiential religion…

The purpose of religious language is not indicative, but expressive not to express a metaphysical fact but to express a valuation and evoke an attitude…

All the authors strenuously deny that it is literally true that a divine reality (i.e. the logos, preexistent Christ or Second Person of the Trinity) became man uniquely in Jesus Christ…

You may need to enlarge the page to see it better; I sure did; KSH. Quoted by yours truly in the morning sermon.

Posted in Books, Christmas, Christology, Church History

(Crux) Actor Ken Jennings breathes new life into Gospel of John at New York’s Sheen Center

On a nightly basis this month – and on weekend afternoons – “the word” is becoming flesh in lower Manhattan with a one-man performance of the “The Gospel of John” at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.

Longtime Broadway actor Ken Jennings has memorized the entirety of his favorite Gospel – which he first began to commit to memory as a personal prayer – and at age 72, is thrilling audiences with his new dramatic staging of it.

In an interview with Crux, Jennings said that it took him somewhere between two to three years to memorize the full text, which he turned to when he was going through a rough period in his personal life.

Throughout the performance, he often carries a small pocket-sized Bible around the stage with him – a Bible that dates back to when he was a part of the original Broadway cast of Sweeney Todd in the 1970s.

It was that same Bible that he would carry with him when he’d go out jogging in New York and that he’d use on the walks back to his apartment to read passages from the book of John.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Religion & Culture, Theatre/Drama/Plays, Theology: Scripture

(CW) Bill Muehlenberg reviews “Reenchanting Humanity” by Owen Strachan

Consider the issue of human sexuality and all the problems we now find associated with it – everything from broken marriages, porn addiction, and gender bender delusions. The world is normalising the promotion of neopagan sexual identity and practices which is causing all sorts of damage and misery.

Says Strachan: “In the twenty-first century, we have witnessed the rise of ideology that seeks to replace divine order with a counterfeit – with what we may call neopaganism. This movement spiritualises sexuality in a design-denying way while rendering sexual practice nothing more than a momentary phenomenon. Sex is both everything and nothing at once.”

The attempt to now mainstream and normalise transgenderism is simply the most recent and most bizarre outworking of all this. A post-biblical age leads to a post-body culture. The great good of the human body as designed by God (consider not just creation but the Incarnation) has been discarded by the sexual radicals.

The lie spoken by Satan to our first parents (‘you can be like God’) has now fully come around: ‘you can now (re)create your own body, and your own sexual identity.’ We can now somehow transcend biology and reality as we choose for ourselves who we are and what we are to become. So now even children are having their bodies horribly mutilated in the vain attempt to become something they are not – and never can be.

In addition to the transgender revolution, there are three other major sexual challenges that the church faces today: feminism, postmarital sexual libertinism, and homosexuality. “Each of these four ideologies is the reversal of biblical teaching and divine design….”

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Religion & Culture, Sexuality, Theology

(LARB) Jessica Riskin–Steven Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics

“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” [1] (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.

Enlightenment Now purports to demonstrate by way of “data” that “the Enlightenment has worked.” [2] What are we to make of this? A toaster oven can work or not by toasting or failing to toast your bagel. My laser printer often works by printing what I’ve asked it to print, and sometimes doesn’t by getting the paper all jammed up inside. These machines were designed and built to do particular, well-defined jobs. There is no uncertainty, no debate, no tradition of critical reflection, no voluminous writings regarding what toaster ovens or laser printers should do, or which guiding principles or ideals should govern them.

On the other hand, uncertainty, debate, and critical reflection were the warp and woof of the Enlightenment, which was no discrete, engineered device with a well-defined purpose, but an intellectual and cultural movement spanning several countries and evolving over about a century and a half. If one could identify any single value as definitive of this long and diverse movement, it must surely be the one mentioned above, the value of critical skepticism. To say it “worked” vitiates its very essence. But now the Enlightenment’s best-selling PR guy takes “skepticism” as a dirty word; if that’s any indication, then I guess the Enlightenment didn’t work, or at any rate, it’s not working now. Maybe it came unplugged? Is there a paper jam?

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Media, Philosophy

(NYT) His Novels of Planetary Devastation Will Make You Want to Survive

In Area X, human faces wash up on the shore like the discarded shells of horseshoe crabs and dolphins swim in perfectly synchronized pairs and look out at you from hauntingly familiar eyes. A strange being known only as “The Crawler” travels up and down the stairs of an underground tower, writing on the walls in words that are revealed under a microscope to be formed of some sort of golden moss. Otherworldly phenomena like the “shimmer,” which indicates a sort of membrane between Area X and the regular world, are amalgamations of the concrete and the unimaginable, physical artifacts that defy comprehension.

The careful, exacting strangeness of these images sticks in the mind like a burr, stirring unexpectedly in your consciousness many days after reading. For this reason, VanderMeer’s novels exert a persuasive “reality effect” all their own. The phantasmagoric creatures and places can be difficult to find in mainstream literary fiction — where nature often appears as ornament, as atmosphere, as a backdrop to unfolding human drama. Like Melville and Thoreau, who invested their descriptions of early American wilds with an expansive vitalistic otherness, VanderMeer stages encounters with a nonhuman world that refuses to yield the foreground. This gesture takes on new significance in a time of ecological crisis and climate catastrophe: It reinscribes the fullness of the world we live in, an urgent reminder of how much life we stand to lose.

VanderMeer, who is in his early 50s and has a neatly-trimmed graying goatee, wore waders and a windbreaker in deference to the quick-changing weather of this rainy patch of Florida coastline. He laughs easily but not at length, and his intelligence has a restless quality, moving swiftly from one thing to the next. Quiet and friendly, he spoke in quick, clipped sentences as he showed me around the western reach of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, an ecological hub bordering the Gulf of Mexico that contains many different habitats —from pine flatwoods and sandhills to swamp forest and open water— and ranks in the top 10 in the nation for biodiversity. Though Everglades National Park is 22 times its size, the density of rare and endangered species in St Marks is nine times greater.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Climate Change, Weather, Ecology, Energy, Natural Resources, Ethics / Moral Theology

(CEN) Paul Richardson reviews Jonathan Holland’s new book on Philip Strong–A forgotten hero of Anglicanism

A significant figure in the Anglican Communion in his time, Philip Strong will be remembered by few people in the Church of England today. In an age of ‘expressive individualism’ and the quest for personal fulfilment Strong’s devotion to duty marks him as the product of a very different period in time. This is someone who made a definite religious commitment at the age of 14, wrote it down and never swerved from the path he had chosen. For the distinguished Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick he was ‘the most Christian man I ever had the pleasure of knowing.’

Strong was born in 1899 and grew up in a country vicarage. He studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where he was friends with Malcolm Muggeridge and formed a close bond with Alec Vidler. Ordained by Hensley Henson, who was suspicious of Strong’s Anglo-Catholicism but who came to respect him, Strong served a curacy and two incumbencies in working class parishes in the North of England.

In 1936 the call came to go to Papua as the diocesan bishop. The night before his consecration Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang pointed to a crucifix and told Strong ‘you can thank God there will be more of that in your life than there is in mine’.

Jonathan Holland describes the challenges Strong faced as he took up his new responsibilities in this carefully researched and well-written biography.

Read it all.

Posted in Anglican Church of Australia, Books, Church History, Papua New Guinea

More food for Thought from Ernest Becker

Men are doomed to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.

Therapeutic religion will never replace traditional religions with the messages of Judaism, most of Christianity, Buddhism, and the like. They have held that man is doomed to his present form, that he can’t really evolve any further, that anything he might achieve can only be achieved from within the real nightmare of his loneliness in creation and from the energies that he now has.

–Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997 paperback ed. Of the 1973 original), pp. 281-282

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Religion & Culture, Theology

Saturday Food for Thought from Ernest Becker

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.

–¬Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1997 paperback ed. Of the 1973 original), pp. 283-284

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, History, Philosophy, Theology

CS Lewis on CS Lewis Day (II)–On the importance of reading old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in Vaughan and Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe – Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of The Faerie Queene and the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet – after all – so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life: “An air that kills From yon far country blows.”

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papist when you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

–C.S. Lewis, On the Incarnation: the treatise De incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), pp. 3-

Posted in Books, Church History

(CC) Jason Micheli reviews David Zahl’s new book: Politics, parenting, and other secular things we put our faith in

Seculosity shines its light upon on the conditional “if/then” construction of the promises seculosities make. If you eat organic and sustainably sourced food, then you will be enough. In the language of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther, the oughts and shoulds of seculosities pledge the very same promise that is at the heart of any religion based only on law. The promise is predicated entirely on our performance. Seculosities ultimately lead to exhaustion because we can never measure up to their ever-shifting standard of performance. They also lead to judgmentalism: the fact that we ourselves fall short of the standard doesn’t stop us from pointing out how others fall short.

By the conclusion of the book, readers are in on the joke of the subtitle “and What to Do about It.” Doing is exactly our problem. We’re busy producing, earning, climbing, proving, striving, and performing. We’re chasing our enoughness “into every corner of our lives, driving everyone around us—and ourselves—crazy.” The law is inscribed, Paul says, not just on tablets of stone but on every heart.

The remedy is to be found not in another exhortation about something we must do but in the proclamation of something that has been done for us. The conclusion of Seculosity is a contemporary companion to Luther’s thesis in the Heidelberg Disputation: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

In other words, relief from all our replacement religions just might be found in the opposite of religion—the promise of the gospel. Unlike religions of law, Zahl argues, Christianity does not instruct us in how to construct our enoughness. The language of earning is antithetical to the gospel. Christianity rather invites us to receive our enoughness, which is Christ’s own enoughness, as sheer gift. Our Christian activities are the organic fruit of our enoughness, not the stuff by which we earn it.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Christology, Parish Ministry, Pastoral Theology, Religion & Culture, Soteriology, Theology

(NYT) Nicholas Kristof reviews Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Lost Art Of Scripture: Rescuing The Sacred Texts’

I’ve long believed that the great gulf in religion is not so much from one faith to another, but rather between sanctimonious cranks of any creed who point fingers and those of any religion who humbly seek inspiration to live better lives. Armstrong’s exploration of Scripture across so many traditions reinforces my view.

The ancient Chinese scholar Xunzi complained about an early version of what today we might call religious blowhards. “The learning of the petty man enters his ear and comes out of his mouth,” Xunzi protested, adding that the words have affected only “the four inches between ear and mouth.” Instead, the aim for a wise man should be that learning “enters his ear, clings to his mind, spreads through his four limbs and manifests itself in his actions.”

Scriptures historically were infused with contradiction and mystery, intertwined with ritual and music, to offer glimpses of deep truths and often to promote ethical behavior. Scriptures typically evolved flexibly to promote compassion, empathy and magnanimity — so it is particularly sad when today they are cherry-picked by ideologues, wrenched from context, to justify rigid and pusillanimous dogma.

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, Religion & Culture, Theology: Scripture

(CT) James Cary–Does God Have a Funny Side?

For example, [Steve] Wilkens points out that humans laugh while animals don’t. This we know, unconvincing zoological examples notwithstanding. But Wilkens digs into the theological significance of ths fact, joining some dots that help us see comedy not as an optional extra, but something at the core of what it means to be human beings and divine image-bearers.

Jokes can have unintended consequences. This is often what makes people reluctant to attempt humor or risk a comic observation. But a well-placed joke can make everyone relax. A shared sense of humor can build a relationship and further a connection. In his epilogue, Wilkens explains how writing the book had unintended positive consequences. “As I read theology through the lens of humor,” he writes, “I discovered that I don’t just love God. I like God.”

Once you see God’s handiwork in the everyday, as well as in his image-bearers and in the pages of Scripture, this could be your reality as well. Given the overly serious times in which we live, it’s probably worth a try. Perhaps we can see God showing his mirth after all.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Humor / Trivia, Theology, Theology: Scripture

(Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics) Don Collett–Overcoming Historicism’s Dividing Wall of Hostility: The Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Christian Smith notes the influence of bad philosophies of language and science upon biblicists, the latter of which are typically imbibed without much, if any, critical reflection. Paradigm-protecting approaches to organizing the diversity of Scripture also generate canons within the canon, while the influence of modernism’s mathematical and scientific rationalism upon biblicists leads them to effectively regard the Bible as a set of algebraic equations, thereby confusing mathematical and scientific ideas of precision with accuracy and truth. Sophisticated views of the philosophy of language and science are either unknown in popular forms of biblicism, or if known, exploited for purely negative and apologetic purposes, thereby precluding their constructive appropriation on any level.

Among the more interesting answers that Smith gives to this question are found in his third chapter, which is largely rooted in sociological observations. As it turns out, biblicists don’t get out much. They talk among themselves within socially and ecclesially constructed rooms of their own making and vintage, never bothering to open up windows to let in fresh air from the outside. When one adds to this the sociological observation that the need to reinforce one’s own identity is often tied to the need to differentiate oneself from others, this isolation is compounded even further (62-63). In short, because difference is essential to identity, biblicists may be subconsciously resisting “the idea of the biblical differences among them actually being settled” (63). Smith’s discussion of “homophily”, which he defines as natural attraction to those who think in the same terms we do, also helps to explain, at least in part, why biblicism is so resistant to change. Evangelical biblicists regularly underestimate the influence of social networks and social location upon how people process Scripture (64-65; 195-196). Because of this, they fall into the trap of believing that if they can just get people all believing the right things, everything else would take care of itself. While one can go too far with this and foster a sort of social determinism that ignores the Bible’s ability, through the Spirit, to overturn and counter the influence of what Smith (following Peter Berger) calls ‘plausibility structures’, in this reviewer’s opinion, Smith is right to point out that most biblicists regularly underestimate the impact their social context and location has upon how they hear Scripture. Many biblicists are Cartesians who view people as disembodied selves, or if you prefer, ideas with feet.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Seminary / Theological Education, Theology, Theology: Scripture