Category : Books

(Sightings) Martin Marty–Religion in the Years Ahead

A virtual throwaway line in a recent book review in the New York Review of Books caught my attention and prompted some early-in-the-year reflections on “the times.” Stephen Holmes, in a review of two sage and sane accounts by veterans Francis Fukuyama (Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment) and Kwame Anthony Appiah (The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Class, Culture), comments that Fukuyama “explains why liberal democracy has ceased to impress much of the world as the ideal form of political and social organization.” More Holmes: “What [Fukuyama] could not have foreseen [when he wrote an earlier book in 1992] was that the high tide of liberal democracy would last a mere fifteen years. ‘Beginning in the mid-2000s, the momentum toward an increasingly open liberal world order began to falter, then went into reverse.’” Fukuyama concludes in his new book that identity politics has supplanted it. Appiah, meanwhile, wants us to understand religious, national, and cultural identities as “labels.” In his view, they are not accurate representations but rather “coordinating devices or ‘ways of grouping people’” for a variety of purposes, and also “for good or ill.” It strikes me that our bookshelves are stacked with references to “coordinating devices” which were intended to help readers navigate their way in unsettled and unsettling times.

Familiar with the work of both authors, and moved by discernments in the Holmes review, I have spent these first days of the new year reflecting on what it means, or might mean, that the liberal world order vanished within fifteen years of Fukuyama’s depiction of liberal democracy “as the default form of government for much of the world” in his 1992 book. To review some ways in which it appeared to scholars in my field—religious history, sociology, and practical theology—I pulled down and reread two books from the lost world of 1969. We’ll open them in a moment. But first: crucial for all fair and honest appraisals or bad guesses about future cultural climates is a famed word by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, written as he reflected back on America’s founding. Whitehead argued that the founders’ thinking, acting, and writing were characteristic of an era in which “wise men hoped, and that as yet no circumstances had arisen to throw doubt upon the grounds of such hope.” The Civil War was a decisive moment in American history in this regard, but it was only one of many “circumstances” which re-set the stage for American dreaming. While values and virtues from the founding period would live on, the changes after that period were profound.

Sightings columns don’t typically allow for the kind of elaboration that many of us as scholars prefer, so please forgive me for the way I’m perhaps teasing this subject instead of offering a comprehensive treatment of it. But it strikes me that in 1969, a high year in the “old world order,” two Chicagoans published books on the subject of religion in the future. One was Andrew M. Greeley’s Religion in the Year 2000, and the other was the young scholar Martin E. Marty’s The Search for a Usable Future. Both authors were ordained clergy, both University of Chicago PhDs, both lived for some time in the same high-rise condo building, both born in 1928. I was technically twenty minutes older than Father Greeley, but I was admittedly less productive than the famed priest, in no small part because he had priestly celibacy while I was preoccupied with family life. My book pondering a “usable future”—honestly, less usable for this column’s purposes—was devoted to life amid paradoxical claims, less predictive about specific futures and more about “how to live” in the face of a variety of options for the future. I cited Martin Luther’s putative observation that “God rides the lame horse; he carves rotten wood.” The “Usable” in the title is of the “no matter what unfolds” sort.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Religion & Culture

(CEN) Paul Richardson reviews Melani McAlister’s new book: ‘The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals’

According to The Christian Century this study of how American evangelicals have engaged with the wider world was OUP’s best-selling religious book in the US in 2018. There have been numerous studies of evangelicalism within America but this is the first I know to look at how evangelicals have engaged with other cultures. It has important lessons for anyone interested in the mission of the church.

Melani McAlister describes herself as ‘secular’ but although she makes some sharp criticisms she does try to understand the people she writes about and present them fairly. Her story begins with racism in America in the 1950s and 1960s and ends with a group of InterVarsity students spending five weeks in Cairo trying to help Sudanese refugees. The evangelical community McAlister describes is diverse. Many evangelicals voted for Trump but others are struggling with issues of race, cultural imperialism and global poverty.

McAlister devotes chapters to important developments in evangelical engagement with the world: post-colonial turmoil in the Congo, relations with communism, pre-millennialism and support for Israel, the debates at Lausanne, apartheid, war in the Sudan, the growth of evangelical NGOs, the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, short-term missionaries, relations with Islam and the war in Iraq are all discussed. The importance of people from outside the US such as John Stott and Michael Cassidy is recognised and there are interesting comments on the 1998 Lambeth Conference.

Read it all (may require subscription).

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, Evangelicals, Globalization, Religion & Culture

(NPR) ‘Muhammad: Forty Introductions’ Isn’t Setting Out To Satisfy

Michael Muhammad Knight’s Muhammad: Forty Introductions asks two questions at the same time — or asks the same two questions 40 times.

One is explicit: How should we think about the prophet Muhammad? The other is implicit, but barely. How, Knight asks in each chapter, should I write an introduction? Or how do I decide where to start? How do I decide who to be?

That question is key to Knight’s work. A convert to Islam, he has long written from — and for — the social and scholarly margins. His literary debut, a self-published punk novel called The Taqwacores, has become a cult classic. He’s now a scholar and professor, and has written nonfiction about the Five-Percent Nation, Salafism, and meeting Muhammad’s daughter while tripping on ayahuasca.

In Muhammad, Knight draws from his massive variety of experiences. He listens to canonical voices and marginalized ones, studies traditions from across Islam, cites both Deleuze and Star Wars. Muhammad is as intellectually diverse as a book can get….

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Islam, Religion & Culture

(AI) Damir Marusic reviews Robert Kagan’s New book ‘The Jungle Grows back’–The Illiberal Challenge: Making Up Monsters to Destroy

The Jungle Grows Back immediately distinguishes itself from the pack by taking direct aim at the key piety that ties the standard narrative together: the idea of progress. “Unlike other cultures, which view history as a continuous cycle of growth and decay, or as stasis,” Kagan writes, “we view history as having a direction and a purpose. . . . we have come to believe that, while there may be occasional bumps and detours on the road, progress is inevitable.”

This is all a myth, he unequivocally states. The world as we know it, the international system as it is currently constructed, is a mere contingency—an historical aberration.

We have witnessed amazing progress over the past seven decades, and not just technological progress but also human progress. Yet this progress was not the culmination of anything. It was not the product of evolution, of expanding knowledge, of technological advances, the spread of commerce, and least of all of any change in the basic nature of human beings. It has been the product of a unique set of circumstances contingent on a particular set of historical outcomes, including on the battlefield, that could have turned out differently.

In other words, the liberal world order is a happy accident, the result of the liberal side triumphing in the Great Power struggle of the nuclear age. It didn’t have to work out that way. And it is precisely because of this contingency that we must prize the achievement highly. Don’t be complacent, Kagan is arguing, for it could all disappear in a heartbeat. The United States must therefore return to an expansive leadership role, one perhaps even more ambitious than the one it undertook in 1945. The rest of the book is largely Kagan making that case, and suggesting how such a newly expansive role might be shaped.

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Foreign Relations, History

(1st Things) John Wilson–the Faith of PD James

That project stalled, though it did prompt a re-reading of the Dalgliesh series to date, with many Post-it notes and scrawled observations. And it led me to re-read the Paris Review interview with James that appeared in the Summer 1995 issue (issue number 135), conducted by Shusha Guppy, the Paris Review’s London editor. There are some very interesting bits in the conversation, but this extract will allow you to understand why I felt like flinging the magazine across the room:

Interviewer

I believe you are religious, so perhaps you believe in an afterlife?

James

I certainly believe in God. As a Christian one is supposed to believe in “the resurrection of the body,” but I don’t think I do. I hope the soul is eternal. I am rather attracted to the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, that we are on the up and up!

Oh, dear. I re-read the interview earlier this week, for the first time since 2001. What struck me as before was not merely the feebleness of the response, but how incongruous it seems coming from James, whom I have admired greatly for her tough-mindedness. But reading the interview in the first week of 2019, I was no longer inclined to throw the magazine against the wall. Alas, it was old history.

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, Church of England (CoE), England / UK, Eschatology, History, Religion & Culture, Theology

(Cardus) Chad Wellmon–The Year of Whose Lord? Let’s not expect too much of (Christian) humanism

None of [Alan] Jacobs’s Christian humanists would have endorsed Nietzsche’s skepticism about the human or Barth’s distinctively modern theology, least of all Maritain, who would go on to pursue his same project but under the banner of universal human rights. But it is in these moments of intellectual humility and the frank acknowledgment of human finitude, which Jacobs delicately surfaces only ultimately to highlight, that we might find something that the what-is-human? discourse so often lacks: irony. I do not mean in the cultivated-nonchalant manner of certain pragmatists (think Richard Rorty shrugging his shoulders if that helps) or the cynicism of my childhood anti-hero Bart Simpson, but rather in the sense of an acute awareness of how parochial we humans always are. This ironic parochialism, as Charles Mathewes suggests, constrains both what we can know and what we can do; it reminds us of how situationally and historically contingent our forms of knowledge and life activity are, and how they are formed by the time and place allotted to us. Practiced well, such an irony can become a virtue of epistemic and ethical humility that need not necessarily lessen the desire to know or the hopeful expectation of its ultimate fulfillment. Such a parochialism cannot sustain an extension of sympathy to a boundless, universal human being, but it can focus our attention on the world in which we find ourselves. It can encourage a sustained attention to cracks in the universal sheen of sameness and help sustain practices that manage and constrain the compulsion to lose oneself in a void of universal what is humanness.

It can also help us come to terms with what seems to be our lot, namely, that integrity, fullness, or wholeness of human being is neither something to be recovered (a self, a community, a knowledge), nor is it something (a self, a community, a knowledge) to be defended against whatever might threaten it at any given time and place. Such a recovery and renewal––complete, universal, lasting––is not for a world that sits, since the fall and until its redemption, wholly within the saeculum. Our common world is riven by sinful deeds, disordered loves, and the hubris that full knowledge is rightfully ours here and now. And we, Christian or not, have no exclusive claim upon it.

By focusing on a shared world situated squarely in the saeculum, I am not suggesting that those who confess and hope in Christ cannot lead lives different from those who do not, that they ought not cultivate practices that better order their loves and nurture their faith and hope. I am simply arguing that pride may well be the most persistent of vices, a habit that lulls humans into assuming the sufficiency and truth of their own goodness and knowledge. The human, wrote Blaise Pascal, “is nothing but a subject full of error that cannot be eradicated except through grace. Nothing shows him the truth, everything deceives him.” If we abide the wartime imperative of Jacobs’s Christian humanists to recover what is essentially human, we risk overlooking what knowledge we do have––our all-too-human capacity to mistake proximate for ultimate goods, to mistake our own goodness and knowledge for God’s fullness.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture

(IMB) Madeline Arthington reviews Tim Keller’s new book–Jonah—Worst Missionary Ever?

Keller writes,

When we look at people who have brought trouble into their lives by their own foolishness, we say things like, ‘Serves them right’ or we mock them on social media: ‘What kind of imbecile says something like this?’ When we see people of the other political party defeated, we just gloat. This is all a way of detaching ourselves from them. We distance ourselves from them partly out of pride and partly because we don’t want their unhappiness to be ours. God doesn’t do that. (121)

Once the honeymoon period of missionary work wears off, the sinners we work among can be downright annoying. The triumph of knowing the local language well enough to communicate clearly is a dangerous gift. The ability to argue your rights or put someone in their place could grieve the Holy Spirit. As James admonishes, “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10 ESV hereafter).

Practicing the compassion of God toward local people in the daily small annoyances is a training ground for missionaries to respond well on the day malicious people slander and persecute.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Theology: Scripture

(CT) Remembering Lamin Sanneh, the World’s Leading Expert on Christianity and Islam in Africa

Dana L. Robert, director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission, Boston University School of Theology:

Professor Lamin Sanneh was a giant in the field of World Christianity. His loss sends a tidal wave across multiple fields, institutions, and continents. He will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with him and called him friend, as well as by people who knew him only from his powerful writings.

As an African, a superb scholar, and a convert from Islam, Lamin Sanneh saw from the outside what those raised on the inside could not. His 1989 book Translating the Message showed how the gospel could become part of every culture, through being translated into the language and worldview of the people. He challenged the assumption that Christianity was merely a tool of western colonizers.

Through his founding of the annual Yale-Edinburgh conferences on mission history, his publications, his editorship of the Oxford University Press World Christianity Series, his leadership of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, and many other important projects, Lamin Sanneh collaborated with others to transform the study of mission history, African religions, and World Christianity.

Read it all (emphasis mine).

Posted in Africa, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, Globalization, Islam, Missions, Muslim-Christian relations, Seminary / Theological Education

(CC) David Heim interviews Kathryn Tanner–Can Christianity be a counterforce to finance capitalism?

In Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism you argue that we live in an era of finance-dominated capitalism in which wealth is determined primarily not through the production of goods and services but by various schemes to maximize profit and minimize risk in the financial markets. This kind of capitalism, you suggest, has created a new personality type. How would you describe the person who has fully imbibed “the new spirit of capitalism”?

Finance-dominated capitalism encourages people to think of themselves in the same way that profit-maximizing businesses think of them: their persons represent capital that must be put to maximally productive use. Simply put: each person must take individual responsibility for making the most out of his or her own life, in a life project that spans the whole of life, both at work and outside it. If one fails in such a project, one has no one but oneself to blame.

Finance-dominated capitalism also encourages a peculiar sort of time consciousness that prevents people from taking a critical distance on capitalism; they can’t imagine things ever being any different because of the way past, present, and future collapse into one another in finance-dominated capitalism. The present, for example, collapses into the past in which one assumed a debt or other obligation; that past rigidly constrains all future conduct. Or the urgency of present demands at work pushes out consideration of past and future; one hasn’t the time to consider anything more than the current emergency that stretches the entirety of one’s resources. Or the future, from which one hopes to profit in financial markets, becomes nothing more than the present expectations used to calculate it….

Read it all.

Posted in * Economics, Politics, Books, Consumer/consumer spending, Corporations/Corporate Life, Economy, Labor/Labor Unions/Labor Market, Religion & Culture, Theology

(Church Times) Suzanne Cooper reviews Emma Mason’s ‘Christina Rossetti: Poetry, ecology, faith’

Emma Mason’s new critical study of Christina Rossetti’s poetry and prose is the latest in the Oxford University Press’s series Spiritual Lives.

Mason looks closely at her “contribution to emergent environmentalism”, reading Rossetti as a poet who “gentles” her audience into finding Grace through a recognition of the “kinness of nature”. Her poems of swans and stars, lilies and rainbows are reinterpreted in the light of Rossetti’s Tractarian faith.

Keble, Pusey, and Newman all privileged poetry as an art that could conjure the “world out of sight”, and represent the intercommunion of all Creation. The notion of “reserve”, within the Tractarian tradition — the unfolding of divine truth gradually, delightfully — seems particularly relevant with Rossetti. She exemplifies Keble’s ideal, crafting poetry at once “fervent yet sober, . . . neither wild and passionate, nor light and airy.”

Mason also highlights Rossetti’s family connections with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which her brother Gabriel’s described as an “Art-Catholic”.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History, Theology

(City Journal) Gerald Russello–Our New Religion: Humanitarianism is displacing Christianity, but without its redeeming effects

Paradoxically, now that humanitarianism has fully cut itself loose from Christianity, its categories and language have inserted themselves back into Christian thought. This infiltration prevents Christians at times from noticing that they’re arguing not in Christian categories but humanitarian ones. Almost every national bishops’ conference in the West, for example, speaks the language of humanitarianism. Mahoney sees this as the problem with much of Pope Francis’s language as well— too often, the language of mercy is emptied of theological content, and condemnations of “rigidity” seem to echo a rights-based view of the person. This trend is problematic because humanitarian language is antithetical to the Christian message, and also because it elides the sharp criticism of humanitarian thinking offered by, among others, Pope Emeritus Benedict. Benedict clearly distinguished between authentic Christian teaching and the “humanitarian moral message” in his Introduction to Christianity and his Regensberg lecture, both of which Mahoney discusses. Mahoney calls for the return of an older way of reasoning about our moral selves, which involves a transcendent dimension through which we can know our obligations to ourselves and one another.

Mahoney acknowledges that many of his co-religionists already accept his message—but why should atheists care that humanitarianism seeks to replace Christianity, when they reject the significance of the West’s moral collapse? Mahoney explains, using the powerful witness of Solzhenitsyn, that without a divine warrant, humanitarianism points to tyranny and the negation of true politics. We may already be seeing what a post-Christian politics might look like. The humanitarian religion of the twenty-first century will not be the same one as that of the twentieth; rather than Soviet Man, it will elevate the “woke” protester or Twitter provocateur. Both the authoritarian and racialist Right and the identity-obsessed Left offer glimpses of a post-Christian politics, and neither is a model for a healthy democracy.

Indeed, as Christianity fades, we don’t see a decline in religious fervor or doctrinal vigilance. Humanitarianism is itself a religion, and as Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has argued, modern secularism has its own eschatology (the eternal overcoming of “hatred”), its own sacraments and holidays, and various prohibitions and commandments, usually centered around specific groups. Coupled with the rise of various would-be pagan religions and the cult of the self, these movements represent a retreat from rational reflection on politics.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Anthropology, Books, History, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Secularism

(Perspectives on History) Zita Nunes–How Dorothy Porter Assembled and Organized a Premier Africana Research Collection

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

Consequently, instead of using the Dewey system, Porter classified works by genre and author to highlight the foundational role of Black people in all subject areas, which she identified as art, anthropology, communications, demography, economics, education, geography, history, health, international relations, linguistics, literature, medicine, music, political science, sociology, sports, and religion.[7] This Africana approach to cataloging was very much in line with the priorities of the Harlem Renaissance, as described by Howard University professor Alain Locke in his period-defining essay of 1925, “Enter the New Negro.” Heralding the death of the “Old Negro” as an object of study and a problem for whites to manage, Locke proclaimed, “It is time to scrap the fictions, garret the bogeys and settle down to a realistic facing of facts.”[8] Scholarship from a Black perspective, Locke argued, would combat racist stereotypes and false narratives while celebrating the advent of Black self-representation in art and politics. Porter’s classification system challenged racism where it was produced by centering work by and about Black people within scholarly conversations around the world.

The multi-lingual Porter, furthermore, anticipated an important current direction in African American and African Diaspora studies: analyzing global circuits and historical entanglements and seeking to recover understudied archives throughout the world. In Porter’s spirit, this current work combats the effects of segmenting research on Black people along lines of nation and language, and it fights the gatekeeping function of many colonial archives. The results of Porter’s ambitions include rare and unusual items. The Howard music collections contain compositions by the likes of Antônio Carlos Gomes and José Mauricio Nunes Garcia of Brazil; Justin Elie of Haiti; Amadeo Roldán of Cuba; and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges of Guadeloupe. The linguistics subject area includes a character chart created by Thomas Narven Lewis, a Liberian medical doctor, who adapted the basic script of the Bassa language into one that could be accommodated by a printing machine. (This project threatened British authorities in Liberia, who had authorized only the English language to be taught in an attempt to quell anti-colonial activism.) Among the works available in African languages is the rare Otieno Jarieko, an illustrated book on sustainable agriculture by Barack H. Obama, father of the former US president.

Porter must be acknowledged for her efforts to address the marginalization of writing by and about Black people through her revision of the Dewey system as well as for her promotion of those writings though a collection at an institution dedicated to highlighting its value by showing the centrality of that knowledge to all fields.

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, History, Race/Race Relations

(UMNS) Advice to Christians: Learn a little Hebrew

If seminary students and others want to dive into studying Hebrew, that’s wonderful, says the Rev. Matthew Richard Schlimm.

But he believes that just getting into the wading pool with that language leads to deeper understanding of the Old Testament.

Schlimm, a United Methodist elder and professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, is the author of the new book “70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know.”

Even understanding that fraction of the Old Testament’s original language can make a big difference, Schlimm maintains. In his book, he sweetens the deal by providing lots of historical and cultural background, as well as theological commentary.

“My hope is that I’m giving students of the Bible a new tool so that they spot new things in the biblical texts,” Schlimm, 41, said by phone from Iowa. “Being able to access the depth that Hebrew brings is a huge gift.”

Read it all.

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

Richard Mouw on the Lordship of Christ

Recently someone asked me what Christian thinker had most influenced my social-political thinking. I did not hesitate for a moment in coming up with the answer; Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper, who lived from 1837 to 1920, founded a Christian political party, and he even served as prime minister of the Netherlands during the early years of the twentieth century….

[Kuyper believed passionately that Jesus was king over all.] He insisted that God wants Christians to be active in showing forth the divine rule. Jesus is king, we are his subjects. This means that we must try to be obedient to the reign of Jesus in all areas of our lives:family relationships, friendships, business, politics, leisure time, art, science, farming. In whatever we do, we must seek to glorify God.

My favorite Abraham Kuyper quotation comes from a speech that he once gave before a university audience in Amsterdam. He was arguing that scholarship is an important form of Christian discipleship. Since scholarship deals with God’s world, it has to be done in such a way that it honors Christ. Kuyper concluded with this ringing proclamation: “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'”

This strong sense of Christ’s cosmic Lordship is thoroughly biblical.’For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him’ (Col 1:16 NIV). To emphasize Jesus’ Lordship this way is very important for a healthier understanding of what we have come to think of as “the ministries of the laity.” The home, the brokerage firm, the auto dealership, the gym and the concert hall–all belong to Christ. Our work in these settings is as much Christian ministry as anything that goes on in a church building.

When Kuyper pictured Jesus as crying out that everything belongs to him, he was not suggesting that the Lord is a self-centered property owner. Jesus isn’t like a toddler who screeches “Mine!” as he yanks toys away from his playmates. Kuyper knew that for Jesus ‘This is mine’ expresses a love so deep that he was willing to suffer and die in order to rescue his creation from sin.

–Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (Downer’s Grove, Ill. Inter-Varsity, 2010 2nd ed), pp. 160-161; and quoted by yours truly in the morning sermon

Posted in Books, Christology, The Netherlands

(CC) James KA Smith on Lauren Winner’s new book–When Christian practice (de)forms us

This complicated reality—we might call it “the Godfather problem”—is the target of Lauren Winner’s incisive, complex book, The Dangers of Christian Practice. Her argument lands on both academic and pastoral trends. As she wryly notes, “in some scholarly communities, to designate a study as a study of ‘practices’ is to cast a rosy glow.” This has been particularly true in postliberal theology over the past couple generations, as the insights of Alasdair MacIntyre in­formed the influential work of Stanley Hauerwas, who, in turn, has made a huge dent on an entire generation of Christian theologians who have looked to the practices of the church as a resource for staving off our cultural capitulation to the forces of consumerism, nationalism, and militarism. (The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, a widely used textbook, gathers this school of thought between two covers.)

Winner also points to a veritable industry of “practices” literature directed at practitioners and parishioners, including the influential work of leaders like Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra. Indeed, I think Winner would include some of her own work here, and I too should add a mea culpa.

“What unites these projects,” Winner observes, “is that in each, practices have been embraced as a way of fixing something in or for the church; practices have been embraced as a strategy of recuperation, repair, or reform.” When Protestant theologians write about Christian practices, “they are almost always extolling the practices.” The question that never seems to get asked is: “Why carry on with habits or practices, given the likelihood of their (and our) going wrong?” What good did this renewal of practices do for Catholic children in Pittsburgh or women at Willow Creek Church?

Winner is facing up to these questions and invites the church to do the same. The heart of her analysis is the concept of what she calls “characteristic damage” (with debts to Paul Griffiths). The key point is that when Christian practices de-form us it’s not simply incidental or because they have been tainted by the world. That would be to imagine the source of deformation is always other than the church, leaving the supposed purity of the church’s practices compromised by something else.

Winner’s point is more trenchant: some deformation is uniquely generated by the Christian practices themselves….

Read it all.

Posted in * Christian Life / Church Life, Books, Spirituality/Prayer

(CEN) Paul Richardson reviews Alan Jacobs new book ‘The Year of Our Lord 1943’

Shortly after the end of World War II Douglas Jay made a comment that summed up the way many people then thought. “The man in Whitehall,” he said,“really does know best.” The war had been won by technological superiority and careful planning, now it was time to apply those resources to refashioning society.

Alan Jacobs describes views of five Christian intellectuals – WH Auden, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil – who worried about the modern technocratic emphasis on efficiency and sought to use the resources of Christianity to create a renewed humanism.

Other people feature as well in what is a wide-ranging and very readable survey of how many Christians were thinking during the years of World War II and especially in the year 1943 when it became apparent that Hitler would be defeated.

Jacobs begins in his native America with an account of the views on education of the president of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler of the same university with their concern to give students a broad, humane education and their rejection of pragmatism and positivism and ends with Jaques Ellul’s great work The Technological Society.

Although the five main subjects did not coordinate their thinking, Jacobs makes a good case for arguing that they were all taking a similar line. What he is less successful at doing is arguing that they grasped the real challenge that confronted the world after the war was over.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture

Saturday Food for Thought (I): Klyne Snodgrass on Ephesians 2:10

The purpose of God’s creative activity is not merely to have a people, as if he were constructing a work of art. Rather, this new creation is to be active and productive like the Creator. Christians are “to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”…. Salvation is not from works, but it surely is for works, that is, living obediently and productively. In keeping with 1:3–14 on God’s planning, choosing, and acting, this verse shows God planned and acted not only to save, but also to mark out the way we should live. John Stott’s words are not too strong: “Good works are indispensable to salvation—not as its ground or means … but as its consequence and evidence.”

–Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 107, quoted by yours truly in last week’s adult education class

Posted in Books, Theology: Scripture

(1st Things) Joseph Epstein–The Bookish Life

The next four years I spent as an entirely uninterested high school student. Shakespeare’s Julius ­Caesar, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, a few essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, all offered as part of the required school curriculum, none of them so much as laid a glove on me. Willa Cather, a writer I have come to admire as the greatest twentieth-century American novelist, chose not to allow any of her novels put into what she called “school editions,” lest young students, having to read her under the duress of school assignments, never return to her books when they were truly ready for them. She was no dope, Miss Cather.

Only after I had departed high school did books begin to interest me, and then only in my second year of college, when I transferred from the University of Illinois to the University of Chicago. Among the most beneficial departures from standard college fare at the University of Chicago was the brilliant idea of eliminating textbooks from undergraduate study. This meant that instead of reading, in a thick­ textbook, “In his Politics Aristotle held . . . ,” or “In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud argued . . . ,” or “In On Liberty John Stuart Mill asserted . . . ,” students read the Politics, Civilization and Its Discontents, On Liberty, and a good deal else. Not only read them, but, if they were like me, became excited by them. Heady stuff, all this, for a nineteen-year-old semi-literate who, on first encountering their names, was uncertain how to pronounce Proust or Thucydides.

Along with giving me a firsthand acquaintance with some of the great philosophers, historians, novelists, and poets of the Western world, the elimination of that dreary, baggy-pants middleman called the textbook gave me the confidence that I could read the most serious of books. Somehow it also gave me a rough sense of what is serious in the way of reading and what is not. Anyone who has read a hundred pages of Herodotus senses that it is probably a mistake—that is, a waste of your finite and therefore severely limited time on earth—to read a six-­hundred-page biography of Bobby Kennedy, unless, that is, you can find one written by Xenophon.

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end….

Read it all.

Posted in Books

Food for Thought from Reinhold Neibuhr

If psychological and social scientists overestimate the possibilities of improving social relations by the development of intelligence, that may be regarded as an understandable naivete of rationalists, who naturally incline to attribute too much power to reason and to recognise its limits too grudgingly. Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because they have discovered their own deceptions. Whenever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise.

–Reinhold Neibuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (1932)

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History

Food for Thought from CS Lewis–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. 3-7.

Posted in Books, Church History

(LA Review of Books) Christianity and Resistance: An Interview with Alan Jacobs

So, what does “evangelical” mean?

Right now, I have no freaking idea. [Laughs.] I couldn’t begin to tell you.

What is it supposed to mean?

So, the most classic definition is one that was coined by Scottish historian David Bebbington (you can Google the term “Bebbington quadrilateral”), and it consists of these four things: evangelicals are people who believe in a conversion experience; they believe in the authority of scripture; they have a theology centered on the cross, and Jesus’s atoning work on the cross; and, as Bebbington puts it, they engage in a theologically informed activism, they get out there and preach the gospel and try to win people over. Some have suggested revisions to that, but that’s the general thing.

And what we’re looking at now is that many of the people who call themselves “evangelical” in polls are people who actually could not in any meaningful way affirm any of those four things. But that’s not encouraging to me, because what that suggests is that there are all these people who have some kind of tribal association with the word “evangelical.” And that means that evangelical churches have allowed themselves to degenerate into a kind of tribalism, rather than theologically informed, compassionate activism.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Evangelicals, Religion & Culture

(Spectator) Harry Mount reviews ‘A Field Guide to the English Clergy: A Compendium to Diverse Eccentrics, Pirates, Prelates and Adventurers; all Anglican, some even practising’

As the wordy title of this book and the name of its author suggest, this is a faux-archaic, fogeyish journey around England’s oddest vicars. The Reverend Fergus Butler-Gallie is, though, the real thing: a young curate in the Church of England. Yes, he’s given to sometimes tiresome jocularity: he describes himself as ‘a Bon Viveur first and foremost, with a soupçon of Roguishness and Prodigality’. But, still, his essential thesis is right: the Church of England has produced some real oddballs in its time, and this is an entertaining gallop through several centuries’ worth of them.

For 400 years after the Reformation, the Church of England was the ideal Petri dish for nurturing eccentricity. Take plenty of money, lots of free time, a good education, power and class confidence, and vicars were bound to overindulge their whims. Well, at least until the second half of the 20th century — when the collapse of religious feeling, the decline of the Church’s wealth and power, and the selling-off of the finest vicarages and rectories brought a sad end to clever, rich, eccentric, educated vicars….

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church of England, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry

(WSJ) Jillian Kay Melchior on bell hooks–A Prophet for the ‘Social Justice’ Movement

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of bell hooks, or recognize the name only vaguely. But if you follow the turmoil on American college campuses, you’re indirectly aware of her influence. Leftist scholars—and nonscholars too, increasingly—put her in the pantheon of thinkers whose names every educated person should recognize: Plato, Descartes, Marx.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, Ms. hooks uses a lowercase pen name “to focus attention on her message rather than herself,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica reports, not altogether plausibly. That message begins with the “intersectionality” theory—the claim that racism, sexism and similar types of oppression compound each other’s effects—and advises social-justice warriors (or SJWs) on how to respond.

SJWs often resemble religious fundamentalists, and faith and spirituality are central to Ms. hooks’s vision. “Truly, there can be no feminist transformation of our culture without a transformation in our religious beliefs,” she writes in “Feminism Is for Everybody” (2000). She describes “fundamentalist patriarchal religion” as a barrier to “the spread of feminist thought and practice.”

She reserves particular vitriol for Christianity, “which condones sexism and male domination” and “informs all the ways we learn about gender roles in this society.” But Ms. hooks’s take on Christianity draws more from experience than scholarship….

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, History, Religion & Culture, Women

(CT) Warren Smith–David Foster Wallace Broke My Heart

While a graduate student at the University of Arizona, he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that brought him face-to-face with religion and religious people. AA’s 12-Step program is a far cry from a systematic and biblical theology, but for someone like Wallace—brilliant, arrogant, skeptical—its principles were humbling and eye-opening, especially the admonition to “surrender to a power higher than ourselves.”

Recovery ultimately took several years and involved multiple relapses, time in a residential rehab facility (brilliantly fictionalized in Infinite Jest), and at least one suicide attempt. But when Wallace came out the other end, he was a different, humbler man. As Max puts it,

To do well in recovery required modesty rather than brilliance. It was not easy for him to accept humbling adages like “Your best thinking got you here.” How smart could he be, the other program members would remind him, if here he was in a room in the basement of a church with a dozen other people talking about how he couldn’t stop drinking?

If these experiences did not lead Wallace to religion, or Christianity in particular, they did lead him to admire and respect Christians, many of them “ordinary Joes” he met in these church basements. In 1999, to one of his writer friends, he wrote, “You’re special—it’s OK—but so’s the guy across the table who’s raising two kids sober and rebuilding a ’73 Mustang.”

That respect showed up in his work, and despite his background and education, he became something of a “blue-collar intellectual.” He often wore jeans, flannel shirts, and unlaced Timberland boots. In the heat of Arizona, he would pull his long hair back with a bandana, and the look became his trademark. Wallace would skewer the pompous and the hypocritical without a trace of pity, but he developed a quiet and profound respect for the humble and sincere Christians who often led these AA meetings and served as his sponsors—people who desperately, unironically talked about a God he wanted to but could not quite embrace….

Read it all.

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

(Economist) Francis Fukuyama and Kwame Anthony Appiah take on identity politics

Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. By Francis Fukuyama. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 240 pages; $26. To be published in Britain by Profile Books in October; £16.99.

The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. By Kwame Anthony Appiah. Liveright; 256 pages; $27.95. Profile Books; £14.99.

One of the most remarkable recent developments in Anglo-American politics is the reification of the white working class. Google Trends, a website that tracks how often particular words or phrases are typed into the search engine, shows a huge spike in interest in that group when Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016. Interest has never quite subsided since. What is more, the white working class has gone from being mostly ignored to being assumed to have a consistent set of views, even a political agenda.

Many of the books published after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Mr Trump’s election tried to explain why this group in particular had turned on the political establishment. For example, “Us vs Them” by Ian Bremmer and “WTF” by Robert Peston found the answer in the travails of former industrial towns and the arrogance and selfishness of elites. Now come two more reflective takes. “Identity” and “The Lies That Bind” suggest that Western countries not only have deep economic and social problems, but philosophical ones too. People are looking at themselves and others in the wrong ways.

Read it all.

Posted in * Economics, Politics, Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Theology

(CT) John Inazu: Why I’m Still Confident About ‘Confident Pluralism’

The premise of confident pluralism is that we can make room for our differences even as we maintain our own beliefs and practices. Doing so requires both legal and personal commitments. When it comes to the law, we must insist that those in power protect our ability to disagree. We must have a shared commitment to allowing for dissent, difference, and divergent beliefs. That means strengthening First Amendment freedoms for everyone.

The personal argument focuses on civic practices rooted in three aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience. Tolerance acknowledges that people should generally be free to pursue their own beliefs and practices. This is not the same as approval; it is much closer to endurance. We can usually respect people even if we don’t respect their ideas. Humilityrecognizes that we will sometimes be unable to prove to others why we believe we are right and they are wrong. Patience asks us to listen, understand, and empathize with those who see the world differently.

The American experiment in pluralism depends upon legal commitments and civic practices. And we have usually found ways to maintain a modest unity against great odds. We have always done so imperfectly, and too often our political stability has been purchased at the cost of suppressing or silencing those with less power. But in acknowledging our country’s shortcomings, we can also remember some of its successes. The disagreements between white Protestant men at the founding of our country may seem trivial today, but those differences meant widespread killing in other parts of the world. Our debased and dehumanizing political rhetoric leaves much to be desired, but unlike many other societies, we usually stop short of actual violence. In the midst of deep disagreements with our neighbors, we still find creative partnerships in unexpected places. These examples of our modest unity are important reminders that we can live together across deep differences. On the other hand, they do not suggest that we have or will overcome our differences. As I write in the book’s conclusion, confident pluralism will not give us the American dream, but it might help avoid the American nightmare.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Apologetics, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Religion & Culture, Theology

Wednesday food for Thought from Max Lucado

Heroes in the Bible came from all walks of life—rulers, servants, teachers, doctors—male, female, single, and married. Yet one common denominator united them. They built their lives on the promises of God. Noah believed in rain before rain was a word. Joshua led two million people into enemy territory. One writer went so far as to call such saints “heirs of the promise” (Hebrews 6:17).

As God prepared the Israelites to face a new land, he made a promise to them, “Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the LORD, will do for you” (Exodus 34:10). God’s promises are unbreakable. Our hope is unshakable!

–Max Lucado Unshakable Hope

Posted in Books, Eschatology

The Joy of Reading

Posted in * By Kendall, Animals, Books, Harmon Family

Kate Bowler–“I am preparing for death and everyone else is on Instagram”

Posted in Books, Death / Burial / Funerals

Wednesday Food for Thought from Michael Anton

From here:

The sexual revolution, universally assumed to be a boon for randy men, has turned out to be in at least one respect much more conducive to satisfying women’s preferences than men’s. Men may have started it, or at least egged it on, hoping that with the old restraints gone, they would be free to indulge. But they forgot or never understood a fundamental law of nature: throughout the animal kingdom—up to and including Homo sapiens—males merely display; females choose. When a woman’s choice is completely free of all social, legal, familial, and religious boundaries, she prefers to hold out for “the best.” Hence a constrained-supply problem arises.

Four years ago, a University of North Carolina co-ed lamented to the New York Times that the sex imbalance on college campuses (nationally, 43% male, 57% female as of fall 2014) is even worse for girls than it looks. “Out of that 40 percent, there are maybe 20 percent that we would consider, and out of those 20, 10 have girlfriends, so all the girls are fighting over that other 10 percent.”

(Hat tip:AR)

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Marriage & Family, Men, Sexuality, Women, Young Adults