Category : Books

(LARB) George Prochnik–What Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt Can Teach Us About Evil Today

The more complete portrait of Eichmann that has emerged in recent years validates Scholem’s impression. From the descriptions and interviews of Nazi functionaries he himself has read, Scholem reports, it appears, “The gentlemen enjoyed their evil, so long as there was something to enjoy. One behaves differently after the party’s over, of course.”

The enjoyment Scholem refers to is not simple sadism, but the thrill of experiencing a wild inflation of personal power — power over others, power to do as one privately wishes quite apart from any larger, theoretical ideology. What Scholem identifies in Eichmann is the excitement of feeling oneself to be a god.

There are plenty of directions we can turn our eyes today to test the respective theses of Arendt and Scholem about the mentality of the characters crafting policies that cause suffering to the innocent and harm to the planet. Are we seeing conformist functionaries mindlessly carrying out their nefarious duties? Or are we watching numbers of highly self-motivated individuals eagerly, sometimes even gleefully indulging an unconscionable greed for power in all its earthly forms? In Arendt’s schema, given enough basic intelligence, the person who doesn’t know how to think can be taught to do so. But the problem presented by someone in a self-centered passion is different. The person who thinks himself a God has to be removed from power before the contradiction of their fantasy becomes a capital offense.

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Posted in Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Germany, History, Theodicy

(The Goodbook) Vaughan Roberts on assisted dying, dignity and dependence

How should Christians bring our perspective into the public debates about assisted dying?

Well for a start, we need to make sure that we are involved in these discussions, even if it’s just closer to home—in our offices, in our communities, among our friends, as well as in the national debate. We’ve got good news to share—so let’s get engaged. So much of this discussion assumes that some lives are just not worth living—and Christians need to say, no, every life has dignity.

Second, we’ve also got something important to say about suffering. Our culture can’t cope with suffering—it wants to reduce suffering as much as possible and at all costs. Christians say suffering is bad—it’s a result of the fall—but God can be wonderfully at work in and through it.

And third, I think one key assumption underlying the argument for assisted suicide is that there’s just nothing worse than being dependent on others. But a Christian worldview says that actually our dependence on God and on one another is fundamental to our humanity. It’s a good thing! Illnesses brings that dependence to the fore, and that can be mutually very uplifting—for the carer and the one being cared for—even in the midst of very hard times. My father found the loss of independence the hardest aspect of his illness to cope with. At the very end of his life he was paralysed and unable to speak. Those last few days were intensely sad and yet also, in a strange way, profoundly beautiful. He had given so much to us and now we in the family had the privilege of caring for him, stroking and kissing him, singing his favourite hymns and praying. Such dependence is not undignified. This is being human.

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Posted in Aging / the Elderly, Anthropology, Books, Children, Church of England (CoE), Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, Health & Medicine, Law & Legal Issues, Life Ethics, Marriage & Family, Ministry of the Laity, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry, Pastoral Care, Theology

(TLC) Michael Cover reviews Ephraim Radner’s New Book “Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures”

…Radner is committed to an ecumenical and indeed Jewish-Christian history of figuralism less concerned with winners and losers (and the tired struggles of Christian schism) or particular philosophical stances, and more concerned with reconciling our history of divisive figuralism through the recognition of a shared posture toward Scripture. Radner’s performance of certain tensions throughout the study can thus be seen not only as an exercise in Christian skeptical occasionalism in the spirit of Butler, but also as part of a larger program of reconciliation among the warring factions of the faithful seeking understanding in the common words of Scripture, which takes up the mantle of George Lindbeck. This is not to say that Radner’s theological and philosophical commitments are completely obscured in the work. He nonetheless adopts a posture of ecumenical openness and invites his readers to an armistice in a no-man’s land between the historical reductionism of Scripture to a human artifact, on the one hand, and the antecedent interreligious and interdenominational warfare over appropriate figural readings of Scripture, on the other. The study reaffirms the author’s place as one of Anglicanism’s foremost theologians and ecumenists. This book is a gift to the Church, and warrants serious, sustained attention by pastors and scholars alike.

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Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Books, Theology, Theology: Scripture

(PPH) Anthony Doerr, author of ‘All the Light We Cannot See,’ returns to Maine

At Bowdoin, Doerr majored in history because it gave him the flexibility to take classes across a range of subjects. Bowdoin allowed him to explore his curiosities and what it means to be human. He sought out subjects of interest – in science, sociology, architecture, astronomy and nutrition – but never took a creative writing class. He did submit a poem as part of an application for a poetry workshop, but was rejected.

Still, writing was central to his time at Bowdoin. He wrote for the college newspaper and other publications, and his history major required a thesis. That was his first experience at long-form writing, and it led directly to his career as a novelist and essayist. Being a writer, he said, was never a consideration as a kid. It all happened at Bowdoin.

“Growing up where I did, being a novelist was something I could not do. I never met a novelist. I thought novelists were dead or living in Paris,” he said. “But at Bowdoin, I got to write a thesis. I learned how to hash out a book and what it was like to build a longer project. It was only 90 pages, but it was a way to start putting together a big piece of research and larger blocks of text. It felt empowering as a 20-year-old.”

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Posted in America/U.S.A., Books, Education, Poetry & Literature, Rural/Town Life, Young Adults

Kevin DeYoung reviews Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters

This is not a book long rant against ordinary rubes and common folk. Nichols is well aware that experts are part of the problem. His aim is to bridge the gap between experts and laypeople (xv). A functioning Republic depends on the former serving the latter and expects the latter to pay some deference to the former.

To act as if no one knows more than anyone else is not only silly, it’s a serious mistake. Nichols cites a survey from a few years ago in which enthusiasm for military intervention in Ukraine was directly proportional to the person’s lack of knowledge about Ukraine. It seems that the dumber we are, the more confident we are in our own intellectual achievements. Nichols relays an incident where someone on Twitter was trying to do research about sarin gas. When the world’s expert on sarin gas offered to help, the original tweeter (a twit we might say) proceeded to angrily lecture that expert for acting like a know-it-all. The expert may not have known all, but in this case he knew exponentially more than some jerk online.

We’ve swallowed the lie that says if we believe in equal rights we must believe that all opinions have equal merit. Nichols also tells the story of an undergraduate student arguing with a renowned astrophysicist who was on campus to give a lecture about missile defense. After seeing that the famous scientist was not going to change his mind after hearing the arguments from a college sophomore, the student concluded in a harrumph, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” At which point the astrophysicist quickly interjected, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours” (82-83). There was nothing wrong with the student asking hard questions, or even getting into an argument. The problem was in assuming he had as much to offer on the subject after a few minutes reflection as the scientist did after decades of training and research.

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Posted in Books

(CC) Elizabeth Palmer on Stephen Backhouse’s new biography–Kierkegaard and his gifts for the church

The second gift Kierkegaard gives the church is the withering power of his attacks on the established church in Denmark, including its dominant theology, its institutional structure, and its pastors. This stance is the focus of Kierkegaard’s polemical writings in which he became enmeshed during the last years of his life. He was offended by a theology that turned Christianity into a form of philosophical Hegelianism (Kierkegaard’s charge against the popular professor H. L. Martensen), by culturally and politically sanctioned church leaders (embodied for Kierkegaard by Bishop J. P. Mynster), and by anti-institutional populist forms of religion that made an idol of the masses (Kierkegaard’s view of the pastor-educator Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig). As Kierkegaard saw it, these manifestations of bourgeois faith lured Danes away from Jesus’ radical call to discipleship. Caught up in the crowd of a culturally sanctioned faith, Christians were saved from the offensive but necessary movement of throwing themselves as sinners on God’s mercy.

Although Christianity in 21st-century America is far from that of 19th-century Denmark, it is not only in Kierkegaard’s day that pastors were guilty of preaching in a way that “tones down, veils, suppresses, omits some of what is most decisively Christian” (as Kierkegaard put it in an 1854 newspaper article following Mynster’s death). Refusing on his deathbed to receive holy communion from a clergyman, Kierkegaard complained about a church that was beholden to the state, a church in which “the pastors are civil servants of the Crown.” Today the co-opting of the church comes from other directions. Fear of numerical decline, nostalgia for the way things used to be, or adherence to a political agenda exerts its own pressure toward conformity and security.

And clergy are not the only ones Kierkegaard faults. Pews as well as pulpits are filled with religious complacency:

The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. . . . I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars.

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Posted in Books, Church History, Denmark, Philosophy, Religion & Culture

(JE) Joseph Russell–10 Profound Quotes from ‘The Cross of Christ’ by John Stott

1.) “From Jesus’ youth, indeed even from his birth, the cross cast its shadow ahead of him. His death was central to his mission. Moreover, the church has always recognized this.” (pg. 23)

2.) “The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of the ridicule, to discard it in favor of something less offensive, can have only on explanation. It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself. It was out of loyalty to him that his followers clung so doggedly to this sign.” (pg. 31)

3.) “God could quite justly have abandoned us to our fate. He could have left us alone to reap the fruit of our wrongdoing and to perish in our sins. It is what we deserved. But he did not. Because he loved us, he came after us in Christ. He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where he bore our sins, guilt, judgement and death. It takes a hard and stony heart to remain unmoved by love like that.” (pg. 85)

4.) “The essential background to the cross, therefore, is a balanced understanding of the gravity of sin and the majesty of God. If we diminish either, we thereby diminish the cross.” (pg. 111)

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Posted in Books, Christology, Church of England (CoE), Evangelicals, Soteriology, Theology: Scripture

(CT) Elesha Coffman reviews Geoffrey Treloar’s new book “The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond”

Geoffrey Treloar’s The Disruption of Evangelicalism: The Age of Torrey, Mott, McPherson and Hammond feels like the culmination of a very long project. Back in 2003, historian Mark Noll inaugurated InterVarsity Press’s five-volume series on the history of evangelicalism with The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys. He described the series as a whole, in the introduction to that book, as accessible to any reader, yet footnoted for scholars; global in scope, though grounded in the English-speaking world; and centered on “evangelical religion, as understood by the evangelicals themselves” while attending to historical context. Subsequent volumes appeared in chronological order, except for this one, which marks the end of the series but covers the penultimate time period, 1900–1940.

The early 20th century is generally considered the low point in the long sweep of evangelical history. Superstar evangelist Dwight L. Moody died in 1899, and his mantle would not be taken up by Billy Graham until after World War II. Key events, including World War I, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism in Europe, offered little to cheer. The period also saw the infamous fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which split numerous denominations and religious institutions along lines of biblical interpretation, doctrine, openness to scientific inquiry, and posture toward the outside world.

In a move reminiscent of the “new academic hagiography” advocated by historian Rick Kennedy (see Chris Gehrz’s post at The Pietist Schoolman blog), Treloar seeks to rehabilitate this era, casting it as a time not of narrowness and rancor but of breadth and creativity. Instead of two hardened camps, fundamentalist and modernist, lobbing rhetorical shells between their respective seminaries, Treloar describes a wide spectrum of evangelicals with most of its vitality at the center. “Not all fundamentalists were the same; liberals varied in the degree of their liberality; and the centre was broad,” he writes. This perspective rescues little-known figures from obscurity, both expanding the roster of evangelicals and marking finer shades of differentiation among them….

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

(CT) Jeff Haanen on Tony Reinke’s new Boook–Your Smartphone Is Neither a Cancer nor a Cure-All

We miss the point if we become either pro- or anti-technology. Instead, liberation from our smartphones (and all our technology) is best summed up by the psalmist: “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts” (119:45). In contrast to the American view of freedom—essentially, lack of restraint on individual choice—the Bible sees true freedom as a matter of living within proper boundaries.

The redeeming gem of Reinke’s book is found in asking readers to define those boundaries. After reading a list of 12 questions under the heading “Should I Ditch My Smartphone?,” I asked myself, What do I really need my phone for?

As I began deleting apps and setting new boundaries, I found myself catching an appealing vision of a better—and slower—life. And my phone once again became just a tool, to be used like all good things given by God (James 1:17).

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Posted in Books, Evangelicals, Religion & Culture, Science & Technology

An Economist Article on Peter Marshall’s new book “Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation”

Just a day after the English Book of Common Prayer was first used in Sampford Courtenay, Devon, on Whitsunday in 1549, an angry mob appeared at the church door. They demanded that the elderly rector reconsider using the new liturgy. Somewhat sheepishly, one imagines, he decided to don his popish vestments and revert to saying the Latin mass.

That village protest was the first of a series of English uprisings in Norfolk, Oxfordshire and the south-west, which led to perhaps 10,000 deaths as King Edward VI’s regime suppressed dissent. It would be a mistake to think that the English Reformation was mostly peaceful, with beheadings and burnings confined to a small and fervent elite.

The historiography of Tudor England usually focuses on the monarchs’ Reformation: how the state imposed religious change on the nation. Shelves groan with royal histories, but new accounts of how the ordinary English felt, objected to and imbibed it all are much more scarce. On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Peter Marshall has written a fine history of a momentous time as seen from the bottom up, drawing on a wide range of primary sources and his evident scholarship.

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Posted in Books, Church History

Ian Johnson’s book ‘The Souls Of China’ Documents Country’s Dramatic Return To Religion

SHAPIRO: There is such an interesting relationship between these emerging religious practices or returning religious practices, I guess we should say, and the government. There are several instances where you talk about sort of local government observers sitting in the back of a religious ceremony, and the preacher trying to thread this needle where he can deliver a message that might be a little bit barbed but deliver it not so explicitly that the government agents will shut down the ceremony.

JOHNSON: Yeah, especially with Christianity. There’s a suspicion of it from the government side. They see Christianity as foreign-influenced. So in that particular case, yeah, there were plainclothes police at the back of the hall – this was a big Christmas service that I attended – and they were listening in. And I think they were eager to find an excuse to shut it down, but they didn’t.

On the other hand, the so-called traditional faiths are often really encouraged by the government. And we can see this under Xi Jinping, that he’s given a lot of money and support to traditional religions like Buddhism and Taoism.

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Posted in Books, China, Religion & Culture

(CEN) Chris Sugden reviews the new book “Reformation Anglicanism – a Vision for Today’s Global Communion”

[Michael] Nazir Ali traces the development and nature of the Anglican Communion, a reprint of his Latimer Booklet of 2013 “How the Anglican Communion began and where it is going”. through ‘movements of people responding to the call of God on their lives”. Its renewal will come “ not through the reform of structures or through institutional means but through movements raised up by God” for planting churches, renewal in worship, campaigners for the poor and persecuted. ( p 43)

[Benjamin] Kwashi expounds the transforming power of the gospel as we seek the kingdom of God, rather than our own power and status, by relying not on our own natural power, but on God working through us by the Spirit.

The relation of scripture, reason and tradition is more accurately described not as a three legged stool, but to see “ Scripture as a garden bed in which reason and tradition are tools used to tend the soil, unlock its nutrients and bring forth the beauty within it.” ([Ashley] Null p. 86). The whole thrust of Anglican liturgy was to teach people the scriptures. The Church of England would only succeed, Cranmer held, if the English people regularly sat under the transforming power of Scripture and its message expressed in Morning and Evening Prayer and the Holy Communion. (198) The chief responsibility of Bishops is to “proclaim and defend the apostolic faith as taught by the Scriptures” (195) since Christian fellowship can only be based on a common understanding of saving faith (196). They show their authentic apostolic succession by what they teach and what they reject.

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Posted in * Theology, Anglican Identity, Books, Church History

A New Book out from Brent Strawn–The Old Testament Is Dying (Baker)

The Old Testament makes up the majority of the Christian Bible and provides much of the language of Christian faith. However, many churches tend to neglect this crucial part of Scripture, leading to the loss of the Old Testament as a resource for faith and life.

This timely book shows how the Old Testament is like a language–a language is used and learned or it falls into disuse and eventually dies. Brent Strawn details a number of ways the Old Testament is showing signs of decay, demise, and imminent death in the church and criticizes common misunderstandings of the Old Testament that contribute to its neglect. He also shows that it is possible for a language to be recovered. Drawing fresh insight from recent studies of how languages die and are revived, Strawn offers strategies for renewing the use of the Old Testament in Christian faith and practice. This clearly written book will appeal to professors and students of the Old Testament as well as pastors and church leaders.

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Posted in Books, Religion & Culture, Theology: Scripture

(Economist Erasmus Blog) Muslims, Christians and Jesus: A building and a book highlight an odd symbiosis between monotheistic faiths

Over the centuries, the Abrahamic faiths have found many things to fight over, and many modes of co-existence. The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where a $4m conservation project was formally unveiled this week, exemplifies both points. It is, so to speak, an interface between the monotheisms. Quarrels over the tomb of Jesus sparked the crusades, but in the lore of this sacred spot there are inspiring stories of symbiosis. It is jointly used by six quarrelsome Christian confessions, but the keys are kept dutifully by Jerusalem’s oldest Muslim dynasty. This arrangement is said to date from Jerusalem’s Muslim conquest, when Caliph Omar held back from saying Islamic prayers in the Sepulchre church, thus leaving it Christian. In Ottoman times, pilgrimage to the tomb and raising money for it were huge activities for the empire’s Christians; this underpinned a cordial relationship between Greek Orthodox hierarchs who were the Sepulchre’s main stewards and the city’s Turkish overlords. The exact terms on which Christian communities share the Sepulchre were fine-tuned by the Ottoman sultan; the British took this arrangement over, then the Israelis.

It so happens that one of the most articulate of non-specialist writers in English about Islam, the Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol, has just put forward a very different sort of proposal for terms on which Abraham’s children might co-exist. His concern is not with the sharing of hallowed space, more with doctrine and sacred narratives. Boldly, he suggests that despite all the theological contrasts, Jesus of Nazareth is a figure through whom historically-aware Christians, Muslims and Jews could come to closer mutual understanding. “Whether we are Jews, Christians and Muslims, we either share a faith followed by him, a faith built on him, or a faith that venerates him,” he notes at the opening of his book, “The Islamic Jesus”.

But he is honest about the gaps. Christians believe Jesus was both the Son of God and the Messiah, the anointed prophet for whom Jews were yearning; Muslims believe he was the second but not the former; Jews generally believe he was neither.

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Posted in Books, Inter-Faith Relations, Islam, Judaism, Other Churches, Religion & Culture, Theology

(First Things) Patrick Deneen–Moral Minority: A Look at Three recent Books on Christians in America

Thirty years later, the mood has changed. Three books have appeared almost simultaneously that assume the opposite of what Falwell believed: America is populated by an immoral majority. Not only is its leadership class dominated by progressive elites, but the American public more generally has been corrupted by constant saturation in a media of skepticism and irony, pervasive consumerism, unavoidable pornography, and incessant distraction fostered by entertainment centers in every person’s pocket. America has lost its faith, and so the faithful have begun to question their belief in America.

Published within months of each other—by a popular blogger and author who has journeyed from Protestantism to agnosticism to Catholicism to Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher; by one of America’s most prominent and intellectually accomplished Catholic bishops, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles J. Chaput; and by a Catholic professor of English at Providence College and renowned translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen—the books share the belief that traditional Christians are a moral minority. All three books were written in the midst of a political campaign that was expected to result in the election of Hillary Clinton. All three reflect the pessimism that accompanied that prospect.

The outcome of that election, surprising as it was, does not change the argument of these books: Politics will not save us. What is first of all necessary is to rebuild a culture in disarray. Compared with recovering the basic requirements of virtuous civilization—healthy communities, flourishing family life, sound education, a deep reservoir of cultural memory and practice, and formative religious faith—remaking the Supreme Court is a cinch. Philosophers who have described culture as the first requirement of a healthy civilization, from Plato to Burke to Tocqueville, have generally believed that the most one can consciously strive to achieve is preservation of a healthy culture, should one be fortunate enough to possess one. Once a culture is corrupted from within, however, they saw little hope of reversing its decay.

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