Review: The Road to Middle-Earth

The Road to Middle Earth

The Road to Middle-EarthTom Shippey. New York: Houghton Mifflin, rev. ed. 2003.

Summary: A study of Tolkien’s methods in creating the narratives of Middle-Earth, including words, names, maps, poetry, and mythology.

For most of us who have read (and re-read) J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and other stories, we marvel at the world Tolkien creates, complete with fascinating names, a variety of languages with poetry and mythologies of beginnings, and the entry of evil into their world. Creatures who previously only inhabited the fairy tales of childhood come alive: dwarves, elves, trolls, wights, and orcs, as well as Tolkien’s unique creation, those lovable hobbits. One wonders, how did he do all that? We might wonder where Christopher Tolkien, his son, has gotten all the material for twelve volumes of Middle-Earth history and more.

Tom Shippey’s book helps answer that question, and is a boon to those who wish to delve (an appropriate word) into the depths underneath the stories we love. Shippey begins with what it meant for Tolkien to be a philologist. It was a time when the field of English studies was riven between “lit versus lang.” Tolkien was a philologist. He loved languages, particularly the languages from which modern English came. Shippey observes that for Tolkien, the story arose from the language and the world he created provided a place for the languages. The book traces all of this, the people and place names, the poetry and song, the map of Middle-Earth and a mythology to make sense of it all.

He analyzes the stories and what he calls “interlacement” as a series of different stories intersect in this grand story. He also unfolds Tolkien’s lifetime work of establishing the history behind The Lord of the Rings, including the account that made up The Silmarillion, finished by Christopher Tolkien. Tolkien worked for decades on various pieces of the history, developing languages, drawing on Old English and other languages to come up with words, and then going back and forth, harmonizing his account. He would devise stories and characters like Tom Bombadil and then try to fit them into his growing narrative. Names changed over times as Trotter became Strider and Aragorn. It appears that Tolkien often could be drawn down rabbit trails as he sought to elaborate the bones of the history of Middle-Earth. The story “Leaf by Niggle” is a parable of Tolkien’s creative process. It is a story of an artist so meticulous that he only paints one leaf. Oh, what a leaf Tolkien painted, even if he left much unfinished work to Christopher!

The book includes several afterwords, the most interesting of which is a comparison of the text of Lord of the Rings with Peter Jackson’s version, underscoring what can be done with text versus film, and the plot choices Jackson made, sometimes illuminating, sometimes questionable.

If all the poems and strange names in Lord of the Rings are off-putting to you, this probably isn’t the book for you. Shippey plunges deeply into all of this and Tolkien’s creative process that resulted in the story. It can be heavy wading, and is probably done best after reading Lord of the Rings several times and having the text at your side. If you love all this stuff, you will love this book and won’t mind some of the sections which get fairly technical with lots of unfamiliar words.

Tolkien probably started developing the ideas that led to The Lord of the Rings around 1914. The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954 and 1955. His other major work, The Silmarillion, was published posthumously in 1977. In an era where some fan fiction writers crank out a work every year or two, Shippey helps us understand why it took so long to produce these works and why these works are considered so great by so many. Shippey makes the case that in creating this mythology in the English language, Tolkien was “The Author of the Century.” Tolkien did not merely create a story. He created a world.

Review: Losing Earth

Losing Earth.jpg

Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

Summary: An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day.

Did you know that much of the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and global warming traces back to the nineteenth century? That in the 1950’s and throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scientists were already warning of global warming and contending that warming connected with higher carbon dioxide levels was already evident? Did you know there was a time when climate change and the science behind it was not a political issue and that political leaders in both parties, and many others in most the the countries of the world, substantially agreed that this was a looming problem that needed to be addressed? That world leaders came very close to an agreement to limit and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 1989? That was thirty years ago. In 1990 human beings emitted more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of cutting that amount, by 2018, the amount was projected at 37.1 billion metric tons and growing.

Nathaniel Rich narrates the story of a lost moment through two figures: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and Gordon MacDonald, a climate scientist. A third figure who plays a prominent role is James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who compiled massive amounts of data, and gave compelling testimony wherever called upon. Pomerance, came across this finding in a government study on the continued use of fossil fuels: “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” That was in the Spring of 1979 and changed the course of his life. It led to his interview with Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, who was glad that someone beside him finally noticed.

Rich’s book traces their efforts to mobilize awareness and action, culminating in the formation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a climate summit in the Netherlands in 1989. Initially, action on climate change was widely supported, at least in public statements. Meanwhile, a transformation began to take place in the fossil fuel industry from studying the issue themselves and reckoning on the consequences of continued fuel use, to a movement of resistance and a challenge to the science, and exercise of increasing leverage. In the climate talks, the resistance of one US figure led to a meaningless agreement to which the US never subscribed, and an increasingly politicized discourse around climate issues. Perhaps the most stunning revelation of this book was that it was not always so.

Rich’s afterword is both hopeful and sobering. He both notes the technological advances that might be turned to action limiting global temperature rises to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Yet he also wrestles with the propensity of human beings to not act to address possible dangers down the road and instead prefer their present comfort. He not only condemns in the strongest terms those who twist and deny what they know. He challenges all of us:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

To see how close the world came to a climate agreement on carbon emissions in the 1980’s, to learn of a time when this was not a political football, suggests that it may be possible in the future. To avert the worst possibilities, it is imperative. One concludes Rich’s book wondering, will we seize or miss the opportunity that we have?

 

Review: The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President

The Soul of an American President, Alan Sears and Craig Osten with Ryan Cole. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Traces the spiritual heritage and growing religious faith of Dwight D. Eisenhower, especially through the years of his presidency and later life.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president I remember hearing about as a child. To be honest, he seemed kind of bland, and mostly I remember reports of him golfing. Recent historians and biographers have raised the estimation of Eisenhower as they consider his Cold War policies, how he kept the U.S. out of “hot” wars, presided over a boom of economic growth, and took some of the first, perhaps somewhat tentative, steps toward recognizing the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities, since the failed efforts of Reconstruction.

What the authors of this work discovered in examining other studies of Eisenhower’s life was that little or no account was give of his religious faith, a neglect that flies in the face of an increasingly regular, yet not publicized pattern of religious practice, interactions and expressions of faith with religious figures from Billy Graham to Pope John XXIII, the testimony of his pastors, and a number of public acts and utterances. Furthermore, these patterns continued after his presidency up to the time of his death in 1969.

The authors trace Eisenhower’s religious journey. He was born of parents deeply devoted to a branch of the Brethren in Christ that moved to Kansas. Later they left this group, and Ida, his mother was especially devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While not entirely orthodox, what marked his upbringing was a strong pattern of Bible-reading and piety, as well as involvement in pacifist religious groups.

Ike broke with his parents in going to West Point and entering the military. And we hear relatively little of his religious faith during his military career, even when he lost his son “Icky,” an event that strained his marriage. Only in World War II do we find him sharing prayers and expressing “There is nothing we could do but pray, desperately.” From here on, Ike expresses more of his faith publicly, though reticently, including contributing the words of “Lead, Kindly Light” to a prayerbook for servicemen in Korea, and more about the connections between America’s religious faith and democracy.

As was the case with so many others, a key influence in his life was the ministry, and in particular, personal conversations with Billy Graham in early 1952. Graham encouraged Eisenhower’s church attendance, referring him to the ministry of Dr. Ed Elson at National Presbyterian Church. Eisenhower had previous associations with Elson as a chaplain with the military. One of the things that stands out is that Eisenhower did not join the church, including being baptized (the only President to be baptized in office) until after the beginning of his presidency. His baptism was a private affair, witnessed by an intimate circle, and he was upset when word of his joining the church leaked to the press. He did not want attention called to his attendance, but both Elson, and his pastors at the Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, where the Eisenhowers owned a farm, reported Eisenhower attended regularly, and frequently engaged in discussions of the content of sermons, They also quietly contributed monetarily and in other ways to the ministry of their churches.

The other part of Eisenhower’s faith focused on in the book were his ideas about the importance of religious faith, whether Christian or not, to America’s response to the atheist communist threat. He saw the fundamental difference between the two countries to be spiritual and not simply economic or political, which drove things like his support for the U. S. Information Agency. He publicly encouraged religious worship, began the practice of National Prayer Breakfasts, and served during a period when America’s attendance at religious services was at a peak. The authors highlight how religious conviction informed Eisenhower’s efforts with religious leaders across racial divides to break down segregation, albeit far more gradually than civil rights leaders would wish.

The latter part of the book describes Eisenhower’s post-presidency, marked with continued involvement with his church, even as his health declined. During his final hospitalization, he invited Billy Graham to share the scriptures of how he might be sure of his salvation. At the end of the conversation, he said, “Thank you, I’m ready.” One of the last things he said to his family was, “I want to go. God take me.” He died shortly after.

Two of the authors (Sears and Osten) are associated with a conservative religious liberty organization, so I found myself reading with a certain skepticism. However, I thought that on the whole, they offered a balanced account of Eisenhower’s life, and made a case for the genuineness of Eisenhower’s Christian faith. They don’t gloss over his mother’s involvement in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the lack of religious expression through his early career, including his marriage difficulties with Mamie (they discount the possibility of the Kay Summersby affair, although evidence exists for an emotional, but unconsummated affair between them). The fact that Eisenhower waits until after election to be baptized and join his church argues strongly for his not using religious affiliation for political ends, as well as the persistence of his religious practice for the remainder of his life. It also struck me that one may see evidence of religious principles in his policies without engaging in culture wars or litmus tests.

If I might raise any issue, it would be with what seemed an uncritical account of a “God and country” vision and the language of civil religion that seems to appropriate religious faith to national aims (e.g. fighting Communism) that does not seem to recognize a kingdom that transcends national borders. I grew up internalizing that vision and it wasn’t until I began to truly understand God’s love for the world, and the priority allegiance of the Christian to God’s kingdom purposes, that I began to recognize the danger of “God and country” language. In Eisenhower’s administration, this was not egregious. Eisenhower acknowledged God’s providence, and supported the language of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, acknowledging that God, not the state was ultimate. Yet it is so easy to turn this to an ideology of God existing to sustain American greatness, and the manipulation of religion for political ends.

The value of this work is that it redresses a balance in documenting the religious faith of Eisenhower, that has been neglected in other accounts. The account actually suggests that there is further work to be done in studying Eisenhower’s faith. The writers establish that Eisenhower was deeply thoughtful about his faith and sought to act upon that in his presidential leadership. Others around him, like John Foster Dulles, and George Kennan, also had religiously informed visions of the world. It also seems that Eisenhower was thoughtful about how one exercises religious belief in a pluralistic society and might well be studied for this. Lastly, one wonders how the pacifism of his upbringing and his religious faith may have informed his farewell address warning of the “military-industrial complex.”  The authors have made a case that far more research in this aspect of Eisenhower’s life and leadership is well-warranted.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: A Week in the Life of a Slave

a week in the life of a slave

A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response.

Onesimus. Philemon. These two names are associated with Paul’s shortest letter. One wonders at times why it was included. It seems to be a personal appeal for Onesimus, a runaway slave, who during his time with Paul became a follower of Jesus. He appeals for Onesimus to receive him back as a brother, and charge any debt or wrong to Paul. A beautiful appeal to reconcile a runaway slave to his master, a fellow Christian. Just a personal letter? Perhaps, but it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Is there a larger message for the church from the apostle who taught there is “neither slave nor free. . . but you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

These questions and many more John Byron explores in this newest contribution to the “A Week in the Life Series.” Through both a creative re-telling of story and the sidebars, Byron casts light on the institution of slavery in the Roman empire. We learn how people became slaves, how they were treated, their status, even when freed, and what a serious matter it was for a slave to run away. Beyond flogging, a slave could likely be sold, usually into inferior conditions with even less chance of obtaining his liberty.

Byron tells the story through the cast of characters we find in the letter, and a few others, including a prison superintendent who is a believer, who at risk to himself allows Paul to see Onesimus long enough that he can understand and believe the gospel. In doing so, he posits an Ephesian imprisonment, which makes sense with its proximity to Colossae. He includes Luke and Demas and Epaphras who shares his imprisonment. Demas hosts a church in his home and shelters Onesimus, who witnesses the mingling of slaves and free persons in worship.

Byron explores what it might have been like for churches to grapple with the question of the inclusion of believing slaves in their worship. He creates a contrast between Ephesus where all are brothers in Christ when they gather for worship, and Colossae and the church in Philemon’s home, where slaves are excluded–until Archippus (a kind of overseer or bishop of churches in the Lycus valley) challenges their practice, and their socially stratified worship. One begins to grasp how “neither slave nor free” in worship was itself an incredibly radical step.

Many who discuss the issue of slavery in the New Testament argue that an infant church couldn’t challenge this powerful institution. I appreciate that Byron doesn’t make this argument, which can ring hollow. Rather he shows what it was like for early house churches to take the first steps to press out their theological convictions about oneness in Christ into eating and worshiping together, steps that in themselves broke with established social convention.

We don’t know what Philemon did with regard to the legal offense of running away. Paul only appeals and doesn’t offer a specific course of action. But Byron picks up on the legend that the Bishop Onesimus mentioned in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians. If that were so, at some point Philemon granted this runaway his freedom. One wonders if the Philemon-Onesimus incident was something of a watershed moment with implications beyond their immediate relations. Was this perhaps the reason for the letter’s preservation. Did Bishop Onesimus, as Byron writes the story, have something to do with the letter’s preservation?

These are plausible speculations at best. What Byron’s book does so well for us is bring to life the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, perhaps different in treatment from American slavery, but nevertheless demeaning of the personhood of the enslaved. We grasp the risks Paul, and all who helped shelter Onesimus ran. We begin to understand the costly counter-cultural actions of a nascent church that shelters, welcomes at table, and worship, the slave, calling him “brother” and her “sister.” We only are left wondering why it took the church another eighteen centuries to follow the arc of their theology to its ultimate conclusion in practice and law.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Placemaking and the Arts

placemaking

Placemaking and the Arts, Jennifer Allen Craft. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Considers the “place” of the arts in placemaking, particularly in the settings of the home, the church, and the wider society.

Urbanists like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte have pioneered a movement known as “placemaking,” the gist of which is the planning and design of urban spaces that promote the health and well-being of those who live in them. This movement has also included writers of “place” like Wendell Berry who urge loving attention to local places, their people, and their ecology.

In this work, Jennifer Allen Craft explores the role of the arts, particularly the visual arts, in placemaking, and how for the Christian in the arts, artists may both seek the flourishing of their places, and anticipate the coming of the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Her first chapter explores the “placed” character of art. Every artist works in a place. Art is an embodied practice that can only occur in a place and in various ways interacts with that place. Through all this runs a theology of creation, incarnation, and resurrection hope for the new creation. One’s art is integrally connected to one’s relationship with God, other people and creatures, and the place in which we work.

The next four chapters explore how this works out in different settings: the natural world, the home, the church, and in society. In the natural world, art enables us to understand, love and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection” in the creation. Art in the home is a “homemaking” practice that creates beautiful spaces that also may become hospitable places for those experiencing dis-placement. Art in the church creates a welcome “place” for community, for encountering God, and for “embodying” the spiritual in a local place, as does liturgy and the Eucharist. The arts also have an important role in the pursuit of human flourishing in society, in creating “place” for the displaced, and bringing artistic considerations to the design of places.

Her final chapter is an attempt to articulate a placed theology of the arts. This commences with six key dialectic features of art: physicality/spirituality; particularity/universality; individuality/community; given/made; beauty/usefulness; contemplation/action. It seems that part of the theological ground of this dialectic approach is the sense of already/not yet of the kingdom and the dialectic of reflection and action in spiritual practices of faith.

The author seems to primarily be writing for an academic audience at the intersection of theological studies, sociology, and art theory, an important group to engage. I found myself wondering how accessible this would be to most of the practicing artists I know, many who might be appreciative. Many are believing people but unaccustomed to reading academic prose and would struggle to read a book like this, or they would just put it down and paint.

At the same time, as an individual who participates in a local arts group and a local choral organization, this resonated deeply with me. Joining a group of plein air painters in various locations in our “place” helps me see and cherish that place more deeply–the particular light of our summer skies, the gently rolling landscape, the river valleys, the species of trees and the shades of green of each. Whether it is a local park or town square, these become intimately a part of the place where we live as we seek to render them on canvas. To study and rehearse great works of music, and then to perform them in an assembled community in our place brings these works to a particular life that enhances life. The works we and others have painted that adorn our home make it a distinctive and welcome place. Singing four-part acapella harmonies with a few friends in my church embodies community and invites worship in our local place.

What this work offers is a theological framework for thinking about both the embodied practice of making art in local places, and how faithful engagement in the arts may be a part of our kingdom callings. I hope she will think about how to articulate these ideas to a wider art and craftwork community, many whose work is indeed grounded in place, and could use the encouragement and affirmation of their work present in this book.

Review: Working

Working

Working: Researching, Interviewing, WritingRobert A. Caro. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019.

Summary: Less a full biographical memoir than a description of the author’s methods of researching material for his books, writing them, and the question that has driven his work.

It seems that I have been reading one of Robert A. Caro’s books from time to time since I moved to my current home town nearly thirty years ago. He has been writing them even longer. The four volumes in print of his Years of Lyndon Johnson. His massive The Power Broker on the life and pervasive influence of Robert Moses on the city of New York and Long Island to this day. He is currently at work finishing the fifth, and hopefully final, volume on the presidency and post-presidency of Lyndon Johnson. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his work on Robert Moses, and one for one of the Johnson volumes, and just about every other major book award.

In contrast to his massive volumes, Working is a thin and pithy piece of writing in which Carol describes his process, and the question that has driven all his work. From his days as an investigative reporter for Newsday, he had a passion for discovering and explaining to people how things worked in government. That led to the realization that to explain this, you had to understand how power worked. Robert Moses, a figure who never held elective office and yet who probably displaced a half million people for his freeway projects through New York, who created parks for the people of the city and roads to connect them, taught him how power worked. Then to understand the exercise of political power by elected officials, he set his sights on Lyndon Johnson, who rose from the hill country of west Texas to the White House. Along the way, he gained a mastery of legislative processes and control over the Senate and his party that has not been seen before or since.

Such figures do not give up their secrets easily, if at all. Much of Caro’s books describe his exhaustive research methods, driven by his curiosity and instincts to get the whole story. One of his early mentors told him to “turn every page.” As he did this with Johnson, he discovered a notable change of pattern in the young congressman courteously seeking favor of others, to those others, even senior figures, seeking his attention. More careful page turning isolates the turning point to October 1940. More sleuthing in files pulled out of his House archives uncovered correspondence that indicated he had become the conduit for major campaign donations from a Texas fir, Brown and Root. And so Johnson began to accumulate power.

Part of his research was to see the things of which he was writing, and invite those who he was interviewing to the site of events to describe not only what happened but to describe the scene so he could see it. Soon, memories would flow, and Caro, could then write about events so that his readers could see them. To understand Johnson’s youth and gain the trust of area residents he wanted to interview, he and his wife Ina moved to the Hill Country of Johnson’s youth for several years. He describes movingly what it was like for Rebekah Johnson, Lyndon’s mother, to live in a house out of sight of any others as night fell on the Hill Country.

He describes his determination to get to the bottom of the question of whether Johnson stole his 1948 election to the Senate, won by a razor thin margin with the ballots of “Box 13” in Jim Wells County. His research took him to Luis Salas, who he tracked for years, who finally entrusted him with a manuscript that provided the evidence that the election had indeed been stolen. He recounts in interviews the times he “had the story” and yet sensed there was more and dared to ask one more question, and discovered there was more.

In addition to describing how he researched, how he interviewed, recounting a number of those interviews, he describes his writing process. Someone has said there is no good writing, only re-writing. Caro is proof of that, moving from longhand manuscripts to typewritten copy marked up and re-typed, to corrections throughout the publishing process. He admits he would re-write the finished books if he could.

And now I understood how it has taken him fifty years to write those books, and still not be done with Johnson. He gives us an inside glimpse into what it takes to create these magisterial works: curiosity, diligence in the archives, dogged persistence in the interviews, working and re-working the material to get it right.

With investigative journalism struggling for its life, I concluded the book wondering whether I was reading the narrative of some of the last of a breed. It seems this is an important question because of the larger vision that drives Caro. The book ends with a 2016 interview in The Paris Review. The interviewer has observed that Caro hopes “the books serve a larger civic purpose.” Caro replies:

   Well, you always hope something. OI think the more light that can be thrown on the actual processes we’re voting about, the better. We live in a democracy, so ultimately, even despite a Robert Moses, a lot of political power comes from our votes. The more we understand about the realities of the political process, the better informed our votes will be. And then, presumably, in some very diffuse, very inchoate way, the better our country will be.

We need investigators like Caro to throw light on processes. Will we find ways to continue to mentor and support them and offer them platforms from which to shine their light? And when they do, will we pay them any heed? One thing Caro is right about. Our democracy depends on it.

Guest Review: Finding Ourselves After Darwin

Findng Ourselves After Darwin

Finding Ourselves After DarwinStanley P. Rosenberg ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: This book presents and discusses multiple approaches to thinking about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of biological evolution.

This collection of essays is one result of a research project at Oxford University which “assembled scholarship presenting different approaches and methods and insights, introducing a variety of models that may be considered . . .” (p. 8). The individual authors are primarily theologians and biblical scholars, some with a science background.

As the title implies, biological evolution is presupposed, and the issue is how to think about the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in the light of biological evolution. The book is divided into three parts, one for each topic. Each part includes a brief introduction, a discussion of the questions, challenges, and concerns for the topic, several essays offering different approaches, and a conclusion and further reading list.

Part 1 deals with why the image of God is important in the theology-evolutionary science dialogue. It begins with a discussion of what constitutes human distinctiveness. After four essays offering different views of the image of God in the light of recent developments in evolutionary science, Michael Burdett concludes by suggesting that “it is entirely possible that each of these models could be combined in interesting ways such that hybrid models could be constructed that rely on aspects from each one outlined here.” (p. 109)

Part 2 deals with original sin. The opening essay by Gijsbert van den Brink suggests that biological evolution does not require a radical abandonment of the doctrine of original sin, but rather a recontextualization within an evolutionary framework. After essays on Augustinian, Irenaean, federal headship, and cultural approaches, Christopher M. Hays presents a compelling account of the ways in which evolutionary theory aids our understanding of the universality of sin without appealing to an Adamic fall. In his conclusion, Benno van den Toren suggests that “Insights from different theories might well be combined for a new theological synthesis to arise out of this fermentation process. (p. 206)

Part 3 deals with the problem of evil by presenting a variety of approaches. Essayists discuss Augustinian, Irenaeasn, fall-of-the-angels, free process, only way, and non-identity theodicy and how they relate to evolution. The concluding essay by Michael Lloyd suggests that, despite their differences, the contributors to this part seem to believe the following: (1) the current state of evolutionary biology and modern genetics leaves plenty of room in which to do theodicy, (2) the seriousness of the problem of evil in relation to the evolutionary processes, (3) this volume falls far short of a full theodical narrative, and (4) their positions still have challenges to face and work to do.

The three Further Reading lists, the 26-page Bibliography, and the numerous informative footnotes provide a wealth of opportunities to pursue specific topics of personal interest.

It would help to have some familiarity with the issues before tackling this book, but it does succeed in bringing together multiple approaches to dealing with the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil in light of evolution. I can recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. Three other helpful essay collections on the same topic are “Perspectives on an Evolving Creation”, “Theology After Darwin,” and “Darwin, Creation and the Fall.”

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This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: A Liberated Mind

a liberated mind

A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What MattersSteven C. Hayes, Ph.D. New York: Avery Books, 2019.

Summary: An introduction to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a psychological counseling approach that develops psychological flexibility through learning acceptance rather than resistance or flight from painful thoughts and reality, and how we may pivot toward commitments rooted in what we value most deeply.

Steven C. Hayes proposes we all have a Dictator Within. We all have thoughts that cause us problems. We try not to think about pink elephants, painful experiences, messages that tell us all sorts of negative things about ourselves, or that raise our anxieties. We try to argue with those thoughts or avoid them or get rid of them, often in inflexible ruts where we go round and round with little success. At very least, we struggle with lack of peace of mind. At worst, these ways of thinking hamstring the way we live and the relationships we form.

Hayes, one of the pioneers of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) proposes a very different approach. He describes an approach that begins with acceptance of our thoughts. He proposes that one of the things that defuses the power of our thoughts is simply to stop trying to get rid of them and notice them. There is a sense that we step outside these mental processes and take perspective. And it means acceptance of the painful and approaching that pain with curiosity and openness where our goal no longer is feeling GOOD but FEELING good.

Moving from Acceptance to Commitment we learn the practice of presence,  of living in the now, the present rather than a painful past or a yearned for future. We identify what we value and then identify actions to which we may commit that support our values.

After tracing the development of this approach in Part 1 and the idea of developing psychological flexibility rather than rigidity through crucial pivots in our lives, in Part 2, he describes the six pivots in greater depth:

  1. Defusion–Putting the Mind on a Leash
  2. Self–The Art of Perspective Taking
  3. Acceptance–Learning from Pain
  4. Presence–Living in the Now
  5. Values–Caring by Choice
  6. Action–Committing to Change

He devotes a chapter to each, sharing, and even walking us through exercises for each pivot.

In Part 3, Hayes applies ACT principles to a variety of aspects of life including healthy behaviors, mental health, nurturing relationships, various types of performance, including sports performance, spiritual well-being, and coping with illness. Here and elsewhere Hayes cites studies showing the superior effectiveness of ACT to other counseling approaches.

I cannot assess his claims. I do have two criticisms. One is how often he repeats the claim of the superiority of this approach, to a point that I found tiresome. The second is that there seemed to be an inadequate “cutting room floor” and I felt that at times, his central ideas and arguments were obscured by excessive verbiage.

Nevertheless, the ideas of acceptance, of defusing, of perspective-taking, of becoming attentive and curious, even about pain, are at the heart of contemplative spirituality that has been helpful to many. To couple this with learning to be present and to live in the now, and to allow our values to shape our commitments seem to reflect the wisdom of many approaches toward transformation. I appreciated Hayes receptiveness to religious faith and an approach that recognized the complementary character of his therapeutic approach and the formational practices in religious traditions.

Perhaps the founder of this approach may be forgiven what I criticized as excesses. He’s talking about his baby! What is evident throughout the pages of this book is the author’s personal embrace and passion for ACT principles, his extensive clinical practice, and the deep care he has for clients and for seeing people flourish in their lives through applying the psychological flexibility skills he teaches in this work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Science & Faith

science and faith

Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored, Hannah Eagleson, editor. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays addressing various questions on the relationship of science and Christian faith, incorporating groups discussion questions for use with small discussion groups.

Nearly every Christian college student has at some time confronted the question of the relation between what their faith teaches and what we might learn about the world through science. The question is more acute for science students. In some settings, students are taught both in church and in the science classroom that one has to choose between science and faith. One would think these are in a war in which only one side can win.

The contributors to this volume write from a different conviction. Most are actively engaged in scientific research and teaching as well as whole-heartedly embracing the Christian faith. The work is organized in four parts:

Part One focuses on preliminary considerations. Joshua Ho, a graduate student in Developmental Biology discusses the questions he brings to a science-faith questions: questions of personal identity, mission, and approaching questions of origins. Two scholars, one a theologian, one a scientist discuss how the Bible supports the use of the scientific method to study God’s world. The section concludes with a reflection on our ways of understanding God and understanding his world.

Part Two is about building good conversations among scientists about faith. Ruth Bancewicz opens with a delightful account of how science enhances her faith. Andy Walsh discusses the relevance of God in a scientific age. Neil Shenvi responds to the challenge that Christians face when scientists describe Christian faith as irrational. He points out both that powerful emotions do not disprove the rationality of any belief, scientific or religious. Furthermore he points out the resources available to demonstrate the rational basis for Christian belief. Finally, plasma physicist speaks of using God-given creativity (including his involvement in his church’s Vacation Bible School) to speak of his faith with colleagues.

Part Three tackles the perennial issue of how we engage origins questions. David Vosburg, a chemistry professor, sets out good principles for fruitful conversations: praying about when to engage, cultivating grace in community, start with the Bible, and not just Genesis, and that disagreements are not always rooted in science or theology. Gerald Rau then devotes a couple chapters to different views of origins Christians who believe in creation hold.

Part Four explores broader issues. Royce Francis addresses the unique opportunity scientists have to foster science literacy among fellow believers. James Stump offers a pithy chapter on epistemology, or the question of how we know. Then James C. Ungureanu contributes three chapters on the history of the relationship between science and the church. One of the most intriguing observations he makes is that the approach of the two books of revelation, scripture and nature, often in the modern area collapsed into one book, that of nature. He attributes this to the autonomy granted to natural revelation that ended up competing with or superseding special revelation.

Each chapter includes discussion questions that can be used either for personal reflection, or even better, for group discussion. It should also be noted that the selection of articles came out of preliminary surveys with students and ministry leaders and were field-tested before publication.

The book is edited by the Emerging Scholars Network’s Associate Director Hannah Eagleson, who offers guidance in using the book, and helpful chapter introductions, linking the content to the overall theme of the book. It can be used by everyone from undergraduate students in the sciences, to graduate researchers, and university faculty. While designed for Christians, I could see this being useful for those exploring faith who wonder whether Christianity is anti-science. The good news of this guide is the relationship of faith and science is not one of war, but peace, of each enhancing our grasp of the other.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. In the interest of full disclosure, while the above represents my honest assessment of the book, I have a personal connection with this publication. On July 1, I was appointed the new Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. When this occurred the book was already at the printers. However, it represents well the work of the Emerging Scholars Network to connect faith and scholarship, the love of God and the love of learning, work I am both proud of and to which I am deeply committed.

Review: Fundamentalist U

fundamentalist u

Fundamentalist U: Keeping Faith in American Higher EducationAdam Laats. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Summary: Traces the ways eight institutions that developed with the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s responded to the changing fundamentalist/evangelical movement and wider trends in higher education and American society up to the present time.

Adam Laats attended public universities and teaches in one, and does not share fundamentalist/evangelical beliefs. Neither does he share any animus toward these this movement nor the schools that arose during the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920’s. What he does is give us a fascinating and even-handed account of eight flagship fundamentalist/evangelical institutions and how they negotiated the pressures exerted by this complicated and diverse movement and the wider landscape of American higher education and culture.

The schools he studies are Biola, Bob Jones University, Gordon College, Liberty University, Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, Dallas Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary. Each of these were chosen as non-denominational institutions that were aligned with the fundamentalist movement during it rise.

He begins with a brief history of American higher education and the disenchantment of those associated with the fundamentalist movement who increasingly recognized the need for their “own” schools who would adhere to strict interpretations of scripture and prepare young men and women for Christian service. Much of this was a reaction to a perceived Darwinism and theological and cultural liberalism that many felt increasingly characterized not only public institutions but even the church affiliated schools founded in earlier generations.

Succeeding chapters chronicle how administrations, often in authoritarian fashion in early days, attempted to forge institutions that reflected these concerns, and persuaded parents and donors that they were not going soft on biblical fundamentals. This was a challenge as the fundamentalist movement struggled with its own identity and the development of neo-evangelicalism post World War II. Because of the lack of a coherent theological or ethical core, these schools ended up having to negotiate their way between conflicting factions, some more conservative, some more progressive, and some more concerned by the quality of education, or even toward what end these institutions were preparing young people. Were they missionary and ministry training institutions, a place to meet one’s mate, or simply a Christian alternative preparing students for careers in competition with their peers at secular institutions? In truth, they have functioned in all these roles, often with both academic and moral excellence.

Laats describes the different courses schools took. Bob Jones University remained rigorously fundamentalist, separatist, and segregationist. Liberty University also trumpeted the fundamentals, but was on the vanguard of conservative political engagement. Schools like Moody wrestled with their original purpose of simply training Christian workers, offering certificates of completion rather than degrees. Wheaton, Gordon, and Biola had more interesting journeys, trying to satisfy both more fundamentalist and more evangelical constituencies, often being attacked as “soft” by their peers, and more importantly, by an onlooking religious community obsessed with signs of “softness.” There was less said about Dallas and Westminster, although the portrait of J. G. Machen as both sympathetic with fundamentalist concerns, and yet distinctive in his Calvinist confessional stance makes him an intriguing outlier in his time.

Meanwhile cultural forces like the G.I. Bill and accrediting agencies were imposing pressures. Schools had to raise curricular standards so that their degrees were competitive with those of other institutions. Yet they had to do so while maintaining theological purity, particularly on the litmus test issue of their stance on evolution. Some doubled-down on young earth, six day creation stances. Others endorsed creationist stances while conceding the growing evidence for evolution in some form, what was called “progressive creation.”

On race, schools like Wheaton had begun as radically abolitionist, only to adopt a de facto segregationism. Others like Bob Jones, were belligerently segregationist and anti-miscegenationist. With the rise of the civil rights movements and student activism schools had to face their complicity with racist practices while facing pressures not to change.

These pressures extended to the social revolution of the Sixties. Students had always to some extent pressed against behavior codes and the legalism around practices like smoking, dress, and movies that reigned on these campuses. Laats does a good job showing how administrators successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated these pressures and the tug of war between students, funders, and parents.

Not all was controversy. Laats recounts the narratives of students like Betty Howard who met Jim Eliot at Wheaton, and found the ideals of evangelical romantic love “nothing short of a ‘revelation!’ ” Eliot and many did not rebel against but embraced the behavioral strictures of their schools and found them freeing in the formation of their character and faith and missionary calling.

Two things struck me about this account. One is the incredible “fishbowl” within which these institutions have operated. Laats chronicles how various groups thought of these schools as “our” schools and looked for signs of “softness” — deviations from their particular groups definition of orthodox belief and practice. This not only reveals the faultlines of varying and conflicting interpretations of what was “biblical” but what has always felt to me gossip run rampant. I cancelled my subscription to Christianity Today for many years because of what I sensed was an over-preoccupation with this “sanctified” form of gossip (you can see that I’m probably far less dispassionate about this than the author!). Administrators at these schools had an unenviable task in this regard.

The other is the incredible staying power that the creation-evolution struggle has had in its sway over these institutions. Even as science faculty have sought ways to affirm the findings of science and not present them at war with faith, external pressures often have required them to confess adherence to particular creationist interpretations on threat of termination. Laats seems to intimate that there often is a kind of double-speak going on, where what is discussed in the classroom may be at variance with what is promoted among certain constituencies. It raises the question of what academic freedom means on these campuses, a question Laats observed when doing research at Wheaton during the controversy that resulted in the termination of Larycia Hawkins, a tenured faculty member.

These schools and others like them that have emerged in more recent years have had an out-sized influence on the American landscape–in politics, in the media, and other areas. It is fascinating to see how despite the various pressures these schools have faced, the excellent and passionate graduates they have produced. It might be tempting to marginalize these schools on the higher ed landscape. Adam Laats helps us understand both their distinctive history, the subculture within which they have operated, and their significance within our wider culture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.