Review: The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Margaret R. Ellsberg ed., Foreword by Dana Gioia. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2017.

Summary: An exploration of the life and faith of Gerard Manley Hopkins through commentary and a selection of his poetry, letters, journal entries, and sermons.

The life of Gerard Manley Hopkins seems to me a life of startling contrasts. He writes wonderfully vibrant poetry using innovative rhythms–poems that often are celebration of the glory of God evident in the creation. At the same time, he is a devout Jesuit, whose submission to the order meant largely a life as priest and academic examiner in slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, London and Dublin. He died of typhoid contracted from antiquated plumbing. We follow the man who burnt his early poems when he converted to Catholicism and entered the Jesuits, whose life was shaped by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, whose passion was God’s glory, and the incarnation of Christ, revealed afresh in every Eucharist. We also see a man deeply torn between his artistic sensibilities and the physically and psychically crushing routines of most of his life as a Jesuit, to which he seemed ill-suited, that comes through in the anguished “Terrible Sonnets.”

Margaret Ellsberg weaves the narrative of Hopkins life and faith through a combination of commentary, and selections of poetry, letters, sermons, and journals throughout the course of his short life. Because there are only 49 of his poems extant, many of these are included in this selection, set in the context of his life. It is fascinating that Robert Bridges, who subsequently published his works, struggled to make sense of them and found at least one sufficiently difficult that (in Hopkins words) “you wd. not for any money read my poem again (“The Wreck of the Deutschland”). Ellsberg’s work gives us clues, sometimes from Hopkins himself, to the understanding of his poetry, and that is what makes this work most attractive, along with the selections of his poetry.

As much as I love Hopkins poetry (my favorite is “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”), the title of this work (part of a series sharing “The Gospel In…”) mystifies me in some ways because the gospel may have evoked praise and wonder with regard to God’s work in the world but mostly despair with regard to his own life. Wonder and devotion there is in great measure, but a sense of peace, of wholeness seems lacking. There is the dutiful fulfillment of assignments that seem poorly fitted to who he is, which makes one wonder why he chose the Jesuits and the priesthood. Compounding his struggle was physical weakness, and perhaps a melancholy character. But gospel also implies “good news”, hope for us in our fragile humanity. Only on his deathbed does he find some peace, as he whispers over and over, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy.”

Perhaps there is something of temperament in all of this, an artist not fully at home in his world, torn by the tension between “God’s Grandeur” and the ugliness of much of what he endured around him. One wonders if different choices or different assignments might have made a difference. Or was it something “unreconciled” in his “gospel” that seemed to result in a life of great devotion but little contentment or peace?

Yet we have this great poetry, much of it an effervescing abundance captured in the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Hopkins life remains an enigma to me, but I can thank his Maker and mine for the gift of his writing. I leave you with “God’s Grandeur”

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of Forgiveness

The Face of ForgivenessPhilip D. Jamieson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Explores the struggle of many in experiencing and granting forgiveness and what the author believes are inadequate understandings of the atonement that fail to deal with our shame as well as our guilt, and how in fact the work of Christ addresses both.

Philip Jamieson begins this book with a pastoral situation many of us have faced–someone sits across from us and confesses that they find themselves unable to forgive another person, because of the awful ways that person has offended. They want to observe Jesus words about “forgiving the trespasses of others” but they simply cannot.

What follows is an extended discussion of the nature of forgiveness. Jamieson considers the recent renewal of interest in forgiveness in modern psychology. There is much that is helpful, and even biblical, yet he believes, particularly in the separation of forgiveness from reconciliation, and the detachment of forgiveness from the work of Christ, these models of forgiveness fall short.

He also contends that part of our problem in people struggling both with being forgiven and extending forgiveness has to do with theories of the atonement that focus on sin’s guilt, to the exclusion of sin’s shame. Our downturned faces, and the inability to look into the faces of others contributes to this alienation both from God and others. Jamieson would not jettison the existing theories of the atonement but rather focuses on how it is that Christ both bears our shame and is victorious over it in the cross and the resurrection. This is the face of forgiveness, which he describes in this way:

“In his last act, high and lifted up, Jesus–the man who fully reveals God, now fully revealed–joins sinful humanity in our downward gaze. Jesus dies in the posture of shame, embracing the world’s shame. ‘It is finished.’ The face, once set like a flint (Isaiah 50:7) on his way to Jerusalem, to this very death (Lk 9:51), now stares, unblinkingly downcast, bearing humanity’s shame. He joins all of us: solidarity with the shamed. But again, this face is different. For this face in its downward gaze is not looking away from his neighbors; he is looking at them. The last act of the dying Savior is to fix his gaze upon those who are in need of salvation. Our forgiveness has already been pronounced (Lk 23:34) and now the dying God provides the means to accept it. Karl Barth notes there is no other face like Jesus. Jesus’ is the face that will not look away. Jesus is the face that sees all and still loves all. Jesus’ face alone is the one that has power to forgive and to give us the healing power to accept that forgiveness” (p. 114).

Jamieson then discusses three important practices, all communal, where we learn to live before Christ’s face, experiencing his forgiveness removing our shame and our guilt and enabling us to do this with those who have sinned against us. He calls for confession, for small groups where we talk honestly about issues of guilt and shame, and worship, where we confess together as a church in our worship of the Triune God.

Jamieson concludes the book with his answer to “Jane,” the parishioner asking about forgiveness, an answer rooted in the rich pastoral theology of this book. And that is what we are given in 157 pages of text. We are brought to reflect deeply on the consequences in the human psyche of the pretensions to god-hood of each of us, re-enacting the sin of the first couple. We explore the nature of shame, our penchant to run from God, and how this is addressed in the work of the cross. It isn’t just something we have to “get over” as people whose guilt is pardoned. Shame, too, has been borne.

What I most appreciate about this is that while it is a “pastoral theology of shame and redemption” it is rooted in good systematic and historical theology. I also appreciate how it is also rooted in the church and a theology of grace. Forgiveness is not presented as an individual effort to think better of ourselves and others but as a corporately supported reality that recognizes the continuing presence and power of Christ at work in his people gathered. While cognizant of psychology, this is the care of souls rooted in a fresh appreciation of the theology we preach, pray, and enact in worship each week. Refreshing!

Review: An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous Jew

An Anomalous JewMichael F. Bird. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: A collection of studies on the life and ministry of Paul that explores this unusual Jew who is comfortable moving among Greeks and Romans as he proclaims the Christ he encountered on the way to Damascus.

About the only thing scholars can agree upon concerning the Apostle Paul is that he was born a Jew. In an introductory chapter, Michael F. Bird surveys the options most commonly chosen to explain this apostle who claims on one hand that everything from his former life as a Jew is “crap” compared to the surpassing worth of Christ, and yet “becomes a Jew, in order to win the Jews.” Is he really a former Jew who has abandoned Judaism? A transformed Jew, an Israelite in Christ? A faithful Jew? Or a radical Jew? There is something to be said for each of these views and significant scholars associated with each one. Bird proposes an alternative–Paul is an anomalous Jew because he tries “to create a social space for a unified body of Jewish and Gentile Christ-believers worshiping God” (p. 28).

In succeeding chapters, Bird presents five “studies” (most individually published elsewhere) that underscore the anomalous character of Paul’s Jewishness, shaped by his mission to Gentiles and Jews. He begins by exploring Paul’s ideas of salvation, which both comes from the Jews and is for the Jews, but is also for the Gentiles and found in Christ, and not Torah. Chapter 2 shows how Paul is indeed apostle both to Gentiles and to Jews and how much the latter occupied his attention. Chapter 3 addresses the debate between apocalypticism and salvation history in Paul through a study of Galatians showing both elements reaching their height in the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Chapter 4 focuses in on the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-14 as the beginning of Paulinism “understood as the antithesis between Christ and Torah when the salvation and equal status of Gentiles is on the line” (p. 203). It also marks a parting in the ways between Paul and the Jerusalem church, not absolute as evident in Paul’s efforts for the relief of that church. Finally, chapter 5 explores the “anti-imperial” undertones of Paul’s letter to the Romans. On its face it presents no civil or military challenge to Roman order. Yet its assertions of the kingdom of the Messiah and the new sociopolitical entity of the church in fact was a profound challenge to Rome which would ultimately supplant empire.

Bird writes:

    “In sum, Paul was a religious anomaly. He appeared on the scene of the Greco-Roman world like a sudden yet small ripple moving upon the waters of a still river. He goes mostly unnoticed in his own time, and yet by the time the ripple reaches the shore of the modern age, it has become a tsunami. Paul’s anomaly, offensive as it was to the Jews and odd as it was to Greeks, became the Gentile Christianity that eventually swallowed up the Roman Empire and that, even to this day, two millenia later, casts its shadow upon the religious landscape of the world. Not bad for a Jewish tentmaker from Tarsus!” (p. 30)

Of the writing of books on Paul, there seems no end! What makes this one distinctive is that it provides a reading of Paul’s life and mission that reconciles seemingly disparate threads of scripture and explains them by Paul’s vision of the new people, Jew and Gentile together, formed by Messiah Jesus. It explains both the consonant and dissonant elements in his Jewishness, his reaction at Antioch, and the content of his letter to the Roman church.

Michael Bird represents a younger generation of theological scholars from “down under” who are beginning to make their mark in biblical and theological studies. I look forward to hearing more from him and others like him!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Two Paths

Two Paths

Two Paths: America Divided or UnitedJohn Kasich. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017.

Summary: The presidential candidate’s memoir of his campaign and the choice of the low and high paths of political engagement we face and his vision for that high path.

No matter who you favored in the recent presidential campaign, you probably would agree that it was one of the most rancorous and ugly on record. John Kasich, current governor of Ohio and one of sixteen Republican candidates was determined not to pursue the coarse, mud-slinging style pursued by other candidates. He describes observing the behavior of the other candidates at the first Republican debate and determining, “I will not take the low road to the highest office in the land.”

This memoir describes Kasich’s campaign journey from his wrestling with whether to run to his second place finish in New Hampshire and the joy he found in town hall discussions with prospective voters to his decision to suspend his campaign under pressure from Republican leadership, including Reince Priebus. He recounts the reasons why he refused to endorse Donald Trump after reviewing numerous video clips of his campaign rallies. Weighing heavily for him was the fact that he is the father of two teenage daughters, and given what Trump did and said, he considered it “unthinkable” that he could ever endorse Trump. Consequently, he spent the convention outside the convention hall and voted for John McCain as a write in during the election.

Kasich argues that his faith as a Christian shaped the convictions that led to a refusal to stoop to the tactics of others, or to endorse the paragon of these tactics. He writes:

“What does God expect of me? I believe He expects me to live on a higher plane, all the while knowing that I will surely fail. I believe the higher plane he sets before me is a call to resist the gravitational pull of life on earth, which is just a lot of the base stuff that can fill our days in negative ways: envy, hatred, jealousy, intolerance, self-aggrandizement, looking merely to accumulate wealth or fame. If you think about it, when it’s time for us to leave this earth, these negatives can all seem kind of mundane. Yet, in the ills of society we see these negatives on full and forceful display. It’s the way we sidestep those negatives and walk in the light that will come to define us after all” (p. 122).

He contends that our present character of politics reflects not only leadership but also “followship.” He believes we all share responsibility for amplifying “fake news” and perpetuating the echo chambers of one-sided discourse. Political followers need to hold leaders to higher standards, and hold those standards as well.

Toward the end of the book, he includes much of the text of his “Two Paths” speech to the Women’s National Republican Club in New York, which outlines his vision both for an elevated discourse, and probably provides the most concise summary of the policies Kasich would have pursued as president.

I had two reactions as I read this book. One was the recurring thought, “if only….” I do not know if Kasich could have defeated Hillary Clinton. But what a different country it would have been if he’d had that chance. The other was thinking it was Kasich’s focus on the ethos of his campaign, which became his message, that probably was one of the reasons he lost. It wasn’t a compelling message for most Americans, apparently.

Is Kasich as good as he appears in this book? He presents himself as a man of faith, a family man, a principled and determined politician willing to reach across the aisle. Living in Ohio, I’d say most of this is true, except when he has a majority behind him, as he has enjoyed during his tenure as governor. Only a voter referendum reversed efforts to break up unions for public workers, similar to what was done in Wisconsin. It is not apparent to me how much he has “reached across the aisle” in our state and certainly our legislature has engaged in the gerrymandering of districts he says must be ended for electoral reform.

Still, this book gives a good glimpse of what the country missed in overlooking Kasich. Truth was that I urged my friends in other states to join the island of sanity that was Ohio during the primaries and vote for Kasich on the Republican side. If only….


Review: The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow, Agatha Christie. New York: Witness Impulse, 2013 (originally published in the anthology Thirteen Problems in 1932).

Summary: Actress Jane Helier tells a story of a mysterious burglary at a bungalow in the town where she is acting in a play, involving a woman impersonating her and an unfortunate young playwright. Miss Marple, professing to be baffled, privately hints at a different story.

Most readers are familiar with Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries. This is a delightful short story originally part of an anthology titled Thirteen Problems first published in 1932, and now available in e-book form as a stand-alone short story.

Jane Helier, an actress, is with a party of friends including Miss Marple, and turns the conversation to a mysterious event that happened to a “friend” of hers, who is quickly found out to be Jane herself. She was in a town by a river (“Riverbury”) as part of a play company when called upon by the police to confront a young man arrested for burglary. The story gets more interesting when the young man, a playwright, claims he was summoned to a bungalow, the site of the burglary, by Miss Helier. Of course, when he sees Miss Helier, he realizes the other woman was not her. He had called at the bungalow, was introduced by the maid to “Miss Helier,” had a drink, and woke by the side of the road, only to be arrested for burglary. It seems that a case of jewels owned by the mistress of a wealthy city man has been stolen while the house was empty. The mistress was an actress, herself married.

By then it is obvious that the young playwright, Leslie Faulkener, was innocent of the crime. But who stole the jewels? The actress, the maid? The party weights all the angles of the story, and at the end, even Miss Marple professes to be mystified as to the solution, and their ire is further aroused when Jane Helier herself offers no resolution.

As the party is breaking up Miss Marple whispers in Jane’s ear, leaving her startled. Did Miss Marple know more than she let on, that not all was as it seemed? And what did she mean when she said, “What I do realize is that women must stick together–one should, in an emergency, stand by one’s own sex. I think that’s the moral of the story Miss Helier has told us”? What did Miss Marple whisper in her ear?

The one question, which mystifies Miss Helier herself, also mystified me and that is how did Miss Marple know? The resolution of the mystery hinges on information Miss Helier had not told anyone, including Miss Marple, introducing new characters not known to us. How did she know? Was it the vagueness at points in the story? The fact that Miss Helier herself does not know the ending?

In this case, one has only to read twenty-one pages to discover what is going on. But the story demonstrates Christie’s art–to draw one into a crime puzzle–in this case one without a murder, and finish it with a surprise


Review: How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About Evolution

How I Changed My Mind About EvolutionKathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump, eds. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: Twenty-five narratives of Christians who accept evolutionary creation and how, in most cases, they changed their minds in reaching this conclusion.

There is a widespread impression in American universities and among many young people that Christianity and science are at war with each other. No where is this more the case than over the issue of evolution. And sadly, many young people walk away from their faith, seeing the explanatory power of evolutionary theory and the failure of “evidences” for some creationist positions to hold up under scientific scrutiny. In many cases their teachers in the church have presented a choice between believing Christianity and believing science and that both are not possible and they believed them.

The twenty-five contributors to this book share two things in common–they deny that science and faith need be at war, and they embrace a position which they describe throughout the book as evolutionary creation (others would describe this as theistic evolution). They are scientists like Wisconsin embryologist Jeff Hardin, pastors like John Ortberg, biblical scholars like Scot McKnight and N. T. Wright, and theologians like James K. A. Smith. Most came to this position after much careful thought and study of both the scriptures and the science, often from young earth views, hence the title. N.T. Wright stands apart in observing that the American and British landscapes around these issues are very different, with most British Christians not seeing the conflict. He explores the elements in the American worldview that he thinks contribute to our scientifically and politically polarized climate.

The journey was sometimes costly. Tremper Longman III describes being terminated from a seminary position for coming to a position that did not see Genesis in conflict with evolution. For others, this was a journey of joyful discovery. Deborah Haarsma, a physicist and president of BioLogos (publishing partner for this book) describes how her understanding of evolutionary creation fosters worship as she praises God for his work over the long term, the glory of the system by which life came forth, his upholding of the natural world, all that is glorious in creation, and how aspects of creation illuminate scripture.

Pastor John Ortberg speaks of a phenomenon I’ve observed in work with Christians in graduate school and on faculty. They struggle with a kind of spiritual loneliness. He writes, after attending a BioLogos conference with many Christians in science:

“I can’t tell you how often I’d sit down with somebody at that conference and hear them say, ‘You know, when I’m at work and I’m with a bunch of scientists, they’re really skeptical about my faith. They’re suspicious about me.’ Then they’d say, ‘When I go to my church, they’re really skeptical about me because of my science. I feel like I don’t have a place where I really belong.’ The church ought to be a place where scientists can feel at home” (p. 94).

Several themes running through many of the contributions are a love of both scripture and science, a passion to think about the relationship between the two without forced solutions, which often means living with questions, and the importance within the Christian community for places where these questions may be explored in safety. Jeff Hardin discusses how he makes sense of evolutionary biology in light of his faith:

“One important ingredient in any answer is a commitment to apply the right interpretive approaches to the book of God’s Word and the ‘book’ of his world. Evangelical scholars have been crucial here in helping the church read ancient documents as they were originally intended to be read. Second, I believe that while the church should passionately affirm each of these two ‘books.’ we must resist the temptation to insist on an excessively tight articulation between each, given our limited human understanding. Third, we need to provide a space where godly people can engage in edifying dialogue about difficult subjects” (p. 60).

Not coincidentally, the collection is concluded by Richard Mouw discussing the creating of these safe spaces where hard questions can be discussed and different points of view explored respectfully. He recounts a conversation with a Catholic couple wondering about the thinking about creation they had encountered among many evangelicals about, and musing, “Don’t you evangelicals realize that God is slow?” Mouw raises the question of whether, indeed, our quest for quick solutions to hard questions is part of our problem–we have a hard time when God moves slowly.

This book is probably most helpful for those who, like the authors, are not satisfied with how they read the two “books” of science and scripture together, how they understand evolution in light of their faith. It will be helpful to any Christian in the biological sciences who must face these questions. And it will help pastors as they work with scientists and youth as they engage with science.

Lastly, I hope this book contributes to a different kind of conversation between Christians and those in science, whether they believe or not. Both of us, when we study the world, marvel at what we see and wonder at its intricacy and beauty. Might we have conversations celebrating together the capacities that enable us to explore and the wonderful things we find? Might we model a hunger for truth that never fears that a new discovery will diminish God, or us? And might we collaborate together in exploring ways to use what we find for the good of our fellow creatures? It just might lead a group of scientists to someday write a companion to this book titled How I Changed My Mind About Christianity.


Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance AloneMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the words we translate as “belief” or “faith” are better translated as “allegiance” and that the focal point of the gospel is not simply being forgiven for sins or obtaining eternal life, but allegiance to King Jesus.

Matthew Bates thinks the understanding of salvation by faith is rooted in a poor choice of words to translate the idea of pistis in the Greek. A better understanding of this word might be “allegiance” or “faithfulness.” Part of the problem that he sees is a lack of focus on how the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension vindicate him as the King who has come and that the only appropriate response to this King is our full allegiance, both initially and through life, and that this restoration to our true allegiance is what constitutes our salvation which certainly includes pardon for our rebellious sin but encompasses so much more. Bates summarizes his case as follows:

So, in the final analysis, salvation is by allegiance alone. That is, God requires nothing more or nothing less than allegiance to Jesus as king for initial, current, and final salvation. As such, while continuing to affirm the absolute centrality of the cross, the atonement, and the resurrection, the church must move away from a salvation culture that spins around the axis of ‘faith alone’ in the sufficiency of Jesus’s sacrifice. It must move toward a gospel culture that centers upon “allegiance alone” to Jesus as the enthroned king. With the Apostles Creed as a pledge of allegiance, the rallying cry of the victorious church can become ‘We give allegiance to Jesus the king.’ For as the creed reminds us, Jesus the Christ is ‘our Lord’ and he ‘is seated at the right hand of God’ and as such he both merits and demands our undeserved loyalty.”

One might note several emphases in this summary that Bates develops in different chapters of the book. One is an understanding of the gospel as reflected in the Apostles Creed, which he thinks ought regularly be recited in our churches as a king of “pledge of allegiance.” He identifies eight elements in the gospel of Jesus the king:

  1. He pre-existed with the Father.
  2. He took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David.
  3. He died for sins in accordance with scripture.
  4. He was buried.
  5. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
  6. He appeared to many.
  7. He is seated at the right hand of God as Lord.
  8. He will come again as judge.

Bates contends that these last statements as well as the pre-existence of Jesus rarely are part of our gospel messages and that we thus fail to properly set forth Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah King.

This also informs his understanding of justification. Bates understands justification as tied up with God’s vindication of the son, crucified for sin in his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. Through our union with Christ, we share in that vindication, that justification, both instantaneously through our allegiance to Christ, and increasingly through life as we stay with Christ, which he calls “restoring the idol of God” reflecting all and more than we were made to be through Christ. He, along with Wright and others, also observes that the future hope of Christians is resurrection life with Christ in the new creation, not some vague hope of heaven.

He deals with objections, foremost of which is the idea of allegiance as a “work.” So much of his case hinges on the thinness of how we often discuss belief, which seems mere intellectual assent or some kind of trust in Jesus without any further obligation. He contends that faith is in fact a human response to the grace of God, no matter how defined, and that allegiance fills this out as the form of loyal trust appropriate to servants of the Risen King.

I do think the title may de-center the proper focus of allegiance. The focus seems to be on “allegiance alone” but this is dangerous and de-centered if we do not focus on “allegiance to whom?” It is Christ who saves and restores. Just as it has been observed that faith is not “faith in faith” so here we need to avoid “allegiance to allegiance.” While the title makes a polemical point, we might more accurately say “by allegiance alone through grace alone in Christ the King alone.”

I find several things helpful in this work. One is that it addresses the question of “cheap faith” that does not seem to eventuate in any kind of transformed life, often because the person does not think or expect that this follows. Another is that it does reflect the full gospel that the church has confessed through history, the gospel of the king and his kingdom and sets our pardon for sin in the context of being restored subjects, indeed vice-regents, in his kingdom. Finally, and Bates alludes to this, the idea of allegiance may address the sharp divides around grace, faith, justification and works that have separated Protestant and Catholic for five hundred years. The focus on scripture and creed to understand these things may point the way forward. We can hope.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Review: God in Captivity

God in Captivity

God in Captivity, Tanya Erzen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores the role that faith-based, predominantly Evangelical ministries are playing in the U.S. prison system, the hope they offer inmates, and the ways they may reinforce the efforts toward control and maintenance of a retributive justice and prison system.

Tanya Erzen is a university professor at the University of Puget Sound who teaches and is associate director of Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a non-profit organization providing a college education for incarcerated women. Thus she is more than a casual observer of the prison system in the U.S. In this book, she explores the role faith-based prison ministries and seminaries are playing in the U.S. prison system. Beyond the reports of the personal life change these ministries effect, Erzen asks questions about the role these ministries play in maintaining an existing system focusing more on retribution than restoration, and the inordinate presence evangelical Protestant groups in comparison to that of other religious faiths.

On one hand Erzen writes,

“For a woman facing life without the possibility of freedom or a long or even a short sentence, faith-based ministries can be a resource, a practice, a belief system, a sense of authority, and a space of belonging.

Yet she also notes an important question prison reform activist Norris Henderson suggested she ask faith-based ministries: “Why are you here?” Often these ministries are only concerned with saving individual souls without asking why those souls are in prison in the first place. She outlines the questions this raised for her:

“Some of the key questions I explore throughout God in Captivity are how faith-based ministries and the people who live in prison grapple with the meaning of punishment and redemption, and how their daily lives reflect Norris’s question of why the ministry is there and why the prison is there–to punish indefinitely or to reform? How faith-based ministries conceive of punishment and forgiveness as inextricable thus remains a central concern of the book. Another urgent question that emerges is around the legal and ethical issue of predominantly conservative evangelical Christians as the main force inside prisons, and the implications for prisoners of other religions, particularly Muslims.”

Erzen approaches this study through a collection of personal narratives and commentary. She listened to the stories of women and men in prison involved with these ministries, volunteer and ministry leaders, and prison officials. Much of her study was in southern states with the toughest sentencing laws and many prisoners faced either lengthy sentences without parole or life sentences. She also chronicles the rise of faith-based ministries and education programs as prisons expanded with mandatory sentencing laws, and other education programs were curtailed with funding cuts. She gives the many sides of a complex picture–from lives changed where people converted become internal missionaries to others, where those of other faiths sometimes enter Christian programs because of preferences given these prisoners, and where wardens consciously support these programs because they help control the behavior of inmates.

Perhaps the most significant questions she asks have to do with the structural issues of incarceration in this country that the personal focus of these ministries often fail to address. She notes how at times these ministries have been forces for reform, usually conservative reforms, and comes back to the question of the “why” of prisons–are they solely places of retribution and not places of forgiveness and restoration.

I read this book as an evangelical Christian who has friends (including university professors) engaged in some of the ministries she profiles and I have several responses to what she writes. One is appreciation for the structural questions she raises often overlooked in the very individualized approaches that characterize much of evangelicalism. The same “blind spot” hinders conversations about race, economic justice, the environment and other social issues where the faith response is often only personal moral behavior and personal relationships. Such blindness in the nineteenth century helped sustain the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

A second response however is that often the reverse is true in more socially progressive circles, where structures of injustice are addressed without addressing the question of how personal transformation and redemption might be experienced. What is striking is that faith-based ministries mobilize massive numbers of volunteers (the book mentions 20,000 plus) coming alongside prisoners, simply because their faith calls them to “remember those in prison” (Hebrews 13:3). While Erzen notes how significant this personal contact can be, I don’t think she adequately credits what an extraordinary phenomenon this is–that working people give up evenings and weekends to “go to prison.”

Erzen notes the disparity between evangelical groups and other religions and seems to consider this unjust. I would ask why aren’t these other faiths or worldviews mobilizing similar numbers to care for their prisoners? If there is institutional privileging of Christians, that’s one thing and this is unconstitutional, but Erzen doesn’t mention adherents of other faiths wanting to offer similar programming systematically being turned away. Rather, the problem seems to be simply not enough people to go around, and that problem should not be laid at the feet of Evangelical Christians.

I raise this because there could be an undertone to this book, or in the reading of it by many that engenders suspicion of faith-based ministries. I actually don’t think that is what Erzen wants, but rather to provoke a wider conversation between those engaged in such ministries and others concerned about prison reform. The truth is that we need to care both for people as individuals, and for the systems and structures that shape their lives. To ignore either is to care too little. Our incarceration rates are the highest in the world, our prisons are overcrowded, and our system of justice seems to be creating a permanent underclass where prison is part of the life cycle. The challenges are great enough that here, as elsewhere, all those of good will are needed if change for the better is to occur.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship.

John Frederick, a musician as well as theologian, is deeply disturbed by much of what he sees on the contemporary worship scene. He argues that instead of performances that focus on a rock star worship leader, worship is about the story of Christ and his cross and needs to be shaped by that story to counter the destructive stories of our society. He believes that when this is done consistently bringing elements of music, liturgy, preaching, and Eucharist together, God’s people are formed in the character of Christ, growing in love for God, each other, and the world, expressed in service. He calls this “cruciformation.” and argues that as we encounter Christ in the elements of worship, we become more like the Christ we encounter.

As I noted, he can be critical of the ways worship is often framed. At points, he writes with tongue firmly in cheek, as when he describes the “Karoake Chapel” character of much of the contemporary Christian music scene, where one encounters the same songs sung the same ways in churches across the country. He pleads for artistic integrity and creativity within church communities, and that worship teams stop simply being “cover bands.” He touches on the monocultural worship of many of our churches, built around the homogeneous unit principle, although here, I would commend Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship (reviewed here), which takes the theory of this book and incarnates it with years of praxis. Later, he is critical of “propositional” music and preaching. On this last I would agree these can be sterile, but I’ve also seen many instances, both musically and expositorily where propositions crystallize the sense of narratives, and narratives flesh out and bring to life propositional elements. I wasn’t that keen on him trotting out this hobby horse which just seems one more example of binary, either-or thinking that lacks the creativity and synergy I think Frederick actually values.

Many will find helpful the sections in which he fleshes out what cruciform relationships look like between those who lead worship, the congregation, and the larger pastoral and church leadership team. Also helpful are discussions of how liturgy, prayers, singing and preaching, and communion all help form us in Christ. He helpfully counters the resistance to written prayers and liturgy by observing that we usually do not make up songs or worship on the spot. While these can become formalized, so can “the spontaneous.”

The author has two different voices in this book. One is rather “hip,” witty, and often quite engaging, for example when he interviews a former pastoral team on which he worked about how they worked together, or when he is characterizing the “Karaoke Chapel.”  The other voice feels to me a bit like that of the seminary student displaying facility with the theological jargon of the guild. Yet my sense was that this was not written for academics but for those who lead worship in the church. Consider this short paragraph toward the conclusion:

“Thus the paradigm of redemption by which the cruciformed church is called to bring about the cruciformation of the cosmos is a guiding principle and pattern, rather than a particular application or approach for the renewal of all things. The particular applications of cruciformissional ideation rely on the pneumatic discerning of the Spirit from the heart of the local community and the local church rather than on a pragmatic dictating of successful ministry strategies.” (p. 177)

I found myself wondering how many worship teams would have the inclination to wrap their minds around writing like this (no criticism of the intellectual capacities of worship teams intended!). In addition to a fondness for making up new words (cruciformation, cruciformissional), the language felt abstract and obscure. Another example in the section on liturgy is “the ecclesio-pneumatic ideation of Jesus Christ.” He even invokes the cool-sounding name and work of a German scholar, Wolfgang Iser. He actually is making quite an important point in this in talking about how the church (“ecclesio-“), through engaging the texts of liturgy, music, and scripture (ideation), by the power of the Spirit (pneumatic), encounters and is shaped by Christ. I’m hoping that others will make it through the thicket of language to get the point he is making.

I make this criticism because I think Frederick has a contribution to make in moving worship beyond the banal sameness of much of contemporary Christian music and the cult of the superstar worship leader. He wants us to focus in all the elements of worship on Christ and he is passionate about this because he is convinced it will transform people to be more like the Christ they worship together. I hope that he will work on writing in the way of the cross, which may mean putting to death some scholarly prose to make these important ideas more accessible to those who lead worship in our churches.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010.

Summary: Book One of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation, covering the rise of Cromwell to power under Henry VIII, up until 1535.

Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting figures of the English Reformation. He was one of those “indispensable men” one often finds close to great leaders, shrewd and capable in solving the problems facing the great leader, often more loyal to those they serve than the one they serve is to them. Charming and ruthless and skilled in both law and finance, Cromwell accrued more and more power to himself. He cut through the Gordian knots of Henry VIII’s marriages and engineered the formation of the Church of England, cutting ties with Rome.

This work of historical fiction, a 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, is the first of a trilogy, narrating the rise of Cromwell from the boy who survives violent abuse by his blacksmith father Walter to spend his early adult years fighting with the French and learning finance with the Italians, and working in the mercantile centers of Europe, acquiring a broad network of contacts. He returns to London, establishes himself as a lawyer accomplished in commercial negotiations, and eventually secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King and charged with securing an annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine. Wolsey fails, leading to his downfall and charges of treason.


Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein

Cromwell remains loyal to Wolsey until his death, a loyalty noted in royal circles. While he suffers the loss of wife and both daughters to illness–loss that haunts him throughout this book–he gains the confidence of the king and Anne Boleyn, who the king hopes to marry and on whom are the king’s hopes of a male heir. Eventually, under Cromwell, Parliament passes the Act of Succession under which clergy swore their ultimate submission to the king, not to Rome. For this Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, refusing to submit, go to their deaths.

Mantel tells this story, with all its in and outs and political maneuverings from Cromwell’s perspective. We read his thoughts, his perspective, his voice as he solves problems, faces loss, stewards the fortunes of the king, his sons, his wards. Where other accounts may portray a Machiavellian against the principled likes of More, this portrays a shrewd pragmatist, fiercely loyal to king and family, not without religious sensibilities but likewise very much grounded in the practical realities and use of power for the king’s ends. Whether she gets Cromwell right or not, Mantel explores what it is like to be Thomas Cromwell–to rise from a common birth, to advance by his shrewdness in managing affairs of state and of the heart, and through his competence to gain greater and greater power.

We have hints that it will not always be this way–Wolsey’s fall warning that Henry brooked no failure, but that is yet in the future. When the book ends he is Principal Secretary and Master of the Rolls to the king. The religious opposition in the form of Fisher and More are dead.  He has also been appointed Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and is preparing to visit the monasteries and religious houses either to liquidate them or more effectively tax them.

A couple of other comments. A key to enjoying this book is to figure out when Cromwell is speaking in dialogues and understanding that the narrative is through his eyes. That is not always easy to discern in the text, as many readers have noted. The other is the tantalizing character of the title. Wolf Hall is the family seat of the Seymour family, rivals of the Boleyns, influential nobility whose daughter Jane served in the court of Anne and eventually succeeded her (after the time of Book One of the trilogy) as the wife of Henry VIII. Cromwell’s son Gregory marries Jane’s sister and Cromwell notes the hovering presence of Jane in Anne’s household. Wolf Hall is a presence, a harbinger of things to come.

Should you read Wolf Hall? If you are willing to work to track the narration and keep track of the many characters, including the many Thomases, you will be rewarded with a rich psychological study of Cromwell and what it is like to wield power in the ever-dangerous presence of greater power. This is not mind candy for casual reading but rich fare for the attentive reader.