The Month in Reviews: May 2015

May continued the trend of listening to non-Westerners discussing theology. I read a travel narrative on prayer and a business narrative rooted in a study of Joseph the son of Jacob. In the history category, I worked may way through a sprawling history of Scotland and a parallel biography of Grant and Lee and their Civil War commands. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s musings on the English language, a work that dealt with 145 “myths” about Christianity, and a plea for “slow church”. For some reason, I didn’t finish any fiction in May, but look forward to a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning All The Light We Cannot See which is one of the best works of fiction I’ve read in some time.

That said, here is what I reviewed in May with links to the full reviews:

MythsA Year of Living Prayerfully1. Exposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell. Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

2. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Jared Brock and his incredibly patient wife Michelle go on a year long pilgrimage that takes them to the Vatican to meet the Pope and to Westboro Baptist Church and many other places alternately delightful and weird in a quest to deepen their prayer life.

slow churchMother Tongue3. Mother Tongue: The English Language, by Bill Bryson. This amusing and informative book surveys the history of the English language and all its vagaries and perplexities of word origins, spellings, and pronunciations and why it has become so successful as a world language.

4. Slow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Accidental ExecutiveCrucible of Command5. The Accidental Executive, by Albert M. Erisman. A former Boeing executive reflects deeply on the biblical character of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and amplifies on these reflections from his own experience in business leadership and interviews with other executives in a highly readable account suitable for discussion groups in business and church settings.

6. Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee–The War They Fought, The Peace They Forgedby William C. Davis. This is a dual biography of Grant and Lee that studies their contrasting origins and yet similar qualities of command through back and forth narratives covering similar periods leading to their climactic confrontation, the peace they established, and its aftermath.

Preaching the NTScotlandEvangelical Postcolonial Conversations7. Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis edited by Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha, and L. Daniel Hawk. This book arises from a roundtable that sought to apply postcolonial concepts to re-visioning evangelical theology and praxis, coming to terms both with how colonialism shaped evangelical theology and mission and what it means to listen to the voices of the formerly colonized.

8. Scotland: A New History by Michael Lynch. This one volume work provides a comprehensive overview of the history of Scotland from the Roman invasions, through the kingdoms of the Picts, the Wars of Independence, the rise of the House of Stewart, the Treaty of Union in 1707, the commercial and intellectual zenith of Scotland in the late 18th/early 19th century and its continued efforts to define its relation with the U.K down to the time of writing in 1992.

9. Preaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Best of the Month: I would have to go with Slow Church. The authors of this book propose a different way of thinking about the church from so much of the mega-church and church growth models that have dominated evangelical discussions of what the church ought to be.

Quote of the Month: I chose this one from Exposing Myths about Christianity: 

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

In addition to the review of All The Light We Cannot See, look for reviews of a book on preaching centered around Christ, even when working from Old Testament passages, Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, and a book on caring for the creation that seeks to develop the biblical ethics behind our care for creation. Time allowing, I also hope to review David McCullough’s new book, The Wright Brothers.

Perhaps from all these choices you will find a good summer read. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” link on the menu bar of my blog. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: Exposing Myths About Christianity

MythsExposing Myths About Christianity by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: Under eight headings, this book offers 145 short essays responding to lies, legends, and half-truths about Christian faith in contemporary discussions, giving concise, thoughtful and catholic responses (in the sense of representing the wide swath of Christianity) helpful both to the person exploring the faith and to apologists and others who proclaim it.

“Christianity is anti-scientific.” “Christians are creationists who deny evolution.” “Early Christians suppressed the true religion of Jesus.” “Protestantism is puritanical.” “Miracles are explained away by science.” “God is a product of structural and chemical arrangements in the brain.” “Nothing is true.”

Perhaps you’ve heard these ideas and wonder if there is a cogent response. Perhaps you believe them and wonder how Christians with a brain in their heads could still embrace Christian belief.

Jeffrey Burton Russell is a Guggenheim fellow and professor of medieval history who has probably written the landmark work on the concept of the devil in five volumes as well as a book that argues that 19th century anti-theists invented the idea that medieval Christians believed that the world was flat. So he comes with impressive credentials for debunking the debunkers.

Following a chronology of pre-Christian and Christian history, his book is organized around eight headings:

  1. Christianity is Dying Out
  2. Christianity is Destructive
  3. Christianity is Stupid
  4. Jesus and the Bible Have Been Show To Be False
  5. Christian Beliefs Have Been Shown to Be Wrong
  6. Miracles are Impossible
  7. Worldviews Can’t Be Evaluated
  8. What’s New is True

The articles range from a paragraph or two to five pages or more, depending on the subject. Because of the nature of this project, none can be considered an exhaustive response and in fact books have been written on many of the issues he covers (and he provides an ample bibliography at the end of the book for further study).  At times, one wishes for greater nuance, as in his discussion of Christianity as a western colonial religion. While acknowledging the millennium long ascendancy of western Christianity, the plea that both early and contemporary Christianity is global in scope does not excuse the complicity of Christian institutions in colonialism at certain points in history. At other times, such as discussing Christian views of war, one finds a far more nuanced discussion. All this is to say that no one will agree with Russell at all points.

Nevertheless, what I found winsome was Russell’s discussion of the broad sweep of Christianity rather than one particular segment, particularly in a work published by an evangelical publisher. In discussing Mary, for example, he respectfully presents Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox views of Mary. He argues that what all have in common is that none permit the worship of Mary.

Sometimes his discussions are careful to define both what Christians mean and don’t mean by a particular term, such as “original sin”. This particular essay, as many others, included sparking insights, this being an example:

“Original sin is actually a democratic idea. Without believing in original sin, one person might pride himself or herself on being better than another and one group or race or nation might claim to be better than others. The idea that absolutely everyone is a sinner makes it much harder to be arrogant and judge others” (p. 263).

I think there are several groups of people who will find this book of help. One would be those who are considering Christian faith but have been given pause by one or more of these contentions. To read through this book, or at least sections on issues troubling one, is to listen to a cogent defender of the faith who provides good counter-reasoning to the myth purveyors and debunkers of Christian faith. Those whose interest is apologetics (the defense of the faith) will find this as a good primer on the wide range of questions that arise with pointers to more in-depth resources where further study is needed. Finally, many who preach or otherwise proclaim the faith will find themselves called upon to respond to many of the questions raised in this book. Most of the time, what is wanted is not a dissertation but a concise and thoughtful response, precisely what Russell gives us.