Review: Scars Across Humanity

scars across humanity

Scars Across HumanityElaine Storkey. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: A description of the global crisis of violence against women, possible explanations, and the measures being taken to address different forms of violence.

Selective abortion and infanticide. Female genital mutilation. Early, forced marriage. Honor killings. Domestic violence. Sex trafficking and prostitution. Rape. Sexual violence in war. From the Congo, Egypt, Pakistan, southeast Asia, to the metropolitan centers and suburbs of Europe and North America, there is a pandemic of violence in various forms against women–most of it perpetrated by men.

One of the signal contributions of this work, written by Elaine Storkey, an advocate for women, is to rigorously document this pandemic, describing specific instances as well as the overall prevalence of the forms of violence against women listed above. Some of the descriptions are graphic and heart-breaking of women facing debilitating physical injuries and psychic scars of the violence done against them. Nine of the thirteen chapters in this work delineate the extent and nature of this violence. Her comments on the effectiveness of gender-based violence as a tactic of war that “inevitably hits the target” is chilling.  Along the way, Storkey reports on efforts being taken in advocacy, law, and support to address the violence, much of it after the fact. Much remains to be done. For example, Storkey notes that “603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is still not a crime.”

All of this begs the question of why is this so universally a part of the human experience (a “scar across humanity”) and particularly why is violence against women so pervasively a male behavior? Three chapters explore evolutionary, patriarchal, and religious explanations. Each, to some extent, offer some explanation for this behavior but none are completely satisfying, and none can be used as a warrant to ever justify violence. A problem that I saw with the chapter on religion is that it focused exclusively on Islam. I felt a broader treatment would have been more even-handed and would avoid feeding anti-Muslim stereotypes (although she does describe movements defending the rights of women within Islam).

The final chapter on Christianity and gender acknowledges the sad history of patriarchy and a turning of a blind eye to domestic violence in the church but also notes how scripture gives warrant for the dignity, equality, and full partnership of women in marriage and the church, and no warrant for any form of violence. She notes the “texts of terror,” but argues these are descriptive rather than ever prescriptive. Finally, Storkey traces the root cause of gender based violence to human rebellion against God–sin. She writes:

“At a far deeper level than either ‘biology’ or ‘culture,’ then, ‘sin’ helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women. We are responsible. Patriarchal structures are a product of human choices and attitudes; oppression and brutality are rooted in the power sin exercises in human communities. A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create” (p. 223).

This is good a far as it goes, and I would agree with everything here, but I found her brief treatment less than satisfying in explaining why violence against women is a preferred male expression of our fallen sinfulness, particularly in light of her extensive treatment of evolutionary and patriarchal explanations. For this, Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s Gender and Grace goes into far greater depth.

Storkey’s book is an important one for men to read. This cannot remain a women’s conversation. As men, we need to own what we have created and face our collective “heart of darkness” and the tragic mayhem we have wrought across the globe, from date rape to femicide. We need to own that we are the reason that no girl or woman from eight (or earlier) to eighty can live without fear in our presence. This book faces us with the ugly consequences of the abuse of our masculinity and challenges us to join our mothers, sisters, and daughters as advocates and allies rather than aggressors. It challenges us to live redemptively, joining with Jesus, who elevated the status of women throughout his ministry.


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

Review: No Other Gods

No Other Gods

No Other GodsAna Levy-Lyons. New York: Center Street, 2018.

Summary: A liberal, progressive reading of the Ten Commandments, moving beyond personal morality to the social and political implications of the commands.

It seems that the most attention the Ten Commandments have received of late are controversies about whether or not they may be displayed in court houses and other public settings. Most would perceive that these commandments are the property of the conservative elements of Judaism and Christianity and that more enlightened, secular, humanist, spiritual-but-not-religious approaches liberate people from the oppressive laws and strictures of conservative religion. Yet, Ana Levy-Lyons, the author of this work and a minister of a progressive Unitarian congregation, contends that this freedom from religion hasn’t always been liberating, evidenced by record levels of anxiety and depression and an activism lacking in sustaining ethical foundations. She proposes in her introduction to this book:

“We may feel today that we’ve outgrown the need for the religious strictures of the past. But those very strictures might well have been devised for such a moment as this. Now be when we need them most. Especially today, we need shared commitments to hold ourselves accountable to history, to the future, to one another, and to something larger than all of us. We need faith in our collective power to transform the world toward justice–a power authorized and fueled by the ground of being itself. Choose-your-own-adventure spirituality is inadequate to the challenges we face. We need religious practices like the Ten Commandments that are rooted in a deep and multilayered tradition, that are spiritually rich, and that are intentionally insulated from modern culture.”

Levy-Lyons offers an interpretation of these commandments as a radical manifesto of liberation rather than of oppression, empowering resistance to a materialistic, capitalistic society. Inspired by the rabbinic tradition of midrash, she offers a fresh interpretation of the commandments that she hopes both secular liberals and the progressive religious might engage in common.

Beginning with the first command, to have no other gods, she argues that the message of this command is to “dethrone the modern deities of political, social, and corporate power” that pervade our daily life, as well as all the private personal gods that vie for a place in our lives, whether they are ideals of beauty or what she calls the “tyranny of balance.” She argues that our relation as a community to the one who is “Being” itself demotes all these other pursuits. Likewise, we should accept no “sculpted images” (the second commandment) as substitutes, whether they be material objects or the sculpting of ourselves or being lured by the power of a brand. She contends, “real life, unfiltered by brands, is spectacular.” The third command, of not taking God’s name in vain calls upon us to defend God’s goodness by refusing to allow others to justify immorality in the name of God, or justifying a culture that celebrates guns or destroys the environment with the idea that this is how God has made the world, that this is just the way things are. It is a call to assert the goodness of God in matters of justice and care for the earth.

Against a 24/7 mentality and a rigid sabbatarianism, the fourth command is an invitation to squander one day every week. It seeks the liberation of those in wage slavery so they can also rest, it says “no” to a relentless consumerism and “yes” to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “palace in time” where we rejoice in enough and linger over meals with friends. It is a dangerously radical waste of time that threatens the “gods” of the other six days. Likewise, in a culture that fosters accountability only to ourselves and leaving home for the next new thing, the fifth commandment calls us to honor parents, and in so doing stay accountable to where we’ve come from. While not justifying the wrongs that may have been done to us, the command challenges us to honor what made us who we are, that none of us are self-made. Levy-Lyons also extends this to the earth itself, that our accountability to it is connected to our living long in the land.

To not kill is not merely to not murder, but to not let die, and challenges our involvement in systems that kill, whether they are the third world sweatshops that produce our clothes or the bureaucratic systems of a city like Flint that channel toxic water into the homes while diverting them from automotive plants. Our commitment to life may go so far as to abstain from meat or animal products, considering how animals live and die. The seventh command against adultery rejects the idolatry of consumer choice (and unchoosing) in the most intimate of human relationship, to instead turn our choices to protect innocence and to stay in for the long run. The eighth challenges us not only to refrain from taking what is ours directly, but in what we pay for things, and how our choices affect the availability of the world’s resources to others. The ninth is not about what counts as a lie but the pursuit of truth, whether in the courts, or in the marketplace or the political arena. She makes trenchant comments about “truthiness” — lies that sound like they could be true but undermine truth-telling.

She ends with the tenth commandment, to not covet, and recognizes the internal aspect of this command, how in fact coveting precedes all else. Coveting is subverted when we embrace a life of “enough”– that we have enough and we are enough. She recognizes that to cultivate a life of “enough,” that keeps the commands, takes a community (it was fascinating that as a liberal, she includes Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option in her further reading list–perhaps this is why). Her concluding chapter contends that it matters, that pursuing goodness and love multiplies to a thousand generations and in the end, the commands transform into ten blessings, a paraphrase of which she concludes the book.

I found this attempt to interpret the commands to those seeking to escape the oppressiveness of conservative religion fascinating both for the recognition of how these commandments are in fact for our and the world’s good, and the radical demands that keeping these commands raise, particularly extending beyond personal and private morality to our concerns about systems and structures and ideologies. Yet as one who exists in a different social space than the author, the insistence on the value of human relations while keeping the deity as a very impersonal Being was puzzling. I was perhaps most troubled by an unwillingness to ask questions about the use of abortion as birth control or the warehousing of the aged among our concerns about killing. There seemed to be more concern about the warehousing of animals than people. Likewise, can we truly talk about adultery without also questioning cohabiting without commitment? There was nothing about how pornography destroys marriages. It felt at times that her reading of the commands comported with the values of progressive community with whom she ministers.

We all find it easier to challenge the transgressions of others than our own. This, actually, is what makes this a good book for me to read because I often do not hear in my faith community the challenges Levy-Lyons gives in this book. At the same time, what I would contend is that these commands are truly radical in challenging “off limits” subjects for all of us, whether this has to do with our consumerism, our exploitation of the planet, or all the ways we distort the wonderful gift of our sexuality, or even our attempts to keep the infinite yet personal God at arms length. What a fascinating conversation might be had, like Bill Moyers’ Genesis series, were scholars and ministers across the spectrum gathered to discuss these ten words, ten commandments, ten blessings!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Review: Race and Place


Race and Place

Race and PlaceDavid P. Leong (foreword by Soong-Chan Rah). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Looks at how geography and place serve to perpetuate racial divisions and injustice and how the church may begin to address itself to these geographic forces and structures.

In many discussions about the continuing legacy of racial divisions and injustices in our country we focus on structural problems in our justice system, our political life, and in our economic life that perpetuate divisions. What is often less obvious is that place and geography places an important role in these structural divisions and in the perpetuation of racial discord in our society.

David P. Leong writes this book to open our eyes to the ways that our geography, particularly our urban geography helps perpetuate structures of racial division. The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Leong lays out terms, including a discussion of place and colorblindness. What I find him arguing here as much as anything is that we are “place blind” and we do not see how place and race interact. He traces this in part to a docetic theology that spiritualizes life and doesn’t recognize physical places as an essential aspect of life–that our embodied existence is lived in a place.

Part two looks at how patterns of exclusion work in our geography and how this plays out in education, housing, and our transportation patterns. He talks about our freeway systems as facilitating a suburban exodus. I was surprised that he did not talk about how freeways changed our urban landscapes, isolated neighborhoods and reinforced racial separation in many cities. This was surprising to me because he writes about Detroit, including the wall at Eight Mile Road, yet does not talk about how freeways also changed the urban geography of the city. He also addresses what he calls “return flight” and the resulting phenomenon of gentrification which perpetuates geographic isolation as poorer (and often racially distinct) populations are often displaced when an urban area gentrifies.

Part three addresses the phenomenon of relocation often advocated by the Christian Community Development Association. The author is part of one such community in the Rainier Valley area of Seattle. He explores the postures and practices involved in avoiding a kind of imperialism by sinking roots into a community, by practicing radical hospitality, and engaging in neighborhood renewal through a ministry of presence.

I think the strengths of this book are its analysis of the ways place and geography perpetuate racial divisions and inequities, and in the author’s story of the hard work of nurturing a racially diverse church community in urban Seattle. At the same time it seems that its primary solution to these problems of place is relocation and incarnational ministry. Perhaps in the very long term such communities can transform an urban environment. Yet I wonder if this is only a very small part of addressing the structural problems that sustain racism, even in terms of urban geography. It seems that there are issues related to law enforcement and the justice system, banking and financial services, business and commerce, the location of employment opportunities, fostering quality educational opportunities and more that this book leaves unaddressed, apart from acknowledging them.

Perhaps this calls for a much longer book, but even more an aware presence in these communities. It seems that this is what the author wants as he writes:

“As you witness these oppressive systems at work in your own neighborhood and reflect on these personal tendencies in your own life, I hope you’ll never look at another freeway, public school, or suburban home the same way again. Beyond those new ways of seeing, I also pray that you’ll be disturbed with our complicity in these problematic walls of hostility, to the point of further study, research, and lament.”

Leong’s book does this and something more. It shares the story of a community that has started looking at these things, not clinically from the outside, but as a hospitable and learning community from the inside. Over time, that may be far more significant than one more grandiose solution imposed from the outside.


Review: Reinhold Niebuhr (Makers of the Modern Theological Mind)


Reinhold Niebuhr (Makers of the Modern Theological Mind)Bob E. Patterson. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017 (originally published in 1977).

Summary: An introduction to the life and theological contribution of this mid-twentieth century theologian, known for re-introducing a conversation about sin into liberal theological circles.

Reinhold Niebuhr was one of a group of “neo-orthodox” and more liberal theologians who dominated the theological landscape of the mid-twentieth century, along with Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Rudolf Bultmann. Niebuhr’s distinction was that he was the one American in the group (Tillich emigrated to the U.S. during World War II). He may have been the most influential American-born theologian since Jonathan Edwards. His “Christian realism” informed the thinking of architect of Cold War era policy George Kennan and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and he was a favorite theologian of both Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

This book marks the re-publishing of the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, originally published in the late 1970’s.  Each of the volumes provides a concise biography and  theological contribution for most of the above named figures. They are ideal for theological students preparing for comprehensive exams, but also as accessible summaries to the lives and works of these important figures who still exert influence in both theological, and in Niebuhr’s case, political circles.

Patterson begins with an extended biographical essay that traces Niebuhr’s formative years, his Detroit pastorate, his advocacy for workers and socialist causes, his pacifism and then the turn in his life as he renounced socialism and endorsed U.S. involvement in World War II. Likewise, he shook the theological world with his Gifford Lectures later published as The Nature and Destiny of Man, where he enunciated his theology of what it means to be human, and particularly the reality and universality of human sinfulness, especially the sin of pride, evident even in the best of our noble political and spiritual pretensions. This marked a kind of summit in his life, during his years at Union Theological Seminary and as a highly sought-after speaker on university campuses and other fora. A series of strokes and heart trouble hampered his later life, although he continued to write prolifically, particularly on questions at the junction of theological and political life.

The rest of the book is devoted to his theology. Patterson begins with his anthropology and Niebuhr’s emphasis on the tension humans live in between their freedom and finiteness, and the anxiety that results from this. He goes on to show how this anxiety, when it is not turned to faith in God, inevitably leads to sin. One of Niebuhr’s distinct contributions, according to Patterson, is his focus particularly on the forms of pride that result from that anxiety, rather than the sensual sins, although Niebuhr also gives an account of this. The sin of pride colors all human pretensions to noble social, political and even spiritual ambitions. This leads Niebuhr to the “paradox of grace” which both empowers moral transformation, and yet extends the continuing forgiveness of the intrusions of sin through the atoning work of Christ.

Niebuhr’s understanding of sin and grace informs his “Christian realism” in the pursuit of love and justice. The grace of Christianity inspires us to acts of agape love, yet the pretensions of pride remain, and love may best be translated into the upholding of justice in society. For Niebuhr, he recognizes the structural as well as personal dimensions of sin and its impact on movements of social justice. We are, in the language of one of his books, “moral men in an immoral society.” Furthermore, realism cautions against the extremes of totalitarian efforts to bring in the good society and the utopian dreams of much liberalism. We will not bring in the kingdom in human history, only proximate goods that look toward an eschatological fulfillment.

Although some of the language and references in this 1970’s work reflects this time, the author is prescient, in my view, in his appreciation of the relevance of Niebuhr to our own day:

“We still need his genius to see that human behavior is complex, that demonic possibilities are built into church and social structures, that human pride and spiritual arrogance rise to new heights precisely at the point where they are closest to the Kingdom of God, and that advance brings vulnerability to new temptations. Since overweening self-regard is ubiquitous, religious and political groups need Niebuhr’s caution about special arrogance, about the self-righteous smoke screen laid down by the powerful, and about cheap grace” (pp. 130-131).

Niebuhr wasn’t an evangelical, and this perhaps accounts for why his influence has not shaped either evangelical political engagement or a suburban-oriented church growth movement in the last thirty years that has been blind to the “demonic possibilities” in our structures that have contributed to a racially divided church and a deeply divided political discourse. His trenchant analysis of the human condition and of what is possible in a fallen world, certainly not infallible in all its detail, nevertheless provides the lineaments of an intellectual, moral and spiritual framework we desperately need in our day.


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: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Uneasy Conscience

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern FundamentalismCarl F. H. Henry (foreword by Richard J. Mouw). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003 (originally published 1947).

Summary: Henry’s classic manifesto challenging the heirs of the fundamentalist movement to a recovery of a social and intellectual engagement while maintaining gospel integrity.

In a recent conversation about people leaving evangelicalism because of the “rootedness” of those in traditions like Catholicism, I wondered aloud whether many who are repudiating evangelicalism have much knowledge of what they are repudiating, other than the uncomfortable experiences they likely have had personally. In my experience, most evangelicals are sadly out of touch with even their own history, let alone the great history of the church over the past two millenia.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is one of the keystone works in the rise of the twentieth century evangelical movement. In it Carl Henry decries the regrettable loss of a social conscience in fundamentalism’s retreat from a vibrantly engaged evangelicalism of the nineteenth century.  He writes:

     “In a company of more than one hundred representative evangelical pastors, the writer proposed the following question: ‘How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing the framework in which you think a solution is possible?’ Not a single hand was raised in response.”

He attributes this in part to the retrenchment from theological liberalism and its associated “social gospel.” But he also lays part of the blame on an eschatology that is indifferent to all efforts to address social and physical needs since “it is all going to perish” and what must be done is simply to rescue lost people. He argues that the exclusive focus on the “not yet” of the kingdom to the exclusion of the “already” that heralds the work of Christ leads to a great imbalance in preaching. He writes this as one who embraces rather than denies premillenial theology.

Furthermore, he calls for an intellectual recovery of a Christian mind and social ethic that roots a vigorous engagement in the realms of higher education as well as societal needs in theological orthodoxy. He proposes protest that roots advocacy in evangelical belief while also recognizing that ameliorating social needs without spiritual regeneration through Christ is inadequate.

Carl Henry represented a vanguard of evangelical leaders who created journals like Christianity Today and began to assert a socially engaged and intellectually rigorous Christianity that remained rooted in fundamental beliefs. It was a movement that advocated for a “both-and” approach when everyone else had assumed an “either-or” approach to Christian faith–either socially engaged or doctrinally orthodox. Henry argued for both and believed this reflected gospel integrity.

While there were things Henry and others no doubt didn’t get right, many more don’t even know he existed or that his manifesto anticipated the socially engaged evangelicalism of Sojourners, the intellectual and doctrinal rigor of the neo-Reformed folkand the movement toward a recovery of a Christian mind in the world of higher education.

This slim volume “stirred many pots.” It is worth a read in our day, both for the vibrant vision it articulates and for the glimpse it gives us of the beginnings of twentieth century evangelicalism after World War Two.

Review: Which Side Are You On


Which Side Are You On?Elaine Harger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

Summary: An account of seven debates in the American Library Association Council over matters of social responsibility and how this body exerts its influence in broader social debates.

Most of us have the impressions of libraries as sedate places with librarians who are helpful, interested in serving the reading and information needs of patrons, and knowledgeable about the resources they have at hand. The most political act of most librarians seems to be supporting “Banned Books Months,” featuring attempts to remove books from circulation that patrons or others may deem objectionable.

This last is actually the tip of the iceberg according to Elaine Harger, who has served as a Councilor-at-Large within the American Library Association (ALA) and on the Social Responsibilities Round Table. In this book, she recounts what appear to have been lively and contested debates around seven issues that suggest a far from sedate, sometimes contentious, and sometimes very politically motivated association. In the course of these debates she explores some challenging issues such as the conflicts between intellectual freedom, censorship, and social justice; the tension between patron privacy and protection from surveillance and national security; relating to corporate partners whose products or views conflict with the social consciousness of librarians; and even the difference between stated views around climate change and climate unfriendly practices.

The first debate concerns the re-issuance of a 1975 film called The Speaker concerning the controversial race and gene theory ideas of William Shockley. Originally an ALA expose’, over the years it was deemed moral offensive to minority communities and its reissuance and presence on YouTube raised the ire of many, while receiving calls of intellectual freedom from others.

The second concerns the banning of anti-apartheid books in South Africa and how the ALA along with other library groups would advocate against this practice and boycott South African vendors. The third confronts a somewhat similar issue in Israeli and Occupied Territories and the censorship of materials deemed a threat to the State of Israel. Here interests favoring Israel and those opposing censorship clashed seriously.

The fourth and fifth debates concerned corporate partners. In the fourth, the concern was the sponsorship of McDonald’s of children’s reading programs, with its corporate logos prominent on all the materials. Can an organization concerned with the deleterious effects of the fast food sold on the McDonald’s menu work with such a corporate partner. This is even more tendentious with the Boy Scouts, an organization who had long worked in promoting reading with Scouts but whose positions around excluding homosexual boys and adult leaders from participation made it unsupportable.

The sixth discussion turns on privacy concerns, particularly in the face of Edward Snowden’s release through Wikileaks of massive amounts of documentation showing the extent of government electronic surveillance intrusion into all of our lives. For librarians concerned with patron privacy (that their searches, borrowed materials records, and other electronic activity with the library remain private), this was an issue that struck close to home. Yet a resolution to not only decry this intrusion upon Fourth Amendment rights but also to support whistleblowers like Snowden, although passed, was pulled for a tamer substitute because of pressures from the ALA’s Washington office.

The final debate, more a personal cry of the heart of the author concerns the gap between statements of concern around climate change and activities from cross-country travel to uses of resources and energy that conflict with the avowed seriousness of concern for climate change. One of the most interesting parts of this chapter was the author’s personal testimony and example that including resigning her Councilor position and restricting her airline travel because of her concerns.

The chapters give detailed accounts of these debates including transcripts of some discussions and various parliamentary maneuvers. I suspect that this may be of greatest interest to “library insiders” but I found several things fascinating:

  1. I’m glad librarians are concerned and speaking out about Fourth Amendment intrusions upon privacy. I wonder if librarians might also exercise a greater role in educating patrons on how to protect personal information from identity theft and from parties that might use personal information in other ways to their disadvantage.
  2. It is intriguing that librarians, as curators of information, may privilege certain forms of information to the exclusion of others. Even if there is intellectual freedom, if socially unacceptable views are not accessible, this can amount to a subtle form of censorship. In particular, many of our current social debates are framed in a very binary fashion, in which a person who does not fully embrace the socially privileged view is pigeonholed with the benighted “others”. Thoughtful dissenters from social orthodoxy are easily lumped in with outright bigots. My question is, will librarians allow a civil and pluralistic public square of ideas, even conflicting ideas, to flourish?
  3. It was striking to me that this association is hardly immune to political pressures from right or left. Its effectiveness would seem to rest in its skill to adequately represent its constituents, be transparent in its processes, and courageous when it takes positions and encounters opposition.
  4. The author’s final chapter underscores a great challenge any of us working in the knowledge world face. We can talk a better game than we live. Praxis is just as important as the positions we take.

I do think the title of this work is interesting. “Which side are you on?” conjures up a vision of those who are right, those who are wrong. Yet one wonders if it is really that simple in the library or the real world. It also suggests a form of conflict resolution with winners and losers. As I mention above, we love to create binaries, excluding the possibilities of third options, which may be possible at least in some cases. There certainly are some evils simply to be resisted, but not all things are like that in society. Often, better resolutions come as we understand situations better and also have a better sense of the range of options available. Librarians, it seems to me have a unique access to such information, that suggests the potential that they may contribute uniquely and significantly to conflict resolution where there are people of good will.

“Which side are you on?” may accurately reflect the social responsibility debates of the last twenty-five years in library circles. Who will be the people in the library world and elsewhere who frame a different “come together” conversation? I hope I will see that book someday.


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

Review: Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage


Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionDonald W. Dayton with Douglas M. Strong. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014.

Summary: An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period.

In the mid 1970’s, Donald Dayton, a church historian wrote a series of articles for The Post-American (now Sojourners) that was collected into the first edition of this work. In it, Dayton traced for a rising generation of socially-conscious boomer evangelicals (of whom I was a part) the reform, social justice tradition within American evangelicalism, going back to its nineteenth century pre-Civil War roots. That edition, called Discovering an Evangelical Heritage gave a generation of us the basis for contending that it was possible to care both about the eternal destiny of people and about social injustices within our society and in our international relations, that both were part of Christian faithfulness for people who took their Bibles and the kingdom that Jesus announced seriously. In 1988, the first edition was re-printed with new preface by Dayton. This new, second edition includes updated supplemental material by Douglas M. Strong as well as a new introduction and conclusion written by Strong. What we have is not only Dayton’s original work, but a sense of the trajectory of evangelicalism in the forty years since, including the rise of the Religious Right, and more recent Millennial efforts to recover this heritage.

Dayton began this work with a profile of Jonathan Blanchard, first president of Wheaton College. He came to Wheaton from pastoring a black Presbyterian church in Cincinnati, continued his anti-slavery work as president of Knox College in Illinois before going to Wheaton, founded by abolitionist Wesleyan Methodists, with a commitment to carrying on this reform tradition. Another, whose career trajectory was similar was Charles Grandison Finney, known not only for his revivalist preaching but also for his fervent abolitionism and his commitment to permit women to pray and speak. He carried these commitments into his presidency of Oberlin College, which Dayton traces in a subsequent chapter, particularly as the abolitionist wing of Lane Theological Seminary departed Cincinnati for Oberlin, forming a college that admitted blacks and women, preparing both for ministry and other professions. Later, Dayton recounts the resistance and civil disobedience to Fugitive Slave laws, culminating in the Wellington case, where fugitive slave John Price is rescued from custody in nearby Wellington.

Dayton also profiles Theodore Weld, converted under Finney and serving as an assistant to him. Instead of joining him at Oberlin, he heads up the American Anti-Slavery Society, using techniques he learned in Finney’s revivals to mobilize commitment to abolition. Eventually he marries fellow abolitionist Angelina Grimke, in what was clearly an egalitarian marriage, in which Weld renounced his “right” to her person and property. Dayton profiles the Tappan Brothers, wealthy New York businessmen who used their resource to fund anti-slavery efforts, including the work of Finney and Weld. At one point, Arthur Tappan pledged nearly all his annual income of $100,000 to Oberlin College (there was a Tappan Hall, eventually torn down to be replaced by Tappan Square, across the street from Finney Chapel).

The remainder of the book explores the evangelical roots of feminism, the development of ministries among the poor, including the work of the Salvation Army, and what happened to evangelicalism over the next century. One of the most fascinating trends is the tension between the tradition represented by Finney and the tradition represented by the Princeton Theologians. One emphasized experience and practice, the other theological orthodoxy. It seems these two have been in a kind of “tug of war” throughout our nation’s history. In the post-Civil War period, the focus turned more to matters of personal morality, and the resistance to theological liberalism and Darwinist science, leading to a retreat into fundamentalism, from which the movement began to emerge only in the post-World War Two period, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war era, as a rising evangelicalism sought resources to address these issues of the day.

Strong traces the movement from 1976 and the election of Jimmy Carter, an avowed evangelical, down to the present. The rise of the Religious Right, and the strategy of Republicans to regain the white South led to political re-alignments and a re-focused agenda for many evangelicals that has continued to this day, along with the rise of a complementarian neo-Calvinism bent on defining orthodoxy for all evangelical scholarship. Strong traces the rise of Millennials, disenchanted with the polarized politics, and concerned with a new set of social justice issues and racial reconciliation as a counter-movement to these trends.

I had a lot of mixed feelings reading this book. There is a certain amount of pride that much of this evangelical history runs through my home state, from Cincinnati to Oberlin. Yet I feel a great sadness that by and large, we are not cognizant in the evangelical community in my state of that history or how we might carry it on. One striking exception has been a continuing effort to fight human trafficking, which harks back to the Underground Railroad, a prominent part of Ohio history.

I would like to be as sanguine as Strong about the rising generation. I can’t help but think about how the movement of the 1970’s by and large was co-opted by affluence and became part of a reactionary establishment. For most, there was neither a grounding theological vision, nor an orthopraxy of pursuing both piety and justice embedded in our lives and church communities. We grew intellectually lazy and comfortable. I hope the rising generation can indeed recover this great tradition of both vigorous piety and reform. My own hunch is that if it is to happen (and Strong alludes to this), it will arise not out of white evangelicalism, which I think is too far gone in its cultural and political captivity, but out of minority and immigrant communities, and multi-cultural church communities where whites may be in the minority. That may be a good thing, both for the American church, and the country that is its earthly home.


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


Review: Christians and the Common Good

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Summary: Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy.

The title of this book may be perplexing to some for different reasons. For some, their experience is one of Christians seeking their own good, or simply their own idea of the good, which smacks of privilege. For others, the perplexing thing may be the idea of a “common good”. In our current climate of polarized, indeed Balkanized politics, it seems that few people are talking about a “common good”–policies and community practices where both responsibility and benefit are shared by all constituents to a significant degree.

Charles Gutenson, in a book written during the debates on the Affordable Care Act proposes an approach by which Christians may advance proposals informed by their faith that genuinely advance the common good, not just their own. He argues that one gets there by reading the whole Bible to discover God’s intentions for how a people are to live together, not simply the few “government passages” (Romans 13 and Luke 20 in particular) that Christians often reference as the beginning and end of their political philosophy. He contends that this teaching is not to be woodenly applied in a context very different from the biblical one. And he proposes that the life and ministry of Jesus is the definitive expression of how the Triune God would have us live in imitation of him.

He follows these foundational claims with an extensive survey of scriptures from both the Old and New Testament concerning everything from Jubilee and gleaning laws to the continued protection of widows and orphans in the life of the church. A basic thread is a loving concern for the needy among us. It seemed to me that 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 was a particular “control text” for the approach he advocates:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’ ” (NIV)

He contends that it is not enough that the church act along these lines but that this is also a good principle to inform public policy. Often, he argues, private means are simply not sufficient to address the scope of public need, as important as private efforts are.

With this in mind, he thinks the following policies are in line with a biblically-informed concern for the common good: safety nets like unemployment, certain forms of welfare and Medicaid, a progressive (rather than regressive) tax structure, an honest reckoning with the issues of race and protections from racial discrimination, Social Security and Medicare safeguards to care for our elderly, minimum wages that provide a living wage, or absent that, tax breaks that recognize the benefits others enjoy by keeping wages low, earned income credits, access to health care, estate and inheritance taxes, bankruptcy laws, anti-monopoly laws, efforts to strengthen families, and addressing global poverty.

Clearly, Gutenson advocates what would be a “left of center” social policy and he admits as much. He takes a muted approach to the “culture war” issues of homosexuality and abortion. The strength of his case is the argument that a flourishing society seeks the flourishing of all, and not just some, of its people. It looks out not only for one’s own interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It recognizes the role that the public power of government may play when the private power of some interests gains benefits at the expense of others, especially those on the margins.

What troubles me is that while the author welcomes more conservative voices and recognizes that solutions to our pressing social problems will require a degree of collaboration absent at present, he is decidedly silent on some issues that I think require attention, such as the recognition of the deep injustice we commit against our children when we consistently ask the government to spend more for the services we want than we are willing to pay, leaving the debts to those who come after us. Also, redistribution of resources via taxation can help or hurt the poor. Why not for example provide tax incentives to companies who offer living rather than minimum wages? I’m troubled that some of these proposals go beyond emergency relief (such as unemployment benefits) to ongoing relief rather than economic opportunity fueled by economic development.

Nor does he say anything about fundamental electoral reform including re-districting reform and campaign finance reform. As it stands now, most elected officials in state and federal government do not have to be concerned about “the common good” because of the way their districts are drawn. And this further marginalizes people by race and economic status. The rich are basically able to buy their office, or that of those who protect their interests.

Where Gutenson’s voice is welcome is in its clarion call for Christians to pursue the common good, and to wrestle with the “whole counsel of God” on these matters to gain God’s heart for the common, and not just our own good. This can be helpful for thoughtful Christians wrestling with the role of Christians in public life, who want to go beyond proof texts and political pundits to constructive engagement.


Review: Faith and Fragmentation

Faith and Fragmentation
Faith and Fragmentation by J. Philip Wogaman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

J. Philip Wogaman has served as a pastor to Presidents and so I was intrigued to see how he would handle the project of re-framing the Christian faith in a post-colonial age of rapid scientific and technological advance, an age of intellectual and religious pluralism. The book itself is a reprint of a book originally published in the 1980s. Most of the trends he notes have only continued to unfold so there is much of current relevance in what he writes.

He begins with an image of a broken, fragmented cup related by Ruth Benedict in Patterns of Culture, an image shared of the shattering of the cultural and worldview framework of the Digger Indians in California. Wogaman questions whether the same thing has happened with Christianity as it has been understood, and whether there are resources within the faith that provide an unfragmented cup, one that can hold water, or the new wine of new life.

I found his analysis of traps avoided by early Christianity (being held captive to a Jewish form of Christianity, anti-intellectualism, antimaterial spritualism, and sectarian aloofness to secular power) spot on. Likewise, his analysis of the “fragments” of a broken faith we are tempted to cling to was equally telling–nostalgia, religious feeling, liturgical formalism, institutional activism, fundamentalism, nationalism, rationalism and more.

Equally, I was impressed with the scope of issues he explores–the question of human knowledge, cosmology and science, the self, our relation to society and response to various forms of injustice, and missions in a post-colonial era. I will give Wogaman credit for not retreating to a privatized, interior faith that says little or nothing about these challenges.

Where I found Wogaman more problematic was in his core theology. Most critically, I find Wogaman denying the possibility of the miraculous and the bodily resurrection of Christ. For him, the incarnation is simply an expression of the transcendent love of God for all humanity. What this all seems to boil down to is a “moral influence” idea of the work of Christ. Wogaman’s vision is for a church that responds to this work as a “community of hopeful love”. Certainly I would affirm that love is the mark of disciples in Christian community and that we love because God first loved us.

Yet in the end, what Wogaman seems to advocate is a Christianity without power, and really without hope beyond this life. In his denial of the transformative power of the Risen Christ working through the Holy Spirit to work inner transformation, I find that all he is proposing is a form of moralism motivated by some vague gratitude toward God. In the end, it seems to me that Wogaman himself is offering us only fragments of what is a far more robust faith, fragments that cannot hold water, nor carry the new wine of new life.

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