Review: Sarah’s Laughter

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle.

I thought a long time after listening to an older, respected teacher began a talk with words something like this: “As one gets older it becomes clearer that there is much in life that is hard, and that hurts.” This new work by Vinoth Ramachandra carries a similar message and it comes as a stark challenge to a lamentless church that proclaims a form of Christian life that moves from victory to victory.

Ramachandra has seen the hardness of life first hand, witnessing the bloody civil war in his native Sri Lanka, and the complicity of global powers that profited from the arms sold that perpetuated the conflict. He observes the staggering consequences of climate change for the poor of the nations and the unique vulnerability of the poor in our present pandemic. And he has grieved the loss of a wife to cancer. So much suffering leads him to ask two questions of God. One is “Why, Lord?” The other is “How long, O Lord?” They are questions that do not beg a theoretical explanation and this book is not an attempt to offer one. Rather it invites the unvarnished expression of our pain and doubts and questions, even as do the “psalms of darkness” in scripture. We both wonder about the existence of God and rage at what seems the unfairness of it all to the God we doubt. His message comes as a special challenge to many Western churches (at least white churches) where lament is not a part of either the liturgy or the life of the church.

In subsequent chapters he explores the anguish of Job, an anguish that both questions and seeks God, and is not answered by friends who can only muster arguments of divine justice and retribution. He explores the testimony of scripture and theologians to the grief and pain of God, the tears of God, the suffering of God with us culminating in the “handing over” of his son who “dies both at our hands and with us.” He wrestles with the realities of natural evil from animal predation to natural disasters, from which he observes the poor dying in disproportionate numbers, while reminding us that human evil is far worse.

Ramachandra considers what it means for the church to live as a community that holds grief and hope together. He believes that this is a creative place, one of forgiveness, of making meaning, of pursuing justice, and of anticipating a new creation. It is also a place of waiting. Ramachandra calls us to a faith that “is about faithfulness in action rather than knowing all the ‘right doctrines.’ ” It is a life lived both with all our questions and griefs, and yet in faithful and hopeful actions that follow in Christ’s steps, both to the cross, and beyond.

This is a far cry from “happy, clappy Christianity.” Ramachandra writes a book that unflinchingly looks at the hardest realities, the hardest questions we may ask and the most painful cries of our heart. And yet he also explores the possibility of a life still lived toward God, by faith and faithfulness, where doubt and belief, lament and joy live together. This book is for those whose life is hard and hurts. Inevitably, that will be all of us.

________________________________

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

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!

 

 

Review: Gods That Fail

Gods that fail

Gods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016.

Summary: A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross.

This is a book with a global vision. It explores the failure of the gods of both western secularity and materialism and eastern spirituality. The author sees a common element in these–the effort to obtain power through some form of technique, whether of science and technology, or economics, or the techniques of spirituality to manipulate the powers of the spiritual world. Yet these gods invariably disappoint and lead both to personal futility and the dehumanization of others. But the author is not merely setting his sights on the failures of others. He also sees these forms of idolatry as vitiating the mission of the church. He writes:

“The book’s subtitle is deliberately ambiguous. Does Christian mission involve a confrontation with the ‘idols of our time?’ Or does Christian mission, at least in some prominent aspects, unconsciously disseminate forms of idolatry around the globe? Or are large sections of the Christian Church so riddled with idolatry that their missionary vision has been paralysed? The burden of this book can be summed up by saying that all three of these questions require the emphatic answer: ‘Yes’ “(p. 25).

The book both commends the biblical narrative as one that renders a true and compelling alternative to the dehumanizing gods of modern idolatry and serves as a ringing call to Christians east and west to recognize and repent of their own idolatries and captivities to the false gods of their cultures.

The author is uniquely suited to this task. He is a native of Sri Lanka, educated at the University of London. He serves as the international Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, a global partnership of over 150 student movements on every continent. His account is a model of fluent, sweeping and yet incisive analysis.

Following an introduction laying out his thesis and plan of argument, Ramachandra turns to the biblical account of creation, taking both scientists and Christians alike to task for the focus on questions of how and when and totally overlooking the narratives assertions of Who the Creator is and his relation to humankind and the rest of creation. This leads to a consideration of evil and suffering in the book of Job, the idolatry implicit in the answers of Job’s comforters, and the reality that God gives no direct answer to Job’s question because evil and suffering are in fact a “monstrous absurdity” in God’s good world.

Chapter 4 turns from biblical narrative to the critiques of religion posed by Marx and Freud, which Ramachandra actually sees as a telling critique on what Christian Smith has called “moral, therapeutic deism”. Just as Israel succumbed to the deities of the surrounding nations that provided fertility and prosperity while allowing them to ignore the poor, Ramachandra sees the critiques of Marx and Freud justly exposing bourgeois religion that domesticates God and is unconcerned about injustice. The god these atheists attack is one Christians have no business defending. Chapter 5 goes on to consider the violence of idols beginning with the mental formations behind things like money in which we embue things and concepts with power that come to dominate us. Ramachandra trenchantly illustrates this in his discussion of “development”, challenging our western notions of unfettered growth and what constitutes “development” which others might consider “regression.” He concludes this chapter with a return to Genesis showing how the chaos of the flood and the confusion and disintegration of Babel are inevitable results.

Chapters 6 and 7 concern science and reason as modernist projects and the assaults of post-modern anti-science and unreason upon these projects. In both chapters, Ramachandra demonstrates the rootedness of objective truth in a Creator and the false dichotomy between reason and revelation that need not set science, reason, and Christian faith against one another.

The concluding chapter considers the stark contrast of the crucified God of Christianity who does not cling to power but dies at the hands of power to give life to a humanity in thrall. It is when Christians renounce nationalisms, and economic and political power, to walk in the way of the cross and the hope of the resurrection that they are most true to their message and are able to speak most compellingly about the true God in a world of idols.

This work is a revision of a work originally published 20 years ago. The author notes that the most significant change is switching chapters 2 and 4 in the original book, which he believed improved the flow of argument. He brings some examples and statistics up to date but has not substantively re-written the book. And it is here where there might be some criticism of the work in that it reflects an engagement with post-modernism and its assault on science and reason that perhaps is far more prevalent in the social sciences and political theory in the years since and receives little treatment here.

One of the challenges for all thoughtful people, and certainly Christians, is to “understand the present time” (Romans 13:11, NIV). Without such reflection, and sometimes, the self-criticism that results, we may easily be swept up in the cultural captivities of the day and unwittingly give our worship to creations of our own hands. This book is a clarion call that can cut through the clouds of our murky thinking and cultural blind spots. I welcome this revised edition, which could not come at a more timely moment, at least for the North American church of which I am a part.

_____________________________________

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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”