Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

Book Review – Christianity at the Crossroads (Michael J. Kruger)

Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 231 pages.

I have been reading a lot of philosophical works lately (or, rather, philosophical/theological) and in order to maintain my sanity I try to keep a variety of subjects in my reading list. So, this month I turned to Michael Kruger’s work in church history. What a delightful read! I know history, and in particular church history, is an anathema to many people, but I freely admit that I am a nut and I joyfully choose to participate in all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

First, I guess I should say that I love the structure of this book. Kruger does not work through the second century decade by decade, but rather examines seven topics that he believes are significant, not only to the church in the second century, but for the future development of the church. These topics are: the sociological makeup of the second century church (ch. 1), the response of the political and intellectual world of the second century to the church (ch. 2), second century church worship (ch. 3), diversity in the second century church (ch. 4), unity in the second century church (ch. 5) the literature produced by the second century church (ch. 6), and finally the New Testament canon in the second century (ch. 7). While a specialist might quibble with this choice of subjects, as an amateur church history buff I thought this structure was more than adequate, and while the theologian in me would love to dive into some of the questions of later church history, that is not the purpose of this book and to do so would have detracted from the flow of Kruger’s work.

That leads me to the second of the reasons I love this book – it is a survey, not an in-depth examination of these seven topics. Each of these chapters could be expanded into a full book. Kruger repeatedly makes this point. From the “teacher” in me I would say that this is a great introductory text for an undergraduate class, (to be supplemented, of course) and it should be used to whet the appetite for future study. Actually – this would be a valuable book for an adult class in a church setting, as long as the teacher used the material alongside the study of pertinent Scriptures. It is clearly not written for the specialist, and I think it would open up a world of discussion for those who have never been taught anything about church history or who only have the vaguest idea of what occurred at the conclusion of the first century.

Third, I love Kruger’s self-awareness. He writes as a historian, and as a fully aware historian. Every chapter acknowledges that there are opposing viewpoints, and he responds to those viewpoints charitably. However, he has the courage of his conclusions, and he moves on to provide the supporting evidence for what he believes. He is honest (almost to a fault) that our primary sources for the second century are thin in certain areas, and so a great many questions cannot be answered with a huge degree of certainty. He does, however, provide enough primary, and sometimes secondary, evidence to support his conclusions. He certainly gave me some significant fodder to chew on – and provided me some insights into some subjects that I had never considered.

On the geeky side – Kruger provides 16 1/2 pages of “select bibliography.” You cannot accuse him of not knowing and not making available other sources of information.

Now for the only quibble I have of the book, and I really only discovered it as I read his conclusion – and it is an awesome conclusion. My quibble is that he makes three “observations” that really deserve a chapter for each. But, once again, in Kruger’s mind that would probably have detracted from the point of the book. However, his concluding observations are so spot-on, so perfect, that I will quote them here:

First, modern Christians need to learn again how to be a prophetic voice in the midst of a hostile world where the Church lacks substantial cultural influence or power. (p. 230)

Second, as we look to the second century we are reminded again that Christianity, at its core, is a ‘bookish’ religion. (p. 230)

Third, and finally, when we look to the second century, we are reminded afresh that early Christians, regardless of the exterior pressures and challenges, were always keep to keep the focus on one simple thing: worshipping Jesus. (p. 231)

As I said, each of those points deserved a whole chapter, but at 231 pages the book is really at a perfect size, and as a historian Kruger might not have felt comfortable stepping into the “prophetic” role he called for.

Kruger ends by calling for a greater understanding and exploration of the second century – once again stressing that his volume is an introductory survey. I agree wholeheartedly. Especially in light of his concluding observations, I think the 21st century church is far more like the 2nd century than we are probably aware, and we need to have our eyes opened and our minds focused on the “crossroads” where we stand today.

P.S. – I cannot end this little review without adding another personal note – anytime I see one of my professors quoted in a scholarly work it makes my skin get goose-bumps. Kruger makes reference to Everett Ferguson in a number of places – and Dr. Ferguson was (and remains) one of my heroes. I took every course I possibly could from Dr. Ferguson, and I am simply in awe of his knowledge and his love for the church. When I think of scholarship, the one name I think of most often is Everett Ferguson. That does not make or break this book – but it sure made me smile to see another scholar recognize Dr. Ferguson’s importance in early church historiography.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (Pt. 2)

I want to “extend and revise my remarks” regarding Andrew Root’s challenging work, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. For my initial response, see the previous review Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

I suggested at the beginning of that review that, as I was reading this work, I could not help but feel like I had been there before, I guess sort of a deja vu moment. More than once after digesting some of Root’s conclusions, I thought, “Reading this book is like returning to a place I have never been before.” Then something hit me – I had been somewhere close before, but not exactly in the same place. Let me explain.

Many years ago three professors within the family of the Churches of Christ created a minor firestorm with the publication of a deceptively short book, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, 2nd ed. 1991, 107 pages). While so much of the book needs to be reviewed here, just a couple of quotations will suffice:

We see the church floundering between two equally disastrous paths. On the one hand are those who advocate a rationalistic orthodoxy which arrogantly imposes its own limited scheme upon the Bible and places human restrictions upon God. On the other hand are those who are increasingly attracted by a generic Protestant pietism – sprinkled generously with therapeutic terminology – which eagerly caters to the shifting whims of the surrounding society. We have little sympathy with either of these secularizing options. We plead for a return to our historic roots in the central message of the Bible. (p. x)

We seek to reaffirm the great biblical truth that authentic Christianity stems from faith in God, not self; from worship of God, not self; from reliance on God’s power, not on the power of self; and from living out Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33) (p. 3)

The secular church’s adaptation to modernity, and particularly its wholesale adoption of the utility principle, leads directly to fundamental theological problems. The most far-reaching of these is a loss of the sense of transcendence. (p. 17)

When Christians forget who they are and who they are called to be, no amount of technique or programming will restore lost integrity. The church does not simply need more experts in communication, counseling, or church growth. It does not need more leaders who are clever and successful. But it desperately needs more leaders who are wise and faithful to the crucified one. (p. 22)

I really could go on for quite some time, but these themes are precisely what Root analyzes in Faith Formation. In going back to Worldly Church, I am struck by the phrases, “therapeutic terminology,” “secularizing options,” “authentic Christianity,” “transcendence,” and “faithful to the crucified one.” You do not even have to be a careful reader of Root’s work to hear those concerns being raised again and again. Now, I grant you that the audience to whom Allen, Hughes and Weed wrote is much more narrowly defined than the audience to whom Root addresses, but I just cannot get past the similarity in themes, and in the underlying similarity in the solution(s) they present.

There are differences in the two works, to be sure. For one thing, Allen, Hughes and Weed are primarily historical theologians, and, from my perspective anyway, Root is a philosophical theologian. What I mean is that, while Allen, Hughes and Weed reference some non-theological works, they do not attempt to locate the problem of “modernity” in anything close to the precision that Root is able to do. Root provides in his first 6 chapters the equivalent of a semester of university studies in a survey of the philosophical underpinnings of modern thought. (Aside here – the footnotes Root incorporates are prodigious, and provide an additional wealth of material and thoughts to consider, in addition to his main line of argumentation). The two works converge at a central point, however – the cross of Christ, and, I might add as a second point of convergence, the transcendence of God.

C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes followed The Worldly Church with a number of other works, each fleshing out in some greater degree a specific emphasis that they considered to be critical for the Churches of Christ. Allen called for the church to return to a cruciform nature. Hughes, for his part, called on the church to return to its apocalyptic heritage – as viewed primarily in the writings of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb. (Allen also shares in this call to an apocalyptic worldview). Andrew Root has studied and written about the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his own way, offered an apocalyptic vision of what the church is called to be (although, perhaps, not in the same terminology that Stone or Lipscomb would use).

So, in what can only be described as a very powerful, but in some ways very discomforting way, so many threads of my Christian journey have met in a mighty confluence of parallel themes. Going back 200 years to Stone, about 125 years to Lipscomb, about 75 years to Bonhoeffer, and now to my contemporaries Allen, Hughes, Weed – and now Root – I keep hearing the same voices, the same concerns, the same “prophetic” response. The church is caught – in fact always seems to be caught – in a vortex of secularizing powers that batter from without and corrupt from within. The answer today, which appears to have been the answer for Stone and for Lipscomb and for Bonhoeffer, is not more adept analyzing of the contemporary world so that the church can copy what is successful, but a total and unrelenting return to the basics of discipleship in Christ. Stone, Lipscomb, and Bonhoeffer might have expressed it differently, but the core concept is what Root identifies as an emphasis on biblical faith.

I have much more to say about Root’s book – it has utterly captivated my imagination. But I just had to unload this particular observation first. I apologize if it has been far too personal, but maybe will help explain some later remarks I make about Andrew Root’s powerful study.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

Book Review – A History of Western Philosophy (C. Stephen Evans)

A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism, C. Stephen Evans (Downers Grove: IVP Academic Books, 2018), 585 pages.

Not too very far in my past I was blessed with the opportunity to be an instructor at the university level (personal rant here – a Professor is one who has attained a level of tenure and is a title bestowed by his or her peers. An instructor is one who instructs. I was an instructor, not a professor!!) One course that I was assigned was the subject of Philosophy of Religion. I have always been quasi-interested in the field of philosophy, and this course whetted my appetite to understand the intersection of philosophy and religion as no other assignment might have done. Alas, I was utterly adrift as to what to use as a text, and the text that was suggested to me was an anthology of writings, not an explanation of the topic of Philosophy of Religion. The first time I taught the course was an absolute disaster (as far as I was concerned, and I apologize profoundly to my students who were subjected to my ignorance!). The second time revealed some improvement, but not much. What I needed was a brief, yet as thorough as possible, treatment of the major strands of the field of philosophy. What I needed, in brief, was this book – sadly not published until long after my instructorship days were concluded.

In many respects, C. Stephen Evans has pulled off what I consider to be a minor miracle. He summarizes the vast ocean of material in the field of philosophy, and manages to do in a relatively brief (if 585 pages can be called brief) amount of space. In my estimation he also does this in a very readable and understandable manner – something that is critical for my decidedly less-than-prodigious ability to understand philosophical concepts. In other words – Evans wrote in a way that I can understand him. That, my friends, is truly a five star, two thumbs up recommendation for this book.

The book is arranged with 24 chapters, each chapter focusing on one (or sometimes two or three) major characters/writers in the field of philosophy (Socrates left no writings of which we are aware). All the “biggies” are discussed – Socrates, Plato and thus and such until he concludes with Friedrich Nietzsche. The outline is basically chronological, although he does break at one point to cover one time period from two different angles – European (Continental) and British. Each chapter discusses how the particular philosopher under discussion accepts or rejects previous philosophical movements, and then goes on to provide a brief explanation of that philosopher’s contribution to the field of philosophy.

(By the way, if you are wondering, his explanation of why he stops with Nietzsche is brilliant! I was wondering why he did so, and it is because he does not feel that it is possible to evaluate which of the 20th century philosophers will be critical enough to the future of philosophy to effectively evaluate them. Any evaluation, he believes, is for a future volume, one that I personally hope he writes. But, he does not want to view 20th century philosophers from the vantage point of “history” quite yet.)

There are, to be sure, some drawbacks to the author’s methodology. First, it is truly impossible to summarize the philosophy of Socrates, Augustine, Spinoza, Kant, or Marx in 25-30 pages. Yet, given this limitation, Evans does a remarkable job of maintaining his “meta narrative” (to borrow a philosophical term) throughout the book. Second, (and this is a criticism I have of virtually every “summary” type book regarding philosophy) – the authors of such summary style books are so educated, so well versed in their topic, that they can (and do) understand their characters in a manner deeper than they are able to summarize. Thus, they may write what they think is an acceptable summary of the thinking of Leibniz, but in a subsequent chapter they refer to an obscure (or not fully developed) aspect of Leibniz’ philosophy as if the reader fully understood Leibniz, and especially in my case, I don’t fully understand Leibniz’ philosophy. However, I must quickly add that this is a minor quibble, and in no way is meant to be a negative criticism of the value of this book. It simply is a consequence of what the author attempted to accomplish – provide a summary of a character’s philosophy and relate it to later philosophers’ writings.

Among all the positive attributes of this book that I could mention, perhaps the one that stands out to me right now is the fact that Evans writes from the position of a Christian philosopher, and he relates the contributions of each major character in terms of Christian thought. His favorite philosopher is Soren Kierkegaard, and his exuberance concerning Kierkegaard, and his explanation of Kierkegaard’s methodology, has kindled a real desire in me to read more of Kierkegaard’s writings (I only own one of Kierkegaard’s books). I offer just one snippet of Evan’s concluding chapter to illustrate his perspective:

The reason religion cannot be completely divorced from philosophy is that philosophy is done by human beings, and human beings are incorrigibly religious . . . If Christianity is true, then humans were made in God’s image, and their intended destiny is to have a relationship with God. If humans are deeply religious by nature, it is hard to see how philosophy can be sharply segregated from religion, or why it should be. (p. 577)

Now, to be sure, Evans view of Christianity differs from mine. He will make dogmatic statements that I do not necessarily agree with (he repeatedly refers to “original sin” as a universally held Christian belief, something that I do not ascribe to). But – show me a book in which I agree with everything the author says, and I will point out that book is one that I wrote.

As a deeply personal aside here, one of the real joys that I discovered in this book is that it helped me understand more of the background to one of my favorite theologians – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and he never references Bonhoeffer once (boo!). Bonhoeffer’s two academic dissertations were written in response to a number of the philosophers discussed by Evans – Kant, Fichte, Husserl, and to a degree, Heidegger. What slowly dawned on me as I read these chapters is that in addition to being a brilliant theologian, Bonhoeffer was a profound philosopher. Maybe that one reason I find Bonhoeffer so challenging – and so valuable even almost 75 years after his death. Statements like, “Only those who believe can obey, and only those who are obedient can believe” are not only deeply theological, they are profoundly philosophical. Bonhoeffer was doing (albeit without consciously attempting to) what Evans described as what Kierkegaard was trying to do – speak to his culture in a way that they could hear the message of Jesus without being beat over the head with it. Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer were both attacking what they believed to be a dead church – so it is not surprising that their methods might have been so similar!!!  Maybe not, I’m not that much of a Bonhoeffer scholar, and he was clearly writing as a Christian scholar and pastor. But, the parallels between Bonhoeffer’s theology and philosophy became crystal clear to me through the pages of Evans’ book.

If you are interested in philosophy, especially if you do not consider yourself a professional philosopher and if many of the major philosophers are difficult to understand, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The cumulative length of the book is prodigious (the afore mentioned 585 pages), but the chapters themselves are 25-30 pages on average, and, once again, Evans writes to non-specialists. This is a very accessible book for philosophical neophytes like me.

Buy this book, brew yourself a big pot of tea (or coffee if you prefer) and give yourself a real treat. You will not regret investing in yourself – and hopefully grasping a little greater understanding of yourself and your world.

Book Review – The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic (D. S. Russell)

D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964) 405 pp., including two appendices, and a comprehensive bibliography (at least through 1964).

As I responded to a correspondent a few weeks back, I make it a priority to stay abreast of the latest books and trends in theology. Thus, I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity. And, in my latest endeavor to stay on top of the latest and greatest, I am reviewing a book published in 1964.

I am nothing if not contemporary. Oh, well.

Actually, I stumbled onto this book as a part of my last ministry. I was given the opportunity to peruse the congregation’s library and take a book if I thought it would be useful. When my eye fell on this title I almost flipped. I was disappointed to learn of its early publication date, but only for a moment. Many theological books – those related to apocalyptic especially – become dated rather quickly because of the exploding research into the Dead Sea Scrolls and other related archeological discoveries, many of which were just beginning to be studied in the 1960’s. However that might be, this is an extremely valuable addition to someone’s library if they are interested in understanding this bewildering, some might say mystifying, aspect of the biblical record.

First, a little personal background. My first class on the book of Revelation came in the early 1980’s. I have had a love affair with that book ever since. More recently I was blessed with the opportunity to teach the book of Revelation twice as a part of the faculty on the Eastern New Mexico University religion program. Counting congregational series, I have taught the book of Revelation five times over the past 9 years. Every time I teach the book I get a little deeper, find another commentary, find another resource to help me understand the book. By far the one single aspect of my research that has helped me grasp the meaning of the book has been my study of the topic of apocalyptic literature. So, for me, finding this book by D.S. Russell was like finding a diamond ring on the sidewalk.

This particular volume does not address the book of Revelation at all. It is focused on Jewish apocalyptic literature, arising during the three centuries between 200 B.C. and 100 A.D. As such, if you want to apply the book to the N.T. book of Revelation you have to do so by analogy and parallel, but by understanding the thought world, and the process, and the message of apocalyptic literature as it was being produced both before and after the writing of the book of Revelation, it is easy to make those parallel connections.

This book is divided into three sections: Russell began by identifying the Nature and Identity of Jewish Apocalyptic; then discussed the Method of Jewish Apocalyptic; and finally concluded with the Message of Jewish Apocalyptic. I wish I could say that I found “X” to be the most valuable section, or to identify a particular chapter as being especially valuable, but to be honest, I found everything to be valuable (whether I necessarily agreed with Russell’s conclusions or not!) I guess as an over-all statement of value, what I took from the book was the idea that apocalyptic is not just a type of literature, or just a conglomeration of weird images and symbols, but it is a realm of thought processes, it is a method of seeing the world that transforms one’s perspective on every aspect of life. In John J. Collin’s arresting title, apocalyptic is an imagination – but a life changing one at that.

Speaking of John J. Collins, I went back and looked at Collin’s book (The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2nd ed., William B. Eerdman’s 1998) to see how he viewed Russell’s work. Not too favorably, I am sad to relate. But, Collin’s book first came out twenty years after Russell’s (with a second edition coming out in 1998). Between the two, I would recommend Russell’s book as being the more accessible, and Collin’s book as being the more comprehensive (and, a little snooty, but that is my limited opinion). There is a third book on apocalyptic literature on my shelf, Apocalypticism in the Bible and It’s World by Frederick J. Murphy, but I would not recommend it at all. If you are going to buy one book on the subject of apocalyptic, I would equally recommend either Russell or Collins. Collins is more recent, and has some distinct advantages over Russell, but honestly, I would have you buy both. Russell explains some things Collins does not even address, and especially at apocalyptic literature relates to the book of Revelation, I would strongly recommend Russell over Collins.

Now the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read as God’s truth” as it relates to a human production. I disagree with Russell (and Collins too, for that matter) as to the dating of the book of Daniel. They both have Daniel being written after the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, and cast as being a prophecy foretelling Antiochus’ reign. I think that betrays a serious presupposition about the limitations of biblical prophecy – and raises some real questions about the textual record of the Old Testament as we have it (if the book of Daniel was written in the mid 100’s  B.C., how was it that it came to be studied, copied, and preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls?). As with any scholar, Russell’s biases are going to peek through at times. However, if we are going to learn anything from anyone, we are going to have to set aside our own presuppositions long enough to be challenged by other thoughts and ideas. As with any book, let the reader beware.

As I have suggested, my attraction to this book, and to its subject, all relates to the biblical book of Revelation. If you want to understand a little more of not only what John was attempting to say in this highly symbolic book, but also of how and maybe why he was using the symbolism of apocalyptic, then you need to learn more about the Jewish roots and usage of apocalyptic. It is just my opinion, of course, but I think you will come to understand and love the book of Revelation even more once you understand the literature, and the imagination, of apocalyptic.

P.S. – on a totally unrelated yet sort-of related note, the worldview of Barton W. Stone and later of David Lipscomb has been described as being “apocalyptic” in nature. That, my friends, provides a TON of explanation about why I regard Stone and Lipscomb so highly. Without being technicians in the field of apocalyptic, I think they just “got” the message that Jesus, and later John, was trying to communicate. Ergo and therefore, I think one of the huge failures of the Restoration Movement in general, and the Churches of Christ specifically, is the loss of this apocalyptic imagination from our worldview. In a word (and to invite all kinds of wrath from certain quarters) we are just too Campbellite in our outlook. Ah, but that is the topic of other blog posts, and this one is already much too long.