Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Genesis Revisited

Donald Arlo Jennings.  Genesis Revisited: The Creation.  Bloomington: WestBow Press, 2013.  See here to buy the book.

Donald Arlo Jennings has a Ph.D. in Management Information Systems and has written about healthcare technology.  In Genesis Revisited, Jennings attempts to answer questions about the Book of Genesis.

Jennings asks a variety of questions as he reads Genesis.  There is the famous question of where Cain got his wife.  Jennings wonders if the vast multitude of the people on earth truly could have descended from just eight people on the Ark.  He asks where the races came from: the Tower of Babel story talks about God creating different languages, but how did God create different races?

The answer that Jennings proposes involves aliens.  For Jennings, God could have created human-like creatures in outer space and populated the earth with them.  That would explain where Cain got his wife, the multitude of people after the Flood, and perhaps even the different races: there are more people on earth than those descended from Adam and Eve and Noah.  Jennings also speculates that God may also have sent renegade aliens to the earth as prisoners.  The wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been from outer space, Jennings states.  But Jennings also wonders if Adam himself may have been created in outer space, or if the Garden of Eden was necessarily on the planet earth.

Jennings biblical arguments have a lot of “What ifs?”  Jennings often speculates, without much basis for his speculation.  Occasionally, Jennings does appeal to phenomena in the Bible.  He relies some on the work of Erich von Daniken.  Jennings refers to the shiny divine chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a possible UFO phenomenon, and he relates the sons of God mating with the daughters of men in Genesis 6 to aliens having sexual intercourse with humans.  Oddly, Jennings interprets the light coming into the world in John 1 in reference to UFOs, when the vast majority of interpreters would rightly interpret that in reference to Jesus coming to earth.

Jennings also relates stories about UFO sightings and abductions, perhaps in an attempt to demonstrate that what he is arguing is possible, even plausible.

Here are some critiques of the book:

A.  The book could have been better organized.  It was rambling, and Jennings often repeated points that he had made earlier.  He should have organized the chapters by topic.

B.  The book could have been better written.  The grammar and the spelling were all right, but the prose could have been a lot tighter and more formal.  Jennings comes across as someone meandering around, guessing this and guessing that.  He uses “I” a lot, and that is not necessarily bad, but narrating more in the third person could have added a tone of formality to the book.

C.  The book could have offered more substantive arguments.  Jennings would dismiss evolution and say that he believes in the Bible, for example, as if that by itself were an argument against evolution.  He should have mentioned arguments in support for evolution and said why he found them implausible, or at least referred to creationist or Intelligent Design resources that did so.  At times, Jennings indicated some familiarity with debates, but this book had a lot of unsupported assertions.

D.  The book could have been better had Jennings imitated an episode of Ancient Aliens, while adding his own questions and thoughts.  Many scholars, probably correctly, disagree with what Ancient Aliens says.  Yet, Ancient Aliens can be entertaining because it gets into mythology throughout cultures and compares it with supposed UFO and alien phenomena.  The people on the show offer arguments and base what they are claiming on at least something.  After watching Ancient Aliens, I often rush to the Internet to find how mainstream scholars explain the phenomena that Ancient Aliens discusses.  With the exception of Jennings’ discussion about Noah’s Ark supposedly being found, there was nothing in Jennings book that I wanted to fact-check.  Why would anyone want to fact-check a bunch of unsupported guesses?

E.  Jennings’ theological framework was rather unclear.  Of course, he is a Christian and believes in the Bible.  But how would he reconcile that with seeing God’s chariot in Ezekiel 1 as a UFO?  Jennings should have explained how he holds all that together.

I give this book one star.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: How Jesus Saves the World from Us

Morgan Guyton.  How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Morgan Guyton blogs at the “Mercy Not Sacrifice” blog at Patheos and has written a number of online articles.  He has also been a United Methodist pastor.  In How Jesus Saves the World from Us, Guyton critiques what he considers to be toxic Christian attitudes.  More saliently, Guyton offers what he believes is a constructive Christian alternative, referring to Scripture and his own experiences.  This constructive alternative concerns one’s attitude towards sin and atonement, one’s view of Scripture, and one’s spirituality.

People who feel burned out by conservative evangelical Christianity will probably enjoy this book.  At the same time, while many may stereotype Guyton as a liberal mainliner, he is not entirely that, for he does seem to embrace the historicity of the virgin birth and Jesus’ literal resurrection in this book.  For Guyton, these events are examples of God doing something new in history, encouraging people to hope in God’s fresh activity.

Guyton also is edified by Roman Catholicism and Orthodox traditions.  He speaks in favor of sacraments that allow people to sense the faith, and he tells a beautiful story of how he used to visit regularly a Catholic mass and respected the awe for the holy that he observed there.  Moreover, while Guyton is critical of elements and attitudes within evangelicalism, he embraces elements of conservative Christianity.

In terms of positives, Guyton does offer food for thought, along with honest and vulnerable anecdotes.  His story about visiting the Catholic mass was excellent, but so was his insight into Jesus’ parable of the sower.  Guyton observed that the sower was wasteful in scattering the seed, even towards ground where the seed would not grow.  For Guyton, that means that God is continually speaking to us, even when we are not receptive.  Guyton’s stories about the humility that he observed in dying mainline churches, which he had previously considered “lukewarm,” also stood out.

Guyton’s critiques of evangelical attitudes drew an “Amen!” from this reviewer, and yet Guyton also told an endearing story about a friend of his who was once a progressive and became a conservative after being in a conservative Christian addiction program.  Guyton respects this person’s path, even if it is not Guyton’s own, and Guyton views this person as a fellow co-worker for the Kingdom.  Building bridges and respecting another’s path are commendable.

In terms of criticisms, I have three.

First of all, on page 128, Guyton states: “When was the last time you invited a homeless person into your home to eat at your table?  I sure haven’t.”  Guyton is implying that we should do this, while acknowledging that he has not (at least prior to this book).  People may have understandable reservations when it comes to letting people into their home, however.  Guyton should probably lead by example on this before he tells others what to do, and not only because it is tiring to see progressive Christians (not all, but many) put heavy burdens on people that they themselves do not carry.  By leading by example, Guyton can tell stories about how something like this is done, and then other Christians may not be as apprehensive about taking that kind of step.

Second, on page 122, Guyton talks about an officer who shot an African-American woman.  Responding to friends who knew this officer and said that he was a Christian man, Guyton states: “I don’t doubt Encinia is a good Christian man who believes that he must respond severely to any challenge to his complete authority.”  That is a very judgmental statement.  Guyton may have been saying this to set the stage for his excellent critique of Franklin Graham, who said that police shootings can be avoided through obedience to authority.  As Guyton astutely notes, Jesus challenged authority!  But Guyton could have made that point without presuming to know the motives of the officer.

Third, Guyton talks about how he has been jealous of famous evangelical pastors who pack auditoriums, but that God has used his relative lack of fame to teach him about the Kingdom.  Guyton should have told more anecdotes to illustrate this.  Earlier, he told a story about how a lesbian mainline pastor reached out to him at a low point in his life, but he should have elaborated about the lessons of the Kingdom that he has encountered in humble settings.  That would have clarified his point, while balancing out—-or better, overshadowing—-his personal complaints.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments

John Dickson.  A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments: How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come from Moses and Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

John Dickson has a Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  In A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, Dickson comments on each of the ten commandments.  Although Dickson in his comments shares his knowledge of ancient history with readers and refers them to scholarly books, this book is popular rather than scholarly.

Here are some of my comments on the book:

A. Narrowing down Dickson’s approach to the commandments is difficult, for Dickson does a variety of things throughout the book.  On some commandments, he refers to what the commandments may have meant in light of their ancient Near Eastern context.  In other chapters, by contrast, that sort of analysis was sorely lacking, and Dickson focused instead on philosophical issues (i.e., is God necessary for morality to exist?) or how Judaism and Christianity compare with other world religions.  Both of these issues are relevant to contemporary debates between Christians and atheists.  Parts of the book are rather homiletical, as Dickson quotes such thinkers as C.S. Lewis and John Calvin.  Throughout the book, Dickson discusses the significance of the commandments in the New Testament: how the New Testament interprets, applies, or amplifies the commandments.

The book had a lot of asides and was somewhat meandering.  In some cases, Dickson seemed contradictory, as when he was addressing the question of whether God in the Old Testament blessed people materially as a reward for good behavior and whether that affirmed the prosperity Gospel.  Dickson is against the prosperity Gospel, but he was rather contradictory on material blessings in the Old Testament.  There were also occasions when his point was a bit unclear.  He says more than once that what has influenced Western civilization for the better has been the commandments as they have been interpreted in Christianity, rather than Judaism or their original meaning.  What exactly Dickson’s point was in making that statement is difficult to determine.  Was this his justification for looking at what the New Testament said about the commandments?  Was he somehow marginalizing what the commandments meant in their ancient Near Eastern context or Judaism?  But Dickson does discuss what they meant within those contexts, often positively!  Even the subtitle of the book is confusing: “How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come From Moses and Jesus.”  Better or worse?  Dickson argues consistently that the ten commandments made a positive contribution to Western civilization.  Where’s this “worse” come from?

Part of the book’s charm is in its thoughtful, informed, and honest meanderings.  Still, perhaps the book could have been better organized, with more consideration of the commandments’ ancient Near Eastern context and their place in biblical religion.  In each chapter on the commandments, Dickson could have had sections on what a commandment meant in its original context, how Judaism and Christianity interpreted it, and that commandment’s relevance to today.

B.  Dickson’s overall approach is to see biblical religion as different from, and superior to, other religions.  It is interesting how Christian apologists take different approaches in their comparison of biblical religions with other religions, and the point that they believe their comparison is making.  Dickson stresses the contrasts: he contrasts the Sabbath commandment with ancient views on rest and work, the biblical God with pagan gods, and Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes.  He regards biblical religion as distinct, superior, and revolutionary.  Yet, there are other Christian apologists, such as David Marshall, who look at similarities between Christianity and other religions and imply that this shows God is revealing Godself to humanity, cross-culturally.  (Marshall also makes contrasts and believes that biblical religion is revolutionary.)  Do the biblical religion’s differences from other religions attest to its truth, or are its similarities with other religions what demonstrate the truth of what it is saying?  Such a discussion would be interesting!

The points that Dickson makes are certainly relevant and important to consider.  There may be truth in a lot of what he says about the differences between biblical religion and other religions.  At the same time, one should remember that there are other perspectives on this issue, and that these other perspectives, too, may be referring to details that are true, or that are part of the picture.  Atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos recently quoted on John Loftus’ “Debunking Christianity” blog a statement by Christian scholar John Goldingday.  This statement appears on pages 42-43 of Goldingday’s book, Do We Still Need the New Testament?:

“What difference did Jesus’ coming make to the world? It has been argued that ‘The Church has made more changes on earth for good than any other movements of force in history,’
including the growth of hospitals, universities, literacy and education, capitalism and free enterprise, representative government, separation of political powers, civil liberty, the abolition of slavery, modern science, the discovery of the Americas, the elevation of women, the civilizing of primitive cultures, and the setting of languages to writing.

“It is easy to dispute this claim. The church resisted some of these developments just listed, some are not particularly Christian, and all were encouraged by humanistic forces and reflect Greek thinking as much as gospel thinking.”

There are passages in Greco-Roman literature that depict Zeus as just and compassionate.  Hospitality was an honored value in the Greco-Roman world, which is why Josephus tried to present Judaism as a compassionate religion to his Roman audience.  Morton Smith, in his article “Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952) 135-147, argued that the ancient Israelites resembled other ancient Near Eastern societies in their belief in a god who was just and compassionate.

This is not to suggest that Dickson should repudiate his viewpoint.  This book would have been better, however, had he thoughtfully wrestled with the other side, as he thoughtfully engages perspectives throughout the book.

C.  There are times when Dickson makes claims without telling the reader the source for his claims.  When he does document his claims, however, he is very helpful.  When Dickson contrasts Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes, he refers readers to a scholarly book on the subject.  When Dickson contrasts Jesus’ stance on vows with Jewish stances, Dickson refers readers to specific passages in the Mishnah about vows that are not binding.

D.  The book is informative.  Dickson’s interpretation of the Sabbath commandment in light of ancient conceptions of work is noteworthy.  Dickson also refers to a medieval Christian concept that a poor person who steals to feed his family is technically not stealing, since the poor person is entitled to provision.  Dickson probably does not say this to recommend such behavior, but rather to show that the commandment against stealing is about more than what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine.

E.  Reading the Sermon on the Mount can be difficult.  When Jesus tells us to reconcile with our brother who has something against us before we offer our gift to God (Matthew 5:24), does that mean we have to make everyone like us, before we can worship God?  But Jesus offended people!  When Jesus says that those who lust after women are adulterers at heart (Matthew 5:27-32), does Jesus forbid men to have a natural sex drive?  And is Jesus really equating hate with murder and lust with adultery?  When I told a secular therapist that, she was baffled: of course, she thought that actual murder was worse than hating someone!

An asset to this book is that Dickson engages these questions.  In some cases, he merely makes assertions.  In other cases, he offers an argument for his interpretation, as he does regarding Matthew 5:27-32.  His sensitivity to these issues was impressive.  His interpretations are reasonable, yet they maintain the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.

F.  There were discussions in Dickson’s book that were inspiring and edifying.  A discussion that particularly comes to mind concerns how Christians can love everybody, while still maintaining high standards about what is right and wrong.  Humility about one’s own shortcomings plays a key role in that, according to Dickson.
This is a good book, and I am definitely open to reading other books by Dickson.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Book Write-Up: A Little Handbook for Preachers

Mary S. Hulst.  A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten Practical Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday.  Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Mary Hulst is a college chaplain and has been a professor of preaching and a senior pastor.  As the title indicates, this book is about how preachers can prepare and preach better sermons.

Hulst discusses how preachers can research for their sermons, in terms of both Bible study and also looking for anecdotes.  She talks about the content of sermons: how to encourage people to act in light of God’s work and grace rather than coming across as a nagging parent, and how to organize the sermon so that it makes clear, applicable points that stay in the minds of listeners, without creating information-overload.  Hulst supports preaching about what the biblical passage meant in its original context, yet she also wants the sermon to preach Christ.  Hulst stresses the importance of pastors getting to know people in their congregation, which is relevant to what content to include in sermons: to know why the people like the TV shows that they like, for example (i.e., what needs or desires are those TV shows meeting?), and to know what questions the people are asking in light of their own experiences.  Effective delivery of sermons is another topic in this book, and this includes eye-contact, gestures, and the use of props.  Hulst also offers advice on interpersonal issues, such as dealing with feedback, including from one’s spouse.  In addition, she deals with thorny issues, such as whether a pastor should ever preach somebody else’s sermon, say, one from the Internet.

There are many positives to this book.  It is grace-filled.  It is honest, vulnerable, and empathetic, in that Hulst understands why pastors can be sensitive about feedback on their sermons.  It has stories, which effectively illustrate the points that Hulst makes.  It is highly practical and specific.  As one who has preached his share of wandering sermons that have information-overload, I found her reference to Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Pages of the Sermon to be especially helpful: a well-ordered sermon can identify the trouble or need that is discussed in the biblical passage and a similar trouble or need today, then say what God was doing then in response to that trouble or need in the biblical passage, and what God is doing now.  Such an approach can help a preacher to focus and organize his or her research about the biblical text, allowing the sermon to make a point rather than becoming aimlessly antiquarian or going on tangents.  Hulst provides examples on how to execute this approach, using Psalm 84 and James 1:19-27 as her texts.  Hulst’s book also has an annotated bibliography, in which she tells readers the books that she has found helpful and says why she found them helpful.

In terms of critiques, a lot of Hulst’s advice presumes that the pastors reading this book are pastors of small or medium-sized congregations: the types in which the pastor knows a lot of the people there, and they know the pastor.  Her advice would be helpful for pastors of such congregations, but she should also have addressed whether, or how, similar principles can be applied by pastors of large churches, or megachurches.

There was an area in which I somewhat agreed with Hulst, and somewhat disagreed with her.  Hulst is largely against pastors preaching a lot about themselves.  She astutely notes that not everyone in the congregation is in the same place or has the same background as the pastor: some are younger, some are older, some have a different marital status, etc.

On page 167, Hulst discourages pastors from telling personal anecdotes that make themselves look stupid or prone to anger, since people need them to be pastors, “someone who appears to love God and follow him well…”   She goes on to say: “If the story is gently self-deprecating, humble and allows you to give testimony to God’s work in your life, you’re probably fine.”

Personally, I prefer sermons in which pastors are honest about their struggles and vulnerabilities, in which they present themselves, not as perfect, but as people on a spiritual path, like many in the congregation.  That can comfort people in the congregation that they are not alone.  Hulst perhaps should have discussed this further.  At the same time, Hulst did well to advise pastors against going too far with this, or doing so in a manner that is counterproductive.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Book Write-Up: What Christians Ought to Believe

Michael F. Bird.  What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostle’s Creed.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

In What Christians Ought to Believe?, New Testament scholar and theologian Michael Bird goes through the Apostle’s Creed.  Bird uses statements from it as a launchpad for a fuller explanation of Christian doctrine.  Among the topics that Bird discusses are faith in God, God as creator, Jesus as God incarnate and Messiah, the virgin birth, the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ descent into Hades and resurrection, Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, the Holy Spirit, the church, and issues related to the afterlife and eschatology.  Before Bird’s chapters about the sections of the Apostle’s Creed, Bird explains why creeds are important.  Bird addresses a question some Protestants may have: Why should Christians consult creeds, when they already have the authoritative Bible?

The book has its share of positives.  It is eloquent yet down-to-earth, with illustrations and occasional humor.  Bird’s Christian conviction is manifest in this book, and it is contagious: readers can feel inspired, stronger, and hopeful as they go through this book.  Bird has a pastoral sensitivity, especially when he discusses the role of doubt in the life of a believer.  In addition, Bird on occasion is unafraid to challenge conventional Christian wisdom.  For example, in his chapter on the virgin birth, he denies that the virgin birth is primarily about Jesus being born without original sin, as he offers other reasons that it is significant.

This book is popular and rather homiletical, and yet the times when it is influenced by scholarship are definite assets.  There are occasions when Bird interacts with scholarly arguments, particularly in his chapter on the virgin birth, as he disputes arguments that the virgin birth is unhistorical and was influenced by paganism.  Bird in footnotes refers readers to scholarly treatments of such topics as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus.  Bird mentions historical nuances on Jesus’ descent into and harrowing of Hades.  The history of Christian theology looms large in this book, as Bird describes beliefs that came to be considered heretical (i.e., Marcionism, Arianism), while lucidly discussing what was theologically at stake in these debates.  In addition, Scripture plays a significant role in Bird’s explanation of the Apostle’s Creed.

The book has some negatives, however.  At times, Bird makes assertions and assumptions in this book, without really supporting them.  Bird assumes and asserts that the church creeds (i.e., the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.) reflect normative Christian belief going back to the time of the apostles.  Bird’s interpretation of the New Testament reflects that, including his apparent assumption that the New Testament presents a rather monolithic perspective on such issues as Christology. There are many New Testament scholars who would disagree and see early Christianity as more diverse.  Bird knows this and has engaged their thought in other works.  Even in a popular work, Bird should have mentioned sources about this in a footnote, at least so that readers can know that Bird grounds his narrative in something other than assertion.

Another example in which Bird makes assertions is in his chapter on the atonement.  After acknowledging that the New Testament does not explicitly say how Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness, Bird lists different ideas about the atonement throughout church history and asserts that they all are a facet of how the atonement works.  On what authority does Bird say this, if the Bible itself is not so specific?  One could appeal to an alleged apostolic tradition as authoritative, but Bird fails to marshal patristic statements on this, which is what people who emphasize apostolic church tradition (i.e., Catholics) would usually do.  To his credit, though, Bird did quote Athanasius.

Bird often quotes people throughout church history, even people who lived long after the time of the apostle’s creed.  That is not necessarily bad, for this book is an explanation of Christian doctrine, rather than a scholarly explication of what the Apostle’s Creed originally meant in its historical context.  Bird probably was not trying to imply that someone living centuries after the time of the Apostle’s Creed was an authoritative source for what the people who composed the creed intended.  Still, Bird perhaps should have included more patristic references that were closer to the time of the apostle’s creed, or even references to Jewish sources predating Christianity.

In the chapter on Jesus’ ascension to heaven and corresponding reign, Bird should have contrasted the time before Jesus’ coming with the time after his coming.  What is different now, after Jesus has gone to heaven and sat beside the throne of God?  What difference does Jesus’ rule make, and how does that contrast with God’s rule before Jesus came to earth?  Bird says things throughout the book that may touch on this, but such questions should have been engaged more directly.

There were two passages in the book that especially stood out to me.  First of all, on page 59, Bird offers reasons that monarchianism and modalism do not make sense.  Bird states that “if you read [II Corinthians 13:14] in a monarchian sense, it seems rather impoverished as God’s blessing is mediated through two lesser gods rather than coming directly from him.”  Bird seems to be arguing that standard trinitarianism makes sense of the benediction in II Corinthians 13:14, whereas certain heretical positions do not.  Bird also is identifying and clarifying what is at stake in the acceptance of some positions over others.  At the same time, Bird’s argument that the monarchian position is “impoverished” arguably implies (whether or not Bird intends this) that personal taste should play some role in what one accepts as truth.  There are many fundamentalist Christian ideas that some people find “impoverished” or even oppressive, yet many fundamentalist Christians would tell these people to suck it up: their preferences make no difference in terms of what the truth is!  After all, there are a lot of unpleasant ideas that are true!  By contrast, Bird in this book often tries to argue that Christian doctrines have been rejected because they have not been properly understood.  The implication may be that true doctrines are not just true but are rich, make sense, and have a positive effect on people, when properly understood.  Would that not be the case of doctrines that come from a beneficent God?

Second, on page 172, Bird states: “Jesus is not coming back to inflict apocalyptic carnage on a bunch of innocent agnostics; rather, he is coming to bring heavenly justice to a world that is submerged in wickedness and mired in corruption.”  There may be truth to this, yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Christianity, and aspects of the Bible, forecast doom for non-believers: everyday people who simply reject Christian doctrines.  But I am open to different interpretations and views on this!

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Not Wanting to Be Hurtful

At church last week, the sermon had a lot of things with which I disagree.  I can itemize them all in this post, but I don’t want to do that.  Instead, I’ll look for common ground and identify where I agreed.

The pastor was talking about conflict.  He asked us if we really want to say something hurtful to someone else, something that would make that person cry.  I have to admit that I would not want to be that hurtful.  And, if I were that hurtful, I should apologize to that person.  But it is better not to be that hurtful in the first place.

As the pastor said, though, hurt people hurt people.  That is why I need to pray continually to God for God to set my heart at peace, or at least to give me self-control so that I do not blow up at people.

That doesn’t mean that I can never stand up for myself or stand up to people when they are being out of line.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Write-Up: Critical Theology, by Carl A. Raschke

Carl A. Raschke.  Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Carl A. Raschke teaches religious studies at the University of Denver.  In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Raschke explores how Christian theology can contribute to political liberation.  Raschke refers to a global crisis, which includes disarray on the global scale and the aftermath of the economic collapse in 2008.  Another problem that Raschke discusses is how the communications media enslave people by emphasizing commodification.  Karl Marx’s thought plays a role in Raschke’s analysis, as Raschke notes Marx’s insight that the superstructure (i.e., society, media, etc.) often supports and reinforces the class system.

Raschke presents a history of Christian theology’s political programs, primarily in the twentieth century.  Bultmann, Heidigger, Otto, and Barth were significant figures in this.  Neo-Kantianism also had significant influence in the story that Raschke tells.  (Kant, of course, was a philosopher, but there was a transcendental and religious dimension to his thought, which would influence later neo-Kantianism.)  Raschke also discusses the Frankfurt School, which offered analysis that was supportive of liberation, albeit from a largely secularist standpoint. (Yet, Raschke says in an endnote that some have argued that the Frankfurt School was actually open to religion playing a role in liberation.)

Raschke profiles thinkers whom he believes can inform the agenda that he believes is important.  Raschke discusses how Badiou and Zizez interpret Paul in a manner that is consistent with political liberation.  Law refers not just to the Torah in their thought, but to structures of society that enslave.  Grace ran contrary to such law in Badiou’s thought, and Zizez regarded love as a cure for treating people as commodities.  Zizez interpreted faith as optimism regarding the future.  Badiou and Zizez were still secularists, but they believed that aspects of the Christian religion could be helpful in their analysis and articulation of the importance of political liberation.

What elements of Christianity does Raschke highlight as significant in terms of the agenda that he introduces?  He appears to agree with Zizez’s emphasis on love.  He highlights the incarnation, in which God in Jesus was present with humanity.  That may relate to God’s concern for humanity, which a political theology presumes, but it also seems to relate to how Raschke believes Christians should interact with other cultures and religions in a post-modern age.  At the same time, Raschke maintains that Christians should regard ethics as transcendent: human value and dignity are not relative but are absolute principles from God.

The book is highly abstract and complex, and one may wonder if a lot of academic and philosophical language is being unnecessarily used to express the simple proposition that love is the answer.  It is tempting to think so, and yet Raschke does wade in waters that are deep and complex.  These waters concern trends from the past and the present, in thought and in life, and how the agenda that Raschke introduces engages current trends.

In terms of the political program that Raschke promotes, Raschke seems to emphasize the power of ideas, used by God, to effect change.  He is critical of violent revolution.  He talks about the New Left, and he may be supportive of political activism, motivated, for Christians, by theological concerns.  His hope may be that more people will see the Christian religion as something other than an object of study, a set of creeds, or feel-good platitudes, and to embrace it as something that can make a positive difference in the world for all people, especially the disenfranchised.

This book has its positives.  It is informative in its exploration of theological and philosophical political thought, and some of that thought interacted with other fields, such as psychology.  This book is deep and rich.  The treatment of Paul by Badiou and Zizez was definitely creative.  Raschke’s discussion of how thinkers in the New Left opposed totalitarian Communism was also interesting, since many right-wingers tend to lump the two together as allies.

In terms of negatives, this book could have been clearer in terms of its prose, hopefully without sacrificing its depth.  The prose in the endnotes was very lucid, and perhaps Raschke would have done well to have used that kind of prose throughout the book.  Moreover, while Raschke is interacting with and contributing to an academic discussion, Raschke should have explained how these academic thoughts could make a difference on the ground.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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