Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Write-Up: Kierkegaard, by Mark A. Tietjen

Mark A. Tietjen.  Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Soren Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century Danish Christian philosopher.  Kierkegaard had problems with the Christendom of his day, for he thought that it was nominal and cultural rather than vibrant and spiritually authentic.  According to Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard was a Christian missionary to Christians, and Kierkegaard had insights that can challenge, instruct, and edify Christians today.

A number of the insights that Tietjen presents can be encountered in other Christian writings and sermons, as important as these insights may be: one should be a doer of God’s word and not just a hearer; one should set one’s sights above momentary and temporary pleasure but also moralistic legalism.  In addition, while Tietjen discusses how Kierkegaard diagnosed a number of spiritual and psychological maladies that people have, there was not much in Tietjen’s book about possible solutions to these maladies, other than turning to Jesus.  How that would help was not sufficiently explained.  (A refreshing exception is Tietjen’s chapter on Christian love.)

The tension between relying on God’s grace and rigorously doing good works also appears unresolved in Tietjen’s book.  On the one hand, Kierkegaard was critical of how the Lutheran emphasis on God’s grace bred spiritual apathy, passivity, laziness, and complacency.  Kierkegaard advocated obedience and self-denial in the Christian life.  Yet, in a beautiful passage, Kierkegaard encouraged people with a variety of problems (i.e., loneliness, being forgotten, being suicidal, etc.) to rest in Christ’s love, for Christ’s burden is light.  Are Christians supposed to strive for perfection or rest in God’s grace?  What is the proper mixture of these two approaches, or the correct relationship between them?  Tietjen should have addressed this issue.

At the same time, there were plenty of positive aspects to Tietjen’s book.  Tietjen tied his discussion of Kierkegaard’s thought to Kierkegaard’s historical context (i.e., historical critical interpretations of the Bible).  Tietjen continually connected his discussion of spirituality to specific passages in Kierkegaard’s writings, both devotional and non-devotional, and Tietjen occasionally highlighted distinct features of Kierkegaard’s thought.  Tietjen’s point about how Kierkegaard often wrote from a non-believing standpoint (under a pseudonym) to get Christians to think was intriguing.  Tietjen effectively responded to conservative Christian criticisms of Kierkegaard----particularly those by Dave Breese and Francis Schaeffer----and Tietjen’s response was nuanced and informative.  (For example, while Kierkegaard has been labeled a Christian existentialist, Tietjen highlights where Kierkegaard differed from existentialism.  Tietjen also addresses Kierkegaard’s discussion of the akedah in Genesis 22, denying that Kierkegaard was advocating a thoroughly irrational obedience of God.)

The best chapter in the book, in my opinion, is the one on Christian love.  At first, I did not enjoy what I was reading in that chapter because Kierkegaard seemed to be presenting Christian love as extremely difficult, if not impossible: Who among us, Christian and non-Christian, can love others without at least some self-interest?  Yet, that is God wants from us, according to Kierkegaard.  But the chapter shared helpful insights as it proceeded: about how we should remember and trust that all people have love within them because they were created in God’s image, and what hurt, jaded, burnt-out people should do when they are reluctant or afraid to love others.

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

1 comment:

  1. Under my post on N.T. Wright's book on Justification, Bob MacDonald left the following comment about faith and works, which I think is relevant to my post here about Kierkegaard:

    "I confess I have read only a little bit of Wright. When I was younger I read the famous evangelicals of the time and eventually became disappointed with their certainty. I think Wright is somewhat more nuanced than Packer or Stott. Thanks for wrestling with this question for me. In my own experience, long and contorted, the question of obedience - hearing (Latin audire) and doing is very important in both the NT and the OT. The partnership has the steadfast faithfulness of God on one side of it and on the other our own faithfulness. God cares for those who are rejected by our social practices. The question today is - do we care for these also or is our priority the protection of our own interest? How we answer this question is the measure of our hearing and doing the work of Jesus, or the work of Yahweh, the God of Israel in our day. I am using 'we' deliberately, though sometimes it is and 'I' question also.

    "Blessings to you in your new location."

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