Modern Art and the Death of a Culture
The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics
Reason within the Bounds of Religion
Violence and the Sacred
All Truth is God’s Truth
Habits of the Heart Individualism and Commitment in American Life
All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today
Amusing Ourselves to Death
The Closing of the American Mind
Models of God:Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age
The Variety of American Evangelicalism
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship
No Future Without Forgiveness
Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: Conversations in Spiritual Theology
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism
Thomas Molnar’s review of Albert Camus and Christianity by Jean Onimus (University of Alabama Press, 1970) was CSR’s first book review. The final review of its first 50 years was T. M. Moore’s look at The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). In the intervening decades, CSR has reviewed over 3,000 books, providing a vital resource for our readers and a window into Christian scholarship.
While perusing the list of books reviewed over the decades, one is struck by the breadth of topics. Such diversity is solid evidence of Christian engagement with the academic issues of our times. While some subjects come and go with the intellectual winds of each decade, certain topics are of enduring interest to CSR and its readers. It will come as no surprise that books that explore evangelical identity—its history, its boundaries, its engagement with the culture—are of continuing concern. For example, over the years CSR reviewers have focused their attention on 12 different books written, in whole or in part, by the historian Mark Noll, whose historical insights have deeply informed evangelical self-understanding. Noll holds the record for the author with the most books reviewed in CSR during that time.
In addition, if the pages of CSR book reviews are any indication of the evangelical commitment to its intellectual saints, the focus on C. S. Lewis in its pages would be prima facie evidence. Books by or about Lewis have been reviewed in its pages some 41 times over the last 50 years. The Anglican don continues to be a resource for Christian engagement with culture nearly 60 years after his death.
Additional topics are of continuing interest decade after decade: engagement with biological science (especially evolution), literature, the arts, psychology, history, biblical studies, theology, Christian higher education, and, of course, faith-learning integration.
These patterns confirm and reinforce several of our commitments as Christian scholars. The reviews display a commitment to know ourselves—to know our history, to test, to investigate our intellectual and theological boundaries, and to shift those boundaries in interesting and helpful way when necessary, or to shore them up if needed. Anchored in the firm belief that truth is discovered in all of God’s creation, the reviews reveal an eagerness to engage with the very best thinking wherever it might be found, whether within Christian academe or outside of it. Christian scholars are both creators and critics of ideas that are shaping our world. The reviews also exemplify a commitment to connect confident, informed Christian action in and for the world with enduring theological truths, whether that be in promoting social justice, opposing apartheid, engaging with environmental issues, formulating a more fruitful approach to politics, developing faith-informed stances to a plethora of ethical concerns, or responding to issues surrounding feminism, race, or human sexuality. In all these efforts, CSR book reviews have been a dependable source for thoughtful, critical engagement with the influential thinkers and movements of our time.
CSR’s “Statement of Purpose” in its first volume includes the goal of assisting scholars in their divine calling to“contribute toward a broader and more unified understanding of life and the world.”1 The book review editors, books authors, and reviewers of CSR’s first 50 years have achieved that vision. May CSR book reviews in the years to come faithfully follow the legacy of thoughtful criticism, active engagement, and creative faithfulness modeled by those who came before.
Given the vast number and diversity of CSR book reviews over the last half century, it would be unwise and impossible to attempt to select representative reviews. Instead, I have chosen reviews of a handful of books from each decade that were recognized as significant at the time and that continue to be of interest to a wide array of scholars. The books and their respective reviews exemplify the qualities of critical engagement mentioned above. Lately, I have been listening to a podcaster who profiles “books that last forever.” It is too early to tell whether the books below will last forever (forever is a long time), but I am confident that many CSR readers will agree that these books were and remain influential. Any deficiency in the choice of these books is, of course, due to my own peculiarities. Finally, the language in the book reviews reflect the time in which they were written. We reprint them here in their original form.
Modern Art and the Death of a Culture by H.R. Rookmaaker, reviewed by Thomas Howard, English, Gordon College
Readers familiar with the work of Francis Schaeffer will find themselves at home in Rookmaaker’s terrain. For, using painting (and some sculpture) as an index, Professor Rookmaaker has traced the changes in Western consciousness from the Renaissance to our own epoch. They are a series of changes which can only be seen by the Christian eye as for the worse.
Until the Renaissance, the world was, so to speak, open to God, or the gods—the transcendent, in any case. Man was made for glory; indeed, he was the noble himself, and as such, found the imagery of beauty, courage, sublimity, serenity, and nobility significant. The world in which he played out his existence was harmonious, and the harmony audible from that world answered antiphonally to the harmony he found in his own being. This vision was at work in the imagery that was manifest in his painting.
But then, of course, things began to happen. We all know the story of how the analytic method of inquiry, arising with all good intentions, gradually seemed to be pushing the gods into the wings; and how in the 18th century this method became exclusive and sovereign; and how the record of Western sensibility since that time has been a record of the desperate, sometimes noble, sometimes grotesque, attempts to discover some basis for affirmation of human existence, or, barring that, at least to say something about the muddle. So that, whereas in earlier eras it was possible for man to register in his artistic imagery his sense of the unity, harmony, even glory, of the world and existence, it was no longer possible to do so, and you get instead a record of his sense of fragmentation, havoc, alienation, and absurdity.
Rookmaaker would see in the Reformation vision of the world (that is, that the duality in things occurs between good and evil, not between Nature and Grace) the authentically biblical viewpoint, and a ground upon which a truly Christian synthesis could have been built. Such a synthesis did, in fact, obtain for some time during the 16th and 17th centuries, and found expression in the works of many Dutch painters of the era. Rookmaaker cites van Goyen and Jan Steen as artists in whose work we may see the effects of the Reformation view of human life-the reality and validity of common experience, and the world as an icon of God’s glory. One finds oneself wondering, however, whether these paintings carry quite the theological weight with which Rookmaaker invests them; and, on the other hand, whether he has done justice to the Sacramentalist view of things apparent in earlier iconography of the Virgin (who was, to the Catholic mind, the paradigm of authentic human experience, the case in point of redeemed humanity, of human life as the bearer of glory). His treatment of the Thomist view of Nature and Grace would satisfy no Thomist.
But, in any case, the Reformation (or any Christian) view faded, and painters found themselves nudged along by the views which succeeded it. Rookmaaker’s account of painting as an increasingly vivid index of the worldviews which succeeded one another in sovereignty is fascinating and informative. Not only do we find out what the painting of, say, Goya, Turner, Constable, the Impressionists, the post-Impressionists, Picasso in all his changes, and the exponents of art-nouveau, cubism, expressionism, Dada, surrealism, and on up into op and pop and primary structuralism—what all this is like: Rookmaaker patiently and thoroughly comments on what is implicit in the phenomena. It is a frightening and ebullient record of the odyssey of a world away from its Creator.
Rookmaaker did not set himself a purely descriptive job. The last sections of his book involve discussion of the Christian response to all this, of the senses in which the biblical vision contrasts with the visions that have energized the painting of the last one hundred years, and of what truth, honor, righteousness, purity, loveliness, and praise mean for the serious artist.
Rookmaaker speaks from an austerely Reformational viewpoint. Christians who do not share the especially Calvinist presuppositions may find themselves uneasy with some of his analyses; and everyone may find the pace a bit brisk. But it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking Christian study, worth the time and attention of students of contemporary culture.
The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics by Hans Frei, reviewed by F. F. Bruce, Biblical Criticism and Exegesis, University of Manchester
For many centuries in the Christian West the biblical narrative provided a framework into which all history of the pre-Christian era and the 1st century A.D. could be fitted. Even with the Masoretic dating of the Flood (c. 2348 B.C.) all known classical history belonged to the postdiluvial period. The first two millennia of the annales mundi were perforce confined to the annales Veteris Testamenti; there were no other extant annales for that early age. The biblical narrative was made of the same historical stuff as the classical narrative: indeed, it was more soberly factual when compared (say) with Homeric accounts of divine intervention in the Trojan War. It supplied a standard of control for material such as the legends of the pre-Christian waves of immigration into Ireland: such legends had more or less plausibility according as they could or could not beconveniently accommodated to the biblical framework.
This attitude persisted in some quarters into the 18th century: one finds it, for example, in Charles Rollin’s Histoire Ancienne (1730-1738). But well before that it had begun to be eclipsed, and it is the rise and progress of that eclipse that forms the subject-matter of this study by the Master of Ezra Stiles College, Yale University. What he gives us is a history of biblical (more particularly New Testament) hermeneutics in the period from Calvin toStrauss. The science of biblical hermeneutics depends in large measure on the kind of religious authority ascribed to the Bible in Christian tradition. Straight exegesis operating with the historico-critical method, will simply ask “What did this or that author say, and what did he mean?” – just as the same question would be asked by a student of Plato or Demosthenes. But the presupposition of biblical hermeneutics is that the Old or New Testament text has a religiously relevant meaning for the reader or hearer today, and hermeneutical method endeavors to identify that meaning.
The central thesis of Frei’s work is that the hermeneutical method favored from time to time and from place to place was more thoroughly influenced than is commonly realized by current cultural trends. In Germany and England alike, he argues, the conditions for appreciating the realistic character of the biblical narrative were never properly established in the two centuries under review. If the rise of the realistic novel in eighteenth-century England had been accompanied by a comparable analysis of the biblical documents as literary compositions, a more satisfactory hermeneutical method might have been attained, while the attainment of such a method in Germany was impeded by the lack of realistic literary tradition there.
Thus, despite a far more vigorous appreciation than in England of literary and literary historical analysis of the Bible as written sources, including its realistic features, the final upshot was the same as in England: it was never subjected to a reading in which the meaning of the realistic stories was taken to be the realistic, fact-like depictions themselves, regardless of their reference, of the question of their factual truth or falsity, or of the “spirit” pervading the writing. (218)
One of the most interesting passages in the book is that in which Frei traces the influence of German hermeneutics, especially of the gospel story, on Karl Marx, who affirmed in 1844 that in Germany the criticism of religion (which was the premise of all criticism) was now complete. The upshot of this view “was that the very development of historico-critical investigation into the gospels, whether in support or denial of Christian belief in Jesus Christ, was itself already one of the signs that the Christological belief or doctrine under investigation had ceased to be of historic significance,” was in fact “an admission of the discernment that the real world in which we ineluctably exist is not the biblical stories’ world…and of the fundamental cultural uninterest of the notion of Christological salvation in history and of the notion of a relation between history and faith” (227). Because of the failure to treat the biblical narrative realistically, its elements were transposed into another framework and derived their meaning from another context of interpretation.
The trouble is, however, that literary criticism is not enough. Questions of historical criticism insist on posing themselves. In terms of literary criticism one may be well content to regard the seven days of Gen. l:l-2:4a as seven ordinary days and ask no further questions. But when people go on to ask what form the origin of all things took, and what relation (if any) the Genesis narrative bears to that form, complicated issues are raised which lead one away from a realistic treatment of that narrative. And similar issues are raised, mutatis mutandis, by the gospel stories. The devil took Jesus to Jerusalem and set him on a pinnacle of the temple. That is what the narrative says, and so far as the realistic treatment of the narrative is concerned, that is what happened. But what“really” happened? In this question the adverb “really” implies not narrative realism but historical reality. Is historical reality relevant or not to our understanding of the story? The literary critic may say “No” but the Christian theologian is apt to say “Yes.” So Frei’s study raises issues to which his terms of reference do not contemplate an answer. This at least must be said: he has given us a fresh perspective on the history of hermeneutics and compelled us to think hard about matters of fundamental theological importance.
Reason within the Bounds of Religion by Nicholas Wolterstorff, reviewed by Arthur F. Holmes, Philosophy, Wheaton College (Illinois)
This timely little book will serve well the recently renewed concern for a more penetrating integration of faith and learning. Originally given as lectures to the faculties of a group of Reformed and Presbyterian colleges, it addresses in a fresh way the influence of Christian commitment on theorizing in any discipline, including theology as well as the sciences.
Wolterstorff’s title, inverting the title of Kant’s well-known book on rationalistic religion, indicates the general direction of his proposal: religious neutrality and the idea of a presuppositionless science are illusory. We all operate under the influence of what he aptly labels “control beliefs.” In developing this theme, he draws on criticism developed over the last twenty-five years in epistemology and the philosophy of science, of a theory known as “foundationalism.” While it goes back to Aquinas and Descartes with their attempts at deducing logically unavoidable conclusions from indubitable first premises, foundationalism received new impetus in logical positivism through the writings of men like Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. For them, first premises are indubitably certain observation statements, from which more general and theoretical knowledge can be systematically deduced. Wolterstorff briefly reviews the failure of foundationalism to provide enough indubitable premises for the deduction of any adequate structure of theoretical thought. Readers familiar with recent philosophy of science will recognize parallel criticisms in writers like Kuhn and Koyre and Lakatos, and will recall the suggestion that nonempirical paradigms or models shape scientific theory. Strictly empirical and deductive methods are insufficient in explaining both the construction and the justification of theoretical beliefs. Both the sociology and the logic of knowledge is considerably more complex than that.
Wolterstorff’s alternative to foundationalism distinguishes between data, data background beliefs (e.g., about the observation conditions that determine the data), and control beliefs. The latter are crucial, for they include the content of religious belief. He is careful to point out, however, that control beliefs do not logically entail all the theories we arrive at, and that more than one theory may satisfy the same control beliefs, in the sense that more than one may be consonant with the content of those beliefs. Some theories may in fact be compatible with a variety of different control beliefs.
The task of the Christian scholar, then, is to identify and clarify authentically Christian control beliefs, to reject any loose conjunction of theoretical work with those beliefs by putting them to work internally in his scholarship: not just harmonizing science and religion or devising pious or moralistic applications of his science, but giving his control beliefs the lead not only in criticizing theories but also in suggesting research. This last assignment remains vague: it needs the kind of careful definition the author has given other aspects of the task. But he is undoubtedly correct in his judgment:
Christian cholarship will be a poor and paltry thing, worth little attention, until the Christian scholar, under the control of his authentic commitment, devises theories that lead to promising, interesting fruitful, challenging lines of research. (102)
Violence and the Sacred by René Girard, Reviewed by Marvin K. Mayers, Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas, Arlington
Numerous publications on violence have appeared in recent years, most of them by psychologists or journalists. This volume is an anthropological and literary examination of myth and ritual in human society, and violence is seen to lie at the foundations of both. Girard rejects the traditional interpretation of sacrifice as an offering made to the gods, often in the form of food, that provides “nourishment” for the transcendent being. Instead he suggests that the rite originates in violence and that such violence is played out within the context of the generative act of unanimity or corporateness being preserved by the rite. This sense of unanimity is lost in the onslaught of reciprocal violence and recovered through the mechanism of the surrogate victim. The fundamental role of religion, then, is to keep violence outside society by deflecting it onto a surrogate victim, who can then be sacrificed in a ritual cleansing that restores social order.
At a deeper level, this process “constitutes the major means, perhaps the sole means by which men expel from their consciousness the truth about their own mimetic relation ships; the crimes attributed to the surrogate victim are the hidden desires of all men, the secret source of human conduct.” The same pattern of transgression and salvation operates in Greek tragedy. The tragic hero fulfills the need for a sacrificial victim and in so doing himself becomes a cult object. Any community, Girard observes, that has fallen prey to violence or has been struck by some overwhelming catastrophe, hurls itself blindly into the search for a scapegoat. Lynchings, pogroms, “hereditary enemies” of modern states are but symptoms of the same phenomenon. Among the Nuer and Dinka peoples of the upper Nile the cow assumes the burden of communal guilt; the Swazi Incwala make their king the scapegoat.
The author draws deeply on Greek myth and tragedy and on the rites of tribal peoples in all parts of the world to show fundamental similarities in religious thought and obser vance. Reappraisals of the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and of the structural- anthropological theories of Levi-Strauss form a crucial part of the book. Freud’s Oedipus complex focusing on the individual is viewed as inadequate for explaining complexities of religious experience which are by nature corporate. His Totem and Taboo is seen as presenting brilliant psychological insights hitherto only imperfectly understood.
Although Girard differentiates between “primitive” societies that expurgate violence by traditional rites and “civilized” societies that expurgate it through a judicial system, he believes that both are carrying out a form of ritual sacrifice. He suggests that the reign of violence assumes the awesome and horrific forms of technological weaponry. “Absolute vengeance, formerly the prerogative of the gods, now returns, precisely weighted and calibrated, on the wings of science.”
The book is heavy reading. However brilliant in its conceptualizations and extensive in its scope, the fly leaf captures the content of the work better than the work itself. Even the chapter on conclusions, rather than summing up, continues the discussion. One needs to be familiar not only with the works of Freud and Levi-Strauss to comprehend the material but the writings of Durkheim, Malinowski, Radcliff-Brown, and other British social anthropologists as well.
Once he has worked his way through, however, the reader will have gained a new vision of what society and social interaction is all about. He will have a new understanding of the place of religious rite functioning within a social context, and a new appreciation for the challenge of Christian mission, which is not to destroy but to adapt unwanted cultural forms so the dynamic of the gospel can come to new life within the social context. Genesis 1-4 takes on new meaning after grasping the content of Girard’s brilliant work.
All Truth is God’s Truth by Arthur F. Holmes, Reviewed by David Basinger, Philosophy, Roberts Wesleyan College
Human beings have always been interested in the concept of truth. Are there statements about the existence of entities or about moral, social, and political values which have been, are, and always will be true? And if such truth exists, can we as humans identify it? Does being a Christian make any difference?
Arthur Holmes gives us a tightly-reasoned yet readable response to such questions. He begins by arguing that since God is the creator of all, all knowledge about him or his handiwork must be considered “sacred” and thus of intrinsic worth. But how much information about our world is accessible to us as humans? As Holmes sees it, God has created us as finite beings with necessarily limited experience, faulty memories, etc. Thus we must always acknowledge the possibility that our beliefs are false. This is true, he argues, even for the Christian. Faith may motivate us to search for the truth, but it is not itself a source of knowledge. And while the biblical record may contain some information about God and his creation which could not be discovered by human reason alone, direct revelation of this type, Holmes maintains, is not an exhaustive source of knowledge, even on matters of doctrine and morality. Moreover, he adds, there is always the possibility that we will misinterpret what God has intended to reveal.
There are, however, Holmes believes, criteria which can help us make reasonable decisions about what is true and false. Specific beliefs, he argues, are justified if they are self-consistent, based on enough appropriate empirical data (when applicable), and con-sistent with the other beliefs in the belief system into which they are being incorporated. Belief systems (worldviews) themselves can justifiably be affirmed if they are coherent (accommodate all the relevant data in a consistent manner), empirically adequate (explain all aspects of reality in a realistic, satisfying manner) and have human relevance (can be lived out meaningfully). Given these criteria, Holmes tells us, there can still be no assurance that the truth will always be discovered. But adherence to such criteria will enable us, he believes, to learn enough about God, others, and ourselves to function in this world in a godly, personally satisfying manner.
He concludes his essay by arguing that although all cognitive and affective learning is of intrinsic value, as we Christians are obligated to use what we learn to help society function as God intended that it should.
My response to Holmes’s discussion is quite positive. I am especially impressed by his treatment of the relationship between divine revelation and human reason. At a time when many conservative Christians assume that the biblical record is some sort of atemporal, nonrational divine communication which can be interpreted properly by any sincere believer, Holmes’s contention that a proper use of human reason is necessary if we are to glean from Scripture what God has there for us needs to be heard.
I am, however, puzzled by one thing. When discussing knowledge in general he emphasizes the fact that we as finite humans must hold our beliefs with some degree of tentativeness. And at times, as I have mentioned, he is quite willing to emphasize explicitly the need for such tentativeness in relation to those beliefs based on the biblical record. But at other times he seems to waver. He states at one point, for example, that in “all essentials of faith and practice, we have more than sufficient assurance of the content of the original manuscripts and can be confident in the conclusions we draw from them.” I do not see how this degree of optimism follows from the general epistemological system he supports.
All in all, however, I highly recommend this book for any thoughtful Christian who is interested in the relationship between reason and religious belief.
Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life by Robert N. Bellah, Reviewed by Ronald A. Wells, History, Calvin College
Honest conservatives have always wondered where an ever-expanding liberty would lead us. Liberty without a stable social structure ordered by law, it was feared, would soon become license, and every person would do that which was right in his own eyes. The United States, the most dynamic and vital of the societies dedicated to liberty, was, in many important ways, the place in which the ancient questions about the individual and the community would be resolved. What happens in America was, and is, important not only to Americans but also to a watching world. The “city on the hill” (Winthrop) was doing an “experiment in democracy” (Jefferson) which represented “the last, best hope of earth” (Lincoln) because, in the success or failure of a liberal democracy in America, Europeans would learn what they have “to hope for or to fear” (Tocqueville).
Bellah, one of the most respected commentators on the American religious situation, takes his title from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835, 1840). It was Tocqueville’s view that the individualism which powered the vitality of America would not proceed to its logical conclusion of anarchy because there were certain “givens” in the American cultural style. Among them, most notable was the “equality of condition,” because it was from such social equality that liberty’s excesses could be safeguarded in the context of community. But, Tocqueville warned, the race was on between vitality and decadence. To Robert Bellah and his associates, the race is nearing its end, and decadence appears to be winning. The authors state: “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous—that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.”
So, Weber and Marx were right after all, that modernization has raced onward in this most “modern” of modern societies [sic] and that alienation is the key to understanding society. The tissue which had connected us all into a “public” has been torn irreparably. The individualism we cherish in the freedom exercised has led (“inevitably,” the students of Burke chant from the sideline) to a condition of social solitude and “anomie” because the structures of community are no longer there. This is the ultimate paradox of modern American life: that our (over) exercise of freedom is threatening freedom itself.
The authors working under Bellah’s leadership are sociologists. They employ methods, however, as much historical as sociological. They interviewed some two hundred people around the United States, interviews that are interpreted with historical insight. At least in my reading, this makes for an attractive blend, because the authors clearly have heeded the warning of Stephen Thernstrom about the pitfalls of ahistorical social science. What they find is America adrift from its moorings, because of the predicament noted above. The Americans interviewed in Habits are “winners,” that is, they are mainly successful, by one standard or another. But they are not contented and fulfilled. The ideology of liberty has energized them on their way toward their own version of the American Dream. But, where has it brought, or left, them? One thinks of Walt Whitman’s “Facing West From California’s Shores”—”Where is what I started for so long ago, and why is it yet unfound?”
The most creative part of the book, in my reading, is Bellah’s discussion of the “two languages” Americans speak. The first language reflects the prevailing ideology of individualism, both utilitarian (related to jobs, consumption, etc.) and expressive (related to psychological fulfillment, employing the language of psychotherapy). But, deep in the cultural memory is a second language, now almost lost. It consists of older forms of discourse in which Americans express the sense of calling and commitment both for self and society. The authors, reflecting current historical scholarship, call these older traditions of discourse biblical and republican. The authentic self needs an anchor in a “community of memory” in which we see ourselves as related to more than our jobs, our leisure or to the pursuit of the “unencumbered self.” But therein is the American problem. The prevailing American ideology is that of radical individualism, whether utilitarian or expressive, which believes that the most fulfilled person is the unencumbered one, the person of autonomy.
The authors writing this book under Bellah’s leadership are clear in their purpose. They hope to illumine the strengths which the second language can provide in helping us face our moral problems: They sum up by saying: “Our most important task today is the recovery of the insights of the older biblical and republican traditions.” The authors did not intend to write a book about religion, but they were honest enough to report that, in all their interviews, religion was lurking just under the surface all the time. So, in the end, is the final message of the authors a return to religion for the American people, and, if so, do not they present the message of the Moral Majority, differing only in scholarly tone? The answers are no and no. They do not advocate a return to religion in the manner of the sentimental reconstructionists, because they know that “the world we have lost” is lost indeed. However, they believe that we can recover a better balance to address the problems of “public man” if we recover the strengths that biblical traditions offer. Furthermore, the authors’ writing is lacking entirely in the triumphalism and stridency of the New Right. Their sympathies, insofar as they reveal them, seem to be with those who are critical of the “righteous empire” theme yet who seek religious meaning for their engagement with society.
All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today by Letha Dawson Scanzoni, reviewed by Muriel Radtke, Education, Gordon College
Scanzoni and Hardesty here present a significant revision of their 1974 edition, a volume which launched the biblical feminism movement, by some 40 pages and with most of the original textual material retained; this revised version presents updated statistical data and cites the significant body of feminist scholarship published during the last decade. However, the main reason the authors chose to revise the book is that they no longer find it acceptable to use male pronouns for God and for singular indefinite persons, including children. Inclusive language is used throughout the book. As pathfinders for the biblical feminist movement, Scanzoni and Hardesty have kept the same purpose in publication: to awaken women and men to the possibilities of being equal partners in sustaining family life and in carrying out God’s will on earth. They remain firmly convinced that a thorough study of the Holy Scriptures demands full equality for women.
Recognizing that their view of the Bible places them at the conservative end of the spectrum in the religious feminist movement in the United States, the authors reaffirm their Christian stance and their willingness to take seriously the Scriptures which “represent the central locus of authority in the Christian tradition.” The first chapter identifies their theological presuppositions and their general hermeneutic and should be considered pivotal in understanding subsequent chapters. In particular, they feel that the essence of sin is not pride but dualistic division and domination which is displayed not only in sexism, but also in racism, homophobia, classism, nationalism, and militarism. They hold strongly to a theology which recognizes God as loving, compassionate, and concerned with justice. Part of their concern with justice includes a commitment to the use of inclusive language to include females—those persons often excluded by language and by intention. A valuable concluding footnote to this chapter lists several references regarding inclusive language, including a forthcoming book by Hardesty.
At first glance subsequent chapters, nearly all bearing the same titles as in the first edition, would seem to be merely a restatement of ideas presented in 1974. Not so. Chapter 2, “It All Started with Eve,” has a significantly changed section on headship. Noting the “androcentrism of all biblical translations, commentaries, and theologies of the past,” Scanzoni and Hardesty assert that Paul in First Corinthians 11:3 uses the headship image as a literal metaphor, primarily to liken Christ and the church, the husband and wife to a literal head and body. This metaphor of head is only a variation of an image Christ used, that of the vine and branches in John 15. Headship is not a free metaphor for some abstract concept such as hierarchy, the order of creation, or chain of command. Themes such as mutual submission and the use of gifts are, however, recurrent scriptural ideas which do show how we are to relate to one another. Christ’s example of self-giving oneness with His body, the church, provides a model, a metaphor for the process of Christian living. “Just as the Godhead is not a hierarchy or a pantheon of gods but a loving union of three equal persons, so God created us male and female in that image.” Other questions pertaining to role and the meaning of “created in God’s image” are raised: what part does sexual differentiation play in God’s image? What was the original sin? Is “first created” of special significance? Occasional flashes of ironic humor are evident: “If beings created first are to have precedence, then the animals are clearly our betters,” and on the same page, “After all, humanity was made from dust, but this does not make us subordinate to the earth.”
Not only has textual material been revised and tightened, but the supporting references listed at the back of the book for each chapter have been expanded in certain instances. The thirty-five references which support chapter 6, “He, She, or We?” include not only Sigmund Freud, Talcott Parsons, Margaret Mead, and Erik Erikson but also Scanzoni and Mollenkott’s ls the Homosexual My Neighbor? (1978); Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1982); Gayle Graham Yates’ What Women Want (1975); and Jean Baker Miller’s Toward a New Psychology of Women (1976).
Other important writings of the past decade are included elsewhere in the book: Phyllis Trible’s God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978); Rosemary Radford Reuther’s numerous theological writings, in particular her Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983); and Anne Wilson Schaef’s Women’s Reality (1981), to name a few. Chapter 8, “Living in Equal Partnership,” notes references to Jean Stapleton and Richard Bright’s Equal Marriage (1976) and Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1978). It is evident that the authors have taken full advantage of a decade rich in feminist inquiry. It is also evident that many of the references cited do not arise from the evangelical community of scholars. Nevertheless, these sources are helpful in thinking through the issues and implications of a hermeneutic which accepts as true the scriptural support for the equality of women. Since males have largely defined the current human norms, a one-sided and distorted view of the world has resulted. Acknowledging the work of an array of female scholars helps to move towards a more balanced view of humanity. It is appropriate that chapter 6 ends with a plea for using Christ as our paradigm, seeking not what it means to be only a “man” or a “woman” in our culture, but what it means to be Christlike. Bravo!
In the two chapters which deal persuasively with egalitarian marriage, the authors use the biblical Sarah and Susanna Wesley as examples of two married women with strong personalities—equal partners in the marriage relationship. The authors refute the views of more traditional writers who have seen these two women as examples of the spiritless, passive, submissive wife. Continuing to bring the textual data up-to-date, the writers also refer to a study by Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz. Their 1985 book, American Couples, reported that those couples who went beyond equality to role reversal in their marriage relationship were unhappy with the relationship as contrasted with the couples who continued to practice a more egalitarian marriage.
Chapters 9 and 10 trace the views of motherhood, worship, and reproduction through the difficult and discriminatory passages of the Old Testament, speaking briefly of taboos and purification rites. They round out chapter 9 with a discussion of New Testament at-titudes toward motherhood: a woman’s worth is no longer dependent upon the number of children she produces. The second of these two chapters deals with the variety of choices facing today’s Christian woman: when and if to marry, birth control, by what means, children now, later, perhaps never? Citing motherhood as “one of the most exciting and joyous experiences a woman can know,” the writers also recognize the options available for unmarried women to adopt children or to serve as foster parents. The many bibliographic notes supporting chapter 10 include a brief reference to a Mennonite publication by John Howard Yoder regarding voluntary childlessness as a religious calling.
The longest chapter in the book deals with the unique concerns of the single woman. Although “ministers, media, and meddling acquaintances” consistently warn that life without a spouse is meaningless, the fact remains that nearly 30% of the American population do not currently live with a spouse. Postponed marriages, divorce, a homosexual orientation, the earlier death of males, limited opportunities, and a commitment to a religious vocation-all contribute to the expectation that most women will spend a major portion of their lifetimes as single persons. Stressing the importance of enthusiastically picking up the option of singleness thrust upon them—those who have the gift of singleness and those who don’t—the authors confirm that marriage is not what every person needs to live a complete and fulfilled life. Rather, loving relationships and a sense of purpose make living worthwhile. All persons need a variety of friendships, casual friends and deeper, more intimate relationships, friends of the same sex and friends of the opposite sex. Indeed, although a person is unmarried, one does not necessarily have to be alone. “Families of choice,” extended families, are richer because of the total contributions of both single and married members.
Probably the most controversial segment of the book is found in this chapter when Scanzoni and Hardesty discuss the sexual needs of all persons, no matter their marital status. The authors feel there is no substitute for physical intimacy and relationship with another person. Rather, sexuality is viewed as another good gift from God, a gift to be enjoyed and celebrated. As in the original edition, they indicate that masturbation is an acceptable way Christian persons can celebrate their sexuality. Wisely linking sexual needs with other needs—self-esteem, acceptance, responsibility, and choice—the authors’ approach to sexuality is maturely balanced, including a straightforward attitude towards another part of God’s creation, the human body. One writes, “I personally think that appreciating another person’s body visually and mentally is simply enjoying God’s good gifts, as one enjoys a beautiful sunset or the sound of a tumbling mountain stream.”
While many Christian readers will agree with the need for Christians to enjoy all of God’s creation, those of us who teach in the Christian colleges will not be encouraged to read that, with regard to sexual activity outside marriage, the “whole wait-until-marriage rationale is now largely ignored.” After citing statistics to back up the statement, Scanzoni and Hardesty state that “many of those who remain single and those who have been widowed or divorced consider sexual activity an acceptable part of a deeper relationship, whether or not it is headed for marriage.” The need for women to have an opportunity to make a responsible choice is important. However, stating what is true of a sampled segment of Christianity does not necessarily mean the behavior is sanctioned by Scripture or even is what is best. In this chapter, the authors seem to be placing a higher value on personal preference than on scriptural teaching regarding sexual activity prior to marriage: “Rather than being bound by a set of moral legalisms and cultural expectations, many people are now making their own individual decisions based on prayerful dialogue with God about what is best for them in their situation.” The irony of this preference for responsible choice is that it is most often women who view the sex act as a commitment and thus are deeply hurt by the later dissolution of what they thought was a meaningful relationship. It is no doubt true that the matter of appropriate sexual activity for Christians is under revision; when has that not been true? But the current interest in and information about sexual matters is unusual. The matter needs to send us back to the Scriptures for another careful look at both scriptural standards and the responsible freedom which we enjoy as Christians. We need to make sure that society is not molding us into its image, rather than our holding current practices up to the light of the Scriptures.
Following on the heels of the singleness chapter, the authors present a plea for women to be allowed to use their gifts within the church body. Many, if not most women—single and married—have been given a clear message by the church, “There’s no place for you here-unless your gifts are ‘changing diapers, corralling seven-year-olds, baking cakes, or rolling bandages…” If your gifts are administration, accounting, theological investigation, or public speaking, “forget it.” Some leave the church al together, having found no place to contribute their gifts. No, the authors remind us, women are not asking to take over the church. They only want a place to use the gifts given them by God. May it be so.
The final two chapters continue the theme of the Christian community’s barriers to women’s service both in the church and in the working world in general. Again as throughout the entire book, Scanzoni and Hardesty stress the right of a woman to have a choice in being gainfully employed and career-oriented. Erik Erikson’s idea that young men find their identity in a career while women find it in the way they relate to men is, as the authors put it, “a crock.” Women also need the option of meaningful work—whether in the home or the marketplace.
The first edition of this book launched the biblical feminist movement. This revised version is also a call to arms. Women and men need to link arms in order to take responsibility for their own lives, to shoulder together the cultural mandate God has given for the development of our own talents and the preservation of the earth. And, as the final paragraph states, “God has sisters as well as brother. Now is the time for the church to recognize this—and to act upon it. That is what Christian women’s liberation, biblical feminism, is all about.”
Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, Reviewed by William A. Herzog, Jr., Communication Studies, Northwestern College (Iowa)
America has little to fear from the Orwellian prophecy of an authoritarian future, but stands in imminent danger of becoming a Huxleyan “Brave New World,” where cultural life consists of perpetual entertainment and serious public discourse is reduced to baby talk.
This is the specter that haunts Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Subtitled “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” he argues that most Americans look to television for public information and discussion, but television, by its nature, reduces discourse to entertainment.
Postman (as an acknowledged disciple of Marshall McLuhan) maintains that any medium has characteristics that dispose it toward handling information in particular ways with not-always-obvious effects on message content. This predisposition of the medium to shape a message becomes a kind of metaphor—a way of seeing the world. Any medium will handle some kinds of information more successfully than others, and will mold the information into that form which it handles best.
Print media see the world metaphorically as linear and sequential. Print’s content is words—ideas and facts displayed in forms that facilitate analysis, debate, and comparison with competing formulations. Print media are particularly well suited for public discourse, as Postman illustrates with examples from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century public speeches, debates, and sermons.
Television’s metaphor offers a nonsequential, transient, visually exciting world. It favors rapidly changing, emotionally charged images. It is most captivating when it is most entertaining. A kind of electronic Midas, it turns what it touches into entertainment. “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure” (87).
Historically, the telegraph and the photograph precipitated the decline of the Age of Exposition and the rise of the Age of Show Business. The introduction of the telegraph with its rapid long-distance communication produced a newspaper content shift from local issues of immediate and direct consequence for the reader to news from afar, which affected the reader indirectly at best, and to which no practical response was possible. It was information that dignified irrelevance and amplified impotence. Photography led us to believe that we have experienced reality when we have seen a picture of it. The combination of telegraph wire news with the photograph “gave a sense of reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to the unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that ‘the news’ had a connection to something within one’s sensory experience” (75).
Television retains the illusion, imposes its own predilection for entertainment, and offers up the day’s news in a sequence of unrelated visual images chronicled by wellgroomed, congenial newscasters. Serious political discourse is on television by the “image politics” of political commercials and guest appearances of politicians as celebrities on “Dynasty,” “Cheers,” and “Saturday Night Live.” The most successful religious programs feature the television evangelist as celebrity, with images of material success rather than spiritual transcendence. Even educational programs are shaped by television’s strictures. The highly-acclaimed “Sesame Street” offers up essentially a series of educational rapid-fire commercials, bereft of prerequisites, perplexity, or exposition.
For those who would counter, “yes, but…” and point to examples of reasoned discussion on Sunday morning current events shows or public television’s nightly “Mac Neil-Lehrer Newshour,” Postman argues that any medium can, on occasion, be used against its own metaphor but, as in the above instances, this is not television “at its best,” nor does it appeal to substantial audiences.
Some media determinists (McLuhan, Ong, et al.)would hold that changes in the dominant media of a culture produce cognitive changes in its members. Postman makes a more modest claim: new media change the nature of discourse. His arguments here are persuasive. Even when the intelligent exchange of ideas occurs on television, the viewer remains passive, a nonparticipant in the dialogue. Print media demand an active attention and involvement from the reader. But is the corollary which Postman proposes—that television by nature bends any message toward an entertainment format—equally persuasive? Might it not be argued that television programming is merely responding to the commercially-based entertainment penchant of American society? (Postman does not really address this issue.) Television’s technological capabilities certainly provide a felicitous match to our apparent “need” for diversion. But what has been the experience of those societies which have attempted to preserve television for educational purposes? The final accounting is not in, but it appears clear that most European, Third World, or communist bloc nations that have created policies designating television as an informational medium, have found themselves driven toward an entertainment content by the costs of operating television systems and/or the demands of audiences for livelier programs. So whether impelled by innate characteristics or responding to cultural pressures, television amuses us much more than it stirs us to substantive discourse.
Postman does propose a line of action: it is not to throw away the TV set (a la Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television) or naively to suggest that parental supervision of viewing can somehow miraculously overcome the essential banality of prime-time television. His answers, consistent with his Teaching as Conserving Activity (1979), lies in our schools. Young people need to learn “media consciousness.” They must evaluate forms of information and the channels by which it comes to them.
Finally, the CSR reader will appreciate a sophisticated religious literacy in Postman’s writing. There are frequent biblical allusions and illustrations: God forbade graven images in the Second Commandment because the God of the Jews was to exist as the Word, an abstraction of the highest level which might be corrupted by physical representation. In discussing eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse, Postman finds much greater intellectual and theological content in the evangelists of that day (Edwards, Whitefield, Finney) than in their modern-day television counterparts. He concludes a chapter on religious television (“Shuffle Off to Bethlehem”) with a concern that “the danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion” (124).
The reader will find little comfort in the conclusion that while the Church has not used television as an effective means of communicating its message in any profound sense, neither have education, politics, or the news industry.
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, reviewed by Jay M. Van Hook, Philosophy, Northwestern College (Iowa)
The Closing of the American Mind is a powerful and sweeping critique of American higher education. The book’s swift rise to and long stay at the top of national bestseller lists, however, belies its complexity, although it points to the fact that it touches on concerns about education shared by Americans with rather diverse educational convictions and values.
The main thesis of the book is clear enough and generally well-known from accounts which have appeared widely in the popular press. It is that American universities, especially since the sixties, have abandoned their mission to educate the young in the humanistic arts necessary both for the development of their full humanity and for their responsible participation in the life of a democratic society. That mission, moreover, has been replaced by a thorough-going relativism in which trendy courses (like black, women’s, and non-Western culture studies) proliferate and in which openness to everything is the only normative principle—a principle which, ironically, leads to the closing of students’ minds because the unbridled pursuit of openness “means accepting everything and denying reason’s power” (38). Bloom believes that the great classical books of the past must be restored to a central place in the curriculum and in the life of the university as a whole.
Bloom’s book, however, is more than a critique of higher education—its students, professors, administrators and curricula (all of which, however, receive a whipping sure to delight the critics of American higher education)—it is also a devastating indictment of the society in which the university finds itself: the family (which Bloom finds intellectually and spiritually vacuous), the materialistic values of its institutions, and its mindlessly shallow modes of entertainment.
But more than all that, the book is a story about the institution of American democratic society on the foundation of Enlightenment principles articulated primarily by John Locke, and the decline of that same society as a result of its compromises with Rousseau’s romanticism and its imbibing the poison of Nietzsche’s nihilistic philosophy. It is this story, as much as his critical analysis of higher education as such, which makes Bloom fascinating, worthwhile, and challenging reading.
The book is divided into three main parts: “Students”; “Nihilism, American Style”; and “The University.” In the first part, Bloom gives a rather uncomplimentary picture of the students who inhabit the halls of our most prestigious universities. Much of his account will strike a familiar chord with anyone who has been a teacher or a parent of college students, as, for example, his description of their addiction to rock music. But much of it is also an unfortunate caricature which serves only to reinforce the prejudice that today’s students are intellectually, morally, and spiritually inferior to those of former generations (those very generations, ironically, which have shaped the dismal society these students have inherited). According to Bloom, students today are nice, friendly, and egalitarian, but neither noble nor moral; and they are thoroughly preoccupied with themselves. They take for granted the easy sex resulting from the sexual revolution (a precarious revolution, says Bloom, now being undermined by feminists who have made male lust sinful again), but their eroticism is pretty much confined to fleeting “relationships” and fails to link eros with education.
The second part of the book traces the rise and decline of American democratic society. The rise is signaled in the triumph of Locke (who represents, for Bloom, the best of enlightened reason and science, the “happy economist”) over Rousseau in the principles of our founding fathers. The decline begins with challenges from those enamored with Rousseau (the “brooding psychoanalyst” who questions the scientific and political solutions of the Enlightenment). The irrationalist tendencies in Rousseau reach full flower in the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche, with help along the way from Goethe, Weber, Freud, and Heidegger. Nietzsche’s nihilism, however, has been Americanized by people like Woody Allen who make us feel comfortable with it. As Bloom puts it: “American nihilism is a mood, a mood of moodiness, a vague disquiet. It is nihilism without the abyss” (155).
Nietzsche is a key figure in Bloom’s story: he sacrifices objectivity to historical consciousness, science to culture, and reason to creativity. But above all, Nietzsche is important because his vicious attack on Socrates is ultimately an attack on philosophy itself and thus on the very essence of the university. The attitude of condescension towards Plato and Aristotle found in the Enlightenment, Bloom notes, was based on the conviction that what they tried to do could be done better, that they were imperfect friends; the post-Nietzschean contempt for these philosophers is premised, by contrast, on the conviction that their entire project was fundamentally mistaken.
But how, one may ask, is Nietzsche’s attack on the Greek philosophers relevant to American society and the well-being of its universities? Essentially Bloom’s claim amounts to the following: the Greek philosophers, like the Enlightenment, recognized the importance of uniting power and wisdom, but they had no confidence that this goal could be achieved. They knew that knowledge is not power (as evidenced in the execution of Socrates) and that those who seek it are vulnerable to power. It was the Enlightenment which transformed the Platonic ideal of having philosophers rule into the effort to establish a democratic society which could serve the common good through enlightened self-interest. Bloom endorses this Enlightenment project as the only plausible scheme for realizing human good in society. Nietzsche is dangerous, in Bloom’s view, not only because of his rejection of the Greeks, but because of his repudiation of the Enlightenment’s dream. Further, since Bloom views philosophy’s pursuit of truth as the fundamental purpose of the university, he understandably regards Nietzsche’s judgment that philosophy is just another exercise in mythmaking as inimical to that fundamental purpose.
The development of German philosophy and the American appropriation of the same is continued in the third part of the book: “The University.” The main thrust of this section, however, is Bloom’s rather vitriolic account of and attack on the universities during the sixties and afterward, with his harshest criticism specifically targeted at Cornell University, where he taught during this tumultuous period.
Much of Bloom’s criticism of American higher education is on target. He is justified in his criticisms of university administrators who sacrifice principles to pressures from the marketplace, of faculty who allow curricular fluff to replace solid liberal arts requirements, and of students and their parents who see the goal of higher education only as a ticket to a lucrative career.
But while much of this criticism is appropriate, its sweeping generalizations are also very unfair to vast numbers of faculty, administrators, students, and curricular programs. More importantly, the elitist, racist, and sexist tone of much of the book is deeply disconcerting. One may concede that university curricula have been far too much influenced by fads and that high academic standards are not always maintained. One may also concede that many courses in minority and women’s studies as well as those devoted to exploring non-Western cultures may be of minimal educational value. But the disturbing fact remains that the traditional liberal arts canon endorsed by Bloom, as well as his story of American society generally, is white, male, and Eurocentric. Blacks and Orientals [sic] are invisible, and women appear only as nature’s instrument of reproduction.
One may legitimately ask, however, whether it is really more important for students today to read Plato instead of black writers and feminist criticism. And what basis do those of us educated only in the traditional canon really have for comparison and judgment? To the extent that minority, women’s, and cross-cultural studies challenge our habitual interpretive biases and serve as gadflies to keep us off balance a bit, they are, it seems to me, eminently worthwhile and deserve a place in higher education. This is not to say that such studies should replace the entire traditional core curriculum, but it is to suggest that the traditional curriculum reflects biases which have not always been recognized as such and which have resisted the genuine insights offered by such studies.
Sadly, however, Bloom is unrelenting in his rejection of the movements and studies which might make us aware of these biases. The Civil Rights Movement and black studies are opposed because their radical proponents have tarnished the good names of our founding fathers by making them appear to be racists. Bloom’s America, by contrast, unambiguously “tells one story: the unbroken, ineluctable progress of freedom and equality” (55). Feminism is dismissed tout court with unconscionable glibness and condescending chauvinism. The women’s movement is contrary to nature and a dismantling of the souls of men. Its attempt to make men sensitive and caring is doomed to failure. And education in non-Western cultures, for Bloom, is little more than relativistic propaganda designed to destroy Western intellectual imperialism by convincing students that Western ways are not better and that Western culture is just another culture in the egalitarian republic of cultures.
Bloom is correct in his claim that the fact of cultural diversity does not prove that there is no right or wrong among cultures, but he fails to realize that there is no transcendental non-culturally biased place to stand from which to do such judging. At least Bloom offers no such place. Apart from his lavish praise of the great books (many of which contradict each other) and his own immoderate confidence in the power of reason to grasp the truth, he gives precious little indication as to what ultimate norms should guide our judgment. Nor should we be overly impressed by his frequent biblical references and his irritation with the widespread biblical illiteracy on university campuses. The Bible, for Bloom, seems to be another great book on the shelf next to Plato. It once served as the glue to hold our society together (a rather Constantinian function, one may say), and he regrets the fact that it does so no more.
Bloom is of course correct that a university (and a healthy democratic society) needs some common core of ideas, experiences, and values to inform its discussions. And it would be well, I think, if educators could devise a common core curriculum which would enjoy wide acceptance throughout our society. But the canon of such a curriculum would have to be much more fluid and inclusive than the one Bloom seems to have in mind. Such a curriculum will require a pluralistic paradigm which recognizes the importance of Tokyo as well as of New York or even Athens, of the experiences of blacks as well as of whites, of women as well as of men. The old paradigm is simply inadequate for the eighties and beyond, and any university which pretends otherwise will do its students and the larger society a grave disservice. Higher education today faces the challenge of enabling students to appropriate their Western culture while at the same time preparing them for responsible world citizenship.
Bloom’s book, despite its major flaws, raises important questions about society and higher education. If it succeeds in provoking both educators and the general populace to engage in serious thought and discussion of these issues, it will have rendered a most valuable service. A Christian philosophy of education, however, will require a firmer foundation than Bloom’s rationalism and provincialism provide. Those attempting to articulate such a philosophy would do well to begin by reflecting long and hard on the implications of the kingdom of God, which transcends the boundaries of race, sex, nation, and culture.
Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age by Sallie McFague, reviewed by Randy L. Maddox, Theology, Sioux Falls College
McFague’s main thesis in Models of God is that the traditional models of God such as Father, King, and Creator are triumphalist, monarchial, dualist, etc.—i.e., expressions of patriarchal theology and that they must be rejected in favor of new models of God that are holistic, evolutionary, ecological, and mutualistic. In particular, she champions a model of God-world relationships where the world is seen as God’s ‘’body” and a model of God’s trinitarian being as mother, lover, and friend.
Obviously, such an ambitious and provocative thesis must operate out of some fundamental assumptions about the nature of theological reflection. One of the strengths of McFague’s book, in comparison to some others in this genre, is that she states these assumptions clearly at the beginning.
Perhaps her most foundational assumption is the denial of any analogical connection between human language about God and God’s essence (cf. 194-5 fn 10). While a nuanced understanding of analogy had been evident in her earliest work about the importance and status of theological language (Speaking in Parables), she now adopts a totally agnostic position on whether our models and metaphors express how God really is. The obvious result of this switch is that any ontological barriers to articulating new models of God are removed.
Another important assumption in McFague’s most recent book is that modem theology must function as a constructive rather than a hermeneutical enterprise. To be sure, she shares the hermeneutical concern that contemporary expressions of Christian faith and life be meaningful and relevant to the contemporary context and needs of the Christian community. However, she now rejects the typical hermeneutical assumption (still evident in her earlier work!) that theology is normatively concerned to translate, interpret, or appropriate the models and metaphors of Christian Scripture and tradition in articulating contemporary expressions of Christian faith (cf. 30). Her reason for this is not merely that she considers the models and metaphors of earlier Christian tradition to be irrelevant to our post-Christian world. She makes the stronger claim that they function to accentuate rather than solve some of the major problems we need to address today—ecological insensitivity, hierarchal social structures, etc. As such, the task of theology is to construct new models and metaphors.
And where do we get the guidance for constructing and judging such metaphors? Here a third major assumption soon becomes clear: namely, that the present context with its unique needs and worldview plays a prominent role in deciding the metaphors to be constructed (cf. 45). McFague summarizes the essence of this present context as a concern for “holism”; i.e., a rejection of the old dualisms-spirit/flesh, human/nonhuman, male/ female, etc. (6ff.). As such, she advocates models and metaphors that embody these concerns and help live fulfilled lives in this context. Obviously, when this conviction is wedded to her rejection of analogy, the resulting criterion of truth becomes a pragmatic one (cf. 196, fn 13).
But, if the present situation figures so largely in norming our construction of contemporary theological models, what continuity with Christian tradition (and its rejected models) warrants characterizing these new models as “Christian”? More particularly, what is the role of Scripture in theology? McFague is clearly sensitive to this question (cf. 37, 45ff). Her answer to this question reveals a final major assumption. First, she argues that Scripture’s authority should be focused more on its model of contextualizing the faith than on its content per se (42-43). Second, she argues that while there is indeed some paradigmatic content in Scripture, it is so generalizable that it can and must take many different forms (43). Her most explicit summary of this essential content is the persuasion “that there is a personal, gracious power who is on the side of life and its fulfillment, a power whom the paradigmatic figure of Jesus of Nazareth expresses and illuminates” (192, fn 37). As such, any contemporary model that contextually articulates this conviction is to be considered “Christian.”
Given such working assumptions, we can understand better McFague’s particular criticisms of traditional models of God and her proposed alternative models. First, she deals with models of how God is related to the world. She argues the traditional monarchial models separate God too much from the world, leaving God worldless and the world Godless (65). As an alternative model McFague picks up a suggestion of Grace Jantzen that the world might best be construed as God’s “body”—assuming a much closer holism of “spirit” and “body” than is traditionally held. She sees this metaphor as monist but not pantheist (72ff). More importantly, she argues at length that it is more conducive to the ecological sensitivity needed today.
Given this basic model of God/world relations, McFague turns to three other models that she apparently believes are particular specifications of the previous model (78, 94). These three models focus on three different aspects of God’s love for the world: creative love, salvific love, and sustaining love. As such, they present a trinity of God as Mother, Lover, and Friend apparently meant to contrast with the traditional trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit (cf. 91).
The model of God as Mother focuses on the agape-love of God for the world. Central to her development of this model is McFague’s critique of traditional understandings of such agape-love as totally disinterested (cf. 102, 108-109). She argues instead for seeing such love as being intensely interested in the advancement of all of creation—like the nurturing love of parents for their children.
The model of God as Lover focuses on the passionate erotic love of God for the world. Obviously, the development of this model again requires a critique of traditional Christian treatments of eros which make its application to God almost unthinkable. For McFague, this model focuses on God’s passionate desire to be united with the world that is expressed in the salvific action of God in Christ (cf.131ff). It implies that the world is valuable to God and salvation is a reunification of God and the world.
The model of God as Friend expresses God’s philia (friendship) for the world. Again, to apply this to God, McFague must first purge it of some of the traditional individualistic and self-centered understandings of it (160-161). Central to her developed model is God’s free offer of sustaining relationship to humanity.
The preceding summary should make clear the creative and provocative nature of this work. Obviously, it is impossible to provide a detailed evaluation of such a work in the space that remains. However, a few comments are essential. First, I would be inclined to argue that the most important contribution of this book is its persuasive critique and reformulation of the understandings of love as agape, eros, and philia. Thereby we are provided not only with more attractive and biblical insights into what God’s love for us is, we are also provided with more discerning models of what our love for God and others should be. This contribution remains valid even if one were to reach different conclusions about the general viability of traditional metaphors for God in the present context.
Second, the most troubling facet of this book is precisely the rather cavalier manner with which traditional and scriptural models and metaphors of God are handled. Although she denies it, McFague actually often makes her case against such models by caricaturing them. She portrays them in light of their worst possible reading and does not reflect sufficiently on the way that some of the models capable of misconstrual (e.g., Christ as King) are “broken” or nuanced by other metaphors with which they are inextricably tied in Scripture (e.g., the King who is Servant).The result of this caricature is an unduly easy rejection of the past, thereby sundering McFague’s connection with the Christian tradition more than she seems to admit. Ironically, this perpetuates a type of metaphorical dualism (!) where God is either Father or Mother, Lord or Lover, etc. Would it not be better to ground those aspects of God which McFague rightly wants to highlight in those models and metaphors for God—God the Nurturing Mother who nurses us at God’s breast, God the protecting Mother Eagle who provokes us to our potential, etc.—that are present but often overlooked within the tradition itself? If this option were taken, not only would we preserve a hermeneutic tie to our tradition, we would also stand a better chance of developing truly inclusive understandings of God that incorporate the valid insights into God’s nature and work that are embodied in both McFague’s and traditional models.
Finally, there are a couple of particular aspects of the traditional understandings of God that are most noticeably absent in McFague’s models—with crucial resulting problems. First, she emphasizes God’s love and inclusiveness to near total exclusion of God’s holiness (cf. 52). As such, her description of the essence of Christianity stresses acceptance to the near total exclusion of judgment. Second, her monistic model ultimately incorporates evil into God (75). Finally, and by implication, her concern to stress the holism of creation leads to a near total absence of an eschatological emphasis of the Righteous and Loving God overcoming evil and transforming all creation. Ultimately, the lack of these emphases in McFague would seem to undercut her clear concern for more justice in current oppressive and distorted human relationships and human/world relations.
The Variety of American Evangelicalism by Robert Johnston, reviewed by Douglas Jacobsen, Church History and Theology, Messiah College
We used to think evangelicalism could be defined in terms of a neat list of theological beliefs (and some people, both evangelical and not, still do). We used to think evangelicalism had clear social and behavioral bounds (and James Davison Hunter still wishes it did). We used to think that all evangelicals knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who was married to your cousin (and they probably met at Wheaton College). We used to think we knew a lot of things about American evangelicalism, but many of these things have been proven false unless taken with a large grain of salt and with a page full of “on the other hands.” Both kinds of qualifiers—the salt and the other hands—are to be found in great abundance in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, edited by Robert K. Johnston and Donald W. Dayton.
The Variety of American Evangelicalism explores the fuzzy borderlands where evangelicalism drifts off into other theological and ecclesial realms. where different adjectives get first billing. “Are Restorationists Evangelicals?” asks the title of one essay (by Richard Hughes). Another (by Dayton) defines Pentecostalism in terms of “the limits of evangelicalism.” A third seems to forget all about evangelicals and evangelicalism and reads simply “Lutheranism” (by Mark Ellingsen).
But it’s not just the border reaches that get attention, as some of the old debates about “who is and who ain’t” an evangelical get freshly rehashed (yes: freshly, despite the seemingly oxymoronic nature of the phrase). George Marsden delivers on “Fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism” and Timothy Weber marches us through the “branches of evangelicalism” and their relations to premillennialism. Mark Noll and Cassandra Niemcyzk weigh in with an article on “Evangelicals and the Self-Consciously Reformed”—a title which must sound a bit strange to Wesleyan and holiness evangelicals, who have always thought that most of the self-declared keepers of the evangelical flame already were thoroughly reformed in outlook.
The final evangelical diversity evident in this book is to be found in the contrasting attitudes of the two authors with regard to the usefulness of the term “evangelical.” Dayton is the pessimist here. In his concluding statement as editor, he calls for a “moratorium” on the use of the word “evangelical” because he finds himself “unable to make the common label” stick to all the groups discussed. Some readers of this book will, in exhaustion, agree with him. Johnston is, by contrast, an optimist. He states that:
For all of their variety and particularity, descriptions of contemporary American evangelicalism have a commonality centered on a threefold commitment: a dedication to the gospel that is expressed in a personal faith in Christ as Lord, an understanding of the gospel as defined authoritatively by Scripture, and a desire to communicate the gospel both in evangelism and social reform.
He ends his commentary with a rousing declaration that: “Although nonevangelicals might view the evangelical tradition as reactionary, sentimental, or restrictive, those who have gravitated toward it have found in it a means both of expressing and of extending the evangelion, the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ.” Some readers will, with joy, agree with Johnston. But, the reality is probably to be found at neither extreme. Johnston seems too triumphalistic, and Dayton too gloomy. Perhaps, the title of the book should have read evangelicalisms rather than evangelicalism to mark a conceptual halfway house between these poles of opinion.
Many of the essays included in this collection were originally written as papers for session meetings of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion, and the refining process of public presentation and critique has strengthened the final product. All fifteen essays are worth the reading—there’s not a clinker in the bunch—but if I had to recommend only one piece to the readership of CSR it would be “Black Religion and the Question of Evangelical Identity” by Milton G. Semett. Semett quotes Eric Lincoln at the beginning of this essay saying, “Black theology is in some sense what is missing from white theology.” White evangelicals need to hear this fact and seek to understand what it means. But, it would be a shame to narrow your reading down to only one essay in this fine book. The smorgasbord is too good.
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll, reviewed by Thomas A. Askew, History, Gordon College
Written with passion and impressive erudition, Mark Noll’s jeremiad on the “evangelical mind,” or lack thereof, is destined to become a landmark book that willbe cited by Christian thinkers for years to come. Every so often a concise monograph, right in argumentation, touches such sensitive intellectual nerves that it stimulates a fresh level of debate. Like Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism in 1947, Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind raises as many questions as it answers. Yet, read alongside David Wells’s No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (1993) and God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994) as well as George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University (1994), Noll’s analysis will set the discussion about evangelical intellectual and academic culture on a new course.
Briefly stated, Noll’s thesis is that twentieth-century American evangelicals have squandered the Christian intellectual heritage bequeathed by the medieval theologians, the Reformers, the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley in the 18th century, and such nineteenth-century leaders as Augustus H. Strong and Charles Hodge. In one way or another these and other reflective Christian thinkers sought to develop a biblically based worldview that encompassed all aspects of human experience and learning, an integrated view of God, creation, man, and the full extent of known reality. Instead of continuing this quest, twentieth -century evangelicals withdrew into a cultural and intellectual parochialism that only recently has shown modest of change.
In building his case Noll draws on a plethora of sources, conveniently explicated in footnotes on almost every page. In themselves these page notes provide a useful bibliographic guide to the Christian mind in the American ethos, beginning with the colonial era. Anyone pursuing related topics should consult these rich footnote resources, especially the significant periodical articles. Also, Noll is careful to define his terms, an absolute necessity in this type of argumentation. Making the book accessible to the general reader, he carefully delineates what he means by “the life of the mind,” “evangelical,” “anti-intellectual,” “culture,” and even “America.” Noll begins the evangelical journey to twentieth-century intellectual shallowness by describing the synthesis of revivalism, democratic republicanism, the didactic Enlightenment, and American nationalism that animated American evangelical thought before 1860, a theme he has well examined in other writings. Dependent philosophically on Baconian science and Scottish Common-Sense Realism, this theistic worldview lost out in the intellectual struggles sparked by Darwinian ideas and the new social sciences by the century’s end. Doggedly perpetuating the unexamined assumptions of the pre-1860 synthesis, evangelicals maintained little ability to influence the emerging universities, arts, and “high culture” along with elite opinion setters. Instead, evangelical commitments coalesced into an unselfcritical fundamentalism that found satisfaction in dispensationalism, Bible prophesy, holiness pietism, Pentecostalism, or combinations thereof.
Although these movements preserved the heritage of biblical supernaturalism, they did not provide the intellectual ballast needed to participate in the larger cultural discourse. Other Protestant traditions (i.e., Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Orthodox) could have offered resources for meaningful intellectual engagement but were not utilized. Only recently have evangelicals reached across ecclesiastical boundaries to learn from other Christian traditions, including Mennonite and Roman Catholic.
Devoting major attention to dispensationalism, which he sees as unhistorical and Manichaean, and extremely literal creationist interpretations of Genesis, which he views as misguided hermeneutics and out-of-date science, Noll calls for altered attitudes about the nature of human knowledge, how it is achieved, and what it means to worship God with the mind. This involves recognizing that creation is “good” and “exploring the fullest dimensions of what it meant for the Son of God to “become flesh and dwell among us” (249). “Excessive supernaturalism” must give way to a balanced view of Providence which also recognizes the created nature of social and cultural structures. In addition to a changed mindset, more support for first-order Christian scholarship and intellectual creativity will be necessary if meaningful engagement is to occur within the larger intellectual/cultural milieu. In short, the challenge is to develop a comprehensive worldview
within a specifically Christian framework—across the whole spectrum of modem learning, including economics and political science, literary criticism and imaginative writing, historical inquiry and philo-sophical studies, linguistics and the history of science, social theory and the arts. (7)
Noll does recognize a mild evangelical “Renaissance” underway. Thanks to the past efforts of Harold J. Ockenga (1905-1988), Edward J. Carnell (1919-1967), Carl F. H. Henry, Billy Graham, and others, new promising evangelical seminaries were founded, other institutions strengthened (e.g., publishing houses and colleges), self-criticism encouraged, and horizons widened. The founding of Christianity Today (1956) contributed to cultural engagement. More recently, commendable advances have occurred in evangelical theological and biblical scholarship and other sectors of Christian academia. For instance, the impact of the Society of Christian Philosophers (founded 1978) on higher-level philosophical discourse is noteworthy, as is the spectrum of political reflections written from various Christian traditions. In citing encouraging signs, Noll modestly overlooks the contributions of historians like himself whom Leo P. Riboffo (George Washington University) has recently termed “the self-consciously evangelical historians who, during the past two decades have transformed academic specialists’ understanding of American religion in general and twentieth-century fundamentalism in particular.”2
On the other hand, “For deeply embedded historical reasons, evangelical thinking about science is still but a shadow of what God, nature, and the Christian faith deserve” (233). Noll minces no words. At the turn of the century, evangelical science erred when it largely turned away from the theistic developmental views espoused by such as James Orr, A. H. Strong, and B. B. Warfield during the early evolution controversies. Given the brevity of this review, space does not allow exploring the implications of Noll’s preferred hermeneutical approach to Genesis. At his most controversial, Noll challenges the creation-science movement and the restrictions on scientific debate imposed by “a combination of self-confident biblicism and populist political mobilization” (230). Given the convictions of most evangelical laity and the sensitivity of the issue on many Christian college campuses, coming to terms with Darwin remains one of the unresolved questions facing the evangelical community. Behind the hermeneutical questions lie deeper issues about the nature of the Bible itself and the epistemological quest for truth.
For readers of the Christian Scholar’s Review this stimulating book will raise a number of inquiries that merit further exploration. For instance, how much of evangelical anti-intellectualism is due to typical American lay middle-class pragmatic and utilitarian worldviews rather than anything especially evangelical? When Noll charges evangelicals with “our tendency toward false disjunctions, and our hereditary intellectual intuitionism,” to what extent is this sociological as much as theological? Likewise, the book highlights the standing intellectual legacy of dispensationalism and separatist pietism, the former of which most influenced northern and western fundamentalism. But other denominational traditions, e.g., the Southern Baptists and various churches of Christ, also reflect much the same mentality though outside dispensational or charismatic circles. Noll recognizes this but does not explore it. The question, in other words, is how much of the “scandal” is characteristic of all populist and pietistic religious movements, often led by a less than learned clergy? In calling for a new mindset among evangelicals, Noll is really asking that with its newfound visibility, economic strength, and institutional networks, evangelicalism should rise above its customary vision. Otherwise it will miss the opportunity to fulfill its intellectual and cultural calling. This is a tall order for the evangelical mosaic of believers that is more a mood or mentality than it is a religious organization, theological system, or even a containable movement. Heavily influenced by contemporary consumerism and therapeutic culture, most evangelicals feel they already know both the great questions and answers about life. Thus, evangelical intellectuals face a dual task: to participate in the larger cultural dialogue yet not alienate their fellow religionists who distrust elite experts. Noll hints at this tension when he calls himself “a wounded lover” of evangelical Protestantism. Unable to live with this tension, many gifted writers have left evangelical affiliation and now identify with the historic liturgical traditions.
Finally, what is distinctive—other than personal networks or institutional settings—of evangelical scholars as compared to other Christian writers who are orthodox in approach to thought and life? In short, what is the “evangelical mind” as compared to “the” or “a” Christian mind? Somewhat ambivalently Noll answers this question by citing the evan-gelical emphasis on conversionism, biblical authority, and the centrality of the cross which bring “energy, interest, and enthusiasm” (238) to the spiritual intellectual quest. With their emphasis on personal commitment, evangelicals should be especially motivated to worship God through the mind as well as the heart. Noll does admit, nevertheless, that evangelicals at this point must heavily rely on ideas developed by mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and other confessional traditions. Only the future will reveal whether American evangelicals can draw on the full resources of the faith. A caution is in order, however. It should always be remembered that given human diversity, Christians will never attain singleness of mind on many topics. More importantly, in the present academic culture of disbelief where secularism and naturalism dominate at the highest intellectual levels, access for scholarship explicitly informed by religious orthodoxy remains a formidable task, especially in the social and natural sciences.
For some sophisticated readers of the CSR, particularly those under forty-five, this book may prove a discouraging rehearsal of the limitations of the evangelical heritage. For this reviewer, however, the reaction is otherwise. As a professor completing thirty-seven years of professional involvement with Christian colleges and who entered one as a freshman in 1949, I have seen dramatic changes take place. Then, the campus was debating the pre- or post-tribulation rapture, the trustworthiness of the Revised Standard Version, the morality of acting and attending the theater, and whether the newly discovered C. S. Lewis had anything to say to Bible-believers. The fact that the McManis Professor of Christian Thought at that same institution could create this book is alone significant. Though there are miles to go, progress has taken place. The challenge is to marshal the resources and the will to build on it.
The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship by George Marsden, reviewed by Paul C. Vitz, Psychology, New York University
This important, prudently-reasoned and timely book should be read by all Christian academics. Prof. Marsden presents a strong and balanced case that the time has come for Christian intellectuals to begin placing their ideas and scholarship in a much more explicitly Christian framework. One way he presents his thesis is to note that in the academy today there exist all sorts of ideologically based intellectual positions—Marxist, feminist, gay and lesbian, Black and various multi-cultural interpretations of history, literature, and society. Given such a spectrum, it is certainly appropriate for Christians to present their views as well. Hence, as far as this reviewer is concerned, Marsden’s position is not at all outrageous; indeed, it is obvious. Marsden writes as a Protestant history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
Possibly there is some special stimulus in this situation, since the only other academic writer that I know of who has made a related claim is the Protestant philosopher Alvin Plantinga, also at Notre Dame. Plantinga has publicly presented his case for a Christian philosophy. However, Marsden’s position is much broader, as he addresses the complete range of academic disciplines, and he takes up the major arguments used against explicitly Christian scholarship. In doing so, he quotes a number of academics who are strongly opposed to anything like a revival of Christian thought within the different disciplines. One refers to Marsden’s idea as “loony.” In response, Marsden points out that many critics of the Christian approach to scholarship use an old Enlightenment argument that only ideas that can be empirically and rationally demonstrated should be allowed in the academy. This anachronistic position is easily rebutted by pointing out that most of the current academic ideologies have no such obvious empirical or rational support, and in any case many of them reject in a very post-modern way the validity and desirability of such “objective” support. Other critics of Marsden’s position raise the issue of religious power in the academy being used to censor and control others. It is true that in the 19th century, religious tests were imposed by Christian majorities in many universities and colleges. Such a consequence is very unlikely today, however, since religious organizations seldom control the private institutions which they may have founded, and of course they have never had much influence with regard to the large, publicly-funded universities. Furthermore, Marsden makes quite clear that he is open to the development of Jewish or Islamic or other religious worldviews within the different intellectual disciplines. He believes that the major religions all have much to offer in enriching the present world of scholarship.
Obviously, Marsden doesn’t believe that there is something like Christian plumbing, but once one moves away from the more practical applications of knowledge, he argues that a Christian perspective becomes possible and useful. Even in the physical sciences, he believes, a Christian challenge to the assumption of philosophical naturalism is much needed. The case for this has already been well made by Phillip Johnson who has cogently shown that the materialistic assumption routinely made by scientists that everything must have a physical or natural explanation is of course just that: an assumption, for which physical evidence is not directly available.
At the end of the book, Marsden lists more than a score of already-important scholars whose work he believes demonstrates the viability of his thesis. Among contemporary philosophers listed are William Alston, Alasdair MacIntyre, Alvin Plantinga, Charles Taylor, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. I noted with interest that Marsden was aware that there is an explicitly Christian anthropology, although he seems to be unaware of the extent to which this anthropology has already been concretely developed within the field of psychology. He also refers to the work of important Christian sociologists—such as Robert Bellah, Peter Berger and Robert Wuthnow—whose topics and themes reflect significant Christian involvement. One could go one step further and argue that there is also a Christian sociology in the theoretical sense: that is, a Christian understanding of social life (thus, sociology). I am no sociologist but it seems to me that a theoretical sociology of a Christian type could be drawn out of various traditions. For example, Christian monastic orders, numerous Catholic religious orders, the life of the Amish, the Hutterite brethren, the community at Ephrata, Pennsylvania—all of them point to underlying sociological principles. If one adds to the history of these communities the theoretical writings of G. K. Chesterton and some of the recent work of David Schindler—and no doubt others—there is a rich brew from which to derive one or more related Christian sociologies. Many thinkers today are rightly concerned with the universal acceptance of an individualistic, consumer-based model of society. It seems to me that there is now a major opening for the Christian understanding of the person within the community, of individual freedom and our obligations to others. A large intellectual vacuum has developed in academia with the collapse of Marxism; a Christian sociology certainly seems a plausible candidate to fill it. In a rather general way I have long believed that the view espoused here by Marsden is correct, but I owe him much for framing this position so clearly and for making it a public issue. It is time for me to stop musing about a possible Christian sociology, and to get back to work much closer to home and show that Marsden is right in the field of psychology. I pray that many Christian academics will do the same in their varied disciplines.
No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu, reviewed by Thomas Trzyna, English, Seattle Pacific University
Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness is as accessible and charming as the man himself, yet at the same time his book makes several significant contributions to the literature on forgiveness, contributions that are theoretical and practical at the same time. As chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, he examined all of the traditional arguments in favor of punishment, forgiveness, and amnesty. His own work not only led him to a philosophical justification for his choices, but also allowed him the extraordinarily rare opportunity to see his theory tested in practice. While the test of history is not complete, he makes a strong case for the wisdom of the path that he, his fellow commissioners, and South Africa chose after considering such alternatives as the Nuremberg Trials and the Chilean amnesty process. By way of recommending this fine and highly readable book, which also offers a chronological account of the TRC, here is a summary of Tutu’s more important contributions to the discussion of forgiveness in the public sphere.
The TRC squarely faced the alternative model provided by the Nuremberg Trials and rejected it. The punishments meted out by Nuremberg were, in Tutu’s mind, a continuation of the allied victory. But there were no victors in South Africa; there were instead citizens committed to transforming a society in which all would be welcome. Consequently, the TRC rejected retributive justice and attempted to create instead a “restorative justice” that would offer hope for South Africa’s future. Restorative justice, as Tutu frames it, has many characteristics that set it apart from retributive justice.
First, Tutu argues that forgiving is not the same action as reconciliation. Reconciliation is a long-term goal that may be reached, but forgiveness is a step that is taken for its intrinsic moral value and for the sake of the one who forgives, quite apart from any motivation to bring about a change in the offender or an eventual reconciliation with the offender, though one hopes for change. Second, Tutu breaks open the familiar arguments about the strength of punishment and the relative “weakness” of forgiveness by adding a fresh dimension to the debate. Forgiving is not a step toward forgetting. Moreover, finding out the truth is an action that is arguably as powerful as punishment, as well as more likely to lead to a peaceful future. He also cites cases that show how difficult and transforming an honest apology can be, which is helpful in the context of a literature that sometimes makes apologizing look trivial or easy. Third, Tutu asks his readers to reconsider what constitutes punishment, knowing how fiercely people hold, whatever their culture, to the notions that punishment is decisive, effective, and productive. Challenged particularly by those who felt that the TRC was “letting off” torturers and murderers, Tutu offers good evidence that the experience of guilt is punishment and that the ordeal of telling the truth is also punishment because of the public labeling of individuals. Here, his insights are comparable to those discussed by Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth.
Another familiar debate in the literature on forgiveness concerns either the ability or the right of third parties or “spokespersons” to speak or act on behalf of the voiceless dead. In what senses is it meaningful or moral to ask forgiveness of the departed or to receive forgiveness from the dead by the agency of a living spokesperson? Tutu recounts how these arguments were raised in the early days of the South African transition. He explains why he believes that the subsequent elections and the work of the TRC have shown that third-party forgiveness or grants of amnesty function well in a social system. He describes, near the end of the book, an incident in which he publicly assumed the right to speak in this way on behalf of the nation. Certainly Tutu meets the requirements listed by some sociologists for taking such a position: moral authority, renown, and position. Still, Tutu felt he was taking an enormous risk and describes carefully his analysis of what he did and how his words of forgiveness were constructively received. Throughout, Tutu embraces the position that forgiveness, amnesty, and restorative justice, while not as “neat” as retributive justice, are proving themselves more effective than retributive justice. This same issue arises in his consideration of reparations. From a retributive perspective, individuals are owed the “payment” either of a punishment meted out to an offender or monetary compensation, or both. The TRC was able only to offer token amounts of compensation to victims. Tutu argues that this policy was appropriate from a moral perspective because the objective of restorative justice was to use the available process and funding to redeem the community, not just specific individuals whose cases could be heard during the term of the commission.
Curiously, Tutu’s meditation on forgiveness brings him to challenge one of the key early philosophical positions about the nature of resentment and forgiving. Bishop Butler, the eighteenth-century divine whose essays on forgiveness constitute one of the starting points for the contemporary literature, argued that resentment is a natural, God-given response to wrong that is foundational to justice. In a civilized system of justice, we hold on to that God-given instinct to resent evil but tacitly give the government the right to punish on our behalf. Tutu undermines this whole tradition by arguing first that rage or resentment, while natural feelings, have nothing at all to do with justice, because justice is not concerned with retribution but rather with restoration. Hegel and others following him have argued that in doing justice, we lower people to the extent that they have unfairly tried to raise themselves above us and above their merit. If a thief steals a nickel from me, he should be lowered an amount equal to the nickel and my sense of loss and humiliation at being victimized (that is, unfairly lowered). On such a view, justice is an attempt to assign proper quantifications to all of those experiences and then apply those results to individuals. Tutu argues, instead, that justice should be concerned with restoring the society (over the claims of individuals), and that the measure of success of restorative justice is not what has been “achieved,” but rather what is “promoted.” The typical model of justice suggests a closed system in which quantities are balanced: a reaction produces an equal reaction, as best we can guess what that is. Tutu’s model of justice implies an open system, in which success is found over a longer period of time and in terms of the overall condition of society, not in terms of the status or condition of particular individuals who have offended or been offended.
Tutu is most challenging where he has applied his reasoning to the Holocaust. He sees a great danger in the view that survivors cannot forgive on behalf of those who have died, and an equally great danger in the continuing search for offenders who can be prosecuted and punished. Consistent with his reasoning is the position that the danger is a two-edged sword. Those who continue to see themselves as victims are less likely to notice where they may be victimizing others. Those who belong to the offending community, finding their efforts at a resolution frustrated, may eventually turn to new violence. Tutu’s remarks on the Holocaust and the Jewish community, as he points out, have sometimes produced enormous friction. His own status as a survivor gives him a capacity to raise questions and to engage in dialogues that would not be permitted to many.
Given the number of philosophical studies of forgiveness that start from territory marked out by Bishop Butler and Hegel, and the number of psychological studies of forgiveness that take a limited, dyadic, and interpersonal perspective, Tutu’s book is a refresh-ing change. He addresses all of the key dilemmas surrounding the virtue of forgiveness: third-person agency, the role of the spokesperson, the relative values of punishment and restoration, the relationship between interpersonal and community forgiveness, and many others. To each issue he brings not only clear reasoning and good historical insight, but also the practical experience of making forgiveness work against the background of the horrors of Apartheid. As a theoretical work, No Future Without Forgiveness is must reading. Those who are interested in the history of the TRC should also read this book because of the clear historical narrative, the insider’s perspective, and the well-chosen examples of testimony and conflicts.
Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity by Kathryn Tanner, reviewed by J. Todd Billings, Theology, Harvard Divinity School
Kathryn Tanner’s recent book Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity is a first rate, if very brief, testimony to an ironic situation in contemporary systematic theology: while many evangelicals are embroiled in disputes regarding “open theism” or dabbling with forms of process theology, some professors in the traditionally liberal theological “establishment” (that is, university divinity schools) are returning to the patristics and rediscovering the wonders of classical Christian theology. While Tanner certainly bears in mind many contemporary concerns—including those of process theologians, feminists, and scientists—what may be most remarkable about the monograph of this Professor of Theology at University of Chicago Divinity School is that she finds so much in historic Christianity worth keeping.
The book is taken from a series of lectures given at the University of Aberdeen and bears all of the virtues and vices of a dense lecture series. This is not a book for beginners to systematic theology. Tanner weaves her way through a series of classical theological issues, footnoting various theologians, but never developing any one theologian at length. In this way, her book refuses to be pigeonholed, even though Barth and certain eastern patristic figures seem to be among the favorites for the views she exposits. Although it reads in a simple and elegant way, it is far from simplistic.
With this style of erudite simplicity, Tanner is deeply suggestive by what she subtly includes and excludes from her theological account. This leads to some unfortunate results, such that many readers will miss certain points, and she provides no account of why she avoids certain themes. For example, Tanner chooses to “bypass” most atonement theories by simply saying that Christ conquered death by participating in it for our sake. While she may have feminist or other critiques of atonement theories in mind here, she gives no argument for this omission, thus her point can easily be missed. Moreover, this style of emphasizing favorite doctrinal themes while simply avoiding others may make readers wonder how one can keep an argument afloat when certain favorite themes are given the task to “make up” for all of the elements thrown overboard. Specifically, there is a question as to whether her high incarnational Christology is put under strain by having to do so much theological “work,” given her avoidance of much traditional language about the work of Christ, for example. In spite of these limitations to her argument brought on by the dense and concise genre of the work (which may be remedied in her expansion of this work in the future, promised in the introduction), her constructive theological account is a profound set of arguments that deserves serious consideration.
Tanner begins her book with a chapter on “Jesus,” which presents several themes that form a key part of the argument of the entire text. First, she proposes a view of providence, which builds upon her earlier work, in which there is a “non-competitive relation between creatures and God,” which is integrated to “a radical interpretation of divine transcendence” (2). God is the giver of all gifts, but God “does not give on the same plane of being and activity as creature” (3). Thus, God can be the source of gifts, but creatures do not need to be passive; they can be actively receptive. There is not a “cooperative” relationship between God and creatures, however. That would imply that God and creatures were on the same plane.
Tanner then uses this creative rethinking of the God-world relationship to revisit classical issues in Christology. She wants to give a thorough account of the real, historical humanity of Jesus, yet hold to a high soteriology such that God was active in Christ. At times in the history of theology, it can seem that Christological metaphysics has become a zero-sum game: emphasizing the divinity risks de-emphasizing the humanity of Christ, and vice versa. With Tanner’s reinterpretation of the God-world relationship, however, she seeks to overcome this impasse. She provides an unusual synthesis of a tradition of Cyril of Alexandria and Karl Barth—who assert that the Word was the subject of Christ, securing a high soteriology that God was the agent of redemption in Christ—with the enlightenment concerns about the historically limited, culturally embedded character of Jesus the human, who had to go through processes of growth and development. How successfully she is able to hold the concerns of these two schools of thought together is likely to be one of the main sources of question and critique of this chapter.
Chapters two and three build upon the initial moves she has made in Christology. In chapter two, “The Theological Structure of Things,” she frames her Christological project more explicitly in light of related doctrines, including the trinity, creation, covenant, and anthropology. While this part of the book, in particular, is in need of much further elaboration, she makes several moves to indicate how these doctrines can be fundamentally coherent with what she has said about Christology. A key nexus here is that there are “oddly similar but materially different gift-giving relations that bring together or unite God and the world” (35). The Trinitarian life is then conceived of in terms of gift-giving, including the self-giving of the Son to the world. Her Trinitarian theology seeks to avoid slipping into a “social” Trinitarianism (like that of Moltmann), drawing upon the notion of gift-giving to provide an ethics that emerges from the Triune life but that does not presuppose three independent centers of consciousness in the Godhead. Her image for the Trinity (drawn from John of Damascus) is of three overlapping suns, always giving but giving without loss, coinhering and commingling “into one,” displayed in an indivisibility of action in the Trinity (no person ever acts “alone”) (38-39). God’s gift-giving, however, is quite different in relation to the world: God is not coinherent with the world as with the persons of the Trinity, but there is a “distance” (41). She configures Covenant relations, then, as gift-giving relations of God to humanity, yet still “relations at a distance” (45).
As Tanner follows this argument through to anthropology, the gift-giving nexus remains central. Although Tanner does not want to make a direct analogy between the divine life and the mode of gift-giving in the church (82), she wants to ground certain ethical norms in what she has described in her Christology and Trinitarian theology. Humanity is transformed as it receives gifts from God by being “in Christ,” and certain norms can come from being receivers from God. One norm she describes is a principle of “noncompetition,” such that “giving to others . . . should not mean impoverishing ourselves” (94). This is an important move for her to make for feminist concerns. Yet, this norm, as well as her overall discussion of gift-giving, suffers from a lack of concreteness because she has not developed a phenomenology of gift-giving (like Marion, Milbank, and others) that could help her ethics reach the ground. Her final chapter, on “The End,” is an intriguing reformulation of eschatology that will probably prove to be the most controversial part of her book. Taking her cue from science that the earth as we know it will come to an end, she tries to posit an eschatology that is oriented spatially rather than in the future, per se. She tries to hold to a high view of soteriology, while explaining how eschatological hopes can find their center “in God” rather than in the future. While this is a provocative project, her constructive efforts fall short of clarity on crucial questions that arise when one seeks to take the “future” out of eschatology. Specifically, her view of the resurrection of the body and the continuity of individual identity after death are not clearly articulated or defended.
While there are parts of the book that need further defense and elaboration (which Tanner suggests will come in later works), this short, dense book in systematic theology is a rich piece of scholarship. It shows how a Christian theologian can both be deeply engaged with contemporary concerns and have a constructive yet discerning use of Patristic and other voices in the classical Christian tradition. She also shows how doctrinal theology has a sharp ethical edge, given that in this short volume she makes moves to develop a notion of gift-giving not only in Christology and doctrine of God, but in Christian ethics.
Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: Conversations in Spiritual Theology by Eugene H. Peterson, reviewed by Craig E. Mattson, Communication Arts, Trinity Christian College
“Everything depends,” writes a Walker Percy character, “on a close cooperation between business and love.”3 I teach communication, a field of study that often promises advice on how to hold together money-making and interpersonal engagement. Master these technologies, navigate these marketing skills, negotiate these disciplinary terms, and all that is richly cooperative in the good term communication will be yours.
But this cooperation may not finally be so manageable as Percy’s character (or my discipline) implies. After all, mastering technology can diminish our sense of place and time. Marketing proficiency can honor control and efficiency to the exclusion of other important qualities. Acquiring disciplinary competency can, in the very act of certifying you as a communication expert, alienate you from other practitioners and scholars. These three themes—aliveness to the creation, readiness to embrace history, and the cultivation of generous community—are the central concerns of Eugene Peterson’s book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. His subtitle, A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, suggests a complicated interdependence, not between business and love but between knowing God and living life. Separate out either the theology or the spirituality, he explains, and what is left is something rigid or something airy. The two words need each other, for we know how easy it is to let our study of God (theology) get separated from the way we live; we also know how easy it is to let our desires to live whole and satisfying lives (spiritual lives) get disconnected from who God actually is and the ways he works among us (5).
At this point, the responsible reviewer would launch into a summary of the main themes of the work, making sure to describe those positions or schools of thought that the book is taking to task and, perhaps, offering a generous-spirited criticism or two. But Peterson’s book includes this cautionary note to the responsible reviewer: “Spiritual theology is not one more area of theology that takes its place on the shelf alongside the academic disciplines of systematic, biblical, practical, and historical theology” (6). Christ Plays invites consideration, then, not as a text to be categorized, but as a discourse to be imitated. Not imitated in the sense of mimicry, but in the ancient rhetorical sense of imitatio: watching closely how someone responds to the givens of time and place and going and doing likewise in another time and place. In what follows, I shall note three reductionisms characteristic in my field—call them telepathy, methodism, and professionalism—and I will note how Peterson handles analogous tensions in his discipline.
There is a saw that the only thing certain about communication is miscommunication—which helps explain why, after an impassioned, tortured, convoluted explanation, we so often bleat, “Know what I mean?” That phrase is a summons to the listener to leap across the divide between selves, and to enjoy bodiless, wordless union with another. People have been seeking communicative effectiveness, of course, ever since the Sophists showed up to teach the Greeks public speaking; but for almost as long or longer, communicators have felt a deep hankering for what no Sophistic public speaking seminar could satisfy: the longing for spiritual connection. John Durham Peters calls this “the dream of direct communication from soul to soul.”4 Because our separateness can be painful, this desire to jack into somebody else’s mind is understandable. But this impulse suggests a troubling inclination to bypass language altogether, to sidestep the slow, messy work of symbolic exchange.
Peterson encounters something like this impulse in the literature on spirituality and labels it Gnosticism. It is a smartly marketed heresy that offers freedom from the constraints of the local, the material, and the other. But Peterson’s reading of Genesis and St. John’s Gospel argues that we are creatures made for the fractioned conditions we find ourselves in, and we come into authentic aliveness not in escapist self-realization, but in a determined embrace of the limitations and goodness of creaturely life.
When I talk to my students about communication, then, I labor to impress upon them the importance of respecting the limitations and capabilities of a most important aspect of our creatureliness: language. Although they respect people, they are sometimes slow to take language seriously. They live in the hope that some species of telepathy will enable them to communicate their hearts to each other. But much in the same way that Peterson insists that “spirituality is not immaterial as opposed to material; not interior as opposed to exterior; not invisible as opposed to visible,” so teachers and scholars of communication must emphasize the embodiment, the indispensable shape of communication (30). Communicative action cannot be confused with something merely spiritual, the melding of souls through therapeutic technique, nor with some quasi-spiritual technology that exaggerates how effectively tools can connect us. Instead, responsible symbolic exchange makes a practice of saying things like, “What did you mean by that?” and “Let me try to paraphrase what you just said” and “What if we’re both wrong here?” These communicative practices compel us to lean into our world together, not to escape from it or from each other.
My students no sooner figure out that the business of meaning is unavoidably material than they are faced with a second reductionism in our discipline: the tendency to reduce communication to method. Because we receive thousands of messages every day, because we make sense of almost everything in terms of a dizzyingly diffuse mediascape, we are forced to cultivate a disregard for much of what we encounter. Students of communication, however, cannot do this: it’s their job to pay attention to messaging. So they crack their communication theory textbooks and find more theories for explaining and critiquing mass-mediated messages than they know what to do with (our communication theory book has thirty different theories of human communication). No wonder, then, students tend to settle quickly on a theorist who “works for them.” If they choose wisely and work hard, they might get a job or get into graduate school using this theorist’s ideas as a framework for analyzing messages. The problem is, few theorists’ ideas can bear that kind of strain. Again and again, scholars of communication are compelled to lop off the inconvenient limbs of a message in order to get it to fit a particular theoretical framework.
Peterson uses this Procrustean analogy in talking about the field of spiritual theology. He calls the tendency moralism, an impulse to elude the brokenness of history by creating a one-size-fits-all code for living. As the second section of Peterson’s book makes clear, however, moralism is not the Jesus way. Christ’s play in the field of human action does not create a Green Zone to keep out the insurgents. Instead, he falls in with the insurgents and dies a sacrificial, salvific death among them and for them.
Criticizing public messages also requires a kind of self-denial. The scholar has to submit to the actualities of the given message, instead of trying to re-describe that message in a way convenient for her method of analysis. Communication scholars must eschew, not moralism, but (in an unusual sense of the word) methodism. Responsible criticism begins with an embrace of what is actually present in a message, and that often means taking up with communicational brokenness.
And, finally, the third reductionism: professionalism. I have high hopes for my students. I hope that they will come to adopt a communicational mindset, not a method; that is, that they will listen and think and evaluate like communication scholars, not like advocates for a certain theoretical framework. The problem is that sometimes my hopes are too well realized. My injunctions to connect their assigned papers to concerns in our discipline may help students to stick their heads out of their private concerns and enter the excitement of a conversation larger themselves. But such injunctions may also contribute to what Nothstine, Blair, and Copeland describe as a project to secure the guild’s prestige by building a body of discipline-specific knowledge.5 Like sects that promise the secret keys to victorious Christian living, communication scholars are tempted to act as if their discipline offers knowledge unavailable elsewhere.
Now, in important ways, communication practitioners and scholars do have unique contributions to make to public conversations, especially because symbolic exchange is so basic to human life. But Peterson’s critique of sectarianism in the third and final section of his book suggests that guild loyalty can become little more than “a front for narcissism,” especially when sects seek not to form community, but to cultivate “conditions congenial to the imperial self” (244). Peterson grounds his critique of sectarianism in Deuteronomy, Luke, and Acts by searching out how God understands the formation of the Church: a gathering of set-apart people, not into a spiritual elite, but into ecclesial life.
I began this essay with the dubious counsel of a Walker Percy character to keep business and love closely connected. “The trick, the joy of it, is to prosper on all fronts, enlist money in the service of love and love in the service of money.”6 Of course, the one constant in this advice is the sovereign self. In contrast, Peterson’s exposition on spiritual theology offers something different; not connection achieved by a competent self, but congruence that enfolds the self. “The Christian life,” he explains, “is the lifelong practice of attending to details of congruence — congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it” (333). My hunch is that when communication students ignore this congruence, they reduce communication to telepathy, criticism to method, and disciplinarity to professionalism.
Peterson’s work not only fuels a hunch; it raises a question. He habitually counters spiritual reductionisms—Gnosticism, moralism, sectarianism—by calling his readers to historic Christian practices, such as Sabbath-keeping or hospitality. Following Albert Borg-mann, Peterson calls these “focal practices,” because they do not “reduce the complexities into something meager,” nor do they “abstract them into something lifeless” (109). If we academicians are seeking in our disciplines what Peterson seeks in theology, what sorts of focal practices might we suggest to our students to help them find congruence between their business and their love? A slow reading of Christ Plays could afford some unlooked-for answers to this question, as academicians consider their own inquiry and pedagogy in light of Christ’s play in the fields of creation, history, and community.
The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis Collins, reviewed by Brad Daniel, Environmental Studies, Montreat College
In 2000, President Clinton announced that the first phase of the Human Genome project had been completed. He stated, “Today we are learning the language in which God created life.” The phrase struck a chord in one of the scientists standing with him at that press conference. The Language of God tells the story of Francis Collins, a renowned geneticist, whose journey deeper into the world of science also led to an enhanced belief in and respect for God. His goal in writing this book was “to explore a pathway toward a sober and intellectually honest integration of these views” (6). He argues for bridging the divide between science and the Christian faith, a divide promoted, according to him, by “extremists” on both sides. Collins considers scientific and spiritual worldviews to be harmonious; both provide differing but complementary ways of answering the greatest of the world’s questions, and both can coexist happily within the mind of an intellectually inquisitive person living in the 21st century (227).
The author’s scientific credentials are impeccable. He was involved in discovering the genes responsible for several diseases, including cystic fibrosis. Later, he became manager of the Human Genome Project, which deciphered the “language” of DNA, a language consisting of some 3.1 billion letters. Sequencing the human genome qualifies as a monumental scientific achievement by any measure; yet, it was more for Collins, who describes it as “both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship” (3). That statement reflects the author’s position, prevalent throughout the book, that the relationship between science and religion need not be divisive or adversarial. He proceeds from the presupposition that all truth is God’s truth and that truth cannot be in conflict with truth. Therefore, he says, we should search for God’s truth in order to see what God’s truth reveals to us, for we worship God when we use our intellectual ability, tools, and technologies to study the Creation.
The book is subdivided into three parts and also contains an informative, lengthy appendix on bioethics. In Part One, the book chronicles Collins’ personal journey from agnosticism and atheism to Christian theism, a journey both interesting and intriguing. As a young scientist, his thinking was profoundly influenced and challenged by the arguments put forth by C. S. Lewis and Augustine. Like Lewis, Collins had once tried to learn about Christianity in order to refute it and, like Lewis, was converted through the process. Reading Lewis’ Mere Christianity was a formative life event in Collins’ thinking:
The argument that most caught my attention, and most rocked my ideas about science and spirit down to their foundation, was right there in the title of Book One: “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” While in many ways the “Moral Law” that Lewis described was a universal feature of human existence, in other ways it was as if I was recognizing it for the first time. (22)
In Part Two, the author discusses several views related to the “great questions of human existence,” which often are at the center of the debate between science and Christianity. These include the origins of the universe, the origins of life on Earth, and the genetic code. Within these chapters, Collins discusses a wide array of scientific and theological ideas, including the Anthropic Principle, Occam’s Razor, Argument from Design, the fossil record, the age of the earth, genomic evidence, and, most prominently, macroevolutionary theory. He states, for example,
No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all species through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it. (99)
His discussion of each of these topics lays the foundation for Part Three. In that section, he examines four of the major approaches used to reconcile the relationship between faith in science and faith in God. They are atheism and agnosticism (“when science trumps faith”), creationism (“when faith trumps science”), Intelligent Design (“when science needs divine help”), and theistic evolution (“science and faith in harmony”).
Within these chapters, Collins strives to strike a balance between what he describes as the extreme positions at either end of a philosophical spectrum. One end is anchored by a scientist such as Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker, The God Delusion) and philosopher Daniel Dennett who argue that a belief in evolution demands atheism. At the other end are Christians who insist that the universe and Earth are young, that evolution is a falsehood, and that there is only one acceptable way to interpret the Genesis accounts. The author rejects other viewpoints as well, suggesting that atheistic science, naturalism, young Earth creationism, and Intelligent Design are not viable options for bridging the gap between faith and science.
Ultimately, Collins argues in favor of the position known as theistic evolution. This is the belief that God created the universe ex-nihilo approximately 14 billion years ago, that God created humankind through evolutionary processes, and that the process, once started, required no supernatural intervention. He fully accepts that macroevolutionary theory is true, arguing that the genomes mapped from various species support common ancestry as proposed by the fields of comparative anatomy and morphology; therefore, the evolutionary tree constructed from the fossil record parallels that drawn from genomic studies. Believing the label “theistic evolution” to be laden with conceptual and emotional baggage, Collins proposes a new name, “Biologos,” which “expresses the belief that God is the source of all life and that life expresses the will of God” (203). Conceptually, however, Biologos is quite similar to the theistic evolutionary position.
Several themes recur throughout the book, including 1) the Moral Law or universal sense of right and wrong, which Collins describes as “the strongest signpost to God;” 2) altruism resulting from agape love, which, he argues, runs counter to what atheistic evolution would predict; and 3) the mistake of trying to fit God into the gaps of scientific understanding (218). With respect to the third theme, Collins cautions believers repeatedly to be careful about attaching their Christian beliefs to any perceived gaps in scientific knowledge, for new dis-coveries may fill those gaps, discredit the association, and weaken the argument. He states,
Various cultures have traditionally tried to ascribe to God various natural phenomena that the science of the day had been unable to sort out – whether a solar eclipse or the beauty of a flower. But those theories have a dismal history. Advances in science ultimately fill in those gaps, to the dismay of those who had attached their faith to them. Ultimately a “God of the gaps” religion runs a huge risk of simply discrediting faith. We must not repeat this mistake in the current era. (193)
This is more than an intellectual admonition for the author, as he expresses a genuine concern that many young people turn away from the faith because they are taught one specific interpretation of Scripture on the origins of life and the universe that runs contrary to the scientific facts to which they are exposed later. Thus, “disillusioned by the stridency of both perspectives, many choose to reject both the trustworthiness of scientific conclusions and the value of organized religion, slipping instead into various forms of antiscientific thinking, shallow spirituality, or simple apathy” (5). Although the author rejects deism explicitly several times as a tenable position, there is some ambiguity as to how frequently he believes God intervenes in creation. He does not deny the possibility of miracles, yet the frequency of such events is called into question out of his concern that the “God of the gaps” argument is invoked too often.
Collins rejects the notion that Christians must choose between these narrowly defined, diametrically opposed positions when it comes to matters such as evolution and the age of Earth. He argues respectfully against those on both sides. Concurrently, he argues that such unnecessary confusion of faith or, worse, rejection of faith is unwarranted because a proper, rigorous study of science increases one’s appreciation for the majesty, beauty, complexity, and simplicity of all components of creation. Thus, science and faith complement one another in tangible ways. The contentious war of words within and between scientists and Christians, he concludes, is a rather sad, unnecessary commentary begun by people, not God. If, indeed, all truth is God’s truth, we should stand in greater, not less, awe as new scientific discoveries unfold. Collins states, “Believers would do well to follow the exhorta-tion of Copernicus, who found in the discovery that the earth revolved around the sun an opportunity to celebrate, rather than diminish, the grandeur of God” (230).
This book makes a valuable contribution to the literature about issues related to science and the Christian faith. It challenges readers to reexamine carefully the foundation of their own positions, while at the same time inviting them to participate in the discourse. Readers will find it worthy of their time and attention. Many of the arguments presented on each of these positions will be familiar to readers acquainted with literature addressing the science and theology of origins. One possible exception is Collins’ interesting critique of the Intelligent Design movement and, more specifically, its guiding principle of irreducible complexity. Those familiar with the more common arguments for and against the positions presented may do well to read the last chapter first, for it contains the heart of the book.
Ultimately, what distinguishes The Language of God is the way that the author weaves together stories from his own life and career, scientific theories, and the philosophical and theological arguments that have influenced his thinking. He presents lucid arguments in an unapologetic, yet respectful, fashion. Those readers holding a theistic evolutionary perspective will undoubtedly agree with many of the arguments presented. Those holding to young Earth creationism, atheistic/naturalistic science, or Intelligent Design are likely to disagree with Collins’ conclusions. Moreover, they might find being cast by Collins at opposite ends of a somewhat disagreeable spectrum to be troublesome. Still, the ideas presented by this distinguished scientist and dedicated believer are well worth considering, for he writes with sincerity of heart and clarity of mind.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter, reviewed by John Schmalzbauer, Religious Studies, Missouri State University
The publication of To Change the World marks a new phase in the career of a distinguished sociologist. The author of a half-dozen books on religion and American culture, James Hunter goes where few social scientists dare to tread: the frontier between sociological analysis and theological reflection. The result is essential reading for those called to be Christians in contemporary America. In the preface, he notes that the “questions that animate this book are both broadly academic and deeply personal” (ix). Though his previous works are rich in religious and ethical implications, they have steered clear of theology. Consistent with his mentor Peter Berger’s call for methodological atheism, he has focused on sociological description. This book is different.
A work of sociology that builds to a theological conclusion, To Change the World is divided into three distinct essays. Together, they constitute three movements in a composition that can only be described as symphonic. As a whole, they make a persuasive case for a new approach to Christianity and culture. At the same time, some parts are more persuasive than others. The first essay critiques the dominant evangelical theory of cultural change, arguing that a focus on “hearts and minds” does not lead to societal transformation (7). Analyzing the use of hyperbolic change language by Christian leaders, it points to the dangers of triumphalism. I have noticed such grandiose rhetoric in my own fieldwork; while shadowing an evangelical campus minister, I was surprised to hear her talk about changing the course of the university. At the time, I wondered how a group with 40 members could transform a student body of 40,000.
Rejecting such unrealistic expectations, Hunter outlines his own model of culture and power. First, he writes that cultural change comes from the top down, not the bottom up. Second, he emphasizes the hierarchical organization of cultural production. Third, he argues that American Christians are on the periphery of elite networks and institutions.
Providing a visual guide to the “cultural economy of American Christianity,” Hunter includes a diagram of the contemporary culture industries (90). Though largely impressionistic, much of his analysis is spot-on. While evangelicals maintain a strong presence in the popular genres of mass-market book publishing and broadcast media, they are underrepresented in Ivy League universities and New York art galleries. While religious philanthropy is a significant endeavor, most dollars go to evangelism and social service, not to education and culture.
Though often convincing, Hunter sometimes overstates his case. Downplaying the influence of Christians in higher education, he writes that “their number tends to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence” (88). While noting that philosophy and history are exceptions to this generalization, he does not elaborate. This is unfortunate— while one-tenth of the American Philosophical Association now belongs to the Society of Christian Philosophers, religion has become the most popular specialization among American historians. Evangelicals have played a key role in both shifts.7
Partnering with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, small groups of believers have had a modest impact on their disciplines. Twenty years ago, a team of political scientists improved the way the National Election Study asked about religion, rediscovering the religious factor in voting research. More recently, an “emerging strong program in the sociology of religion” has led to more faith-friendly articles in the top three sociology journals.8 Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, figures like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich have participated in a new dialogue on faith and knowledge. In interviews with elite scientists, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that Collins is widely respected for his work as a bridge builder. As the director of the largest scientific grant-making agency in the world, he is also a cultural gatekeeper.9
Hunter calls high-profile Christian scholars a statistical aberration, there “more by accident than by design” (88). While we should not exaggerate their influence, this argument ignores real improvements in the occupational status of conservative Protestants. Buoyed by the upward mobility of the post-war era, evangelicals have entered the academic profession. In a 2006 survey, self-identified “born again” Christians made up about one-fifth of the American professoriate.10 Recognizing these changes, Michael Lindsay has chronicled the rise of an evangelical academic elite. This book challenges Lindsay’s account, though without much data. In 1987, Hunter conducted a comprehensive survey of religious elites. An update of this research would have bolstered his critique.11
In fairness to Hunter, evangelicals have not transformed the university. Though a significant minority, most are employed at second- or third-tier institutions. If they have influence, it is only by working with those outside the household of faith. This is true in most of the culture-producing professions. While never a dominant force, Catholic and Protestant intellectuals have made their mark at the New Republic, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. The same goes for religious initiatives at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. The problem is not the modest contributions of Christian culture makers. The problem is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Like the Americans profiled in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, they lack a language for making sense of their lives.
Hunter’s greatest contribution is an analysis of the language believers use to talk about Christianity and culture. In the book’s second essay, he evaluates three major approaches: the Christian right, the Christian left, and the neo-Anabaptists. Along the way, he docu-ments the politicization of all three camps. According to Hunter, many Christian leaders have become “functional Nietzscheans,” using anger and ressentiment to motivate their followers (175). It is hard to disagree with this critique. From Sojourners on the left to First Things on the right, most Christian magazines can be mapped onto the American political spectrum. Though Books and Culture and Image are notable exceptions, their small circulations suggest just how polarized the conversation has become. Even the Neo-Anabaptists are obsessed with political metaphors.
To be sure, Hunter ’s typology will not satisfy everyone acquainted with the nuances of each approach. Some will dispute Hunter’s characterization of Stanley Hauerwas as “relentlessly negative” (164). Members of all three camps will insist that they are motivated by more than ressentiment, a fact he acknowledges but does not sufficiently stress. In a work of big picture analysis, lumping is more prevalent than splitting. Despite the broad brush-strokes, Part Two is a perceptive portrait of contemporary Christian cultural engagement.
What is Hunter’s solution? In Part Three, he offers a new model of Christian “faithful presence,” focusing on spiritual formation, Christian community and vocation. Advocating neither withdrawal nor assimilation, he argues that the tension between church and world is “inevitable and irresolvable” (230). At the heart of Hunter’s proposal is the poetic image of a “new city commons,” drawn from Jeremiah’s injunction to seek the peace of the city. Though Christians cannot change the world, they can contribute to their local communities. They can develop a sense of vocation. They can pursue shalom.
Much of Hunter’s vision will be familiar to readers of this journal. That is because many Christian faculty are already committed to the fusion of spiritual formation and vocation. Such an approach was at the heart of Lilly Endowment’s $210 million Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation. It is also reflected in Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn’s Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006, Eerdmans), a work assigned on many church-related college campuses.
Even closer to Hunter’s project is Duane Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (2000, Herald Press). Using the same image from Jeremiah, Friesen articulates a middle way between separatism and accommodation, anticipating Hunter’s critique of the Neo-Anabaptists. Emphasizing cultural engagement, he affirms the value of vocation and artistic creativity. Recently retired from Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, he volunteers in a community garden. Not far from campus, an independent bookstore features poetry readings, live music, and Friesen’s book.12
What is the significance of such activities? According to Hunter’s theory of cultural change, they are of no great consequence. According to his theology of faithful presence, they matter a great deal. Which is it? In his judgment, there is an unavoidable paradox between faithfulness and cultural influence.
Earlier in the book, Hunter criticizes the Christian strategy of parallel institutions, arguing they are an ineffective method of cultural change. From the perspective of sociology, this critique is convincing. Unless they are about the Amish, books by Mennonite college professors do not capture the attention of cultural elites.
Yet from the perspective of faithfulness, the picture looks quite different. Though Hunter does not seem to recognize it, many Christian colleges are promoting a version of faithful presence. The same goes for seminaries and divinity schools. In contemporary America, few organizations are more committed to cultivating a thick sense of discipleship and vocation. With foundation support, such institutions have promoted the recovery of Christian practices among the laity, as well as a deeper focus on spiritual formation and congregational vitality. Were they to disappear, faithful presence would surely suffer.
In To Change the World, Hunter argues, “what is required here is not a new ministry or a new program,” but “creative thinking, imagination, and hard work” (270). Fair enough. Yet this should not negate the contributions of existing programs and ministries. Though faithful presence must reach beyond existing institutions, Hunter should start by acknowledging what is already happening. While he includes some hopeful vignettes, they do not begin to capture the richness of Christian cultural engagement.
Despite this oversight, To Change the World provides a compelling analysis of Christianity in late modern society. Far from an isolated work, it is part of a wider conversation among Christian leaders. It is precisely the kind of book one would expect from a product of Christian higher education.
The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby, reviewed by Melissa Rovig Vanden Bout, Philosophy, Trinity Christian College.
How shall American Christians understand our relationship to racism? There are a great many possibilities open to us, and our present time functions as a crucible for this decision. We could deny the scope or power of racism, locate it in a past beyond our reach, or defend it as justified. We could study it, conduct internal audits within our institutions, or decide that being a part of the Body includes interposing our bodies between oppressed and oppressor. We could even simply equate Christianity with racism, so as either to renounce the faith as unworthy worship or adopt the heresy that God is a white supremacist.
Enter Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. He is not the first historian to use his training in service of illuminating American Christianity’s role in slavery, Jim Crow, or the manifestations of racism in our ostensibly “color-blind” present. Nor does the book attempt an entirely new take or uniquely exhaustive survey of this theme. What drives this work and sets it apart is the author’s superlative understanding of the state of our current conversation and his deeply charitable approach in removing barriers to an honest reckoning of American Christianity’s choices to accommodate white supremacy. This depth of insight is well-matched by a concluding section that directs readers to individual and collective next steps, and which shares an inspiring vision for Christian leadership in this area. If you have been looking for Christian scholarship to aid your own understanding and witness, or are in search of a resource on racism well suited for a Christian classroom or church book group, this may be it.
Given its complex metamorphosis over time, offering a concise history of racism is a tall order, even when limited to a single nation (the United States of America) and focused on one demographic (Christians). Tisby’s book explicitly shares his decision processes with the reader: for example, defining what a historical “survey” is, and explaining his preference for representational rather than exceptional examples (the text hints wryly that the reason we know the names of the Christians who were exceptions to prevailing acceptance and support of racism is that there weren’t many of them). This habit of equipping readers with opportunities to practice the intellectual habit of discernment is part and parcel of the work.
Approaching racism through the lens of compromise and complicity is another strategic choice. In terms of the dominant culture within the U.S., we are habituated to imagining racism as static and as restricted to the field of overt action matched with consciously articulated motive. Knowing this, Tisby opens the book with an excerpt from a speech given by a young lawyer to the local all-white businessmen’s club, in response to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. This potent address apportions responsibility not only to the bomber but to the speaker himself, his neighbors, even the church—all who, in Tisby’s words, “were complicit in allowing an environment of hatred and racism to persist” (14). Against the backdrop of a bombed church and murdered children, the author sets forth a claim that anchors the work: “the most egregious acts of racism … occur within a context of compromise” (14). From this opening account to the last page, readers are presented with the idea that rather than being primarily a matter of disparate individual acts, racism is best understood as something we create together with our combined decisions for action and inaction. It is within this broader context of compromise and even active defense of racism that the reader is challenged to become a “courageous” Christian. A Christian response to racism will require not only understanding, but the kind of understanding that leads to action, and reading this book is not a passive experience. Tisby’s expressed goal is that the church would “[see] the roots of racism” in America and “be moved to immediate and resolute antiracist action” (16), for “if racism can be made, it can be unmade” (39).
The opening chapters document the process of what the author calls the “construction” of race in early colonial America, introducing readers to the way racial divisions and social distinctions worked, highlighting distinct steps from the indentured servitude of free Europeans and Africans in early years, moving closer and closer to what would become chattel slavery and the “one-drop” rule. Later chapters sketch the role of racism through religious shifts like the Great Awakening and political watersheds like the formulation of the Constitution and the Civil War all the way up to the Black Lives Matter movement.13 At each juncture Tisby shows readers that our particular path towards slavery, Jim Crow, and now mass incarceration was not a historical inevitability. It was not written in stone that America must become a place built by the coerced labor of trafficked Africans and their descendants, locked in a perpetual slavery for two and a half centuries. For example, if renowned Methodist leader George Whitfield had not decided to compromise his belief that the abuse visited on enslaved people was sinful, some of our history might be otherwise. Instead, concerned about the prospects of a pet charity and willing to regard the presence of Black Americans as a potential threat to white people like himself, he lobbied Georgia’s political leaders to change the designation of Georgia’s founding as a free territory in order to facilitate his ability to buy more slaves and thereby ensure continued financial safety of his Christian orphanage (47-48).
Tisby’s survey of the history of American Christian accommodation to racism is utterly convincing. Consider, for instance, the way community and religious leaders responded to slave owners’ fears regarding whether baptism would impinge upon slavery. Faced with pressure from slaveholders and concerns that baptism would potentially indicate full equality as between co-heirs to God’s Kingdom, the Virginia Assembly issued a decision rendering baptism moot in relation to the legal status of slaves. European missionaries, along with white colonial and American religious leaders, redacted the gospel message offered to enslaved Africans and Indigenous groups in an attempt to make spiritual equality amenable to physical oppression.
No one whose history education provided them with grotesquely sanitized versions of the slave trade and associated horrors will easily forget either Tisby’s spare, piercing descriptions or the burning authority of the direct testimonies he shares. Likewise, the sections on the Civil War with its leadup and aftermath offer an important corrective to Lost Cause mythology, which Tisby traces through its various iterations. Abundant documentation makes it impossible for the reader to escape the realization that the Christian faith was intimately bound up in defending slavery, segregation, lynching, and other manifestations of white supremacy. Tisby outlines overt theological defenses of these practices and shows readers the pattern of Christian institutions choosing to treat the dignity and value of Black lives as an area perpetually open for compromise. Readers will note that when Tisby writes about American Christianity, he focuses almost exclusively on Protestant traditions; this is in keeping with his decision to focus on broad and representative patterns in history. Arguably, it also serves to highlight for readers a number of connections to current claims about racism. Influential traditions like Evangelical and Baptist denominations and related sources (ordained clergy, publishing houses, media companies, and educational institutions) dominate our current cultural conversations and serve, for better and for worse, as proxies for American Christendom. Those interested in the history of American Catholicism or specific Protestant traditions will want to explore additional resources.
Subsequent chapters complicate the popular narrative which imagines the South the sole locus of racist animosity and the North an oasis of equality. Tisby summarizes opposition from predominantly white churches to the approach and scope of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, including a particularly poignant analysis of Billy Graham as an example of the “white moderate” of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Readers will encounter a perspective on recent history that might be as foreign to them as events much further removed in time, including contemporaneous perceptions of Dr. King among white Christians, an analysis of the Black Power movement, the rise of the religious right as a locus of political power, and the role of the IRS in desegregating Christian schools. Though antipathy to the Black Lives Matter movement functions as a sort of shibboleth in some Christian quarters, Tisby gives the genesis and broader context for the movement so necessary for understanding it, and asks the hard questions about Christian responses to affirming that, yes, Black lives matter.
For Tisby, history is a continuum intimately connected to today and a source of insight and reflection that can (and should) influence our actions. In his hands, a faithful account of history includes testifying to God’s presence as well as grieving sin, the better on the one hand to help us expect God’s continued redemption, and on the other to help guide our choices. On any given page the reader will find evidence of love of the church, love of God, and love of truth. This is not mere personal approbation of the author, but an attempt to capture the method of the work. The modes Tisby employs in his writing are themselves a refutation of the sorts of excuses offered as to why white Christians should not strive to come to terms with racism, why we should not treat racism both as pressing and as impinging upon our identity as Christ followers. The argument and strategies are all of a piece. Tisby contends that one clear through line of American history is the story of American Christians’ decisions to compromise their faith in order to protect white supremacy, that this choice is not an exception but the rule, and that we can reject such compromise and choose instead to be courageous.
In service to this goal, the work eschews a debate approach, which in this kind of accessible introduction to a contested area of scholarship can tend to cement bad faith responses, further hardening positions and encouraging an oppositional mindset. A debate approach is most helpful when audience members possess a basic understanding to undergird their engagement, and also when the point of debate hinges on reason, not on unexamined biases or feelings of fear and guilt. Drawing from his expertise in navigating and facilitating such understanding of racism among Christians, Tisby chooses to name, describe, and narrate for his readers a way around a number of barriers they may be facing. These barriers are not merely hazards which might complicate readers’ entry into the text; they also function as constant companions as we read and respond to it. In characteristically direct but charitable fashion, Tisby’s first chapter offers as a section heading, “Why The Color of Compromise May Be Hard to Read.” In it, he simply names the ways that many of us attempt to inoculate ourselves against the work necessary if we are to come to grips with this history of complicity. Among them are the usual suspects: importing a simplistic partisan political lens, invoking “cultural Marxism,” characterizing social justice as antithetical to Christianity, and so on. In a disarming move, Tisby offers the historical record detailed in his book as the totality of his own response to these claims, though he directs curious readers to further resources in a footnote. He writes:
Other books more pointedly respond to the ways people attempt to explain away or deflect claims of racism. In this book the stories themselves tell the tale of racial oppression. It is up to the reader to de-termine whether the weight of historical evidence proves that the American church has been complicit with racism. (21)
Because the book is written not only to those who are defensive when talking about racism but also to those to whom this history is new and in direct conflict with what they have been taught, this section includes guidance on how to endure the emotional process of coming to grips with American Christianity’s complicity in racism. And finally, because this book is written to all American Christians rather than to white American Christians, Tisby speaks directly to readers for whom the central claim of the book is not news, who have long known that American Christianity is tangled up with white supremacy. To these readers he offers affirmation and a profoundly Christian vision of God’s action and desire with regard to justice. Uniting these several vectors of his intended audience is a repeated call to action, to action motivated by and directed to a Christian vision of the good.
Anyone who has facilitated discussion about racism in a diverse group of people—whether in the classroom, in a church fellowship hall, over Thanksgiving dinner, or on social media—will recognize the patterns and groups Tisby appeals to. Truly, he has understood and loved his audience. A good teacher, he accepts no excuses, but he offers this deep and abiding kindness: he will walk readers from all of these starting points through this difficult history. He offers this hopeful assessment: that because the ugly truth is not simply immutable fact but something that was constructed, it is thus something that can be deconstructed. The charity exhibited here is humbling. Readers who are already persuaded that anti-racism is a necessary aspect of Christianity may be impatient with Tisby’s forbearance, but will be equally relieved that he does not minimize or placate. This work assumes rather than defends the position that an authentic Christianity is essentially and necessarily opposed to horrors like lynching and to the everyday brutality of racial profiling, and does not devote time to arguing that to accommodate such horrors is to wrong the Gospel. This choice might be credited as a basic position of trust and hospitality from Tisby toward his readers, given that the work’s intended audience is his fellow Christians (this is a Zondervan imprint). In other contexts and for other audiences, such a defense might be necessary.
The one omission to the work’s exquisitely balanced framework might be a missed opportunity to share with readers the rich theology and praxis of historically Black church traditions in our modern context. Readers might be forgiven for not having learned from this text to regard the Black church as a present source for more than helpful practices of lament and celebration, valuable as they are. Tisby’s early celebration of the Christian faith of enslaved Africans notes the way the worship and teaching of enslaved Africans preserved authentic Christian teaching on justice and the dignity of all in the face of white supremacy, a theme that Tisby highlights again in the context of the undeniable role the Black church and Black leaders played in the Civil Rights Movement. By contrast, the chapter which sketches the current role of Black clergy in anti-racism and broader justice efforts is comparatively thin. Readers might have benefitted from, for example, an introduction to Rev. Traci Blackmon’s leadership in protests at Ferguson and again at Charlottesville, or to Rev. William Barber’s work in the Moral Mondays movement and the renewed Poor People’s Campaign.
The book is also perhaps unduly focused on men as agents of change. Though excellent in themselves, accounts of Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks must stand in for a great many other women’s histories; a more representative number of women are mentioned as agents in modern accounts of social movements. Beyond those examples, when women are mentioned they are more likely to serve as a class of passive sufferers (victims of systemic rape under slavery) or scapegoats (Hillary Clinton is reduced to a caricature; the role of sexism in that caricature is elided). For example, Tisby has Harriet Jacobs speak in her own voice to describe the cruel dilemma of her “choice” between rape by a white slave owner or sexual relations with a free white man, in hopes that the latter would provide relative levels of protection for her and any children she might then bear. This inclusion is both heartrending and illustrative of the point Tisby is communicating to his readers. However, Jacobs is not only a person who had a terrible choice between things others would do to her. She was also a person who tricked a slave owner by hiding in a tiny attic for seven years, made a dangerous escape to the North even though she was in poor health, tracked down her children, and courageously testified to the wrongs she endured. Alternately, the inclusion of Jacobs’s story in this book could have served as a springboard for a section on white women’s role in slavery, since Jacobs’s autobiography (the source for Tisby’s quote) is addressed directly to white women as a plea to oppose slavery upon the basis of shared motherhood and womanhood.14
Educators and scholars may appreciate the difficulty Tisby faces in helping American Christians understand reality as something composed not only of individual actors and actions, but also of systems, institutions, and cultural paradigms. How does he make visible to readers what may be invisible to them, especially considering the way their worldview (as American Christians) is likely to prioritize individualism? One strategy he employs is to highlight for readers not only the actions of individuals at a given turning point in history, but also the deliberations, rationalizations, and ensuing choices of institutions, particularly of Christian religious institutions. The history of the Civil War is thus not only about Dred Scott and Abraham Lincoln, but also about various states, industry interests, and Christian denominations. The most potent iteration of this carefully developed scaffolding is in the final chapters, in which readers are encouraged to respond to the history they have encountered not only as individuals but also as members of communities, and to imagine along with changes they might adopt for themselves (here Tisby offers eminently doable suggestions) what sort of difference our groups might make. If he has not forborne to grapple with the ways whole denominations have at times chosen complicity or even outright support for racism, he also foretells the redemptive power and scope of a church that dedicates itself to setting things right. Shall we have a year of jubilee? What form should Biblical reparations take to address the exclusion of Black students from Christian schools? The energy of the creative vision offered in the penultimate section is invigorating.
In sum, The Color of Compromise offers an accessible, thoughtful, and explicitly Christian resource to readers who wish to understand the history of American Christianity’s relationship to racism, and who desire a guide as they move from understanding that history to participating in ongoing redemptive action. Christian scholars should also consider how Jemar Tisby’s work could aid them in their larger role as intellectuals within and without the broader Christian community. As recording artist Lecrae writes in his introduction, “Education should lead to informed action, and informed action should lead to liberation, justice, and repair.” In plain words, my fellow educators and scholars, this is our vocation.
Cite this article
- “Statement of Purpose,” Christian Scholar’s Review 1.1 (1970): inside front cover.
- Leo P. Ribuffo, “God and Man at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, etc.,” a review of George M. Marsden’s The Soul of the American University (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) in Reviews in American History 23 (March 1995): 170.
- See Robert B. Townsend, “A New Found Religion? The Field Surges among AHA Members,” Perspectives on History, December 2009. Available at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0912/0912new3.cfm.
- David Leege and Lyman Kellstedt, Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1993); David Smilde and Matthew May, “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion,” SSRC Working Papers, 8 February 2010. Available at https://tif.ssrc.org/2010/02/08/the-emerging-strong-program-in-the-sociology-of-religion/. This paper also argues that Protestant assumptions have sometimes distorted research on religion, a reminder of the ambiguities of Christian influence.
- Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- Though based on a crude measure of religious identity, this finding suggests evangelicals are a significant presence in the academy. See Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, “The Religiosity of American College and University Professors,” Sociology of Religion 70 (2009): 101-129.
- D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); James Davison Hunter and James E. Hawdon, “Religious Elites in Advanced Capitalism,” in World Order in American Religion, ed. Wade Clark Roof (New York: SUNY Press, 1991), 35-59.
- Duane Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000).
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York, NY: Vintage International Press, 1998), 102.
- John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), 37.
- William L. Nothstine, Carole Blair, and Gary A. Copeland, eds. Critical Questions: Invention, Creativity, and the Criticism of Discourse and Media (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 1994), 25-56.
- Percy, 102.
- For a deeper exploration of this history, see Ibram X. Kendi’s recent and exhaustive Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation, 2016) and Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
- Readers interested in the rest of Jacobs’ story and the sorts of resistance practiced by enslaved women will want to read Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, eds. Richard Yarborough and Francis Smith Foster (New York: Norton, 2019). Those interested in white women’s active role in slavery should locate Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers’ recent They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).