Monthly Archives: January 2009

John D. Caputo. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?

John D. Caputo. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Baker Academic, 2007.

Though I have long been sympathetic to what I have understood to be some of the main concerns of the philosophical movement known as “deconstruction,” I never put in the energy to read much of the literature. Partly, writings on deconstruction had the reputation of being inaccessible; partly, they had the reputation of being quite unfriendly to religious sensibilities. I wasn’t sure if either generalization was fully accurate, but somehow those assumptions were enough to deter me.

This past summer I presented at a conference where the featured speaker was John Caputo. I figured I better give his writing a shot before finding myself face to face with him. On the cross-country flight, I read What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and was delighted to find it both totally accessible and quite friendly to Christian faith (at least to the kind of Christian faith I affirm). As fate would have it, I found myself in a car traveling from the airport to the conference site with Jack Caputo and his wife Kathy. We had a nice visit and I was happy to be able to compliment him on this book.

What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is aimed at an evangelical audience (Caputo himself is a very liberal Catholic), intending to present the ideas especially of Jacques Derrida (and Caputo himself) as relevant to faith concerns, as useful for the task of applying Christianity to our contemporary world, and, especially, as having significant resonance with the life and teaching of Jesus.

I think Caputo succeeds admirably. Even if one is not as sympathetic to Derrida’s and Caputo’s views as I am, one still would greatly benefit from encountering the admirable way those views are presented here. They are an important part of our current philosophical and theological landscape. Too many have taken my own path of least resistance and avoided direct engagement with deconstruction. Caputo here leaves us without excuse–like his suggestions or not, we will all benefit from an encounter with them.

N.T. Wright. Paul: In Fresh Perspective

N. T. Wright. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Fortress Press, 2005.

If this book were written by just about anyone but N.T. Wright, I would praise it to the skies as a clear, accessible, but substantial introduction to the Apostle Paul’s thought. The author puts Paul theology in the context of 21st century discussions about empire and Paul’s Judaism in a way that draws on the insights of these discussions without coming across as faddish. The Christian faith community both in Paul’s context and ours is taken as the locus for deliberations on Paul’s thought–an emphasis much to be welcomed.

Yet, since it is N.T. Wright that wrote this book, one feels a bit disappointed. Wright promised years ago that the next volume in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series would be on Paul’s thought. He ended up devoting his energies to a volume of Jesus’ resurrection instead. How many more of these massive, magisterial tomes does Wright have left in him? 

If Paul: In Fresh Perspective is a volume meant to tide us over for the main course, I am willing to be patient. It’s quite good for what it is, a popular-level (in the sense of being accessible to a general, non-specialist audience of thoughtful Christians) summary of some of the latest thinking about Paul’s thought. And we should appreciate this effort–even as it joins numerous other similar books in the field.

However, Wright is uniquely situated to give us more, something few other contemporary writers (if any) could–an epoch-defining treatment of Christianity’s most important theological writer that takes his historical and theological context into account and is also engaged with present-day concerns.

Wright has gained his current stature because of his unique combination of an engaging writing style, extraordinarily clear thinking, sympathy to theological and social currents in our contemporary world that highlight the need to read the Bible as a resource for present-day discipleship, and an unmatched engagement with just about any scholarly literature that matters.

If one is interested in Paul, this book is as good a place to begin in understanding the Apostle as any basic-level book I know of. And let’s hope the main dish will arrive in due course.

Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes

One of the big debates in the history of Christianity has been whether or not the Bible clearly teaches that Christians should not take part in warfare–or otherwise engage in violence. Certainly the consensus belief in Christianity since the 4th century has been that Christians may (even should) go to war when called upon by their country to do so. But has that consensus truly been arrived at through the best reading of the Bible? Christian pacifists would say no.

Here is the first in a series of Bible studies that present the Bible as being in the side of pacifism. In this essay, “Reading the Bible with Pacifist Eyes,” I introduce the essays that follow by reflecting on what a pacifist reading strategy of the Bible might entail.

This is what I understand “pacifism” to mean. In a phrase, I mean by pacifism the love of peace. Pacifism is the belief that nothing matters so much as love, kindness, compassion, mercy, and care.  In the Old Testament, the word shalom is often translated “peace,” and it catches up these various values (love, kindness, restorative justice, etc.).  Close synonyms to peace would be “health” and “wholeness.”  To make peace is to effect healing.

Two key conclusions about pacifism follow from this understanding.  First, if nothing matters so much as love, no place is left for violence.  Nonviolence, though, is the consequence of having a love for peace, not the starting point.  A pacifist commitment is not first of all an avoidance of something bad; it is actively seeking something good.  Second, pacifism is about actively seeking healing.  Contrary to some caricatures of pacifism, the term as I understand it has absolutely nothing to do with passivity (beyond how the words sound) or with withdrawal.

Both friends and dismissers of the Bible are quick to point out that the Bible does not give us an obvious and detailed blueprint for thorough-going pacifism.  One cannot take up the Bible as the basis for one’s pacifism as if this is the obvious perspective. In the studies that will follow, I will focus on simply presenting a reading of the Bible that does lead to pacifism.  I offer this reading as a proposal, an encouragement for the examination of non-pacifist readings, an exhortation to those sympathetic to pacifism to seek to embody this message.


Naomi Wolf. The End of America

Naomi Wolf. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007.

I found many things to like about this book, a best-seller written by a leading American feminist social critic. Wolf presents her polemic against American social and political trends in recent years as reflecting her one “conservative” (as in affirming the democratic traditions pioneered in the U.S. and reflected in our Constitution and Bill of Rights). She sees herself in the long tradition of dissent against oppressive government dating back to colonial days, especially evoking Thomas Paine.

Wolf gives us a clear and carefully thought through portrayal of how recent trends in our country, when looked at carefully, put us clearly on the road to fascism–this is a persuasive argument, I think. Her writing is accessible, well-reasoned, logical, and passionate.

I also like how Wolf, already a very prominent figure and sure of selling a lot of books, chose to publish with a truly independent publisher rather than making money for the very corporations that are underwriting our journey away from democracy.

I haven’t read any of Wolf’s reflections following the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I would expect she would draw some hope from that election–our democracy may still have some vitality. But I would hope she would also raise some strong words of caution. We are far from out of the woods. The temptations facing Obama to live too comfortably with the perks of the imperial presidency will be powerful. Citizens must sustain, even heighten, their efforts to make sure we decisively turn from the path toward fascism.

Robert S. McElvaine. Grand Theft Jesus

Robert S. McElvaine. Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. Crown Publishers, 2008.

For people like myself, practicing Christians horrified at the general image of Christianity as a violent, intolerant, right-wing religion widespread in our culture, this book comes as a kind of relief. McElvaine is a professor of history at a Bible Belt church-related college (Millsaps in Jackson, Mississippi). His basic argument, presented in a lively, in-your-face style, is that the Christian Right in America has profoundly corrupted the basic Christian message and needs to be called to account.

The author is a political and theological liberal, but places himself in the mainstream of biblical Christianity. He names names and minces few words in his harsh critique. He is not so much setting out to find common ground and persuade those on the Right to moderate their views as to rally the troops among Progressive Christians and to help those outside the churches to see a different perspective on the core values of Christianity.

I find myself quite sympathetic with McElvaine’s basic perspective. I like his constructive suggestions and agree with just about all of his criticisms. And I think it is good and important to have such criticisms. At times his take no prisoners style made me smile, but mostly I did find it a bit off-putting. Maybe it’s good to have someone write such an attention-getting polemic, but one wonders a bit whether such bitter sarcasm is fully consistent with McElvaine’s portrayal of Christianity as a faith centered on love. I don’t think Christ-like love is incompatible with sharp criticism, but I do miss a more compassionate, gentle sensibility that probably would have actually made the critique more powerful.

If you are unhappy with the general portrayal of Christianity in cahoots with the political Right in 21st century America and you don’t feel like you know enough about those who presence has set the tone for this portrayal, this would be a good book to read. And for many of us, it may serve as an encouragement to do something about this portrayal.

Christine Wicker. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation

Christine Wicker. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. HarperOne, 2008.

I’d like to believe the main argument of this book–that “evangelical Christianity is dying” (“evangelical Christianity” here meaning basically the kind of Christianity linked with right-wing politics and the culture wars in America). Wicker does give us some strong evidence indicating that the claims for evangelical power have been greatly exaggerated and that trends indicate that even the less powerful that assumed movement is losing steam and beginning to fade.

She looks at facts and figures concerning conversions, baptisms, membership, retention, participation, giving, attendance, and impact upon culture at large. The indicators all point downward. In part, her argument makes sense because the claims for extraordinary power and influence have never been subject to much scrutiny. And it has served the interests of many politicians, et al, that there be the general assumption that those claims be taken at face value.

To some degree, Wicker’s book was prescient leading up to our recent presidential election and the ending of the Right Wing hegemony in American politics.

Yet, the breezy style and lack of precision (such as her slippery definition of “evangelical” itself) foster a bit of a sense of skepticism on my part. This was a quick read and confirmed many of my suspicions about Right Wing Christianity’s actual power being based much more on perception than reality. But we need more solid research and careful writing on this topic.

The bigger issue for me that this book raises has to do with how “secular” is the American culture. Are we moving away from organized religion as many sociologists have been asserting for a long time? How do we account for the rise of the Christian Right? And has this movement actually (and ironically) accelerated the long-term diminishment of the influence of Christianity in the broader culture?

A pacifist’s analysis of just war thought

Here is a paper describing and critiquing just war thought. Although the term “just war theory” is widely used as if it characterizes the views of war held by most people, including most Christians, not that many people are actually very conversant with the details of this position. This paper, written about 20 years ago, tries to describe and critically interact with a number of the important just war thinkers of the 20th century include Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, and William O’Brien.

I wrote this critique as a pacifist, but worked hard to be objective and descriptive rather than simply dismissive. I hope it’s a discussion that would be illuminating to anyone regardless of their own views. One point I emphasize is the significant difference between two types of just war thought–what I call “realism” and “nuclear pacifism.” I would now probably prefer the term “preventivism” over “nuclear pacifism” because the heart of this perspective is the intention to use just war reasoning to prevent all kinds of war, perhaps even to abolish war.

Though in some ways the essay is dated, especially with regard to the importance of the Soviet Union in these discussions 20 years ago, I believe the analysis remains relevant. Certainly, the issues related to just war thought remain central in our world today.

Michel Odent. The Scientification of Love

Michel Odent. The Scientification of Love. Free Association Books, 2001.

If one approaches this book with the right attitude, it will be a stimulating and encouraging read–though maybe it’s not one I’d recommend for everyone. Odent, who is French, is an obstetrician who has pioneered humane childbirth practices. He’s philosophically aware, up-to-date in the scientific literature, and deeply committed to thinking through the implications of what he has been learning from his experiences of childbirth for our broader culture. What he’s not is an engaging writer. It’s not that his writing is overly-technical nor that his ideas are unclearly stated. But he is concise to an extreme, and this book is essentially a fairly disjointed series of short reports.

Nonetheless, the content is important–and for more than people directly involved in the various aspects of childbirth. Odent, essentially, is presenting the case that the scientific evidence is becoming more clear (though still too often ignored and even repressed) that human beings are naturally loving–and that treating others as if love is not central to all aspects of life has devastating consequences across the board in our world.

Specifically, he discusses the importance of immediate close human contact with newborns as a key to increasing the likelihood that the child will be able to thrive as a human being. He shows how we have powerful physiological as well as psychological bases for recognizing the importance of this contact.

The implications of Odent’s argument, which he does not spell out, point strongly in the direction that human beings are born with a strong need for and ability to connect with other human beings–that is, our basic instinct is toward love and we must be socialized (against the grain of our natural inclinations) to be detached, autonomous, and even violent.

This is an important contribution (even if not self-consciously expressed in this way) to a pacifist anthropology.

Bob Goudzwaard. Idols of Our Time

Bob Goudzwaard. Idols of Our Time. InterVarsity Press, 1984.

This short book, written nearly three decades ago, though dated in many ways, offers an insightful analysis of modern Western culture and its challenges to authentic Christian discipleship. Goudzwaard is a Dutch economist and politician and a committed member of the Dutch Reformed Church. His writing is clear and focused.

He offers a sharp critique of the myth of progress–especially pointed coming from a professional economist–and shows how ideologies serve as the conduits for idolatry. He then looks at various ideologies, including belief in technology, nationalism and material prosperity, showing how these all stand in tension with biblical message of humanity created in God’s image and called to shalom and compassion.

His concluding chapter, “Hope Awakens Life,” serves as an excellent nutshell description of the contrast between biblical values and those of these modern idols.

This book is long out of print, but inexpensive used copies seem plentiful online. I highly recommend it.

Rebecca T. Alpert. Whose Torah? A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism

Rebecca T. Alpert. Whose Torah?: A Concise Guide to Progressive Judaism. The New Press, 2008.

This short book is part of a new series, “The Whose Religion? Series” published by the politically leftist New Press. This book and the series are welcome attempts to link progressive religious faith with progressive political activism.

Alpert is a pathbreaking rabbi and professor, one of the first women in Jewish history to be ordained a rabbi, a professor at Temple University, and long time political activist. All of these elements of her life are evident in this interesting book. 

I mildly recommend this book. I like Alpert’s general philosophy of life and that she refused to choose between her sense of calling as a leader in her faith community and her sense of calling to work for social change in our wider society. It is encouraging to read about the ways elements of the Jewish tradition can be understood to underwrite progressive politics.

At the same time, I felt a bit disappointed at the lack of theological depth I found. The title of the book, Whose Torah?, gave me hope that I would find a penetrating rationale for a politically progressive reading of Torah from a Jewish perspective–a repudiation of the idea that you either center on the Bible or on a contemporary, essentially secular, social justice agenda that gets its main guidance from present-day experience and Enlightenment humanism. But in the end, Alpert has very little to say about the content of Torah. 

I appreciate her affirmation of the progressive elements of modern Judaism, but I would have liked more grounding in the ancient texts–not because such grounding is the only valid way to be politically progressive but because I think the entire progressive community would benefit from more of an awareness of how progressive many elements of the biblical writings are.


Peace Theology Book Review Index