Category Archives: Book reviews

Is the Bible a Peace Book? Engaging Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God [Intro]

Ted Grimsrud—May 25, 2017

It is a measure of Greg Boyd’s stature that Fortress Press, perhaps the most highly respected publisher of theological books in the United States, would indulge him by publishing Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross in the form that it has. Crucifixion of the Warrior God (hereafter CWG) comes to us as a single book in two volumes, a total of 1,486 pages.

CWG, though, is not an esoteric work of high-level academic density, accessible only to elite initiates. Certainly its size and detailed argumentation are not for the faint of heart, but CWG is the kind of book one might expect from a pastor-scholar—which is what Boyd is. It is clearly written, passionate in tone, and pursues a deeply practical agenda: How do Christians who are committed to the message of Jesus, the Peacemaker, understand their faith in light of biblical materials that paint a picture of God as a God of war and violence?

I find wrestling with this book to be one of most engaging and challenging investments of intellectual and spiritual energy I have made in quite some time. I have had a hard time putting the book down, though it’s not exactly a page-turner. In fact, I have turned the pages very slowly because there are so many ideas that demand my attention. Given the number of pages the book contains, I have decided that the only way I can justify to myself the energy I put into wrestling with CWG is to write about it. So I am embarking on a series of blog posts that will work through the book at some length.

I am not going to write a review exactly nor a summary of the book’s main ideas. Rather, I will reflect on issues that arise for me as I read and thereby develop my thinking about peace, the Bible, Jesus’s crucifixion, and the character of God with Boyd’s impressive book as a catalyst. There will be chunks of the book that I will not address and there will be some parts that I will pay a great deal of attention to. And I won’t claim that in focusing on what I will focus on I will be reflect Boyd’s own priorities so much as my priorities.

We already have many reviews and many more will come. Boyd himself has provided summaries of his main ideas in writings and on-line sermons and lectures (see his ReKnew site). As well, he will publish a shorter and more accessible version of his argument this summer (Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence). What I offer here is more about my own thinking—as a pacifist, Anabaptist, anarchistically-inclined social ethicist who has deeply ambivalent feelings about mainstream Christianity, theological orthodoxy, and the legacy of the Christian tradition. However, I also offer one critical reading of CWG that will probably provide a distinctive angle for understanding Boyd’s project. Continue reading

New thinking on nonviolence: A review of Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories

Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque, eds. Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories. Equinox Publishing, 2016. Xiii + 364pp. 

The 20th century has been called the century of total war. The incredible expansion of the devastating power of war, the heretofore unimagined globalization of warfare, and the creation of new weapons of mass destruction have left humanity on a precipice of vulnerability that renders the survival of our species in jeopardy. Many other expressions of violence have also continued to undermine human and ecological wellbeing.

On the other hand, one glimmer of hope arises from the reality that the 20th century also saw the emergence of strategies of self-conscious nonviolent action that provides ways to imagine overcoming the scourge of out of control violence. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the two great prophets of nonviolent action who consistently show up on lists of the world’s most influential people of the 20th century.

Gandhi famously stated that nonviolence is a very young and immature “science” that can only get stronger and more effective with practice. Erica Chenoweth is a more recent thinker who has researched social change movements and argues, based on her data, that nonviolence is noticeably more effective than violence for bringing about change.

Nonetheless, our understanding of nonviolence remains rudimentary. The literature is expanding, as is the broadening sense of the applicability of nonviolence to a wide range of human endeavors—not only with political action but also education, criminal justice, and many more areas. Continue reading

How the light gets in: A book review

Graham Ward. How the Light Gets In: Ethical Life I. Oxford University Press, 2016. xv + 354 pages.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—December 2016

How the Light Gets In is the first of a projected four-volume systematic theology by Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. Ward is pulling together his wide range of research and writing interests into an integrated whole that will emphasize the ethical dimension of Christian theology.

This first volume serves as a kind of prolegomena. It addresses a wide variety of themes in order to establish the grounding for what Ward calls “engaged systematic theology.” Volume II (which will be called, Another Kind of Normal: Ethical Life II) will focus on christology, and in light of christology take up themes such as revelation, anthropology, and creation. Volume III (The Vision of God: Ethical Life III) will deal with ecclesiology, pneumatology, and the doctrine of God. The series will conclude with a fourth volume (Communio Santorum: A Theology of Religions) that will consider both world Christianities and non-Christian religions in light of the systematic account Ward will provide in volumes II and III.

This series promises to be a distinctive take on these crucial themes given Ward’s emphasis on Christianity’s engagement with culture, his “radical orthodox” sensibility, and his practical concerns.

In volume one, Ward begins with a historical survey that traces the evolution of Christian systematic theology from the creedal formulations through the emergence of the Summa and culminating in the creation of Protestant dogmatics. He chooses somewhat surprising exemplars to illumine these three approaches: Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386), Hugh of St. Victor (died 1141), and Philip Melanchthon (died 1560).

He then explains what he means by “engaged systematics.” He sees his approach as a “corrective” to the “disembedded” and adversarial character of most Christian systematic theology ever since it emerged. He hopes for a theology that will empower “a life of embodied practices all of which can be summed up as prayer” (p. 117). Continue reading

A Future for American Evangelicalism: A book review

Harold Heie. A Future for American Evangelicalism: Commitment, Openness, and Conversation. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. xvii + 156 pp.

Reviewed by Ted Grimsrud—August 2016

Harold Heie, a retired college administrator (Gordon College, Messiah College, Northwestern College), has embarked on a second career as the coordinator of a series of impressive conversations among evangelical Christian thinkers on important and oven conflicted issues.

Heie has created a website (Respectful Conversation) that hosts these conversations. The archives are a fascinating record of conversations on issues such as same-sex relationships, political philosophies, biblical authority, human origins, and numerous others. Remarkably, these conversations are respectful—but also honest and in-depth, revealing differences and agreements in insightful ways.

In A Future for American Evangelicalism, Heie provides an account of a number of these conversations. The chapters are each titled “Evangelicalism and …” and cover topics such as the exclusivity of Christianity, the modern study of scripture, morality, politics, human origins, and higher education. Each conversation included several invited participants, selected in large part to provide a fair amount of diversity in perspective.

To Heie’s immense credit, he has chosen topics that genuinely matter, and he has chosen participants who do differ from one another. The book is Heie’s report on the conversations, not a transcript of the conversations (though those are available on the website). As such, it is a good summary on current thinking on these various issues.
Perhaps more importantly to Heie, though, the book is a report on a process. Clearly, at the heart of this work is a desire to help evangelical Christians not only examine particular issues but even more, to learn how to talk together respectfully and honestly. This is an excellent challenge, and Heie’s book gives us a good sense that such conversations are possible and when engaged in with good will, thought provoking and insightful.

So, for example, in the chapter, “Evangelicalism and the Modern Study of Scripture,” we learn from a spectrum of thinkers about what’s at stake in current debates about how biblical authority does and should work. Heie emphasizes that all the participants affirm the centrality of “biblical authority,” but they disagree on the meaning of that commitment. Continue reading

A refreshing reading of Revelation

A review of Nelson Kraybill. Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos Press, 2010).

Ted Grimsrud—published in The Conrad Grebel Review 29. 3 (Fall 2011), 107-109

Nelson Kraybill, New Testament scholar, former missionary in Europe, former president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and currently pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Indiana, has written a fine book that displays abilities honed in each of his roles just mentioned.

Apocalypse and Allegiance combines solid scholarship, an accessible style, theological depth, spiritual encouragement, and social critique. Kraybill packs an impressive amount of content in a relatively small space, addressing both general readers and scholars with a refreshing perspective on the book of Revelation.

Kraybill’s scholarly strength is his understanding of the historical setting for the book of Revelation, with particular expertise in political and economic dynamics. So we get information and visuals that put us back into Revelation’s first century environment.

In particular, Kraybill does an excellent job in presenting Revelation as resistance literature that challenges the imperial ambitions of Rome with a vision of a humane, peaceable alternative politics. And, to the reader’s benefit, Kraybill does not simply describe a fascinating ancient document but also makes perceptive applications to the present day. Continue reading

Book Reviews

America’s Shame

Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Anchor Books, 2008.

This is both an illuminating and frustrating book. Tim Weiner is a long-time reporter for the New York Times whose beat has been the American intelligence community. This book won numerous rewards, is engagingly written, and draws on a remarkable selection of sources—including direct interviews with many involved in intelligence work and wide-ranging examination of archival materials.

Weiner probably is uniquely qualified to write this book. To his credit, he names names, cites his sources, lays the materials openly on the table. I think we should, to a large extend at least, believe the tales he tells. And hair-raising tales they are. Weiner shows us that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Central Intelligence Agency has from its beginning in the aftermath of World War II been a force for incredible evil in the world.

At the same time as we learn of the CIA’s mostly uninhibited zeal for murder and mayhem, generally in the context of the denial of self-determination for innumerable peoples around the world, we also learn of the extraordinary failures of the Agency. Most notably, the CIA utterly failed to gain understanding of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. In the first couple of decades, the CIA left the American government pretty much completely in the dark concerning Soviet activities and intentions. It’s amazing and extremely distressing to realize that the entire first generation of American cold warriors, who shaped our nation in tragic ways toward domination by militarism, beat the drums of warning against the Soviet threat with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of what was actually going on with the Soviets. It truly boggles the mind.

Then, at the end of the Cold War, with the CIA continuing to feed its political masters the analyses that were desired to sustain the Cold War that had become so profitable for the American Military-Industrial Complex, our “intelligence” service complete missed the signs of the impending collapse of the Soviet system.

However, sadly, the book is not nearly as good as it could have been. Weiner is a good storyteller, and he treats us to some extraordinary stories—most profoundly distressing. The sum is less than the parts, though. We mostly just get one story after another, numbing and troubling details one on top of the other. But Weiner does little to put it all in perspective. Part of the problem is how Weiner gives us some swashbuckling details about various nefarious projects such as the overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatemala, the attempt to overthrow the government of Indonesia, and involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s government—but he doesn’t give us much followup on the long-term devastation wrought by these actions. And he does little to connect the dots between the CIA’s original violence and the blowback over time in terms of ensuing wars and conflicts (seen, most obviously, in Iran and Afghanistan).

Weiner doesn’t himself seem to accept the logic of the account he gives. Simply based on this book, we would have to conclude that the CIA has been hopelessly flawed from the start, embarking upon one disastrous mission after another, combining incompetence with malevolence. But in the end, inexplicably, Weiner leaves us with a pretty benign conclusion—the U.S. needs the kind of intelligence the CIA could provide for the well-being of our nation, so let’s hope for constructive reform. Strangely, as he recounts the demise of the CIA in the 21st century, Weiner acts as if the earlier history included many successes—even though he has not told us of those and in fact tells stories of one failure after another.

With all the shortcomings of this book, Legacy of Ashes nonetheless paints a devastating picture of American foreign policy. From its beginnings, the CIA has constantly subverted democracy both within the US and around the world.

The story of its involvement in Iran captures the utter corruption of America’s ways in the world. First of all, in the years immediately following World War II, Iran was being blatantly robbed by British and American oil companies as the global petroleum economy took off. Understandably, the Iranians desired to exercise some self-determination in the use of their nation’s natural resources. This was unacceptable. So, the ball got rolling when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill expressed flatly the desire that the moderate, democratically established Iranian government be overthrown. For various reasons, the task of accomplishing this overthrow fell to the CIA. The CIA bumbled and stumbled, but did manage in the end violently to get rid of the democratic government, to install the Shah as Iran’s dictator, and stand behind what became an extraordinarily repressive government that fed millions of petro-dollars to Western oil companies. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the Shah ultimately was overthrown and Iran became part of what came to be known as the “Axis of Evil.”

Even though Weiner does not give us a lot of direct help in making sense of present-day Iran in relation to this terrible history, he gives us enough information to undermine completely any alleged moral high ground that American might take vis-a-vis the “Islamicist regime” in Iran. If we go to war on Iran, it will simply be a continuation of the destructive imperialism we have been practicing there for more than half a century.

Weiner also makes it clear, though with too little elaboration, that all post-World War II American presidents have been utterly disdainful of the ideals of democracy and self-determination whenever it suited their interests to “turn the CIA loose” in messing with other countries. One story I was unfamiliar with was President Eisenhower’s orders that the CIA overthrow the government of Indonesia in the 1950s. Due to incompetence, the Americans failed initially; but the stage was set for one of this centuries worse bloodbaths several years later when General Suharto came into power and under his leadership (and with CIA complicity) hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were slaughtered. Weiner doesn’t give us much on the followup, and doesn’t mention at all a later directly related bloodbath when Indonesia massacred hundreds of thousands of Timorese.

The big irony of Weiner’s story, which he completely misses, is that with all its malevolence and incompetence, the CIA utterly failed in its stated task of serving American national security—yet, the sky did not fall! America didn’t need the kind of “intelligence” the CIA was supposed to provide after all. The CIA’s is indeed a “legacy of ashes,” but its extraordinary failures did not result in severe damage to the United States. We more or less managed just fine without the CIA’s “product.” In fact, to the extent that America’s genuine national interests have been at risk in the past sixty years, it has not been because of the failures of the CIA to protect us from our “enemies,” but because of how the CIA has created enemies due to its violent and destructive deeds (see Chalmers Johnson’s excellent recent books for more on this point).