Category Archives: Book reviews

Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God

Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. Eerdmans, 2009. 194 pages.

I really like this new book from Michael Gorman, a Methodist New Testament scholar teaching in a Roman Catholic seminary (the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore). Gorman has been prolific in recent years writing on Paul; this book stands alone but is surely best understood when read in conjunction with others of Gorman’s books, especially Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Eerdmans, 2001).

I am a bit put off by terms such as “cruciformity,” “spirituality,” and “theosis.”  I’m not totally happy with Gorman’s choice to use these words. But the way he uses them and the meaning he gives to them make a lot of sense and are part of an extremely attractive theological reading of Paul.

Gorman writes with great clarity and economy. He’s a scholar well-versed in current Pauline scholarship and the broader theological world–but this book is quite accessible and would probably even work as a text for mid- and upper-level undergrads, and certainly for lower-level seminarians.

He sees Philippians 2 and its affirmation of the centrality of Jesus’ self-giving in its view of God’s involvement in the world as a key element “Paul’s master story.” And at the heart of this story we find a view of God that sees the best understanding of God being one wherein God is self-giving–not simply Jesus.

Along with seeing God as self-giving and vulnerable, Gorman argues strongly for an understanding of Christian faith where the believer identifies so closely with Jesus (and God) that it is most meaningful to think not so much in terms of belief or even following so much as participation, sharing life with–even to the point of sharing in Jesus’ crucifixion (hence, the term “cruciform”).

When we share in God’s self-giving, we share in the life of God– “theosis.” And this takes the form of self-giving love. Gorman’s understanding of God is determined in large part by his understanding of Jesus. And his understanding of Jesus centers on Jesus’ self-giving love described in Philippians 2 and manifested most fundamentally in Jesus’ way of life that led to his crucifixion.

While not as “political” in his reading of Paul as a scholar such as Neil Elliott (see Elliott’s insightful book The Arrogance of the Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire), Gorman takes the social and political implications of Paul’s theology quite seriously (on this point I read Gorman’s approach as lining up closely with N.T. Wright’s, a scholar Gorman uses extensively).

The central “political” message Gorman sees in Paul is the message of nonviolence. His fourth chapter, “‘While We Were Enemies’: Paul, the Resurrection, and the End of Violence,” is a tour de force. Better than anyone I have read, Gorman helps us understand Paul’s own journey from sacred violence as a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to a powerful advocate of the way of peace.

Along with his forceful argument for Paul as a pacifist, Gorman helps us understand Paul’s integration of theology and practice more generally. Paul’s pacifism links inextricably with Paul’s affirmation of Jesus’ divinity–and with Paul’s portrayal of God’s own cruciformity (that is, God’s own nonviolence).

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It ranks right at the top of an ever-growing list of valuable books on Paul’s theology, especially notable for his clarity, accessibility, and (most of all) for its portrayal of a Paul whose life and thought link him intimately with the Jesus of the gospels and his message of peace.

My only hesitation with this book is Gorman’s use of key terms such as “cruciform” and “theosis.” Before reading this book (and his others) I would have more often associated these words with apolitical and even otherworldly piety and spirituality. Gorman goes a long way toward redeeming this language, but I still wonder if he makes his presentation a little too jargonish and insiderish and less accessible to those who don’t know these words.  If one follows Gorman’s own use of his key terms, though, one will be left with a clear sense of a gospel that fully engages this world we live in, and engages it with a transformative message of peace. Book Review Index

William Hitchcock. The Bitter Road to Freedom

William I. Hitchcock. The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe. Free Press, 2008.

This is an interesting and significant book. Hitchcock, who teaches history at Temple University, tells an important story well. His agenda is mainly to complexify the way we Americans (and others) view World War II. He does not question the necessity of the war to defeat Germany, but he does question the simplistic character of the basic story we have been told about the nobility of this war.

For many of those “liberated” by this war–the citizens of Normandy, Belgium, and Holland; the populations of Eastern Europe; and most tragically Europe’s Jewish people–the “cure” of Allied conquest was nearly as devastating as the “disease” of German domination.

I learned a lot from Hitchcock’s account. Normandy, the scene of the great invasion of the Allies that signaled the final push into Germany from the west, faced extraordinary (and often inefficient and unnecessary) destruction from their supposed allies. For example, the city of Caen (population 60,000) was bombed to smithereens by the British, an attack that served no real strategic purpose. Holland, on the cusp of “liberation” in the late Fall of 1944, was deemed peripheral to the core priorities of the Allies and left to suffer through one more winter of starvation and disease at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

I was aware of the unbelievable death and annihilation of Eastern Europe in the ruthless back and forth of the Germans and Russians. Hitchcock’s account, nonetheless, still left this reader shaken at the shear nihilism of that conflict.

The story of the fate of Europe’s Jews carries the most potent punch in this account. If anyone still imagined that this war was fought in order to “save the Jews,” reading what happened after the defeat of the Nazis will refute such a notion. Shockingly, we learn that for months, even years, after the end of the war Jewish survivors remained in prison-like camps under conditions not greatly improved from the death camps. Clearly, the Allies had given no thought to these victims of Nazi insanity.

Hitchcock ends the story in 1947, so we only get hints concerning the connection between Europe’s utter amorality concerning the treatment of Jewish people, Britain’s vain but devastating efforts to hold on to the remnants of their Empire in the Middle East, and today’s intractable conflicts in that part of the world.

As I mentioned above, Hitchcock does not mean to question the necessity of the War. He mainly seems to want to remind his readers that such a necessary effort nonetheless came at great cost. He hopes we can gain a more complex and less romantic perspective on the terrible cost so many paid on this “bitter road to freedom.”

As one less certain of the necessity for this War, I came away from this book with many percolating thoughts. For one thing, it seems clear that most if not all of the moral-high-ground type of justifications for this “last resort” of violence had little significance in the event of the actual war. Clearly, this war had nothing to do with saving or caring about the welfare of Europe’s Jewish people. It had little to do with protecting human life (see the destruction of Normandy and the lack of concern with the Dutch people). It had little to do with democracy and freedom (see the total abandonment of Eastern Europe to Stalin at the end of the War).

The War inevitably took on its own logic–which, paraphrasing the words of one American general, was to kill and kill until the enemy quits.

We must not minimize the evils of Nazism. Hitchcock powerfully reminds us of those. However, the basic issue this War raises–the basic issue humanity must resolve if we are to have a future–is how do we successfully resist evil without becoming evil ourselves. Hitchcock’s important book helps us see that “the Good War” only intensified this problem.

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Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos. Making Wise the Simple: The Torah and Christian Faith and Practice

Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos. Making Wise The Simple: The Torah In Christian Faith And Practice. Eerdmans, 2005.

Van Wijk-Bos, professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, has written a helpful and important, if somewhat frustrating, book on a Christian appropriation of Old Testament law.

I greatly appreciate Van Wijk-Bos’s sympathetic reading of Torah and her deep concern for faithful Christian living. She helps us better understand how from the start Torah was rooted in God’s healing mercy–not legalism and fearfulness. She writes as a Christian, but with high regard for the Jewish tradition. While the scholarship is deep and sound, the writing is accessible, clear, and generally engaging.

However, the book’s organization seems fragmented and the book doesn’t follow as coherent a flow of logic as might be desired. It’s impact is lessened by its scatteredness.

Overall, though, Making Wise the Simple makes a strong contribution on a vital theme.

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G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship.

G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. InterVarsity Press, 2008.

I read this book because it is one of the few I know of that addresses what I see as a hugely important and interesting theme in the Bible–idolatry. While I like Beale’s basic argument, that we become like the things we give our highest loyalty to, I found the book quite a disappointment. I would not recommend it except for those with a strong research-kind of interest in biblical teaching on idolatry.

My main criticisms have to do with Beale’s very narrow sense of what idolatry is about–he minimizes the social dynamics of idolatry linked with nationalism, ethno-centrism, religious exclusivism, and various other ways idolatry and violence and injustice connect. He approaches the Bible with great reverence, but seems oblivious to many of the core elements of the Bible’s critical stance towards imperialistic social institutions and the role these institutions play in turning people and their religiosity against the true God.

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Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline

Paul Redekop. Changing Paradigms: Punishment and Restorative Discipline. Herald Press, 2008.

I like the basic argument of this book very well. A Canadian Mennonite peace educator and practitioner has taken on a tremendously important topic: how do we respond to harm-doing without adding to the cycle of harm? And he states a clear point of view, that punishment (by definition a form of violence) is never appropriate. And he seeks to follow the logic of this point of view wherever it takes him–challenging the use of on corporal punishment on children, the use of retributive approaches to criminal justice, and the justification of international violence (i.e., warfare).

On the positive side, Redekop draws the insights of the restorative justice movement to articulate concrete alternatives to dealing with harm-doing in ways that do indeed promise to bring about genuine healing. His proposals may seem utopian, but they are based on actual human experience and are carefully thought through. Given the dead end road we are on with our dynamics of punishment and spirals of violence, he presents us with bases for hope that change may be possible.

I am delighted to see such a thoughtful and internally consistent presentation of this perspective. Though Redekop does not engage theology very seriously (and this is a problem), he frames his argument from within the Christian peace church tradition and its interpretation of the Bible. Sadly, Redekop’s Mennonite tradition with its generations long profound and lived-out opposition to state violence has nonetheless not been very self-aware about the damaging punitive practices toward its own children that have undermined its witness. Redekop alludes briefly to his own punishment-drenched up-bringing in a Mennonite family. And it’s great that he makes these connections–an exercise in self-awareness still pretty rare among the Mennonites I know and know of.

I do wish Redekop had been able to engage theology more deeply, but he at least gives theologians some impetus to test and expand his argument.

I do have one stronger criticism. I am sorry to say that I found the writing style to be uninspiring. The book has an exciting story to tell, but does not tell it in an engaging way. I had to plow on through most of the book. So my recommendation will be qualified. I fear people who are not already disposed to appreciate Redekop’s thinking here may find the book fairly tedious going and may lose patience. I hope not, though, because there is much wisdom and new thinking here.

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision

Tom Wright. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. SPCK, 2009.

N.T. Wright has achieved that stature among theologians that he can whip off a long, wordy direct response to a critique of his thought and have it become a major publishing event–which I think is mostly a good thing. I do find his switching back and forth between “N.T. Wright” and “Tom Wright” as the author of his various books to be irritating. And this book is being rushed out, seemingly in order to utilize the buzz among evangelicals concerning the debate between Wright and the super-Calvinist pastor/theologian John Piper while it lasts. The British edition has come out in paperback and can be purchased on line in the States.  The American edition, to be published by InterVarsity this month will start out in hardback–another indicator of the effort to exploit Wright’s popularity.

Nonetheless, this is an important and helpful book. As with all of Wright’s work, we have an engagingly written, theologically oriented, and exegetically careful treatment of central issues of the interpretation and application of New Testament writings. In this case, Wright focuses on the issue of “justification” in Paul’s writings–especially Galatians and Romans.

For the more general reader who is not particularly interested in the extremist views of someone like John Piper, chunks of Wright’s book will lend themselves to skimming. However, when he focuses on his constructive interpretation of Paul’s thought (which is, happily, for most of the book), Wright gives us a great deal to chew on. Basically, Wright understands “justification” in the context of the salvation narrative of the entire Bible–and makes what seems to me to be a quite persuasive case for this kind of reading. Linking with the argument of his fine recent book, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (to be reviewed on this website soon), Wright interprets Paul as presenting justification as a world-transforming impetus from God in the present world–not as a matter of an individual believer finding one’s way to an otherworldly heaven after death.

He sees Paul articulating a “covenant” theology: “the belief that the creator God called Abraham’s family into covenant with him so that through his family all the world might escape from the curse of sin and death and enjoy the blessing and life of new creation” (page 222).  Well said!

So, all things considered, I highly recommend this book and anticipate the publication of Wright’s promised big, big book on Paul’s theology–which will, no doubt, be published under the name “N.T. Wright.”

Barry Hankins, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America

Barry Hankins. Francis Schaeffer And the Shaping of Evangelical America Eerdmans, 2008.

Barry Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, in this cleanly written and remarkably objective short biography of Francis Schaeffer, the so-called evangelist to intellectuals, divides Schaeffer’s public live into three distinct stages. One’s feelings about Schaeffer and his impact on “evangelical America” might be closely related to which of these stages the reader is most interested in.

The first stage would be of interest to those who want to know about one important element of the intense fundamentalist reaction toward and separation from mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States (and the subsequent conflicts among the separatist fundamentalists, especially those in the Presbyterian tradition).  The young Francis Schaeffer (he was born in 1912) began his seminary studies in 1935 at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (Schaeffer’s home town). Westminster had been started in 1929 by the prominent and militantly conservative  New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen in direct opposition to what Machen and his collaborators saw as in intolerable drift toward liberalism on the part of the flagship Presbyterian seminary at Princeton.

Schaeffer studied at Westminster for two years, a time of increasing tensions within the Westminster community that culminated at Machen’s death in 1937 when another splinter seminary was formed. This new school, called Faith Seminary, was led by disenchanted Westminster faculty Allen MacRae and the infamous Carl McIntire. Schaeffer was Faith’s first student, first graduate, and was the first minister ordained in a new demonination formed by MacRae and McIntire known as the Bible Presbyterian Church.  This new group, according to Schaeffer, felt especially concerned about three issues: Westminster was seen as too extreme in its commitment to Calvinism, Westminster was too tolerant concerning the use of alcohol, and Westminster was amillennial rather than premillennial.

Between 1938 and 1948, Schaeffer served several Bible Presbyterian congregations as pastor, joining wholeheartedly in the efforts of Bible Presbyterian leaders to persuade like-minded congregations to leave the mainstream Presbyterian denominations and join with them.  He emerged as a rising star in this context, but in time felt fairly battered by the constant conflict such an approach to Christian faith seemingly required.

So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to move his family to Switzerland and undertake the task of helping to reintroduce doctrinally “orthodox” Christianity into western Europe, the exhausted young pastor accepted the call. During the 1950s, the Schaeffers struggled to make their way. Francis did find the opportunity to engage Europe’s most prominent Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in a brief dialogue. Schaeffer managed to alienate Barth fairly quickly, leading to a note from Barth calling an end to the “conversation.” Barth believed that Schaeffer had basically accused him of being a heretic, devoid of truth and logic, so what was the point of dialogue?  “The heretic has been burnt and buried for good,” Barth wrote. “Rejoice, dear Mr. Schaeffer (and you calling your-selves ‘fundamentalists’ all over the world)! Rejoice and go on to believe in your ‘logics’ and in your-selves as the only true ‘bible-believing’ people! Shout so loudly as you can! But, pray, allow me, to let you alone” (page 39).

By the summer of 1954, Schaeffer came to the end of his relationship with Carl McIntire and the Bible Presbyterian Church. The bitter break led to a loss of financial support from and formal connection with the church agencies that had sent Schaeffer to Europe. Out of this turmoil came the opportunity to begin an independent ministry, L’Abri. This constitutes the second stage in Schaeffer’s career–Hankins terms it “The Making of a European Evangelical” in distinction from the first stage, “The Making of an American Fundamentalist.”

The ministry of L’Abri led to a quite different focus for Schaeffer. Rather than struggling over the creation and sustenance of a doctrinally pure church over against other Christians, Schaeffer’s attention now was focused on offering hospitality and witness to young people, many of whom were not Christians. In this context, Schaeffer developed his apologetic approach, meant to persuade these non-Christians of the truthfulness of the faith and to lead to their conversion.

Schaeffer’s effectiveness with this work led to the gradual growth of L’Abri and of his reputation. Part of his appeal was the sincere effort to provide a non-judgmental, empathetic presence for young people struggling with hope and meaning.  Part of the appeal, added to significantly by Edith Schaeffer, was practical love and care shown to the ever-growing number of visitors. However, as Hankins suggests, part of the appeal of the Schaeffer ministry also stemmed from underlying certainty in the truthfulness of the message being delivered. Schaeffer’s break with McIntire really had nothing to do with the general theology of Presbyterian fundamentalism–especially the insistence on the perfect errorlessness (“inerrancy”) of the Bible and the utter rejection of the validity of “liberal” Christianity.

Schaeffer’s big breakthrough came with the idea to transcribe his lectures for publication. The books that resulted, in particular his “trilogy” (Escape From Reason, The God Who Is There, and He Is There and Is Not Silent) became a bit of a sensation. They gained wide circulation among North American evangelical Christians, expanding Schaeffer’s ministry greatly–and changing the focus a bit from encounters with European atheists and agnostics more to working with doubting Christians and former Christians from North America who made the pilgrimage to L’Abri.

The third and final stage in Hankins’ story comes when Schaeffer moved from books to film in an attempt to expand his audience. How Should We Then Live?, a film series and an accompanying book that sought to provide an analysis of Western culture in service of Christian apologetics did indeed expand Schaeffer’s audience and signaled a whole new focus for his ministry. His filmmaker son Franky persuaded him to enter into North American controversies such as the struggle over biblical inerrancy and the conflict over abortion.

This entry into these issues moved Schaeffer into the political arena with both feet–and aligned him closely with the emerging Christian Right. In fact, Franky (now Frank), in his recent memoir, Crazy for God (reviewed here), makes a not far-fetched claim that his father’s final three works (How Should We Then Live?, Whatever Happened to the Human Race, and A Christian Manifesto) and their attendant conferences and publicity combined with overt efforts to expand the Schaeffers’ network of allies (which included links with “co-belligerents” such as Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye) served as one of the founding impulses in the emergence of the Christian Right as a major political force in the United States (Frank came greatly to regret his role in this process).

Francis Schaeffer became a kind of superstar in conservative Christian circles–becoming friends with Presidents Ford and, especially, Reagan. Schaeffer suggested that Reagan’s election provided a providential “window of opportunity” for politicized Christians to move the US back to its Christian foundations via, among other things, legislation to criminalize abortion. Schaeffer contracted cancer and died in 1984, so we don’t know what his assessment of the Reagan administration might have been, but it’s hard to imagine he would not have been disappointed.

Hankins, who treats Schaeffer with a great deal of sympathy throughout the book, suggests that when looked at now in retrospect, these three stages in Schaeffer’s career provide a fairly coherent whole. During the third stage, many of those who had been ministered to through L’Abri and Schaeffer’s early books (including several such as theologian Clark Pinnock and historian Ronald Wells who went on to prominence as evangelical scholars and teachers), came sharply to critique what seemed to them a shift toward a much more militant and fundamentalist orientation. In Hankins’ telling, though, the main difference between stage two and stage three was simply the move toward a more overtly political focus–indeed a significant shift that transformed the nature of Schaeffer’s audience, but not one reflecting any philosophical or theological changes.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Schaeffer phenomenon. Any criticisms I could mention would be minor–the book is well-written, based on solid research, and tells a fascinating and coherent story. My main regret is simply that the book is too short. It is part of a series of biographies on various religious figures and clearly was required to fit in lengthwise with other books in the series.

Reading this book certainly triggered a lot of memories and reflections for me. I encountered Schaeffer’s work about the time he was making the transition from stage two to stage three. During the summer of 1975, I joined a new church and immediately became immersed in a book study group that was working through Schaeffer’s trilogy. At that point I was a self-identified fundamentalist who very much lived in a dualistic world–my Christian faith on Sunday and college studies during the week. Schaeffer’s message to me was to bring these worlds together. I swallowed that message hook, line, and sinker, and in many ways the course of the rest of my life was set.

During my senior year in college I read everything Schaeffer had published plus numerous other writings from his L’Abri colleagues such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, and Hans Rookmaaker. About this time I also encountered Anabaptist writers, especially John Howard Yoder. For a brief time these two schools of thought vied for my allegiance. Very quickly, though, Yoder won a decisive victory over Schaeffer. The key issue was his attention to the story of Jesus and his utterly persuasive case for the present-day normativity for Christians of Jesus’ politics. I came to see in Schaeffer just another version of political Constantinianism and a theological (or Christological) evasion of the core elements of Jesus’ message (including, at its heart, pacifism).

By the Spring of 1977, I was ready to leave Schaeffer behind. The process was accelerated with the film series How Should We Then Live? I co-taught a course at the University of Oregon on this series right after it was released. I have learned that the best way to become aware of the weaknesses in scholarly works is to teach them. That certainly was the case with this book and film. As we taught the class, I became increasingly disenchanted with Schaeffer’s perspective and his tendency to make highly questionable generalizations and fit everything into his apologetic box. I had numerous debates with my co-teachers, and in the end I was through with Schaeffer. When he followed up this project by moving much further to the Right politically and joining with some of the most obnoxious Christian and political leaders in our country, I realized his true colors were becoming ever more apparent.

Hankins’ book helps me understand better my experiences and perceptions of Schaeffer–and confirms most of them. As I said above, Hankins writes with great objectivity and sympathy–there is nothing here to suggest any motivation to attack Schaeffer. But he is a good enough historian to give us the information we need to assess Schaeffer’s career for ourselves.

Several elements of the story jumped out for me. I knew a bit about Schaeffer’s connection with the arch-separatist Carl McIntire, who had become quite an embarrassment by the end of his long life. It was interesting and revealing to learn how closely Schaeffer worked for McIntire and for how long they remained close allies. Schaeffer certainly remained utterly hostile toward anything that sniffed of theological liberalism throughout his career. This hostility seems especially problematic given that many of the elements of Schaeffer’s critique of anti-human aspects of Western culture have a lot of truth to them. But his antipathy toward fellow Christians who would share that critique and want to work to bring healing in our culture undermined his efforts tremendously.

A classic case, which I alluded to above, is Schaeffer’s attitude toward Karl Barth. On any reasonable theological spectrum, Barth stands pretty far to the right, pretty strongly founded on the biblical message, and pretty affirmative of the theological tradition (i.e., Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et al). But Schaeffer did treat Barth as an arch-heretic, a thinker firmly below the “line of despair” who consistently leads Christians astray.

A telling comment by Hankins, which he brings up almost in passing and does not emphasize at all, puts this in perspective. “It is highly unlikely that Schaeffer ever actually read Hegel, Kant, Kierkegaard, and the other modern thinkers he would later critique in his lectures and books.  It is doubtful that he even read Barth in depth.  Schaeffer’s knowledge of these thinkers was superficial….[He] was a voracious reader of magazines and the Bible, but some who lived at L’Abri and knew him well say they never saw him read a book” (page 43).

Hankins does not go into much detail about Schaeffer’s rationale for his uncompromising stance on biblical inerrancy and his rejection of the theory of evolution. These stances were front and center through all stages of Schaeffer’s career and certainly mark him as a fundamentalist and even as, in some basic ways, anti-intellectual.

The one account of Schaeffer’s intellectual shallowness that Hankins tells in some depth is quite revealing. Schaeffer’s final book, A Christian Manifesto, centered on Schaeffer’s long-standing assertion of the United States as originally a fundamentally Christian nation. This was part of his critique of how we had lost our bearings as a culture due to losing the original Christian element. Two of evangelicalism’s most accomplished historians, George Marsden and Mark Noll, challenged Schaeffer’s reading. Noll, especially, patiently devoted a great deal of time to respectfully arguing his case in a series of letter exchanges with Schaeffer. Despite being unable to marshal any evidence to support his argument, Schaeffer refused to budge–implying that the present cultural war required his argument, regardless of the evidence.

My impression, based in part on my own experience and in part on reading Hankins’ book as well as numerous other pieces over the years, is that Schaeffer (even if poorly grounded) provided evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the 1960s and 1970s with inspiration to enter the intellectual life. For some, this inspiration opened doors to a lifetime of learning and working to intergrate faith and scholarship. Perhaps he deserves our appreciation for this. However, given the enormity of his influence in encouraging powerful anti-intellectual dynamics among Christians and a politics of division and coercion that culminated in the disaster of the George W. Bush presidency, it’s hard not to conlude that ironically and tragically, the deepest legacy of Francis Schaeffer was to hasten the diminishment of the standing of Christianity in our world.

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains

Adam Hochschild. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Houghton-Mifflin, 2005.

Adam Hochschild has told us an engaging and dramatic story with tremendous significance for our present day. As Hochschild points out, in 1787, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”  He states that just as “such a world would, of course, be unthinkable today” it was, “to most people then, unthinkable that it could ever be otherwise” (page 2).

That date, 1787, is important for Hochschild’s story because on May 22 of that year a group of twelve people met together in London, England, to begin a movement that would within twenty years lead to the British Empire ending the slave trade and within another thirty years lead to the actual abolition of slavery throughout the Empire.

This group of twelve included ten Quakers, continuing the anti-slavery concerns that long characterized many in that community, and two others, both Anglicans. One, Granville Sharp, was for many years a crusader for various social justice causes, known to be a bit eccentric. The twelfth man, the central hero of Hochschild’s narrative, was a young man studying for the ministry named Thomas Clarkson.

In his studies at Cambridge, Clarkson entered an essay contest, and prepared, as an academic exercise, a piece arguing against the slave trade. What began as an exercise in debate soon came to possess Clarkson’s soul. Initially, he later wrote, “I had no motive but that which other young men in the University had on such occasions; namely the wish of obtaining literary honor.” The more he learned, though, the more horrified he became. “In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief.”

Clarkson won the top prize with his essay. His finished his studies, set to begin what seemed likely to be a successful career in the ministry. But, as he reported later, slavery “wholly engrossed my thoughts. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true….If the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Hochschild suggests that this day in June 1785 when Clarkson struggled with the need for “some person” to fight slavery “is a landmark on the long, tortuous path to the modern conception of universal human rights.”

Clarkson continued to wrestle with his grief and passion. “Could a lone, inexperienced young man have ‘that solid judgment…to qualify him to undertake a task of such magnitude and importance;—and with whom was I to unite?’ But each time he doubted, the result was the same: ‘I walked frequently into the woods, that I might think on the subject in solitude, and find relief to my mind there. But there the question still recurred, “Are these things true?”—Still the answer followed as instantaneously “They are.”—Still the result accompanied it, “Then surely some person should interfere.”‘ Only gradually, it seems, did it dawn on him that he was that person” (pages 89-90).

Once Clarkson became clear on his task, though, he took it on with a depth of commitment and effectiveness rarely matched in all of the history of human efforts for justice. The rest of his long life was devoted to this work–and he lived to see it come to fruition.  Clarkson died in 1846 at the age of 86, eight years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Shortly before Clarkson’s death he received a visit from American abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison who recognized his greatness in the cause.

Quakers play only a peripheral role in Hochschild’s story (unfortunately), but he does make a point to mention several times in the course of the book the Quaker tradition of Quaker men never removing their hats while in the presence of powerful people. This sets up the concluding sentences of the book, an account of Clarkson’s funeral. “In both the funeral procession and the overflowing church where the service was held, the mourners included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from long-sacred custom. They removed their hats” (page 354).

This book is much needed tonic today for anyone today who trembles at the thought of successfully resisting the forces of violence and injustice that seem so overwhelming. Hochschild probably wisely sticks simply to telling the story. I would have liked more analysis of the processes of abolition (when the final legislation is passed, we get only a cursory account of the action). I also would have liked more attention to the role of the Quakers who were central to the effort. However, the story of the perseverance, the numerous set-backs, the extraordinary suffering of the Empire’s slaves, and the ultimate success against overwhelming odds is well told and carries its own power.

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Thomas Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition

Thomas P. Slaughter. The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Woolman, the Quaker “saint” who died in 1772, is certainly worthy of continued attention–as is given in this careful and thorough biography. Woolman strongly opposed slavery in a time when even many Quakers were slaveholders. He also opposed warfare and materialism. He wrote a spiritual classic, his Journal, which continues deservedly to be read widely.

I approached this book with great anticipation because while I have known of Woolman’s witness for years, I still didn’t know much about the man and his life.

Slaughter, a history professor at Rochester University in New York, writes a very close-grained account of Woolman’s life, making the most out of the fairly scarce resources we have about this exceedingly modest and spiritually rigorous Friend. So, this book makes an important contribution in giving us the details of Woolman’s outer life that shaped the inner life so powerfully expressed in the Journal.

The Woolman that Slaughter recovers for us (and I should emphasize that Slaughter seems quite sympathetic to the subject of his book–this is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job) does not come across as an overly attractive person. In particular, Woolman seems fairly hateful toward fleshly human life and even his own family ties. He departed on his one trip across the Atlantic to witness to British friends well aware of his delicate health. He expected to die (as he did) while following his calling, loved ones notwithstanding.

My biggest disappointment with this book is Slaughter’s lack of attention to the broader context of Woolman’s life–both in the sense of the dynamics of the world in which Woolman lived (e.g., I wanted desperately to know more about the retreat of Pennsylvania Quakers from political life in their colony–a retreat that reached fruition during Woolman’s life and one that was, apparently strongly encouraged by his own ministry; we are only given glancing hints concerning this event by Slaughter) and in the sense of Woolman’s impact those who followed after him (e.g., one of the big issues pointed to by the book’s title is the abolitionist movement and the transformation among Quakers from tolerance toward slavery to total opposition–Woolman seems to have pioneered these changes but we are not given much of a sense of how).

So, I finished the book wishing for something quite a bit different that what I received. I recommend it only with strong qualifications. It’s pretty long, not particularly engagingly written, and too narrowly focused. We do learn a lot about the details of Woolman’s life–he’s important enough (though Slaughter doesn’t tell us enough about why) to warrant our attention. But so much more could be done with the fascinating story of John Woolman, his life and times, and his legacy.

Peace Theology Book Review Index

Paul Boyer. When Time Shall Be No More

Paul Boyer.  When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture. Harvard University Press, 1992.

Even though this book is in some ways now getting a bit dated (for example, one wonders how Boyer’s analysis would be differ now in light of the powerful impact the Christian Right had during the Bush II administration), it remains an extraordinarily helpful resource.

Paul Boyer, history professor at the University of Wisconsin, gives a detailed and reasonably objective portrayal of the background and emergence of what he calls “prophetic belief” (that is, dispensational premillennnialism) in the United States. Boyer is a reliable chronicler and engaging writer. He’s critical of prophecy belief, but does a good job of letting the story come through in a way that even a supporter of prophecy belief would gain understanding.

Boyer does a good job setting the context for prophecy belief in the United States. He pays special attention both to the role of the United States in the future-prophetic schema and to the role of the establishment of the Israeli nation-state as the lynchpin for current assertions of the imminence of the End. In particular, it is interesting to learn of how the understanding of Israel’s “re-establishment” changed after 1948 when it turned out that masses of Jews did not convert to Christianity as had been understood to be a necessary precursor to fulfillment of the prophecies about Israel as a restored nation-state.

The alarms Boyer raised back in the early 1990s are even more worthy of taking seriously today–this approach to Christianity will continue to wreak major havoc. His background study, hence, remains relevant, even essential.

Peace Theology Book Review Index