May / June 2009
Book Reviews, David von Schlichten, book editor
Being simultaneously a Christian and an American is continually challenging. Often the demands of the nation conflict with the teachings of the church, although there is overlap between the two kingdoms. Numerous books can help us ELCA church leaders discern how to serve our nation while maintaining our primary allegiance, which is to Christ.
To begin with, we Christians should daily recall our baptism, which has made us citizens in the kingdom of God, and Glenn L. Borreson's book Water for Your Soul: Living in Baptism Every Day (Infinity, $10.95, 2008) can assist us in doing that. Borreson provides an extensive meditation on the significance of baptism that will help Christians explore the depths of the sacrament. The book contains 31 short chapters, each a reflection on baptism. The author addresses facets of baptism such as its physicality, the inheritance component, and the renewal of a person who is regularly recalling her or his baptism. Every section concludes with a relevant haiku intended to help immerse the reader in the experience of both baptism and the book itself.
Borreson means for readers to take their time with Water for Your Soul so that they can soak in it. In addition, he suggests that the book would be effective as devotional material for one person or as a tool for study and conversation between two people or a group. In either case, steeping ourselves in baptism will help us Christians to stay focused on serving Christ first, even as we also endeavor to support our nation as much as possible.
In this time of war and other violence, a germane and guiding book is The Way of Peace: Christian Life in Face of Discord by James M. Childs Jr. (Fortress, $19, 2008). With a deep rootedness in the Bible and theology, Childs contemplates that God's reconciling forgiveness rescues us from estrangement and leads us to shalom. We are to forgive one another as God has forgiven us and work toward being bearers of that shalom to others.
This reality is to inform every aspect of our lives. For instance, Childs considers the concept of "just war," noting that the idea was not created to justify war but to determine whether, in a given circumstance, war is the lesser evil, albeit still a tragic one. Childs avers that the principle of just war was created really for promoting peace, not for promoting war. In addition, we Christians are to be more determined and focused about striving for peace. Childs writes that Christ's death on the cross was the final holy war, and "The last holy war has been fought and won!" (p. 134). With that war won, we Christians are to concentrate on forgiving unconditionally, working indefatigably for justice, and praying with agapic thoroughness for our enemies and all that may threaten peace, including ourselves.
Another issue that often divides Christians within our nation and has political ties is the Darwinian model of evolution. Can a person be a Christian while believing in evolution? In Can You Believe in God and Evolution? A Guide for the Perplexed (Abingdon, $14, 2006; Darwin 200th anniversary edition published in 2008), Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett propose that a Christian, either conservative or liberal, can embrace evolution while worshiping Christ.
Given that, Peters is a professor of systematic theology known for his ability to join theology and science while Martinez Hewlett is a professor emeritus in the departments of medicine and molecular and cellular biology. Together, these two scholars are well‑suited to write such a book, and they do an excellent job. Indeed, the Sir John Templeton Foundation named Can You Believe in God and Evolution? a 2007 book of distinction.
Of greatest value is the authors' respectful yet dismantling critique of intelligent design and creationism, which the authors agree have some value but fail by not being true science. Creationism interprets the Bible with a hermeneutic predicated on faulty assumptions about Scripture and draws from spurious science to corroborate the alleged scientific claims of the Genesis account. Moreover, Peters and Hewlett contend, creationism is unnessary in that it contributes nothing to the Christian faith while making Christians look foolish in the public sphere. Similarly, Intelligent Design is unable to prove God's existence, because God, by God's very nature, lies outside the observable, quantifiable world of science. Peters and Hewlett also provide an accurate overview of Darwin, dispelling the common assumption that his writings lead to atheism. The book concludes with an interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative that draws from Revelation 21 and other passages, which indicate that creation is ongoing and evolving.
In this same vein, Peters and Hewlett have also published Theological and Scientific Commentary on Darwin's Origin of Species (Abingdon, $20, 2008), a detailed analysis of Darwin's monumental book, which is included on CD‑ROM.
In considering how we Christians living in the United States are to be both citizens of this nation and of the kingdom of God, we need to consider how preaching can assist with this challenging dialectic. The more compellingly and faithfully a preacher can convey the gospel, the more likely the preacher will be effective at helping hearers manage this dual citizenship. One smart, practical book for helping preachers enhance proclamation is Shel Leanne's Say It Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw‑Hill, $21.95, 2009). Regardless of what one thinks of his politics, it is hard to deny that President Obama is an exceptional orator. In Say It Like Obama, Leanne does an admirable, conscientious job of scrutinizing President Obama's speaking style to reveal important components of his rhetorical success.
She begins with the keynote address he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, commenting on some of his images and word choice and even indicating in brackets what gestures he used. She continues by looking in‑depth at his body language, at his ability to breakdown barriers and overcome prejudices people have against him, as well as inspiring people with a vision of what could be. The book makes for fascinating reading and offers much advice for preachers to improve their proclamation.
Learning how to be a more effective preacher from the president of the United States contains an intriguing interfacing of the two realms of nation and church. We Christians can learn from leaders in the civil realm so that we can be bolder, more faithful citizens of the kingdom of God, even if we disagree with the political — or even religious — views of those leaders.
Another engrossing and insightful book is Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99, 2008). Through his previous books, Gladwell has earned a reputation for writing that offers unconventional insights grounded in compelling research and logic.
In Outliers Gladwell challenges the popular notion that success (in the traditional sense) is the result of an individual being both talented and hardworking. He proposes that outliers, that is, unusually successful people, are such, in part, because of their talent and hard work but also in large part because of circumstances along with their background. For instance, Gladwell notes that a high percentage of computer tycoons like Bill Gates were born on or close to the year 1955.
Gladwell's theory is that being born around that year put people talented at computers at just the right time to capitalize on innovations in the 1970s in the computer industry. Gladwell also argues that people from Asian countries tend to excel at math because of centuries of growing rice, which requires endless hard work and helps to create a culture that prizes working long hours and being tenacious.
This latter conclusion seems to border on stereotyping, but, at the same time, makes sense. In any case, even if a person disagrees with some of Gladwell's conclusions, one point he makes is highly sensible and relevant to the church: outliers are successful not on their own but rely heavily on the opportunities and support they receive from others. The notion that an individual achieves, say, genius in isolation is simplistic. Even though, for such people, working alone and relying on the self may be integral to their success, so also is the assistance and influence they receive from family members, friends, teachers, strangers, and even their ethnic group.
Likewise, we in the church will not be the church apart from each other. By its nature, the church is communal, demands that individuals work together, full of the Spirit, for God's glory and the good of others. Similarly, our nation requires such cohesion. While there is room for individuality in both spheres, neither nation nor church will survive without the genius arising from individuals working in symphony with each other.
David von Schlichten is pastor of St. James Lutheran Church, Youngstown, Pennsylvania, and the book review editor of Lutheran Partners magazine.
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).