Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Book Review – Between Babel and Beast

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective by Peter J. Leithart (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) is a thought-provoking book for Christians who want to be the light and salt of the world today. This volume is a follow-up to his previous book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010). For those who read Defending Constantine, this book presents us further opportunity to catch a glimpse of Leithart’s dynamic, yet rather unconventional mind on the very important topic of cultural engagement. For those who have not had a chance to read Defending Constantine, you can find my review here.

In part 1, Leithart presents a survey of biblical accounts of empires, from the pre-flood cities of Cain and Lamech to the fall of Babylon in Revelation. What underlies this survey is his conviction that “Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms” (the Abrahamic and Babelic empires) (p. xi). To some extent this part is a presentation of an “empire-centered” hermeneutic: The entire framework of Leithart’s interpretive process is centered on “empire.”

Leithart holds that after the long succession of empires beginning with Babylon and ending with Rome, Jesus as the Son of Man received the kingdoms of the earth (e.g., Persian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman) and as the Ancient of Days gives them to His faithful disciples. Hence, He is imperium-in-se who replaced the ancient system (Israel in empire) with a new, “Abrahamic empire” which marked the end of “Israel-in-Empire, οικουμηνη.” And the embodiment of Jesus’ Abrahamic empire is none other than the church. It is no longer the earthly empires that protect God’s people from destruction. “Instead, the church as the fifth empire keeps its doors open day and night so that kings from across the sea will be able to enter and pay homage to the Son who reigns from Zion” (p. 51).

In part 2, Leithart examines “Americanism,” which he defines as “the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy” (p. xii). While part one is a biblical presentation of empire, part two is a historical presentation of empire—how Christendom, “God’s imperium,” lost its metapolitical framework of Christian politics to secular politics over the centuries and how this contributed to the birth of “Americanism.”

Leithart argues that “God’s American Israel” was a phrase that was a “fundamental paradigm to help early American settlers understand their role in God’s history” (p. 67). The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were the modern-day Israel who were led by God to an unknown land for divine purposes. Their mission therefore was to serve and advance the Kingdom of God as bearers of freedom and justice. Consequently, the distinction between Christianity and their political agenda (freedom and justice) became fuzzy. America soon began to use its military power to impose its philosophy on the world. In the end, Leithart concludes, “Early in our history, we did not have the power to impose our will on the world. But as our power increased, Americanism was there, able to impel a Babelic form of imperialism” (111).

In part 3, Leithart examines how America succumbed to Americanism and “freely consort[ed] with beasts if it [would] serve our political ends” (p. xiii). Attention is given to political and military dealings and economic policy in the 20th century to argue that America stands between Babel and beast. Leithart’s words are alarming. He states, “Babel-like, we believe we have brought history effectively to its conclusion: American democracy is everyone’s tomorrow. Babel-like, we want everyone everywhere to confess with one lip our American creed of liberty, democracy, and free markets. Babel-like, we are anxious until everyone looks like us . . . until we can force most everyone to play by our rules” (p. 134).

In conclusion, Leithart calls for a repentance of being Americanists. American churches should “teach and preach from a de-Americanized Bible, one that understands that the imperium of the church [“Jesus is an imperator” and the church is “God’s imperium”], not American hegemony, fulfills the hopes of Israel” (pp. 151-152). He argues that the church should not discourage Christians from participating in government or the military. Yet, the church should encourage Christians to participate in a way that changes America and turns her resources and power to justice, charity and peace.

Although I appreciated Leithart’s scholarship and presentation of this important topic, a few questions need to be raised. I am not certain about Leithart’s three types of world empires: Babel, Beasts and Guardians of God’s People. Leithart argues extensively that the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires fit into this last category, Guardians of God’s People—though he admits they were not this exclusively. Yet, as the Bible attests, God can use even the evil of the world to advance His Kingdom. As God used the ravens to feed Elijah, which were considered by the Israelites to be an unclean and detestable bird, God can use the most detestable thing in the world to bring glory to Himself.

Further, while I am in basic agreement with Leithart that God can use empire (along with other human institutions) to advance His kingdom, I am not certain I would agree with Leithart that empire is the ideal vessel to achieve this end. As mentioned above, God can use the most detestable thing to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Jesus called some of those who prophesied in His name “evildoers” (Matt 7:21-23). In this sense, Leithart’s concepts of an Abrahamic empire, the church as God’s empire and the fifth empire may be an oversimplification of admittedly complex biblical accounts of historical empires.

In my view the real gems of this book are found in parts 2 and 3. Leithart’s warnings to American Christians are shocking: “What if America is herself locked in the ancient logic, the satanic cycle? What if Americanism, increasingly detached from the checks and balances that orthodox metapolitics provides us, has left us prey to the same sacrificial dynamics as Islam” (p. 81)? I grew up in Japan where imperialism ruled about 100 years. For me at least, America is the country that heroically ended Japanese imperialism that contributed to two world wars and resulted in the exploitation of other Asian countries. But, the same America is the country that brought devastation and indescribable human suffering to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus I agree with Leithart that “America stands ‘between Babel and beast’” (xiii). Yet, I believe that Leithart’s message can also speak to Christians around the world—after all, we human beings are so easily blindsided by our own good that we often overlook our own evil in pursuing our goals. How easily we imprison the prophets. I appreciate Leithart’s challenging warnings, and therefore highly recommend this book.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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DeWeese on the Task of the Christian Philosopher

“As Christian philosophers, we must practice in our profession what we claim in our confession.  The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians that Christ is not only the power of God but also the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24).  True wisdom is Christocentric in its origin and application.  Specifically, I think that as Christian philosophers we have a solemn duty to discover what Jesus believed and taught, and then believe, teach and defend that.  This is a beginning, of course; there is much in contemporary philosophy that Jesus did not directly address, just as there is much in modern physics that he did not speak to.  But where he spoke, and where his words have direct implications for our subjects, we must listen and learn.  Christian philosophers should not be so eager to surf the cultural swell that we cannot hear and heed our Lord’s clear teaching.

“. . . Christian philosophers can serve the Lord by doing what we do well—analysis, clarification, justification.  But Christian philosophers should not ever lose sight of the fact that serving the Lord entails as well serving his people.  Does our research and our teaching ultimately contribute to clarifying, demonstrating and confirming the truth of the credenda of the faith?  Do we, in the end, have anything to contribute to the project of helping our culture understand and pursue genuine human flourishing?  Will the church and the world be better for what we do?”

Garrett J. DeWeese in Doing Philosophy as a Christian (IVP, 2011), 63, 64.

 

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Book Review – Healing for a Broken World

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  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway Books
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  • DVD & Study Guide
  • Much is being written these days on the relationship between Christianity and politics, especially in the light of the decline of the religious right. The more enlightened of these articles and books avoid simply defending either the Republican or Democrat party line, but instead seek to apply biblical principles to public policy and civil society. One recent book that does this well is Steve Monsma’s Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy. Monsma is a former state senator, emeritus professor of political science at Pepperdine, and currently senior research fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College.

    The book is divided into two parts. Part one sets out four principles from Scripture that Monsma believes are the most relevant for thinking about public policy. These principles are creation, sin, and redemption; justice; solidarity; and civil society. The first principle is drawn from the early chapters of Genesis and portrays the nature of our world and the human condition: God instructed human beings to multiply and subdue the earth (the cultural mandate). But man fell, and God is now in the process of redeeming humanity, as well as every aspect of His creation. (I appreciate this reformed approach to redemption, which includes all of creation, and doesn’t focus solely on human souls—important as that is.)

    The second principle (justice) indicates that “God has instituted governing authorities and their public policies to work against evil and to promote justice in society” (p. 49). The third principle is solidarity, which is the obligation God has given every person to love their neighbor as themselves (Matt. 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8). The final principle draws on Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty,” which holds that God has established several domains of human society, each of which is authoritative in its own realm. Chief among these domains are the government, the family, and the church. Since each sphere possesses its own authority, it is wrong for any one sphere to usurp the authority of another—for example, for the government to usurp the authority of the family, or the church to usurp the authority of the government. These four principles, Monsma contends, are those that should guide a Christian approach to public policy.

    Part two seeks to apply these four principles to several pressing issues in our world today, including church and state, life, poverty, the environment, human rights, the needs of Africa, and war and terrorism. On the issue of abortion, for example, Monsma points out that justice requires that human life, which is made in God’s image, should be protected by law. At the same time, Christians and others in our society should stand in solidarity with pregnant women facing difficult circumstances and seek to help and support them. In terms of civil society/sphere sovereignty, private organizations are typically better equipped to offer emotional and spiritual support, while government agencies are often better placed to provide monetary assistance, housing, and job training (though there may be exceptions where organizations can also contribute to these).

    Yet challenges and gray areas remain. To what extent should a society attempt to restrict abortion? Should exceptions be made for the health of the mother, in cases of rape and incest, or when the fetus is severely deformed? Are conservatives willing to support assistance programs for low-income families that will discourage women from having abortions? Are liberals willing to extend their concern for children to the womb?

    Monsma frequently raises difficult issues such as these in each of the chapters in part two, which I appreciate about the book. I believe his four biblical principles are compelling and important, though others, no doubt, could be added. He does a good job of consistently applying these criteria to the problems he addresses, while also highlighting some of the ambiguities that arise in trying to construct a consistent Christian public policy.  At some points I felt that references to relevant political philosophy would have made for a richer discussion (for example, in defining terms like “justice”), but Monsma was keen to keep the discussion concrete and practical (p. 50).

    The relationship between Christianity and government is a difficult and complex topic, and there are no easy answers. But the principles Monsma suggests are indispensable to the discussion, and deeply rooted in Scripture and Christian tradition.   Anyone interested in the intersection of Christianity and politics will find this book helpful, especially since the author has wrestled with many of these issues firsthand.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese

    * Thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy.

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    Book Review – Generation Ex-Christian

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  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (October 1, 2010)
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  • Recent statistics on the religious commitments of young people are alarming. Surveys show that 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claim no religion, and 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the ages of 18 and 22. The church is losing its youth at a disturbing rate. But behind every statistic is an individual story, and Drew Dyck contends in Generation Ex-Christian that most of these “leavers” fall into one of six broad categories: Postmodernists, Recoilers, Modernists, Neo-Pagans, Rebels, and Drifters.

    He devotes a chapter to each, which includes a description of the category, interviews with those who fit the category, and advice for how to reach out to each type of leaver. I found the interviews compelling and appreciated how they brought what could be merely abstract concepts to life. If you’ve spent much time sharing the gospel with different kinds of people, you will quickly recognize many of these “types” of non-believers (though Dyck acknowledges that every person has a unique story).

    I was most interested in the Modernists leavers, who appear for the most part to be new atheists. As part of his research for this group, Dyck attended a meeting of the Wheaton Atheists Group and describes his interaction with the skeptics there. One of the members, a young man named Dan, admitted that he had grown up in the Assemblies of God and had just recently left the faith.

    What had caused his crisis of faith?

    “I always believed the earth was 6,000 years old,” Dan said bitterly. “But now I know it’s not.”

    For years Dan tried desperately to maintain his belief in the young earth theory. He read material from Answers in Genesis, a Christian apologetics organization, consulted his pastor and people in his church. But ultimately he said he just couldn’t deny what he saw as the evidence that the world was much older than 6,000 years.

    “That’s when I realized that Christianity just wasn’t true,” he said.

    Inwardly I cringed at the false-alternatives scenario that Dan had set up in his mind. For him, one geological question (which the Bible doesn’t even address explicitly) was the deciding factor for faith.” (79-80)

    I cringe as well when I hear those kinds of stories and lament the fact that peripheral matters like the age of the earth are taken to be reasons for rejecting the gospel. But I’m discovering that these kinds of stories are common.

    Another atheist, Shane, had been drifting from his Christian faith for some time. What pushed him over the edge was the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

    “I’ve heard this from people in the atheist community, over and over again. September 11 made us all realize that you can’t be a fence-sitter on this issue. We realized that religion is causing these problems. It’s holding belief in things which are not empirically verifiable. That’s what’s wrong.” (104)

    Dyck ends the chapter with several pieces of good advice for reaching out to Modernist leavers. He encourages listening carefully and asking questions of skeptics, and not assuming common ground that doesn’t exist (e.g., the belief that the Bible is reliable or inspired). Relevant and suitable questions to ask include those that encourage a skeptic to follow the logical consequences of their worldview, including the loss of objective meaning and morality (some skeptics will deny this, but many don’t and readily admit it).  It will likely be necessary to point out the consequences of adopting a non-God worldview.

    Dyck also wisely encourages Christians to confront atheists with the fact that they themselves have a worldview that requires defending and offering good reasons for. In my experience, the majority of atheists believe that their skeptical position is somehow neutral ground that requires no justification to hold. But as long as anyone is making a positive claim of any kind (e.g., God doesn’t exist, Christianity is false, etc.), he or she is under the same obligation as the Christian to provide reasons and evidence for their claim. If someone just doesn’t know, then they should adopt the agnostic, rather than the atheistic, viewpoint.

    The other chapters of Generation Ex-Christian are as good as this one, so I heartily recommend this book, especially to those who need help understanding and reaching out to the leavers they know.

    The first chapter can be downloaded here.

    — Reviewed by Chris Reese.  In the interest of full disclosure, I work for Moody, the publisher of Generation Ex-Christian.

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    Book Review — Christ Among the Dragons

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  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Books (June 4, 2010)
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  • Christianbook.com
  • InterVarsity Press
  • Q and A with the Author
  • Orthodoxy. Dogma. Creed. Church. Religion. These words can evoke mixed feelings from those whose eyes wander across them. Even Christians, whose religion is shared, may react differently to a word like “Dogma” or “Orthodoxy.” One of the great questions of our Christian Age (and of any Christian Age) is this: “How are we to live?”

    James Emery White addresses this very topic in Christ Among the Dragons. White properly distinguishes two approaches to this question that have caused great turbulence in our Church:

    1) A lack of concern for truth and an abandonment of the central doctrines of Christianity

    and the very opposite problem of:

    2) An overly zealous tendency to focus too much on issues of little importance and to alienate those with which one disagrees on the details of Christian faith.

    Christ Among the Dragons is a book that on some pages convicted me—for I had, myself, sinned against my Christian brothers and sisters in my denouncing them over certain details of our Faith. On other pages it caused me to nod my head with sadness—for I have been attacked for different opinions on non-central doctrines of Christianity. The book, in all honesty, led me to tears on both accounts, and led me to repentance and to forgiveness.

    White begins with a chapter discussing the concept of “truthiness”—a divergence from absolute truth that has permeated our era. He then explores the concept of and need for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy, on White’s account, should be confined largely to “Mere Christianity.” White gives the illustration of Richard Baxter, who coined the term. Baxter was called upon to write about the “fundamentals of religion” for the government by Cromwell, and came up with a summary that “could be affirmed by a Papist,” as the complaint from Cromwell went. To this, Baxter replied, “So much the better” (p. 58). Baxter wrote, “Must you know what Sect or Party I am of? I am against all Sects and dividing Parties: but if any will call Mere Christian by the name of a Party . . . I am of that Party which is so against Parties . . . I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other religion” (58-59). It is this Mere Christianity that White stresses Christians should embrace: an acceptance of the central tenants of Christianity (namely, belief in Christ as Lord and Savior, the Trinity, and the Resurrection), but this not at the expense of jettisoning other beliefs. Instead, we should not let these other beliefs divide and separate us.

    White then goes on to describe the impact Christianity has had on the world. Then he explores the absolute necessity of Christian witness. Christians should never approach people outside the faith as needing to go to hell; instead, they are in need of witness (95). He finishes this chapter with one of my favorite quotes ever, from the atheist Penn Jillette: “If you believe that there is a heaven and hell and that people could be going to hell. . . . How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?” (100).

    Finally, White enters the section that I find most important in his book: an exploration of Christians’ attitude toward the world and toward other Christians. We should not approach non-Christians as enemies to be attacked, but as fellow creations of God, a God who loves them and who is calling them to Him. Our fellow Christians, likewise, should not be seen as enemies. White discusses what Christians should do about disagreements on doctrines in some quotes I simply must repeat:

    “Truth be told, we should have enough theological humility to admit that we may all be wrong. The greater issue is refusing to make our theological viewpoint the test of orthodoxy, the agenda for which we exist and the basis of our community. . . . And our rhetoric isn’t helping” (126).

    White later quotes two other theologians, John Stott and the Lutheran theologian Peter Meiderlin. Stott wrote:

    “Perhaps our criterion for deciding which is which [that is, which doctrines are essential and which are matters of liberty] . . . should be as follows. Whenever equally biblical Christians, who are equally anxious to understand the teaching of Scripture and to submit to its authority, reach different conclusions, we should deduce that evidently Scripture is not crystal clear in this matter, and therefore we can afford to give one another liberty” (127-128).

    Meiderlin stated, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    Christians of either of the two views outlined in 1) and 2) above tend to disagree with White here, but I think it is absolutely essential to take White’s words to heart:

    “When we condescendingly say that our position is simply the ‘gospel,’ as if it’s not really a debate worth having, then we are being arrogant. When we make our view the litmus test of orthodoxy, or even community, we are being neither gracious nor loving. When we say that our view alone upholds God’s sovereignty or that our perspective is the only one that cares about lost people, we are not being truthful. When we exhibit a haughty smirkiness, or we so state our position that we divide churches, student ministry groups or denominations, then we are sinning” (126-127).

    Christ Among the Dragons is one of the books I would consider essential reading for the Christian. It is a simple work that is never simplistic. White’s points are clear and relevant. Most importantly, however, I think many Christians will find, as I did, that his words will convict and comfort, his points will hit close to home, and Christ will shine through. I cannot recommend White’s work highly enough.

    — Reviewed by J. W. Wartick.  J. W. writes on philosophy and theology at Always Have a Reason.

    * Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy of Christ Among the Dragons.

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    Good Blog – Winfried Corduan

    Winfried Corduan, who taught philosophy and religion at Taylor University for 20 years, has a great blog covering lots of topics in theology, philosophy, church history, and related subjects.  Recently, he’s working on a series of posts on modern theology, like this one on Catholic theologian Hans Kung.  Here’s an excerpt:

    Küng’s first work attracted quite bit of attention.  It was entitled Justification, and its thesis was that the Reformation rested on a gigantic misunderstanding.  Using Karl Barth as his representative for Protestantism, he tried to show that both Luther and the Church overreacted, and that it never should have come to a split.  This certainly was an interesting thesis, though it seems to me that it’s a whole lot more plausible to let the Reformers speak for the Reformers themselves, in which case there would be an issue after all. In case you’re interested, a much more realistic treatment from the Catholic side, that does not try to rationalize away important differences, can be found in Michael Schmaus’s 6-volume set Dogma, particularly in the last volume, also entitled Justification.

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