The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

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The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

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Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers - A Review

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Dorothy L. Sayers is one the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century. Her work spans a number of genres, from detective novels, to religious stage productions, radio dramas, apologetic essays, and translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio that are still in print.

Sayers is less popular than C. S. Lewis, in part, I think, because he wrote children’s literature that draws new generations of readers more readily into his camp. Sayers was, however, no less witty and intriguing a figure as Lewis.

In fact, it is encouraging that more of Sayers’ work seems to be returning to print. There are a number of her essays that are hard to find, but which politely dismember opposing arguments in terms that make the power of her logic perfectly clear. Her detective novels, which are now somewhat dated period literature, are good stories in addition to their subtle arguments for truth. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, need a good dose of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The latest release in the Plough Publishing series celebrating the gospel in a range of writers is The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers. This anthology curates selections from all genres in chapters focused on particular topics like judgment, equality, creativity, and the cross. In some cases, entire essays are reprinted, like her powerful and satirical essay, “The Dogma is the Drama.” In other cases, the editor has selected a few paragraphs from a novel, or a scene from a play.

This book may not be the best place to start for those who are seeking to learn about Dorothy L. Sayers.  Though the anthology shows the range of her work, much of the power of her writing takes chapters to unfold. Her characters grow, mature, and endear themselves to readers over several novels. For example, her portrait of Bunter, one of my favorite characters in all of literature, can only be fully appreciated by reading all of the Lord Peter stories.

My concern with the approach of this volume is that people will miss the genius of Sayers while getting the idea that she was moralistic in her writing, because of the topical selections. There is no question that the gospel is woven through Sayers’ writing, but her work is worth exploring because it is good even before its moral power becomes apparent. Sayers herself, I believe, would shudder to think that people would read her work because she is a Christian rather than for the artistic quality of it.

At the same time, with the growing interest in Sayers studies, this is a timely and helpful volume. For those who have already come to appreciate her work, The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers offers a buffet to sample some of her other offerings. Also, the book can make a handy reference volume (much like books of quotes by Chesterton and Lewis) since it can be hard to remember just where and exactly how Sayers said something in one of the books one has read. The editor has done well to select many of the most significant passages, such that this book may serve as a shortcut for those writing on Dorothy L. Sayers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Lion in the Waste Land - A Review

In the period after the first World War, the Britain was in an existential crisis. The nation remains, at least in name, a Christian nation. At that point, though, the requirement to attend services had been dropped, which subsequently revealed that much of the population had little interest in Christianity. When the pressure of German hostility and the subsequent Battle of Britain became a pervasive threat to daily life, that nations, with its vaguely Christian memories, began to wonder if the resources for survival might be found in the Old Paths of Christian faith.

That period of British history saw several key voices arise to present a credible vision of Christianity to a population that had forgotten the core tenets of the gospel. The first was G. K. Chesterton, who was a journalist and a novelist, and whose work both influenced and made possible the trio of writers that are the main subject of Janice Brown’s recent book, The Lion in the Waste Land.

From amidst the literal rubble of British cities and the figurative rubble of a culture devastated by the carpet bombing of modernity, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot stand out as prophetic voices pointing people back to the spiritual and cultural resources of Christianity. The Lion in the Waste Land puts the three contemporaries, who were also friends, into conversation and shows how the powerful truth of the gospel of Christ pervades both the non-fiction and fiction works of all three authors.

Summary

Chapter One reveals the continuity in the message of the three uniquely gifted individuals. It also traces how their friendships formed. In the case of the Lewis-Eliot friendship, Brown’s historical explanation is especially helpful since Lewis was vocally critical of Eliot’s poetry early on; yet, the two became friends and co-laborers in revealing authentic Christianity to the world. In the second Chapter, Brown articulates the methodologies used by the three authors: there were overt apologetic attempts by all three, but their more powerful presentation of the fierce redemption found in the gospel is found in their imaginative works. This chapter helps show why these three laypeople were so particularly effective in showing the credibility of Christianity and why they remain popular to this day.

After the first two chapters, The Lion in the Waste Land shifts from historical overview to literary analysis. What follows are several chapters where Brown explores literary themes that are common in the work of Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers and which relate to the truth of Christianity and the redemptive power of the gospel. In Chapter Three, the reader is treated to a thematic exposition of the figure of Christ in the work of all three authors. Brown traces through images—both overt and subtle—to indicate the pervasiveness of Christ in their literature. The fourth chapter surveys the idea of choice and God’s pursuit of humanity for their salvation. This is a theme that is present in much of the work of Eliot, Sayers, and Lewis, and one that forms a unity with the idea of a fierce redemption by God. Chapter Five interrogates the work of the three subjects for uses of angelic figures. These supernatural beings populate the imaginative worlds of the apologetic trio, offering a start contrast to the anti-supernatural vision of modernity.

Having unpacked some of the central Christian themes in Sayers, Eliot, and Lewis, Brown again shifts her focus to the methods and impact of the three writers in their particular cultural-historical context. Chapter Six outlines how the work of the three authors was shaped by and responded to the particular sufferings of Britain during World War II: their message was received and promoted because it offered a plausible source of meaning for a nation teetering on the brink of despair without adequate resources to stand firm. In the seventh chapter Brown explores the deeper message that was offered by all three authors: redemption begins the journey toward the joy in union with Christ. In this chapter Brown delves into the concept of the Christian life as it is portrayed by Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers. In the final chapter, the book emphasizes how each of the subjects was pushing readers back toward historical Christianity, where the resources for salvation and sanctification could be found, rather than toward a revised, modernistic version of Christianity. This is particularly powerful, since all three were particularly Modern authors, but all three pointed people back to resources from the traditional faith of the Church—a distinctly un-modern thing to do.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Lion in the Waste Land is an excellent scholarly work on three of the most interesting people to live in the last century. Brown combines excellent literary criticism with careful biographical research to present a cogent vision of the impact that Lewis, Sayers, and Eliot had in their particular context and continue to have, particularly in the English-speaking world.

This book should remain a mainstay in Inklings studies for decades in the future. Brown’s work is careful, subtle, and reasonably comprehensive. It is both an example of a critical work done well and work of scholarship that will be intensely interesting to those engaged in the study of modern English literature, particularly in the works of Eliot, Lewis, and Sayers.

Window on the World - A Review

Finding helpful resources for discipling children can be a challenge. It is difficult to find resources that are reasonably up to date, engaging, and avoid theologically tendentious assertions.

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In particular, teaching children about other cultures and the pressing need for a broader vision and calling to cross-cultural evangelism, especially through international missions. One helpful resource has been the Operation World concept adapted for children in the Window on the World book. That full-color volume gives an introduction to world cultures, nations, and religious ideas in a brief, engaging manner. However, due to the passage of time and shifting of political winds, many of the entries had become outdated and factually inaccurate.

Thankfully, IVP has released a revised edition of the Window on the World book. This roughly 200 page volume has been updated with new pictures, correct sociological data, and different people groups. It, too, will need to be updated before long. In the meanwhile, this is a resource that missionally minded parents would do well to invest in.

Window on the World has ninety-two entries. There are fifty-two countries discussed, thirty-four people groups, and six discussions of major world religions.

Each of the entries is visually engaging with up-to-date color pictures, maps, and informational panels that offer specific prayer topics and important statistics. The text is simply written with an emphasis of personal accounts of families or children from within the given people group or nation.

At two pages each, the topics discussed in the book are far from exhaustive. However, they provide enough information to interest a young reader or listener in the world outside his or her own experience. It personalizes the lostness of the world, the ongoing persecution of Christians in other cultures, and the importance of praying for, given to, and participating in cross-cultural missions.

This volume is organized alphabetically, which means that linear progress through the volume can sometimes be uneven. It will take a bit of planning to study particular regions of the world in sequence. However, it is just this sort of shifting between the Hui people group to the nation of Iceland to the country of India that will keep some young readers flipping the pages.

Window on the World provides a way for homeschool parents to teach their children about the lostness of the world and disciple them toward prayer and engagement in cross-cultural missions. In addition to its information, it has specific suggestions for praying for each of the entries. The length is appropriate for reading at a meal time or including as a brief topic between other academic subjects. Similarly, it may be possible to incorporate this resource into a study of geography.

Parents who do not homeschool will also find this a helpful resource, since it could be used for a family devotional activities in the evenings or on weekends. It is friendly to a wide range of theological traditions, since it focuses on the socio-political information of each entry, but could be part of a regular pattern of teaching in the home.

This is the sort of book that will intrigue many children, especially those who find encyclopedias engaging. The layout, writing style, and brevity of the entries makes this a feast for those youngsters that find Usborne or DK books so entertaining. Even absent a parental strategy of organized teaching on world missions, this volume could accomplish the same ends merely by being placed on an appropriate shelf.

The church should be thankful for IVP for updating this valuable resource. The editors, Jason Mandryk and Molly Wall, have provided a service to the body of Christ as we seek to raise up another generation with a heart for seeing people from every tribe and tongue and nation come to Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Faun's Book Shelf - A Review

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A quick glance at the work of C. S. Lewis could cause the casual observer to divide his work into several distinct bundles. The first is his apologetic work, which was really his cause for fame, in which category I would include his substantial journalistic engagement. The second category that is easy to recognize is his fiction. And, the third category, which is often ignored by all but his more ardent fans, is his professional work in literary criticism.

All three categories are significant. And, in all three categories, readers get a consistent witness to the author. The ideas of C. S. Lewis are clearly present through three significantly different genres of writing. This sort of consistency is part of what makes Lewis worthwhile to read, even when some of the issues he addresses are no longer major topics of concern.

Though he is consistent throughout his work, C. S. Lewis’ fictional work is the most significant. In his technical work on literature, Lewis shows how culture has shifted regarding epistemology. In his apologetic and journalistic work, Lewis argues why it is better to be a Christian. However, in his fictional work, Lewis illustrates what is wrong with contemporary thought and how realistic, Christian modes of thought can make the world a better place.

By writing fiction, Lewis makes concrete what is somewhat abstract in his non-fiction writing. (Though as writers go, his non-fiction is much more concrete than most.) This is, in part, a result of his understanding of and reliance upon the power of myth.

In his recent book, The Faun’s Bookshelf, Charlie Starr traces the power of myth—or, in contemporary parlance, the power of story—in C. S. Lewis. The main argument is advanced on two levels: (1) Starr shows how Lewis uses pre-existing myth and weaves it into his fiction, (2) Starr also demonstrates how Lewis creates myth to convey his ideas in a convincing way. The exploration of these topics is set in the larger context of considering why myth matters and how it can be used by those of us who are not literary geniuses like C. S. Lewis. Starr, a former English professor, focuses on the work of Lewis, but his broader point applies to the use of myth and stories in all media and genres.

The book is divided into four parts, each with three chapters. In Part One, Starr explores the general definitions of myth, including the idea that myth may not mean fictional. Rather, Starr presents a vision of myth that is consistent with Lewis’: Myth may well be the careful retelling of true stories in an evocative, imaginative manner. Part Two examines how Lewis used pre-existing cultural myths in his fictional work to deepen the myth he is creating. For example, Lewis borrows Silenus from Greek mythology and puts him on the shelf of a Narnian faun with the book title, The Life and Letters of Silenus. Starr explores how that title reflects the Narnian longing for a better time of feasting and celebration.

In Part Three, Starr flips the script to examine the way that Narnian mythology questions the reality of our world, especially with titles like, Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers; A Study in Popular Legend. The reader knowns that men, monks, and gamekeepers exist—or that they existed—but those realities appear to be distant legends in Narnia. So may our myths bear the echoes of truth with a great deal more clarity than we realize. Part Four takes up more general questions necessary to understand Lewis’ approach to myth, by considering Lewis’ broader thinking on myth, the influence of Norse mythology in his life, and taking up a somewhat obscure but important possible contradiction in the writing of Lewis on myth.

The Faun’s Bookshelf is a worthwhile book based on two distinct contributions. First, Starr has done good work in synthesizing Lewis’ thought on myth and providing context for much of his use and reuse of myth. This makes the book a valuable resource for Lewis studies. Second, the book takes up the important question of the power of stories to shape culture. As people grapple with the acquisition of meaning and the power of myth, a study that shows how an expert used fiction to deepen reality is a welcome contribution.

This book will be most interesting for those that enjoy Lewis already. It is well-written in accessible prose, so that it should not be consigned to the stacks of academic libraries. The Faun’s Bookshelf would be an excellent secondary text for a university level course on C. S. Lewis, or even as part of a high school elective. Meanwhile, the book explores important questions that can deepen ongoing discussions on Christian participation in the arts.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law - A Review

There are some who have the impression that C. S. Lewis was a non-political thinker. After all, this is the man who stated that he didn’t read the newspaper (others would tell you the most important events) and who once wrote: “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” (“Membership”, Weight of Glory, 109)

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If one takes in only Lewis’ book-length works, it is easy to maintain this opinion. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Lewis had a lot to say about politics and had some clear views about what politics ought to be about. At the same time, Lewis generally wrote at a conceptual level, though he occasionally had something say about particular political propositions. However, in these cases, he focused on the issue, with its supporting arguments, rather than the people and power structures involved.

In their recent book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, Justin Buckley Dyer from the University of Missouri and Micah J Watson at Calvin College have worked to offer a systematic presentation of Lewis’ writing on politics and natural law. Although Lewis wrote a great deal about politics and natural law, he did not write a single reference volume. Thus, the work that Dyer and Watson have done contributes to both political science and Lewis studies.

This brief book has seven chapters. It begins by debunking the misperception that Lewis was not political in Chapter One. In the second chapter, the authors summarize the pattern of the Christian worldview–– Creation, Fall, and Redemption––which is always present and often overt in Lewis’ writing. Chapter Three puts Lewis’ work in contact with some of the significant criticisms of natural law theory, particularly the critique of Karl Barth.

In the fourth chapter, Watson and Dyer focus on one of Lewis’ most important works for both ethics and political science, The Abolition of Man. In that chapter they outline some of the many changes in culture that Lewis was responding to in that short volume. Chapter Five contains the most debatable proposition of the volume, where they argue that Lewis’ held to a form of Lockean Liberalism. There is evidence to support their case, though Lewis never cites Locke; the authors remain on safe ground by arguing that Lewis and Locke shared many tenets in their political philosophy. In the sixth chapter, the authors discuss some of Lewis’ writing on political discourse and the place of Christianity in the political sphere. There is much to be learned from Lewis in this regard. The book concludes with Chapter Seven, the authors summarize their arguments and urge the reader to continue to engage contemporary issues through the work of C. S. Lewis.

At times, given the amount of secondary literature on C. S. Lewis, one wonders whether there is much more to say about him. Whether academic studies of Lewis will run their course remains to be seen, but Dyer and Watson have demonstrated that there is still more to be gleaned from the voluminous work of C. S. Lewis. This book adds to the ongoing conversation about political theology, political science, and the work of C. S. Lewis.

A significant danger with dual-authored volumes is uneven writing styles, which can make them difficult to read. This volume, however, has a consistent flow throughout and is a pleasure to read. C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is a book that has potential to be a ready resource for years to come.

This volume presents Lewis fairly and thoroughly and it makes it clear how Lewis can be helpful for Christians. One area that deserves further exploration is how Lewis and natural law can be helpful in building a common understanding beyond the ranks of the redeemed.

The more Lewis I read, the more I find him helpful. Dyer and Watson’s book both supports that sentiment and deepens it. They have done excellent work in producing a readable volume that is both illuminating and applicable.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law
By Justin Buckley Dyer, Micah J. Watson

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Witness of the Cognitively Impaired - A Review of "Living Gently in a Violent World"

All societies struggle with establishing a place for those who live with some form of physical or mental disability. Although we have not arrived, the modern developed world has made great strides in ensuring reasonable accommodations for those with physical disabilities. Despite some accounts of abuses of the ADA, in general, the move toward finding ways to more fully enable the participation of physically disabled persons in society is a good thing. We have struggled to a greater degree with finding a place for those with cognitive disabilities.

(Before moving on, I should note that I am using the word “disability” in a non-pejorative sense. Rather than attempting to establish some euphemism for a physical or cognitive difference from the majority of the population, I am simply indicating that there are individuals who, due to nature or accident, have different capabilities in one particular area that impact their ability to maneuver our society as easily as others. That there are such differences and that they make life more difficult for those who have them is not disputable. Often creative naming conventions appear to hinder rather than help the conversation.)

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It is the cognitively disabled who are often least to be integrated into society, and those with both cognitive and physical disabilities who struggle the most. As a result of these disabilities many of these people are often sidelined, discarded, and viewed as problems to be solved rather than people to be loved.

In this, our modern, civilized, and inclusive culture is very little different than any other, despite our prideful belief in advancement. This was reinforced to me recently at a community event out of doors. People were lining the sidewalk to watch a parade of WWII era vehicles and reenactors. Much of the best space was covered several tiers deep, with people sitting on the curb, and a second or third row seated behind.

My family arrived after the initial rush and found one section of the curb unoccupied. The reason quickly became obvious because seated in their wheelchairs and camping chairs along the back of the sidewalk were the residents of a group home, likely the local ARC (which once stood for the Association of Retarded Citizens until “retarded” became an epithet rather than a euphemism). These adults made gross noises, talked at the wrong times, and were otherwise disruptive of polite norms. This meant that the curb in front of them was empty, until we sat down. For many, to be sure, the space was left out of consideration to not interfere with any care the group might need. For others, I wonder if the unwillingness to sit in front was not due to a certain level of disgust with these people and a sub-conscious discomfort at these “misfits.” This second hypothesis is reflective of the generally lower value society often places on those with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments.

In a recently revised book, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier use the L’Arche communities, founded by Vanier, as an example of honoring the humanity of all persons, including those with cognitive disabilities. The book is worthy of reading, as it is a brief, but potent example of a better way to conceive of care for some of the least valued persons in our society.

Summary

The book is very short. It has only four chapters, book ended by an introduction and conclusion authored by John Swinton. The expanded edition also includes a study guide, with chapter by chapter questions for review.

Two of the chapters were authored by Vanier and two by Hauerwas. Vanier’s chapters deal with practical and personal accounts of life within L’Arche. These accounts, though theologically muddled, demonstrate Vanier’s real and significant concern for the citizens of our world least likely to be valued. The vision he provides of people with cognitive disabilities being treated as humans, with personalities and flaws like the rest of us, is compelling. Instead of hiding the mentally disabled from view and treating them like patients, L’Arche communities involve co-living with “normal” people who interact with them as neighbors rather than as clients. This process both recognizes the unique needs of these individuals and their distinct value as humans.

Hauerwas’s chapters are more theoretical in nature. As is usual for Hauerwas, they are eminently readable, often very pointed, and sometimes powerfully prophetic. The theological vision presented in this book is an application of his broader pacific ethic, an exposition, if you will, on the structure he outlines in books like The Peaceable Kingdom. The degree to which one finds the whole structure of Hauerwas’s ethics convincing will reflect the degree to which one accepts his theological reflections in this volume. He deals with some of the same obvious inconsistencies in this book as in all his works: e.g., writing about ecclesiology while remaining distant from the authority of a church, and, in this book, writing about gentleness with a somewhat aggressive polemic. This is vintage Hauerwas, both prophetic and conflicted in nature, but distinctly worthy of parsing.

The most significant point of this volume, which is a powerful one, is that among its many ethical concerns, the Christian church must remember the cognitively disabled. Caring for them is a reflection of the church’s gospel witness in the world. Because the cognitively disabled can often contribute very little to society in terms of economic productivity, they are often sidelined and hidden from sight. To some degree, this is necessary to shield them from becoming spectacles and ensuring they receive appropriate care. However, the treatment is often as bad as the condition, resulting in ostracization and isolation that denies the imago Dei in the mentally disabled––as if the primary, and perhaps sole, way that we image God is through rational capability (i.e., functional) rather than in our unmeasurable personhood (i.e., ontological). Hauerwas and Vanier draw attention to the insufficiency of this perspective and the need for deeper theological reflection and practical action for the good of Christian communities and the gospel witness of the universal church.

Conclusion

This book is a short, helpful reminder of a potential blind spot in the application of the gospel. Because we have removed the mentally disabled from view, we often forget about them. Organizations like L’Arche and Shepherds ministry are doing good work in seeking to emphasize the humanity of people with cognitive impairments. Not all of us are called to live in those communities, but all of us would do well to ponder how we have unconsciously adopted an instrumental, functional view of the value of humanity, which is reflected by our revulsion at, discomfort with, or simple desire to avoid the presence of those whose minds lack the agility with which we have been unreasonably blessed.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Why We Need Religion - A Review

Some atheists move beyond their objections to religion to a form of frothy mouthed rage that anyone dare believe in something beyond what can be measured, analyzed, and peer reviewed. Famously, Richard Dawkins has asserted that parents teaching their children Christian doctrine is a form of child abuse. And, of course, there are meanspirited gadflies like those in the Freedom From Religion organization who like to attack people engaged in public service for having faith that is not hidden from view. Such antipathy is not universal. Some atheists are more benign. However, there is enough anti-religious emotion among the supposed rationalists that the militant fundamentalist accusations about an “atheist agenda,” etc., etc., are not entirely unfounded (just overblown).

In contrast to such overt hostility, Stephen T. Asma, professor of Philosophy at Columbia College, Chicago, and confirmed atheist, has written a book to argue that maybe religion isn’t quite so bad and doesn’t deserve violent eradication just yet. Accordingly, he offers an intriguing purpose in his recent volume, Why We Need Religion. He writes, “I will endeavor a charitable interpretation of the believer and religion, one that couches such conviction in the universal emotional life that connects us all.” (14)

Summary

The general point of Asma’s book is that scientism is best, but religion helps people feel good, so it should be tolerated by those who know better. While ensuring the reader never doubts his atheistic bona fides, Asma sorts through sociological data that he argues point to the necessity of some form of religion as a “cultural analgesic.”

Asma finds multiple benefits of religion, which he argues are reasons that society should not seek to destroy religion and ridicule believers. In chapter length treatments, Asma argues that religion in general, especially those with a belief in an afterlife, help people navigate sorrow due to death and even personal fear of death. Such myths keep some people from despair, so there is no reason not to allow that beneficial belief.

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For some, religion enables the ability to forgive. The belief that there will be justice meted out gives people resources not to seek immediate, personal vengeance. Similarly, a belief in a higher power can help people have mental strength leading to internal peace, resilience, and the ability to sacrifice for others.

Religion also enables people to find communal joy, to channel sexual energy, and engage in forms of imaginative play. These aspects of religion, according to Asma, have evolved in ways that differentiate us from some of the lower animals and help us get by as a society. At other points, religion proves useful in helping people control their fear and anger.

Analysis

Given his assumptions, the argument is reasonable throughout, but the general point is that religion—at least some level of religion—is acceptable because it has socially and evolutionarily beneficial fruit. Thus, even if it is not actively encouraged, certain types of religion should be deemed acceptable, as long as it sufficiently agrees with the moral consensus of society and encourages behaviors approved by enough people. For example, religion that fosters contemporary forms of functional egalitarianism, pursuit of approved economic and social outcomes, and controls unsocial emotional outbursts should be accepted.

At a most basic level, it is nice to have an atheist write something that does not curse every believer for their foolishness and vehemently denigrate their existence for not aligning their faith commitments to those of radical empiricism. Asma’s book shows that the conversation between religion and radical empiricism need not be an out and out street fight at all times, especially if one accepts a version of religion that is palatable for skeptics.

Ironically, though he is an atheist, Asma makes many of the same arguments for religion in general that some versions of Christianity (the religion with which I am most familiar) make. Religion can help you live your best life now. Believing can make you a better citizen. Your kids won’t misbehave as much if you keep them in church. You can have inner peace if you will just believe. There’s no need to fear death if you’ll just pray this prayer. The list can go on and on. This observation shows the paucity of much teaching among Christians of varying stripes. I have heard similar pitches presented as “evangelism” before, and sometimes they succeed in getting people to participate in activities with Christians for a while. There is a pointed lesson here, for those whose faith would be acceptable to an atheist.

The acceptable religion Asma hopes for is the one that nods toward doing good deeds from time to time, talks about miracles as fiction that points to a higher moral, and moves aside traditional doctrines that interfere with the current popular polls. In Christian circles, Asma’s preferred forms of religion align very well with the stated doctrines of many mainline Protestant denominations and lived faith of many Evangelical and Roman Catholic adherents. Lukewarm is the hottest the faucet should go, lest it lead to a failure to go with the flow. Coexist bumper stickers are the main sign of approved faith, rather than rosaries, crucifixes, or fish stickers. Bland is the religion that is properly admissible by the Zeitgeist.

Asma’s arguments also reveal there is no point at which the attempt of liberal Christianity to create a truly minimalist faith will ever really be acceptable in society. As the moral winds shift and the polling changes, there will always be a new doctrine considered anti-social and require abandonment. Whatever vestiges of truth and odor of gospel efficacy is left in an acceptable version of Christianity won’t have much power to save, if any at all in a few years. In other words, Asma reveals that seeking praise from atheists isn’t a worthy endeavor because nothing but utter capitulation will ever be applauded, so those who claim to be orthodox and faithful should focus on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God as we believe and proclaim a rigorous, full-throated, gospel-saturated doctrine.

For faithful, orthodox Christian readers, the best use of this book is to see in it an affirmation of some of the things that we know to be true, though Asma denies the basis. Faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can help make us better citizens, to the degree that society maintains a true sense of the common good. Basically, Asma is arguing that we aren’t (always) the moral equivalent of child abusers and sometimes actually do good things, which is better than the alternative.

In the end, this is a book that was not written to people who really believe what they claim to believe, whether they are Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or whatever. This is a book that, despite claiming to offer an olive branch, oozes condescension on nearly every page. It’s a patronizing pat on the head from the person who pretended to listen while you speak to them and then lets you know he was ignoring everything you said by his smug smile and dismissive comment. Most probably, though, the target audience for this book is not people who actually believe and practice their faith, it is the mushy middle and the militant atheist.

One possible positive outcome is that some from the mushy middle may encounter the gospel if they wander into a faithful Christian church on some Sunday morning to find the inner peace Asma highlights; may Asma’s work bear such fruit.

On the other hand, this is a book that may be helpful if it has the socially beneficial result of tempering the fundamentalist zealotry of a few atheists. On that basis, I think that it makes a valuable contribution to the conversation of the relationship between religion and society.

Why We Need Religion
By Stephen T. Asma

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.