Between One Faith and Another - A Review

It is difficult, at times, to understand different perspectives on the compatibility of religions. Or, perhaps to be clearer, I might say that it is hard to understand without caricature other people’s ideas about religions.

For example, for those raised on conservative Christian teaching, there is no question that Christianity is incompatible with dozens of others world religions. We have heard this asserted from pulpit, lectern, and printed page so often that it is clear to us that Buddhism conflicts with orthodox Christianity in ways that are irreconcilable. Truths are black and white. We can be absolutely certain of most things. The law of non-contradiction reigns supreme. This is the perspective on religion known as exclusivism.

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And yet, many hold to the notion that all religions are somehow leading people to climb the same mountain, though via different paths. Though Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, some suggest that his illumination shines through the teachings of other world religions such that all provide a functional path to God. In its most benign forms, this perspective on religion teaches that there is some truth in all religions, and therefore no conflict between them in the absolute core. One might make progress toward salvation (whatever that means) as a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim. This view is often called inclusivism.

There is a third perspective on religion, which is called pluralism, that argues we just don’t know which of the religions has the truth (if there is one), but that all may have a piece of the truth. Those that propound this view typically trot out the illustration of blind men feeling different parts of the mountain, an image which Lesslie Newbigin and others have helpfully identified as arrogant presumption of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This perspective often entails a sort of agnosticism, which asks the believer to wait and see before making final commitments.

In didactic texts, whether of the form used for indoctrinating children through Fundamentalist Christian worldview courses or those used to influence college sophomores in a world religions course, these perspectives are often presented triumphalistically. The pastor shows how the god of Mohammed is really vastly different than the God of Paul; the political science professor dons a head scarf and asserts that the two deities are really the same without understanding the basic theological issues; the tired, uninterested arm-chair philosopher argues for pluralism because he really wants people to stop arguing and killing one another over religion. These approaches and their related variants often tend to dismiss alternative perspectives without increasing understanding.

For those interested in understanding better the relationship between inclusivism, exclusivism, and pluralism, Peter Kreeft has written a new book, Between One Faith and Another: Engaging Conversations on the World’s Great Religions.

Summary

I was initially skeptical of this volume, because it is written in the form of a dialogue (or really a trialogue), which is not my favorite form of philosophy. I am also aware that Kreeft is a committed Roman Catholic who converted from evangelical Christianity, so he has a distinct perspective on the issue; I wondered how well he could represent the perspectives in this format.

My doubt, however, was ill-founded. Kreeft has produced a volume that will help people from all three perspectives to understand the others better. This is because, as Kreeft admits in his introduction, he has sympathies with each of the three characters and their perspective. Kreeft dealt the cards fairly when assigning roles and allowed the dialogue to unfold relatively naturally, without cheating arguments by exposing only flaws or highlighting only strengths.

The volume is a conversation between two students over the content of a world religions course. The atheist/agnostic rationalist is an exclusivist, seeing all the conflicts between different religions. He argues that not only do they conflict with one another irreconcilably, but that they are therefore all wrong; this the is character that sees the fatal flaw in all religions. He is the extremely rational college student who likes to blow the whistle on logical fallacies; sort of like your average Christian homeschooler, but without the background knowledge of Adventures in Odyssey.

The second main character is also a fellow student with the exclusivist, she is the inclusivist who believes that we’re all climbing the same mountain. She rightly notes the moral similarity between most world religions and, sometimes through an act of will, argues that religions have a common center and only conflict (or appear to conflict) in their practice. The rigorous logic of the exclusivist seems over harsh for this theologically liberal Christian.

These two characters engage in a Socratic dialogue after class, since both of them come off with understandable disagreements with the Professor. This is, perhaps, the most unrealistic aspect of the entire book: two people with different worldviews engaging in thoughtful dialogue over a long period of time. However, if the reader suspends disbelief, this is a helpful heuristic tool.

True to reality, Kreeft allows the debate between the inclusivist and exclusivist to wander afield and get mired into the predictable conflict over logic, non-contradiction, and compassion. However, here he inserts a third character, the pluralistic professor who tries not to present his view in class (and perhaps actually lacks a clear view) but simply presents the different religions with their strengths and weaknesses. This professor functions as a plot device to referee the debate when the students get off-track and caught in do loops of circular argument.

Analysis and Conclusion

Overall, the conversation is engaging and informative. There were several points along the way that Kreeft’s dialogue made me laugh out loud because he naturally inserted humor in an otherwise potentially dry discussion. The content of the conversation is relatively natural in its flow, though Kreeft thankfully cleaned up the rhetoric and expression of the speakers to make the debate more precise and linear than would be likely in a real, human conversation.

There are points throughout the volume that the reader is left a bit frustrated, since there is no clear hero, no matter the reader’s perspective. It's a good sort of frustration, though. The inclusivist, exclusivist, and pluralist all score points and all get scored on. At times, each is infuriatingly mired in his or her thought process. However, the characters do develop over the course of the volume, as they each accept the validity of the others’ viewpoints where appropriate. None of the characters “convert” to another perspective, though the rough edges are certainly worn off in several cases.

This is, in short, an example of the sort of conversation that should be happening in society, especially in higher education, but which too rarely occurs. Between One Faith and Another raises more questions than it answers, but that would make this a useful text for multiple audiences.

As a parent of a homeschooler, this is the sort of text that I might consider using in a high school world religions course. It covers many of the basic facts of various world religions, but gets to the more basic (and often ignored) question of how we should deal with the variety of religions.

This volume would be useful in a comparative religions course in a religious or non-religious higher education setting, because Kreeft does well at being even-handed throughout the conversation.

For the casual reader, like me, this volume is truly enjoyable. The conversation moves along, the content is clear and helpful, and the reader’s character is formed by sympathizing with people with whom one would otherwise naturally disagree. This is worth reading, even if simply for the enjoyment of it.

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

Counting the Cost - A Review

Capitalism is often used as a curse word in contemporary political discourse. For others, it is used as a description of ultimate, unadulterated good. The term, coined by opponents of a free market, has so many definitions that it’s sometimes hard to figure out exactly what those that use the term mean by it. For some that dislike free market economics, capitalism is responsible for everything that is wrong with the world. For some that prefer a free market, capitalism is the sum of all the world’s goodness.

In reality, of course, the answer is somewhere in the middle. However, it is often hard to get people on either side to listen to legitimate critiques of capitalism and responses to those critiques. A recent volume published by The Institute for Faith, Work and Economics provides a reasoned and reasonable critique of capitalism, that in the end commends continued support for free market economics. This is an important book precisely because it takes the critiques of opponents to free market economics seriously and addresses them from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Summary and Analysis

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism consists of twelve chapter-length essays that rebut common objections to capitalism. The book opens with one of the final essays penned by Michael Novak, which considers the impact and validity of his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in the three decades after it was published. Novak’s epilogue from perhaps his most significant work calls for a continual reforming and humanization of our economic system, with a significant emphasis on pursuing the common good in a free society in the economic, political, and social orders. He notes that the apparent moral slide (especially in a lack of compassion for one another) must be corrected or our free system will not survive.

In Chapter Two, Jonathan Pennington outlines a vision for human flourishing built on Scripture. This is a necessary beginning point for Christians, since such a vision should shape the goals and means of any ethical economic systems. Critically, Pennington highlights the reality that flourishing is distinct from being wealthy. The goal of Christians as they engage in capitalist society is not merely to build wealth, but to encourage holistic well-being.

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Chapter Three takes on the fairly common argument that capitalism, ipso facto, is contrary to Christianity. Here Art Lindsley explains why Scripture does not, as some claim, actually extol the necessity or benefits of socialism. However, the reader will aptly note, capitalism has enabled some significant abuses, which some argue makes the system itself immoral. The fourth chapter, therefore, takes up the question of whether capitalism is antithetical to Christian morality because it is based on greed. New Testament scholar David Kotter argues that greed is a real danger in capitalistic systems, but that the system is not dependent upon greed, as some critics argue. While there is a need for moral reform by market actors, the system should not be discarded simply because it has been misrepresented or, as every system is due to human sin, abused.

Chapter Five asks whether capitalism as a system is fundamentally exploitative. This is based on the sometimes states assumption by some critics of free markets that profit is inherently sinful and that anything less than ideal conditions is unquestionably abusive. Joseph Connors argues that while exploitation is certainly possible and does occur, that such abuses are not a function of the system itself. Building on that theme, Anne Bradley asks whether income inequality is evidence of exploitation in her essay in Chapter Six. Bradley argues, in short, that income inequality is not necessarily a result of abuse, though it can be and often is when the concentrated power of capital is used to game the political system. She is critical of legitimate abuses due to misuses of power, but carefully explains why absolute income and wealth equality is neither a viable nor desirable goal as some claim.

Joy Buchanan and Vernon Smith take up the question of who benefits in capitalist systems in Chapter Seven. Critics of free market economics argue that the rich are the ones who benefit from capitalism, since economics is a zero-sum game. The authors carefully show, however, that free trade is not a zero-sum encounter and that both trade partners actually benefit. Their central argument on this point is good, though there are points within the chapter they deviate from their point and offer insufficiently supported arguments that will tend to raise questions for critics that read this volume. Chapter Eight addresses the same question from another angle. Doug Bandow provides evidence that the poor are actually the greatest benefits of free markets. At the same time, he notes that free markets are not sufficient for human flourishing and honestly contends with some of the abuses that have arisen within modern, Western versions of capitalism.

In Chapter Nine, Edd Noell considers the common criticism that capitalism relies upon and inevitably fosters consumerism. This chapter concludes that consumerism is bad and that it is prevalent in society, but though its public display is a result of economic prosperity due to capitalism, it has its roots in human sin that precedes the invention of modern capitalism. Consumerism is a problem to be addressed, but not one that is truly the fault of a free market. The tenth chapter, by Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, considers whether global corporations export poor countries. Their answer is that they certainly do at times, but these are cases where unjust negotiations and unfair trade barriers hamper legitimate free trade. The conclusion again is that there are abuses within capitalism, which are the result of human sin, but they are not caused by the fact of free trade itself.

The eleventh chapter evaluates whether capitalism and environmental stewardship are incompatible. Cal Beisner begins by explaining that socialism has an even more devastating record on environmental stewardship than capitalism. This runs the risk of committing a tu quoque, but that is not Beisner’s intention. However, Beisner’s point is simply to note that, once again, the problem is not the economic system, but the actions of the sinful humans within it. Helpfully, Beisner recognizes the need to internalize externalities—that is, to hold companies accountable for pollution and other general costs. The core defense in this essay is helpful—human sin will lead to abuse of creation in any system. In his argument for dealing with externalities, however, Beisner offers a replacement of the regulatory role of the state with a mainly judicial one; that is, that offended parties would be able to sue as a result of environmental damages. This part of his argument is less convincing than others, as it does not seem to take into account the significant power disparity between many corporations and the people who are most effected by pollution. That is to say, his idea may be good in theory, but the practice at this time might not be possible. The overall thrust of the essay, however, is well argued and on point.

The final chapter of the volume serves as a defense against claims that capitalism has created a cultural wasteland. In this essay, Jonathan Witt acknowledges some of the social problems that have arisen along side capitalism. As with other cases, Witt concludes that they are not rooted in capitalism, but are sometimes exacerbated or made more visible because of the wealth that comes from the general prosperity of capitalist societies. This essay is a strong one, though it covers a great deal of ground. Witt helpfully wrestles with the question of distributism and so-called crunchy conservativism. He does this with integrity that illuminates the alternatives honestly.

Conclusion

None of these essays entirely refute arguments against free market economics, but they do point the way toward reasonable defenses of capitalism that are grounded in Christian thinking. Determined opponents to economic freedom will continue to raise objections and demand additional proofs beyond what these authors provide. However, the essays in Counting the Cost do provide a realistic, critical defense of capitalism as it should be, recognizing that the system is in need of reform and work to ensure that some of the egregious abuses of power (such as those stemming from cronyism) are corrected. This set of essays is an excellent place to direct people that have concerns about capitalism, but also recognize the looming problems with competing economic visions.

This volume helps fill a hole in discussions of theological economics by actually addressing criticisms rather than ignoring them or ridiculing those that raise them. This is the sort of volume that would be helpful for many proponents of free markets to better consider honest objections. It would also be useful in the classroom to introduce college students to a balanced representation of a theologically informed discussion of capitalism.

Counting the Cost: Christian Perspectives on Capitalism
$26.31
By Art Lindsley PhD, Anne R. Bradley PhD

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from IFWE as a conference participant. I am also a Senior Research Fellow for IFWE, but I am posting what I believe to be an honest and fair review of the volume. I have only passing acquaintance with any of the authors.

Church History: A Review of Some Introductions

During my preparation for teaching a four-week Church History survey I read several single volume books on the topic and am here doing brief reviews to highlight the particular emphasis of each.

Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th edition (2013)

Shelley’s book is one of the classic single volume Church Histories. It has weathered well and sold well. The book is very accessible and reads quickly. It is intended to introduce people in the pew to the topic. I’ve heard of it being used as a High School text for homeschoolers, so that is a plus. Shelley focuses on the history of the Western Church, which is the traditional approach, but which is a place where other volumes may have improved since he wrote this book. Still, this is a solid volume that would be a good place to start on the topic. Shelley passed away in 2010, so it unlikely this volume will be updated for too long in the future with other excellent entries into the field.


Gerald Bray, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (2016)

Bray is an excellent writer and historian. His single volume introduction the Church History is a bit more theological than Shelley’s, which fits because Bray is a Historical Theologian. His interpretations are fair, though Bray’s Anglican bias comes through on multiple occasion when dealing with the issue of baptism. This is an intermediate volume, but could be helpful for pastors and those with some background in Church History to gain a deeper knowledge. One downside on Bray’s writing is that his chapters and sections tend to be excessively long, which makes interrupted reading somewhat more difficult.


Joseph Early, A History of Christianity (2015)

This is a solid volume from B&H, which present Church History in a very traditional framework, like Shelley. He improves on Shelley in two ways: (1) He retells history from a distinctly baptistic perspective, while still maintaining a reasonable balance in critiquing other traditions; (2) His volume is shorter than Shelley’s, with no apparent downside. In all, Early’s volume is an accessible volume should be useful in churches, secondary schools and introductory college courses.


Ian Shaw, Christianity: The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (2017)

Shaw’s approach is unique. He lines up the various stages of change in the history of the Church in parallel with stages of human life. The analogy works better earlier in the book, but it is entertaining. A major strength of Shaw’s book is his emphasis on global Christianity rather than just the Western tradition. This means that, in the abbreviated format Shaw uses, there is sometimes less information about Western Church History than I would have liked. However, I think the tradeoff was in the whole worth it. I would recommend this one over other volumes because I think it better represents a broad picture of Christianity.

Every Good Thing - A Review

Some Christians seem to doubt the goodness of the world around. They take the opposition of “the world, the flesh, and the devil” to mean that somehow the material world around is sinful and must be repudiated.

This position has its roots in an exaggerated application of Jesus’ commands to seek the kingdom first and store up treasures in heaven. These commands are intended to call Christians away from the this-worldly focus that tends to consume our minds by virtue of proximity.

The anti-world attitude has been popularized in Christian hymns like, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.”

We have reason to hope in the coming restoration of all things. This is an eschatological hope. However, that hope should inspire action in this world, not cause Christians to withdraw into a bunker mindset.

The balancing act between hoping in heaven and working in this world can be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary.

The recent book from David W. Jones, Every Good Thing, is a valuable resource for Christians seeking to balance heavenly mindedness with this-worldy goodness.

Every Good Thing is an intentionally introductory volume, which has as its main goal the reunification of the Christian life. We are called to be seven-day Christians, who apply biblical ethics to each decision, and every situation. We are driven, because of the demands of a biblical worldview, to see each area of our life as subordinate to the lordship of Jesus-Christ. Jones’ recent book helps with that reunification.

Summary

The book is brief, with a little over 100 pages of text, but in a small format. It is designed to be easily read, digested by a wide audience, with clear lines of application. The format is ideal for a short term book study in a small group or use as a text in a discipleship context.

The first of six chapters provides a foundation for the remainder of the volume, defining terms and outlining how Jesus’ life and ministry fits into the discussion of goodness and the material world. Chapter two deals with work and vocation. The topic is en vogue in conservative Christian circles, but mainly because it has been neglected for a number of years. This chapter charts a course for reuniting the Christian life through a better understanding of calling.

The third chapter seeks to balance out the idea of work and vocation with a discussion of rest and Sabbath. One of the possible side-effects of viewing work as an opportunity to serve God is that it will cause a restless, relentless push for productivity. That isn’t the point, as Jones stresses in the third chapter. Rather, rest and Sabbath are gifts from God to balance the goodness of human productivity with the joy of God’s provision.

Chapter four outlines a biblical theology of wealth and poverty. Here, Jones pushes back against attitudes that see spirituality as necessarily connected to financial prosperity. He fights the errors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel as well as the competing errors like asceticism. Christians need to value the world properly, which generally means walking a narrow road between extreme errors.

In the fifth chapter, Jones takes on the idea of valuing creation and stewardship. Environmental ethics has generally gotten a bad rap among conservative Christians. Part of this is that much of the environmental movement has gone head over heels for anti-human attitudes that run contrary to Scripture. However, there is a strong place in Christian theology for rightly caring for the creation God has entrusted to humans. Jones makes a good case for that in this chapter. He then closed in Chapter Six with some summary comments, pointing toward areas for further study.

Analysis and Critique

This book’s greatest limitations are in its format. The accomplished scholar will pick up this brief volume and wonder what it adds to the scholarly discussion. The answer to that is simply, nothing. No chapter is comprehensive. There are no footnotes. Every rabbit trail is not chased. A particular set of assumptions about Scripture and theological method are made and not defended. That is the nature of this book as an introductory volume.

Conversely, the greatest strengths of this book are in its format. The layperson or young theological student can pick this book up and gain a quick understanding of a conservative perspective on the relationship between Christianity and the surrounding world. It is grounded in a distinctly orthodox worldview, and intended to bring people into the conversation that might otherwise not be exposed to these important ideas. 

This book fills a desperate need for the Church. It helps form the connection between a Christian worldview and the world around. Jones has written winsomely and carefully. This is a book that would serve well in a number of settings in the local church, and would be a particularly useful tool in discipleship activities with young Christians.

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

From Topic to Thesis - A Review

There are some books that are so simple and helpful that one wonders why someone has not written them decades before. They are destined to be, if not classic, steadily useful, widely read, and often recommended.

That is the nature of Michael Kibbe’s recent book, From Topic to Thesis.

There is absolutely nothing earth shattering in what Kibbe wrote. Really, there is nothing novel at all, but that is exactly what makes this book so very important. You see, Kibbe takes the time to lay out the simple and necessary steps to doing research well in theological and biblical disciplines.

As someone who learned how to do theological research the hard way—by erring and trying again repeatedly—I would have benefitted from Kibbe’s book when I started my Master of Divinity a decade ago. As someone who has graded theology papers at the graduate and undergraduate level, I know that there are many other students who face the same struggles that I did and some of them never seem to get the knack of research.

The Methodology

Kibbe’s prescribes five steps in the research process.

 

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  1.  Finding Direction – At the beginning of the research process, Kibbe warns his readers not to start with a definite thesis, but he argues that establishing a general topic is the first step. During this phase of the research process, only tertiary and primary sources should be used. In other words, if the topic is Calvin, then only read John Calvin or survey/textbook/reference level works about him. The primary sources will tell you if there is something to argue there. The tertiary sources will tell you where you’ll need to look for more information. This step takes time, but it is important to become familiar enough with the topic to know whether there is an argument to be had.
  2. Gathering Sources – The next step is to get together the stack of sources that will be used to support any argument. This is a simple, but time consuming process of finding the books and articles that relate closely to the broad topic and then skimming them to figure out which ones should be checked out, copied, or purchased.
  3. Understanding Issues – Having skimmed and accumulated a stack of sources, this is the phase of research where the student figures out what is going on in scholarly discourse related to the general topic. With note taking tools in hand (though one must only write in sources that one owns), the scholar descends and reads the primary and secondary sources that relate particularly to the topic. In other words, this step requires a lot of reading, but it should be focused reading on the specific topic. During this phase, the researcher will likely return to the “Gathering Sources” step as a pattern of citations form within secondary literature; if everyone is citing something, there is probably a reason why.
  4. Entering Discussion – It is at this point, after some fairly robust, systematic research the researcher formulates a thesis. The thesis should be something (reasonably) new to add to the conversation, fits within the existing conversation, and the researcher can explain why the first two are true. This may sound a bit difficult for a beginning student, but by the time a student has completed steps 1-3, he or she should be able to say that someone’s contested position is right or wrong or that a previous scholar missed something in the debate. This isn’t a search for novelty, but for scholarly contribution. In other words, this step is what helps differentiate a summary of the topic from an argument for a position.
  5. Establishing Position – The last step involves actually writing the paper. Now all of the research is carefully woven into a coherent argument that evaluates differing opinions, stays on thesis, and supports the researcher’s thesis.

These five steps form the meat of Kibbe’s book. They are also the gold standard for how a theological student should do research. If time is available—and if it is appropriately used—then Kibbe’s research methodology will lead students to a high quality research paper.

Further Discussion

In addition to the value of the stepwise research methodology, this book is helpful because it offers definitions for types of sources, gives appropriate instructions for using web-based sources, and offers some no-nonsense advice to students from the perspective of a professor. Appendix A is a list of ten things that students should avoid; I have observed students doing most of them before!

I will note that the instructions Kibbe gives in this book are from the perspective from a Bible scholar and not a theologian. As such, some of his recommendations for “theological sources” in the back will likely never be the main point of concern for someone in a Systematic Theology course. They are excellent for those doing focused exegesis, but the list would look significantly different if this book were written by a theologian.

Likely, also, a theologian would have placed the stage of defining a thesis a bit earlier in the process. Of course, it may that by the end the thesis must be reversed or altered, but it is not always necessary to wait until quite that much research has been done before deciding where to go next.

It is one of my pet theories, based on my own ongoing PhD studies, that there are generally distinct personality types that migrate toward theology, history, and philosophy instead of language and biblical studies. This sort of research is excellent, and it will fit best with the meticulous nature of many that are already biased toward biblical studies. The other group tends to be more comfortable slinging guns in research and may find Kibbe’s methodology constraining, however excellent it is.

Conclusion

Whether you are a student in theological or biblical studies, this is a must-read book. Especially if you are early on in your studies. Even if you will never quite be able to implement such a rigorous approach to research, this is a good read because it tells you how it ought to be. If you are thinking about heading toward seminary, then this is a book you should read before you get there.

If you are a professor at a seminary or Christian college teaching anything like Christian Studies, Religion, Bible, or Theology, then this is a book that should be on your syllabus recommended for every student in every class. Kibbe says what you were thinking and he does it clearly and in print. This would also be an invaluable text in an early course in an MDiv curriculum or a writing course.

 

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

Our Only World - A Review

Reading Wendell Berry is always interesting, whether it is his fiction or his essays. The man has a way with words and the recent essay collection, Our Only World, is no exception.

The ten essays in this volume were written between 2010 and 2014. Some of them are the text of speeches. Others were published in various magazines. All of them are worth reading, even if you don’t agree with where Berry lands on issues.

If you haven’t read Berry before, do it. It may be better to begin with some of his novels, but they are worth the time, whatever you read.

He’s an advocate for rural life in Kentucky. His writing focuses on establishing a sense of place where you live, putting down roots, and being part of the community. There is wonder in what he writes and a quiet power.

He is a Christian of sorts, though he often stands on the liberal end of spectrum on social issues. He’s personally opposed to abortion and thinks it is wrong, but he admits in this collection that he’d help someone else get an abortion. He also argues that marriage precedes government, so he wonders aloud if the government has any business defining it. Many people wonder that, but Berry argues that since the government shouldn’t define it, marriage should mean whatever people want it to. At the same he argues for an order to creation and bases his environmental ethics on it. His single essay on this topic is perhaps the least convincing in this collection, but whether you agree with his logic or not, he writes well and makes his readers think.

Berry's Environmental Ethics

Berry’s bread and butter is in his arguments for taking care of the land. When he writes about his sustainable farming practices it makes me want to get a team of horses and farm. There is a sense of beauty in Berry’s description of life on his small acreage farm. His writing evokes a desire for a sense of place, a sense of belonging somewhere and to a group.

Even in the first, somewhat disorganized essay, which is aptly called “Paragraphs from a Notebook” there is a sense of beauty and balance in the writing. Though there is no direct link between the blocks of text that splash in sequence across the page, there is a cohesion of thought to it.

Berry writes, “We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacity.” This idea is the link between his paragraphs. It is the idea that animates his worldview.

Integrity, perhaps, is the theme of much of what Berry presents to the world. Beware artificial divisions, even between humans. He offers, “The phrase ‘be alone’ is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.” Humans need one another. We are part of something greater, and should seek to be part of something greater than ourselves.

For Berry, conservation is the pursuit of integrity of the land, a search for wholeness. The farmer becomes part of the farm, not its master. He is part of the dirt that he walks on. The citizen is part of the community and should not strive to be somewhere else. Place is important because it is part of being integral. Integrity is the way you are, not just a sense of moral character.

Berry’s essays call the reader back to the sort of world that is coherent and whole. It feels like he’s describing a day and age that has been gone for generations and perhaps only ever existed in novels that romanticize country life. But for Berry such an integral sense of belonging is an eschatological hope, and one that he hopes for many more to realize in this life. Maybe some folks can.

In one essay about a trip to visit a forest in Pennsylvania Berry describes logging practices that he argues respect the goodness and integrity of the forest. The work is done by horse, which is a common theme for Berry, and it is done with a view to leaving the forest healthier, not for maximizing short term profit. The owner of the forest is part of the forest and loves it. He wants to use it wisely, and profit from it reasonably, but still leave it intact for another generation.

That’s another major theme in Berry’s essays. Take the long view. Don’t maximize profits today, but look for ways that a reasonable profit can be had for years to come. Both in forestry and farming, Berry is lobbying for a long term outlook.

Conclusion

Even though I disagree with Berry about many things, he makes me think well to figure out why he isn’t right. I’ve not met the man, but he seems like the sort of person I could enjoy a cup of coffee with even as we heartily debate an important topic. Reading Berry is learning how to argue well and graciously. Maybe someday he’ll win me over to more of his ideas.

Pick up this book and read it. It’s worth the time. But don’t rush through the essays. They are worth taking slowly and enjoying along the way. Our Only World is a volume that deserves to be considered and appreciated. Each of the essays is a little gem that can be appreciated on its own. Though perhaps Berry would argue the essays deserve to be held together with a sense of integrity.

Our Only World: Ten Essays
$12.11
By Wendell Berry

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

Knowing Christ - A Review

J. I. Packer’s volume, Knowing God, is a classic for the ages. It is clearly written, theologically deep, and profoundly inspiring. Reading Packer is an experience every Christian should have as soon as they are able.

In the introduction to his recent volume, Knowing Christ, Mark Jones references Packer’s book and pitches his own volume as another attempt in the same vein. He aspires to help his readers to know Christ better, which is a significant goal to say the least.

Jones describes his book in these words:

This book is not polemical (i.e., disputational), but it is still theological. It is also (I pray) devotional. This is a book for God’s people, not the academy. This is a book designed to give God’s people a glimpse of the person of Christ. In short, I write that people may know Christ better than they already do, and so love him more.

Summary

With that target in mind, Jones divides his book into twenty-seven chapters. He covers topics like “Christ’s Dignity,” “Christ’s Faith,” “Christ’s Resurrection,” and “Christ’s Names.” Each of the chapters is eight to ten pages long with multiple headings. It is structured as a book that can be read easily and in segments. The prose is lucid, which makes the book accessible even when the theology is deep. Jones offers many references to Scripture throughout that point the careful reader back to the text, which is the source of much of our knowledge of Christ. He also quotes from the Puritans frequently and quotes some of them at length.

As a theologian, this was a fun book to sit down with at night in my armchair. It did lead me into a deeper appreciation for Christ. It reminded me of much truth about the Savior and helped me think through aspects of Christ’s existence, such as the faith that he demonstrated throughout his life. At the same time, it encouraged me to want to know Christ better and brought to mind the center of the Christian faith, which is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

This is the sort of book that an educated layperson could pick up and enjoy as well. The structure makes it suitable for a book study, with short chapters and study questions for each chapter in the back of the volume. In the end, whether someone agrees with everything Jones has written here, it is impossible to read this book as a Christian and walk away without having a deeper Christology in some way.

Critique

The weaknesses of the book fall along two fronts. First, Jones loves the Puritans and he draws from them very frequently. As someone who enjoys Puritan theology, I recognize that sometimes they said things so well and in prose that is just far enough removed from modern English to accentuate its theological profundity through shifting cadence. At the same time, those that lack the same love for the Puritans may wonder why some of the quotes are necessary and question the level of authority Jones grants them.

The second weakness of the volume is that at times Jones overstates his case on questionable points. For example, in his discussion of Jesus asking the beloved disciple to take care of his mother, Mary, Jones writes:

We might say that his death for sinners would have been completely ineffectual if he had not entrusted his mother to the care of John. That is to say, if Christ had not uttered these words from the cross, we would be in hell; but he kept God’s law in life and ‘in death’.

Clearly Jones is referring to Christ keeping the fifth commandment to honor his father and mother. However, Jones’ claim is overly strong for the evidence that we have in the text.

Since Christ did utter these words, and the result was the fulfillment of the fifth commandment, it is logically necessary for Christ to utter the words to perfectly fulfill the law. Yet, it does not seem to follow that if Christ had not uttered those words or if we had not received the words through divine revelation, that our salvation would be incomplete. In other words, there could have been other ways for Christ to fulfill the law that Jones has not considered; or it could have happened “off stage.”

This is a minor criticism, but there are a few places where overstatements by Jones made me scratch my head a bit. In the end, they led to some good discussions with my wife (who also read the book), and may prove to do the same if this is read in a group setting.

Conclusion

This is a good book and one that many Christians will find enlightening and inspiring. Pastors might consider recommending this for those that need stimulation to grow in their faith. Seminary students may read this to keep the fire of faith burning brightly. All Christians will find that reading this is well worth the time.

Knowing Christ
$14.25
By Mark Jones

Note: Banner of Truth provided a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

Writing Theology Well - A Review

I’m deep in the throes of dissertation writing. This means that a volume like Lucretia Yaghjian’s Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers is of great interest. I want to have a done dissertation most, but I want to have a good dissertation at the same time. Therefore, a book on theological writing that made it to a second edition seemed an excellent one to review.

Summary

The book consists of four parts. Yaghjian begins by discussing theological rhetoric. This includes considering the context of the writing, focusing on inquiry, reflection, and persuasion, and using tools of identification, correlation, suspicion and construction. Part Two deals with the task of research, documenting that research well, and some chapters on exegesis and hermeneutics. The third part emphasizes writing style, with a focus on discovering one’s voice and the use of analogy, metaphor, etc. This section also deals with some basics of sentence and paragraph construction and delves into the vital art of revision. The fourth section focuses on writing in “new contexts,” which goes from the writing of international students, to various forms of online writing.

Writing Theology Well is a volume that contains many of the basic elements of a writing guide. There are helpful guidelines and checklists for the revision process, some ideas about structuring arguments, and a healthy emphasis on writing techniques that aid clear communication. As a guide to writing, this volume has the necessary framework to be helpful.

The promise in a book like this is that it tailored specifically for a particular type of writing, namely, theological writing. As I transitioned from my undergrad in English to writing for a technical audience in nuclear power to taking seminary courses, there were often points of frustration where a tool that I had used in a previous life was no longer acceptable. For this reason Writing Theology Well held out the promise of a helpful tool that I could benefit from and that I’d recommend to others.

Analysis and Conclusion

My praise for Writing Theology Well will be somewhat limited. This volume will be most helpful in particular theological contexts. It would not have been very helpful at the conservative seminary that I attended for several reasons.

First, the book begins with an emphasis on writing a theological reflection paper well. That is certainly a noble pursuit, but in my decade of seminary (to date) I may have written three reflection papers. These were also not simply essays on my perspective on a doctrine or theological topic, but usually reflections on a book. For good or ill, assuming some continuity among conservative seminaries, there is little call for the sort of introspective reflection paper outlined here.

Second, the emphasis on embracing one’s context and not attempting to rise above it would not be helpful in a conservative seminary. The goal in most conservative seminaries is to get the students to experience theology outside of their own context, which is why there is a high value on research papers over reflection essays. This sometimes results in the prohibition of first person pronouns, which is at times a tedious requirement. However, forcing the student to write from outside of themselves is often helpful in breaking them out of the rut of their own experiences. None of my professors actually expected the students to attain objectivity, but we were all supposed to try. The focus on embracing context has positives, and perhaps a place later in theological education, but the emphasis on writing subjectively would not transfer well in conservative academia.

Third, most of the examples of writing for consideration were from feminist or other post-modern sources. This means that the reader has to try to get past the content of the theology (largely segregated from its supporting arguments), and the logical presuppositions of the excerpts, to try to get to the point of evaluating the style. Of course, I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot, someone with another bias might have as much difficulty evaluating conservative sources. The trouble is that many of the passages that were supposed to show off the beauty of the prose were so skeptical toward traditional forms of Christianity that it would never matter how wonderful the writing was from. In that sense, this book misses the mark by failing to emphasize that the content is more important than the style, though style is certainly significant. At the same time, I thought some of the author’s comments on being faithful to the text in her discussion of hermeneutics was beneficial.

In the end, this is probably a very fine book for a particular context. Yaghjian puts the fundamentals of writing on display in a way that is consistent with the best “how-to” manuals. Her emphasis on planning, revising, and structure are right on the mark. This is a volume that many will probably find helpful for writing, but most likely not in more conservative contexts.

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