Cases for Faith, Early Christianity, the Reformation, Self-Discovery | Spirituality & Religion Reviews, October 1, 2016

A balanced and sensitive treatment of suffering; a scholarly look at the birth of Christianity; a source of common ground and common cause; a breath of fresh air on a sorely misappropriated concept; an Emblem of Faith that is first archbishop Thomas Cranmer

In time for the return of fall are titles that aim to help readers contemplate their situations. Leslie Williams provides a sympathetic and well-rounded biography of Reformation leader Thomas Cranmer, while Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose own account of Cranmer was a major source for Williams, lends a review of the past 25 years of his scholarly output on the period. Meanwhile, Timothy Keller provides an engaging case for faith to secular skeptics. Elsewhere, Brian Gregg explores how biblical writers responded to adversity and evil, the Dalai Lama ponders finding joy amid suffering, and other books consider the history of mindfulness and how it has been adopted and co-opted in recent years.

Engaging the Traditions

Gregg, Brian Han. What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? IVP Academic. Aug. 2016. 176p. notes. index. ISBN 9780830851454. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780830893539. REL

suffering-jpg10316How can God permit evil and suffering? The philosophical question of evil may have come to a temporary stalemate. Gregg (biblical studies, Univ. of Sioux Falls) has something else in mind; he’s interested in how biblical writers dealt with suffering. One might see a parallel with Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem. That is not accidental. Each devote a chapter to what they view as a biblical writer’s (or movement’s) response to evil. Both open their arguments with an evocative story, followed by an exposition, and then a reflection to the responses. There, the similarities end. While Ehrman finds each response a failed theodicy, Gregg claims each to be inadequate on its own. The human condition is far too rich for suffering to be a single problem with one grand answer. Gregg is not interested in justifying the ways of God to skeptics. Instead, he looks to persuade believers that the Bible opens them to many possibilities in the face of tragedy. VERDICT This balanced and sensitive treatment allows believers to have an appreciation of suffering that can prepare them for a positive response to the ills that beset us.—JW

Hurtado, Larry W. Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Baylor Univ. Sept. 2016. 305p. notes. ISBN 9781481304733. $29.95. REL

New Testament scholar Hurtado (The Earliest Christian Artifacts) aims to “highlight some of the features of earliest Christianity that made it distinctive, even odd,” by focusing on distinguishing elements of ancient Christianity that made them dissimilar from primarily pagan religious cultures of the time, such as their absolute monotheism, ritual baptism, corporate religious practices, and religious identity. The strength of this analysis is Hurtado’s deep engagement with the Roman Empire’s criticism of Christian adherents as misguided simpletons (e.g., philosopher Celsus) or worse, a threat to the political and national order, such as satirist Lucian. However, many of these distinctive elements, the things that made Christianity “odd,” were shared in large part with ancient Christianity’s Jewish brethren. Reading this alongside works, such as Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity and James Charlesworth and Bruce Chilton’s Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two, fills in some of these gaps regarding the Jewish roots of these unique practices and how they took on a distinctive Christian feel. VERDICT An important scholarly look at the birth of Christianity within the Roman embrace.—SC

Keller, Timothy. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. Viking. Sept. 2016. 336p. notes. ISBN 9780525954156. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698194366. REL

Perhaps Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church; The Reason for God) should have titled his book “making sense with God,” since he sets out to show that the world makes the most sense from a Christian perspective. First, he counters arguments that, in the face of reason, faith in God fades in favor of a secular perspective. Keller then presents what he considers difficulties in a secular worldview; a sort of series of inferences to the best explanation—not unlike theologian Alistair McGrath—though at times it takes the more militant style of Francis Schaeffer. The author concludes with arguments for the existence of God and the truth of the central tenants of Christianity. Keller doesn’t leave a lot of space for this section and it suffers accordingly. His treatment of theistic arguments is cursory, and the attempt to summarize a case for the Gospel accounts of Jesus cries out for more depth. VERDICT Despite these issues, Keller provides a calm and measured invitation to examine convictions and assumptions in a way that both believers and skeptics could use as part of a reasoned dialog.—JW

Krattenmaker, Tom. Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe. Convergent. Oct. 2016. 256p. notes. index. ISBN 9781101906422. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101906439. REL

Krattenmaker, a columnist for USA Today and author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, is a bit playful with the title of his latest work, as “Jesus follower” would be a secular version of “Christian” and the confessions have more in common with the Augsburg Confession than autobiography. The author puts forth a compelling portrait of Jesus stripped of theological trappings and sentimentality. Taking on societal ills such as the plight of the downtrodden or marginalized, Krattenmaker invokes the openness of Christ. In cases of power or violence, we see Jesus the subversive. What drives this confession is a savior who is impossibly good and vividly real in the face of our brokenness. Apart from frequent disavowals of any theological convictions, this work is akin to those by authors such as Jim Wallis. However, other writers are informed by a larger theological framework. Krattenmaker recognizes this and, at one point, attempts to demythologize this framework. Here, he falters somewhat. Reworking an interpretation of Jesus should require rethinking our understanding of His character. VERDICT Krattenmaker offers secular and religious readers a striking study of Jesus that could serve as a source of common ground and common cause.—JW

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy. Oxford Univ. Sept. 2016. 464p. notes. ISBN 9780190616816. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780190616830. REL

Church history in general and the English Reformation in particular are no strangers to MacCulloch (church history, Oxford Univ.; Thomas Cranmer). Here the author presents an anthology of previously published essays, articles, and book reviews from the past 25 years. This disparate collection still manages to be remarkably coherent as a whole. There is a general flow in the articles, from the background of the Reformation to the Reformed (as opposed to Lutheran) churches to a focus on the English Reformation and its transformation into the Anglican Communion. Throughout, MacCulloch is at pains to drive home a few themes. He argues that the religious affections and theological convictions of the players had at least as much to do with outcomes of the Reformation as with social or political pressures. Another theme is that those outcomes were not nearly as inevitable as we wish to think. MacCulloch finishes with a brief summary of what animates Anglican Christianity and its peculiar dynamic that insists on carrying its tradition forward. VERDICT This excellent exposé of the English Reformation sheds light on how the period forged the practices of Western Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.—JW

Roth, Rabbi Jeff. Me, Myself and God: A Theology of Mindfulness. Jewish Lights. Aug. 2016. 200p. notes. ISBN 9781580238755. pap. $18.99. REL

Roth (founder, Awakened Heart Project) has subtitled this work “a theology of mindfulness,” but it is more accurately a general meditation on Jewish Zen mysticism. Drawing loosely on Kabbalistic mysticism as well as a healthy dose of Zen Buddhism, Roth provides an amalgam of experiential insights. Depending upon the thoughts of rabbis such as Baal Shem Tov, considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who sparked the Jewish renewal movement, Roth interweaves Kabbalistic concepts with modern Zen notions that seek to bridge the divide between our separateness from one another and from God. Acting in holiness, for example, is the cultivation of our consciousness of being connected to all beings or to an All Being (e.g., God). In this, Roth presumes readers have a solid grasp of the Hebrew Bible as well as some passing familiarity with the terms sefirot and midrashim, as many of his references are used without attribution. Further, his spiritual assertions are introduced without a lot of preamble. VERDICT A new, earnest take on mindfulness that asks a lot of its readers—and may not be for everyone.—SC

What’s Wrong with Mindfulness (and What Isn’t): Zen Perspectives. Wisdom. Oct. 2016. 208p. ed. by Robert Rosenbaum & Barry Magid. notes. ISBN 9781614292838. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781614293071. REL

mindfulnesswhat-jpg10316Editors Rosenbaum (Walking the Way) and Magid (Nothing Is Hidden) put forth this opening salvo: “Now, it is mindfulness’s turn to be appropriated by Western culture as a philosopher’s stone.” As they see it, the concept of mindfulness has become so nonspecific as to be meaningless. This essay collection seeks to remedy that, assembling various Zen teachers who speak to the commercialized, somewhat corrupting influence of Western sensibilities upon this ancient Theravadan, Vipassanan, and Zen practice. Some essays are more successful than others, but all present a sincere desire to free the concept of mindfulness from its New Agey, self-transformative, goal-oriented perspective and return it to its essence, which is “effort without desire.” This is the heart of the work: the ordinary awareness of doing nothing and being nothing while paradoxically being present in all things, at all times, to all persons. VERDICT A thoughtful breath of fresh air on a sorely misappropriated concept.—SC

Memoirs & Biographies

redstarAltman, Elissa. Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw. NAL. Sept. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9780425277812. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780698182127. MEMOIR

Altman (Poor Man’s Feast) treats readers to her somewhat unconventional middle-class childhood in 1960s Queens, NY. This readable memoir of a Jewish youth filled with longing for home and family finds contradiction and dashed expectations, as most childhoods do, but is centered eventually without fanfare or angst in the medium of cooking. The treyf (ritually unclean) designation ultimately comes from the author’s dawning realization of her homosexuality. Yet, the issues of family and belonging are psychologically threatened by her (seeming) nonnormative orientation. This personal journey is somewhat nostalgic but offered without self-pity or self-loathing, valuing birth families as well as formed ones, honoring the beliefs as well as the memories associated with each. She concludes, “Belonging everywhere, I now belong nowhere.... To know who I am; to remember where I came from.” VERDICT Highly recommended for its telling of the complexities of family life and the warm portrayal of coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s.—SC

Raboteau, Albert J. American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice. Princeton Univ. Sept. 2016. 248p. notes. ISBN 9780691164304. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9781400874408. BIOG

Raboteau (religion, Princeton Unv.; Slave Religion) presents seven biographical sketches from the 20th century that show the diversity and unity of the prophetic call. Included for consideration are theologian Abraham Heschel and philospher Howard Thurman; monk and mystic Thomas Merton; Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement; clergyman and activist A.J. Muste; and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Across diverse backgrounds, temperaments, and religious perspectives, one finds in these examples an overwhelming passion for justice and seemingly infinite capacity for compassion. This is demonstrated in a unified voice relating to issues of war, peace, poverty, and human rights. Another illuminating feature of these individuals is that not only did they make a stand and work toward admirable goals, they also identified with the marginalized, stood in their place, and became their voice. In doing so, these American prophets risked their own lives. VERDICT Raboteau offers inspiring and challenging examples of embodied faith in the modern world.—JW

Williams, Leslie. Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer. Eerdmans. Aug. 2016. 160p. notes. ISBN 9780802874184. pap. $18. BIOG

That the Church of England began when Henry VIII broke with Rome is common knowledge. What is not so well understood are the times and personalities that shaped what would become an institution that is neither Catholic nor Protestant. One personality that expresses this ambiguity is that of first archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556). While there have been other strong biographies of Cranmer, Williams (The Judas Conspiracy) makes the times and characters come alive by presenting Cranmer as a scholar of integrity who attempted to maintain his loyalty to both God and his sovereign, even as the two were held in tension. The archbishop is revealed as an accidental reformer thrust into the political intrigues and social turmoil of Tudor England. However, one might find fault in that there is never a clear sense of Cranmer’s own theological shift and how this formed (or failed to form) the church he loved. VERDICT ­Williams succeeds in making Cranmer an example of thoughtful rectitude and courage in a divided and turbulent time.—JW

Advice & Self-Help

Cron, Ian Morgan & Suzanne Stabile. The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery. IVP. Oct. 2016. 220p. notes. ISBN 9780830846191. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780830893270. SELF-HELP

Cron (Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale) and Stabile (cofounder, Life in the Trinity Ministry) find robust pastoral merit within the Enneagram, a personality modeling system with nine interconnected personality types. According to the authors, the Enneagram is the key to self-discovery, particularly for relationships: “The Enneagram shows us that we can’t change the way other people see, but we can try to experience the world through their eyes and help them change what they do with what they see.” Chapters go on to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each personality type, including the “wings,” or characteristics of related personality types that may further impact the way one understands the world. These are then understood in terms of relationships and the path of spiritual transformation or healing. The goal of this self-help guide, conclude Cron and Stabile, is to encourage self-forgiveness and open ourselves to all of the characteristics within our God-given selves. VERDICT An aid to those seeking to identify personality types, with a little bit of spirituality on the side.—SC

Additional Spirituality

Dalai Lama & others. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery. Sept. 2016. 368p. photos. ISBN 9780399185045. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399185069. REL

bookofjoy-jpg10316This narrative recounts a multiday meeting of two highly regarded spiritual leaders and dear friends—the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu—during which they discussed living a life filled with joy. Despite coming from two different spiritual traditions, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu approach the cultivation of joy in similar ways. Both believe that suffering is inevitable and serves as an obstacle to experiencing joy. In addition, they recognize the interconnectedness of human beings, and how a compassionate approach helps us to alleviate pain not only for others but also for ourselves. Joy, for them, is manifested internally and transcends happiness, which is often dependent upon external circumstances. Cowriter Douglas Abrams (God’s Dream) weaves scientific findings related to emotions and the brain throughout the work. Several joy practices are included for those who are seeking a practical complement to the anecdotal, philosophical, and scientific perspectives presented. VERDICT Not just for fans of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu but for anyone seeking to cultivate compassion and joy in the face of daily reminders of divisiveness around the world.—Amanda Folk, Univ. of Pittsburgh Lib., Greensburg

redstarShriver, Mark K. Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis. Random. Nov. 2016. 320p. notes. ISBN 9780812998023. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780812998030. BIOG

Having written a book reflecting on the role of Catholicism in the life of his father, Sargent Shriver, the author (A Good Man) was asked to write a similar book on Pope Francis. Like many others, Shriver reexamined his relationship to the church after the election of a new Pope who seemed so unlike those before him. Shriver traveled to Argentina to interview many people who knew Francis intimately, both friends and those who had issues with him, as well as several of the poor with whom Father Bergoglio would interact even after he became a cardinal. At once a portrait of the young Bergoglio, the milieu out of which he came, and of a sometimes disaffected Catholic (Shriver himself) who has come to a new appreciation of the church, this book will especially appeal to those who want to learn more about Francis’s origins. ­VERDICT While many good books have been written about Pope Francis, most notably Austin ­Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer, Shriver’s conversations with many of the people who knew Jorge Bergoglio in Argentina and were willing to relate personal details about their relationship with him set this book apart. [See Prepub Alert, 5/23/16.]—Augustine J. Curley, Newark Abbey, NJ

Sandra Collins (PHD, MLS, Univ. of Pittsburgh) is Library Director and Professor at Byzantine Catholic Seminary, PA. James Wetherbee (MA, Trinity Evangelical Divinity Sch.; MSLS, Univ. of Kentucky) is Network and Library Systems Administrator at Wingate University, NC, and Library Liaison for the departments of religion and philosophy

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