Kierkegaard on Diversity, Environmentalism & Faith, American Exceptionalism, & More | Spirituality & Religion Reviews, May 1, 2016

IN HER PREFACE to The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes that there’s artifice to the relationship between memoirist and reader; each, in his or her own way, struggles with the concept of story.

IN her preface to The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr writes that there’s artifice to the relationship between memoirist and reader; each, in his or her own way, struggles with the concept of story. Memoir can function as the writer finding meaning in life events as evidenced by works reviewed here, such as Sammy Rhodes’s This Is Awkward and the whimsical Running on Red Dog Road by Drema Hall Berkheimer. Besides the connection between religion and self, authors explore the influence of belief on politics (Nicolas ­Pelham’s Holy Lands) and the environment (Jay Wexler’s When God Isn’t Green). Finally, other books further illustrate the power of a directed reading on particular topics including philosophy and history.

Connell, George B. Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Diversity. Eerdmans. Feb. 2016. 208p. notes. index. ISBN 9780802868046. pap. $30. PHIL

One might be forgiven in thinking that Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) had nothing to say about religious pluralism. He was a fierce defender of Christianity and champion of the individual yet unconcerned with the myriad truth claims among religions. Connell (philosophy, Concordia Coll.; To Be One Thing) doesn’t dispute that as a historical figure Kierkegaard is ill-suited to discuss religious diversity but argues that certain strains of his thought could prove fruitful. For instance, the author explores how ­Kierkegaard’s idea of truth as subjectivity provides fresh insights into aspects of pluralism. There is also a provocative look at the philosopher’s Fear and Trembling and his notion of the suspension of the ethical in a post-9/11 world. Kierkegaard’s definitions of religions and what it means to be spiritual could serve as a useful forum. VERDICT Whether readers are only slightly acquainted or have spent a lifetime studying Kierkegaard, they will find this effort enriching.—JW

Dark, David. Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious. IVP. Feb. 2016. 199p. notes. ISBN 9780830844463. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780830899425. REL

People who are religious are often characterized as adhering to certain esoteric beliefs or practices. Some consider faith as being superstitious, wedded to hypocritical and parasitical institutions. Even those who appear religious might prefer to be called “spiritual.” Dark (religion, Belmont Univ.; The Sacredness of Questioning Everything) will have none of this. Drawing from his sentiments as a writer, he identifies sacred traits in people from Kurt Vonnegut to Thomas Merton. Avoiding generalities, the author illuminates religion as connections among people and the wonder found within the world. He argues that there is an embodied mysticism in which the transcendent emerges from our everyday lives and maintains that to some degree all are religious and that religion itself isn’t bad, the distinction being between true religion and destructive ideologies. While not a novel or sectarian position, it is refreshing that this approach comes from an avowed Christian. VERDICT Anyone who wishes to get beyond the acrimony between believers and secularists will appreciate Dark’s narrative, even if they wonder whether religion differentiates good from bad.—JW

Enns, Peter. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs. HarperOne. Apr. 2016. 240p. notes. ISBN 9780062272089. pap. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062272102. REL

sinofcertainty.jpg5216Discovering one’s beliefs can be an adventure. It can also be a process of defending espoused truths against detractors and the angst of uncertainty. Enns (Christian studies, Eastern Univ.; The Bible Tells Me So) asserts that Christians can focus so much on the latter that they place God inside a stifling mental box, to the detriment of themselves and others. A mix of biblical commentary, theological and philosophical quandaries, and scientific questions are all folded into this account of the author’s pilgrimage from an academic culture that prizes the defense of knowledge over its exploration to a more open environment—a journey that coincides with a larger personal crisis of faith. He advocates for a more relational approach to faith that does not abandon its spiritual roots. However, Enns never makes the relationship between mystery and rationalism quite clear. VERDICT A fine work for believers of all stripes who have come to see their faith community as little more than a bastion, and a challenge for those who would prefer to keep it that way.—JW

Hasson, Kevin Seamus. Believers, Thinkers, and Founders: How We Came To Be One Nation Under God. Crown. Apr. 2016. 240p. notes. index. ISBN 9780307718181. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780307718204. HIST

Hasson (founder, Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; The Right To Be Wrong) takes a lawyer’s perspective on American self-identity, which emanates from the First Amendment’s assertion of our inalienable rights as “one nation under God.” He asks fundamental questions, such as which God secures these rights? Can we ground our rights in the notion of a creator without slipping down the slope toward theocracy? His answers are no one’s God, and yes. That is, the American experience itself is an exercise in philosophical theism, in which it is the government’s role to acknowledge and defend individual expression, thus freeing people from the claims of any one religious truth. Whether this argument is convincing remains to be seen; believers and nonbelievers alike have plenty to contend with here. VERDICT For ­Hasson, this recommended account is the ultimate story of the United States; the heart of American exceptionalism; the idea that the laws of this country were conceived in liberty and that equality among citizens is a ­philosophical truth.—SC

Pelham, Nicolas. Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East. Columbia Global Reports. Apr. 2016. 174p. maps. notes. ISBN 9780990976349. pap. $13.99; ebk. ISBN 9780990976356. REL

One may believe that the conflicts in the Middle East are owing to centuries-old religious and ethnic clashes that are well-nigh irreconcilable. Having spent over 20 years in the region, journalist Pelham (A History of the Middle East) sets out to upend this conceit. He starts with the multicultural and interreligious harmony that once existed within the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923). This cooperation was accomplished by a system of overlapping nongeographical jurisdictions called millets, which were based on religious and cultural affiliations. Between Western ideals of uniform justice and Europe’s efforts to dismantle the empire, the system of millets collapsed into ethnic enclaves. Secular practices of justice degenerated into sectarian struggles for dominance and survival. Much of Pelham’s study concentrates on this aftermath and concludes with tidbits of hope that the region can again produce diverse societies. VERDICT While the reasons for optimism may be anecdotal, this is a thoughtful response to the claim that the problems are insolvable or that the blame lies firmly on the doorstep of religious and ethnic strife.—JW

Skibell, Joseph. Six Memos from the Last Millennium: A Novelist Reads the Talmud. Univ. of Texas. Apr. 2016. 264p. notes. ISBN 9781477307342. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781477307366. REL

Identifying himself as a storyteller who is interested in the provocative, flawed, and sometimes tragic figures who populate the Talmud, a central text of Jewish laws, Skibell (English, Emory Univ.; A Blessing on the Moon) creates an intoxicating read on these sacred narratives. The six memos, or areas of concern, the author identifies are encapsulated in what he calls our righteous actions, which means we are charged with care for the Lord’s creation: His people (past, present, and future); land (heaven and earth); and ourselves, as members of His established order. Skibell demonstrates that when any of these elements are out of balance, all are threatened. The unpacking of these Talmudic readings illustrates that one dynamic cannot be preferred over another; it is the balance of life that defines virtuous behavior. VERDICT Readers not already familiar with Talmudic literature might struggle a bit, yet there is much modern wisdom to be found here as Skibell unveils a picture of ­holiness that is holistic as well as ­reverential.—SC

Stowe, David W. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137. Oxford Univ. Apr. 2016. 232p. notes. ISBN 9780190466831. $24.95. REL

Stowe’s (English, religious studies, Michigan State Univ.; No Sympathy for the Devil) historical approach to Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon/ There we sat down/ And there we wept/ When we remembered Zion…” follows a lyrical trajectory from its original context through various political movements such as the U.S. Revolutionary War and the civil rights movement. Its adaptability allows for a Rastafarian version, switching the line “The Lord’s Song” to “King Alpha’s Song,” an homage to Ethiopian emperor Haile Selasie in the struggle against colonialism. The book shines with Stowe’s persistence in engaging the often-omitted final verse of the psalm, which prays for unspeakable violence against children (“Happy shall he be that takes and dashes the little ones against the stones”). VERDICT Stowe’s perspective on memory, history, and justice is presented as a double-edged sword, which is codified in this simple hymn that he admits “leaves little room for forgiveness, but lays some of the groundwork for that miracle.”—SC

Tietjen, Mark A. Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians. IVP Academic. Mar. 2016. 173p. index. ISBN 9780830840977. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780830899517. PHIL

For many Evangelicals, Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) represents a milestone in mainline Christianity’s decline into liberal heresy. Tietjen (Bible, Stony Brook Sch.; Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue) aims to show that Kierkegaard may well be one of their greatest allies, while challenging the Evangelical subculture. The author begins with a ­defense of philosophy, and Kierkegaard as a Christian philosopher by dispelling some of the most common charges against him such as subjectivism and irrationalism. In discussing Kierkegaard’s view of Jesus, the nature of the self, or Christian witness, what results is a critique that when Christian culture either intellectualizes or takes these ideas for granted, believers often miss the radical nature of these ideas. As such, they fail to embody their transformative power and end up acting less than Christian. Tietjen concludes each chapter with questions that could be the basis of reflection or discussion. VERDICT While Tietjen makes no pretense of giving us a Kierkegaard primer, he has produced a valuable contribution for those who might struggle to distinguish ­Evangelical faith from Evangelical culture.—JW

Wexler, Jay. When God Isn’t Green: A World-Wide Journey to Places Where Religious Practice and Environmentalism Collide. Beacon. Mar. 2016. 216p. notes. ISBN 9780807001929. pap. $20; ebk. ISBN 9780807001936. REL

whengodisntgreen.jpg5216Wexler (Boston Univ. Sch. of Law; Holy Hullabaloos) asks us to set aside what we may think a given religion says about the environment and look instead at the impacts of specific practices. He provides case studies wrapped in a travelog that include seemingly innocuous rituals ranging from Palm Sunday to mercy releases. In addition to detailing some surprisingly deleterious effects of certain ceremonies, Wexler introduces us to believers of all kinds, including green advocates and government regulators. In looking at a wide range of religions—representing most of the major religions as well as indigenous ones—we find that affects are not trivial. Although an atheist, Wexler suggests that readers empathize with both activists and believers. He holds out hope that religious practitioners are sensitive enough to the environment and are sufficiently adaptable to alter their rites to conform within the limits imposed by the world. VERDICT For anyone seeking a comprehensive account of environmental ethics, environmental law, and the role of religion.—JW

Memoirs & Biographies

Berkheimer, Drema Hall. Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood. Zondervan. Apr. 2016. 208p. ISBN 9780310344964. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780310344988. MEMOIR

Berkheimer’s homespun memoir provides a wistful look back at a simpler time. The author grew up in her grandparents’ Beckley, WV, homestead during World War II, her widowed mother working in New York City. Their kind, patient ­Pentecostalism and folksy brand of “gracious plenty” meant “they had enough to be thankful but not so much as to be uppity.” This is not the hardscrabble Appalachia of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. For Berkheimer, this memoir is nostalgia. The portraits are lovingly remembered as tent meetings filled with soft hymns, pigtails, and picnics on the ground. Even though it’s the 1930s and 1940s, the hobos are pleasant and there is money for paper dolls and occasional vacations. ­VERDICT Berkheimer’s family lives plainly, even frugally, and their experience possesses a purity and easiness that doesn’t reflect the crush of Depression-era want. An appealing counterbalance to more dreary war-era ­accounts.—SC

Rhodes, Sammy. This Is Awkward: How Life’s Uncomfortable Moments Open the Door to Intimacy and Connection. Thomas Nelson. Mar. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9780718034931. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780718034948. MEMOIR

In this debut, Rhodes (campus minister, Reformed Univ. Fellowship, Univ. of South Carolina) offers a pop culture–inspired rumination on his milieu. After the author crafted a name for himself as a hipster campus minister on Twitter, comedian Patton Oswald publicly accused Rhodes of plagiarism. This uncomfortable interaction became the launching point for this memoir, a self-referential apologia in which the memory of many awkward moments serves as “an invitation to vulnerability, and vulnerability is where intimacy and connection [to God] are found.” Fans of Rhodes will enjoy his clever witticisms and pithy self-deprecation. He regularly references the TV series Friday Night Lights and Taylor Swift as spiritual touchstones for some of his paradoxical insights such as admitting his fear of people yet still seeking their approval and embracing the Internet for a sense of identity. VERDICT Those new to the author might find the humor falls a little flat and the narrative gaze is limited. Despite these issues, this breezy book provides insights into the reality of living imperfectly.—SC

Additional Religion

Lehmann, Chris. The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream. Melville House. May 2016. 368p. notes. ISBN 9781612195087. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9781612195094. HIST

Lehmann (Rich People Things) chronicles the relationship between the American ­Protestant ethos and its long tradition of self-help gurus, beginning with the New England Puritans and finishing with contemporary figures such as Joel Osteen. Far from being a simple polemic against an easy target, Lehmann provides an in-depth investigation into the social transformation of religious thought. The narrative recounts the communally minded John Winthrop; proceeds through the transformative Great Awakenings; and arrives in the 19th century with the self-made, self-improved, business-minded spirituality familiar to today’s culture. Highlighted are the critical sages of this increasingly individualized faith and its market-friendly orientation, including George Whitefield, Joseph Smith, and Billy Graham. Those who pushed against the current of materialized “self-help” religion, such as William Jennings Bryan and Walter Rauschenbusch, are also examined. Some may find Lehmann’s frequent descriptor of “gnostic,” in regards to individualized spirituality, a bit heavy-handed. “Platonic” or “personal” would have communicated a similar meaning without the controversial associations. VERDICT A thorough, critical, and information-dense history of American “self-help” religion.—Jeffrey Meyer, Mt. ­Pleasant P.L., IA

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

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.
Sorry !!! Your comment is not submited properly Or you left some fields empty. Please check with your admin



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing