Philosophy & Ethics, Community & Belief, Church History, & More | Spirituality & Religion Reviews

THIS SEASON’S PICKS start off with different perspectives on philosophy and ethics. John Stackhouse’s latest presents an evangelical Protestant indebted to theological ethicists, while Nicholas Austin offers a solid dialog between medieval theological ethics and virtue theory. Also spotlighted are memoirs in which belief has played an integral part of people’s lives.

This season’s picks start off with different perspectives on philosophy and ethics. John Stackhouse’s latest presents an evangelical Protestant indebted to theological ethicists, while Nicholas Austin offers a solid dialog between medieval theological ethics and virtue theory. Also spotlighted are memoirs in which belief has played an integral part of people’s lives. Whether exploring one’s relationship with a hometown, as in Eric L. Motley’s Madison Park, reevaluating the connection between self and nature (Iris Graville’s Hiking Naked), rediscovering faith (Judy Gruen’s The Skeptic and the Rabbi), or coming to terms with the past (Yvette Manessis Corporon’s Something Beautiful Happened), these varied viewpoints illuminate the many dimensions of faith.

History & philosophy

Austin, Nicholas. Aquinas on Virtue: A Causal Reading. Georgetown Univ. Sept. 2017. 260p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781626164734. pap. $34.95. PHIL

The philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas is seen as a creative synthesis between the dominant but waning philosophy of Saint Augustine and the ascendant yet controversial philosophy of Aristotle. But what made Aquinas a synthetic thinker? In the area of ethics, Austin (theological ethics, Heythrop Coll., Univ. of London) suggests an answer in a causal explication of theologian Peter Lombard’s Augustinian definition of virtue. Austin moves carefully to this point, starting with an explanation of virtue theory, in which character and habit play critical parts. He continues to discuss Aristotle’s four-fold idea of causality, and Aquinas’s contribution to it, defending the concept against current thinking. Only then does Austin introduce Lombard’s concept of virtue and decipher it according to the four causes. Much of the rest of the book is divided among various interpretations of Aquinas’s moral theory in light of Austin’s interpretive key, and how the thoughts of Aquinas relate to Catholic theology. VERDICT Although Austin assumes readers are familiar with Aquinas and Aristotle, the first half of this work will appeal to those interested in virtue theory. The second recommends itself to those interested in a close reading of Aquinas.—JW

Ehrman, Bart D. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. S & S. Feb. 2018. 352p. notes. index. ISBN 9781501136702. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781501136726. hist

Triumph has a positive ring to it, yet Ehrman (religious studies, Univ. of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Misquoting Jesus) provides a decidedly neutral evaluation of Christianity. In his hands, the rise of Christianity from obscurity was neither miraculous nor a historical inevitability; it was simply unsurprising. Ehrman’s study starts with two foci: the emperor Constantine and his choice to devote himself to the Christian faith; and the apostle Paul, whose interpretation of the Gospel was instrumental in the religion’s trajectory. From these, the author maps out the early growth of Christianity against a detailed background of Roman society and history, seeking to explain its appeal, the reasons for an otherwise tolerant society’s hostility toward it, and how that hostility missed its mark. He not only brings a clear presentation of his own views but also gives alternative interpretations a fair hearing. VERDICT Ehrman’s lively and thoroughly researched volume is bound to become a standard text on early church history. It is a rare work that delivers so vast a history in such a comprehensive and coherent fashion. [See Prepub Alert, 8/13/17.]—JW

Laborde, Cécile. Liberalism’s Religion. Harvard Univ. Sept. 2017. 344p. notes. ISBN 9780674976269. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780674981577. PHIL

The liberal philosophy of disestablishment has come under severe criticism as either being too wedded to European conceptions of religion or not understanding its own function. Laborde (political theory, Oxford Univ.; Critical Republicanism) defends a liberal egalitarian concept of the relationship between church and state in two ways. First, she argues that critics rely on a semantic rather than interpretive scheme of evaluating religion. Within the interpretive lens, Laborde states that religion is not a single idea but instead a bundle, and establishes this by examining the works of scholars such as Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Eisgruber, Lawrence Sanger, and Jonathan Quong; each of whom provide different concepts of religion. In disentangling these notions, the author finds that they are not exclusive to systems of faith. These secular analogs indicate the limits of state intervention into or support of a given spiritual organization. The analysis provides greater latitude between religion and a liberal state. VERDICT Laborde’s method of untangling the cluster of ideas around religion is an intriguing legal theory. Legal scholars and political philosophers will likely want to give this work a close reading and tease out its many subtleties.—JW

The Monastery and the Microscope: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mind, Mindfulness, and the Nature of Reality. Yale Univ. Sept. 2017. 400p. ed. by Wendy Hasenkamp & Janna R. White. illus. notes. ISBN 9780300218084. $38; ebk. ISBN 9780300231380. PHIL

Since 1987, the Life and Mind Institute has sponsored conversations between prominent scientists and the Dalai Lama. Hasenkamp (science director, Life and Science Inst.) has compiled the lectures and discussions of the 26th such conference in 2013. The participants represent a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds, including theoretical physics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, and education. Because of the diversity of thought among the attendees, the material is both accessible and erudite. Initial lectures develop the idea that recent scientific understandings challenge a number of modern philosophical assumptions—such as the concept of an entity or object—that might be better analyzed in terms of Buddhist epistemology and metaphysics. Later articles deal more closely with brain science and psychology as they relate to Buddhist practices. Hasenkamp includes the back-and-forth that occurred within the lectures, particularly those involving the Dalai Lama. Discussions of specific Buddhist doctrines are generally avoided. The conference ends with the Dalai Lama’s appeal for secular ethics based on Buddhist principles. VERDICT One comes away from this work wanting to learn more; an insightful read for those with a greater interest in the inquiry than the answer.—JW

Stackhouse, John G., Jr. Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World. Oxford Univ. Dec. 2017. 328p. notes. ISBN 9780190636746. pap. $19.95. REL

Are Christian ethics any different from ethics in general? Stackhouse (religious studies, Crandall Univ.; Making the Best of It) provides a qualified “yes.” He begins with a general mandate that humans are to practice shalom. Although generally translated as “peace,” shalom for Stackhouse signifies a more expansive sense entailing harmony and the flourishing of both human society and creation. As a result, every activity then has a moral aspect. As such, he states there is no functional difference between Christian ethics and ethics in general. The bulk of Stackhouse’s project concerns the vocation of bearing witness to the cultivation of shalom in light of the Gospel and instantiating this practice as best as possible within the ambiguities of the world. Christian ethics then becomes a special case of ethics, the author finds. Stackhouse’s treatment remarkably resembles Robin W. Lovin’s Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism, reworked for evangelical Christianity, existing between withdrawing from the larger world and imposing its idea of shalom upon it. VERDICT Clearly aimed at general readers within the evangelical community, Stackhouse’s analysis will appeal to those interested in the ambiguities of personal ideals and societal realities.—JW

Stewart, Kenneth J. In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis. IVP. Oct. 2017. 304p. notes. index. ISBN 9780830851720. $30. HIST

While evangelicalism in the Americas is gaining adherents from Roman Catholicism, a number of prominent evangelicals have turned to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, arguing that evangelicalism is a rootless movement that lacks any deep affinity to church history, traditions, theology, or spirituality. Amid reports that evangelicalism is losing adherents, Stewart (theological studies, Covenant Coll.; Restoring the Reformation) counters that since the Reformation, Protestants have attempted to recover the traditions and theology of the ancient church. He adds that evangelicals must work to reappropriate their own heritage. Stewart’s treatment heavily emphasizes the Reformation and evangelical movements of the 19th century. His identification of evangelicalism with Protestantism generally, however, makes formulating criteria of what should be recovered difficult. VERDICT Contending that the evangelical movement has deep roots within church tradition, Stewart makes a plea to reclaim those roots and leaves open the question of whether churches can and will nurture these foundations.—JW

Advice & Self-Help

Moore, Osheta. Shalom Sistas: Living Wholeheartedly in a Brokenhearted World. Herald. Oct. 2017. 240p. notes. ISBN 9781513801513. $28.99. REL

“I am not your typical peacemaker,” admits blogger and podcaster Moore, of Shalom in the City. Unafraid of conflict and open to the dynamics of working in decaying cities, the author, along with her pastor husband and their three eventual children, offers insights into a practical, life-on-the-ground Christianity that is vibrantly infused with creating peace. Moore comes by this honestly, as she herself has experienced abuse, insidious racism, poverty, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Her sources for inspiration are eclectic and dynamic: Ta-Nehisi Coates as well as Mother Teresa, the Lectio Divina practice of scriptural reading as well as cross-racial praying. The book is arranged thematically around her 12-point Shalom Steps, practical advice for engaging in peace as an organizing principle of life. An interesting addition is a small collection of recipes, which the author says mirror the lives of peacemakers: “We need to find what works for us.” VERDICT A practical look at creating peace that starts from within.—SC

Memoirs & Biographies

Corporon, Yvette Manessis. Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil. Howard. Sept. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9781501161117. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501161124. MEMOIR

Part memoir, part history, this book starts off promisingly, with the rhetorical question: “How do you accept that tragic irony is a cruelty reserved not merely for Shakespearean plot twists?” Here, Corporon (When the Cypress Whispers) shares several worthy tales. The first is of her Greek grandmother’s efforts, along with those of her island community, to save a Jewish tailor and his four daughters during the Nazi occupation of Erikousa during World War II. The second is the author’s journey to connect with the survivors of that story after her grandmother’s death. And finally, it’s the present-day account of a senseless hate crime that results in the death of two beloved family members. Corporon, a senior producer for the TV show Extra, unfortunately tends toward repetition to the point of distraction. At times, the narrative reads more sensationalist than what it intends to be—an homage to the silent courage of a few when faced with overwhelming evil. VERDICT A heartfelt story that ultimately survives the shortcomings of its delivery.—SC

redstarGraville, Iris. Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. Homebound. Sept. 2017. 260p. maps. ISBN 9781938846847. pap. $17.95. MEMOIR

This memoir of “seeking, not escaping” speaks to the hearts of those longing to be free from modern constraints—work, money, ambition, stress of all sorts—to find their bliss, wherever it might be. For Graville (Hands at Work), in 1993, that means listening to the urgings of her heart and leaving her job as a public health nurse in Bellingham, WA, and moving her family to Stehekin, a remote village near North Cascades National Park. What resonates throughout is her deep connection to Quakerism; here a gentle, quiet spirituality that encourages places and periods of silence rather than imposing rigid external demands. As her husband and children agree to this experiment, over the two years, all come in their own way to say, “I thought I knew about powerlessness,” only to find that the rigors of living life simply require letting go of much more than they ever could have imagined. Graville concludes that “Far from feeling deprived, we found over and over again the riches of attending to what’s truly important.” VERDICT Reading this expressive and beautifully written memoir is to experience one’s own quest toward self-discovery.—SC

Gruen, Judy. The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith. She Writes. Sept. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781631523021. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631523038. MEMOIR

As the introduction affirms, religious conversion is the start of a journey, not the happy-ever-after. Memoirist Gruen (Carpool Tunnel Syndrome: Motherhood as Shuttle Diplomacy), at the remove of 20 years, reflects upon her passage from ardent, liberal, Jewish feminist to embracing her role as a modern Orthodox Jewish wife and mother. Her folksy approach mimics a girlfriend relating the story of how she came to be who she is today, replete with plenty of anecdotes and asides as well as an abundance of exclamation points but less interiority or transition between events. For example, in Moscow, she goes from acknowledging outrage at Joseph Stalin’s eradication of his own people to walking in the cool evening air, lightly asking, “How do people live in such an oppressive society?” While Gruen’s ebullient positivity is a counterweight to religion-as-abuse memoirs, such as Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox, some additional editorial attention might have been paid to the prose to make it seem a little less overworked. VERDICT An uplifting spin on an often misunderstood life choice.—SC

Marsh, Karen Wright. Vintage Saints and Sinners: 25 Christians Who Transformed My Faith. IVP. Sept. 2017. 224p. notes. ISBN 9780830845132. $20. MEMOIR

Introduced as “an established bit of Christian choreography,” this account from Marsh (director, Theological Horizons, Univ. of Virginia) shares disparate transformative Christian biographies as a way to reflect upon her own life. “As I’ve gotten up close to the personal stories of vintage Christians, I have met them in their humanity,” she explains. In particular, the author highlights the spiritual substance of Saint Augustine, Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. She adds to the mix recognizable spiritual writers such as Flannery O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, as well as lesser-known heroes, such as sharecropper–turned–civil rights activist and singer Fannie Lou Hamer and Nazi resister and martyr Sophie Scholl. Marsh thoughtfully presents their notable activities with care, and the assumption of reading simply for holiness and mastery of mystical contemplation is undone. Instead, this survey demonstrates that faith in action is what calls all Christians. Accompanying reading suggestions and “conversation starter” questions recommend this title to book groups. VERDICT A quiet journey into dynamic lives of faith.—SC

Motley, Eric L. Madison Park: A Place of Hope. Zondervan. Nov. 2017. 304p. photos. ISBN 9780310349631. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780310349648. MEMOIR

Motley (executive VP, Aspen Inst.) could have contented himself with a memoir of starting from a poor, rural, and segregated community in the Deep South to academic scholar and special assistant to George W. Bush. Yet his story here centers on the hopes, aspirations, and work of the community of Madison Park, AL, and begins with the character of the grandparents who raised him and the nature of Madison Park itself, from its 1880 founding by former slaves to the friends and family whose strength molded him. An active faith is an integral part of his community. Motley imparts that he did not earn his place solely through his considerable efforts, noting the sacrifices of the people who placed great hopes in him. Motley closes with his painful decision to sell his family home—which threatens to cut ties with his hometown—and his reconciliation with his mother, which succeeded in strengthening those bonds. VERDICT Motley’s account can be interpreted in a number of ways, but what shines through in any reading is the story of a remarkable yet humble life.—JW

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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