Book Review: When The English Fall

When The English Fall

Author: David Williams

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

257 pages, including Acknowledgments, An essay-The Root Of Apocalypse, and Questions For Discussion, paperback

David Williams is an American Presbyterian pastor, and this is his debut novel. As a first novel, it has gained considerable acclaim by various reviewers, and rightly so. Williams writes in a brilliant way, simple yet profound.

He describes this work as “Postapocalyptic Amish fiction,” (p. 247), and “an epistolary novel,” (p. 255). It is written as a journal by an Amish farmer, husband and father of two children. The daughter is afflicted with seizures, yet is given what some believe to be divine visions or insights.

Williams tells readers that the novel was inspired by at least three things: i) his study and curiosity of the Amish as a university student; ii) reading about the solar storm called the Carrington Event, which occurred in 1859; iii) and his personal daydreams and creative imagination about the Amish.

The novel is set in rural Pennsylvania, in an Amish community. All is going reasonably well among the Amish, until an apocalyptic-like event occurs, which knocks out almost all of modern technology—everything from household appliances, to vehicles, machinery, etc. Banks are impractical since all the financial records were kept on computers. Martial law is imposed, travel is limited, the military does its best to keep law and order and oversee the distribution of goods and services. The weather wreaks havoc with high winds and heavy rains and flooding—damaging and destroying property.

More and more people are carrying guns and turning to violence. In one scene, Jacob the writer of the journal, thinks about his gun, which he uses only for slaughtering animals on the farm. These thoughts lead him to others concerning “the English,” a term the Amish use to describe all non-Amish people. He thinks the English keep many guns for very different reasons than the Amish. “It seems to me that it is all based on a feeling of fear. To keep a gun because you are afraid of dying, and because you want to be ready to kill another human being, it just feels like such a strange thing. So filled with pride, and so dead to God. I do not understand it. Why would I fear dying, when we all die?” (pp. 136-137)

As the violence of the many English moving into the Amish community becomes more threatening; Jacob agonizes over whether he and his family should continue to stay in the community or leave for what some Amish hoped would be a safer place to live in Ohio. Jacob consults with his daughter Sadie about it. “Which is God’s will? Both. Neither. And the many ways between. There are so many ways in between.” (p. 232)

I hope this spiritual-ethical dilemma serves to spark enough interest in those reading this review to find out for themselves what happens in the end.

I was impressed with the thoughtful way in which Williams emphasised the complex relationship between the Amish and the English. It was not a black and white one for certain—both were influenced for ill and for good by one another. One lesson to be learned from this novel is that we are our neighbour’s keeper, whether we are Amish or English. We all need one another as members of the human race, and we all have things to learn from one another.

Brief Book Review: Bread to Share

Bread to Share… Stories about Saskatchewan’s early Lutheran pastors and their wives: Volume 1

Author: Lois Knudson Munholland

Publisher: Three West Two South Books

351 pages, paperback

Bread to Share… Stories about Saskatchewan’s early Lutheran pastors and their wives: Volume 2

Author: Lois Knudson Munholland

Publisher: Three West Two South Books

338 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor Lois Knudson Munholland is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church In Canada, serving in the Saskatchewan Synod. She is also an enthusiastic researcher, historian and storyteller—which is quite clear when one reads these two volumes.

Pastor Knudson Munholland has obviously expended significant time and energy in researching the stories and history of the pioneering Lutheran pastors, their wives and families in Saskatchewan. Drawing from a wide array of sources—everything from archives, parish and community history books, diaries, memoirs, interviews and correspondence with family members, newspapers, etc,—she has done a great service to the larger church for the present generation and generations to come.

Over and again, there are several themes in these volumes that come to the fore: sharing bread (in its various manifestations, as the title and introduction suggest), travelling to country churches by horse and sleigh in violent blizzards, living in homes without modern conveniences, being innovative in times of illness because of lack of access to medical resources and personnel, serving during the Great Depression and being paid with whatever food parishioners had to spare, spending more time travelling to serve multi-point parishes and very little time at home, adjusting to the pioneer way of life after immigrating from well-established places in Europe, devoting time, energy and resources to mission work and starting new congregations and institutions, to name a few.

In reading these stories of pioneering Lutheran pastors, their wives and families, one becomes most grateful for the seeds of faith that they have sown for future generations of Lutherans in Canada, and to Pastor Lois Knudson Munholland for authoring and publishing these volumes. Pastor Lois ends each story with brief comments on the children of these families, many of whom went on to receive an excellent education and develop their careers and make significant contributions to society in the fields of ministry, politics, education, science, health, etc.

Perhaps there are others, like Pastor Lois who, after reading these volumes, might be interested and inspired enough to author and publish similar volumes for the other Canadian provinces.

I hope every Lutheran seminarian and pastor in Canada reads these volumes and learns from them.

Book Review: Basic Christianity 50th Anniversary Edition

Basic Christianity: 50th Anniversary Edition

Author: John Stott

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

174 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Rev. John Stott died in 2011, at 90 years of age. He was a prolific writer of some 50 books. He was rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London; the founding president of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; and served as chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. Stott was well known in Christendom as a conservative evangelical, and his best-selling Basic Christianity reflects this version of theology.

The book originally seems to have its roots in a series of talks that Stott gave at Cambridge University, appealing to students there. Eventually, Stott became a popular circuit public speaker at other universities around the globe. He had a mission-evangelism spirit which focussed on reaching out to students.

The format of this volume is as follows: Foreword, Preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, Preface, The Right Approach, Part One: Who Christ Is, Part Two: What We Need, Part Three: What Christ Has Done, Part Four: How To Respond, and Study Questions.

In this 50th Anniversary Edition, Stott was somewhat sensitive to updating the language of the original volume to be more gender-inclusive. However, he did not rely on more up-to-date scholars in the body of his text, so his sources, other than the Bible are dated, and, to his credit, he admits this work is dated. Having admitted that, nonetheless the work is easy to read and quite accessible to readers-both Christian and non-Christian.

As for the content, Stott emphasises the orthodox view that God takes the initiative to reach humankind and the two natures of Jesus—fully human and fully divine and cites biblical references to make his case. Although he acknowledges Christ as sinless and the perfect exemplar view of atonement; he also emphasises the importance of a substitutionary view of atonement. His view of humankind also reflects the orthodox one that we are created in the image of God, and we are also fallen sinners who need a Saviour and are unable to save themselves. However, I thought in his discussion on humankind that he could have been more explicitly lucid in making the important distinction between lower case sin and upper case Sin. I also thought that he did not devote adequate treatment to upper case Sin as a state of being in rebellion against God and wanting to be god in God’s place. I was also disappointed in his rather degrading, misogynistic reference to Mary Magdalene in relation to Christ’s resurrection: “Again, we would have chosen someone with a better reputation than Mary Magdalene as the first witness.” (p. 67) In his discussion on the Ten Commandments, he would have been wise to mention that not all Christian denominations agree on their numbering. Instead, he presents the Reformed family of Christians version of the Decalogue, leaving the reader the impression that it is the only way to read, interpret and understand the Commandments. He is quite adamant on the familiar evangelical-fundamentalist language of making a personal commitment to Christ and the all or nothing approach to discipleship.

Stott cautions those Christians who are tempted to place too much importance on their feelings. He states that feelings come and go; and that trusting in God’s promises in the Bible are ultimately more reliable than feelings.

He also laments over some Christians who may describe themselves as “born again” never growing up in their faith. Stott states: “Others even suffer from spiritual infantile regression.” (p. 162) In response to God’s grace in Christ Christians, with the help of the Holy Spirit can grow in their understanding and in the sanctification process.

Stott also emphasises an active devotional life that balances prayer with Bible reading and study—again however his conservative, evangelical preference surfaces as he recommends reading the NIV translation rather than the NRSV.

In addition to an active devotional life Stott advocates membership and regular church attendance; involvement in social justice issues to serve the poor and neglected people in the world; as well as to evangelize the world by sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This volume will likely appeal to conservative, evangelical Christians more than anyone else. The Study Questions may be helpful in facilitating small group discussions for adult church groups and students.

A Brief Book Review: A Rare Benedictine

A Rare Benedictine: The Advent Of Brother Cadfael

Author: Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter)

Publisher: Headline Book Publishing PLC

156 pages, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Edith Pargeter, writing under the name of Ellis Peters, became a popular historical fiction and crime author with her Mediaeval super-sleuth Cadfael series.

The setting is the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, at Shrewsbury, along the Wales and England border. Readers are taken on a journey with super-sleuth Cadfael as he solves the kidnapping of a prominent abbey resident; leaves behind his worldly life to become a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey; keeps secrets surrounding a pair of engraved silver candlesticks; and tracks down a would-be murderer and robber of the abbey treasury.

As in her other Cadfael novels, Ellis Peters has created in this her first in the Cadfael series an engaging page-turner, which many may choose to read in one sitting.

Cadfael, once again—with the assistance of divine providence—is the protagonist who methodically applies his observatory powers and deep insights into the complexities of the human condition to enhance the unfolding of justice and mercy.

Highly recommended summer reading for all historical fiction and crime novel buffs. I would give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: Straight from the Heart

Straight from the Heart

Author: Jesse L. Jackson

Publisher: Fortress Press

324 pages, plus Preface and Editors’ Introduction, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Jesse Jackson is an ordained Baptist minister, who has a passion for social justice. He has travelled widely, and been active in a variety of human rights organisations. In some respects, he has served as a contemporary prophet on behalf of African-Americans—following the tradition of the ancient biblical prophets. He was also an unsuccessful candidate who ran for President of the U.S.A.

An articulate public speaker, this volume consists of Reverend Jackson’s speeches, divided into the following chapters: Political Progressive, Human Rights Advocate, Preacher, Comforter, Evangelist for Educational Excellence, Peacemaker, and Corporate and Cultural Critic. Each of these chapters contain several addresses.

Reverend Jackson is a rhetorical master at catchy turns of phrases. The speeches reflect the ‘signs of the times’ of mainly the U.S.A. during the 1970s and 1980s—with some references to other nations and contexts, e.g., apartheid in South Africa. One of the more tedious characteristics of Jackson’s addresses is that some of the same material shows up over and over again.

The following quotations epitomize the Reverend Jackson as prophet, social justice and human rights advocate, political analyst, and spiritual mentor for African-Americans.

When the Word (the spiritual) becomes flesh (the actual) and dwells in our hearts, that’s called good religion.” (p. ix)

The absence of segregation is not the presence of social justice or equality.” (p. 20)

We must choose the human race over the nuclear race.” (p. 21)

Centuries of crime and terror upon which this nation was built are beginning to show their effect and result.” (p. 49)

Our nation has become divided with narcissism, self-love, and white-skin worship.” (p. 49)

Reganomics wants to use the powers of the federal government to redistribute income and wealth upward from the poor to the rich.” (p. 52)

Not everyone can be famous, that is, well known; but everyone can be great because greatness lies in service, and everybody can serve.” (p. 77)

This day the God that we serve—if we will just trust him in all our ways—will still raise us from the guttermost to the uttermost. He will raise all of us from disgrace to amazing grace.” (p. 113)

Conscience is the pursuit of higher law, the authority to discern just law from unjust law. It is a just law because it has universal character.” (p. 147)

I know it is not your aptitude but your attitude that determines your altitude, with a little intestinal fortitude. No matter what yesterday’s strife, today is still the first day of the rest of your life.” (pp. 154-155)

When the philosophers have philosophized and the theologians have theologized and the poets have framed their verse, we are all driven to rely on the everlasting arms of Almighty God.” (p. 163)

And so we say, “Down with dope; up with hope” because we cannot be what we ought to be if we push dope in our veins rather than hope in our brains.” (p. 206)

Wherever racism manifests itself, the seeds of insecurity, ignorance, fear, hatred, and genocide are always present.” (p. 252)

The black church—whatever it is and ain’t—historically has been and today remains the greatest contributor to sustaining us and allowing us to progress.” (p. 305)

For we believe that in the end might is not right, but right is might. We believe that the pen is mightier than the sword, that a nation’s conscience can be stirred and moved if the truth is told with conviction and with power.” (p. 324)

Even though the Reverend Jackson’s speeches date back to the 1970s and 1980s, there is much here that remains applicable to our contemporary context.

Those interested in social justice, human rights, faith, ethics, and African-American history, religion and culture shall likely find this volume worthwhile.

Book Review: Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Author: Marilyn Salmon

Publisher: Fortress Press

183 pages, including: Preface, Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading, Index of Names and Subjects, and Index of Ancient Sources, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rev. Dr. Marilyn Salmon is professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, MN. She is an Associate Priest at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul where she preaches regularly. Salmon is involved in Jewish Christian relations and has served on the Advisory Board of the Jay Philips Center for Jewish Christian Learning for many years.

This volume, is one in a series of Fortress Press Resources for Preaching.

While I found this work quite engaging, I also felt challenged, and at times, disagreed with Dr. Salmon.

In her Preface, Dr. Salmon states the purpose of this volume: “The purpose of this book is to raise awareness of the negative images of Judaism that commonly occur in preaching, to learn to recognize them, and to adopt strategies to avoid repeating them.” (p. X)

Professor Salmon goes on to share a foundational premise for her hermeneutical and homiletical approach to the New Testament: “The Gospels themselves sound anti-Jewish. However, I maintain they are not. The Gospels belong within the context of first-century Judaism. They were written before Christianity existed apart from Judaism.” (p. X) They are Jewish literature, not Christian literature. However, I’m not sure that a majority of Jewish and Christian biblical scholars and preachers would agree with this premise.

This volume is well designed, with five chapters: Introduction, The Gospels as Jewish Literature, Supersessionism, The Pharisees and the Law, The Gospel of John, The Passion Narrative and a Conclusion. There are also several sub-sections of each chapter to enhance the flow of the work. Some of the chapters also contain examples of sermons that Dr. Salmon preached, which intentionally endeavour to avoid anti-Judaism. I confess that I found a couple—but not all—of these sermons rather dry and overly pedagogical, while others were helpful and instructive.

There are several instances where I do not agree with Dr. Salmon, or if not agreeing, I question or am more ambiguous about her conclusions. Here are a couple of examples.

Dr. Salmon suggests that it is more helpful to read the New Testament from a theocentric viewpoint rather than a Christological one in order to avoid supersessionism. However, I think the “primary subject” of the New Testament is Jesus, and to read it from a Christological perspective need not mean one is promoting supersessionism.

In Professor Salmon’s chapter on The Pharisees and the Law, she writes: “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” is not original with Jesus; it reflects general wisdom concerning the sabbath.” (p. 96) My response is, if this is not original with Jesus, then why not cite the original source?

I appreciate the research that Dr. Salmon engaged in for this volume and her concern to overcome unintended anti-Judaism in the Christian pulpit. This work does make a significant contribution towards understanding the Pharisees in a more positive light. For example, she cites E.P. Sanders, who made the claim regarding the ritual purity laws that: “All Jews, including Pharisees, were impure more or less all the time.” (p.100) Dr. Salmon repeatedly emphasises the wide diversity of Judaism at the time of Jesus and after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. She points out that the caricatures of Judaism by Christians and the use of Judaism as a foil to promote the adversus Iudaeos argument and emphasise the superiority of Christianity over Judaism as a devastating practice has damaged Jewish-Christian relations for centuries; and she advocates the use of more carefully nuanced readings of the Passion Narrative in Holy Week liturgies, providing two online links in her Notes for them; she also includes a resource from Brian Wren’s Piece Together Praise for Holy Week, a Kyrie in three stanzas, with the first line of each stanza containing this prayer: “God, thank you for the Jews.” (pp. 153-154)

I recommend this volume to preachers, and those interested and involved in Jewish-Christian relations.

Book Review: The Power of Kindness

The Power of Kindness: Why Empathy Is Essential in Everyday Life

Author:Brian Goldman, MD

Publisher:HarperCollins Publishers Ltd

309 pages, including Acknowledgements and Index, hardcover

ISBN: 978-1-44345-106-2

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Dr. Brian Goldman has been an emergency room physician for about 35 years, and since 2007, the host of “White Coat, Black Art,” a multi-award-winning show on CBC Radio.

Dr. Goldman begins this volume by asking: “Am I a kind soul?” (p.1) He admits that sometimes he was more worried about mistakes he may or may not have made in his medical practice than whether he was a kind doctor to his patients. He was also preoccupied with being a responsible husband and parent, rather than focussing on kindness per se.

He makes the distinction between sympathy and empathy; describes three types of empathy—emotional, cognitive, and compassion; looks at the origin of the word kindness; and offers several examples of unkindness and kindness. “Linguists say “kindness” comes from the Old English word cynd,which refers to kinship, as in friends who are “two of a kind.” (p. 9)

Dr. Goldman was impressed by the kindness shown him on Good Friday in 2016. He planned on travelling to Brazil for some interviews for this book when he realized that he needed a tourist visa. A Toronto consular office staff person; in an act of kindness agreed to process his application in order that he could catch his flight to Brazil.

Another word he describes in relation to kindness is synchrony,meaning: “a simultaneous action or occurrence.” (p. 10) An example he cites is newborn babies imitating the facial expressions of their parents.

The author notes that when someone experiences kindness from another person; they see the kind person as being similar to themselves; and they, in turn, are more likely to show kindness to others as well. From a faith perspective, I think this is one of the benefits of “the Golden Rule,” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)

In his quest to learn more about kindness and empathy, Dr. Goldman decided to get a fMRI, and become a participant in research measuring empathic resonance among health care professionals. Those who have worked as health care professionals for a long time tend to underestimate the pain of others. Researchers are not sure why this is the case.

Neuroscientists believe that humans are hard-wired to be empathic and kind.” (p. 21) However, it’s difficult to empathize when parts of the brain are not functioning properly.

Tactile empathy happens when the same part of the brain is activated when someone touches another person; and when someone else observes another being touched.

Health care professionals may have an empathy off-switch to distance themselves from their patients’ pain in order to do what is necessary medically—e.g. surgery on a patient.

According to some experts, psychopaths and narcissists are on the rise; and they can utilize cognitive empathy to manipulate people in harmful, even evil ways.

In his chapter, “The Donut Shop,” Dr. Goldman describes the empathy of Mark Wafer, who owns a few Tim Hortons restaurants and is deaf. Because he experienced bullying and discrimination as a deaf person; Mark is more empathic toward people with disabilities like Clint Sparling. Clint has Down syndrome, and Mark hired him; and over the years he has become one of Mark’s most valuable employees. Clint has done exceptionally well; and he lives a full, meaningful life. Now 20 percent of Mark’s employees are disabled.

Dr. Goldman tells of a UN-funded virtual reality film Clouds over Sidra. Sidra is a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl, living in a refugee camp in Jordan. The film shows how Sidra lives in the camp and Dr. Goldman discovered—as did others who have watched the film—that it succeeds in making viewers feel empathy. It has also served as a successful fundraiser for refugees resettling in countries like Canada.

There are some who believe that virtual reality (VR) creates empathy concerning social justice issues—others are more sceptical. VR may also help overcome phobias of various kinds. In Canada, a VR project called Embodying Empathy is designed to help those who attended residential schools; as well as for non-Indigenous people to experience what residential schools were like; and to help the non-Indigenous people to be more empathic toward Indigenous people suffering from their experiences in residential schools.

During his trip to Brazil, Dr. Goldman accompanied a woman in São Paulo who offers empathy and friendship to the homeless. She even created a Facebook page to showcase the poems of a street poet named Raimundo. She also played a role in uniting Raimundo with his family again after many years.

In a trip to Japan, Dr. Goldman visited roboticists and explored how robots provide health care for seniors. The cost of such robots is likely prohibitive for many—20 million yen or $236,000 Canadian. Moreover, robots have not been perfected to the extent that they may not work with seniors who have various kinds of injuries and disabilities.

Dr. Goldman interviews Mary Gordon, the founder of ROE—the Roots of Empathy program in schools, designed to prevent aggression and bullying. Mary Gordon learned empathy at an early age from her parents. This program has made a difference for many students.

It is interesting that Dr. Goldman suggests being kind and expressing empathy to someone you can’t stand. From a faith perspective, that is what Jesus taught and practiced in loving one’s enemies and blessing those who curse you.

Dr. Goldman visits a senior’s care home for people with dementia; and observes how health care staff show empathy for residents with dementia by employing the technique of Validation-mirroring the reality of the residents; rather than trying to correct them and bring them into the staff’s reality. Naomi Feil is credited with introducing Validation for people with dementia. Dr. Goldman describes her as “the soul whisperer” because of her gifts and expertise in employing Validation with people who have dementia. When Feil employs the method of Validation, she is able to share an incredible kindness and empathy with those having dementia.

Feil believes Validation is the best method in caring for those with dementia; rather than Redirection, Diversion or telling a therapeutic lie. Goldman shares several anecdotes as told by health care staff how employing the method of Validation made a huge difference for dementia residents. For example, residents were able to resolve anger and other issues, and be at peace. They too were able to express empathy with other dementia residents.

In his final chapter, “Epiphany,” Dr. Goldman reviews the results of his fMRI with Philip Jackson. After asking Jackson several questions about his empathy tests; Jackson tells Dr. Goldman the clearestway to learn about his empathy is to interact more with people he knows best. So, Dr. Goldman speaks with his partner Tamara Broder, whom he believes is a very empathic person. She tells Dr. Goldman: “I think you’re one of the most empathic people I know.” (p. 292) She says he has the ability to be in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they are feeling.

Some of us are born extraordinarily kind. But most get there only after experiencing pain and then learning from it.” (p. 295)

Dr. Goldman, after all of his research and interviews, comes to realize that to be a person of empathy, one has to be empathic toward oneself; to be a kind person, one has to be kind to oneself. In other words, as Jews and Christians believe, teach and endeavour to live: Love your neighbour as you love yourself.

One critique I have of this otherwise most accessible and informative volume is Dr. Goldman’s failure to mention the divine in relation to empathy and kindness. As a person of faith, I believe that both empathy and kindness originate from God. Indeed, kindness is listed by the apostle Paul as one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.