Brief Book Review: The Faces Of Jesus

The Faces Of Jesus: A Life Story

Author: Frederick Buechner

Publisher: Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press

97 pages + Introduction, ISBN: 1-55725-455-9, Hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

Frederick Buechner is an ordained Presbyterian minister and, over the years, has become somewhat of a popular and prolific author of both fiction and non-fiction works.

This little volume is divided into six chapters in addition to the Introduction: 1 Annunciation, 2 Nativity, 3 Ministry, 4 Last Supper, 5 Crucifixion, and 6 Resurrection.

Buechner—in this reviewer’s humble opinion—has the gift of attention grabbing turns-of-phrase that surprise and inspire the reader. Sometimes these turns-of-phrase have the capacity to confront readers with the foreboding judgment of God and the all-encompassing grace of God that are able to make readers laugh and cry—perhaps at the same time. Such is the brilliance of Buechner. Here are a few examples:

When you think the world is on fire, you don’t take time out to do a thumbnail sketch. Nobody tells us what he looked like, yet of course the New Testament itself is what he looked like…(p. ix).

If he [Jesus] is the Savior of the world as his followers believe, there never has been nor ever will be a world without salvation (p. 4).

It is no wonder that from the very start of his ministry the forces of Jewish morality and of Roman law were both out to get him because to him the only morality that mattered was the one that sprang from the forgiven heart like fruit from the well-watered tree, and the only law he acknowledged as ultimate was the law of love (p. 42).

God makes his saints out of fools and sinners because there is nothing much else to make them out of. God makes his Messiah out of a fierce and fiercely gentle man who spills himself out, his very flesh and blood, as though it is only a loaf of bread and a cup of sweet red wine that he is spilling (p. 59).

If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party (p. 61).

He could be Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, who said, “Fathers and teachers, I ponder, ‘What is hell?’ I maintain that hell is the suffering of being unable to love” (p. 65).

If ever there should turn out unbelievably to be a God of love willing to search for men [and women] even in the depths of evil and pain, the face of Jesus is the face we would know him by (p. 79).

Thus for Jesus the only distinction among people that ultimately matters seems to be not whether they are churchgoers or non-churchgoers, Catholics or Protestants, Muslims or Jews, but do they or do they not love—love not in the sense of an emotion so much as in the sense of an act of the will, the loving act of willing another’s good even, if need arise, at the expense of their own (p. 91).

This is a powerful little volume, and I hope it will be regarded as a spiritual classic for many years to come. Highly recommended.

 

 

Advertisements

Brief Book Review: Making Sense of the Cross

Making Sense of the Cross

Author: David J. Lose

Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress

187 pages, ISBN: 978-0-8066-9851-9, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

At the time of writing, the Rev. Dr. David J. Lose held the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is now the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Making Sense of the Cross is written in very accessible prose—actually it is a conversation between an imaginary professor and student. In Lutheran pedagogical style, it takes the catechetical method of questions and answers.

The contents of the work are as follows: Acknowledgments, Introduction, Chapter 1: A Man Hanging on a Tree, Chapter 2: Portraits and Perspectives, Chapter 3: Ransom and Victory, Chapter 4: Substitution, Satisfaction, and Sacrifice, Chapter 5: Example and Encouragement, Chapter 6: Event and Experience, For Further Reading.

After focusing on the different and unique material of each gospel, especially their Passion Narratives; Professor Lose reviews the three theories of atonement. The theories are: the Classic theory, also called the Ransom theory and the Christus Victor or “Victorious Christ theory, made popular by Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén; the substitution or Satisfaction or Sacrifice theory by Anselm in the eleventh century, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury and then revised by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, and tweaked further by John Calvin in the sixteenth century; and the Christ as Moral Example or Christ the Exemplar or the Divine Example theory by Peter Abelard, who was born some fifty years after Anselm.

Dr. Lose examines each theory and highlights their strengths and weaknesses. He employs four questions to analyze each theory: i) What is God like? ii) What’s broken about the relationship between God and humanity? iii) How does Jesus’ cross repair what’s broken? iv) What picture of the Christian life is given? (p. 84)

After finding each theory wanting since they are merely theories; Professor Lose turns to event and experience in his final chapter. Herein he draws a lot on Pauline theology; emphasizing the scandal of the cross; as well as the all-encompassing love of God in Christ on the cross. The motifs of dying and rising for Christian daily living in relationship with Jesus is what sets us free to love, serve and forgive one another—hence carrying out the ministry of reconciliation in response to Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross.

Students, laity and adherents of non-Christian faiths who are not familiar with the theories of atonement will benefit from this volume. It shall also serve as a helpful review for more seasoned pastors and scholars, and inspire further conversation and study. To compliment this work, one can order from Augsburg Fortress a Leader Guide and DVD.

 

 

Book Review: Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body

Healing Of Soul, Healing Of Body: Spiritual Leaders Unfold the Strength & Solace in Psalms

Author: Edited By Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, CSW A Project of the Jewish Healing Center

Publisher: Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing

115 pages, ISBN 1-879045-31-1, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In the “How To Use This Book” section, the purpose of this little volume is stated: “This book is intended to help you—struggling with illness or helping someone who is—derive spiritual healing from Psalms” (p. 11). Accordingly, the focus then is on what the late 18th century, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov referred to as the ten “healing psalms,” they are: Psalms 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150. Readers will find helpful, practical suggestions on how to use these psalms.

In the “Introduction” chapter, Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub provides an overview of who Rabbi Nachman was, and the ten different kinds of songs found in these ten “healing psalms.” Each song has a corresponding Sefirot… “of the Kabbalah, the mystical attributes through which the Creator brought the universe into being. These Ten Sefirot are called “Direct Light,” shining from the Creator to the world” (p. 19). For example, one type of song is called a Niggun, “Melody,” and its corresponding Sefir is Hessed, “Lovingkindness.” In “Notes To Introduction,” there is a list of all ten Songs and corresponding Sefir.

Ten rabbis from four denominations—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstruction—each write one of the chapters; providing a wide range of insights and approaches to these psalms.

The structure of each chapter is as follows: A Hebrew and English translation of the psalm, along with a commentary on it.

For this reader, the most helpful chapter was by Rabbi Maurice Lamm, commenting on Psalm 105. Rabbi Lamm offers several insights regarding the importance of songs and singing to facilitate communion with God and healing if not of the body, then of the mind and soul. For example: “The word shir, meaning song, also derives from shur, meaning insight. When we sing we raise our souls to God, and we gain insight into Him” (p. 83). I think this emphasis on singing songs regardless of our situation is most timely in our day and age, since very few people seem to sing anymore—one wonders if they are the poorer in health as a consequence.

In addition to this volume’s chapters, there is information about each of the contributors, suggested resources for further reading, helpful organizations, information about the Jewish Healing Center, and Jewish Light Publishing and several of their publications.

 

 

Book Review: Leaving North Haven

leavingnorthhavenLeaving North Haven: The Further Adventures Of A Small-Town Pastor

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York & Berkeley: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

251 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2013-0, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

In this sequel to Good News From North Haven, the Reverend Michael L. Lindvall continues to tell his heartwarming stories of many of the characters in his first novel.

The Reverend David Battles has now served Second Presbyterian Church for some ten years. He hadn’t expected to stay that long. He has learned much in those ten years. Yet, it is with a humble heart that he observes: “In these last ten years, I have come to know that I know less than I once did, but I do know this, just this: to see anything that matters, you must always bring two things to your looking—attention and love” (p. 23).

One character readers may remember is Minnie MacDowell, who had a fall and broke her elbow, was suffering from Parkinson’s and believed she was dying. On at least three occasions, she had gone through the ritual of having Reverend Battles ask her the question, “Are you prepared to die?” Then he was to read the twenty-third Psalm and pray the Lord’s Prayer. After this, she was to close her eyes turn her head to the window and pass away (p. 25). This ritual reminds me of a parishioner of mine who asked me every time I visited her: “Pastor, why am I still here? Why doesn’t the Lord take me home?”

The Reverend Battles, reflecting on if it was time to move on after ten years has this to say: “The town has come to be an unlikely home for us, but we can hardly stay forever. The hard truth is that in a year or two, maybe five on the outside, the church won’t be able to pay a minister a full-time salary.” (p. 38). This reality, of course, is an all-too-familiar one for many a mainline Protestant clergyperson serving in a rural and small-town parish.

In one of his adventures Reverend Battles thought he’d shot a ten-point buck deer. He had placed his gun triumphantly on the antlers, and one of the Wilcox brothers was about to take a picture when the buck suddenly came to life, got up, and ran away with the gun still in his antlers.

Then there is the young boy, James Corey, who is fascinated by a momma killdeer.

There is also the prophetic-like eccentric, Ivar Johanson, a bachelor, everyone is curious about his mysterious building project of Redi-Mix cement and chicken wire.

In the concluding chapter the Reverend Battles is celebrating All Saints’ Sunday, which was also his last Sunday at Second Presbyterian. Something surprises them and gets them laughing on that solemn day.

Those who love the culture and tales of small-towns and their churches will enjoy this novel. Clergy and laity alike will laugh, cry, and be edified by these tales of God’s loving grace.

Brief Book Review: Conquering Fear

Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World        Author: Harold S. Kushner                                                      Publisher: New York: Alfred A. Knopf, A Borzoi Book, 2009      ISBN: 978-0-307-26664-4, 173 pages, Hardcover                              CDN $29.95

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

conqueringfearFears. Every human being, at one time or another, encounters fears. The question is: How does one deal with such fears? Harold Kushner, who served as an active rabbi for many years, offers some of his experiences, knowledge and practical approaches to the subject at hand.

The volume consists of ‘First Words,’ and nine chapters. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme, and begins with at least one pertinent quotation.

There are over eighty references in the Bible instructing human beings not to fear. According to Rabbi Kushner, God does not want fear to dominate our lives; hence he gives us the Eleventh Commandment—“Do not be afraid.” This means, among other things, that: “Our goal should never be the denial of fear but the mastery of fear, the refusal to let fear keep us from living fully and happily.” (p. 24)

If readers are familiar with any of Rabbi Kushner’s previous books, they will recall that he casts the literary net far and wide, drawing on an array of sources, including: the Bible, the Talmud, rabbinic stories, contemporary psychology and literature among them. This volume continues in that vein.

In chapter after chapter, the author counsels his readers not to be paralyzed by their fears. Rather, the best way to handle fears is to face them and try to overcome them.

For example, Viktor Frankl told his patients, “Go out and do what you are afraid of. Expect the worst to happen.” When they did it and the worst did not happen, he would say to them, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” (p. 168) Of course there are some exceptions to providing such counsel, especially regarding life-threatening behaviours.

My favourite story in this volume is one of hope inside a Nazi concentration camp, when Jews wanted to celebrate Hanukkah. Holiday celebrations were forbidden in the camp, but one man saved a bit of the bread from his evening meal, dipped it in grease from his dinner bowl, fashioned it into an impromptu candle, said the appropriate prayer and lit the bread. His son said to him, “Father, that was food you burned. We have so little of it. Wouldn’t we have been better off eating it?” The father replied, “My son, people can live for a week without food, but they cannot live for one day without hope.” (pp. 93-94)

This volume is written in accessible prose, and readers who are familiar with Rabbi Kushner’s previous books would most likely benefit from this one.

 

Book Review: Over The Mountains

Over The Mountains: A Story Based on The Second Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren and other contemporary records

Author: Compiled by Eileen Robertshaw

Publisher: Walden, NY: The Plough Publishing House, 2012

184 pages, plus maps and an addition entitled: The Hutterite Mission Machine by Dean Taylor & Jake Gross

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

I’ve not read much Hutterite history. However my sister and brother-in-law who own a business, have numerous Hutterite colonies as their customers. A Hutterite customer gave this volume to them, and they passed it on to me.

Over The Mountains chronicles the life of Hutterites in the eighteenth century from Austria and eastern European countries such as today’s Czech and Slovak Republics, Hungary, Rumania, and Ukraine. As the title suggests, it focuses on a flight of a group of Hutterites from Transylvania from the persecution and conversion tactics of Delphini, a Jesuit priest, sent by Empress Maria Theresia to do away with the Anabaptists. The flight was from Transylvania over the Carpathian Mountains into Wallachia, contemporary Rumania. Later they would emigrate from Rumania to Vishenka, Ukraine and Radicheva, Russia.

The work highlights a recurring cycle. The Hutterites because of their beliefs in communitarian living, based on Acts 2:42-47, pacifism, and re-baptizing those who were baptized as infants; they were regarded as heretics by other Christians, were persecuted, and invading enemy Turks plundered and destroyed their property. They were offered the opportunity to recant and return to the Roman Catholic and sometimes Lutheran churches. When they refused, they were imprisoned, even beaten, children were taken from their parents, and families were separated from one another. The Hutterites then sought out other countries where religious freedom would honour their way of life. Princes and other wealthy landowners from such countries would promise them religious freedom, and then they would immigrate. Whenever the civic or religious authorities of that land began to persecute them; or a war tax was imposed on the Hutterites; or they were expected to serve in the military; or the land on which they lived was disputed because of war; the recurring cycle would begin again.

One of the developments amongst the Hutterites was an underground communications system whereby one or more would secretly travel to visit their imprisoned family or community members, and then return with news as to their circumstances.

Periodically there would be disagreements in the community whether or not to observe all of Sunday as a day of worship and rest; and what type of prayer was permissible.

According to The Hutterite Mission Machine, Hutterite missionary ministers met in 1527 at Augsburg, Germany for what came to be known as the Martyr’s Synod. At this meeting, the focus was on evangelism and missions; and the missionaries divided up certain regions of Europe and agreed on where each missionary would go. Of the 60 missionary ministers who attended the Synod, only two were still alive five years later.

This is an interesting fact for at least two reasons. First, it underscores the priority and commitment to missionary work among the Hutterites in the Reformation era; as well as the courage and faith of the 58 missionaries who were willing to be martyred for what they believed was the work Christ had given them. Second, it is quite a contrast with contemporary Hutterites here in Canada, who seem to have given up on evangelism and missions.

This volume would be most beneficial to those interested in eighteenth century Hutterite history.

 

 

Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.