Book Review: How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

Author: Reginald Stackhouse

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

147 pages, Hardcover

Questions, questions, questions. Human beings are curious creatures; curiosity often leads to asking questions; and questions can and do result in growth, learning and more meaningful living even when questions are not answered satisfactorily. In Jesus’ public ministry, he would teach by employing questions.

At the time of writing this volume, Dr. Reginald Stackhouse was a minister and professor at Toronto School of Theology, and formerly a Canadian Member of Parliament. In addition to the book’s title in question form, all seven chapters are also titled with a question: Chapter One: Why is This Happening to Me? Chapter Two: If You Could Be God for a Day, What Would You Do with a World Like This? Chapter Three: What Kind of World is This When the Innocent Suffer and the Evil are Rewarded? Chapter Four: Must We Just Suffer or Can it Make Us Better People? Chapter Five: Is This World a Fair Place if One Has to Pay the Price for Everyone Else? Chapter Six: Must Suffering and Death Have the Last Word? Chapter Seven: How Can a Person Make it Through a World Like This Successfully?

Dr. Stackhouse writes in a very accessible way, which engages the reader. He cites example after example of the wide array of situations that happen to humans and explanations of how they might be understood.

In chapter one, he states that the problem of evil and suffering haunted him as a pastor, professor and politician. One example is a parishioner who was given two months to live after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He cites Plato and Augustine, Leibniz and Voltaire, and then turns to the Book of Job, where he identifies six theodicies, that do not provide a definitive answer.

In chapter two, Dr. Stackhouse wrestles with questions like: What kind of God can allow the crib death of a newborn baby, and a bicycle rider on a country road to be run over by a careless driver? On the other hand, believing in nothing is not much better. In attempting to answer such questions, Dr. Stackhouse cites Justin an early Christian philosopher and martyr who found truth in the Bible as well as in the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. Their answer to suffering and evil was to “Trust nature,” and trust in providence. God ordained everything in life. By so doing, if we were God for a day, we could not do any better than God. Life events come together—in ways we sometimes shall never know—to find some kind of harmony and balance. Professor Stackhouse also turns to the cross of Jesus for an answer. “The message of the cross of Jesus can be applied to all innocent sufferers.” (p.52)

In chapter three, Dr. Stackhouse addresses the suffering of the innocent and the rewarding of the evil. Suffering does not always mean sin—nor does success always mean righteousness. One example of this given is his brother Benjamin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and went on to live a full, meaningful life right up to the end. Professor Stackhouse also provides a thoughtful discussion of technological evil, institutional evil, and the evil of nature causing natural disasters. As people of faith, we believe in a God who suffers with us and shares our pain—that is the message of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In chapter four, Dr. Stackhouse describes how a bed-ridden parishioner cheered him up when he went to give him Holy Communion. Since evil is as prevalent in the world as is goodness, it is better that we try to learn from our suffering. He explains that a couple of ways to learn are what he refers to as “the law of compensations” and “the law of prospects.” A couple of biblical examples of these were the apostle Paul and Moses. A couple of political figures are also cited—Nelson Mandela and John A. MacDonald. The former released from prison and leading South Africa out of apartheid. The latter immigrating from Scotland poverty-stricken and becoming a Canadian Prime Minister. Jesus taught (Luke 9:23-25), that those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

In chapter five, Dr. Stackhouse unpacks the significance of the Latin word vicarius. He believes that: “Vicariousness runs through the Bible.” (p. 110) According to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there is no greater love than to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. Human beings also need to realize their corporate identity to make sense of life. In sharing our common humanity, we are more compassionate toward others and more willing to make sacrifices and serve others.

In chapter six, violent examples like Tiananmen Square, the killing of Roman Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, and Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, raise the question of whether suffering and death have the last word. Dr. Stackhouse agrees with philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that human life is too short to gain justice in this world. Hence, for Kant a life beyond this one was necessary to right the wrongs suffered in this world if God is just. This, of course, is a problem for those who do not believe in a world beyond this one. However, citing philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “Wager Argument,” Dr. Stackhouse makes the case for believing in an afterlife. His conviction that there is was confirmed when he made a pastoral call on a couple who lost their thirty-year-old son who died in an accident. The father, in tears, said to Dr. Stackhouse: “There has to be something.” (p. 128) What we believe about death has a significant influence on how we live our life in this world.

In chapter seven, Dr. Stackhouse speaks of how much his parents’ beliefs gave shape to his own. His parents’ faith helped them stay together as a family and cope with the hardships of the Great Depression. “Although they [his parents] never used the term “mystery” to refer to God, I can see now that was how they understood him.” (p. 139) What happened in life was also a mystery and human beings, created in God’s image are a mystery as attested to in Psalm 139, we are: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” His parents, like Sören Kierkegaard knew that to be a human being means that there will be suffering. They taught Dr. Stackhouse that one cannot expect life without troubles—rather, one can trust that God will help us to cope with them.

This volume shall be helpful for clergy, laity and academics, I highly recommend it.

Book Review: Finally Comes The Poet

Finally Comes The Poet: Daring Speech For Proclamation

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Publisher: Fortress Press

165 pages, including: Preface, Introduction, Notes, and Scripture Index Paperback

At the time of writing this volume, Walter Brueggemann was Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, and President-elect of the Society of Biblical Literature. Since then, he went on to become one of the most renowned, respected and prolific Hebrew Bible scholars.

This book was Dr. Brueggemann’s the Lyman Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School. The book’s title was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass: “Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, the true Son of God shall come singing his songs.”

In addition to the Introduction, the work consists of four chapters: 1. Numbness and Ache The Strangeness of Healing; 2. Alienation and Rage The Old Invitation to Doxological Communion; 3. Restlessness and Greed Obedience and Missional Imagination; 4. Resistance and Relinquishment A Permit for Freedom.

Professor Brueggemann’s writing is, at times, profound and provocative, passionate and poetic. To wet potential readers’ appetites, here are a few quotations:

The act of preaching is not instruction, rational discourse, or moral suasion. It is the invitation and permit to practice a life a doxology and obedience, which properly orders the ongoing relationship of sovereign and subject, which in seasons of trust is that of parent-child, or even friend and friend (John 15:14-15).” p. 68

Praise is always an act of political reality, daring a new way in the world.” p. 69

Judged by any pragmatic norm, praise is foolishness. It has no end beyond itself. Praise is the simple act of enacting our true purpose, namely letting God be God in our life. As that happens, we take on our true human character. In the act of praise, we become the creatures whom we are meant to be; against subjectivity that produces anxiety, against technique that leaves us empty, we are now filled with life as creatures gifted by the Creator.” pp. 73-74

The great fact of the Western world, and therefore the circumstance of our preaching, is that we gather as restless, greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness. That is, social goods, social access, and social power are not equally distributed.” p. 82

The theological issue in the Sabbath command is rest. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is restlessness. Restlessness touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological.” p. 98

The Jubilee precludes any exploitative economic practice that is ultimately demeaning of human persons and destructive of human community.” p. 102

The event of preaching is an event in transformed imagination. Poets, in the moment of preaching, are permitted to perceive and voice the world differently, to dare a new phrase, a new picture, a fresh juxtaposition of matters long known.” p. 109

It is in the reality of being loved and reloved, treasured, trusted, summoned, and gifted, that we become free enough to be the children of God—freed for life with God.” p. 113

We have only the word, but the word will do. It will do because it is true that the poem shakes the empire, that the poem heals and transforms and rescues, that the poem enters like a thief in the night and gives new life, fresh from the word and from nowhere else.” p. 142

This volume is most likely to appeal to biblical scholars, theologians and preachers.

Stephen Deacon and Martyr

Image credit: bibleencyclopedia.com

Centuries before Boxing Day ever existed, and the shop-til-you-drop, three-ring-circus, mass hysteria consumerism dominated humankind; Christians remembered—and some still remember—Stephen on December 26.

You can read about him and his martyrdom in The Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7:60. Long story short, he was stoned to death based on false charges of blasphemy. His final words were similar to those of Jesus on the cross; words of forgiveness and love for his executioners spoken as a prayer: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)

Today as I remember Stephen and his martyrdom, I’m also mindful of my sisters and brothers in Christ particularly in Muslim-majority and communist nations. They are far too often persecuted and falsely charged of blasphemy and imprisoned or worse, wrongfully executed for their faith.

So, in solidarity with these persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to pray with me today the following prayers in remembrance of Stephen and those imprisoned or on death-row solely because they are faithful Christians.

We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of Stephen the first martyr, who looked to heaven and prayed for his persecutors. Grant that we also may pray for our enemies and seek forgiveness for those who hurt us, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now forever. Amen. (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 54)

Lord Jesus, you experienced in person torture and death as a prisoner of conscience. You were beaten and flogged and sentenced to an agonizing death though you had done no wrong. Be now with prisoners of conscience throughout the world. Be with them in their fear and loneliness, in the agony of physical and mental torture, and in the face of execution and death. Stretch out your hands in power to break their chains. Be merciful to the oppressor and the torturer, and place a new heart within them. Forgive all injustice in our lives, and transform us to be instruments of your peace, for by your wounds we are healed. Amen.

(Amnesty International, Prayer for Prisoners, Prayers for Peace)

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.

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.