Book Review: In Transit

In Transit: Between the Image of God and the Image of Man

Author: Tshenuwani Simon Farisani

Publisher: William B. Eerdmanns & Africa World Press Inc.

251 pages, including: Preface, Prologue, and Appendixes

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Author

At the time of writing this work, the Rev. Tshenuwani Simon Farisani served as a dean and deputy bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa, and was a visiting scholar at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkley, California. He was also the subject of two films: The Torture of a South African Pastor and A Remarkable Man. He is also the author of Diary from a South African Prison (translated into German, Dutch, and French), and a book of poetry, Justice in My Tears.

The Context

This work was written in the context of the South African apartheid regime, which has parallels to the experience of segregation in the U.S.A., as well as the present situation in America, where blacks continue to be treated unjustly—especially by white systemic racism. Rev. Farisani, prior to the publication of this volume, had been held in detention four times by the South African police, without charge or trial. While in detention he had been interrogated and tortured and had suffered two heart attacks. He suffered all of this merely for preaching the gospel message that all human beings, regardless of their skin colour, are equal in God’s eyes, and are created in the image of God.

The Genre and Content

This work makes for interesting and inspirational reading due to its creative genre. It is, simultaneously, autobiography, story, history, dialogue, and lament poetry—reminiscent of biblical prophets speaking truth to power. The chapters are compiled into four parts. The following titles of the parts are: Part I Tshiuda Grows Up; Part II Tshiuda-Tshenuwani And The God Of South Africa: The Creator’s Call; Part III Tshenuwani Answers The Call; Part IV Tshenuwani’s Fourth Time In The Bowels of Hell; and Appendixes A-F, consisting of letters and documents, a meeting report, an application for Tshenuwani Farisani’s release, news releases, and letters to congregations from Bishop Serote and Dean Farisani.

Dating back to 1600, the Dutch first encountered blacks and thought them inferior to whites and viewed them as Satan’s people. The Dutch then proceeded to create an oppressive theology, philosophy, and social, cultural and political system against blacks.

Rev. Farisani’s lament poetry speaks out passionately, revealing apartheid oppression; blacks being forced off of their fertile land to a life of starvation and working as slaves for the whites; of being punished when children come to be with their parents when the latter are working for the whites on land once belonging to blacks. The Afrikaners confiscated and expropriated black land and animals, cattle and chickens, and other possessions.

Rev. Farisani remembered how he was abused and beaten by his employer and not given the wages he was promised. This happened more than once with other bosses he had as well—as it did for far too many blacks in South Africa.

The author also recalls the racist attitudes and practices of a white missionary and school teachers: “…blacks have no mental capacity to learn much of white people’s things. There is no room for both civilization and sophistication in their brains, in their whole makeup (p.74).”

In Rev. Farisani’s call from God, he relates God’s answer to him regarding politics and faith: “Politics is not a dirty game reserved for Satan worshippers; it is among the holiest of responsibilities. (p. 84).” In one important dialogue, between God, Rev. Farisani and South African government officials; the venue is a law court and apartheid is put on trial.

Readers also learn of Rev. Farisani’s description of the status quo racist attitudes at Lutheran Theological College among the whites. He struggles with his anger at the unjust apartheid system and those whites supporting it. He also recites portions of the 1984 Lutheran World Federation Assembly document against racism, which suspended white, apartheid-practicing Lutheran churches in Namibia and South Africa.

One cringes at the vivid descriptions of how several secret police plots and traps tried to convict Rev. Farisani; and his experiences of being tortured while in detention. One poem-prayer lament recalls the abusive interrogation tactics of the white “authorities” who detained him without charge—again reminiscent of prophets like Jeremiah.

After his release from his fourth detention; Rev Farisani’s “in transit” status meant that he had to apply to the government for a visa in order to do his work as Dean.

The so-called government “reforms” were merely window dressing to give the blacks and the international community the false impression that the apartheid regime was not oppressive, racist, and unjust. In the words of Rev. Farisani: “Oppressed people want shelter, food, and clothes, not political gimmicks geared to the gullible racist world which do nothing to correct the fundamental cause of their poverty: racist greed and a false sense of superiority (pp. 202-203).”

A Personal Note

I had the privilege to attend a talk that Rev. Farisani gave in Edmonton sponsored by Lutherans and Amnesty International many years ago. In the talk, Rev. Farisani related how instrumental the work of Amnesty was in contributing to his release from prison. It was this talk that, moved by the Spirit, convinced me to become a member of Amnesty International over 30 years ago now.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Brief Book Review: Islam What Non-Muslims Should Know

Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know

Author: John Kaltner

Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, Augsburg Fortress

136 pages, ISBN: 0-8006-3583-3, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

At the time of writing this little volume, John Kaltner was Associate Professor of Religion at Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee. The author provides a cordial, brief overview of Islam.

As the fastest-growing religion in the world, Professor Kaltner appeals to his readers to become more knowledgeable of Islam; to go beyond the often mis-information and stereotypes presented by the Western mass media; to realize that Islam is a diverse and complex faith, just as is Christianity and Judaism.

The volume contains a Preface, six chapters, and concludes with suggested Resources for further reading and study. The chapter titles give readers a sense of the book’s movement: 1. Islam Is a Diverse and Complex Faith, 2. Islam Is a Religion of Orthopraxy, 3. Muslims Respect Judaism and Christianity, 4. There Is No Institutional Hierarchy in Islam, 5. There Is No Clear Separation between Religion and Politics in Islam, 6. Jihad Does Not Mean “Holy War.” At the end of each chapter Professor Kaltner includes Questions for Discussion, which would make this volume an accessible source for study groups or introductory courses.

Readers will learn, among other things: some of the history of Muhammad, the difference between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, the five pillars of faith, additional popular practices of faith, the different attitudes among Muslims concerning non-Muslims, terms such as ka‘ba and hijra, ijtihad and ijma, hadith and ummah, and that the three largest Muslim populated countries are not Arab nations, they are Indonesia, India and Pakistan.

The sections on Western influence and Islam, Reformism, social activism and the distinctions between greater jihad and lesser jihad are helpful for non-Muslims.

The suggested Resources include brief annotations for further reading and study.

 

 

Rabbi Sacks’s commentary on Leonard Cohen’s song

One of my favourite contemporary Jewish scholars and rabbis is Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In this brilliant commentary on Leonard Cohen’s recent song, shortly before he died, “You Want It Darker,” Rabbi Sacks points out several references in the song to the Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. The moment I heard Leonard Cohen’s song, I was astounded by it’s sobering tragedy and beauty. Although Cohen dabbled in other faiths, I think he died a faithful Jew. He was a contemporary Job, having lots of unanswered  questions of God, and facing suffering, and moved by the suffering and evil in the world to continue writing songs and singing them, and in the darkness and hatred of the world, letting light shine and love reaching out to make a difference in the lives of others. In his lover’s quarrel with God, he could still die singing Hallelujah.

Book Review: Where Was God?

wherewasgodWhere Was God? The Lives and Thoughts of Holocaust and World War II Survivors

Author: Edited by Remkes Kooistra

Publisher: Mosaic Press, Oakville, Ontario, 2001

204 pages, ISBN 0-88962-757-6, CDN $20.00, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 

This volume, as the title suggests, is both a history and memoir of Holocaust and World War II survivors, edited by Rev. Dr. Remkes Kooistra. It is based on oral interviews of survivors, conducted by Rev. Dr. Kooistra and others. It is dedicated to the nation of Israel in memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.

Rev. Dr. Kooistra, a Dutch survivor of World War II, was a theologian, linguist, sociologist, professor, chaplain and pastor. He was educated in the Netherlands, graduating from the Dutch Reformed Church seminary at Kampen, and earned a doctorate in theology and sociology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He was pastor of congregations in both the Netherlands and Canada. He also taught at various post-secondary institutions, and was chaplain at the University of Waterloo.

The work consists of three parts: Part I provides the Dutch historical context and briefly traces the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism over the past 2000 years. Part II consists of the actual interviews and stories of the Holocaust survivors. Part III is titled Beyond Survival, and includes Rev. Dr. Kooistra’s reflections on his life during the war years.

Volumes of this nature of course are usually very somber and emotional. It is not easy to re-live and tell the story of such horrific events—one can be re-victimized and re-traumatized by such a process. Even readers who have not survived such cruel experiences as those interviewed here may feel somewhat traumatized; as one of the recurring themes is the senseless violent acts committed against the Jewish people.

From a historical perspective, this is a valuable work, since it provides readers with an inside view of how Dutch Jews were persecuted and deported by the Nazis; as well as how Dutch citizens hid and helped their Jewish people survive.

In relation to the volume’s title, those who survived provided a wide range of answers concerning their understanding, doubts, confusion, etc., of the question, “Where was God?” during the Holocaust.

Here is a sample of one survivor couple, Jack and Miriam Somer. When answering the following questions said: Do you still believe in God? Miriam answered: I do, but I don’t understand God. Was the holocaust a punishment from God? Jack answered: A punishment for little children? I can’t believe this. Miriam answered: I don’t know. Punishment for what? There are enough guilty people among us. The Nazis are not the only ones. The whole world is guilty. We all let it happen. Should we all be victimized by a holocaust? (p. 138)

This volume is a worthwhile read for those interested in Holocaust and World War II history as well as Jewish-Christian relations.

 

Remembering the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern

This past week, I learned of the death of my favourite seminary professor, the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Hordern. He died on November 9, at the age of 94 years. A service to celebrate his life is today, November 15, 2014, at Zion Lutheran Church in Saskatoon. Unfortunately I am unable to attend the service, but my thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Hordern’s family.

Doc Hordern—sometimes he would say to folks, “call me Bill”—in addition to being a wise administrator functioning as the President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, he was also a very gifted teacher and preacher.

As a professor and scholar-theologian, Doc Hordern had the ability to present very deep and profound theological doctrines in a way that almost anyone could understand. I loved all of the courses that he taught me. One of the things he would often do is leave time at the end of his lectures for classroom questions, discussion, debate and dialogue—giving us students opportunity to process what we were learning.

As a preacher, he went into the pulpit with a manuscript, and relied on it, yet one had the sense that he was speaking directly to you in a pastoral way. His sermons were both down-to-earth and insightful, even prophetic, critiquing injustices in the community and larger world at that time, while at the same time, proclaiming the all-encompassing power of God’s grace at work in the church and the world. On a humorous note, on one occasion when he preached in the seminary chapel, he was having “a bad hair day.” Every time he looked down, his hair would fall into his eyes, and he had to keep pushing it back into place with his hand. It became a bit of a distraction for some of us—yet, it reminded me of his humanness, and that he was always accessible to us students.

My fondest memory of Dr. Hordern was on the day that I met with the colloquy committee. When the time came for Bill to ask me any questions, he replied something like this: “I have no questions. I think that after teaching Garth for three years at the seminary I know him and his theology well enough.” That spoke volumes to me, providing yet another example of how he truly not only taught and preached, but also lived by grace.

Speaking of grace, one of my favourite quotes comes from Dr. Hordern’s book, Living by Grace: “The practice of the church will always fall short of what it preaches, and therefore it will continue to live by forgiveness and not by its achievements or merits. The hope for the church remains always in God and not in the church’s membership. God is able to speak even through an imperfect church.” (pp. 199 & 200) For those readers who knew and/or studied under or worked with Dr. Hordern, I invite you to share your reflections by leaving a comment below. Rest eternal grant William Hordern, O Lord; and let light perpetual shine upon him.

Training In Christianity Book Review

Training In Christianity

Author: Søren Kierkegaard, Translated With An Introduction And Notes By Walter Lowrie

Publisher: Princeton: Princeton University Press

275 pages, including Preface, Translator’s Introduction, and Index

ISBN 0-691-01959-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

 The nineteenth century Danish philosopher-theologian, Søren Kierkegaard is, in most cases, difficult to read, and this work is no exception. Kierkegaard had a penchant for at times paragraph-long sentences, which are rather obscure and too abstract. Reading Kierkegaard is sorenklike running a marathon in that it requires both endless patience and endurance. Moreover, I would not be surprised either if some of the meaning has been lost translating from the Danish into English and making sections of the work in English even more cumbersome than the original text. If one is to understanding even an inkling of Kierkegaard’s works, it is helpful to remember and look for his use of paradox and dialectic in his thinking and writing.

   In this volume Kierkegaard suggests there are two different kinds of history—secular and sacred. Secular history relies on facts drawn from asking the usual questions: who? what? where? when? why? how?

   On the other hand, sacred history does not rely on such facts or questions. Rather, it is taken and written, read and lived with “a leap of faith,” i.e. ultimate, radical trust that its content is true and of divine origin, hence not subject to analysis by the categories of secular history nor dependent on their ultimate results. Authentic faith then tends to become offensive to every secular, rational, natural value of human beings.

   Kierkegaard comes across as blunt and crude at times in his criticism of the state Church and clergy in particular. He makes all kinds of nasty remarks about their lacklustre character, their indifference, their lack of faith, etc. One does wonder if his vitriolic ranting in this regard at times is unfair and perhaps the consequence of his depressed and despairing state of being; as well as his being regarded as something of a pariah.

   However there are passages in this work that do shine. For example, I like this quote based on Jesus’ call to take up one’s cross: “At the precise place where suffering would have come if I had been living in a militant Church, now comes reward; there, where scorn and derision would overtake me if I had been living in a militant Church, now honour and esteem beckon to me; there, where death would be unavoidable, I now celebrate the highest triumph.” (p. 208) Kierkegaard thought that the established Church lost its sense of contending since it had become too cozy in the world; whereas the militant Church was always in a state of becoming and survives only by contending with the world.

   Training In Christianity is not for the faint-of-heart. If you’re up for challenging, heavy plodding along; if you enjoy theological and philosophical gymnastics; then this work is waiting for you.

Tom Greggs on Dietrich Bonhoeffer