Reviews - Recent & Relevant

Reviews of recent items relevant to LiberalEvangelical.org members.

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Fidelity With Plausibility, by Wesley J. Wildman

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Fidelity With Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century. By Wesley J. Wildman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. 441 pages.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God....For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength,” says the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Wesley Wildman opens his discussion on the emergence of Christological absolutism with these verses. The message of these verses, says Wildman, testifies to a scandal of divine concern, “an affirmation of the loving provision of God for human salvation” (149), but it does not demand an absolutized Christology; Christological absolutism was a later development. It was the scandal of divine concern, Wildman reiterates, that was so redeeming and “foolish”.

Speaking My Mind, by Tony Campolo

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Speaking My Mind. By Tony Campolo. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004. 239 pages.

Tony Campolo, renowned evangelical speaker and prolific writer, maintains in Speaking My Mind what he has been convicted of his whole adult life: That the gospel commitment of a Christian is to a life lived in accordance with the divine authority of Scripture, in relationship with the living Jesus Christ, and in assurance of a resurrection and a life everlasting. Speaking My Mind, however, is not written as a tool for spreading his gospel message to the un-evangelized. It is written to the evangelical community out of a deep concern for what Campolo believes evangelical Christianity has become in America. The evangelical community, says Campolo, despite its growing popularity and marketing success, may harbor “within itself the seeds of its own destruction” (24). It has handled issues like women’s ordination, homosexuality, poverty, politics, and Islam in ways which not only threaten the survival of the evangelical community but which compromise and pervert the heart of the Biblical message. In what may be a surprising juxtaposition of ideas for many readers familiar with evangelicalism, Campolo offers a socially and politically liberal message informed by theologically conservative convictions. For those living comfortably within the evangelical community in America, the book may shake those places in which they feel secure; for those about to give up on the prophetic possibilities and gospel commitment of evangelicalism, however, Campolo offers inspiration and hope.

The Post Evangelical, by Dave Tomlinson

review logoThe Post Evangelical (Revised North American Edition). By Dave Tomlinson. EmergentYS, a Zondervan publishing group, 2003. 146 pages. $11.00.

Are you a discontented evangelical? Are you somehow left dissatisfied at the way evangelicalism as a movement has influenced your faith and Christianity? If yes, then this book is for you. If no, then read it anyway because it touches on issue salient and contemporary to the liberal-evangelical conversation.

Dave Tomlinson authors an accessible work to both scholars and laypersons alike on a branch of Christianity that has emerged historically from the roots of a salvific orientation and continues today as a centrist theological lens for many Christians. Tomlinson is the vicar of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in North London and founder of “Holy Joe’s,” an unconventional church that meets at a London pub.

Thy Kingdom Come, by Randall Balmer

review logoThy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical Lament. By Randall Balmer. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Pp. xxvii, 242.

This book is the lament of an evangelical at the distortion and the literalistic interpretation of the Gospel by what the author calls the “Religious Right.” By “Religious Right” Balmer means the “movement of politically conservative evangelicals” (xxvii) which includes also some Roman Catholics, Conservative Jews, and Mormons. The author feels that the evangelical faith has been “hijacked” by the Religious Right. The marriage of rightwing evangelicalism with the rightwing politics of America has made the Religious Right a powerful cultural, religious, and political force in America.

American Evangelical Christianity, by Mark A. Noll

review logoAmerican Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction. By Mark A. Noll. Blackwell Publishing, 2001. 320 pages. Price, $38.00.

Mark A. Noll, professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, has produced a book which is historical, political, and religious all in one package. American Evangelical Christianity offers a subtle and unique presentation of the movements leading to modern evangelicalism in America.

The first sentence of the book offers a terse summary of what will follow: “This book describes, interprets, and evaluates a stream of Christianity that was the predominant form of religion in the early history the United States, that existed as a large but disintegrating force in the first half of the twentieth century, and that has been an increasingly visible but frequently misunderstood political presence over the past fifty years” (1). This is undertaken in two Parts, wherein Noll argues that evangelicalism is a culturally adaptable religious form. In Part III, Noll offers political advice to evangelicals, encouraging a “Christian Politics”. I will summarize the most important elements of this book before offering some evaluative comments.

Evangelical Disenchantment, by David Hempton

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Evangelical Disenchantment. By David Hempton. Yale University Press, 2008. 233 pp. $30.00

In his new book Evangelical Disenchantment, David Hempton, a religious historian at Harvard Divinity School, offers nine biographical accounts of exuberant faith, relentless doubt, and acute disenchantment in regards to the evangelical tradition. His subjects are George Eliot, Francis W. Newman, Theodore Dwight Weld, Sarah Grimke, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Vincent van Gogh, Edmund Gosse, and James Baldwin. With the exception of Edmund Gosse, each account shares the same general narrative arc, beginning with fervent commitment to faith, traversing through the painful shadows of doubt and disillusionment, and ending with the renouncement of the evangelical tradition. The journey from pious evangelical faith to resolute disavowal unfolds differently for each, as does the personal aftermath of such radical reversal. Taken together Hempton’s vivid portraits reveal both the strengths and shortcomings “of what is now one of the largest and fastest-growing faith traditions in the world” (198).

Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, by John Shelby Spong

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Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture. By John Shelby Spong. Harper San Francisco, 1991. 249 pages. $11.00.

Are there really two creation stories in the Bible? Was woman literally created from man’s side? Is homosexuality actually a detestable sin against God? Is God responsible for killing millions, if not billions, of people and animals? Are the Gospels inerrant if they contradict each other? These are the kinds of questions that Bishop John Shelby Spong wants to raise. As the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for twenty-four years and the author of more than eleven riveting books, Spong challenges the Fundamentalist Christian thought. Spong, a retired Bishop, uses his web page and newsletters to continue to guide those whom he has inspired to a more progressive faith. While visiting Bishop Spong’s webpage, one will find that he expresses his faith journey as, "I am not even a disillusioned former Christian, as some of my scholar-friends identify themselves. I am a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply. But I also recognize that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence." As a heterosexual, married, mainline Christian, highly educated, male, Spong is one of the greatest Christian proponents of gay rights in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In addition to combating homophobia, Spong has also made strides for feminism and racial equality. Spong is a theologian to be highly respected; yet he is also opposed by many Conservative Christians who regard his interpretation of scripture as heretical. Through the course of this book, Spong tackles the “pre-scientific” assumptions of the Bible; the four P’s: Prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, and Protest; Paul; the Gospels; Christmas; Easter; and “Who is Christ for us?”

Christianity for the Rest of Us, by Diana Butler Bass

review logoChristianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. By Diana Butler Bass. HarperOne, 2006. 278 pages. $13.95.

If change is central to Christ’s message, why do so many Christian churches resist change? If congregations are dying regularly, is there any hope for the mainline Christian Church? Through a three-year study, which included traveling to mainline churches across the nation, Diana Butler Bass sought to answer these questions. What she found was both truth-telling and hopeful. Mainline churches that listen to Christ’s message of the necessity of change are growing and thriving; meanwhile, mainline churches that resist change are slowly dying. The purpose of this study was to find churches that embrace change and tell their stories in order to build bridges of hope from despair to renewal. Bass divides Christianity for the Rest of Us into three parts, What Happened to the Neighborhood Church?, Ten Signposts of Renewal, and From Tourists to Pilgrims.

Diana Butler Bass is an “author, speaker, [and] educator”, as the title of her blog declares. She writes in order to “help people understand faith both analytically and personally.” As Bass’ sixth book, Christianity for the Rest of Us is a bestseller which serves to help congregations reevaluate their growth process and worship style. Bass’ analysis of American Christianity is so greatly respected that she has appeared in Today, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, CNN, FOX, PBS, and NPR. As a respected scholar she contributes regularly to Sojourners’ blog, God’s Politics, created and maintained by author, Rev. Jim Wallis.

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor

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A Secular Age. By Charles Taylor. Harvard University Press, 2007. 874 pp. $39.95

That we live in a secular age is a fact that few can doubt. For individuals in modern Western society, belief in God has become one personal choice among many, roughly analogous to belief in a given political issue; some rally behind it, others vigorously oppose it, while still others remain more or less indifferent. And yet, less than five hundred years ago it was virtually impossible not to believe in God. So what happened? This is the question which Charles Taylor seeks to answer in his magisterial A Secular Age. In this lengthy volume Taylor explores the myriad of historical, ideological, and social conditions which led to the radical shift whereby secularism replaced religious belief as the “forgone conclusion” of Western society. Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, recently won the Templeton prize for research regarding spiritual realities, which began with his 1999 Gifford lectures entitled Living in a Secular Age? and culminated in the publication of A Secular Age in 2007. The book is divided into five sections; the first three consist of an historical narrative which provided the basis for his 1999 Gifford lectures, while the final two sections deal with more contemporary matters, which Taylor had wanted to discuss in his Gifford lectures, “but lacked the time and competence to treat properly”(ix). Consequently, the following review will be divided into two parts, the first dealing with sections I-III and the second with sections IV-V.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll

review logoThe Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. By Mark A. Noll. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994. 274 pages. $22.00.

There is a scandal plaguing the evangelical church. No, it is not regarding a sexual indiscretion or any sort of moral practice. Mark Noll asserts that the scandal of evangelicalism “is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3). Noll is an evangelical scholar who currently teaches history at the University of Notre Dame. For many years Noll was a professor at Wheaton College in history and theology. It was during his time at Wheaton that Noll penned The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. When looking at evangelicals he is greatly distressed because “notwithstanding all their other virtues…American evangelicals are not exemplary for their thinking, and they have not been so for several generations” (3).

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind is broken down into four sections. The first section comprises the opening two chapters and discusses the contemporary scandal for evangelicals (their lack of influence and contribution to the collective intellect) and why this is an important issue for evangelicals. Section two of the book evaluates the history of evangelicalism and factors that contributed to a lack critical thinking, specifically noting the “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” (109). Noll addresses the ramifications of the scandal in section three by discussing how evangelicals have thought about politics and participated in science. In the concluding fourth section Noll asks if there is any hope for the future of the evangelical mind. This book is “an effort to show why this scandal emerged as it did in North America and how it might be possible to minimize its pernicious effects” (23).

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, by Ronald Sider

review logoThe Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? By Ronald Sider. Baker Books, 2005. 144 pp. $15.00.

If Christians are called to live different lives why aren’t they? Ronald Sider, professor at Eastern Baptist seminary and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, has written a book to address just that issue. He feels that the fact that today’s disciples of Jesus do not act like Jesus and “this scandalous behavior mocks Christ, undermines evangelism, and destroys Christian credibility” (15). This book seeks to understand the crisis of evangelical behavior and state “obedient, faithful correctives” (15).

American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, by Christian Smith

review logoAmerican Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. By Christian Smith. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 324 pages. $18.00.

If you thought traditional religion could not thrive in the pluralistic society we live in you were wrong. At least according to Christian Smith in American Evangelicalism. Smith is a professor of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. As a sociologist Smith’s concern is whether “modernity creates the conditions in which traditional religion may thrive” (218). He will argue that not only is it possible but we can see example of this by examining evangelicalism. In case the audience is unfamiliar with evangelicalism Smith gives a brief history on the groups formation out of fundamentalism. He distinguishes three markers that set evangelicalism apart from its fundamentalist heritage: 1) Spreading the gospel should not be sacrificed for doctrinal purity; 2) evangelicals “wanted a true Christian faith that could hold its own in academic circles” (10); 3) “this group of emerging fundamentalist reformers believed that orthodox Christians needed to be socially and politically active” (10).

The Struggle for American’s Soul, by Robert Wuthnow

Wuthnow, The Struggle for America's Soulreview logoThe Struggle for American’s Soul: Evangelicals, Liberals and Secularism. By Robert Wuthnow. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989. 183 pages. $22.00.

The title of Robert Wuthnow’s book, The Struggle for America’s Soul, offers two assumptions intrinsically tied to the thesis and purpose of this book. First, it assumes that America has a soul and second, that there is a battle for its ownership between Evangelicals and Liberals. Robert Wuthnow currently holds the Gerhard R. Andlinger professorship of sociology at Princeton University. He is an accomplished author and scholar with recent published works that include, After the Baby Boomers:  How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion; America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity; and Saving America? Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society. As the director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, Wuthnow is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars in the field of sociology of religion. Essentially, in this book, Wuthnow seeks to study, from a sociologist’s perspective, the struggle in American religion that “has roots in different views of the Bible, in different styles of moral reasoning, and even in different concepts of spirituality” (xii).

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