Whether society is critiquing religion or the other way around, it is often difficult to tell which is which, as can be seen in Geneive Abdo’s analysis of the Shi’a-Sunni divide in The New Sectarianism, or Matt Eisenbrandt’s legal intrigue with the Assassination of a Saint. A more philosophical look at the blurring between secular society and religious belief can be found in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of This World, while Paul Seungoh Chung presents in a Crossroads of Worldviews, the possibility of synthesizing the secular and sacred. This season also offers a number of fulfilling biographies, including Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s investigation of Moses and Macy Halford’s devotional memoir.
HISTORY & PHILOSOPHY
Abdo, Geneive. The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide. Oxford Univ. Dec. 2016. 264p. maps. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780190233143. pap. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780190233167. REL
While the Sunni-Shi’a division within Islam is common knowledge, it is not always clear how these tensions play out between Islam and the non-Muslim world, or within the traditions of the religion itself. Abdo (senior fellow, the Atlantic Council; No God But God) argues that the resurgence of communities identifying as Sunni or Shi’a to the exclusion of nonreligious or broader Muslim identity is the root of ongoing unrest, and demonstrates how religion is used for political purposes. Moving among events and movements following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Abdo illustrates how the reversal of Shi’a’s political quietism overturned centuries-old social assumptions, setting off a series of movements within the Sunni community to reassert itself against both the Shi’a and any national identity or secular institution. The author uses the Arab Spring as an example of communities attempting to reestablish their identities, instead of a secular uprising that was coopted. VERDICT This careful analysis of the current state of the Arab world will offer interested readers of the subject a solid perspective of the various movements and how they interact.
Chung, Paul Seungoh. God at the Crossroads of Worldviews: Toward a Different Debate About the Existence of God. Univ. of Notre Dame. Nov. 2016. 304p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780268100568. $50; ebk. ISBN 9780268100599. PHIL
Chung (Christianity & culture, St. Michael’s Coll., Univ. of Toronto) begins with a parable of two explorers attempting to discern whether a group of people are governed by a benevolent ruler or not. The parallel to philosopher Antony Flew’s “Parable of the Invisible Gardener” is striking and deliberate, as is the difference. In Flew’s tale, the explorers share a common point of view in their opposing hypothesis. Yet Chung’s are so varied as to be incommensurate. Borrowing from philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, Chung argues that both the theist and the atheist find the other’s worldview to be incomplete and make the mistake of assuming theirs is a neutral perspective. Chung insists that rationality arises within particular traditions that either compete with each other—where one tradition will win out—or can be synthesized and therefore complement each other. Using Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica as an example of a synthesis, Chung explores similar gaps in contemporary outlooks, concluding with an outline of how one might proceed. VERDICT This lively work will serve as a critical introduction for those enjoy synthesizing both religious and secular viewpoints.
Eisenbrandt, Matt. Assassination of a Saint: The Plot To Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest To Bring His Killers to Justice. Univ. of California. Jan. 2017. 256p. photos. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9780520286801. pap. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9780520961890. HIST
In 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated while offering mass; the murder remains unsolved. Eisenbrandt (human rights attorney, Canadian Centre for International Justice) relays the efforts of the U.S. nonprofit human rights organization Center for Justice and Accountability in the partial untangling of this mystery. Using the investigation as a framework, Eisenbrandt weaves the history of El Salvador with the social and international dynamics (including those of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations) that precipitated the assassination and the subsequent civil war that spanned 1980–92. This story of clashing trajectories includes the transformation of Romero from an Archbishop seen as safe for the regime to one who came to see that the demands of the Gospel required that he vigorously oppose that very regime. Then there is the regime itself, which saw any sort of moderation as an existential threat and the clergy as communist provocateurs. In Eisenbrandt’s telling, it is clear why Romero was so beloved, that his death marked a tragic turning point, and that the pursuit of justice remains unfinished. VERDICT An intriguing story filled with tragic “if-only’s” and powerful examples of courage.
Kotsko, Adam. The Prince of This World. Stanford Univ. Nov. 2016. 240p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781503600201. pap. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9781503600218. PHIL
Kotsko (humanities, Shimer Coll.; Politics of Redemption) asks, even if God is dead in secular thought, does his ghost still exist? The twist is that the devil gets almost equal billing. Kotsko argues that secular society is still working out themes which have their roots in Western Christianity. The author sketches a history of the problem of evil—and the freewill theodicy—that starts with proto-devils having bit parts, to the devil as the cosmic opponent of God, to the devil as an unwilling pawn in God’s cosmic scheme. Kotsko contends that modern nonreligious theories that rely on notions of freedom are derived from such medieval solutions and, therefore, face the same problems. This portrayal is not philosophical, instead reflecting people and social structures through history. Ending on an almost hopeful note, Kotsko suggests that we mine the ideas of voices, such as Gregory of Nyssa, in which everything—including the devil—is redeemable. VERDICT An intriguing and engaging exploration that unfortunately does not spend enough time drawing the connections between past and present, leaving readers to guess about the root of what is at fault in the human condition.
Richards, E. Randolph & Brandon J. O’Brien. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? IVP. Nov. 2016. 224p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780830844722. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780830873326. REL
Was the apostle Paul a jerk? Two evangelical scholars, Richards (biblical studies, Palm Beach Atlantic Univ.) and O’Brien (Christian theology, Ouachita Baptist Univ.), unexpectedly reply, “sometimes, yes.” They also take on more substantial criticisms, such as that Paul was racist, chauvinistic, and homophobic, supported slavery, and twisted Scripture to fit his depraved theology. In this second collaboration, after Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes), the authors squarely meet these criticisms with culturally informed analyses that allow for interpreting Paul in a new light. Richards and O’Brien also employ something called trajectory hermeneutics. In this exercise, one looks at the social mores at the time of the writer and the shift the writer is making. In doing so, the authors take what Paul has to say, not as an endpoint, but a point of departure. While avoiding an anachronistic reading of Paul, it is not always clear what starting point Paul is moving away from, as might be seen in their treatment of Paul and homosexuality. VERDICT A solid introduction to those who have found Paul to be intimidating or offensive, providing a positive reason for why he looms so large in Christian thought and practice.
Shroyer, Danielle. Original Blessing: Putting Sin in Its Rightful Place. Fortress. Nov. 2016. 176p. bibliog. ISBN 9781451496765. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781506420295. REL
Theologian Rienhold Niebuhr stated that original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of Christianity. Shroyer (pastoral theologian in residence, Journey Church, Dallas; The Boundary-Breaking God) insists that original sin is not only not verifiable, but that it has no place in Christian teaching. The author maintains that the biblical message of the blessing of humans being made in the image of God—and God striving to bring that blessing out in the midst of our brokenness—is distorted by a doctrine that views a human nature fundamentally at odds with God. Shroyer maintains original sin has no place in Eastern Orthodoxy, and that no clear statement of it can be found before the fourth century CE. She then examines passages of Scripture typically used to support original sin, showing God as sanctifying a good—albeit flawed—humanity, rather than God overcoming a people inherently bent to evil. VERDICT This analysis is not flawless, as the concept of original sin Shroyer investigates may likely not align with that of the reader’s. However, the author provides a worthwhile antidote to one of the more corrosive ideas in Western Christianity, shifting attention to more constructive ones.
Memoirs & Biographies
Guretzki, David. An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth. IVP. Dec. 2016. 239p. photos. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780830851379. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780830894338. BIOG
With everything that has been written about Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968) and his Church Dogmatics, a 14-volume opus published between 1932 and 1967, one might think that yet another introduction would be unnecessary. However, Guretzki (theology, Briarcrest Coll. and Seminary, Sask.; Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms) offers a beginner’s guide to the author and his literature. The basics include a brief biography, a review of Barth’s place in the theological landscape, and an annotated bibliography. There are also unique features, such as a glossary of important (and frequently misunderstood) technical terms, a list of frequently asked questions, and synopses of early works. Guretzki further presents a useful overview of Church Dogmatics, letting readers in on how the volumes were translated, tips on Barth’s style, and—for those faced with writing a major paper—different ways to approach the seminal text. In addition to broad overviews of each volume, Guretzki includes three different reading tracks, depending on how in-depth one wishes to go. VERDICT For novices, Guretzki’s work offers a useful companion to an introduction to Karl Barth and his magnum opus.
Halford, Macy. My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir. Knopf. Feb. 2017. 368p. bibliog. ISBN 9780307957986. pap. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307957993. memoir
Preacher and teacher Oswald Chambers’s devotional My Utmost for His Highest (1935) serves as the framing narrative for this memoir of a young Southern evangelical woman living in the 21st century. Alhough the author of one of the most popular works of conservative American evangelicals, Chambers, who died in 1917, has faded in large measure from contemporary religious discourse, despite Utmost never having been out of print and boasting a current Facebook page. While working for The New Yorker, Halford begins to question why this is so, especially since Utmost was so pivotal to her own upbringing. She leaves New York to trace Chambers’s history and spiritual and theological influences. Along the way, she experiences her own journey of spiritual self-discovery, embracing anew her commitment to a faith best expressed by Utmost. VERDICT For insiders who crave a deeper relationship with Chambers’s work. However, for those not deeply conversant with Utmost, Halford’s writings may read at times like a private conversation.
Hahn, Thich Nhat. At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life. Parallax. Nov. 2016. 192p. illus. ISBN 9781941529423. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941529430. BIOG
Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness) has an extensive résumé, much of which includes his publications on issues of social justice, peace, and mindfulness for the past 50 years. This small work pulls together some previously published writings and unpublished talks given over the course of his long career; a sort of poetic summary of his life. Chapter titles reflect autobiographical elements as well as Hanh’s efforts to spread active engagement in all the moments of life. In places lyrical, in others polemical, his voice is always gentle, affirming, and full of gratitude. Of the need for solidarity in the face of political and economic hardship, he writes, “You, my brothers and sisters, are truly my companions.” VERDICT Reading this inspiring account will prove to be a worthwhile exercise in mindfulness.
Zornberg, Avivah Gottlieb. Moses: A Human Life. Yale Univ. Nov. 2016. 240p. illus. notes. ISBN 9780300209624. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780300225129. BIOG
Widely published Torah scholar Zornberg (The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious) continues here her method of reading and interpreting biblical texts through an amalgam of literary theory, psychoanalysis, midrash, and the arts, with a perspective on biblical leader and lawgiver Moses. As with her previous works, this is not for the faint of heart. Zornberg does not so much tell a story as weave a complex web of signifiers that are intended to augment the brevity of biblical narrative with the nuance, spirituality, and psychological insight that she argues is missing from the text. For instance, speaking of Moses’s prophetic voice, she writes, “The murmuring deep gives voice to those chinks in the carapace of meaning,” a sentence that demands reflection as well as the energy to challenge all that is behind it. Ultimately, Zornberg concludes that Moses is for her “the quintessential voice of Israel,” simultaneously personal and transcendent. VERDICT A thoughtful work that is worth the effort for spiritually erudite and patient readers.
Advice & Self-Help
Wesselman, Hank. The Re-Enchantment: A Shamanic Path to a Life of Wonder. Sounds True. Dec. 2016. 216p. notes. ISBN 9781622035595. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781622036332. SELF-HELP
Alienation from our modern selves—what Wesselman (Spiritwalker) terms soul dissociation—has resulted in myriad issues. Wesselman’s decadeslong work as a shaman seeks to overcome the divide between the rational and the nonrational, the seen and unseen, in order to help seekers discover true spiritual health, or reenchantment. A trained anthropologist, Wesselman shares his personal path from paleoanthropology to shamanism, which for him represents focusing awareness away from physical reality into the realm of the hidden interior where the task is to open, watch, and truly listen. As he shares his wide-ranging spiritual experiences, Wesselman seeks to find common ground with more established traditions, such as Hesychasm in Eastern Orthodoxy, or Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s perspectives on the God of the Old Testament. For mainstream believers and scholars, however, Wesselman risks a similar sort of self-determined psycho-spiritual projection with which he charges various other moribund belief systems. VERDICT This mystical guidebook will appeal most to those who feel spiritually alienated and are seeking clarity.