Reviews - Recent & Relevant

Reviews of recent items relevant to LiberalEvangelical.org members.

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The Dialects of Secularization, by Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger

Habermas and Ratzingerreview logoThe Dialectics of Secularization. Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005. 85 pages.

In January of 2004, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, posed this provoking question to his audience at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria: Is religion “an archaic and dangerous force that builds up false universalisms, thereby leading to intolerance and acts of terrorism” (64)? The context for the question was a debate between himself, then Prefect of the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Jürgen Habermas, a liberal, secular philosopher, receiver of the Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievement, and self-proclaimed as “tone-deaf in the religious sphere” (11). The Dialectics of Secularization is a transcript of their dialogue in response to the agreed upon subject: “The Pre-Political Moral Foundations of a Free State”.

In other words, must a constitutionally-defined free state justify its ethical norms with an antecedent, universal claim for truth and, thus, compromise its own claim of a neutral world view? On the other hand, how can any religion which does make universal claims justify those claims in a manifestly plural world without bending towards intolerance, injustice and, in the extreme case, acts of terrorism? One might think Cardinal Ratzinger, staunch defender of Catholicism, would be obliged to answer “no” to his own proposition of religion as an archaic and dangerous force; and one might think that Habermas would defend his own commitment to a neutral, universally accessible reason as the antidote to claims of any revelation antecedent to reason. Instead, however, both men promote the limits of their respective positions, succeeding in the difficult but worthwhile balancing act of criticizing the presumptuous over-reach of their own tradition while still articulating unwavering conviction.

Evangelical vs. Liberal, by James K Wellman Jr.

review logoEvangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. By James K. Wellman Jr. New York: OUP, 2008. ISBN 9780195300116. Pp. i-xv, 1-306.

This book is the result of a project the author has undertaken to study both liberal and evangelical Christianity in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) with a view to discovering how these two distinct groups of Christianity interact with each other. The book is divided into three parts comprising twelve chapters. The first part of the book deals with the context, theory, and methodology of the study. The study was done in one of the most secular regions of the US, western Washington and western Oregon. The author made a comparative study of twenty-four evangelical and ten liberal churches of this region through extensive and systematic interviews with both the clergy and the laypeople. Using the results of his interviews, the author has attempted to analyze, compare, and contrast evangelicals and liberals. He has identified the liberal/evangelical Christians as two religious subcultures that compete for dominance within the American religious landscape, which has implications for American politics and cultures.

The Evangelical Universalist, by Gregory MacDonald

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The Evangelical Universalist. By Gregory MacDonald. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006. Pp. ix, 201.

Is Christian orthodoxy compatible with belief in the ultimate redemption of the whole human race? MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist claims it is possible for an orthodox Christian to hold Christian universalism. This book is an attempt to examine this important theological issue within the framework of “evangelical universalism.” The book is divided into seven chapters with an introduction and appendices.

Christ is central to the author’s theology, and he argues that salvation, finally, depends on one’s faith in the person of Christ, and that in the end everyone will be saved through Christ including those who are in hell. The book begins with an autobiographical note on the author’s conversion from the mainstream view of the church to Christian universalism, and he lays down his own reasons for his thesis in the book. He argues that the teachings of the mainline Christian traditions about hell—such as the theory of retributive justice, teachings of Calvinism, freewill theism, and open theism—are philosophically problematic. He holds that they are incompatible with reason, and that Christians have failed to understand the biblical theology about the ultimate destiny of humanity. Employing reason in interpreting the biblical doctrine of hell, MacDonald believes that Christian universalism is a viable means for understanding what the Bible teaches about hell.

Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren

review logoGenerous OrthodoxyMcLaren, Brian. Generous Orthodoxy: why I am a missional, evangelical, post/Protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2004.

Brian McLaren, one of the early leaders of the recent emergent church movement, wrote Generous Orthodoxyto convey his understanding of the Christian message. He accomplishes this through a confessional faith story of how has interacted with Jesus Christ and Christianity throughout his life. McLaren weaves an auto-biographical narration of his life into a declaration about the way he believes Church should be. His own faith was formed by being uncomfortable with any one brand of Christianity. He incorporates experiences of various denominations within Christianity—from the far right to liberal churches and many in between—into his understanding of his own faith. As he touches each of these types of Christianity he conveys a distinctive understanding of Jesus Christ that draws on elements collected from each of those variations of Christianity.

Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, by George Marsden

review logoUnderstanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. By George Marsden. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991.

There is a great divide in this country between Fundamentalist, Evangelicals, and Liberals within Christianity. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism traces the history of these theologies back primarily to the mid-19th century with the emergence of Darwinism. The vast majority of the book is focused on the 20th-century divide between Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism with some discussion of liberalism to complete the spectrum of theologies that emerged from the same American Protestant roots.

The author George Marsden is a professor of history at Duke University, School of Divinity. This book emerges from essays written during the 1980’s. Thus, it is important to view the book more as collection of essays woven together around a particular topic than as a cohesive book.

The Politics of Jesus, by John Howard Yoder

review logoThe Politics of Jesus: Behold the Man! Our Victorious Lamb. By John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.

Are the ethics that Jesus and the early church relevant in our crazy world today? What the heck does this Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of mean? In Politics of Jesus John Yoder, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, seeks to answer these questions by creating a social ethic that relies on the “bulk of specific and concrete content in Jesus’ vision of the divine order which can speak to our age as it has seldom been free to do before, if it can be unleashed from the bonds of inappropriate a prioris” (xi). To accomplish this Yoder negates the “a prioris” or previous ways of thinking that believed that Jesus could speak to modern ethics. Throughout the book Yoder directly addresses the arguments of those who think Jesus’ ethical teachings are not relevant. In this second edition, he updates original 1972 book to address the people that sought to argue against his notion that Jesus’ ethics are applicable to modern society through the use of brief epilogues after each chapter that bring modern scholarship into Yoder’s ethical arguments.

Fit Bodies Fat Minds, by Os Guinness

Fit Bodies Fat Mindsreview logoFit Bodies Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think And What To Do About It. By Os Guinness. Baker Books, 2001. 160 pages. $9.99.

Ever wonder why some of the more conservative-evangelical Christians tend to dismiss reasonable questions about their faith, make statements such as “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!”, or presuppose a theocratic ideal in a democratic government (i.e. the USA)? Many other such characterizations of the evangelical attitude could be mentioned, but getting to its core is the task undertaken by Os Guiness in Fit Bodies Fat Minds.

As an evangelical, Guinness is in a unique position to write this book. All too familiar with the evangelical perspective, he critiques his own camp. This book is written with the goal of reforming the way in which Christians think (c.f. 11). Guinness introduces his message in two ways. First, he will point out the problem of evangelical anti-intellectualism, which he defines as “a disposition to discount the importance of truth and the life of the mind” (9). Second, he will argue that anti-intellectualism is a sin which must be addressed: “we evangelicals need to examine our anti-intellectualism, confess its pervasiveness, repent of its wrongness, and seek God’s restoration to live up to our name- truly being people of the gospel who love God not only with our hearts, souls, and strength, but also with our minds” (11). The problem Guinness posits is that American evangelicals are more concerned with their abs and cardio than with the development of their minds. Tracing the development of anti-intellectualism in two parts: I, “A Ghost Mind”; and II, “An Idiot Culture”; Part III, “Let My People Think”, offers solutions to this problem. I will now summarize Guinness’ argument.

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