What Are You Reading and Why?

We regularly ask our readers to submit annotated reviews of the good books they’re reading—on any topic whatsoever, and whether the books are newly-published or golden oldies.


Preaching Biblical Sermons

Raymond Bystrom, Kindred Productions, 2006

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This book looks at sermons and the changing perspectives; the writer, Ray Bystrom, has taught homiletics (the theological name for sermons) at several colleges and shares both the descriptions of sermons past as well as the approach today, and as pastor had  to practise what he preached!.  He does so through an analysis of our culture and an examination of three major homileticians:  Frederick Craddock, Eugene Lowry and George Buttrick. 

In the treatment of each, he devotes a chapter that includes a theology of the person featured, a sample and an analysis of a sermon preached by the person, a description of the approach, and an evaluation of the method.  Bystrom states that most North American preaching is ‘discursive’:  built on argument and organized by points and propositions; the sermon is frequently little more than the three burdensome logical points with helpful illustrations designed to relieve the minds of those trying to follow the preacher’s logic (p 1).  ‘Preachers need to move beyond ‘three points and a poem’ (p 3).  In place of the discursive model, Bystrom encourages the inductive and the narrative approaches.  Preoccupation with the sermon as argument meant that attention was focused on content and not on form, even though the focus of the early church’s sermons was narrative, not ‘discursive’.  Once the  church moved into the Hellenistic world, a reflective shape became the construct of preaching, a discursive structure (p 10). 

Today we’re paying more attention to form rather than content (p 9).  Eg in the parable of the vineyard workers and their perception of mistreatment, Lowry has the power comment, ‘to be invited into the  vineyard is to be invited home’ (p 60).  Diagnosis and not description or illustration is need, dealing with causative issues and allowing the text to stimulate the imagination (eg what were the family dynamics in the household of the ‘prodigal son’). Read more ›

Christ and Culture in Dialogue

Angus Menugo, General Editor, Concordia Academic Press, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture has dominated the discussion of the relation between Christian faith and ‘secular’ culture.  The discussion has been based the awareness that theology always stands at the crossroads of decision:  either to serve Christ and His church, of to fall prey to a private religious expression, some fashionable philosophy, moral crusade of political ideology (p 7).  Niebuhr’s position is the doctrine of the two kingdoms, the belief that Christians are simultaneously saints and sinners, what Niebuhr called ‘Christ and culture in Paradox’.  The Lutheran concept of the two kingdoms speaks against the cultural accommodation of theology, the paradoxical vision provides correctives to two possible dangers:  a ‘Christianization of society’, remaking the world into the image of the church, or an ‘acculturization of the church’, remaking the church into the image of the world.

Menugo’s book speaks to three major themes.  One. The identification of alternative approaches to Christ and culture, clarifying Lutheran perspectives.  Two.  The dialogue between Christ and culture as It applies to social issues (war, evangelism).  Three.  The institutions of the church, with specific attention to worship and the educational structure of the church.  (This is particularly cogent for church colleges and seminaries.)

While Menugo’s book speaks from and to a Lutheran audience, it asks questions on a far wider perspective.  Good probing of our faith. Read more ›

Religion and Culture

Richard Hecht and Vincent Biondo (eds), Fortress, 2012

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This well-balanced volume looks at the key facets of significant interaction between religion and culture.  Religion’ may refer to the religious traditions (Buddhism , Judaism).  Or it may refer to symbols and meanings, values.  ‘Culture’ is the interaction of the political dimensions, a vital public arena where social debates are encouraged and may contribute to preserving democracy and preventing mass destruction (p xviii).  Religious pluralism may be the key, the public spaces for face to face communications.  Religion and Culture is a compilation of essays (from a Lutheran perspective) dealing with three spaces where religion and culture are performed:  peace building, as it creates communities; the dome and domestic space; contemporary art.

Six essays outline religion and culture in the space of politics (key areas sketched here are science, women and peace building).  ‘Sometimes it is religion that creates or reinforces women’s suffering, and sometimes it is religion that provides the antidote and the opportunity for freedom’ (p 110).  Another six essays examine religion and culture in the space of ethics. Fascinating conceptualization here:  the religious ethics of capitalism, education, children, death.  The final seven essays describe a third space that Hecht calls aesthetic, where there is greater creative freedom:  visual art, music, film. 

A fascinating contribution deals with Walt Disney’s ‘preoccupation with death’ (p 394); his films rely on a cultural system of religious meaning to make sense of death (p 394).  Each part of Religion and Culture demonstrates the interweaving of religion and culture; religion cannot be separated or compartmentalized so that it operates only within the walls of religious institutions or during religious events.  Human life is immersed in religion and culture.  Read more ›

With glad and Generous Hearts: a Personal Look at Sunday Worship

William Willimon, Upper Room, 1966

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Here is a helpful look at our worship time together, by Willimon, for many years Minister to Duke University and now bishop in the Methodist church.  From his knowledge and personal experience he stresses that the form and substance of worship if a whole, and sketches the biblical and pastoral components of the ordo:  Gathering, Confession, Praises, Scripture, Sermon, Creed, Intercession, the Lord’s Supper, Sending Forth.  A very useful adjunct to Willimon is "An Educational Gide," prepared by John Westerhoff, a resource for group study and discussion that implements Willimon’s material.

Of special interest to me were his comments about greeting, talking and silence in the time leading to the more ‘official’ worship.  Announcements should be made here in the pre-service, and be made by laypersons rather than by the pastor.

Willimon favours a time between necessary greetings and necessary silence and focusing.  People should be free to move around and create a family-like atmosphere.  The organ should not be played during this time—it is not used as background music for the congregation’s chatter (p 33).  (The other eight parts of worship receive similarly helpful attention.) Read more ›

Still Christian

David Gushee, Westminster, 2017

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Gushee tells his story, of finding faith and struggling with spirituality, whose commitment to Jesus puts him at odds with American evangelicalism.  Still Christian tells of his pilgrimage from personal faith found on a Baptist church parking lot as a teenager to studies and teaching in five seminaries and several inter-church social action groups.  His story relates to a wide range of religious probing:  the Southern Baptist Convention controversy; mainline liberalism and radicalism; American conservative and progressive evangelicalism; life as an academic in both secular and Christian institutions; Christian engagements with politics; national media; fights over specific issues such as abortion, climate, torture, women’s participation in church structures and LGBT inclusion (xv). 

He became a Southern Baptist as a teenager, discovered Protestantism at liberal seminars, got a teaching gig at a conservative seminary, got involved in environmental and anti-torture activism, change his mind about gay people (xi).  The discipline of journaling helped create accuracy and perspective.

With all the changes that his journaling and teaching resulted in, what remains?  ‘I still believe in Jesus.  I still believe in the prophetic religion of Jesus and of those before him, a religion of justice, love and compassion. I still believe in local communities of Jesus-followers.  I still believe in the power of the preached Word and received sacraments.  I still believe that the truest human language is tears….  The most important voices come from the margins.’ (p 150) Read more ›