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.


Justice and Only Justice

Naim Ateek, Orbis, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Ateek is (Anglican) canon of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and pastors its Arabaic speaking congregation.  The claim for security for the one people, the Israeli Jews, has been purchased at the expense of the just claims to the land of another people, the Palestinians.  In Ateek’s words, the Israeli Jews seek peace with security, and the Palestinians seek peace with justice.  The rival claims of these three major religions with their roots in Palestine underscores that the key to peace is the acknowledgement that this land must be shared.  How do we end violence to one people in a way that does not create new violence to another people? 

The critical issue for every liberation theology is not simply how to throw off oppression and empower the formerly victimized, but how to do it in a way that does not create new violence to another people.  ‘Only justice rooted in compassion can save us from repeating the cycle of violence (p xiii).  Ateek writes carefully about the historical pressure in Palestine and the various movements in the struggle (Zionists, Christian and Jewish; right wing eschatologies).  Ateek writes well about the role of the bible, and our concept of G-d.  A biblical hermeneutic that seeks to identify the authentic word of G-d, and this hermeneutic for Christians Is Jesus Christ.  Applying this hermeneutic to the Old Testament passages is for the Christian the need to see as inadequate the human understanding of G-d.  (The wholesale destruction and killing of Jericho’s inhabitants, the death by bear of small boys, the massacre of the Amalekites.  Ateek identifies three central biblical themes:  justice (Naboth), prophets (who tell the truth even when it is unpopular), refugees’ hope in G-d (Psalm 42,43).

Ateek:  a good theological treatment of a pressing issue in our present. Read more ›

Small Churches

William Adamson, Adam Enterprises, 1993

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

So it’s a book about Canadian small churches.  But the sociological and cultural focus of small churches is not particularly different depending on which side of latitude and longitude we probe.  Adamson’s treatment of small churches examines the United Church of Canada, Canadian Catholic churches the Anglican Church of Canada (Episcopalian), Lutheran churches I Canada, Presbyterian and Baptist churches in Canada.  (a few comparative figures for congregational size provides size comparisons for Canadian and American congregations.  P 28, p 224f18) 

Adamson concentrates on examination of what small congregations can offer, rather than on statistical data.  much of this represents the application of pastoral care, e.g., aspects of small congregations (250 or fewer members) is the care and support of each other, grounding each other in the faith and traditions of the church, mutual ministry, ministry to the surrounding community, a lean, simple and efficient organization, formation of clergy, a sense of stability and strength.  Small congregations may also have weaknesses:  temptation to be exclusive, to monopolize power, to be reserved, to neglect simplicity, to ignore certain crises.  ‘The primary difference is that big churches offer programs in which to participate whereas small churches offer a place in which to belong (p 42). 

Adamson lists concerns faced by small congregations (faced by larger ones, too).  He also outlines the need for ecumenical work, for shared ministry.  This is given as a kind of tag-along, and fails  to see the need for a reordering of the Constantinian mindset, emergent theology is not given vital perspective.  Adamson’s book is an attempt to fix things as they were, rather than to create new paradigms.  A book worth studying but one that needs to more clearly point to the future. Read more ›

On Faith and Science

Edward Larson and Michael Ruse, Yale University Press, 2017

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The intersection of scientific discovery and religious belief have consistently resulted in comment, controversy and sometimes violent dispute.  On Faith and Science offers perspective on the always complex relationship between science and religion, exploring cosmology, geology, evolution, gender and the environment.  Larson and Ruse avoid rancor and polemic as they identify the key issues under debate by the adherents of science and the advocates of faith.  They write compellingly of the interaction of science and religion that focused on conflict as the paradigm for the relationship of science and religion.

Another major perspective is that of complementarity, illustrated by Muslims and Christians, with a major emphasis on natural law, cause-and-effect relationships in nature:  the complementary perspective, religion fostering science, although  the writers’ summary of students at UCLA identified a conflict model.  They also point out the ways in which evangelical and fundamentalist churches have participated in this struggle ‘the conflict model still survives among historians and philosophers of science (p 13)’.  ‘The world works according to unbroken law and … G-d stays out of it’ (p 45).

The writers focus on the religious perspective with their inclusion of Buddhism as a religious contribution to the science/religious debate (p 151-154).  Their final chapter deals with environmental issues, citing both a religious and a non-religious spokesperson (pope Frances and Lynn White), which represents the perspective of complementarity.  ‘The inhabitants of this earth face social and physical issues…  No one should feel threatened by differences.  Hard thinking about the science and technology combined with deep moral seriousness and the religious conviction of believers are absolute requirements…  Sympathy and understanding are essential’ (p 276). Read more ›

Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance

Christine Smith, Westminster/JohnKnox, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Smith writes from the perspective that preaching is an interpretation of our present world and an invitation to a profoundly different world.  Preaching is a form of weeping in a universe filled with human suffering and oppression; it is a form of oppression where the preacher can call on communities into painful and honest confession, and it is a form of resistance, moving people to actively resist the attitudes and structures of oppression, of ‘isms’.  Smith sees three worlds that converge in the act of preaching; the world of the text, the world of the preacher and community where proclamation occur, and the larger social context in which we live out our faith.  Preaching is a theological act (mediating biblical perspectives) as well as an act of naming.  Smith’s three descriptions of preaching are those of weeping, confession and resistance (the Christian response to the real world).

        Smith identifies six areas of redemptive activity (handicappism, ageism, sexism, heterosexism, racism and classism).  Each of the chapters names a type of violence; describes her experience that moved her to passionate feeling; identifying the realities of our social and political life; adding a sermon on the particular issue (eg women standing at the cross, ‘Standing at a Distance’, Good Friday, Luke 23:44-49).  Smith’s close fellowship ecumenically, especially with Latin American struggles, adds powerful perspective to her presentations; it is a book that will bring preaching into a new partnership with the congregation.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Read more ›

Preaching in the New Creation

David Jacobsen, Westminster John Knox, 1999

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        We live in apocalyptic times, with a sense that an age is ending and a new one breaking forth.  Jacobsen provides methodology for preaching apocalyptic texts, starting with a definition.  ‘Apocalypticism is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which envisages eschatological salvation, invoking another supernatural world intended to interpret present earthly circumstances’ (p 6).  Jacobsen points out the ways in which a throne room imagery is common to both Hebrew bible imagery and the Christian literature, the new testament; all the  throne room scenes begin with the throne, move to the heavenly court and end with the commission (eg Revelation 5) (p 80ff).

        The symbolic language offers a vision, a symbolic inversion, capable of evoking not just a different image but a different social world and a different way of engaging the old one’ (p 89).  ‘Symbols are not interested in mediating information but in altering perception, as we live out in our lives the claims of colliding worlds…. John the Seer uses these symbols in order to encourage a praise of resistance among his hearers’ (p 89).

        Thus the throne room scene invites us to think of ways of maintaining or perpetuating the alternative reality that is John’s vision:  the tension between our own cultural messianic longings and the mystery of the Christ crucified, ‘to find places of tension where worlds collide and discern ways in which we can confirm the life the gospel offers us in the world, establishing the claims of competing symbolic worlds. (p 90). Read more ›