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.

Being Good and Doing Good

Martin Marty, Fortress, 1984

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is an old treatment of ethics by a veteran theologian and historian, and it’s significant that its relevance remains constant still.  An interesting perspective is Marty’s identification of a literary basis for being ethical.  ‘Let a text speak to us and present a horizon through imagination and emotional acts’ (p 57); this is an alternative to the rational arguments for ethical discourse and action.  The final two chapters deal with how we live:  the public sphere where the individual is linked with fellow believers as well as non-believers in the whole world of human beings, and the personal sphere, various areas of private life that also have public effects (p 91).

Marty’s methodology does not go into details about what to do in certain issues (eg abortion, pacifism) but to see the relatedness of all life in what he calls ‘zones’.  The zone of the body (the self), those where we are intimately related to family, friends, the neighbourhood, institutions (schools, local church), place of employment.  The impetus to responsible living comes from our baptism, living the forgiven life.  He closes his book with an appeal to Christians to contribute to the common good, to find themselves at the foot of the cross in sight of an open tomb.  ‘That is the space where Jesus meets humans’ (p 128).

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

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Toward a True Kinship of Faiths

The Dalai Lama, Three Rivers Press, 2010

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a moving examination of inter-faith sharing, with the Dalai Lama reflecting on the implications of our world’s spiritual dimensions.  His paradigm for spiritual sharing is not the identification of religious elements that are the lowest common denominators.  ‘The move to the pluralist position of interchange with other religions by no means involve abandoning one’s central commitment to one’s own faith; it hugely enriches the understanding and practice of one’s own religion.  It allows one to see convergences with other religions; it broadens one’s respect for the extraordinary range and diversity of spiritual approaches developed entirely outside one’s faith tradition’ (pp 17,18).  He draws a distinction between what can be seen as three key aspects of a religion:  ethical teachings, doctrines (metaphysics), cultural specifics (p 150).  He points out that there is a ‘great convergence of the world’s religions:  the central message of all these religions is love and compassion; the purpose of all religions remains the same:  to contribute to the betterment of humanity.  There are fundamental doctrinal differences among the religions.  The challenge is to find a way in which the followers of these traditions can remain true to their doctrinal standpoints and see them as representing legitimate paths to G-d.

For me as a Christian, the question is not what I believe as I meet others, but how Jesus would interact.  A powerful book that struggles with the possibilities of religious pluralism from the perspective of Jesus.

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

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Wresting With G-d

Roland Rolheiser, Penguin, 2018

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The last few decades have brought about major changes in our lives. Globalization has reshaped virtually all of our communities in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion.  The sexual revolution has radically altered how our world sees love; political and religious extremism polarize our communities. This sets before us a whole range of new challenges in terms of how we understand life, love, sexuality, family, country, religion, faith and G-d.  Rolheiser’s book helps in a search for not only meaning and faith but a greater steadiness in life.  ‘Steadiness is the key word.  Real faith is not a set of answers; rather, it leaves us in mystery, in longing, in desire, but open to something bigger…. Our deepest desire is a gnawing disquiet inside us, a longing for Someone big enough to embrace our questions and hold our doubts’ (p 16).

Embracing our questions, struggling with our own complexity, is a continuation of the Socratic claim that ‘the unanswered life is not worth living’, and so Rolheiser outlines our wrestling with seven areas of life (eg our nature, our eroticism, our fear, our mandate to reach out to the poor, G-d, Faith and culture.  The final chapter suggests guidelines ‘for the long haul’.  Trim our spiritual vocabularies to three words:  forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness!  Religious and moral fidelity, when not rooted in gratitude and forgiveness, are not enough.  Metanoia is the large-hearted reminder to never close the doors to others.  Taking away the sins of our community, by transforming tension. Praying—being aware of the Spirit praying in us and for us.  Remember that we are safe through G-d, even in death. Choose the regrets we can live with best.

A powerful book of analysis and of life. Read more ›

The Beginnings of Politics

Moshe Halbertal & Stephen Hollmans, Princeton University Press, 2017

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The biblical book of Samuel is a book of political thought; it does not paint a flattering portrait of any of the work’s principle characters (eg Samuel, Saul, David, Absalom and a handful of others); no one party or individual is endorsed.  In the pre-Samuel period no standing army was established and no unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved. No standing army was established and no enduring unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved.

No single stable ruler capable of asserting his supreme authority over tribes and clans often embroiled in blood feuds could emerge.  But a supreme authority is the underpinnings of any human political order.  This is why all political entities aim to organize a smooth transfer of power one leader to the next.  Dynastic-monarchy offers one possible solution to the problem of regional continuity; the bloodlines of the king’s family provide a possible nonviolent transfer of power.  Dynastic succession is the experience of the Samuel-era Israeli state as dynastic succession seeks to provide unity and continuity. The price paid by the people for this is the imposition of taxes and military drafts.

In detailing the rise and rule of two very different kings, the writer(s) of Samuel focus on the concept of power that refuses to acknowledge moral restrictions for living among their supporters.  They end up using the power they have been granted for the welfare of the community by clinging to political power for its own sake (eg Saul’s plot to have David killed, 1 Samuel 18); the writer(s) of Samuel point out the need for community of sovereignty.  The author of Samuel does not argue against the dynastic solution to the continuity problem, but points out what centralized power inflicts on the ruler and on his children, mingling family love and political ambition. Read more ›

The Sin of Uncertainty

Peter Enns, Harper, 2016

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Our beliefs provide a familiar structure to our life; they give answers to our big questions:  does G-d exist?  Is there a right religion?  Why are we here?  Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest.  For Enns, true faith and correct thinking were two sides of the same cover, and his religious structure no longer constituted an unshakeable persuasion.  He came to see that ‘knowing’ as his church held, has its place but not at the centre of faith, and he realized that he could choose to trust G-d regardless of how certain he felt (p 15), when we too often confuse G-d   with our thoughts about G-d (p 19). This results in the problem of trusting our beliefs rather than trusting G-d (p 21). The problem is that knowledge based faith is a largely unquestioned part of our western culture.

Faith in the biblical sense is rooted deeply in trust in G-d.  A life of faith that accepts this biblical challenge is much more demanding than being preoccupied with correct thinking.  ‘Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties, seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply’ (p 205)  ‘Trust in G-d, not in correct thinking about G-d, is the beginning and end of faith’ (p 211), a faith rooted in trust, not in certainty.  ‘The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality or how to read the bible.  It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours’ (p 162).

Enns focuses on the essence of Christian faith, on trust ,not on formulae. Read more ›