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.

Cross Shattered Christ & A Cross Shattered Church

Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos, 2004; Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos, 2009

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Two books that invite us to walk with the crucified carpenter.  Cross Shattered Christ consists of meditations on the seven last words on the cross; A Cross Shattered Church is a collection of sermons.  ‘The way Jesus went to the cross, despite the pressing demands that the world be saved some other way, is the definitive part of the holy story’ (A Cross Shattered Church, p. 156).

        Hauerwas quotes Michael Ramsay, calling on us ‘to be on the watch constantly for the ideological bondage that threatens to take over a church-based or church-focused theology’ (Cross Shattered Christ, p 18).  ‘Our resource is our faith in the G-d to whom Christ prays on the cross’ (Cross Shattered Christ, p 19).

        In our time when reorganization is a major preoccupation and tampering with committee structure in the institutional church, the scattered shattered body of Christ, a shifting, rumbling body, will not be united by means of conferences and negotiations; it is only as our bodies are held in common through prayer and Eucharist’ (A Cross Shattered Church, p 20). The sermon, for Hauerwas, is an attempt ‘to make the familiar strange’ (p 24). Read more ›

The Bible in the Pulpit

Leander Keck, Abingdon, 1978

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Another old book.  But a book that raises issues as clearly as does the sermon we heard yesterday.  Keck reiterates the historical thinking about the Bible, that every aspect of it and in it is conditioned by history (p 12).

        ‘It is no longer the amount of the bible cited that makes preaching biblical….  The bible does not belong to the guild of professional scholars; the Bible belongs first of al to the church’ (p 13).  Keck uses striking metaphors.  ‘Today’s preacher stands in the pulpit like a modern Lazarus, immobilized, showing no face to the public; (p 33).  ‘Good preaching is characterized by clarity and orderly presentation and frequently by simplicity as well.’

        Keck makes the cogent point that the religious communities (of Jews and of Christians) have recognized (perhaps even ‘made’) the bible as the canon of the church by church.  Just as there was an Israelite community and faith before there was a Hebrew bible, so there was a Christian faith and a Christian church before there was a New Testament.  Christianity is not a response to a holy book (p 70, 71); there was a community before there was a book. Read more ›

Trembling at the Threshold of a Biblical Text

James Crenshaw, Eerdmans, 1994

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Thresholds function as a barrier between outside and inside, separating those who dwell within a residence from persons outside it.  Ancient Canaanites associated thresholds with demons who were thought to lurk underneath and to attack hapless persons disturbing their rest.  Anyone who endeavours to understand a biblical text encounters a threshold under which lurk untold ‘demons’.  The text has been granted a privileged position above every other human production.  We spend countless hours combating the demons released on an unsuspecting society by stepping across the threshold of our canon. 

         ‘The biblical text has been used to sanction slavery, the suppression of women, the jingoism and narrow fundamentalism that demonizes others who read texts differently. (p 3)  Our encounter with the biblical text, as I cross the threshold, constitutes a dialogue. Crossing the threshold brings us into immediate contact with an alien culture.  Every text carries within its spaces multiple meanings, and so with one foot firmly planted in the modern age and the other tentatively feeling for a toehold in the biblical period ( 5), we risk disturbing the demons lurking beneath the threshold.

        We are beneficiaries of ancient religious thinkers who stepped across the thresholds, giving a decision to cling to the living G-d.  And that is where we find ourselves:  trembling because of the silence of eternity and the anticipation of hearing the clamour from the past.  Crenshaw gifts us with twenty sermons and nine meditations that step deliberately on the thresholds of our culture.  The biblical metaphor of ‘threshold’ becomes a powerful  incentive to utter a faithful word, recognizing that we have been entrusted with a weighty message. Read more ›

Doctrine and Word: Theology in the Pulpit

Mark Ellingsen, John Knox Press, 1983

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Ellingsen says the theological community must articulate the significance of traditional Christian doctrines for daily life with more power and force.  Doctrine and Word reflects this concern for doctrinal relevance.  The first section of each chapter describes the doctrine (14 doctrines are treated), its historical roots, and how it has been dealt with by varying Christian traditions (the ecumenical perspective).  The second section of each chapter summarizes its significance for daily life, with a sermon on a biblical text; the sermons illustrate how Christian doctrine can help make sense out of everyday experience (p viii), i.e., What is the nature of Christian identity?  What purpose in life do Christians have as a result of this faith?

        Ellingsen focuses on the nature of Christian identity, articulating the meaning and relevance for life of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.  Christian faith begins with the assumption that G-d is known in Jesus, Christians are people of the book, the church as community, the practise of sacraments, and the role of ecumenism (different concerns addressed sometimes by apparently contradictory doctrinal formations)(p 173).

        Ellingsen’s treatment invites the reader to interaction with history, doctrinal formulations and daily life; good reading and prodding. Read more ›

Preaching to Strangers

William Williman & Stanley Heuerwas, Westminster, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willimon and Hauerwas, of Duke University, join forces in this book:  Willimon contributes ten sermons and Hauerwas responds to each.  The sermons are the occasion for Willimon to preach to strangers (mainly to students and to tourists).  The sermons are addressed to students who are passing through, to people who share no common tradition, to people who have so little in common that they are not even able to locate disagreements.  ‘Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers’ (p 6).  Christians once understood that they were pilgrims; now we’re just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.

        Preaching needs to translate the language of the gospel onto experiences that are already well understood; preaching is not about communicating but about challenging our understanding.  Willimon’s sermons reflect startling perspectives, eg “Jesus’ systemic abnormality’.  The pretentious power of the state is countered by healing the ill, telling the truth, feeding the hungry, stampeding swine—systemic abnormality had to put him away.  Here is the power in the sermon, that summons each of us to submit to transformation (p 33). Willimon’s sermons reflect the canonical range of ‘the systemic abnormality’, of ordinary people eg Ruth, Joseph/Mary, Christmas, urging us to universal human love (!), and all we get is a hasty trip from nowhere Nazareth to Left Armpit Bethlehem.’  The nativity story is small, specific and particular.  It’s not about the whole human race; it’s about real people with real names—you can make a road map and follow Mary’s and Joseph’s journey (p 124).  G-d did not appear as an idea or a program:  G-d came to Mary and to Joseph (p 129).

        Preaching to Strangers suggests an old and a very new way to think about theological words to strangers. Read more ›