Book Reviews

These book reviews are provided by Ruth Sickafus. 

McGrath, Alister. HERESY - A HISTORY OF DEFENDING THE TRUTH Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. [D85.F57F73 2002]
"Not only a riveting story of ancient controversies, but also a much needed and timely correction to the commonly held notion that heretics were mostly free thinkers who challenged a narrow and closed orthodoxy." [Justo L. González, author of The Story of Christianity] "Alister McGrath helps us understand what heresy is and why it exercises a powerful attraction upon the human mind. It is full of illuminating historical discussions and insights into the motivations that lead people to adopt heresy as a style of life and a personal demeanor.:" [Dallas Willard, author of Knowing Christ Today

Smith, Martin L., THE WORD IS VERY NEAR YOU - A guide to Praying with Scripture
The first half of this book explains what meditative prayer is, and how it often works in the life of a believer. The second half contains suggested themes and biblical passages for prayer. Smith, who is widely known among Episcopalians as a spiritual director, has masterful knowledge of Christian tradition and of modern psychology, and his book wears this considerable learning very lightly. As a result, he can speak an ancient message in contemporary language with greater integrity than anyone writing about Christian spirituality today. If you are looking for one book about prayer that will honor your emotions, respect your mind, give you rest, shake you up, and change your life, this is it. The Word Is Very Near You has such good news: you really can do it. [from the publisher]

Dick, Dan R. VITAL SIGNS - A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness. 
For more than six years, Dick has visited, studied, surveyed, consulted with and analyzed 700+ congregations across North America to better understand effective structures, processes, leadership and systems for spiritual formation and development. The critically acclaimed result is Vital Signs. "Where the formation of faith is concerned and spiritual development and Christian community is the point, qualitative measures are most important," he says. "Bigger says nothing about faithful, and active says nothing about effective. The value of our ministry is judged by the impact it makes on people's lives." [From the book jacket]

Brown, Robert McAfee. THE ESSENTIAL REINHOLD NIEBUHR- Selected Essays and Addresses. 
Niebuhr was the towering giant of Protestant theology in his time, and also an incisive political thinker during the tumultuous years from the Great Depression to Vietnam. This collection, which brings together Niebuhr's most penetrating and enduring essays on theology and politics, should demonstrate for a new generation that his best thought transcends the immediate historical setting in which he wrote. It also shows why Niebuhr, with his dialectical approach to the central questions of God, man, and history, will likely remain a perennial disturber of the complacencies and cliches of the standard "left" and "right." The anthology is ably edited by Robert McAfee Brown, whose introduction succinctly presents the central features of Niebuhr's life and thought. [Mel Piehl, History Department, Valparaiso University]

Hunter, James Davidson. TO CHANGE THE WORLD: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. 
The call to make the world a better place is inherent in the Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers persuasive--and provocative--answers to these questions. [from the book jacket]

Robinson, Marilynne. ABSENCE OF MIND 
In this ambitious book, acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson applies her astute intellect to some of the most vexing topics in the history of human thought—science, religion, and consciousness. Crafted with the same care and insight as her award-winning novels, Absence of Mind challenges postmodern atheists who crusade against religion under the banner of science. In Robinson's view, scientific reasoning does not denote a sense of logical infallibility, as thinkers like Richard Dawkins might suggest. Instead, in its purest form, science represents a search for answers. It engages the problem of knowledge, an aspect of the mystery of consciousness, rather than providing a simple and final model of reality [From the Publisher]

Gaustad, Edwin, and Schmidt, Leigh. THE RELIGIUOS HISTORY OF AMERICA 
Since the first edition was published in 1966, this work has remained a standard text for American religious history. The 2002 revision, by Gaustad (history, emeritus, Univ. of California, Riverside) and Schmidt (religion, Princeton Univ.), retains the core material with a revised chapter structure, updated bibliographies, and some text revisions. In some cases, the revisions are simply rearrangements of chapter sections, while in others there is a shift in terminology e.g., using "African American" for "black" and replacing "American religion" with the more clearly designated "American Protestantism." While such changes are subtle, they do alter the tone of the work, bringing it more in line with current approaches to the study of religion and American culture. In the case of the last three chapters, the authors have done considerable revision and brought the history up to the turn of the century. The overall result is a well-balanced enhancement of an excellent work. Recommended for all libraries. [from the book jacket]

In demystifying what has been argument fodder for over 200 years, religion scholar Holmes (A Brief History of the Episcopal Church; A Nation Mourns) sorts through the carefully constructed (and ambiguous or contradictory) versions of the personal beliefs the United States's founding fathers presented to the outside world to present a sound case for what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and others did or didn't do on Sundays. Holmes's subjects were acutely sensitive both to the dangers of state-sponsored religion as well as their reputations as leaders and went to what might seem like absurd lengths to cloak their religious leanings (Washington, for instance, rarely mentions church in his journals and, when he did attend, would leave service prior to communion), making Holmes's research and conclusions feats of deduction based on clues gleaned from letters, government documents, second- and third-hand accounts and educated speculation about motivations. Despite its strong points (including a wonderful epilogue on the religious beliefs of presidents from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush), the desiccating tone is one of technical scholarship that may turn off casual readers looking for a narrative history of this hot-button issue [fromPublishers Weekly]

Kierkegaard, Soren. WORKS OF LOVE. 
One of Soren Kierkegaard's most important writings, Works of Love is a profound examination of the human heart, in which the great philosopher conducts the reader into the inmost secrets of love. "Deep within every man," Kierkegaard writes, "there lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the household of millions upon millions." Love, for Kierkegaard, is one of the central aspects of existence; it saves us from isolation and unites us with one another and with God. This new edition of Works of Love features an original foreword by Kierkegaard scholar George Pattison. [from the cover]

Lambert has crafted an excellent survey on religion and the state in early America--deft, succinct, and well researched. With crystal clear prose, Lambert offers a wonderfully lucid text for general readers and students, yet one also studded with insights of great profit to historians of American religion and culture. [Leigh E. Schmidt, Princeton University]

The culture wars have distorted the dramatic story of how Americans came to worship freely. Many activists on the right maintain that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation." Many on the left contend that the Founders were secular or Deist and that the First Amendment was designed to boldly separate church and state throughout the land. None of these claims are true, argues editor in chief Steven Waldman. With refreshing objectivity, Waldman narrates the real story of how our nation's Founders forged a new approach to religious liberty, a revolutionary formula that promoted leaving it alone. [from the publisher]

Wills offers his insights into the ties between the history of the United States and Christianity, beginning with the founding fathers all the way to the current regime. The story is enlightening and a fascinating glimpse into a relatively unexamined past. However, Mel Foster's reading is wholly uninspired and all too familiar, offering only a s traightforward narration that will surely lose most listeners with its mind-numbing approach. Foster has turned himself down a notch, reading at a sluggish pace as if the audience may not be able to follow along without extreme clarity. As thought-provoking as the material is, Foster's insipid narration makes listening a chore. [from Publishers Weekly]