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Preaching as Testimony

Preaching as TestimonyPreaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first heard Anna Carter Florence preach at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta in 2006. Despite not being close to the most famous preacher in the line up at that event, she was, by far, the best preacher in the bunch. And since then she's remained one of my favourite preachers to hear preach or to lecture on preaching. Somehow I has missed this book before.

But it is either the best or second best book I've read on my craft (Fred Craddock's classic Preaching being the other).

Florence argues that faithful and effective preaching is a form of testimony, in which the preacher shares about their encounter with God in life and in the text. She develops this idea in three sections. The first is a history of the tradition of testimony in preaching focusing on three women Ann Hutchinson in the 17th century, Sarah Osborn in the 18th, and Jarena Lee in the 19th. These are excellent chapters. Even if you have known something about these women before (Osborn was new to me), you'll learn much more about them. Florence teases out the themes that are shared by these preachers, particularly that they spoke from outside the systems of authority.

The second section develops the theory of testimony based on Paul Ricoeur, Walter Brueggemann, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, and Rebecca Chopp. Florence writes about theory with felicity, humor, insight, and grace.

The final section gives practical advice to preachers on how to preach in this tradition. Clearly many of the techniques and suggestions are developed from her own practice and years of teaching at Columbia Seminary.

This was much more than just a book about preaching, it was a theology, a hermeneutic, an excellent contribution to the intellectual and spiritual life of the church.

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Breaking White Supremacy

Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social GospelBreaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel by Gary J. Dorrien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dorrien's second volume in his history of the Black Social Gospel is not as strong as the first volume. That is partly because so much in the first volume is a revelation--learning about people, ideas, and movements that one was unlikely to be well acquainted with before. This volume covers more familiar ground.

The opening chapters lay the groundwork of connecting the DuBois generation to the King generation, so those chapters are more like the first volume, with good introductions to Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin Mays, Howard Thurman, and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

I thought that the King chapters dragged on, particularly because I've read better accounts from both historians and religious scholars. These chapters didn't really break any new ground, though they did a better job of interpreting King in light of this long tradition and set up his abiding theological influence.

The final chapter is on the initial development of Black Liberation Theology and then closes with the spotlight on Pauli Murray as a figure on the fringes of the story told throughout the book. Dorrien presents her as a model for what would come in Mainline Christianity--"an all-are-welcome version of the social gospel with a feminist sensibility and a passionate commitment to renewing the civil rights movement." I've been wanting to know more about Murray for a while, and this gave me more, but also deepened my hunger to read more about her.

Dorrien doesn't plan a third volume, but there really could be a third discussing developments in Black Theology since the 1970's.

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Disarming Beauty

Disarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and FreedomDisarming Beauty: Essays on Faith, Truth, and Freedom by Julián Carrón
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Faith is 'verficiation' when it shows its ability to illuminate and bring to fullness the typically human dynamics of reason, affection, and freedom, and so increases the existential certainty essential to an adult in all of life's circumstances."

According to Carron, Christianity should be attractive and appealing to humanity because Christian's should live rich, full, beautiful lives of affection, reason, and freedom.

I don't remember how this book entered my to-read list, probably something in The Christian Century a few years ago. The author is a Spanish Catholic theologian supporting the witness of Pope Francis while also embracing the theology of Pope Benedict. There were a number of areas where I disagreed about the particulars of an ethical and faithful life (marriage for instance) but the broad ideas were engaging and resonated with some of my other theological reading such as Wendell Berry and Stanley Hauerwas. I think I'll make use of some of the ideas and sentences, and always good to keep a little theological diversity in one's reading.

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God and the Pandemic

God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its AftermathGod and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath by N.T. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick read. The first few chapters weren't as substantive, but the last two were filled with good bits.

The book includes some interesting and provocative reflections on the doctrine of God ("Might we then say that God the creator . . . has no appropriate words to say to the misery when creation is out of joint?"), which then lead to fascinating ideas in pneumatology and ecclesiology. The church should be present where people are in pain and our first task is lament.

In his final chapter he expressed some of what have been my concerns in recent months. He calls the church to take safety seriously and not do stupid things, while at the same time lamenting that the church is being left out of its traditional role of being present with sick, dying, and grieving people. He also worries that "faced with a major crisis, [the Church] has meekly followed what seems to be a secularizing lead." That we have reinforced the idea that worship is a personal hobby we share with like-minded people.

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Proverbs and Ecclesiastes: A Theological Commentary

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.(Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. by Amy Plantinga Pauw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been using this commentary while teaching a church Bible study on the Wisdom Books. This has been a very helpful guide, particularly in Ecclesiastes. Pauw brings to her commentary a rich theological understanding of the tradition, so that the ancient Hebrew work is in dialogue with Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Niebuhr, while also drawing insights from a wide set of references including the Epic of Gilgamesh, the poems of Wendell Berry, and the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum.

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Virus as Summons to Faith

Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and UncertaintyVirus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty by Walter Brueggemann
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"These dangers, however, are not decisive for what is possible or for what is required in the world. Thus war, pestilence, and famine are finally seen as accountable to the creator God, who presides even over such disasters. Virus is thereby robbed of its capacity to disorder daily life. In effect, these texts decisively change the subject from disaster to the rule of YHWH. Such a changed subject revises how we may live in the neighborhood when it is under threat."

Finished in early April, this book might have been most helpful then. But it seems to me not to deal as substantively with the current ambiguities and uncertainties of the crisis as well as I had hoped. Some of the best parts of the book are prayers he has written between the chapters and which I'm certain I will use liturgically. And, as always with Brueggeman, some lines and paragraphs that will be useful for preaching.

But I felt that theologically and biblically it didn't give me the meat I need right now. N. T. Wright has also released a book on the pandemic, which I have preordered but won't arrive until July.

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Four Quartets

Four QuartetsFour Quartets by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending . . ."

I often battle insomnia and even moreso in recent weeks with it occurring almost every night. In the wee hours of this morning I decided to start Eliot's Four Quartets and didn't put it down. I regret not having read it before, but it is also fitting for the time in which we live.

A time when we are having trouble making sense of time. When we wonder if our past is forever past, what our future might be, and how long this present full of waiting and suspension will last. These four poems are about "the still point of the turning world." Melancholic, humble, and hopeful reflections on time.

Back in college I read The Waste Land but have only since then read an Eliot poem or passage here or there when it appeared in some anthology or book. Recently I read The Year of Our Lord 1943 which focused on a handful of Christian thinkers trying to make sense of the crisis of the Second World War and to imagine what might come next. Eliot was one of the thinkers featured in the book and much attention was paid to this book. So, since I've been bingeing poetry this pandemic, I ordered it to read. And am quite grateful I did.

Of course, I should end this review with the most famous lines from the book,

"All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well."

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Reason for Being

Reason for Being: A Meditation on EcclesiastesReason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes by Jacques Ellul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"In the midst of a crisis, a person finds himself undetermined in such a way that his freedom can function."

Ellul the humanist explores this most philosophical of biblical books finding in it important messages for twentieth century human life. Here is a good summary of some main points:

"But the first step in wisdom consists of recognizing wisdom's vanity, acknowledging its limitations. We must live, work, and find joy within this understanding to which Qohelet invites us: no wisdom can enlighten us, or enable us to organize things so as to understand the world and history. No wisdom can establish a scale of moral values . . . . True, no wisdom or meaning exists; all the same, we will live; all the same, we will act; all the same, we will be capable of happiness and hope. The only true wisdom we can aspire to consists of the perception that no wisdom is possible. On that basis we must construct our lives, beginning at that negative point."

There is much to commend itself in this book, particularly in the midst of our current global crisis. But I thought the book could have used some serious editing. A more concise presentation of its points would have been a better read.

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The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis

The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of CrisisThe Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some months ago this book was reviewed in The Christian Century and I put it on my to-read list. Last week looking for some work-related books to order, I saw this on the list and thought "That might be relevant to our moment" so I ordered it and have already finished it.

The book focuses on five thinkers--Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Simone Weil--as they imagined what the future should be like after the Second World War. The key idea was that "miseducation had left the ordinary citizens of Western democracies in helpless thrall to the propagandistic machinations of unscrupulous nationalist movements," so they reimagined what education could/should do. A key theme was that they were critical of the technological fixes so fascinated upon by many in the West.

Jacobs is clear at the end that the changes these folks imagined did not occur. In many ways, it is a pessimistic book.

I did find some ideas that might be helpful to our current moment, and I did order one Auden book and one Eliot book that I haven't read. Also, there's one really excellent Bonhoeffer quote in the book.

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The Religious Affections

The Religious AffectionsThe Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"God's nature or divinity is infinitely excellent; yea it is infinite beauty, brightness, and glory itself."

I'd read parts of The Religious Affections, particularly the good Part 1, before and had been looking forward to this spring reading the entire book. But it is really not the type of writing I can focus well on at the moment, so about 160 pages in, I'm abandoning it for now.

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