Singing Songs in a Strange Land

Last night, for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended a remembrance service at Havurah Shir Hadash, a Reconstructionist Synagogue in nearby Ashland.  I had noted the service was happening when I posted a recent review for Rabbi David Zaslow’s Exodus (he leads the congregation). The service was jointly held with Temple Emek Shalom, the other Jewish congregation in town.  I knew that Rabbi Zaslow wouldn’t be there. He marked the day in a different way, spending the day at Auschwitz on a trip with thousands of youth.

5116a2dd8cff4_71360bThe theme for the service was the ‘righteous Gentiles’—those who hid Jews and aided their escape from the Shoah. I don’t know what age to introduce the horrors of holocaust to children, but  my girls recently read a book of notable biographies of ‘girls who changed the world,’ and one of the women profiled was Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian survivor of the Holocaust, who’s family was active in helping Jews escape.  Both girls were interested, so the plan was to take my daughters, ages seven and nine with me. Unfortunately, my older daughter was running a fever, so it was just me and my seven-year-old. She was by far the youngest person there.

It was a solemn service, recounting dark days, though not without hope. Some teenage girls lit candles remembering the names of victims that were assigned to them as part of their mitzvah project, children whose life was cut short by the Shoah. A few brief sentences recounted their names and ages. These were children as young as four, and a couple of them were seven-year-olds. I wondered how my own seven-year-old was processing this, but we still haven’t talked together about that part of the service.

After this, a sole holocaust survivor lit a candle remembering the fallen. and we were all invited to do the same. My little girl burnt her finger on the match while trying to get the candle lit. She later recalled that burning her finger was the part of the service she didn’t like.

Throughout the evening we sang Hebrew songs, and listened to chants, and prayed along with the Mourners’ Kaddish, but most of the evening was about hearing the stories of gentiles, some of whom sacrificed their lives to rescue Jews.  Several people read or shared accounts. A strange and unplanned confluence was that the first gentile profiled, Irena Sendler—a woman who had saved 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto—was responsible for rescuing the sole survivor who was with us last night. Some of the stories shared were of famous people. Other stories came from personal recollections and family stories of righteous Gentiles, names that are not well known beyond small circles.

The systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis, as well as the death of five million sympathizers, Slavs, LGBT folk, and the disabled, is a vivid reminder of our human capacity for evil. Against those who would deny the Holocaust, or minimize its significance, remembering is important.  I am a Christian, not Jewish. Attending a synagogue on a day like yesterday feels a bit like singing the Lord’s song in a strange land, but the chorus and the cadence call us to compassion and solidarity.

It is over seventy years later and there is still so much hate in the world.  If it happened again would we be among the righteous? I want to say yes, but I am humbled when I consider that many European Christians participated in the Shoah and few who resisted cited faith as a determining factor in giving aid.

A Renegade Monk and Protestantism’s First Lady: a book review

The tales of Martin Luther defacing a door and denouncing the Catholic Church’s captivity to Babylon are well known. The whole Protestant movement owes its origin to the way this cantankerous monk was gripped by the idea of saving grace. The story that many Christians don’t know, or know in far less detail, is that of his marriage to Katharina von Bora.

9781493406098In Katharina & MartinMichelle DeRusha unfolds the love story between the renegade Monk and Protestantism’s first lady. DeRusha previously authored 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.  Here she hones in on the story of a marriage. Meticulously researched, she describes the story of Martin and Katharina’s love—the events leading up to their marriage, the reaction of friends and critics, their shared life and the circumstances of their deaths. DeRusha includes cultural background of the late Medieval ideas of marriage.

Katharina was an aristocratic nun who fled the cloistered life in the midst of the sixteenth century, Protestant awakening. Luther tried in vain to marry her off, but she was not happy with her would-be suitor. Eventually, he married her, himself, albeit partly for practical and political reasons (he had already written on the sacredness of married life and against celibacy). Luther’s primary reason for marrying was wanting to be obedient to what he felt was God’s call.

Luther was not attracted to Katharina at first and there was no spark of romance. Many of Luther’s friends (including his close friend Philip Melancthon) did not approve and actively opposed their union. Yet Luther grew to love his wife and value their partnership. Katharina discussed theology with Luther, managed the household and the family finances. Luther’s would come to speak of his wife with real affection and respect (even if still self-aggrandizing), “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it” (207). The two of them weathered crises together, including the grief of losing children.

This is popular level history at its best—a compelling read with enough footnotes for the reader to verify the substance. DeRusha relies on good research, referencing documentary evidence and scholarly research rather than opining on Luther and Katharina’s inner thoughts. I enjoyed this book and am happy to have it on my church history shelf. As unique as their relationship was, DeRusha places Martin and Katharina within the late Medieval context.  Martin Luther was neither an arch-Complementarian or Katharina a proto-Egalitarian. Their marriage was countercultural in lots of ways (i.e. Katharina was intelligent, industrious and independent women, but in other ways traditional and deferring to her husband). I give this book four stars and recommend it to anyone interested in church history, the Reformation era, or the history of Christian women.

Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

Introduction to World Christian History: a book review

My grad school prided itself on its global Christian impact; yet the church history I learned there was a largely Western story. Certainly there was an acknowledgement  that Christendom’s origins weren’t in the West, and the church in Africa and Asia; yet more time and energy was spent unearthing the European story as the dominant narrative running through Christian history. This made a certain amount of sense. It was a school in the West and the West has pride of place in medieval and modern Christianity; however there was a richer story than the one I was, in large part, told.

4088In Introduction to World Christian History, Derek Cooper explores the global development ‘across time and continents.’ Cooper is the associate professor of world Christian history at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. As such, he is used to introducing  students to the diversity of the world Christian movement. For this book, he utilizes the United Nations Geo-scheme for Nations as a template for exploring Christian history in three periods: the first to the seventh , the eighth to the fourteenth, and the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries.  These division departs between the seventh and eighth centuries in his periods, de-centers the European story. Traditional church history treats the conversion of Constantine and the first Council (both fourth century) as a “watershed moment” in the Christian story (16). However Cooper observes these events may be overstated in global importance, particularly when you consider that the church was never coterminous with the Roman empire and the “councils never represented the whole church” (16-17).

In part one, Cooper explores Christianity in the first to seventh centuries. He begins, in chapter one, with Asia as the birthplace and cradle of the Christian faith, describing the growth of the Christian movement in western Asia (i.e. president day Saudi Arabia and Turkey), central Asia (India and China) and Southern Asia (Iran).  Chapter two describes the deep roots of the African church (Northern Africa like Alexandria, Algeria and Tunisia, and the Eastern African church of Ethiopia. Chapter three examines the European story (in Eastern, Southern, Northern and Western Europe). In the early part of the Christian story Asian and African Christianity loom large.

Part two examines again the regions of Asia, Africa and Europe, this time from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. While Asian and African Christians were dominant in earlier times, this was a difficult period for both of them (i.e. the spread of Islam and other faiths, the Crusades, isolation of Asian Christian communities). Cooper writes, “Although it is not accurate to state that Christianity died in Asia at this time, it certainly diminished—and fairly rapidly and extensively so” (87). This is true of Africa as well. African Christians suffered severe persecution with the spread of Islam. In some areas the Christian faith was stamped out though a Christian witness remained in both Asia and Africa, though a chastened one.  It is in this era the European story becomes the dominant narrative of Christian history (chapter six).

Part three describes Christianity from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-First Centuries. In this period global diversity explodes in the Christian movement. Cooper lays aside his tripartite division of Asia, Africa and Europe, adding region and scope. He begins with Europe (chapter seven) and traces the growth of  global Christianity through evangelization. He devotes a chapter each to Christianity in Latin America, Northern America, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Polynesia), Africa and Asia.

This is a short book. about 250 pages for all of Christian history. As the title suggests this is an introduction to World Christian history, not the definitive word. By necessity Cooper gives us a bird’s-eye-view of Christianity than a detailed analysis of every region; nevertheless he does give us a more robust sense of the global Christian movement through the ages. Theologians like Thomas Oden and historians like Phillip Jenkins have noted that the center of Christianity has shifted, in recent history, east and south. This is true, and Cooper would concur. However his ‘at-a-glance’ romp through church history reveals that the global character of Christianity is not a recent phenomenon, but one of its persistent features.

This would be a good supplementary text for a Church history class, though it is an accessible read for anyone interested in Christian history. As a student, I would have used this book as a jumping-off-point for deeper research. Cooper uses contemporary names for regions and countries throughout makes this approachable for the non-scholar and ordinary reader. I give this four stars.

Note I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

30 Events that Shaped the (Evangelical) Church: a book review

I am a bit of history buff so on this score I may be a bit more critical than the general reader. Still I was excited to read 30 Events That Shaped the Church by Alton Gansky. Ganksy is the author of twenty-four novels and eight books of non-fiction and this isn’t his first foray into Church history. He also wrote 60 People Who Shaped the Church (Baker Books, 2014).  These thirty historical vignettes failed to capture my interest, were light on analysis and were highly selective. I think church history is far richer and more interesting than what is presented here.

I admit that Ganksy culled together some facts I did not know and is generally even-handed in his presentation of these events. Nevertheless he is not a historian and relies heavily on other popular level histories (such as Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language) and older, more dated material. He is responsible in what he shares, though he occasionally conflates events. Where I took issue with Gansky was in the 30 events he chose for this book.

The first three chapters cover biblical accounts (Pentecost, the conversion of Paul, and Acts 15 council in Jerusalem). The next couple of chapters describe Rome burning (under Nero) and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.  This is followed by three events in the patristic period: the edict of Milan, the first council at Nicea (though he gives us the Nicene Creed text as it was finalized at the second council at Constantinople in 381), and Jerome’s translation of the Vulgate. Nevermind that the patristic period is far richer than this, the medieval period is vastly under represented, descring only three events in over a thousand years: the schism between the Chirstian East and West in 1054, and Pope Innocent III and Boniface VII’s consolidation of papal power. The rest of the book takes us from the Reformation to the present ( the Gutenberg Bible in 1456 is proto-Reformaiton) and tells a largely Protestant Western story (Catholicism is described as significant points in relation to how open or closed they are to Protestant expressions of church).

Gansky describes the publication of the King James Bible, the birth of the Baptists, The Great Awakening, Bishop Usher’s chronology, the Scofield Bible, the Fundamentals (conflating the 1910’s publications with five fundamentals described by the Niagra meetings of 1876 to 1897) the Neo-Evangelical movement.and the Jesus People. He also talks about other significant events for the church such as the American Bill of Rights, Charles Darwin’s publications, the Scope’s Monkey Trial and the Rise of New Atheism (by this he means secularism and does not even mention the principal New Atheists or 9-11).

This is all a very Protestant Evangelical Story and  an American tale (I say this as a Protestant Evangelical American!). I would have given weight to other events. Things like the fall of Rome, the rise of Christian Monasticism, the Crusades, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement. Ganksy never says ‘the 30 events’ only 30 events and there is room to have a different list.  Still I didn’t by and large find his account compelling. For a deeper look at significant events in the life of the church, I recommend Mark Noll’s Turning Points (Baker, 2001).

But on a note of appreciation, I think that Ganksy did a great job of describing the Evangelical and Fundamentalist story, noting the philosophical differences between the two. As an Evangelical with fundamentalist roots, Ganksy names part of my story too. I give Ganksy’s effort three stars.

Notice of material connection I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Living Water from Enchanted Lands: a book review

Water From an Ancient Well: Celtic Sprituality For Modern Life by Kenneth McIntosh
Water From an Ancient Well: Celtic Sprituality For Modern Life by Kenneth McIntosh

Not too many years ago Celtic Spirituality was all the rage. It was, we are told, the Celts who preserved the best of ancient wisdom in carefully copied manuscripts. The Celts also  bequeathed a life affirming, creation-friendly spirituality which promised to make us better pray-ers, better evangelists and more holistic  Christians. Celtic Christianity also gave us a model of Spiritual Direction which was less hierarchical than the classic Latin confessor. The Celts had Soul Friends (Anamchara) who would walk with you on your journey of faith.

For all the beauty and wonder  of Celtic spirituality, its appeal is often its other worldly mystique. The Celts inhabited an enchanted universe full of magic and life. They saw the world–including their natural surroundings–as interconnected. There was not a square inch of the world where God was not present. They practiced strict asceticism because belief in God was not mere intellectual ascent, but required the whole person. They cultivated routines–reading, praying, community life which enabled them to see where God was at work. They looked for Christ in nature and expected to see him work his miracles in their enchanted lands.

In Water From An Anceint Well, Kenneth McIntosh weaves story, history, folklore and theological musings to showcase the ancient Celts and their relevance for today. In a series of chapters McIntosh discusses how the Celts related to God–a  sacred romance which involves daily routines and a keen eye to where God is at work in nature. He also discusses the value the Celts put on Solitude, Creation, Scripture, Art, Community and the Spiritual Disciplines. One major insights of the Celts is their affirmation of the supernatural. The Celts did not have our modern materialist suspicion of miracles. They believed in the reality of angels and demons and had a Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. They challenge our naturalistic assumptions.

I found this book beautifully written and really appreciated the level of engagement with the Celts from MacIntosh. This is a good read.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Churches, Empires & Otherwise Revolting Things: a book review

Churches, Revolutions & Empires: 1789-1914 by Ian J. Shaw

The period stretching from 1789-1914 was a time when the church wrestled with some cataclysmic shifts in society. The American revolution forever tied the idea to freedom to our understanding of the gospel. In France, their revolution undermined the sociocultural status of the church and her institutions. Industrialization in Britain paved the way for a new kind of society which favored (for the first time) the individual, human rights. And the gospel spread among the nations, although sometimes in ways which were influenced by western imperialism (and sometimes challenged it).

Ian Shaw has written an interesting look at the history of this period. He discusses in-depth each of these trends, but also addresses the challenges to the Christian message posed by slavery, new theologies (particularly from Germany), Darwinism and the ways in which the emerging scientific worldview challenged the authority of Scripture, the challenge of new social and political realities.  Many of the trends which Shaw discusses here still shape our shared Christian understanding in the West. He does a masterful job of bringing together historical research in a way that is engaging and informative.  He draws on a range of resources (names like Noll, Gustaud, Walls, Stout Bebbington, etc. pepper the notes and bibliographies). Each chapter ends with suggested reading for those who would like to delve deeper into the topics.

While this covers about 125 years of history, Shaw presents a global perspective. It is not focused on one nation or topic, but ranges from mission, politics, Christianity in new nation states, theological and moral challenges, philosophies and social institutions (i.e. slavery, feminism, colonialism).  Such a ‘birds-eye-view’ is helpful for seeing the larger societal trends, though readers with a particular interest may want to follow Shaw’s suggested readings to delve deeper into particular topics for themselves

I confess that I am a history lover and so am predisposed to love this book (which I do). But this is a significant era for us to understand as the institutions which have come into being since the American Revolution, have shaped our world and our theological discourse. Shaw is judicious in his historical judgments and writes in an accessible way. Thus I would recommend this book to any thoughtful Christian who would like to understand how to engage the culture we live in.  And of course theological students would find this a helpful resource for research.

Thank you to Christian Focus Publishing and Cross Focused Reviews for a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence (a book review)

You likely have come across the works of Matthew Henry, especially his commentary on the Bible (in either its full or abridged form) which is often bundled with Bible software or found relatively cheaply on Amazon.  But why would a Bible commentator and author from the late seventeenth, early eighteenth century have such enduring popularity? Why does his commentary have such enduring popularity?

Allan Harman is the research professor of Old Testament at Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia and has written a book exploring the life and influence of Matthew Henry which is aptly titled Matthew Henry: His Life and Influence. Beyond stating the subject and scope of the book, the title also provides Harman’s basic outline. The first ten chapters of this book provide a biographical sketch of Matthew Henry. The final four chapters talk about his influence as a preacher, commentator, author and his influence on subsequent generations.

The biographical portion of this book give the basic details of Matthew Henry’s life including the the influence of his father, Patrick Henry, who had studied under the Puritans (like John Owen). Harman provides details about Henry’s education and youthful illness, his ordination and more than twenty-five years of ministry in Chester,  his final parish in Hackney, his death  and  various family details along the way(like the death of his first wife, his second marriage and the birth of his children).  In the portion of the book which assesses Henry’s influence, Harman examines Henry’s homiletic style and strengths as an expositor.

This book is well researched and provides a sympathetic picture of who Matthew Henry was. However  I was mildly disappointed that Harman did not provide more information on Henry’s wife and children.  Henry gives bare bones factual data on them but does not explore Henry’s relationship to them much. For example Harman tells us that his son, Philip Warburton was elected to parliment, did not share his father’s religious convictions and went by his mother’s maiden name (41). From these facts, we can surmise that their relationship was strained but this is not explored in any depth.  Perhaps there is little substantive which could be said about  this relationship or the Henry household. Harman avoids speculations so maybe he had nothing more to say. Other details of family life he is much more forthcoming on, such as the death of his first wife  and how that affected him.

Harman is much more interested in exploring Henry’s life as a minister and author. This he does rather well, providing an analysis of Henry’s homeltic style, his strengths as an expositor and his influence on the Wesleys, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Bavinck and others. Henry’s Exposition of the Bible is still valued for its insights, its accessible and memorable style (Henry used a lot of alliteration).  He was certainly engaged and cognizant with the best scholarship of his day and knew the Bible well.

Occasionally Harman’s prose is a little repetitive (repeating direct quotes, etc.) but the strength of this book is that it is well researched, relying on both primary and secondary sources.  This book will be valuable for students researching Henry’s life and for those interested in church history. Matthew Henry was a great synthesizer of some of the Puritan and non-conformist insights. He was and remains highly influential on a significant swath of evangelicalism. Harman is a faithful guide to Henry’s life (even if some details are not forthcoming).

Thank you to Christian Focus for providing me with a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.