|Book reviews – Why Christian? and Letters to a Young Calvinist|
|Written by David True (reviewer)|
|Friday, 30 August 2013 17:40|
Why Christian? For Those on the Edge of Faith
by Douglas John Hall
Fortress Press, Minneapolis. 196 pages
by James K. A. Smith
Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Mich. 160 pages
One question seems to dominate the church’s attention today: How should we go about sharing the faith, both in nurturing the faith of our youth and introducing it to the wider culture? Both Douglas John Hall and James K. A. Smith offer an approach modeled on dialogue. Hall speaks to the “cultured despisers” of popular Christianity, while Smith speaks to a new generation of hyper-Calvinists. However, what appear to be dialogues are in reality theological monologues constructed as dialogues.
That said, Hall and Smith offer helpful introductions to their work and clear articulations of a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. Hall’s defense of faith involves a critique of the churches in North America, especially those on the right, which he suggests have confused Christianity with a political religion bent on ruling.
Faith is something different, but to see this difference our gaze must turn from the God of power to the hidden God of the cross. It turns out that Jesus is much closer to those “on the edge of faith” than to the triumphalist Christians who dominate the media. Hall describes a generation haunted by a lack of purpose and a sense of despair to whom Jesus offers welcome, not hostility. It is crucial to understand, Hall explains, that Jesus saves us in and through his own troubles, rather than despite them.
The cross is so dominant that Hall seems in danger of reducing the Trinity to Jesus of Nazareth whom we know through study of the Bible. The result is that it becomes hard to make sense of the world as God’s good creation or the church, preaching, and the sacraments as means of grace through which the Spirit works. In the end, our experience, other than crucifixions and our careful study of the Bible, is robbed of any profound meaning.
If Hall’s account sometimes reads like a story of “Jesus and me,” Smith’s work is much more engaged with the Reformed tradition and the larger Christian tradition. He worries that a new generation of young, scholastically minded Calvinists are in danger of confusing debates about election with the entirety of the Christian faith. By way of response, he introduces them to Augustine, Calvin and Kuyper and a God very much concerned with transforming this world. What makes this so interesting is that Smith is no liberal or liberation theologian. Indeed, when the question of double-predestination arises, he refuses to question it, advising that we respect the mystery of God’s sovereign will.
Neither of these books, then, seems a perfect fit for a Presbyterian church, nurtured as it were in a Reformed tradition that is itself open to reform. But, taken together, they serve as a helpful reminder that in God’s good providence we need dialogue partners every bit as much as they need us.
DAVID TRUE is an associate professor of religion at Wilson College.