John M. Buchanan
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 208 pages.
Reviewed by John C. Bush
Kyle Haselden was editor of The Christian Century when I discovered the magazine during my first year of seminary in 1960. It has been a consistent influence on my intellectual life and resource for my ministry from that time to this. Haselden was succeeded by James M. Wall, Martin E. Marty and then, in 1999, by John M. Buchanan, who was also pastor at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church. In each of those epochs, The Century took on the complexion of its editor-in-chief, a progression helpfully digested in Buchanan’s introduction to the present volume. Consistently, however, The Christian Century arguably has been the leading voice for mainline, progressive, catholic and ecumenical Christianity, encouraging critical thought and faithful engagement with the culture.
“From the Editor’s Desk” is a compendium of about 100 of the more than 400 columns John Buchanan wrote for the magazine between 1999 and 2015. He considers these pieces “glimpses into a faith and church at the dawn of a new century.” They are carefully arranged in 10 topical chapters with titles revealing the depth and breadth of John Buchanan’s grasp of the faith and its relevance to the life of the church, the nation and world: The Mainline and the World; Ministry and Church Life; In the News; War and Peace; Matters of Faith; Popular Culture; Civic Engagement; The Middle East; Culture Wars; and The Reading Christian. Each chapter begins with an insightful introduction by Jason Byassee, who was assistant editor from 2004 to 2008 and who continues as a contributing editor to the magazine. (Byassee now teaches homiletics and biblical hermeneutics at Vancouver School of Theology.)
Buchanan’s vision is set out in the first piece he wrote upon assuming the editor’s chair: “The issue for us is not how to organize and sustain a thoroughly Christian culture, but how to relate to a global and national culture that is thoroughly pluralistic.” To put the question another way: How shall those of us who identify with the old mainline religious institutions relate to a culture that no longer agrees with us and increasingly doesn’t know what to make of us?
The theme continues to exert itself though the volume’s 182 pages, and is reasserted in the afterword, which Buchanan wrote at the height of the recent presidential primaries. Buchanan observes, “The moderately progressive tradition in American Christianity, represented by the mainline Protestant denominations, has its work cut out for it in the days ahead. American culture desperately needs a religious presence and voice that is reasonable, that thinks carefully and critically, that is free of fundamentalism and captivity to ideology, that is hospitable and welcoming and as inclusive and gracious as Jesus himself was.”
Buchanan’s unique voice brings focus and relevance to the events and circumstances he addresses. For example, his reflection on the tragic events of 9/11 warns against moving too quickly to heal the wounds, and calls instead for a time of measured introspection. Such wisdom seems particularly relevant as the church and the nation reflect on the divisiveness of the recent election.
Pastors, preachers and thoughtful leaders will benefit from Buchanan’s critical thinking as they guide congregations “at the dawn of a new Christian Century.”
John C. Bush lives in Decatur, Alabama, and is the author of “Patriots and Rebels.”