Be Still!: Departure from Collective Madness 

Gordon C. Stewart
Wipf and Stock, 186 pages
Reviewed by Donald W. Shriver

Occasionally I finish reading a book by a fellow Presbyterian minister with a deep pride in sharing that profession. This is one of those books. It is composed of some 50 short essays, many for broadcast over Minnesota Public Radio. The range of topics reminded me of the famous line from the Roman poet, “I deem nothing human alien to me,” for Gordon Stewart’s mind is furnished with ideas drawn from philosophy, ecology, history, theology, the Bible and an array of details from his own experience as a pastor. He blends it all into prose that warms the heart and stretches the mind. Such essays are an eloquent rebuke to the prejudice that theological writing is abstraction from the concretions of life. I think of Stewart as an incarnational theologian like Bonhoeffer, who insisted that we pay attention to God’s presence in the concretions of our history.

The book’s connections with my own life immediately drew me to these pages, such as my connection since birth with the oysters of Chesapeake Bay, which “can filter and clean up to 50 gallons of water per day.” Then there is Stewart’s dedication of his book to the memory of my late faculty colleague Kosuke Koyama, whom he celebrates with a haiku written by my wife Peggy: “Smiling East-West spirit/You move with sun and Son/Shining peace on us.”

War and peace haunt and grace these pages. With both Koyama and a member of his parish, Stewart mourns the battles of the Pacific War, including the firebombing of Tokyo that almost killed that 15-year-old future Christian theologian, whose minister reminded his young church members in the early 1940s, “Remember that the God of Jesus loves Americans as well as the Japanese.” Stewart’s meditation on war could help any of us to prepare sober sermons for Memorial Day. It is time, he suggests, that we remember with sorrow the soldiers of other countries who died in our wars.

The noise of war is only one of the sounds that distract many of us moderns from a wisdom and a peace that come to us only when we observe the biblical imperative of the title: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Sitting on a beach in Florida, Stewart ponders the scampering of a crab into an abandoned shell, in “a flight of hubris washed away by the tides of time.” He remembers our society’s “race to nowhere, the myths of ownership, invulnerability, control, and superiority that race through the minds of low and high estates alike.”

The depth and breadth of Stewart’s mind and his eloquence in expressing all of these things make this a book to digest in small gulps. The calming gifts of this practicing minister are worth imitating. He writes: “The world is noisy.  Loud. Cacophonous.  Bellowing blasts, bewailing and  bedlam in  Beirut, Baghdad, and Boston hurt my ears.  Hoping to leave it, I come to the beach where the tides know nothing of the color of my skin, my income, my worries or fears.’ ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence … On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.'”

Donald W. Shriver, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, and the author of “Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough to Remember Its Misdeeds.”