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Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology

by Eugene Peterson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. ISBN 0-8028-2875-2, 368 pp., $ 25.

 

Eugene Peterson's writings are well known to many if not most Outlook readers. No doubt there are dog-eared copies of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Under the Unpredictable Plant, and now The Message on many a Presbyterian pastor's bookshelf. I am confident that Peterson's latest book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, will also find its place among these rich resources. Just make sure to leave room: Christ Plays is the foundational book in a planned five-volume series on spiritual theology. This means we have much to look forward to from this vigorous writer who is both pastor and professor.

One might begin by asking just what spiritual theology is. According to Peterson, the words belong together. "Theology" is the attention we give to God, to knowing God as revealed in the Scriptures and in Jesus Christ. "Spiritual" is the insistence that everything that God reveals is capable of being lived by ordinary people. "Spiritual" keeps theology from degenerating into thinking and talking about God from a distance. "Theology" keeps spiritual from being just about our own thoughts and feelings about God. These two words should be yoked if our study of God is to have anything to do with how we live and if the way we live is to have anything to do with the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. For Peterson, spiritual theology is the attention we give to the details of living life in the way of Christ.

Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation

 

edited by William C. Placher. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005.  ISBN 0802829279.  Pb., 452 pp.  $24. 

 

Lilly Endowment Inc. has given another gift to the Church. Lilly's "Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation," which have prompted students and scholars at 88 colleges and universities to consider the concept of vocation, has likewise prompted Dr. Placher to edit Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. This book will be a valuable resource in both academic and congregational settings for years to come.

William C. Placher is the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College. He has gathered fifty-seven readings from fifty different authors and has placed them chronologically in this reader. As the book title indicates, these readings span twenty centuries of the Christian tradition. Placher acknowledges in his introduction that his collection stops fifty years short of the present. His rationale is that to include the important diversity within the last five decades would have added significantly to this already substantive volume (452 pages). While some will miss these modern voices, Placher's choices give plenty of food for thought for those considering the concept of calling.

Church History 101: An Introduction for Presbyterians

by William M. Ramsay. Louisville: Geneva Press, 2005. ISBN 0-664-50277-6. Pb., 144 pp. $14.95.

 

History--that enigmatic subject. Everyone living seems to have had at least one unutterably boring history teacher. And yet, new members in our congregations and older ones need something to help ground them in the history of the church as they learn about current worship, education, and polity practices, and begin to tackle the foundational theological questions of our faith. A classic description of what such education should be in our Reformed tradition calls for materials and programs that are "Biblically grounded, historically informed, ecumenically involved, socially engaged and communally nurtured."

Retired minister and teacher William Ramsay has given us a wonderful tool to help our congregations become "historically informed." As Ramsay puts it in his foreword, the story begins in Eden, continues with Abraham and Jacob and Isaac, with Moses and the Exodus, and climaxes in the life of Jesus. But the story of the church does not end there. From the church in Acts to the present day, we are witness to the ways God continues to act in our history.

The Worshiping Life: Meditations on the Order of Worship

 

by Lisa Nichols Hickman. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005. ISBN 0664227597.  Pb., 162 pp., $14.95. 

 

Years ago, a professional book reviewer told me that when you read a book you should always begin with the acknowledgements. With that instruction still in my mind, I opened up the first pages of The Worshiping Life: Meditations on the Order of Worship by Lisa Nichols Hickman. Imagine my delight to see names of pastors I actually knew and at least one church listed where I have worshipped! I felt at home with this book right from the start knowing that a number of Lisa's mentors were folks grounded in down-to-earth pastoral ministry.

The Worshiping Life is a collection of twenty-five meditations, each one reflecting upon a different aspect of worship. Hickman begins with the Gathering and goes right on through to the last Amen. While many books written on worship these days seem to discuss the pros and cons of traditional, contemporary, or blended service styles, Hickman's emphasis is on the elements of Reformed worship. She divides her meditations into the main parts of the service: Gathering, Proclaiming, Responding, Sealing, and Bearing Out. Following introductory remarks on these aspects, she delves more deeply into each line of the bulletin, including the Call to Worship, Opening Hymn, Confession and Assurance of Pardon, Prayer for Illumination, Scripture Readings, Affirmation of Faith, Sacraments, and even the Middle Hymn! 

The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound

by Stephen H. Webb. Brazos Press, 2004. ISBN 1-58743-078-9. Pb., 239 pp.  $24.99.

Why do we think of Scripture in terms of texts to be interpreted rather than a voice to be heard? Why has preaching become either so theory-laden and academic in its teaching or so anecdotal and visual in its practice that no demands at all are made on our ears or our voices, or on the obedience of our hearts? Why is the act of "listening to a sermon" so difficult for us today, an event that for many almost defines boredom and can only make sense to others if it yields an experience of personal "uplift"? Why is modernity (and even more, post-modernity) both so noisy and so silent, and why does it seek so relentlessly to render us deaf to the human voice while celebrating the visual, the loud, and the universalizing illumination of critical reason? And finally, what does it mean that God speaks, that the heart of Israel's faith begins with a summons not to read or think or see but to hear ("Hear, O Israel...")--that the gospel understands itself as a word to be heard and proclaimed, a word that is rooted in the being of the triune God ("In the beginning was the Word") who creates by speaking, and who loves by including us in the grace of the divine conversation, giving us ears to hear and words to speak?

Letters to a Young Doubter

 

by William Sloane Coffin. Louisville: WJKP, 2005. ISBN 0-664-22929-8.  Hb., 185 pp., $14.95

 

I didn't know her well when she came to my office the first time. I had heard from colleagues and from her peers that she had teetered on the edge of fundamentalism when she arrived at college. As of late, however, other rumors stirred about her. She was asking questions in her fellowship groups. She was challenging her peers at the lunch table and was far less diligent in commitment to Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night church services. As she sat in my office for the first of what would become many visits, she described an inner tear that felt as if the curtain of her inner holy of holies had been rent. The sharp edge of doubt cut through what had once been a forbidden barrier between belief and doubt, between an angry certainty and passionate questions. Oh, how I wish I had offered her the wisdom of William Sloane Coffin!

Preaching the Gospel Without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary

by Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson. Louisville: WJKP, 2004. ISBN 0-664-22763-5. Hb, 261 pp., $24.95.

I welcome and celebrate this new commentary as a much-needed resource for my own preaching and teaching, and let me tell you why.

In recent years, the congregation where I serve (the Fifth Avenue Church in New York City) has entered into an ever-deepening relationship with a Reform Jewish synagogue (Central Synagogue), located just a few blocks east of us in midtown Manhattan. While the relationship initially grew out of a friendship shared between our senior pastor and the senior rabbi of the synagogue, it has significantly expanded in recent years to embrace a much larger congregation and staff. In 1998 when the synagogue tragically suffered a major fire, our congregation was among the first to offer our facilities to our Jewish brothers and sisters while their own house of worship was being rebuilt. In 2003-04, when our own building was undergoing major expansion and renovation, the synagogue reciprocated, and for 40 Sundays we Christians held our weekly worship services in the incredibly beautiful and holy space of Central Synagogue's sanctuary.

Awakened to a Calling: Reflections on the Vocation of Ministry

edited by Ann M. Svennungsen and Melissa Wiginton. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005. 84 pages

 

Much has been written and spoken about creating a culture of call in the life of the church. It has been said that the once-fertile soil of homes, congregations, camps and colleges that nurtured faith and produced a harvest of talented ministers of Word and Sacrament has grown thin, worn out and eroded away. Family priorities have changed. Overcommitted youth are engaged in a myriad of activities and have little time for worship and little interest in church school. I heard an elder in a congregation say that the pastoral ministry was a dead end job and she certainly hoped her child was thinking about some other profession than pastoral ministry. Church camps are replaced with camps that offer flashier facilities and more upscale activities; church-related colleges drop their requirements in Bible and theology.

Yet, this is only part of the picture. After years of declining attention to the culture of call, fresh interest is being given to how we can help a new generation of young adults hear the call to serve God through their vocations. The concern is not only about helping young adults discern a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament, but to see their daily lives, loves and labors as their vocation, their calling to serve and glorify God. Certainly, the Lilly Endowment, the Fund for Theological Education, and other organizations have worked with congregations, colleges and seminaries to help them become fertile soil for discerning call. Congregations are waking up to their role in helping young people identify their call; church-related colleges are beginning new efforts to awaken students to their life's vocation; seminaries are reaching college students and even high school students with fresh, creative opportunities to explore vocational questions through special programs in theology, the arts, Bible study and service. 

In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity

In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity, by R. R. Reno.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002.  Pb., 208 pp.  ISBN 1-58743-033-9.  $15.99.

Editor's Note: This book review was written before the release of the recommendations from the PC(USA) Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity.

 

The General Assembly of 2001 met in Louisville, Kentucky, home of the Presbyterian Center, our denomination's national offices. With the strong encouragement of national officers, the General Assembly authorized a Theological Task Force to deliberate and then to report on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Though appointing a committee to address an issue is ordinary and uneventful, indeed unimaginative and uninspiring; and though the constant comparisons to the Commission of 1925 were insulting to evangelicals; and though the appointments themselves were more than a little disappointing to evangelicals, and the commission given was at least a bit ambiguous, needing re-visitation by a later General Assembly; and though as the Task Force deliberated over the next four years, more and more of it was done secluded from the witness of the Church; as a commissioner to that General Assembly, I found one decision noteworthy - the General Assembly admitted we are a divided fellowship.

This was and is a difficult but, I believe, necessary admission. We are unhappy. This is not the common life for which Christ prayed and we hope. It hurts; we hurt. To recognize and attend to this is right.

Little else in the General Assembly actions was as right.

The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity

The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity, by W. Eugene March.  Louisville: WJKP, 2005.  ISBN 0-664-22708-2.  Pb., 139 pp.  $14.95.

In his new book, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love, W. Eugene March lays out a reasoned and compelling case for people of all faiths to communicate with and appreciate people of other faiths.  He traces his long-time interest in interfaith relations to his days as a graduate student when he was under the direction of Jewish professors and working alongside Jewish students.  "They were every bit as committed to the service of God as I was . . . If one could only know the 'Father' through Jesus Christ, how could I understand the clear reflection of God's way 'enfleshed' by these people?" (ix) 

Today's world, even today's United States, is a far more pluralistic society than March encountered in New York forty years ago.  We knowingly share the world with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, Animists, Jews, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, and those of many more faith traditions.  As a nation we have experienced the dire effects of militant extremism, practiced by those who "deny the right of any others to exist and... [are] willing to exercise any measure of terror...toward the eradication of all they judge to be their enemies"(xi).  In our modern world, March maintains that it is more imperative than ever that we who profess faith in Jesus Christ realize that God's love is far wider than any human limits.  The "Bible itself...clearly contradicts the narrow, supersessionist interpretation that God is concerned only with the chosen people, whether Jews or Christians"(118-119).  After pointing out that we who are Christians also have been guilty of encouraging and at times actively supporting "terrible things in the name of faithfulness to God"(5), March lifts up texts from throughout the canon to support his argument that God's love is not intended for only a fraction of the human community; he also pushes his readers to consider biblical texts in context, asserting that there is room for more than one true religion.

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