Editor’s Introduction June/July 2021: Book Review Issue

[1] In a year seized by multiple pandemics, we seek wisdom and courage for the road ahead.  In the words of Rabbi Arthur Waskow,

[2] “It is uncanny that the human race as a whole is at the moment struck with a viral disease that attacks most powerfully our ability to breathe.  And uncanny again that at this moment we live as part of a planet that is choking, ‘We can’t breathe.’…. Every effort to choke the breath from a living person or community or a species or the planet is a violation of God’s Name.  We ‘take the Name in vain’ whenever we forget that every breath we take is Itself the Name, and is part of the great Breath that is the Holy One.”  (Waskow, Dancing in God’s Earthquake, page xxxii)

[3] As we struggle to address the devastation of coronavirus, creation crisis, and cries for racial justice, we seek inspiration and guidance from one another and from the authors we read. In this issue of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics we review six recent books. They offer wisdom on Native American and Jewish insights on shared community; Christian nationalism; biblical and theological approaches to images of divine violence in Christian scripture and tradition; and a broad foundational volume on the Bible and Christian ethics.

[4] The first review continues our series of books by Native American writers.  Author Steven Charleston, a member of the Choctaw nation and an Episcopal priest, offers hopeful perspectives on healing, courage and shared community grounded in the kiva, a symbol of spiritual resilience for North American indigenous peoples. His Ladder to the Light is reviewed alongside Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Dancing on God’s Earthquake, a powerful guide to facing the cries of pain from creatures and creation.

[5] In Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Whitehead and Perry present a quantitative analysis of survey results combined with data from individual interviews and participant observation to examine the nature, extent and implications of Christian nationalism. They characterize Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that undergirds political polarization by co-opting Christian language and iconography to cloak social/political goals in the transcendent language of religion. They argue that Christian nationalism has become the “distorting lens” through which much of America now sees Christianity.  They juxtapose this conclusion with their empirical finding that “the more devout Christians are, the less inclined they are to embrace Christian nationalism.”

[6] The next two books take on violence and nonviolence.  In The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith, Daniel Hawk dives into the difficult arena of biblical portrayals of divine violence, addressing interpretations that range from warrior zealot to pacifism.  Resisting clear-cut answers, Hawk urges “biblical thinking” rather than “biblical answers.”  Modeling an approach of communal dialogue and sustained wrestling with disturbing texts, Hawk illuminates perspectives that require God “to work within the limitations and brokenness of the system.”   As a retired army chaplain, the reviewer, Ken Sampson, recommends this volume for multiple audiences, including military chaplains.

[7] In A Nonviolent Theology of Love: Peacefully Confessing the Apostles’ Creed, Sharon Baker Putt tackles images of a violent God from a theological perspective. Urging humility, Baker Putt asks readers to think deeply and openly about the ways classical theology has justified violence. Using the Apostles Creed as her framework, Baker Putt suggests that a violent God is a product of history and she turns the reader toward the core of God’s identity: love.  Her hermeneutical key rests in New Testament stories of a non-violent Jesus – his teachings, life, death and resurrection.  Accessible writing, insights from Orthodox theology, and a broad range of conversation partners enrich the volume.

[8] In Bible and Ethics in the Christian Life: A New Conversation, Birch, Lapsley, Moe-Lobeda, and Rasmussen bring new perspectives to this third edition of a foundational text in biblical and Christian ethics. Addressing both the theoretical and practical, they offer illustrations exploring pressing issues such as race. The volume includes a new emphasis on the planet and the whole of creation. Investigating the place of faith communities in the moral sphere, the authors identify five roles of the church: moral identity formation, bearer of Christian tradition, moral discernment and deliberation, agent of action, and moral haven for nourishment and inspiration. The book may challenge, inspire and resource clergy and congregations who seek to “be the body of Christ in this time and space,” and “who believe the Bible and ethics do matter in a world deemed sacred.”

Nancy Arnison

Nancy Arnison is a lawyer, theologian and nonprofit executive and serves as the Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.