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The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War
The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War
Elisabeth Sifton
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
368 pp., $16.95

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by Paul C. Merkley


The Barbarians Have Come

Reinhold Niebuhr's daughter examines her fellow Christians and finds most of them wanting.

Everyone who values the legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr will welcome this opportunity to share in his daughter Elisabeth's celebration of the privilege of his company, his instruction, and his example. This privilege—shared with her brother Christopher—permitted her as well to sit around the edges of the vast circle of the friends of Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr—all of them great minds, and most of them (we now see) wonderful characters.

Elisabeth Sifton has worked hardest at recalling these friends in the setting of the summer home in Heath, in Western Massachusetts, which the Niebuhrs owned and seasonally inhabited from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s. Regular summer inhabitants or visitors included Felix Frankfurter, W.H. Auden, H.R. Niebuhr, Robert McAfee Brown, Isaiah Berlin, Alan Paton, James Dombrowski, and an awesome gaggle of bishops of many denominations. Intermixed with these are recollections of friendships in other settings—in New York, in England, in Germany, and elsewhere—with such dignitaries as the preachers and theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, George Florovksy, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Visser 't Hooft, and (at some enlightening length) Dietrich Bonhoeffer and several of the Bonhoeffer connection in Germany and in England; with Anglican Archbishops and Bishops Bell and Temple; with bishops of other stripes, notably, Will Scarlett and Angus Dun (Episcopalian) and Church of Scotland Moderator James Baillie; with politicians and political commentators (Stafford Cripps, John Strachey, Jonathan Bingham, Joseph Rau, Hubert Humphrey, Jim Lowe, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.); and with many literary artists and scholars.

Sifton has given us an insight on a time when literate learning was at the heart of scholarship, when the largest questions of meaning, those to which religion proposes answers, were welcome and engaged without embarrassment by the best minds. For this, we owe unstinted gratitude. She is rightly nostalgic for those dear dead days and that company. So many ...

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