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In Brief: September 01, 1995

God's Wrathful Children: Political Oppression and Christian Ethics

By Willa Boesak


264 pp.; $18.99, paper

In 1973, Willa Boesak's family home in South Africa was bulldozed and the family removed to a reservation set apart for blacks. Now, after theological and ethical training in South Africa and North America, after further years of humiliation because of the blackness of his skin, but also after the remarkable breakthroughs in his country, Boesak is asking a powerful question: Is it possible for a kind of vengeance to exist that does not destroy the avenger and violate the norms of God? Or, in his own words, "Can the wrath of God's children legitimately reflect divine anger?"

Boesak, who teaches theological ethics at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, works at this pressing issue by studying several relevant historical cases: the zealots of the biblical period, Thomas Mntzer (who led a peasant revolt in the Reformation period) and Malcolm X. He draws as well on the experience of blacks in South Africa, who for generations were given the choice between systematic human degradation or state-sanctioned coercive violence.

The thought-provoking conclusion of this learnedly impassioned study is that an "ethic of vengeance" is necessary in order to channel black rage into constructive action and so promote the reconstruction of South African society after apartheid. As is only natural, this is a book deeply embedded in the recent history of South Africa. Yet its realism about human pain in the face of inhuman oppression, as well as its willingness to seek scriptural standards for understanding both the pain and the oppression, makes this a book for many other regions of the world as well, and some very close to home.-Mark Noll

The American City and the Evangelical Church:

A Historical Overview

By Harvie M. Conn


232 pp.; $15.99, paper

Harvie Conn, who has served as a missionary in Korea and more recently taught missions at Westminster Theological Seminary, offers a much-needed primer in this welcome book. It includes an outline of main developments in American urban history-showing, for example, the geometric growth of urban areas throughout American history that now finds most of the U.S. population living in and around cities.

But Conn's main concern is not simply factual, for he urgently desires evangelical Christians to understand the ambiguities of their own history with respect to American cities and also to seize the opportunities now at hand for advancing the work of the kingdom in urban areas. It is all too easy for Conn to chart the evangelical uneasiness with cities that has seen conservative Protestants treat urban regions sometimes as scenes of revivalistic potential, sometimes as centers of organizational growth, but also often as untouchable sinks of moral pollution.

In order to nerve evangelicals to take the Christian potential of the cities more seriously, Conn highlights the often vigorous life of ethnic urban churches-African American, Hispanic, Chinese, and Korean. He also repeats a word that has been heard before, but that never is a clich in the United States: Since the gospel is about winning souls to Christ and bringing Christ's transforming power to every aspect of life, it is the gospel that holds out the fullest promise for America's cities.-MN

How Shall We Witness? Faithful Evangelism in a Reformed Tradition

Edited by Milton J. Coalter and

Virgil Cruz

Westminster John Knox

186 pp.; $16.99, paper

Presbyterians are big on committees. They thrive on long-winded procedure. They love doing things decently and in order. Presbyterians-it may come as something of a surprise-are also heirs of a long tradition of active evangelism. This book of eight essays provides both history and theology to argue that churches in Reformed and Presbyterian traditions are doing no more than following historic patterns when they promote the active spread of the gospel. Four learned, but accessible chapters trace the importance of evangelism in previous Presbyterian generations. The other four offer theological perspective on that history and on the current shape of Presbyterian churches. They show, for example, that aggressive evangelism and active social concern only became separated very recently in Presbyterian history.

The current situation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-with its declining numbers and an apparent loss of theological focus-looms large in the background of these studies. But the general message conveyed is one of expectant hope, not so much in the people who make up Presbyterian and Reformed churches, but in a theology, as Darrell Guder expresses it, of God, of God in Christ, of the gospel of Christ as the message of the reign of God both present and coming, and of the church as its messenger and witness. Non-Presbyterians might also take note.-MN

Pilgrims in Lotus Land: Conservative Protestantism in British Columbia, 1917-1981

By Robert K. Burkinshaw

McGill-Queens University Press

353 pp.; $44.95

Contemporary church history is exceedingly difficult to write. Hard facts are not easy to find. The loyalties of authors, as well as their antagonisms, distort their perceptions. The temptation is very great to settle scores, or to write simply to please subjects who are still alive. And the list goes on. Robert Burkinshaw, who teaches history at Trinity Western College in Langley, British Columbia, Canada, has successfully avoided those perils in presenting a learned, edifying book on the twentieth-century history of theologically conservative Protestants in British Columbia. The story should be of interest to wider audiences than might be imagined.

Burkinshaw meticulously records, but also creatively interprets, two apparently contrasting realities about British Columbia. One is that this province is far and away the most secular in Canada; the 1991 Canadian census, which still asks a question of religious affiliation, found that more citizens of British Columbia responded "None" than indicated their attachment to any of the denominations (Roman Catholics trailed in distant second place). Second, however, is the fact that a number of evangelical Protestant groups have enjoyed unusual growth over the last decades. They include the Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Christian Reformed Church, the Mennonite Brethren, and independent and Pentecostal congregations, as well as several groups of Asian Canadian believers. They have been helped significantly by relatively new educational institutions, including Regent College in Vancouver and Burkinshaw's own Trinity Western College. How these evangelicals have negotiated the shoals of Canada's secular Lotus Land is an instructive tale for the rest of North America. Burkinshaw's volume is the latest in a distinguished series of books from McGill-Queens University Press that in the last decade have rejuvenated the study of religion in Canada.-MN

God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland, 1843-1945

By John Wolffe


324 pp.; $69.95

Americans are tempted to make much of their special standing in the eye of God. The early Puritans and some believers to this day even speak of a special covenant between God and his American people. The great virtue of John Wolffe's God and Greater Britain for American readers is to show that such ideas of religious nationalism have flourished on the other side of the Atlantic, too. Wolffe, who teaches at Britain's Open University and who is the author of a fine account of Protestant anti-Catholicism in the Victorian age, approaches his subject to inform, not incite. He shows that religious factors shaped nationalism in the British Isles in many different ways-and differently for all possible parts: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain without Ireland, England and Wales together, and so on.

Particularly instructive is Wolffe's skill at showing how times of national crisis-whether caused by traumas in the British Empire, British participation in the world wars, or strife over the independence of the Republic of Ireland-promoted more intense religion and more intense religious nationalism. Additional treasures lie in store for those with patience to read Wolffe's footnotes and his careful methodological introduction. Americans who want to assess their own history of religious nationalism could hardly find a more helpful comparative study with which to begin.-MN

Religion & Democracy

in Latin America

Edited by William H. Swatos, Jr.


163 pp.; $19.95, paper

In the 1980s, several countries throughout Latin America began moving along the arduous path from dictatorship to democracy. What role religious groups might play in that transition is the subject of this series of essays, focusing mainly on Pentecostal groups and communidades eclesiales de base (ecclesial base communities, or cebs), small, Roman Catholic grassroots groups influenced by liberation theology that engage in Bible study and political activity.

Concerned more with South America than Latin America as a whole (only one essay covers Central America, and none covers Mexico or the Caribbean), the volume presents a cross section of views on whether and how Protestants and cebs can help in the consolidation of democracy. In the process, it challenges some common notions about both groups-for instance, that Pentecostals are virtually always politically conservative and that cebs are primarily political, rather than religious, entities. Among the more provocative arguments are W. E. Hewitt's case that cebs in Brazil are becoming less effective as agents of political change, in part because they are spending more time in "devotional activities" such as Bible study and sacrament preparation and less time in political discussion, and in part because the end of the country's military dictatorship has undercut cebs' raison d'tre; Cecilia Mariz's argument that although cebs and Pentecostals have sharply differing ideologies, their experiences are quite alike (e.g., both emphasize formal discourse, both offer an experience of communal life) and thus the groups may be similar in their political impact; and Brian Froehle's contention that competition among Protestants and cebs for adherents and resources lays the groundwork for the give-and-take that characterizes a healthy democracy. Religion & Democracy in Latin America adds an important set of viewpoints to the growing discussion on democratic change in Latin America.-Tom Giles

The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol

Edited by Christopher DeMuth and William Kristol

AEI Press

245 pp.; $24.95, hardcover; $12.95, paper

Irving Kristol famously said, "A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality." Now, for his seventy-fifth birthday, Mr. Neoconservative is honored by this festschrift, containing 15 essays, excerpted passages and epigrams, and a list of his published works. The essays-by Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, and others-are balanced between reminiscences and thought-pieces, and they demonstrate the range of Kristol's interests and the strength of his influence. Kristol has been managing editor of Commentary, coeditor of Encounter, executive vice president of Basic Books, and professor at New York University. Most important, he founded the policy journals Public Interest and National Interest. Now he works at the American Enterprise Institute and writes a column for the Wall Street Journal. Once a member of a breakaway Trotskyite group, Kristol broke with socialist ideology by the end of World War II and later led an exodus of New York Jewish intellectuals from the Left. In friend Earl Raab's words, he "has developed a great deal but changed not that much."

Championing common sense and respecting common people, this plainspoken man challenged prevailing intellectual fashions. It is not given to many swimmers against the tide to see the tide turn and roll their way. And it is rarer yet when one primarily a journalist effects such a sea change. Those puzzled by the current ascendancy of conservatism should not neglect Kristol and company, and the more so as the distance narrows between neoconservatives and other constituencies on the Right.-Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

Moral Action and Christian Ethics

By Jean Porter

Cambridge University Press

288 pp.; $54.95

In the academic community, the wall between theological and philosophical concerns has risen to heights rivaling the political divide between church and state. Jean Porter removes several rows of bricks from the former wall. While she humbly acknowledges and demonstrates that Christian ethicists can learn from secular scholars, she confidently proclaims (and, once more, demonstrates) that professional philosophers cannot ignore the resources of the Christian tradition for resolving their own problems. More specifically, Porter outlines a constructive alternative to modern rule-based ethical theories (especially Kant's) and the contemporary rejection of any sort of theoretical construct that attempts to systematize a set of rules to assist in practical casuistry. At the same time, she skillfully addresses the perennial debate between Christian legalists and antinomians by sketching a Thomistic ethical theory in which both rules (negative prohibitions) and practical wisdom (good judgment) play an irreducible part.

The general reader will find the first and last chapters quite accessible. The first argues that the scope and limits of rules in science and ethics are analogous. The final chapter reformulates the Thomistic understanding of the virtues in a way that acknowledges the plasticity of human nature and gently chides Aquinas for his ahistorical and transcultural view of the human psyche. The intermediate chapters are tightly argued, and the whole book is richly enough footnoted to satisfy the demanding scholar.-Ric Machuga

Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life

By Paul Davies

Basic Books

176 pp.; $20

In medieval Europe, theology was regarded as the "Queen of the Sciences." The presumed absurdity of such a conception of the world accounts, at least in part, for moderns' chronocentrism and use of medieval as a term of abuse. So when Paul Davies, the Templeton Prize-winning physicist and best-selling author, concludes Are We Alone? by asserting that "all scientists, whether atheists or theists . . . accept an essentially theological world view," it's worth spending an afternoon reading what is, in fact, a long essay. While the announced argument of the book is that extraterrestrial intelligence is inherently likely, Davies muses on a wide range of philosophical topics, from the "anthropic principle" (i.e., evidence of design in the cosmos) to the nature of consciousness and the possibility of artificial intelligence.

Are We Alone? has the additional virtue of being a quick introduction to the squabble between physicists and biologists on the philosophical implications of Darwinism. The orthodox interpretation of evolution among biologists is that natural selection is driven wholly by chance mutation and is thus without direction. Davies argues that this interpretation is not plausible from the point of view of the physicists. In addition to chance mutations and natural selection, says Davies, nature is endowed with "astonishingly efficient self-organizing capabilities." And while Davies understands full well that any suggestion of "design" is anathema to most biologists, that does not alter the fact that self-organization abounds in physics and chemistry. So, he says, "it would be astonishing if self-organization did not occur in biology too."

Furthermore, Davies argues that seti (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project) could ultimately settle this dispute between physicists and biologists. If human intelligence is merely the result of highly improbable chance mutations, then it is virtually certain that intelligent life has not evolved elsewhere in the universe. If, on the other hand, seti does succeed in making contact with alien intelligence, "it would certainly undermine the spirit, if not the letter, of orthodox Darwinism."

While Davies's critique of orthodox Darwinism will delight many theists, his discussion of the nature of consciousness will not. For Davies, "self-organization" is a natural property of matter, and human consciousness is an emergent property of sufficiently well-organized matter. No single molecule of H2O is wet. Yet, when a sufficient number of these molecules are grouped together, "wetness" emerges as a natural byproduct. Similarly, intelligence is not a property of any single neuron in the brain. But when a sufficient number of neurons are properly organized into a single organic whole, intelligence is the natural result.

As a philosophical analysis of the nature of consciousness, there is nothing new or threatening in Davies's position. "Functionalism," as it is termed by contemporary philosophers, dates back to Aristotle. And while functionalism is clearly antidualist, it is not inherently antithetical to the belief that God formed man out of the "dust of the earth" nor to faith in the resurrection of the body. However, Davies needs more than a functional analysis of human consciousness to sustain his position that intelligence is widely spread throughout the cosmos. To support this further claim, Davies falls back on the hope of ai (artificial intelligence). Davies blithely writes, "It is entirely likely that in a few decades we may possess machines that can fairly be described as intelligent in their behavior."

One wonders what has become of the supposedly routine skepticism of scientists. When Alan Turing first defined his famous operational test for "intelligence" in 1950, he predicted that computers able to pass his test would be built within 50 years. There are but five years left, and no computer has even come close to passing the Turing Test. Philosophically speaking, the problem is fairly clear: to pass the Turing Test, a computer must be able to perform the simple inductive inference which all humans make. However, since computers by definition only perform wholly formalized functions, induction must itself be formalized. Logical positivists attempted for roughly 30 years to formalize induction before they finally admitted in the 1960s that they were trying to "square the circle."

Finally, while Davies's final chapter describes "the modern search for aliens as, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest," his discussion of the issues is anything but Christian and ought to be read in conjunction with C. S. Lewis's essay "Religion and Rocketry." (For a concise exposition of Davies's views concerning the relationship between religion and modern science, see his Templeton Prize Address, "Physics and the Mind of God," in the August/September 1995 issue of First Things.)-RM

Copyright (c) 1995 Christianity Today, Inc./BOOKS & CULTURE Review


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