Being Good and Doing Good

Martin Marty, Fortress, 1984

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is an old treatment of ethics by a veteran theologian and historian, and it’s significant that its relevance remains constant still.  An interesting perspective is Marty’s identification of a literary basis for being ethical.  ‘Let a text speak to us and present a horizon through imagination and emotional acts’ (p 57); this is an alternative to the rational arguments for ethical discourse and action.  The final two chapters deal with how we live:  the public sphere where the individual is linked with fellow believers as well as non-believers in the whole world of human beings, and the personal sphere, various areas of private life that also have public effects (p 91).

Marty’s methodology does not go into details about what to do in certain issues (eg abortion, pacifism) but to see the relatedness of all life in what he calls ‘zones’.  The zone of the body (the self), those where we are intimately related to family, friends, the neighbourhood, institutions (schools, local church), place of employment.  The impetus to responsible living comes from our baptism, living the forgiven life.  He closes his book with an appeal to Christians to contribute to the common good, to find themselves at the foot of the cross in sight of an open tomb.  ‘That is the space where Jesus meets humans’ (p 128).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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Toward a True Kinship of Faiths

The Dalai Lama, Three Rivers Press, 2010

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a moving examination of inter-faith sharing, with the Dalai Lama reflecting on the implications of our world’s spiritual dimensions.  His paradigm for spiritual sharing is not the identification of religious elements that are the lowest common denominators.  ‘The move to the pluralist position of interchange with other religions by no means involve abandoning one’s central commitment to one’s own faith; it hugely enriches the understanding and practice of one’s own religion.  It allows one to see convergences with other religions; it broadens one’s respect for the extraordinary range and diversity of spiritual approaches developed entirely outside one’s faith tradition’ (pp 17,18).  He draws a distinction between what can be seen as three key aspects of a religion:  ethical teachings, doctrines (metaphysics), cultural specifics (p 150).  He points out that there is a ‘great convergence of the world’s religions:  the central message of all these religions is love and compassion; the purpose of all religions remains the same:  to contribute to the betterment of humanity.  There are fundamental doctrinal differences among the religions.  The challenge is to find a way in which the followers of these traditions can remain true to their doctrinal standpoints and see them as representing legitimate paths to G-d.

For me as a Christian, the question is not what I believe as I meet others, but how Jesus would interact.  A powerful book that struggles with the possibilities of religious pluralism from the perspective of Jesus.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

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Wresting With G-d

Roland Rolheiser, Penguin, 2018

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The last few decades have brought about major changes in our lives. Globalization has reshaped virtually all of our communities in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion.  The sexual revolution has radically altered how our world sees love; political and religious extremism polarize our communities. This sets before us a whole range of new challenges in terms of how we understand life, love, sexuality, family, country, religion, faith and G-d.  Rolheiser’s book helps in a search for not only meaning and faith but a greater steadiness in life.  ‘Steadiness is the key word.  Real faith is not a set of answers; rather, it leaves us in mystery, in longing, in desire, but open to something bigger…. Our deepest desire is a gnawing disquiet inside us, a longing for Someone big enough to embrace our questions and hold our doubts’ (p 16).

Embracing our questions, struggling with our own complexity, is a continuation of the Socratic claim that ‘the unanswered life is not worth living’, and so Rolheiser outlines our wrestling with seven areas of life (eg our nature, our eroticism, our fear, our mandate to reach out to the poor, G-d, Faith and culture.  The final chapter suggests guidelines ‘for the long haul’.  Trim our spiritual vocabularies to three words:  forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness!  Religious and moral fidelity, when not rooted in gratitude and forgiveness, are not enough.  Metanoia is the large-hearted reminder to never close the doors to others.  Taking away the sins of our community, by transforming tension. Praying—being aware of the Spirit praying in us and for us.  Remember that we are safe through G-d, even in death. Choose the regrets we can live with best.

A powerful book of analysis and of life. Read more ›

The Beginnings of Politics

Moshe Halbertal & Stephen Hollmans, Princeton University Press, 2017

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The biblical book of Samuel is a book of political thought; it does not paint a flattering portrait of any of the work’s principle characters (eg Samuel, Saul, David, Absalom and a handful of others); no one party or individual is endorsed.  In the pre-Samuel period no standing army was established and no unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved. No standing army was established and no enduring unity of purpose or centralization of political-military power was achieved.

No single stable ruler capable of asserting his supreme authority over tribes and clans often embroiled in blood feuds could emerge.  But a supreme authority is the underpinnings of any human political order.  This is why all political entities aim to organize a smooth transfer of power one leader to the next.  Dynastic-monarchy offers one possible solution to the problem of regional continuity; the bloodlines of the king’s family provide a possible nonviolent transfer of power.  Dynastic succession is the experience of the Samuel-era Israeli state as dynastic succession seeks to provide unity and continuity. The price paid by the people for this is the imposition of taxes and military drafts.

In detailing the rise and rule of two very different kings, the writer(s) of Samuel focus on the concept of power that refuses to acknowledge moral restrictions for living among their supporters.  They end up using the power they have been granted for the welfare of the community by clinging to political power for its own sake (eg Saul’s plot to have David killed, 1 Samuel 18); the writer(s) of Samuel point out the need for community of sovereignty.  The author of Samuel does not argue against the dynastic solution to the continuity problem, but points out what centralized power inflicts on the ruler and on his children, mingling family love and political ambition. Read more ›

The Sin of Uncertainty

Peter Enns, Harper, 2016

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Our beliefs provide a familiar structure to our life; they give answers to our big questions:  does G-d exist?  Is there a right religion?  Why are we here?  Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest.  For Enns, true faith and correct thinking were two sides of the same cover, and his religious structure no longer constituted an unshakeable persuasion.  He came to see that ‘knowing’ as his church held, has its place but not at the centre of faith, and he realized that he could choose to trust G-d regardless of how certain he felt (p 15), when we too often confuse G-d   with our thoughts about G-d (p 19). This results in the problem of trusting our beliefs rather than trusting G-d (p 21). The problem is that knowledge based faith is a largely unquestioned part of our western culture.

Faith in the biblical sense is rooted deeply in trust in G-d.  A life of faith that accepts this biblical challenge is much more demanding than being preoccupied with correct thinking.  ‘Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties, seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply’ (p 205)  ‘Trust in G-d, not in correct thinking about G-d, is the beginning and end of faith’ (p 211), a faith rooted in trust, not in certainty.  ‘The life of Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of beliefs about Christ, morality or how to read the bible.  It means being so intimately connected to Christ that his crucifixion is ours’ (p 162).

Enns focuses on the essence of Christian faith, on trust ,not on formulae. Read more ›

Beyond Occupation: American Jewish, Christian and Palestinian Voices for Peace

Rosemary Reuther and Marc Ellis, Beacon Press, 1990

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

The Israeli occupation of the territories won in the Six day War of 1967 entered a new phase in 1987 with the beginnings of the Palestinian uprising (intifada).  Beyond Occupation explores frameworks for peace in the Middle East in this development.  The American Jewish contributors look at the meanings that the intifada holds for the theology of Judaism; Christian contributors articulate an ethical framework for a peace settlement, seeking to distinguish between anti-semitism and a critique of Jewish policies; Palestinian contributors offer a perspective on the long history of events leading up to the intifada, arguing for an awareness of the Palestinian experience as the necessary basis for reconciliation in the Middle East.

Beyond Occupation is arranged in four sections.  The first contains Jewish responses to the uprising, showing the diversity of opinions and perspectives within that community; common themes by the six essayists are the role of ethics and the shocking policy of lethal force ad bone breaking beatings.  The second section has four Christian contributors seeking a just balance between concern for national security and for Israeli and Palestinian rights, seeking to distinguish between anti-Semitism and a critique of Israeli policies.  The third section consists of five essays dealing with the Palestinian story from the perspective of the British mandate and the Balfour Declaration.  The final three essays attempt to identify common ground for discussion among the three groups.

A helpful book for understanding the nature of the Middle East situation. Read more ›

The Ministry of Listening

Donald Peel, Anglican Book Centre, 1980

reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

It is an old book, but still relevant in the attempt to equip lay people minister to others.  Peel not only helps lay people to minister to others, but stimulates us to identify the areas where the congregation can be strengthened and helped.

While hospital visitation is probably the readers’ first identification of an area of visitation, Peel identifies a basic technique of creative listening to help the congregation strengthen its membership: Hospital visitation, visiting the elderly, housebound young mothers, stressed workplace individuals, neighbours across the back fence, parents of Sunday School students, newcomers to the congregation.  Peel sketches the shape of creative listening to include not only hospital patients but also their relatives and friends.  And the hospital staff!  What he attempts is to see the shape of caring from a pastoral orientation that sees the need for better training of congregational membership to the sustained exercise of pastoral care by an articulate membership.

Peel calls for the development at the congregational level of training and identification of frequently encountered needs.  Active listening is the use of feeling, helping the participant to articulate for herself/himself authentic responses to G-d’s healing grace.  Peel sketches the use of prayer and scripture, and visiting the dying, those who mourn, the elderly, and pastoral care on the psychiatric ward. Read more ›

The music of Mary Lou Williams

A review

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

When Mary Lou Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1950s she turned away from her career as a jazz musician, thinking that music played in bars had no place in the realm of the spirit. She came to realize that, as her friend Duke Ellington said, “Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God does not understand.” Williams and Ellington were among the first jazz artists to write sacred music in the jazz idiom and perform jazz in churches.

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, 1910 – May 1981) was an African-American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger whose career spanned the history of jazz from early swing through the big band era, bebop, and beyond. She stood in the first rank of jazz pianists. She wrote and arranged music for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and other bandleaders.

After two priests and her friend Dizzy Gillespie persuaded her to return to playing jazz she performed with Gillespie’s band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Read more ›

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Jonathan Haidt, Vintage, 2013

Reviewed by Dale Roberts

All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it; none but the Republicans and Mugwumps know it. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats and Mugwumps can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. —Mark Twain

Why bother talking with people at the other end of the political or theological spectrum? We already know what they think. They’re wrong. They won’t listen to reason. They view the world askew. They march mindlessly in lockstep behind partisan ideologues and extremists.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, challenges us to think about our thinking on political and moral questions, to seek to understand how and why others see things differently. Read more ›

Weaving the Sermon: Preaching in a Feminist Perspective

Christine Smith, Westminster/John Knox, 1989

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Smith’s book is an intriguing extended metaphor, using weaving as a central lens of understanding.  Weaving is an art, an expression of our time, and Smith uses the components of weaving as illustration, as an organizing image in women’s lives:  weaving, loom, warp, weft.  Weaving:  interlocking threads to create joyful instances of textures and colours.  Loom: keep threads in order and under tension.  Warp: binding together differing threads.  Weft:  the most prominent threads.  This is Smith’s extended metaphor for preaching.

Smith believes there is some ‘qualitative distinctiveness surrounding the preaching of feminist women (p 9); there is a distinctive quality to women’s preaching (p11).  Women use more images and more stories than men do.  ‘The texts women choose are less abstract and more related to everyday life/ (p 12); they are more creative and imaginative in dealing with the text.

Smith has a good section on authority.  Religious authority has usually referred to ordination, giving them the ‘right’ to speak. ‘criteria for effective preaching held by many male homileticians appear to be persuasion and the ability to influence the listener.  The criteria for many women preachers appear to be creating the quality of faith connection….  Authority has to do with a quality of content, a mode of communication and an authenticity of message (p 46).  Smith looks at issues of gender.  She looks at issues of gender.  Eg how ‘can a male Jesus of Nazareth be considered a normative model for all humanity/ (p 80).  She suggests key areas for this definition that entail much broader understandings of incarnational theology’s ‘power’ in relations, radical activity of love, Jesus as parable of G-d, concepts of salvation, hermeneutics. Read more ›