Posts filed under ‘Book Reviews’

Review: In Constant Prayer

In Constant Prayer
In Constant Prayer by Robert Benson

This is a very simple, yet winsome introduction to the idea of ‘praying the daily office,’ ‘liturgy of the hours,’ ‘daily prayer,’ etc. for the non-specialist. Benson describes keeping set times for daily prayer as ‘prayer for the rest of us,’ ‘prayer for the whole Church,’ and a necessary complement to prayer for personal needs.

What makes it intriguing for those who already pray the daily office? The drumbeat that the recovery of the office is the key to the recovery of the Church, and the author’s unsparing demolishment of his own excuses for NOT praying the prayers he has vowed to pray – excuses that I myself have used more often than not.

The only thing that bothers me is the occasional use of the tetragrammaton (‘Yahweh’). I wish that all Christian authors would follow Jewish practice and, out of respect, refrain from using this as God’s proper name.

A quick read, but you can take parts slow and savor Benson’s plain-spoken, direct, reverent words and his layman’s insight into theological ideas and the spirit of the age. An example (page 58):

“The prayer of the office can teach me the the world of prayer is much larger than just my own sweet personal self. I may well discover that prayer is not actually even for me.

“If I say the words of the divine office often enough and carefully enough and faithfully enough, I may well find a pearl of great price.

“Here is the pearl: the world is not my personal oyster.”

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May 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

Review: Berlin 1961

Berlin 1961
Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Berlin crisis of 1961 included the East German-inspired erection of the Berlin Wall and the face-off between Soviet T-54 and American Patton tanks at Checkpoint Charlie. Author Frederick Kempe believes the Berlin Crisis was perhaps the defining moment of the Cold War, rather than the Cuban Missile Crisis which occurred the following year. Kempe believes that Kennedy failed in allowing the Wall to be built and in acquiescing to later East German refusal of free access of all four powers to the Soviet zone, the action that provoked the Checkpoint Charlie crisis. Kennedy’s inaction, according to Kempe, stabilized the Iron Curtain for 30 years – until 1989, when the Wall finally fell.

However, Kempe also asserts that Kennedy understood that the first year of his administration was a failure on the foreign policy front, and learned from it. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy understood that West Berlin could be used by Soviet Premier Kruschschev as either a bargaining chip in negotiations, or would invade West Berlin in the case of an American invasion of Cuba. He therefore took Berlin into consideration in his handling of the crisis. Furthermore, the Missile Crisis taught Kennedy once and for all that only the certain threat of force would deter the Soviets, a lesson he was uncertain of when faced with the specter of nuclear conflict over the status of Berlin. By 1963 and Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, there was to be no mistake that Kennedy and henceforth the United States regarded the freedom of West Berlin as a vital national interest which would demand all-out war.

While Kempe suggests that the thirty-year imprisonment of East Germans behind the Iron Curtain might have been averted had Kennedy acted more decisively, the larger narrative also grants that the lessons of history, especially considering the new threat of mutual assured destruction, were not obvious at the time and had to be learned. Both hawks and doves will continue to argue over the merits of Kennedy’s handling of the crises of 1961-62, while arguing over the handling of crises in the present day which will call for more judgments based on incomplete information which will affect lives of millions all over the world.

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January 20, 2012 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

Book Review – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not a scholarly work. Hence the negative comments I’ve heard from more scholarly people regarding the book. I understand their concerns, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they’re also insanely jealous that their books were not New York Times bestsellers.

Yes, the author tries just a bit too hard to bring Bonhoeffer’s experiences to bear on present-day Evangelical concerns. Yes, the author relies far too much on outdated sources such as William Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ But by and large, Metaxas lets Bonhoeffer speak for himself. And any book that does this is a positive thing. He also tells Bonhoeffer’s story in an engaging and lively manner. The book is a page-turner. What other German theologian (other than Luther) would find himself the subject of a page-turner? It’s a tribute to Bonhoeffer as well as Metaxas.

I also found myself thinking about how far Evangelicalism has come in this country. Perhaps this is part of not only MLK’s legacy but Bonhoeffer’s. A book marketed to American Evangelicals speaks plainly about Bonhoeffer’s positive experience of the black church and negative experience of segregation and how that affected his understanding of the Church. It should also be noteworthy that Bonhoeffer’s positive experience of Roman Catholicism gets such extensive treatment. Although it gets left behind as the story turns toward the plot to kill Hitler, Metaxas understands and communicates that Bonhoeffer’s early ecclesiological work leads to his question, ‘What is the Church?’ and that the shape of his theological life from ecumenism to anti-war activities even to his resistance activities spring from the answers Bonhoeffer comes up with to this question. In an era where Evangelicals are asking ‘What is the Church?’ a reading of this book is salutary.

Bonhoeffer’s commentary on American Christianity is useful as well and should prompt reflection. In America, both success-and-wealth evangelicals and social-Gospel liberals subscribe to a Christianity which has vacated its doctrine of sin and redemption, a trend that Bonhoeffer commented on extensively in 1930. The question is, do we recognize in ourselves the vacating of that theology, or only recognize it in our very useful foils?

Hours of unused interview footage from Martin Doblmeier’s 2003 film ‘Bonhoeffer’ form a unique body of source material in Metaxas’s work. The film and the book would go together quite well in a study group.

I am more than willing to overlook the faults in Metaxas’s book for its strong points. Frankly, Lutherans and scholars should be glad there is a popular and generally good biography of Bonhoeffer out there. Bethge’s work is still definitive, but if Metaxas gets people to Bethge, and even to Bonhoeffer, he will have done his job and done it well. As for me, reading this book has whetted my appetite to get into the more obscure volumes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works that I recently obtained for Christmas.

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January 17, 2012 at 11:37 pm Leave a comment

Review: Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945 by Max Hastings

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I began this book, I wondered whether I should be using time on another Churchill book, as I had just finished “Franklin and Winston” by Jon Meacham. I needn’t have wondered. As he did with Nemesis and Armaggeddon, his fast-paced histories of the final years of WWII in Europe and the Pacific respectively, Hastings avoids both the Scylla of hagiography and the Charybdis of utter deconstruction as he chronicles Winston Churchill’s tenure as war Prime Minister of Great Britain.

While flawed in many ways and wrong on many things, Hastings sees Churchill as most acknowledge him to be, the indispensable man of World War II and the towering figure of the history of the twentieth century. He was so because he was the only Briton of the times whose imagination was still fired by war, although Hastings refutes the charge that WSC was bloodthirsty. Hastings makes the convincing case that no other Prime Minister could have possibly held out against Nazi Germany without having to succumb to the realistic prospect of a negotiated peace settlement which would have left Hitler undisputed master of the world’s future for an indeterminate period of time. WSC’s idealism, as opposed to a political realism, carried Britain through 1940 and 1941, until events that could not have been foreseen in June 1940 changed the course of history.

A more realistic Prime Minister might not have insisted on ill-fated British interventions in Greece in 1941, against sending the
capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse into the Indian Ocean as an ill-fated “show of strength” against the Japanese, or in encouraging resistance movements in occupied Europe and committing British forces in ill-fated assaults on German-occupied islands in the Aegean in 1944. But, Hastings observes, if WSC had been been more timid, less willing to act, what would have been the consequences? Had he not been willing to risk defeat, for instance in Greece in 1941, would the West have been able to play a role in Greece in 1944 or beyond?

When Churchill’s idealism trumped his realism, there were often heavy consequences, but his idealism preserved the live option of Western democracy’s vitality in an age where Fascism and Communism were live options as well. While his idealism could not save Poland from Communism, nor restore the waning British Empire, it did play the crucial role in opening a future that, though very different from what he had hoped for, would at least not be dominated by Hitler’s Germany, and eventually would see the end of Stalin’s Communism as well.

Hastings consistently, and to my reading convincingly, debunks the idea that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had what could be referred to as a “friendship.” Indeed, in reading “Winston’s War” after Meacham’s “Franklin and Winston,” one wonders how much wishful thinking went into Meacham’s book, or indeed whether the content of that book itself was wittingly or unwittingly contrary to the original idea.

It is tragic that William Manchester’s trilogy about Churchill, “The Last Lion,” went unfinished. It is romantic to think that with Hastings’s book, although it does not cover the final twenty years of Churchill’s life, the circle is complete. For although Manchester’s books are not in the select bibliography, one has the sense that Hastings would agree with Manchester’s assessment that Churchill was “The Last Lion,” the only man left in Britain who saw in Britain the “Land of Hope and Glory,” and for just enough time, made his country and the world believe as well.

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August 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm Leave a comment

The Rublev Trinity by Fr Gabriel Bunge

This meditation on Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is a gorgeous book. It is visually arresting – its size, the color pictures, and the quality of the paper make it a joy to read. I found it to be a wonderful book to read aloud.

Fr Gabriel Bunge takes a long, winding journey to the meaning of Rublev’s icon. To simply say what it means up front would be to miss the point. In order to understand the genius of Rublev’s Trinity one must first know something about the theological meaning of icons, the tradition of interpretation of Genesis 18 and how it was interpreted iconographically over the centuries, the influence of St Sergei Radonezh, who founded the Trinity monastery, and the proper place of the icon in Orthodox liturgy and the Trinity monastery. It is only then that one can appreciate what makes this particular icon different, and consider Fr Bunge’s interpretation of the icon’s message, which is both unique and convincing.

In Fr Bunge’s view, we have in Rublev’s masterwork the flowering of the Trinitarian spirituality of St Sergei of Radonezh as seen in the life of his monastic community, the culmination of centuries of reflection upon the mystery of the Trinity, and a window on Pentecost as it is revealed to us in the Gospel of John: the Father’s sending of the Spirit into the world in loving answer to the heartfelt pleas of the Son, the Spirit who makes known to us the saving work and person of the Son, who ‘shows us the Father.’

The Icon of the Trinity by St Andrei Rublev

Pavel Florensky once offered this interesting theological “proof:” ‘There exists the icon of the Trinity by St Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists.’ As a logical proof, it fails; as a doxology, it succeeds mightily. Exploring Rublev’s work with Fr Bunge takes one into that spirit of doxology.

January 29, 2010 at 7:00 am 1 comment


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