All posts in Books

  • In Praise of Ordinary Church

    In Praise of Ordinary Church
    Brian Zahnd

    Sometime in late modernity Christians who had deeply, though mostly unwittingly, imbibed the heady cocktails served by the high priests of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, et al.) conjured the drunken idea that Jesus had given a writ of divorce to the church. In an age of suspicion committed to the critique of tradition how could it be otherwise? Surely the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth could have nothing to do with the tired institution that is dismissively referred to as “organized religion”? This secular assault upon the church found a surprising resonance among many Christians — especially pietists, revivalists, and rugged American individualists. Thus was born the modern idea of Jesus as personal savior (which really means private savior), leaving the church as little more than an optional common interest club for the more socially inclined. Jesus was essential, but the church was optional, or perhaps irrelevant, or even a hindrance to Christian faith.

    Today this kind of thinking is in full bloom. But what should we make of it? Or perhaps a better question is, what would the first followers of Jesus make of this development? I have no doubt at all that they would scratch their heads at this strange new private religion with its stunning capacity to misunderstand Jesus and his message.
    Read more

  • Walter Brueggemann’s Foreword to Postcards From Babylon

    Cover_InHand

    When I finished writing Postcards From Babylon there was only one person I wanted to write the foreword — Walter Brueggemann. So you can imagine how delighted I was that he agreed to write it for me and I would like to share it with you.

    FOREWORD

    As long ago as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther boldly voiced a vigorous either/or for Christian faith in terms of a “Theology of Glory” and a “Theology of the Cross.” By the former Luther referred to an articulation of Gospel faith that smacked of triumphalism that was allied with worldly power that specialized in winning, control, being first, and being best. For Luther, that theology was all tied up with the European imperial of his time. By the contrast of a “Theology of the Cross,” Luther referred to the risky way of Jesus that is marked by humility, obedience, and vulnerability standing in sharp contrast to and in opposition to the hunger for “Glory.” The “way of the cross,” for Luther, is demanding and costly because it contradicts the dominant way of the world.

    Now in a bold and daring articulation, Brian Zahnd has sketched a “Theology of the Cross” for our time and place in the United States of the twenty-first century. He does so in a way that deeply resonates with the primal claims of evangelical theology. He sees that the Gospel is inherently and inescapably countercultural because the God of the Gospel is in particular and passionate solidarity with the “left behind.”

    In this daring articulation, Zahnd pulls no punches. He sees that so much of the American church has been cozily allied with the high claims of U.S. nationalism that readily tilts toward imperialism. The whole package of dominant triumphalist faith adds up to “God and country,” with “country” being the tail that wags the dog of “God.” Most particularly, this triumphalist alliance has a long history of attachment to military ideology, the winning of wars, and the domination of other nations and their resources and markets. In one of his many poetic renderings, Zahnd offers a nearly unbearable riff on the aggression of Achilles in the Iliad and completes the thought of Homer as he enumerates at great length the inventory of wars in which triumphalist Christianity has been eagerly and characteristically implicated. That long alliance with brutalizing power of course has deeply skewed everything in the faith, offering both a caricature of the God of the Gospel and a distorted notion of both discipleship and of citizenship. Before he finishes, Zahnd goes on to see how it is that the Trump administration is a near perfect embodiment of that ideology of “lust, greed, and pride” and how so much of the church has sadly colluded with the Trump administration in a pretend embrace of Gospel faith.
    Read more

  • Christianity vs. Biblicism

    Christ_Pantocrator_Deesis_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia

    Christianity vs. Biblicism
    Brian Zahnd

    (This is my foreword to Keith Giles’ excellent new book, Jesus Unbound.)

    As modern Christians we are children of a broken home. Five centuries ago the Western church went through a bitter divorce that divided European Christians and their heirs into estranged Catholic and Protestant families. The reality that the Renaissance church was in desperate need of reformation doesn’t change the fact that along with a reformation there also came an ugly split that divided the church’s children between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In the divorce settlement (to push the metaphor a bit further) Catholic Mom got a long history, a rich tradition, and a unified church, but all Protestant Dad got was the Bible. Without history, tradition, or a magisterium, the Bible had to be everything for Protestant Dad — and Protestants have made the most of it. For five hundred years Protestant scholars and theologians have led the way in biblical translation, scholarship, and interpretation, giving the Christian world such notables as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, T.F. Torrance, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, Fleming Rutledge, Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, to name a few.

    But with Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it. This has become increasingly true among the more fundamentalist clergy and congregations who are suspicious of higher education and unwilling to read their Bibles with the help of biblical scholars the caliber of Brueggemann, Hays, and Wright. So while pretending to “take the Bible as it is,” the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions — interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.
    Read more

  • Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

    IMG_2080

    Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
    Brian Zahnd

    Yesterday I heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempt to defend the deliberately cruel practice of separating immigrant children from their parents and placing them in separate detention camps by citing the Bible. This outraged me. This is not a partisan political issue, but a human rights issue. The United Nations human rights office, the American Psychological Association, Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Franklin Graham all agree. But using the Bible to justify this repugnant policy…well, that sent me over the edge.

    Here’s what I had to say about it last night on Twitter.

    Today I sat at my writing desk for seven hours working on the “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” chapter for my next book, Postcards From Babylon, and I thought I would share with you the last paragraph I wrote before calling it a day…
    Read more

  • Twenty-Two Days

    Version 2

    Fourteen years ago I began a journey of faith that led me beyond paper-thin pop Christianity, cheap certitude, and nationalistic civil religion. That’s when the water became wine! In a few days we’ll be announcing a Water To Wine gathering here at Word of Life in St. Joseph in June. But today I thought I would share the first chapter of Water To Wine — the story of my deep discontent and the 22 day fast that began the pivotal year of 2004. (The photo is me in Beit She’an, Israel in November of 2003, shortly before the fast.) -BZ

    Twenty-Two Days

    “No one who has ever tasted fine aged wine prefers unaged wine.”
    —Jesus

    “The only wines that actually speak to our whole lives are authentic wines. Confected wines are not designed for human beings; they are designed for ‘consumers.’ Which do you want to be?”
    —Terry Theise

    “When we are crushed like grapes, we cannot think of the wine we will become.”
    —Henri J.M. Nouwen

    I was halfway to ninety — midway through life — and I had reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden-variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.” To borrow some King James style language, my soul was disquieted within me. It was like I was singing over and over the U2 song:

    I have climbed the highest mountains
    I have run through the fields
    Only to be with you
    But I still haven’t found
    What I’m looking for
    —U2, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”

    I was wrestling with the uneasy feeling that the faith I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery, weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the faith I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I had always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in question but Christianity American style was. Read more

  • The Middle Way of Erasmus

    Holbein-erasmus

    The Middle Way of Erasmus
    Brian Zahnd

    Ever since becoming familiar with the Renaissance theologian and Christian humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) some ten or twelve years ago, I have often wished that Erasmus could have won the day during the theological tumults of the 16th century. By which I mean, I wish that the Renaissance-era Church in the West could have experienced reform without the divorce and subsequent Protestant fragmentation. (Recently I wrote some thoughts on the Reformation in a piece I called “Beyond the Wittenberg Door.”)

    This month Ron Dart published a collection of essays on Erasmus under the title Erasmus: Wild Bird. Ron Dart is a Canadian professor, scholar, and theologian with considerable expertise in Church History, Patristics, George Grant, and Thomas Merton. Dart has written 35 books and is an accomplished mountaineer. He’s also a personal friend and there are few people for whom I have as much respect as I do Ron Dart. He is an inspiring example of a wise and contemplative academic.

    In his latest book Dart asks, “What would the Christian Church be like today if the guidance and wisdom of Erasmus in the early 16th century had been followed rather than the reactionary Protestant thinking of Luther or Calvin or the equally brittle response of the Roman Catholic stance at the Treaty of Trent?” Throughout this collection of essays Dart makes these points about Erasmus:
    Read more

  • Best Reads of 2017

    IMG_0163

    Reader extraordinaire Peri Zahnd shares her favorite books from 2017. -BZ

    BEST READS OF 2017
    By Peri Zahnd

    I can’t imagine a life without books — I was banned from reading for a week this year following eye surgery, which was just long enough to show me how awful it could be. As I’ve looked over the list of what I’ve read this year, there are three standouts in three different genres.
    Read more

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky Reviews “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God”

    Fyodor Dostoevsky (a.k.a. Boyd Barrett) reviews Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

    (Thanks Boyd!)

    BZ

  • The Looming Specter

    IMG_2219(1)

    The Looming Specter
    Brian Zahnd

    My criteria for writing a book is simple. I write what I cannot not write. I don’t rummage around in my mind for a topic, I don’t attempt to divine the whims of the market, I don’t ask, “Who is my target audience?” (A question always posed to me by publishers and one I never know how to answer. Everyone? Those who have ears to hear? Four friends? I don’t know.) I wrote A Farewell To Mars because I had to write about war in the light of Christ. I couldn’t be at peace until I did. I wrote Water To Wine because I had to tell some of my story. I was compelled to testify about what had happened to me. If these books found an audience who resonate with what I have to say, it makes me very happy…but I wrote them for the wellbeing of my own soul. And all of this is even more true with Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.

    In Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore” there’s a line that says, “Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide.” I can relate to that. There is a sense in which I’m trying to make amends with Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God. I am trying to recant some of my old sermons that presented God as angry, violent, and retributive. But my deepest motivation for writing Sinners is not to do penance for purveying ignoble ideas about God. My chief motivation for writing this book comes not from looking into the past with regret, but from looking into the future with concern.
    Read more