Friday, 3 March 2023

Book Review: Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016)

I am grateful to Zondervan for sending this book to me, presumably for review.

photo of Stephen Backhouse, 'Kierkegaard: A Single Life', and tote bag / © Terry J. Wright, 2016

© Terry J. Wright, 2016

Back in August 2016, Zondervan sent me a copy of Kierkegaard: A Single Life (as well as an accompanying tote bag!), Stephen Backhouse’s biography-cum-introduction to the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard. I supposed at the time that I was sent the book to review on my blog – and now, almost seven years later, and after a recent trip to Copenhagen where I snapped some photos of various things relating to Kierkegaard, including a lock of his hair in the Museum of Copenhagen, I believe the time is right to make good on my promise.

Statue of Søren Kierkegaard / © Terry J. Wright, 2023
© Terry J. Wright, 2023

I described K:ASL as a ‘biography-cum-introduction’ rather than a biography or an introduction because Backhouse’s book straddles the distance between the two genres. Naturally, the majority of the work focuses on the life story of Kierkegaard the man in all his glorious complexity. Backhouse begins with scenes from Kierkegaard’s funeral and an account of his school life before delivering a more conventional chronological presentation of his life. Kierkegaard’s attacks on the Danish Lutheran Church were explosive and frequent, many establishment figures found him inscrutable and not a little irksome (as well as someone to mock), and his love life was complicated to say the least – Backhouse’s portrait vividly captures something of Kierkegaard’s witty, introspective persona, his ambitions often disclosed through pseudonymous works, his intense devotion to God. The final chapter sees Backhouse moving beyond the purely biographical to outline Kierkegaard’s impact on subsequent scholars and authors, including, among others, Karls Jaspers and Barth, Hannah Arendt, Richard Wright, and even the band Arcade Fire, showing how the Dane’s thought – which centres on the human subject before God – resonates deeply with people across the disciplinary and religious spectra. In a final section, Backhouse summarises each of Kierkegaard’s writings; I found these overviews especially welcome and interesting, and undoubtedly will return to them if ever I study Kierkegaard in more depth or, in my role as a proofreader and indexer, work on monographs relating to him.

A lock of Kierkegaard's hair
A lock of Kierkegaard's hair / © Terry J. Wright, 2023

K:ASL is an engrossing read, though, as one might expect, any book that has a figure like Søren Kierkegaard as its subject is not going to avoid complicated and challenging concepts that take time to digest. Backhouse’s prose is lively and engaging, though occasionally his present-tense narration (e.g., ‘May 5, 1838. Søren celebrates his birthday’, p. 85) jars – this approach seems slightly too informal to me. That said, Backhouse makes clear this is not ‘another academic biography’ but one intended for ‘educated nonspecialists who do not need to know, and do not care, about the depths of Kierkegaard’s intellectual development or the minutiae of his cultural context in Golden Age Denmark’ (pp. 12–13). With this in mind, I say Backhouse successfully achieves his goal.

Monday, 20 February 2023

My Review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 4: A Theological and Philosophical Agenda

My review of William J. Abraham’s Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume 4: A Theological and Philosophical Agenda is available via Journal of Theological Studies here. If you want to read the review but can’t access it, let me know.

I wasn’t as impressed by this final volume in the series as I was by the first three, but the book is still definitely worth reading if you’re researching divine action and providence. Reading the series as a whole is, I’d say, essential.

Saturday, 28 January 2023

What Does Liturgy Have to Do with Doctrine?, by Joshua Cockayne (Grove Doctrine D9)

Joshua Cockayne, What Does Liturgy Have to Do with Doctrine? Grove Doctrine D9 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2022)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

‘What does liturgy have to do with doctrine? In a word: everything.’ (p. 24)

In What Does . . . ?, Joshua Cockayne explores the connection between liturgy and doctrine, recognising that the term ‘liturgy’ applies to far more than traditional church services, and that the word ‘doctrine’ is not limited to academic theology or systematic expressions of (in this context) Christian faith. There is an intimate connection between liturgy and doctrine because they arise from and incorporate each other: ‘the [early] church’s beliefs about Jesus were formed by their liturgy, and liturgy was formed by their beliefs’ (p. 15), meaning that it is both ‘almost impossible’ and ‘unnecessary’ (p. 15) to attempt to discern whether doctrine precedes liturgy or vice versa. The point is that Christians need to be alert to the doctrinal stances embedded within liturgical decisions, including, of course, which songs are sung, but also the placement of songs within the service, whether sermons can occasionally be dropped, whether children should always be present during a service, how worshippers with learning difficulties should be included—even how the space within a church is used and which direction chairs face. In the book’s conclusion, Cockayne writes:

Regardless of how much (or little) academic theology we have read, we cannot avoid engaging with doctrine in the life of the church. Every decision we make about liturgy has implications for those who are being shaped in belief and desire by these practices. . . . It is in the practical life of those who follow Jesus today that we find doctrine lived out and acted on. As worship leaders, we are challenged to see ourselves as theological educators, seeking always to grow in understanding of God. As theologians, we are challenged to see that we too are worship leaders, reflecting on issues that concern people’s hearts and lives, and not just their minds. (p. 24)

What Does Liturgy Have to Do with Doctrine? is available for £4.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Monday, 3 October 2022

On the Atonement, by Oliver D. Crisp (Grove Doctrine D8)

Oliver D. Crisp, On the Atonement: Examining the Debates on Christ’s Reconciling Work. Grove Doctrine D8 (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2022)

As I’m on the editorial group for Grove Doctrine, I plan to promote (but not review) each of the books released in the series as and when they’re published.

Many books have been published in recent years on the Christian doctrine of atonement, but Oliver Crisp’s Grove Book on the subject is unique insofar as it works as a short introduction not only to the different models of atonement, but also to his own approach to the topic as detailed in his Participation and Atonement: An Analytic and Constructive Account (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).

On the Atonement first of all looks at what the atonement is and in doing so distinguishes between doctrines, dogmas, motifs, models, theories, and mysteries. Crisp also makes a brief case for not dividing Christ’s person (who Christ is) from Christ’s work (what Christ does). The longest chapter offers brief commentaries on the main approaches to atonement—the moral exemplar view, the ransom notion, the sacrifice metaphor, the satisfaction motif, and penal substitution—and recognises current trends for ‘mashups’ and ‘kaleidoscopic’ accounts. Finally, Crisp outlines his own position:

I want to suggest that the atonement might be fruitfully thought of against [a] background Pauline participation motif as a vicarious, reparative and penitential act of soteriological representation—or what I shall call the representational account of atonement for short. This is a kind of mashup view that attempts to give a layered understanding of the nature of atonement, drawing in different historic motifs into one more complex conceptual picture. The central idea is that Christ is accountable for human sin as a human (though not a sinner), but not culpable for human sin, as per traditional accounts of penal substitution. He acts on behalf of fallen humanity who cannot help themselves to salvation. In this way, his work is vicarious. He repairs the breach between God and humanity in so doing. In this way, his work is reparative. And the work itself is from beginning to end a kind of penitential act. . . . He offers a kind of penitential act on behalf of fallen humanity in his perfect life and work, culminating in his crucifixion, which pays the penalty for human sin brought about by the curse of the fall. And finally, in this work he represents humanity being accountable for their sin. In this way, he is our representative. (pp. 18–19)

Crisp concludes the main part of his Grove Book with a welcome caution:

As with any human endeavour, our grip on the truth is often more fragile than we think. This is certainly true of the atonement. . . . So one takeaway from our discussion of the atonement might be this: to exercise care in what we say about Christ’s reconciling work, and to extend grace to others with whom we disagree on this topic. For we are all seeking to understand better the mysteries of faith with which we have been entrusted (Jude 1.3). (p. 21)

The book contains an appendix of further reading, with entries divided into categories of ‘Introductory’, ‘Intermediate’, and ‘Advanced’.

On the Atonement is available for £3.95 from the Grove Books website (in both print and electronic formats), as well as through Christian bookshops.

Monday, 13 June 2022

My Review of Matt R. Jantzen’s God, Race, and History

My review of Matt R. Jantzen’s God, Race, and History: Liberating Providence is available via International Journal of Systematic Theology here.

A note: Jantzen uses an initial capital for ‘Blackness’ but a lower-case initial for ‘whiteness’. My original submission reflected Jantzen’s practice, but the published version of the review does not. I presume IJST regarded ‘Blackness’/‘whiteness’ as inconsistent typography – these things can and do happen in editing! Anyway, the journal is looking into correcting my review on this score.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Jesus, Providence, and Ideological Colonization

I thought I’d do some reading today; this is what I’ve just read:

When its content is not specifically defined in relationship to the incarnation of the Jewish human being Jesus of Nazareth, the doctrine of providence becomes vulnerable to ideological colonization. Reflection on providence, therefore, must proceed in light of the fact that there is only ever one divine Subject of the doctrine: the particular God revealed in the covenant with Israel and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Providence is not primarily about abstract concepts like omnipotence, sovereignty, or causality, but about how the God who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, became a Jewish human being, and was crucified and resurrected continues to be in an active relationship to creation. Contemporary reflection on the doctrine of providence begins by affirming that God never acts otherwise than God has acted in Israel and Jesus. Theological accounts of providence must fix their vision on the concrete particularity of Jesus Christ.

Matt R. Jantzen, God, Race, and History: Liberating Providence (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2021), pp. 145–146

I agree with everything in this quotation one hundred per cent!

Matt Jantzen’s book is very good. I’ve almost finished it and am due to review it for International Journal of Systematic Theology. Jantzen explores how racialization shapes the doctrine of providence and how the latter informs the former. He looks at G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Barth, and James Cone to do so. The book is on the expensive side – praise the Lord for review copies! – but is definitely worth reading if you can track down a copy. Hopefully a paperback will be out sooner rather than later.