Book Reviews

Review: Girl Meets God


Review of Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life.  By Lauren F. Winner.  Chapel Hill, NC.: Algonquin, 2002.  320 pp.

As we’ve started this series on the Nicene Creed, some of you may be thinking about your own church background (or lack thereof).  In particular, if you come from a less liturgical tradition, you may wonder how less familiar things like the Nicene Creed fit in with your own spiritual life.  And if I’m lucky some of my blog posts have inspired at least a few of you to ponder the Jewish origins of the Christian faith and feel frustrated by the church’s lack of familiarity with its own background!  Well, if any of the above applies to you, how about an author that helps you explore both of these at once?

Lauren Winner is one of my favorite people ever.  She is hard not to like: young, funny, intelligent, and the author of some fabulous books.  One of those books, Girl Meets God, tells her unique story as a Reform Jew who converted to Orthodox Judaism, only to later convert to Christianity.  As an evangelical Episcopalian from a Jewish background, as well a scholar of American religion (who now teaches at Duke Divinity School), Winner possesses unique insights into both religions.

I would say Winner played a formative role in my life in college, as well as the lives of several friends).  Especially for us coming out of conservative evangelical Protestant backgrounds, Winner was a fantastic introduction to many aspects of Judaism, as well as to a more liturgical Christian tradition.

While admittedly, the book is a memoir rather than a systematic explanation of either Jewish-Christian relations or the Anglican tradition, it is still a useful starting point for the curious.  Additionally, it is a fascinating and uplifting book, plain and simple.  Anyone with an interest in young adult journeys in religion should appreciate Winner’s story, and many may even find in her a kindred spirit or a hero of sorts.  I know for me, Winner has become one of my “smart Christian” role models and an example of how one can successfully integrate various spiritual influences into a more robust Christian faith.

Review: Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches


Review of Evangelical Renewal in the Mainline Churches.  Edited By Ronald H. Nash.  Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1987.  174 pp.

One of the most interesting complexities of the evangelical movement is that it cannot be contained—little bits of it are present everywhere. Of course, many evangelicals in the U.S. are members of conservative denominations which originated in this country, many having separated from older mainline churches which were deemed “too liberal.”  I’ve often been intrigued that the conservative split-offs typically see themselves as the only people left who love Jesus.  Based on my own personal experience, I have never been convinced this was true, and lucky for me, Ronald Nash agrees and has edited a fabulous book on the topic.

Nash notes that many in mainline denominations have evangelical-ish beliefs (which he defines as the basic beliefs of historic Christianity, including the deity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the importance of a personal faith, etc.) whether or not they have embraced the evangelical label.  Furthermore, there are discernible movements of self-identified evangelicals within mainline churches.  This book attempts to tell their stories, with chapters by various evangelical leaders outlining the history of renewal efforts within eight different traditions:

The United Methodist Church
The Episcopal Church
The Lutheran Churches (focused on Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA)
American Baptist Churches, U.S.A.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Disciples of Christ
The United Church of Christ
The U.S. Catholic Church

The upside of this book is its ecumenical flavor and its sense of hope about the vitality of mainline denominations.  These leaders are not ones to segregate themselves from those who aren’t like them; instead they want to “work within the system” to encourage an orthodox and vibrant faith within their churches.  The downside of this book is that occasionally a more narrow understanding of evangelical interests is presented.  For example, feminism is often lumped in with evangelicalism’s foes, despite the fact that there are many self-identified evangelical feminists.  While not by any means the focus of the book, such assumptions about evangelicals might be distracting or frustrating to some readers.

Additionally, some might complain that the book is outdated.  Certain important renewal organizations that now exist are not mentioned, and one wonders what each writer’s attitude toward renewal would be today.  Would they be just as optimistic?  Would they have any new concerns?  At the same time, because of its emphasis on the history of renewal efforts, this book offers something substantial that one might not gain from updated accounts focusing on the last twenty years.

All in all, Evangelical Renewal offers a valuable introduction to evangelical strands within mainline denominations, and as such, it is useful reading for evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.  For evangelicals, it offers encouragement and a sense of connection with various renewal efforts, hopefully leading to a more gracious partnership between Christians from diverse backgrounds.  For non-evangelical members of mainline churches, this book provides insight into the concerns of evangelical renewal advocates.  Perhaps non-evangelicals can relate to some of these concerns more than they expected, or perhaps they realize they very thoroughly disagree with them.  Either way, it is always useful to understand those unlike you, making this book a tool for reaching across divides.

Review: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind


Review of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.  By Mark A. Noll.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.  274 pp.

When a blog is meant to explore various intellectual questions about religion, there is no clear place to start—one place is about as good as the next with a topic this broad!  A particularly fitting place, however, might be with a book, and what could be more appropriate than a book about the life of the mind within Christianity?  After all, so many people might question this blog’s very premise.  Most teenagers have trouble getting up in the morning for school—do they really want to learn about theology?  Many would assume they don’t.

Because I was one of those teens who deviated from this stereotype, I was always frustrated by such assumptions.  Perhaps they are true of some high school students, but they weren’t true of me, and they aren’t true of many of you.  In fact, many of you may feel frustrated by the adult Christians you meet who seem much less intelligent than you.  Whether you’re looking at Christianity from the outside or the inside, this can be a humorously annoying experience at best—and a deeply hurtful one at its worst.  It feels unfair that the very adults who discredit your significance on the planet with “You’re just a kid,” often lack much of an intellectual life themselves.

It also may often seem that the stereotype of the anti-intellectual Christian (of any age) is quite true.  This can easily lead to superiority complexes among smart people, as well as bitterness on the part of those who have not felt their intellectual needs were met by their faith communities.  At the same time, these experiences can lead to valuable inquiry regarding the source of this anti-intellectualism.

Obviously anti-intellectualism among the faithful can have many different sources, but in the case of evangelical anti-intellectualism in particular, I was absolutely fascinated by Mark Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind when I first read it as an eighteen-year-old.  According to Noll, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” (3).  As an evangelical professor of Christian history at the University of Notre Dame (previously at Wheaton, an evangelical college near Chicago), Noll has written several books about the American religious experience, often focusing on evangelicalism.  As an expert in the field, as well as an insider to the movement, Noll explains when, why, and how evangelical Christianity in the United States became increasingly anti-intellectual—a story few know so well.   And because Noll is such an excellent writer, it doesn’t matter whether readers have studied revivalism, fundamentalism, or today’s evangelicalism in any great depth.  This was the first book I read relating to church history, but I found it to be an excellent introduction, not only to the problem of anti-intellectualism but also to evangelical history itself.

For anyone who has wondered why evangelicals often seem anti-intellectual or who wants to compare the evangelical experience in this area with that of other Christian traditions, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind will not disappoint.  Readers learn about the current state of evangelical intellectual life, the historic impact of the so-called “intellectual disaster of fundamentalism” on evangelical thought in politics and science, and where evangelicals might go from here.  This book added much to my knowledge of the American religious experience, as well as aiding me personally in better understanding myself and the Christian communities in which I grew up.

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