Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 40: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Handful of Dust takes its title from the ominous words of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Evelyn Waugh writes dialogue in a way that is easy to read, and the story’s pace and tone is light as it mocks the collapsing of the world of Tony Dust, and by extension many others who saw their way of life under threat by the changing cultural winds that occurred between the two World Wars in England. Tony Last loves his home, his wife, and his son and is very satisfied with their life on the gothic designed estate of Hetton. It is a world of attending church, watching his son ride horses, participating in social clubs, and managing the affairs of the estate. Yet, after seven years of marriage his wife, Brenda, becomes bored with this life and embarks on a path which brings unravels everything. She decides to begin an affair with a London man of limited ambition and interest named John Beaver. John, who still lives with his mother and has no regular responsibilities, is viewed by many in society as a bore with little prospects but Brenda’s presence invites him into many new places in London society.  Brenda conspires with John’s mother to purchase a flat in London, so that she may stay there for extended periods under the guise of studying economics while she engages in an open affair in London while her husband stays generally supportive of her and unaware in Hetton. Everything unravels when Tony and Brenda’s son is killed in an accident while he is out on a hunt with his father. Brenda asks for a divorce and Tony, humiliated but still the honorable English man attempts to grant her that. When Brenda and her lawyers make increasingly large demands, demands that would require the sale of the Hetton estate, Tony departs on an expedition to the unexplored regions of South America and never returns.

Evelyn Waugh writes well, and I can understand why this book is on the top 100 list. Like Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, this is set in a time period and world that I don’t find greatly appealing and even though both works are dealing with the unraveling of that world they are not things I would seek out to read. With A Handful of Dust, I identified strongly with Tony Last and for personal reasons I really disliked Brenda’s shallow and careless actions which destroyed not only her marriage but the entire world of her husband. In my own story, I have been the husband whose wife embarked on an affair with a person who others looked upon as awkward and boorish. I was the last to know what was going on, and had several people come to me after the revelation and disclose that they had known but were afraid to say anything. Even though I may not have chosen to live in Tony Last’s world, I could empathize with the trauma he must have endured as it quickly is taken away from him and he finds himself in unfamiliar territory still attempting to be the person he once was. All reviews of any work of fiction are subjective, and although the work unearthed some painful memories for me, and it is not a genre or a time period that I find compelling it is well written and I can understand why many people enjoy its mocking of the collapse of this stilted and formal world. These brief reflections are, for me, a way of consolidating my thoughts after engaging with each work.

Reflection on A Death in the Family by James Agee

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 28: A Death in the Family by James Agee

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Death in the Family takes place in a couple days in the summer of 1915 mainly in Knoxville, Tennessee and the surrounding areas. Reading the book is a little disjointed since it brings together an unfinished manuscript after the author’s death and there are portions in the Penguin Classic edition, which I used, which are in italics to indicate that they may not be where the author intended in the manuscript. The story is about a family’s ordeal in the couple of days around the father’s sudden death in an accident. The book jumps between perspectives of the wife, the son, the daughter and other members of the family and touches on differences in religious practices and beliefs, the disfunction that can exist in extended families, and the impact and importance of the family as they move through grief.

As a pastor, I walk into this space pretty frequently and the author does a good job in describing many of the dynamics you may encounter. I, along with most of the characters in the book, dislike the priest in his rigid and cold way of approaching people in their grief but I have encountered people in religious roles who do more harm than good. The book speaks to the life in a town from the past and there are certain aspects that are both appealing and off putting about the description of life in Knoxville (particularly from the perspective of Rufus, the son) and some of the expectations of individuals based on gender and place in the family have changed since the 1910s, but much of the experience of sudden and intense grief would be recognizable for any time. Reading about a death in a family may not be an enjoyable experience, but the author does a good job of describing the difficult job of dealing with the aftermath of a world changing loss in the family.

Reflections on the Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 74: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Power and the Glory is set an unnamed state where the persecution of the church is similar to the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s. The governor of the state attempting to eliminate the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in his state by either eliminating the priests, closing the churches, eliminating alcohol, and punishing those who aid or hide clerics. The main character is a priest who has been traveling around the province conducting services for the past eight years and is the only non-married and still practicing priest remaining. His antagonist is a police lieutenant who zealously believes in the reforms of the government and spends the book chasing this final priest through the villages and countryside, eventually taking hostages in each village to deny the priest places he can return to.

The priest, who remains unnamed throughout the story, is also dealing with his own broken past where he as a ‘whisky priest’ had numerous sins which he could not confess to anyone: a daughter he had fathered in one of the villages he served, a fondness for alcohol, and his own questions about the church and the pious. Yet, even though the priest does not have a pristine past, he continues to attempt to carry out his ministry and even in the end knowingly walks into a trap to hear the confession of a murder. The lieutenant who has tracked him zealously and has an avid hatred of the church finds he can no longer hate the priest once he is captured and they speak. The book ends on a defiant note with the priest’s death, but in the aftermath another priest appears in town. The church and the priesthood somehow endured.

The land and the crippling poverty that many of the people face become characters in the book. The descriptions of the land with its heat, mosquitos, and beetles and the poverty of most of the villagers in the book make the environment appear almost hellish. The loss of the church has not alleviated the suffering of the people and in the minds of many of the characters it has made things worse. The church is not depicted as perfect nor and the priest has some of his harshest thoughts for the pious of the church. Yet, many people desire the services of the priest even in the midst of the danger until they begin taking and executing hostages from the villages to attempt to capture the priest.

The environment of the book and the slow pace of the priest’s movement from town to town gives the story a bit of an arid feel. It is hard to love the land as it is described, but it does evoke compassion for the people who live in this harsh place. The lieutenant is not an evil man, nor is the priest a saint and I found myself wishing both characters could find themselves in a different story.

Reflections on The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 26: Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

The Day of the Locust is a book that mocks the perfidious nature of Los Angeles in the 1930s. There is something in the tone of this book that reminds me of the writing of Flannery O’Connor: the ugliness of the characters and the desire to illustrate the worst characterization of reality. I can see why people enjoy this work, but it is not something I would choose to read. There is something almost postmodern in the work’s desire to choose the absurd as a focus of art, the medium is used to mock the message. Perhaps it is appropriate that throughout the book the primary narrator is working on a painting called “The Burning of Los Angeles.”

Tod, the primary character in the book, spends much of the book lusting over his neighbor Faye, but his primary desire throughout the book is to rape her, not to cultivate a relationship with her. Tod, like the author apparently, is bent on exposing her as a representative of all that is fake in Hollywood, along with her multiple relationships and some of the absurd situations. The orientation of Tod towards Faye, which continues throughout the book, was a major deterrent from being able to enjoy the work. Each character is a crude stereotype of various groups, and while this may be faithful to the way people in the 1930s viewed other groups, and perhaps it is to shine a light on this part of society, to read this book for me was to enter into characters that I couldn’t find anything redemptive in a slow-moving plot full of absurdity. It is a story of people caught in their ideas of themselves and never finding anything real, but the book itself seemed very contrived and fake to me. Others have found this work very powerful and delightful, so please make your own decisions, these brief reflections are merely a collection of my thoughts on each work.

Review of Reading With The Grain of Scripture by Richard B. Hays

READING WITH THE GRAIN OF SCRIPTURE, by Richard B. Hays. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020. 467pp. $55.00

Richard B. Hays is a phenomenal interpreter of scriptures and a provocative thinker whose writing and teaching over the past thirty-five years demonstrate a deep passion for a close and careful reading of scripture. Professor Hays’ writing has broken new ground and unearthed often overlooked treasures for decades and his persistent and careful work has helped reshape the discipline of biblical studies. This collection of essays which span a wide range of topics from the past twenty-five years of his writing and speaking, collected after his retirement from Duke Divinity School, reflect the efforts of the author who in his own words has:

“For the past forty years I have been seeking to learn how to read closely and faithfully the testimonies of the early authors who wrote about these world-shaking events. The essays gathered here are the fruit of my effort to listen carefully to their testimony-bearing texts.” (2)

The collection covers topics including: interpretation of scripture, dialogues between Hays’ canonical approach to Jesus and the quest for the historical Jesus, the writings of the apostle Paul and their theological importance to our faith, and how the New Testament might shape the theology of its hearers. Hays lists six unifying themes among the diverse articles which make up the collection:

  1. The importance of narrative as the “glue” that holds the Bible together.
  2. The retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old Testament and the New.
  3. The centrality of the resurrection of Jesus.
  4. The hope for new creation and God’s eschatological transformation of the world.
  5. The importance of standing in trust and humility before the text.
  6. The importance of reading Scripture within and for the community of faith: the ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. (3)

Richard B. Hays’ career began looking at the apostle Paul’s writing through both a narrative and as an interpreter of Israel’s scriptures. His classic works The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 and Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul began his career of illuminating the importance of narrative and refining his retrospectively discerned figural coherence between the Old and New Testament. For those who have followed Hay’s writing through the years, many familiar themes will emerge in these essays on interpretation including the narrative and figural coherence mentioned above as well as the importance of reading from the perspective of faith using what Hays’ has coined a “hermeneutic of trust” and the centrality of the resurrection for understanding the scriptures.

Hays’ essays in the historical Jesus engage a diverse set of dialogue partners, from the Jesus Seminar to Joseph Ratzinger and N.T. Wright and concludes with his own modest sketch of what can be known about Jesus of Nazareth. Hays evaluation of the Jesus presented by the Jesus Seminar is summarized when he states:

Does the passive, politically correct, laconic sage who speaks in the red type of The Five Gospels have the capacity to remake our imaginative world and provde a new fiction within which millions might find meaning for their lives? Surely not. (102)

While Hays’ views their method of this entrepreneurial scholarship which provides easy sound bites is decidedly negative and their arrival at a non-Jewish Jesus is “one particularly pernicious side effect of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology.” (99) His response to N. T. Wright is far more favorable as they have been dialogue partners in New Testament scholarship for decades, but even in a paper where he appreciatively but critically engages the work of N. T. Wright he can bring his critical insights to refine and improve the work of his colleague and friend. His engagement with Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth can demonstrate both respect for the author and his perspective while pointing out that most of Ratzinger’s dialogue partners are scholars of a previous generation and that much of New Testament scholarship has revised its methods and opinions as well as highlighting Ratzinger’s “pervasive tendency to treat the texts as transparent to the historical facts about Jesus.” (128) Hays’ conclusion of this section with his own modest proposal on what can be known about Jesus illustrates his careful approach which seeks coherence with first century Judaism, some relation of continuity with the church that would come after Jesus, a narrative that can explain both the emergence of the church as well as the crucifixion and which aims to include within its description of the canonical gospels including, as much as possible, John’s gospel.

Continuing his long career engaging with Paul’s writings continues with essays delivered at various times dealing with major topics of Christology, Soteriology, Pneumatology, Israel as well as his engagement with Stanley Stower’s A Rereading of Romans and engaging the relationship between the Pauline letters and Acts. Hays’ essay on Paul’s Christology is constructed around narrative identity of Jesus presented in the letters of Paul from Christ’s preexisting glory to his cruciform abasement, transformative exaltation and finally will conclude with Christ’s eschatological consummation. Hays’ brief examination of Paul’s narrative soteriology focuses on two texts: 1 Corinthians 15:1-28 and Romans 5:6-11 in response to Francis Watson claim the Paul’s is essentially a non-narratable vertical incursion of God’s grace. (178) The essay on the apocalyptic reviews themes in Galatians which highlight Paul’s insistence on divine initiative to bring about the conclusion of the present evil age and the genesis of the new creation. Hays returns to Romans to examine how Paul envisions the Spirit of God which gives life, leads God’s adopted children and groans and intercedes for us. His dialogue with Stanley Stowers Rereading of Romans and N.T. Wright’s reading of Romans 11: 25-27 in Paul and the Faithfulness of God to argue that Paul’s gospel is for both the Jewish people and the Gentiles. The final article in this section demonstrates some overlaps between Luke and Paul in explicit citations of the Old Testament to begin seeking an intertextual common ground of theological themes and convictions shared by Paul and Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s gospel in Acts.

The final section on New Testament theology brings together a diverse set of articles dealing with the portrayal of Jesus in the book of Revelation, examination on the idea of covenant in the book of Hebrews, and engagement with the Rudolf Bultmann’s reduction of Pauline theology to anthropology in his classic Theology of the New Testament, a lecture on what Christian theology could offer the world of law, an essay examining the Holy Spirit in light of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the Nicene Creed, and an essay which examines various perspectives on eschatology to discern how Christians may continue to engage the in light of the eschatological witness of the New Testament. The conclusion lifts up Hays’ recommended hermeneutic of trust, rather than the dominant hermeneutic of suspicion that is prevalent in biblical studies.

This collection of essays is a gift to the broader church after years of labor. I have read everything I could find of Professor Hays for the past sixteen years of my ministry and every piece is tightly written and brings new insights into whatever text or topic he presents. If you have followed Richard B. Hays work this work will bring forward both familiar themes and engagement with topics that may not have figured as strongly in his other works. For those unfamiliar with Hays’ work these essays could form an entryway into the major themes of his thought and writing. Like all of his previous works it will force you to think critically and enrich your appreciation of the treasures, new and old, that can be brought out by a faithful student of the scriptures.

Reflections on A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement by Anthony Powell (1951, 1952, 1955)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 25: Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: 1st Movement (1951, 1952, 1955)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

A Dance to the Music of Time is a massive twelve-part reflection on the social life of the wealthier class of citizens in England between the first and second world wars, the first movement contains the first three of these novels: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World. Many people have found Anthony Powell’s work both entertaining and compelling, and I can understand why it was a part of the Time magazine list, yet these first three novels were an incredibly slow read for me. In fairness this is not a time period or a genre I normally find compelling.

The protagonist and narrator, Nicholas, is a part of the portion of English society that has access to travel, college, and some amount of wealth and it portrays the overlapping social circles he encounters in education, art, and society. His perspective points out the vanity and formality of a society that is unraveling and while the book can look at many of the interactions (and rejections) within this society in a humorous light, Nicholas still tries to live in this nexus of the business and art world. The portrayal of the world that Nicholas encounters seems a dry and while the various characters may navigate it with different degrees of success there is very little joy in the characters. I’m guessing that the remaining volumes continue to observe the unravelling of the society and morals of the previous Victorian and Edwardian Ages in this Interwar period of economic, political, and societal upheaval but the first movement was enough for me. Again, others have found this work incredible powerful so please make your own judgments, these brief reflections are merely my consolidation of my thoughts on each work.

Reflection on C. S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 50: C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

If you have read Lev Grossman’s the Magicians, it should clear of the influence of the Chronicles of Narnia on his writing since Narnia is slightly modified to become Fillory in his trilogy. I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child and have read it multiple times both as a child and as an adult. Although it is a children’s story and can be read, on one level, as a simple fairy tale where four children find themselves in a magical world that they enter through a wardrobe, it also has moments of real profundity.

Since I own the Chronicles of Narnia I plan to add a brief reflection on each volume as I complete it:

The Magician’s Nephew:

Although it may be the sixth book written in the series, it is the beginning of the Narnia narrative. This is a creation story for Narnia and explains the origins of several features of the world and the entrance of the witch into Narnia. I listened to the audio version with Kenneth Branagh which is very well done. This is a well-done prequel to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This story of a magical world and a conflict between good and evil also in a fable like manner touches in an allegorical way (whether C. S. Lewis intended or not) on many themes of Christianity, which C.S. Lewis also writes about explicitly in many of his other works. Even after many reads it is still an enjoyable story with many great images which I have been able to pull from at various times.

The Horse and His Boy

This story expands the world beyond Narnia by introducing the kingdom of Calormen. The Calormen are obviously based on Middle Eastern stereotypes, but setting aside the derogatory view of other cultures which are characteristic of Lewis’ time, the basic story of a talking horse from Narnia and a boy who are quickly joined by another talking horse and noble born young woman in their flight to freedom in Narnia. A simple but enjoyable story if you can set aside the stereotypes.

Prince Caspian

The fourth novel in the timeline of Narnia (2nd written) occurs in a time well after the time of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Narnia is now ruled by the Telmarines, a group that invaded Narnia and has tried to eliminate the stories of Narnia. Prince Caspian, nephew of the current king, summons Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy back to Narnia as he struggles with the ‘old Narnians’ to end the Telmarine rule. This also is a simple but enjoyable short story where good triumphs in the end.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Fifth novel in the timeline of Narnia which occurs a couple years later in King Caspian’s reign where he sets out on a voyage to find seven friends of his father that were sent east as a punishment during the time preceding Prince Caspian. Edmond, Lucy and their relative Eustace are brought into Narnia for the voyage. I found some parts of the story directed towards younger children (like the Monopods) but overall an enjoyable voyage.

The Silver Chair

The penultimate novel in the timeline of Narnia now has Eustace and a girl from his school, Jill Pole arrive in Narnia once King Caspian is an old man. This was my least favorite of the chronicles so far, partially because neither Eustace or Jill are particularly likeable characters for much of the book. There is also an element where C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the secular direction of schooling and culture becomes very pointed in this work in an almost petulant manner. There are elements in the story where the dialogue involves C.S. Lewis’ characters knocking down ‘straw-man’ arguments. There are some very imaginative features of this walk through Narnia and the Under world but the story didn’t seem as imaginative or mythical as the other volumes.

The Final Battle

It starts out a little slow, but this is a fitting end to the series. The deception of the people of Narnia by an ape and an unwitting donkey dressed up as Aslan sets the stage for a final scene where characters from all the books are reunited in a final ending of the world of Narnia and the stories.

Reflection on Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels
Book 7: Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret (1970)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

I had read several of Judy Blume’s books as a child and read several of her books, particularly the Fudge Books and Pickle Juice to my own children when they were younger. I had never read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret prior to this, but I remember seeing it as assigned reading for some of the gifted and talented classes when I was in middle school. I knew it was a coming of age story of a young girl but was surprised that a story for a younger audience was on the list.

It is a very quick read and Judy Blume does a great job introducing you to the world of a preteen girl named Margaret, the social network of girls and schools she is transplanted into, a complex family narrative which is revealed as the book progresses, and the struggle for identity in the midst of competing forces. For its simplicity there are some deep themes that underlie Margaret’s story, particularly in attempting to define who she is in relation to her friends and classmates and in religion. Margaret’s parents move her immediately before sixth grade from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey. Her father continues to commute into the city to work while her mother stays home, which is reflective of the society of the late 1960s, early 1970s white suburbia where the story takes place. Margaret is quickly brought into a circle of girls who become important in her quest for belonging in this new environment but who also set boundaries around who is acceptable to be friends with and who is not. Margaret never fully ‘fits in’ with this group of girls and one of the differences is that she does not belong to either a church or synagogue due to friction in her family between her parents and her grandparents. Margaret’s father, who grew up Jewish, and Margaret’s mother, who grew up Christian want her to choose a religion for herself when she grows up, but this is a source of struggle for Margaret as she seeks exposure to both worlds. As the story continues it reveals both the continuing wound that both parents have with Margaret’s grandparents and the way this continues to impact their relationship with their children, their spouses, and their grandchild.

I enjoyed the book, it is designed for younger readers but it also addresses some important questions of identity, of discerning what is true and navigating peer relationships, attempting to find a place for one’s relationship with God amid different religious options and pressure from family and friends. It is a coming of age book for girls and so questions of body image and early curiosity about sexuality are present and form the background of issues of jealousy and exclusion.

Perspectives from the Past-Reflections from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Writings in 1932-33

One of the gifts of reading more deeply into the lives and experiences of people in the past is the perspectives they can give us into our own time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the critical time leading up to and including the Second World War in Germany. In his collected works we can see not only the evolution of a thinker but we can also read in his letter, preaching and teaching the impact of the events on his teaching and thought. For example, in the critical time of 1932-33 (represented by DBWE 12) we see Bonhoeffer struggling with the Aryan paragraph and how the church can respond (especially in the context of a state church). While Bonhoeffer would consider this statu confessionis (an item that if adopted the church ceases to be the church) many of his colleagues, even in the Confessing Church, would not agree. Perhaps two of his most telling quotes come out of this time. First from his Christology lectures:

There are thus three possibilities for action that the church can take vis-à-vis the state: first (as we have said), questioning the state as to the legitimate state character of its actions, that is making the state responsible for what it does. Second is service to the victims of the state’s actions. The church has an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any social order, even if they do not belong to the Christian community…The third possibility is not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself. (DBWE 12:365)

And the second from immediately before the Reichstag elections where the Nazi party would emerge as the strongest party preaching on the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2:

The church is doing a tremendous amount, very seriously and even sacrificially. But we are all doing so many things that come second, third, and fourth; the church is not doing the works it did at first. And that is precisely why it is not doing what is crucial. We celebrate; we attend the events where we should be seen; we try to be influential; we set up a so-called Protestant movement; we do Protestant youth work; we provide social services and care for people; and we have anti-godless propaganda—but are we doing the very first works, the one that epitomized what we are all about? Do we love God and our neighbor with that first, passionate, burning love that is willing to risk everything except God? (DBWE 12:444-445)


Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, is one of several Luther biographies I have on my shelf and it is a classic work, even if it is a little dry to read. I want to focus in on an insight from one of the last chapters called ‘The Struggle for Faith’ in most of what I write below but first I’m going to indulge a bit of nostalgia since this was also the first book on Luther’s life that I read many, many years ago while I was in middle school. I remember giving a presentation, it was required that we do a biography on a historical figure, and since I knew very little about this person so important they named the denomination I grew up in (and continue to be a part of) I remember finding this book and choosing it from the library. I also remember my verdict on the book, it was boring (to a middle schooler much of the impact of the theological debates was lost). Still over three decades later I find myself once again returning to this classic bio of Luther and finding a new insight from it.

Anfechtung, the spiritual struggle that Luther endured throughout his life which included both elements of depression and self-doubt combined with a struggle for faith, was a continual if frequently unwanted partner in Luther’s life. Luther’s struggle to find a gracious God would provide strength and hope for many people but it also came at a high cost for Luther. Luther’s impact and talent were prodigious and he became an inspirational figure of faith for countless people and yet in his personal life he was in a continual struggle for faith. He proclaimed that God was always good and yet he struggled to accept this gospel for himself. He until the very end felt unworthy of the grace he proclaimed. A quote from Luther and then Bainton that I found helpful:


If I live longer, I would like to write a book about Anfechtungen, for without them no man can understand Scripture, faith, the fear or the love of God. He does not know the meaning of hope who has never been subjected to temptations. David must have been plagued by a very fearful devil. He could not have had such profound insights if he had not experience great assaults. (Luther)


Luther verged on saying that an excessive emotional sensitivity is a mode of revelation. Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid. (Bainton, 283)


I have sometimes admired those for whom faith is simple, who seem to be unquestioning in their trust but that is not my experience of faith. I have often questioned my own struggles of faith, depression and have occassionally viewed them as crippling to my ministry. Yet, perhaps what may be an excessive emotional sensitivity may also be a critical part of my hermeneutical insight, my pastoral presence and my preaching’s relevance. Perhaps it is the vulnerability that allows questions and doubt that allows grace to enter in through my own weakness. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the Lutheran theological tradition resonate with me even today.