Sunday, May 6, 2012

As an English teacher, I can let no opportunity pass to share a good book recommendation with you all. So, it's that time again: book reviews!

This has been the "Spring of the Non-Fiction Book". A few months ago, I decided that I didn't really want to read Orson Scott Card for a third time and picked up Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven instead. I have tackled three non-fiction books since then, each one exploring a different aspect (and danger) of religion in society. Each of these three books is reviewed for you in this post.

Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer
In this book, Krakauer blends an exploration of Mormon Fundamentalism with the early history of the Mormon church. The result is a work that depicts the dangers of the fiercely independent brand of faith that has sprung up in America - an individualized faith often divided from tradition, and sometimes, from any real system of accountability.

Banner begins with an almost clinical description of a 1984 double murder, inspired when two Mormon Fundamentalist men acted on a "word from God" to kill those who opposed their religious excesses. He then details additional crimes inspired by faith, including the polygamist colonies of northern Arizona, their sister colonies in southern Idaho, and even the recent kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. As story piles on story, Krakauer impresses readers with the lengths to which believers can go when they follow what they believe to be the voice of God.

Having described this behaviour, Krakauer traces its origin to Joseph Smith: at first a con artist and a dabbler in black magic, later the father of the Mormon church. Although Smith's "plural marriages" to the young women of the community are described, the book stresses Smith's belief that he and other Mormons heard directly from God and that any action which promoted the welfare of the church was permissible. It was this belief that gave birth to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in the 1800s, and it was this belief that gave birth to the abuses and murders described at the beginning of the book, each done in the name of God.

Krakauer is not a believer, so his writing must be taken with a grain of salt. Even for believing readers, however, Krakauer's work has great value. Above all, the work underscores the importance of accountability. Each believer is, of course, able to "approach God's throne of grace" individually as a priest. As the Old Testament priests followed specific guidelines for worship and for daily living, so we too should follow appropriate boundaries in order to avoid abusing our faith like the believers that Krakauer describes.

It is this, perhaps, that is the most unnerving lesson we take away from Banner: As each extremist Krakauer described started off as a normal, devoted worshiper, so we too, who consider ourselves 'normal', are not protected by our religion from doing equally awful things. It is not only Mormons who have their extremist sects; Christians too profit financially from their religion, conceal sexual or physical abuse in the name of their religion, and secure political power from their religion. Reading Banner, then, is a good reminder that we who believe are not immune to committing horrors in the name of our God, and to take action to prevent such horrors.

A Word to the Wise: Krakauer includes some language. Also, he describes various criminal activities (including murder and sexual abuse) in a detached way analogous to In Cold Blood. Sensitive people should avoid this book and read the other two on my list instead.

Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith

Emerson and Smith argue in this book that evangelical practices contribute to racial tension in America, instead of ending such tension which is the original and stated goal of evangelicals. The book opens with a description of the contrast between white evangelical and black evangelical attitudes towards race. The authors attribute this difference to what they call a "cultural toolbox": a set of assumptions that govern our interpretation of a particular cultural situation. Evangelicals, the authors point out, believe strongly in individual free will and accountability; therefore, they interpret the culture around them in terms of individual free will and accountability, even when such "tools" do not depict the situation accurately. For instance, the authors point out that white evangelicals are likely to attribute the lesser accomplishments within black circles to an individual lack of motivation or black culture in general, which is not always accurate or even fair to black Christians.

To this analysis, the authors add a general description of how church operates in America. First, they point out that the church operates according to entrepreneurial patterns. In America at least, believers attend a church that they choose themselves, usually because they perceive that church to fit their needs best. In order to thrive, therefore, individual churches recreate themselves to appeal to a "niche" market; churches that do not appeal to a "niche" market will not thrive, because people can go elsewhere to have their specific needs met. Thus, racially-integrated churches which appeal both to black and to white culture are unlikely to thrive, as examples in fact prove.

As a believer himself, Emerson serves up a healthy dish of "food for thought" for his fellow believers. Although politically conservative believers may not agree with his solutions, Emerson at least challenges them to rethink their attitude towards race and their participation in church. As someone who grew up in a socially-conservative household, I feel that his reminder that a racialized society does exist, that it is not a thing of the past, a good reminder and challenge for modern evangelicals. I know my students were challenged this semester, as I studied diversity with them, to avoid labeling the poor black community as "unmotivated" and to appreciate the social challenges that faced them.

More personally, I found it "convicting" (to use evangelical parlance) to read, and see exemplified in my experience and that of my friends, how often believers do go to church to have their needs met, rather than as a way to reach out to those around us. In fact, this is part of the reason that I even teach diversity to my students: I want them, as believers, not only to adhere to certain doctrinal principles but also to take action on their faith and care for the needy, as Christ himself taught.

Cautions: Nothing offensive. Emerson is a professor at Rice University, so sometimes the book is a tad academic. But he manages to avoid the deep charts and complex language of the ivory tower and appeal to the popular reader as well.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll
I haven't finished this book yet, so this review will be briefest (Shhh! No cheering!). Noll argues that, in spite of the doctrinal strengths of the evangelical church, they retreat from culture instead of contributing to it. As one example (out of many he gives), he offers their overwhelming interest in End Times theology as opposed to understanding the situation of the Middle East and figuring out, from a Christian perspective, how to live now in this world. Noll spends the first third of his book, which is the part I've finished, tracing the origin of the atrophied evangelical mind. Beginning with the Revolution, he points out that believers argued that their doctrine was simply "common sense". Although this argument worked okay when most people were Christian by default, the secular attack after the Civil War caused the church to retreat from public culture, still assuming that belief was "common sense" but unable to defend it in the face of articulate and rational non-believers. He then turns his attention to the rise of fundamentalism in the early 1900s. Noll applauds the fundamentalist groups (like other scholars, he includes the Keswick movement, Pentacostal practices, and dispensationalism in this category) for their attention to doctrine and personal holiness. At the same time, he faults them for contributing to the anti-intellectual preferences. In part, he attributes this to the fundamentalist tendency to stress the eternal at the expense of the now; in part, to the literal fundamentalist hermeneutic. He then proceeds to explore the effects of anti-intellectualism in politics and science.

I have read reviews of Noll's work online, and so I know that as I go on, I will not agree with everything that he says about the evangelical church (still being an evangelical myself). That doesn't mean Noll is worthless, however. In fact, what I have learned from reading Noll has been similar to what I have learned from reading Krakauer. Under the Banner of Heaven is a warning against unchecked spiritual independence; Scandal of the Evangelical Mind; a check against that spiritual independence. Noll's detailed history of the evangelical mind reminds us that the ideas and doctrines we hold today do not come to us directly inspired from God, as we sometimes imagine from our limited perspective of seventy years. Instead, our ideas, however valuable and accurate as they are, are in fact our ideas: human interpretations of Scripture and tradition passed down over the last two hundred, and the last two thousand, years. This does not mean out entire faith is incorrect. Noll, like Emerson, is an evangelical himself and does not try to undermine the faith. All this means is that our understanding of our faith is sometimes faulty and should be held flexibly. And, most of all, we should seek to learn and grow in our faith and in our understanding of this world as much as possible.

Cautions: No cautions. Noll is an academic and his history gets a little long at times, but there's nothing offensive here either.

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