The fabulous Laura Fabiani of iRead Book Tours contacted me a while back to see if I’d be interested in reviewing a nonfiction book for the blog. It’s been a little while since I reviewed anything, and this one intrigued me. So without further ado . . .
WHERE CHRIST IS PRESENT: A THEOLOGY FOR ALL SEASONS ON THE 500TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE REFORMATION, edited by John Warwick Montgomery & Gene Edward Veith, is not the book I expected it to be. I’ll say right up front that I liked it and thought it was a worthwhile read. Before I get into more detail, though, here’s the book description:
Five hundred years ago, the church of Jesus Christ underwent a Reformation.
A lot happened after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. But the fallout was not simply the start of Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church also recast itself in response to Luther’s call for reforms. And contrary to common belief, Martin Luther did not set out to start a new church. Rather, he was trying to reform the church that already existed by reemphasizing its essence—namely, the “good news” (the gospel) that Jesus forgives and saves sinners.
The unity of the church was broken when the pope rejected this call for reform and excommunicated Luther, starting a chain of events that did lead to the institutional fracturing of Christendom and to a plethora of alternative Christian theologies. But, as many – including conservative Catholics – now admit, the church did in fact need reforming. Today, the church – including its Protestant branches – also needs reforming. Some of the issues in contemporary Christianity are very similar to those in the late Middle Ages, though others are new. But if Luther’s theology can be blamed – however unfairly – for fragmenting Christianity, perhaps today it can help us recover the wholeness of Christianity.
In the hope of that wholeness, Dr. Montgomery and Dr. Veith commissioned these essays celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, gathering some of the best contemporary voices the Lutheran church has to offer.
And we need these voices! The religious climate in the early 21st-century is simultaneously highly religious and highly secularized. It is a time of extraordinary spiritual and theological diversity. This book will propose the kind of Christianity that is best suited for our day. The remedies offered here are available by way of the same theology that was the catalyst for reforming the church five hundred years ago.
From that, I expected commentary on church and culture (with “church” including a broad spectrum of denominations) from a Lutheran perspective. To some degree the book does offer that, but almost as a side effect. Its central purpose is twofold:
1. To explore various aspects of Lutheran theology, especially as contrasted with other theologies abroad in the Christian world, and
2. To convince us all to become Lutherans.
To quote from John Warwick Montgomery’s introduction:
So we start upon a quest for the ideal church home. No one should expect that the search will produce a perfect religious atmosphere; we are imbedded in a sinful world, and perfection must wait for Our Lord’s return . . . but even in our messy world, there is a considerable difference in the quality of ecclesiastical institutions.
He finishes this thought with, “Let’s consider some major examples, ending with the Lutheran option — since we see this as the best solution (or the lesser of evils, if you insist).”
It was this latter emphasis I didn’t expect. The book description led me to believe I would be reading a gift from Lutheranism to the whole church, if you will, not so much an invitation to switch church affiliations.
Expectations aside, how well did the book succeed in its goals?
In the first — exploring Lutheran thought and theology, and in so doing actually GIVING a gift to the whole church — it succeeds admirably. It’s easy for us all to be come entrenched in the thought patterns of our own expression of church and forget that others have wrestled with the great questions before us and sometimes come up with very different answers. So I find it really bracing and helpful to engage with other perspectives. Some of the essays are stronger than others, of course, but this is a solid collection overall.
I found the discussion of sacraments — perhaps the area where the rest of Protestantism most departs from Lutheranism — enlightening, and the discussion of the Lutheran doctrine of vocation, given its own essay but also recurrent throughout the book and applied to all kinds of work including the arts and sciences, really thought-provoking and helpful.
I was also unexpectedly blessed by the book’s emphasis of man’s sinfulness. I know, I know, that doctrine is as old as they come, but Lutherans (at least these Lutherans) are so unapologetic about it as to cast Christ’s sacrifice in the glorious light that should always be seen around it. In my own prayers I’ve been dwelling on “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” aided by some of the thoughts in this book, and I thank the authors for that.
(As a side note, there’s a biographical sketch of J.S. Bach in one essay, exploring his vocation as a musician in light of his Lutheran faith, that is delightful.)
Does the book succeed in its second objective? No, not really, at least not where I’m concerned. Thankfully, the goal of convincing us all to become Lutherans shrinks away to a backstage presence behind the theological and historical discussions of the rest of the book. Where it does come center stage, it does so with an attitude I can only describe as smug — but the smugness is not really earned. I can see this book tipping someone who is already on the edge of joining the Lutheran church, but it’s unlikely to convince anyone who’s not there. While the authors have a strong grasp of their own faith, when they turned to characterize other churches — especially evangelicals — I found that their characterizations fell flat. The book isn’t long, and I don’t feel its survey of theological opinions really engages with the questions real people are asking, or with the teachings of Scripture, at enough depth to sway anyone from one position to another.
That said, for anyone interested in exploring the unique contributions of a man (Luther) and the church he founded, and thus challenging and deepening their own faith and understanding of Christian history, thought, and influence, this is a worthwhile read.