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Book Reviews

The late John Pfitzner was a long-standing member of the  PCNetSA committee. He was also an avid reader, and  regularly contributed book reviews to the PCNetSA newsletter. His contributions to this page will be sorely missed.

A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, Hal Taussig

This exciting and encouraging book is about progressive Christianity in USA, a new and vital form of Christianity that has emerged in the last fifteen years and is growing rapidly. A strength of the movement, according to the author, is that it is a grass-roots phenomenon; it has not been initiated from above by denominational leadership but has developed from below, at the local level. It is not yet widely recognised in society generally, but it is beginning to challenge the perception that right-wing Christianity is the only new development on the contemporary religious landscape. That the book confines itself to the American situation doesn’t in any way lessen its value for or relevance to our situation here in Australia.

The author, who is visiting professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and co-pastor at a progressive congregation, identifies five key characteristics of progressive Christianity: vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, the transgressing of gender boundaries, Christian vitality without an attitude of superiority, and an emphasis on justice and ecology.

According to Taussig, the emphasis on vital spirituality distinguishes progressive Christianity from the spiritual aridness of most of the liberal Christianity of the middle of the last century and has produced new and vibrant forms of worship. These new forms are participatory, combine older liturgical forms with new forms of expression, acknowledge and permit the expression of people’s joys and concerns, make use of a wide range of artistic expression and incorporate practices (eg meditation) from other religious traditions.

The combination of vital spirituality and intellectual integrity (freedom for people to question and to think for themselves) is a key distinguishing feature of progressive Christianity. It is a thoughtful version of faith that also involves spiritual experience and the expression of feelings.

The area where progressive Christianity has come to greatest public attention is in its courageous and groundbreaking stances around sexuality and gender. The rejection of homophobia and the affirmation of equal rights across lines of gender and sexual orientation have been fundamental for progressive Christians and have distinguished them from most other forms of present-day Christianity.

Another striking feature of progressive Christianity is its ability to combine an enthusiasm for Christianity with an increased awareness and appreciation of other religions and an avoidance of any attitude of superiority towards them.

In Part Two the author presents brief profiles of thirty-seven progressive congregations from a diversity of denominations and situations and also examines other progressive groupings and organisations, such as the Centre for Progressive Christianity. In this section he also has a chapter on ‘exiled Christians and their books’, in which he identifies Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change or Die and Borg’s The Heart of Christianity as coming close to manifestos for progressive Christianity.

In Part Three the author critiques the movement and identifies some dangers (eg sectarian arrogance) and weaknesses (eg the lack of inclusiveness because of the absence of people of colour, poor people and working-class people).

In the final section the author examines and makes suggestions about future directions for the movement. He encourages the development of networks and opportunities for progressive Christians to meet together for mutual encouragement and sharing of experiences and materials, but without undermining the grass-roots character of the movement, which is its strength. He also advises that congregations remain for the time being within their respective denominational organisations, in spite of the decline of the mainline denominations, so that their energies do not become dissipated in organisational and bureaucratic activities. This section also includes a list of dos and don’ts for starting a progressive church.

This book is enlightening and encouraging for progressive Christians because it shows that, although they are a minority among Christians at present (and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future), they are part of a dynamic growing movement that is providing a new spiritual home for many disaffected Christians and people who had previously given up on Christianity. The book shows how these new communities of ‘self-confident, spiritual, open-minded, gender-bended, justice-seeking, Earth-loving Christians’ (p 53) are having a positive influence in our world.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner

Paul Was Not a Christian The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle

Pamela Eisenbaum

Someone seeing the title of this book for the first time might be excused for thinking it’s the work of a maverick scholar with a crackpot theory. However, the book is a serious piece of biblical scholarship by a reputable theologian who is at the forefront of a radical re-evaluation of Paul, underway for a couple of decades, that is being called the ‘new perspective’ on Paul. The author acknowledges that she is building on the work of other scholars but sees herself as taking it further.
Pamela Eisenbaum is associate professor of biblical studies and Christian origins at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She is an expert on early Christianity and, as a practising Jew teaching in a Christian seminary, has a unique perspective on the origins of Christianity.
Eisenbaum’s claim, which she argues powerfully and persuasively, is that Paul has been seriously misunderstood throughout most of Christian history. In particular, she maintains that the doctrine of justification by faith, as developed by Augustine and then Luther, and largely accepted by all churches as Paul’s central message and the heart of the Christian gospel, involves a misreading of Paul.
Paul’s so-called conversion experience, Eisenbaum claims, was not a conversion from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity (Christianity as a separate religion didn’t yet exist at that time). She maintains that Paul never repudiated his Jewish identity. Even after his encounter with the risen Christ, he remained a devout Jew. His conversion, Eisenbaum says, is better understood as a call by God to a particular ministry, as an apostle to the Gentiles, similar to the call of the Hebrew prophets.
According to Eisenbaum, a crucial key to understanding Paul is to recognise that in his letters he is addressing Gentile Christians. It is within this context that Paul’s negative statements about the law (Torah) are to be understood. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection were a clear indication that the end-times were near, and this made it urgent that the Gentiles be brought to know the true God (Israel’s God) in order to escape God’s judgment. Previously, the way for Gentiles to be ‘saved’ was for them to become Jewish, that is, to come under the law
(Torah). But at this critical time in history, Paul sees that a new way for Gentiles to come to God has been opened up by the death of Jesus. Just as Jews have had the privilege of being made right with God through Torah, now Gen-tiles have the privilege of being made right with God because of Jesus.
Eisenbaum explains how the phrase traditionally translated ‘faith in Christ’ is more properly translated as the ‘faithfulness of Christ’, a reading being adopted more widely by biblical scholars. It is Christ’s faithfulness to God in going to the cross that opens the way to God for Gentiles, not their faith in Christ.
The book requires concentration from the reader because of the author’s close reading of texts and careful analysis of the evidence. It also requires patience, since the author takes time to build her case. She spends early chapters discussing the nature of Judaism in Paul’s time, refuting the Christian view of it as a ‘religion of works’ and showing that it was not as exclusive and intolerant as Christians assume. Since Paul was a Pharisee, she also examines what is known about Pharisees, showing that they were more flexible in their attitude to the Torah’s requirements than is usually thought.
Readers of this book will find it difficult to view Paul in the same way as before. Most of their fundamental assumptions about him and his message will be challenged. But they will also find a Paul freed of the doctrinal burden that later generations of Christians have put on him, and a Paul who is more recognisable as a person and whose message makes more sense. For progressive Christians in particular, this makes this book exciting.
Readers with an interest in this book might also be interested in The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning by scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar. The book presents new translations (The Scholars Version) of Paul’s letters, together with introductory and explanatory material. It reflects a similar understanding of Paul and his message to that of Eisenbaum.
Reviewer: John Pfitzner (2009, HarperOne. 318 pages)

Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity
Bruce Sanguin

Progressive Christians typically seek a faith that fits with a 21st-century scientific worldview and also tend to have a keen ecological consciousness. Both these concerns are central to this book.

The author, who is a minister of the United Church of Canada in Vancouver, weaves aspects of his own personal story into the dialogue he creates between the story of the universe given by the sciences and the Judeo-Christian narrative of the Bible. For a person who is neither a professional scientist nor an academic theologian he shows an outstanding grasp of essential aspects of present-day cosmology, biology and quantum physics and also current developments in biblical scholarship. The result is a book, written in a lively and lucid way, which challenges us, as human beings, to new ways of seeing our place in the cosmos and, as Christians, new ways of being church in today’s world.

Our present ecological crisis is a motivating influence for Sanguin. He sees this as the pre-eminent challenge for our time, requiring of us, as human beings, that we see ourselves as a connected part of the rest of creation, not separate from it, and that we change from dominating and exploiting the natural world to fitting in with it. He says, “If Jesus was conducting his ministry in today’s world, I believe his circle of concern would include the ecological crisis facing our planet” (p 168).

In the first half of the book (Part 1) Sanguin focuses on creation as a sacred text alongside the other sacred text for us as Christians, the Bible. Acknowledging his indebtedness to Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, he presents readers with a vision of the universe as the product of 14 billion years of evolution and a source of divine wisdom. He says, ‘The story of the universe, the story of evolution, is our story. It is not just happening “out there”‟ (p 123). He guides readers through the eight epochs of the universe’s evolution from the first fraction of a second of the big bang to the creation of heavy elements in exploding supernovas, the emergence of life and, eventually, the birth of consciousness. He presents this as an exciting story that can reawaken a sense of wonder in us and can re-enchant our world.
With this new story of where we have come from and how we are related to the whole of the rest of creation, we need, Sanguin argues, a new way of understanding the divine and how the divine is at work in the evolutionary process. An evolutionary God, Sanguin says, would need to be immanent in the process of evolution, not as a controlling presence but as the cosmic urge to self-transcendence. This God would be the hidden wholeness, the non-coercive intelligence nudging hydrogen and helium molecules to organise into galaxies; galaxies to birth solar systems; and cells to cluster together in formations of increasing elegance, beauty, and diversity. (p 121)
In the second half of the book (Part 2) Sanguin engages with the sacred text of scripture, bringing into dialogue the two sacred narratives: the narrative of nature and the narrative of the Bible. He shows how the great biblical meta-narratives can be read in a cosmic context. He also examines the teachings of Jesus from an ecological perspective.

Towards the end of the book, Sanguin examines at some length the biblical concept of Sophia (Wisdom) as the means of God’s creative activity in the world and shows how the early Christians linked the Sophia concept with Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we Christians need to be in tune with the divine wisdom hidden deep within the created world and in Christ.

In the book’s final chapter, Sanguin suggests various disciplines for Christians to practise in order to counter the false ideologies of today’s world (eg domination, consumerism) and to act in ways that show respect and care for our planet.
Sanguin says:

We have at our disposal a new under-standing of the universe, but we operate out of an old one. The work of integrating this new story represents a fundamental challenge to our theological and liturgical models. (pp 28–9)

In this book he himself has made an engaging and stimulating start towards meeting this challenge.

Reviewer: John Pfitzner
(paperback, 288 pages)