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BOOK REVIEW

A Prime Example of Diverse Beliefs Among Christians

THE BEST CHRISTIAN WRITING 2000: Edited by John Wilson; HarperSan Francisco; $15 paper, 340 pages

September 09, 2000|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the preface to the inaugural volume of "The Best Christian Writing," series editor John Wilson states that the book's debut in the year 2000 is fitting because "roughly 2,000 years have passed since the birth of a Jewish boy, Yeshua (or Jesus)." One is thus prepared for a kind of state-of-the-religious-union address in which Wilson, editor of Christianity Today, will use the diversified perspectives of the authors he's gathered to answer the question implicit in such a collection: Where, exactly, is Christianity as it celebrates its 2,000th anniversary?

It's a question that deserves attention. We're living in a post-absolutist age, when information held as reliable a decade or even a year ago is being disproved by the increasingly far reach of science and technology, and when such things as genetic engineering and improved cultural understanding are changing the ways we think of ourselves, our world, the nature of humanity and each other.

Even the Bible itself, once regarded as a single book containing a unified body of teaching, has come, as Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests, to be seen "not as God's one book, but as an anthology of 66 human books . . . along with the traces of fumbling editorial efforts to blend these anthologies together." How could these changes not affect our view of religion, Christianity and God at a time when, according to essayist Randall Balmer, "belief itself is an act of defiance"?

It's not altogether surprising then that, instead of a cohesive statement of religious progress, this volume presents a small sampling of the various ways Christianity is viewed by its many and disparate adherents. The bottom line, if one could hazard such a pronouncement from this grouping, might be that Christianity is as steeped in diversity of belief (and in the varied expressions of that belief) as in the days of the first Christians.

This variety of conviction is demonstrated not only in the book's amalgam of subject matter, but also in the mixture of writing styles and presentation. There are straightforward personal narratives that serve as literary witness to the authors' convictions, sermons from ministers reminiscent of fire-and-brimstone homilies, lectures from academicians looking into heady questions of moral agency and moral progress in the light of Kant, Augustine, Plato, Socrates and others, along with simple reflections on the beauty of stained glass.

The authors write from Protestant, Catholic and other Christian perspectives, ranging from highly educated viewpoints to those of average believers.

There's "Good Shabbess," by Lauren F. Winner, for example, a touching account of a woman's conversion from Judaism to Christianity, and "Jesus the Logician," by Dallas Willard, a professor of philosophy at USC, which presents an incisive look into Jesus' exceptional use of logic and our failure to appreciate that aspect of his ministry. According to Willard, we don't view Jesus as analytical because we tend to believe that "knowledge is human, while [Jesus] was divine." There are essays that bemoan the current moral state of affairs and others that celebrate our uniquely American-Christian heritage. In other words, the book is a grab bag of sorts, covering as many perspectives as it omits.

The most compelling essay in the collection and one of the few to come from a wholly secular publication is Harvey Cox's "The Market as God," originally published in Atlantic Monthly. In it, Cox, a lifelong religion scholar, recounts his attempts to learn about the "real world" by studying the business pages.

"Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of deja vu," Cox writes of the experience. "The lexicon of the Wall Street Journal and the business section of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and St. Augustine's 'City of God.' Behind the descriptions of market reforms . . . I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history."

With crisp, clear-eyed writing, Cox develops a "business theology," demonstrating how market forces have been raised to the level of religion, and delineating the comprehensiveness of this theology with its "sacraments to convey salvific power to the lost, a calendar of entrepreneurial saints and what theologists call an 'eschatology'--a teaching about the 'end of history.' " Cox reveals, embedded in the business page, "an entire theology, which is comparable in scope, if not profundity, to that of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth."

It's in this kind of essay, where the level of inquiry is penetrating and the execution is lucid and fresh, that the title "Best Christian Writing" genuinely applies. However, as a result of the editor's decision to arrange the pieces alphabetically rather than by subject matter or style, and the unwieldy scope of the viewpoints presented, the collection is uneven, skipping around in tone, content and literary worth. The overall effect is one of disjointedness that, in itself, may be an apt metaphor for the state of Christianity in 2000.

*

Bernadette Murphy is a critic and fiction writer, now completing "Venice Street," a novel.

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