Book Report

Like many of you, I find it necessary during the work year to put on hold many of the books I long to read. But I have just returned from 16 days of vacation spent in a house overlooking the Cabot Trail in northern Nova Scotia. Surrounded by the beauty of nature and family, free from the day-to-day responsibilities, I actually had the time to open some of them.

It is a labor of love for me now to share with you some of what I found.

Topping my list was the Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, now published in a two-volume set by Westminster John Knox Press. The writings of this preacher and social activist belong in the study of anyone who takes the Christian faith seriously.

Few will be surprised by the calls to social justice:

“I cannot imagine God concerned for the poor but unconcerned about how they got that way.”

“People will one day see that in the long run it is cheaper to eliminate poverty than to maintain it.”

“To know God is to do justice.”

Bill Coffin was about more than justice. What he has done for me, throughout my life (I knew him first in college in the 1960’s) has been to make the Christian faith alive and real:

“All I know is that, spiritually speaking, Jesus has raised no end of people from the dead, and I think that to speak spiritually is finally the only significant way of speaking.”

“Easter has less to do with one man’s escape from the grave than with the victory of seemingly powerless love over loveless power.”

“We all belong to one another. That’s the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we are trying to put asunder what God herself has joined together.”

Enjoy these sermons. They will enrich your life.

Two books dealt strictly with policy – on issues relevant to our work at PCG. I recommend one with the intriguing title Regulating Vice by social scientist James Leitzel. As you know, PCG is active in drug policy reform. The so-called War on Drugs is creating an underclass of young, mostly African-American men and women who should not be in prison and face huge obstacles to getting a job when they are released.

I can sympathize with conservative public intellectuals who say, with William Bennett, “The simple fact is that drug use is wrong.” Of course it is, but what if repressive law enforcement does more harm than good? Our nation rejected prohibition for that very reason. Shouldn’t social morality be evidence-based? Leitzel helps us think about such matters across not only drug use, but gambling and prostitution as well.

I found helpful Youth Gangs and Community Intervention, edited by Robert Chaskin. We are besieged by violence in our city. The temptation is to look for simple answers. There aren’t any. But what Chaskin demonstrates through the writings he has edited here is that there are approaches that – taken together – do work. For example, the program CeaseFire has been proven to be successful in combination with other efforts. It should not find its funding to be in jeopardy every year in Illinois.

And finally, a book solely on theology. Last year, Schubert Ogden completed a systematic theology that reflects his life’s work, The Understanding of Christian Faith. He is one of the great theologians of our era. From him we can learn that we do not have to sacrifice our intellect in order to make a commitment to our faith.

Most important for the world today, Ogden makes clear that Jesus illuminates the love of God that is available to all. In one of his sermons, Bill Coffin said much the same thing: “We are not saying that God is confined to Christ, only that God is most essentially defined in Christ.”

Isn’t it time that Christians stopped viewing salvation as other-worldly and available only to us?

It was wonderful to be away. I am eager now to join hands as we resume our work together in the fall.

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