Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Short stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine

Posted on: March 16th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Sure, Jesus Was Son of God. But How Was His Fiction?

Amy-Jill Levine Makes Contribution to Jewish New Testament Lit


By Jerome A. Chanes

Published March 13, 2015, issue of The Jewish Daily Forward,  March 13, 2015.

● Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi
By Amy-Jill Levine
HarperOne, 320 pages, $25.99

When we were children, many of us (especially those of us in yeshivot) were taught to abominate the Christian Scriptures; they were precursors to 2,000 years of Jew hatred. At the very least, it was suggested by our teachers that we could learn nothing from the New Testamant about Jews and Judaism, and that the Christian Bible was the quintessential expression of avodah zara, or idolatry.

To Amy-Jill Levine, who enjoys regnancy among Jewish New Testament scholars, this view is nonsense. Levine, a professor at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, conceived of and co-edited “The Jewish Annotated New Testament.” An important volume whatever its flaws and holes, it is based on twin premises: First, Jews can learn much about Judaism — especially Judaism in Second Temple Judea — from the Christian Bible; and secondly and more important, illiteracy in Christian Scripture precludes ecumenical dialogue.

It would seem easy to dismiss Levine’s latest work, “Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,” as a slight book. Big mistake. That Jesus was the consummate storyteller is commonplace. But Levine cogently makes the case that the parables are not mere mayselech, tales and yarns, but that each parable had an “original provocation” or challenge for its original first-century listeners. Levine notes that the authors of the Gospels were among the first interpreters of the parables, and in the process “domesticated” them — a practice that, to the dismay of many, is continued by all too many preachers from the pulpit — diminishing the “original provocation” of the stories.

Levine chooses a dozen or so “short stories,” some of which are well-known parables — “The Good Samaritan” (Who is the “Samaritan” of “The Good Samaritan”?), “The Pearl of Great Price,” “The Rich Man and Lazarus” — and some not in common discourse. She begins each “story” with a literal translation of the tale — this reader discovered that he was able to hear the parable anew, outside the tried and true reading — and then locates the story in its historical and literary context, sweeping away interpretations that distort the original context. Levine is then able to offer the reader (listener, really) fresh readings of what the parable might have suggested to its earliest listeners.

Thus, a parable may not necessarily be about divine grace — a constant trope in the commentaries, often parroted from the pulpit — but about labor practices or economics in first-century Judea. (In many congregations it’s much safer to talk about divine grace than to suggest that society may be saved through corporate aid to the poor!) Or, the parable in its context may not be the story as commonly understood. For example, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” was traditionally understood by many generations of misinformed interpreters as confronting the Jewish view that the rich are righteous by virtue of the fact that they are rich, and the poor are necessarily sinners. Forgotten is the very Jewish view that God is particularly concerned about the poor, widows, orphans and strangers.

Levine’s exploration of first-century Judea is splendid; tax collectors, judges, merchants, widows and mustard trees provide the interstitial tissue for the historical context of the parables. But Levine goes well beyond context. She thoroughly — and wittily — rips the parables from the hands of the “domesticated” interpreters and re-reads them to us in the form that Jesus may very well have intended. In the process, we learn what Judaism could well have been about in Temple times.

All this said, Levine does make a few missteps, some minor, but together they suggest that the author might have taken greater care with the details concerning history and tradition. It’s not clear to me that the Sadducees were just another “group of Jews” — in effect, a sect — as Levine has it. The Sadducees, or Tz’dukim, who were part of the priestly class that controlled the Temple, the power-center in Judea, represented a parallel tradition to the Pharisaic rabbinic leadership. They were not just another sect, but also represented an entirely legitimate tradition in Judea. That the Sadducees were marginalized, indeed demonized, by the rabbinic leadership after the destruction of the Temple is just another example of history being written by the winners. Further, the resurrection of the dead, or t’chi’at ha-meitim, in Jewish tradition is not the same as Olam Ha-Ba — the talmudic “World to Come” — as Levine says it is.

And did Jesus refer to the five books of the Pentateuch by their modern Hebrew names — Bereshit, Sh’mot, Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim? Not a chance! These appellations, taken from the first words of each book, are universally used by Jews today, but they date only from the Geonic period, many hundreds of years after Jesus. The titles contemporary to Jesus (as recorded in the Talmud) and used by him were Sefer Y’tzira, M’chilta D’nafkuta, Torat Kohanim, Chumash P’kudim, and Mishne Torah — or, as the Church Fathers correctly had them in translation, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers (or Arithmoi) and Deuteronomy. These questions take nothing away from Amy Levine’s book, which is marvelous, and a serious contribution to the Jewish New Testament literature.

But most important is the lesson of the lessons of the “short stories” of Jesus. In her peroration to the reader, Levine moves past the “domestication” of the parables, and still shows how the parables were — and are — intended to disturb. Ministers, priests, imams and rabbis: take note.

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs and history.


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, News & Ideas, March 13, 2015

Between the Dark and the Daylight

Posted on: March 11th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Embracing the Contradictions of Life

By Joan Chittister



Hardcover, 176 pages $17.33 CAD

ISBN – 10:0804140944

ISBN – 13:978 – 0804140942



Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

It was a freeing time in my life when I learned that
people were not good or bad, but good and bad. The
same was true for me.

One of the most meaningful learning experiences
for me has been the study of heroic biography. I
continue to be mentored by great lives. My choice
of biographies has changed, however. In the past
I tried to learn from heroes and heroines that
were flawless and super-human. Now, I seek out
those who are presented “warts and all” with
very human characteristics.

Some of the most valuable spiritual writers today
are those who understand this. I think that is why
Joan Chittister is so much appreciated. It is good
to know that in her mature years, she is still
writing new and creative material.

“Between the Dark and the Daylight” is such a
book and her latest was just published this week.
The time between dark and dawn can be very
threatening to those of us who tend to partially
waken before morning. It is at that time that
we are confronted with some pretty scary things.

One of my recurring dreams at that time is a
situation where I am supposed to be ready for
something and I’m not. Perhaps it’s to catch a
plane, to teach a class, or to have some work
completed by deadline. Invariably, I am unable
to do what I am supposed to do = have my
tickets in hand, have my notes ready to present,
have that task completed before it will be
inspected, etc.

I’m sure that says something about my
personality, but I will leave that to you
psychological analysts out there.

What I think writers like Chittister are trying
to tell us in a book like this is that rather than
dreading the fact “I am falling short” or “missing
that boat” – I need to be opening myself to
what seems bad or a weakness about me. It
is in that awakening and what I do with it that
I can change and become a better person. It’s
not because I become so good, but because I
really know myself better.

The same holds true for those I am inclined to
judge for their inadequacies.

Be alert to the learnings that can be your’s
‘between the darkness and the daylight hours’
and embrace, rather than recoil from the
contradictions that present themselves.

Another fine piece of work by the author.


Buy the book from
Release February 24th, 2015


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X, No. 29,  March  1st, 2015

Selma and the struggle for civil rights

Posted on: March 6th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

By John Arkelian

David Oyelowo plays Martin Luther King, with Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in the film Selma. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Director: Ava DuVernay
Released January 2015
127 minutes
Rated: PG-13

“Our lives are not fully lived if we’re not willing to die for those we love, for what we believe.” Martin Luther King Jr. might have added that there can be no justice, equality or freedom for any of us, unless everyone can claim those things as their birthright. If some are oppressed, then we are all oppressed. Or so we would know if we were not so often blinded by our instinct to separate ourselves from “the other.”

For America in the sixties, “the other” most often took the form of black people. Racial tensions were rife across the country. Indeed, Selma (which was an Academy Award nominee as Best Film of the Year) opens with the bombing of a Baptist church that killed four young African-American girls. It was just one of many instances of homegrown terrorism rearing its ugly head—without any help from the foreign ideological fanatics who bedevil us today.

The movie takes place in 1965, culminating in three attempts in March of that year to peacefully march along the 54-mile highway linking the Alabama cities of Selma and Montgomery (the state capital) in support of voting rights. The trouble was that some state governments were making brazen use of arbitrary (and discriminatory) administrative hurdles, intimidation and outright fraud to shamelessly prevent blacks from registering to vote. When King and others beseeched the federal government to intervene, the Johnson administration was unwilling to do so, citing other priorities. Hence, the decision to march: “Those who have gone before us say, ‘no more!’ No more! That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!”

The first attempt to march was violently stopped by state troopers, who attacked the marchers, some of whom were beaten unconscious. That prompted clergy and other sympathizers from across the country to join the marchers for a second attempt. One supporter from afar, a Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten to death by local thugs.

Through all of these trials—the violence, the naked racism and the open, venomous hostility—King and the other activists stood firm in the just cause of civil rights, and they stayed true to the means they used to struggle: non-violent protest. In both respects, they hewed close to the example of Christ. Their persistence, courage and determination helped build solidarity and shame those who prevaricated instead of acting. And it didn’t hurt that their chief antagonists were so despicable in word and action. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson finally abandons all attempts to cajole the obstinate (one might even say bloody-minded) governor of Alabama into compromising, with the disgusted words, “I’ll be damned if history puts me with the likes of you.” In the end, there is a difference between right and wrong; and a discerning human being is capable of perceiving the difference—and choosing a side.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.


Anglican Journal News, March 06, 2015

Seeing with the ‘eye of the soul’

Posted on: February 19th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit
By Father Luke Bell, OSB
Angelico Press, 2014
ISBN: 978-1621380825
314 pages


Not many books use a potato to explain spiritual wholeness but Father Luke Bell manages to do this and more in The Meaning of Blue: Recovering a Contemplative Spirit. As a monk-priest at Quarr Abbey on the UK’s Isle of Wight, Bell is well placed to teach us about contemplation and potatoes.

At first, a guide to contemplation seems unnecessary. After all, the church calendar offers ample opportunity to hone our contemplative practice: Advent and Christmas provides 40 days to direct our thoughts toward others; Epiphany’s 12 days allow us to reflect on the light of Christ’s birth; Lent gives us 40 days and nights for spiritual self-flagellation and improvement. With all that contemplation, do we really need more? The problem, according to Bell, is that our contemplation is superficial.

The fundamental cause for this is our pathetic observation skills. Too many of us have grown accustomed to seeing merely the temporal without seeing and understanding the intrinsic link between objects and the divine, and between people and the divine. We have gained knowledge from the periphery at the expense of knowledge at and of the heart. As our perception of the world becomes increasingly myopic we teeter on the edge of divine anaesthetization. To possess a truly contemplative spirit means having the ability to think with the heart and not always with the head, which is in direct opposition to the way society teaches (or wants us) to observe.

Bell believes that reclaiming a contemplative spirit starts not with God or Scripture but with understanding the symbols that bring us to God—nature, language, numbers, scripture, and sacraments. Guiding us through the process he attempts to wrestle us away from our acquired tunnel vision in order to ponder the world with wide-eyes and soulful thinking.

Hence the potato: A potato not eaten eventually sprouts growths, and if that potato is planted those growths will yield new potatoes. Through Bell’s extrapolation we see that all the potatoes you find in the stores are actually grown from one potato.  Within this observance of nature we can appreciate our relation to God and to one another. Spiritual wholeness enables us to make that link at a deep level.

Disclosure: I met Father Luke several years ago at Quarr Abbey. He’s soft-spoken and his posture seems permanently inclined to contemplation. He also has a dry sense of humour, which comes out in his writing. With a poet’s heart and a philosopher’s brain he infuses his thesis with philosophical musings, physics, Scripture, poetry, and every-day references. As a former teacher of poetry, it is not surprising that Bell recommends the ambiguity inherent in poetry as an effective tool in allowing our minds to both transcend the obvious and ruminate the deeper meaning.

Just as St. Benedict exhorted his monks in the 6th century to “listen with the ear of your heart” so Bell in the 21st century encourages present generations to “see with the eye of your soul”.

Jane Christmas is the author of And Then There Were Nuns (Greystone Books)


Anglican Journal News, February 19, 2015

Lenten Lent

Posted on: February 15th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

A Way to Refresh Your Spirit
by Donna Shaper

Woodlake Books, Kelowna BC 2015,
Paperback, 70 pages. $11.00 CAD
ISBN #978-1-77064-793-0


Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

Donna Sharper has been writing inspirational
books for ordinary Christians for some decades.
She has written for the Alban Institute and
other publishers who serve the spiritual needs
of people in congregations.

The Canadian publisher, Woodlake Books of
Kelowna BC = long a publisher for parishioners –
has produced this book of Lenten devotions
and we are the better for it.

Lent encourages us to give special attention to
spiritual needs in our lives and this book is a
helpful addition to resources available to us.

The author has selected forty plus one scripture
passages for Lent and Easter from both Hebrew
and Christian testaments. She uses various
biblical translations because the words she
selects are important to her.

Readers can be both disciplined or periodic
selectors of these brief (rarely more than just
a page in length) inspirational pieces that are
supported by biblical passages in each case.

I know that I will be using this booklet as
a Lenten resource this year, and I encourage
you to do the same


Buy the book from Woodlake:

Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X, No. 27,  February  15th, 2015

Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most By Marcus J. Borg

Posted on: February 11th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


How I Learned What Matters Most
By Marcus J. Borg

HarperOne: Toronto. $21.00 CAD.
December, 2014. 241 pages.
ISBN #978-0-06-226997-3



Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

This volume contains a short, pithy,
but well-crafted summary of eleven
key theological/spiritual themes that
have emerged from a lifetime of good
reflection, teaching and writing

These themes have become the core
constructs of Borg’s faith in God, Jesus
and Christianity. He prompts a resonance
in many of his readers.

I can certainly accept all eleven and now
realize how influential Borg has been
in the reshaping of my faith during the
20 years that I have been reading him.

Listed below, without comment are
those eleven core themes:

Context matters
Faith is a Journey
God is real and is a mystery
Salvation is more about this life
than an afterlife
Jesus is the norm of the Bible
The Bible can be true without
being literally true
Jesus’s death on the cross matters –
but not because he paid for our sins
The Bible is political
God is passionate about justice
and the poor
Christians are called to peace
and non-violence
To love God is to love like God

To arrive at these core meanings
(he does not like the term ‘beliefs’)
he has studied classic Christian, as
well as modern thinking, within and
beyond the Christian faith. He has
also kept connected with what moderns
are seeking to know and understand.
He is not confined by the traditional
creeds, but neither is he a slave to

I consider him progressive but mature
in his spiritual/theological convictions.

As Borg says in his preface, he writes
from an American context but is also
hopeful that many non-Americans
will find value in what he has to say.

Perhaps most importantly, he uses
language for a progressive Christianity
that is respectful of those who do not
agree with him, but who are willing
to engage in constructive, hopeful

This proved to be the author’s last
published book (at least in his
lifetime) and is a worthy summation
of his thought. It is a refresher for
those who read him again, and a good
summary of his life’s work for those
who meet him for the first time.

“Convictions” will certainly hold a
special place in my library.


Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X, No. 26,  February 8th, 2015

Simply Good News

Posted on: February 10th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


Why the Gospel is News
and What Makes it Good
by N.T. Wright

2015,HarperOne, Toronto, ON
Hardcover. 189 pages. $20.00 CAD
ISBN #978-0-06-223434-3.



Review By Wayne A. Holst

My Thoughts:

I have always appreciated the theology of
N.T. Wright because he reflects what I myself
seek to emulate in terms of my Christian faith.
That does not mean, however that I always
agree with him.

He speaks with both head and heart language.
He does not avoid the challenges of reason, but
he is also aware that faith needs to be grounded
in personal experience and a living spirit.

Wright believes that many people are seeking
good news today. When they go to hear it in
church, however, what they often get – at best –
is good advice. They miss what Christians from
the beginning have responded to – the Gospel
as Good News.

This is not only true for those of us in the more
liberal churches where maxims and common
wisdom are offered. It is also true for many in
the more conservative churches where the
Gospel is presented as a series of biblical

Wright rejects both approaches. The real Gospel,
Wright believes, comes as news about Jesus rooted
in a history complete with a backstory and heralded
as an event with real personal entailments and
social implications.

Wright wants us to rethink and re-examine
the Gospel. So much of what passes for gospel
today does little justice to Jesus’ life, death,
resurrection and exaltation. He continues:

“For something to qualify as news there has to be
(1) an announcement of an event  that has happened;
(2) a larger context, a backstory within which this
makes sense; (3) a sudden unveiling of the new
that lies ahead; and (4) the transformation of the
present moment, sitting between the event that
has happened and the future event that therefore
will happen.”

Wright introduces these themes in chapters one
and two, while the rest of the book elaborates
with great power the implications of embracing
the Gospel as Good News in proclamation and
practice, just as it happened for the first Christians
in the context of their lives and times.

We err when we think that our circumstances
needs and hopes are different from those who
first heard the Good News proclaimed and
witnessed to by the first believers and apostles.

Wright makes the biblical message come alive
for us because he not only takes it seriously
but understands and interprets it in a real-
live set of circumstances.

This is Wright’s third book of a series using both
erudition and immediacy. Previously, he wrote
“Simply Jesus” (2006) and “Simply Christian”
(2011) – employing the same theological process
and literary method which works well for him.

For those who need a faith grounded in real history,
(I personally am not in need of this) Wright serves
as an enlightened guide and is well worth reading.

Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Colleagues List, Vol. X. No. 23,  January 18th, 2015




Portrait of a leader in tumultuous times

Posted on: January 29th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews



By Solange De Santis 


Former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and Archbishop Michael Peers at the book launch for the Peers memoir, More Than I Can Say. Photo: Simon Chambers




More Than I Can Say: Michael Peers—A Memoir

Edited by Michael Ingham

158 pages

ABC Publishing (Anglican Book Centre), 2014

ISBN 978-1-55126-575-9


As primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1986 to 2004, Michael Peers faced turbulence in nearly every aspect of church life.

He delivered a landmark apology in 1993 to native people for abuses suffered at church-run schools, chaired debate on the place of gays and lesbians in the church and celebrated a full communion agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. The Anglican church was also facing restructuring in the face of declining numbers and finances.

Peers is now 80. His leadership, nationally and internationally, will be the subject of analysis and debate for a long time. While those learned treatises are being written, More Than I Can Say: Michael Peers—A Memoir adds a layer of warm, personal perspectives on a life lived very much in the public eye.

Initiated by the current primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and edited by Peers’ former principal secretary, Michael Ingham (later bishop of the Vancouver-based diocese of New Westminster), the book stakes out its territory on the first page: “a tribute to Michael from a grateful church.”

Criticism, therefore, is in short supply, but when the 70 contributors range from Peers’ wife, children and boyhood friends to Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, honesty is not.

More than one reminiscence describes Peers’ legendary impatience with tedious process (or people), heedless attitude toward attire, obsessive attention to lists (and maps while travelling) and dry, sometimes cutting, wit.

Tutu refers to Peers’ linguistic abilities (he speaks five languages), recalling how he presided in French over a session of the 1988 Lambeth Conference. It was the first time that had occurred in a language other than English.

Williams—and others—recall Peers’ deeply felt concern that all voices be heard on difficult issues. “He was one of the people who showed how to listen, who brought to the conversation a sense of willingness to go deeper and take the time needed to absorb and cope with the underlying feelings,” Williams writes.

Clarkson remembers being “dazzled” by Peers’ “very evident brilliance” when she was a third-year undergraduate at Trinity College and he was a divinity student, and they engaged in long conversations and evenings at the movies.

What the book does particularly well is provide a readable, sometimes amusing, journey through the extraordinary depth as well as the breadth of Peers’ career and life (so far), although there could have been more voices reflecting on the human sexuality debates.

There is, inevitably, something of an insider’s feel to the text, but one doesn’t have to be a Canadian Anglican to enjoy or appreciate it. Ingham has wisely written an engaging 15-page introduction that succinctly sets out the accomplishments and difficulties of Peers’ primacy, against the background of family life.

Beyond facts and conclusions, however, the underlying emotions running through the contributions are affection and admiration and a sense that the Canadian church was fortunate to be deeply loved and well served by a man paradoxically possessing both intellectual genius and humility.


Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008. Now based in New York, she is editor of Episcopal Journal.


Anglican Journal News, January  26, 2015

Devotions for Christian unity

Posted on: January 21st, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

In God’s Reconciling Grace
By Bernard de Margerie
Roman Catholic diocese of Saskatoon, 2014
ISBN 978-0-9920011-1-7
Soft cover; 238 pages
The subtitle says it all: Prayer and reflection texts for Christian reconciliation and unity. This collection of private and corporate devotion gathers resources from across the whole spectrum of Christianity from every age—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox through United, Baptist, Pentecostal. It carries the endorsement of Christian leaders from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, home of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.

This is clearly a labour of love for the centre’s founder, now retired Roman Catholic priest Bernard de Magerie. Newly ordained, he discerned his special vocation for further Christian unity on Jan. 26, 1959, the day that Pope John XXIII called the second Vatican Council, saying that unity would be a major goal.

The overriding theme of this 238-page book is from John 17:20–21, Jesus’ high priestly prayer that “all may be one.” It is impossible to review in detail so much varied content. Anglicanism contributes four items: two traditional ones from the Book of Common Prayer (pages 39 and 40) and two contemporary offerings, “Draw the Circle Wide” by Gordon Light (Common Praise, Hymn 418) and a collect by the Rev. Jan Bigland-Pritchard. Looking toward the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation in 2017 are four contemporary prayers from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic International Commission.

One of the most moving of the suggested liturgies acknowledges “brokenness, proclaiming our hope for full communion in the body of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Its climax is the passing of pieces from a broken loaf through the congregation, as each person touches, but does not consume, the bread—symbolizing the pain of being present at, but unable to share fully in, the Sacrament.

Through the generosity of three special donors, 5,000 copies of this book were made available free of charge through Fr. De Margerie at telephone 306-651-7051; email: Only 500 were left by mid-January.

The last page reproduces an etching, “The Praying Christ,” commissioned by Abbé Paul Couturier, who in 1935 articulated the ideal of prayer for Christian unity “as Christ wills it and in accordance with the means he wills.” This book demonstrates how far we have become, and how far we have yet to go, toward fulfilling Jesus’ prayer.


Anglican Journal News, January 21, 2015

Is religion to blame for war and violence?

Posted on: January 19th, 2015 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews


By Maylanne Maybee


Karen Armstrong’s book, Fields of Blood, is an ambitious project that looks closely at the interrelationship of religion and violence. In it she seeks to challenge the scapegoating of religion as the cause of all war and violence, a simplistic assumption she seems to hear all too frequently from the mouths of politicians, academics and taxi drivers.

“Fields of Blood” refers to the passage in Genesis depicting the archetypal conflict between Cain, the one who worked the land, and his brother Abel, the one who hunted and gathered. Cain killed Abel, but could not hide his sin or silence the cry rising from fields of blood: “Where is your brother? Where is your sister?”

The title reflects one of Armstrong’s core theses, reinforced chapter by chapter: that as hunting-gathering societies (which she romanticized as fundamentally egalitarian) evolved into agrarian societies, the emergence of wealth, civilization and art became possible, but only with the support of violent warfare and oppression—turning farming fields into fields of blood. “From the first, large-scale organized violence was linked not with religion but with organized theft.”

Religion, woven together with political, social and economic systems and the discourse of meaning, had an ambiguous function—both to legitimize the “organized theft” of nations and empires necessary for their survival and expansion, but also to resist and offer alternatives to the violence that lay at their core. Armstrong refers to this tension as “Ashoka’s dilemma,” using the historic example of the third-century BCE emperor of India, a man known for his immoral violence and cruelty, who experienced a profound conversion when he witnessed and took in the horrific violence of war and the profound suffering of ordinary people. He mounted monumental inscriptions throughout India telling kings to keep violence to a minimum and enjoining ordinary people to be kind to the poor and to respect all teachers of wisdom, regardless of their allegiance. Yet Ashoka could not disband his army, which he understood as the only way to maintain strong rule.

Armstrong repeats this dilemma theme in her study of civilizations in China, the Middle East and Byzantium, up to the present day. Empires are instruments of systemic violence, yet they also have the effect of maintaining “peace” (i.e., the absence of organized warfare) and order over time.

Armstrong is clearly at home with the Abrahamic religions, and is especially articulate and informed in her depiction of Islam, for which she models great respect. Her chapters in the third part of the book on the postmodern appearance of religion as distinct and separate from state, and the consequent status of the nation-state as a new form of religion, are perhaps the most gripping and relevant.

Her book is encyclopedic in its sweep, moving from the origins of man as creatures of the four “Fs”—fight, flight, food and procreation, through the origins of major world religions in China, India, Mesopotamia and Mecca. It is encyclopedic in its detail as well—Armstrong has a habit of introducing new names, concepts and terminologies from other cultures, religions and languages without repeating or reinforcing their meaning.

Canadian Anglicans—theologians, ethicists, journalists and policy-makers—who are seeking to understand our place on the world stage should read Armstrong’s book alongside Margaret MacMillan’s books on contemporary nationhood, Paris 1919 and The War That Ended Peace, John Ralston Saul’s book on Canada’s nationhood, A Fair Country, and the work of René Girard, who makes a definitive study of violence and Christianity. At times, Fields of Blood makes for heavy-going reading. It can be a challenge to discern the core of Armstrong’s message, which I believe Christians and all people of faith need to heed as a sign of God’s mission: a message of compassion, resistance against violence and the humanizing of the one we call “other” or “enemy.” Reading this book is a start to hearing and living out that message. For those who wish to deepen their understanding of the culture of religion and violence in our age, it is well worth the effort.

The Rev. Maylanne Maybee is principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg. 


Anglican Journal News, January 19, 2015