Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book review--Everyday Theology & Religion and Violence


The following review appeared in Perspectives in Religious Studies. 35.3 (2008). The titles under review are:

Everyday Theology, edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman. Cultural Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. 288 pp. $23.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-3167-0

Religion and Violence in a Secular World, edited by Clayton Crockett. Studies in Religion and Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. 256 pp. Cloth $49.50. ISBN 978-0-8139-2561-5. Paper $22.50. ISBN 978-0-8139-2562-2

These two books address religion’s relationship to culture from different perspectives and for different intended audiences.  Both books are collections of essays written by different authors.  Everyday Theology treats religion and culture in broad terms, while Religion and Violence focuses on the narrower topic of philosophical and religious responses to violence in a post-9/11 world. 

In Everyday Theology, Vanhoozer, Anderson, and Sleasman have collected essays illustrating the practice of reading and interpreting cultural texts and trends theologically.  The book is most appropriate for evangelical pastors, seminarians, and college students, and it would be a useful text in a seminary course on Christianity and Culture.  Theologically astute laypersons would profit from reading it as well.  The essays are easily read, even if they are uneven in quality, and provide definitions for theological terms.

The first chapter, written by Vanhoozer, introduces the idea of theologically interpreting culture, framing the approach the authors of each subsequent chapter will take.  For Vanhoozer, theological interpreters of culture “look not to its causes but to its context” (22), and he devotes much attention to understanding the contexts of individual cultural texts.  Vanhoozer has a high view of the importance of culture and asserts that when different cultural messages are combined, they “communicate a vision of the meaning of life” (28).  Vanhoozer then presents a method for reading culture.

The subsequent chapters were originally term papers in a course taught by Vanhoozer.  Vanhoozer acknowledges the lack of professional credentials of the authors, but he sees it as a benefit because their inexperience illustrates the manner in which anyone can engage in cultural hermeneutics.  The origin also explains the disparate subject matter of the essays, which relate to each other only in their addressing cultural texts or trends.  Chapters two through six are about cultural texts, and chapters seven through ten concern cultural trends.

In each chapter, the authors adequately engage Vanhoozer’s cultural hermeneutics.  In chapter two, Jeremy D. Lawson presents a theological interpretation of the goods offered in Safeway, and in chapter three, Darren Sarisky critiques Eminem for failing to provide redemptive meaning and offers a Christian alternative.  Sarisky posits Christian rap as the best alternative (95), which is morally presumptuous.  David G. Thompson interprets the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1946 in chapter four.  Premkumar D. Williams follows the premise that “buildings themselves are expressions of culture” (114) and presents a hermeneutical examination of megachurch architecture in chapter five.  In chapter six, Sleasman finds “competing visions of hope” (143) in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and he provides one of the strongest examples of Vanhoozer’s cultural hermeneutics in the book.

Anderson examines the trend of increasing “busyness” in chapter seven.  He presents his case convincingly, but the author occasionally presents subjective language: “We must” and “we should” (166).  In chapter eight, Justin A. Bailey asserts the blogosphere is a way to connect with and discover cultural beliefs, and in chapter nine, Matthew Eppinette considers the trend of transhumanism.  Ben Peays interprets the trend of fantasy funerals as the secularization of death in chapter ten.  Anderson and Sleasman write the final chapter, in which they “walk through the steps of theologically minded cultural exegesis” (228).  The book also includes all manner of helpful sidebars.


Religion and Violence in a Secular World, written in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is most appropriate for scholars and students in religious studies.  The authors assume the reader will be familiar with philosophers (Derrida, Heidegger, Kant) and theologians (Heschel, Levinas).  Since specialized terms are not defined, the book might intimidate someone uninitiated in philosophical or theological cant.  Nevertheless, one versed in philosophy and theology will find the essays well-written, thoroughly researched, and relevant.

Clayton Crockett introduces the work with a lucid thematic description of the topics.  He interprets the terrorist attacks and the war on terrorism as a possible end of the nation-state, adding the obvious question “What next?”  The authors of this book offer varied analyses of the relationship between religion and the violence prevalent in America’s decidedly secular society.  Ten essays by a diverse group of respected scholars follow Crockett’s introduction.  The first six chapters are focused engagements with specific people or topics.  The last four chapters provide “constructive and visionary readings” (7) of religion and violence.

In the first chapter, B. Keith Putt contrasts Girard’s God of victim with Caputo in a section rightly titled “Mad Economy of a Foolish God” (30).  Putt concludes both Girard and Caputo would assert “Jesus would not do violence” (43).  Carl A. Raschke’s chapter “On Withes and Witch Hunts” interestingly identifies “witch hunts” as “a search for the real among what could not be named” (58), offering situations where a “witch” might be sought when accurate understanding of reality eludes us.  In the next essay, James J. Dicenso contrasts Kant’s Religion and his use of the phrase “radical evil” with modern understandings of “radical evil,” especially as they relate to violence and terrorism.

The fifth chapter, written by Eleanor Pontoriero, invokes Auschwitz as a backdrop to analyze Levinas’ approach to religion and violence.  In the next chapter, Martin Kavka uncovers the depth of Abraham Heschel’s theonomy and the manner in which hope can improve conditions in the West.  Both of these essays are particularly clear, which is no small feat in such strong company.  Caputo’s entry on Derrida and a “democracy to come [which] calls for a new revolution” (153) is a powerful ontological investigation of the manner in which people seek power under the guise of democracy and in conflict with the Western idea of sovereignty.

Noëlle Vahanian explores the idea of “institutional imagination,” which is “thinking that is not merely pragmatic…thinking that is pure thinking” (167), and its potential role in future solutions to world crises.  Edith Wyschogrod’s utilizes a fable about monkeys and elephants to illustrate creative solutions.  Jeffrey W. Robbins’ chapter concludes, the world is “simultaneously religious and secular” (201), and “there is no truly radical political theology” (195).  Robbins’ paradox grounds religious and societal polyvalency.

Richard Kearney presents the final chapter, aptly titled “Thinking after Terror.”  He analyzes religion and terror in a secular context and concludes that divorcing religion from approaching terror “signal an impoverishment of both our politics and our theology” (212).  Religion and Violence in a Secular World illustrates the necessity of a new political theology and the impoverishment of both politics and theology when terrorism and fighting terrorism takes the place of seeking creative solutions to complex problems. 

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