Summer is the season of rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation — a season for meandering through the pages of those books you have set aside for pleasure and profit. Uninterrupted by telephone, tragedy, or trivial pursuits, the preacher is able to reap enjoyment and insight from the fertile pages of carefully chosen books.
Okay, so life and ministry on this planet do not match that idyllic scene. Nevertheless, perhaps the reader can squirrel away a few hours for reading some of the better books to emerge during the past year. Let me take the opportunity to suggest a few of the very best and most profitable recent volumes.
William Griffin, Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 493 pp, $24.45, cloth.
The writings of C. S. Lewis remain at the top of the religious and secular best seller lists over twenty years after his death. The Chronicles of Narnia series alone sells over a million copies a year. His collected theological and devotional books have been among the most influential serious volumes read by laypersons and clergy alike. His enlightened fantasy works and credible literary studies endure.
Yet this is not sufficient reason for the popularity and reverence with which Lewis is held by American evangelicals. This is explained only by the dramatic life C. S. Lewis lived and shared, thus the fitting sub-title to the present volume.
William Griffin is among the most capable Lewis specialists alive today. An editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and Macmillan for many years, Griffin edited many of Lewis’ posthumously published collections, and had a hand in the editing and publication of many other Lewis titles. Currently religious books editor for Publishers Weekly, Griffin is no novice author.
Clive Staples Lewis is designed as a transitional biography, a volume directed to an American readership for whom the earlier biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper may be too cryptic. It is not the definitive biography which should someday emerge covering the entirety of Lewis’ life, from birth to his death in 1963. Griffin has written a creative and fittingly dramatic biography which will almost certainly remain the best single volume on the life of Lewis for years to come.
Though Lewis is most popular among American evangelicals, C. S. Lewis is directed toward a wider audience. Griffin writes in detail of Lewis’ personal life, academic career, literary studies, and social life as well as his Christian pilgrimage. In fact, Griffin is aware that he has included in his biography details — such as Lewis’ drinking and smoking — which “may tell the evangelical reader more than he or she cares to know.” These matters are not incidental to Lewis’ life however, and the evangelical reader would be robbed by their absence.
Griffin begins the excursion through Lewis’ life with his inauguration as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. From the first page, Griffin’s literary style chosen for this work is immediately evident. Griffin disregards conventional biographical technique and does not utilize the flashback to explain the events at hand. Instead, the author is carefully chronological — a style which seems foreign and often confusing.
Several significant persons are mentioned without introduction. Given the varied intended readership of the book, this means that the reader familiar with the significant religious figures of Lewis’ acquaintance may have no idea of the identity or significance of a figure introduced in a section detailing Lewis’ considerable contribution to English literature. Nevertheless, if all the explanatory material had been included several hundred additional pages might well be required.
Griffin gives the reader a vivid taste of the character of Lewis’ mature life. The careful detail of life at Oxford and Cambridge, of his academic travail and success, of his friendships and his acquaintances, gives a richness and texture to this account of Lewis and his work. Some readers will discover with surprise that Lewis fought in the Great War, that he had difficulty finding a publisher for his early works, and read with curiosity the account of his life with Mrs. Moore, the widow with whom Lewis lived at Oxford.
Griffin writes with intensity, yet does not play with the reader’s emotions. The passages dealing with the remarkable romance Lewis shared with Joy Davidman are accurate yet restrained. The reader gleans insight into the great love which grew among the terminally-ill American divorcee and the committed professorial bachelor.
This personal dimension is perhaps the most difficult element of the biography. The reader learns of Lewis’ acquaintances — the words of whom form the basis of the volume. The emotive element is often lacking, however. The characters, which range from his mercurial brother Warren to the fascinating members of The Inklings, are always less engaging than the reader may expect. This may say more about Lewis than the biography, however.
The most noticeable feature of the biography is the extensive use of dramatic dialogue. While much of this is necessarily contrived, it is based upon solid research and careful attention to detail. Many readers will find the style different from the conventional biography, but most will welcome the innovative format.
Preachers and evangelical readers will find the sections detailing Lewis’ dramatic conversion most riveting. All conversions to faith are axiomatically dramatic, but Lewis’ intellectual agnosticism is a particularly dramatic setting for his later “surprise by joy.” The history of Lewis’ literary career, including his bestselling religious works, is documented, though some readers will be disappointed to find their favorite book may receive brief treatment. This is, after all, a biography and not an analysis of Lewis’ writings.
Griffin ends his masterful study with the death of C. S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, a day shared with the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. No evaluation of Lewis’ place in history or literary significance is appended. Most readers will have an instinctive impression of that significance by the biography’s close.
Lewis once warned an American friend preparing for a move that he should not sell any book unnecessarily. “I’ve hardly ever sold a book in my life without finding in the next few weeks that I needed it.” Readers are not likely to let this volume go.
Martin E. Marty, Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 379 pp, $25.00, cloth.
Only the most reclusive preachers will need an introduction to Martin Marty. His is one of the most prolific and influential pens in contemporary Christianity. He has authored or edited a small library of books, is the editor of Context, and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. All this is in addition to his career as Fairfax M. Cone Professor of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago.
His productivity and influence have been the subject of a recent article in Time, a rare honor for a professor of church history. Marty is far more than a professor, however; he is the most encyclopedic guru of American religion since World War II.
Religion and Republic is a collection of essays, articles, and addresses published or delivered in the past fifteen years. The collection is a veritable “Best of Martin E. Marty” and is the best introduction to Marty’s analyses yet available.
Preachers with a thirst for thoughtful essays on the current state of religion in a variety of forms will find this volume an oasis of thought-provoking material. The theme of the volume is the 1776 seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum. He demonstrates the relationship between the one republic and the many religious manifestations current in American life.
Religion, Marty notes, has embarrassed its gainsayers and “has suddenly reappeared as a factor in American political and social dynamism.” From civil rights to the social agenda of the Religious Right, the impact of religion has been and remains an integral part of the larger movements in the republic.
In the initial essay, “Rediscovery: Discerning Religious America,” and throughout the volume Marty questions the secular paradigm that industrialization and economic development led necessarily to religious atrophy. Religion, suggested Marty, has not disappeared, “it was relocating.” The remainder of the volume consists of Marty’s cogent suggestions concerning where religion has found new or traditional locations.
Evangelicals will find several essays of particular interest, though some will likely find quarrel with some points of analysis. The dramatic emergence of traditional forms of anti-modern religion has been matched by a resurgence of some forms of fundamentalism and radical forms of evangelicalism. Mainline denominations, clearly dominant in the last century and up to World War II, are now seeking their place in the sun. Marty demonstrates the historical development of these trends and cautiously predicts scenarios for the future.
The theme of pluralism runs throughout the volume. The essays run the gamut from an essay on the Bible as the American icon to an address on the special case of the Mormons in the republic. Marty’s ability as a historian is everywhere evident, and his skill as a writer makes for pleasurable reading.
The essays do serve to accentuate Marty’s tendency to reduce theological issues to sociological analysis. His suggestions are always informative, though unavoidably reductionistic. No one can cover all aspects of the American religious circumstance — but Marty comes close.
The Time article included a photo showing Marty standing at his typewriter table — his customary position for writing. He is scheduled to release three major books this year. He will have to sit down before most of us can catch up with him. Not likely.
Oxford Analytica, America in Perspective: Major Trends in the United States Through the 1990s (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986), 371 pp, $19.95, cloth.
Why would preachers want to read material originally prepared for American Express, Bristol-Myers, and Sun Oil? Those three corporations contracted with Oxford Analytica, a remarkable think tank located in Oxford, England, to project the most important trends in the United States through the 1990s.
Oxford Analytica has been a primary consulting agency for international corporations and governments. Accustomed to analyzing the most minute bits of seemingly useless and unrelated data, the group has a solid record of accurate prognostications, social forecasts, and the assessment of change and stability.
Oxford Analytica took those same skills and put them to work on issues of American society. The result is a book of several hundred pages packed with information usually reserved for the corporate strategy offices of the nation’s business sector. Preachers and other church leaders will find the volume a rich resource for planning and evaluation.
More important for our purposes, the book offers a unique perspective into the future of religion and the likely issues of the next decade.
The study is based upon quantitative content analysis and trained insight. The group focused on what it termed “American exceptionalism,” the belief that America “has a unique capacity to fulfill human aspirations.” That this belief, often known as “the American Dream,” exists is not challenged. The authors believe, in fact, that the confidence in American exceptionalism will survive into the twenty-first century, though not unchallenged.
The study begins with a section on society. Demographic trends and changes in population will face churches as well as corporations. The average church member, as well as the average consumer, will be older, live longer, and be more likely to live in the Sunbelt, though that trend is expected to subside. Immigrants will make up an ever-increasing component of the population, and Hispanics will outnumber Blacks early in the next century.
The American Dream may fade somewhat for some sectors of society, but other sectors will realize the fruits of exceptionalism. A fascinating section on changes in lifestyles will interest every preacher who would like an informed picture of the character of those who will sit in future pews.
An entire chapter is given to the place of religion in the future of the society. Religious elements will be especially important for America, the authors suggest. Though religion remains a potent force in many European nations, “in few other Western nations has the place of beliefs and values been so clear and crucial as in America.”
In fact, Oxford Analytica suggests that religion, symbolized by the resurgence of American evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, may well be the “last great exception.” That is, American religious vitality may be the single most important American distinctive. The graphs detailing attendance at church services in various nations demonstrates vividly the exceptionalism in American religious vitality.
Three threats to this vitality are identified: secularization, privatization, and pluralization. In the main, the research firm found that the resurgence of religious activity was not matched by a resurgence of the social impact of religion. The firm then projected four likely scenarios for the future.
Other sections deal incisively with the economy and politics. Again the element of American exceptionalism is the key category. The solid and creative analysis is demonstrated throughout.
This book is commended to all who would like a professional view of the next several years, a pivotal period in the life of the nation and the greater global community.
The preacher will read the volume with interest — the sections on politics and the economy as well as the chapters on religion and demographics. The preacher must know the character and context of the congregation. This book will provide much food for thought.
Book Notes
Joseph Grassi, Healing the Heart: The Power of Biblical Heart Imagery (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 131 pp, $7.95, cloth.
Grassi, professor of religion at Santa Clara University, has written a creative volume on the use of heart imagery in the Bible and the power of those images to transform human beings. From Jeremiah’s “new heart covenant” to Paul’s “heart-spirit transformation” Grassi suggests the meaning of the familiar references to the heart.
Grassi’s Catholic devotion is apparent at several points, though the book is directed to an ecumenical readership. Preachers will find his suggestions fertile ground for preaching.
Peter F. Ginther, ed. Great Sermons of the Twentieth Century (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1986), 183 pp, $7.95, paper.
Any collection of “great sermons” is necessarily selective. Each editor who has taken on the challenge is forced to choose the perspective to be reflected in the volume. Ginther has chosen great evangelical sermons of several significant preachers, all deceased. The criterion for selection was not the stature of the preacher, however, but upon “the impact these particular sermons have had.”
Selections range from A. W. Tozer’s “The Waning Authority of Christ in the Churches” to Francis Schaeffer’s “No Little People, No Little Places.” In between are sermons by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and several notable others.
H. Beecher Hicks, Preaching Through a Storm (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 222 pp, $7.95, paper.
Hicks, Senior Minister of the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., offers his fellow preachers keen insight into the challenge of preaching through church conflict. Hicks found himself in unexpected controversy during a church building campaign and weathered it “by preaching through it.” The sermons included are rich in depth and flavored with the idiom of the Black church. A challenging resource for those on either side of the storm.
Dennis F. Kinlaw, Preaching in the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury/Zondervan, 1985), 126 pp, $6.95, paper.
A former president of Asbury College, Dennis Kinlaw is ably suited to write about preaching in the Wesleyan tradition. Based on lectures given at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, this volume reaches beyond the Wesleyan world to speak to the spiritual requirements of powerful preaching. The preacher and the sermon must be immersed in the Holy Spirit, says Kinlaw. The book is practical and challenging.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Cross (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1987), 218 pp, $6.95, paper.
Few preachers match Lloyd-Jones’ reputation for expository preaching. His famous series on Ephesians is an evangelical best-seller, as well as other Lloyd-Jones sermon series.
This volume, based on a series of sermons preached in the fall of 1963, was founded on the text, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world.” Preached during a crisis period in world history, the sermons speak even today of the eternal truths of the cross, and Jesus Christ the crucified.

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