The rhythm of life from season to season brings us to summer — that annual season of rest, reflection, and respite from mundane concerns.
As the character in Porgy and Bess sings, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy, Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.” One thing is for certain — that character was not a preacher.
School may be out, half of the church board may be on vacation, but the preacher remembers the sage words of the Proverb: “He that gathereth in summer is a wise son; but he that sleepeth in harvest is a son which causes shame” (Proverbs 10:5). That tends to put a damper on the summer siesta.
All that aside, summer offers a unique opportunity for quality reading, sandwiched between Vacation Bible School, summer youth camp, and family vacations. The following is a review of several works worthy of a place in the preacher’s summer knapsack.
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 382 pp., $18.95 cloth, $7.95 paper.
Six months ago The Closing of the American Mind was properly described as a phenomenon. Today it is an industry. When the trade paperback edition was released in late April, 1988, over 500,000 hardcover copies had already been distributed or sold. Almost 45 weeks on the best-seller list, the book is the biggest surprise the cautious publishing world has seen in years.
The book is hardly the stuff of which best-sellers are made. It is the thoughtful, nearly four-hundred-page soliloquy of a distinguished professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago — an institution more famous for Nobel prizes than best-sellers.
Put quite simply, The Closing of the American Mind hit an exposed societal nerve. Much as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America were the surprise professorial tomes of the 1970’s and 1960’s respectively, Bloom’s volume set the terms of public discussion in a season when the very possibility of thoughtful public discussion seemed doubtful.
Allan Bloom is a Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and co-director of the John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy at the University of Chicago. Bloom is a member of the fraternity of the select few who teach at America’s most prestigious centers of learning. This academic context is ever apparent in The Closing of the American Mind, and the lengthy subtitle indicates the impetus for the writing of the volume: Bloom’s indictment of the impoverishment of the souls of American students.
The very fact that Bloom included the word ‘soul’ in the title and uses the word freely throughout the book indicates something of the unique character of the volume. The book would have been a perceptive analysis of American higher education without that unique dimension — and many critics have responded to The Closing of the American Mind while simply ignoring this critical point: Bloom dares to examine the very souls of his students, and through them to understand modern American society.
Bloom is a self-conscious teacher with an obvious sense of vocation in his work. In addition to his current post at Chicago, Bloom has taught at Yale, Cornell, Tel Aviv University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Paris.
The Closing of the American Mind reflects this richness of experience and an intimate knowledge of the students who have passed through his “midwifery” (the term Bloom prefers to describe his task). These have been among the privileged class of young Americans, those with the means and ability to study at the finest American universities. Through them Bloom sees the American soul — and the midwife is alarmed.
The preacher will find in Bloom’s investigation a trenchant analysis of the American soul, and the souls of those sitting in countless American congregations. The opening essay, “Our Virtue,” is in itself worth the price of the volume.
He intones: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” This postulate is the operating principle for life and thought, “the condition of a free society, or so they see it.”
The great fear is absolutism, the only perceived alternative to relativism. Basic issues are unimportant. “The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error, but intolerance.”
This relativism breaks forth into the prized quality of “openness” — a condition in which no statement is more valid than any other. This, Bloom suggests, is all done in the name of democracy, but is actually destructive of the very conditions allowing for democracy, and leads to the eventual devolution of democracy into the anarchist rule of minorities over the majority.
This “opening” of the American psyche is, in Bloom’s trenchant probe, revealed as an ultimate closing. “True openness is the accompaniment of the desire to know, hence of the awareness of ignorance. To deny the possibility of knowing good and bad is to suppress true openness.” If all is equally meaningful, nothing is ultimately meaningful.
The heart of the volume is divided into three major sections: “Students,” “Nihilism, American Style,” and “The University.” Bloom is a masterful writer, drawing the reader through increasingly thoughtful material with the skill of a master teacher.
He traces in brief the progression of the values of openness and relativism from the intellectual elites into the souls of today’s students. “What is influential in the higher intellectual circles,” he observes, “always ends up in the schools.”
In the rush to embrace absolute openness, fundamental values have been lost. The foundational values of Western culture are relegated to the catalogue of relative options, with no consideration of the ultimate consequences of this relativism.
Perceptively, Bloom describes the disappearance of religion from primary learning, and from public discourse: “As respect for the Sacred — the latest fad — has soared, real religion and knowledge of the Bible have diminished to the vanishing point.”
Though the schools and the institutions of public trust must shoulder some responsibility for this, Bloom lays primary responsibility for this loss of religious knowledge and conviction at the feet of the family. “The dreariness of the family’s spiritual landscape,” opines Bloom, “passes belief.”
Bloom’s analysis reaches into the most basic values of American culture — while demonstrating the substitution of “values” for the categories of good and evil — and considers the roots of this current estate in the values of European culture and the overbearing clouds of continental nihilism. From Erich Fromm to Woody Allen, Bloom surveys the American mind and finds “nihilism with a happy ending.”
In the end Bloom’s analysis outruns his suggested response. To address the impoverishment of the souls of young Americans, Professor Bloom prescribes a return to the tradition of the Great Books and the return of the university to a recognition of fundamental values as true openness. The book, and especially its first two sections, encompass far more than the university, however. The book is a penetrating view of American society in all its many dimensions.
The preacher will find The Closing of the American Mind a powerful treatise on the condition of ultimate concerns in an age of relativism. The situation affects not only the university, but every institution and sector of society — including the church.
What kind of preaching is demanded by the closed mind? What will speak to the impoverished soul? How does the preacher speak of absolutes when the congregation recognizes no absolute truth?
Critics may reject both Bloom’s analysis of the contemporary malady and his prescribed treatment, but his lucid and incisive discourse have set the stage for a promising public debate. The preaching minister will be challenged and enriched by The Closing of the American Mind, and is likely to discover anew the need for clear, convictional preaching.
Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, eds. The Literary Guide to the Bible (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 675 pp., $29.95 cloth.
David Rosenberg, ed. Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1987), 526 pp., $29.95 cloth.
The most notable development in biblical studies of recent years is the ever increasing recognition of the literary character of the Bible. This focuses attention on the narrative quality of scripture and the narrative dimension of life holds great promise for creative biblical preaching.
Unlike the “Bible as History” movement of the post-war years, this development in scholarly circles has direct relevance for the preaching minister.
The impact of the new literary criticism lays bare the richness of the biblical narratives and the texture of the several types of literature within the canon. No substitute for more traditional methods of biblical exegesis, the turn to literary studies augments the arsenal of exegetical tools at the preacher’s disposal.
The Literary Guide to the Bible and Congregation are both massive tomes and solid contributions to the literature of the Bible. Neither is directed toward a strictly defined audience, but toward the general reader anxious to consider the literary quality of the biblical text.
Alter and Kermode bring a wealth of experience to their jointly-edited volume. Alter, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of the widely-read books, The Art of Biblical Narrative and The Art of Biblical Poetry, and has established an international reputation as a specialist in the literary qualities of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Likewise, Frank Kermode has long been a recognized expert in literary criticism, a Fellow in the British Academy, and King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge.
Alter and Kermode bring to this volume their combined experience as literary critics and a stellar team of contributors. Their volume is divided into articles on Old Testament books, the New Testament, and General Articles.
Alter and Kermode have investigated the literary approach and found it profitable: “Professional biblical criticism has been profoundly affected by it; but, even more important, the general reader can now be offered a new view of the Bible as a work of great literary force and authority, a work of which it is entirely credible that it should have shaped the minds of intelligent men and women for two millennia and more.”
The contributors dive deeply into the literary qualities of the texts. Poetry, narrative, and dialogue are seen in the fresh light of new insight. The Genesis narratives of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau take their place in the book of the beginning of the covenant.
Even Leviticus takes on a new significance: “For in Leviticus the law is represented in its ideal, fully functioning form, the best model against which to assess the complicated uses and misuses of the law by a Saul or a Solomon in the historical texts.”
The articles on New Testament books bring together some of the most promising insights from literary and exegetical investigations. The articles are full of material with great potential for preaching relevance. A knowledge of the literary pattern of Jesus’ parables, a new perspective into the narratives of the Gospels, and a recognition of the special quality of the historical narratives in Acts all enrich biblical preaching.
The general articles are worthy of inclusion in the volume. Throughout the work, the reader gleans a working glossary and bibliography for further investigation and research.
Congregation is a much different book, but a volume sure to draw the reader into the power of the Hebrew Scriptures. David Rosenberg has brought together a cadre of the most famous and talented Jewish writers of the present generation to reflect in a literary manner upon the texts of the Jewish Bible — the Old Testament.
The articles vary greatly in style and content. Some, focusing exegetically in a general sense, deal with the essential content of the stated book. Others deal to greater or lesser extents with the personal experience of being a Jew and reading the sacred texts.
The result is a mixture of the sacred and the secular, of interpretation and reflection. Rosenberg has assembled a most worthy cast of writers for his experiment, each dealing with a particular section of the Jewish Bible.
Included among the contributors are two Nobel laureates, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Elie Wiesel, and thirty-five other luminaries from Harold Bloom to Herbert Gold. Each provides an intensely personal entre into a book of the Jewish Bible.
The essays reflect the history of the Jewish experience and recent events, from the Holocaust to the establishment of Israel. Some reflect the grandeur of the biblical texts and their interplay with life, others are less focused on the biblical materials, a hazard of the experiment.
Among the writers are both confessing and secular Jews, a factor which demonstrates the novelty of the experiment. Nevertheless, the volume offers unique insights for the preacher — some insights available by no other means. To hear Singer write of Genesis or Wiesel of Ezekiel is an unprecedented opportunity to see the Jewish Scriptures in all their richness — a richness from which the church must learn.
Preachers will read with interest the developments in literary criticism and narrative investigation The Literary Guide to the Bible and Congregation bring to light.
There are limits to their potential for Christian preaching. The literary movement brings the possibility of rich insights into the biblical texts, but the literary approach does not require a confessional stance — the recognition that these texts are not merely literature, but are Holy Scripture “given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
Literary critics avoid the historical questions required by the text, and are thus free to consider the literary qualities within the text free from external constraints or controls.
Nevertheless, the evangelical preacher will find considerable resources within these volumes to enrich confessional Christian preaching, drawing insights from the sacred page as the Word of God breaks forth.
Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 255 pp., $17.95, cloth.
Booksellers seldom know what to do with Annie Dillard’s several books. They may be shelved among autobiographies, natural sciences, devotional materials, literary studies or literature. Author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she has also produced Teaching a Stone to Talk, Holy the Firm, and numerous other works.
No matter where they are found, they are pure delight. Annie Dillard is a poet, a songstress, and an insightful theologian — or at least an informed writer of theological themes.
An American Childhood follows in the tradition of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is the most engaging form of autobiography. In both works the reader ceases to see Annie Dillard as the character and begins to see the world Dillard paints in richness seldom seen.
An American Childhood traces in a lucid flow the childhood of young Annie Dillard as she grasps the world of 1940’s Pittsurgh. Most childhoods were similar, but few can bring forth the tastes, textures, excitements, and dreadful curiosities of childhood from the passage of forty years.
Few of us reflected much at all as childhood passed. Consciousness fell on Annie Dillard as a surprise.
“Children ten-years-old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in media res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills.”
By her own testimony, “I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years.”
The story really begins when Annie is five, young in the post-war years when people “wanted to bake sugary cakes, burn gas, go to church together, get rich, and make babies.” We follow Annie through the circuitous passages of childhood, enter her room where she is terrified of a white gleaming monster she later discovers is a passing headlight, follow her through birdwatching, pencil drawing, and discovery of the world.
Later, she awakes to find that boys had changed. “Those froggy little beasts had elongated and transformed into princes and gods. When it happened, I must have been out of the room.”
Apparent throughout is the particular way Annie Dillard sees the world — a seeing which makes all common vision seem pallid and pale. Seeing is an art, as she testifies in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
“But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this way I am above all an unscrupulous observer.”
An American Childhood is the panoramic vision of the emergence of consciousness from this most unscrupulous observer.
Book Notes
James C. Barry, ed. Preach the Word in Love and Power (Nashville: Convention Press, 1986), 127 pp., paper.
Preach the Word is the result of a symposium on biblical preaching which involved some of the most gifted and thoughtful preachers among Southern Baptists. In fourteen articles and sermons these preachers deal with the struggle for effective and biblical preaching — preaching rooted in both love and power. Contributors include Brian L. Harbour, Raymond Bailey, Roger Lovette, and Franklin D. Pollard, among others. Preachers of all denominations will find this slim volume a potent resource.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Saved in Eternity: the Assurance of our Salvation (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988), 187 pp., cloth.
_____. Faith Tried and Triumphant (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987 reprint), 217 pp., paper.
The publication of new titles from the pen of the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones is a testimony to the enduring power of his preaching. Reprints of existing works are augmented by the emergence of carefully-edited new works, drawn from the massive corpus of unpublished material “The Doctor” left upon his death.
Saved in Eternity is the first volume of sermons Lloyd-Jones preached on Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. He preached these sermons at Westminster Chapel from April through July, 1952. They are indicative of Lloyd-Jones’ preaching at its finest, in an era when J. I. Packer thought him ‘on a plateau of supreme excellence.’ The thirteen sermons follow the course of the prayer, and communicate powerfully the assurance of salvation Jesus granted to His flock.
Faith Tried and Triumphant is a new edition combining two previously published works, From Fear to Faith and Faith on Trial. Included are messages Lloyd-Jones preached on passages from Habakkuk and Psalms, messages which deal with the issues of personal meaning and existence. The messages speak still today. The republication of these two books into one volume makes for a potent combination.
Dwight L. Moody, Secret Power (Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1987, reprint), 166 pp., paper.
The powerful evangelist from the nineteenth century speaks today through the republication of this significant volume, first published in 1881. Moody deals with the power of preaching under the Holy Spirit. Also included in this edition are essays by Walter Martin, an excerpt from a biography of Moody written by his son, and comments by the late R. A. Torrey, Moody’s contemporary.
Conrad Hyers, And God Created Laughter (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 124 pp., paper.
Hyers, professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minneapolis, is a talented exegete and biblical scholar. His insights into the inherently comedic character of many biblical narratives and healthy affirmation of the divine gift of humor will enrich the preacher’s reading of scripture — and of life.
Irony, comedy, playfulness, and laughter all find their way in Hyer’s reading of the texts. The author builds upon his previous work on the role of fools, tricksters, underdogs, and comic heroes in the biblical narratives.

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