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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 124–125 

Book Review

Take and Read: Reflecting Theologically on Books

Paul G. Doerksen. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016. 258 pages.

Reviewed by Jamie Howison

To begin, something of a disclaimer. I have known Paul Doerksen for a decade, and have come to recognize that we inhabit overlapping theological terrain. Ten of the twenty-nine books for which he provides theological reflections in Take and Read sit on my bookshelves, and I am very familiar with books by eight of the other authors. Of the remaining eleven, time and again I found myself thinking, “Oh I need to read that.” In short, I am by no means an objective reviewer.

Take and Read comes out of a theological book discussion group Doerksen has been leading in Winnipeg since 2004, with the twenty-nine reflections originally written as introductory addresses for the group gatherings. Rather than being book reviews in any conventional sense, these brief essays provide a theologically reflective point of entry to a broader engagement with each title and its author. Doerksen’s voice is clearly present, as he allows himself to set aside any presumption of neutrality and instead turns to a more critical engagement with each author. On more than one occasion he all but apologizes for what he calls his “confessional mode” (70), as he draws both his brother’s death and his mother’s dementia into the content of his essays, notably connected to Kathleen Norris’s Acedia and Me and John Swinton’s Dementia. Doerksen’s willingness to let his voice be heard and to bring the circumstances of his family’s life into these essays stands as one of the real strengths of this book. This allows you to eavesdrop on the “Take and Read” book group and—like those who attend the group—to watch as theology is lived out in the real life of a careful thinker.

This is not a book that needs to be read steadily through from beginning to end, but rather one that can be engaged one or two essays at a time. My own reading of it was spread out over the course of six weeks, simply picking it up when I had twenty minutes to spare and wanted something more substantial than the daily newspaper. That makes Take {125} and Read an ideal book for a parish pastor, particularly during a season such as Advent and Christmas when time can be at a premium. No, I don’t have the space to dig into the 670 pages of Fleming Rutledge’s tome The Crucifixion currently sitting on my desk, but an eight- or ten-page theological engagement with a book by Rutledge, James Cone, or Wendell Berry? Absolutely.

For the most part I did read it linearly from beginning to end, though a few times I jumped ahead to the essay on a book for which I have particular affection, as I couldn’t quite wait to see what Doerksen might have to say. It was during such forays that I discovered two of the most helpful essays in this collection, on Augustine’s Confessions and David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. In the former, Doerksen offers a compelling case for why Confessions matters, and by doing so gently rebukes the fashionable tendency to vilify Augustine for diverting Christianity down a path marked by a guilt-ridden and shame-based view of human life. In the latter Doerksen provides a concise and entirely helpful introductory primer to the thought of David Bentley Hart, one of the most important, albeit prickly, theologians currently at work. Equally strong is his essay on Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which stands as a much needed and highly thoughtful critique of a writer Doerksen characterizes as “a theological rock star.” Doerksen is neither dismissive nor mean-spirited, but instead critical in the best sense of that word. The same can be said of his reflection on Diana Butler Bass’s Christianity after Religion, in which he takes an extended and extremely helpful detour into Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. The detour, in fact, is not only a wonderful introduction to the thought born in Bonhoeffer’s prison cell but stands as a solid critique of Bass’s work.

The book includes five sermon texts, which Doerksen suggests are “closely related to the other essays [in part because] sermons are written to be presented orally.” I found that for the most part the sermon texts represented a different genre of writing, not altogether connected to the rest of the book. The exception is the piece with which the Take and Read concludes, a lecture titled, “Why I am (Still) a Christian,” delivered in 2011 at the farewell dinner for graduating students at Winnipeg’s Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute. This searching address is a most fitting postscript to the twenty-nine book-related theological reflections, and very much deserves inclusion.

Jamie Howison is a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada and the founding pastor of Saint Benedict’s Table in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has ministered at Saint Benedict’s full-time since 2004.

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