January 2000

Philemon’s Problem: A Theology of Grace.  By James Tunstead Burtchaell. Eerdmans. 334 pages. $18.

Twenty years ago Philemon’s Problem was given to me by a friend. So affected was I by its exposition of the beautiful epistle of St. Paul to the slaveholder and new Christian, Philemon, that it remained a favorite book. Only last year I recommended it to my Bible study group, but I would not do so with the new edition (which carries a new subtitle) because I have paid closer attention this time around.

Fr. Burtchaell, who was a theology professor at Notre Dame for many years, presents what he calls a distinctive theology, morality, and worship. All are based on his unwavering theme that God the Father always loves and forgives all of us.

First the theology. God the Father loves all, no matter what we do. The Son reveals a Father who has no wrath, who can be neither offended nor pleased. Burtchaell writes: “Indeed he does not respond at all. He initiates…and because the Father of Jesus is creative his love originates good rather than rewards it.” On the contrary, people rightly believe that God responds to their efforts — or lack of effort — to love Him. Why would the Father — the model of our earthly fathers — not be pleased by our attempts to please Him and not be displeased when we turn away? Was not the father in the Gospel overjoyed at the return of his prodigal son?

Even more of a problem is Burtchaell’s theology of the Son. He writes that it is not the mission of Jesus to save mankind but to reveal a God who saves. On the contrary, the mission of Jesus is a salvific mission, and we properly call him “Our Savior.” Burtchaell gives up too much in his zeal to appeal to people of all beliefs. If the Father alone is the God all seek, and the Son’s revelation of the Father is not essential, Christianity loses its unique and radical character.

The chapter that introduces the section on a distinctive morality is titled, “Does Moral Behavior Matter if It Makes No Difference to the Lord?” Burtchaell’s answer, in brief, is that it only matters to us.

Finally, Burtchaell’s distinctive worship contains what many Catholics today would see as the big problem in some of the vocabulary surrounding the liturgy. He refers to the Eucharist as “a sacred meal,” “a sacramental interlude,” and “the pause we need” to celebrate “what we do when we work for one another.” I was left wondering why it would be wrong to use the word “sacrifice” to describe the Eucharist.

The “distinctive” elements of Burtchaell’s theology, morality, and worship do not help me pick up my cross and follow Jesus.

- Rosemary Lunardini



Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army.  By Diane Winston. Harvard University Press. 253 pages. $27.95.

“The Salvation Army.” The name is familiar to virtually all Americans: Images of thrift stores and soup kitchens come to mind. But how did this Army rise from being an obscure foreign import in the late 19th century to being the largest charitable fundraiser in the U.S. today? Red Hot and Righteous answers this question, but in the course of reading the book another came up for me: Is the Salvation Army really successful, in the true sense of the word?

The Salvation Army, originally a British evangelical movement, “hit the beach” in America in 1880 and established itself in New York City. This book chronicles the history of the “U.S.” Army from that time until 1950. The doctrine of the Army, historically, has been “Holiness theology,” which looks to create a “Kingdom of God” on earth. This theology was the impetus of its mission in the early years, a period when the Army — to its credit —was at the center of debates, instead of safely on the sidelines, and vigorously attempting to change society.

The Salvation Army gained an enduring image during the First World War with its “Sallies” — young women who traveled to the Continent to help the cause with some good old-fashioned “mothering.” The young ladies became famous for the donuts they made for the troops, but their real value was in the morale-boost they provided. Women’s roles in the Salvation Army were unusual for the time — women became leaders, even preachers. Ironically, the Army thus undermined the Bible, which teaches that women are not to be preachers.

Winston recounts that after the depression of 1873-1878, discussion arose regarding the “creation of an idle and dependent underclass through indiscriminate charity.” Reformers made a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The author writes: “In their view the undeserving poor — lazy, idle, and immoral — corrupted the worthy poor while at the same time draining taxpayers’ pockets and deceiving religious sentimentalists.” These reformers were right on the money, and it’s easy to see how right they were then — and even more so now. The Salvation Army has a policy of separating the deserving from the undeserving — if you’re willing to work, you’re deserving, and that pretty much sums up its philosophy to this day. That makes lots of sense. In fact, the Army at that time took this philosophy a step further: “The Salvationist plan was based on strengthening families and putting people to work…” (italics mine). Bravo!

However, by 1950, it had become quite clear that the Salvation Army had changed, as the author notes. In the early days of its American history, the Salvation Army was scrappy — an “in your face” organization that many didn’t necessarily like, but had to respect. In growing into the nation’s largest charitable fundraiser, the Army seems to have lost its boldness, its edge. Maybe this is the price one pays for worldly success. The Army once stood for prohibition and against lynchings. But where does it stand today on any of a host of critical social issues? I checked one of the Army’s regional websites, and was pleasantly surprised to find it has strong written positions against abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality. For example: “the Salvation Army affirms its absolute conviction that the marriage of one man with one woman is a sacred institution ordained by God….” But today’s Army reminds me of the Republican Party — great platform, but a glaring lack of desire to publicly stand up in the midst of a red-hot culture war.

Winston identifies the problem: “While it was difficult to raise large sums of money for soul-winning, it was easier to attract funds for nonsectarian social work….” Bingo! Donor money drives the organization. The Army’s current lack of public backbone on moral issues gives it the appearance of simply doing its donors’ bidding.

The Salvation Army has two competing aims. Winston writes that the Army regards souls as its most important work. In fact, the author makes the point that the social work is a “hook” to get the benefactees to listen to the religious message. But this most important goal of all — saving souls — has apparently been de-prioritized in practice. I looked behind the scenes and found that the Army employs nonpracticing Christians in critical capacities such as counseling. How could this be if soul-saving is its most important goal? Lapsed Christians bringing the lost to Christ? It doesn’t make sense. In this sense, the Army is becoming like the YMCA, a Christian organization in name only.

The Salvation Army still does much good work in helping the down-and-out. And its assistance during natural disasters is truly a Godsend. But in the greater spiritual war, the once-great Army appears to have surrendered.

- Patrick Rooney



Children of the Breath: A Dialogue in the Desert.  By Martin Chervin. CMJ Associates, Marian Publisher (1-888-636-6799). 242 pages. $No price given..

Children of the Breath is Chervin’s story of his slow conversion from Judaism to the Catholic faith. From its opening paragraphs, one recognizes a master storyteller at work — and a storyteller with great resources. This work is at once creative fiction and a tale with strong ties to very real, very powerful matters of faith.

It is in some ways the record of Chervin’s struggles with the figure of Jesus, yet Chervin casts it as the daily dialogue between Jesus and the devil during the 40 days in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism. Satan appears from nowhere to taunt Jesus. One time he will wish to discuss obscure points of theology that have the meaning of all things hidden in them. Another time he will come simply to harangue Jesus about the mess that Satan feels God has made of things.

For two thousand years, Christian faith has drawn a variety of portraits of Jesus. To do so again would be nothing new. But Chervin, in an imaginative way, develops a personality for Satan that mirrors the little that Scripture says about him, and yet more. Drawing on the imagery of at least 2,000 years worth of demonology, Chervin sees Satan as the crafty, slippery figure from the underworld. Satan also embodies those things that terrify us most about the evils of our own age. So Chervin sets us up with the image we would expect: a deceitful, bat-winged Satan. But then he surprises us with a witty and urbane Satan who might have just stepped out of a stretch limo. Yet it is always the same dark angel, “fallen Lucifer.”

In between the episodes of this conversation, Chervin retells the story of Creation, Fall, Murder, Mayhem, Flood, Calling, Wandering, Benediction. When each story is told, Chervin deploys it to reveal something of the gaping wounds of our own age. Each vignette in turn becomes the backdrop scenery of the next conversation between Satan and Jesus. In each conversation, Chervin reveals the many ways in which Satan is the Great Deceiver.

For those who are willing to wander with Martin Chervin through the great questions of faith, this book will be an excellent read. As surely as it is the portrait of one man’s struggles with those questions in a particular form, it can be a mirror for our own searchings and struggles in the wilderness.

- Fred Erwin





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