new Mennonite Life logo    June 2005     vol. 60 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Book Reviews

David W. Shenk, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church: Exploring the Mission of Two Communities. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press 2003. Pp. 232. ($14.99—paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9252-4 Reviewed by Marlin Adrian.

Harry Loewen, ed., Shepherds, Servants and Prophets: Leadership among the Russian Mennonites (ca. 1880-1960). Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press; Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003. Pp. 445 ($36.00—paperback) ISBN 1-894710-31-2 Reviewed by John D. Thiesen.

Howard J. Snider. The Cultural Creation of Christianity. West Conshohocken, PA. Infinity Publishing.Com, 2005. Pp.130. ($11.95—paperback) ISBN 0-7414-2370-7 Reviewed by Dwight E. Roth.

David W. Shenk, Journeys of the Muslim Nation and the Christian Church: Exploring the Mission of Two Communities. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press 2003. Pp. 232. ($14.99—paperback) ISBN 0-8361-9252-4

David Shenk has provided yet another excellent resource chronicling the encounter between an Anabaptist believer and Muslims throughout the world. This book is not a systematic comparison of Christian and Islamic theology, nor is it an historical, sociological, or anthropological comparison of Christianity and Islam. It is a comparison between these two living traditions, developed through a dialog in which the author has participated for over four decades. This dialog takes place in the context of a missionary enterprise, and is therefore both polemical and apologetic. The text, however, does not adequately address the academic questions of historical theology and comparative religions.

Shortcomings in Shenk's assessment of the history of Christian theology appear clearly in his discussion of Arius. Shenk writes that the "main reason Arianism died out within the church" was that "the ideas of Arius were not in harmony with the New Testament witness about Jesus Christ nor with the faith experience of ordinary Christians," and "though it was attractive for a while, the movement did not communicate the power of the Gospel" (46). While I'm sure the author believes this to be true, it is a statement of belief, and not of academic scholarship. Shenk also shows a relaxed attitude toward historical issues in his discussion of the furor caused by Nestorius. He contends that "one reason Nestorianism took root in some of the Eastern Churches of Asia" was that the "credibility of the Asian Eastern churches within their societies demanded that they define themselves as different from the union of empire and pope in the Western churches" (47). To speak of Nestorius in the 6th century and a "union between empire and pope," which occurs centuries later, in the same breath reflects an unsustainable leap in analysis.

What Shenk gives to the reader is a very meticulous and careful portrayal of Muslim thought and practice in a climate where misinformation abounds, an accurate portrayal of Muslim thought and practice based on his respect and friendship for the many Muslims he has encountered. He also gives us a structure for the further analysis and dialogue between Muslims and Christians based on meaningful categories important to both traditions, instead of questions relevant only to one tradition. This framework appears clearly in the subjects raised in the list of chapter titles: Abraham, prophecy, scripture, revelation, crucifixion, Jerusalem, and the Unity of God. The limitations of polemics emerge starkly in Shenk's chapter on Shari'a and the Holy Spirit. He offers little new in the historical distortion found in much of the Christian discussion on "law and gospel," so entrenched in Christian literature.

In the final chapter, Shenk discusses the Ummah and the Church, differing views of the Muslim and Christian ideas of "community." It is here that this book becomes a launching point, rather than the definitive word on a very important subject. This is an area where the particular concerns of the Anabaptist tradition place it in a unique position to enter into dialog with Muslims. The Anabaptist view that God's kingdom is not a political entity to be established by governments on this earth stands in stark contrast to the Muslim view that it is incumbent upon believers to establish just such a kingdom. However, it is essential that this not become a polemical debate on which view is "better." Both views carry with them particular obstacles to overcome and issues to resolve. Christian and Muslim perspectives represent viable responses to the challenge of living for God in this world, and both deserve equal respect and evaluation, without a presumption that one is better than the other.

Marlin Adrian
Chair, Religion and Philosophy Department
Salem College
Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Harry Loewen, ed., Shepherds, Servants and Prophets: Leadership among the Russian Mennonites (ca. 1880-1960). Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press; Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2003. Pp. 445 ($36.00—paperback) ISBN 1-894710-31-2

This book is a collection of 24 biographical essays on "spiritual, intellectual and cultural Russian-Mennonite leaders" (9). One might think of this as something like a photo album of the Russian Mennonite intelligentsia of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Editor Harry Loewen will be well-known to readers of Russian Mennonite studies for his long career in the field. This sub-genre—a collection of biographies—is rather rare in Mennonite historical writing. The book is intended for the general reader, although it will be rather hard to follow for readers who do not already have a good grasp of the overall Russian Mennonite story.

In the preface and introduction, Loewen explains and justifies the particular parameters that shaped the selection of persons represented in the book. Although he does not examine the term "leader" itself, Loewen posits three kinds of leadership (12-13) in the Russian Mennonite tradition: 1) pastoral leadership, 2) "practical" leadership, meaning in the spheres of economics, administration, and politics (Johann Cornies is the most famous example), and 3) intellectual leadership. Although these three categories are not mutually exclusive, the focus is on the third category. Loewen argues that the eighty-year time frame covers the period when "Russian Mennonites experienced the most revolutionary changes in their history" (9). The category "Russian Mennonite" also has some flexibility as it is used in the book, although Loewen does not highlight this: of the 24 persons chronicled, it seems that only 4 of them lived their whole lives in Russia. At least a couple of them lived only their youthful years in the Russian environment. Cornelius Krahn and C. H. Wedel, to name two examples, only came into their "leadership" roles in North America, so we see that "Russian Mennonite" means something like "Russian-heritage Mennonites in several geographic areas."

It would be easy to complain that certain people were missed who should have been included (Alexander Harder, the artist, and Fritz Kliewer, South American educator, immediately came to mind during my reading), but such a criticism does not take into account the process of putting together a collection like this. Lack of sources on a desired biography, and assigned authors not producing their work in a timely way are only two of many obstacles in the way of the inclusion of an essay in the collection.

The 24 chapters are arranged alphabetically by last name of the person who is the subject. This alphabetical arrangement probably leads to some confusion for readers, since it obscures the numerous interactions among the 24 men, and also puts generational changes very much in the background. A chronological arrangement might have made the separate essays seem more coherent.

Although each of the biographical essays stands on its own, one can also try to take the measure of their character as a collection. All of the 24 chapters are about men, for example. Loewen recognizes this in his preface: "None of the individuals dealt with are women. There were few women who would have fitted the chronological or thematic parameters of this collection. The historical circumstances of the period restricted the role of women from gaining positions of power and influence in the community, even though many women received a higher education in the late Mennonite Commonwealth. While there were women missionaries, nurses, teachers, and those who served in Maedchenheime (girls' homes), the important work of those women awaits another collection." Loewen also notes the leadership roles of women during the Stalin-era terror and World War 2, after many men had disappeared into the Soviet killing and prison network. It might have been instructive to include a chapter or two on female subjects—maybe a couple of women teachers, for example—at least to demonstrate the details of how women even with higher education were excluded from the kinds of leadership allowed to the male subjects of this volume.

Two sets of brothers are among the subjects in this book. Others are related more distantly, as is so often typical of Russian Mennonite settings. Ten of the men seem to be Mennonite Brethren, with the others from the Kirchliche group; in some cases, of course, there are ambiguities and changes of affiliation. About 10 of them were from the Molochna colony, six from Chortitsa, and the rest from elsewhere. Eight of the subjects, fully a third, ended up as outsiders to Mennonite institutional and church life, which surely says a great deal about the incompatibility between the Mennonite intelligentsia and the rest of the Mennonite environment.

Although there are 24 essays, there are only 19 writers. Two authors wrote 3 essays each (James Urry, Harry Loewen), and one wrote two essays (Abraham Friesen). Twelve authors are Canadian, four U. S., two Paraguayan, and one might be labeled Canadian-U.S. Some of the writers are clearly related by family to their subjects.

How well do the subjects fit the leadership categories intended for the book? One might well ask whether B. B. Janz and C. F. Klassen belong more in the "practical" leadership category (or spiritual for Janz) rather than in the intelligentsia. One might also ask if it is possible to be a "leader" without followers. Are David Johann Penner and David Schellenberg really leaders when they seem to have had no impact on the Mennonite world? They seem to be included as examples of persons of Mennonite background who joined the Communists rather than as intellectuals who influenced the Mennonite community.

In a couple of places (9, 19) Loewen denies the charge of hagiography that might attach to a collection of biographies like this. Nevertheless, most of the essays are largely positive, not really fitting the "objective and critical" (19) character that Loewen would prefer. This probably correlates comfortably with the intended general readership audience, who might not want to hear fondly remembered figures diminished in moral stature. The lack of critical analysis is most apparent not in connection with any stereotypical moral failings of the individual subjects but in connection with the interactions of many of them with the two most violent ideological systems of the twentieth century, Communism and Nazism.

The two essays on Communist figures (David Johann Penner and David Schellenberg) do not really explore the moral/ethical implications of the connection with the Communist system. In what ways are they implicated in the violent nature of the Soviet system? For some persons who lived through the Nazi era in Germany, their essays do not even mention any interactions (the Jakob Kroeker essay, for example). The essay on Walter Quiring by Ted Regehr seems to be the most forthright in dealing with the subject's ideological leanings. The most defensive and most hagiographical essay is the one for Hans Harder. Harder's relationship to Nazism and his activities during World War 2 have been a matter for discussion before. Here Al Reimer stridently defends Harder as someone who resisted Nazism. It is a simple fact, however, that Harder's relationship with National Socialism is far more ambiguous than Reimer portrays it: Harder signed some of his letters during the 1930s and 40s with the formulaic "Heil Hitler," for example, and Harder's willing acceptance of a position with the SS in Russia meant that he had almost no way to avoid knowing what the SS was doing in the extermination of Jews and others there. Knowing what was happening is not the same as participating, of course, and there is no evidence that Harder had any direct involvement with actions against Jews.

The Reimer essay on Hans Harder exemplifies certain weaknesses that run through quite a few of the other essays in the book. Reimer is not familiar with the current historiography on Nazism and thus his portrayal of Harder's connections with the Confessing Church and similar issues is too simplistic, too black-and-white. Greater familiarity with current historical writing on World War 2 in Europe would have made it much more difficult to defend Harder as Reimer does. Similarly, several other essays could be improved by greater attention to current historical writing about the modern European context in which their subjects lived. Reimer (and the authors of most of the other essays) relies mostly on accounts by his subject for the biographical narrative. This presents obvious problems of the limitations of autobiographical writing, which could be reduced by more use of additional sources from the subject's contemporaries. (In many cases, of course, the surviving sources on a particular subject are quite limited.) Several of the essays focus very much on their subject's literary output and somewhat short-change our understanding of the biographical context for the subject's work.

All of these issues have to be seen, of course, in light of the intended general readership for the book. The editor did not call for extensive additional research on the subjects included here. James Urry seems to balance the varying needs well, bringing his perspective as a sort of outsider-insider.

Overall, the book does meet its goal of providing for the non-specialist general reader a readable compendium of biographical essays on the most well-known figures of the Russian Mennonite intelligentsia. Many of the essays will prompt further questions in the minds of readers, which is a good outcome since it may stimulate further research and writing about these and other Russian Mennonite intellectuals.

John D. Thiesen
Mennonite Library and Archives
Bethel College

Howard J. Snider. The Cultural Creation of Christianity. West Conshohocken, PA. Infinity Publishing.Com, 2005. Pp.130. ($11.95—paperback) ISBN 0-7414-2370-7

Consider the construction of a house. The foundation is poured; the walls, floors, and other parts of the building are created. Sociologically, so it is with any aspect of culture. The family, economics, and all other parts of social structure—including Christianity—are constructed by human beings. This is a key idea in the message of Howard J. Snider's text The Cultural Creation of Christianity. His work applies social science methodology toward a historical and contemporary understanding of Christianity. The text is divided into four main parts and concludes with five appendices that touch upon various subjects of the historical construction of this religion.

In the first part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity, Snider reflects on the Jewish, Greek, and Roman context in which Christianity was born. The author examines the multi-faceted world in which Jesus was raised. Here, a key point from Snider's perspective: if we are to recover the essence of the teachings of Jesus we need to strip away Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures' influences that polluted his teachings.

The second part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity focuses upon the processes that changed Jesus the man into the mystical Christ. Snider examines how the essential parts of the life of Jesus and his ethics came to be obscured and replaced by Christ, a mythic character. The basic love-oriented teachings of Jesus were abandoned and his character was transformed into Christ, a figure with magical qualities (e.g. being born of a virgin). In part, according to the author, this is related to Paul's New Testament two-fold interpretation of Jesus' life and death that is a theological system filled with contradictions. These contradictions include Paul's blending the ethical thought of Jesus with parts of mythology of Asia Minor including virgin births, God-men, purification rites by blood sacrifices, ideas of resurrection, and belief in a union with the supernatural after death. Added to this Pauline interpretation is a root of Christian exclusivity based in the idea from Acts 4:12, "for there is no other name, under heaven, given to men whereby we must be saved." Snider writes that this exclusivity is a profound perversion of Jesus' fundamental contribution to humanity.

Part three of Snider's book focuses on the gradual change within Christianity that occurred through medieval Christianity. A significant development during this time was the work of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who lived from 1033 to 1109. In brief, this involves "the substitutionary atonement theory"—the necessity of the blood sacrifice of the God-man, the mythic Christ. Snider notes Anselm's idea has lasted a thousand years being at the core of contemporary conservative Christianity. Part three of Snider's book also looks at the rapid change in Christianity seen in the protestant reformation. The consequent denominational explosion provided the foundations for individualism and contemporary Christian fundamentalism. In contradiction to the emphasis on the mythic Christ of Anslem and fundamentalists, Snider suggests, was the Anabaptist movement of the early 16th century which emphasized the ethical teaching of Jesus as seen in the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical letters of Paul.

The final part of The Cultural Creation of Christianity distinguishes between Jesus Christianity operating with a concern for the world and Constantinian Christianity based in dogma. For Snider these types represent polar opposites—two profoundly different approaches to following the teachings of the New Testament. Snider provides a succinctly stated two page (pp.74-76) distinction of these two types. For example, "Constantinian Christianity calls us to reverence a supernatural world and its deities. Jesus Christianity calls us to reverence nature and our fellowmen." And, "Constantinian Christianity forces us to deny our humanity. Jesus Christianity permits us to realize the potential of our humanity."

The Cultural Creation of Christianity concludes with a look at theology and life. Here Snider suggests Jesus got into serious trouble with the religious authorities because he would not let doctrine be placed above relationships. The call of Christ for Snider is one of Jesus Christianity as opposed to Constantinian Christianity. Redemptive relationships supercede dogmatic creeds. This, the author notes, is the essence of the New Testament call "to grow into the stature of the fullness of Christ".

Snider's work is important for the student of religion and especially Christianity because it illustrates how religion is socially constructed. It is a critical idea that most Christians don't know about and don't want to know about! Religion does not fall out of the sky ordained by God. Rather, Christianity as we know it is the result of a wide variety of cultural happenings and human choices over the last 2000 years. Snider's work reflects upon these happenings and choices as they relate to Christianity. His work will most likely offend those who hold a traditional, Constantinian view of the Bible. It would be surprising if such individuals would read much past the first chapter.

There are four problems regarding The Cultural Creation of Christianity from the perspective of the reviewer. Paul as seen in the New Testament is a key figure in the development of Christianity. While Snider recognizes this development, more detail about Paul's teachings should have been supplied in his book.

In addition, Snider seems to deny any aspect of the supernatural outside the realm of cultural construction. For example, on page 90 the author writes "The supernatural world is the idealized projection of one's own culture and nothing more." If Snider is saying there is no supernatural outside cultural construction it may be argued that he is as locked into his position as much as he says is the case for Constantinian Christians. How are we to know the supernatural or some transcendent reality does not exist? If this is the author's position, more should have been said about this denial.

Snider applies a scientific understanding to the subject of Christianity. But he says little about what many scientists are now saying—that existence, the universe is profound and amazing, perhaps beyond our current cognitive abilities to understand.

The author uses the term "mystical" in a pejorative sense—the idea that mystical has to do with magic and the occult. The term mystical may also be seen in a positive way—for example, the way St. Francis, Buddha, or a wide variety of individuals from other religions transcend their egos and live in service to others—the kind of life portrayed by Snider in Jesus Christianity. It would have been helpful if the author made this clarification regarding the word mystical.

Still, as said above, Snyder's work is important to the study of religion. His ideas are especially important in giving a broad, contextual understanding of the development of Christianity—something most Christians don't want to consider.

Throughout his adult life Howard M. Snider has been engaged in research and writing in terms of what he says are "the ethical teachings of Jesus and the mystical creedal pronouncements of much of western Christianity." For more than 25 years Dr. Snider was Professor of Sociology at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas. The Cultural Creation of Christianity is part of the fruition of his life's work.

Dwight E. Roth
Hesston College
Hesston, Kansas