Evan Hershman's Amazon Review of "Our God Loves Justice" (#OGLJ)

I'm pretty sure that most of y'all have gotten the memo: my book on Helmut Gollwitzer is out and available for purchase!

W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress, 2017).

A number of folks have been very generous in writing detailed (and highly positive!) reviews of the book on Amazon. You'd be surprised -- at least, I've always been -- at how much this can help sales, which ultimately means reaching people with Gollwitzer's legacy. And that's a good thing.

Anyway, the most recent example of this generous Amazon reviewing comes from Evan Hershman (@erhershman) and since Evan didn't have anywhere else to post his review, he agreed to let me post it for you here. If you want to read the review on Amazon, click here. Perhaps the part of Evan's review that cheers me the most is his last paragraph, where he suggests that the book might have something to say both to Christians who are awakening to more left-leaning politics and to leftists who might find that Christianity can be an ally in the struggle.

Many thanks once again to Evan for reading the book and writing this review! I hope the rest of you feel inspired by his example. :-)

Here is Evan's review and, because I just can't help myself, bold is mine:

W. Travis McMaken does a fine job in this book of introducing readers to the work of Helmut Gollwitzer, a theologian and student of Karl Barth who was a prominent public intellectual in postwar Germany. Despite this prominence, he is now a somewhat obscure theological figure, especially in North America. This book shows why this obscurity is undeserved, and suggests that Gollwitzer has much to say in our own time and place.

Despite its subtitle, this book is not an "introduction" in the sense of a comprehensive overview of Gollwitzer's thought. Rather, it zeroes in on a subject on which Gollwitzer wrote a great deal: political theology. Specifically, Gollwitzer was a passionate advocate for socialism, and argued stridently that socialism was the logical outcome of the Christian gospel, and that Christians must involve themselves in politics.

The book is divided into five chapters. The first functions as an introduction, offering a brief description of Gollwitzer and outlining the rest of the book. It also situates the book's chief topic, Gollwitzer's advocacy for socialism, in the context of recent American history. McMaken presents recent historical work about how American Christianity became virtually synonymous with support for capitalism, and argues that since this is neither an inevitable nor 'natural' state of affairs, that Gollwitzer's thought has much to teach us at this moment in time, since more and more people are coming to question the inevitability and desirability of capitalism in this new 'Gilded Age' we are witnessing.

The second chapter is a brief overview of Gollwitzer's life. Like so many Christian theologians, from Augustine and Luther all the way to Gollwitzer's mentor Karl Barth, Gollwitzer's thought cannot be understood outside the context of his own life and the struggles and controversies he faced. The chapter thus is a necessary prelude to the rest of the book.

The third chapter introduces the primary foundational ideas of Gollwitzer's theology. Specifically, it explores how the ideas about God that Gollwitzer inherited from Barth and the dialectical theology movement shaped his convictions that all theology is both contextual and political. And since all theology is political, Christians must inevitably involve themselves in politics, in either propping up the status quo or challenging it. The chapter is particularly important because it shows how Gollwitzer's politics was not some sort of tack-on, or an alien set of ideas that crowded out "the gospel" (as is often charged against Christians with overtly leftist commitments). Rather, his ideas about the church and politics flow logically from his dialectical theology, most specifically the notion of God as unobjectifiable and "wholly other," to use Barth's famous phrase. It should be said that this chapter is probably also the most difficult in the book: while perfectly readable, those without some prior knowledge of dialectical theology (Barth and Bultmann especially) will need to take this one slowly. This is no fault of McMaken's: dialectical theology is difficult and cuts against the taken-for-granted "truths" of much other Christian theology before and since.

The fourth chapter shows how Gollwitzer's conviction that theology and the church are innately political "cashes out" in terms of his concrete political commitments. Specifically, the chapter explains how Gollwitzer saw democratic socialism as the government most appropriate to the gospel, and conversely how he viewed capitalism as the enemy of democracy. Very interesting in this chapter is the discussion of how Gollwitzer responded to the Marxist critique of religion, inherited from Feuerbach, that religion is a human projection. Finally, the most provocative aspect of Gollwitzer's thought along these lines is his discussion of "revolutionary violence": he was not a complete pacifist, and while highly skeptical of the church's tradition of "just war" (due to its co-opting by nation states and the radical changes in warfare wrought by the advent of nuclear weapons), he turned that tradition on its head and developed ideas about what might constitute a "just revolution."

The fifth and final chapter discusses Gollwitzer's ecclesiology, or doctrine of the church. Because of his dialectical theological view that knowledge of God arises through no human structure or institution, but only through encounter with the unobjectifiable God, Gollwitzer conceives of the church not as institution but as event: one finds the church not in groups of people over any length of time, but rather at any and all times and places where people respond to the word of the unobjectifable God who is wholly other. McMaken further makes it clear how this line of thought represents a sharp challenge to today's fashionable "post-liberal" ecclesiologies such as one finds in George Lindbeck and James K.A. Smith. The chapter, and the book, ends with a final discussion of how the church in North America today finds itself in a situation where Gollwitzer's thought is particularly relevant.

As an added extra, the book includes as appendices two short pieces by Gollwitzer himself, never before translated into English as far as I know, where Gollwitzer explains why he is a socialist and how socialism follows from the gospel. I would urge readers not to overlook these two pieces: in fact, the second of these, consisting of sharply phrased numbered theses, is probably the most concise and pointed defense of a Christian socialism one can find.

This is an excellent book, highly readable. I would especially recommend it to people who, like me, have only fairly recently become suspicious of capitalism and the current neoliberal status quo, and are looking for ways to connect these ideas with Christian faith and explain them in theological terms. I might also recommend it to people who are socialist but not religious or Christian, in order to see how the Christian faith might be interpreted as an ally and not an enemy of those who challenge the stranglehold of capitalism on our world.


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