Tag Archives | religion

The Meaning of Sunday | Joel Thiessen

The cover of Thiessen's The Meaning of SundayCanadian churches are closing. Religious identification is dropping. A full 24% of Canadians identified themselves as having zero religious ties in 2011 (94). Zero—not even Christmas and Easter piety!

In The Meaning of Sunday, Thiessen surveys the quantitative data while adding his own qualitative analysis. Through interviews with ninety Canadians from across the socioeconomic spectrum, Thiessen learns why religion does not mean what it used to for Canadians.

Religion is a matter of supply and demand. Researchers like Barna have argued that there is an unlimited craving for religion. If religious levels are dropping, it means that the supply is flawed—we need to do church better. This analysis has led to a rash of church-help books and revitalize-your-congregation conferences. Thiessen argues that supply is not the problem. There is simply a colossal lack of demand for religion today.

You can see this as good news or bad. On the one hand, this is some relief for churches that struggle with declining attendance patterns. On the other hand, it demonstrates that Canada is following on Europe’s heels in racing towards a post-Christian society. Canadian immigration policy has slowed this trend because new immigrants are more religious than the Canadian norm. However, regression to the mean happens quickly, usually within one or two generations.

Thiessen’s research is hard medicine for Canadian Christians, but it’s medicine worth taking. Like an obese person stepping onto the scales at the start of a weight-loss program, The Meaning of Sunday will give Canadian Christians a realistic baseline for future life and ministry.


Thiessen, Joel. The Meaning of Sunday: The Practice of Belief in a Secular Age. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.

Dune | Frank Herbert

The cover of Herbert's DuneDune is one of those epic stories that science fiction fans have to read at some point in their life. Like Asimov’s Foundation series and Clarke’s 2001, this story has staying power.

You can approach the story from a variety of angles.

  • It’s a ecological tale (written in 1965!) about the desire to work with a planet’s environment to create a healthy future.
  • It’s a political tale about the endless subterfuge employed by the power-brokers of the world.
  • It’s a religious tale about the results of spirituality on a culture.
  • It’s a philosophical tale about determinism and destiny.
  • It’s an action adventure story (with a dash of mystery) set in a fully realized alternate universe.

It’s simply engaging on every level.

Fortunately, Herbert went on to write a number of follow-up novels. Other authors have continued after him to write in his world. I’ll be able to take plenty of trips back to Arrakis.

—Frank Herbert, Dune (New York: Berkley Books, 1965).

Apocalypse Delayed | M. James Penton

The cover of Penton's Apocalypse DelayedIt’s difficult to be sympathetic sometimes. This is no where more problematic than with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. With an evangelistic strategy that feels more like a call centre than good news, it’s easy to get frustrated and dismissive.

On the other hand, I have met a few kind and generous Jehovah’s Witnesses in my day. While browsing the religion section of Wayfarer Books (a place you really should visit) in Kingston, I found M. James Penton’s book on the movement and decided to learn more.

The Author’s Background

The author begins by sharing his personal background. He is the great-grandson of a Bible Student (an earlier name for Jehovah’s Witness). He grew up in a Witness home and was a faithful Witness for years, even serving as an elder in Lethbridge, Alberta.

In the late 1970s, Penton wrote a positive book entitled, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and WorshipApocaplypse Delayed takes on a decidedly more negative tone.

In 1979, Penton tried to share some of his misgivings about the direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with head office. This led to his “disfellowshipment” (read: excommunication).

Penton’s personal story makes Apocalypse Delayed a better book. It was written by an insider who loves the movement, but who recognizes the flaws and wanted to see renewal. He succeeds at being remarkably objective, despite his personal investment in the subject.

The Book’s Structure

Penton tackles the story of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in three sections:

  1. History. Starting with the Adventist Milieu of the 19th Century, Penton presents a clear and detailed history of the movement through 1985. An extra chapter in the 2nd edition describes the Witnesses from 1985 through 1997.
  2. Theology. Jehovah Witness theology is notoriously difficult to describe because it’s issued by fiat from head office and often contradicts earlier doctrine. Penteon eschews traditional systematic theological categories and proceeds from sources of authority. This allows him to present a truer picture of Jehovah Witness doctrine than you would get by slotting it into traditional fields.
  3. Sociology. Penton shows, ironically, how the governing structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses conforms quite closely to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. The social pull that head office has on its members along with the power it wields to squash all dissent and questioning is clearly described.

Things I Learned

Many things struck me as fascinating in this study. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. The role of eschatology. The title of the book describes the defining feature of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They consistently pin their hopes on dates in the future which come and go and are then reinterpreted. 1873 was going to be the end of human existence. In 1874, Jesus was to return. In 1878, Jesus was to return in power. In 1881, Babylon the Great was to fall, meaning the end of false religious influence on the church. In 1914, the world was supposed to end. (Coincidentally, the advent of the Great War boosted their belief in this date.) In 1918, worldwide anarchy was to break out. In 1931, God would establish his kingdom in power on earth. These dates have all passed without greater significance. The timeline has been readjusted. The latest significant date was 1975, “the end of 6,000 years of human existence” (199).
  2. The importance of literature. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York is massively prolific. “In 1983 alone they distributed 53,517,808 Bibles, books, and booklets around the world, plus 460,072,255 copies of the Awake! and Watchtower magazines” (231). Despite labeling themselves as an organization dedicated to Scripture, Witnesses are expected to read far more Watchtower publications than scripture.
  3. The transformation from Russel to Rutherford. Charles T. Russell, the founder of what would become the Jehovah’s Witnesses was a generally likable character (despite his marriage issues). He was open to Christians of other stripes while still believing his revelations were the most accurate. When he died, J. F. Rutherford used political subterfuge and outright strong-arm tactics to install himself as Russel’s heir. Despite persistent alcoholism and very questionable morality, this man single-handedly transformed the organization from a movement of Bible Students to an army of door-to-door Witnesses.
  4. The ruthless exercise of control. The tactics used to squash all discontent are brutal. Take for example, Raymond V. Franz. The nephew of then President Frederick W. Franz, he started questioning doctrine and started looking for some sort of reformation. While he went on holidays, Frederick conducted a series of interviews with all of his nephew’s acquaintances. He returned from holidays to disfellowshipment. Those who talked with him were disfellowshiped. Some lost their livelihood when salespeople were instantly cut off from their entire social network.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that I’ve had time to think through the book, I’ve come to some conclusions. This book was written in 1985 and updated in 1997. I wonder what happened in the years following. Penton’s inside information and investigative skills provide a level of accuracy and detail you can’t find in official outlets.

The severe role of control on the lives of Jehovah’s Witnesses has made me change my outlook when in conversation with them. When you discuss doctrine with a Jehovah’s Witness, you cannot expect them to merely shift their belief—you’re asking them to leave their friends, family, and social network behind.

Apocalypse Delayed is one of the most insightful and genuinely interesting books of religious history that I’ve read. I recommend it highly to anyone.

—M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985, 1997).

Christianity | Diarmaid MacCulloch

Christianity 3000 coverDiarmaid MacCulloch must be a walking encyclopedia. In Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, he has written a thousand page behemoth which covers (as the subtitle suggests), three millennia of human history.

I don’t exaggerate when I say “human history,” either. One of the things I realized during my reading of this book was that nothing happens without the influence of religion. Our cherished Western idea of  the “separation of church and state” is quite ridiculous when viewed either practically or historically.

MacCulloch starts, counter-intuitively, a thousand years before Christ. This was a wise move. It’s only when you understand the Jewish and Greek cultural background that you are able to situate the birth of Christianity accurately.

During the early years of Christianity, the church broke into three main groups, along language lines. The first group consisted of Semitic language speakers who spread south into Africa and east all the way to China. The rise of Islam effectively squashed this expression of the church. The two more familiar wings are the Greek speaking orthodox church and the Latin-flavoured Roman Catholic church. Of course, the Reformation is dealt with in detail as well. (In 2005, he published The Reformation: A History.)

The history of Christianity is also a history of politics. During the first three hundred years, it was the story of how Christ-followers defied and evaded political power. After Constantine, it was (tragically for me) the story of capitulation and power-mongering.

A book like this makes me wonder what will come next. Unlike more simplistic histories which treat the progression of culture and religion as inevitable, MacCulloch describes the various false starts and cut-off limbs which prove that history is anything but predictable.

This book is dense but readable. As you might expect, I found the subjects I was most knowledgeable about to be the most interesting to read. The areas I was weaker in seemed more difficult to understand. If you have a background in church history or theology, this book is worth the investment of your time.

—Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010).

MaddAddam | Margaret Atwood

The cover of Atwood's MaddAddamI closed my review of The Year of the Flood (the previous book in the series) with, “We can only hope this turns into a trilogy.” MaddAddam is the third book I hoped for.

Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy is the story of a dystopian future where human greed and pride have clashed to unleash a plague that wipes out the vast majority of humanity. The first two books in the series tell of this”waterless flood” from two different perspectives. They loosely cover the same amount time. In MaddAddam, these two stories converge and the timeline moves forward, albeit with frequent flashbacks.

At its core, MaddAddam follows the relationship between Toby and Zeb, two people who try to come to grips with their past lives as they live in the apocalyptic remains of their world. These characters are complex and surprising. Their past lives allow Atwood to explore themes like religious cults, the authority of large corporations, the ethics of genetic manipulation, and the role of law in a radically subverted context.

Atwood’s exploration of this world is shocking and even cringe-worthy at times, but her analysis left me thinking about important themes long after the novel was put back on the shelf.

—Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (Toronto, ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2013).

Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work

The cover of Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work

Cover of the Revised Edition
(this review is based on the first edition)

Take a quick look at Jacques Ellul and the descriptors pile up: historian, thinker, sociologist, philosopher, theologian, anarchist, christian, etc. It’s clear that he’s no one-dimensional academic. Excited to get a better grasp of the thinking that has influenced and challenged 20th century Christendom (not to mention culture in general), I picked up a copy of this slim CBC publication.

In 1979, Willem H. Vanderburg was tasked by the CBC to interview Ellul for a series of radio programs. The public response to the 1979 broadcast and 1980 rebroadcast led to the publication of the interviews.

When you read this book you’ll hear Ellul’s own voice, guided by Vanderburg, one of his personal acquaintances.

Ellul’s Early Life

Ellul was born in the South of France to a poor family. He became enamored at an early age by Marx and developed a disdain for the capitalism. Despite this early affinity, he became disillusioned by the hypocrisy evident in the Communist Party.

In 1932, Ellul became a Christian but didn’t give up Marxism. When he read Marx’s criticisms of Christianity he learned what Christians should not be. His background in Marxism gave him the sociological tools to criticize the established Church (which is not equivalent to the body of Christ).

Academic life was a natural fit for Ellul. He became an assistant lecturer at the University of Strasbourg, but after speech urging his students to stand up to German demands, he was dismissed. He was forced to join the Resistance where he raised sheep and grew potatoes.

Ellul and Technology

For Ellul, there have been two great sociological shifts in human existence. The first was the movement from hunter-gatherer society to agricultural community. As this shift happened, people were ripped from their familiar milieu (direct connection to the land) to a mediated relationship in villages and towns. The second shift is the shift to our technological society.

Technology was despised by Ellul. I should be more specific—he was against “the authoritarian power that the ‘technocrats’ seek to exercise, as well as the fact that technology determines our lives without our being able to intervene or, as yet, to control it” (26). This shift to a technological society has alienated many people. The elderly, for example, are particularly vulnerable.

As the first shift moved the base of power from the best hunter-gatherer to the best politician, the second shift has moved power from the aristocracy to the technical experts (the new, true aristocracy).

In response to our technological milieu, many have sought escape in religion. This explains why religion now usually takes the form of spiritualism.

Our shift to a technological society is especially difficult for the Third World. Western culture has had centuries to make the shift. “How then can the Third World endure the shock, psychologically and sociologically, when it is asked to absorb this technological apparatus and this technological system in just a few years” (77)?

It’s clear that we cannot return to a pre-technological society. We must teach our children to live simultaneously in and against technology—”a very delicate balance” (83).

Religion v. Faith

In light of the extreme challenge raised by our technological society and the changes it has foisted upon humanity, Ellul found firm footing in Christian faith.

It’s important to note that Christian faith is entirely different from religion. Religion is a natural product of every society—the glue which holds society together. Christian revelation is not only dissimilar to religion, it stands in opposition to it. Following Barth, Ellul believes that God is the Wholly Other who cannot be understood unless he reveals himself to us. Where religion comes from a feeling to rise toward God, Christian revelation is God’s descent to us.

In religion, we try to use the deity. In Christian revelation (95):

We find a God who escapes us totally, whom we absolutely cannot influence, or dominate, much less punish; a God who reveals Himself when He wants to reveal Himself, a God who is very often in a place where He is not expected and only rarely in a place where He is expected, a God who is truly beyond our grasp. Thus, the human religious feeling is not at all satisfied by this situation.

Another hallmark of religion is morality. For Ellul, Christian morality is “ultimately an antimorality” (97). While we can genuinely speak of Christian ethics, Christian revelation has no morality. Here Ellul explains the difference (97):

Morality is a kind of catalogue of rules that one must obey. An ethics is an orientation toward life that calls upon us to develop all our possibilities.

Christian revelation offers a reality—an other—that technology can never assimilate that gives the Christian a firm footing from which to criticize the systemic influence of the technological society.

—Jacques Ellul, Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work, ed. Willem H. Vanderburg, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Toronto: ON: CBC Enterprises, 1981).

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