Vincent van Gogh, Still Life With French Novels and Rose, oil on canvas, 1887.
Though the World Council of Churches' consensus document Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry is a work of enormous significance, it may strike one as bland. Gordon Lathrop, a Lutheran theologian, presents much the same material in two books (the first published in 1993) that are lively, provocative and challenging.
The U.S. Supreme Court's opinions about the relationship between religion and the state have been increasingly separationist, argues Phillip Hammond, a distinguished sociologist of religion and contributor to the so-called civil religion discussion. Although the nation "began as a de facto Protestant society," it has since the close of the Civil War moved toward greater and greater government neutrality not only toward differing religions but also toward the difference between religion and irreligion. This is as it should be, Hammond thinks. Behind the Constitution, he contends, is a "constitutional faith," and separationism, rightly understood, is its legal or judicial expression.
One of the best things about William Willimon's new book is that he introduces us to serious, spiritually significant works of fiction and makes us want to read them. One of the worst is that we might be tempted to take Willimon's book as a shortcut, using his summaries of great novels as a substitute for reading them.