Reviewed Elsewhere [Vol. 3, #22]

June 14, 2010


David Fitch gives us
a (diet and decaf?) foretaste of his coming book
The End of Evangelicalism?

Last week or so on facebook, some friends were giving me a hard time for comparing evangelicalism to an ‘empty’ Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. Of course I was referring to philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s famous cultural analyses found in his book, The Fragile Absolute (chapter 3). It’s an example I use in the intro to my upcoming book The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission. There I use Zizek’s Coke illustration to ask questions about the current state of evangelicalism in N America. Allow me to explain.

Zizek narrates how coca-cola was originally concocted as a medicine (originally known as a nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy). It was eventually sweetened and its strange taste was made more palatable. Soon it became a popular drink during prohibition that still possessed those medicinal qualities (it was deemed “refreshing” as well as the perfect “temperance drink”). Over time, however, its sugar was replaced with sweetner, its caffeine extracted, and so today we are left with Caffeine-Free Diet Coke: a drink that does not fulfil any of the concrete needs of a drink. The two reasons why anyone would drink anything: it quenches thirst/provides nutrition and it tastes good, have in Zizek’s words “been suspended.”

Read the full piece:

A Review of Jamie Smith’s

It has become all too common these days for discussions of North American evangelicalism to transpire solely in terms of disdain, so much so that the very word evangelical has almost become a slur. Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t many grounds upon which the evangelical tradition, especially in its North American variety, can (and should) be critiqued. Many have balked at the seemingly evangelical idea that the major tragedies of the last decade, namely, 9/11, the tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent earthquake in Haiti, were somehow divine retribution for homosexuality, idolatry, or general unbelief. In addition, one could consider the ongoing campaign among many evangelicals in the United States to “take back America” through a perverse wedding of white, middle/upper class, conservative evangelicalism and a Republican agenda. Marching ever onward, this group of evangelicals frequently ends up propagating an agenda that often seems more American than biblical.

The criticism could—and should—go on, but while such critique is always necessary for the healthy growth of the church, there is a world of difference between denigrating the evangelical movement and critiquing it from within as a sort of loyal opposition. Fortunately, this is a point not missed by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts. In fact, this commitment serves as his starting point. Understanding his training as a philosopher as providing the platform for a diaconal vocation, a vocation of service to and for the church, Smith here offers a collection of essays directed toward the end of building up the body of Christ.

As is the case with any book of this sort, there is the inherent hurdle of overcoming the occasional nature of each piece in order to create some coherent whole. Smith’s book is no exception in this regard, and it suffers at times because of this. Nevertheless, at the risk of these various writings being reduced to mere cultural musings, Smith successfully manages to offer substantial insights and constructive critiques throughout the volume.

Read the full review:

The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays
on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts
James K. A. Smith.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Powells Books Review of
THE WHALE by Philip Hoare

Philip Hoare’s account of his “search [for] the giants of the sea” is part travelogue, part history, part scientific discourse, and part elegy, all blended into a wonderful melange. He travels to New England in order to walk around whaling towns that Herman Melville  described in detail in Moby-Dick; discusses at great length the historical development of the whaling trade in both America and England; wanders about museums with various whale artifacts, taking in the immense grandeur of reconstructed whale skeletons dangling from ceilings; bemoans the massive destruction visited upon whale populations over the past century, threatening many species with utter extinction; and even goes into great detail about how ambergris — that rarest of whale treasures used in countless colognes throughout the ages for its distinctive aromatic quality — is actually created (it might lose a bit of its exotic luster when you find out).

All of this would be interesting enough on a strictly informational level, but it’s made especially poignant through Hoare’s eyes and fascination with his subject:

There is something about the sperm whale that leads me on, something that, even now, I find hard to describe. No matter how many pictures I might see, I cannot quite comprehend it. No matter how many times I might try to sketch it, its shape seems to elude me. None the less, my curiosity remains…

Hoare repeatedly mentions the mystical air surrounding these creatures that can dive deeper than any other mammal and who live so much of their lives hidden from our view despite their immense size. Theirs is a world ostensibly set apart from ours.

Read the full review:

THE WHALE: In Search of the Giants of the Sea
Philip Hoare.
Hardback: Ecco, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]