Recently in Published 2000-2004 Category

Title: Me and Orson Welles
Author: Robert Kaplow
Year Published: 2003
Pages: 260

Although Me and Orson Welles is fiction, Robert Kaplow drops 1930s pop-culture references as naturally as if it were 1937 and name drops enough actual performers to fill a dozen Orson Welles productions. It is set in 1937 when a just-twenty-two-years-old Orson Welles produced a stage production of Julius Caesar. That is the second-half of the title, and that much is historical.

The “Me” of the title is the wholly fabricated Richard Samuels. Welles rose to worldwide fame overnight after being cast in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at the young age of nineteen. Samuels was hoping to rise to fame at a similarly young age when he happened to run into Welles himself while taking a stroll through downtown New York after taking a train there from his home in New Jersey. Through a series of coincidences, Samuels is cast in Welles’ upcoming production of Julius Caesar.

For me the first-half of the title (Richard Samuels) was mostly uninteresting while the second-half (Orson Welles) was fascinating. Kaplow hits the nail on the head with his portrayal of Welles’ personality. Whenever the book would veer—fortunately, usually for no more than a chapter or two—to Samuels’ home life, I would be thinking the whole time, get back to Welles, get back to Welles!

There was no attempt to idolize Welles. If anything, the opposite: he was lecherous and selfish albeit a creative genius. After just being showed the fliers for Julius Caesar: “‘This is completely inadequate,’ said Welles. ‘Very possibly the worst-looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ‘We just had two hundred thousand of them printed.’ ‘They’re not entirely bad’ said Welles” (26-27). Kaplow also captures Welles’ dramatic flourishes. The Mercury Theatre sign has just been plugged in and turned on for the very first time, and Houseman has asked him when the play will open: “‘Thursday! Thursday! I told you. We let Tallulah open on Wednesday in her three-million-dollar Hindenburg of Antony and Cleopatra. And then we open Thursday—a lean, brutal Caesar—a Caesar that will bestride the narrow world like a Colossus!’ He slapped his hand on my [Richard Samuels’] back. ‘Sonja! Teach this kid the part. Know it by the time I come back, Junior, or you’re fired. And to you, my mighty Mercury company, and to you, my mighty illuminated sign, how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown! Behold, the Mecury Theatre!’” (30)

Nor does the book idolize the 1930s. The content of Me and Orson Welles could be described as R-rated. This coming of age story included the ultimate coming of age cliche—losing one’s virginity. Each generation seems to think that the generation that came before represented some golden age or higher moral standard. One character even declared, “Morally right? This is 1937, Richard—I don’t think the words ‘morally right’ mean anything anymore” (197). Our questions today about what is right and wrong are nothing new. They stretch back to the 1930s and even back to ancient Greece and Rome and further.

Unlike many historical fiction novels that try to cover huge swaths of history or entire eras, Me and Orson Welles takes place entirely during a single week—the hectic last week of dress rehearsals before the debut of Julius Caesar. This gave the book a sense of urgency hence the story was rarely dull.

Title: A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times
Editor: Michael S. Horton
Year Published: 2000
Pages: 256

The goal of the authors in A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times is to reform evangelicals. Ironically, that is also the goal of the group they are opposing, who R. Albert Mohler, Jr. even labels “reformist evangelicals” in his essay, “Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference.” While reformist evangelicals want to return to the spirit of the Reformation, confessing evangelicals want to return to the doctrines of the Reformation. The former believe we should critique (reform) the doctrines handed down to us from the sixteenth century Reformers in light of fresh readings of Scripture; the latter argue we have strayed from and need to return (reform) to the doctrines of the Reformation.

Disclaimer: I count myself among those evangelicals labeled reformist. It is important to read authors from both sides of the issue though. The book even includes one essay arguing for the opposing viewpoint, “A Defense of the Postmodern Use of the Bible” by Edgar V. McKnight. Academically, as the book acknowledges, the main representatives of the reformist position are Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz (who has passed away since the publication of this collection), and Roger Olson. Popularly, I would add, Brian D. McLaren and Rob Bell as representatives. For an academic defense of the reformist position, I would recommend Reformed and Always Reforming by Roger Olson; for a popular treatment, A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D. McLaren and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell.1

I don’t mean to imply that A Confessing Theology presents a monolithic position. Its contributors include Lutherans, Reformed (Calvinists), Presbyterians, Baptists, and even an Anglican (“Full Circle: ‘Confessing’ Mainliners” by Paul F.M. Zahl). Some of them can’t even decide if they’re evangelicals or not. Exhibiting the typical Baptist hubris that led to the now thoroughly debunked landmark theories2, McKnight claims that “[b]y the time [the fundamentalist-modernist] debates touched Baptists in the South, they were so numerous that they did not need to belong to the developing evangelical movement” (67) while Mohler, the other Baptist contributor, has no problem including himself among evangelicals. David P. Scaer (Lutheran) and D.G. Hart (Reformed) make similar arguments for their traditions while the other contributors from their traditions happily embrace the evangelical identity. But Mohler points out: “The history of American evangelicalism is one long narrative of a search for identity” (131). It should be noted that there is not a single female contributor, which seems to be a major oversight in 2000.

In “The Church’s Dogma and Biblical Theology,” Charles P. Arand asserts that we need to return to historic Christianity in order “to maintain a Christian identity and find a Christian unity” (23). He proposes that we use the Nicene Creed as the basis for Christian doctrine today (24). Arand calls this view “neo-conservative,” (23) another name for neo-orthodox.3 David P. Scaer in “Is Reformation Theology Making a Comeback?” says “that what we [confessing evangelicals] confess finds its substance in the ancient creeds and Reformation confessions” (157). This isn’t neo-orthodoxy (concerned with right beliefs for today) but paleo-orthodoxy (regards the beliefs of the sixteenth century Reformation as right for today).

The emphasis on doctrine calls into question the book’s view on Scripture. Arand contends that dogma “provides unalterable boundaries that are not to be crossed” (23). Does this not elevate dogma to the level of Scripture? We should always be willing to compare our dogma to Scripture, and where dogma and Scripture do not line up, we must be willing to alter the dogma. In “Sources of Lutheran Dogmatics: Addressing Contemporary Issues with the Historic Christian Faith,” J.A.O. Preus III declares: “While Scripture is clear, our own reality often is not so clear and often our error is that we interpret our reality poorly” (34). I don’t know what Bible he is reading, but I know when I read Isaiah or Revelation, they are anything but clear. The only reason to declare the Bible clear is to pound somebody over the head with “You must be wrong because it clearly says so here!” Likewise, Richard Lints claims in “The Vinyl Narratives: The Metanarrative of Postmodernity and the Recovery of a Churchly Theology” that “the self-disclosure of God in the Scriptures…is not open to a thousand different interpretations” (107). Why then—and this is a conservative estimate—are there thousands of different interpretations?

My review may seem negative so far, but A Confessing Theology makes a number of positive points. Two of which I wish to point out: (1) The distinct disciplines of Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology need to be reconciled. This is actually a major theme in the collection: 15, 25, 65, 208, 209, all of chapter 11, “Reintegrating Biblical Theology [Biblical Studies] and Dogmatics [Systematic Theology]” by Paul R. Raabe, and then chapter 12, “Redemption and Resurrection: An Exercise in Biblical-Systematic Theology” by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., actually gives a (short) example of what this might look like. (2) Theology should be in the church and for the church. According to Lints, “theologians have become technicians and engineers, specialists who are called upon only to answer the really abstract esoteric questions. There must be…an increasing willingness of theologians to speak from within the church and not merely to the church” (105). And D.G. Hart in “Overcoming the Schizophrenic Character in Theological Education in the Evangelical Tradition,” admonishes “theology and the teaching of it should be going on in families and in congregations” (125).

Notes

1 Bell is accessible to any layman—churched or even unchurched. McLaren—while still a popular treatment—goes much more in depth and assumes some familiarity with theological terminology (i.e. Christianese).
2 I give this criticism as a Baptist myself. I’ve actually had a rural Oklahoma Baptist pastor tell me that Baptists aren’t Protestants because since Baptists were founded by John the Baptist (!), we never split from (“protested”) the Catholic Church—because we were never part of the Catholic church.
3 Neo-orthodoxy also refers to a 20th century, European theological movement begun by Karl Barth (though Barth himself rejected the label), so most people use neo-conservatism to avoid confusion. In my context, ortho- (right) doxy (belief) is more meaningful.

Title: The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style
Editor: Robert Hudson
Year Published: 2004
Pages: 432

With great style manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, is there any need for a Christian Writer’s Manual of Style? Thankfully The Christian Writer’s Manual doesn’t duplicate what CMOS already does (and does well). Rather than as a replacement for it is better seen as a supplement to CMOS. It can really be a supplement to whatever style manual you prefer, but it is specifically cross-referenced with CMOS.

Whereas you still want to have CMOS handy for the correct way to cite a web page, only in The Christian Writer’s Manual do you get an extensive entry on whether to capitalize the divine pronoun or not. Their verdict: don’t. The purpose of capitalization in English is to distinguish the specific from the general. Chicago is more specific than city. To confer respect is not the purpose of capitalization. We capitalize both Churchill and Hitler.

They preface the discussion of the divine pronoun with, “The following paragraphs outline Zondervan’s policy and the reasoning behind it.” This is a useful disclaimer for the entire book. This manual is adapted from The Zondervan Manual of Style. Zondervan being one of the largest Christian publishers, you can be confident that most of the suggestions will hold for most Christian publishers.

The manual is packed full of useful reference material. It has a table that supplies two different abbreviations for each book of the Bible as well as the Apocrypha. It has entries of specific interest to the Christian writer such as “Agnostic Versus Atheist” and “Hallelujah Versus Alleluia.” It contains an extensive list of Bible translations including a list of important non-English translations. This is an important reference work that belongs on every Christian writer’s shelf.