A Body Without Breath
John R. Harris, Ph.D.
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buy *A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason within the Christian Faith* online A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason within the Christian Faith
John R. Harris, Ph.D.
Arcturus Press
294 pages
September 2002
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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There is more than enough in John R. Harris' book, A Body Without Breath: How Right and Left Have Both Stifled Moral Reason Within the Christian Faith, to offend everyone if it were accessible to everyone. Which it isn't.

Curled Up With a Good BookThe reasons for the book's inacessibility are twofold: The first reason is that the book is self- published, its message not fitting in too well with any particular camp or brand of Christianity publishing or politics. The other reason is much more prosaic -- literally: the writing style of the book and the scholarly references are slightly over-the head of the average reader. This reviewer for one.

As the title warns us, this insightful, challenging book is an exploration of faith, politics and culture. Any reader religious or otherwise, conservative or progressive, fundamentalist or liberal- - is going to cry either "ouch" or "foul" depending on his or her willingness to be challenged. That makes Harris either a troublemaker or a prophet. Or some strange combination of both. It's up to the reader to decide.

Harris' passionate, if incredibly complicated, book tilts dangerously close to being an angry diatribe. And no one gets away unscathed. His major purpose is to call readers -- probably other theologians and Christian philosophers because the writing is so suffused with references to intellectuals the average Christian hasn't heard of -- to goodness. He argues that "organized religion seldom provides a context within such basic (Kantian) questions may be posed" and that the voices bellowing in the ear of honest spiritual seekers are often the voices of "friends, professors, the entertainment industry and the minister who can only peep, 'God is in you somewhere. Consult your conscience.'" All this puts, he believe, the average Christian -- Harris has a very low opinion of the average Christian -- in a bad position, because the conscience of the average Christian is not as educated as it should be. There are two primary reasons for this: The first is that the average Christian has been told that truth is found only in the Bible ("ouch" for fundamentalists and Pentecostals) and that the culture has so subverted the meaning of love, knowledge, truth that most Christians are innocent lambs illiterate in moral philosophy.

In short, there is such "unfortunate perversion of truth," "intellectual swindle," "little parables that daub over complex issues" and such "devaluation of moral-religious language" ("The Substance of words themselves is now well along the way to utter meltdown.") that the regular Christian is caught between the neo-liberal theologians "trite moralisms" and "the extreme literalness of the Conservative that the poor unfortunate thinker has nowhere to turn. The Conservatives are challenged for mixing up the idea of God's kingdom with the worship of materialism, country, wealth, externals, literal worship of the Bible. But liberals are also challenged for perverting the idea of forgiveness and charity and for their subtle contribution to moral chaos. He says, for instance, that knowledge of goodness cannot rest solely on the Bible. Neither can we trust God from without to enlighten people's consciences from within. People need to be educated. Their consciences need to be taught and educated. And not solely by spin-meister theologians and cultural change. He depicts Christianity as a religion whose main purpose is to make people good. Goodness is a major philosophical question and so Harris pulls it into Christianity. But he should be careful with his insistence on goodness being the focus of Christianity. Most Christian writings will challenge him because Christianity's focus is more supernatural than moral. It declares that Christ came to give people God's own life whatever that is (not goodness per se although that should logically follow) and the power to overcome personal and demonic evil. They will also declare that Jesus Christ, the founder of the religion, himself declared that he did not come to good people, but to the confused and the lost who can't find the Way. So Christianity is not a religion geared towards making the average person good. This habit of equating Christianity with everyone began with Constantine's insistence that everyone born into the earthly kingdom are part of God's kingdom.

So the average Christian feels left out of the circle. After all, how many average everyday Christians read Reinhold Niebuhr, Kant or Barth? The book is not the fun conversational high-school reading-level one generally finds in Christian bookstores. The book is very philosophical and academic. The book often seems like a private letter written for a small audience who are all aware of each other. Of course certain things needed to be commented on who ever said them. But I kept thinking I wished I had read some of the books he cited. Of course, all of his observations are generally right. But there is a great amount of irony in the fact that all of his observations about the world and human nature have been said before: in the Bible. For instance when he asks why "Many devout Christians ...are dismayed that sensitive people of a pagan era have enunciated Christian ethics with great eloquence? Is there jealousy here?" he echoes St Paul's comment in Paul's letter to the Romans, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes telling us that God has written eternity in the hearts of everyone, and Peter's vision denouncing Peter's Jewish dislike of non-Jews. And do not all religions share this flaw of believing that God has spoken only through their prophets? Why assign a universal human trait to Christianity? Something else: That he decries lack of education, discernment and wisdom among pastors, priests, and theologians is simply a restating of Jesus' warning that if the blind lead the blind, all will fall into the ditch. Harris' arguments against the dangers of worldly-wisdom have been said in other places. When he speaks against the conservatives who worship the Bible literally, he echoes Paul's comment that "the letter of the law kills but the spirit of the law gives life." And so, even as he writes a book whose purpose is to show how silly it is to depend solely on the Bible for wisdom, the whole book says nothing truly new and is often nothing more than an exploration of old Bible themes.

And yet the book is one that needs to be written for our times, especially for the theologians of our time. Christian theologians, like their worldly counterparts, are not immune to cultural influences. And Harris' depiction of the sermons and writings of well-known theologians such as Bishop Spong shows that these theologians are far removed from the theological foundations of their faith. Whether these theologians are simply being subtle parroters of modern psycho-babble or are simply unaware of their own mental, spiritual and intellectual frailty is not Harris's major focus. What Harris seems to want is honest discussion in a world that cannot understand truth. He wants self-awareness in a world where self-deception (for public praise, self-congratulations, and simple arrogance) is as common among theologians as it is among politicians. He wants pure discussion with pure words in a world where words echo sound-bytes and agendas and have lost the purity of their meaning. And he wants intelligence in a world where shrewdness is required. His book is a call in the wilderness. Hopefully, modern pastors, priests, and theologians the people for whom this book is obviously written will take heed. This passionately written book is highly recommended.

© 2002 by Carole McDonnell for Curled Up With a Good Book

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