Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: Let Us Be Human by Sam Charles Norton

A few years ago, I led a study with an adult Sunday School class at my church of Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance. My intention was to explore the issues of peak oil, resource depletion, and the limits to growth, and to discuss what an appropriate Christian response to these issues might look like. Even though it is an excellent book, spiritual concerns are, at best, tangential to the main topic of Depletion and Abundance, and as a result the book was not a good fit to the purpose of the study. In Let Us Be Human: Christianity for a Collapsing Culture by Sam Charles Norton, I have finally found a book that really speaks to the subjects that I had wanted to explore with that Sunday School class.

A nice, concise summary of the topics the book covers can be found in the introduction, which, conveniently, was published in full by the author on Energy Bulletin (see Let us be Human: Christianity for a collapsing culture). As that is already conveniently available, I won't attempt to summarize the contents again. Instead, I offer some of my own observations of aspects of this book that I found particularly striking.

Although Norton is in some respects quite traditional - for instance, his use of He, His, and Him (capitalized, no less!) when referring to God might be somewhat irksome to more progressive Christians who sometimes go to great pains to not assign a gender to God - he is not even remotely fundamentalist or literalist in his understanding of scripture or theology. He understands that much of scripture is metaphorical or poetic, and quotes Tom Wright to emphasize this point when discussing apocalyptic literature (a popular genre of Jewish literature of which the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation are the best-known examples): "there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events."

Norton directly confronts some of the more pernicious ideas to emerge from religious discourse in recent years. In a discussion of poverty, he states "There are still debates about what is the best thing to do about poverty, but it is impossible to be a Christian and not work for social justice." (Contrast this to calls in recent years from some right-wing leaders that Christians should leave churches that promote social justice.) He also condemns the "prosperity gospel" that has become popular in some evangelical circles, and condemns the doctrine of dispensationalism, which forms the foundational premise for the Left Behind series of novels. Progressive ideas are not immune from his criticism, either: private judgement (the idea that, quoting Norton, "this is what I choose to believe and no-one has the right to criticise me, because my choices are inviolate") and liberalism (again in Norton's words, "the idea that Jesus is a very nice man, a good human teacher, let's try and follow his teaching") both suffer under the assault of Norton's pen.

The author is an excellent writer, and he manages to explain fairly sophisticated theological concepts in a manner that is accessible to the average reader yet not oversimplified. One of my favorite examples of this is when Norton discusses the concept of realized eschatology. I have encountered this idea in several other books, but Norton's explanation is the first one I have found that is actually clear and understandable.

Let Us Be Human might not be of much interest to the non-religious, but I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, I've been looking forward to this book since I read some of the author's essays. Utilitarianism will only get us so far and "saving the environment" is as much a spiritual struggle as anything else (shades of Solzhenitsyn's famous quote, that the dividing line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man). Welcome from another Edmonds Homesteader, my wife and I live up in the Meadowdale area where we keep a large garden, tend the orchard my father planted, and are generally trying to prepare ourselves for the Long Emergency. It's good to see there are other like-minded folks in the area!
    Take care,

    Rade

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