Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book Review: Renewed by the Word

This year I am going to attempt to post more book reviews. One of my goals for each year is a certain number of books to complete by years end. I missed my goal for 2007 by a few books but setting a goal always keeps me moving toward something.

I just finished my first book for 2008. It is entitled Renewed by the Word: The Bible and Christian Revival since the Reformation by Dr. Jeremy N. Morris (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005; 153 pp.; ISBN:1-56563-533-7). Morris is “Dean and Lord Robert Runice Fellow in Ecclesiastical at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and associate Lecturere at the Faculty of Divinity, Cambridge” (Back cover).

I had a hard time following the flow of thought in this brief historical book. It traverses the globe in its scope but was too brief to do so in much depth.

The author’s goal was to trace three major revivals throughout the world. He first analyzed the Great Awakening in America and the personalities pivotal in that movement. This began with several chapters of introductory material. This was somewhat beneficial for it gave the background for which revivalism thrived. The introductory material discussed things as the religious wars which paved the way to religious freedom, the founding of America, and other events that gave rise to a renewal of the Christian faith.

I thought this section was the best part of the book. Morris covers church history well and reminds American believers that events which happened over 500 years ago in Europe have a direct impact on their faith. The continual reminder of the link between Britain and America which Morris gives in this section of the book is valuable.

Morris’ reveals the impact individuals had, good or bad, on the Evangelical revival; people who are not usually addressed in church history books, at least those that I have read. These would include Fredrick the Great, Gottfried Leibnitz, the Countess of Huntingdon, and others.

Second, Morris jumps from Evangelical revivalism and examines the revival within the Catholic Church. This was somewhat less valuable for me but perhaps a student of the resurgence of the Catholic Church would be interested. I am sure it my personal bias, but I am not sure Catholics becoming more committed to their dogma qualifies as a “revival” in the same sense the Great Awakening was a revival.

It was interesting reading about the ecstatic individuals Catholics encountered during this time. For example, Morris describes Bernadette Soubirous encounter various visions, eventually revealing that it was Mary appearing to Bernadette and telling her that Mary was the Immaculate Conception. (p. 98).

These emotional and experiential events were not only part of the Catholic revival but also something Evangelicals would deal with. Morris concludes his book by considering the “third wave” of revival or what is today known as Pentecostalism. Marked by experiential and ecstatic events, the Pentecostal revival is described as beginning by William Seymour in 1906 a Methodist church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Again, one could debate (and many have done so vigorously) if Pentecostalism is based in the word or simply in emotion. Because of this, Pentecostalism is an important part of understanding revivalism in America. One cannot argue the impact Azusa Street has had on Evangelicalism today throughout the world.

There is a chapter about church the evolution of church buildings which seems out of place in the whole discussion of revivalism. It is understandable that revivalism has changed the way people understand “church” and where a church meets. Morris seems to credit revivalism for moving the body of Christ from Gothic cathedrals to Wal-Mart-like churches. However, the consideration of the American mindset may have had more input than Morris indicates.

Renewed by the Word would be a good book for someone in the Holiness tradition or Pentecostal movement to gain a better understanding of their heritage. With my Baptist background, I would rather recommend books like A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada by Mark A. Noll (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000, ISBN: 0-8082-0651-1) or A Summary of Christian History by Robert A. Baker (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994, ISBN: 0-8054-3288-4 ). Both of these books are more comprehensive in their scope but both have short sections on revivalism and Pentecostalism. The Christian history student would benefit from a broader view of history than just that covered in Renewed by the Word.

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