By Lily R. Wu
“To make a difference in solving the problem of hunger and poverty, we need to think differently,” says George S. Johnson, former director of the American Lutheran Church’s hunger program. “Jesus was constantly encouraging people to look at deeper questions that don’t have easy answers.”
Fresh, compelling anthology
Pastor Johnson’s new book, Courage to Think Differently, is for people of faith who want to open up their thinking and explore new directions. We virtually “meet” more than 30 well-known thinkers and read their insights on the earth’s survival and our own. The compilation is so creative and spiritually compelling that it practically glows in my hands.
The contributors are widely known for being prophetic in their fields. The presentations are brief. The book helps us get beyond vague wishing, to wrestle with what it means today to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
The essays are generally very readable — popularly written as I prefer, rather than heavily academic. Some will require more study on my part, and less study from readers more politically astute. That tells me I’m not going to outgrow this book for quite a while.
I wouldn’t call it “light reading,” but I do enjoy how it seeks to be popular while not compromising on its content. The range is definitely broad. For example, a seasoned hunger advocate or professor might readily appreciate the two-page “Responses to World Hunger” Appendix chart as a teaching tool. Others might need more explanation between the lines. But overall, I think the panoramic view is solid.
Glen Gersmehl, national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship, says, “This is an extraordinary volume: inspiring, rewarding, even exhilarating. It stirs up fresh thinking and motivation. It reminds me of the very best collections I’ve ever read on important themes, like Paul Loeb’s The Impossible Will Take a Little While. And it’s perfect for discussion groups, because the leader can assign some essays for advance reading while making others optional. We just ordered a couple of boxes for our core leaders and congregational forums.”
Sampling of authors
Examples of contributors include Diana Butler Bass, Walter Brueggemann, Shane Claiborne, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, David Korten, Brian McLaren, Bill Moyers, Larry Rasmussen, Vandana Shiva, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, and Elie Wiesel.
Contributor Frances Moore Lappé, who also wrote the foreword, writes, “The world now calls us to go beyond beneficence, to stop berating ourselves for not being good enough and to get on with the task of being powerful enough: to embrace our fear and to join with others to use its energy.”
Peace and justice newcomers – and mentors — will appreciate Appendix Teaching Aids such as “The Shakertown Pledge” (nine declarations for world citizens); ”How to Hang in There for the Long Haul” (21 notes for activists); and “10 Reasons for Choosing a Simpler Lifestyle.”
Adult education groups can study the Bible via “Rich Man and Lazarus;” “God Takes Sides;” and “Jesus and Biblical Interpretation.”
Seminarians, missional classes and pastor’s groups can grapple with “The Peril of Worshiping Jesus;” “Idols in the Church;” “New Climate for Theology;” and “Remember the Poor.”
Hunger and globally-minded advocates can draw from “Taking Oppression Seriously;” “Destroying Small Farmers;” and “Down to Earth Economy” for their speaking and teaching.
Experienced activists can explore “Winner-Take-All Politics;” “Sacramentalism and Eco-Feminism;” and “Global Exploitation.”
For anyone, there’s “Appearing Before the Authorities;” “Letter from a Birmingham Jail;” and more.
Johnson offers a few caveats. First, this book isn’t about giving pat answers or dispensing guilt. And though “things are not working” for most of God’s children and God’s creation, “more generosity is not the answer. A new mindset is called for, that asks questions such as ‘Am I believing in Christ, or following Christ? ‘ ”
He goes on to say that not every reader will change, or needs to change. As contributor John Cobb, Jr., adds, think for yourself; you may come to “conclusions that are quite different from those presented.”
How it’s organized
Seven main section headings suggest the breadth and depth of the content: Irrelevant Religion and Idolatry, Exclusion and Thin Democracy, Biblical Certitudes and Ignorance, Individualism and Cheap Grace, Ecological Crisis and Greed, Silence and Job Insecurity, and Empire and Civil Religion.
Some appendix entries were so good for new activists that they left me thirsting for more. The book is not always snappy and quick; it’s one to sit with and reflect on. But learning to grow in courage is important and takes time. At its best, this book is unusually engaging and definitely time well-invested.
Courage to Think Differently
George S. Johnson
2013 Adventure Publications
Availability: www.adventurepublications.net (enter book title into search box). Also, signed copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org (as supplies last), $10 including p+h, or free with a contribution of $75 or more.
Reviewer Lily R. Wu is a web content writer-editor in New York City and a board member of Lutheran Peace Fellowship, based in Seattle.