Thursday, February 15, 2007

Book Review: The Kingdom is Always but Coming

The Kingdom is Always but Coming: A Life of Walter Rauschenbusch

by Christopher H. Evans

My first impression of this book is that it is too long. From the very beginning, the important points of Rauschenbusch’s life were evident, and Evans presented them again and again through different examples. I was left feeling that I didn’t know Rauschenbusch very deeply—the anecdotes of his family life were the most telling about the man…

The main details to take away from the book are that Rauschenbusch was moved by his experience in New York to reflect on the condition of the “working man”, and the inequity of class system created and perpetuated by capitalism. He suggests that the Kingdom of God is an earthly possibility—and sees it as an evolution of social consciousness such that people (specifically Americans) would seek and develop social and economic justice for all, preparing the world for the coming of Christ. Rauschenbusch sees this as a political process, led by Protestant Americans.

I identified with Rauschenbusch’s passion for reading the message of Christ as one of social justice, yet we see throughout the book Rauschenbusch’s paradoxical beliefs and paternalism towards the lower classes and his pursuit of higher social status for himself. He theorizes about the necessity of the suffering that the cross represents, but we do not see that he put this into practice himself, (despite the fact that he worked very hard) in any efforts of gaining solidarity with the poor. He also makes some disturbing differences between the “working poor” and the immigrant community.

Rauschenbusch was the son of a German Baptist minister and was brought up in and around the Rochester Theological Seminary, that his father had a hand in founding. Throughout the book we learn that the younger Rauschenbusch was more liberal than his father and his father’s colleagues, though he was respected by them and eventually accepted a teaching position at RTS, first in the German dept, then the English dept.

The most significant turning point in the book seems to be the publication of Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis which gained him substantial publicity, notoriety and praise. He received many letters from ministers who claimed that Rauschenbusch’s book gave them reason to continue with renewed energy in their ministries by helping to build the Kingdom of God.

I suppose that Rauschenbusch would be seen as the “window” to the era of the social gospel—the reorientation of Christianity toward its social mission and responsibility. He seems to have become the prominent representative, although not the initiator, of this effort. However much I desired, while reading, to like Rauschenbusch, the impression I am left with is that Rauschenbusch is a paradoxical figure, unable in many personal and professional examples in his life, to unify theory and practice. I’m left feeling that I still don’t know Rauschenbusch very well. I’m not sure if this is due to Evans’ writing style, or to the character of Rauschenbusch himself.

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