Sunday, October 16, 2016

Brutally Honest Book Review: Man's Need and God's Action

Title: Man’s Need and God’s Action

Author: Reuel L. Howe

Date: 1953

Publisher: Seabury

ISBN: none

Length: 154 pages plus 3-page index

Quote: “Unfortunately, many outsiders are wrongly turned against faith in Christ because they are rightly repelled by churchism, parochialism, and sectarianism.”

As one of those “Bible Christians” who feel so repelled by “churchism, parochialism, and sectarianism” that I seldom actually go to church, I couldn’t agree with Howe more. So it’s my painful duty to say that all Howe’s book does is state the problem. He’s too bland and polite to spell out the solution; he seems to think that just reiterating the problem will force people to see the solution. In fact, I find, what his reiteration does is lull people to sleep. I nodded off when I reopened this book to review it.

Howe tells us that everyone wants to love and be loved. Possibly there were people, in 1953, to whom this might have been news that needed to be expounded for 154 pages. I can’t say how much ignorance on this subject existed in 1953. I can say that everyone in America has heard that we want to love and be loved by now.

Howe doesn’t get to practicalities, such as:

“Instead of judging what people do for a living or the fact that they’re not doing much to earn their own living, a church could be a community that supports each member’s pursuit of his or her own vocation, whether it be preaching or teaching or writing, or cooking food, or selling books, or making bricks.”

“Instead of rejecting, flouting, and stomping angrily on older church rules about personal choices like how people dress, speak, sing, or decorate their homes, a church could uphold its old rules with due respect for those who have chosen and may still choose to follow them, without demanding that everyone follow them.”

“Love begins by respecting people enough to ask them what they want—what would make them feel loved. If we swarm up to people, stare at their faces, bare our teeth, and repeat a lot of empty social chatter very loud and fast, in order to make ourselves feel loved, at least as many people will experience this as ‘hateful’ and burdensome as will experience it as ‘friendly.’ If we sincerely want to ‘love’ people, we need to learn how to back off, shut up, and show love in ways that don’t impress some of those people as obnoxious.”

Those are, unfortunately, my ideas not Howe's. Each of those ideas might be developed into an interesting book, but it was 1953 and Howe didn’t write any of those books, or any similar book that might occur to you. What he wrote may, just possibly, have been new to some churchmen who might have thought, in 1953, that the business of a church is to argue for the merits of one interpretation of one scriptural “proof text” over others.

Since he limits himself to one idea that’s grown old without becoming helpful to those who presumably needed it, I’m tempted to dismiss Man’s Need and God’s Action as a musty old book every library can profitably discard. However, it’s well written in its quaint, exaggerated way, and it is probably an important piece of the history of some denominations, so there’s probably somebody out there to whom Man’s Need and God’s Action is still worth keeping. It’s not a false or harmful book, if you allow for some of the exaggerations and distortions of 1950s psychology, the fundamental assumption that mothers just didn’t feel enough love for their children as infants (which was probably incorrect in most cases and, in any case, gave short shrift to fatherly love) as distinct from the more intelligent assertion that people are wired to feel and express love in different ways.  It’s just an irritatingly inadequate book.

It seems unlikely that Howe is still alive, and he's certainly not active in cyberspace. If he were I'd try to be less brutal about his book. The minimum price for books at this web site is still $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment; you could probably fit three more books of this size into a package for a total of $25 or $26, and if some of those were Fair Trade Books we could send a payment to the authors and/or their favorite charities. 

(So what do I really even want to accomplish with this post? Er um...would anybody like to commission me to write a book about those new, radical, useful ideas that I hoped Howe would have developed, in this book, but he didn't?)