Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63, by Taylor Branch (Simon and Schuster, 1,064 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Tim Stafford.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is remembered mainly as a political leader; his profession of preaching often seems almost incidental. But the behind-the-scenes portrait that Taylor Branch offers in Parting the Waters shows King as a preacher through and through. His life and the movement he led were grounded in the church and in Christian faith.

Also reviewed in this section:

Waking from the American Dream,by Donald W. McCullough

Faith and Reason,by Ronald H. Nash

The Warsaw Ghetto,by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski

The Road to Daybreak • Heart Speaks to Heart • In the Name of Jesus • Letters to Marc About Jesus • Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader(edited by Robert Durback), by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Branch, who is white, does a marvelous job of portraying King’s world of the black church, where preaching was a natural path of success for able black men. (Business and the professions offered far more limited possibilities in segregated society.)

Even as a student King was a sensational speaker, and despite an initial desire for a life in academia (he began work on a Ph.D. in philosophy), he landed his first pulpit at Montgomery, Alabama’s most influential black Baptist church. Dexter Baptist was determinedly respectable. The church’s middle-class members appreciated a pastor whose eloquence could mix references from Hegel and Hosea.

King might have spent his life as a symbol of black respectability. Instead, in 1955 he was, almost by accident, caught up in the Montgomery bus boycott. He was 26 years old when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white rider. Days later King was elected president of the upstart boycott movement, probably because he was new in town and had not had time to make enemies. He emerged from that first campaign as the indispensable leader of the civil rights movement. Like no one else, he could mobilize masses of frightened people to put their careers, their families, and their lives on the line for a goal that seemed utterly improbable—the end of segregation.

For most Americans, the civil rights movement was an occasional, disturbing intrusion on their TV screens. Branch tells the story as it was experienced by those involved. It is a thriller. Many were beaten, thousands were jailed, some were murdered. Homes and churches were bombed, and law enforcement officials, rather than prosecuting the terrorists, were fond of arresting the home owners and charging them with bombing themselves. In this passionate battle, King began as a strategist and inspiring speaker, but soon learned what Branch calls “the oratorical illusion,” finding “the greater witness of sacrifice than truth.” King made his biggest impact when he went to jail.

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Indeed, it was his character, more than his words and strategies, that held the faction-ridden movement together. On the whole his honesty, his personal humility, and his sincerity were trusted by insiders as well as by those who merely felt his charisma. He was not hungry for power; he was financially scrupulous; and he genuinely believed and practiced loving his enemies.

It is in this context that King’s frequent extramarital affairs are particularly troubling. If King had been a man no more honest than necessary, his sexual immorality would merely demonstrate again that leaders can be hypocrites. The easy acceptance of his immorality by a circle of close friends, mostly preachers, is therefore even more disappointing. Branch says some of these “grew tired of King’s insistence that it was a sin, and of his endless cycles from hedonism to self-recrimination and back.”

King jeopardized the movement he led by his lack of self-control and left a sour, sad chapter to undercut his memory. There is no way to excuse this, however you bracket it with King’s many positive qualities; and King did not himself excuse it. Branch suggests that King’s internal battle stripped off any tendency he had for self-glorification. King was deeply aware of the power of evil, and he never suggested that it was mainly institutional nor primarily in the enemy’s camp. He knew that darkness camped in the human heart, on both sides of the battle line.

A Church Movement

The early civil rights movement was almost entirely a church movement, run by preachers. Meetings were held in churches, and they were classic worship services, with singing, prayers, inspirational preaching, and the offering. Indeed, some of King’s fiercest (and least successful) battles were to merge his campaign for civil rights with the (black) National Baptist Convention. He wanted the civil rights movement to be explicitly a church movement.

There was a difference to the civil rights meetings, of course. Preachers pleaded for people to put up their hands in commitment, and they counted the number who did, but they were pleading for volunteers to join a protest march (which usually meant arrest and imprisonment, and often physical danger) or to attempt to register to vote (which often meant the same). The focus of commitment was immediately this-worldly.

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The motivation, however, was explicitly rooted in Scripture. King and others preached and acted in doggedly nonviolent biblical love for their enemies, doing so not only when the media were nearby but in closed sessions under intense pressure from violent white mobs and police officers. Glenn Smiley, a white Methodist pastor who encountered King during the bus boycott in Montgomery, remembers King’s impatience with nonviolence as a mere tactic. “Don’t bother me with tactics,” King said repeatedly. “I want to know if I can apply nonviolence to my heart.”

Years later in Birmingham, in the midst of bombings and beatings and deaths, King told the crowd that he would not allow the struggle to deteriorate into a conflict of black against white. “I’m sorry, but I will never teach any of you to hate white people.” He insisted that they pray for their enemies, and they did, meeting after meeting. Throughout his life King was plagued by doubts about his faith and doubts about himself, but he never seemed to doubt that God himself demanded justice of society and love between his people.

One could wish that Branch told us more about the Christian source from which these beliefs sprang; one is left to suspect that despite his learning (King was a genuine intellectual), King did not possess a fully worked-out theology of politics, nor perhaps had he reconciled lofty liberal theology with the fundamental pieties of black Baptist churches. King’s touchstones seem to have been his faith that God demanded love and justice; that the civil rights movement was asking for nothing more than what the American Constitution guarantees; that love was a powerful weapon for change; and that in the black church God could infuse his Spirit—through worship, music, and preaching—into black people. His theology seems to have been vague and skeptical at many points, but his practice of faith was heartfelt and urgent.

Among the most tantalizing details Branch records are the friendly contacts King had with a fellow Southern preacher who, though white, had rejected segregation—Billy Graham. King was tremendously impressed by Graham’s crusade evangelism, with its careful preparation months in advance, and he met several times with Graham and his aides to learn their techniques. King dreamed of a Graham-and-King crusade that would convert racially mixed audiences, first in the North and eventually in the South. “These dreams foundered,” Branch says, “on the question of emphasis between politics and pure religion.” The two men remained privately friendly, and Graham’s aides gave considerable practical advice to King’s organization, but their paths remained separate.

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Assessing Greatness

King was a complicated man with unusual powers, and he faced a unique situation. As he himself seemed to recognize, segregation was relatively simple to correct. The civil rights movement asked for rights that, in retrospect, one can hardly believe were systematically denied to black Americans—the right to vote, for instance. King and his movement were largely successful in securing these rights. But the underlying racism, the mistrust, and the disrespect bred by humanity’s nature and nurtured by centuries of slavery and discrimination—these King knew would require a solution deeper than mere law. His unforgettable dream, proclaimed in the march on Washington, lies as far ahead as ever.

Nevertheless, if King is not exactly a model he is a reminder that Christians can change the face of society. He reminds us that great music, worship, and preaching can break outside the boundaries of the church. He reminds us that preachers need not always be marginal figures in society. He reminds us, particularly, of the courage and humility needed by those who lead us. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a perfect man, as he himself was deeply aware. But reading this book one cannot escape the conviction that he was a great man, and that our nation would be far poorer if he had never lived and preached to us.

Waking from the American Dream, by Donald W. McCullough (InterVarsity, 210 pp.; $7.95, paper). Reviewed by James D. Berkley, senior associate editor, LEADERSHIP JOURNAL.

Prophetically comforting. The phrase may sound like an oxymoron, but it begins to describe this first book by Donald McCullough, pastor of Solana Beach (Calif.) Presbyterian Church.

Disappointment—it’s everywhere, tinting blue the lives of the upper caste, the miscast, and the outcast, Christian and secularist. “We live in a culture that tells us our dreams can be realized with enough hard work and positive thinking,” McCullough writes. “But at one time or another, in one way or another, we wake up to reality. We learn, often with great pain, that we can’t always have what we desperately want.” That’s the bad news. We live in a can-do culture gone sour.

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But what is McCullough’s answer? Don’t look for froth or champagne bubbles. “Not every dream comes true,” he informs us. “Eventually the most positive thinker wakes up to this fact.… Spiritual maturity requires that we learn to drink from a half-empty cup.”

McCullough offers a theology for the rough road, not the primrose path. He issues a call to “faithful suffering.” As he outlines what this means, he also debunks the other theologies offering to fill our half-empty cup. Only one thing can fill us: “Because God is so much more than we want in a God, he’s just what we need.… God is big enough to move us off center, big enough to save us from ourselves, big enough to fill the vacuum in our hearts.”

These chapters surround the unfulfilled with, first, good reason to live even with the prospect of the half-empty cup, and, finally, with the promise of a cup overflowing. As McCullough writes: “The experience of unfulfilled longing speaks to us, if we let it, of an ultimate fulfillment, of something beyond the seemingly endless cycle of temporary relief and disappointment.” But McCullough doesn’t take us out of this world. With steady hand he points us back to this world—for now.

“Being worldly for Christ’s sake does not mean losing sight of heaven,” he tells us. “We must affirm life but not cling to it.… This provides the freedom necessary to serve this world with joy.” We are to be gritty and realistic, because realism includes God.

In this book, McCullough prophetically and firmly has placed his finger on the pressure points of contemporary pain. But at the same time, he carries in his bag the balms that ease contemporary aches, even the deep ones that cleave a heart. And that’s the comfort.

If this book were not so fresh and compelling, it might be overwritten. But it’s not. Instead, it is highly quotable (preachers, take heed), deeply satisfying, and exceptionally givable. For a universal malaise, McCullough has supplied a comprehensive treatment.

A Reasonable Faith

Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith, by Ronald H. Nash (Zondervan, 295 pp.; $17.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Gary R. Habermas, chairman, Department of Philosophy and Apologetics, Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia.

In at least one sense, this volume has been long awaited. Some apologists have questioned why very few books on Christian evidences have been written from a presuppositional perspective (the idea that our foundational assumptions shape how we interpret reality). Here Ronald Nash, a prominent evangelical philosopher, sets out to help remedy this lack of emphasis.

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Faith and Reason is divided into six parts: world views, the rationality of religious belief, God’s existence, evil and miracles, and a conclusion. The 20 chapters include some distinctive discussions of important issues that have taken on new significance in light of recent dialogue. Subjects such as testing and choosing a world view, the problem of gratuitous evil (suffering that appears to serve no purpose whatsoever), and contemporary objections to miracles are treated in a scholarly manner.

Nash explains that he had two types of readers in view: college or seminary students and the general reader who is interested in these issues. This volume would make a good text for courses in apologetics (or philosophy of religion). It is up to date on recent developments in philosophical theology, such as the work of Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga and the current discussions concerning foundationalism. Additionally, the positions of critics are carefully set forth, often in their own words. Further, Nash frequently explains alternative positions that apparently differ from his own in an effort to show that there is room for a variety of perspectives within Christian theism.

Still another helpful feature is the level of conversation, which was purposely simplified and kept at an introductory level. And finally, discussion questions at the end of each chapter further serve to make this a valuable teaching tool.

Ronald Nash has been one of the most prolific writers among recent evangelical philosophers. This is another of his fine volumes that exhibits the philosophical sophistication his readers have come to expect. Such a work is a very welcome addition to the field of Christian evidences.

Bright Stars, Dark Skies

The Warsaw Ghetto: A Christian’s Testimony, by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski (Beacon Press, 117 pp.; $14.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Guy M. Condon, executive director of Americans United for Life.

In The Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski’s personal observations and reports from resistance leaders unfold a stirring chronicle of twentieth-century hell and sainthood. Images of life within the Nazi-created ghetto, deportation to Auschwitz, desperate attempts to resist, and efforts to aid the Jews will revisit the reader long after finishing this brief work.

Two years before Bartoszewski helped found the Council for Aid to Jews in 1942, he was sent for a year to Auschwitz as a 19-year-old political prisoner. There he developed an unquenchable conviction to help “victims of Nazi terror.” The fact that Bartoszewski himself played a major role in the events he is describing gives his work an engaging presence, making up for difficult syntax caused by the translation from German.

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By 1941 the Nazis had forced the Jews, who then constituted a quarter of Warsaw’s population, into the ghetto district. The population density of the 500,000 ghetto inhabitants was then 16 times more than that of the rest of the city. The overcrowding was only overcome through sickness, starvation, and “resettlement.” Despite resistance, the Nazis completed their purge of the ghetto population within five months of an initial uprising in 1943.

Amidst the horror, Bartoszewski offers visions of sainthood embodied in those who aided Jews and served in the face of unimaginable risk. “Selling or giving food to a Jew—even giving a glass of water to someone dying of thirst—was” punishable by death. One source “witnessed the extermination of a family of eight by the Nazis because a single Jewish child had been hidden in their house.” Not surprisingly, only a few of the rescuers lived to see the end of the war.

As many as 10,000 Jews lived illegally outside the ghetto. They depended on the Council for Aid to Jews for falsified birth certificates, certificates of baptism issued in Aryan names, forged work permits, identification papers, food, shelter, and financial support. Also important was exposing the dire circumstances of the Jews to the outside world, although pleas for help were too often met with “unsurpassable indifference.”

In the epilogue, Bartoszewski poses the questions “How could it happen, and what does it mean both for humanity and for the individual?” The Catholic author grapples with the paradox that “the attempt to annihilate the people of Abraham and Isaac was mainly the doing of Christians.”

Through the words of Polish writer Maria Kann, Bartoszewski explains the formation of the sin in specific terms. “The idea that there are different kinds of people takes seed in the minds of children. ‘Master,’ ‘servants,’ and finally ‘dogs’ that you can kill without punishment. This is the horrendous legacy left by the bloodthirsty Führer.” The guilt, according to Bartoszewski, also embraced “everyone who committed the sin of inaction: of indifference, small-mindedness, and cowardice.”

At the height of the civil rights battle, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “It’s only when it’s dark enough that you can see the stars shine.” For Bartoszewski, these manifestations of evil provide a setting for the transcending meaning of the Holocaust reflected in those who did something to save the Jews. The author recalls that God said he would spare Sodom for the sake of ten righteous people. The rescuers, of course, are the stars, the righteous few invoking God’s promise to save the rest, “assuring us that the world after Auschwitz will not be completely without hope.”

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Five new books by Henri Nouwen are reviewed by Arthur Boers, pastor of Windsor Mennonite Fellowship, Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Over the years, Henri J. M. Nouwen has authored more than 20 books on spirituality and ministry. Always inspirational, he stirs in his readers a deep desire to pray and to give more time listening to God.

Nouwen, a Dutch diocesan priest, has spent most of the last two decades in North America, teaching in such prestigious institutions as Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. Yet he sensed that God wanted him elsewhere. “I felt I needed something else because my spiritual life was not deep. I knew that I wasn’t rooted deeply enough in Christ.”

Nouwen’s pilgrimage brought him to L’Arche, an international network of communities for the mentally handicapped. He spent his first year at the L’Arche in Trosly, France, but has spent the last two-and-a-half years at the one in Richmond Hills, Ontario, Canada. A humane alternative to the more typical institutions, L’Arche does not have goals of “normalization,” but is a home where the mentally handicapped and their assistants reside together as God’s children trying to live by the gospel. Life for the assistants includes basic care of cooking, cleaning, encouraging, and prayer. Although a priest for three decades, Nouwen says that joining L’Arche “was the first time in my whole to anything. The rest I had done. I’d life that I felt that God was calling me made a lot of initiatives.”

Although the intensity of caring for such needy persons might not seem to lend itself to writing, Nouwen has been prolific: five new books came out between fall 1988 and spring 1989.

Downwardly Mobile

The Road to Daybreak (Doubleday, 228 pp.; $15.95, hardcover) is the journal of his first year in L’Arche. This pivotal book introduces us to this unique community, which is at the heart of all his new books. During the year Road was written, Nouwen discerned God’s call to a downwardly mobile life, away from the status and prestige of teaching “the best and the brightest,” to serving among neglected and often despised mentally handicapped persons. L’Arche drew him from the life of academia where he felt barren and burnt out into a life of service where he felt God’s renewing hand.

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The journal reveals Nouwen’s deeply intimate relationship with God. It is like reading love letters: “Jesus came to open my ears to another voice that says, ‘I am your God, I have molded you with my own hands, and I love what I have made. I love you with a love that has no limits.… Do not run away from me. Come back to me—not once, not twice, but always again.’ ”

Nouwen’s shared pilgrimage encourages us to be spiritually deepened, too. (In that vein, Heart Speaks to Heart [Ave Maria Press, 62 pp.; $5.95, paper] is a little book of meditations written while he was recovering from physical and emotional exhaustion.) His heartfelt prayers are moving, edifying, and nourishing. The Road to Daybreak is one of his best books in years, leaving the reader inspired by insights that will enrich one’s life and faith.

The Irrelevant Leader

Being in community with the mentally handicapped has profoundly affected Nouwen’s view of ministry. His new thinking on the nature of Christian leadership is given expression in In the Name of Jesus (Crossroad, 81 pp.; $10.95, hardcover).

Nouwen came to L’Arche famous and successful, but that meant little to his new work there. Likewise, “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry … is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”

The Christian leader should be wary of fascination with effectiveness and relevance. “Too often I looked at being relevant, popular and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations.”

To those preoccupied with important social problems, he counsels: “Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” In the Name of Jesus draws provocative and stimulating conclusions about the meaning and significance of Christian ministry.

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Combating The Secular

Living a life of faith in a secular society has been the challenge of all modern Christians. Letters to Marc About Jesus (Harper & Row, 85 pp.; $12.95, hardcover) is a simple and telling answer to secularism. These letters to a teenage nephew in the Netherlands are not the severe criticisms of a “Dutch uncle,” however. Rather, they are a gentle, persuasive, and evangelistic appeal to one raised in secular culture.

Nouwen explains the gospel, trying to awaken love for Jesus. Some suggestions (for example, read your Bible) are basic. In addition, he brings the fruits of his lifelong walk with God. His plea will speak deeply to anyone at whatever stage of faith: “When you admit Jesus to your heart nothing is predictable, but everything becomes possible. I pray that you will venture on a life with Jesus. He asks everything of you, but gives you more in return.”

Nouwen’s greatest contribution in this secularist age is his eloquent celebration of God’s presence. Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader (Bantam, 198 pp.; $14.95, hardcover) is a welcome contribution to that end. Robert Durback, the editor, writes that “Nouwen’s gift is to hold up what is ordinary, even broken, despised, and discarded in our lives and … reveal it as something precious and full of promise.” Besides excerpts from Nouwen’s many writings, both published and unpublished, other bonuses include Nouwen’s biography and an essay surveying his books.

By growing aware of God’s loving presence in our lives, we can minister to others. In this way we overcome fatalism, despair, resignation, and stoicism. Henri Nouwen’s new books are an intimate, heartening, and prayerful resource in that very process.

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