Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Surprising Work of God

Over vacation, one of the books I finished was Garth Rosell's new book, The Surprising Work of God. Rosell, former director of the Ockenga Institute at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, uses the relationship between Harold John Ockenga and Billy Graham as a lens through which to understand modern evangelicalism. Suggesting that the period right around 1950 was crucial for contemporary evangelicals, Rosell explores some of the forgotten names and personalities of the period.

This book has some real strengths and stunning disappointments. For the strengths: 1) Ockenga deserved a book like this; a fascinating figure, the book reads like a biography for the first hundred pages. Rosell clearly has mined the riches of the Ockenga personal papers in order to present a compelling picture of this quintisential evangelical. 2) The focus on the 1950 Boston Crusade provided an interesting lens on Graham's ministry. My only regret here was that Rosell doesn't appear to have interacted with Peggy Bendroth's brilliant Fundamentalists in the City, which closes with the Graham campaign.
But the disappointments, candidly, outweighed the strengths. 1) There was a bit of distracting filler in the book: the lengthy introduction to historic evangelicalism (pp. 22-35) and the discourse on Charles Finney's contribution to education (pp. 189-95) serve as examples of material that a good editor should have removed. 2) Even more, while the 1950 Boston meetings were interesting, it wasn't clear that Rosell made the case that these meetings launched a worldwide movement. If anything, one could make that case for Graham's 1954 Harringay meetings or the 1945 Youth for Christ meetings in Chicago or a range of other important crusades.
3) Yet more, the book felt like it lost focus. While the main focus was Ockenga, the book spends the last three chapters outlining his vision for evangelicalism (Reclaiming the Culture; Renewing the Mind; Reaching the World); and then, it just stops. We go from the late 1950s to his death and the book is over. No mention, really, of the Fuller years (so interestingly covered by George Marsden in Reforming Fundamentalism that my wife actually read the book); no mention of Ockenga's presidency at Gordon-Conwell; no mention of Park Street's continued pulpit ministry in the 1950s and 1960s. The book just ends.
And that seems like the missed opportunity of this book. While Rosell could have painted a compelling picture of evangelicalism through the ministry of Harold John Ockenga, for whatever reason, the book's thesis became divided and ultimately lost. While it proved an interesting read for a summer vacation, it was not the important book on one of twentieth-century American evangelicalism's most important leaders that it could have been.


Geoffsnook said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review SML. You're definitely a professor: "an interesting read for a summer vacation..."

I wonder if this is something you tell people who are thinking they should go into academia. If you can pick up this book, you might be called to a P.H.D. Just a thought..

Dave Sarafolean said...

After reading Carl Henry's "Confessions of a Theologian" I came away with a somewhat negative impression of Ockenga. He comes across as someone full of ideas and strategy for evangelicalism but unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to implement them. He left that work to Henry and others to found, staff and run Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today while he served his church in Boston. Perhaps this book will balance that perspective.