The Challenge of Introducing Pietism

Shantz, An Introduction to German PietismIn recent months I’ve been invited to review two books seeking to introduce English-speaking audiences to German Pietism: Douglas Shantz’s An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Johns Hopkins University Press, paperback $31.50 on Amazon), and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism (Cascade Books, $15.20). While each deserves space on the shelf of anyone interested in the history of Pietism, neither really ends up being the Pietism primer in English that its author or publisher may have wished it to be.

What struck me in looking back at my reviews (Shantz’s forthcoming in Mennonite Quarterly Review; Clifton-Soderstrom’s in Brethren in Christ History and Life) is that the strengths of each largely mirror the limitations of the other:

Shantz’s is not only double the price of Clifton-Soderstrom’s, but more than double the length. (And that not counting the appendices, bibliographies, and endnotes — more in a moment.) I concluded that its length “leave[s] the book rather more expensive than necessary for some of the undergraduate and seminary students and ‘others interested in learning about a defining moment in the Christian story’ that make up Shantz’s intended audience.” Though Shantz has his moments as a writer, it is too rarely the “lively” read promised on the back cover, while I praised Clifton-Soderstrom for “[writing] in a style that is concise… and eminently readable.” In short, Angels, Worms, and Bogeys’ “accessible writing, clever structure, and practical bent make it a valuable addition to the Cascade Companions series, which seeks to acquaint non-specialists with the Christian theological tradition.”

While Clifton-Soderstrom’s sketches of her three central figures — Philipp Jakob Spener, Johanna Eleonora Petersen — were more consistently interesting than their parallel passages in Shantz’s Introduction, her book suffered by comparison to Shantz’s in at least three important ways.

Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysFirst, while it would be unfair to criticize the writer of an intentionally slender “companion” for focusing so heavily on just three individuals, I did point out that this focus “keeps her from exploring the Radical variants of the movement that did not share the Lutheran Pietists’ ‘high view of the church’ (p. 13) and did not fit so neatly into her summation of Pietist theology: ‘both orthodox and life-giving’ (p. 20).” By contrast, it is in his discussion of the Radicals that Shantz shines, both in synthesizing the work of others and in demonstrating his own extensive expertise (e.g., he proposes a new typology of Radical Pietism).

More than anything else, Shantz succeeds in making cutting-edge German scholarship accessible to English audiences; he synthesizes the best of this growing field, and provides extensive notes and suggestions for further reading (“a remarkable resource for those interested in pursuing further reading and research”). This points to the second major limitation of Angels, Worms, and Bogeys: it does not show the author to be intimately familiar with recent scholarship on the topic, and “she does not close with a brief essay suggesting further reading, but with a cursory list of works cited that is too idiosyncratic to be very helpful.”

Had she been more familiar with German and other scholarship, particularly on Radical Pietism and the eclectic roots of the movement, Clifton-Soderstrom might have painted a more complex picture of German Pietism. As it is, the faith-love-hope ethic she defines is almost too good to be true, perhaps bearing out Shantz’s closing, trenchant critique of contemporary Pietist theologians who “By recourse to history… mean a return to a near-pristine beginning as reflected in the stated intentions and ideals of theological spokesmen. Such a strategy is lamentably inadequate when it ignores the contrary evidence of Pietist behaviors, conflicts, and failings in the real world.” (p. 289)

What the books have in common is positive: that in different ways for different audiences, they are highly teachable, written and edited with education, and not just erudition, in mind. On top of his hundred pages of notes and bibliographies, Shantz provides some seventy pages of primary sources in translation and discussion questions. I found those appendices “eminently valuable” for the seminary and graduate students most likely to read this book. (Indeed, the entire book reads much like a textbook, which is the role that one version of its manuscript filled for one of Shantz’s own classes.) For her part, Clifton-Soderstrom serves her intended audience well by closing the main chapters with discussion questions that “lend themselves both to individual reflection and (appropriately, given Spener and Petersen’s pioneering work with conventicles) small group discussion.”

Brown, Understanding PietismSo in the end, I recommend both books, with reservations. But neither is the place to start for English introductions to Pietism.

That title — at least until I see how the forthcoming collaboration between Christian Collins Winn and Roger Olson (full disclosure: they’re contributors to my forthcoming book on Pietism and Christian higher education) turns out — is still held by Dale Brown’s revised edition of Understanding Pietism. While less current than Shantz’s and less breezy than Clifton-Soderstrom’s, it’s both winsome and more sophisticated than Shantz gives it credit for, the product of a church-serving scholar who straddled the boundary between Pietism and Anabaptism.

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