Book Write-Up: Kierkegaard, by Mark A. Tietjen

Mark A. Tietjen.  Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Soren Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century Danish Christian philosopher.  Kierkegaard had problems with the Christendom of his day, for he thought that it was nominal and cultural rather than vibrant and spiritually authentic.  According to Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard was a Christian missionary to Christians, and Kierkegaard had insights that can challenge, instruct, and edify Christians today.

A number of the insights that Tietjen presents can be encountered in other Christian writings and sermons, as important as these insights may be: one should be a doer of God’s word and not just a hearer; one should set one’s sights above momentary and temporary pleasure but also moralistic legalism.  In addition, while Tietjen discusses how Kierkegaard diagnosed a number of spiritual and psychological maladies that people have, there was not much in Tietjen’s book about possible solutions to these maladies, other than turning to Jesus.  How that would help was not sufficiently explained.  (A refreshing exception is Tietjen’s chapter on Christian love.)

The tension between relying on God’s grace and rigorously doing good works also appears unresolved in Tietjen’s book.  On the one hand, Kierkegaard was critical of how the Lutheran emphasis on God’s grace bred spiritual apathy, passivity, laziness, and complacency.  Kierkegaard advocated obedience and self-denial in the Christian life.  Yet, in a beautiful passage, Kierkegaard encouraged people with a variety of problems (i.e., loneliness, being forgotten, being suicidal, etc.) to rest in Christ’s love, for Christ’s burden is light.  Are Christians supposed to strive for perfection or rest in God’s grace?  What is the proper mixture of these two approaches, or the correct relationship between them?  Tietjen should have addressed this issue.

At the same time, there were plenty of positive aspects to Tietjen’s book.  Tietjen tied his discussion of Kierkegaard’s thought to Kierkegaard’s historical context (i.e., historical critical interpretations of the Bible).  Tietjen continually connected his discussion of spirituality to specific passages in Kierkegaard’s writings, both devotional and non-devotional, and Tietjen occasionally highlighted distinct features of Kierkegaard’s thought.  Tietjen’s point about how Kierkegaard often wrote from a non-believing standpoint (under a pseudonym) to get Christians to think was intriguing.  Tietjen effectively responded to conservative Christian criticisms of Kierkegaard—-particularly those by Dave Breese and Francis Schaeffer—-and Tietjen’s response was nuanced and informative.  (For example, while Kierkegaard has been labeled a Christian existentialist, Tietjen highlights where Kierkegaard differed from existentialism.  Tietjen also addresses Kierkegaard’s discussion of the akedah in Genesis 22, denying that Kierkegaard was advocating a thoroughly irrational obedience of God.)

The best chapter in the book, in my opinion, is the one on Christian love.  At first, I did not enjoy what I was reading in that chapter because Kierkegaard seemed to be presenting Christian love as extremely difficult, if not impossible: Who among us, Christian and non-Christian, can love others without at least some self-interest?  Yet, that is God wants from us, according to Kierkegaard.  But the chapter shared helpful insights as it proceeded: about how we should remember and trust that all people have love within them because they were created in God’s image, and what hurt, jaded, burnt-out people should do when they are reluctant or afraid to love others.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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