Monday, September 1, 2008

Book review: The Faith of Barack Obama

I was invited by Thomas Nelson publishers to review one of their new titles, The Faith of Barack Obama by Stephen Mansfield. This is one of a small handful of books that are hitting the stores as the Democratic Presidential Nominee gains more attention in the U.S. and the world. Mansfield, who in 2004 wrote the similarly-eloquent title, The Faith of George W. Bush, brought the same approach to this look at Senator Obama’s life of faith.

You can’t consider a man’s story of faith without considering the story of his life, and Mansfield offers a brief but sufficient overview of Barack Obama’s family, childhood, early adult life, and entrance into the political realm. Senator Obama’s life story is rich and amazing in itself; through Mansfield’s pen it is a delight to read.

From there, the author presents us with Obama’s re-introduction to Christianity-- a more personal one than the senator had encountered before. We also get a closer look at Trinity Church of Christ of Chicago and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, both of which were instrumental in Obama’s spiritual awakening, as well as Rev. Wright’s version of Black Liberation Theology, which was less a part of Obama’s journey. And we are offered a brief contrast of Obama’s faith story with those of Senator John McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton, and President George W. Bush.

As a book, I appreciated Mansfield’s insight and perspective very much. He was light-handed with his own interpretation, instead relying on extensive interviews and quotes to tell the stories of Senator Obama’s life and faith for him. He was also mercifully light on political material or analysis, though at times (especially in later chapters) it emerged more explicitly, though not in a dogmatic way. Due to the timing of the book, I found some parts of it already felt a bit dated-- especially a couple of references to the likelihood that Obama would lose in the primaries-- but overall this aspect was masked fairly well.

As a message-- and every book has a message-- I appreciated Mansfield’s perspective, though less so. As
I’ve mentioned before, I accept Barack Obama’s profession of faith as credible, and find it frustrating when people assume otherwise simply because of his name or his background. Mansfield does a fine job of addressing this, and perhaps that was a major goal for his writing; his style and approach is a positive one, focusing more on affirmation than exposé. But I felt that the questions that needed to be answered in a book like this went unaddressed, such as how much or how little Senator Obama embraces the prominent Black Liberation Theology of his (now former) pastor and church, or how he reconciles some of his more extreme views with his professed faith and trust in the Bible. As such, the book felt just a little unfinished-- as if the rush to press meant that the time ran out for the interviews that would answer these and other questions.

Still, the country and the church-- especially the evangelical right-wing-- need this book, and others like it, to help us understand our brothers and sisters of the evangelical left. Overall, I’ll rank this book at 8+.

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