Book Review: The Hammer of God

My knowledge of Lutheran literature (as opposed to doctrinal or theological texts) is pretty scant. I stumbled upon Garrison Keillor in my late teens and didn’t progress much beyond that. Astute readers will realize Keillor isn’t even Lutheran, but he mentions Lutherans and seems to understand us. For lack of other options, he fit the bill of Lutheran fiction for me. Cultural references to Lutherans are a bit…scant.

Then in seminary we were asked forced to read The Hammer of God by Bo Giertz. What I didn’t know until just now is that Giertz has authored some 600 titles, but this one is his best known, at least in English-speaking circles. And Lutheran circles, probably.

This is a novel in a technical sense. It’s really doctrine in dialogue, a theological treatise with a narrative thread. As such at times it’s dense. Not as dense as Ayn Rand’s ideology as fiction by any means, but still. It’s a thinly disguised theological two by four, at best. Not an unpleasant disguise, but thin.

The book is set in three parts spaced out over perhaps 150 years or more – it’s hard to be exactly sure and frankly it doesn’t really matter. It relates the experiences of three different clerical novices assigned to a rural Swedish parish, there to be schooled in theology and pastoral ministry by various direct or indirect veteran pastors. Their important moments of growth are Christocentric, when they learn to quit focusing on themselves and their personal piety and holiness and focus rather on the atoning work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection. Coming to grips with this theological reality and how it applies in their own lives and the lives of their parishioners is the center of each of the three sections.

The thin veneer of fiction does help make the theological material both relevant and more approachable. And for those studying for pastoral ministry it helps contextualize why doctrine matters, and the sorts of surprising situations where doctrinal grounding is not only helpful but essential.

It’s not a difficult read and if you’re looking for Lutheran literature, well, Giertz isn’t really Lutheran either, but it’s a good explanation of why what you believe matters, especially if you’re going to be leading God’s people.

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