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Publisher's Summary

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) was an inner-city pastor, ethics professor, and author of the famous Serenity Prayer. Time magazine's March 8, 1948, cover story called him "the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards". Cited as an influence by public figures ranging from Billy Graham to Barack Obama, Niebuhr was described by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as "the most influential American theologian of the 20th century".

In this companion volume to the forthcoming documentary film by Martin Doblmeier on the life and influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, Jeremy Sabella draws on an unprecedented set of exclusive interviews to explore how Niebuhr continues to compel minds and stir consciences in the 21st century. Interviews with leading voices such as Jimmy Carter, David Brooks, Cornel West, and Stanley Hauerwas as well as with people who knew Niebuhr personally, including his daughter Elisabeth, provide a rich trove of original material to help listeners understand Niebuhr's enduring impact on American life and thought.

©2017 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (P)2017 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

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A companion book to the PBS documentary on Reinhol

The past couple of months I keep running across Reinhold Niebuhr. While I read him in seminary, I have not directly read anything by him for several years. But Niebuhr has come back to the world again with modern politics.

The two strong points that Niebuhr makes to our current political and theological world is that systems are always broken. No matter how good the goals or purposes of any institution or organization is, that institution or organization is still made up of sinful humans and will eventually disappoint or harm.

The second related point, that primarily comes out in his Irony of American History, is that in addition to institutions be broken, organizations with good goals will often adopt bad means to accomplish those good goals and in some ways be more dangerous than the institutions that are openly negative. With good intentions, comes the thought that people working within good institutions to cut corners or harm people because of the greater good that accomplishing those good goals will bring.

Those two points keep coming up. So I picked up An American Conscience and then watched the documentary after I finished the book. This is a brief book, not even 200 pages. But it does a good job introducing Niebuhr to readers that were likely not even born when he passed away.

Niebuhr is probably best known as the author of the Serenity Prayer or for being on the cover of Time’s 25th Anniversary edition, or for being Obama, Carter and McCain’s favorite theologian. James Comey wrote his dissertation using Niebuhr as a framework and named his private twitter account after Niebuhr.

The American Conscious book is clearly intended to be a companion to the Documentary (which can be streamed for free and is only 1 hour.) The book goes into much more detail than the documentary and is roughly framed around Niebuhr’s major books. I have only read Moral Man and Immoral Society, the Irony of American History and parts of Nature and Destiny of Man. Moral Man and Immoral Society is a perfect descriptive title. There are two cheap kindle editions available and after I finished An American Conscience I started reading it again.

If you just want an overview of Niebuhr, An American Conscience is a good option. Several years ago I read the The Niebuhr Brothers for Armchair Theologians. The structure was basically the same for both books. They both primarily concentrated on the books instead of biography. But An American Conscience was far more interesting (and less like an extended book report) than the Armchair Theologians books.

Part of what I like about history is that we should be learning from the past. What I like about Niebuhr is that he seems to take the idea that we should learn from the past seriously. In his case, what he wrote about was inspired by what he experienced. He was a progressive, socialist, pacifist in the 1920s and 30s. Then with the rise of Hitler (Niebuhr was the child of German immigrants and english was his second language) he gave up his pacifism. While touring Europe he gave up his socialism because of the weaknesses of the Russian system. And with the rise of the Cold War he gave up much of his progressivism can called for a much more conservative form of social change.

In someways, Niebuhr is not unlike many young progressives. As they age they understand the weaknesses of some forms of progressivism. But Niebuhr did not give up on the ideals that he originally had. He believed in a gospel that means something for the world today. He believed in many progressive causes, like worker’s rights, civil rights, other social reforms. He understood that sin was more than individual, it was systematic. To address sin as only individual, was to ignore its root causes (this was his main public complaint against Billy Graham.)

Niebuhr throughout his life understood that ethics had to be influenced by faith, not the other way around.

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Detailed life of an american pastor

You probably know Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, even if you do not know the man:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

If nothing else, this is a great thing that Niebuhr brought to the public consciousness. But there is much more to that man than just this.

'An American Conscience' is a companion to a PBS documentary about Niebuhr. Not having seen the documentary, I feel there are some gaps in this book. But nothing substantial, and the book overall feels comprehensive enough. it doesn't spend much time on his early life, for instance. It really focuses on his ministry.

This book gives a very good overview of his ministry. Focusing strongly on his written works and the events happening around them. It talks about his calling out of Henry ford, when everyone else was thinking Ford was progressive. It talks about his relationship to anti-Hitler German pastor Friedrich Bonhoeffer It talks about his approach to race relations, and his sadness when his previous church changed their stance after he left. It focuses on his presentation of the 'social gospel'. It also discussed how and why his views changed over time, giving a strong justification for that change and why changing views is often a good thing.

It is not theological in content. It is not beating you over the head with Biblical beliefs and teachings. It's a fairly 'secular' approach to giving his story, when compared to many other pastoral biographies I have read.

Narration by Alan Taylor was good. Clean, clear, well paced. enjoyable to listen to.

This book was given to me for free at my request and I provided this review voluntarily.

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Solid Intro

A solid introduction to this influential theologian. Impeccable research on a man that influenced so many. I was given this free review copy audiobook at my request, and I have voluntarily left this review.

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Film Companion Book Recounts Life of Niebuhr

It should be kept in mind that this book is a companion piece to the PBS film of the same name. Otherwise, you will be wondering where the documentation is. I assume the historical luminaries are identified in the film which is the one source for this work.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a brilliant theologian, and first-generation American born of European immigrants.

As a pastor, a speaker, a writer, holding positions of sway at universities and in government both domestic and global, Niebuhr was what one would call today, an influencer. Niebuhr traveled actively spreading his views.

Niebuhr tackled Henry Ford's treatment of his assembly line workers and their pay, the role and responsibility of the US post-WWII, race relations, civil rights, other "social gospel" issues, as well as personal responsibility issues.

Niebuhr was a contemporary of Detrick Bonhoeffer and arranged for him to come to Princeton to study for a year. Niebuhr arranged a second year for Bonhoeffer to spend in America, safely away from Hitler, but Bonhoeffer's conscience wouldn't permit him to and he returned to Germany. As you are probably aware, Bonhoeffer was caught and hung for taking part in a plot to kill Hitler.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn it is Niebuhr who wrote the famous Serenity Prayer, which has become almost synonymous with Alcoholics Anonymous.

Niebuhr suffered a series of strokes in the 1950s which slowed his travel but did not slow the writing of his book.

I heartily recommend this audiobook for anyone interested In the formation of America's social conscience from the 1930s through the 1960s.

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