Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Letters to a Young Doubter

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Letters to a Young Doubter

Article excerpt

Letters to a Young Doubter. By William Sloane Coffin. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. x + 185 pp. $14.95 (cloth).

The late William Sloane Coffin's long and distinguished career was remarkable for many accomplishments, not least being his preaching. Though I heard him in the pulpit only once, I remain a fan of his prodigious talent to engage. And as a former university chaplain myself, I was predisposed to appreciate this little book that brings Coffin back into conversation with a college-age young adult several decades removed from Coffin's chaplaincy at Yale. Acknowledging in his preface that this project is inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Pod, Coffin sets forth a conversation with an imaginary undergraduate, a freshman named Tom.

What ensues is less engaging that one might hope, suggesting that Rilke's model is now a dated conceit. For starters, few students today write letters; an e-mail correspondence might have been more in character. Lacking "Tom's" correspondence, the reader gets only one side of the conversation, which is certainly consistent with Rilke's original. But I found myself repeatedly wondering just how accurately Coffin's imagined student represents a contemporary undergrad.

How much richer, I kept thinking, had Coffin actually undertaken an e-mail correspondence with a current undergrad, or several which he might have collated into a realistic composite. Better yet, a series of recorded interviews with a variety of students, edited into downloadable audio files or podcasts. To have his thoughtful responses to the very real concerns of the present student generation, to watch him engage the extremes of secularism and religious fundamentalism within which they not only live but which they actually embody might have proven of greater value and interest to a wider spectrum of readers. But the imagined questions of the invisible Tom seem strained. I simply could not imagine many students of my own experience and acquaintance engaging this book, though I can well envision many a wellmeaning parent or elderly friend presenting it, neatly wrapped, to a gowned high school graduate at commencement time. …

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