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The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War Hardcover – October, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's famous prayer ("God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other") has, Sifton notes, the distinction of being the world's most misattributed text. In a sometimes frustrating, sometimes illuminating and sometimes tedious memoir, Niebuhr's daughter-an eminent book editor and currently senior vice-president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux- sets the prayer in the context of her father's life and work. She traces the prayer's birth to its origins during summer services in a New England village church in 1943. The prayer clearly reveals Niebuhr's Christian realism, which asserts that every human effort is tainted with sin or the inevitable human failure to be perfect. Drawing on her memories of her father and her readings of his books, letters, sermons and prayers, Sifton chronicles her father's development as a theologian who courageously challenged the facile liberalism of American churches, the complicity of German churches with the Nazis and the simplistic solutions of Marxism and socialism. Sifton reminisces about many of the major political, theological, and intellectual figures who were a part of her upbringing (Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, W.H. Auden, Felix Frankfurter, R.H. Tawney, Isaiah Berlin) and with whom her father moved shoulder to shoulder in the world. Despite some unfocused writing as she moves from personal recollection to theological reflection, Sifton offers an intimate portrait of growing up with one of America's most important theologians and demonstrates the timelessness of Niebuhr's struggle for justice and mercy in the world. Photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

The Christian writer and activist Reinhold Niebuhr has influenced millions with his Serenity Prayer, which was composed in the depths of the Second World War, circulated to the troops, and, in edited form, adopted as the mantra for Alcoholics Anonymous. Sifton, Niebuhr's daughter, sets out to correct misreadings of "Pa's" prayer and to bring to life the extraordinary intellectual community of friends (such as Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Felix Frankfurter) who surrounded Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary and at his summer home in Massachusetts. Sifton's account is not free of a certain Episcopalian hauteur (she itemizes the shortcomings of more uncouth Protestant denominations), but she gives her portrait of the time a resonance appropriate to our own. After Eisenhower's election in 1952, Niebuhr warns his daughter, "You've never lived under a Republican administration. You don't know how terrible this is going to be."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (October 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393057461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393057461
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #705,908 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Jonathan Diamond on December 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Easy reading is damn hard writing. The name of the writer who made that observation escapes me but he could easily have been talking about Elisabeth Sifton's THE SERENITY PRAYER, the author's moving, tender memoir of her father theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. In this beautifully written book on the origin of her father's most well known (and widely circulated) words, Sifton provides us with a Rosetta Stone for deciphering some of the most important political and historical events of the twentieth century. Events that inspired men and women like her father to dedicate their lives to the fight against facsism and a world free of bigotry, prejudice, and injustice. Whether standing up to the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy era America, the oppressive, totalitarian government of the Soviet Union or the insane nuclear weapons programs of both countries, Niebuhr and the circle of activists and intellectuals who were drawn to his side were people who put principles above personalities. As a consequence, Sifton's father found allies in every nook and cranny of the American (and global) political and cultural landscape. Christians, Jews, East, West, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, Southerners, Northerners, black, white, wealthy, poor, Niebuhr's followers and supporters cut across traditional class, color, gender and religious lines.
Unlike other chronicles of this era in American history that use important battles, summits, documents, elections, trials, discoveries, etc. to launch their stories from, Sifton utilizes a nondescript prayer her father delivered at the Heath Church in a quiet town of the same name in Western Massachusetts as the back drop for her narrative.
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Format: Paperback
Author Elisabeth Sifton would be annoyed no end to see that seven items-ranging from mugs to a coat rack, all emblazoned with the truncated version of the Serenity Prayer- are offered alongside her book on Amazon.com. This is just the sort of kitsch she and her mother, Ursula Keppel-Compton Niebuhr, an Oxford-educated theologian and historian in her own right, deplored. The prayer written by the renowned Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, was deeper, broader and less personally soothing than followers of 12 Step Programs might surmise, Sifton asserts.

I often found the tone of Sifton's memoir to be precious and elitist in just the way conservatives often characterize liberals. Nevertheless, I read on, and I would encourage you to do so, because she has written a vibrant history of liberal religious thought, action and inaction in the years leading up to World War II, through the war and into the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations with their virulent McCarthyism.

Reading this book in 2005 gives me a chill as I recall the rhetoric of the contemporary religious right after 9-11, the build-up to the war in Iraq, and the subsequent torturing of our prisoners. Reinhold Neibuhr would be mightily discouraged by our lack of historical memory, and that is what his daughter seeks to restore.

As a son of a first-generation German-speaking midwestern Lutheran minister, Niebuhr had remarkable insight into the dynamics of the fascism that took root in Germany and elsewhere. Niebuhr disparaged the sunny false optimism of most German and American clergy, which masked religious and racial bigotry in mainstream white congregations.
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Format: Paperback
Author Elisabeth Sifton is the daughter of noted theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Neibuhr wrote the now-famous "serenity prayer", which has been used for decades by various 12-step and other self-help programs. I had not known before reading this book that the prayer itself was originally written in the first-person plural case, giving strength of purpose to a Christian community which had been pummeled by decades of war:

God, give us grace
to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things
that should be changed
and the wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Sifton's book covers the first 45 years of the 20th century, when the world was shaken by two world wars and a great depression. Faith was a different animal back then -- intimately tied to community and social conscience. The world of faith she discusses is a far cry from the "name it and claim it" spiritual narcissism of the 21st century. It bears no resemblance to the prostitution of the gospel for political power which has come to define "American Christianity" in the last couple of decades.

Filled with stories about Niebuhr's contemporaries, such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this book is a wonderful "insider's look" at a period that was rich with Christian thought, forged in a crucible of courage and difficulty. As a Buddhist, I really came away from this book with a renewed respect for American Christianity.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Haven't finished it yet, but it was as expected. I wanted to know more about the specific time when the prayer was written. I am happily making my way through what many people think is boring! And why? Because it seems as though being a child in Heath MA in the summer, was very similar to being a child in my own hometown...

Some of the best parts are about all the different Protestant "sects" I always wondered what the differences were and why they came to be. The author also explains these things, so that she can describe all of the other visitors and preachers on Sundays.
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