Books Faith

Review of “The Hammer of God,” by Bo Giertz

While I was reading The Hammer of God I kept thinking of A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller. Like Canticle, Hammer is set in the same location over a long period of time (merely a century in Hammer, more than a millennium in Canticle). Also like Canticle, Hammer is heavily inspired by the faith of the author — Lutheranism in Hammer, Catholicism in Canticle. The only difference seems to be how the past is handled — as a true past in Hammer (which spans roughly 1840 to 1940), or the past projected in the future (from a Dark Ages following a nuclear war in Canticle, to the establishment of human space flight).

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Giertz, the former atheist and Swedish Lutheran Bishop who wrote hammer, is clearly a master at understanding Protestant theology and also people. Religious trends are personalized through the introductions of ministers, church officials, and laity, in a way that allows individuals to truly represent their philosophical perspectives, but also have depth and humanity. Indeed, the only other work I can think of that so empathetically switches between intelligent and thought characters who disagree this profoundly is Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and other books in the series. (Interestingly, Ender’s Game is embued with the author’s Mormonism).

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If I had a criticism of Hammer, it is that while the author is profoundly understanding of protestant trends, his treatment of ideas outside of Protestantism is shallow and two-dimensional. The world of discourse treats the protestant concepts of “salvation by faith alone” and “Jesus only” as either completely non-controversial or else opposed only by the intellectually lazy and sentimental. Likewise, the author has a throwaway line critical of the Oxford Movement, but appears himself to be a very High Church Lutheran.

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Indeed, it is from Hammer that I realized for the first time how German-inspired theologians use the term “faith” is very similar to how 19th century German philosophers use the idea of “will.” If anything, Hammer of God proposes a Will to salvation which seems more Nietzchean than Christian. This is not an impression I have received from reading Luther’s small catechism, but Gietz treats faith as more of a primal urge (possessed even by screaming infants) than an understanding or an idea.

The edition of Hammer of God I read contains a 9th chapter, without which the book is unbalanced. (It is written as three novellas, each of three chapters, and the payoff for the first chapter in each novella is of course in the last chapter). But I was also told that the last chapter was “weird.” The reason the last chapter was left out, and the oddness of the last chapter, have the same source: Giertz appears to be arguing for an alliance of Sweden with Finland, which in the context of the 1940s would have meant a friendship with Nazi Germany. A major character becomes a Swedish volunteer in the Winter War. The reasons for this are clear and defensible, but many reads will be unfamiliar with Soviet ethnic cleansing of Finns and the reaction this had in Sweden.

I recommend The Hammer of God for anyone interested in understanding Lutheranism, fascinating by the narrative structure of A Canticle for Liebowitz, or wanting good historical fiction set in Sweden.

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4 thoughts on “Review of “The Hammer of God,” by Bo Giertz
  1. Thanks for a good and honest assessment of Hammer. I became an instant lover of Giertz’s works upon reading it and being captivated by how living and real it felt.

    A couple areas in which I might be able to help fill in a few blanks for you:
    1) Giertz actually engages the Oxford Movement element rather significantly in the 3rd novella when Torvik becomes consumed with preaching the 4 absolutes. This is not a passing familiarity. While he was thoroughly High Church movement by the time of his writing (and in some ways his entire active Christian life), Giertz is actually writing a bit of himself into the story there as he was converted to Christianity by the Swedish Youth Movement (Sweden’s version of the Oxford Movement) and in his first parish as a pastor he preached largely on the four absolutes until the people in his parish (I think his second parish) who were from an area influenced by Rosenius (a lay atonement preacher who is mentioned often in the book) and had lost so many to the Spanish Flu Epidemic that they really forced him to grasp that his preaching offered no comfort.

    2) Giertz’s theology is very much grounded in the protestant “order of salvation/grace). which he describes as “spiritual impoverishment” by which God removes the hindrances to faith. This may be some of what you come to sense when you identify a “will to salvation”. To be clear, Luther never taught faith as an understanding or idea but a living trust in the word of promise and spoke of infants possessing faith as well.

    3) Your desire for the issue of Protestant doctrine of faith alone to be engaged more critically and to see some depth outside of protestantism makes me think you will enjoy his novel Faith Alone: The Heart of Everything. The book bears a lot of similarities to Hammer (even set in the same fictional parish in Sweden) but set in the time of the reformation and focusing on two brothers: one protestant, one Catholic. You may also enjoy Knights of Rhodes (though a very different sort of novel).

    Anyways, I enjoyed reading your review. If you’re interested I have reviewed several Giertz books and wrote a blog on him and translated one chapter of his novel With My Own Eyes. All these can be found at my blog randomarmchairtheology.blogspot.com

  2. Nile,

    Thank you for your excellent comment! Beause of it I have purchased “Faith Alone” by Giertz, and expect it to be the next book I read on Kindle. Thank you.

    If Giertz is in line with Luther on Faith, perhaps there’s agreement with Ratzinger as well

    “The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ, that is, by walking in the way of martyrdom, the daily drama by which we prefer what is right and true to the claims of sheer existence, through the spirit of love which faith makes possible. Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save oneself through one’s own efforts in isolated concentration on the principle that finds the inevitable fruits of one’s actions in one’s destiny. As worked out in detail in particular cases, this attempt can take very subtle forms, but the basic pattern is always the same.”
    > Eschatology, pg 98, http://alectionary.com/archive/2021/11/16/impressions-of-eschatology-death-and-eternal-life-by-joseph-ratzinger-pope-benedict-xvi.html

    Thank you also for your discussion of the Swedish Youth Movement, as well as Rosenius. Much to learn!

  3. The Oxford “movement” referred to in the group is the Oxford Group/Moral Re-Armament and not the Anglican High Church movement.

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