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 empathetic ally 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 throw away 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 friendsip with Nazi Germany. A major character become sa 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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