Review of Reading Kierkegaard I: Fear and Trembling by Paul Martens

June 22, 2017

Martens, Paul. Reading Kierkegaard I: Fear and Trembling. Cascade Companions. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017, pp. 103, $18, paperback.


Paul Martens is associate professor in the department of religion at Baylor University, which, along with Martens, also employs C. Stephen Evans (department of philosophy) and Jan Evans (department of Spanish), making Baylor home to Kierkegaard scholars in three different departments and a recent hub of Kierkegaard scholarship, especially as Kierkegaards pertains to Christian Ethics. Martens has two other introductory books on Kierkegaard forthcoming, one on Works of Love in the same Cascade Companions series as Reading Kierkegaard I (hereafter, RKI), and another, presumably more general introduction to Kierkegaard in Eerdmans’ Intervention series.

RKI, as its subtitle suggests, and as per the mission statement of the Cascade Companions series within which it is found, is an introduction to the writing of Kierkegaard for the non-specialist. It differs from other books in the series, however, by working as an introduction to one non-biblical book as opposed to the corpus of a Christian thinker. As such, it works like a short commentary on Fear and Trembling (hereafter F/T) with a brief introduction and conclusion that offer some ideas as to how understanding F/T might aid one in his or her reading of Kierkegaard’s other early pseudonymous works.

After a brief introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and works in general and how F/T fits within his oeuvre, Martens organizes the rest of his book to follow F/T. Each chapter after the introduction of RKI bears the name of the corresponding chapter in F/T as translated by Sylvia Walsh in the 2006 Cambridge University Press edition. That is, RKI‘s second chapter is titled “Tuning Up,” Walsh’s English translation of the original Latin title “Exordium.” Quotations of F/T are also taken from the Walsh translation, but Martens cites page numbers for both the Walsh translation and the more familiar Hong/Hong translation from Princeton University Press.

Each chapter is not merely a summation of the corresponding chapter from F/T but offers a strategy for understanding that section of Kierkegaard’s notoriously difficult text. In order to make for the simplest of readings, Martens relies entirely on his own interpretation of Kierkegaard/de Silentio, foregoing any other scholars’ receptions of the text. The footnotes refer, with only a very few exceptions, to Kierkegaard’s corpus, the Bible, and Hegel.

The end product of RKI is a distillation of F/T through the eyes of Martens, who views F/T as fitting within Kierkegaard’s larger program vis-a-vis the Danish Church in the mid-19th century and the paradoxical nature of true faith. The faith journey, through which Kierkegaard tried to lead people ironically, requires a sensitive commentator, aware of the importance of each step in F/T‘s analysis of the testing of Abraham’s faith. Thus, Martens, despite showing a developed thesis of the meaning of F/T, attempts to stay somewhat out of the way, answering the reader’s inevitable questions of the source material mainly as it unfolds in the given chapter of F/T. I should reiterate this last point: RKI is most certainly not meant to be read in place of F/T but in conjunction with it.

Such a conflict in purpose and actual practice is a likely inevitable problem, especially for such a mysterious book as F/T. It is hardly Martens’ fault if readers neglect the source material for his more easily digestible commentary. Nevertheless, it is a shame. As I was reading through RKI I reread F/T and would find myself spellbound again by di Silentio’s juxtaposed retellings of Abraham’s journey to Mount Moriah. Are they troublingly opaque? Yes, of course they are. But so is the biblical source material. Kierkegaard understood the moral challenge of the Akadah and so did not attempt to make it less so in his interpretation. Rather, F/T is a kerygmatic application for the present age that updates Abraham without making him too palatable. An easy application that explained everything would fall into the trap of the dominant Christendom of the era. And yet, no one can really blame Martens for attempting to “explain” Kierkegaard. RKI is not to F/T as F/T is to Abraham and Martens’ explains as much, admitting that “in no way do [his] comments capture the depth of de silentio‘s poetic genius on display” (12). Attempting to match the poetry of F/T would, in fact, be counterproductive for a book in the Cascade Companion series, which intends to introduce non-specialist readers to important subjects in the Christian tradition. As such, RKI succeeds, as disappointing as it may seem at first to read next to the opaque (in style) and dark (in subject matter) but beautiful F/T.

Clarity, not opacity, should be the goal of a commentary or introduction such as RKI, and one way to aid in clarifying the source material is to include well organized appendices, which RKI has. Along with a general index and bibliography, Martens includes a brief bibliography of suggested reading for those interested in further engagement with F/T, along with a timeline of Kierkegaard’s authorship from 1841-46 as a helpful reference. Also helpful is a 10-page glossary (which makes up about 10% of the book as a whole). Included in the glossary are people such as Kant, Regine Olsen, and Aristotle, movements like Stoicism and Pietism, concepts such as absurd and eternity, and biblical and classical characters such as Jephthah and Agamemnon. Strangely absent, however, are other worthy concepts relative to Kierkegaard’s writing such as  Socrates, one of the models for Kierkegaard’s ironic rhetoric, and subjectivity, a right tricky subject highly relevant to Kierkegaard’s first authorship.

Nevertheless, RKI is a worthy introduction to the difficult Fear and Trembling and Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship as a whole. Its brevity (and price) will likely persuade the curious but unitiated to dig into F/T in a way that is accessible and not obtrusive so that the reader can enjoy the source material for itself without being scared away by the meandering and often confusing Fear and Trembling.

Andrew Zack Lewis

Regent College

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