The Parable Of The Good American
Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves,by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton University Press, viii + 334 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by James A. Mathisen, associate professor of sociology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

Nearly 20 years ago when first teaching undergraduate social psychology, I encountered the puzzling literature on altruism—also called prosocial behavior and Good Samaritanism. This was in the aftermath of the murder of Kitty Genovese, the woman who died although 38 people heard her screams for help but declined to intervene. Academics and people on the street were asking, When and why do people get involved? What really constitutes doing good? And is there anything we can do as a society to promote compassion? I wish I had had Robert Wuthnow’s new book, Acts of Compassion, back then.

Sociologists have been aware of Wuthnow since the early 1970s; with such books as Meaning and Moral Order (1987) and Communities of Discourse (1989), the Princeton University sociologist of culture has leapt to the forefront of his profession. Two of his recent works, The Restructuring of American Religion (1988) and The Struggle for America’s Soul (1989), have increased his name recognition outside sociological circles, being read, reviewed, and debated in many Christian quarters. Most evangelicals will find both Restructuring and an essay in Cross Currents (Summer 1990), entitled “Living the Question: Evangelical Christianity and Critical Thought,” especially beneficial.

Wuthnow’s writing is renowned within sociological discourse for being lucid, jargon-free, and insightful—all characteristics of this newest work.

Along The Road

Given my interest in Good Samaritanism, I could ...

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