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Review: Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America

Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right's Vision for America
Blueprint for Theocracy: The Christian Right’s Vision for America by James C. Sanford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to be honest. I was prepared to dislike this book. Calvin, Abraham Kuyper, and Francis Schaeffer are personal heroes to me and they are included in Sanford’s critique of the Christian Right’s vision as intellectual forbears. Furthermore, I have taught “worldview” as a heuristic that is helpful in discerning the underlying premises of everything from a TV ad to a work of philosophy to a college textbook, something I believe important to critical reading skills.

What I found instead was a carefully researched history of the intellectual lineage and practical efforts to bring a Christian Worldview into our national discourse. Particularly significant is his work on the contribution of J.R. Rushdoony’s proposals to institute biblical law in contemporary society and the ways that Francis Schaeffer helped popularize these notions late in his career. He surveys the landscape of political activism that arose in the 1980’s beginning with the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, and succeeding movements and how these were influenced by what he calls “Christian Worldview” ideas. He chronicles well the political alliances (which I would call a form of political captivity of the church) formed with conservative Republicans at the state and national levels pursuing everything from introducing Intelligent Design into schools to electing a President.

My fundamental concern as I finished this book was the tone and some of the rhetoric that I believe represents a mirror image response to the kinds of ‘secular conspiracy’ rhetoric he chronicles with regard to the Religious Right. His repeated usage of language like “idealogues” “absolutists” and, most notably “Jihadists” is inflammatory and creates the kind of “be afraid, be very afraid” tone that I think undercuts the good descriptive research he has done. While every movement has extremists, it is unjust to define a movement by its extremists. For example to equate a Nancy Pearcy or the late Charles Colson with isolated incidents of people who murder abortion providers only perpetuates the us/them divide of which he criticizes the Religious Right.

Similarly, instead of a nuanced discussion of the intellectual and activist lineage he traces, he paints the whole thing as absolutist, dogmatic, and intolerant. Too often in our national discourse, these words are easily thrown about to dismiss what we don’t like without doing the careful work of distinguishing between what might be right or commendable in an interlocutor’s ideas and where we think they are wrong and why. For example, the idea that if there is a God, that God may well be sovereign over all physical and human affairs stands to reason and has been affirmed by most orthodox believers through history. To conclude then that we must attempt to forcibly impose our understanding of the sovereign God’s commands on the political order is wrongheaded. God Himself does not do this in the Garden, nor does Christ or any New Testament writer commend this to the church. Similarly, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty recognizes that the sphere of government is just one of a number and is a good protection against tyranny. Some thoughtful commentators like James Skillen have extended these ideas both to encourage political engagement and define the limits of political engagement in very different ways from the Religious Right. My point is that good critiques look for common ground as well as points of difference rather than pursuing a “scorched earth” approach.

The usage of the term “Christian worldview” as the umbrella under which to gather the intellectual influences and current players in Christian Right is unfortunate. As I noted early, it fails to differentiate between those who use it as rhetoric to underscore a perceived cultural divide, and those including authors like James Sire, who use this primarily as a heuristic to promote understanding and irenic engagement with those holding different premises from our own.

To conclude on a positive note. the author speaks in terms of having an “open” rather than naked or sacred public square. Open, or as Os Guinness has termed them, civil public squares allow for the expression of diverse and disparate ideas. Civility in particular seems to imply refraining from ad hominem attacks and inflammatory rhetoric on all sides while encouraging critical engagement that looks both for common ground and recognizes and respects important differences. The author calls for critique of the views of the Christian Right and their successors and I would agree with the need for this. However, I would like to suggest that “what is good for the goose is good for the gander.” What if each “side” to these discussions were committed to improving the thinking of the other in a common pursuit of the public good? This will only happen if we stop believing the worst of each other and affirm the good wherever we see it. I hope the writer of this book will devote his excellent skills of research and articulation to help foster the understanding and civil engagement so much needed at this time in our history.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Review: The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls

The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls
The Cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls by Elizabeth Gerhardt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a war going on that knows no national borders or physical territories. It is a war that occurs in clinics, ritual ceremonies, sweatshops and brothels, college campuses and religious homes. It is a war against half of the planet’s population. It is the war against women. One manifestation of this war is that there is not a woman I know who feels safe walking alone at night. Sometimes the warfare is expressed “merely” in leering looks or harassing comments. But the war is far more serious in many parts of the world.

In some cases, girls do not even have the chance to be born or are killed shortly after birth. Female genital mutilation is practiced in many parts of the world, affecting both sexual intimacy and exposing women to problems with infection and incontinence. Women are trafficked for sex and labor in forced servitude. Rape is used as a tactic of war. And sadly, even in homes of church leaders, women and girls are exposed to physical and psychological abuse and this has too often been justified or covered up by religious leaders.

In the first part of her book, Elizabeth Gerhardt chronicles both the current extent and historical roots in societal, political and religious contexts of the violence against women that scars or takes their lives. What must be faced is the complicity of many churches in this violence, sanctioning cultural rituals like female genital mutilation in some contexts, or in attributing blame to women when they are abused by husbands with no repercussions or discipline toward the husband.

This is not just an advocacy piece however. Gerhardt, as a theologian, believes that the church’s response to violence in various forms against women must be shaped and informed by the central reality of Christian faith–the cross of Christ. In the cross, we see the identification of the Son of God with those who suffer violence. In entering into the suffering of those who have faced such violence, we walk in the way of the Savior who suffered. In understanding that the cross is the Triune God’s just response to human sinfulness and injustice, we are challenged both to repentance and advocacy on behalf of and care for those who suffer injustice and resistance toward the political structures and persons that perpetrate that injustice.

Gerhardt considers Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany as a model of this Christ-shaped response to evil. She traces the three-fold response of advocacy, care, and resistance in which the Confessing Church and Bonhoeffer participated and its confessional roots. And she applies this as a model for how the church in various countries may respond today whether in denouncing abusive patterns in marriage, supporting micro-finance efforts that help women experience economic independence that makes them less vulnerable to abuse, or in forms of resistance to corporate or governmentally supported attacks upon women.

My one question in this treatment is what the cross means for the perpetrators of evil against women. Perhaps this book was more or less silent on this issue so as to make unequivocal its advocacy for women and the Christian implications of the cross for them and for the church. But it seems that something needs to be said of both the cross’s implications of judgment against evil and the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and transformation of the worst offenders. This can’t be spoken of lightly in a way that sweeps violence under the rug. It means confession of wrong-doing, legal consequences, restitution where this is possible, and a reformation of life and in the treatment of women.

This consideration aside, Gerhardt’s book is a singular and important contribution to a uniquely Christian response to the global concern of gendercide. So often, Christian activism is not grounded in Christian belief but rather a kind of “us too” response. Hopefully books like this can help galvanize a response in the church that contributes to protecting the lives of women and girls and pushing back the individual and structural forms of oppressive injustice afflicting our mothers, wives, sisters and daughters.

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Chasing Certainty

I would like to propose that chasing certainty is like chasing the wind. The most that you can ever hope for is to exhaust yourself only to end up with a handful of nothing.

I work in the context of a ministry with graduate students and faculty, and would argue that the academy eats certainty for lunch. I am not making a statement here that the university is anti-God or anything like that. The truth is that the university is an equal opportunity certainty-eater. When the university is operating at its best, it subjects every idea and research finding to rigorous questioning and testing.  The ideas or theories that survive this process are considered credible explanations, not certainties.

I think there is a mistaken notion that faith, at least for Christians, the group I know best, is about certainty. I think this stems, at least in part from a mistaken understanding of Hebrews 11:1, a verse we often refer to in our “definition” of faith. It reads, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (NIV). For starters, I will note that the word “certain” or “certainty” is not used here. Second, I will not that this talks about things hoped for and not seen. Neither of these terms suggest certainty to me but a certain amount of uncertainty. But what about the terms “confidence” or “assurance”. If I look at the context that follows, what I see this meaning is not certainty but simply acting in trust that what is promised or commanded is true. Noah, for example, believes the warnings of a coming flood even though this is a “thing not seen” and builds an ark (Hebrews 11:7).

What I would propose is that the terms “confidence”, “assurance”, and “faith” are relational terms that have to do with the trustworthiness of the object of one’s confidence, assurance, and faith. If a good friend agrees to meet me at Starbucks at 2 pm today, I will go to Starbucks, not because I’m certain they will be there, but because I have faith in their word. I have confidence or assurance, perhaps based on the fact that they have shown up at other times we’ve set up meetings. Therefore, I leave my house at 1:50 believing in an unseen future meeting with my friend.

Lots of life is like that. We have reasons to believe and act in certain ways, whether with people or God. But we never have certainty. Yet I often observe Christians, as well as many others, pursuing certainty. Perhaps it is in an airtight theological system–and I’ve seen this of Christians of all stripes. Perhaps it is in an apologetic for the faith that “demands a verdict”! Perhaps it is a theory of the beginnings of the earth or an “airtight” refutation of post-modernism. Or maybe it is just having “enough” money in our bank account, or having chosen the “right” diet or exercise plan.

Sooner or later, in the academy and in life more generally, certainty comes up empty and one of two things happens. One is to double-down and become impervious to whatever is challenging our certainties. I’ve often seen this in the form of demonizing those who disagree or a rigidity of thought. The other extreme is becoming un-done–a completely abandoning one’s faith, sometimes for a new set of “certitudes”. Sometimes, I’ve seen this happen to those who came to graduate school from Christian colleges or from strong church backgrounds. Often, the “secular” university gets the blame, but I would propose that the problem may be the idol of certainty that we’ve erected in the place of trust in the living God, and what happens when we find our idol has “feet of clay.”

Others flourish in a similar environment. These people nurture a humble trust in God that acts on what they do know in loving and sometimes risky obedience and confesses what they don’t understand. It is the kind of faith that has room for questions and doubts and takes these to God. Over time, I watch these people gain a larger vision of both reality and God that is marked by resilience and rigor rather than rigidity.

Pursuing certainty is like chasing the wind. What are your thoughts of how one can live a meaningful and flourishing life in a world without certainty?


A Civil Public Square at Work

This past week, I had the chance to visit the beautiful campus of Miami University at the height of its autumn glory. However, I don’t have pictures of tree-lined walks and pleasing campus buildings. Instead of celebrating the aesthetics of Miami, I want to talk about Miami as an example of a civil public square at work.

Miami Code of Love & Honor

Miami Code of Love & Honor

During a meeting I was in, I was given a card that is given to all students and faculty at Miami known as the Miami Code of Love and Honor. Here are the fourth and fifth statements on this card:

“I respect the dignity, rights, and property of others and their right to hold and express disparate beliefs.”

“I defend the freedom of inquiry that is the heart of learning.”

I learned that these principles had been put to the test in the past week as Miami hosted George Will, Washington Post columnist for a lecture. Will’s lecture was heavily protested because of his June 6, 2014 op ed in the Post.  In this article Will makes the statement describing victimhood as “a coveted status that confers privileges”. He then goes on in this article to focus particularly on the growing discussion around sexual assault.

Understandably, anyone who has been raped or knows someone who has would be infuriated by Will’s inference.  One student is pictured in an article in The Miami Student holding a sign that reads “My status as a victim is so coveted that I moved schools because I was taunted by my rapist and his friends.” Another student sign is quoted in the article that read, “Sexual assault leaves you with scars, not privileges.”

The best construction that can be placed on Will’s article is that it was a badly executed attempt to raise a wider conversation about the language of victimhood and the dangers of abridging “due process” rights in allegations of sexual assault. Rather than focus on those issues, which are significant discussions in the higher ed world right now, I want to focus on what the administration at Miami did and didn’t do.

They did not rescind the invitation for Will to speak although heavily pressured to do so as have many other high profile colleges when they discover that an invited speaker holds views considered objectionable by at least part of the college’s constituency. Nor did they suppress protests against Will’s ideas and presence.

Instead, what they did was to allow him to speak and defend his ideas, which were questioned during a question and answer time. At one point, Will made the argument, “The First Amendment does not say, ‘Congress shall not abridge freedom of speech unless the speech annoys somebody,’” he said. “And if you’re not annoying someone when you speak, you’re not speaking properly.”

Miami University President David Hodge wrote a letter explaining the university’s decision to allow Will to speak in terms of the Miami Code of Love and Honor:

“Bringing prominent speakers to campus provides unique opportunities for our students and community to engage with high profile, influential individuals. Many of these individuals are controversial and their positions often challenge us, especially when they appear to clash with our core values. Our values also dictate, though, that we protect “the freedom of inquiry and the right to hold and express disparate beliefs.” While the urge to suppress the voices of those with whom we disagree may be great, it is instead our responsibility to engage and challenge those opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.”

He goes on to state how the university supported freedom of inquiry and the expression of disparate beliefs in this instance:

“The response of the Miami community was respectful and constructive. Those who disagreed with the choice of Mr. Will as a speaker expressed their disappointment with thoughtful letters and petitions. Some who attended the lecture challenged Mr. Will on his opinions during the allotted question period. Those who protested his lecture effectively expressed their points. A teach-in at Cook Field provided a great deal of information about Miami’s efforts to educate students about sexual assault, to support survivors fully and sensitively, and to take appropriate action against those found responsible.”

This, it seems to me, is a civil public square at work. Civil public squares do not suppress objectionable beliefs. They challenge them through argument, protest, and advocacy of what are thought to be better ideas. I suppose a number walked away unhappy on the different sides of the discussion. Reading the account of Will’s lecture, I find myself thinking, “there are things he just doesn’t get.” But considering disparate views is often uncomfortable. Serious inquiry doesn’t always make me happy. But if it results in sustaining our “first freedoms,” in sharpening our thinking about the challenging issues of the day, and in better policies in pursuit of the good society, then it will have been worth it.

Review: A Blaze of Glory

A Blaze of Glory
A Blaze of Glory by Jeff Shaara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jeff Shaara and his father, Michael Shaara, gave us a wonderful trilogy of historical novels on the Eastern Campaigns in the Civil War. Now Jeff is working on a series on the Western Theater, beginning with this volume on the battle of Shiloh.

Shaara unfolds the battle for us in understandable terms. The Confederates have been driven out of Tennessee by Grant, who, for all his mistakes, fights to win. Albert Sidney Johnston has gathered the forces in Corinth, Mississippi, for what seems to be a defense of this key rail center, except for the fact that Grant and his troops are not moving from Pittsburg Landing. They are forced to wait for Don Carlos Buell’s troops to join him. In this, Johnston sees a chance to strike Grant while Grant’s back is to a river, and where he is unprepared for battle.

And so it comes about. Despite infuriating delays in movement and a change in strategy proposed by Colonel Jordan, a staff member loyal to Beauregard, he achieves more or less total surprise against the Union troops, driving them back toward the river, first in frantic retreat, and then as Union lines are restored to better defensive positions, against increasing resistance resulting in horrific losses for both sides. Shaara gets us into the mind of Johnston, as he sees troops being fed into the battle piecemeal as a result of Jordan’s strategy, and yet senses the wavering resistance of the Union and the key opportunity on his right to get between the Union and the river and roll up the Union lines. Not being able to sufficiently rouse the troops through his field commanders, he leads the charge himself, resulting in his tragic death.

Still, this charge and Ruggles’ artillery lead to the surrender of Prentiss and a general retreat to Pittsburgh landing. The Union is on the ropes as Beauregard takes command, and yet with an hour of daylight, he calls a cease fire and declares a victory! This allows Grant the time he needs to be reinforced by Lew Wallace and Buell. Grant, ever the fighter, turns the tables and with his now-superior forces, routs the Confederates, who retreat to Corinth.

Shaara leaves us wondering about the “what-ifs”. What if they had attacked in a broad arc of lines rather than columns? What if they had fought that crucial hour longer on the first day? Would they have broken Grant, or been repulsed by his concentrated forces? And the biggest “what if” is what if Johnston had lived and how might the Western campaigns been different?

The novel also explores the political intrigue among both Union and Confederate generals, and the experience of battle from front line troops. We experience the terror of Private Bauer during the initial onslaught, the restored courage as he fights alongside his friend Willis during the Union resistance, the horrors of battle that cannot be washed away from body or mind, and the dawning realization that this is only the first of many fights. We also see the jealousies between Grant and Buell, the impatience and inner uncertainties of Sherman, and the corresponding tension between Johnston and Beauregard. And we glimpse the figures behind the scenes that drive these rivalries, Halleck for the Union and Davis with the Confederacy.

This novel has me in eager anticipation of the rest of the series. The next installment, A Chain of Thunder, on the battle for Vicksburg, is sitting on my “to be read” pile.

I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher as part of a “First reads” contest sponsored by Goodreads.

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Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Halloween

IMG_0707When I was a kid, I thought it was quite a fun and amazing thing that we could dress up in costumes on Halloween night and knock on the doors of our neighbors and basically demand that they give us a treat or we would “trick” them–and that it worked! It seems, according to Wikipedia, that this practice was connected to the practice of “souling” or “wassailing” that was practiced by the poor on holidays including on the eve of All Saints Day (Hallows Eve, which became Halloween). From the article, it seems that this practice picked up in the US during the 1940s.

One thing I remember from growing up is that we would have a Halloween parade at our school on Halloween and would always parade past my house, which was on the same street as my elementary school (Washington). There would usually be a party afterwards hosted by the PTA, with lots of Halloween candy.

But first there was the matter of making your costume. Most of us growing up in Youngstown didn’t buy costumes. That was a luxury our families couldn’t afford. Instead we dressed up as bums, or gypsies, or pirates, or ghosts, or fairy princesses (at least the girls did!). We salvaged old clothes from around the house, used makeup and facepaint, an old pillow if we wanted to make a fat stomach, and the pillow case to collect all that candy.

Then, as soon as it was dark, we’d don our costumes, meet up with some friends, and begin our assault on the neighborhood! Except when we were very small, we just did this with our friends–it seemed pretty safe back then and most people were more concerned with what kids would do (usually the worst was smashing a pumpkin) than what nefarious adults or others would do to us.

Usually we would run as fast as we could from one house to the next. The point was efficiency, filling that bag with enough candy to last until Christmas even though you ate most of it in the next week! You’d make as much noise as you could stamping up onto the front porch and yell “trick or treat”! The doors would open and people would give you candy, sometimes lots of it!

We never did this, but there were the motorized kids whose parents drove them from one neighborhood to the next. There was this thing of comparing the haul you got with other kids at school the next day. Those kids were always the winners. We’d usually just do a couple blocks, and then it was off to eat all that candy and make yourself sick!

These days, Halloween is the second most commercially successful holiday after Christmas. Vacant stores are rented to sell all kinds of costumes and decorations. Some decorate more for Halloween than for Christmas, it seems! I’m sorry, but most of us and our parents would just not have understood all this and seen it mostly as a colossal waste, at least back then.

It also seems we are more polarized over Halloween than we once were.  Growing up this was kind of a fun and magical night, and of a neighborhood occasion. Costumes were an exercise in creativity and imagination. Decorations were a carved pumpkin with a candle in it, and maybe swapping out an orange porch light for the regular one. Now it seems that on the one hand you have the gruesome and macabre, and on the other, those who react to what they see as a celebration of evil and want nothing to do with it or host “alternative” parties. And it seems more dangerous as well with police departments offering to X-ray your candy and parents needing to hover over the kids. It used to be that the only thing you “worried” about were the people who would give you fruit or a role of pennies instead of candy! I suspect kids still have fun trick-or-treating, but, like many things, Halloween is a very different night from what it was growing up in working class Youngstown.

What are your memories of Halloween and trick-or-treating?



Staying Intellectually Fit — Five Practices

One of the challenges of entering one’s seventh decade is staying physically fit and supple. I hear a good deal about core strength, flexibility, healthy diet,and cardio-vascular health. Truth be told, I could be doing more in some of these areas, but that’s for another post!

Source:  jonathankurten.com

Source: jonathankurten.com

An aspect of life I hear much less about is staying intellectually fit. Here are some thoughts that might parallel some of the practices we pursue for physical health.

1. Work out with somebody else. What I have in mind here is that people decline mentally as well as physically when they are isolated. Pursuing some mentally engaging activity with others — whether a book group, a painting group, a choral group (all pursuits of mine!), or some other interest group that involves people and conversation — all that can help keep us mentally fit.

2. Healthy diet is important for our minds as well. A little “mind candy” is probably something all of us indulge in. A steady diet of “mind candy” might not be so helpful. A balanced intellectual diet might mean not getting all our mental stimulation from one source, like the television, or graphic novels. Mixing that up with books, discussions with friends, and different perspectives are all important. I would also suggest not being a “junkie” in any one area–particularly a news junkie! That seems to me to be a prescription for depression.

3. Are you developing your “core strength”? What I take this to mean is cultivating the core convictions and practices around life’s most basic issues, whatever those might be for you. For me as a Christian, this involves things like prayer, reading of scripture, self-examination, and the regular practice of gratitude. “Core strength” seems to me critical to navigating the challenges of getting older and those who haven’t addressed this sometimes spend their later years very badly and unhappily.

4. Attending to our mental “cardio” health seems vital as well. We can experience a “hardening” of our thought life when we nurse bitterness, anger, unforgiveness, or resentment. Similarly, I’ve watched people develop skewed views of reality where they worry themselves about conspiracies, rivalries, or killer bugs on every surface. All this impinges on how we think and hear the ideas of others. Mental “cardio” involves letting go of anger and bitterness, and, at least for me, trusting that I will live as long as God wants me to and realizing that worry will probably only shorten my life, not lengthen it.

5. Mental flexibility is another quality that sometimes seems to deteriorate with age. It is easy to begin to think in ruts. After all, it took us six decades to get to where we are, why change now? One thing I try to do is replay those mental tapes from when I was in my 20s that said, “I never want to become an old ‘stick in the mud'”! All of us knew people like that. The question is, are we becoming like that? Some of this is trying new things–for me this has been in the area of art. I still don’t think I have much artistic talent, but drawing makes me see things differently, and that is good. Do you just read the writers who agree with you or get all your news from one news outlet with a particular perspective? While disagreement can be uncomfortable, it also enlarges my view of the world and at very least helps me see why someone could see things so differently than I.

You may have thought I’d be trying to tell you to read lots of books! While I think books have a place in intellectual vitality, I think it goes far beyond books to a healthy lifestyle of intellectual fitness.

How have you sought to foster intellectual vitality in your life?



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