Review: Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

Salvation by Allegiance AloneMatthew W. Bates. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the words we translate as “belief” or “faith” are better translated as “allegiance” and that the focal point of the gospel is not simply being forgiven for sins or obtaining eternal life, but allegiance to King Jesus.

Matthew Bates thinks the understanding of salvation by faith is rooted in a poor choice of words to translate the idea of pistis in the Greek. A better understanding of this word might be “allegiance” or “faithfulness.” Part of the problem that he sees is a lack of focus on how the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension vindicate him as the King who has come and that the only appropriate response to this King is our full allegiance, both initially and through life, and that this restoration to our true allegiance is what constitutes our salvation which certainly includes pardon for our rebellious sin but encompasses so much more. Bates summarizes his case as follows:

So, in the final analysis, salvation is by allegiance alone. That is, God requires nothing more or nothing less than allegiance to Jesus as king for initial, current, and final salvation. As such, while continuing to affirm the absolute centrality of the cross, the atonement, and the resurrection, the church must move away from a salvation culture that spins around the axis of ‘faith alone’ in the sufficiency of Jesus’s sacrifice. It must move toward a gospel culture that centers upon “allegiance alone” to Jesus as the enthroned king. With the Apostles Creed as a pledge of allegiance, the rallying cry of the victorious church can become ‘We give allegiance to Jesus the king.’ For as the creed reminds us, Jesus the Christ is ‘our Lord’ and he ‘is seated at the right hand of God’ and as such he both merits and demands our undeserved loyalty.”

One might note several emphases in this summary that Bates develops in different chapters of the book. One is an understanding of the gospel as reflected in the Apostles Creed, which he thinks ought regularly be recited in our churches as a king of “pledge of allegiance.” He identifies eight elements in the gospel of Jesus the king:

  1. He pre-existed with the Father.
  2. He took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David.
  3. He died for sins in accordance with scripture.
  4. He was buried.
  5. He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.
  6. He appeared to many.
  7. He is seated at the right hand of God as Lord.
  8. He will come again as judge.

Bates contends that these last statements as well as the pre-existence of Jesus rarely are part of our gospel messages and that we thus fail to properly set forth Jesus as God’s anointed Messiah King.

This also informs his understanding of justification. Bates understands justification as tied up with God’s vindication of the son, crucified for sin in his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand. Through our union with Christ, we share in that vindication, that justification, both instantaneously through our allegiance to Christ, and increasingly through life as we stay with Christ, which he calls “restoring the idol of God” reflecting all and more than we were made to be through Christ. He, along with Wright and others, also observes that the future hope of Christians is resurrection life with Christ in the new creation, not some vague hope of heaven.

He deals with objections, foremost of which is the idea of allegiance as a “work.” So much of his case hinges on the thinness of how we often discuss belief, which seems mere intellectual assent or some kind of trust in Jesus without any further obligation. He contends that faith is in fact a human response to the grace of God, no matter how defined, and that allegiance fills this out as the form of loyal trust appropriate to servants of the Risen King.

I do think the title may de-center the proper focus of allegiance. The focus seems to be on “allegiance alone” but this is dangerous and de-centered if we do not focus on “allegiance to whom?” It is Christ who saves and restores. Just as it has been observed that faith is not “faith in faith” so here we need to avoid “allegiance to allegiance.” While the title makes a polemical point, we might more accurately say “by allegiance alone through grace alone in Christ the King alone.”

I find several things helpful in this work. One is that it addresses the question of “cheap faith” that does not seem to eventuate in any kind of transformed life, often because the person does not think or expect that this follows. Another is that it does reflect the full gospel that the church has confessed through history, the gospel of the king and his kingdom and sets our pardon for sin in the context of being restored subjects, indeed vice-regents, in his kingdom. Finally, and Bates alludes to this, the idea of allegiance may address the sharp divides around grace, faith, justification and works that have separated Protestant and Catholic for five hundred years. The focus on scripture and creed to understand these things may point the way forward. We can hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Is This The Religious Liberty We Need?

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President Donald J. Trump displaying Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Last Thursday, May 4, two significant government actions dominated the news. One was the narrow passage in the House of Representatives of the AHCA, legislation designed to roll back a number of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The other was the signing by the President of an Executive Order on Religious Liberty, surrounded by religious people of various faiths.

As a religious person, I do care about religious liberty and think the First Amendment protections in our constitution important to uphold, and indeed strengthen, because of the long and global history of religious persecution. We do not do it perfectly but we have a system that allows an incredible diversity of religious expression in our country and works hard not to privilege any one over the others. This is a relatively singular occurrence in human history that is a mark of American greatness.

One thing that is important to note about the executive order, available to be read on the White House website is that it is a directive to federal agencies that does not repeal laws but only addresses the approach taken to enforce them. Only a new law can repeal a law. Only court decisions can overturn laws. What is significant, from what I can read in the executive order, is it suggests a disposition on the part of government to defend religious liberty rather than undermine it. Section One on policy says:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”

These are broad statements that amount to saying that the executive branch will uphold the Constitution, which is in fact what the President says he will do in taking the oath of office. But to go on record in this regard is heartening.

Much has been made of Section Two. Contrary to popular belief, it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment banning the endorsement or opposition to political candidates by churches or other 501 (c)(3) organizations. David French (a lawyer I had the chance to work with on a religious liberty issue), writes in The National Review:

In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.”

What may be the case is that this will presumably make some feel bolder in talking about political issues or even endorsing candidates because they need not fear enforcement. French’s warning is, “for now.” I certainly wouldn’t use this as a warrant to endorse candidates not supported by the current administration!

Section Three concerns conscience exemptions to the preventive care (read contraceptive) mandate. It says that several government agencies “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In fact, this has already been mandated by the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.

French makes an important point in his article–executive orders are no substitute for law-making. At best they are only a start. John Inazu, in his book Confident Pluralism, articulates three areas where substantive law-making is needed to protect religious and speech freedoms in the public square (summary is quoted from my review of his book):

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

French notes in his article the attacks on religious groups in universities that infringe on the first and third of these requirements and the attacks on dissenting views that would infringe on the second.

I would argue that the protections Inazu talks about include but are broader than just religious liberty. They protect the freedom of conscience and associative and speech freedoms of all citizens, not just religious citizens. I would argue that these are the liberties for which we need robust protections, not simply in executive orders but in law.

There is one other religious liberty I long for. I have written often about the way the American church has offered itself as a voluntary captive to the political process. Actually, one of the concerns I have about the relaxation of enforcement around political speech in pulpits is that in so doing, I think the government is helping the church dig its own grave. Perhaps it is anecdotal, but I am watching not only younger, but also older evangelicals angered by this political captivity, leaving evangelical churches, even churches not overtly engaged in this kind of behavior.

I long for the day when churches cast off the chains of partisan politics and repent for how they have alienated people from the gospel of Christ that unites people across all the divides of our contemporary politics. I long for a church that speaks prophetically to both left and right (currently it seems only late night television is doing that). This is the kind of speech for which you actually need religious liberty protection.

I have to admit to being troubled by the setting in which this order took place. Religious leaders are gathered around in the Rose Garden celebrating the protection of their own liberties while down the street the party of the President is passing legislation to make the protection of one’s health increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable in our society to obtain (“the Unaffordable Health Care Act”?). I’m torn. I’ve had to advocate against real attempts to undermine religious liberty. Yet I was telling a friend recently that religious liberty concerns me less than the attack on the liberties of the poor, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society. Perhaps the only way to reconcile this is the idea that all liberties are important and that the attack upon the liberty of any of us is in fact an attack on the liberty of all of us. Might we agree upon that?

 

Review: God in Captivity

God in Captivity

God in Captivity, Tanya Erzen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores the role that faith-based, predominantly Evangelical ministries are playing in the U.S. prison system, the hope they offer inmates, and the ways they may reinforce the efforts toward control and maintenance of a retributive justice and prison system.

Tanya Erzen is a university professor at the University of Puget Sound who teaches and is associate director of Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a non-profit organization providing a college education for incarcerated women. Thus she is more than a casual observer of the prison system in the U.S. In this book, she explores the role faith-based prison ministries and seminaries are playing in the U.S. prison system. Beyond the reports of the personal life change these ministries effect, Erzen asks questions about the role these ministries play in maintaining an existing system focusing more on retribution than restoration, and the inordinate presence evangelical Protestant groups in comparison to that of other religious faiths.

On one hand Erzen writes,

“For a woman facing life without the possibility of freedom or a long or even a short sentence, faith-based ministries can be a resource, a practice, a belief system, a sense of authority, and a space of belonging.

Yet she also notes an important question prison reform activist Norris Henderson suggested she ask faith-based ministries: “Why are you here?” Often these ministries are only concerned with saving individual souls without asking why those souls are in prison in the first place. She outlines the questions this raised for her:

“Some of the key questions I explore throughout God in Captivity are how faith-based ministries and the people who live in prison grapple with the meaning of punishment and redemption, and how their daily lives reflect Norris’s question of why the ministry is there and why the prison is there–to punish indefinitely or to reform? How faith-based ministries conceive of punishment and forgiveness as inextricable thus remains a central concern of the book. Another urgent question that emerges is around the legal and ethical issue of predominantly conservative evangelical Christians as the main force inside prisons, and the implications for prisoners of other religions, particularly Muslims.”

Erzen approaches this study through a collection of personal narratives and commentary. She listened to the stories of women and men in prison involved with these ministries, volunteer and ministry leaders, and prison officials. Much of her study was in southern states with the toughest sentencing laws and many prisoners faced either lengthy sentences without parole or life sentences. She also chronicles the rise of faith-based ministries and education programs as prisons expanded with mandatory sentencing laws, and other education programs were curtailed with funding cuts. She gives the many sides of a complex picture–from lives changed where people converted become internal missionaries to others, where those of other faiths sometimes enter Christian programs because of preferences given these prisoners, and where wardens consciously support these programs because they help control the behavior of inmates.

Perhaps the most significant questions she asks have to do with the structural issues of incarceration in this country that the personal focus of these ministries often fail to address. She notes how at times these ministries have been forces for reform, usually conservative reforms, and comes back to the question of the “why” of prisons–are they solely places of retribution and not places of forgiveness and restoration.

I read this book as an evangelical Christian who has friends (including university professors) engaged in some of the ministries she profiles and I have several responses to what she writes. One is appreciation for the structural questions she raises often overlooked in the very individualized approaches that characterize much of evangelicalism. The same “blind spot” hinders conversations about race, economic justice, the environment and other social issues where the faith response is often only personal moral behavior and personal relationships. Such blindness in the nineteenth century helped sustain the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

A second response however is that often the reverse is true in more socially progressive circles, where structures of injustice are addressed without addressing the question of how personal transformation and redemption might be experienced. What is striking is that faith-based ministries mobilize massive numbers of volunteers (the book mentions 20,000 plus) coming alongside prisoners, simply because their faith calls them to “remember those in prison” (Hebrews 13:3). While Erzen notes how significant this personal contact can be, I don’t think she adequately credits what an extraordinary phenomenon this is–that working people give up evenings and weekends to “go to prison.”

Erzen notes the disparity between evangelical groups and other religions and seems to consider this unjust. I would ask why aren’t these other faiths or worldviews mobilizing similar numbers to care for their prisoners? If there is institutional privileging of Christians, that’s one thing and this is unconstitutional, but Erzen doesn’t mention adherents of other faiths wanting to offer similar programming systematically being turned away. Rather, the problem seems to be simply not enough people to go around, and that problem should not be laid at the feet of Evangelical Christians.

I raise this because there could be an undertone to this book, or in the reading of it by many that engenders suspicion of faith-based ministries. I actually don’t think that is what Erzen wants, but rather to provoke a wider conversation between those engaged in such ministries and others concerned about prison reform. The truth is that we need to care both for people as individuals, and for the systems and structures that shape their lives. To ignore either is to care too little. Our incarceration rates are the highest in the world, our prisons are overcrowded, and our system of justice seems to be creating a permanent underclass where prison is part of the life cycle. The challenges are great enough that here, as elsewhere, all those of good will are needed if change for the better is to occur.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the Cross

Worship in the Way of the CrossJohn Frederick. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Contends that worship should be “cross-shaped,” that communities who do so may be formed in service of God and each other. Addresses flawed assumptions, interpersonal relationships, and liturgical elements as these related to cross-shaped worship.

John Frederick, a musician as well as theologian, is deeply disturbed by much of what he sees on the contemporary worship scene. He argues that instead of performances that focus on a rock star worship leader, worship is about the story of Christ and his cross and needs to be shaped by that story to counter the destructive stories of our society. He believes that when this is done consistently bringing elements of music, liturgy, preaching, and Eucharist together, God’s people are formed in the character of Christ, growing in love for God, each other, and the world, expressed in service. He calls this “cruciformation.” and argues that as we encounter Christ in the elements of worship, we become more like the Christ we encounter.

As I noted, he can be critical of the ways worship is often framed. At points, he writes with tongue firmly in cheek, as when he describes the “Karoake Chapel” character of much of the contemporary Christian music scene, where one encounters the same songs sung the same ways in churches across the country. He pleads for artistic integrity and creativity within church communities, and that worship teams stop simply being “cover bands.” He touches on the monocultural worship of many of our churches, built around the homogeneous unit principle, although here, I would commend Sandra Van Opstal’s The Next Worship (reviewed here), which takes the theory of this book and incarnates it with years of praxis. Later, he is critical of “propositional” music and preaching. On this last I would agree these can be sterile, but I’ve also seen many instances, both musically and expositorily where propositions crystallize the sense of narratives, and narratives flesh out and bring to life propositional elements. I wasn’t that keen on him trotting out this hobby horse which just seems one more example of binary, either-or thinking that lacks the creativity and synergy I think Frederick actually values.

Many will find helpful the sections in which he fleshes out what cruciform relationships look like between those who lead worship, the congregation, and the larger pastoral and church leadership team. Also helpful are discussions of how liturgy, prayers, singing and preaching, and communion all help form us in Christ. He helpfully counters the resistance to written prayers and liturgy by observing that we usually do not make up songs or worship on the spot. While these can become formalized, so can “the spontaneous.”

The author has two different voices in this book. One is rather “hip,” witty, and often quite engaging, for example when he interviews a former pastoral team on which he worked about how they worked together, or when he is characterizing the “Karaoke Chapel.”  The other voice feels to me a bit like that of the seminary student displaying facility with the theological jargon of the guild. Yet my sense was that this was not written for academics but for those who lead worship in the church. Consider this short paragraph toward the conclusion:

“Thus the paradigm of redemption by which the cruciformed church is called to bring about the cruciformation of the cosmos is a guiding principle and pattern, rather than a particular application or approach for the renewal of all things. The particular applications of cruciformissional ideation rely on the pneumatic discerning of the Spirit from the heart of the local community and the local church rather than on a pragmatic dictating of successful ministry strategies.” (p. 177)

I found myself wondering how many worship teams would have the inclination to wrap their minds around writing like this (no criticism of the intellectual capacities of worship teams intended!). In addition to a fondness for making up new words (cruciformation, cruciformissional), the language felt abstract and obscure. Another example in the section on liturgy is “the ecclesio-pneumatic ideation of Jesus Christ.” He even invokes the cool-sounding name and work of a German scholar, Wolfgang Iser. He actually is making quite an important point in this in talking about how the church (“ecclesio-“), through engaging the texts of liturgy, music, and scripture (ideation), by the power of the Spirit (pneumatic), encounters and is shaped by Christ. I’m hoping that others will make it through the thicket of language to get the point he is making.

I make this criticism because I think Frederick has a contribution to make in moving worship beyond the banal sameness of much of contemporary Christian music and the cult of the superstar worship leader. He wants us to focus in all the elements of worship on Christ and he is passionate about this because he is convinced it will transform people to be more like the Christ they worship together. I hope that he will work on writing in the way of the cross, which may mean putting to death some scholarly prose to make these important ideas more accessible to those who lead worship in our churches.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Family

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State Library of Queensland, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Family. Not family values, but family, was important in the working class Youngstown I grew up in. They weren’t perfect, by any means. Then, as now, families could be abusive or even violent. Now we talk about it more, which is a good thing, particularly if it means protecting women and children.

In most cases though, barring divorce (which was much more rare) or death, you could count on both a mom and dad being around. From what I remember, this was true in almost every house on our street. Families were usually larger than today. The Pill was just coming into use, and some still obeyed religious teachings that banned the use of contraceptives. Families of three children were common (including mine) and, if memory serves, a couple families on our street had five kids.

But family didn’t stop with mom, dad, and kids. Often grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins lived in the city, sometimes in the same part of town. Sometimes, an elderly grandparent would even live with the family. People didn’t want to die in a hospital or nursing home. They wanted to die at home, with their people.

My wife’s father had two brothers who lived within blocks. They built each other’s garages, went fishing together, and my wife grew up regularly seeing her cousins. One even shares the same birth day. Holidays were often a movable feast, going from one household to another, sometimes in the same day, sometimes over several.

Families looked out for each other. They helped each other get jobs, and helped out when someone was out of work. They started businesses–tool and die shops, groceries, restaurants, real estate development– you name it. Some of those names have become well known around Youngstown–Butler, Wick, Stambaugh, Cafaro, DeBartolo or Rulli Brothers. Some were more local–like Cherol’s Market on the West Side.

Extended families were important. If the worst happened and a parent died, or divorce happened, there were often aunts, uncles, or grandparents who helped fill the void of both love and mentoring that often was the difference of a kid succeeding despite bad circumstances. Networks of families, particularly in ethnic communities made for cohesive neighborhoods, good friends, and not a few marriages.

There was a dark side to this in Youngstown. Some extended families and family alliances pursued businesses outside the law and used force and the threat of force to bend others to their will, including public officials. No one wanted a “Youngstown tuneup.” A way of doing business that compromised public figures and siphoned public funds into private coffers drained resources from the city and undermined the rule of law.

On balance, though, families were good for Youngstown. They brought cohesion to neighborhoods, stability to kids growing up, and functioned as a kind of “safety net” when neither government nor employers offered much. Today we are much more scattered, and many families, particularly children left Youngstown in search of jobs. I can’t help but wonder if one of the things that might renew Youngstown and other cities like it would be to figure out ways to make it possible for families to stay together. Ultimately it takes jobs, but I wonder if it might also be a good idea to provide incentives for families to create their own businesses and stay together. Maybe that’s a pipe dream.

Families take a number of different forms today. Whatever form they take, at their best, they form character, provide mutual support and care, and a sense of identity (Callan, p. 2). Strong families helped make Youngstown a great place to live. I can’t help but think this is still true.

What did family mean for you growing up in Youngstown?

Ten Books For Understanding Evangelicalism

The God Who is There.jpg

My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There, purchased c. 1972.

In a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism the other day, I mentioned a conversation in which I wondered aloud how many of those who leave evangelicalism understand the rich, if imperfect, part of the Christian family they are leaving. My own sense is that often, though not always, they are responding to distortions or downright contradictions of historical evangelicalism. I recognize that for some it is a matter of leaving the incredibly painful, and may well be warranted, but I sense for others, it is wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. I won’t try to answer that, but would propose that it might first be important to appraise the grass on the evangelical side of the fence.

The friend I was talking with asked me about some books he might consider. This is a kind of expansion on my response. I suggest two kinds of books here. Some are histories, which go back to Great Britain as well as our own national beginnings. The others are “classics”–books that for many of us shaped an evangelical outlook. At the end, I provide links to some other lists–mine is hardly exhaustive–but rather a starting point.

Histories:

David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern BritainLondon: Routledge, 1988. The history of Wesley to John Stott is covered here, as well as Bebbington’s crucial delineation of four evangelical distinctives: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

Donald W. Dayton and Douglas M Strong, Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage, 2nd editionGrand Rapids: Baker Books, 2014. An updated edition of a study of the pre-Civil War nineteenth century roots of evangelicalism in the United States and the combination of piety, preaching, and social reform characteristic of this movement in this period. (From my review).

George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American CultureOxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. This book looks at the retrenchment of evangelicalism into fundamentalism in the U.S. post Civil War, with the rise of Darwinism, European biblical scholarship, and the “social gospel” associated with theologically liberal Christianity. The new edition tracks this movement since the 1970’s in its more politically engaged form.

Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical MindGrand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1995. Noll explores the historical reasons for the lack of evangelical influence in the academy, the arts, and “high” culture. This book served as a kind of rallying cry for a group of us involved in launching a national ministry effort with graduate students and faculty.

Brian Stanley, The Global Diffusion of EvangelicalismDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This is part of InterVarsity’s “History of Evangelicalism” series (all worth reading) that covers the post-World War II rise of modern or neo-evangelicalism–the evangelicalism of Billy Graham and John Stott, and an increasingly global leadership. Here is my review of the book.

Classic Formative Works:

Charles W. Colson, Born AgainGrand Rapids: Chosen Books, 2008 (revised edition). The biography of White House aide and Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and his conversion to a socially engaged evangelical faith that led to launching Prison Fellowship, and a career as an influential social commentator within the evangelical community.

J. I. Packer, Knowing GodDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993 (revised edition). This was a classic for many of us that explored how we may know God, the attributes of God, and benefits of knowing God. You read a few pages, and then had to stop, think, and worship.

Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who is ThereDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998 (revised edition). Schaeffer was the prophet of L’Abri whose analysis of a culture that had moved further and further from God gave us a framework to make sense of our times.

Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of HungerNashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005 (revised edition). Sider was one of the voices that re-awakened the slumbering social conscience of evangelicals, challenging the privatized versions of the Bible with it social teaching, as well as exposing American Christians to the challenge of global hunger.

John R. W. Stott, Basic ChristianityDowners Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012 (revised edition). This was a book that taught many of us the basics of our faith and how to explain it to others.

The histories, I think, are even-handed, showing both the best and the worst. Likewise, the “classic” works I’ve selected are not without their flaws, but are representative of books that reflect some of the “best” of evangelicalism and were important in shaping the outlook of many of us.

The list is hardly exhaustive. My friend said, “there is only so much I can read. But as I researched this post, I came along a few other lists you might visit:

The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. A list published in 2006 by Christianity Today.

10 of the Best Books About Evangelical Christianity. I appreciate Kyle Roberts inclusion of Amos Yang’s work and also Soong Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.

Five Great Books on Evangelical Christianity. Thomas Kidd narrows it down even more and includes Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith–a very important book!

What all these do is go beyond the media soundbites which rarely do justice to any religious tradition. Whether you are an evangelical or someone diffident about this identity, or you are just trying to understand this group of people who seem to be so much in the news, these lists should help. Happy reading!

 

Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. New York: Picador, 2010.

Summary: Book One of a historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell, a key figure in the English Reformation, covering the rise of Cromwell to power under Henry VIII, up until 1535.

Thomas Cromwell is one of the most interesting figures of the English Reformation. He was one of those “indispensable men” one often finds close to great leaders, shrewd and capable in solving the problems facing the great leader, often more loyal to those they serve than the one they serve is to them. Charming and ruthless and skilled in both law and finance, Cromwell accrued more and more power to himself. He cut through the Gordian knots of Henry VIII’s marriages and engineered the formation of the Church of England, cutting ties with Rome.

This work of historical fiction, a 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, is the first of a trilogy, narrating the rise of Cromwell from the boy who survives violent abuse by his blacksmith father Walter to spend his early adult years fighting with the French and learning finance with the Italians, and working in the mercantile centers of Europe, acquiring a broad network of contacts. He returns to London, establishes himself as a lawyer accomplished in commercial negotiations, and eventually secretary to Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King and charged with securing an annulment of the King’s marriage to Catherine. Wolsey fails, leading to his downfall and charges of treason.

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Thomas Cromwell, Hans Holbein

Cromwell remains loyal to Wolsey until his death, a loyalty noted in royal circles. While he suffers the loss of wife and both daughters to illness–loss that haunts him throughout this book–he gains the confidence of the king and Anne Boleyn, who the king hopes to marry and on whom are the king’s hopes of a male heir. Eventually, under Cromwell, Parliament passes the Act of Succession under which clergy swore their ultimate submission to the king, not to Rome. For this Bishop Fisher and Thomas More, refusing to submit, go to their deaths.

Mantel tells this story, with all its in and outs and political maneuverings from Cromwell’s perspective. We read his thoughts, his perspective, his voice as he solves problems, faces loss, stewards the fortunes of the king, his sons, his wards. Where other accounts may portray a Machiavellian against the principled likes of More, this portrays a shrewd pragmatist, fiercely loyal to king and family, not without religious sensibilities but likewise very much grounded in the practical realities and use of power for the king’s ends. Whether she gets Cromwell right or not, Mantel explores what it is like to be Thomas Cromwell–to rise from a common birth, to advance by his shrewdness in managing affairs of state and of the heart, and through his competence to gain greater and greater power.

We have hints that it will not always be this way–Wolsey’s fall warning that Henry brooked no failure, but that is yet in the future. When the book ends he is Principal Secretary and Master of the Rolls to the king. The religious opposition in the form of Fisher and More are dead.  He has also been appointed Royal Vicegerent and Vicar-General, and is preparing to visit the monasteries and religious houses either to liquidate them or more effectively tax them.

A couple of other comments. A key to enjoying this book is to figure out when Cromwell is speaking in dialogues and understanding that the narrative is through his eyes. That is not always easy to discern in the text, as many readers have noted. The other is the tantalizing character of the title. Wolf Hall is the family seat of the Seymour family, rivals of the Boleyns, influential nobility whose daughter Jane served in the court of Anne and eventually succeeded her (after the time of Book One of the trilogy) as the wife of Henry VIII. Cromwell’s son Gregory marries Jane’s sister and Cromwell notes the hovering presence of Jane in Anne’s household. Wolf Hall is a presence, a harbinger of things to come.

Should you read Wolf Hall? If you are willing to work to track the narration and keep track of the many characters, including the many Thomases, you will be rewarded with a rich psychological study of Cromwell and what it is like to wield power in the ever-dangerous presence of greater power. This is not mind candy for casual reading but rich fare for the attentive reader.

Review: The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism

Uneasy Conscience

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern FundamentalismCarl F. H. Henry (foreword by Richard J. Mouw). Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003 (originally published 1947).

Summary: Henry’s classic manifesto challenging the heirs of the fundamentalist movement to a recovery of a social and intellectual engagement while maintaining gospel integrity.

In a recent conversation about people leaving evangelicalism because of the “rootedness” of those in traditions like Catholicism, I wondered aloud whether many who are repudiating evangelicalism have much knowledge of what they are repudiating, other than the uncomfortable experiences they likely have had personally. In my experience, most evangelicals are sadly out of touch with even their own history, let alone the great history of the church over the past two millenia.

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism is one of the keystone works in the rise of the twentieth century evangelical movement. In it Carl Henry decries the regrettable loss of a social conscience in fundamentalism’s retreat from a vibrantly engaged evangelicalism of the nineteenth century.  He writes:

     “In a company of more than one hundred representative evangelical pastors, the writer proposed the following question: ‘How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social evils as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing the framework in which you think a solution is possible?’ Not a single hand was raised in response.”

He attributes this in part to the retrenchment from theological liberalism and its associated “social gospel.” But he also lays part of the blame on an eschatology that is indifferent to all efforts to address social and physical needs since “it is all going to perish” and what must be done is simply to rescue lost people. He argues that the exclusive focus on the “not yet” of the kingdom to the exclusion of the “already” that heralds the work of Christ leads to a great imbalance in preaching. He writes this as one who embraces rather than denies premillenial theology.

Furthermore, he calls for an intellectual recovery of a Christian mind and social ethic that roots a vigorous engagement in the realms of higher education as well as societal needs in theological orthodoxy. He proposes protest that roots advocacy in evangelical belief while also recognizing that ameliorating social needs without spiritual regeneration through Christ is inadequate.

Carl Henry represented a vanguard of evangelical leaders who created journals like Christianity Today and began to assert a socially engaged and intellectually rigorous Christianity that remained rooted in fundamental beliefs. It was a movement that advocated for a “both-and” approach when everyone else had assumed an “either-or” approach to Christian faith–either socially engaged or doctrinally orthodox. Henry argued for both and believed this reflected gospel integrity.

While there were things Henry and others no doubt didn’t get right, many more don’t even know he existed or that his manifesto anticipated the socially engaged evangelicalism of Sojourners, the intellectual and doctrinal rigor of the neo-Reformed folkand the movement toward a recovery of a Christian mind in the world of higher education.

This slim volume “stirred many pots.” It is worth a read in our day, both for the vibrant vision it articulates and for the glimpse it gives us of the beginnings of twentieth century evangelicalism after World War Two.

The Month in Reviews: April 2017

The Heir Apparent

This month’s reading spanned the gamut from Eastern Orthodoxy to the English Reformation to classic evangelicalism to thinking on the church’s ministry with the rising generation. Along the way there were several biographies including that of Hermann Rorshach, King Edward VII, and Katharina and Martin Luther. Each explored a lesser know figure–Rorshach, the man behind the test, Edward VII, the playboy who ended up a hard-working monarch, and Katharina Von Bora, truly a match for Luther, though often overshadowed in the history. At one point, I reviewed back-to-back a book in hope for politics, and another on resisting tyranny. I read some classic science fiction, and a summary of the cutting edge science of astro-physics. Mixed in were Lewis’s classic on pain, a book on the ten commandments, a wonderful theology of preaching, and a path-breaking book on leading multi-ethnic worship.

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the US, and the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety. (Review)

The Inkblots

The InkblotsDamion Searls. New York: Crown Publishers, 2017. A biography of Hermann Rorschach and the after-history of the test that bears his name. (Review)

Meet Generation Z

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White. Grand Rapids: Baker 2017. The book profiles the generation born since 1993, describing them as the first “post-Christian” generation, and what the church in the US must do to reach this generation. (Review)

Recovering Classical Evangelicalism

Recovering Classic EvangelicalismGregory Alan Thornbury. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. Addressing an evangelical context that seemingly has lost a sense of its identity, core convictions, and model for cultural engagement, the author commends a re-appraisal of the work of Carl F. H. Henry as a source of wisdom for the future. (Review)

The Heir Apparent

The Heir ApparentJane Ridley. New York: Random House, 2013. An award-winning biography of Edward VII, often criticized for his faults of character as heir to the throne under Victoria, whose reign ushered in a critical transition in the British monarchy in the first decade of the twentieth century. (Review)

Preaching in the New Testament

Preaching in the New Testament (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Jonathan L. Griffiths. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. An exegetical and biblical theology of preaching from the texts of the New Testament. (Review)

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., (forthcoming May) 2017. A clear and concise discussion in understandable terms about the current state of our understanding of astrophysics, everything from the origins of the universe to the origins of the elements on the periodic table, and all the space between the galaxies. (Review)

The English Reformation

A Brief History of The English ReformationDerek Wilson. London: Robinson, 2012. A history of the house of Tudor, and how their rule transformed England both religiously and politically, and the influence of the vernacular scriptures on the English people. (Review)

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017. Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement. (Review)

On Tyranny

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. A Yale historian draws twenty lessons from fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century and applies them to the American context. (Review)

The Decalogue

The DecalogueDavid L. Baker. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017. After an exploration of the shape, form, origin, and purpose of these ten “words”, the author takes each in turn, exploring the command in its cultural context, it’s biblical and theological meaning, and contemporary relevance. (Review)

The Next Worship

The Next WorshipSandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams. (Review)

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940). Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God. (Review)

City

City, Clifford D. Simak (Introduction by David W. Wixon). New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1952). A collection of eight connected stories stitched together by “notes” from dog commentators on how human beings died out as a species on earth. (Review)

Katharina and Martin Luther

Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017. An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love. (Review)

Best Book of the Month: Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent is a fascinating and masterful study of the life of King Edward VII, from his troubled childhood under Albert and Victoria, his playboy life, even while he is cultivating a public life that would make him “the people’s king” and his last years as England’s monarch, including his efforts to avert the conflict that became World War I, which he did not live to see. It made several “best books” lists in 2014.

Best Quote of the Month: In David L. Baker’s The Decalogue he includes some trenchant reflections on how the commandments bear on contemporary life, with this on the bearing of false witness particularly telling:

“The Old Testament affirms the importance of truth in public life, with particular condemnation of religious leaders who use their positions to propagate lies (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 23:21-32; Ezek 13) and pander to their audiences with smooth talk (cf. Is 30:9-11). Mendacity brings iniquity (Is 5:18) and causes confusion by pretending to be virtue (Is 5:20).

    Another kind of untruth that is pervasive today is the use of moral euphemisms designed to make what is wrong appear right or at least unobjectionable. Instead of committing adultery, people have an affair. Instead of having an abortion, they terminate a pregnancy. Instead of killing innocent citizens, there is collateral damage. Instead of unemployment, there is downsizing. Instead of lying, there are ‘terminological inexactitudes’ (Winston Churchill, 1906).

What about us? Are we habitually truthful. When we speak and write, it is often easier to say what we think people want to hear–or what we want them to hear–than what is actually true. Sometimes it is tempting to keep quiet and not say anything at all rather than speaking up when we ought to. The Bible encourages us to go beyond the rejection of false testimony, to become people who speak the truth from our hearts” (p. 141).

Coming soon: Tomorrow I will be posting a review of Carl F. H. Henry’s classic The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. I picked this up after reading Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Recovering Classic Evangelicalism exploring the life and theology of Henry. I’m in the midst of Salvation By Allegiance Alone which challenges our formulations of “faith alone” in many presentations of the Christian message, and particularly emphasizes the rule of Jesus and our allegiance to him. I’m also reading a work on how worship is meant to form us to be like Christ, Worship in the Way of the Cross. For fun, I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a great historical fiction follow up to the book on the English Reformation, focused on Thomas Cromwell. This weekend, we picked up Dave Eggers, The Circle, and John Kasich’s political memoir Two Paths. I’ve just started a book of narratives of a variety of Christians whose views of evolution changed–ranging from N. T. Wright to Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project and current National Institutes of Health director).

Hope you will stop by frequently to catch the reviews of these books, and tell me what you think!

Review: Katharina & Martin Luther

Katharina and Martin Luther

Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love.

By today’s standards, as well as those of their time, this was a marriage that didn’t hold much promise. A 42 year old former monk and leader of the Reformation marries a 26 year old nun who fled the cloister inspired by Reformation ideals. Friends thought the wife would distract from the important work of church reform. Some predicted that any offspring would be monstrosities. The truth was, Katharina was beyond the usual age for marriage, often in one’s early teens. She had no dowry and no means of support, having fled the cloister where her father had placed her. Luther had actually tried to match her up with other men. At one point, she refused a candidate, saying she’d rather marry Luther (or another man). Meanwhile, Luther had actually had his eye on another nun, who someone else proposed to first. In the end, economic necessity on her part, and principle on his brought them together. Luther was better at writing about marriage and the follies of celibacy than acting on what he wrote. Her proposal probably did as much as anything to decide him. Not a promising beginning!

Michelle DeRusha gives us a narrative of how necessity and principle grew into respect, and eventually deep love. But first she gives us some background in the lives of both, and particular the economic necessities that resulted in the child of a poor but titled noble being consigned to the cloister. We also have the more familiar story of Luther the monk, who undergoes a radical transformation as he teaches the book of Romans and posts debating theses on the evil of indulgences that light the fires of Reformation. These ideas inspire Katharina and a group of others to flee Marienthron convent only to face an uncertain future necessitating for most the finding of a mate, however undesirable.

DeRusha sketches the strong character of Katharina, who quickly whips the Black Cloister into shape, from a somewhat decrepit bachelor pad to a family home where other tenants paid rent–an early source of resentment. Luther’s respect for her abilities (rivaling the woman of Proverbs 31 in her industry) leads to his quickly turning over the household and its finances to her.

But she was no mere domestic hausfrau. She could challenge Luther’s ideas and was a strong enough personality to stand her ground. Other accounts have suggested monumental clashes. This book only hints at these, but does suggest that her strength of character and stubbornness made for a match that Luther came not only to respect but in which he was changed.

DeRusha also shows how this marriage, and Luther’s ideas about marriage changed the institution and regularized it. Prior to their time, many marriages were the equivalent of common law affairs, and often contested when one party claimed vows had been made that were denied by others, or where there were conflicting claims on the same person. Of course, this couple set the precedent for marriage among the clergy. They may not have been the very first, but were clearly the most famous, and set a high standard.

The final chapters touch on both the joys and frailties of family life. Infant and child mortality was rampant and the Luthers lost two of six children including their teen age daughter Magdalena, a heartbreak that drew them closer yet from which they did not recover.  Luther’s death exposed the precarious state of widows, made more difficult by an irregular will, and invasions that brought ruin to lands she held. Katharina’s extant letters are from this time, and basically are “begging” letters.

Perhaps the most profound theme of this book is that despite the circumstances, despite the lack of “romantic” love, and despite the inequities between genders, these two strong individuals grew into a deep love filled with mutual respect. Both had grown up in systems where love often followed rather than preceded vows. No doubt some would find the patriarchy and oppression of women of this time deeply offensive. What is more remarkable is how these principled and strong-to-the-point-of-stubborn people challenged convention to the point where Martin addresses Katharina at one point as “my kind, dear Lord, Catherine Luther, a doctor and preacher in Wittenberg.”

This will be a year of many Luther books, given the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses. This book helps fills a gap in focusing on Katharina and the decisive role she played in Luther’s life, and maybe in at least a small way, pointing to the greater possibilities for women inside and outside of marriage, with effects rippling down to our present day. So much of it came because of a woman who decided that she would not submerge her ideas and personality to the strength of a man, even a great public figure, and in the end both were stronger for it.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.