Review: Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive

Twelve Lies

Twelve Lies That Hold America Captive, Jonathan Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, Forthcoming January 8, 2019

Summary: Discusses twelve cultural myths that form a kind of American folk religion that are in conflict with the hope we find in the gospel and the vision of the kingdom of God.

It is not uncommon in discussions of Christian mission efforts in other countries to confront the challenge of syncretism. In syncretism, either prior religious beliefs or cultural myths are fused with the newly adopted faith. Often these beliefs are in conflict and undermine vibrant Christian belief. If anything, the Bible is even more pointed about the issue and calls this idolatry, which may either be the worship of false gods, or the false worship of the true God.

Jonathan Walton proposes in this book that it not only happens in other countries but right here in America. He identifies twelve beliefs contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ (and thus lies) that form a national cultural religion which he terms White American Folk Religion or WAFR. In an endnote, he explains this terminology:

“White = manmade racial-gender-class-culture-based hierarchy. American = national identity defined by citizenship and the level of adoption and mastery of whiteness. Folk religion = common set of popular beliefs and practices under the umbrella of a religion but outside of the religion’s official doctrines and practices.”

What this means, if I understand Walton correctly is that these are values promulgated by those who would identify as part of majority white culture, and that work best for them and thus become an ideal for all American citizens, internalized and often aspired to by other ethnic, class, and affinity groups, even though they don’t always work equally well for all. Furthermore, these have been a part of American civil religion, often closely linked with the majority faith in this country, Christianity. While they aren’t what we may confess in the liturgy or the creeds, they come to define both what it means for us to be American and Christian. They are beliefs that will be articulated by leaders in both of our political parties–so this isn’t a partisan thing. And, in terms of the gospel of Christ, they are lies.

Here are the twelve lies Walton identifies:

Lie 1: We Are a Christian Nation
Lie 2: We Are All Immigrants
Lie 3: We Are a Melting Pot
Lie 4: All Men Are Created Equal
Lie 5: We Are a Great Democracy
Lie 6: The American Dream Is Alive and Well
Lie 7: We Are the Most Prosperous Nation in the World
Lie 8: We Are the Most Generous People in the World
Lie 9: America Is the Land of the Free
Lie 10: America Is the Home of the Brave
Lie 11: America Is the Greatest Country on Earth
Lie 12: We Are One Nation

I squirmed when I read this list. I’ve said some of these things, and if you search my blogs, I’m sure you will find some of this language. So if your temptation in reading this list is to say, “but…but” you are not alone. In his Introduction, Walton makes this plea:

“I ask you to resist judgment, the urge to look away, and the opportunity to move on. I invite you to carry your skepticism through the entire book while leaning in to understand. Hold your gaze on the picture I am painting and consider its implications for how you think, speak, pray, and act. Your salvation is at stake, and your evangelism is compromised if you claim to be a follower of Jesus while building dividing walls of hostility and allowing them to govern your life. We are to be his witnesses, living differently in this world so we point others to him, and we cannot do that if we are not willing to engage with our differences to seek his justice and reflect his kingdom. I once lived this way, but because of Christ and for the sake of his gospel, I do so no longer.”

I leaned into this book. In each chapter, Walton explores the reasons why each of these beliefs is a lie that as Christians we ought repent from, and the liberating truth that we might embrace instead. I will not go through all of these but even the first chapter was persuasive. The problem of saying we are a Christian nation is that throughout our history, Christian faith has upheld slavery and racial hierarchies. I was reminded of learning recently that the church I grew up in endorsed Klan efforts in my home town during the 1920’s and that many of our current national divisions are reflected in divisions within a church called to be one in Christ. Those “dividing walls of hostility” are brought up to me when I speak with students about Christ in my work on campus, and indeed compromise our witness.

Likewise, how can we say we are all immigrants, when a number were forcibly brought here as slaves, and the original inhabitants of the land were displaced? Instead of a melting pot, Christ offers a vision of diversity that is celebrated and gratefully embraced instead of assimilated into a majority culture. Democracy is undermined where voter suppression is practiced, where representation is gerrymandered and where wealthy interests have a much greater voice. A gospel-centered people advocate for the voices that are marginalized. Kingdom people are liberated from pursuing “their best lives now” to be rich in the things of God. Do we believe America, or Jesus, is the last, best hope of the world?

One of the most important aspects of this book, then, is the subtitle: “and the truth that sets us free.” Walton contends that these lies hold us captive, burden us down, and rob us of kingdom joy. The truth opens our eyes to the ways we’ve been compromised, and invites us into a bigger dream that has room enough for all, and that brings reconciliation across our deepest differences.

I wondered how Walton would address the question of proper love of place and country. At least some of the expressions Walton calls lies are affectional and aspirational for “the land that we love.” Can we love a country without turning it into an idol? As embodied persons living in a place, what is proper care for that place?

Sadly though, we do often become captive to inordinate forms of these beliefs that take precedence over the claims of biblical faith and our kingdom hope. We put America before kingdom, a prosperity gospel before our heavenly inheritance, and sadly, our people before all peoples. Life becomes smaller, meaner, a struggle for self-preservation. Walton points us to a better way, if we are willing to face and repent from the lies.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced reader copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Impossible People

impossible people

Impossible People, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Delineating the advance of modernity and its negative consequences, Guinness calls upon Christians to be the “impossible people” who both resist and positively engage the culture to “serve God’s purposes in this generation.”

I’ve been reading the work of Os Guinness since my student days when he wrote The Dust of Death and it is my feeling that his many books are really one extended and developing argument both describing modernity’s impact upon the culture in it’s movement away from God and its exhaustion of its Christian heritage, and the nature of Christian faithfulness in the face of these developments.

What distinguishes this book for me seems to be a certain urgency, captured even in the title Impossible People. He explains his choice of this striking phrase:

“The term impossible man was used to describe the eleventh-century Benedictine reformer Peter Damian (c. 1007-1073). Dante placed Damian in the highest circle of paradise as a saint and the predecessor of Francis of Assisi. A thousand years ago, as in our own time, there was little regard for truth or for the integrity and purity of the Christian faith. Nor was there much sense of the gravity of sin, so the church was easygoing, corruption was rife and the moral and theological rot was as pervasive among the clergy and the leaders of the church as among ordinary people.

. . .

Unquestionably, the term impossible man was ambiguous. It could be taken either as a
compliment or an insult. Doubtless, many of Peter Damian’s generation admired him for his stand, just as many hated him for his fervor, and many were frustrated and made
uncomfortable by what they saw as his intransigence. In other words, the same term could express either admiration or exasperation, as it will again today. But all that was irrelevant to Peter Damian. He spoke, wrote and acted solely with an eye to the audience of One. He could not be deterred by other voices. He was faithful to Jesus alone and above all. His faith had a backbone of steel. He was the impossible man. (pp. 30-31)

Guinness proposes that distinctive witness in our time will be much like that of Damian, and will require of us the qualities of “impossibility” evident in Damian — not only integrity and courage, but spiritual power that apprehends the dynamics of spiritual warfare behind the principalities and powers dominating modern life, and the weapons of such warfare, which is not against other people, whom we are called to love and win.

This incorporation of the spiritual powers behind the cultural forces confronting Christians seemed to me more clearly drawn than in any of Guinness’s other books, which emphasized clear understanding of cultural forces, and our calling to distinctiveness of thought and life in their midst. I cannot recall in other books where Guinness so clearly affirms the reality of the miraculous and works of power as he does here.

There also seemed to be a greater urgency in Guinness in his denunciation of what he sees as the church’s compromises both of integrity and doctrine, including what he sees as the rapid, revisionist shift in the understanding of human sexuality in broad swathes of the church as it embraces the social construction of reality rather than transcendent understandings that have been held through the church’s history. He decries a generationalism within the church which prevents the passing of the baton of faithful witness and presence from elder to rising generations in our present time.

Part of Guinness’s concern is for what he sees to be modernity’s impact on the wider culture as well as upon the church. He sees in such things as the interest in singularity a kind of “tower of Babel” hubris bound to disillusion. Likewise, perhaps in his best chapter, he explores the lingering spiritual memory of modern atheism, that he describes as “life without an amen.”

There is much here I appreciate in his analysis of our present cultural moment. His grasp of the pluralizing, privatizing, and relativizing elements of a modernity rooted in the social construction of reality describes the water we swim in and often have become accustomed to. I wholeheartedly affirm his description of what it means to be “impossible people” and particular the call to a recovery of spiritual power in a materially affluent but spiritually flaccid church.

What I think would have made this case more compelling to me would have been to apply this analysis not merely to the politics of the left, but to our idolizing of politics of all stripes. He takes several swipes at Barack Obama (who was sitting president when he wrote this) but is silent about the politics of the right. I personally believe that one of the things that would make Christians the “impossible people” he would have us be is to forsake all political alliances to left or right to be a prophetic voice toward the versions of idolatry and corruption across the spectrum of our political life.

I also wonder if Guinness’s word about generationalism might have carried more weight were this book to have been co-written with a millenial. My sense is that this is a work that will resonate well with those of Guinness’s own generation, but much less well with many of those he most needs to convince of the case he is making — millenials — if they even pick up this work.

That would be regrettable because the matters Guinness raises are ones of grave concern if true, and ones around which the church needs consensus. We are, sadly as Guinness notes, often divided in the church across the same fault lines as our culture, including those of generation, as well as ethnicity, economic status, and social class. Guinness has been a principled voice for the civil and public engagement of Christians in the wider culture, one respected in many quarters both here and abroad. My hope is that in whatever years remain for him (hopefully many!) he will find more partners across these divides who dialogue, dream, and pray together about what it means to be the “impossible people” he describes. Perhaps that would be something all of us might aspire and pray toward, within our own potential spheres of influence, as well as in our own faith communities.

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!

 

 

Thinking Politically

In this season of presidential primaries where the news is saturated with politics (and you haven’t seen it until you’ve lived in a swing state like Ohio!) it is easy to go to one extreme or the other. Either we become rabid partisans or we disengage. As someone committed to what I call Third Way thinking, I actually think it is worth thinking about how our first principles shape how we look at the political order and how we engage with politics.

So I thought I would share some of the books that I’ve read in recent years that may be helpful. Most are written by those who I would describe as thoughtful Christians. There are some who read this who might consider that an oxymoron. I hope if you peruse a few of these books, or even my reviews, you might think otherwise. And if you are a Christian, I hope you will consider taking the opportunity of this political season to re-examine your thinking about these matters. Is your mind shaped by media or by Christ?

Christian Political WitnessChristian Political Witness, George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A collection of essays from a theology conference looking at ways the church has related to the political order. My review.

17293092 (1)Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. This a broader question than politics, that of power and whether it is possible to use power redemptively. My review.

public squareThe Global Public SquareOs Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness explores the commitments necessary to preserve freedom of conscience in a diverse public square. My review.

good of politicsThe Good of PoliticsJames W. Skillen. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. He argues that our political life is rooted in creation rather than the fall and how this might shape our engagement in politics, with lots of examples from contemporary issues. My review.

to change the worldTo Change the WorldJames Davison Hunter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Hunter argues that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of change and place too great a stock in the political order as an agent of change. My review.

A Public FaithA Public Faith, Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Volf also uses “third way” language in laying our four propositions for how Christians might work in a diverse public square. My review.

AllahAllah: A Christian Response, Miroslav Volf. New York: Harper Collins, 2010. Not so much about politics but one of the contentious issues of this election–how we relate to Islam. Volf contends Christians and Muslims worship the same God, albeit with different understandings. Whether you agree with this contention or not, a thought-provoking read. My review.

The Religion of DemocracyThe Religion of Democracy, Amy Kittelstrom. New York: Penguin Press, 2015. This book traces the “American Reformation” of Christianity through the lives of seven key figures spanning the late eighteenth to early twentieth century, in which adherence to creed shifted to the dictates of personal judgment and the focus shifted from eternal salvation to ethical conduct reflecting a quest for moral perfection and social benefit. Good for understanding our American civil religion. My review.

ImmigrationImmigration: Tough Questions, Direct AnswersDale Hanson Bourke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Third in “The Skeptics Guide Series” and like others in the series provides a concise overview of basic facts about immigration and discusses the challenges of immigration policy in the United States. My review.

Politics of JesusThe Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1994. This is perhaps a classic Anabaptist statement that argues that the church, rather than becoming engaged with the political order, is one. A caveat comes with this book. Yoder, who died in 1997, was the object of numerous charges of sexual abuse of women both at Goshen Biblical Seminary, and later at Notre Dame. Yet, and probably before these allegations came to light, Christianity Today named it in the Top Ten Books of the Twentieth Century.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of good books out there. Nor does it reckon with classic works like Augustine’s City of God, Aristotle’s Politics, and Plato’s Republic just to name a few. What strikes me as I review this list, is that it emphasizes both the importance of and yet limited function of the political order. Politics matters, but it is not everything. That itself may be an important perspective in these upcoming months.

I’d love it if you would add your recommendations in the comments! I always love to hear of books I haven’t read, and I suspect other readers would enjoy that as well!

 

 

Review: The Pastor as Public Theologian

Pastor as Public TheologianThe Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.

Summary: The authors contend that at the heart of the pastoral calling is a vision of doing theology with the people of God, pointing them to what God is doing in and through the Christ, and how they may participate in that work.

The central thesis of this book addresses something I’ve long thought–that there is a growing divide between those who teach and write theology, and those who teach and shepherd the people of God. Many theological works on issues that are actually important for the life of the people of God read as written only for the academic guild of theologians. Meanwhile, pastors increasingly are viewed as those who are church growth technicians, counselors, and inspirational worship leaders. The authors contend rather that pastors are public theologians, in that they communicate the truth that is in Christ to the people of God, who then bear witness to Christ in every sphere of public life.

The authors then develop this thesis using four of the disciplines that classically define the theological academy: biblical, historical, systematic, and practical theology. They seek to show that the core of what is taught in these disciplines is in fact not something to be confined to the academy but is vital to the life of the church.

Under biblical theology, they consider the prophet, priest, and king roles as they find fulfillment in Christ and are expressed in pastorates that are prophetic, telling forth the word of God; priestly as those who minister grace in the message of the gospel; and kingly in both speaking wisdom and serving diligently as did the servant King.

With regard to historical theology Owen Strachan traces the pastorate from the earliest days, through monasticism and scholasticism, into the reformation and the Puritan and Edwardsian expressions in early America, to the professionalization of the pastorate, and an Evangelical recovery in the twentieth century. In this section, it seems the reformers, Puritans, and Jonathan Edwards are held in highest esteem as approaching the model of public theologians the writers envision.

Then Kevin Vanhoozer turns to systematic theology. He makes a startling contention here: that pastor-theologians both cultivate life and cope with death and that much of their work is helping people who inevitably will die understand how to live in light of this. It is a ministry of teaching the indicatives of theology: what is already reality for us through new life in Christ. It is ministry of the word: cultivating both biblical literacy and a biblically-informed cultural literacy. And it is the ministry of the imperative: how we should then live in light of the realities true of us in Christ.

Finally, Vanhoozer discusses practical theology, and the work of pastors as artisans in the house of God through the work of Evangelist, proclaiming what is in Christ in counsel, visitation, and sermon; the work of Catechist, as teaching what is in Christ through careful instruction of new converts and all of God’s people; the work of Liturgist in worship, prayer, and communion; and the work of Apologist, demonstrating what is in Christ against the alternatives that are in error.

Each section of the book is concluded with testimony from one of twelve practicing pastor-theologians. These are a highlight of the book in many ways in practically translating theory into theological practice. It was striking how many emphasized the priority of study and wide reading as essential to the life of the pastor-theologian. Lastly, the book concludes with fifty-five theses that essentially are a summary of the main points of the book.

If I were to have any reservation with this book, it would be that it should more accurately be titled “The Male Reformed Pastor as Public Theologian”. Both authors and all twelve contributors are men writing and, in the case of the twelve, pastoring churches in the Reformed tradition. Yet I would contend that this theological perspective is not central to the contention the book makes, with which I would heartily agree, but it may serve to limit the book’s audience. I would contend that Martin Luther King, Jr. was just as much a public theologian as Harold John Ockenga, and King’s leadership in the civil rights movement is perhaps the signature example in the twentieth century of the impact public theology can have both upon the people of God and the public square. The contention these authors are making for the noble role of pastor as public theologian, indeed public intellectual, is vital both for the equipping of a people of God saturated by a secular culture, and for the engagement of that culture. I hope it can contribute to a wider conversation throughout the church of the vital role pastor-theologians can play in equipping the church for a witness both cogent and charitable in a world that desperately needs it.

_____________________________________

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. 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.”