Shiny, Happy Gothard

My TV viewing habits are strange. I’ve never watched a reality show like Survivor or The Amazing Race. I refuse to watch Cable-TV news stations like FOX, MSNBC, and CNN. I’m allergic to so-called religious broadcasting and outside of some curiosity about Jim and Tammy Bakker almost 40 years ago, I’ve never watched outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death has framed my understanding of television.

So, when a friend texted me last week and suggested that I watch the new documentary about the Duggar family, Shiny Happy People, I thought it was worth a look. I had heard of the Duggar family but like all reality TV, I ignored them. I may have seen them once or twice on The Today Show but a story about a family with 19 kids struck me as unrealistic at best and bizarre at worst. I mean, if a couple wants 19 kids, I’m OK with that as long as they can support their family economically and give their kids a good education so that they can get good jobs and flourish as human beings. And to be honest, I wondered how a couple could send 19 kids to college or trade school to get the intellectual or vocational training they need.

To my surprise, the Duggar reality show was not so much about their family per se as about their claim that all of us should have large families like them. Having large families is God’s will and hence we should reorder our lives and our churches to propagate them. The source of this claim? A guy named Bill Gothard, a single man who claims to have cornered the market on Christian marriage and Christian families.

I had heard of Gothard before. In the late 1970s, I attended his week-long Basic Youth Conflicts (IBYC) seminar at the Long Beach (CA) Civic Auditorium. Over 9,000 people packed the place all listening to Bill Gothard, a short man wearing a drab blue suit with an overhead projector. As he spoke, the audience busied themselves writing notes in big red binders distributed by IBYC. The social pressure to accept his ideological teachings about Christianity was overpowering. The former Southern Baptist turned Anglican writer and speaker Beth Moore put it this way. “I didn’t realize how much influence that whole Gothard movement had on my church and on my social circles until watching those…episodes. I didn’t realize that’s where the umbrella talk all came from. I didn’t realize that’s where saying parenting stuff like ‘first time every time’ came from.” Gothard led these seminars throughout the United States and Canada with thousands attending at each location, and the thousands of “alumni” made sure that Gothard’s teachings became known in evangelical and fundamentalist congregations across North America.

Authority/Submission as Ideology

The key words in the Gothard schema are “authority” and “submission.” For Gothard, the Bible presents an ideological system where right relationship with God can be found only when an individual is in submission to authority. Hence, the Christian family is viewed as series of hierarchical “umbrellas” where the husband is the dominant force in the family. Men submit to God. Women submit to their husbands. And children submit to the wife who is responsible for managing the daily affairs of the household while the husband earns a living for the family. In society, citizens are required to submit to law enforcement; workers to their bosses; and congregants to their pastors. A society functions well only when individuals understand and practice the roles of authority and submission.

The Bible is drawn upon to support this tight system of authority and submission, despite the fact that Bible verses cited are mostly taken out of context with little understanding of what the biblical writers actually said. To top it off, the Gothardian ideology draws upon an ideology called Reconstruction. Reconstructionism views Old Testament civil law as binding on Christians even though the New Testament teaches that the Old Testament law has been fulfilled by life, death, and resurrection of Christ and we now live under what the prophet Jeremiah described as “the new covenant,” a covenant shaped by God’s grace expressed through Jesus Christ.

The second time I heard Gothard was at a “pastors conference” in Greensboro, NC in 1985. This time, Gothard had something new to teach his followers. It was not enough to follow the system of authority/submission that he laid out in those big red notebooks. Now, Gothard wanted the pastors (all of whom were men since Gothard thought evangelical women pastors were an abomination) to start having bigger families. Families with ten or more children were held up as examples. There was even talk of how men could reverse vasectomies if they were unfortunate enough to have had one. It was a bizarre day.

My second trip to a Gothard event came about five years after the first major sex scandal embroiled the IBYC ministry. Gothard’s brother Steve had been caught in sexual relations with several minors at an IBYC center and while he was removed from the ministry, his brother Bill Gothard banished him to one of the organization’s campus buildings in Minnesota. After all of this, I dismissed Gothard (though I continued to warn others of what I saw as dangerous teachings), and he fell off of my radar screen. So, it wasn’t until a few months ago that the connection between Gothard and the Dugger family started to become clear.

“Shiny, Happy” Nightmare

The original Duggar series ran for a long time on the TLC Channel up until 2015. It portrayed a large, happy family where everyone worked together and coexisted well with each other. The reality was far uglier. The Duggar’s failed to educate their children, especially the young girls who were expected to get married at a young age and have large families of their own. Education was home-school only and with IBLP approved curricula. (The IBYC changed its name to the Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP) in the 1980s.) That curriculum was woefully lacking and did not prepare young men or women for college or careers. Marriages were arranged through a complex system of courtship, and women existed in a patriarchal system that allowed them no independence whatsoever. In fact, women were considered under the “authority” of their fathers even as young adults, and marriage represented a transfer of authority from their fathers to their husbands.

Yet the authority/submission dynamic was slippery, and it opened the door for all kinds of abuse in the Duggar family and the Gothard/IBLP organization. There’s no need to describe all of that here. Shiny, Happy, People tells the whole sordid story and as hard as it is to watch, I encourage you to do so. Recasting the Bible as a story of authority and submission distorts its message. The Bible’s message is one of sin and grace. All of us, men and women alike, have been created in God’s image (see Genesis 1:26-28) and while the entire human race has fallen into sin (Genesis 3), the biblical story is all about God’s grace for us expressed through Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s relational dynamic is not based on authority/submission. As Ephesians 5:21-33 makes clear, submission is seen as mutual; “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Marriage is a partnership where husbands and wives submit equally to Christ and to one another. No umbrellas here.

And no umbrellas in church, either. Of course, we have leaders in church and as followers of Jesus, we’re to listen to our leaders and encourage them in their work. But in the Bible, Christian leaders are not power brokers but servants. Jesus makes that clear in his own ministry. Yes, Christian leaders have power, but they are to use that power as a servant of Christ and of God’s people.

What I found especially sad about Shiny, Happy, People are the stories of people burned by the Gothard system who have lost their Christian faith. They were fed a deeply distorted almost-cultic understanding of the Christian faith, one that stripped them of their humanity. But God doesn’t do that. Instead, he sends Christ to restore our true humanity.

I happily describe myself as a Christian humanist. By that I mean God’s desire that all of us should flourish as human beings in the world and reach our God-given potential. We can do that in a variety of ways if we are following Christ. Following Christ is not about finding your place in a distorted reality of authority and submission. It is about what the Apostle Paul describes as “union with Christ” in Romans 6, about learning to follow Jesus amidst the hopes, joys, and struggles that we encounter in our daily lives. I hope that the Duggar family can find true freedom in Christ.

The documentary “Shiny, Happy People” can be found on Amazon Prime. It’s a four-part series; each episode an hour long. As with all television, it should be watched with a critical eye. For example, in episode four they try to link all evangelicals with authoritarianism and a desire to control others politically and theologically. That is a huge stretch and one that lacks evidence. While it may be a popular opinion on the political left it is a gross generalization. Having said that, I don’t doubt that the Gothard movement has political aims given that it is a Reconstructionist movement at heart. And yes. I did trash my big red Gothard notebook many years ago.


Like so many, I’ve thought much about the death of Tim Keller this week. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020, many of us who benefited from his ministry and his published works knew that he faced a serious life-threatening challenge. Yet, when we heard the news of his death last Friday, it was still a shock. For many, myself included, Keller was the most important Christian apologist of our day. At a time when many turn away from Christ; when many Christians buy into what Jacques Ellul termed “the political illusion,” Keller was writing the kind of apologetics that deeply impacted our very being. No wonder that so many thoughtful people heard Keller and read his works and were drawn to the Savior that he loved so much.

Several weeks before his death, Russell Moore interviewed pastor Keller (before his brilliant apologetic work, he served two congregations including Redeemer Church in New York City), and Keller’s words summed up for me the essence of the Christian faith. He said something like this: If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and he is; everything will be OK. He followed that by saying that he was convinced intellectually and existentially, that Christ has been raised from death and is alive now. Therefore, everything will be OK because we trust in a sovereign, just, merciful Triune God. It all comes down to that!

Before his death, I had started reading his last book, Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? (Viking, 2022). This morning I finished the second chapter and came across this gem of a paragraph. After describing the secular ways of forgiveness as nothing more than “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term), he writes this:

“The cheap-grace model of forgiveness focuses strictly on inner emotional healing for the victim, on “getting past it and moving on,” but then ends up letting the perpetrator off the hook. The little-grace or no-grace models basically seek revenge, which can lead to endless cycles of retaliation and vengeance, back and forth, between the victim and the wrongdoer. What all these secular models lack is the transformed motivation that the vertical dimension brings. The experience of divine forgiveness brings profound healing. It is grounded in the faith-sight of Jesus’s costly sacrifice for our forgiveness.

“This reminds us that we are sinners in need of mercy like everyone else, yet it also fills the cup of our hearts with his love and affirmation. This makes it possible for us to forgive the perpetrator and then go speak to him or her, seeking justice and reconciliation if possible. Now, however, we do not do it for our own sake–but for justice’s sake. The motivation is radically changed” (34).

In other words, authentic Christian forgiveness does not excuse wrongdoing. The women who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar do not have to give up on seeking justice for his abuse of them. The people who have been harmed by abusive leaders like Mark Driscoll and Ravi Zacharias do not have to let those individuals off the hook. Forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card.

I like how Martin Luther King Jr. put it (and Keller quotes these words on page 35), “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love…We can never say ‘I forgive you but I won’t have anything further to do with you.” Hard words but remember this is the man who faced down Bull Connor and his cops and their dogs in what was a police-riot on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago in 1963. Forgiveness is hard, and it can never be divorced from the pursuit of justice. But it is necessary.

Keller reminds us that “our society cannot live without forgiveness. When it is absent, the results are horrifying. Unaccountable numbers of shooting deaths in urban areas are revenge attacks from gangs and even family members. So many of the so-called mass shootings are attacks by gunmen who have nursed grudges. The genocides we have seen in events like the Soviet slaughter of Ukrainians in the 1930s, the Nazi holocaust against Jewish people in the 1940s, the butchery of Pol Pot and the Kemer Rogue in 1970s Cambodia, and the genocide against the Tutsi tribe in Rwanda in 1994 tell us what happens when the practice of forgiveness disappears from society. Our opponents are not only wrong, they are dangerous and must be eliminated!

I don’t know about you, but I confess to having a hard time forgiving others, especially during my young-adult years. Lewis Smedes reminds us that forgiveness often comes slowly and the larger the offense, the more slowly it comes. He’s right. Some of that forgiveness did come slowly for me and only when I grasped how much that Christ has forgiven me of. My number of days in this life grows shorter, and because like Tim Keller I’m convinced both intellectually and existentially that Christ has been raised from death I want to learn to better follow him and practice the kind of costly forgiveness to which he challenges me and all of the people of God.

I’m through only two chapters of Forgive: Why Should I and How Can I? and look forward to fresh insights I will gain from the pen of this humble servant of God. I do all I can to avoid Christian celebrity worship but I do admire followers of Jesus like Tim Keller, N.T. Wright, and others who combine keen intellect with strong faith and deep Christian kindness for others, even those with whom they disagree. Tim Keller reminds that in his great love, Christ offers salvation and hope to Democrats, Republicans, Independents (like me), people who are immigrants and refugees at our southern border and around the world, people who are Black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and white (in other words, for folks from every tribe, nation, language, and people). No person is beyond God’s reach no matter who they are and those of us who are his followers have the privilege of embodying his love in how we speak and in how we interact with others.

Has “Left Behind” been left behind?

Here’s a 64-dollar theological word: Dispensationalism. Ever heard of it?
Some of you probably have. Can you describe it? Well, like a lot of theology,
that’s easier said than done. Yet, you have been influenced by its ideas far more than you think.

Dispensationalism is a cluster of theological ideas about 175 years old that originated with an Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby and was popularized in America and Canada through Dwight L. Moody and other late-19th century
evangelists. The term, “Dispensationalism” as a name wasn’t coined until 1928, when one of its opponents, Philip Mauro, used this term to describe it.

Almost 100 years after Mauro coined the term comes a new book asking whether dispensationalism is still viable, despite its widespread popularity throughout the 20th century. Historian Daniel Hummel, who teaches at Upper House, a Christian study center housed near the University of Wisconsin, asks that provocative question in his new book The Rise and Fall of
Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a
(Eerdmans, 2023). Hummel has given us probably the first
comprehensive history of dispensationalism and its impact on American
fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

So, is Hummel, right? Let’s take a look. Darby, according to Hummel, bundled
“three theological innovations into an interlocking set of teachings: a
new theology of the church, a new theology of the millennium, and a new dualism between heaven and earth that informed how he read the entire Bible” (21). This dualism led him to separate ancient Israel from the church, the Kingdom of God from the Kingdom of Heaven, and the people of God from any visible earthly citizenship.

Darby also insisted on premillennialism, the theological notion that the
return of Christ would be followed by the essential destruction of the visible
church and of society. Added to that are what Hummel terms “two key
novelties: that the prophetic timeline was stalled in a “parenthesis.”
period, with the kingdom (of God) postponed at Daniel’s sixth-ninth week
(leaving one “week” of seven years to completion); and that this
parenthesis would be concluded by the “rapture” of the church into
heaven, an event that other premillennialists placed at the end of the
prophesized ‘tribulations'” (22-23). Following the Anabaptists of the 16th
century, Darby believed that the visible church had become hopelessly corrupt
and that the only option for real Christians was to withdraw from the
established churches and denominations.


Darby’s schema emerged around the same time as William Miller claimed that
Christ would return “on or about the year 1843.” The Adventists (the
tradition through which I came to Christ) used what was called the
“year-day” method of interpretation, that in prophetic time, one day was equivalent to one year. The aftermath of Miller’s failed prediction did not
cool interest in biblical prophecy and hence Darby’s schema received widespread interest especially after the Civil War. Miller’s “historic” premillennialism was found wanting and the “new premillennialism” of Darby and his colleagues would find wide acceptance.

American Christian reception of Darby’s views was framed by the “Bible Reading method,” based on Scottish common-sense reasoning “that posited a common or “plain” correspondence between the words and their meaning that was accessible to all” (43). As Hummel describes it, “A person using the method most often took a keyword in the English Bible and marked as many occurrences of the term as could be found throughout the text. This inductive Bible reading created chains of verses assuming a biblical unity that was conveyed from expositors to audiences, from preachers to congregations” (44).

Acceptance of Darby was also tied to post-Civil War “sectional reconciliation,”
a political movement to promote reconciliation between Northern and Southern
whites. During the war, many northern whites especially in the border states of
Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware favored the Union and did not support emancipation of African American slaves. As Hummel writes, “By
1870, the outlines of a new radical subculture…combined the priority of
sectional reconciliation with key [Darby and] Brethren teachings about the
heavenly nature of the church and the premillennial arrival of the kingdom of
God” (51). And this posture narrowed Christian concern away from public and social matters. “The new premillennial teachings privileged civil peace over racial justice…White Christian unity, in other words, would more ably repair the damage wrought by the Civil War and empower the project of global missions” (52). Sadly, “sectional reconciliation” led to Jim Crow, segregation, lynchings, and the marginalization of African Americans in American society. White fundamentalists, especially in the American South embraced Jim Crow, and this program for racial segregation was embraced throughout the country in the workplace, in housing, in transportation, and in the daily aspects of American life.

Scofield Dispensationalism

Since the late 19th century, Dispensationalism has evolved in four major
movements: Classical, Scholastic, Progressive, and Popular. The Scofield
Reference Bible
(1909) with annotations by Darby disciple Cyrus I. Scofield articulated essential dispensationalism: The dualism between heaven and earth as separate spheres of God’s activity, the distinction between Israel and the Church as two separate peoples of God, the postponement of God’s Kingdom until after Christ’s return, seven dispensations of time where God subjected humanity to a unique test of faithfulness in each, the “rapture” of
the church before a seven-year great tribulation, and withdrawal from most
political and social concerns (what the writer David Moberg termed “the
great reversal”). “The Scofield Reference Bible became the definitive
articulation of fifty years of new-premillennial thinking and organizing,
solidifying the movement’s successes and delineating its theological
boundaries” (132).

Scofield dispensationalism spread rapidly through American fundamentalism
and Pentecostalism. The Assemblies of God endorsed the theological system
articulated by Scofield (with the exception of its restrictive posture toward
speaking in tongues). And Scofield adherents were found in all of the major
Protestant denominations including Baptist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and
even among some Lutherans and Methodists. The movement also faced opposition, especially among southern Presbyterians and others who embraced a Calvinistic “covenant theology”(192). At the same time dispensationalists became part of a fundamentalist coalition with those same Presbyterians in opposition to the modernist theology that had carried the day in major northern Protestant denominations.

Scholastic and progressive dispensationalism

Opposition to Scofield dispensationalism led to a more scholastic approach by advocates. Lewis Sperry Chafer, the first president of Dallas Theological
Seminary had a much different agenda than many of the fundamentalists who embraced dispensational ideas. Chafer saw the future not in continued culture wars with modernists, but in biblical and theological education that would train pastors and spread dispensationalist theology into churches and pulpits across North America. “The conflict between dispensationalists and
covenantalists spurred the most frenzied period of scholarly output and
institution building among conservative Protestants since the late nineteenth century” (198). And “dispensationalism grew into a full-fledged
theological culture” anchored at Dallas Theological Seminary and other schools like it.

Chafer completed his eight-volume systematic theology with the help of John
Walvoord (who would succeed Chafer as president of Dallas Seminary). Along with Charles Ryrie, Dwight Pentecost, John Fineberg and others, dispensationalism enjoyed a burst of scholarship that permeated schools and congregations in an ever-expanding network. This scholastic dispensationalism was reflected in numerous works, the most important being the New Scofield Reference Bible released by Oxford University Press in 1967. New Scofield conformed C.I. Scofield’s notes “to the most up-to-date dispensational thinking, which inevitably meant thousands of small, and few major, alterations”(252). Coupled with Charles Ryrie’s 1965 work Dispensationalism Today, scholastic dispensationalism gave the movement an academic feel that appealed to many thoughtful Christians, especially those who trained for the ministry.

For Ryrie, “the essence of dispensationalism is the distinction between
Israel and the Church” (252). From this flowed two more distinctives,
“plain hermeneutics, applied to every book of the Bible, and an argument that the overall point of history was to glorify God” (252). Scholastic
dispensationalism was less dogmatic about the number of dispensations but
adamant about the pre-tribulation rapture and the postponement of the kingdom of God until after the return of Christ to earth.

The latter two were emphasized as part of an ongoing conflict not only with
covenant theologians, but with the new-evangelical biblical scholars at places
like Fuller Theological Seminary. By the early 1960s, Fuller New Testament
Scholar George Eldon Ladd had staked out what he called “historic premillennialism” and argued that the kingdom of God was not postponed but
actually “already but not yet.” Based on Mark 1:14-15, Ladd and others argued that the kingdom of God had both this-world and next-world components, meaning that the Kingdom was not only future but present in the sense that Christians should engage the bleakness of culture with the light of the gospel, and should be concerned not only with evangelism but with social injustice especially racism, exploitation, and so on.

The Ladd critique aligned with other evangelical movements that emerged in
the 1950s-60s, and by 1990 it led to revision proposals within Dallas Seminary
and among dispensationalists themselves. Called “progressive dispensationalism,” Dallas theologians like Craig Blaising, Darrell Bock,
and others offered controversial proposals that aligned with Ladd’s understanding and those of Reformed theologians. (One joke that I heard was
that Dallas 2000 = Fuller 1957). Hummel describes it this way, “In the
1990s, a younger generation of dispensational scholars openly broke with the
older generation and joined a broader neo-evangelical consensus on issues of
covenants, eschatology, and salvation…Instead of the traditional view that
the current dispensation represented a “parenthesis” in God’s redemptive history that postponed the kingdom, progressives asserted a fundamental continuity, or progression, from one dispensation to the next. This
seemingly minor shift forced a reevaluation of a vast scope of once-settled dispensational theology, from the tradition’s literal biblical hermeneutics to
the nature of the kingdom, the church-Israel distinction, and the purpose of
God’s covenants” (314). Today, the progressives are probably the majority voice in within scholastic dispensationalism. But that shift is minor compared to the “pop-dispensationalism” birthed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is the dispensationalist form that has seeped into much of American culture and evidenced through pop-dispensational literature like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind Series.


Hummel argues that as pop-dispensationalism became dominant both in church and society, it caused the collapse of any serious scholastic dispensationalism as the theological rails established by dispensational theologians were discarded for popular categories. While I think that claims of
dispensationalism’s collapse at the hands of popularizers may be questioned based on the evidence (Dallas Seminary continues to grow in terms of students
and progressive dispensationalism in my view is an important conversation partner), there is little doubt that pop-dispensationalism has had an outsize
impact on many evangelical congregations especially those that are Baptist and

Pop-dispensationalism exploded with the 1970 release of The Late Great
Planet Earth
. The title riffed on Curt Gentry’s 1968 The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a fictional account of a massive California earthquake that dropped half the state into the Pacific Ocean. But its author, Hal Lindsey, went ever larger. It wasn’t just California that would crash and burn, but the whole world, something like the Roland Emmerich disaster movie 2012. Dispensational ideas like the rapture, the Great Tribulation, the division between Israel and the Church were shorn from the scholastic and later progressive dispensationalism taught at places like Dallas Seminary and dropped into what Hummel describes as a “genre-bending and
genre-creating–blend of prophecy, spirituality, and entertainment that landed in readers hands at the very moment these dispensational interests were
combining in the real world in new ways” (237).

The Late Great Planet Earth entered the apocalyptic world of the
1960s and early 1970s and sold over ten million copies It joined a host of
Christian and secular appeals in the Age of Aquarius, from the futurist Alvin
Toffler to pop-dispensationalist writes like Salem Kirbin and Jack Chick (he of
the infamous “Chick Tracts,” little cartoon books that trafficked in
pop-dispensational themes and apocalyptic anti-Catholic conspiracy theories).
Even Dallas Seminary President John Walvoord in 1984 distanced scholastic
dispensationalism and Dallas Seminary from Lindsey’s dark schema by claiming that The Late Great Planet Earth “goes beyond our teaching” (301). Lindsey’s accommodation of things like “modern military technology” in his
fantastic interpretation went far beyond the “strictly literal approach” that Walvoord, Ryrie, and other scholastic dispensationalists taught.

In 2004, the religion scholar Amy Frykholm wrote Rapture Culture: Left
Behind in Evangelical America
, and argued that pop-dispensational writers like Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and their many allies “brought dispensationalist premillennialism from the margins of culture into the mainstream.” But as Hummel writes, books like the Left Behind series, taught readers that dispensational theology was not monolithic, but “a multiple, dynamic, contradictory system with ‘cracks and fissures’ that illustrated ‘just how broad and diffuse evangelicalism is in American culture'”(322). In other words, pop-dispensationalism had gone postmodern.

Space does not allow me to explore the Left Behind series in depth but given its sales that easily surpassed The Late Great Planet Earth, it’s clear that its authors, LaHaye and Jenkins “had done a little more than toss a fictional account of dispensational eschatology into the ocean of American popular culture” (322).

In 1984, Neil Postman’s profound little book Amusing Ourselves to Death
described how television had shifted our lives to the prism of entertainment.
Art, politics, government, law, even religion are processed through an
entertainment lens, a theme that Postman amplifies in his 1991 work Technolopy and by writers like Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart. This shift
has driven the monetization of almost everything in American society meaning that the value of anything is not measured by its reason or its logical
consistency, but by how much money it can make its owners. Religion becomes a commodity, and pop-dispensationalists (and others in places like the Christian entertainment industry) have commoditized a 19th century theological tradition and disconnected its key elements from that tradition. They’re not the only ones to do that in postmodern America, and other evangelical traditions have tried it.

But the ultimate result of Religion as a commodity is cynicism,
marginalization, and division as seen by the growing trend of younger generations to reject the forms of Christianity that have historically done
well in America. To use a phrase from C.S. Lewis, we have replaced the
“true myth” of Christianity with untrue myths that appeal to our postmodern lives. For the sake of coming generations, we must do better.


While not a pure book review, I’ve tried to use Hummel’s The Rise
and Fall of Dispensationalism as a map describing how a 19th century
Anglo-American tradition born of the restorationist impulse in American
Christianity has seeped not only into congregations but has impacted the way we
live and how we perceive the Christian faith. My intent is not to debate the
merits of dispensationalism. While my own premillennialism is framed by N.T.
Wright and Eckerd Schnabel, I find progressive dispensationalism a worthy
theological conversation partner.

I must also confess that in my early college years, like many young
evangelicals of my generation, I was enamored with Hal Lindsey and
Late Great Planet Earth. I even attended a college retreat at Mt. Hermon,
CA just south of where I grew up, where Lindsey was the featured speaker, and the
weekend was marked by lecture and discussion of all things prophetic. However,
by my early twenties I had concluded that what Lindsey was peddling was
profoundly unbiblical and my thinking gravitated more towards the Reformed theology of G.C. Berkhouwer, the biblical theology of George Ladd and Glen
Barker, and the ethics of Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jacques Ellul.

For those of you interested in this subject, Hummel’s book is a
groundbreaking work that covers all the nooks and crannies in a way that I have
not seen. Still, I have two criticisms. Despite all of his excellent analysis,
I’m not sure that we can pronounce the death of scholastic dispensationalism.
Instead, I see progressive dispensationalism as an important renewal of that scholastic tradition, especially in their more biblical understanding of the
Kingdom of God. Perhaps, the progressives will renew the movement to the point where future dispensationalists will care not only about evangelism and
missions, but addressing our long American stain of treating African Americans
and other minorities unjustly and caring about the social needs of our communities in ways that will cause human beings to flourish.

I also think that Hummel’s last chapter, Surveying the Aftermath, is too disjointed. Like all of us who write history, when we move from past to present it is harder to grasp what is truly significant from what is merely popular. That is why reflections on contemporary life must always be provisional. We will never know the significance of the times in which we live.

Still, Hummel has written one of the most satisfying books about American Christian history that I have read, and he does it from the vantage point of the burgeoning Christian study center movement on major American campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Florida, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I see this vital movement as perhaps the most important vehicle today to carry on the Christian conviction that the life of the mind is deeply important to both church and society. On a scale of 1-5, this book definitely gets five stars.

Character is the issue?

A couple of weeks ago, I was busy cataloging library books. I love librarianship because I love students and I love books. Being a librarian gives me opportunity to explore books, especially new titles that come from various publishers. Because I focus on theological librarianship, I get to see new general and academic books released by a host of publishing houses that publish Christian theology. Librarians have to be selective, so we don’t buy every title. Instead, we purchase books (both print and electronic) that support the classes we offer and the mission and purpose of the particular school where we work.

Across my desk came a rather fascinating book to catalog, especially in our day of political Christianity. The book’s title struck me–Character is the Issue: How People With Integrity Can Revolutionize America (Broadman and Holman, 1997) written by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee a quarter century ago when he served in that office.

Everything hinges on character.

The book describes how Mr. Huckabee became governor, not in the usual manner of election to office but as the result of severe illegalities committed by his predecessor, Governor Jim Guy Tucker (who became governor when Governor Bill Clinton won the presidential election of 1992 and moved to Washington, DC). It was a difficult transition for Mr. Huckabee and the citizens of Arkansas, filled with political and legal intrigue. Mr. Tucker was convicted of several crimes and forced to resign. Mr. Huckabee became the first member of his political party to hold that office since Reconstruction in the 1870s.

In the book, Mr. Huckabee offers several maxims about political leadership, the most important one being that “Everything hinges on the character of the men and women we choose to establish public policies” (2). He returns to that theme several times in the book, for example, “Character was the issue; the resolve to do right, regardless of the circumstances or the consequences, was the issue (33).

Character has many ramifications. But at the core, “Character does count. Integrity does count. But if integrity and character are divorced from God, they don’t make sense. If you try to set your own moral thermostat, chances are that a lot of other people will be uncomfortable. Integrity left to define itself becomes evil because everyone ends up choosing his own standards” (86). According to Mr. Huckabee, leaders with character are servant leaders, individuals who seek public office with the goal of serving their constituents and practicing ethical government in ways that cause others to flourish.

Much of the book describes Mr. Huckabee’s move from pastor of a large Southern Baptist congregation (what we would call a megachurch) to the realm of partisan politics. How does someone make such a move? For Mr. Huckabee this transition represented the opportunity for larger influence that would extend his reach beyond the congregation he served and apply his understanding of Christian character to the realms of politics and government. In his view, more Christians need to make this transition because it is only when people of character hold public office that our government can function as the American founders intended. “One of the biggest faults of modern Christians is trying to reconcile a self-centered worldview with Christianity. It is impossible” (136).

Mr. Huckabee’s thinking reflects that of many if not most evangelical Christians during the 1990s. For example, “everything comes down to the faith question, which then leads to the integrity question: Where does integrity of character come from? Either it comes from God or it comes from something we manufacture. If it comes from God, it is fixed…. If I don’t believe there is a God, then I don’t believe character is fixed. I believe it moves as the culture moves” (99-100). Mr. Huckabee argues that in response, Christians can do three things: (1) Live a God-centered life of high moral character; (2) consider running for political office; (3) support candidates who share your Christian standards. “Character is the issue, and your character makes a difference every day–in the work you do, the candidates you vote for, the people who look to you for leadership” (3).

Accidentally prophetic.

While “character” plays prominently in this book, in my view Mr. Huckabee’s purpose was a description of his religious and political biography, the ways he thought about government and politics, and a tract designed to make him better known to Arkansas voters (and national voters in future races should he choose to run for higher office). In my view, there’s no problem with that. As a voter and a citizen, I appreciate knowing what makes politicians and political leaders tick, especially because I still view individual character as primary in my decision making regarding whom I choose to vote for. I’ve been known to vote for someone with whom I have substantial disagreements if I judge that person’s character as more truthful and more honest than someone with whom I might agree with more on various matters of politics and government.

There’s a much larger matter at the heart of this book, one that Mr. Huckabee did not see at the time he wrote it. Let me put it this way. I think that Mike Huckabee, 1997 has a lot to say to Mike Huckabee, 2023. Last month, in responding to Donald Trump’s diatribe at his Waco, Texas rally, Mike Huckabee 2023 said the following, “And it was all back, really about loyalty. Ron DeSantis wouldn’t have been governor of Florida without Donald Trump’s intervention. Yeah, and I think Donald Trump, like a lot of us, think that somehow loyalty matters in politics. I think it does. I think there are two virtues: loyalty and confidentiality. Be loyal to the people who helped you and learn how to keep your mouth shut if you have information that could be hurtful to someone. Be confidential if you’re truly close to someone” (Brandon Gage, Mafia behavior: Mike Huckabee skewered for demanding ‘loyalty and confidentiality’ to Donald Trump,, March 26, 2023).

I wonder if Mr. Huckabee would write this book if he had to do it all over again. It’s a book that is now far more prophetic than its author could ever imagine. Obviously, character no longer matters for Mr. Huckabee and sadly, many evangelical Christians in the United States agree with Mike Huckabee 2023. I don’t and I never will.

Surprising work at Asbury

Last week, on Wednesday I finished teaching a six-week elective course at our church on American Christianity and its history. Throughout the six weeks, I continually returned to the subject of Revival, especially when we looked at Jonathan Edwards’s five marks of authentic Revival. (I’m capitalizing the word because I use it to reference specific events in Christian history).

I shared with the group an article that Pastor Tim Keller had just published in The Atlantic Online on February 5 about the possibility of Revival. Keller was optimistic, but he cautioned that “it will not happen until the Church applies this famous saying of Jesus to itself. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant…even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” If the Church aims at loving service to one’s neighbor while clearly speaking the truth, it will grow again and may have cultural influence. But if it aims at influence rather than humble service, it will have neither.” I encouraged the group to pray regularly for revival.

A Wednesday surprise.

Imagine my surprise when I checked my email later that night and discovered that something was happening at Asbury University. Chapel that morning had not stopped, and the service had lasted well into the evening with more and more students, faculty, and staff gathering in Hughes Auditorium where the Spirit of God was moving them toward repentance and prayer. No celebrities. No prosperity gospel. No politicians trying to use Christianity for their own political ends. Just people being led by the Holy Spirit into greater relationship with God and obedience to God.

I’ve been pretty negative about American evangelical Christianity over the past ten years. To me it seemed like far too many evangelicals were trading the reality of Jesus Christ for a drug of partisan politics, an illusion of so-called “Christian America,” and the tripe which says that God wants you to be rich and pretty. So, my surprise has turned to joy these past few days, because out of the blue we are seeing what Jonathan Edwards termed “a surprising work of God.”

Some friends of mine have reported being at Asbury and witnessing the events for themselves. This is not a clergy driven or a faculty driven meeting. There is nobody orchestrating it or trying to use it for publicity. Even those with disruptive agendas have been politely asked to leave unless they are there to worship God and repent of their sins. There is simply a flexible coalition of student leaders, faculty supporters, and some area pastors seeking the Spirit’s leading as this surprising work continues. I don’t know when the meeting will end. It’s already gone on longer than the week-long 1970 revival in the same place. But the meeting will end, and I think the results will be seen primarily in students who have drawn close to the Triune God and who will seek to serve him in their careers and in their lives.

Two revival movements shaped much of American Christianity in the early 1970s. The first was the “Jesus Movement” that emerged in California in the aftermath of various hippie movements in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The movement spread the Christian faith among the counterculture of that day. The other was the 1970 Asbury movement that touched young people who were not necessarily part of the counterculture. Unlike the Jesus Movement, the Asbury revival impacted students in a host of colleges and universities, even some that were not necessarily Christian. One of the big effects from both was the large number of young people among my generation, the baby-boomers, whom God called to pastoral and other Christian vocations (I was one of them). Another was the revolution in music (some good, some not-so-good) that impacted much of American Christianity. But the largest impact came as Christian students graduated and began to serve Christ in their lives and in their careers.

Thomas McCall, a professor of Asbury Seminary (right across the street from the college), offered this view of the 2023 Asbury Revival, “As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very weary of manipulation [author’s note: so am I!]. I come from a background (in a particularly revivalist segment of the Methodist-holiness tradition) where I’ve seen efforts to manufacture “revivals” and “movements of the Spirit” that were sometimes not only hollow but harmful. I do not want anything to do with that.”

The Spirit is undeniably powerful but gentle.

“And to be perfectly clear, this is nothing like that. There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor. To the contrary, it has been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable–a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.” I love that last line! “Undeniably powerful but gentle.

So, what happens next? Some will obviously question the genuineness of the events at Asbury. But whether a revival is genuine or not is not necessarily judged by what happens at a meeting. Instead, Jonathan Edwards reminds us that all true revivals have the following characteristics:

  1. A Deeper esteem for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord–a commitment to the centrality of Christ in our individual lives and our congregations.
  2. Repentance from sin and passion for the righteousness of God.
  3. Greater love for the Bible and a desire to immerse ourselves individually and corporately in their teaching. (Lord, please provide a renewal of expository preaching in our pulpits.)
  4. A commitment to establish the truths of biblical Christian doctrine and teaching in our minds and allow them to form the foundation of our thinking and living.
  5. A genuine love for God and for all human beings expressed in active concern for our neighbors.

My hope is that we will not only see this surprising work of God grow and expand, but that these five fruits described by Edwards and rooted in the Bible will be the results. Meanwhile, join me in praying for this wonderful expression of God’s surprising work at Asbury. Pray that God will protect it from the enemy of our faith who would love to distract it and use others to promote ungodly agendas. Pray that evangelical Christianity will once again return to the centrality of Christ.

The 1970 Asbury Revival has been well chronicled by Robert Coleman in his short book, One Divine Moment. Dr. Coleman was a professor at Asbury College during the 1970 revival. For Jonathan Edwards descriptions of revival and its biblical marks, see Johnathan Edwards, Jonathan Edwards on Revival. Richard Lovelace has published perhaps the best history and theology of Revival. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life.

Be Thou My Vision

For most of my adult life Be Thou My Vision has been my favorite piece of Christian music, whether traditional or contemporary. Its words were composed in the 9th century AD (CE), and slightly updated and translated since then.

Its roots are in Celtic Christianity, a movement from the British Isles that emerged in the life and work of Patrick, the Christian missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland in the middle of the first millennium. Celtic Christianity was unique in western Europe given that it combined both theology and life, intellect and affections, belief and mission. It narrates head, heart, and hands. It describes the Christian journey of faith better than any composition I know outside of Holy Scripture.

A faith for all of life

Notice the focus of the first stanza. It is on centrality of Jesus Christ in all of life. All else pales in comparison. No matter what day and time in which we find ourselves, the very presence of the Triune God is our light and life.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Many years ago, I read Richard Foster’s wonderful little book Celebration of Discipline. Foster’s insights were revolutionary for me because they opened for me the affective side of Christian faith. I loved doctrine and I loved the intellect. But I discovered that doctrine and intellect without attention to our affections could be dangerous indeed. As the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthian church, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In Romans 6, the Apostle speaks of our “union with Christ.” In other words, Christian faith is not merely an intellectual transaction. It affects all of life and brings us into participation with the Triune life of God as his adopted daughters and sons.

A journey of faith.

All of the great writers of the spiritual life speak of Christianity as a journey, a pilgrimage of faith. From St. Patrick’s Confessions to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel, the notion of Christian faith as a pilgrimage or journey describes the Christian life. We are one with Christ and we journey toward the new heaven and new earth that John describes in Revelation 20-22.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

The Triune God is our shield and sword.

Paul speaks of “spiritual armor” in the sixth chapter of Ephesians. We are to “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities [and] against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph 6:10-12). Be Thou My Vision reminds us from where our shield, our sword, and our power come. Our Triune God is our shelter and high tower in times of great stress and disorientation. Our power for living comes from God’s power as the living God, the one who stands above all of heaven and earth.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

Our inheritance in Christ.

Jesus tells a fascinating series of parables in Matthew’s gospel. This short little one has always struck me: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it”(Mt 13:45-46). The implication is that discovering Jesus Christ is like finding the most valuable pearl one could imagine. Knowing God is far more valuable than all of the human riches, wealth, and possessions we could possibly attain.

It may not seem that way today. How our culture celebrates celebrity and wealth. Today, celebrity is so valued that more than a few become popular simply because they can manipulate our vast electronic media and advanced technology. Budding authors are told that they must build “platform” in order to publish and sell books. Pastors of large churches are encouraged to create “platforms” through podcasts so that more can listen to them. We now have a Christian celebrity culture that values platforms and wealth over obscurity and faithfulness.

This great hymn joins with Holy Scripture in teaching the opposite. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt 6:19-21, italics added). All of us struggle here and for me, the struggle is ongoing. It’s meant to be that way, so that we can learn to follow Jesus through the struggle to put Him “first in my heart.”

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

The joy of the new heaven and new earth.

Finally, the hymn anticipates the joy of the life to come, the culmination of God’s purposes for his entire creation. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, the renewal of all creation is the goal of his purposes and plans for all of creation, for the earth on which we live, and for our very lives. Imagine with me a world without sin and depravity, if you can. An embodied world with embodied people who experience the same resurrection at the end of our age as Jesus did three days after he was killed. A new heaven and a new earth, a remade created order this time without the consequences of the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis 3.

I long for that world even though I have a hard time imagining it. I can’t even begin to grasp what that new heaven and earth will be like. All that I know is that the Triune God is faithful and true and that this new world will be good beyond measure.

So, I pray with the writer, “May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun” and whatever happens between now and then I commit afresh to follow the Triune God into that future.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Realistically, should the Lord tarry in his return to earth, my earthly life will soon come to an end probably within the next decade or two. Hence, the one hymn that I want played at my memorial is Be Thou My Vision. My journey of faith is filled with struggles and fits and starts. Like yours. Like every follower of Jesus who has walked this earth. Journey with me toward the place that the Triune God has for us who are “in Christ.”

Be Thou My Vision was originally composed by Dallan Forgail (8th Century).

America Great Again?

The slogan of our day: “Make America Great Again.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard it, I could buy a nice condo in Maui right on the ocean (next door to Oprah Winfrey’s in Wailea). The slogan and its acronym, MAGA, have dominated cable television and social media since 2015. I even hear it in evangelical churches, for example when on the fourth Sunday of Advent (the Sunday before Christmas), First Baptist Church of Dallas, one of the largest Southern Baptist congregations in the country, devoted Sunday morning worship to a special “Make America Great Celebration.” First Baptist, Dallas is not the only congregation to platform MAGA in its congregational life and worship. Hundreds of congregations affiliated with the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR) and prosperity preachers like Kenneth Hagin Jr. fill their worship with MAGA political symbols, themes, and content.

Lots of ink has been spilled about MAGA, and I don’t want to add much more. At the same time, all that ink has neglected the final word of the slogan: again. To “make America great again” implies a time in the past when America was great; a time we must recover. Hence, the questions I want to ask: When was America great? What time in American history do you want us to return to so that we can recapture this American greatness?

When was America great?

Let’s explore some possibilities.

Was America great in the 1780s when state governments refused to pay the Continental army, the very soldiers who defeated the British?

Was America great in the early 19th century when federal and state governments broke treaties with First Nations tribes and deported thousands from their homes?

Was America great in the 1840s when its army invaded Mexico, a war that then congressman Abraham Lincoln and many others strongly opposed?

Was America great in the mid-19th century when its overwhelmingly Christian population could not agree over whether the four million enslaved people in their midst were actually human?

Was America great when it fought a Civil War over slavery, a war that cost 750,000 lives? (Contrary to popular myth, the war was about slavery as the leaders of the Confederacy made clear in their writings.)

Was America great during the 1870s and 1880s when Reconstruction led to Jim Crow–government sponsored oppression and violence directed at many of our citizens because of their skin color?

Was America great when nationwide Jim Crow laws and violence in the early 20th century were cited by Adolf Hitler as inspiration for his treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, events that we rightly call The Holocaust? (My guess is that the Ku Klux Klan were the precursors of the infamous Nazi brownshirts of the 1920s and 1930s).

Was America great just before World War II when its leaders turned away a large ship of Jewish refugees fleeing Germany after the Holocaust had already begun?

Was America great in the 1960s and 1970s when it fought an unnecessary war in southeast Asia, a war that cost nearly three million lives, left 60,000 American soldiers dead, and fragmented us at home?

When is America Great?

Like all nation states, the American track record is mixed. But the United States has done well some important things. Our Constitution, while not perfect, does limit the power of one person or group and guarantees human rights and liberties to its citizens. Our country has welcomed people from across the globe to settle here for economic opportunity and human freedom. And our country has valued human work through policies like minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, and policies to provide safe working conditions.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the American declaration of independence in early summer 1776. I wonder if he realized the gravity of his words when he wrote, “All men are created equal.” All were certainly not equal at the time Mr. Jefferson composed those words. European societies like Great Britain were bastions of inequality. The rich were better than the poor. The aristocrats were better than the working class. Everyone was better than the Black slaves scattered throughout the British Empire. Even the Puritans embraced European inequality with daily practices like “hat honor,” the requirement that those of a lower social scale tip their hats towards those of a higher social class.

Those realities framed the American colonies as well. But Mr. Jefferson’s words upended all of that, and the story of America is the ongoing conscious struggle to expand liberty and human rights to all of our citizens. America becomes great when all of its people, no matter their skin color, ethnic origins, or country of origin enjoy political, religious, and economic freedom.

To what time should we return?

I’m happy that I live in 2022, not 1822 or 1922. Those times were far more dangerous than now. That’s not to say we don’t have political and social problems now. But in 2022, more Americans than ever enjoy the human rights and liberties promised in our Declaration and our Constitution; far more than either 1822 or 1922. I cannot think of a better time to be an American.

Still, as a follower of Jesus living in America 2022, what can I and my fellow Jesus followers do? One thing we must not do is turn the United States into a theocracy. Every time that has been tried in the 2,000-year history of Christianity; it has always ended badly.

Why? Because every person and human agency is framed by sinful depravity, and Genesis 3 reminds us that all of us, Christians included, are subject to sin and its consequences. We can’t even avoid conflict and sin in our churches. What makes us think that we can eliminate them from the United States!

Jesus understands that. That’s why he tells us about the Kingdom of God, “The time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). The Kingdom of God is seen when good seed falls on the soil of our lives (Mt 13:23). The good seed of the Kingdom does its work slowly. It starts small and grows over time into a great tree that benefits the natural world (Mt 13:31-2). The Kingdom is like a great treasure, a pearl of great value, that causes the one who discovers it to sell their possessions to own it (Mt 13:45-46).

The Kingdom of God is not fast and flashy; it is slow and patient. It is not top-down but bottom-up. It doesn’t cut corners. It is realistic about the world in which we live.

Jesus also tells us to order our lives around two simple principles: Love God and love others. The New Testament provides ample guidance for how we can do both in our lives and in our congregations. To love God simply means we surrender our lives to him, trust Christ as our Lord and Savior, and learn how to follow him day by day.

To love others involves seeking their welfare. Recent Christian writers have used the term “human flourishing” as a description of what the Triune God desires for all of us. I like that term. But Jesus makes me uncomfortable when he teaches us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mt 5:44). Really? I’m supposed to love my political opponents? I’m to seek the welfare of immigrants moving to my town? What about those atheists who want to take God out of the public schools? How about those Muslims who just built a mosque across town? Or those government bureaucrats who tell me I need a license to get a new HVAC unit? Or that Christian group down the street that doesn’t read the Bible right?

I think Jesus knows how hard those things are, and that is why he warns about gaining the entire world and losing our very souls. Hence, his counsel involves things like praying for others, especially those we want to see as enemies; respecting and praying for authorities even when we disagree with their policies; speaking for others when we see the injustice they face in society; and especially telling others the good news about the death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. Those things are far more important than turning the United States into a “Christian” nation.

I cannot think of a better time to be an American than right now. I wouldn’t change it for any other time in our history.

Ruby Bridges and American History

I’ve just updated this post from earlier this year given the importance of this topic in our country. My point is simply this: Accurate teaching about race and ethnicity must be done through good historical evidence. CRT is merely an interpretation of the meaning of that history and is certainly subject to debate once we fully grasp its meaning.

Earlier this year, I threw up a meme on my Facebook page. It’s a 1960 photo of a very young Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshals as Ruby became the first African American to attend William Frantz elementary school during the desegregation crisis in New Orleans. The meme included these words, “If this child was strong enough to survive it, your child is strong enough to learn about it.” The meme references the savage debate that has broken out in school districts across the American South regarding teaching African American history as part of American history and it touched off a lot of conversation and back-and-forth. In Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee agitated parents have lobbied against a set of ideas they link to what they think is Critical Race Theory (CRT) despite the fact that no elementary or secondary school in those states actually teaches CRT. The new Republican governor of Virginia made opposition to teaching CRT a cornerstone of his election campaign.

I’m sure that most schools and teachers teach about Ruby without teaching Critical Race Theory. After all, teaching African American history as an important apsect of American history is far different than teaching a social theory like CRT, something that was developed during the 1970s and has been confined to law schools and undergraduate Black studies departments found in larger state and private universities. While I’ve known about CRT for almost 40 years, it seems like last year the entire country discovered it and never have I seen a term generate so much conflict while so few know exactly what it is. This is what happens when you get your news off of Cable TV or from social media. You’re easily manipulated by your tribal chieftains and you wind up chanting slogans at school-board meetings. (And friends, both the political left and the political right do the same thing. If you don’t believe me, look at the cries from the left to “defund the police.”)

What is it?

So, let’s talk about CRT and then circle back to Ruby Bridges. Before I can critique or disagree with an idea or a program, I start with how the proponents themselves understand it. So with Critical Race Theory, the best place to start is with the words of those who advocate it. Hence, we turn to one of its early proponents, Richard Delgado. Fortunately, Mr. Delgado is clear about what he means by Critical Race Theory and he has published a short-readable book that describes it. Here is how he describes it: “Critical race theory sprang up in the 1970s, as a number of lawyers, activists, and legal scholars..realized…that the heady advanaces of the civil rights era of the 1960s had stalled, and, in many respects, were being rolled back” (Delgado, Critical Race Theory, 4).

According to Delgado, it builds on the “postmodern” beliefs of Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Antonio Gramsci. Postmodern and postmodernism refer to the idea that truth is relative. There is no absolute truth for the postmodern, and the only thing that matters is power. Four themes describe its essence. First, racism is integral to “the usual way society does business” (Delgado, 6). Second, racism serves the political and economic interests of the dominant group in society (Think of the Uyghurs in China). Third, “races are categories that society invents, maniuplates, or retires when convenient” (Delgado,9). Finally African Americans and other minority groups in the United States have experienced forms of slavery, Jim Crow, and economic discrimination, thinkers who emerge from minorities “may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know” (Delgado, 9).

If you’re still with me (and I know this has some complexity), you see that addressing CRT is not an easy task and the ten-second sound bites offered by politicians and others on Cable TV or social media wind up being far more harmful than helpful. Even the short understanding I’ve briefly outlined doesn’t do full justice to its complexity. That’s why CRT advocates disagree among themselves and we discover at least two schools of thought among them regarding what it means for all of us. So, any effective Christian response to CRT must not be simplistic but explore the ways that this theory (some would call it an ideology), is both helpful and harmful.

How do we respond?

Let me sketch a possible Christian response, at least an outline of one. First, Christians must be skeptical toward any approach that claims that that the Word of God, both in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and in Holy Scripture, is not true. The postmodern relativism that undergirds CRT (and many other movements) should lead to great care in assessing their value. That does not mean that there aren’t elements of CRT that are helpful for understanding our struggles with race and ethnicity both in the United States and throughout the world. Personally, I find the third of the four CRT ideas I just described to be very helpful and congruent with how Scripture treats race and ethnicity.

Second, we must recognize that teaching African American history as integral to American history does NOT mean that we are teaching Critical Race Theory. Sixty years ago, I was taught in elementary school that post-Civil War Reconstruction was when the “carpetbaggers” from the North came to pillory the defeated people of the South and take their rights away. Moreover, when African Americans were elected to office after the war, they were unqualified and corrupt. That is what millions of young Americans my age were taught in schools throughout the country. The only problem was that there was no historical evidence to support this interpretation, and through the recent work of Eric Foner, Richard Rothstein, and other American historians, we’ve learned the truth about the violence, hatred, and brutality against African Americans not only in the American South, but throughout the country. Jim Crow was a system of political, economic, and social terror throughout the United States, and the evidence from historical records and government documents is overwhelming. You don’t have to engage Critical Race Theory to grasp the reality of American history. And teaching the reality of American history is neither Marxist nor postmodern.

The Symphony of Holy Scripture

Third, we should engage CRT and other social theories with a robust Christian biblical and theological worldview. Genesis One tells us that all human beings are created in the image of God and that excludes nobody! Genesis 3 tells us that through human disobedience that all of creation is been subjected to the fall and the consequences of sin. That includes each of us, but it also infects our relationships with each other, our institutions (including our churches), and even all of creation. If any of you thinks that our sin has not affected our entire creation, I invite you to take a drive into West Virginia with me and let me show you the destruction of the land caused by rampant strip mining of coal.

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Because in the four-fold symphony of Scripture, the grand overarching narrative of the Bible, God reveals to us his redemptive activity that culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Critical Race Theory may give us some insight, but the Christian faith describes how the story will end–in a new heaven and a new earth where you and I and all followers of Jesus will live as embodied individuals with the kind of resurrection bodies that our Lord Jesus Christ promises we will inherit. To use the Christian faith to justify some absurd nationalism of “blood and soil” (as the white racists chanted in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, or as the Communist Party of China is doing to the Uyghur minority in that country) is not only unChristian, it is Satanic.

The Courage of Ruby Bridges

Back to Ruby Bridges. The meme I posted on Facebook was metaphorical in nature and directed toward those who think that teaching African American history as an integral part of American history somehow is Critcal Race Theory, and that teaching it to their kids will make them feel guilty. I don’t think guilt is very helpful, but perhaps learning about Ruby, about the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, OK, about the hundreds of thousands of African Americans who exprienced slavery and Jim Crow in the land of the free will help our kids learn that we are all responsible to preserve and strengthen our representative democracy. Perhaps our churches need to learn about Ruby too, given that she has a deep faith in Christ as did many who were part of the Civil Rights movement.

From an early age Ruby was taught to love God and love others. The Harvard child-psychologist Robert Coles did extensive interviews with Ruby during and after her experiences as a young child and found that she expressed love for those who expressed hate for her. One of the law-enforcement officers who escorted her into school every day remembered, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very very proud of her.” I can’t think of a better history lesson to learn.

Ruby Bridges has just published an inspirational autobiographical booklet titled Ruby Bridges: This is Your Time (Delacorte Press, 2020) and it is a nice place to learn about here story and share it with your family. If you want to learn about Critical Race Theory (CRT) from one of its originators in the legal world, go to Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (3d.ed. New York Universsity Press, 2017). It is probably the most readable introduction to what is admittedly a complex subject.

The main point that I have tried to make is that teaching and learning about African American History as an integral part of American History is NOT teaching Critical Race Theory. Good American histories like that published by Wilfred McClay does good work in integrating African American history into the overall history of the United States. For an excellent introduction to African American Christian history there is no better source than Paul Harvey’s Through the Storm, Through the Night: An Introduction to African American Christianity (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). I assign this to my students each time I teach a course in American Christianity. Finally, I’ve mentioned the work of the historian Eric Foner. Foner’s work on Reconstruction and Jim Crow is simply the best work on the post-Civil War period and the emergence of Jim Crow. Start with his A Concise History of Reconstruction (Harper, 2015). Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History (Oxford, 2018) is also outstanding.

Good Reads

Just over halfway through 2022, and I still can’t keep up with all the books I want to read. When it comes to Marie Kondo’s tidying up lessons, count me as a miserable failure. The stack on the nightstand grows larger and I just prepared four large boxes of books to give away.

So, it’s time to briefly review some good books read during the first half of the year. For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to read three books each month. Some months, I make that, and some I don’t. So here are some good ones that I have read this year so far.

First on the list is Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles (Cornell University Press, 2019) by Kenneth Womack. I’m a Beatles fan and junkie. A couple of years ago, I finished my collection of the 2009 CD remasters of all of the Beatles British albums. And I’ve read a host of books about the fab-four including what I think is the best of all Beatles books, Here, There, and Everywhere (Avery, 2006) by their recording engineer Geoff Emerick. Womack sheds light on the fracturing of the band during the Let it Be and Abbey Road album sessions and attributes much of it to strained relationships that developed over business issues following the death of their manager Brian Epstein. Other things contributed including John Lennon’s drug addiction which hampered his songwriting, and George Harrison’s constant complaints that his songs were not given proper respect by the band (and I think George was right). Womack suggests that the collapse of the band occurred after the Abbey Road sessions were finished when their business disagreements festered and brought their working relationship as a band to an end. Lots of interesting reading here.

Tim Keller is someone who I read regularly, and his book Making Sense of God (Penguin, 2018) is one of his best. Keller writes this as a sequel to his 2007 work The Reason for God (Penguin, 2009), and his audience is skeptics who may or may not be open to considering Christianity, and Christians who want to explore how their faith makes sense in the modern world. One thing about Keller’s work that I love is his ability to clear out all of the distractions that plague modern evangelical Christianity–things like the overemphasis on partisan politics and the rise of celebrity (things that skew perceptions of Christianity in America). Sadly, those distractions are real and harmful, but they are alien to authentic Christian faith and need to be seen as such. Making Sense of God reminds me of reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as Keller attempts to demonstrate how Christianity is credible in 21st century Western culture. Keller writes well with humility and grace. I underlined a lot of passages in this work.

It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the infamous Watergate break-in. I was in college for all of that, and I thought I knew everything there was to know about the so-called “crime of the century” that lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency of the United States. Then I read Garret Graff’s Watergate: A New History (Simon and Schuster, 2022) and discovered how little I knew. Like most who lived through the sad events of Vietnam and Watergate, I thought the Watergate story began on June 17, 1972, when James McCord, Egil Krough, Gordon Liddy and others engineered the break-in of the Democratic national headquarters offices in the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC. But the story goes back to the 1968 election when at Nixon’s request, one of his major supporters got the South Vietnam government to reject participation in the Paris peace talks about the Vietnam war. That was in clear violation of laws regarding intervention in foreign affairs by private citizens, and this started the Nixon administration down a path of cover-up for this and other assorted adventures. This is a well-researched and documented history that not only explains a lot but describes some mysteries that to this day have not been solved.

St. Augustine is one of the most important figures in Christian history, and his Confessions one of the great pieces of literature ever published. Princeton University has started a delightful series titled “Lives of Great Religious Books” and Garry Wills has contributed a short volume for this series Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography (Princeton, 2011 . The goal of books in this series is not so much to describe the contents of the book itself but discuss the impact the book has had on successive generations of readers and on the Church down through the ages. Wills points out that Augustine’s Confessions is perhaps the first work of autobiography in civilization and offers insights into his conversion to Christianity, a conversion that sets the stage for his great biblical and theological works such as The City of God and On the Trinity. Wills traces the influence of Augustine and his work right up to our present day. Suffice it to say that much of western Christianity (which includes evangelical Protestantism) is Augustinian in its theological outlook.

Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler has struggled with and survived a stage-four cancer diagnosis, a struggle that has shaped her faith in unforeseen ways. While in the throes of that struggle, she had to finish some research and writing to achieve tenure at Duke, and the result is a wonderful book, The Preacher’s Wife: The Precarious Power of Evangelical Women Celebrities (Princeton, 2019). Bowler’s first book, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (Oxford, 2018) is a gem, and this book in many ways builds on that first work. Here, Bowler not only focuses on the celebrity culture that now dominates much of American evangelicalism but on ongoing conflicts over what leadership and teaching roles that women can take in churches and ministry organizations. In most megachurches, especially those that identify as Pentecostal or charismatic, pastor’s wives can lead and teach as long as they do so under the “authority” of their husbands. (And the term “authority” is rather nebulous.) Hence, prominent evangelical women like Joyce Meyer, Beth Moore (until recently), and others could have expansive leading and teaching ministries as long as they were careful not to usurp their husbands or other prominent male leaders. Bowler describes the multiple impacts that such a posture has. On one hand, an amazing amount of creative and entrepreneurial ministry has flourished as evangelical pastors’ wives and women have found ways to lead and teach. On the other, their roles are so tied to their husbands and to navigating evangelical and Pentecostal mores that their ministry positions are insecure and dependent on their husbands. Hence when the husband’s ministry is damaged or ends, the spouses’ ministry come to an end at the same time.

Oxford University at mid-20th century was recovering from two world wars (of the 2,000 Oxford students who left to fight in World War 1, only 800 returned from the battlefields at the end) and in the midst of the wars and their aftermath, an intriguing group of literary scholars met weekly to discuss their academic work and their writing. Often, they would bring drafts of manuscript portions they were working on and invite critique from their fellow colleagues. The story of this unique group is described by Philip and Carol Zaleski in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrer, Straus, and Grioux, 2015). You likely know those first two names. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is perhaps the greatest work of fiction produced in the 20th century. And Lewis, the renowned Christian apologist, has produced works that have sold over 100 million copies since they were published. Not a year goes by that I don’t read something by Lewis, and currently I’m working through his essays published under the title God in the Dock. The Zeleskis’ have produced a delightful work, something of a fourfold biography that not only describes each individual but their interactions as the core of The Inklings. We read of their delightful eccentricities, their struggles with Christian faith, and how they perceived the nature of their literary musings. Such a delightful book and if you are a Lewis or Tolkien fan, this is one you won’t want to miss.

Oxford University Press also publishes a wonderful series titled Very Short Introductions. There are over 700 of them, and each provides a brief working introduction to various topics and themes. I’ve read two of them so far in 2022, a short volume titled Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2002) and the one I want to recommend here: Evangelicalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2022) by the Canadian historian and apologist John Stackhouse. What is evangelicalism? A cottage industry has emerged trying to answer that question, and because evangelicalism is not a church, it is a notoriously difficult question to address. I’ve tried to address it with my students and the best that I can do is point to some commonalities that participants in the 300-year-old evangelical movement have shared since the 18th century. Stackhouse argues that the best way to view evangelicalism is not as the essence of true Christianity or as a movement within the larger church, but as what he terms “a style” that appropriates Christian tradition “selectively in terms of what they see [as] the core of Christianity and then innovate as necessary in order to fulfill their mission” (24). In other words, evangelicals “attempt to construe and practice Christianity in the creative tension between the heritage they inherit and the challenges they face.

The style of Christianity practiced by many evangelicals includes a Trinitarian understanding of God, entry into Christian faith through conversion, an emphasis on mission in terms of communicating the Christian gospel, a populist understanding in terms of the liberty of individual conscience and “a broad spiritual competency in the heart of each believer” (35), and a pragmatic concern to “get things done” (38). These last two give evangelicalism a distinctively Anglo-American character, and Stackhouse offers some excellent insights into how evangelicals select which biblical mandates to emphasize and the different ways that evangelicals interact with modern life. Stackhouse has written this little book for the many folks who have little or no understanding of evangelicalism apart from what they see on television or social media. But he doesn’t answer whether evangelicalism in its current form is worth preserving. That is a question for the rest of us who have used or still use the name.

Most of these are available for Kindle if that is your reader of choice. I’m biased toward print books, but I use a Kindle paperwhite for beach reading, fiction, and for sales. As I prepare for vacation the suitcase is already packed with a book by Henri Nouwen as well as my Kindle reader packed with some good reading. Of course, there is the obligatory John Grisham novel packed as well. There is nothing like sitting on the porch at home or in the mountains or beach with a good read.

One thing I encourage students and others to do is read widely. Try not to focus your reading in one area. Obviously, we have to read books that relate to our job or profession. But a well-rounded diet of good books, fiction and non-fiction on a variety of topics offers a wholistic understanding of faith and life, something that all of us need in these divisive days.

Leave a comment and tell me what you have read that you think I should read. Some of my best reading has come from friends recommendations, and I’d love to hear what you’re reading and why you like it.

Words Matter

This year, my morning devotions have been framed by a wonderful guide from Tim and Kathy Keller; God’s Best for Navigating Life. The Keller’s focus on the book of Proverbs is augmented by forays into the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. For the past several days, the topic has been the significance of the words we speak.

We’re overwhelmed with words, and many are deceptive and misleading. Yet words spoken with love for truth and care for others offer possibilities of greater love for Christ and our fellow humans. With our words, we learn to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).

Notice the apostle’s connection of “truth” and “love.” Paul spends another one of his letters, this one to the church in Philippi, describing how “truth” and “love” are inseparable. You cannot speak the truth of the gospel without love for others. And you cannot truly love others unless you are willing to speak the truth of the gospel.

This reality was radical in the first century. It is still radical today. We live in a world of twisted words, useless words, deceptive words, harmful words, hateful words. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is perhaps the biggest lie of them all. Humans across the globe have been scarred by the words of others, including important others in their lives and those scars often run deep and last for years. Many of us have the resilience needed to withstand their continual onslaught in our memories. But many don’t. If we’re not careful, we can allow the propaganda of harmful words to shape how we live.

” You are not wise unless you fully grasp the power of words. Words pierce like swords–they get into your heart and soul,” according to the Kellers. They can go viral in our very being. That is why they matter so much. And it is why the Old Testament wisdom literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) pays so much attention to them.

The moral philosopher Harry Frankfort uses a vulgarity to describe words that are twisted, harmful, deceptive, hateful, useless. I’ll simply use the word excrement to replace Frankfort’s vulgarity (but I’m sure that you can guess the word). Excrement describes much of the political and advertising speech we read and hear especially on social media. “The realms of advertising and of public relations and the nowadays closely related world of politics are replete with instances of [excrement] so unmitigated they can serve as the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” Sadly, this kind of speech has also made its way into American Christianity.

Words that are truthful and kind

So what do we do? Let me suggest two ideas. First, practice using good truthful words delivered with kindness. When I worked as a volunteer Young Life leader 50 years ago, we had a saying that shaped our interactions with high-school kids. “We had to win the right to be heard.” That meant using good words and building good relationships so that we would have opportunity to speak about the greatest, most truthful words ever spoken–the gospel of Christ. Our words needed to be true, but they needed to be appropriate, kind, gentle, and apt.

Having worked in higher education for much of my adult life, I wonder how colleges and universities even survive given the censorship and political correctness found on many of them. It is not enough to disagree with someone–now we have to harm them, their reputations, and make it impossible for them to earn a living. It’s not just college campuses but it’s now the modus operandi of both major political parties. Of course, if our political leaders behave this way, can we expect our citizens to be any better?

These words often distort reality. As the Keller’s remind us, words can “create and sustain prejudices, biases, fears, and anxieties that are virtually impossible to uproot.” Don’t believe me? Look at contemporary political discourse in the U.S. and throughout the world. Reflect on the inroads that conspiracy theories with no basis in actual evidence have made into our lives and our communities.

Important to our discipleship as Christians is learning to practice Paul’s admonition (mentioned above) to “speak the truth in love.” Notice how our Lord and Savior, Jesus himself, was able to do that, even under immense pressure from the religious and political establishment of his day. It’s hard (I can testify to that myself) and the challenge to speak truthfully, kindly, gently, and appropriately is one that only the Holy Spirit can empower us to do.

Set your limits

Here’s a second suggestion. Learn to limit your media intake. Communications experts tell us that average American and Canadian receives over 3,000 messages each day from various sources. Many of us learn to filter much of that out, but a steady diet has a long-term subtle impact. This past Spring during the Lenten season, I took a seven-week break from Facebook. No posts, no reading my newsfeed. I did interact with people personally using Facebook messenger, but outside of that nothing. I even took Facebook off of my phone.

It was great! After Easter, I evaluated my usage of this medium, deleted some things that I had been following, and decided to maximize my sports and humorous posts (I love Chuck Norris jokes). I’m nowhere perfect, but I’m learning to control the medium and not let the medium control me.

The other thing I do is not listen to Cable TV news. I have a streaming service that does not include MSNBC or Fox News, so I haven’t watched those networks for well over five years. Instead, I get my news from reading three major print news sources, each with a different perspective on news events. Reading is a far better way to get your information than television or cable news. I still watch a news summary in the morning as I’m getting ready for the day, but most news stories have far more complexity than television can provide and by reading, I can discover that complexity and hopefully make good judgments. The 20th century theologian Karl Barth challenged his students to read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That is still good counsel.

How about you? You don’t have to follow my plan, but I would encourage to think about your media consumption. What limits do you need to practice? Are you overwhelmed by keeping up with too much social media? Do you have cable TV news on all of the time? Here’s a little challenge, and it’s one that convicts me. Try spending as much time in prayer and Bible reading as you do watching television news or listening to talk radio.

Perhaps God is calling you and I, his people, to listen and not talk so much. Even better, to listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting us to follow Jesus more closely and use our words wisely, truthfully, and with care.


This year, I’m using a wonderful guide for my morning devotions titled God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Book of Proverbs by Tim and Kathy Keller (Viking, 2017). Proverbs is filled with godly wisdom for followers of Jesus nnd the Keller’s draw out this wisdom about words in their June and July devotionals. If you are interested in the impact of media on how we think and process information, there is no better book than Neil Postman’s little book titled Amusing Ourselves to Death. (Penguin, 1984). Postman wrote this profound book before the advent of the Internet, but the ideas here are appropriate for the digital age in which we live. If you want your family to become what Andy Crouch terms “tech-wise,” let me suggest the little book he wrote with his daughter Amy, titled The Tech Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in its Proper Place (Intervarsity Press, 2017).