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).

Is it the End for Roe v. Wade?

Lots of us woke up this morning to the news that a draft Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision that would overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision had the support of the majority of justices on the Court. For the first time ever, a SCOTUS draft decision has been leaked weeks before its formal released.

Already tons of digital ink have been spilled (and it’s not even noon as I write this). So let me spill a bit more. Why? Because Roe v. Wade was (and is) one of the most consequential legal decisions of the 20th century. It legalized abortion throughout the United States and made efforts by states to ban abortion essentially illegal. It took decisions regarding abortion away from the states in favor of a national regime where abortion-on-demand was allowed within certain legal parameters.

Even more important, Roe v. Wade represented a shift in the ongoing American conflict regarding human rights and dignity. Before Roe, African Americans and Native Americans were denied the human rights and liberties spoke about in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, and it wasn’t until the 1960s (and a great deal of social conflict) that the country began to apply these rights to those citizens. Now with Roe, the question of whether children conceived but not yet born were entitled to those same rights became front and center. But Roe also forced recognition of the rights of women in our society. Were women truly equal to men in a world where social custom walled off women from many jobs in the workplace and in the social, political, and religious life of our country? What are the limits and boundaries of our human and personal rights when they come into conflict?

I’m not here to rehearse the biblical, theological, historical, and cultural arguments about abortion. Many others have done that far better than myself. The matter that is now front-and-center for Christians like myself is how we follow Christ in a post-Roe context? It’s the same question that many of us wrestle with after the Obergfell decision of 2015 granted legal status to same-sex marriage. Our responses are different, but the cultural impact is in some ways similar.

So, what will a post-Roe world look like? Let me offer some ideas for your consideration. First, overturning Roe v. Wade returns the political calculus regarding abortion to the early 1970s when states made their own decisions regarding the legality of abortion. It won’t surprise you that California (my home growing up) was the first state in the union to legalize abortion. It may surprise you that the governor who signed that act in 1967 was none other than Ronald Reagan.

We’re back to the place where abortion will be legal in some states and illegal in others. Hence, the new abortion battlegrounds will be the state legislatures and courts. Sociologists have suggested that we are in the midst of what they term “the great sort” where people of more liberal persuasion congregate in some states while folks more conservative congregate in different states. Add to that the reality that the political parties are now dominated by extremists on both the left and the right, the contest over abortion will likely become more intense in the years to come. Already this morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders called on Democrats in Congress to immediately kill the Senate filibuster so that Democrats could use their narrow congressional majorities to pass federal legislation making abortion legal throughout the country.

Second, as bad and divisive as our political rhetoric and activity has become, expect it to get worse. Over the past several years, the GOP has moved away from political conservatism to a shrill populism that culminated in the Capitol riots of last January 6. Abortion is something that animates elements of the Democratic left, and I wouldn’t be surprised by any visceral reaction from that side of the political spectrum. Should SCOTUS overturn Roe v. Wade next month, the American political calculus will shift in unforeseen ways. Charlie Sykes over at The Bulwark puts it well. “Instead of lowering the temperature, overturning Roe guarantees that abortion will continue to be the bloody shirt of our politics for decades.”

There are implications for American Christianity. Many (not all) evangelicals have long struggled to overturn Roe v. Wade. Will their tendency be to “declare victory and go home?” Overturning Roe v. Wade will not erase human need and if anything, our cities, states, and nation should be crafting policies that are both pro-woman and pro-child. (I reject the notion that we must trade one for the other.) That means more work for our congregations–not only teaching the gospel but engaging our communities with ministries like foster-parenting, affordable housing, strengthening public education, support for women caught in crisis pregnancy situations; in other words, making our communities places where men, women, and children can flourish.

If Roe v. Wade falls, how will we respond, how will I respond? I won’t “celebrate” because in my view, the hard work is only beginning. It will be a time for both gratefulness and humility. It will be a time for mercy. Maybe it will even be a time when American evangelicalism can shake off its worldliness and become a movement where love for God and love for others take center-stage.

Pray for Ukraine

A short but simple request. Please pray for Ukraine. Pray for:

  1. The thousands of Ukrainian citizens who have been forced to flee their homes.
  2. The Ukrainian military that they will do their jobs well as they defend their country.
  3. For President Zalenskyy and his family that they will be kept safe and able to lead.
  4. For theological students and faculty at several Ukrainian seminaries in Kvyv and other parts of the country, and for Christian pastors and their families as they serve the physical and spiritual needs of the Ukrainian nation.
  5. For wisdom for President Biden and American officials in the difficult decisions they face in navigating this crisis.
  6. Did you know that Ukraine sends more Christian missionaries around the world than any other country in Europe. No wonder the enemy of our faith wants to destroy the country and the Christians who live and serve Christ there.

One other request. Please pray with me that God will end Vladimir Putin’s rule in any way that our Trinue God sees fit. This evil man must be removed from power. May Christ have mercy.

Ruby Bridges and American History

Last week, I threw up a meme on my Facebook page. It’s a 1960 photo of a very young Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshalls 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 converstion 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 actualy 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 suggest 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 taughtin 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 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.

Letter to a Covid Vaccine Denier

In response to our Christmas letter to family and friends, we received a rather curious response from someone who accused us of living in fear because we take the necessary precautions regarding Covid-19. The person told us to start watching vvarious far-right media sources if we wanted to know what was right about Covid-19, and also indicated that “freedom and not safety” should guide our lives. We chose to respond with what we hope was kindness and grace while at the same time offering a clear understanding based on actual medical evidence and not political propaganda. A number of friends have told me of their frustration with vaccine deniers among their family and friends. And one Tennessee megachurch pastor told his congregation that anyone who wanted to wear a mask or who had been vaccinated was not welcome in his church. Sadly, he’s not the only one. So I share this letter with you in hopes that you might find it helpful in interacting with deniers.

II confess that too often my responses to these folks were far too harsh, and the Lord has had to remind me that we should “speak the truth in love.” I’m trying to apply that on this incredibly divisive matter.

January 2022

Dear______

Always good to hear from you, but I was a bit surprised by your assertion that we and our congregation are “living with fear” by avoiding crowds and wearing masks. We both take what we see as necessary precautions based on recommendations from our physicians and from immunologists from the medical school at Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic, and the Medical School at the University of Minnesota which Dr. Michael Osterholm directs. In addition, Bob was a participant in the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trials conducted through Tryon Medical Partners, the medical group where both of us have our doctors. When going through the trials, Bob asked a ton of questions of the doctors and the immunologists supervising the trials and came away convinced that the vaccines were effective against the original Alpha variant of the disease. As with any virus (Polio, Measles, Covid-19, etc.) there are mutations as we are seeing with the Omicron variant. After participating in the trials and listening to immunologists like Michael Osterholm and Dr. Ajish Jha at the Brown University School of Medicine. We were convinced even before the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines arrived that Covid-19 would be more like the flu and that we will probably need new vaccines annually.

Regarding our church, we wear masks so that we can worship together in person and protect each other, which is something Holy Scripture encourages us to do. Moreover, our pastor and his wife lost their only child to Covid-19 early last April. He was 37 and had just become eligible to get vaccinated. Before he could schedule a vaccine appointment, he caught Covid-19 on Thursday afternoon and by Saturday night he had to be rushed to the hospital because he was unable to breathe. On Sunday morning, our pastor was interrupted during our second service, he was interrupted and told that his son had just died. I cannot imagine the heartbreak and grief that comes from losing an only child; all of us grieved and mourned his death that week, especially because he left a wife and four children who have had their dad taken from them by this horrible disease. How I wish that he could have gotten the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine three weeks earlier. That is why our congregation tries to care for each other in this matter and why we support the necessary protocols to keep people safe, especially those in our membership who have underlying health conditions. It’s not a loss of freedom for us to care for them; it is our joy in our Lord Jesus Christ to care for them as the Apostle Paul makes clear in Romans 13, Romans 15, and as Jesus makes clear in Matthew 5-7.

Regarding the media you ask us to watch, we do not watch any Cable-TV news. We deliberately do not have them on our streaming services because all of them deal in left-wing or right-wing propaganda. We get our news from reading. Bob subscribes to The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post (a range of political viewpoints), and those sources keep us up with the latest important medical research.

We also follow Covid-19 and other health news from the medical schools listed above. And we think these sources are far more objective and comprehensive than the propaganda on Cable TV. So we feel very free in caring for others and we both feel that the Covid-19 vaccines are truly a gift from our Lord and have saved so many lives. And we thank our Lord Jesus Christ for giving wisdom to our doctors and epidemiologists regarding these things. We realize that nothing is perfect, and that medical people make mistakes, and sometimes serious ones. We recognize that we’re learning more about Covid-19 all the time and that we face a virus that evolves and shifts, and that there will be new guidance that we will have to follow. That is the nature of medical science.

If you haven’t done so, we would encourage you to get the vaccine shots. Even if you have already had Covid-19, they produce antibodies in your immune system that strengthen any antibodies you may already have. They are safe and effective, and they do what they are intended to do—keep folks who get the vaccine safe from hospitalization and death.  Right now, 95 percent of people hospitalized from Covid-19 are unvaccinated and many of them are extremely ill. Lots of people in our area are getting Covid-19 right now and I’m grateful that for most of us the vaccines are working. It is a tragedy whenever anyone dies no matter their vaccination status, and we both mourn for the 900.000 fellow Americans (included several we know) who have died from this horrible disease over the last 21 months, and we’re committed to do everything we can to slow its spread and make sure our relatives, friends, and all of those we work with are cared for. May Christ have mercy on all of us in this difficult season.

Again, it is great to hear from you and we hope that this will be a good year for you.

With love,

The Reading Life

Ever since I was a young boy, I have loved reading. Even today, my personal library is the thing I value most. Marie Kondo, she of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up will never be allowed near my booksheves. Kondo suggests that a home needs no more than 30 books. Hey, I have that many books on my nightstand!

With the new year at hand, permit me to share some of my best reads from 2021 with you. I don’t claim that these are the best books of the year, just that they are books that I particularly enjoyed and that I think you might as well. My reading focuses on three broad areas–history (especially Christian history), theology, and Christian formation. I need to read more novels and hopefully 2022 will be the year I get to some of those on my shelves. So here are my top eight for 2020-21, not in any particular order.

  1. Where the Light Fell: A Memoir by Philip Yancey (Convergent, 2021). Yancey describes his experience growing up impverished in the American South during the 1960s. His father died when he was just a year old leaving Philip and his older brother, Marshall, to be raised by a single parent with little income. The Yancey’s were part of a strict Baptist fundamentalist church in the Jim Crow era and so fundamentalist doctrine and racism mixed together easily in their world. Philip and Marshall react in radically different ways, but were both haunted with sorting out what was real from what was false. Philip’s life and writing points to his continual struggle to do just this and we discover what Flannery O’Connor meant when she spoke of the American South as a “Christ-haunted world.”
  2. Breaking Bread With the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs (Penguin, 2020). Alan Jacobs follows in the steps of C.S. Lewisand suggests the need for reading “old books” (think Chaucer, Melville, Milton, Orwell, and so on) to provide us with the necessary “bandwidth” to ponder and process the information deluge we face in the 21st century. Jacobs suggests that this is the best way we can deal with what he terms “social acceleration,” the sense that we must live with our “petal to the metal” 24/7. Reading older books allows us to inhabit a different time and place and build the “personal density” we need to discern the time and place in which we live.
  3. We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy by Robert Tracy McKenzie (InterVarsity Press). I read a lot of history. I teach Christian history to graduate students. As their instructor, I challenge them to look at actual historical evidence from primary sources themselves, and then think about those sources both historically and theologically. I grew up with the nebulous idea that the United States was a Christian country founded by Christian patriots. But upon reading the evidence, we discover a far more complex story. As George Marsden has shown, the United States has both Christian and secular roots (think George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin). McKenzie helps us recognize that while the United States has some unique Christian roots, it is no more a Christian country than Canada, Italy, Mexico, or Brazil. Hence, our Christian mission should not be formed by the dictates of party or politician, but by the biblical teaching that our true citizenship lies in God’s kingdom ruled by the Triune God.
  4. Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2021). This book combines two of my reading loves–the American revolution and books about the road. Think John Steinbeck meets the Continental Army. Philbrick’s earlier work on the Puritans in Mayflower and the Massachusetts rebellion in Bunker Hill are masterful narratives. Here Philbrick road-trips to all of the locations that our first President travelled to during his three extensive trips through the new republic, and discovers that the country was as politically and culturally fragmented as we are today. I’ve wondered whether the United States can survive another 20 years without coming unglued. Apparently, George Washington wondered the same thing.
  5. Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great Amerian Story by Wilfred McClay (Encounter, 2020). Every American ought to read a good American history especially now. This is one of the best–an excellent survey especially for students and non-historians that captures the essence of the American story as it has unfolded so far. McClay teaches at the University of Oklahoma where he has taught U.S. history for many years, and he narrates the American story based on solid historical evidence and points toward several overarching themes we see as the story unfolds. I spent an enjoyable three weeks with this book last January during the pandemic.
  6. No Cure for Being Human (And Other Truths I Need to Hear by Kate Bowler (Random House, 2021). Bowler teaches Christian history at Duke Divinity School and has written extensively on the “prosperity gospel” movement that has become a powerful force in American Pentecostalism. While researching that movement, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and this is her story of navigating that awful diagnosis and what came afterwards. (Fortunately, she survived and is still teaching and writing today.) In her research and in her life, she heard all of the positive-thinking cliches that well-meaning people told her as she suffered and struggled with the possibility of death. Often those maxims hide more complicated realities. For example, when people say “let go and let God,” the more complicated truth is that “God loves you, but won’t do your taxes for you.” Or, instead of “everythng happens for a reason,” the more complicated truth is “We must learn to face uncertainty with courage” (and I would with a deep trust in our God and savior Jesus Christ. A fabulous book if you want to explore a realistic Christian faith.
  7. Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters by Carmen Joy Imes (InterVarsity Press, 2020). OK, this makes my list for more than the quality of the book. Back in the 2000s, Carmen spent many afternoons and evenings studying in the GCTS-Charlotte library and we had some great discussions of theology, history, and biblical studies. She went on for PhD work at Wheaton and has now joined the faculty at Biola University. This, her second book, describes how the events surrounding Sinai recorded in Exodus and Deuteronomy form the core of the Old Testament and frame the redemptive events that surround Jesus Christ–his life, death, and resurrection. Carmen writes here not for scholars (though they will benefit from reading), but for pastors and laypeople, especially for those who want to understand how the themes of Holy Scripture fit together. If you want to know more about the Old Testament and how to read it, I can’t think of a better place to start.
  8. Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the Ameriican Revolution by Gordon Wood (Oxford UP, 2021). Gordon Wood is my go-to historians when it comes to understanding how the United States constitution was written, debated, and ratified. It was not a smooth process to get from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, especially given the political independence of the states, the hostility of most Americans toward any kind of central authority, and slavery (the elephant in the room at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia). Wood describes that process and the surprise of many that the constitution was ratified by the states. I grew up with a sense of solidity about the United States. Now, I’m discovering that our divided society has beeen fragile all along and is nothing new, but something that the American founders had to grapple with as well.

So many books. So little time. But reading is one of the best, most enjoyable, and most practical ways to spend your time. You discover that life is far more than your own opinions and views. You also learn to change your mind about things when new evidence and new perspectives challenge you. So I hope that you will spend many happy hours reading in 2022.

I just got the January/February 2022 issue of Christianity Today with their 2022 book awards. The listing is a great place to start selecting titles that you may want to dive into. And the entire issue is a reading feast filled with a dozen excerpts from their awards. I’ll read those to see what titles I might want to read this year. At the same time I value recommendations from friends, announcements from publishers catalogs, and reviews of titles in places like the Wall Street Journal. I also keep an eye out for works by favorite authors like Alan Jacobs, Mark Noll, Alister McGrath, Michael Lewis and others. Most of all, make sure that you regularly read Holy Scripture.

“Free at Last”

“Early Morning, April 4; Shot rings out in the Memphis sky; Free at last, they took your life, They could not take your pride.”

–U2 “Pride (In the Name of Love),” The Unforgettable Fire, (1984)

Each year, as the Martin Luther King holiday draws near on the third weekend of January, I read one book about MLK, the mid-20th century Civil Rights movement, or African American history. Billy Graham was right when he called racism “America’s original sin,” and I think it is impossible to grasp the force of that statement without exploring the impact of Slavery, Jim Crow, and racism in American life.

This year, I found a new biography that looks at MLKs life from a fresh perspective–that of Martin Luther King’s Christian faith and the philosophical and theological impulses that shaped his convictions and his work: Martin Luther King: A Religious Life by Paul Harvey. Harvey, a historian who teaches at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs), has written extensively about African American history and I’ve been privileged to use his excellent book Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity as a text for my graduate course on American Christian history.

Harvey protrays King “as a prophet in the full biblical sense” (3). He was hard to pidgeon-hole, yet he was clear that his mission involved securing the same rights, liberties, and economic opportunities for African Americans that most whites enjoyed. Politically, he was a social democrat (in the European sense) and not a Communist as many of his racist detractors claimed. Throughout his brief adult life, King tried to teach and practice non-violent protest as the best way to call attention to injustice. Before his assassination, he was imprisoned and illegially surveiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a time when that agency routinely broke the law in its in-house opposition to the Civil Rights movement.

Permit me to take a different approach in my words about Harvey’s excellent work. Obviously, “MLK: A Religious Life” deals with how King’s theological and cultural convictions informed his life and work. Yet, I’ve discovered an interesting sub-narrative in its pages; that of MLK as pastor first at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL and later as a kind of “pastor-at-large” to over 20 million African Americans living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us who are pastors and church leaders, there are valuable ways that King’s ministry can inform ours. Let me suggest several:

1. King understood his calling. At Dexter Ave. MLK enjoyed a successful first year in a relatively obscure location; a far cry from Atlanta; the center of the American South and of African American Christianity in that region. When a series of events thrust him into leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott, the result of Rosa Parks’s unwillingness to give up her bus seat to a white rider, the story hit the newspapaers and MLK started receiving death threats.

A couple of days before a stick of dynamite detonated in front of his home, King experienced a kind of conversion: “Religion had become real to me and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee, I will never forget it. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (62-63). MLK “experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him belfore….My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

God’s call to leadership and ministry is a serious matter and to withstand the pressures of ministry, leaders have to be certain of their calling.

2. King understood his mission, even when God changed the mission. At first MLK was called to serve a specific congregation and he hoped that through his congregational ministry he could fuel a local movement for African American freedom and liberty in the midst of the Jim Crow south. When those efforts met success, God gave him a different, larger mission; one that would tax all of his strength. In that larger mission he would wrestle with the demands of celebrity while trying to accomplish what seemed an impossible task–the complete emancipation of African Americans from political and economic Jim Crow. (Personally, I’m relieved that God never called me to this large of a mission.)

MLK knew that the mission was impossible; there was simply too much opposition from the vast majority of American people at the time and from the minions of local, state, and federal government. White supremacy had been firmly entrenched since the 1870s and to confront that directly could easily lead to violent reprisals as had been seen in Wilmington, NC in 1898, Tulsa, OK in 1921, and in other locations throughout the country. But MLK and his colleagues in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) discovered ways to keep their opponents off-guard through non-violent protest. Non-violence became the heart of the movement as countless men, women, and children were taught how to practice it, and in Montgomery, Birhimgham, Selma, and later throughout the American South, their message of freedom and liberty took hold. Through all of this MLK spent lots of time on the road raising money for the next non-violent action and being the up-front leader of the movement.

Obviously, most of us are not called to the same kind of broad-based ministry and leadership. Most of us are called to serve individual congregations, many of those in rather out-of-the-way places in cities, small towns, and rural areas. Hence, we need clarity about the mission to which God has called us and to the kinds of strategies and tools that God asks us to use. We may not use nonviolent protest, but perhaps God calls to a ministry of peace in communities where conflict threatens the health of a congregaton or ministry.

3. While King exercised the kind of top-down leadership found in many American congregations in the 1950s, he still gathered a group of leaders around him and he listened, even to those who disagreed with his approach. In Montgomery, some felt that others were doing all of the work of the bus-boycott and MLK simply came in and took the credit. In the mid-1960s, when student radcalism emerged in both the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, King faced harsh criticism from those who thought non-violence was passe or thought he should join the anti-war movement (something he did later in 1967). Instead of rejecting their criticism, he listened and engaged his critics. He didn’t necessarily think they were right, but he did think he could learn from them.

Yet, MLK did not deviate from his non-violent path. Instead he doubled down with non-violent protests in Chicago and Memphis and laid the groundwork for a poor-people’s campaign in the nation’s capital. His non-violence was grounded in his understanding of human beings and human nature, which solidified during his PhD studies at Boston University in the early 1950s. King was tutored in the Boston personalist school of Edgar Brightman and Harold DeWolf, a school of thought that placed great emphasis on the value and dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. MLK aslo embraced the idea of human depravity articulated by another of his teachers, Reinhold Niebuhr, the most prominent public theologian of the mid-20th century (though King did not share the almost total pessimism about humanity that Niebuhr did).

Those convictions meant that for MLK, ethical ministry was about the value and dignity of the human person and that how we approach ministry must be ethical in practice and in result. I think we can learn alot from King here. Megachurches across the country adopt models of ministry that to put it bluntly are soul-killing; to leaders and to the individual Christians who are part of them.

So far, you might think that I’m offering a portrait of MLK that makes him out to be near perfect. Nothing can be further from the case. The final point that I suggest is something where MLK deeply struggled.

4, King struggled with his own self-care and that led to near implosion of his work and to times of personal moral failure. From the early 1960s on, MLK took little if any time for vacation, rest, and spiritual reflection. He was constantly tired. He needed sleep. He needed time with his wife and children. He did not allow himself time for reading. Why? The cause was too big and too important. There was always a new campaign to organize, a group to meet with, a potential donor whose support was needed to keep things going and pay the team, government officials to meet about policy. It was incessant and unending.

When MLK came to Memphis, on the night before his death, he appeared before nearly a thousand striking garbagemen. (The term “sanitation engineer” had yet to make an appearence.) If you watch the tape closely, you see the fatigue and exhaustion in his eyes. In other words, MLK was running on empty and had been for many months. Perhaps the only thing that gave him energy was the opportunity to speak.

Especially for those who are younger and new to ministry, it is easy to lose yourself in the ministry vocation. After all, the work seems so important; the needs so many; and the expectations so high. How can we not spend almost every waking hour giving ourselves to them? All of a sudden, we collapse. We find ourselves distant from God, from our families, even from our own humanity. MLK is not the only one who burned out; there are hundreds and thousands of folks called by God who did not practice proper self-care and spiritual care. Let me suggest that those are the two most important aspects of life and ministry. The Triume God is not an add-on to our work. He is the essence of it, and if we neglect him we can find ourselves in a very bad place.

For MLK, life came to an end that April day due to an assassian’s bullet. It probably would have even if MLK had tended to his own personal needs and his need to reflect on his realtionship with his Creator. One thing I admired about MLK was his ability to remain resolute in practicing love for all, friend and enemy alike. Harvey suggests that King struggled with anger and at times rage toward his opponents. I think all of us struggle with feelings about our critics. Yet, MLK was able to put those things aside and practice love for others, even the Bull Conner’s and Lester Maddox’s of the world. He knew that their supremacist hatreds harmed themselves far more than they realized. And, he is one of the last great public leaders in America whose work was animated by the Christian faith.

****************************

Paul Harvey’s Martin Luther King: A Religious Biography is published by Rowman and Littlefield Press (2021) and in my view represents one of the finest biographies of MLK or of any leader from the mid-20th Century Civil Rights Movement. The book contains an extensive bibliographic essay that covers works related to MLK and the Civil Rights campaigns in which he engaged. Another outstanding resource is the Martin Luther King Encyclopedia hosted online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia. This comprehensive online reference work is the go-to first source for reseach related to MLK, the Civil Rights movement, and Christian influence in the movement.

Twenty years

Nine-eleven. Or, in numerical terms: 9/11. Twenty years ago today, many woke up thinking “another day.” We had jobs to get to. Kids to drop off at school. Renee and I worked for the same company at that time, and this was a day we would need to take separate cars. She got on the road at just after 8:30 to make the 17 mile drive through downtown Charlotte to the office. I would be 20 minutes behind her as I had a meeting that night and would not be home until late.

Time for a quick breakfast. I flipped off the television and picked up the Charlotte Observer to scan the headlines. All of a sudden, Renee called me from I-77 telling me to turn on the TV because a plane had run into a building at the World Trade Center. I ran to the set and the first image was fire coming out of the north tower. Whatever hit it seemed to be big, and the anchors were speculating about what had happened. The early speculation was a plane had gone off course and accidentally hit the tower.

Then I saw it live. A passenger jet aiming for the second tower, and “Bam!” Fireballs explode. Siding shatters. Black smoke now pouring out of both towers. This was no accident. Something awful was happening. And we knew that the world had changed in front of our very eyes. I called my mother in New Mexico and told her to turn on the television immediately. Then I realized that I had to get to work because our agenda for the office dramatically changed.

Driving south on I-77, I hear the news flashes. Then Pentagon has been hit. The FAA has grounded all aircraft. I look up and there are rows of planes trying to land at Charlotte-Douglas airport. Southbound traffic went crazy as folks realized that this was no longer a normal day.

I get to work where I had a research appointment with a military chaplain to help him with his dissertation research. We crowded into my little office with a black and white TV tuned to the one network station I could get. We watched the chaos, and then saw the towers come down–first the south tower, then the north tower. Then we saw the Pentagon. Finally, we saw Shanksville, PA where one of the hijacked jets had come down in a cornfield outside of town.

The chaplain got a call from his base commander instructing him to return to base ASAP as the military had issued general orders for all soldiers on leave to report immediately. After he left, those in the office sat stunned as we watched the news reports. We cancelled classes that evening and then closed for the rest of the day. That evening Renee and I would join Christians at our church both to process and pray. The grief of the coming days would be intense for all of us amidst all the uncertainty. My mom remembered Pearl Harbor and said that the day felt much like that day decades ago. We’re we once again at war? Was this the beginning of more attacks inside the United States? What seemed like just another day now brought new and unanswerable questions.

What change that day brought to our lives. Thousands of our young men and women gave their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq in hope that future 9/11-type attacks could be stopped. The kindness and unity we saw in America in that day’s aftermath are gone, replaced by deep suspicion, mistrust, and division that permeates American life, even in our churches. Twenty years ago today, the Internet seemed to hold enormous potential for political freedom, economic opportunity, and even spiritual renewal. Now, our technologies threaten to enslave us with a brave new world marked by authoritarianism, economic division, and decadence. Pay homage to the leader and party on.

Conspiracy theories once confined to the margins of society now animate millions. It started with the bogus claims that 9/11 was an “inside job,” a plot hatched by the government against its citizens. Now we contend with those who tell us that Covid-19 vaccines have nanobots that the government will use to track us. Craziness has become mainstream. We battle a pandemic that continues to kill far more people than 9/11, and the Afghan and Iraqi wars combined. Despite the death of so many loved ones, friends, and colleagues from Covid-19, we turn public-health measures into weapons for political combat.

It’s a picture that can easily lead to despair on this 20th anniversary. However, as a Christian I should not be surprised. Because when I read the Old and New Testament narratives, I’m confronted with the reality that human depravity is embedded in our personal lives, in our interpersonal relationships, in the very institutions of our society (both public and private), even in the very created order itself. Yet Jesus tells us in Mark’s gospel that the Kingdom of God is at hand in the very person of Jesus Christ.

For me, that provokes two responses. First, no matter what happens I’m a citizen of something far bigger than any temporal place. I’m a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and a time will come come when God will triumph and I will live with him eternally with all of his people.

Then, in terms of this world in which we live, our work as Christians is twofold, in light of the Jesus teaching about the essence of the Christian life. We desire that people learn to love God through Jesus Christ and live in ways that contribute to the flourishing of every human being created in his image. That is still true now. Like our Lord and Savior we never give up–we continue to tell people of the gospel freedom that God offers in Jesus Christ. And, we work to create places where human beings can flourish.

Sometimes I wonder why God has placed me here in this time and place, in a society that seems to be crumbling all around me. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo wondered the same thing. He lived in a world of great evil, much like the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s in which the author, J.R.R. Tolkein lived. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Push Back

At church this morning, I learned that three of our congregants died from Covid-19 in the past week, one of whom was a missionary in Columbia. The disease is ravaging the Charlotte metro-area where I live as well as much of the American South. Vaccination rates here are significantly lower than other parts of the country and given that the Delta variant is as contagious as the chicken-pox, I’m not surprised that our hospitals and ICUs have filled to the breaking point. Throw in a category-four hurricane, and we face a potential meltdown in medical care.

Frankly, I’m baffled. Things have changed so much since last December when the first Pfizer vaccines received emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. (Pfizer was given full FDA approval just last week.) I myself was one of 30,000 participants in the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine trials, something that I wrote about earlier this year. In retrospect, I’m glad that I participated despite the initial risks. I learned so much from doctors, immunologists, and medical professionals about Covid-19, its effects, and the drive to create a safe and effective vaccine to protect as many of our citizens. They have done such good, even sacrificial work providing vaccines that have stood up to scientific trial after trial, and we have excellent scientific evidence that supports their efficacy. Is the shot risk free? Nothing is risk free, but the chances of major illness or death from Covid-19 is far greater than from getting the Covid-19 vaccines.

Yet, thousands throughout the American South are getting very sick and even dying from Covid-19. A few days ago, I started hearing that some people were taking Ivermectin (essentially a horse de-wormer) to treat Covid-19 as opposed to getting the vaccine shot. In the last 48 hours, I read about three individuals, folks whom you would think are sensible adults, die from Covid-19 after trying to stop the disease with Ivermectin, a drug cleared for use in animals. My heart breaks for their wives and children. What would possess people toward off-label usage of a horse de-wormer? Add to that the scores of people who have contracted Covid-19 after refusing the vaccine who plead with others from their hospital beds for vaccinations. Three months ago, I was angry about this. Now, I can only respond with sorrow and despair.

Cheers and Applause?

One of the social groups most resistant to vaccination are those who identify as evangelical Christians. Two days ago, the National Religious Broadcasters fired one of its vice-presidents because he spoke positively about the need for people to be vaccinated. A few days ago, evangelical megachurch pastor Greg Locke called the Delta variant a hoax and the vaccines a government plot. According to the Washington Post, “If ‘you start showing up [with] all these masks and all this nonsense, I will ask you to leave,’ Locke, 45, told scores of Global Vision Bible Church parishioners during his sermon on Sunday. His statement was followed by cheers and applause.”

Cheers and applause in the face of a deadly disease. Let that sink in. I thought Christians were supposed to be about the gospel of life. Locke and many of his fellow megachurch pastors seem more inclined toward a culture of death. Given that like Global Vision Bible Church, the National Religious Broadcasters is located in Nashville, I’m wondering if the evangelical culture of death is now headquartered in central Tennessee. I’m not surprised that many look at this and think, “if that is evangelical Christianity, I want no part of it.”

Well, neither do I; and I hope you don’t either. What’s driving this? First, celebrity culture has infected American evangelicalism, and so-called “evangelical leaders” and megachurch pastors view themselves more as spiritual gurus and empire builders than pastors who provide for the care of souls. Then, an inability to think and act biblically and theologically has made many congregations more American than Christian. Add to that the expressive individualism grounded in the idea that we are responsible to “construct” our own reality and find “our own truth.” We like tyrants who make us feel good. Finally, most media has been reduced to entertainment and exists so that in the words of Neil Postman we can “amuse ourselves to death.” Connect those and the spiritual disaster taking root in evangelical Christianity is easy to grasp.

American Christianity has lost much. We no longer think about important theological ideas like “common grace” and “general revelation” (how God makes himself known through his creation). We have given in to the idolatry of politics. When I was a young man in the 1970s, I remember how evangelicals spoke and sometimes acted harshly toward those mainline Christians who brought politics into church. We thought they had bought into what Jacques Ellul termed “the political illusion.” Guess what. It wasn’t long before American evangelicals were seduced by the same things that the mainline struggled with–power, prestige, money, political favor, empire building. As the political left became more secularized, the Christian right jumped in and pursued all of the things for which we criticized the liberals. From there, it becomes easy to abandon the centrality of Christ.

Push Back Against the Culture of Death

So here we are. Many of us are so anti-government that we embrace the lie that everything the government touches turns to evil. That ideology is far from the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Biblical truth is alien to the fashionable conspiracy theories trafficked on Cable TV news and in the propaganda from politicians and political parties that fill our social media feeds and our mailboxes. This kind of propaganda views the Delta variant as a hoax, fires people for rightly encouraging people to get safe and effective vaccines, and chooses horse de-wormer as some kind of magic bullet.

We push back in several ways. I think we start with a proper grasp of common grace and general revelation. God has chosen to allow humans to discover things like electricity, nuclear power, airplane flight, and medical knowledge. These are all good gifts from a merciful God who desires that human beings (including you and me) should flourish. Yes, these good gifts can be used for great evil as evidenced by nuclear weapons and the horrid work of the Nazi doctors in World War II. They are not evil in themselves, but because of the fall described in Genesis 3, they can be used for great harm.

We stress in our lives and our churches the centrality of Jesus Christ. Partisan politics has no place in congregational ministry. A few years back, I started reading about congregations (more than you think) who made partisan politics almost a litmus test of faith. Followers of Jesus with different political views were isolated from their congregations because they did not support the strong political views of their pastors and leaders. I see their Facebook posts and the sorrow and anguish in their words. Biblical preaching and pastoral care are replaced with pressures to conform.

My advice to those who express these concerns is twofold. First, speak to the church leaders about your concerns. If they refuse to listen, then take the second step: Find another church where Christ is central. Christ loves Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Green Party members, Independents, and the apolitical; and any congregation that anchors partisan politics in its life and ministry engages in sin.

And we push back by gently encouraging those we know and love to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones. That means we need to understand the fears and concerns of those who are hesitant or opposed to the vaccine. That involves conversing with them. To do that, we need to understand the strong evidence for getting vaccinated (for example, the risk of dying from Covid-19 is far, far greater than the risk of dying from the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines), as well as what is behind the conspiracy theories (which is usually some media darling’s personal agenda).

I’m pushing back because I’m tired of seeing families left in grief and mourning when we have the vaccines and mitigation strategies necessary to stop Covid-19. I’m pushing back because I’m frustrated by conspiracy theories and propaganda dividing our congregations. I’m pushing back because the arguments made by many anti-vaxxers are just like those that pro-abortion advocates use to justify their brutal acts. (“My body, my choice.”) And, I’m pushing back on behalf of many faithful pastors and leaders who are not celebrities, but called by Christ to preach and teach the Scriptures and care for souls like mine who struggle to follow Jesus every day. Hopefully, I push back with care, concern, and grace for others. We speak the truth, but as Paul writes, we “speak the truth in love.” Push back with me today armed with the gospel and Christ’s love for the world, one person at a time.