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.

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.

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,

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.

“Biblical Womanhood” in the Crossfire

One of the things I love about Advent Christian Voices is the ability of those who blog here to disagree respectfully on matters that are often more complex than we like to admit. That is an amazing quality in a time like ours fraught with division and fear of others who see things differently.

I’m diving into one of those areas, and adding my two cents into the good debate that Catherine Rybicki and Luke Copeland have had on these pages the past couple of weeks. This dive is prompted by my reading of Beth Allison Barr’s controversial new book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Woman Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).

Drop the Hammer

All of us bring spoken and unspoken biases to our work and I am no exception. So, let me state my point-of-view. Since 1977, I have been a biblical egalitarian who thinks that in family, church, work, and life women and men are partners in God’s call to ministry and service. My convictions are strong enough that I could not in conscience sign the 2000 SBC Baptist Faith and Message nor the Danvers Statement of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). My egalitarian convictions began with my experience at a Bill Gothard Basic Youth Conflicts week-long seminar held in Long Beach, CA. Mr. Gothard was the complementarian poster-boy of the 1970s and thousands of evangelicals flocked to his seminars and soaked in his “teachings” about hierarchy. Mr. Gothard illustrated his teaching with his now infamous “umbrella” diagram complete with hammer and chisel; the tools for “molding” people, especially women and children, into his vision of Christian maturity.

I sat stunned as I watched 9,000 people lap up this stuff. No questions were permitted (those who know me know that I had lots of questions that I wanted to ask), especially questions that might challenge the entire house of cards that comprised the Gothard system. A couple of years later at one of his advanced seminars held in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mr. Gothard told the group of pastors and leaders assembled that if a husband was assaulting and beating his wife, the wife had the obligation to stay and accept that in the hopes of witnessing to him. (Fortunately, one of the pastors there stood up in that large gathering, yelled out “you’re crazy!” and stormed out for all to see.) This was complementarian paradise and I wanted nothing to do with it; so I left behind Bill Gothard eager to discover a more Christian way, a way that affirmed the dignity, worth, and giftedness of every Christian man and woman.

Money, Sex, and Power

Fast-forward 45 years past the hundreds of books written and in my view, that way has become more clear even if the issues have become more complex. We’re not only talking about how we order our families, or about who can do what in our churches. Now we face the horrid reality of rampant sexual and spiritual abuse in both Catholic and Protestant churches throughout the United States and the entire world. Not a week goes by anymore when some prominent megachurch pastor or leader is outed because of gross sexual abuse or abuse of power. Richard Foster was right when he argued that almost all sin can be categorized as the abuse of money, sex, or power.

Barr offers her readers a helpful way of seeing how “biblical womanhood” of the past 50 years is more a creation of recent history than of early and medieval Christianity. The historical reality has been that the more centralized institutional structures of church and society become, the most restricted the lives and ministries of women. This is well illustrated by missions history. Many of the great endeavors in world missions were accomplished by women exercising gifts of preaching and teaching that they were not allowed to exercise in North America or Europe. Why? Because there was nobody else to communicate the gospel through preaching and teaching. And the folks who thought it was wrong for women to preach and teach were all thousands of miles away. You know what? God honored those women and thousands of men and women, boys and girls came to know and love Christ because God worked through their preaching and teaching. I’m fortunate to have met a few of them.

John Piper and others like to speak of Christianity as having “a masculine feel” and this “masculine feel” involves notions of authority and submission. This idea has become popular in circles where “biblical womanhood” is taught. Often it is connected to the heretical idea of the “eternal subordination of the Son,” Advocates of this rather Arian concept argue that “the Son, the second person of the Trinity is subordinate to the Father not only in economy of salvation but in his essence” (193). In other words, within the inner workings of the Triune God there is a hierarchical relation of authority and submission. There is a tactical reason for why some advocates of “biblical womanhood” like this idea. As Barr writes, “if Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father, women’s subordination becomes much easier to justify” (195-96).

What about the Bible?

All of this is nice, you say, but what about the Bible. Does Scripture not clearly limit the roles of women both in marriage and the church? Space prohibits me from going into all of the exegetical arguments, so let me make two points. First, throughout the Old and New Testaments we see women performing tasks that those who advocate for “biblical womanhood” argue are off limits for them. Junia (yes, she was a woman) was honored among the Apostles according to Paul’s words in Romans 16:7. Phoebe was described as a “deacon” earlier in the same passage. The first two witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection were women and they proclaimed it publicly first to the twelve, and then by extension to Jesus other disciples. Women prayed and prophesized, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11. The are more examples. I think we begin with what the New Testament (and the Old Testament) tell us that women actually did, and we interpret the Pauline and Petrine teaching regarding women in that light, and not the other way around.

Second, In Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul is clear that we are to “submit to one another our of reverence for Christ.” Then he identifies three pairs where those who are view as stronger (husbands, parents, and masters) and who are weaker (wives, children, and slaves) are asked to practice mutual submission in important ways. As Barr writes, “Instead of endowing authority to a man who speaks and acts for those within his household, the Christian household codes offer each member of the the shared community–knit together by their faith in Christ–the right to hear and act for themselves” (49). Exactly.

I don’t like labels, even though here I’ve used the term “biblical egalitarian” to describe my views. What does that term mean? For me, the following:

(1) Women and men are created in the image of God and hence are equal in terms of identity and function.

(2) There are no ministries in the church of Jesus Christ that are off-limits to women, even preaching and teaching.

(3) Marriage is a partnership where both partners learn to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

(4) There is no place for the spiritual or sexual abuse of women (or men) in the Church of Jesus Christ and instances of that must be addressed with the utmost seriousness when discovered.

(5) There is a place for complementarity as we recognize that there are physiological and emotional differences between men and women, but complementarity does not imply hierarchy in home, in church, and in society.

The writer Dorothy Sayers authored a short book in the first half of the 20th century with a simple question as the title. Are Women Human? You would think that the answer is simple and clear, but Sayers had noticed all of the overt and covert messages in church and society that appeared to scream out, “No, they are not!” She lived in a society where patriarchy was still the order of the day. Hopefully, that will continue to change and Christians like you and me will have opportunity to offer a biblical word that affirms that like men, women truly are human in Christ.

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

There are several good books that I would suggest for further reflection. The book that I have made mention of here is Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2021), 244 pp. The best exegetical book that I have read is Philip Barton Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 541pp. This in my view is the best exegetical study of Pauline passages in the New Testament where Paul address women in family, church, and society. It solidified my biblical egalitarian convictions through outstanding biblical exegesis of those relevant texts. The little book by Dorothy Sayers is Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? Penetrating, Sensible, and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprint 2005).

I’ve changed my mind

With formal retirement just over a month away, I’ve been pondering a half-century of adult life and all that has come with it. For example, folks around my age often identify major events that have shaped our human experience–the Cuban missile crisis, the JFK assassination, the Richard Nixon resignation, the Challenger disaster, and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I can tell you where I was when those events took place, and I have vivid memories of each.

I’m also fascinated by things about which I have changed my mind. I bet you’ve heard politicians and others brag about how they have never changed their minds. That always scares me because not changing one’s mind at least about some things tells me that you are not open to new evidence or better ways of seeing what you believe and live by. Changing your mind about something now is much harder than it was 50 years ago simply because all of us are bombarded with so much information that we have little time for disciplined thinking about things that matter.

So here is a list of some things about which I have changed my mind. It is not an exhaustive list. Some are trivial; others more important. Some are matters of preference; others a matter of conviction.

  • When I was a young adult, I used to think that preserving and building institutions was the most important thing I could do, especially within American Christianity. Now I’m deeply skeptical of institutions because way too many Christian (and secular) institutions strip the very life out of persons. Persons and communities of persons are far more important than our structures, and our structures should be framed by justice, compassion, and flexibility.
  • In my twenties, John Denver was my favorite musician. In my late sixties that honor goes to Paul McCartney.
  • When I graduated from Seminary, I thought it was important to get people to believe rightly about the right things. Now I see that Christian faith is both affective and cognitive, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” You cannot divorce knowledge from love for others.
  • In my younger years, I thought that pets were luxuries that detracted from serving God. Wow, have I changed. Now my cats remind me of God’s purposes for all of creation, and like C.S. Lewis, I will not be surprised if my favorite pets, Marbre and Tuptim, will be part of New Creation that the New Testament describes in various places.
  • When I first started voting, I was a registered Democrat. Now I’m a political independent who thinks that both the D and R parties are dangerous to our Republic.
  • I used to be skeptical about climate change. Now I think the evidence for climate change is overwhelming and that we face hard choices in terms of how we address it.
  • Once upon a time, I was sanguine about megachurches. Now I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity culture they foment.
  • A long time ago, my favorite beach was Santa Cruz, CA. Now it’s Pawley’s Island, SC. (Let’s hear it for “arrogantly shabby!”)
  • Have you ever thought that you could preserve happiness by keeping everything the same? Yeah, I was there. Now I realize that joy comes as we follow the Triune God in our unique journeys through life.
  • Like a lot of Christians, I went through a big prophecy kick in my teens and early twenties. Now I don’t care about any of that stuff. I simply know three things: Our Lord Jesus Christ will return. Only God the Father knows for sure when that will happen. When it does, it will be beyond my imagination!
  • Family and friends can no longer be taken for granted; they are valuable in and of themselves and are God’s gifts to us.
  • In my early twenties, I was concerned for Civil Rights for African Americans but lived in my own racial bubble. Today, my historical studies have convinced me that African Americans have faced brutal realities long ignored by white folks like me (the evidence is overwhelming), so I’m reading more American history (especially African American history), listening to my African American friends describe their experiences, and looking for ways that I can influence church and society to come to terms with our horrid racial past (which spills into the present).
  • Fifty years ago, I was proud to be called an evangelical. Now I avoid the term like the plague; and prefer the simple term “follower of Jesus.”
  • I used to like labels like “Reformed,” or “Pentecostal,” or “Wesleyan,” or “credo-baptism” (and others). Now I reject labels like these and refuse to be pigeonholed by them. Life is far more complex than labels.
  • In college, I used to think that some ideologies were bad. Now I see all ideological thinking as essentially corrupt.
  • Forty years ago, I found myself mostly reading American theologians. Now I ignore most of them in favor of British theological scholars like N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, John Stott, and others not as affected by the “Modernist-Fundamentalist” controversies that split American Christianity in the 1920s.
  • In the 1980s I did not think NASCAR was even a sport. Now, I love it especially since I’ve seen a few races in person at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
  • Growing up, my favorite teams were the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. Now my favorite teams are…you thought I was going to say some other teams? Sorry.

That’s an incomplete list, but you get the picture. Changing what we think about some things over time is normal and natural. You know what? I’ll probably change my mind about more things. But the one eternal reality on which I stake my entire life is Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from death. On May 1, 1965, I gave my life to Christ and started on this amazing journey of faith. It is hard and challenging; there are times of deep sorrow and pain as life takes unexpected twists and turns. But ultimately, to turn a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it “surprises me with joy.”

So Long to Mr. Fix-it

Yesterday, I sat in a faculty meeting as part of an ongoing conversation our school is having regarding issues related to race and ethnicity. These are hard discussions because as a group, we’re struggling with coming to terms not only with American Christianity’s historical treatment of native Americans and African Americans, but with contemporary stories from our colleagues of color and the continual experiences of animosity directed toward them in small and large ways in the communities and the metropolitan areas where they live and work.

The writer David French described his experience with discovering just how many Americans of color experience this ongoing animosity. He and his wife, Nancy, adopted an Ethiopian young woman and she became one of their three children. As they engaged in the normal things that families do, they began to notice something striking. Whenever they would do activities or go places, their African daughter was treated very differently than their two white children. Hostile looks. Questions like, “What are you doing?” Statements like, “You can’t be here.” Until they discovered that she was part of a white family. The French family got a lesson in the experience of so many persons of color in America. Over the last few years, it has gotten worse. Ahmaud Arberry. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. White Supremacists marching through Charlottesville; and storming the Capitol. These are the contemporary faces of the injustice directed at Americans of color since the mid-17th century.

In the meeting yesterday, one of my colleagues said something that grabbed my attention. I’ll paraphrase his words. “Those of us who have not experienced animosity or hatred directed at us because of the color of our skin often find that our first impulse is to try to fix everyone and everything now. We come up with bold plans. We think we have all of the right answers. Why? Because we are uncomfortable with our discomfort at hearing these stories. Perhaps we need to sit in our own discomfort and let God teach us lessons we don’t want to hear.”

God directed that right to me. I’m an activist, fix-it person by nature. When I hear about a problem, my first response is usually to ask what needs to be done to fix this, or at least start to fix it. Perhaps I jump to fix-it mode because I don’t want to be uncomfortable for long. Why should I be uncomfortable? Perhaps I’m uncomfortable because I live in a world where I don’t have to think about race, where I don’t have to negotiate a society whose long-term hostility toward persons of color continues to be manifested not only in large ways, but in the small everyday interactions of life. My friends and colleagues who are African American tell me about having “the talk” with their kids, meaning that they have to tell their teenage sons and daughters how to act when they are stopped by the police for no apparent reason. It happens all of the time.

So, I need to sit with my discomfort, even welcome it and not pretend that I can “fix” these realities. I’m blessed that God has brought my way a number of non-white people who have become good friends and colleagues. I need to listen to their stories, and let the reality of their everyday lives sit with me and make me uncomfortable.

That does not mean that I resist constructive action to deal with issues related to race and ethnicity in America. But I’m learning that for all of us there is something even more important than action. The Apostle Paul gets at it in 1 Corinthians 13.”If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). This morning I’m seeing that passage in a different light and I might paraphrase it this way, “If I can think I can move the mountain of racial hatred, but do not have love, I am nothing.” I won’t stop looking for tangible ways to address matters of race and ethnicity, but even more important I’m going to listen to my friends and colleagues of color, and I’m going allow myself to live in the discomfort their stories and their experiences bring to me, and I’m going to let their stories reside in my human experience as a constant reminder of the depth of our human depravity, and how desperately all of us need to follow Christ every day that God allows us to live here.

The Reckoning is Now

The Insurrection of January 6 brought shock to our country like we have not seen since 9/11 when planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of us watched in horror as armed militias stormed our American Capitol building shouting death threats at Vice-president Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. I’m convinced that with another few minutes, they would have carried out their ugly intentions and the destruction to our Republic would have been beyond what we could ever imagine. As it is, the death and destruction was brutal and intentional.

What came to mind earlier today was a reflection on a time 1,600 years ago–a pivotal moment in Christian and world history. In 410AD, Rome was sacked and nearly destroyed. The seat of world power for over 800 years had been breached by a people nominally under Roman governance, much like what happened when the seat of American and even world power was breeched by a group of citizens so alienated from the rest of us that they are willing to believe conspiracy fantasies about our recent election despite no concrete evidence that would stand in a court of law.

Augustine was not in Rome at the time, though he certainly spent a lot of time in his early life in that great city. When he heard the reports brought to him in North Africa where he was serving as a Christian Bishop and overseeing congregations under his pastoral care, I can only imagine what he felt. The world as he had known it for all of his life was coming undone. I wonder if Augustine could even imagine a world without Rome at its center, just like I cannot imagine a world without our American Republic. Fortunately, Augustine went on to do some of his best theological work after those events, as seen in his magnum opus, The City of God. I wonder where are the Augustine’s that will guide us in the coming years?

Even more, I wonder about American Christianity, especially its evangelical variety. What is emerging from the Capitol Insurrection of January 6 is an ugly picture of many who claim to be Christians like you and me participating in the storming of our Capitol, and even some pastors and leaders who claim evangelical Christianity on hand for the events. Christian music blared from the speakers. Bible verses written on large picket signs. Christian flags and large crosses throughout the crowd. A few weeks earlier there had been a so-called “Jericho March” in the capital with Christian Nationalist rhetoric so bizarre that some evangelicals warned of “a form of fanaticism that can lead to deadly violence.”

The writer and lawyer David French put it bluntly. “I would bet that most of my readers would instantly label the exact same event Islamic terrorism if Islamic symbols filled the crowd, if Islamic music played in the loudspeakers, and if members of the crowd shouted “Allahu Akbar” as they charged the Capitol.

“If that happened conservative Christians would erupt in volcanic anger. We’d turn to the Muslim community and cry out, “Do something about this!” How do I know we’d respond in that manner? Because that’s what we’ve done, year after year, before and after 9/11.”

Friends, American Christianity, specifically American evangelical Christianity faces a reckoning! We have replaced our Lord Jesus Christ with political idolatry. And if we want to follow Christ and communicate a gospel message of grace to our fellow citizens, we had better come to terms with the hatred, with the fantasy thinking we have allowed to harm so many, with the “what-about-ism” that allows us to excuse our own idolatry.

I think this massive evangelical participation in conspiracy theories and now even violence against the rule of law in our country stems from a lack of biblical, expositional preaching in our pulpits, and in our inability to read Holy Scripture apart from our cultural location. Hence the Bible becomes a mere tool in our right-wing (or left-wing) politics as evidenced by one of the signs I saw carried into the Capitol by the violent protesters. Renee and I copied down the three verses on that sign and looked them up. Each one was ripped out of their context and used almost like a magic saying to justify a bizarre highly-charged political interpretation of our country as well as hatred for those who might disagree. Such a use of Scripture is idolatrous!

I have always contended that when theological liberals use the Bible, they say far too little. But when evangelicals use the Bible, they say far too much. Both point to the crisis of the Word of God we face in the church. Because of this crisis, we have become way too susceptible to crackpot conspiracy theories that are nothing more than extremist manipulations. Donald Trump is the most post-modern president ever. And what is shocking is that he uses the tools of Nietzsche and Foucault to deconstruct reality in a way that has duped many, many evangelicals and religious conservatives.

The most appropriate act of worship followers of Jesus can perform at this time is lament. This is not a good season for us and for our congregations. Nearly 400,000 of our fellow citizens are dead because of a horrific disease that spreads through the air and is especially harmful to our elderly and to those among us who are infirm. We have witnessed a brutal attack on our government and the rule of law. We have allowed partisan politics to fester among us. We’re worse than the theological and political liberals we claim to abhor.

Lament followed by repentance for the idolatry that we have allowed to fester among us is the order of the day. If we refuse to turn to the Triune God, don’t be surprised when God turns away from American evangelical Christianity.

____________________

David French’s words are excerpted from Only the Church Can Truly Defeat a Christian Insurrection published online in The French Press, January 10, 2021. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/only-the-church-can-truly defeat?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjo1NDI2NTk2LCJwb3N0X2lkIjozMTE4OTU3MiwiXyI6Ikt3S01GIiwiaWF0IjoxNjEwOTc1OTQwLCJleHAiOjE2MTA5Nzk1NDAsImlzcyI6InB1Yi0yMTc2NSIsInN1YiI6InBvc3QtcmVhY3Rpb24ifQ.4xQkoVazp8LjkOyU-omJJzup05JzTeLl5sLmeMWxA1s

An American Myth

As I write, Election Day is in full swing and we’re hours away from the first results being tabulated. We’re living through the most divisive election since 1968 and probably the most divisive season in American life since the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

What I’m struck with is how divisive this election season has been among American evangelical Christians. Inter-evangelical conflicts have been front-and-center ever since Donald Trump came down that New York City stairway five years ago, and the online sniping, dueling blogs, and downright boorish behavior by people who should know better has not enhanced our reputation. It’s even made me wonder whether American evangelicalism can survive as a renewal movement within American Christianity.

The political and theological battles among folks who claim to follow Christ have been percolating for at least two generations, ever since the so-called Moral Majority was established by Jerry Falwell in 1979. Those evangelicals who opposed Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other minions that made up the “religious-right” coalesced around the Post American magazine (later Sojourners) and the 1973 Chicago Statement of Social Concern. While their numbers were much smaller than those of the religious-right, they made up for that with influence in many of the Christian liberal arts colleges that are part of American evangelicalism. From the 1980s on, there has been a low-level cold war between the two with the typical political insults hurled back and forth every so often. With the retirement and eventual death of Billy Graham, the forces that restrained this cold war were removed and we’re at the point where for many, evangelicalism is defined more by political ideology than theological conviction.

I don’t think there is a quick way to put this genie back in the bottle. There are no trite little religious sayings or slogans that can address all of the complexity at the heart of this. So what do we do? In this writer’s view we need to grasp both Christian purpose and American purpose. Let me start with the latter.

Perhaps the greatest driver of American Christianity’s understanding of political life has been its embrace of the myth that the United States is somehow God’s chosen nation to carry out his purposes in the world. In other words, the United States has become a “new Israel” commissioned by God. God has made America and its citizens “exceptional” in the world. We’re different than Canada, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, and so on because to use the words of those great theologians Jake and Elwood Blues, “we’re on a mission from God!”

More Religious, More Secular

The roots of this are both religious and secular. When the Puritan communities settled Plymouth and later Boston they envisioned themselves commissioned by God to establish a Christian society based on John Calvin’s Geneva (in Switzerland), that would provide the half-hearted monarchs in England, France, Spain and the Roman papacy with an example of true Christianity applied to political and social life.

This Puritan dream collapsed in the early 18th century and was replaced in the American Revolution by a secularized version. The new American elites viewed the new country they had created as an example to the European monarchs of what a virtuous political community should look like. While for the Puritans, their settlements were a “city on a hill” (to use a term from Matthew’s gospel), the deistic, more secular revolutionaries of the 1770s viewed their revolution as creating a more secular “city on a hill” based on political and economic freedom.

Their vision was noble, but misguided. The reality is that the American founders envisioned a nation-state based on republican principles that came from enlightenment rationalism. The American founders were scared to death of the religious violence that decimated Europe in the 17th century, violence created by different forms of Christianity vying for superiority in the European monarchies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and others desired a government that would eliminate religious competition for government status and the violence that often went along with it.

American evangelical Christians in the late 18th century were more than happy to go along with this arrangement. They were willing to give up formal endorsement from the government in exchange for religious freedom–the liberty of individual Christians to choose their church according to their conscience and the freedom of churches and religious groups to conduct their work free from government intrusion. At once, the United States became more religious and more secular. Government could not interfere in religious life (as was the case in England) nor could churches demand some kind of religious test to hold political office (as was the case in most European monarchies at the time).

Resisting the Political Illusion

What does this mean? Three things. First, while Christian and Enlightenment ideas strongly influenced American society, the United States was (and is) not a “Christian nation” in the sense that many use this term today. We are a nation-state like all of the others which exist in our world. We are no different or no better than Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the other nation states that make up our world. Second, no matter what country in which they live Christians have a responsibility to make better their communities and their countries. Our focus is the Kingdom message of the Christian gospel. Christians believe that God is doing something radically new through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We offer the gospel, the news that the crucified Christ has been raised from death to life and that he offers life to all who will come to him in faith. We speak the words of life, but we also act in ways that allow human beings to flourish in our congregations, in our communities, in our cities and states. We speak and act on behalf of the poor. We desire that human dignity apply to all in the human family no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or geography. We’re even foolish enough to care for others with whom we disagree.

Finally, we resist what Jacques Ellul described as “the political illusion” the idea that everything can be reduced to politics. The political illusion is rampant throughout American Christianity to the point that what I think of Joe Biden or Donald Trump is almost determinative of our faith. How we need a return to the Gospel. How we need to speak the words of life. How we need to act in ways that address the physical, social, and spiritual needs of our communities. How we need to foster human flourishing for all in our churches and in our communities.

Let’s make our churches far less political. Let’s drop the partisan politics. Let’s make sure that our churches are welcoming to people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or whatever political group they identify with. No political endorsements from our pulpits. No letting politicians address our worship services. Instead let’s be gospel Christians, ones who tell others about our Lord Jesus Christ, who call them to repentance and faith, and desire to see everyone in our communities flourish where God has placed them.