I wanted to write about two other topics these past few days–we just got the new Richard Foster on meditation called Sanctuary of the Soul: The Journey Into Meditative Prayer (I(VP; $16.00 hardcover) and there have been some other good spiritual formation titles lately. And, although I’ve mentioned Mark Noll’s amazing Jesus Christian and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans; $25.00) in a Comment review, I wanted to highlight it here at BookNotes. I’m pretty eager to run through a batch of new books and will do that soon. Now, though, I’m feeling a bit off-center, confused, needing to write about something else.
Confusion by Jeanne Curin.
I feel like I should offer a few resources that will help us navigate through the rough waters of our political and cultural conflicts, waters that got me a bit sea-sick this week. The culture wars are hitting hard these days and while I mostly want to be a conscientious objector in these battles, my fingertips were kept busy this week posting on various websites, blogs and threads of facebook conversations. It has made my heart heavy for various reasons. As I wrote to one friend, it is disheartening to try to entry a discussion as a voice of moderation and reason and end up making matters worse and getting all irritated.
Here’s the backstory and a few books that I think are important, wise, balanced and helpful to understand this exact sort of conflict about religion in the media, the ways evangelicals are construed, and the questions about how to be civil and fair even as we advocate for a pluralism that values a variety of voices, left, right and center, religious, secular or neither.
Last week the prestigious The New Yorker magazine wrote a long, critical piece on Michelle Bachmann, followed by the author of the piece doing an interview on NPR (“The Books and Believes Shaping Michelle Bachmann” which distorted the nature of Bachmann’s religious influences and oddly expressed dismay that some Christians believe their religion should inform everything they do, rather than be limited to churchy stuff. What followed felt like a firestorm—well, it seemed like a firestorm, but, to be honest, it was mostly a few voices trying to cry out in the wilderness, my own among them, that were mostly ignored by the The New Yorker editors and the many other places that picked up the story.
The author, Mr. Ryan Lizza, said Michelle Bachmann was influenced by one of my heroes, Francis Schaeffer, and one of my friends, author Nancy Pearcey. Not bad press, being mentioned in one of the world’s leading literary and news journals and my beloved NPR.
However, Mr. Lizza went way beyond the obligatory note that this could be construed as having some connection to the Christian right (it is no secret that the congresswoman is a conservative Lutheran evangelical and politically right-wing) raising some alarming specter of some group he (taking a cue from other journalists, making way too much of a weird thing) called the “Dominionists.” This group, the godfather of which is R. J. Rushdoony, is not new to those of us familiar with conservative Reformed circles, although they actually call themselves Theonomists or Reconstructionists. (“Dominionist” is a confusing phrase since many Christians of all sorts have developed a theology of culture based on the primordial mandate to “take dominion” found in Genesis 1 but it is used now as a pejorative to apparently de- legitimize proposals from those with faith-based motivations, as if they are the only ones wanting to have influence and their public contributions are, ipso facto, duplicitous.) So, yes, there are those who want to impose a theonomy or reconstruct the culture along principles gleaned from the Hebraic law. And, yes, they could be seen as parallel to the very real Afghani Taliban but that would be silly since their influence is virtually nil and even among themselves, they don’t tend to agree on what, if any, steps they should take to bring God’s law into the law of the land. They tend to (in various ways and in various nuances of application) believe the Old Testament law should be the basis for civil law, or perhaps should be some day. Importantly, they are widely denounced by nearly everybody who is half-way normal, including nearly anyone who has had any significant influence over serious policy thinkers in recent years. They are unimportant, routinely renounced (when they aren’t being ignored) and fringe. To say that Francis Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey are “Dominionists”, and believe in the violent overthrow of the US government (which even the Theonomists-slash-Dominionists do not) is beyond irresponsible, it is blatant slander. To add to the insult, it then makes most conservative Christians look bad, as if there is something inherently dysfunctional with orthodox religion, the old “guilt by association” racket. This is a little of what our decent Muslim friends feel, I’m sure, when anyone Islamic (or even anyone Arab) is seen through the lens of our fear of terrorism, judged unfairly. And it is somewhat what motivates some of new Protestant liberals like Spong and Borg and Gulley: they create their new versions of faith in reaction to the very worst caricatures of the far right. But that is for another day.)
Let me be clear that I don’t care at all right now about Michelle Bachmann, let alone Governor Perry from Texas. I do care about irresponsible journalism and I really care when they misrepresent people I have been influenced by, whose books we sell, and people that I care for. One need not agree with all of Schaeffer’s history nor all of Nancy Pearcey’s philosophy to want them to be understood properly. And Lizza botched it big time.
FRANCIS SCHAEFFER’S WORTHWHILE BOOKS
When I worked in campus ministry in the 1970s I showed the documentary that Bachmann says that she saw, the ten-part film series How Should We Then Live?, and I showed it more than once. (We still sell the DVD— here is a sample of part of his lecture on the Middle Ages—and gladly recommend the book.) It led to remarkably fruitful conversations, about
how history gets written, about how to study the social context of art and architecture, about the strengths and weaknesses of the Middle Ages, whether the Enlightenment project of rationalism was ultimately a helpful shift in Western culture, and how to think wisely as we discern the currents flowing through Western society and whether the American dream of “personal peace and affluence” is a morally sustainable value system. The DVD and book is still a great overview of Western history, and his earlier works—The God Who Is There, Escape From Reason, Pollution and the Death of Man, or his lament-filled study of Jeremiah, Death in the City–remain some of the most influential books I’ve ever read. We still sell a few of his wonderful little Art and the Bible from time to time. True Spirituality is a fine work, one that resists any overly-gnostic tendencies, insisting that the work of the Holy Spirit happens moment-by-moment, in not too dramatic measures, in daily life, not in any super-spiritual, mystical ways. His little volume The Mark of a Christian reminds us that after we make the best case exploring the presuppositions of Western thinking, reject the idols of reason and romanticism, embrace the absolutes taught about God and shown in God’s creation, we still must, finally, love. The “final” apologetic, Schaeffer insisted, was love. The anguishing shot in How Should We Then Live? of Schaeffer holding disgusting shackles that slaves would be forced to wear, and declaring that the church failed to adequately speak out for human rights, is still a powerful memory for me, a good illustration of what he meant.
For Schaeffer to be so misrepresented was frustrating, to say the least.
And then, in the Lizza NPR interview which was also being posted and tweeted and passed around, warning the nation about the dangers of Schaeffer and his ilk, Lizza nearly implied that anybody of historic orthodox faith is a fanatic, maybe dangerous for the public order. As I noted, he seemed dismayed and resentful that any Christian would want to take their faith into their public life. My friend Keith Pavlischek, who wrote a book about important Catholic political theologian John Courtney Murray, noted that Murray used to say that secularists wanted to “keep the church in the sacristy.”
I’m sure you can see why that just gets my goat. I hope it gets yours.
So, I linked at facebook and tweeted the firm rebuke of the New Yorker misquoting of Schaffer written by Joe Carter over at First Things. It is interesting, well documented, and worth reading. It is called “A Journalism Lesson for the New Yorker.”
And then I posted Carter’s next reply, “Dominionismists – The New Birthers” where he responds to the “regrettable silliness” in the much-forwarded Michelle Goldberg’s Daily Beast piece, of which he says “this dominionism nonsense is about the stupidist trend to come along since Birtherism…. I have to give her credit, though. I thought on this topic it would be difficult to produce an article less informed and more slanderous than Ryan Lizza’s embarrassing New Yorker piece. But when it comes to lowering the bar, you really can’t beat Tina Brown’s Newsweek/The Daily Beast. So kudos for your remarkable achievement, Ms Goldberg: You’ve written the dumbest article I’ve read all year.”
Okay, Carter is fairly highbrow and doesn’t get out much, I guess. I could forward him a lot of dumber articles. But, still, this is about the legacy of Francis Schaeffer and whether evangelicals should be involved in the public square, so I’m all in. Dare we as people of faith speak of faith in the public square? Should we be embarrassed if we found Schaeffer’s work appealing? Could our own unique convictions actually be a balm for the common good? Must others of other faith commitments compartmentalize their faith, too, leaving it at the door of the workplace, the university, the voting booth? It seems that this is what Goldberg and Lizza and their many fans–whew, you should read the vitriol on the left-wing blogs– are demanding. And this is frightening for any pluralistic social order.
At some point, we have to back up and insist that no-one’s faith-based motivations or formulations dare be excluded from the public square (not fundamentalists, not liberals, not Muslims, not atheists, not creationists, not Marxists, nor anybody else!) The pressure of modernity, of course, is to marginalize faith. Many liberal opinion leaders seem to have a particular antipathy about traditional religion (as do some rank-and-file liberals, too: in a recent informal survey, nearly every liberal polled indicated that they would be willing to censor conservative authors with whom they disapprove. Yikes!) As Stephen Carter once said, it seems that liberals often want to treat religion as if it were a hobby akin to collecting stamps or building model airplanes. Which is to say, keep it to yourself since it is, de facto, idiosyncratic and irrelevant. Those of us who hold to the core Christian creed that Jesus is Lord simply must bear witness to that, in all we do, also in our (humble, bold) politics. We have not done a good job of this — see the very important UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon (Baker; $18.95) for how younger adults are turned off by right wing impressions given off by legalistic religion — but be that as it may, the intellectual gatekeepers have no business distorting the facts about our foibles. (Yes, the truth itself is sometimes bad enough!) Again, Francis Schaeffer was no Theonomist and nobody cited in the Lizza piece called for violence against anybody.
NANCY PEARCEY ON WORLDVIEWS
I was glad to see Nancy Pearcey reply to the accusations about her and I linked at my own facebook to the important explanation of worldviews offered by her at Human Events. Her essay is called “Dangerous Influences: The New Yorker, Michelle Bachmann, and Me.” To explain what Lizza made murky she mentions the Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, for crying out loud (as does the Wikipedia site about Francis Schaeffer) which has no relationship to the far right. I “liked” her piece and more trouble ensued.
(I was scolded there by folks who were quickly posting, irked that I wanted to change the subject away from their rather mean-spirit and generally random comments, poking snark at those who care about global warming or complaining about Obama. Indeed, I did want to reorient the thread, wanting to shift from blaming the left (got that), The New Yorker (done), or even other secular humanists for their inconsistencies—they want to stop conservative Christians from allowing their values to shape their political work, but they themselves sure seem to want to work for “dominion” guided by their values, (fair enough), to actually talking about what Pearcey wrote. I wished her readers would respond to her explanation o
f how worldviews must be understood to really “get” where others are coming from—this is an important contribution. When one guy insisted that if “humanists” had power, “they would kill us all off” I realized I had entered some pretty scary waters. A young friend who has been paying attention to this stuff in recent months, who I helped spiritually years ago, admitted he had had it with this dreadful sort of talk, he admitted that Voltaire and his animosity to any religion was beginning to make sense. And I just wanted to cry.
The way in which the “Schaeffer is a Dominionist” trope was picked up all over the internet, repeated by a dozen major outlets within the day, and hundreds of blogs and tweets, was an example of the astonishing speed and power of the internet, an example of this thing we call “going viral.” Ugh. And, sure enough, within a few more days, more mainstream news columnists began to repeat the dishonest meme: Bachmann hangs out with religious nuts who want to overthrow the government. That advocate violence against abortion providers. That don’t believe in any separation between church and state. That are linked to this cult-like “dominionism.” Blah, blah, blah. One misinformed piece slandered Pearcey (who believes in principled pluralism) by saying she taught that only Christians should be in positions of influence. Nonsense!
I can’t imagine how Nancey must feel, knowing that such widely-read reports have said such disturbing things about her views. Heck, I feel badly since we carry her books. If they said that stuff, we wouldn’t promote them, that’s for sure. One person, well intended I’m sure, reminded us of Jesus’ own command to rejoice when people say bad things about you, but I somehow couldn’t muster the faith or attitude. I care about what people think about the vision we share here, the books we carry, the God who we try to represent and glorify. I hate it when people are accused falsely, whether it is some of the far right saying scandalous things about Obama or whether it is the mainstream media saying unfair things about Schaeffer and Pearcey.
Of course, so much of this indicates the way in which many in the media are simply ill-informed about religion, don’t know who evangelicals are, and don’t seem to want to understand us, either. (Lizza refers to the “exotic” nature of Bachmann’s religious influences. Really?) One of the best pieces about this, giving good facts about Schaeffer and Rushdoony, is written by Barry Hankins, here. (Note Hankins’ excellent book on Schaeffer, mentioned below.)
SCHAEFFER CO-OPTED BY THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT
Schaeffer was eventually co-opted by the Christian right, quoted by conservatives who hadn’t read his earlier work and wouldn’t have cared about the things he most cared about. In the last years of his life he was dying of cancer, too, and that may have altered his typical clarity; I don’t know. There is no doubt that the current religious-conservative movement includes leaders who have been influenced by Schaffer to one degree or another. Francis and Edith’s disapproving son Frank Schaeffer has told that story, embellishing it a bit, I gather, in the controversial memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up
as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to
Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the recent, riveting (and also contested) Sex, Mom and God both of which, characteristically, it seems, to this big-ego angry son, suggest that he nearly single-handedly started the Christian right and the evangelical wing of the anti-abortion movement. It is obvious that some folks who identify with the Christian right or the Tea Party, have been inspired by Schaeffer’s final book or two; Frank now regrets that profoundly and is speaking out against his father and his own detrimental role in those years. The elder Schaeffer did shift from art and political and cultural evaluations as he ministered to the counter-culture in the early 70s to more political matters in the early 80s. (You can see it coming in the last few episodes of How Should We….films and book.) Frank now tells how he took his dad around (with his father less convinced of the wisdom of it) to rile up Falwell and Robertson and others who became the cheerleaders for the Reagan revolution. I know that some of his story is true—I crossed swords, as they say, with him in those very years myself, sad to see him push his father in such an uncharacteristic direction. That a Tea Party favorite such as Ms Bachmann sees in Schaeffer’s understanding of the absolutes of a Christian worldview an intellectual funding of her traditionalism and conservatism is fascinating and not unimportant. But Dominionism? Violent revolution? Come on!
By the way, although I read and enjoyed both of Frank Schaeffer’s flamboyant, controversial tell-alls–the new one about Edith and sex is as much about Frank’s abandonment from evangelicalism as it is an expose of L’Abri—it needs to be underscored that friends who were close to the Schaeffer family have chastised Frank for disrespecting his parents, for making it all sound much more extreme than it was, for overstating Francis’ crankiness and Frank’s own influence in the politics of the Schaeffer family. I don’t know about that, and trust those like Os Guinness who have expressed great sadness about these books.
For those wanting a more traditional biography of Francis Schaeffer, the one by Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life (Crossway; $24.99) is the best at this point. It is just fantastic and is applauded by many who were there! Kudos.
Francis Schaeffer: A Heart and a Mind for God edited by Bruce Little (P&R; $12.99) just came out this year and is loaded with anecdotes, stories, and appreciative testimonials of Schaffers work and influence—it is very good and a great reminder of why he was so important to so many of us.
For perhaps a broader historical view of Schaeffer’s impact, written by a critical but appreciative scholar, see Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America by Barry Hankins (Eerdmans; $20.00.) Hankins does a very good job showing how the youth who were part of the revivals of the late 60s and early 70s created a movement of evangelicals which needed an intellectual basis for faith and how important it was for someone like Schaeffer, who took the bohemian culture seriously, to appear in those very years. He (and his wife) made a mark not just on persons–like me–but on the very texture of American evangelicalism and certainly shaped the views of many who were rising to parachurch leadership at the end of the twentieth century. Oh, that authors like Lizza would understand this recent religious history and understand the configurations of various sorts of evangelical Protestants.
No one can predict who is going to quote what book as an influence, and therefore, for instance, we shouldn’t blame the Quran for suicide bombers any more than we should blame Schaeffer for abortion clinic murderers. Most in the mainstream media are careful not to insult all Muslims because of the way some act. Yet it is clear that the media’s take on Bachmann and Perry and the ways they are or are not influenced by Schaeffer does not offer the same care or respect. (And conversely, there are some responding to this egregious sloppiness on the part of the New Yorker, insisting that it is unfair to blame Schaeffer for the extremist views of the Theonomists, but yet they still seem to want to despise all Muslims for the extremity of the jihadists.) Can’t either side on the culture wars get this thing right? Too many people are too quick to connect too many dots, blaming others without warrant, due to the most implausible or incidental connections. Heck, I once read a book by a Theonomist/Dominionist leader Rushdoony critiquing John Dewey’s role in American educational philosophy; does that make me a Theonomist? Geesh.
(There was at least one nice exception in a major outlet to the journalistic Schaeffer-hatefest by the way, a fine short piece from The Indiana Star, which gives a more positive view of Schaeffer, if, indeed, Ms Bachmann has been influenced by him as she says.)
So, I entered these conversations and some of you did too.
Here, for instance, is one brief summary of the discussion by Alan Noble that offers a bit of balance in tone and pushes us to not just demand that Christians not be pushed out of public affairs but that we are equally passionate about the religious rights of others as well. Thanks to “Christ and Pop Culture” for this short but helpful reminder.
Again, I do not mean to imply that Schaeffer was faultless or that he was not deeply involved in stirring up activism both to help unplanned and troubled pregnancies and to overturn Roe v. Wade. He maintained that some of America’s founders were influenced by a more-or-less Reformation base coming, as they did, from the North of Europe. He offers a fairly non-controversial reminder about earlier Christian ideas that shaped some of 18th century framers. He was admired by conservative family values doc James Dobson and was read and understood by Congressional quarterback Jack Kemp (as well as anti-war Republican, the late Senator Mark Hatfield.) In The Christian Manifesto he made a limited and cautious case for nonviolent civil disobedience, a case I had learned long before from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Philip Berrigan and Henry David Thoreau. And that’s news?
NANCY PEARCEY AND THE MANTLE OF SCHAEFFER
It is obvious to anyone who has read Ms Pearcey that she is one of today’s most able interpreter of the philosophical views of Mr. Schaeffer, channeling influences from Herman Dooyeweerd to Cornelius Van Til to Michael Polanyi offering a new voice for his old perspective. She hammers the fact-value dichotomy, what Schaeffer called the “upper story and lower story” views of truth, and she shows how this simple commitment to a robust view of truth effects everything. It is no news that she favors a serious and open-minded deconstruction of the orthodoxies of old school Darwinism, a matter which she explores even in her firs
t book, a co-authored work with Charles Thaxton on the history of naturalism within the philosophy of science, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy (Crossway; $17.99) is a very fine work (there is a section on mathematics which is fantastic), and whether or not she is fully right is nearly beside the point—she is a thoughtful, engaging, widely-read cultural critic whose work is very reasonable and certainly valuable to consider. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from It’s Cultural Captivity (Crossway; $19.99) is her most foundational book and even if it has struck some as a bit overly confident and insistent, it makes her case consistently and clearly, with tons of illustrations, stories, and serious footnotes as well as a thought-provoking discussion guide to further the conversation. Her “recommended reading” list is not only wise and wide-ranging, but it is annotated wonderfully, making it very helpful. (That she did this is interesting, too–many authors don’t add this touch. I think it indicates firstly that she is a good teacher, and she is serious. She expects people to “master” this material and to allow it to shape how they engage in cultural reformation. It is vast and sweeping stuff on the history of ideas and the deformation of culture based on bad assumptions and ideas, but she thinks you must understand, and she is walking you through it. And she means business. To know these books is, well, part of the cost of discipleship, I suspect she’d say. And she would be right.) I am just so troubled that there are so many hare-brained and truly odd writers claiming to be Christian, that this is what the critics of Bachmann chose to go after? Have they even read these books? I bet you’ll have some kind of conversation about this very thing before long. I hope my confidence in the significance of her work is somehow helpful as you defend as the legitimacy of offering a Christian perspective in the marketplace of ideas.
If you want to learn a bit more about her, here is a new report done at the “Solid Ground” website by journalist Jesse Mullins, a fine cowboy reporter (who interviewed me about Pearcey and quotes me in the story. Even though I don’t wear a cool ten gallon hat like he does.)
If candidate Bachmann reads Pearcey, I am glad. If The New Yorker reports it, all the better. As long as they get it right. Which they did not.
SPREAD THE WORD, SUBVERT THE TROPE, IGNORE THE FRINGE
To wit, your ever-ready pals at Hearts & Minds BookNotes will offer a few suggestions for your background reading and wide and unruly list of books to keep our heads about us in these nutty discussions.
Is it tacky to suggest that I wish Mr. Lizza would have read a few of these? Maybe somebody should buy a few and send ’em out to your local news writer or blogger who covers this beat, especially if she or he keeps spreading these dumb rumors that Schaeffer was significantly influenced by Rushdoony or other writers of the Theonomist persuasion. (If Lizza or Goldberg had enough reportorial chops to check, uh, even Wikipedia, they’d see a good footnote documenting that two of the leading lights of the Theonomist movement opposed Schaeffer! Schaeffer didn’t have to distance himself from them, because they were not in his camp!)
Or, how about those that repeat that mantra that because some of us call upon evangelicals to get out of the comfort of their pews and get active in shaping culture, being involved and trying to have a helpful impact, that makes us somehow like some Taliban?
Look, we all know there are “Christian” fascists out there, holocaust deniers, gun-totin’, Bible-thumpin’ militias, weird right-wing characters of all sorts who are obviously undemocratic and sometimes dangerous. Still, I’d rather ignore Rushdoony, Fred Phelps and the like. I’m disinclined to fret much about gold-buying alarmists like Rushdoony disciple Gary North who are so far off the reservoir that they just don’t matter. And they certainly don’t have anything to do with any discussions about the wisdom of Francis Schaeffer or Nancy Pearcey or any others of us who, with a different tone and perhaps even a different key, talk about worldviews and cultural engagement from a Christian perspective.
There are enough important matters to argue about, good debates to be had, ideas to be thought through, principles to be clarified and causes to care about that we simple ought not be distracted by those who would fixate on these nearly cult-like “Dominionists” or the equally nearly cult-like secularists who insist that anyone who has faith should stay in their church and out of the way. Yes, both exist, the hard religious right and the hard secular left. Some are in some dingy church basement somewhere, self publishing their “reconstructionist” books about taking dominion. The others are writing slipshod stories for the Daily Beast, CNN, The Daily Kos and The New Yorker. It is easy to ignore Rushdoony, but harder to ignore the influence of stars like Lizza. So it goes.
ONE MORE TIME: RESIST THE ALARMISM
A final little story. An acquaintance of mine that I respect is a columnist at a nationally known newspaper. He has been burned a bit by conservative and legalist religion, it seems, and is smart enough to know that true followers of Christ will be known by love, known by grace, and that the far right ought not have the monopoly on describing what Christianity looks like in the public square. I like his writing. It tilts to the left on matters of peace and justice and race relations, and I appreciate his good eye and good heart. And yet, this week, he wrote a column about a guy he somehow met, who said—inspired by these “Theonomists” that some call “Dominionists”—that he would kill his parents for being idol worshipers. The Bible demands it, he said.
Wow. Catch your breath. This is dangerous stuff, the stuff of cults, right? Maybe like Charles Manson or the Mormon Fundamentalists or from the sort of group from which the phrase “drinking the Kool-aid” arose. I am sad to think that anybody would be taught such a thing, that religion would be so misused. However, to even whisper any relation of this tragic loss of sanity to a candidate such as Michelle Bachmann, or well known, respected authors, like Schaeffer, is ridiculous. I have no idea why this award-winning reporter couldn’t wrap his journalistic head around what seems so obvious to me: the guy who says the Bible teaches him to kill his non-Christian parents has nothing to do with Francis Schaeffer or even Jerry Falwell or Glen Beck or any of the other notorious hot-heads on the right. Nothing at all. To try to connect those dots is just plain old wrong. Talk about the metaphor of “drinking the Kool-aid”—this oft-repeated trope that the “Dominionists” are all over trying to take over America and that Bachmann has been influenced by them via Schaeffer, well, it’s just the stuff of urban legend and UFO conspiracies, except it is repeated over and over, from people who ought to know better.
BOOKS AS LIFE PRESERVERS FOR THE COMMON GOOD
So maybe these will help. Consider them life preservers for the upcoming year. It’s going to be a wild ride in some rocky waters. Get ready to throw ’em out to others and help and save the day.
Blind Spot: When Journal
ists Don’t Get Religion edited by Roberta Green-Ahmanson, Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert (Oxford University Press) $19.95 This is the best collection of pieces about the ways in which typical journalists seem to be tone-deaf to the role of religion. Marshall’s own piece on how reporting on terrorism misunderstands the role of radical Islam—suggesting that the violence is not religious in nature by inaccurately describing jihadists in ways that mask their self-proclaimed religious motivation–is riveting and worth the price of the book. There are a variety of media scholars and observers included making this a thoughtful overview. And it is Oxford University Press, people. This isn’t reactionary pulp, but important scholars evaluating major gaffes, indicating a huge hole in the professional training and insight of most major journalistic outlets. Very important, judicious and helpful.
American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us Robert Putnam and David Campbell (Simon & Schuster) $30.00 This thick tome of social science by the respected author of Bowling Alone may just be one of the most important books of recent years, a monumental work, elegant, descriptive and exceptionally insightful. I reviewed it briefly when it came out nearly a year ago, cribbing from the rave reviews from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jon Meacham, Cornel West, and others. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie (The President of Union for Reform Judaism) says that “this is the best overview of American religion in the last half of the twentieth century that I have ever read. If you care about American religion, you must read this book.” Religion matters, in private and in public. It isn’t coming out in paperback until February 2012 and it may be too important to wait. Highly recommended.
The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It Os Guiness (HarperOne) $23.95 I reviewed this when it came out, declaring my huge appreciation for it, and have mentioned it time and again. One needn’t agree with all the proposals but it is a must-read for anyone interested in conversations about church and state, faith in public life, and the like. This is not just about public manners or civil etiquette—which itself would be helpful, but not quite the full point of this volume— but Guinness here explores how the first amendment offers a framework for freedom for and from religion. We must not move towards any God-based Theonomy or any kind of state church, of course. But a “naked public square” that privileges secularism is equally faulty. This “case” challenges the religious right and the secular left calling us all to take steps to solve the impasse of of our times through what he wonderfully explains in vigorous and inspiring prose as a “cosmopolitan public square.” I do hope you consider reading this and living out his important vision and urgent call to decency, civility, and, urgently, a robust commitment to the principles of our First Amendment.
Bye Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map Bill Kauffman (Chelsea Green) $17.95 I gladly named this as one of the best books of 2010 and couldn’t stop telling interested folks (and, well, some who weren’t so interested) about this cool and remarkably intricate history of parts of the country that want to secede from the union. Weird, I know, but bear with me–this is a fabulous read. Look, I don’t know what I think about all this but I do like the quote from the Guinness book, spoken by JFK years ago. Our democratic witness should “make the world safe for diversity.” Want diversity? Really? Want to hear the people–real people? Listen to the crazy folk from the Yooper State, the Lakotah Nation, the Second Vermont Republic, The Republic of West Kansas. Did you know about the State of Jefferson? Take a stroll with Kauffman through the deep South hearing out those–including blacks!—who just want to hold on to their own unique barbequing culture. Listen to the longings for liberation of some from places like Hawaii, who wonder why the US colonized them in the first place. These backyard anarchists, localist yahoos and populists against Empire sometimes heroically want self-rule. Some just want to be left alone. Some are sorta nutty. Is this a great country, or what? I’d vote for Bill Kauffman for President if he’d run, but I can tell ya now that he ain’t. He’s too busy in his own home town, coaching Little League and fighting WalMart. Read his story about leaving Washington activism for his own front porch and his own home town in the wonderful memoir Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: An Affectionate Account A Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Picador; $14.00.) Kauffman knows more about American history, I’d bet, than anybody you’ve ever met and probably more than almost anybody you’ve ever read. And he’s fun: he’s so far to the left he’s right. Or so far to the right, he’s left. Anybody who wants to understand America–that is, her people—heck, anybody who likes the History Channel’s How The States Got Their Shapes—ought to read through this amazingly rich ride full of very long sentences through the backcountry of the U S of A. The Republic of Texas? Why not? Seriously.
A Purple State of Mind: Finding Middle Ground in a Divided Culture Craig Detweiler Harvest House) $13.99 Not up for the wild ride against Empire and into the localist’s dreams, narrated by history geek Bill Kauffman? Fair enough, he’s an acquired taste. This is a more simple book, excellent in many ways, by an astute cultural critic (film scholar, too) and PhD who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary and now is at Pepperdine. This upbeat call to move past the culture wars—purple is a blend of red and blue, of course—was somewhat inspired as an old college friend of the author’s (a guy who helped him cross the line of faith and become a follower of Jesus) who renounced his own faith and wrote a book against the Christian right. Detweiler sees himself as a purple Christian, conservative on some things, liberal on some things, traditionalist in a good way, but progressive at times, too. Yet, A Purple State of Mind isn’t even about politics as such, but is interested in an “in but not of” the world wise and discerning Christian cultural engagement. It explains why followers of Jesus must offer a view of life that is grace-filled and, while Biblically-grounded, anything but judgmental. Is all about Jesus, less about religion. It celebrates love and joy but also faces disappointments, and is honest about life and life’s struggles. Such a view wants to hear the story of others, wants to build bridges. This sort of purple view tries to embody the love of God but avoids evangelical cliches, encourages creativity and the arts but yet isn’t disi
nterested in moral values, advocates for all people, working out a consistent sort of way of being truly pro-life. Maybe if more religious folks were known for this sort of nonpartisan, courageous middle ground we might make more headway towards less hostile interactions of the sorts I experienced this week. The issues may be more complex than this, but certainly not less. Very nice.
A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good Miroslav Volf (Brazos) $21.99 I gave this a brief review in my column at Comment, and only scratched the surface of what can be said. Volf, of Yale Divinity School, has given us one of the best books of the year, perhaps of the decade! For a time such as this, indeed. Volf lived through genocide in Eastern Europe and knows about exclusion, marginalized faith, and all manner of confused views of the relationship of faith and public life. He has written extensively on peacemaking, forgiveness, and just did a book on gracious Christian view of Islam called Allah. This wonderful call to care for the common good within a framework of pluralism is more urgent, I believe, than most of us realize. Volf is clear about the dangers and problems of a public faith. But he shows its great necessity. There are rave, rave endorsements on the back from Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Mouw, and Randall Balmer. Many are saying that this is must-read, and we at Hearts & Minds agree: a highly recommended book.
Here is a very short video clip where he explains what the book is about. Volf is very clear and thorough. In this clip, you’ll get a sense of how thoughtful and helpful this book is.
Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies David T. Koyzis (IVP) $20.00 Okay, I trot this out nearly every year when there are elections or political debates or if there are matters on the news that seem to exhibit the “culture wars” debates. And now is that time, for sure. It just amazes me how little most people know about the background ideas and philosophical foundations for both right and left wing writers, pundits, movements. In this complex and important book Koyzis adeptly explains where ideas come from, what liberals and conservatives really believe (or assume) and whether those guiding ideals do or do not comport with a consistently Christian worldview. How do legitimate ideas end up becoming idols and get hardened into ideologies? What are the dynamics of ideological conflict in our new century? Why does the typical “liberal vs conservative” story not really do justice to the more complex realities behind political movements? This is beyond astute, it is genius, the best and most comprehensive overview of political thinking that I know of. It uses words appropriately, explaining how political philosophers have used phrases and ideas in the past, and helps us all get a handle on what is going on in our heated civic debates. Highly recommended.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World James Davison Hunter (Oxford University Press) $27.95 Forgive my colloquialism but this is one brainy dude and this is one sophisticated book. Seriously, if you haven’t considered reading this, you haven’t been paying attention to BookNotes. We’ve cited it often, noted that we may not agree with it all, and assured readers that it may be one of the more important scholarly books on the sociology of social change written in our lifetime. Hunter, a thought-provoking scholar at UVA, who ends up being the guy who coined the phrase “culture wars” has garnered, not surprisingly, rave reviews from super-heavy sociological philosophers like Charles Taylor and esteemed writers like Robert Bellah who says it is “extraordinarily important.” Nicolas Wolterstorff says it is “a feat of great intellectual imagination.” Tim Keller says he learned much from it. For what it is worth he is very critical of the Christian right and the Christian Left. And just about everybody else, too, but that’s another story.
From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservativsm D.G. Hart (Eerdmans) $25.00 I’m usually pretty frustrated when even well-schooled journalists don’t seem to know much about what evangelicalism is, or what creedal faith is about. As it ends up, that ain’t half of it: as half the blogs yapping about Francis Schaeffer and Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry have implied, they don’t know what conservatism is, either. I’m not sure I do, either, after starting this very provocative and serious book which—to make a complicated story very short—says that the dynamism inherent in revivalistic evangelicalism, that wants to make the world a better place, doesn’t really lead, ultimately, to conserving much. Hart, a Paleo-at-least, finds this troubling. Authentic conservatism, he shows, is not enhanced by the likes of mega-churches rallying around the likes of Sarah Palin. I’m rubbing my head from this category-changing, mind-bending study suggesting that those evangelicals that are conservative are insufficently so in ways that really matter. Mike Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says to get this “for your pastor and also give one to your favorite political activist. By doing so you will raise the level of theological, and political, conversation in the church.”
Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview edited by David Hall and Marvin Padgett (P&R) $19.99 For the 500th anniversary of John Calvin this anthology was created showing how Calvin has influenced various aspects of modern life. Grounded in historical reformation-era studies, this explores how a Reformed vision has shaped the rise of the arts, business, economics, history, journalism, law, literature, medicine music, philosophy, politics and science. As reporters and pundits mock Schaeffer for his “wide as life” faith and his strict adherence to a conservative Calvinism, we all ought to know a bit about the truth of the matter. Calvinist or not (heck, whether you are a Christian or not) this kind of amazingly rich historical record is very, very helpful to know. Further, Paul Marshall—recall that I started this
list with his edited volume on blind-spots in journalism—is the author of the piece on politics. He is certainly one of the leading Calvinistic political philosophers in the world, and this short chapter is worth the price of the book. Buy it, photocopy that chapter, and send it to anybody griping about Schaeffer or the goofball New Yorker thesis that Schaeffer followers want to take over the world by force, and only want Christians to be in elected office. That simply has nothing to do with Reformed views of statecraft and nothing to do with Reformed understanding of jurisprudence. There are other books on this exact topic, but this one on various aspects of Calvinistic influence on the rise of culture—from music to science to economics—is the one I think might be most useful here. Calvin and Culture by Hall & Padgett is informative and illuminating. You will learn something, I guarantee it.
Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics Alisa Harris (Waterbook) $14.99 I will be writing more about this when it releases in a few weeks (it is still unavailable, shipping early September 2011.) I’m almost done with my advanced copy and I’m mostly astonished at this young woman’s story, her being raised in a very active Christian right-wing family—she picketed abortion clinics as a child, holding signs that she surely couldn’t have known what they meant—and becoming active (oooh, how she was active!) in Republican politics as a teenager. This narrates how she has come to a different understanding of her faith and no small amount of serious anguish, anguish that I would guess many of us have felt. Ms Harris is a fantastic writer, making this one of those great memoirs that is easy to read, fun and well-told, and yet very memorable–what a story! Has she just shifted, as many of her twenty-something young evangelical peers have, from a right wing faith to a left wing one? Is her organizing demonstrations at the Bank of America and her advocacy for the poor, just the flip side of her still politicized faith? As she untangles and rethinks things, she lets us look over her shoulder, watch as her rather exciting New York life unfolds, and we get to be a part of the religious coming of age of a very sharp young woman, who is a reporter and very fine writer. I suggest that the story isn’t over and I predict she will write more. I hope so. This is, in many ways, what this whole crazy New Yorker bigotry about Bachmann and the “exotic” nature of the Christian right is all about. It guess it is rather exotic, as is anyone who takes faith seriously these days, and lives out her principles in public ways. Harris’ conservative family has done this, and it has left its marks, in ways that are good and maybe not so good. One story, one family, one very thoughtful twenty-something. I could hardly put this book down and trust you find pleasure, empathy and insight, regardless of your thoughts about faith, politics, or social justice.
READ SCHAEFFER & PEARCEY FOR YOURSELF.
MAKE UP YOUR OWN MIND.
BUT DO SO WITH OTHERS.
And, of course, since this nasty brouhaha started with the viral trope about the horrible views of Francis Schaeffer and Nancy Pearcey, and then all the push-back from it, you might start by reading them for yourself.
Here you can find a list of Schaffer’s books and if they are in print, we probably have them. I mentioned a few favorites earlier in the column (like the short Art & the Bible and True Spiritualty) but I think I’d start with How Should We Then Live? (Crossway; $19.99.) Unless you prefer philosophy, at which point you should get his famous The God Who Is There (IVP; $15.00.) The anniversary edition has a good forward by Jim Sire, too.)
Here again is the fine article about Nancy Pearcey and we stock all three of her books too (as well as the ones she co-wrote with Charles Colson.) I’d start with the thick but important Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from It’s Cultural Captivity (Crossway; $19.99.) I reviewed her fascinating survey of the arts and popular culture, Saving Leonardo: The Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning (B+H; $26.99.) here. Enjoy!
THAT’S WHAT FRIENDS ARE FOR
Nancy Pearcey writes about, and Francis and Edith Schaeffer lived live examples of, intentional, friendly, hospitable, community. Book clubs, reading groups, and fellowship gatherings are the natural venues for exploring big ideas, deconstructing the unhelpful ideas of our culture and discerning what is true, and what difference it makes. Our bookstore would love to enhance your community by providing resources and we are grateful for your support. But it is most important that you are together, in your locale, being part of the lives of others who care about you and will help you to think clearly, wrestling honestly with these heavy ideas about faith in public life. We may get a little sea-sick by it all, disoriented. That’s why we need not only good books but good friends. We learned that, too, from Francis Schaeffer.
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