“Natural disasters are not the only things shaking the earth.“
This is the powerful, provocative first line of a brave new book by James W. Skillen called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.)
I want to ramble around a rumination about it as it is a book that means a lot to me and I think will help you. It is important and I’ll tell you a few of the reasons why.
In a review I wrote a month ago for my monthly “Politics & Prose” column in the Center for Public Justice’s Capitol Commentary e-newsletter I extolled a remarkable new book that showcased civil discourse and fabulous Christian political discourse, a book compiled by Harold Heie, who has been on the board of CPJ. It is called Evangelicals on Public Policy Issues: Sustaining a Respectful Political Conversation and includes a foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Contributors include Amy Black, Paul Brink, David Gushee, Lisa Sharon Harper, Stephen Monsma, and Eric Teetsel (Abilene Christian University Press; $17.99.)
I started that review by recalling the innovative and nearly legendary role of CPJ founder Jim Skillen and his consistently thoughtful, non-partisan, radically Christian perspective on civic life. Heie’s book about encouraging respect and civility was dedicated to Jim, so Capitol Commentary was the perfect place to showcase it. Most of the young evangelical thinkers who offered such solid insight in that book would say that they cut their own teeth as political philosophers and activists on the early work and tireless teaching of Jim Skillen.
As that book illustrates (and as I tried to argue in this Hearts & Minds column a few years ago) Skillen has helped many of us realize that Christian political action ought not be merely some evangelical lingo on top of the secular right like religious icing on a bad cake; similarly, it ought not be some religious lingo on top of the secular left, like icing on a bad cake. That is, those of us who walk in the way of the Lord ought not be accommodated to any ideology that may not be consistent with Biblical religion. All our God talk and Bible quoting won’t redeem a political philosophy that is itself found wanting.
As in any area of life we are called to be “a peculiar people” with renewed minds and a prophetic imagination that dares to suppose there can be other ways to think and live than the typical binary standoff between traditionalists and progressives, between conservatives and liberals, between right and left. Skillen, as much as any friend, mentor and leader, has consistently reminded me of that.
And so it is with exceptional gladness that we can here announce the publication of the brand new book by James Skillen, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction (BakerAcademic; $22.99.) Although formally retired from leading CPJ, Dr. Skillen continues to think and work and write; I suspect there will be other books to come. For now, though, this feels like a magnum opus, a major work, stunning in its scope and rare in its discerning insight. The Good of Politics is as interesting and lucid as any book Skillen has released and offers a fresh articulation of the foundational vision of CPJ, the think-tank which is committed to finding uniquely Christian insights that illuminate true norms for governmental action. In various ways in this important book, Skillen helps us ponder what we mean by “public justice” and the “common good” and ponders essential questions such as how the state – which is God’s good gift to us, not a bad thing — can use legitimate authority to help order our pluralistic political community. He helps us examine who is responsible for what, and in what way political-legal power is unique among other sorts of legitimate exercises of cultural power.
The subtitle says it is “an introduction” but that isn’t quite right. It is part of the stimulating and respected “engaging culture” series edited by William Dyrness and Robert K. Johnston, most of which are exceptional, important, and if not quite scholarly, certainly thoughtful and mature, more academic than most popular religious books.
Eminent Princeton University professor Eric Gregory notes that it is an “accessible text by one of the most engaged Protestant political thinkers of his generation.”
As Kristen Deede Johnson (professor of Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary) says, Skillen “offers an invaluable resource for our political moment. Here we have Skillen’s political vision at its best. Biblically rooted and generous in spirit he engages a staggering array of topics from the early church through today…”
Not exactly a primer.
IF YOU NEED AN INTRO
If you or your group needs an introduction, see that list to which I linked above, perhaps starting with the fine Healing for a Broken World: Christian Perspectives on Public Policy by Steve Monsma (Crossway; $16.99.)
I am quite fond of Ron Sider’s Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Baker; $20.00) for those that want “the next step up” and a thorough guide to the process of how to develop Biblically-grounded, fair-minded, seriously Christian policy insights.
Although it isn’t simple, in that review I also highlighted the feisty discussion between five different Christian political scholars who have their own position on what it means to think faithfully about the role of the state and the character of Christian politics. That one is called Church, State and Public Justice: Five Views edited by P.C. Kemeny (IVP; $20.00.) I think it is very, very useful. (The voice in that book that is most akin to Jim Skillen’s, by the way, is Corwin Smidt’s, a political science prof and researcher from Calvin College.) The other contributors who argue back and forth include a consistent life Roman Catholic, a traditional Baptist church/state separationist approach, Ronald Sider offering a Mennonite view and United Methodist pastor and author J. Philip Wogaman representing mainline Protestant liberal realism.
All of these authors, despite their differences, know and esteem Skillen, and would agree that his new book is a significant contribution to our on-going conversations about what our political responsibility really should look like.
Those that know Jim will agree that one of his major gifts is his ability to see the underlying presumptions and ideological commitments behind and beneath the perspectives of other positions. From the most vivid rant on talk radio to the most sophisticated case argued in First Things or The New Republic, from the scholarly articles in Foreign Affairs to the calls for action from Sojourners or Focus on the Family, Jim has an ability to understand where folks are coming from, honor the strengths and virtues of their efforts, and see into the implications of their arguments. This is an important gift, making him a very helpful writer and teacher.
Skillen shows this skill in the opening pages of The Good of Politics by showing that two seemingly divergent spokespersons on questions of faith, culture and politics may, in fact, actually have very similar assumptions about the nature of what government is, and what the state is tasked with, and what a political community is called to be. That is, they may be two sides of the same bad coin, even if at first that seems counter-intuitive.
BEYOND RIGHT AND LEFT – A THIRD WAY?
It is often said nearly as a slogan for many of us that we believe that a Biblical view should be a “third way” or a unique perspective from the standard leanings of the religious right or left. For Skillen, this is not cheap sloganeering or mere rhetoric – his astute evaluations, based on a lifetime of serious study and mature discernment, really do help us see “beneath the surface” and “between the lines.” His calling as a political philosopher and his impulses as a teacher and organizer, combine here to help readers – that’s you and me! — understand the state of current thinking about faith and politics, and what faithful perspective on civic life and statecraft might look like.
There is so much written on blogs and magazines, and said (pro and con) about faith and politics that we really need this wise word cutting through the nonsense and the confused. I am very, very glad for how Jim has helped me, and you will glad how this helps you.
A MAN OF THE SCRIPTURES
Those that know Jim will also immediately recall that he is a man of the Scriptures; that he has studied the Bible all his life, and can converse with the best Biblical scholars, is rare gift for a political thinker, and his reformational passion for “Scripturally-directed thinking” shines, here. His wonderful 2000 book A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice (CRC/Faith Alive; $12.99) was a devotional set of lovely and at times explosive Bible reflections, strong and clear. It is great — very nice as a devotional and very helpful. But the Scriptural study here in The Good of Politics here is deeper. A lot deeper.
The chapters in The Good of… that open up the full-orbed, covenantal, Biblical drama — creation-fall-redemption-consummation — are themselves worth the price of the book. If you have read some of the basic outlines of how the Bible holds together as a cohesive, unfolding story (Al Wolter’s Creation Regained of course comes to mind, as does The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen or their abridged, hipper version The True Story of the Whole World; maybe you know the old four-volume set Promise & Deliverance by S.G.DeGraaf (translated by Evan Runner and republished in paperback editions recently) or the upbeat and creatively-written The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding) you will appreciate this material, and, I predict, you will be amazed at just how good it is.
Skillen is a fascinating Bible teacher, and this isn’t incidental to the book. Throughout, though, he does have the interests of a political scientist in mind, so, for instance, he notes how God condescending to giving Israel a King in 1 Samuel 8 should not be understood as God being opposed to kings or government. He explores an often over-looked passage from Job 29 where the elder Job recalls the joy of serving as a public servant. His exegesis is lucid and compelling. The strength of this part, though, is the big picture. He is adamant that God is disclosing God’s own character and will as the Biblical story marches on and as history unfolds.
He reminds us that,
The Biblical story is not some kind of ancient background noise that fades away when the American story begins. The Biblical story catches up the whole of created reality, encompassing all that exists and all that humans will ever be and do. That is why if we are too look carefully at the meaning of Christian engagement in the political culture of our day, we must first find ourselves in the Biblical story.
Before Skillen explores what he would insist is a Biblically-attuned and radical, integral perspective on the nature, calling and limits of the state (compared and contrasted, of course, with other God-ordained spheres, institutions, and organizations — a state is not a family or a business, he reminds us) he has to help us truly “find ourselves in the Biblical story” and to do that, he must – with great grace and care – evaluate a few competing views of this same matter, namely, how Biblical religion does or doesn’t equip us to be engaged in culture and responsible in citizenship. Most directly, he brings critique to the “two kingdoms” view (perhaps most often associated with Luther, but in recent years with a certain sort of conservative Calvinism represented by David VanDrunen) and the Biblical pacifism found in the important work of Richard Hays. (As one who is confused about the nuances of the former, and appreciative of the work of the later, I found both of these discussions to be very helpful. Skillen offers here very important contributions to the conversations among politically astute evangelicals.)
Again, this great first half of the book is well worth the price of admission; it offers a profound and serious overview of how to properly stand in the flow of Biblical history and from within a rich and consistent Scriptural vision learn to see ourselves as God’s vice regents, stewarding well the many gifts of the generative creation. Those who are taken with the balanced and nuanced “structural pluralism” of CPJ should be familiar with this approach to the Bible and its fruitful use to shape our cultural engagement.
IS A NEGATIVE VIEW OF GOVERNMENT APPROPRIATE?
From this profound Christian worldview will flow a certain sort of awareness that politics is, as the title suggests, a good thing. It is not the only thing, perhaps not even the most important thing, but it is Biblically misguided to think that the state is somehow only a negative after-thought from God after the world moved “East of Eden” some sort of “necessary evil.” But yet, very few American citizens (not to mention Christians, event those who claim to be Biblical-literate) seem to glory in the goodness of a variegated, diversified and unfolding creation, replete with institutions such as God’s good gift of the state. Why is it that so many have a negative view of government? It is not just that there have been plenty of examples of oppressive regimes or bad states – despite so many bad marriages or car accidents, most people don’t go around bad-mouth marriage or driving. Particularly in the US and particularly among conservative Christians the animosity about politics is passionate and nearly a matter of principle, or so it seems. Why is this?
This question is a major burden of the book, exploring the history of the development of various ideas of the state, exploring with great insight, the rise of the nation state, and the ways in which theologians responded. Skillen’s study of Augustine, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Althusias, his reminders of the social realities of the middle ages, of the early Reformation and into Puritan and colonial American society is illuminating. His dialogue with vital social thinkers – yes, the likes of Calvin and Hobbes — is just wonderful. Even those who have studied European history (not to mention the Ottoman Empire or even Chinese history) or who are well-versed in the history of theology, will find new insights here, solid new angles of vision, great quotes, good stories, important ways to connect the dots.
I cannot understate how engaging this well-researched part of the book is, nor how important. Those who are fans of CPJ or who have instincts that are non-partisan or “third way” will appreciate this, of course, as knowing the history and development of our current malaise has long been a strength of our movement; indeed, CPJ has usually eschewed hot-button, issue-oriented crusades in favor of digging deeper and taking a longer-view, including the principled study of just what the good of politics is, and just what the goals (and limits) of statecraft should be. It is usually not helpful to rally around an issue or cause without understanding its connection to other issues, and to the historical development of the contexts of those issues. Our fascination and tendency on taking Godly moral stands on this issue or that, this cause or that, has, effectively, distracted us from doing the background homework on the first things of how the gospel relates to culture and what government is to be in God’s world, so we sometimes have advocated for moral concerns that are disconnected to fruitful policies that can be just and good in the public square.
As Skillen puts it,
the kind of citizenship Christians should exhibit, therefore, is the kind that can help to clarify the distinctive art of statecraft and help to strengthen the political community for the common good.”
And doing this takes some work. It takes thinking about what we mean by a political community, what government is and isn’t, and what qualifies us as fellow citizens.
Realizing how and why we’ve failed to do this faithfully, how God’s people have accommodated their thinking to unwise notions or pagan ideologies or powerful social forces is a major contribution to the astute Christian mind in these days, and Skillen’s book helps us immeasurably. Who knew that studying Machiavelli or Locke or John Rawls could be so important — and so very interesting? And relevant! Who knew that knowing the genesis of ideas and how they grew certain kinds of legs and got certain kind of traction would be so helpful for our daily life of on-going citizenship?
Heady as some of this historical overview is, Skillen realizes that few folks immediately recognize the urgency of learning from this historical research. But he makes his case nonetheless:
For many, perhaps most, Christian in the United States today, the historical roots of their political attitudes and affections may lie well below the level of consciousness. They may not recognize the names of Locke, Calvin, Aquinas or Augustine. They may be unfamiliar with the traditions and secularizing trajectories of American civil religion. Many influences of American pragmatism and of modern humanist educators such as John Dewey may be so strong that American may not know the classical, Christian and even early modern roots of the American way of life.
HOW THEN SHALL WE DO POLITICS?
Lastly, The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction offers thoughtful argument about how people shaped by this Biblical understanding of the task of the state, a view that disentangles itself from ideologies of the right or left, of individualism and civil religion and recognizes the important, good, but limited role of government intervention for the sake of public justice (for all) might approach certain social spheres and the policy concerns that arise relating to and among those spheres. The books serious third part starts with a wonderful reminder that all politics is perspectival and faith-like biases inevitably inform all policy debates. This “viewpoint as standpoint” is a great chapter, and leads to discussion about what we mean by the common good, and what sort of engagement (for what kind of political community) we should seek.
In this part Skillen offers an audacious proposal for what is called “proportional representation” and makes a case – a case he has made since the 1970s – that this would enhance our republic’s democracy. Electoral reform may not be a “sexy” or seem as urgent as working on anti-poverty initiatives or fighting sexual trafficking. Yet, in Skillen’s hands it is shown to be important and necessary. You will be a better informed American if you read this part, and, agree or not, will understand some of the ways in which our system is shaped by Enlightenment notions of individualism and such. He has a few important paragraphs about weaknesses in the US Constitution and his heart-felt desire to improve our beloved republic.
CITIZENSHIP AS A VOCATION
This is the stuff citizen’s do, think about very foundational, but important matters, so that it might guide what we think, what we try to persuade our neighbors about, how we testify at local hearings, what we say to our representatives, and, of course, how we vote. A reflection called “Citizenship as Vocation” is beautifully rendered and highly recommended and offers great inspiration after the weighty Biblical and historical portions of the book.
Then, as the book gets more specific, it includes chapters on family policy, marriage and education, and another on economics and the environment. A final chapter addresses briefly some international concerns and the possibilities of global cooperation in these times. These pieces are provocative and insightful, well developed although still rather introductory. Much more works needs to be done, mining this Skillen-esque approach, the wise insight based on the truth that God’s disclosure of Christ’s redemptive work comes in history as just policies are advanced in our complex world.
We do not build the Kingdom of God on Earth, but our daily deeds and historical formation – what Andy Crouch has called our “culture making” and our “playing God” – point, like signposts, to the breaking in of God’s eschaton into human history. What we do matters, as actions of love for neighbor and nation, and as symbols of God’s redeeming grace. Yes, this book is profound: the state is part of this, our citizenship is part of this. How we work for the common good is part of our discipleship, and points the watching world to the consummation of all things, where a just and whole creation, a (re)new(ed) Earth, a good city, will be our eternal home.
Buy this book to learn how to be a better citizen and you will end up being, I am sure of it, a better Christian.
FRIENDS AND INFLUENCES
Allow me to inform you of just a bit more. I want to tell you about some of the friends and conversation partners that helped influence Skillen’s work over the years.
I love looking at the acknowledgments found in books, don’t you? They sometimes reveal the tender hearts and interesting life circumstances of authors, but, perhaps more importantly, it shows what other scholars they draw upon, who they view as colleagues or conversation partners, and sometimes helps us connect more dots about their perspective. In the case of a book like The Good of Politics which is breaking some new ground for many readers, but which stands in a particular neo-Kuyperian/Reformed tradition, offering a voice and framework that is different than the more customary religious right or religious left, it may be helpful to name just a few significant friends that Skillen thanks.
There are several women and men from around the world that he thanks, but I will just highlight five.
He thanks Stephen V. Monsma. I already mentioned his very helpful, balanced, evangelical introduction called Healing for a Broken World (Crossway; $16.99.) For a detailed, semi-scholarly proposal of how religious freedom, also for organizations, should be a foundation of our civil society, see the very important book about religious toleration and institutional freedom called Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (Rowman & Littlefield; $29.99.) I think it is wise and valuable and I commend it especially to those interested (or opinionated) about the recent rulings in Arizona about religious freedom and discrimination, for instance. He advances a view some have called “positive neutrality” which seems to me to be a way out of the frustrating impasse.
He thanks David Koyzis. In my bibliography to which I linked above you will find his breathtaking book Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $24.00) showing that the political left wing and the political right win have similar Enlightenment roots. If you tend to be a conservative and a person of faith, you might end up feeling a little squeamish about your ideological roots. Alas, if you are a lefty, he’ll put your heritage in the hot seat, too – remember that bloodbath called the French Revolution? So, yeah, this book offends everyone and nobody comes out happy. I dare you to read it. Skillen would concur.
He thanks Ron Sider Ronald J. Sider is known as the premier evangelical spokesperson for a Biblically-faithful social action agenda and he and his wife are long-time friends of Jim and Doreen’s. That they bring their differing denominational and theological traditions to the table and remain good friends is a beautiful thing. Read Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Nelson; $15.99) if you haven’t (please!) and then move to the aforementioned Just Politics: A Guide for Christian Engagement (Baker; $19.99.) You will see some of Skillen’s insights, I think, in this mature work of Sider. And we all are in Sider’s debt for teaching us much about God’s concern for the poor, for justice for the unborn and for environmental stewardship.
He thanks Bob Goudzewaard. Goudzewaard was an early influence of mine, and hearing him several times – and chatting at a Jubilee conference in the late 70s – was very important. Professor Emeritus (Free University of Amsterdam) Goudzewaard is a Dutch economist who eventually became a Parliament member in Holland, a part of a Dutch Christian political party (with roots going back to Abraham Kuyper.) While his most important books are out of print you can read Capitalism and Progress on line as a PDF for free: go here and scroll down to Goudzewaard.
We are big fans of a serious study he co-wrote with Mark VanderVennen and David Van Heemst called Hope for Trouble Times: A New Vision of Confronting Global Crisis (Baker Academic; $22.00.) There is a great forward by Desmond Tutu.
He thanks Calvin Seerveld. Cal Seerveld is the preeminent Christian philosopher of aesthetics, and is renowned for his Dooyeweerdian/Vollenhovian angle on Biblically-shaped scholarship, cultural discernment, and passionate social action. That he has been friends with Skillen for nearly a lifetime is fascinating, and that this aesthetic philosopher, Biblical scholar (and liturgist and playwright and art historian) cares about public justice is to his great credit. That Skillen listens to him is a clue to Skillen’s awareness that while politics and statecraft are important, lasting social reform comes through a simultaneous realization of norms — this insistence on the multi-dimensional nature of God’s world is everywhere true, and Skillen knows it. We are citizens with political obligations and yet also creatures who need art (among other things — it is a very multi-dimensional world.) Seerveld’s classic is Rainbows for the Fallen World (Toronto Tuppence; $30.00) and we are proud to offer it as a staple of our inventory here. We stock all of his many books.
You should also know that Dordt College Press in Iowa (Skillen has taught at Dordt, by the way, and his book on international politics is published by them) will soon release a six-volume set of “occasional and sundry” pieces by Calvin Seerveld. Each book gathers together speeches, sermons, talks, essays, reviews, academic papers, and other articles into themed books – one on aesthetics, for instance, one on art history, one on Biblical studies. This is a true publishing event for those who have ears to hear. It is wonderful to mention three of these here at the tail end of my review of the new James Skillen political book. I will be reviewing them more carefully soon enough, but for now, I will tease you by mentioning these three of the books in this new series by Seerveld.
Cultural Problems in Western Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $17.00 These eight chapters may seem to have emerged from an unusual setting – these were lectures delivered to labor unionists and artists in Europe (funded by the European Commission and the Evangelische Zendings Alliantie.) Seerveld here is helping artists and activists to think deeply about pluralism, multi-culturalism, confessional and ethnic diversity, xenophobia, and the importance of enriched cultural conversations about our life together in our troubled nations.
Cultural Education & History Writing Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $23.00 This is a collection of lectures
which is nothing short of spectacular, parsing aspects of the
philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, preaching to those trying to embody a
reformational world and life view, essays and articles that offer
profound critique and glorious hope about some of the deepest issues in
our society. Former CPJ Director Gideon Strauss – Strauss who has worked
against cruel injustice in his native South Africa — writes one of the
forewords, and I cried reading it, knowing how much this brother with
such passions for global public justice values the scholarly work of
this artful prophet.
Redemptive Art in Society Calvin Seerveld (Dordt College Press) $21.00 I am proud to have offered a blurb for the back of this book, a wonderful collection of papers and talks (a few of which I’ve heard on tape) about the social implications of the arts, how justice can roll down as artists help gift their local places with “rainbows for a fallen world.” I love this book, and realize — that is too mild a word: I think I mean so very deeply feel – why Skillen acknowledges a personal debt to Seerveld. I doubt if either of them will read this here, but I am happy to say that if I were to write a page of acknowledgments, they would both be listed as men who have meant much to me. Thank you for allowing me to tell you about their books.
A final book offer: along with our 20% off discount offer, we’ll send along a free (older) book that illustrates Skillen’s views about the “structural pluralism.” While supplies last, we’re happy to share a CPJ classic. It’s my thanks to you for reading all this, and placing an order. We are grateful.
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