I saw a note on Twitter the other day suggesting we are seeing more idolatrous Christian Nationalism these days. A reply from another friend rang true: there isn’t more, but we’re just realizing more what it is, noticing it. There are varying degrees and kinds of dangerous alt-right groups, of course. Some are fairly conventional fundamentalist or Pentecostal churches with a penchant for overstating the goodness of America even if they aren’t overly aggressive about it and there groups that are weird in their Christian-sounding lingo, even like the KKK, and are plainly dangerous. (Perhaps you recall a book I reviewed at BookNotes several years ago called Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America by Vegas Tenold, still one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read and as important study and a good read.) Almost nothing is a kookie as this cult that uses guns in religious services, whose leader has a crown made of bullets, and that our Republican candidate for Governor here in PA may have some connection with. Yikes.
It dawns on me that most BookNotes readers know a bit about why this is all so dastardly and maybe have even bought books from us offering historical anthological discernment about this heretical movement. (Just a few weeks ago we highlighted a new Oxford University Press book called The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy by Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry with a good foreword by Jemar Tisby.) Here is a good list of 10 titles about this put together by our friends at the Englewood Review of Books (although not all are about recent nationalism as such.) I’d add to the list the brand new book by pastoral psychologist and Lutheran scholar (who teaches at Union in New York) Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk About the Divide (Fortress Press; $21.00.) We stock all of these, actually; we recommend reading up a bit as this movement is not going away. These are, dear gentle readers, as John Adams put it, “serious times.”
And yet, still — what does it mean to embody a proper, balanced sort of appropriate patriotism? Condemning the heresies of the Trumpian wing of the religious right, while important, is almost too easy. How might we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater? It may be a bit controversial for some, here, but I want to ask, with Richard Mouw, how to be a faithful Christian patriot. But first, a story.
I will never forget a retreat presentation, the talks being given by Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton whose book Transforming Vision had influenced the gathered group, and whose book on postmodernism, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, then just out, was also very important for many of us. Although there were several hot evangelical books that year all alarmed about the way postmodernism seem to erode a sense of truth and therefore was inappropriate for Christians, the Walsh & Middleton book really was the only one of all of them that actually used the Bible as a response to the famous pomo suspicion of meta-narratives. The Bible is full of deconstruction, they said, subversive, even. To this day, I recommend Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be for anyone grappling with the forces of postmodernity or the ideas of postmodernism or those grown cynical with conventional religion that chases after power and might.
In that retreat one of them read one of the Psalms and, I think, a bit from Jeremiah, and, with gusty insight then associated nearly exclusively with Walter Brueggemann, they showed how the Bible itself offered (unpatriotic) critique of Zion, a view that was surely controversial and subversive in its day, singing the Lord’s own songs in protest against the Lord’s land. (Years later Brian would, with his co-author Sylvia Keesmaat, do the same thing with Romans 13 in their must-read Romans Disarmed commentary and Richard would bring his Old Testament contextualized reading to the vexing Abraham/Issac story in the must-read Abraham’s Silence, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
To make the point, then they read the Biblical text over the background of the fuzzy, acid-rock, distorted and mournfully brilliant version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” from the 1969 Woodstock album. Wow. This is what Hendrix was doing as a black man crying out just a year after the murder of Dr. King with a lament not disavowing the American story, but reclaiming it by naming the deep failures. Hendrix was not just doodling with hippy rock coolness but was offering a sober lament, a pained patriotic plea. And this is exactly what some of the most potent anti-Zion Psalms were doing as Brueggemann brilliantly shows in Israel’s Praise: Doxology Over Idolatry and Ideology. Get that subtitle — “Doxology over Idolatry and Ideology” — which reminds us that praise and worship must subvert our idols, even those good things given by God.
I doubt if you heard Hendrix’s messy “Star Spangled Banner” at church this weekend. You most likely won’t even hear the Psalms Brueggemann uses, either. But I do hope your worship exalted Christ alone as the only true King. I trust that isn’t too much to ask.
Naturally, I appreciated Brian and Richard’s critique (begun already in Transforming Vision) of the idols of the land — including the nation state — and resonated with the brave, subversive Hebrew prophets they taught us about who dared to raise their voices against bad worship and unjust public policy. I saw myself as a child of the late 60s, dismayed by the murders of King and Bobby Kennedy, a conscientious objector against the brutal war in Viet Nam, made cynical by Watergate and Love Canal and TMI. One of the first books I read, in the mid-70s, about how my simple Christian faith informed my political life was by Richard Mouw, a long out of print paperback called Political Evangelism. It was deeply Christian, not conservative like most church people knew, but not lefty, either. It invited us to an integrated Christian social vision where politics and citizenship were coherent parts of our Kingdom discipleship — our loyalty to King Jesus — and not just a dry matter of our secular lives.
Years later in a book on a passage in Isaiah that points to the restoration of all things in Revelation 22, the incredible When the Kings Come Marching In, Mouw envisioned despots and unjust rulers kneeling before their oppressed victims. Of apartheid leaders asking for forgiveness from the likes of their torture victims. It was a very powerful insight about the upside down Kingdom of Christ and how even power politics can be seen as being, someday, healed and made right.
I followed Mouw’s ongoing work for decades — it was an honor to have him talk about our bookstore and cite me in his last book All That God Cares About: Common Grace and Divine Delight and he remains one of the thinkers and writers I trust them most. His inter-denominational (indeed, sometimes interfaith) generosity, his Biblical piety, his expansive Kingdom vision, his friendly style, his balance and grace, all appeal. Mouw’s own wonderfully interesting memoir is tellingly entitled Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground. I recommend it to one and all.
Very important these days is his tremendous book on civility — ahead of its time and still one of the very, very best in the genre — is called Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I will come back to this in a moment. It would be a good companion to his brand new one on being a patriotic Christian.
But now, sent to you with a smile from historic Pennsylvania on this 4th of July the year of our Lord 2022, I present to you Dr. Mouw’s brand new book, just out. I’d say “bring on the fireworks” but, really, this book is too reasoned and calm for that. It brings more light than thunder.
How to Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor Richard J. Mouw (IVP) $17.00 OUR SALE PRICER = $13.60
This holiday weekend (in the US, at least) I want to very highly recommend the brand new Richard Mouw book, How to Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor, even though it is even less punchy and more balanced than I expected and more patriotic than I believe is warranted. But, there it is: I’d read Mouw on anything and listen carefully to everything he says. And he gets everything that is most important very right here, even if I may wish for slightly different emphasis or conclusion on this or that fine point.
Since I’ve already admitted that I’ve got some minor disagreements (like, say, on the legitimacy of national flags in a sanctuary of worship, which I oppose and he very cautiously approves) I’ll say this: one of the great virtues of this little book, like all of Mouw’s books, is how fair-minded he is. He goes out of his way to explain for us the various positions on a topic, from the Mennonite opposition to swearing oaths to some Scottish Presbyterians views on theonomy to many black Christians understandable skepticism about too quickly saying US wealth is a blessing from God when it was significantly earned with slave labor on stolen land. Mouw has talked to people all over the world about all manner of topics both broad and specific and he recounts various views and points from real discussions as if you are a conversation partner. It is a most congenial way to learn. He is a very good teacher, less telling you what to think or believe, but inviting you to wrestle with the primary issues.
Mouw is very, very clear — and goes to very helpful lengths to explain why it is so — that our love for our land, our patriotic affections, are for our nation (that is, our people and our myths and our values and our shared history) and not so much any given government, let alone any one party. That is, he explains the distinctions in political science between a country and a state. He goes from Aristotle to JFK, St. Paul to MLK, exploring terms and helping us realize much. I chuckled when he said something to the effect that we may get teary eyed singing about our purple mountains and, with hand on heart (maybe), showing our affection, but such inspiring moments aren’t really about our local zoning ordinances or tax codes. Our patriotism is about kinship, about place, about care for others and for the civic values we might hold together, in our shared, if wounded, history. It won’t surprise those who track with this that he cites Robert Bellah and Robert Putnam and historian Jill Lapore. You might even think of the “Front Porch Republic” sort of patriotism exemplified in books like Bill Kauffman’s Poetry Night at the Ballpark. Mouw commends our involvement in sports leagues and the Boy Scouts and PTO and service clubs and other third-place groups that deepen our bonds to actual neighborhoods and real neighbors.
Mouw is always able to adeptly cite, with a quick explanatory nod and a quick caveat or two, older theologians like his favorite, John Calvin, and apply their deepest wisdom to the concerns of today. From Calvin to Mother Teresa, he reminds us that we are to contemplate well, to attend to, to care about our place and the dignity of others made in God’s image. The heart of the book really is profound, and explored in helpful ways, insisting that our loyalty to our country is an act of love. I have never thought of this, actually, but it is his chief motif and it was helpful for me. One of the chapters is simply called “Human Bonds.”
Naturally, he highlights the standard Biblical texts about political life, and he treats them well — not woodenly, nor dismissively, but as authoritative light on the topic to be lived into in healthy and wise ways. As a thoughtful, moderate evangelical in a mainline church with ecumenical and interfaith friendships (as I mentioned, all over the globe, especially China where he lectures often) he handles the Word of God with admirable clarity but not simplistically. He brings the very big reminder that we must apply God’s truths in our own contexts with discernment, wisdom, and prudence. There is no one Bible verse that insists on this or that form of government let alone this or that specific policy, and thinking Christianly about government and public policy is no simple matter. He explores this a bit, but since this is not a book about politics, as such, he only gives the most basic overview and groundwork. (There is one fascinating chapter on the scope of government in which he tries to move us away from the simplistic binary of big vs small government and shows that all but the most radical libertarians surely appreciate safe bridges and clean water and regulation of airlines and fair tax codes and the like. Right?) It is good stuff that every church-going citizen should read, even if it only scratches the surface of what constitutes a faithful, wise, Biblically-directed sort of public theology and social ethic for a Christian understanding political life. His goal in this is to show why we should be glad for good government, appreciative, speaking with honor about the positive aspects of our civic life together.
In this lovely little guide, How to Be a Patriotic Christian, Mouw invites us to love our land, our people, our country. He explains how this can be done without falling for the temptation (which can turn very evil) to make an idol out of our own tribe or state or party. He warns against nationalism, about pride, in our own souls and in our collective consciousness. Incidentally, Richard was studying in Canada when President Kennedy was assassinated and he tells about how his rather anti-American friends there showed great empathy in those sad weeks. Our care for each other goes beyond national borders — of course. I wouldn’t be promoting a book that says otherwise! And Mouw makes a big deal of that, that the Body of Christ (our defining and ultimate loyalty) is global and transnational, multiethnic and multi-racial.
I appreciate his caution about his subject. He tells a funny story about feeling sinful as a child for buying a Mother’s Day card that insisted that his mom was the best one in the world. He had reason to think this wasn’t technically true, and wondered if God minded his dishonesty as an unacceptable sort of bragging. He notes that of course we needn’t really worry about such claims, but that patriotic declarations insisting that we are the best country ever (the academic theory is called American Exceptionalism) are considerably more dangerous. Remember this:
There is a problem with the patriotic version. My mother would not have been offended to find out that a twelve-year-old down the street told her mother that she was the greatest mother in the world. What was most important to my mother was how I cared about her. She did not see the mother down the street as a competitor for her own children’s loyalty.
But here’s the important part:
I’ll put it bluntly: my mother commanded no armies. She did not use guns and bombs to defend her right to be called the best mother in the world. Nations are obviously different in this regard. They go to war with each other. And sometimes they make decisions about such matters that some citizens call into question, and the result is that the questioners are accused by their fellow citizens of being unpatriotic.
And so, Mouw proceeds with caution in inviting us to love our fellow citizens well by honoring the land and country into which providence has placed us by saying repeatedly that we must never offer an unquestioning sort of ultimate loyalty. He calls us to wrestle with many things, grappling with various arguments and positions, but to agree to start here: we are to love our neighbors and one way we can do that is by loving the place, culture, social architecture, institutions, including governments, that we are a part of. Patriotism, properly understood, is one way to show honor and affection and love within our social fabric.
Professor Mouw has written before about the Roman Catholic social ethic of “subsidiarity” and the Dutch Calvinist / Kuyperian notion of sphere sovereignty so it may not be a surprise that he especially affirms our role in local and state civic life. Politics can be big and broad and abstract and yet knowing our local DMV worker or librarian or small town zoning commissioner or dogcatcher or school board member can be a good step for us in order to help our region flourish. He worries that not enough church people are involved in local stuff as day-by-day ordinary citizens and he commends those civil servants who do such public work. He calls us to pray for non-dramatic government employees and civil servants, those who try to help things go well. Disparaging bureaucrats (let alone damning the “Deep State”) is wrong, he says, and he is right. If we are to seek the shalom of the city where God has put us, even as exiles, (Jeremiah 22) we need to come to know those who serve us. We need to exercise our citizenship muscles, trying out involvement in local civic and even political initiatives. Like (or not) whoever lives in the White House any given year, appreciate or not the party principles of whoever is governing your particular state, there is much we can do apart from partisan politics to be good citizens. And, at least, loving our neighbors, including local public servants, can help us help our country thrive with greater civility and maybe even real friendship. Remember, one of his early chapters is about strengthening our human bonds, a sort of kinship in our land. He makes much of Simone Weil’s reflections on rootedness, almost sounding like Wendell Berry at times.
Two quick asides:
First: you may want to pre-order right away the forthcoming Wendell Berry book that is due in early August called The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (Shoemaker & Company; $24.00 / OUR SALE PRICE = $19.20.) It seems to be, in part, a long-awaited follow up to his book on racism called Our Hidden Wound and will obviously explore questions akin to the ones Mouw is raising about civic kinship and our commonwealth. It is going to be a release of considerable importance.
Secondly, I wish time and space permitted me to do some comparisons between themes in this new Richard Mouw book and his very important aforementioned Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $22.00 / OUR SALE PRICE = $17.60.)That book on pluralism and civility and kindness and styles of speech and attitudes of graciousness and a citizenship of patience (in a hotly polarized culture) are mostly here in one way or another in How to Be a Patriotic Christian. If you have that oldie (especially the expanded 2010 edition) perhaps you’d be wise to pull it from the shelf for a re-read. If you don’t have it, order it today. It is a fabulous companion to this one.
In his brand new one about patriotism Rich talks about the pros and cons of what is called (often derisively) civil religion and he is more positive about that than he used to be. He wonders about the efficacy (and the faithfulness) of public patriotic rituals — singing the national anthem at ball games, say — and he realizes this is freighted. (Ahh, I can’t wait to hear what Jamie Smith says about all this.) He has a section that is provocative about patriotism in church. He worries about how we don’t teach much about civic values these days, and while Mouw doesn’t cite him, this is something Os Guinness has said over and over for decades.
Again, this plea for a positive rendering of civic education is not a guise for hiding from the facts about injustice or overlooking the stains in our national history. He may be moderate in tone and enjoy patriotic songs and the like, but he is very clear over and over that a good patriot cares enough to have the occasional lovers quarrel with her country and its history. Our original American sins of mistreatment of first nation peoples, of slavery, ongoing racism, anti-immigration animus, cavalier mistreatment of creation, bellicose and often unethical foreign policies, and on and on are not to be denied by Biblical people and true patriotism is always eager for an honest accounting. There are other books these days, including some from what we might call the religious right, that water down facts about (let alone offer prophetic denunciations of) our national sins. Mouw isn’t breathy about it, but he is crystal clear. I am grateful for this and therefore can hear his words of patriotic counsel.
I bet most Hearts & Minds friends will really appreciate it in many ways. The writing is interesting and the book offers wise, good stuff.
Skip the military-themed, red-white-and-blue liturgies in MAGA megachurches and the pseudo-patriot scoundrels like Eric Metaxas that are dishonest about things like the January 6th insurrection. We don’t need more flag-waving showiness that verges on gaudy idolatry. Just ignore the ideological guys whining about the 1619 Project which wants to put an honest accounting about slavery more central in the telling of American history. (You may recall that I mentioned in a BookNotes review a week or two ago that Bill McKibben’s most recent book The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon has some extended conversations about the 1619 Project and I commend his easy-to-read overview of the urgency of such historical honesty.)
There are times we need “doxology against idolatry” (see above) and Hendrix’s plaintive version of a tragic national anthem is called for. Given the rise of so-called Christian Nationalism in recent decades, maybe that time is now. Granted.
But maybe Mouw is on to something, ahead of the curve in discerning what we also need. We need to do more than sound the alarm against what we do not want. We need to say what we are for. That is, we do not need to throw the patriotic baby out with the idolatrous bathwater. As this great read reminds us, we can be loyal in a limited way to our country, navigating a fine path between Christian nationalism on the one hand and bitter cynicism about all things American on the other. There are sticky questions all along this path and, in many ways, it is easier to just raise the flag or tear it down. A third alternative, neither right nor left, neither nationalistic nor anti-American, is possible. Loving the right things in the right way is a sign of Christian maturity and rightly ordered desires and properly ordered love is a healthy goal of Christian discipleship. I am not sure I will end up where Richard is in this book, but that’s okay.I savored every word and will re-read it soon for the exercise of practicing discernment. I’d love to know what you think after you read it.
What does it mean to truly love our native land? What does it mean to be a good citizen? What does it look like to be a patriot that is firstly loyal to the international body of Christ? To be active as a citizen but not unquestioning, willing to say yes to some things and no to others, and showing gladness for the ideas and the freedom allowing participatory democracy? How can we render to Caesar what may be Caesar’s and render to God what is God’s? It was a trick question when Jesus first said it, and it is tricky yet today.
Mouw reminds us, gently, over and over, that even as our first loyalty is to the Triune God of the universe, known in Jesus Christ, and to his global Church, it is one of the great Christian insights —yes! — that we are all, every last one of us, made in God’s image and we each have a shared humanity with all fellow humans. Further, as creatures, we have a shared creaturehood with all things. St. Francis was pretty right with that “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” stuff. Yes, we can have a limited sort of affection for and provisional commitment to our own country, but we are, firstly, fellow creatures and fellow human beings. Our common ground with all others is the best place to start even as we explore how to be patriotic in our own particular place.
Which brings us to a fine little message at the end of How to Be a Patriotic Christin. Mouw may be a neo-Calvinist in the line of Abraham Kuyper who famously reminded us that Christ claimed “every square inch” of creation and that we must “think Christianly” about every theory, policy and practice, but he, like Kuyper, actually is a bit of a low-brow Protestant mystic. I’m not sure Richard would admit this, but he cites contemplatives and is not unaware of the importance of personal and communal spiritual formation. He loves his Bible and he loves old hymns and is unafraid sounding pious and spiritual. It is this ordinary mysticism, this Biblical spirituality, that can form us into caring people who learn to love our place, our region, our own country, even.
He invites us at the end of the book to slow down, to be contemplative, to ponder, to pay attention, to listen well to others. This, then, is to be followed up in the school of love: we must cultivate compassion, he says. Compassion leads us not only to acts of personal kindness but to a politics of grace, social righteousness, economic justice. A third guideline is fascinating: “go deep in the quest for rootedness.” Naturally this is sensible when learning to be more patriotic, to learn well about our land, our watershed, our place, our system of government. But as he means it here, he means to double down on, to lean into, to celebrate firstly our identity as members of the Kingdom of heaven, a citizenship that trumps all loyalties and an identity that pledged allegiance to the Lamb and our siblings far and wide. I’m not sure he says it in the final pages, but this big point about our Christian rootedness certainly relativizes any overzealous sort of patriotism. Our “hopes and dreams” (as he puts it) are not finally made manifest by government policies but by Jesus. To be assured of that, “in the deep places of our hearts,” he writes, “should inspire us to keep wrestling with what it means to be patriotic Christians.”
SIX OTHER BOOKS TO READ ABOUT FAITH & PATRIOTISM
I have in several other BookNotes listed books that offer Biblically-based and thoughtful guidance on uniquely faithful citizenship based on Christian thinking about the nature and task of the government and the like. My views have been generally consistent for decades that we need to read widely in discerning the framework for a faithful sort of politics, not primarily driven by ideologies of the right or the left. Not a muddled, moderate middle, but something else, a way shaped by Christ’s Kingdom.
Here are books that are less about the shape of Christian politics as such but about this question of American civil religion, civic pride, our approach to the Founders, etc. Good for this season of American life, I think, to be read alongside or after How to Be a Patriotic Christian by Ricard Mouw.
We the Fallen People: the Founders and The Future of American Democracy Robert Tracy McKenzie (IVP Academic) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
This book has garnered rave reviews from thoughtful critics and won awards. I cannot do it justice here so we’ll let my favorite history prof, John Fea (author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?) has described it:
In the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, Tracy McKenzie places original sin at the center of American political history. We the Fallen People weaves American history, historical thinking, and public theology into a compelling narrative that forces readers to rethink the meaning of our democratic experiment.
Dr. McKenzie, a history prof at Wheaton College, has two chapters under each of five main parts. These sections don’t explain it all, but gives you a sense of his approach:
Part One: Governing a Fallen People: The Founders, the Constitution, and Human Nature; Part Two: The Great Reversal: The People’s Candidate Exalts the People’s Virtue; Part Three: Servitude or Liberty: Jacksonian Democracy in Action; Part Four: I Cannot Regard You as a Virtuous People: A Conversation with Alexis de Tocqueville; Part Five: Remembering, Reminding, Responding: Lessons for Today. Fascinating and mature scholarship, offering a valuable theological contribution to our flag waving. Highly recommended.
Robert Tracy McKenzie has incisively identified one of the most subtle and insidious dynamics contributing to the present state of partisanship in America. That is, our stark societal divisions are often fueled by flawed approaches to making sense of the past. The genius of McKenzie’s book is in his challenge to us to think both Christianly and historically, demonstrating that the two are not mutually exclusive. He shrinks not from the exceedingly difficult task of drawing moral wisdom from history, and he does so with characteristic care and aplomb. We the Fallen People helps us to see the past more clearly, giving us the ability to think more rightly about ourselves. These are the indispensable first steps for us as we pursue the common good. –John D. Wilsey, author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea
Broken We Kneel: Reflections on Faith and Citizenship Diana Butler Bass (Church Publishing) $18.95 OUR SALE PRICE = $15.16
I will not describe this short book in detail as I’ve reviewed it often before. (Enter it into the search engine of our “BookNotes” archives to find a few previous descriptions.) The short version is simply this: Diana worked for a church in Northern Virginia when they were understandably grieving the attack on the US on September 11, 2000. The nearby Pentagon was hit and people were killed. It was a horrible time, but, as many of us too clearly recall, our nation seemed to come together in a spasm of militarism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and civil religion that wasn’t healthy or good. United We Stand meant any number of things, but some with under that banner were prepared to launch nuclear attacks on Middle Eastern lands. The language of American greatest and vengeance was common.
Diana thought that a posture of shared brokenness was more appropriate and appealed to her colleagues for a ministry or at least tone of peacemaking, for a more sober sort of patriotism, not jingoistic or worldly. As her memoirs tells in moving detail, she lost her job over this call to reject aggressive God-and-country militarism.
I am not ashamed to say it was deeply, deeply moving for me when I first read it and it sustained me as few books did in those complicated years. That it was reissued a few years ago is a publishing grace and I am glad to suggest it any time people are considering a faithful view of public life and Christian citizenship.
The Possibility of America: How the Gospel Can Mend Our God-Blessed, God-Forsaken Land David Dark (WJK) $17.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39
David is another friend that I admire very much and who has become a bit of an internet sensation, enduring as he does in his vocation to be a pest to everybody on twitter by insisting that we pay attention, be honest about faith and justice, speak out, name complicity, live true. Agree or not all the time, he is one heck of a writer — you should sign up for his Substack blog — and he cares deeply about public life. That some of his deepest influences are Will Campbell and Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan and Padraig O’Tuama might give you a hint of his prophetic mantle. That he loves literature (and pop culture) means the book is garnished with tasty quotes from James Baldwin and Bono, Ocatavia Butler and Faulkner.
I highly recommended The Possibility of America this book in great detail when it first came out and then recommended it again at BookNotes when a second, expanded edition was released. It is a colorful, fiery, interesting read. I figure I should name it again, here, a rare and nearly essential book about civic imagination and public compassion. His tone is not as moderate or as reasonable as Richard Mouw, but it is passionate and good. Wow.
Cold Civil War: Overcoming Polarization, Discovering Unity, and Healing the Nation Jim Belcher (IVP) $28.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $22.40
Okay, I’m not going to lie: I like Jim Belcher a lot, and raved here about his first book, sort of an intellectual travelogue, a record of he and his family traipsing around Europe to go to the spots of his favorite books, from C.S. Lewis’s favorite Oxford tavern to Bonhoeffer’s place to That was called In Search of Deep Faith: A Pilgrimage into the Beauty, Goodness and Heart of Christianity. I appreciated his next book, a fine effort to adjudicate the differences between conventional evangelical churches and the postmodern emergent ones, nicely called Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. I am glad he didn’t keep the “deep’ theme going here or this new one might have been called something about the “deep state” which would have given the wrong impression. Ha.
But, again, I’m not going to lie: I did not adore this one as I did those two; it is a different sort of scholarship and more philosophical than either of his others. The footnotes are astonishing, from older political classics to update internet data from recent think tanks and research centers. He draws on dozens of very heady scholars such as Deirdre McCloskey, William Galston, Patrick Deenen and James Caesar, a scholar who he seems quite indebted to. Dr. Belcher, by the way, got his PhD from Georgetown University; in recent years he served as President of Providence Christian College in Pasadena,Ca.
If Jim’s first two thoughtful paperbacks were exceptionally balanced and wisely ecumenical, this one, impressively issued in sturdy hardcover, seems a bit hard-hitting, maybe partisan. He tries to walk through the profound polarization of our “cold civil war’ and take seriously the deeper background assumption of both “sides” which is an important project, digging deeper. He invites us along for a deep dive into questions about the nature of order and the nature of freedom. By showing the strengths and weaknesses of various takes on these age-old political philosophy questions — and a clever four part quadrant chart to show surprising interconnections, actually — he offers ways that he thinks might help us create a new vibrant center that won’t be as fragmented. He talks about an American synthesis, which is fascinating. I kept thinking, well, yes, “good luck with that.”
And yet, he is on to something. I liked a chapter on patriotism for “resident aliens and alienated residents” Here is how Bradly Campbell (professor of sociology at California State University Los Angeles and author The Rise Of Victimhood Culture) explains the premise of Cold Civil War:
He argues that the four main political orientations act as countervailing forces that strengthen the country when in their more centrist forms, but tear the country apart in their more extreme forms. The way forward isn’t to abandon our ideologies entirely or for us all to agree with one another, but the country does need to move toward the ‘vital center.’ And Belcher offers a vision of how to do so.
I assume that my cynicism about his hopeful realism and this appreciation of the seeds of insight from each quandary is unfair. I want to get out of the left-right stalemate as much as the next radical moderate but yet I am not convinced that Jim is adequately above the fray to help us see everything that we need to consider. He cites David Koyzis’s essential Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies, but nearly enough. I remained concerned about some of his judgments and am eager to hear others who grapple with his major work.
I appreciate those who have said this book was very clarifying for them and that they appreciated the faithful call to civility and hope. One former mayor said he had experienced people for whom politics and citizenship was a “blood sport” and this gave him a better framework. That is a good thing, that scholars and activists and elected officials and serious citizens can all appreciate that this study of the history of ideas that have shaped our polarization can provide fresh insight and new approaches. I’m not fully convinced, but there is something important going on here, and I wanted to list it for your consideration.
Here’s a good line from the foreword by John D. Wilsey, the respected author of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion:
Belcher’s work on our current state of affairs in cultural discourse, marked by hyperpartisanship, incivility, and political, social, and moral instability, contributes a needed perspective borne of clear, careful, and charitable thinking. It is reflective of deep thought and research that has obviously been ongoing for many years, and I’m certain it will spur further dialogue among scholars in the academy and citizens in the public square for years to come.
The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom Os Guinness (IVP) $25.00 OUR SALE PRICE = $20.00
Here is what I wrote about this when I named it as one of the most important books of 2021. I have often said that as one of my personal heroes and favorite authors I would read anything written by Dr. Os Guinness. Of course I say that about the breezy Anne Lamott and funny, blue-collar, farmer-pundit Michael Perry, too, although with them, the promise isn’t as daunting. Os writes deeper, serious, and often challenging works, and, in this case, on a topic I am not naturally drawn to — the glories of the ideas behind the American Revolution. I’ve read Os on this before (such as his 2019 Last Call for Liberty) and heard him lecture about the ordered freedoms that the founders (despite their flaws) brought into the world in 1776.
I know Guinness’s work fairly well, having read most of his books more than once. I was not quite prepared for a few things in this magisterial, important work, The Magna Carta of Humanity. It wasn’t odd or alarming, but I’ve never recalled Os being so very passionate about Judaism, about Hebrew scholars, and about the extraordinary genius of one of the most significant public intellectuals of our times, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. I got tears in my eyes when Guinness (somewhat uncharacteristically, perhaps) shared how Sacks read the manuscript of Magna Carta and Guinness’s explication of the significance of the very idea of the Old Testament law, and how appreciative Os was that Sacks wrote back, even as he was ill.
The revolutionary faith of “Sinai” in the subtitle is very significant and Guinness, always the teacher of important history, shows how the Hebrew worldview in many ways launched (and in some places critiqued) Greece and Rome, the medieval West, the British empire and, supremely, the American founders and framers and their revolution for a republic.
And, importantly, all of this is in contrast to the stream that moves from the French Revolution to Hitler and, more so, Stalin and Mao. How different were the bloodless English revolution and the American war against King George, offering the world a set of ideas that, if applied and nurtured, could offer the ordered freedom under law unlike anything the world had ever known.
Note the two pictures on the top and lower portion of the dust jack and realize they go with two dates — 1776 and 1789; those, in turn, go with the choices — Sinai or Paris?
The Magna Carta of Humanity is worth reading just for Guinness’s reflections on the Old Testament and the legacy of Exodus. He shows the significant consequences of the notion of the covenant, about which his writing is outstanding. He knows the work of Tremper Longman, say, or John Goldingay, Chris Wright, Walter Brueggemann, John Walton, or other eminent Christian Old Testament scholars, but he is drawn to Abraham Heschel, Michael Walzer and Rabbi Sacks, to whom the book is dedicated. It makes for illuminating reading.
A second theme of the book you will have to discover and evaluate yourself; I am firstly celebrating it here, not offering my own critique which must come at another time. I will just say this: I do not fully agree with Dr. Guinness (and I shudder to find myself typing these words) about his assessment of the greater threat from the cultural left these days than from the revolutionary far right. (He has yet another book on these themes coming in September 2022 which will will be called Zero Hour America: History’s Ultimatum Over Freedom and the Answer We Must Give; You can pre-order it now, of course, at our 20% off.) I have not seen this one yet, but in his major Magna Cara of Humanity I wished for more balance in his exposing the inconsistencies and dangers of progressive left.
For the record, Dr. Guinness, his wife, and his son, have worked tirelessly for a better world and have consistently renounced racism and social injustices, as he does in this powerful book, and I do not in the least suggest otherwise. (Just read chapter 8 for a compelling, solid Biblical theology of justice, hospitality, mercy and homecoming.) His 10 quick-fire points, though, against critical race theory, say, or his rebuke of the secular and postmodern progressive left, left me with more questions than reassurance that he was fully on target. Why suggest that the left are “twitter Jacobins” and not fret about the threats of rape and murder some Christian feminists face there from “brothers” on the right? Talk about cancel culture? The right has been at it for decades, as he well knows, having been the target of cruel rebuke himself for his public affirmation of political pluralism. Referring to a “mob” on one (leftist) side while not using such language against those on the right indicates, I think, a bit of a shift in Os’s own thinking and analysis. (He says as much, by the way, in his recent foreword to the celebratory 2019 re-issue of The Dust of Death.)
One need not agree with every word of every book to honor it, to celebrate it, to say that it was a favorite read and to highly recommend it. I do not hesitate to honor and celebrate and recommend The Magna Carta of Humanity: Sinai’s Revolutionary Faith and the Future of Freedom by the exceedingly informative and regularly inspiring Os Guinness. Like I said — I’d read anything he writes. Even if it pokes at my worldview a bit. Certainly as we think about a responsible and honest Christian view of American patriotism, this book by a Brit is a gift to us all and a must-read.
Jesus Takes a Side: Embracing the Demands of the Gospel Jonny Rashid (Herald Press) $17.99 OUR SALE PRICE = $14.39
As you have seen, above, I really appreciate Richard Mouw’s call to think about a reinvigorated, reformed, sober sort of Christian patriotism. For those sentimental about the red-white-and-blue, it will be a no-brainer, I suppose, but I beg you to consider it. He invites you to be sure your patriotism isn’t idolatry, isn’t ideological, is rooted in our fundamental (and international, multi-ethnic) alliance to the Body of Christ. He wants a properly ordered love for native land, not a jingoistic American Exceptionalism so you may need to hear his careful concerns. Yet, if you are suspicious of any such talk (especially given the frightening presence of overt, militaristic white, evangelical Nationalism these days) you, too, can benefit from Mouw’s pleasant and teacherly exploration of what it might mean to deepen our civic bonds and love our neighbors well by being properly patriotic. It is a book that few will fully agree with but that nearly every Christian should appreciate wrestling with.
I end this list about recovering a proper, balanced, thoughtful sort of Christian kind of love of country with this brand new book because — as Mouw says and as my reviews above all noted —we simply must be Christians first before any provisional concerns with the country in which we are “resident aliens.” Our loyalty to land or people is provisional and contextual. Our love for God and obedience to King Jesus is ultimate.
Or at least we say it is, right? Jonny Rashid will very helpfully hold our feet to the fire on this by insisting that if we are going to develop a Christian public theology, a Christian social perspective, then we have to, well, see what Jesus Himself says about such things. Hooray!
It should go without saying, but as the back cover explains:
For the sake of our faith, for the sake of the least of these among us, and for the sake of Christ, Christians need to stand firmly for truth, peace, and justice. In Jesus Takes a Side, author Jonny Rashid lays out the political demands of following Jesus and offers strategies for how to engage politics practically and prophetically — even if it means taking a side.
For many, the specific teachings of Jesus — most thoroughly offered in the Sermon on the Mount — are nearly too idealistic to shape our witness in the rough and tumble and compromise of realpolitik. We preach these counter-cultural Kingdom values in church but we wonder if it is even plausible to call our country and our public officials to embrace such upside-down values. Well, Rashid, a pastor of Circle of Hope in urban Philly (where I have preached, years ago, btw) brings this Anabaptist insistence on the specific ways of Jesus to our citizenship. There are political demands of the gospel, in what another Anabaptist scholar decades ago called “The Politics of Jesus.” To put it bluntly, Pastor Johnny says, “Jesus sides with the oppressed. Will you?”
Blurbs on the back of this lively Biblical study and call for a radically Christian social ethic include great endorsements from indigenous activist and church leader Randy Woodley (author of many good books, most recently of Becoming Rooted, a devotional reader we’ve promoted) who says “Jesus Takes a Side leads us straight to Jesus and makes clear the path we are to walk with him. I enjoyed it immensely.” Melissa Florer-Bixler (author of How to Have an Enemy, another vital book we’ve highlighted here) says it comes with “prophetic witness and embodied hope.”
Curt Willems, pastor of Brentview Baptist Church in Calgary and author of Echoing Hope puts it well when he writes,
This book will provoke important conversations about what it means to follow Jesus in any political system.
Here is one thing to think about as you consider this feisty and faithful study of pastoral and prophetic aspects of the gospel. Jonny Rashid and Drew G. I.Hart (who wrote a fabulous foreword) both push back about talk of a Christian “third way.” This perplexed me a bit until it dawned on me that both Dr. Hart and Rev. Rashid seem to see in that phrase some moderate middle ground that is afraid of being divisive, and thereby maybe attempts to blunt the sharp edges of Jesus’s vivid commands. As he puts it, “In a world divided by left and right, red and blue, many Christians have upheld a ‘third way’ approach in pursuit of moderation, harmony, and unity. But,” he very wisely and importantly continues, “if Christians are more concerned with divisiveness than with faithfulness, we have failed to grasp the gospel’s political demands.”
He writes, “We do not see Jesus taking a “third way” between oppressor and oppressed. And as followers of Jesus, neither should we.” Drew starts his foreword with similar clarity against such views of moderate/middle third ways.
Here is my own push back, less against the book itself, which is excellent, but about this framing. In my experience, in my circles, and certainly in my own speaking and teaching (which, I suspect, Drew himself may recall) I have robustly called for a third way. However, by that I mean, a Christian approach that is something else again other than the typical binary social imaginary has it. That is, neither left nor right. Not some blend or eclectic ideological mush or compromise just to prevent conflict, but a radical worldview that sees that typical options the world’s political theories offer are mostly two sides of the same bad coin. A call to a third alternative as I’ve used it is an idealist hope for a radical, distinctive, fresh option, perhaps yet to be seen. Neither capitalist nor communist, subversive to all empires and principalities and powers, etc. etc.
(I am not sure I fully understand and may not fully agree with every detail, but for one sort of example of this see, at least, David Koyzis’s Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies and James K.A. Smith’s remarkable dialogue with Willie James Jennings and Oliver O’Donovan in his Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology or his very astute observations in conversation with four other Christian political writers in Five Views on the Church and Politics edited by Amy Black, which brings into point-counterpoint conversations a Lutheran political orientation, a historic black church view, a Catholic social teaching perspective, and a Mennonite public witness.)
Decades ago one of my heros, Ron Sider, tried to start a political action committed that would raise funds for rare political birds that were consistently pro-life: against abortion, yes, but also against the death penalty, war, racism, pollution, anti-immigrant hostility, torture, and the ravaging deaths of the poor both here and abroad. Such radically nonviolent, pro-feminist/anti-racist/abolitionist sort of pro-lifers do not find a home in any current political party.
To be serious about the ways of Jesus, if principles and values like those in Jesus Takes a Side were to be planks in a political movement, it would necessarily be a wildly alternative social ethic, different from conventional politicians from any typical political spectrum. Which is to say, when some of us argue for a “third way” in does not intend to conjure a view that is merely moderate and middle (even though it seems to me that one of the civic principles of the way of Jesus would be to find common ground and be civil and kind, seeking understanding; as Gandhi used to say, I don’t want to defeat my enemy, but I want to make him my friend.)
Rashid and this vibrant new book pushes back against lingo of “third way” (even calling it a “lie” in one chapter) and I appreciate it insofar as he is pushing back against a milquetoast, moderate sort of mediocre witness that mostly doesn’t want to upset the apple cart. The view that is so impeccable in seeing all sides that it ends up not taking any stands, that is so abstract that it misses the forest for the trees. His warning about such high-minded abstraction in policy debates is vital, and comes, clearly, from a guy who is situated among those in the ruins. That helps.
Yet, if we take seriously the plea of this remarkable new book about “embracing the political demands of the gospel” it will look very different from anything we’ve seen in US political history; it will not be centrist, but will consistently stand graciously with the oppressed and hurting, making it a new way. It will be like Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President, perhaps — I think Jonny would be glad for the connection to that book. No one should advocate some boring centrist space driven by fear of offending anyone. I am often haunted by Nelson Mandela’s line “I do not want my chains made more bearable, I want them removed!” Yes!
Maybe we should find something different to call such a movement, avoiding the “third way” lingo; fine. But if our rootedness is in Jesus, primarily, then we are not fundamentally loyal to ideologies of the right or the left and we are not ultimately loyal to red or blue parties. As black preacher Tony Evans once said, when Jesus comes back, he won’t be riding an elephant or a donkey. Right? And so, read Jonny Rashid and know deeply that Jesus takes sides. We simply must “embrace the political demands of the gospel” starting, at least, in our own congregations, learning to be allies and advocates for communities who have been marginalized. Circle of Hope has done this and their pastor has learned much to help us in this journey. Highly recommended.
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