Willie James Jennings on Nationalism

This semester CSF Berks and Brandywine are studying the book of Acts, following our study of Luke in the fall. Since I read, and loved, The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings in the fall I was delighted to learn he had a theological commentary on Acts. I quickly picked that one up to read while I prepare our weekly studies.

Last evening we covered Acts 1-2. In Acts 1:6 the disciples ask the risen Jesus if this is the time he is going to restore the kingdom to Israel. They, in essence, want their nation back.

Jennings spends a few pages talking about this temptation to Nationalism and it is incredibly relevant, so I want to share some of what he says here.

The disciples ask the nationalist question: When will we rule our land, and become self-determining, and if need be impose our will on others?” (17).

Nationalist desire has tempted Israel from the beginning and in fact tempts all people. The nationalism suggested here is not a historical nationalism bound to the anatomy of Israel, but the deeply human desire of every people to control their destiny and shape the world into their hoped-for eternal image. Nationalist desire easily creates a fantasy of resurrection and the fantasy of resurrection appeals to people’s calling forth a triumphal vision of a nation that rises from death and is filled with conquerors and the powerful. Jesus, however, is not a sign of resurrection. He is its Lord. Resurrection will not define him. He will define resurrection’s meaning and resurrection’s purpose. It will not be used by these disciples as an ideological tool for statecraft” (17).

We begin with the disciples and their nationalist question. But, as Jennings notes, nationalism tempts all people. Way back in 2004 I took a class studying the book of Revelation and was confronted, for the first time, with a message not of some distant future but one relevant to today: are we worshiping the beast or the lamb? Ever since then, I have believed nationalism is the greatest idol facing American Christians.

Recently White Christian Nationalism has been spoken about in various news articles. White Christians are susceptible to looking back to some mythical “good old days” of perhaps the 1950s or 1880s or 1790s. Whenever we look back to, we lie to ourselves by thinking going back would make us better. Those days were not good for everyone. Yet white Christians had more cultural power then. Thus, looking back is not rooted in their faith in Jesus but rather their faith in a specific view of America’s past.

Further, White Christian Nationalism both elevates the nation and ignores Jesus. Jesus is reduced to a sort of secretary of after-life affairs. Once we believe our eternal destiny is set, we then lay Jesus aside and essentially are open to any means necessary to achieving that nationalist “good old days” mentality.

Nationalism, as Jennings goes on to say, is not good for everybody but only benefits one group of people:

Nationalism always engenders zero-sum calculations, where we win by controlling our borders and/or controlling our identities, or we lose by being overrun with aliens who confuse our identities and resist assimilation. Nationalist vision is weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage, because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans towards xenophobia. . . To think toward national existence is already to be thinking toward captivity and death” (21).

If we are Christians, we are called to a much higher commitment then just our nation. As Isaiah said, the nations are merely a drop in the bucket compared to God (Isaiah 40:15). Yet, does this mean we do not care at all for our nation. Jennings goes on:

Should disciples of Jesus love their nation, the one they claim and are claimed by? This is the wrong question. The question we are compelled to ask and answer by our lives is, How might we show the love of God for all people, a love that cannot be contained by any nation, a love that slices through borders and boundaries and reaches into every people group, every clan, every tribe, and every family” (21-22).

The book of Acts is a direct, unequivocal assault on nationalism in all its forms. God from the very beginning of the Acts drama will not share holy desire with any nationalistic longing that draws borders and boundaries. The Holy Spirit will break open what we want closed and shatter our strategies of protectionism for the sake of a saving God who will give back to us precisely what we cannot hold onto with our own efforts and power, the continuities of our stories, our legacies, our hopes and dreams for a good future and a thriving life. God who will be all in all desires to bring all into all, the man into the many, just as the One is now in and with the many. Nationalism give energy to the false belief that only by its own single efforts can a people sustain its story, its hope, and its life. Such belief is unbelief for a Christian because we know that God offers a new way found in a new life, a joining that brings stories, hopes and life in a shared fork of knowing, remembering and testifying” (23-24).

The best way to love our nation is to love something more: Our Creator and Savior God, fully revealed in Jesus who enlivens us with the Holy Spirit. We are patriotic citizens by pledging ultimate allegiance to a higher authority.

Because of this, we must repent of our worship of the idol of nationalism. As a white Christian, I confess the sins of the white Christians who have gone before me and I invite others to do the same.

Point – Nationalism is the biggest Idol in the American Church today (especially of the white Christian nationalist variety). To be a disciple of Jesus is to renounce Nationalism. It is the simple question – is our primary identity the Church that encompasses all times and places, including people from every nation, tribe, people and language OR is our primary identity an American/Christian amalgamation that makes Jesus merely secretary of afterlife affairs and elevates a specific view of America’s past and present?

Related Posts:

Reconciliation Requires Repentance

The Dragon in the Room: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 1

Are you a Christian or a Christian Nationalist: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 2

What the Book of Revelation is Actually About: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 3

I Believe Systemic Racism Because of My Theology: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 4

The Moral Conundrum: Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 5

The Call of Abraham (Story of Scripture 2)

Listen to the Podcast: The Call of Abraham (Story of Scripture Episode 2)

Let’s start with a question: How have you understood the story of the Bible? Do you move right from the fall of humanity in Genesis 3 to the coming of Jesus? There are hundreds of pages and years between Genesis 3 and Jesus – Why do you think it takes so long to get to Jesus?

I ask this question, because Christians sometimes have a tendency to jump right from Genesis 3 to Romans 3 – Genesis 3 is the problem, human sin, and Romans 3 presents the solution, forgiveness in Jesus. One reason to tell the story of scripture is that the fuller story reveals that God’s mission is much greater than simply forgiving humans of our sins. Of course, forgiveness and restored relationship with God is part of the story. Yet the Bible is not a how-to manual on dealing with your or my personal sins. Nor is it just about getting our spiritual lives in order. God’s mission includes redeeming the entire cosmos, reclaiming all that God has created. As humans enter into covenant relationship with God, and as the story proceeds, God reveals more of who God is and how God will ultimately redeem the cosmos. This leads us to the clearest revelation of God in Jesus…though we are getting ahead of ourselves. God launches this rescue operation by entering into covenant relationship with one nation, Israel. The goal of this, once again, is the liberation and redemption of the entire cosmos.

To set the stage for this rescue operation, remember that the Bible begins at the beginning, with God creating a good world and placing humans in this world to live in relationship with each other, with God and with creation (Genesis 1-2). Humans were created with the purpose to represent God and care for creation. Unfortunately, humans chose to rebel against this purpose and go their own way (Genesis 3). This is traditionally called the fall into sin. Humanity’s original purpose, to care for and cultivate creation, remains though how this purpose happens is certainly affected by sin. Humans are capable of creating beauty in this world. Sin means we are also capable of causing horror. The first eleven chapters of Genesis give us a picture of a world we find quite familiar with stunning beauty alongside of grim horror. To get back on track with this purpose, humans need healing.

What will God do to heal humanity so we can get back to joining God in the project of caring for the world? We find our answer in Genesis 12:1-3:

“The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Here we read of God’s call to Abraham with the promise that through Abraham, all nations will be blessed. To put it differently, God chose Abraham for the distinct purpose of bringing salvation to the whole world. Abraham was not chosen at the expense of the rest of creation, but for the benefit of the rest of creation.

This is incredibly significant and must not be missed. Here, at the beginning of God’s mission to save, we see an important truth about how God works and who God is. God does not want a small clique of friends. God does not save people solely as an end in itself. Instead, God calls people as a means to an end, for the benefit of the whole world. As we move through the story, it is vital to remember that when the Bible talks about people being chosen by God, they are always chosen for a purpose. They are not chosen so they can take joy in being one of the chosen ones, as if there is some sort of divine “in-crowd”. Even the first humans were given the task of caring for God’s creation. They were not created simply to sit around and do be happy to exist. Continuing with Abraham, humans are chosen for a job. Abraham’s purpose was to bring blessing to the nations.

To further emphasize this, we see God’s mission echoed to Abraham’s descendants throughout the book of Genesis (18:18; 22:18; 26:4-5; 28:14). When something is mentioned this often, it is clearly important. God is emphasizing that the point of having a relationship with Abraham’s family is not because they are his special favorites. The purpose is that through Abraham’s family, all creation will be restored.

Unfortunately, we soon learn that Abraham is not up to this task. Immediately after his calling, he is given a chance to put God’s mission into action. In Genesis 12:10-20 we read of a famine that forces Abraham and his family to flee to Egypt. Abraham is in a new country; he is among those other nations that God has promised he would bless. Yet Abraham responds with fear. Abraham, like so many of us humans, is afraid of what these different people will do to him. Out of fear for his own life, he tells the Pharaoh that his wife is his sister. Abraham’s fear puts his wife at risk. The Pharaoh, noting her beauty, plans to take her into his own bed. It is only when God strikes the Egyptians with pain that the Pharaoh realizes the truth. Abraham was called to bring blessing to others and in his first real chance he instead brought curses.

God has chosen Abraham and his family to be the instruments through whom He is going to save the whole world. The problem we see emerging here is that Abraham and his family are also in need of saving. It is as if a group of people are infected with a plague and a doctor is sent to cure them. Unfortunately, the doctor is also infected with the plague and thus not only unable to cure others but in need of curing himself.

The continuing story in Genesis bears this out. We see that Abraham’s family is a complete mess. The story of his descendants is filled with lying, deceit, murder, rape and abuse. If these people are the ones bringing hope to the world, the world is in trouble!

At the same time, Genesis ends with the story of Joseph. Joseph is Abraham’s great grandson – Abraham and Sarah have Isaac; Isaac marries Rebekah who gives birth to twelve sons who are the twelve tribes of Israel. The second youngest son, Joseph, is the favorite. You may know the story – Joseph’s brothers are jealous so they sell him into slavery in Egypt. They tell their father that Joseph was killed by an animal.

Joseph’s entire story in Egypt is an illustration of the way Abraham’s descendants can bring blessing to the nations. Unlike Abraham, who ends up in Egypt and brings curse, Joseph’s extraordinary story ends with him ruling over all Egypt, just under the Pharaoh. When a famine comes, Joseph’s governing ensures not only all in Egypt have food but they can provide food for others. There’s a lot more in this story, but for our purpose, it is significant that Abraham’s mission was to bring blessing to the nations. Joseph goes to the nations, Egypt, and brings blessing. This will remain Israel’s call throughout the rest of the story. Sometimes they do it but more often they fail. It is apparent that Abraham’s children, like Abraham and Adam, even God’s chosen need saving.

This brings us to Jesus. Simply put – Jesus is the true descendant of Abraham, living out Abraham’s role and through his life, death and resurrection the entire world is blessed. Jesus ends his disciples to spread the good news of this blessing to the world. Those who believe in Jesus and are adopted in Abraham’s family receive this same mission. Paul grabs onto it in Galatians 3:7-9:

“Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Paul is showing how in Jesus the promise to Abraham is fulfilled. Jesus is the one who perfectly lives out the call of Abraham. Through this, all of us who are not literal, physical descendants of Abraham are welcomed into the family. Yet again, this salvation is not something we simply sit back and enjoy. In being welcomed into the family of God through Jesus, the call to Abraham becomes our call. We are blessed, so we can bless others.

Questions and Action Points:

Who can you bless today? What can you do to bring more beauty into the world and take away some darkness?

Abraham and his descendants often failed in bringing blessing and brought curses instead. Have you experienced well-meaning Christians who actually hurt people rather than help them? How do we avoid this?

Write down three beautiful things you saw today. Write down three things you saw that remind you of the darkness in the world. Thank God for the first and ask God to bring light into the second.

Prayer:

Creator God, God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, thank you for never turning your back on the world. Thank you for Creating me and loving me, even when I am unlovable. Thank you for your promises to Abraham and for never giving up on those promises even when humans gave up on you. Thank you for keeping all the promises in Jesus and thank you for accepting my faith even when it is small and weak. Give me the strength to show blessing and love to those around me. Help me be an agent of good and beauty in the world. Amen.

Story of Scripture 1 – Beginnings

To listen to this podcast, go to Ancient Pathwayss – The Story of Scripture 1

Genesis 1:1-5

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

The cosmic story begins with God. In the very beginning, when nothing else is, God is. Who is this God we meet in the beginning of the story? God is the infinite and incomprehensible foundation of all else that is. The prophet Isaiah is asked by God, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (40:18). The church father Augustine wrote, “What can anyone say when he speaks about you?”. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, says that God is “incomprehensible in all things and above all things.” Another mystic, John of the Cross, states, “God’s being cannot be grasped by intellect, appetite, imagination or any other sense.” Theologian Anselm of Canterbury says God is “That Than Which Nothing Greater can be grasped.” God simply is. God is not a being among other beings within the natural order. To the question, “who created God,” we answer, “God was not created.” God is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. God is the Ultimate Reality. God is the one in which we live and move and have our being, as the apostle Paul says in Acts 17.

God’s first act, we read here at the beginning of the story, is the creation of space and time. God creates the entire cosmos, calling light out of darkness and bringing order out of chaos. As we read the Genesis creation stories, we cannot help but have our minds drawn to the questions surrounding modern science and the theory of evolution. We swim in our culture like fish swim in the water and the cultural water we breath shapes how we experience the world. We cannot help but look at creation, the natural world, in a mechanical or technological sense. We imagine God as building a piece of technology, like an iPhone or a watch. When we imagine God’s creation as akin to a watchmaker making a watch, then we look for evidence of the watchmaker. This is the argument from design, famously made by William Paley in the 1800s as well as many others since. But the danger in imagining God as merely a designer is that we separate God from the universe. We imagine God making the world, as one makes a watch, and leaving it. We run the risk of imagining a Deist God – a God who builds the technology, sets the world machine in motion, and leaves. Perhaps God returns from time to time to perform a miracle or answer a prayer. If we view God as too separate from God’s creation, we run the risk of imagining an absent God.

From a more classical perspective God’s creation is constantly infused with God’s presence. The natural realm and the supernatural realm, or the physical and the metaphysical, are unified. Creation is more like a song being sung by God (which, for you nerds, is how JRR Tolkien portrayed it early on in the Silmarillion). Creation is a symphony that declares God’s glory. If you want to dive deeper into this, I highly recommend checking out the Mysterion podcast episode on creation.

Thinking of God’s creation as a symphony declaring God’s glory, as constantly infused with God’s presence, points us to Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.

5  It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

6  It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is deprived of its warmth.

God is the author of the story, the creator of the song, and God is present in the story every step of the way.

I do feel it is probably helpful to spend a little time looking at those questions of science and evolution, because I know they are on many of our minds when we read Genesis. The truth is, interesting and enlightening as those questions are, the way we answer them is a secondary question. Christians affirm that God is the Creator, that in the beginning, there was only God. Affirming God as Creator does not force us to affirm how God created but only that God created. In other words, evolution explains how the natural world changed and developed but does not address how the natural world got here in the first place.

That said, personally I will admit that I find the theory of evolution to be quite compelling. The question of Darwinian evolution never challenged my faith as it does for many. I have investigated it (a few books I found helpful will be in the notes) and at this point, I would say I am a theistic evolutionist. I believe God created and I believe the theory of evolution is true. Like millions of other Christians, I see no contradiction between believing in evolution and being a person of faith. There are numerous popular level books, as well as plenty of podcasts, out there that discuss the history of the world prior to humans coming on the scene (which is about 99% of the history of the cosmos, according to science) and the interested reader ought to check those books out.*

The story of scripture is not concerned with the science of how God created or how the present-day universe came to be. Instead, it is a story about God and God’s relationship with humanity as well as the entire cosmos. Who God is and what God is like, who Jesus is, what it means for God to be Trinity and questions of human meaning and purpose all lay outside the realm of science. Science is limited to what is going on in the natural realm. With questions of God and meaning and purpose we move into the metaphysical. Modern science is wonderful, but it is simply not equipped to answer these questions.

Laying aside the natural questions of science and evolution, let’s return to the story of creation. The story of scripture begins in Genesis by asserting that creation is good; the world is a beautiful and amazing place. God places humans in this good world and deems them very good. Humans are created in God’s image. This means that humans stand in a unique relationship with God. We are in some way incomplete without living in relationship with God, other people and all creation. Humans are also created with a mission or purpose. Genesis 1:27-31 has been called The Cultural Mandate for here we see God’s original purpose for humans: to continue the work of creation (God is Creator, we are creators) and to care for God’s creation (cultivate):

27 So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

Unfortunately, the first humans turned away from all of this. Genesis 3 tells the story of Adam and Eve failing to obey God. Again, whether or not Adam and Eve were literal historical humans or when they lived is peripheral to the point of this story. The point is that Adam and Eve, like all of us, turn away from God’s purpose for us and pursue self-centered sinful ideas. This rebellion leads to a break in the relationship both between God and humanity as well as between the humans with one another. Another word for this rebellion against God is sin. Sin, like a virus, grows through the next few chapters of Genesis till we see humans building a tower to try to become gods (Genesis 11). Further, the rebellion of the first humans has repercussions in all of creation, as now the whole world is broken.

The first chapters of Genesis thus reveal two truths about the cosmos to us – creation is good and creation is broken. These two truths can both be affirmed by looking at our world today. There is so much that is beautiful in the world, but there is also so much that is messed up.

Think about the world around you: where do you see beauty that reminds you of the goodness of creation? Where do you see pain and suffering that reminds you of the fall?

There is a lot more we could say about Genesis 1 and what we can learn about God and God’s creation here. We could talk about how the creation of the cosmos in Genesis 1 is essentially the building of a cosmic temple. In the ancient world, gods lived in the temples. Eventually the Israelites would build a temple in Jerusalem for God. But Genesis 1 reminds us that God cannot be contained in a temple. Rather, the entire cosmos is God’s temple. We will get into this more when we get to the building of the Temple. We could also contrast the creation story in Genesis with other ancient creation stories, such as the Babylonian story where the god Marduk creates the universe out of the body of another god he killed in battle. Its a fantastic and wild story. Its a story that sees violence as inherent in the cosmos, evil and suffering are an implicit part of the cosmos. This is quite different from Genesis where God speaks and creation happens. Violence and evil and suffering are not inherent, they come in later as leeches or parasites into the good creation.

Yes, we could spend tons of time on the early chapters of Genesis. I am doing a Bible reading plan with students and we have had long discussions already on the mysteries and oddities of Genesis 1-11. Questions of history and science and mythology and interpretation abound. I simply encourage you to keep learning and thinking if you are interested, but also to not get so lost in the weeds as to miss the main point. For Christians, the main point is always Jesus.

Christian interpretation of Genesis 1 understands the God revealed here is the Trinitarian God fully revealed in Jesus. God is an eternal relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Within this, God is Love, as 1 John 4:8 states. When we read about God in Genesis 1, we cannot forget our distinctly Christian understanding of God. John’s gospel intentionally parallels Genesis:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.

We see the presence of God in creation at the beginning of this story. Creation declares the glory of God. God’s creation reveals God’s glory. Christians see the God of creation, God’s glory, fully revealed in Jesus. God the Father, Son and Spirit are the one God there at the beginning and the one God who speak through scripture. Yes, darkness and sin and evil and suffering enter God’s good creation. But God is not surprised. God is and always has been self-giving love and this self-giving love is revealed in Jesus. God is the Creator of all and God is the Redeemer of all. God is the light shining and pushing back the darkness. God is the author of the story and we know no matter how bad things become – whether in the scripture story or the story of our lives – God is brining light and life out of darkness and death.

A few big questions have come up as we have begun our journey through the story of scripture. With such questions in mind, I encourage you to journal through what you think.

How do you reconcile the discoveries of modern science – the age of the universe, the evolution of all species from common ancestors, the possibility Adam and Eve were not literal people – with the first chapters of Genesis?

The second question is a bit more practical and a bit less heady. Humans were created to care for and cultivate God’s creation. Just as our Creator brings order and of chaos and beauty out of mess, so we are tasked with bringing order, beauty, goodness and light into this world. What practical actions can you take this week to increase the goodness of creation and push back the brokenness?

Prayer: God of the Cosmos, you were here before time and space. You are the foundation of all that is, was and ever will be. We praise you as Love itself – you are a never-ending relationship of love within yourself as Father, Son and Spirit. We praise you for creating us out of this love and we ask you to show us how to love others. Help us to see the beauty of your creation and give us the wisdom to know how to love those who see the answers to these big questions differently than we do. Give us humility and a listening ear. Help us to love Amen.

Note: Calling it the Old Testament has always bothered me, because “old” implies irrelevant or out of use. The Old Testament is, of course, relevant to our faith. Apart from that, our Jewish friends, who share these texts as scripture, do not call it “old.” I could have referred to it as Hebrew Bible or First Testament (as scholar John Goldingay endorses) but since most Christians are familiar with it as “Old Testament” I decided to stick with that, recognizing the issues with it.

Note: A few of my favorites are: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Broadway Books (2004); Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, IVP Press (2011); Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, Harper (2007); Francis Collins, The Language of God, Free Press (2006). I would also recommend the work of scientists John Polkinghorne and John Haught as well as the Bible scholars Pete Enns and John Walton.

Note: When we speak of Adam and Eve, it is worth noting that accepting the theory of evolution does shift our understanding of the first chapters of Genesis. The question becomes, when did humans become distinctly unique in comparison to other creatures? Also, was there a first couple or are Adam and Eve in the Bible just a mythological story? I am not comfortable jettisoning them as a real first couple, though I am not sure how they fit into an evolution schema. Either way, their story is not primarily about the literal history (whether they existed) but about what it means for humanity (we are broken).

Reconciliation Requires Repentance

The attempted insurrection last week by white nationalists, many of them claiming allegiance to Christianity, has garnered more and better analysis than I can offer here (find links to some great articles at the end of this post). One thing that struck me as I watched the events unfold last Wednesday, I was struck by the pictures of crosses, a gallows and a noose.



I was also struck by the refrain from many, from President-elect Biden on down, that “this is not who we are.” Except, this is who we are. This point was illustrated by a photo Dr. Anthony Bradley shared on Twitter:



In this photo we see images of the mob from last week as well as a picture of KKK members a century ago, standing under a KKK banner. White Christians forming mobs and rioting in an effort to keep power – this is as much a part of our country’s history as anything else. Ibram X. Kendi made this point strongly in his article “Denial is the Heartbeat of America”.

In the week since the insurrection, we have heard religious and political leaders calling for unity. We have read and heard prominent Christians lament the violence our nation is experiencing.

Before we can get to reconciliation, we need repentance.

Have we seen the necessary first step of repentance?

The problem with many of those calling for unity and lamenting violence is that these are the very people who have led the way in drumming up fear and promoting a white Christian Nationalist view of America. You cannot call for reconciliation without first repenting of your role in the brokenness.

White Christian Nationalism is an aberrant and absolutely false form of Christianity. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian Nationalism as “Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States). Christian Nationalism is also the dominant form of Christianity for millions of white American Christians.

White Christian Nationalism is a much greater threat to American Christianity than the other bogeymen we usually hear of such as Critical Race Theory. We often fear the wrong things. This reminds me of the constant warnings we heard growing up about “compromising our faith.” We were told to stay true to Jesus and resist the world and never compromise! Yet like in that old scary story, the killer was already in the house! Worried about compromise somewhere out there, we were blind to where we had already compromised. Christian Nationalism is quick to embrace violence in defense of the nation, totally ignoring Jesus’ clear nonviolent teaching. One leading Christian Nationalist pastor tweeted that he would be quick to grab his guns if he felt his rights were in danger. That’s not WWJD. Christian Nationalism combines a mythologized national past and a constant fear for the future. The mantra is: we have to fight for our nation, and our children, and use violence if necessary!

If we cannot admit the sins of our past, we cannot admit the sins of our present. And if we cannot repent of our sins now, we cannot reconcile.

A few days ago I was listening to The Pass the Mic podcast and one of the hosts, Tyler Burns, shared a story that was powerful and convicting. Once he was invited to preach at a mostly white church in the south. He was unsure how this congregation would receive his message about racism but, surprisingly, they were nodding along. It seemed they were open to his message. Between two of the services he had a conversation with a parishioner that led him to realize the members were nodding along because they thought the message was not about them. It was about someone else! I was convicted by the story because I know I am susceptible this. We hear a powerful sermon or a scripture and think, “this is so true; I wish my friend would hear this!”

We need to hear this.

We need to repent.

I did not share this story to convict you (though, I hope it does) as if I am not needing to hear it myself. This is a “we” thing, not a “you” thing. I need to repent.

Of course, I am also a pretty small fish. My prayer is that before more Christian leaders lament violence and call for unity, they would examine their own role in creating an environment where their followers would consider violence. I pray they would examine how their words have contributed to creating disunity.

Christian Nationalism does not leave room for repentance. When you believe there was some past time when everything was good, you can’t be critical of the past. The problem is always going to be someone else. Yet if we can move away from idolizing our nation and pretending we’re not like this, we can leave room to recognize and repent.

This sort of self-critical examination and repentance goes the whole way to the beginning of our faith. As St. Mark the Ascetic said way back in the 300s somewhere in the desert of Egypt: “When reading the Holy Scriptures, he who is humble and engaged in spiritual work will apply everything to himself and not to someone else” (Source: The Philokalia). Or we could reference Jesus himself and begin by taking the plank out of our own eyes.

Just an idea.

For Further Reading:

For insurrectionists, a violent faith brewed from nationalism, conspiracies and Jesus.

How White Evangelical Christians Fused With Trump Extremism.

A Christian Insurrection.

The Story of Scripture 1 – Welcome and Introduction

Don’t like to read? You can listen to this post as a podcast by going here: Ancient Pathways with Dave Hershey. You can also find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher.

Two years ago I began training as a Life Coach and one of the assignments in the first class I took was for us to create our personal vision and mission. I came up with that vision, which I hope to be my legacy. Implicit in it is my faith that Jesus is fully God and fully human – Jesus is our clearest image of God and our sharpest picture of who humans were made to be. Thus ,the more we become like Jesus the more human we become and the more like God we become.

There is a lot more I would love to say about that Vision. It was helpful to think through what motivates me and get it down on paper. Every word has a deeper meaning. Just starting with “I” means I start with myself – what I desire for others is what I desire for me. My Purpose builds on this statement:

Purpose (Our Way of Being) – I hope to be someone who looks at people as unique individuals created in God’s image and loved unconditionally in Jesus Christ. I value being open and accepting of where each individual is on their own life journey. I believe humans grow through being honest and authentic with themselves and others. As I come alongside others to help them grow, I seek to instill in each relationship integrity, joy, curiosity, depth of thought and humor.

This podcast is another venture to help achieve my Vision and Purpose. Over the years I have read, studied, learned and taught a lot. Just in 2020 I read over 100 books. Lots were fiction, but plenty were theology and Biblical study and philosophy and history. I love learning. In this podcast, I will seek to share what I have learned. My target audience is college students, specifically those I work with. But I hope to draw a wider audience of anyone who desires to learn.

If you desire to learn more about who God is and what God has done, I believe this podcast will benefit you.

If you desire to learn more about who we are as humans and what we were made to be, I believe this podcast will benefit you.

The goal is not just head knowledge and acquiring more information though. The goal is to get to know our Creator, the one in whom we live and move and have our Being, we we can Become who we were made to be.

That idea of us becoming points to the truth that spiritual growth is a journey. (I want to make a reference to Brandon Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive here, where the words of the Knights Radiant are “Journey Before Destination” but this isn’t a podcast about amazing fantasy novels. Of course, there is truth there and truth can be found anywhere, even amazing fantasy novels.) From these ideas of becoming and journey I titled this podcast Ancient Pathways. For as much as our world has changed in the last year or few years…or few centuries, the ways to become mature and Christlike are the same as they have always been. I do not promise anything new here. These are ancient paths. The subtitle reinforces that: Finding Wisdom as We Walk with the Saints. One of these saints is the prophet Jeremiah, and I love what God spoke to him millennia ago: “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good ways lies, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (6:16).

The first ancient pathway we will cover in this podcast is the story of scripture. The saints we will meet will be the men and women who have sought to live by God’s law and in God’s love, from Abraham and Rahab to Ruth and David and all the way through to Jesus. The goal is to provide a general overview of the Scripture story from creation to the beginning of the Church.

This is a study I have done quite often over the years with students, in both small and large groups. Over the years I have observed that most students who come to our meetings and Bible studies are already seriously committed to faith. I imagine if you are listening to this podcast (or reading the transcript) you are at least relatively interested in your faith as well.

Yet I have also noticed these students possess a general unfamiliarity with the story of the Bible. That’s not a knock at them or their church; I didn’t have a good understanding of the overarching story either when I was in college. Those of us who grow up in church often end up knowing a few Bible stories, but most of us lack an understanding of the over-arching story that connects Genesis to Revelation and everything in between (a big word for that is “metanarrative”).

Originally I wrote a book to remedy that lack. When I wrote this book, I knew the biggest obstacle was that my target audience, college students and young adults, are unlikely to read many books. I get it: we are busy with work and school; we prefer to spend our free time watching movies and playing video games. On top of that, we have grown up in a visual culture and do not like to read. So I wrote this book, or maybe we could call it a curriculum, and I have sat on this completed work for a few years. I admit, I am not good at marketing. I have a book that covers the story of scripture, what do I do with it?

Covid has, of course, changed everything. Our campus ministry was quite different last semester. As I pondered how to serve my students in 2021, I decided I want to make this material available. I wanted to work towards my vision and purpose and putting out this material in a podcast, rather than as a book for people to read or even a small group Bible study, seemed to make sense. Meeting together right now is difficult, and even if life gets back to normal, things will never be what we recall as normal. We all want to learn “on demand” just as we want our entertainment “on demand.” Providing material you can listen to when you like, rather than waiting till we can meet together, makes more sense plus it has the potential of reaching more people.

When I conceived this project, I wanted to create this book to read like a devotional. That is why there I wrote fifteen chapters. Penn State, like many other campuses, runs on a fifteen week semester. My hope was that individuals and groups would read this book together, a chapter a week. For this podcast, my hope would be that people would engage with one another and discuss what we are learning. So I encourage you to join the CSF Discord.

If you want to know where we will be going in the next few months, I will include a sort of “Table of Contents” in the notes.

Finally, as I wrap up this inaugural episode, I want to offer a final word on why I think experiencing the Bible as a Story is helpful and compelling. We all love stories. When we are with our friends, we tell stories that bring laughter and tears. We flock to the movie theater, or at least we used to, to watch stories play out on the big screen, or we binge watch our favorite television shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Disney Plus. Maybe we read a good book or play video games that make us part of the story. Stories are a tremendous part of who we are.

The Christian faith is rooted in a story. It is the story of God that begins in creation, includes wonderful highs and horrifying lows, culminates in the coming of Jesus, and continues today in our lives. As we learn the basic outline of this story – from creation and brokenness to calling and redemption and new creation – we see how it intersects with our story. As God’s story and our story connect, we cannot help but be changed and become more like Jesus, more the people we were created to be.

As we set out to journey through the scripture, I want to share two ways of reading the scripture story that will be helpful. I call these two ways reading from front to back and from back to front.

Reading from front to back is to begin at the beginning and simply to experience the story as we would any other story. When we read a good novel or watch an exciting movie, we do not know how the story is going to end. There is excitement in the mystery; we stick with it because we want to see how our heroes will get out of the binds they are in. Even when we know how a story ends, there is value in pretending we do not, placing ourselves in the story to experience anew, as those living in it. When we watch The Avengers Endgame, it is fun to forget that “on your left moment.” And when we read the Bible, even if we know what happens in Jesus, it is worth it to try to put ourselves in the shoes of those who did not know. To interpret a passage in the scripture in this way would be to focus on what it meant to those who originally read, or more likely heard, it. There is great value in placing ourselves in the context – what was it like for Ruth or Jonah or Habakkuk or any of those figures.

The other sort of reading is what I call to read from back to front. This is when we experience the story with our Christian lenses. In this reading, we recognize how the entire Bible points us to the person and work of Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God made flesh to which the word of God in scripture points. From a Christian perspective, we do not fully understand any passage of scripture until we apply the Word of God revealed in Jesus to it.

Finally, through both types of reading we will see, right from the beginning we see how the truths of scripture impact our lives now. The Bible is the story of God working in the world through Israel to ultimately enter creation itself in the person of Jesus. The story of scripture, which is the story of God, intersects with our story. We see ourselves in the story and recognize the scripture is also about us.

My hope for you as you join me traveling on these Ancient Pathways is two-fold. First, I hope you coming away with a better understanding of how all of scripture ties together as one big story in which God is the main character and is working to build relationship with humans. Second, I hope you see how the themes within scripture are challenging and practical for our life in the real world. I hope you learn some things and are changed.

May God bless you through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit to learn and grow into the person you were created to be

The Story of Scripture outline (where we’ll be going):

1. The Beginning of the Story

2 . God Calls Abraham

3. God Saves Abraham’s Descendants

4. God Dwells with the People

5. God Gives the Law (Part 1)

6. God Gives the law (Part 2)

7. The Conquest of the Land

8. God Gives Israel a King

9. David: The Ideal King

10. Solomon: The Downward Slide Begins

11. Exile

11.5. Interlude – What’s Next?

12. Jesus Announces the Kingdom Has Come

13. Light Overcomes Darkness

14 . Jesus Wins the Victory

15. The Beginning of the Church

16. The Beginning of Christian Theology

Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers (Book Review)

What does it mean to be a “saint”?

Different church traditions may have slightly different definitions, but one common emphasis may be that saints are a sort of special or unique group of people. They are people set apart from the rest of us due to their holy or loving acts or perhaps, in a more spiritual way of putting it, the ways God used them. We tend to see saints as sort of otherworldly.

Of course, in reality we recognize saints are as broken and messed up as the rest of us. This is one emphasis Daneen Akers makes in her book Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints. In this book she tells stories of people who are “human, just like you and me, so they’re imperfect, and yet they help us see and honor the holy in each and every person” (1). Thus, while a book telling stories of saints might be expected to include Saint Patrick and Mother Theresa, this one tells the stories of Fred Rogers, Harriet Tubman and Florence Nightingale (though Francis of Assis does make an appearance, representing traditional saints).

This book is intended for families. Akers writes from the perspective of someone who moved through a time of deconstructing her faith. On the other side of this, she found many of the faith-based materials created for children and families to be problematic. Writing this book is her own step in creating faith-based books for more progressive Christian parents.

From this more progressive perspective, Akers includes among her saints persons who are not Christians, such as the great Muslim poet Rumi. She also includes LGBTQ Christians. I am not sure which of those inclusions would upset more conservative parents more. But it is kind of a side note, as she did not write this book for such parents.

Overall, this is a beautiful book filled with engaging stories and pictures. If you are a more progressive or liberal Christian and are looking for stories and resources, this is certainly a book you would want to read, and share with your kids. These stories are inspiring.

As someone who has read plenty of books on spiritual disciplines and spiritual life, including many classics written by monks and nuns, I often wonder how these teachings and practices apply to regular normal people. It is one thing for monks living apart from the world to follow the Rule of St. Benedict and stop what they are doing to pray five or six times a day. How does that translate to life today for regular people getting kids on the school bus, working, going to the grocery store and so on?

This book is not a spiritual life or growth manual, of course. But it does tell stories of people living in our world living out the sort of spiritual life we can strive for.

At the risk of contradicting what I just wrote, I do think there could have been more traditional saints included without losing the purpose of the book. Having Francis of Assisi in there is nice, but what about Julian of Norwich or Theresa of Avila? Peter Abelard? Gregory of Nysa and his mother Macrina? I admit I write this as someone who loves history and finds so much beauty and life in the history of the church. This history is admittedly often overshadowed by the dark moments. But to place us in a larger context means finding those shining lights in our past.

As someone who wants to hear both the inspiring stories of today and our past, I think this book could have included more from the past. Of course, that’s a minor quibble. Perhaps it will be remedied in the promised volume 2.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

#1 – The Christian Imagination by Willie James Jennings (My Top Ten 2020 Reads)

This may be the most important theology book I have read in a long time. If I was to recommend one theology book to pastors and teachers to read right now, it would be this one.

Jennings argues the Christian imagination is deficient and he traces the roots of this to the dawn of modernity. If you have studied theology in any formal matter, you ought to be able to see the problem Jennings identifies: we move from the New Testament and early church to a bit of medieval and the scholastics then to the Reformers and the challenges of the Enlightenment. This curriculum ignores the formation of modern identity.

Jennings spends a lot of time examining history. The figures Jennings focuses on are not usual ones in a theology work. There is Jose Acosta, a Jesuit in Peri in the 1500s and then John Colenso, an Anglican in South Africa in the 1800s. Jennings also looks at the work of Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave writing in England in the late 1700s. Throughout all of this, Jennings is illustrating the way colonialism twisted Christianity.

Emerging through all of this are a few themes, primary among them is that the movement away from an emphasis on the role of Israel in scripture provides a direct line to elevating and universalizing whiteness. This supersessionism replaces Israel with the Church and enables theology to then favor national identity. Jennings illustrates this by looking at Isaac Watts translation of the Psalms, where he often substitutes “Britain” for Israel. As Israel is ignored, so to is an emphasis on geographical place. Through colonialism, Christians looked out at the world as a place to conquer and tame. Jennings thoughts here blend well with other critiques of capitalism and histories (such as McCarraher’s The Enchantment of Mammon).

In order to restore Christian imagination we must recognize the deep harm to our thinking of colonialism. Colonialism drove a wedge between land and people as well as giving a vision of a Creator endorsing the eradication of people’s way of life and the creation of private property. Colonialism turned away from identity in the resurrected Son and created an identity of assimilation into whiteness and capitalism. Our interaction with the land and other people became rooted in production and consumption.

Jennings admits near the end that his critique will be difficult to hear. We in the west simply assume capitalism is the only way to function in the world. As Christians, we assume we have Jesus all figured out for that matter (a Jesus who basically endorses neoliberal capitalism). Jennings writes:

“I want Christians to recognize the grotesque nature of a social performance of Christianity that imagines Christian identity floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity changing of private property. Such Christian identity can only inevitably lodge itself in the materiality of racial existence” (293).

And:

“To change one’s way of imagining connection and one’s way of desiring joining is no small thing. Yet I am convinced that such a change is not only necessary but now stands before human communities as the only real option for survival in a world of dwindling natural resources and tightening global economic chains of commodification. To imagine along the direction I suggest in this book would be nothing less than theological act, indeed, as I suggest, a Christian act of imagining. And if, as I believe, Christian life is indeed a way forward for the world, then it must reemerge as ac impelling new invitation to life together” (294)

This is a book that deserves a much longer review. I am unable to do Jennings’ work justice. It is fantastic and I am sure I will be thinking about it, and returning to it, frequently in the future.

Honorable Mention: Over the past many years, I have read a ton of books that cover the transition from the medieval world to the modern world. Jennings book covers this same ground but from a different angle than others. Plenty of these other books focus on philosophical developments in Western Europe and how these ideas trickled down and shaped the culture. One thing I liked most about Jennings book is he told the story of those who did more to directly shape people’s attitudes and ideas.

Sadly, these people were bishops and pastors and church leaders and they were shaping racist ideas.

I think my honorable mention here is simply a warning to not read one book and think we know it all. As I read Stamped by Ibram X Kendi this year (#7 on my list, btw), I couldn’t help but wonder what happened prior to the story he told. In some ways, Jennings fills in the background of the story that Kendi is telling. Of course, then McCarraher’s book on the development of capitalism tells another part of the story (#9 on my list).

I could mention books from previous years. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is always one that heads such a list, and perhaps one I need to revisit in 2021. Alasdair MacIntyre’s work on moral philosophy, specifically After Virtue heads this list as well. This year I read a wonderful book analyzing those two writers, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and the Demise of Naturalism by Jason Blakely.

I could mention NT Wright’s History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Or if you want to go further back in the story, there is Tom Holland’s magnificent work Dominion which puts the rise of the modern world in the context of the Christian revolution, beginning five centuries prior to Jesus (which was my favorite book of 2019, btw).

Maybe I should mention Hannah Arendt’s works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem. Or I could mention the two books I already read the introductions for, which will probably be two of my first reads for 2021.

My point in all this is, there are LOTS of books out there that cover this transition and it is a subject that is vital to learn about. Our experience of religion and God and everything else, much that we just take for granted, has been shaped by forces which we do not even realize.

But that’s why we get on the journey of reading. To keep learning…

#2 – Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley (My Top Ten 2020 Reads(

Absolutely brilliant.

McCaulley presents here the hope and history of “black ecclesial interpretation.” This is the tradition of reading and preaching found in the black churches since the earliest days of America. One of the challenges McCaulley puts forth in the beginning is the pull from one side to leave the Bible and Christianity behind, seeing the whole religion as white European and not good at all for Black people. McCaulley argues in one chapter that there have been Africans in the people of God from the beginning (literally, Genesis) and throughout the early church. Christianity and the Bible belong to Black people.

Honestly, those of us who are white Christians need to take a step back from assuming we have the right answers to all elements of theology. McCaulley’s book ought to be must-reading for white pastors and teachers.

McCaulley talks about the way white Europeans set the tones for Biblical interpretation. This leads to liberals/modernists who deconstruct the Bible and fundamentalists who take it as it is (or so they claim). McCaulley shows the Black church has never felt the need to go with this either/or. Nor has the Black church felt the need to separate salvation from liberation. The same God who saved souls also liberates slaves.

I think the best chapters in the book were the first couple where he discussed policing and government. In these chapters, McCaulley brought forth points and connections I had never made before. Well, to be honest, connections I had never made before when thinking about faith and politics in Romans 13. He points out that most books on morals and ethics by white Christians don’t even really discuss policing (He mentions Richard Hays’ book on New Testament ethics which I have read). His work on this area is thoughtful and eye-opening.

Overall, this is a fantastic book. Highly recommended.

Honorable Mention – This was a tough one, but sticking with the theme of biblical studies, I will mention The New Testament in its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature and Theology of the First Christians by Michael Bird and NT Wright.

Its obviously a much different book than McCaulley’s, though Wright does, if I recall correctly, have an endorsement on McCaulley’s book.

This is a solid introduction to the New Testament. I can see myself returning to this book frequently for reference. Its not necessarily the kind of book you read straight through as h has its one you read it bits and pieces and keep coming back to later.

Large portions of it are essentially summaries of Wright’s longer works. Thus, it serves as a distilled version of Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God and Paul and the Faithfulness of God. I suppose the section then on the Gospels may be a preview of a future volume from Wright.

I did not read the introductions to each New Testament book, but as I said, I will be returning to this frequently as a reference work. The best parts of the book are the aforementioned sections when Wright and Bird present theology of the gospel and of Paul as a whole. I also appreciated the background and the chapters on textual criticism and the formation of the New Testament.

Overall, a solid work.

#3 – Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (My Top Ten 2020 Reads)

This book is the story of white American evangelicalism’s love affair with hyper-masculinity and it is highly readable while managing to pack in a lot of history. Its also highly depressing and frustrating. I feel I grew up in the best of white American evangelicalism but as I look around, I fear the worst has won out in the end.

I grew up in American evangelicalism, though I was not conscious of that until I left home for college. My church growing up was certainly evangelical, but most of the focus from the pulpit was on living as a follower of Jesus. I do not recall sermons on the sorts of things this book mentions, though James Dobson’s Focus on the Family’s bulletin inserts showed up each month. My understanding of a wider evangelical culture began near the end of high school as I made friends in other churches, then grew as I attended Christian music festivals and attended other churches while at college.

Thankfully, the seminary I attended, though probably evangelical, did not press these ideas. Sure, most probably voted Republican. But we were more into reading the church fathers or contemporary apologetics than books on how to be real men (perhaps all our reading and studying meant we weren’t hunting and shooting things, so we weren’t “real men”? Hmm…).

I was basically steeped in this evangelical subculture then from about 1998-2004. I read both I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Wild at Heart. Thus, that part of the book was especially intriguing for I recall living through it.

Reading the rest of the book made me thankful I got out of it.

Perhaps that’s not fair. I still work in the evangelical world, as uncomfortable as I am with the term. I suppose some could fault Du Mez for not speaking enough of other aspects of evangelicalism, like the aforementioned apologetics. When I think of “evangelical” I think of William Lane Craig’s arguments for God’s existence. I think of the influence of Ravi Zacharias. So someone might argue that evangelical is wider than how she defines it. Yet, the toxic masculinity even reaches here as the allegations of Zacharias’ abuse of women, which were around prior to his death, have gotten louder.

Further, Du Mez he does address this realm of evangelicalism and she is largely correct in her conclusion – however some of us might like it, the fact is to the majority of people both inside and outside the movement, “evangelical” now means “political, conservative Republican, support of Trump.” There may be an ivory tower of intellectual evangelicals, but these are neither the mainstream nor influential in the movement. And, given the chance, most of those white evangelical intellectuals mostly go along with the masculinity and support of Trump.

The best thing about this book is that by documenting the history of hyper-masculinity and the love of John Wayne type heroes, she manages to show how the overwhelming support for Trump is not hypocrisy by evangelicals but the logical conclusion of decades of work. Back in the 90s it was clear that for many men, Braveheart’s William Wallace was more interesting than the Jesus of the Bible. Jesus might save your soul but John Wayne and William Wallace and Ronald Reagan and Duck Commander and the rest will save your ass.

What amazed me most was the level of deception and fragility throughout this story. I began to notice how often men were considered to possess a “fragile ego” by writers like Dobson. The message seemed to be that men had fragile egos which women had to prop up. I lost track of how many times this idea came up. But it does explain why men in the movement are so resistant to women in leadership – they have fragile egos. The solution they offered for decades, putting the onus on one to submit, is the problem. To be blunt, if you’re a man with a fragile ego and threatened by strong women and you need women to serve you to make you feel better, you’re not a proverbial “real man.”

Along with that, its amazing how easily duped white evangelicals have been. Perhaps we should not be surprised so many are impressed with a president who demonstrates he’s patriotic by waving a flag and demonstrates he’s Christian by doing a photo op with a Bible. It seems white evangelicals have been impressed by blowhards and big talkers for years. Yet, like Trump, most of these men were revealed to be hypocrites or frauds.

That leads to the most depressing part of the story. So many of these men who preached toughness and protection of women turned out to be abusers. Even Ravi Zacharias, lionized at his death a few months ago, was an abusive man (this was known by some at his death but drowned out in the cacophony of praise; more stories have since come out).

White evangelical Christianity has long been steeped in racism (as documented in books such as Robert Jones’ White No More, Whitehead and Perry’s Taking America Back for God, and Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise). Du Mez’s book shows how the movement’s views on men and women grew and influenced not just evangelicalism but the entire nation. These ideas have moved into the military and the highest halls of power.

I will still never understand how white evangelicals have largely chosen to throw away any sort of moral compass or leadership to bow at the alter of a narcissistic madman like Trump. This book helps as it shows a long history of loving strongmen as well as being duped by fake strongmen. Maybe I should understand by now. But growing up in this world, in the best of this world, and seeing the worst of it take over, I am just sad.

Overall, this is a must read book for any who want to understand white American evangelicalism.

Honorable MentionBelieve Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea.

One of the biggest disappointments of my life was seeing so many Christians I admired as a teenager totally betray their principles in supporting Trump in 2016. Those who once said “character matters” when it was Bill Clinton’s sins, turned and said character actually doesn’t matter. The hypocrisy, lust for power and means justifying the ends we’re patently obvious.

Fea, a top notch Christian historian, tells the story of the history of evangelicals in politics. This book is short but covers a lot of ground. It’s a must read for anyone, like me, who wonders how Christians could support Trump.

Note I said “support”, not “vote for.” It’s one thing to hold your nose and reluctantly vote for the lesser of two evils. But this is not what Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr or others have done. They support and defend Trump. I mean, they got their precious judges (in exchange for any sort of witness to an entire generation) so why not cut their losses and support impeachment, with a bonafide evangelical like Pence waiting in the wings? At this point, they’ve hitched their wagon to Trump, revealing their real gods.

As Fea talks about, the goal is changing the Supreme Court at all costs. We must ask though, what’s the cost? They want to make America great again, which begs the question, when was this past time America was great? 1950s? 1790s?

Overall, this book helps understand why so many evangelicals flocked to Trump. For many Christians of a certain age, this is a phenomenon that needs explaining. Fea does a good job as any.

#4 – White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert Jones

In each of these posts, I am sharing one of my top ten along with an honorable mention that is thematically similar. This was the toughest of all because both the books in this post could be #4. Its sort of a tie.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert Jones

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry

Review of White Too Long:

No one likes confessing their own sins, their complicity in sin or the way we have benefited from the sin of others. Its easier to distance ourselves from that past so we can tell ourselves we’re just fine here in the present.

When it comes to white Christians and race in America, this is sadly obvious. On one hand, white Christians want to argue we are not racist, that we do not think less of black persons. Yet, when we are asked to reckon with our racist past, we resist. Those white racists back then just didn’t love Jesus enough, we tell ourselves. Their racism was incidental to their faith, something added from somewhere else. We find a few good Christians who worked for abolition and emphasize them as the real Christians, and in our minds we are just like them.

But when it comes to taking down Confederate monuments, its white Christians who defend them. When the vast majority of black Christians oppose President Trump and point out his racist statements, white Christians continue to support him.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth, and its one I knew going in to reading this book but understand even more after: white Christianity is deeply entwined with racism throughout American history and continues to be so today.

Jones writes,

“A moment of reckoning is upon us, and its time that we white Christians do better, to see what is plainly in front of us and to wrestle with the unsettling implications. What if the racist views of historical ‘titans of faith’ infected the entire theological project contemporary white Christians have inherited from top to bottom? If white supremacy was an unquestionable cultural assumption in America, what does it mean that Christian doctrines by necessity had to develop in ways that were compatible with that worldview? What if, for example, Christian conceptions of marriage and family, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, or even the concept of having a personal relationship with Jesus developed as they did because they were useful tools for reinforcing white dominance? Is it possible that the white supremacy heresy is so integrated into white Christian DNA that it eludes even sincere efforts to excise it?

White Christianity has been many things for America. But whatever else it has been – and the country is indebted to it for a good many things – it has also been the primary institution legitimizing and propagating white power and dominance. Is such a system, built and maintained not just to save souls but also to secure white supremacy, flawed beyond redemption? If we’re even going to begin to answer these questions, we need to take a deep er dive into the inner logic of white Christian theology” (70-71).

Throughout the book Jones uses research data and historical study to demonstrate that white supremacy was not incidental to American Christianity but an essential part of it. He examines the “Lost Cause” narrative and how though the south lost the civil war, the efforts of groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy led to the lifting of monuments all over the south and the acceptance of a story where Lee, Davis, Jackson and the rest were honorable Christian men fighting for honorable reasons.

White Christians continued to see themselves as special and to see their blacks as subhuman. It was white Christians who would attend church on a Sunday, then leave church and head right over to the lynching. Of course, even white Christians today shudder in horror at this. Yet when our black Christian brothers and sisters cry out in pain at yet another police shooting, white Christians try to explain why black Christians are wrong to see this as systemic. We are horrified by the past, but most of us will vote for a president who tweets racist things, instilling fear of suburbs being invaded while celebrating white vigilantes as heroes.

Jones is not above naming names. He tells how Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was founded by leaders in the confederacy. Recently current president Albert Mohler wrote a confession and lament for this history. Yet when asked if the school would set aside some of their HUGE endowment to benefit black students, he said no. Difficult as it may be to confess past sins, its easier to confess the past then try to make changes in the present.

Jones’ mention of Eric Metaxas also jumped out. Metaxas often talks about how it was Christians who took the lead in abolition. What Metaxas does not say is that those Christians who did were in the minority, the majority of Christians endorsed slavery. Further, Christian abolitionists often were portrayed as on a slippery slope to liberalism for giving up biblical inerrancy (a point Mark Noll makes in his Civil War as a Theological Crisis). So while Metaxas points to Christian abolitionists and implies he would have been on their side, his own method of interpreting the Bible was the one used by those who supported slavery. Not recognizing this illustrates Jones’ point: white supremacy is deeply ingrained in how we read the Bible.

Even the emphasis on personal salvation is rooted in white supremacy – if Jesus’ mission was to save souls for heaven then how this world is sorted out is not part of the gospel. The whole idea Christians should “avoid politics” connects up with white supremacy because, when the political situation favors you and you have power, you probably don’t want to bring the gospel into it. If we listened to our black Christian brothers and sisters, we might find our connections to political conservatism being questioned.

Overall, this is a brilliant book. It is much needed and must be read. I’d put it alongside Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise as the top of the list of books white Christians need to read to learn the past so we can confess the past and try to change the present.

Review of Taking America Back for God:

This book is an absolute must-read to understand the current religious and political climate in America right now. The authors have done extensive research to better understand what Christian Nationalism is and who Christian Nationalists are.

They define Christian nationalism as “Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (10). Though holding the term “Christian”, Christian nationalism is not the same as religion: “the “Christianity” of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion. As we will show, it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious” (10)

Along those lines, the authors separate Christian nationalism from the traditional American “civic religion.” American civic religion has looked to parts of scripture such as the prophets to call citizens to civic engagement and the institution of just politics and so forth. Contrast this with Christian nationalism which Christian nationalism is rarely concerned with instituting explicitly “Christ-like” policies, or even policies reflecting New Testament ethics at all. Rather, Christian nationalists view God’s expectations of America as akin to his commands to Old Testament Israel. Like Israel, then, America should fear God’s wrath for unfaithfulness while assuming God’s blessing—or even mandate—for subduing the continent by force if necessary” (11).

Christian nationalism is more political than religious. Thus, a person’s identity as a Christian nationalist has more to do with if they are politically conservative than if they are a white evangelical. That point is one of the biggest takeaways from the book: Christian nationalist does not equal white evangelical. Plenty of white evangelicals are Christian nationalists, but not all Christian nationalists are white evangelicals. One point they emphasize throughout is that once Christian nationalism is taken into account, those who actively practice religion (attend church, pray, read Bible) are nearly the opposite of Christian nationalists. Christian nationalists, for example, are anti-immigration, while religious practitioners are more likely to be pro-immigration.

“Stated simply: being an evangelical, or even a white evangelical as pollsters often define that category, tells us almost nothing about a person’s social attitudes or behavior once Christian nationalism has been considered. The two categories often overlap, to be sure. Roughly half of evangelicals (by some definitions) embrace Christian nationalism to some degree. And yet what is really influencing Americans’ behavior? Being affiliated with evangelicalism? Holding to traditional views about the Bible? Or advocating Christian nationalism? As it turns out, being an evangelical does not lead one to enthusiastically support border walls with Mexico; favoring Christian nationalism does. Being an evangelical does not seem to sour Americans’ attitudes toward stronger gun control legislation; endorsing Christian nationalism does. Being an evangelical was not an important predictor of which Americans voted for Donald Trump in 2016; supporting Christian nationalism was. Readers should keep this in mind throughout” (29).

Throughout the book they examine all these points in more depth. They describe four groups: Ambassadors are wholly supportive of Christian nationalism, Accomodators lean that direction, Rejecters wholly reject Christian nationalism and Resisters lean towards rejection. Through discussing topics such as orders and boundaries, they look at how each of these groups differs in how it views the world.

The conclusion brings it all together and again emphasizes why this topic is important:

“Acknowledging the importance of Christian nationalism also introduces the precision that our public discourse on religion and politics so desperately needs. For the past few years journalists and political commentators have obsessed over why “white evangelicals,” voted for President Trump. In reality, however, it is not just being evangelical or even being a white evangelical that truly matters. Rather, it is the degree to which Americans—perceiving current political conflicts through the lens of Christian nationalism—wish to institutionalize conservative “Christian” cultural preferences in America’s policies and self-identity. Recognizing the power of Christian nationalism helps us acknowledge not only the diversity within particular religious traditions but also why those of different religious traditions who are Ambassadors tend to vote and act in very similar ways. Evangelicals and mainline Protestants who are Ambassadors are much more alike politically than are Ambassadors and Resisters who are both mainline Protestants. Moreover, Christian nationalism is not bound to any particular religious group. . . Christian nationalism is significant because calls to “take America back for God” are not primarily about mobilizing the faithful toward religious ends ” (152-153)

And

“Christian nationalism is, therefore, ultimately about privilege. It co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political or social ends in moral and religious symbolism. This serves to legitimate the demands, wants, and desires of those embracing Christian nationalism in the transcendent. If God says the United States should take a particular stance, or pass a specific law, who are we to argue? Christian nationalism is used to defend against shifts in the culture toward equality for groups that have historically lacked access to the levers of power—women, sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious minorities” (152-153)

Overall, a very important book in understanding Christian nationalism.