Are You a Christian or a Christian Nationalist? (Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on Christianity, Nationalism and White Supremacy. You can read the first post here.

Growing up, we had American flags in the front of our church.

It wasn’t until years later that I saw something deeply wrong with that.

Looking back, what we were taught it meant to be a Christian was deeply entwined with what it meant to be an American. Jesus had died for our sins and the troops had died for our freedom. Being in the church was how we knew we were saved if we died and being in America meant we were in God’s last and final refuge for Christians just prior to the end times. America, after all, was God’s chosen and favored nation. How else do you explain our military might and booming economy other than an obvious result of God’s blessing? The world was divided between “good guys” and “bad guys.” American Christians were definitively on the side of good.

We sent out missionaries to convert the world and we sent out troops to keep the peace in the world.

It wasn’t until years later I realized that the form of Christianity I had imbibed was deeply influenced by nationalism. A variety of influences helped me see this: learning the history of the global church, engaging with Anabaptists who were always skeptical of national influence in churches, and reading Revelation in a way that didn’t relegate it to future predictions but placed it in a meaning for now where America was just the latest empire offering military might and consumerist comfort in exchange for our soul.

As I’ve moved through my adult years, I have believed that “nationalism” is the greatest sin facing the white American evangelical church. To be fair, this is not unique to America. Nationalism was the greatest sin facing many churches in many nations; German Christians int he 1930s come to mind (and that ended up rather poorly, we all can agree). My next post will actually discuss how my changing view of the book of Revelation put me on this path to rethinking everything. For today, I want to discuss Christian Nationalism.

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in their book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, 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).

The difference between being a Christian Nationalist and a Christian is, perhaps most simply put, in the story you believe about the history of America.

Story 1 – “I believe America was ordained by God and is a beacon on a hill for the rest of the world. God (the Christian God, by the way) inspired the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, through this creating a Christian Nation. This nation is God’s instrument to work in the world, similar to Israel in the Old Testament. Throughout its history there have been some tough times for sure, but the country has constantly been getting better under the leadership of strong men. The nation almost broke in the Civil War, as honorable men like Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought for states rights in the face of arrogant northerners who didn’t understand most slave owners were kind and most slaves liked being slaves. Thankfully, the nation was put back together and built monuments to these great men fighting for their lost cause. This healing enabled America to be the beacon of hope throughout the 20th century, sending out missionaries and standing strong against evil.”

Story 2 – “Let’s be honest: America is a mixture of good and bad and too often only the good has been spoken of since the story has only been told from the perspective of white Americans. There has been injustice and evil in America right from the very beginning and while we can recognize the good the founders did, we ought not shy away from their flaws. Slavery was America’s original sin and too many of our heroes were okay with it. Leading up to the Civil War, white Christians did not reluctantly accept slavery but vigorously endorsed it from pulpits all across the south. The story of our country is not one of constant progress but is one of a few steps forward and a few back. Hope for a more equitable nation appeared during Reconstruction, but soon the federal troops left the south and white Christians reinforced their dominion. Black American Christians were enslaved again in all but name. The next decades were filled with institutional oppression that kept black people in their second class status. Anytime this institution was challenged, while people responded with lynchings and violent riots. White Christians supported all this, seeing no contradiction in attending church in the morning and lynchings in the afternoon. The Civil Rights movement was a huge step forward, but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Which of those two stories do you think is more accurate?

If you go with the first story, you are more Christian Nationalist than Christian. The Jesus of the first story becomes a cheerleader for America and is essentially “white Jesus.” White people are the primary movers and shakers in this story and are mostly good. Even if we can recognize their support of slavery as something to condemn, we can forgive that because they got the rest of their theology correct. Yet this “correct” theology focused on individual salvation where Jesus’ primary function is to ensure your entry into the afterlife. This Jesus has little to say about matters in this world such as war, slavery, the economy or much else.

To put it another way, the God of Christian Nationalism is a White American Jesus, draped in the flag and carrying a gun.

The second story places America alongside all other nations. We are not a special or unique country in human history. Rather, like Rome or Greece or Britain or Germany, we are merely the latest greatest power. Like those other countries, we are a mix of good and bad. As Christians, we recognize our commitment to the kingdom of God far outweighs our commitment to any nation. As Christians, we heed the call to speak truth to power because we know there is a higher and greater law. Thus, we name the sin and injustice in our nation’s past and seek to repent from it. Just as we do not pretend we have no personal or individual sin, so its fruitless to pretend we have no national sin.

White Christians in America have tried to blend faith in Jesus with faith in America. In missionary terms, this is syncretism: the combining or amalgamation of two different religions. One sign you might be a Christian Nationalist is that the very idea of separating your faith from your national citizenship may surprise you. James KA Smith writes on this in his book Desiring the Kingdom:

The fact that there seems to be little tension between Christianity and American nationalism is not a function of the generosity (let alone ‘Christianness’) of the American ideal, but rather a sign of a Christianity that has accommodated itself to the American ideals of battle, military sacrifice (which is very different from the Christian ideal of martyrdom), individual (negative) freedom, and prosperity through property” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 107).

We have not combined Christianity and American ideals into one thing because they line up together so perfectly as to obviously be one and the same thing. Instead, Christianity has accommodated to America. When the teachings and way of Jesus clash with the principles and ideals of our nation, we have too quickly blunted the way of Jesus to better fit him in with our national ideals. And again, this is not new or unique with American Christians as the temptation to explain away and make easier the way of Jesus is about as old as Christianity itself. We can recall some of Jesus’ followers in John 6 declare, “this is a hard teaching and who can accept it?”

If we just want a Jesus as Savior who provides us forgiveness and a ticket to heaven, then Christian Nationalism is the way to go. We get the assurance of afterlife bliss while we can then move forward in this world utilizing whatever tools we feel are necessary to achieve power and comfort. We have Jesus to save our soul and John Wayne or William Wallace (of the movie Braveheart) to save our ass.*

Is that all Jesus is? A ticket to heaven with no relevance for now?

If I believed that, I would just stop being a Christian altogether. I desire a Jesus who challenges all my ways of thinking, both personal and public. I desire a God revealed in Jesus who does not just affirm whatever I, or my country, does but who challenges everything.

Which Jesus do we want? Which story of America do we believe?

Which story do you believe?

Who is our God: Jesus or the Nation? Because in the end, “Christian” cannot be merely an adjective. If we are Nationalists we are not truly Christians and if we are Christians we cannot be Nationalists.*

Which will we be?

*As I was working on this post, I discovered this website: Christians Against Christian Nationalism (https://www.christiansagainstchristiannationalism.org). Check it out.

*I got this quip from the fantastic book Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobes Du Metz. Definitely worth a read!

*We cannot be Nationalists but we can be Patriotic, which I spoke of in the first post in this series.

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

My kids have this book called There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. Its about a boy who notices a small dragon in his house. He tells his mom about the dragon and she responds, “there’s no such thing as a dragon.” The dragon grows bigger. As the dragon grows, the boy becomes more concerned but his mom continues to deny its existence. Eventually the dragon’s body fills the house with arms and legs popping out of windows. The dragon runs the house down the street. Finally, the mother admits she sees the dragon and its shrinks back to its original, small size. 

The boy quips, “maybe it just wanted to be noticed.”

This book is fun for kids but profound for adults. We often have dragons in our lives that we try to ignore, hoping they go away. But this is not how problems are solved and as they are ignored, they grow bigger and bigger. 

White supremacy and Nationalism are the Dragon in the room of White Christianity in America.

I’ve been wrestling with this for years but I am writing now because the fever pitch this issue seems to be reaching in our culture. White supremacists have been emboldened in recent years and according and are considered the greatest terrorist threat our nation faces, according to the DHS. The intertwining of white supremacy with Christianity as well as the overwhelming support of Donald Trump from Christian nationalists is why it is so hard for Trump to unequivocally condemn white supremacists and white nationalism, as we saw at the recent debate. The truth is, as Rick Santorum noted after the debate, the president does not like to condemn his supporters. He knows a large portion of his support comes from white nationalist groups. With an “ends-justifies-the-means” mentality, he is unable to condemn these folks.

To be fair, it is likely many good-hearted white evangelicals who make up a large portion of the president’s support are uncomfortable with the violent white supremacy of their fellow Trump supporters. Yet the sad reality is that to ignore the dragon of white supremacy in the room is not possible any longer. The dragon has always been part of white Christian faith in America. From time to time it may grow larger or smaller, but its been there from the beginning. If white Christians fail to condemn it now, it will destroy the whole house.

We who are white Christians must have the courage to refute the evil of white supremacy and explicitly demonstrate it has no place in the Church.

Of course, white supremacy did not begin in America. That said, America is unique in that there has never really been Christianity without white supremacy. When Christianity came to these shores, white supremacy came along with it. The United States began as a nation by enshrining slavery in its founding documents.  All men may have been created equal, but this did not include black men (or women). By the time of the Civil War, every other Christian nation had made slavery illegal. In America alone, southern preachers taught the Bible obviously endorses slavery. White Christians in the south were not reluctant supporters of the Confederacy, but cheered it on with the Bible on their side. Historian Mark Noll’s book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is highly informative on this subject. He demonstrates that American Christians were unique in using the Bible to support slavery:

Nonetheless, by the mid-nineteenth century, the force of the biblical proslavery argument had weakened everywhere except in the United States. There, however, it remained strong among Bible believers in the North as well as among Bible believers in the South. It was no coincidence that the biblical defense of slavery remained strongest in the United States, a place where democratic, antitraditional, and individualistic religion was also strongest. By the nineteenth century, it was an axiom of American public thought that free people should read, think, and reason for themselves. When such a populace, committed to republican and democratic principles, was also a Bible-reading populace, the proslavery biblical case never lacked for persuasive resources.” (Noll)

American Christianity was alone in disregarding all tradition and emphasizing individualism. From this, a surface reading of scripture which any person could employ easily found plenty of verses in support of slavery.

On the eve of the Civil War, interpretations of the Bible that made the most sense to the broadest public were those that incorporated the defining experiences ofAmerica into the hermeneutics used for interpreting what the infallible text actually meant. In this effort, those who. . . defended the legitimacy of slavery in the Bible had the easiest task. The procedure, which by 1860 had been repeated countless times, was uncomplicated. First, open the Scriptures and read, at say Leviticus 25:45, or, even better, at 1 Corinthians 7:20-21. Second, decide for yourself what these passages mean. Don’t wait for a bishop or a king or a president or a meddling Yankee to tell you what the passage means, but decide for yourself. Third, if anyone tries to convince you that you are not interpreting such passages in the natural, commonsensical, ordinary meaning of the words, look hard at what such a one believes with respect to other biblical doctrines. If you find in what he or she says about such doctrines the least hint of unorthodoxy, as inevitably you will, then you may rest assured that you are being asked to give up not only the plain meaning of Scripture, but also the entire trust in the Bible that made the country into such a great Christian civilization” (Noll)

We often hear stories of those Christians who went against the grain and fought for abolition. These folks certainly were heroic. But in their day, to be an abolitionist was seen to be on a slippery slope to liberalism. We must ask ourselves: do we celebrate those abolitionists while reading the Bible with the same methods the supporters of slavery did? Whose side would we really have been on?

One more quote from Noll is helpful to fill out this picture (its a long one, feel free to skip to the bottom if you like):

Explaining how a common trust in the one Bible led to such different conclusions gets further by referring to the broader social, cultural, and religious circumstances that shaped interpretations of Scripture. Four observations may be helpful. First, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was much more likely to be a- or antirepublican than Christianity in the United States; it was also more likely to be governed by inherited communities of interpretation and to be wary of claims for autonomous and freshly proposed understandings of the Gospel. Consequently, biblical interpretation outside the United States was more often a corporate exercise, which respected the developmental traditions of Christian communities more than the individual’s own grasp of Scripture. If that corporate consciousness condemned slavery, it could easily overrule what looked like individualistic or eccentric appeals to the Bible. 

Second, outside the United States, traditional orthodox Christianity was not particularly democratic. Thus it did not matter as much how self-selected individuals, whether populist or learned, interpreted the Scriptures compared to how the traditional churches interpreted the Bible. As in the United States, the Bible in Canada and Europe was foundational for Protestants. The contrast was that while prime contexts for interpreting Scripture were provided for these foreigners by history, tradition, and respect for formal learning, the prime American context was the interpretive will of the people. 

Third, outside the United States, antislavery was not linked to heterodox theology or to the rejection of Christianity. Whereas in America a noticeable connection existed between ardent abolitionism and a willingness to abandon the Bible, in Britain and on the European continent the strongest opponents of slavery usually came from the more evangelical or more orthodox segments of the religious community. . .

 Fourth, in Britain, both traditionalist and evangelical varieties of Christianity leaned against the literalist exegesis of Scripture that provided the greatest strength for biblical proslavery. In particular, British High Church and evangelical believers distrusted the principle that each and every Bible verse had a simple meaning to be extracted only by attending to just the words in that verse. . .

In sum, viewed from outside the United States, the issue of the Bible and slavery did not pose the difficulties that it did within. Trust in the Bible was virtually the same. But because trust in the people at large to interpret any part of the Bible by relying on republican and democratic common sense was much weaker abroad, foreign Protestant Bible believers easily turned aside the proslavery arguments that seemed so much stronger in the United States” (Noll).

Noll’s book strongly demonstrates the support of slavery by White American Christians was deeply rooted in the American experience and way of thinking. From this we can again see that white supremacy is intricately tied in with American Christianity. This is why slavery ended, as we know, not with Christians changing their minds due to their faith but with a bloody war. It is also why white supremacy persevered. White Christians built a system in the south that kept their higher status. Over the years, white Christians worshipped on Sunday mornings while attending KKK rallies and lynchings Sunday afternoons. White Christians supported a revisionist history of a glorious “Lost Cause” and a south where black people were better off as slaves, enjoying the kind patronage of genteel masters. White Christians opposed the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps we naively thought white supremacy was over, but the last few years have reminded us that the dragon is still in the room. 

Of course, our black Christian brothers and sisters have always known we have a dragon in our room. Black Christians also knew slavery was wrong and knew that white Christians had a deeply compromised faith. But white Christians had power and power tends not to listen to voices from beneath challenging the status quo. America was God’s chosen nation, after all, and if we’re already the greatest, any voice that challenges this is just being divisive. 

This brings us back to the original questions: why is it so hard for the president to condemn white supremacy? Why is it so hard for white Christians to admit our complicity in it and benefit from it? Why is it so easy to just ignore it and go about our days? 

Because its our heritage and our tradition. Its who we are. Jesus said if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. And who wants to do that?

In the next few weeks, I am going to wrestle with these questions. I’ve read a lot over the years, though I make no claim to be an expert. I think I am pretty well versed in theology and know a good bit of history. When it comes to the specifics of politics, I recognize my relative ignorance, though when it comes to faith and politics I believe I have some wisdom. 

There is a lot to say and think about. Its uncomfortable to talk about. I am not sure if I have any answers beyond “confess and repent.” But we have to talk about it, as Christians. We have to ask if we are Christians or Christian nationalists? We have to ask if we have created a bastardized Americanized Jesus that fits our preconceived notions of who God is. We have to have the courage to allow the God revealed in Jesus to shape all our ideas of who God is and what our role in any nation ought to be.

As theologian David Bentley Hart says, Christianity never truly came to America.

But I believe there is hope for us still. I have to be hopeful or I will despair. For this hope to become reality, those of us living today naming the Dragon for what it is. We must do what our predecessors have mostly failed to do – provide a Christian faith not rooted in nationalism and the American experience, but rooted in the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. I believe it is the duty of white Christians to refute the white supremacy in white Christians and offer them a choice: Christianity or white supremacy.

Jesus says no one can serve two masters. Will we take up our cross and follow Jesus or take up our guns and defend white supremacy? You can’t be prepping for violence if you’re carrying a cross

*For further reading, in addition to Mark Noll’s Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise and Robert Jones’ White Too Long. James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is also a phenomenal book.

What if We’re the Target for Missionaries?

It was at least 25 years ago when my grandmother said to me, “someday, other countries will be sending missionaries to the United States.” I grew up in a church with a heavy emphasis on foreign mission. Jesus had commanded his followers to go, and we honored those who heeded that call to travel to the ends of the earth. At the same time, my grandma was observing an apparent shift in culture. She lamented stores that stayed open on Sunday. In her eyes, there was a dechristianization going on, so one day, she asserted, missionaries would come to us.

Years later I read Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom and learned about the rapidly growing church throughout the world. While Christianity appeared to shrink in Europe and the US, Christianity was growing in the Global South. In subsequent books, Jenkins talked about the missionary aims of some of these churches, echoing the prediction my grandmother made.

Then I became a campus minister. I was tasked with having to fundraise my salary, so I traveled to churches and shared my vision for campus. A large part of my presentation was to emphasize the post-Christian nature of the college campus. I would talk about how I had learned the value of sending missionaries overseas and I encouraged the churches to continue supporting such mission. At the same time, I wanted them to partner in my ministry, so I shared that more and more it appeared that the USA itself was becoming a mission field. I had found statistics and quotes saying thing such as “if the unchurched community in the USA was a country, it would be one of the largest unreached countries in the world!” Compared to the vibrant churches Jenkins described across the globe, it was easy to paint a picture, especially in churches filled with people of my grandmother’s generation, that Christianity was shrinking.

I was not being dishonest either. The atmosphere on most university campuses is distinctly post-Christian. Campus ministry exists to disciple Christian students in college and to share the gospel of Jesus with students on the secular campus. So the story I was telling in these churches was mostly accurate.

Yet, as I reflect on this, it is worth noting where I placed myself and those like me in this story. Other countries might be sendinterested missionaries to the US, but these missionaries would target other people. I was on the same team as these missionaries and our target for evangelism would be post-Christian secular people. We – myself and my colleagues and the churches I visited – were “in” because we believed in God and the resurrection and all the correct theological and doctrinal points. Secular persons, or even more “liberal” Christians were “out” because they did not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus, or they questioned the Trinity, or they rejected God altogether.

In other words, I was part of the faithful remnant. Throughout the Bible story, when God’s people turn away and things look bleak, there is always a small group who remain faithful. For example, when the prophet Elijah is disillusioned, God reminds him that some are faithful (1 Kings 18). In reading these stories, I placed myself and those like me within the faithful remnant.

I’ve been haunted by this question – is that truly where we are in the story? Are we truly the “faithful remnant”?

This question has been on my mind the last few days. I began reading a book titled, Can White People Be Saved? Triangulating Race, Theology and Mission. The second chapter, titled Decolonizing Salvation, was written by Andrea Smith and includes this statement:

As many evangelicals of Color have pointed out, White evangelicals are often very invested in the White savior industrial complex. But Native Christians have noted that maybe it is White evangelicals who actually need to be saved. Craig Smith contends that US churches should stop seeing themselves as sending churches and recognize that they are themselves a mission field.

I’ve been thinking about this quote for days. On one hand, it echoes what I was told as a kid and have said myself over the years about America being a mission field. On the other hand, it turns the whole idea on its head because the mission field is not secular or liberal America, but white evangelical churches.

We – the white evangelical church in America – are not the faithful remnant but instead are those who have compromised our faith with culture and need to be evangelized into discipleship with Jesus?

I have been quite skeptical of “white evangelical Christianity” for a long time. Recognizing that white evangelical Christians energetically support America’s foreign wars while tying themselves into knots to explain how Jesus’ words and example on nonviolence are not meant to be taken seriously is one example. Another is recognizing how white evangelicals appear to desire political power and are willing to do anything or support anyone (seriously, anyone…how do so many still support that narcissistic, lying, cheating blowhard is mind-boggling) to get it is another example.

As I’ve wrestled with the failures of my church tradition, I’ve benefited for year from reading and learning from Christians outside my own white evangelical background. This began with the testimony of the church through the ages: from George MacDonald to Julian of Norwich and Gregory of Nysa to a whole other host of church fathers and mothers. It has continued as I’ve learned from wonderful writers across the global church today such as Soong-Chan Rah, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, James Cone, Jemar Tisby, Austin Channing Brown and others.

I think this quote struck me and has stuck with me, because even though my perception of the Church has widened and I’ve put myself in a place to learn from diverse voices, I still have been putting myself in the “faithful remnant” group. Like most humans, when I draw imaginary lines between “good” and “bad” or “pure” and “impure”, I place myself on the good and pure side of the line.

Other people have to learn what I know.

Other people should believe the way I believe.

This quote hit me because I realize that I need to be evangelized.

As a caveat, growing up the idea of evangelism was to get people in the door. The assumption was that most of the people in the world are destined for eternal torment in hell. Our job as Christians was to get them to believe in Jesus. As Dallas Willard noted in The Divine Conspiracy, evangelical Christianity was obsessed with making converts but hoped discipleship would happen by accident. He encouraged his readers to flip it, seeking to focus on discipleship and let evangelism happen by accident.

I find that reversal to be helpful, yet I also wonder if its worth even separating the two. Faith in Jesus is not merely about what happens in some ethereal afterlife, it is about how we live now. As we enter into life with Jesus, we all constantly need to learn and grow. We all need to constantly rehear the good news and relearn what Jesus calls us to do. We all need to examine the ways our understanding of faith has been corrupted by culture. We all need to be constantly evangelized.

Its not about other people doing these things. We must do them.

The fact is, the white evangelical church in America needs to be saved. As more and more data comes in, the evidence reveals that the white church in America has been rooted in racism from the beginning. Books such as White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supermacy in American Christianity and Taking America Back for God:Christian Nationalism in the United States, as well as many others, reveal this. Even if it is true that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture, this does not mean “we” are good to go and “they” need Jesus. Instead, we must be honest with the failings of the Christian culture that we imagine we are not “post”.

We must confess that the “Christian” culture, for any good that was in it, failed in many ways and did not reflect the fullness of Jesus’ teaching or God’s dream for the world.

We must confess our sins.

We must listen to our Christian brothers and sisters outside our own tradition.

When we think we’ve come far enough, we must be honest and realize we stil have a long way to go.

We must be willing to let other Christians evangelize us.

What I’ve Been Reading

Well, summer is about over. I finished up summer by reading a few books that challenged both my heart and mind, as well as a few that were pure entertainment.

Check out my September ministry update if you have not!

Theological Territories by David Bentley Hart – Hart is my favorite contemporary theologian and I am at the point where I will read pretty much anything he releases. I think I’ve read all his books except for one work of essays (The Dream Child’s Progress). This new work includes some rather brilliant essays. Like any book of collected essays, there were a few that I did not like as much. In this collection there were a few where Hart commented on literature, and as I have not read the literature I mostly just skipped it. I’m sure it was great, but I was reading for the heology. In some ways this book did not strike me the way his previous work has. I suspect that is just due to familiarity. Overall, it was still a great read with lots to chew on.

Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd – While Hart is my favorite professional theologian writing today, Zahnd may be my favorite pastor writing today. His books consistently challenge both my heart and mind, but are much easier to digest than Hart. The beauty of Zahnd is he is clearly reading the heavy-hitters I also enjoy reading: Hart, Girard, Moltmann, etc. So in reading Zahnd, I enjoy getting the summarized view of these guys. Essentially, when I read Zahnd I find out if I got the heavy-hitters right. All that aside, I have long believed the greatest sin of the American church is nationalism. This book diagnoses that sin of nationalism and is an absolute must read for pastors in America. While Hart, and others, often speak of the same thing, the beauty of Zahnd is that his writing is accessible for typical, regular Christians.

Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry – Speaking of nationalism, there is this book. Christian nationalism is a toxic parasite on the gospel of Jesus, yet it accurately describes the faith commitment of millions in the United States. This book is incredibly helpful because the authors define Christian nationalism and describe how while many white evangelicals are Christian nationalists, the two groups are not the same. Within that, they show that commitment to Christian nationalism actually leads to the opposite views when compared with people who attend church regularly and actively practice spirituality. This is a must read to understand the views and ideas floating around in our culture.

Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson – There is nothing as much fun as escaping into a beautifully constructed fantasy world, especially when that world has been created by Sanderson. With book four of the Stormlight Archive coming out in November, I began rereading the series. All I can say is, its even better the second time! So Good!

The Road to Joy by Kevin McClone

In this book, Kevin McClone invites the reader to join him on the path to psycho spiritual health. To do this, he journeys through eight pathways: Follow your deepest desire, Discover true self, embrace heart intimacy, have integrity, rely on grace, live a simple life, embrace solitude and find joy. Joy comes at the end because this is a progression. Each chapter ends with a few practices the reader could perform which makes this more than just a book to read and move on; it is a book that could be read in small groups or slowly, like a chapter a week, with a good bit of journaling.

McClone combines scientific research rooted in psychology with wisdom from mystics and teachers both past and present. That latter point might raise an eyebrow for more conservative Christian readers who might rather emphasize the uniqueness of the Christian faith above all others. But even if you hold to traditional orthodox understandings of God as defined by Christian theology, you can appreciate this book. After all, God is Truth and all truth is God’s truth. So if a Buddhist monk or Islamic poet or anyone else has wisdom, the Christian tradition ought to welcome that. We can have debates about what separates us later. Overall, I found it refreshing to see so many stories and quotes from all over the spectrum.

In addition to the research and academic side, McClone writes with tragic honesty. His wife passed away shortly before writing this book, and he draws on his own experiences of grief and loss throughout. I believe this book would be best suited to people also dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one.

This is a short and helpful book. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in spiritual growth. As I read a book like this, I always wonder what niche it fits into. I have my favorite spiritual discipline books which I am always going to recommend, will the book I am reading be forgotten if it does not crack my top 3 or 5? I think the best thing about McClone’s book is the honesty. If you are looking for a basic book on spiritual discipline, check out Foster or Warren. But if you’re struggling with loss, McClone could be for you.

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.

Maybe Its Not Jesus You are Following?

If you want a religion that enables you to gain and exercise power over other people, then maybe Christianity is not the religion for you?

That thought came to mind when I read this article in the New York Times this past weekend: Christianity Will Have Power.

Now, I’m not historically ignorant. I know that Christianity HAS had power in our culture for around 1700 years. While this power has waned in Western Europe over the last few centuries, Christians in America have been able to hold on to power longer (that is, white Protestant Christians; black Christians and Christians from other ethnicities have not wielded power in our country). With no officially sanctioned government religion, it is unofficial power here, but it is still power.

The threat of losing this power has been something I’ve been told to fear since my youngest days. I grew up in the white evangelical Church having my teeth sharpened on bad eschatology (of the Left Behind variety) that said some cabal of atheists, Russians, Muslims, gays and lesbians was going to come get us! Within this was a weird balance between thinking this was all prophesied and had to happen, yet faithful Christians must still resist it and fight against it.

The biggest thing to be aware of, we were taught, was a man who would come along and promise safety and comfort. This man would trick fake Christians with promises of safety. To get this safety, all we would have to do is pledge our allegiance to him, above all else. Of course, the real and true Christians would resist this antichrist and face persecution.

With this in mind, its forever ironic to me that so many who warned of such an antichrist have been so quick to sell out their own morals, principles and ethics to support the precise person who fit the description we had been warned of! The very people who told me to be skeptical of smooth-talking political leaders making promises bought the offer of safety and power.

Now, for the record, I do not think Trump is The Antichrist. I do not think we should be looking for one person we would call “The Antichrist” if by that we mean one big, bad figure at the end of history. Instead, we ought to be aware of “antichrist” – anyone who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4:13). In Revelation 13 we meet the infamous “Beast” who demands worship and is often conflated with the antichrists mentioned in 1 John. Historically, this would have been a reference to the Roman Emperor who demanded to be recognized, and worshiped, as “Lord”. In demanding this, the Emperor usurped the place of the God revealed in Jesus. Anyone, or any empire, who promises military security, economic comfort and plenty of entertainment in exchange for your allegiance is an antichrist – from Egypt in Exodus to Babylon to Rome down to the American Empire today.

To this we could add a third point. When Jesus is tempted by Satan, Satan tells him that if he bows down in worship, Satan will give him all the nations of the world. Satan offers Jesus power. Jesus refuses. Jesus reveals a different form of power – not a power over others, but a power that comes through self-giving love and self-sacrifice, ultimately on the cross. What Jesus said no to, millions of white evangelicals have said yes to. We’ve take the bargain with Satan – we are willing to bow down to any beast/antichrist who promises to keep us safe.

Some might say this is too political. Christians must be political because everything is political. The prophets, Jesus, the early Christians and others through the ages have spoke truth to power. We cannot avoid being political, for everything is political. We can avoid being partisan though, by speaking truth to all sides and whomever is running the government. In this moment, white evangelical Christians need to reckon with whether we desire to follow the self-sacrificial way of Jesus or the comfortable and safe way of Satan.

Some might say this is too harsh. Perhaps. I will always admit I am harder on white evangelical Christians than I am on other Christians, because this is my family background. I read that article and I felt I knew those people. I am able to criticize because I have been in this world. I am harsh because they taught me the faith and it saddens me when they appear not to live it. Is it harsh to remind them of the way of Jesus which they taught me? Jesus never promised us power. To seek power over others, motivated by fear of what may happen, is to deny the way of Jesus which seeks to love others in self-sacrifice and love.

So again, if you want to gain power over others, then maybe the way of Jesus is not for you?

I do want to add, I do not think this means Christians should withdrawal or not be active American politics (or the politics of whatever country we find ourselves in). I believe our faith should inform our politics and that what is true is not just true for us, it is true for everybody. For example, the Bible speaks at length about caring for the poor and working for justice. We do not keep these private endeavors, as if God is not active outside the halls of our churches. I believe we do our best to work to make God’s vision for the world a reality as far as we can (noting that the reality is sin means we will never fully get there). This is tricky, for the temptation to power is always there. I believe we should be motivated by working for the good of all people and motivated by the love of God and vision of Jesus, rather than motivated by fear or a need for power over others. Obviously there is a lot there to unpack, but that is for another day.

July News and What I’m Reading

My July Newsletter has big news: I am now the Assistant Executive Director for CSFPA. This is a pretty cool and very humbling new job with plenty of new responsibilities, as well as carrying over a lot of the old responsibilities. In addition to working with the students at Penn State Berks (and Penn State Brandywine), I oversee our other ministers throughout the state.

You can read the newsletter here: https://mailchi.mp/9662a100240a/csfberksmay2019-4773490

I am on track to read more books this year than any year in my life. Part of this is the pandemic which has kept us at home more. Another part is my wife and I don’t watch much TV (pretty much just 30 Rock over and over again) so once the kids are in bed we read (well, we play table-top games such as Wingspan, which is fantastic). Anyway, here are some highlights of my recent reads:

Historical Theology: In the spring I read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Cosmic Liturgy: THe University According to Maximus the Confessor. Its a brilliant analysis of Maximus’ theology. I’ve read a good bit of Maximus’ work (400 Chapters on Love, The Ambigua) and Balthasar’s book helped bring a lot of Maximus’ ideas together. After this, I read The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian by Hilarion Alfeyev and then Julian of Norwich, Theology by Denys Turner. Maximus, Isaac and Julian have become three of my favorite theologians in the Christian tradition. Reading their primary work is a helpful devotional exercise, and filling in with these biographical works that summarize their ideas is a feast.

Addison Hodges Hart: I had read most of David Bentley Hart’s works before I learned he had a brother who also has written books. While DB Hart often dives deeply into theology and philosophy, AH Hart writes shorter books that are more pastoral and focused on spiritual discipline. That said, he does not remain on the surface but dives deep down. In some ways, his writings remind me of Marilynne Robinson or Frederick Buechner. I began with The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd: Finding Christ on Buddha’s Path which was a fascinating journey looking at ways the way of Jesus overlaps Buddhism. Next I read Knowing Darkness: Reflections on Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship and God. Finally, I read The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude. Each of these books has spoke to both my mind and soul. I have a few more of AH Hart’s books on my kindle (I got all of them when they were on sale for like 1.99 each).

Race/Racism: Since the protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, books on race have been selling out all over the place. I suppose I was ahead of the game, because I ordered a few books on this subject back in the spring. These books have consistently blown my mind. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America is a brilliant and deep examination of our history of racism. Then there was Jeanne Theoharis’ A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of the Civil Rights Movement. Her basic point is that we love to sanitize the movement, making it sound like King gave a speech and Rosa sat down and everyone applauded and racism was solved. The reality is that most Americans opposed the movement at the time, it was heavily political and many of the critiques of the current Black Lives Matter movement (that it has moved from the spirit of King and is too aggressive) are wrong (for the things said against BLM were said against King). I also read a brilliant history of the Great Migration titled The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Finally, I read Austin Channing Brown’s short book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.

A Few Others: Perhaps the best book I’ve read this year, though Kendi and Wilkerson are up there too, was Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantment of Mammon. McCarraher argues that Americans are not disenchanted, as philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, but instead are enchanted by other things, primarily Capitalism. Capitalism is our religion in America, and the failure by many Christians to recognize its corrupting influence but instead to baptize it as the best economic theory is detrimental to a life of Christian discipleship. We’re trained (enchanted) to filter our faith through capitalism from our cribs and by the time we are adults we can’t see the capitalist air we breath for what it is. McCarraher’s history is detailed and brilliant.

Finally, Healing our Broken Humanity by Graham Hill and Grace Ji-Sun Kim is a fantastic work on spiritual disciplines which I put right up there with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary.

The Stories We Tell of our Past and how they Shape our Present

The below newsletter was sent out a few weeks ago to my partners in ministry; I just neglected to post it here.

You can read the whole thing here:

https://mailchi.mp/3d253e141eff/csfberksmay2019-4753858

When Buzz Gifted me a Manual

A few years ago my boss, Buzz, CSFPA’s Executive Director, assigned the task of new staff training to me. This was one of the new roles I took on as Director of Staff Development. Buzz passed on to me a fat (more than 3 inches!) binder filled with articles and presentations and all the material he used to train campus ministers. Thankfully, there was also an online version. He gave me freedom to edit and add to it as much or as little as I liked.

            Buzz has worked on campus for over three decades and there is a lot of wisdom in that ministry manual. Mostly I have just added to it. Much of what I have added has been things I have taught the other campus ministers during our staff retreats over the past three years, as working with our current staff is also a task of mine as Director of Staff Development. One of these seminars was about how the world we live in became “secular”; what was the story of how Western culture moved from a world where everyone believed in God in 1500 to where the idea of God is greatly contested?

            As I mentioned in my newsletter last month, I have learned to recognize what I am passionate about and to excel in those areas, while leaning on others with gift in other areas. Putting together seminars like the one I mentioned, and reading authors such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and John Milbank nourishes my brain. So once that seminar was over, I added it to the staff manual. 

            Yet, it seemed sort of random. How did it fit in with what Buzz had given me? The current manual was filled with lots of practical ministry topics (small groups, leadership, outreach, etc.). It seemed one area that could use more material was the “theory” side. I decided to create a “Foundations” section that presented the Story of Scripture, followed by two sessions on church history, the second of which was that seminar I had done with the staff.

            The past few weeks I have been going through new staff training with our new minister at the University of Pittsburgh (Eddie) and our two interns at Penn State University Park (Chase and Phil). While we have been going through this training, our nation has been watching news of protests and rioting. Some of us have attended protests to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of us have had discussions about white privilege, confederate statues and what a just society looks like. As it pertains to new staff training, it has been impossible not to notice how these things happening right now tie in deeply with the history I have been going over with the new staff. My goal in including these sessions in the staff training manual was not just to dump some information into the new staff’s heads, but to help them see the world we live in today is intimately connected to all that has come before. A basic understanding of the past will help us in the present and on into the future.

            In this newsletter, I want to share some of this with you.

(To keep reading about how the story of scripture echoes the story of Christendom and the story of America, and how we can see both good in our past as well as things to confess, click here: https://mailchi.mp/3d253e141eff/csfberksmay2019-4753858)

Authentic Christianity by Peter Watts (Review)

Authentic Christianity by Peter Watts is a delightful, readable and thoughtful book about what it means to be a Christian. Of course, everyone has some impression of what it means to be a Christian. There are multitudes of books, podcasts, articles and such out there on this. Everyone has an opinion, and you can probably find a church or denomination to support your opinion.

So what makes Watts’ book special?

I read this while I was working on a newsletter update for my partners in ministry. I work with college students and hear story after story from students who are turned off to Christianity due to perceived hypocrisy, irrelevance and more. I hear the same stories from alumni, whether they continue to stay in church or not, who struggle to find churches. Through talking to current and former students, and thinking of how I do ministry, I believe the best thing young adults desire is honesty. When they have questions or objections they do not want to be sold some weak, textbook answer. They want honesty.

Or, as Watts puts it, authentic Christianity.

Authentic Christianity does not pretend all is right in our lives or the world. It does not seek to smooth the rough edges off. Instead, it lives in the real world of doubt and struggle and darkness and brokenness.

Reading this book while writing that newsletter was like reading my own thoughts being told back to me. I think Watts is 100% moving in the right direction. Well, when he gets into God “risking” things in the second to last chapter, I rolled my eyes. He cites Greg Boyd, who I generally appreciate, but I find the whole Open Theism, “God who risks” to be much less satisfying than more Classical Views of God. So I’ll say Watts is like 95% moving in the right direction.

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Authentic Christianity leaves space for us to disagree on such things. This leads to perhaps the best thing I can say about this book: Watts comes across like a great, wise, humble, kind disciple of Jesus. He’s someone I’d want to be friends with, argue with, debate and discuss with. Along those lines, this is the sort of book I could recommend to a skeptical college student or a friend who is not a Christian. There are few books out there about things of faith and God that I can imagine non-Christians reading. This is one, which itself is an accomplishment.

Overall, this is a good book to read for Christians or non-Christians, as individuals or in groups.

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.

Journey of the Pearl by AE Smith (Review)

AE Smith’s story Journey of the Pearl is an enjoyable work of historical fiction. There are some good characters here and anyone who appreciates history, or a good story should like it. Of course, it is a Christian story, so those who are Christian readers will definitely find much to enjoy as miracles happen. Some of these miracles are right from the pages of scripture: the story starts with the crucifixion of Jesus and includes Peter’s escape from prison in Acts. Others are merely a part of this story, for, after all, Acts tells us the disciples performed many miracles.

I really was able to enjoy the story when I began to think of it as taking place in an alternate reality. This was because there are references to things that did not exist in the first century. Though these references are minor, the reader with any knowledge of history will no longer be immersed when he wonders how first century Romans were playing soccer and chess or how they knew what a violin was. It is odd because Smith seems well verse in the history of the time and paints a pretty strong picture of what life in and around Jerusalem might have been like. He does a good enough job that I started to wonder if maybe I was wrong, and I had to look up a few things to confirm they did not exist then. Again, this is not detrimental to the book as it is fiction, but I think the story would have been served with a disclaimer that the author was taking liberties with history.

Along the same lines, some of the dialogue sounds way too modern. Early on Adas is discussing “faith and logic” and later they essentially posit Pascal’s Wager. A few characters question God in ways to make a modern atheist proud. It seems weird that these first century figures seem well-versed in contemporary apologetic and philosophical discussion.

Speaking of taking the reader out of the story, references to events in the Bible also seemed off. Much of the story takes place in the months after the crucifixion. It is not long after the crucifixion that Adas (the main character, by the way) is in Caesarea when Peter shows up and preaches to and baptizes the centurion Cornelius. In the Bible this is AFTER Paul converts (Acts 9) which is probably at least a year or so. There is a reference to Philip the Evangelist with the title “Philip the Evangelist” during Jesus’ life which is way too soon. James is mentioned as killed early in the book (which takes place in Acts 12), but the Epilogue speaks of Agabus’ prophecy that a famine would occur (which is in Acts 11).

It is a work of fiction, so its not a big deal. Except that people familiar with the Bible story will notice. This is not a story that takes place parallel to the Bible. We meet the soldiers crucifying Jesus and follow one of them as he experiences all sorts of events in Acts. I think footnotes or a postscript or something were needed.

All that aside, what about the story? Like I said, it is enjoyable and many of the characters are well written. But I really wonder if there was an editor. Many times, throughout the story, we read a character think of something and then there is a flashback. But there is no break in the page or no italics or anything, as is common in books. Some sort of transition was needed. Likewise, there are SO MANY flashbacks and characters speaking of things that happened years and years ago. Three of the main characters all learn shocking truths of their past. It seems like Smith almost was telling too much story. The best parts were when he focused on Adas and his friends and what was going on in their story now, not the skeletons in the closet of secondary characters.

Along with that, Smith writes as an omniscient narrator, which is not my favorite but is fine. Yet again though, he needs an editor. Some of the transitions were jarring as instead of saying something like, “Little did Adas know there was a man lurking in the corner,” he would just all of a sudden change to the man’s perspective (“Bob was watching and thought…). The most jarring was when a character revealed one of those skeletons from the closet of a character, then the narrator told us the story! So, the narrator knew all this but once the character mentioned one part of it, the narrator could say the rest. It just did not seem natural.

Finally, I need to mention the biggest irritation which almost made me not read the book: the actual book itself. It is so WIDE! I just finished reading three straight hardback 1000-page fantasy novels that are huge. But they are not as wide as this one. Its bizarre as no other fiction I have ever read is this shape, its more the shape of a children’s story book. It makes the experience of reading odd. I do not know what the thought process was here (bigger pages = less pages, so more people might read it?) but it was weird. That is more on the publisher.

Overall, there is a good story in here. Unfortunately, it is cluttered with confusing transitions, historical anachronisms and too many flashbacks.

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.