In “Books in Conversation” I seek to bring together several authors through their notable works in order to synthesize a conversation about a needed topic. Given the current season of political crossfire it seems more necessary than ever to have a conversation about Christianity in the public square. How can Christians meaningfully engage their faith and their civic duty? How can Christians be faithful citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, promoting its values and ideals, and good citizens of an earthly nation? As I spent the last few weeks thinking through these and alike questions, I did so with the help of a few authors.
First David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons will help us get the lay of the land with Good Faith. Kinnaman is the president of the evangelical statistician agency The Barna Group, and Gabe Lyons is the head of Q an evangelical think-tank of sorts. These guys are data experts, they have developed the surveys and run the numbers, and this is critical because we often fail to remember that every source of news media is presenting a bias perspective. There is not a print, radio, television, or web-based platform that is not presenting you with some kind of skew on the story, but Kinnaman and Lyons are really trying to assess the world as it actually is and that means giving priority to the numbers.
Second, using James Davison Hunter’s 2010 book To Change the World, we’ll consider the question of withdrawal from the public square and consider the notion of “faithful presence.” Dr. Hunter is a sociologist and well-known Christian thinker who has produced some very quality work on a number of important topics. Hunter, as this post subtly alludes, is often a few steps ahead of the rest of the Christian world—hence a six year old book being included with two books from the last 12-months.
Third, and lastly, we’ll talk about thinking Christianly through all the issues and the need to live out of our faith with Mirsolv Volf’s Public Faith in Action. This work is a follow up to A Public Faith in which Volf discusses the need for a pluralistic public square. In this sequel Volf discusses distinctly Christian takes on a number of critical socio-political topics with the goal of guiding his readers into a faithful and coherent public life.
During my days as an undergraduate days at a Christian university I heard a lot of talk about the need for Christians to be winsome in the face of the shifting cultural winds. I agree, I completely agree, but that also seemed to be where the conversation ended. A simple call for winsomeness. I think that would be great if people were actually engaging the Christians they know in conversations about their faith, theology, and the ebb and flow of culture. A few readings have made me think that is probably not what is happening. The first made some waves a few months back because of its content and where it appeared. In an essay titled “A Confession of Liberal Intolerance” by Nicholas Kristof from The New York Times, Kristof commented on the decline presence of Christian or simply socially conservative faculty on university campuses. It begins with this astonishing confession:
WE progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives. Universities are the bedrock of progressive values, but the one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us. O.K., that’s a little harsh. But consider George Yancey, a sociologist who is black and evangelical. “Outside of academia I faced more problems as a black,” he told me. “But inside academia I face more problems as a Christian, and it is not even close.”
I have to admire Kristof’s honesty to comment on this in the liberal news standard bearer, The New York Times. The second reading came after the tragic shooting in Orlando, Florida. Again, in The New York Times an article ran titled “After Orlando, a Political Divide on Gay Rights Still Stands.” Innocuous enough, right? Until one reaches the fifth paragraph anyway:
In the weeks leading up to the killings, they pointed out, issues involving gays were boiling over in Congress and in Republican-controlled states around the country. More than 150 pieces of legislation were pending in state legislatures that would restrict rights or legal protections for sexual minorities. A Republican congressman read his colleagues a Bible verse from Romans that calls for the execution of gays. Congress was considering a bill that would allow individuals and businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples.
Did you catch that because I almost read past the throw away line “a Bible verse from Romans that calls for the execution of gays.” Funny I read Romans cover to cover and, while I know my B.A. in Biblical Studies or my M.A. in Theology means little to The New York Times, I didn’t happen to find a single Bible verse calling for the execution of gays. As it turns out the passage in question was Romans 1:18-32, a pretty standard verse in the discussion of homosexuality in the church:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Where, may I inquire is the calling for the “execution of gays”? I should move on. You can read the article for yourself. I also recommend the fantastic response to the article from The Federalist. The third reading was Good Faith by Kinnaman and Lyons.
The co-authors structure their book in three parts: (1) Understanding Our Times, (2) Living Good Faith, and (3) The Church and Our Future. Though I would suggest an alternative title for part one, something along the lines of “The Uphill Battle Against Perception” because I felt pretty discouraged by the time I finished the first sixty or so pages. Allow me to give you the general thrust of part one:
- We (everyone) are increasingly unable to have meaningful dialogue with those we disagree with.
- We (Christians) are increasingly viewed as irrelevant and extreme for holding to the most basic tenants of our faith.
- Our culture seems to hold to six guiding principles: (1) to find yourself, you must look inside yourself, (2) people should not criticize some else’s life choices, (3) to be fulfilled in life, pursue the things you desire most, (4) enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life, (5) people can believe whatever they was as long as those beliefs don’t affect society, and (6) any kind of sexual expression between two consenting adults is fine.
I wish I didn’t have to point this out, but considering a 2015 Barna OmniPoll pointed out that 76%, 76%, 72%, 66%, 61%, and 40% of practicing Christians agree respectively with those six statements, those six principles are all antithetical to the Christian worldview.
So as Kinnaman and Lyons set the scene for us, we take note that the scene is bleak. Something interesting, which they never openly state but is deeply implied in much of the research and discussion that goes into their book however is that while many non-Christians are writing off Christians and the church, many Christians are failing to be adequately Christian. In fact, I am a little disappointed that Kinnaman didn’t pull out the famous G.K. Chesterton, “It is not that the Christian ideal was tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried” (from What’s Wrong with the World). In parts one and two the book turns to ask the question of what we as “good faith” Christians and “good faith” churches can do in a world that runs contrary to our faith. If I were to level one criticism at the book it is the term “good faith” from which the book unfortunately gets its title. I get the purpose of the term, it avoids sectarian or denominational language. It avoids using the term evangelical, which has been tainted by use in politics and evacuated of all theological meaning. But it runs into the same problem as born-again Christian, which is to prompt the question ‘is there any other kind?’
This is precisely the point at which I want to turn to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, in particular his discussion of ‘faithful presence’. For a little background, Hunter’s book is actually three essays on the Christians attempt to “change the world”, Christians’ use of power and influence, and Hunter’s suggested model for Cultural involvement faithful presence. In the first essay, Hunter takes Christians to task for basically being complete failures at world changing because, in Hunter’s view, they had a faulty understanding of culture. Hunter argues that Christians (he is mostly thinking about evangelicals who have been influenced by Francis Schaeffer, like the late-Chuck Colson) thought too much in terms of ideas and values. The equation went something like this:
Bad Values > Bad Actions > Bad World
Good Values > Good Actions > Good World
If this equation were right there would be a clear response to the question ‘how do we change the world?’ Simply seek to redirect people’s minds to good values. This involves engaging people’s minds in ethical discussions about values and how they play out in our lives. It can be thought of as an ‘ideas have consequences approach’. The best way to engage ideas is usually in one-on-one or small group discussions. So this usually looks like a kind of grass-roots movement that seeks to change the world one mind at a time.
As natural as this looks Hunter points out that lying behind this method exists two failed philosophies and some false notions about culture. It may or may not be of interest, but behind this understand of world change are the philosophies of Hegelian idealism and logical positivism. Both of which have deeply unChristian implications and are, for the most part, rejected as viable systems of thought. The final nail in the coffin is, as odd as it might sound to non-Christians who see Christians are cultural critics, it gives culture way too much credit. It assumes culture is fair and rational. Which it is most certainly not.
For culture to be fair it would have to not be a respecter-of-persons. That is, it would not give more value to someone of status. If culture was fair, the trending topics on the sidebar of Facebook wouldn’t care which non-political celebrities were voting for Donald trump or Hilary Clinton. Why does Tom Brady’s support or lack thereof for Trump’s presidential bid show up, when Dr. Russell Moore and Dr. Albert Mohler’s stunning declaration that they will be writing in candidates does not. Apparently the quarterback of the New England Patriots carries more cultural freight in his endorsement than two theologians who hold top leadership roles in the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest evangelical denomination in America). Dr. Moore’s position could even be described as the political arm of the SBC, yet he only made mention on any social media site after Donald Trump insulted him for an article discussing not voting for Trump. And if you would like to see the irrationality of culture then just consider the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution kicked off with free-love (marriage is a meaningless, out-of-date, bourgeois institution) and the birth of modern feminism (women are no different from men in any essential manner), yet up until Obergefell v. Hodges decision was handed down by the Supreme Court the main issue of the sexual revolution was same-sex marriage (marriage is a deeply important institution, in fact it is a right that all are welcome to), and today the current debate is transgender rights (gender differences are real enough that some have existential pain over being the wrong gender).
Hunter goes on to show how Christians have failed to use political and social influence well. They did not pass sufficient pro-life legislation or over turn Roe v. Wade, they did not keep divorce from becoming an epidemic for families and a cottage industry for unscrupulous lawyers, and they did not stop the rise in greed and the mistreatment of low-income or immigrant families. What they did accomplish was upsetting a lot of people by their misuse of political power. Though Hunter doesn’t say this it seems as if no group in history has been more ineffective with influence and yet also as hated for their influence as evangelicals. Thus Hunter advocates a withdrawal from politics and a turn to faithful presence. to use the vogue church term, ‘incarnational’. The idea here is that Christians be faithful to God, seek Jesus and live holy lives. While doing so, do so in roles and relationships God has placed around you. Be a faithful Christian during your college studies, be a faithful Christian in your medical practice, be a faithful Christian hanging drywall, be a faithful Christian _____________. Here is how the equation works for Hunter:
Faithful Christians (FC) obey God > God asks us to do all things with excellence > FCs pursue excellence in their vocations > FCs receive influence for excellence in their vocational fields > FCs humbly leverage their influence for human flourishing
It is a bit more complex, but culture is a bit more complex than was initially believed. I think there is something very attractive about this option, in fact, it has a certain similarity and parallel in journalist Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option which has been growing in popularity amidst the moral and ethical waste of this years election cycle.
At this point I want to turn to our third and final book in light of a few criticism of Hunter’s plan. First, a notable oversight is that he does not discuss what withdrawal from politics means. Are we to stop voting? Stop discussing politics? Should Christians stop running for office or leave the political realm altogether? Or are we just telling big Christian institutions like Focus on the Family to not endorse a candidate publicly (bad Dr. Dobson, bad)? Second, Hunter seems to imagine that faithful Christians leaving the political sphere would help our public image. I am not convinced that the problem does not come from cultural Christians who are already in offices or roles in politics that do a lot of non-Christian things with a Bible perpetually closed on their desk. If this is the case, then real Christians withdrawing would only mean a further loss of face for Christians. Third, Hunter argues that powerful individuals connected to institutions that are between the center of culture and the fringes are the ones with power to make real change. However, the powerful media institutions and universities are intentionally silencing Christian witness to the broader world while bull-horning anything that supports the views which Kinnaman and Lyons’ point out in their data, that Christians are irrelevant and extreme. Fourth and final, if Hunter’s plan works it is one for the long game, but there are massive consequences everyday Christians are not involved in politics. Two examples come to mind, both deal with the issue of meaningful life. What happens to the abortion debate or the assisted-suicide debate if Christians back away?
The third and final book challenges Hunter’s view. That is A Public Faith in Action by Mirsolv Volf and Ryan McNally-Linz. For those to whom these names are unfamiliar, that is somewhat to be expected, especially in McNally-Linz’s case, as he is Volf’s research assistant who helped on A Public Faith and got a promotion to co-author for this follow-up volume. Volf, however, should be known by thoughtful Christians because he is one of the best thinkers venturing into previous uncharted territory for engaged and thoughtful disciples of Jesus. That said, I often disagree with Volf. Notably in his books Allah: A Christian Response and Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, I believe the picture he paints of some religious views generously neglects a lack of coherence between adherents, thus he has to assume an understanding of a religion that has far too many varied expressions to be adequately grouped together. Now that said, his work in Exclusion and Embrace and this work, A Public Faith in Action, I am nearly in complete agreement with. Volf begins stating:
The word public doesn’t name an isolated part of human life that can be dropped into its own little basket next to other baskets or family life, church life, club life, and so on. the public can’t be nearly separated out and dealt with apart from the rest of life, as we might separate out the whites from the colors when we do laundry. That said, the public doesn’t swallow up the rest of life either… Public life is seen as life together in society. Correspondingly, public faith is faith concerned with responsible shaping of our common life and common world. Every part of life has a public side. All of life is shot through with public significance. (x)
Volf goes on to write, “If you decide to give up on ‘politics’—to stop voting, to quit reading the headlines, to studiously avoid conversations about taxes and health care, to hunker down and just go about your business as best you could—you wouldn’t be entirely escaping public life. Rather, you would be living a certain kind of public life, a limited, largely passive, and likely irresponsible public life” (xi).Again, since Hunter does not really define what he considers a withdrawal from politics it is hard to say that this statement challenges his perspective, but it certainly challenges the Benedict Option, which is being increasingly adopted by millennial evangelicals who want to be Christians an be liked. Their aversion to politics, which is completely understandable though not admirable, is a kind of attempt to say to their non-Christian friends “oh I’m not one of those Christians.” But Volf challenges our complacency—again the Christian ideal is hard, but it needs trying—by calling Christians to seek the flourishing of creation. Christians can pursue flourishing by engage faithfully with the major socio-politcial issues of the day: wealth, the environment, work/rest, poverty, borrowing/lending, marriage/family, new life, health/sickness, aging life, ending life, migration, policing, criminal punishment, war, torture, and the freedom of religion/irreligion. It is deeply important that we are knowledgable and involved in these discussions. When faithful Christians stop talking about these issues (which gain their importance only through the biblical belief in the image of God residing in each person), who will champion the causes of the weak and powerless, the voiceless and weary, the alien and the homeless? The church has a model in the life of Christ, are not these the least in our society?
What I like most about Volf’s book is that each of these topics is introduced, a statement of basic Christian conviction is given, and remaining questions to guide individual Christians to their specific position are posed. While I find some places to disagree with Volf, his tone and thoughtfulness are courteous and helpful in the formation of my own positions. The most important part of Volf’s book, however, is the closing chapters that deal with character, this is also where Kinnaman and Lyons end their book, as well as an issue touched on by Hunter. There are two keys for Christians involved in engaging in the public square: (1) we must be faithfully Christian, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves, (2) we will need courage and humility along with faith and love in abundance to do this well.
There is so much more to say, but I have already written too much. Thanks for reading,
For more on each of these books I highly recommend The Gospel Coalition’s book reviews for A Public Faith in Action and Good Faith, as well last year TGC produced a document that revisited To Change the World five years after it was written.