The Year of Our Lord 1943 - A Review

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The title of Alan Jacobs’ most recent project, The Year of Our Lord 1943, sets the stage for the book but it does not limit the contents. To many readers, the subtitle offers some clue to the contents, but raises additional questions as well. After all, the word “humanism,” even as it is set in context of the full subtitle—Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis––has competing definitions and in some cases is perceived to be inconsistent with “Christian.”

The crisis of 1943, at least, is obvious to anyone even vaguely aware of World History. This was the year that the Allies became confident that the Axis forces would be defeated. The tenor of the war effort changed, from a hope of survival at great cost, to the expectation of the enemies’ unconditional surrender. It was a time when people began to think beyond the war to what life after the war would look like.

Jacobs focuses on one particular school of thought, which he calls “Christian humanism.” The definition of this movement is complex, but can be summed up as effort to use literature to morally form people into good citizens. This approach to moral formation is built on Christian sentiments, in particular, since Christian humanists saw the Christian faith as the only foundation suitable for a just society.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an ambitious work. It surveys a wide range of sources, but mainly deals with the work of Jacques Maritain, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W. H. Auden. Dorothy L. Sayers, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Ellul, and others make appearances, but the first five are the main cast. Not only is this an impressive lineup of writers whose work Jacobs digests and presents, but at many points their vision of the good society is different. They had a common core of ideas, to be sure, but their ideas for what good should look like and how it should be obtained were variegated. The work is also impressive because Jacobs weaves the various streams together rather than using a purely chronological or topical approach.

This book is important because it recounts the debate of that day and documents the thinking of the side whose ideas were generally not implemented. Thus, this book helps tie together what are now prophetic themes about how society could have been better ordered.

In 1941, the great choice would have been whether or not to do what it took to survive. Nearly any means is deemed acceptable when a nation is staring down destruction or enslavement. However, as the tide of World War II was turning, the question of whether the technocratic policies and processes that were used to help organize the war effort would become permanent fixtures of society was a more pertinent one.

The question the thinkers discussed in this book were wrestling is still a pivotal one today: What does it look like to be human in a modern world?

This is what many of Jacobs’ projects have been about, especially in recent years. It also marks a perennial question that humanity has traditionally debated, but has lately seemed to get buried beneath a wave of social media, constant entertainment, and unthinking busyness. If nothing else, this book is a call for people to wake up and begin to question whether they are asking the right questions.

The Year of Our Lord 1943 is an excellent book. For those that are intrigued by the ferment of thought that comes from Christians exploring the good society in the early- to mid-twentieth century, this book will prove to be a helpful reference. It combines history, literary analysis, and thoughtful critique in a readable text that both enlightens and invites further study. For those who are simply interested in a well-told intellectual history, this volume will provide an enjoyable experience. Those who are trying to figure out how to relate their Christianity to the idea of a good society will find this book useful, as well, as Jacobs helps expose readers to old books by writing a new book about the authors of some of the most important, but often unconsidered, texts of the modern age.

Welcoming Justice - A Review

John Perkins will be remembered as a significant figure in the 20th century, mainly because of his practical work toward racial reconciliation and community development. Perkins is a man who has had every reason to reject the pursuit of reconciliation, and yet has doggedly invested his life in those efforts.

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Charles Marsh is a professor at the University of Virginia, whose book God’s Long Summer offers several biographical accounts of the Civil Rights movement, especially how the faith of its supporters was essential to their motivation and its prosecution.

IVP has recently issued an expanded edition of Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community that combines the practical experience of Perkins with the historiography of Marsh. It is framed in light of ugly rise of white supremacy, especially through the Alt-Right. Marsh’s preface to this new edition specifically frames it in like of the riots and violence at Charlottesville in 2017.

This volume speaks to people in two directions. Marsh, a moderate theological revisionist, speaks to the need of the work of the Civil Rights movement to continue. He notes that faith has been a central part of that movement, and should remain at the center of it. His plea functions most clearly to entice those in the majority—those who are tempted to ignore or minimize to continue pursuing racial justice–to remain engaged and faithful. Perkins, who is theologically evangelical, communicates both the need for patience and continued engagement by the offended, as well as the possibility of work toward racial reconciliation by the theologically orthodox. In other words, Perkins offers a reminder that one does not have to abandon historical doctrines of the faith to pursue justice.

As a textbook for action or a firm theological foundation for a movement toward racial justice, this book falls short. There is evident discontinuity between the theology of Perkins and Marsh, which leads to a somewhat garbled message. However, as an example of the ability to cooperate for a common cause despite theological differences, this is a very helpful book. The succinct volume functions largely as an artifact of collegial co-labor.

Although not earth shattering in its intellectual heft, this brief book fills a distinct need. Given the increasing polarization between racial, political, economic, and religious tribes, the cooperation of these men and the similar message they share is a reminder that a great deal can be done in this world despite our disagreements.

It is certain that there is a great deal left to do with racial reconciliation. I am hopeful that Welcoming Justice falls into the hands of readers that need to hear the message that unity is possible without unanimity, that the pursuit of a just society is a way to honor Christ, and that this issue is altogether too important to be ignored.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

On Reading Well - A Review

It is a general rule that when Karen Swallow Prior writes something, you should read it. Her latest book, On Reading Well, is no exception.

In this volume, Prior brings her lifelong interest in literature, which has culminated in her work as a professor of English, and an interest in seeing people–particularly Christians–live ethically.

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Her thesis in On Reading Well is that careful reading of literature forms the human soul. Even books that were not written with a specific moral—and perhaps especially those not written with a specific moral—can be morally formative when the story is well-told. In one sense, we borrow the memories of the characters by living their experiences vicariously when we read carefully.

To carry out her mission, Prior selects twelve books that might find their way on the reading list of university syllabus in any setting, then explores their moral terrain. A clear message from Prior’s curated list is that we can learn from the human condition well explored, whether or not we agree with the theology of the author.

The literary discussions are framed in terms of virtues, with four chapters on the cardinal virtue, three on the theological virtues, and another five on what Prior calls the heavenly virtues. When the virtues are discussed as concepts with their substance filled from contemporary sources, such approaches often fall short of the mark. This structure works and is edifying, in part, because the content of these virtues is filled with substance from the Christian tradition, with influence from classical thinkers who have also influenced Christians throughout the centuries.

I have previously read most of the works Prior covers. In some cases, it has been several decades. There were four chapters on material I have never read (I won’t say which, lest some readers get judgmental.), but Prior’s careful discussion enables even an unexposed reader to gain from the chapters.

Readers will benefit more from the book if they have read all of the literature Prior discusses. Perhaps the most beneficial approach would be to read the particular work of literature just prior to reading each chapter. However, for those simply seeking to grow and better understand how humans ought to live, this book can stand on its own.

At one level, this is a book that teaches readers about ethics. At another level, On Reading Well is a warm invitation into the world of literature. This invitation is extended graciously and unpretentiously.

Reading literature is important for those seeking to really know people around them. This is especially true of pastors and theologians. As a theologian, I have found that my ability to empathize with others, to understand, and to explain hard concepts clearly ebbs and flows based on my reading. One might think this would have primarily to do with the theology that I read, but it has more to do with the literature that I am reading. Specifically, when I am reading imaginative stories (not all of which is quality literature), my imagination is invigorated. I am equipped with clearer illustrations of sometimes complex theological or ethical concepts. Often these are not drawn specifically from the book that I am reading, but simply a reflection of the pattern of thought that comes from reading a good story well told.

Prior taps into the link between the moral imagination and reading. We are formed by what we read and how we read. A subtext throughout this volume is the call to read and think carefully about the books we encounter. This is no guide to chugging through an arbitrary list of supposedly important texts, but a demonstration of the sort of thoughtfulness that should characterize the time we spend partaking of good books.

On Reading Well is enjoyable for its quality as a book in itself. For those who enjoy reading literature, it is a treat worthy of a fireside reading. This has a place in the library of homeschool families, where it shows what close reading looks like and may help some families move beyond the list of reading comprehension questions into discussions about the soul of the literature they encounter. Pastors can benefit from this by exploring thought beyond the bounds of commentaries, the latest non-fiction volumes, and even classical theological works. The church will benefit if the men called to preach are reading good books carefully, even if it does not lead directly to sermon references.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers - A Review

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Dorothy L. Sayers is one the most brilliant writers of the twentieth century. Her work spans a number of genres, from detective novels, to religious stage productions, radio dramas, apologetic essays, and translations of Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio that are still in print.

Sayers is less popular than C. S. Lewis, in part, I think, because he wrote children’s literature that draws new generations of readers more readily into his camp. Sayers was, however, no less witty and intriguing a figure as Lewis.

In fact, it is encouraging that more of Sayers’ work seems to be returning to print. There are a number of her essays that are hard to find, but which politely dismember opposing arguments in terms that make the power of her logic perfectly clear. Her detective novels, which are now somewhat dated period literature, are good stories in addition to their subtle arguments for truth. Christians, especially evangelical Christians, need a good dose of Dorothy L. Sayers.

The latest release in the Plough Publishing series celebrating the gospel in a range of writers is The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers. This anthology curates selections from all genres in chapters focused on particular topics like judgment, equality, creativity, and the cross. In some cases, entire essays are reprinted, like her powerful and satirical essay, “The Dogma is the Drama.” In other cases, the editor has selected a few paragraphs from a novel, or a scene from a play.

This book may not be the best place to start for those who are seeking to learn about Dorothy L. Sayers.  Though the anthology shows the range of her work, much of the power of her writing takes chapters to unfold. Her characters grow, mature, and endear themselves to readers over several novels. For example, her portrait of Bunter, one of my favorite characters in all of literature, can only be fully appreciated by reading all of the Lord Peter stories.

My concern with the approach of this volume is that people will miss the genius of Sayers while getting the idea that she was moralistic in her writing, because of the topical selections. There is no question that the gospel is woven through Sayers’ writing, but her work is worth exploring because it is good even before its moral power becomes apparent. Sayers herself, I believe, would shudder to think that people would read her work because she is a Christian rather than for the artistic quality of it.

At the same time, with the growing interest in Sayers studies, this is a timely and helpful volume. For those who have already come to appreciate her work, The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers offers a buffet to sample some of her other offerings. Also, the book can make a handy reference volume (much like books of quotes by Chesterton and Lewis) since it can be hard to remember just where and exactly how Sayers said something in one of the books one has read. The editor has done well to select many of the most significant passages, such that this book may serve as a shortcut for those writing on Dorothy L. Sayers.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Lion in the Waste Land - A Review

In the period after the first World War, the Britain was in an existential crisis. The nation remains, at least in name, a Christian nation. At that point, though, the requirement to attend services had been dropped, which subsequently revealed that much of the population had little interest in Christianity. When the pressure of German hostility and the subsequent Battle of Britain became a pervasive threat to daily life, that nations, with its vaguely Christian memories, began to wonder if the resources for survival might be found in the Old Paths of Christian faith.

That period of British history saw several key voices arise to present a credible vision of Christianity to a population that had forgotten the core tenets of the gospel. The first was G. K. Chesterton, who was a journalist and a novelist, and whose work both influenced and made possible the trio of writers that are the main subject of Janice Brown’s recent book, The Lion in the Waste Land.

From amidst the literal rubble of British cities and the figurative rubble of a culture devastated by the carpet bombing of modernity, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot stand out as prophetic voices pointing people back to the spiritual and cultural resources of Christianity. The Lion in the Waste Land puts the three contemporaries, who were also friends, into conversation and shows how the powerful truth of the gospel of Christ pervades both the non-fiction and fiction works of all three authors.

Summary

Chapter One reveals the continuity in the message of the three uniquely gifted individuals. It also traces how their friendships formed. In the case of the Lewis-Eliot friendship, Brown’s historical explanation is especially helpful since Lewis was vocally critical of Eliot’s poetry early on; yet, the two became friends and co-laborers in revealing authentic Christianity to the world. In the second Chapter, Brown articulates the methodologies used by the three authors: there were overt apologetic attempts by all three, but their more powerful presentation of the fierce redemption found in the gospel is found in their imaginative works. This chapter helps show why these three laypeople were so particularly effective in showing the credibility of Christianity and why they remain popular to this day.

After the first two chapters, The Lion in the Waste Land shifts from historical overview to literary analysis. What follows are several chapters where Brown explores literary themes that are common in the work of Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers and which relate to the truth of Christianity and the redemptive power of the gospel. In Chapter Three, the reader is treated to a thematic exposition of the figure of Christ in the work of all three authors. Brown traces through images—both overt and subtle—to indicate the pervasiveness of Christ in their literature. The fourth chapter surveys the idea of choice and God’s pursuit of humanity for their salvation. This is a theme that is present in much of the work of Eliot, Sayers, and Lewis, and one that forms a unity with the idea of a fierce redemption by God. Chapter Five interrogates the work of the three subjects for uses of angelic figures. These supernatural beings populate the imaginative worlds of the apologetic trio, offering a start contrast to the anti-supernatural vision of modernity.

Having unpacked some of the central Christian themes in Sayers, Eliot, and Lewis, Brown again shifts her focus to the methods and impact of the three writers in their particular cultural-historical context. Chapter Six outlines how the work of the three authors was shaped by and responded to the particular sufferings of Britain during World War II: their message was received and promoted because it offered a plausible source of meaning for a nation teetering on the brink of despair without adequate resources to stand firm. In the seventh chapter Brown explores the deeper message that was offered by all three authors: redemption begins the journey toward the joy in union with Christ. In this chapter Brown delves into the concept of the Christian life as it is portrayed by Lewis, Eliot, and Sayers. In the final chapter, the book emphasizes how each of the subjects was pushing readers back toward historical Christianity, where the resources for salvation and sanctification could be found, rather than toward a revised, modernistic version of Christianity. This is particularly powerful, since all three were particularly Modern authors, but all three pointed people back to resources from the traditional faith of the Church—a distinctly un-modern thing to do.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Lion in the Waste Land is an excellent scholarly work on three of the most interesting people to live in the last century. Brown combines excellent literary criticism with careful biographical research to present a cogent vision of the impact that Lewis, Sayers, and Eliot had in their particular context and continue to have, particularly in the English-speaking world.

This book should remain a mainstay in Inklings studies for decades in the future. Brown’s work is careful, subtle, and reasonably comprehensive. It is both an example of a critical work done well and work of scholarship that will be intensely interesting to those engaged in the study of modern English literature, particularly in the works of Eliot, Lewis, and Sayers.

Window on the World - A Review

Finding helpful resources for discipling children can be a challenge. It is difficult to find resources that are reasonably up to date, engaging, and avoid theologically tendentious assertions.

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In particular, teaching children about other cultures and the pressing need for a broader vision and calling to cross-cultural evangelism, especially through international missions. One helpful resource has been the Operation World concept adapted for children in the Window on the World book. That full-color volume gives an introduction to world cultures, nations, and religious ideas in a brief, engaging manner. However, due to the passage of time and shifting of political winds, many of the entries had become outdated and factually inaccurate.

Thankfully, IVP has released a revised edition of the Window on the World book. This roughly 200 page volume has been updated with new pictures, correct sociological data, and different people groups. It, too, will need to be updated before long. In the meanwhile, this is a resource that missionally minded parents would do well to invest in.

Window on the World has ninety-two entries. There are fifty-two countries discussed, thirty-four people groups, and six discussions of major world religions.

Each of the entries is visually engaging with up-to-date color pictures, maps, and informational panels that offer specific prayer topics and important statistics. The text is simply written with an emphasis of personal accounts of families or children from within the given people group or nation.

At two pages each, the topics discussed in the book are far from exhaustive. However, they provide enough information to interest a young reader or listener in the world outside his or her own experience. It personalizes the lostness of the world, the ongoing persecution of Christians in other cultures, and the importance of praying for, given to, and participating in cross-cultural missions.

This volume is organized alphabetically, which means that linear progress through the volume can sometimes be uneven. It will take a bit of planning to study particular regions of the world in sequence. However, it is just this sort of shifting between the Hui people group to the nation of Iceland to the country of India that will keep some young readers flipping the pages.

Window on the World provides a way for homeschool parents to teach their children about the lostness of the world and disciple them toward prayer and engagement in cross-cultural missions. In addition to its information, it has specific suggestions for praying for each of the entries. The length is appropriate for reading at a meal time or including as a brief topic between other academic subjects. Similarly, it may be possible to incorporate this resource into a study of geography.

Parents who do not homeschool will also find this a helpful resource, since it could be used for a family devotional activities in the evenings or on weekends. It is friendly to a wide range of theological traditions, since it focuses on the socio-political information of each entry, but could be part of a regular pattern of teaching in the home.

This is the sort of book that will intrigue many children, especially those who find encyclopedias engaging. The layout, writing style, and brevity of the entries makes this a feast for those youngsters that find Usborne or DK books so entertaining. Even absent a parental strategy of organized teaching on world missions, this volume could accomplish the same ends merely by being placed on an appropriate shelf.

The church should be thankful for IVP for updating this valuable resource. The editors, Jason Mandryk and Molly Wall, have provided a service to the body of Christ as we seek to raise up another generation with a heart for seeing people from every tribe and tongue and nation come to Christ.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.

The Faun's Book Shelf - A Review

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A quick glance at the work of C. S. Lewis could cause the casual observer to divide his work into several distinct bundles. The first is his apologetic work, which was really his cause for fame, in which category I would include his substantial journalistic engagement. The second category that is easy to recognize is his fiction. And, the third category, which is often ignored by all but his more ardent fans, is his professional work in literary criticism.

All three categories are significant. And, in all three categories, readers get a consistent witness to the author. The ideas of C. S. Lewis are clearly present through three significantly different genres of writing. This sort of consistency is part of what makes Lewis worthwhile to read, even when some of the issues he addresses are no longer major topics of concern.

Though he is consistent throughout his work, C. S. Lewis’ fictional work is the most significant. In his technical work on literature, Lewis shows how culture has shifted regarding epistemology. In his apologetic and journalistic work, Lewis argues why it is better to be a Christian. However, in his fictional work, Lewis illustrates what is wrong with contemporary thought and how realistic, Christian modes of thought can make the world a better place.

By writing fiction, Lewis makes concrete what is somewhat abstract in his non-fiction writing. (Though as writers go, his non-fiction is much more concrete than most.) This is, in part, a result of his understanding of and reliance upon the power of myth.

In his recent book, The Faun’s Bookshelf, Charlie Starr traces the power of myth—or, in contemporary parlance, the power of story—in C. S. Lewis. The main argument is advanced on two levels: (1) Starr shows how Lewis uses pre-existing myth and weaves it into his fiction, (2) Starr also demonstrates how Lewis creates myth to convey his ideas in a convincing way. The exploration of these topics is set in the larger context of considering why myth matters and how it can be used by those of us who are not literary geniuses like C. S. Lewis. Starr, a former English professor, focuses on the work of Lewis, but his broader point applies to the use of myth and stories in all media and genres.

The book is divided into four parts, each with three chapters. In Part One, Starr explores the general definitions of myth, including the idea that myth may not mean fictional. Rather, Starr presents a vision of myth that is consistent with Lewis’: Myth may well be the careful retelling of true stories in an evocative, imaginative manner. Part Two examines how Lewis used pre-existing cultural myths in his fictional work to deepen the myth he is creating. For example, Lewis borrows Silenus from Greek mythology and puts him on the shelf of a Narnian faun with the book title, The Life and Letters of Silenus. Starr explores how that title reflects the Narnian longing for a better time of feasting and celebration.

In Part Three, Starr flips the script to examine the way that Narnian mythology questions the reality of our world, especially with titles like, Men, Monks, and Gamekeepers; A Study in Popular Legend. The reader knowns that men, monks, and gamekeepers exist—or that they existed—but those realities appear to be distant legends in Narnia. So may our myths bear the echoes of truth with a great deal more clarity than we realize. Part Four takes up more general questions necessary to understand Lewis’ approach to myth, by considering Lewis’ broader thinking on myth, the influence of Norse mythology in his life, and taking up a somewhat obscure but important possible contradiction in the writing of Lewis on myth.

The Faun’s Bookshelf is a worthwhile book based on two distinct contributions. First, Starr has done good work in synthesizing Lewis’ thought on myth and providing context for much of his use and reuse of myth. This makes the book a valuable resource for Lewis studies. Second, the book takes up the important question of the power of stories to shape culture. As people grapple with the acquisition of meaning and the power of myth, a study that shows how an expert used fiction to deepen reality is a welcome contribution.

This book will be most interesting for those that enjoy Lewis already. It is well-written in accessible prose, so that it should not be consigned to the stacks of academic libraries. The Faun’s Bookshelf would be an excellent secondary text for a university level course on C. S. Lewis, or even as part of a high school elective. Meanwhile, the book explores important questions that can deepen ongoing discussions on Christian participation in the arts.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law - A Review

There are some who have the impression that C. S. Lewis was a non-political thinker. After all, this is the man who stated that he didn’t read the newspaper (others would tell you the most important events) and who once wrote: “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” (“Membership”, Weight of Glory, 109)

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If one takes in only Lewis’ book-length works, it is easy to maintain this opinion. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Lewis had a lot to say about politics and had some clear views about what politics ought to be about. At the same time, Lewis generally wrote at a conceptual level, though he occasionally had something say about particular political propositions. However, in these cases, he focused on the issue, with its supporting arguments, rather than the people and power structures involved.

In their recent book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, Justin Buckley Dyer from the University of Missouri and Micah J Watson at Calvin College have worked to offer a systematic presentation of Lewis’ writing on politics and natural law. Although Lewis wrote a great deal about politics and natural law, he did not write a single reference volume. Thus, the work that Dyer and Watson have done contributes to both political science and Lewis studies.

This brief book has seven chapters. It begins by debunking the misperception that Lewis was not political in Chapter One. In the second chapter, the authors summarize the pattern of the Christian worldview–– Creation, Fall, and Redemption––which is always present and often overt in Lewis’ writing. Chapter Three puts Lewis’ work in contact with some of the significant criticisms of natural law theory, particularly the critique of Karl Barth.

In the fourth chapter, Watson and Dyer focus on one of Lewis’ most important works for both ethics and political science, The Abolition of Man. In that chapter they outline some of the many changes in culture that Lewis was responding to in that short volume. Chapter Five contains the most debatable proposition of the volume, where they argue that Lewis’ held to a form of Lockean Liberalism. There is evidence to support their case, though Lewis never cites Locke; the authors remain on safe ground by arguing that Lewis and Locke shared many tenets in their political philosophy. In the sixth chapter, the authors discuss some of Lewis’ writing on political discourse and the place of Christianity in the political sphere. There is much to be learned from Lewis in this regard. The book concludes with Chapter Seven, the authors summarize their arguments and urge the reader to continue to engage contemporary issues through the work of C. S. Lewis.

At times, given the amount of secondary literature on C. S. Lewis, one wonders whether there is much more to say about him. Whether academic studies of Lewis will run their course remains to be seen, but Dyer and Watson have demonstrated that there is still more to be gleaned from the voluminous work of C. S. Lewis. This book adds to the ongoing conversation about political theology, political science, and the work of C. S. Lewis.

A significant danger with dual-authored volumes is uneven writing styles, which can make them difficult to read. This volume, however, has a consistent flow throughout and is a pleasure to read. C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is a book that has potential to be a ready resource for years to come.

This volume presents Lewis fairly and thoroughly and it makes it clear how Lewis can be helpful for Christians. One area that deserves further exploration is how Lewis and natural law can be helpful in building a common understanding beyond the ranks of the redeemed.

The more Lewis I read, the more I find him helpful. Dyer and Watson’s book both supports that sentiment and deepens it. They have done excellent work in producing a readable volume that is both illuminating and applicable.

C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law
By Justin Buckley Dyer, Micah J. Watson

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Christianity or Nationalism

In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a significant and influential book, Christianity and Liberalism. In the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between modernist revisionists and orthodox Christians, Machen was a persistent and often forceful voice arguing, among other things, that the revisionists of his day were actually creating a new religion that could not properly be called Christianity. Not surprisingly, the revisionist did not agree and continue to claim to be Christians despite often having little association with traditional Christian belief.

Setting that debate aside for the moment, there is another assault on orthodox Christianity underway. In this case, rather than being an assault from the left, it is an assault from the right. In this case, instead of directly modifying Christian doctrines to make them more palatable, there is a move to substitute the good of the nation. The question is now whether the church will be most attracted by authentic Christianity or nationalism.

Nationalism Defined

As with any critical debate, definitions are important.

Nationalism is the preference of one’s country above all others and the belief that the nation’s interest is (if not ultimate) among the highest goods available to motivate political action. In the most extreme cases, nationalism espouses the idea that what is beneficial (typically economically) for the nation is good without exception. Such nationalism can justify taking over neighboring countries by force, barring refugees, and making policies that recklessly harm minority communities that are not properly considered part of the national identity.

The specter of nationalism is typically a politically right magnet. It often is accompanied by enthocentrism and identity politics. It is on the rise in the United States and throughout Europe especially. Presently, it is being demonstrated by animus toward people of color, especially refugees and immigrants.

Even among non-racist strains of nationalism, there are problematic elements. Nationalism is often summarized in the U.S. by the slogan “America First.” Notably, the government of a territory exists primarily to serve the interests of its people. This is not really debatable. What is often neglected by nationalists is that some actions or policies that privilege American people and businesses may, in fact, unjustly harm people in other nations. For example, protectionist economic policies are often supported by “America First” rhetoric. In some cases, they can be extremely harmful businesses and workers in other nations. When that is deemed either a good thing or simply a consequence not worth considering, a government and a people may well have crossed from healthy self-interest to nationalism.

To be clear, there is a love for country that is healthy and good. This would better be called patriotism. It is a good thing to cherish the positive events in our nation’s history. It is a good thing to feel a desire to defend our nation against harm. It is reasonable to expect that the government will enact economic policies that serve to correct injustices in another nation’s trade policies.

The difference between patriotism and nationalism is often presented as one of degree. However, it is better understood as one of ends. In other words, for nationalism the primary goal is the good of the nation, for a healthy patriotism, the primary goal is the good, with the expectation that one’s nation will pursue that both internally and externally.

Nationalism and Christianity

There is room for a healthy level of patriotism and Christianity to coexist. Though we are ultimately sojourners in every nation, state, and town we inhabit, Christians are also residents charged with seeking the good of the city. (Jer 29:7)

However, when the good of the nation becomes the summum bonum, it usurps the place of God in the heart of Christians. Nationalism, as I have defined it, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, it is a replacement for orthodox Christianity.

Evidence for this abounds in our present political context. A few particularly egregious examples will be sufficient to demonstrate the nature of the problem.

One clear example is in the continued defense of sexual immorality by many nationalists. Any stream of political thought that seeks to justify supporting politicians like Roy Moore, who was credibly accused by a number of women (including those politically aligned to him), as necessary for the good of the nation has missed the point. Not only was he politically unsavory in other areas, but there were people (some who identify as Christians) who claimed that his behavior simply didn’t matter. Or, in the accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, those who argue that a sexual assault simply doesn’t matter have supplanted an ideological support for their preferred politics for good. (This is not to say that he did it, or that any accusations should disqualify a person, but there are people arguing that if the alleged assault happened, it simply does not matter.) In other case, President Trump is a known adulterer, has paid hush money to a porn star for an affair while married, and was caught on tape admitting to something that sounds an awful lot like sexual assault. It is one thing to hold one’s nose and vote for such a candidate, but there are Christians arguing that such rank immorality simply does not matter because the good of the nation is at stake, so they continue to vocally support him on that front.

In all of these cases, there is a demonstrated ethical relativism that has evolved. Previously, the sexual exploits of politicians were considered disqualifying for office, often by some of those now vocally supporting sexually immoral politicians. Now, there are people arguing that since David sinned and was used by God, so the most heinous immorality of a politician may be excused because it benefits the nation.

What is clear in these circumstances is that the ultimate good of these vocal supporters has shifted, or, perhaps, the ultimate good has been revealed. Instead of the ultimate good being God’s moral law, which is universally revealed, the ultimate good is whatever is supposed to best serves the nation.

Nationalism is a form of idolatry.

A Christian Nation?

A significant contributor to the subversion of orthodox Christianity and its replacement with nationalism tinged with Christian belief is the perpetuation of the myth that America is or was a fundamentally Christian nation.

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Clearly, the United States was not founded as a secular nation in the same sense that the French Revolution of the Soviet Union was. In both those cases, there is a virulent strain of anti-religious sentiment that led to unhealthy attacks against religious beliefs of various types. The ongoing harassment of Muslims by the French government is one symptom of that bigoted bias.

However, organizations like David Barton’s Wall Builders that attempt to argue that the founders were largely orthodox Christians with a view for an abashedly Judeo-Christian nation are unhelpfully imposing their desires onto the historical record. Though Barton, who has no academic credentials in history, claims to have rediscovered historical truths that others have failed to understand for centuries, the reality is that he is doing hack history that distorts the reality of the history of the United States. Inadvertently, such romanticizing about a supposedly Christian United States significantly contributes to the problem of the conflation of Christianity and nationalism, with the usual result of a nationalism that trumps Christian ethics.

When one believes that Christianity is the only fully true religion-- a reasonable belief for any orthodox Christian--and combines that with the mistaken idea that one nation in particular is a distinctly Christian nation, it can easily lead to switching the order of the old slogan “God and country” to “country and god.” Few would articulate it that way, but in light of the present secularism and cultural hostility to Christian ethics, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to “return” to a previous state of “greatness” in which a presumed Christian consensus existed. Though “God and country” might remain the order of the slogan, the closer one views a particular view of “country” to embody God’s own ideal for country, the more likely it is for nationalism to become the functional idol.

The Idolatry of Civil Religion

There is a popular song that embodies some of the most sentimental, but potentially dangerous attraction of the idolatry of nationalism.

Lee Greenwood’s song is played at many civic ceremonies as a tear jerker that is meant to inspire patriotism. But the lyrics of the song reflect a tendency to misunderstand the purpose of Christianity lived out in the public square. The most egregious of the saccharine lines is, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”

Human freedom is a good thing, in general. It is frequently misunderstood in our contemporary context as a freedom from all restraint rather than a freedom to do that which is good and right. However, that is an argument for another post.

However, a Christian should carefully consider what that line means. Is freedom the ultimate good? Is that, then, the main purpose of the nation? Is the United States primarily a vehicle for guaranteeing that good? And, if so, for whom?

Believers are called to seek the good of the city, even when we are not free. That is the message of Jeremiah 29. On the balance, it is better to have freedom to seek the good of the city in the way that is most consistent with one’s religiously formed conscience. However, it would be better to pursue justice and virtue as a prisoner than to promote an idolatrous quest for power in the name of Christianity, even if that power promised to promote a version of Christianity in the culture.

Civil religion is attractive, because it can be useful for generating cohesion and, especially in the West, often has a strong connection to the language of historical Christianity. The difficulty here is that civil religion in the United States often sounds an awful lot like Christianity. Like theological liberalism, such terminological similarity is simply a means of hiding doctrinal revision under the cloak of traditionalism.

However, civil religion is often merely the ideology that enables nationalism.

When one views one’s nation as divinely ordained, then the defense of that nation becomes an ultimate good. The logic runs something like this: America is a Christian nation. God has particularly blessed the United States to be a testimony of his goodness in the world. Therefore, whatever is good for the nation is glorifying for God. This is idolatry, even when it is pursued in more oblique language.

Christianity or Nationalism

American Christians, particularly those on the political right, are faced with a pretty clear decision: Will be put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ or in our nation?

In Machen’s day the split occurred on the left, with the revisionist Christians attempting to make the United States into the Kingdom of God through comprehensive welfare policies. There was often an unnecessary conflation between a view of a welfare state as the Christian ideal and a Christianity that had little connection to the orthodox faith.

Now, the decision is on the political right, with people that go to congregations with orthodox faith statements needing to decide whether the ultimate good of the nation is synonymous with the goodness and justice intrinsic to God’s nature. In other words, will we be American Christians or Christians who reside in America? There is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.

For those who desire to remain authentically Christian, we must remember that our allegiance is ultimately to the King of Kings and not to a political party. Good should be judged not by an upward trend in GDP or the number of cabinet members who attend evangelical churches, but by the unchanging Word of God.

The choice is clear, and our decision should be reflected in how we live our lives. Will we pursue holiness in the Christian tradition or a form of nationalistic idolatry?

Numerical Statistics and the Path to Liberalism

There is no question that mainline Protestant denominations are in numerical decline in the United States. Year by year, those denominations that have affirmed the tenets of theological liberalism are dying off.

Many theologically conservative Protestants tend to highlight the numerical decline of liberal denominations as proof of their rightness in standing for truth. Some of the less combative theological conservatives occasionally use the decline narrative as a basis for not being combative: let it go, the false religion will die out one day.

The argument that numerical decline is a necessary result of bad doctrine is, however, a bad one. In fact, it is one that has tended to enable doctrinal distortions and sociological abuses among some of those most active in theologically conservative circles.

Explaining the Decline

There is little doubt that the lack of vitality in theological liberalism is a part of reason for the decline of denominations characterized by it. In simplistic terms, the main project of theological liberalism is to strip away objectional parts of Christian orthodoxy until the end result can be accepted by someone without abandoning any important cultural beliefs.

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This has been the project from the beginning. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the father of theological liberalism, was earnest in his desire to remove barriers to modern humans to convert to Christianity. As a result, he engaged in the process of redefinition of difficult ideas and excision of theological truths that conflicted with naturalistic, minimally supernatural worldview.

His project has continued, with scholars and pastors in the liberal tradition arguing against central Christian truths, like the resurrection of Christ, his divinity, and the possibility of his miracles. In the end, there are some members and leaders in mainline Protestant denominations who believe so little that is vital to orthodox Christian doctrine, they have no business calling themselves Christians.

Theological liberalism is, when it is lived authentically, an entirely different religion than Christianity. It may use some of the symbols and share some vocabulary, but when the core meaning of these signs is stripped away, it is hard to say that they are the same things.

When one takes away the power of the cross to bring about redemption, for example, then the entire power of the gospel has been denied. It is the gospel that makes the Church and not the Church that makes the gospel.

Historically, the Christian churches around the world have been animated by the power of the gospel. It is what enables Christians to not simply endure persecutions, but to thrive in hostile environments. It is the power of the gospel that has grown the church throughout history.

When theological liberalism is sufficiently advanced (which is not in all cases), it alienates itself from the very thing that makes the Church a coherent and vital reality. At that point, especially when everything that is uniquely Christian and differentiates believers from the culture around them has been stripped away, there is little reason to remain in a church. In fact, there are many more reasons not to abandon the hassle of the local congregation when the gospel is absent.

Consider this: the local church should be a collection of people that have no business being socially united. It should be ethnically heterogenous (or open to it, since some communities are essentially homogenous). It should represent people from various economic classes, educational backgrounds, political interests, etc. The Church is a messy community. That takes hard work, and it is only possible when the strong nuclear force of the gospel holds the nucleus together.

When you strip Christianity of the very thing that makes it distinct from culture, there is no reason to meet anymore. If the essence of Christianity becomes simply doing “good” things for the community, then that can be much more easily accomplished by joining an association with fewer social entailments. In other words, why bind yourself in community with a bunch of weirdos when you can just casually and conveniently work at the soup kitchen on occasion. You get the benefits without the inconvenience.

The power of the gospel is what animates Christian congregations and denominations. When that is stripped away, then it makes sense for the numbers to decline. The weirdness of a community with the entailments of a church is not worth it without the gospel.

Resisting the Opposite

Our desire to be justified in our own eyes often tempts us to crow over the decline of theologically liberal denominations. Often theological conservatives will try to argue that their own stagnant or rising numbers are a sign of God’s blessing on their continued faithfulness to the gospel.

Sometimes faithfulness to the gospel and to the central truths of historic Christianity is a sign of God’s blessing. Passages like Acts 2:41 are exciting. The gospel is preached and three thousand people are converted. Clearly, we might think, God is blessing the faithful preaching of his word. The numerical growth is an indicator of (1) truth and (2) faithfulness.

As exciting as Acts 2:41 is, how many of us would see the rapid shrinking of the local gathering of believers in Jerusalem, described in Acts 8, as a sign of their unfaithfulness or abandonment of the truth? To the contrary, had Stephen abandoned the truth in Acts 7, he probably would have lived, and the persecution of the church might have been forestalled at least for a while. The denial of the gospel might have extended the period of numerical growth.

In our contemporary contexts we need only look at the rapid growth of the Prosperity Gospel movement to see that abandoning the real gospel can lead to an increase in numbers. In other words, numbers don’t tell the whole story and they often don’t tell much of a story at all. Or, they don’t tell a story about the things that matter most.

All Growth is Not Healthy

Every numerical increase is not a sign of God’s blessing. It is exceedingly dangerous to use numerical growth (or stagnation) as an indicator of either truth or faithfulness.

Consider that the Church is a body. This is not a hard leap, since the Apostle Paul used the analogy in 1 Cor 12:12-31. All growth in a body is not healthy.

Ask the morbidly obese individual whether an increase in size is a healthy thing. Or, perhaps more tellingly, ask someone with cancer whether all growth is healthy. Both will tell you that size and growth is not directly tied to health.

Although there is good evidence that the abandonment of the gospel by many theologically liberal denominations and congregations has contributed to their decline, it does not follow that growth among theological conservative denominations has been healthy.

In fact, when we consider the number of people who identify in public polls as “evangelical” and yet fail to demonstrate any meaningful signs of conversion in their own lives, we begin to recognize a symptom of a deadly problem.

I have a working theory that while many theologically liberal denominations have abandoned the gospel in pursuit of cultural acceptability, many supposedly theologically conservative denominations have abandoned the entailments of the gospel in pursuit of numerical growth. I think this is an outworking of the bad logic that comes from seeing that numerical decline is often the result of the deletion of the gospel.

Numerical Growth as the Source of Liberalism

I am concerned about theological liberalism because it represents an anti-gospel masquerading as truth. I am more concerned about a conflation of gospel power with numerical expansion because (a) it is happening in my own theological tribe and (b) it is the first stage of theological liberalism.

The original intent of theological liberalism was not to abandon every truth that matters. Nor was it to reject the gospel. Rather, theological liberalism began with a belief that (1) the gospel matters a great deal, (2) that some things make the gospel harder for people to believe because it is so different than modern beliefs about the world, and (3) we can help more people get the gospel by stripping away the extras around the gospel that are holding people back. Though they typically lacked the elaborate head counts and well-analyzed statistics that we have today, liberalism began over a concern for numerical growth.

The main issue with liberalism is that when the truthfulness of Scripture is denied, or at least the truth about the hard parts of Scripture, then it really does create a slippery slope. A low point in theological liberalism was when a bunch of non-believers sitting in a room in Berkeley, California using colored beads to decide which parts of the gospels represented things the real Jesus would say. One need merely look around to see how individuals, congregations, and denominations are all finding ways to affirm and celebrate immorality in contrast to Scripture and in the name of numerical growth or cultural cache. One need also not look far to see cases where the pursuit of numbers and cultural cache have encouraged a minimization of the gospel, “unhitching” one’s faith from the documents of the faith, and the diminution of orthopraxy as a central aspect of the Christian life. All of these are ways that Scripture is diminished for a non-gospel purpose, even when they occur under the banner of a robust doctrinal statement.

To draw a general conclusion, which deserves a lengthier investigation some other time, it seems that the beginning of doctrinal decline is found when making something other than worship in spirit and truth becomes the purpose of a group of Christians. An advanced symptom of doctrinal decline is the redaction of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. The beginning of the decline, however, is when something other than the gospel of Christ becomes the animating force of a group of Christians.

Historically, it seems that the decline of doctrine often begins when numerical growth and the social clout that goes along with it become the focus.

Judge Not, But Look for Fruit

Matthew’s Gospel offers some insight that may be helpful in drawing some conclusions to this already lengthy discussion.

Within a single chapter, which by all accounts represents the core of Jesus teaching, Matthew provides two passages that are sometimes held to be contradictory, such that often only one is acknowledge at a time or by a given group. One is the key passage of much of socially progressive Christianity: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Mt. 7:1) The other is the key passage of many combative theologically conservative Christians, “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit.” (Mt 7:15-16b).

If we are to take Scripture seriously, then we have to recognize both simultaneously and seek to obey them both. On the surface (and I have heard this argument made against the coherence of Christianity), this appears contradictory. However, it is not.

We are clearly called to be on our guard against false prophets. There are a lot of people who spew a lot of words that aren’t gospel. Sometimes they sound a lot like gospel, but they really aren’t. Jesus uses the image of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As a theological conservative, I’ve got that down. I see how theological liberals torture the historical doctrines of the faith, how they encourage their parishioners to live debauched lives, and I recognize the bad fruit.

At the same time, I have to be cautious that I am judging others by a metric that I can withstand. Therefore, I cannot judge the spiritual health of others by their numerical growth. As the tide of culture continues to reject the need for religion and see Christianity as backward and anti-social, the number of casual adherents to theologically conservative churches will decline or stagnate. The size of the Church won’t change, but the size of the congregation will change.

Therefore, we ought not to use numerical decline as the ultimate arbiter of the truthfulness of a group’s theology. Bigger or growing does not necessarily mean truer or better. Membership is a metric that can be quickly used to argue that the truth of the gospel, when it becomes socially unpopular, is not in fact true.

Work Toward Authentic Christian Character

When we shift our mission from being a true representation of Christ on earth as his body to meeting numerical statistics, we have begun the shift away from sound doctrine. It happens slowly at the beginning and ends in a crashing avalanche.

This happens when we tolerate sexual abuse in our ranks or cover it up because a leader is effective and we don’t want to ruin the brand. This happens when we accept unholy bullying in our organizational structures because someone is good at packing the house or strategic planning. This happens when we build the life of our congregations around entertaining and pacifying rather than really discipling.

Make no mistake, all of those decisions are just as doctrinal as the nature of the Trinity. None of them will make it into a confessional statement, but they reflect the deepest values of the individual or group making the decisions.

In the end, the calling of the individual Christian and the body of Christ as a whole is terribly difficult. As Jesus notes, “How narrow is the gate and difficult is the road that leads to life and few find it.” (Mt 7:14)

The best we can do is consider the nature of good works. They require us to do the right thing, in the right circumstances, and for the right reasons. It is out of the pattern of our choices that the character of the believer, the congregation, and the worldwide Church is both formed and revealed.