Thinking Christianly about American History | Influence Podcast


“Christians believe the kingdom of God is our ultimate commitment, and we should confuse no temporal nation with that kingdom,” writes evangelical historian Thomas S. Kidd in his new, two-volume history of the United States. “But we are also thankful for the ways God has moved in American history, redeeming untold millions of people and building his church in each generation.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, Influence magazine Executive Editor George P. Wood talks to Thomas S. Kidd about how to think Christianly about American history. Kidd is distinguished professor of history, James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History, and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A noted scholar of colonial America, he is author most recently of American History, a two-volume textbook just published by B&H Academic.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Advertisements

Pagans and Christians in the City | Book Review


Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.

That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”

This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.

When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.

What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.

As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.

Book Reviewed
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).

P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Color of Compromise | Influence Podcast


Racism has been described as America’s original sin. While great strides have been made in the journey toward equality between blacks and whites, there still is much work to do. In Episode 168 of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jemar Tisby about the history of racism in American Christianity, as well as what steps need to be taken for authentic racial reconciliation to occur.

Tisby is author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American’s Church’s Complicit in Racism (Zondervan, 2019). He is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. Tisby is a Ph.D. candidate in history from the University of Mississippi.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my review of The Color of Compromise here.

Demanding Liberty | Book Review


When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This article is cross-posted with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side | Book Review


On Saturday, September 28, 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu began the autopsy of a 50-old white male. Case A02-5214 was straightforward. The man had died of a heart attack. His name was Mike Webster.

Perhaps I should say the Mike Webster: Pittsburgh Steeler, center to Terry Bradshaw, four-time Super Bowl champ. Though “Iron Mike” was adored as a football icon in Pittsburgh, he had fallen from grace after his career ended. Memory loss, depression and erratic behavior, coupled with addiction, left him — in Omalu’s words — “a bankrupt, divorced, homeless man living in his truck” at the time of his death.

A heart attack killed Mike Webster, but Omalu suspected that the radical changes in behavior were the result of brain damage. Outwardly, Webster’s brain looked normal. But when Omalu fixed it in formalin and examined the tissue under a microscope, he discovered massive damage at the cellular level. In a 2005 paper about Webster’s brain, Omalu gave the damage a name: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — “a bad brain associated with trauma over a long period of time.”

Just how much trauma had Mike Webster’s brain experienced? Over the course of his football career — high school, college, NFL — it has been estimated that he experienced the equivalent of 25,000 car accidents. Those collisions, often helmet to helmet, left an indelible mark on his brain.

“I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” ~Dr. Bennet Omalu

One would think that the discovery of CTE would have been welcomed by the National Football League (NFL). After all, if you know a problem exists, you can begin to prescribe a solution. And indeed, the NFL had begun investigating the problem of concussions among its players around the time.

Two years prior to the publication of Omalu’s first CTE paper, for example, the NFL’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee published a series of paper stating that concussions were rare in professional football and that better helmets could protect against them. Omalu’s first CTE paper implied that the brain trauma associated with high-contact sports was severe. (As Omalu autopsied the brains of other deceased NFL players, however, his repeated findings of CTE suggested that the severe brain damage was routine.) The NFL sent a letter to the journal that published Omalu’s 2005 paper, demanding that it be retracted. Privately, they trashed his reputation.

As late as 2016, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys stated, “We don’t have that knowledge and background and scientifically [sic], so there’s no way in the world to say you have a relationship relative to anything here. There’s no research. There’s no data.” Denial, it seems, is not just a river in Egypt.

For those not in denial, Omalu’s research, combined with the research of others, has established the reality of CTE. The damage is so bad that Omalu states, “I believe God did not make human beings to play football, especially children.” This is a radical stance, especially in America, a country that loves its “Friday night lights.” Omalu believes it is the only reasonable stance in light of the evidence he has uncovered, however.

So, why tell Omalu’s story in an article for a Christian leadership magazine? Because Omalu is a devout Christian, and his crusade against brain injury is an example of using one’s influence for the common good. Pastors and other congregational leaders need to remember that their discipleship efforts should prepare congregants for life in the secular world. Basically, Christian faith should make doctors better doctors. (And teachers better teachers, plumbers better plumbers, etc.)

Second, Omalu’s story is an example of prophetic influence. We often associate biblical prophecy with future events. It is that, of course. It is also an exposure of injustice and a call for repentance, however. Those injustices violate the shalom in which God created people to live. Omalu’s medical research forces us to ask a question: Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

In the late fourth century, St. Telemachus wandered into a stadium and witnessed the violence of a gladiatorial contest. Running onto the stadium floor, he yelled, “In the name of Christ, stop!” Bennet Omalu is a modern-day Telemachus.

Should we be entertained by high contact sports that do such damage to those who play them professionally?

And that brings me to a third point: prophetic influence is costly. St. Telemachus, for example, was killed by enraged fans of the gladiatorial contest. Omalu’s detractors have questioned his credentials, cast aspersions on his findings, and trashed his reputation. Everyone wants to call out society’s injustices. Few are willing to pay the price.

Fourth, Omalu’s story shows the power of what he calls “conformational intelligence.” He defines the phrase this way: “a phenomenon whereby the way you think and perceive the world, including your sense of right and wrong and good and evil, are controlled, constrained, and constricted by the expectations, cultures, traditions, norms, and mores of the society around you without you even knowing it or being aware of it.” The biblical term for conformational intelligence is stronghold.

The reason why prophetic influence in society is costly is precisely because one is calling its strongholds into question. Professional football is a fan favorite and a big money maker. Calling that sport into question because of the damage it does to players’ brains exposes our national pastime as a national stronghold. No wonder the NFL went after Omalu.

And no wonder Omalu — an immigrant — was able to see through its conformational intelligence. As an outsider to American culture, he didn’t share our blind spots about football. If we’re going to exercise prophetic influence in our society, we need to develop an outsider perspective. Christians need to be in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said (John 17:16,18).

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side tells Dr. Bennet Omalu’s fascinating story. It’s not essential reading for Christian leaders; but for those with eyes to see, it’s an enlightening tale of influence used Christianly in the real world.

 

Book Reviewed:
Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

Benjamin Franklin | Book Review


In 1787, the Constitutional Convention found itself bogged down over the issue of representation. Small states wanted equal representation in the national legislature. Large states wanted proportional representation. The dispute seemed irresolvable, and if it could not be resolved, the young American nation itself might not survive.

Benjamin Franklin — America’s gray eminence, Pennsylvania’s delegate — proposed to solve the impasse by means of daily prayer, reasoning this way:

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the house they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded; and we ourselves shall become a reproach and by-word down to future ages.

Franklin’s proposal was defeated handily. “The Convention,” Franklin wrote, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”

This episode, from near the end of Franklin’s life, reveals several things about Franklin’s mature religious beliefs, not to mention the influence of religion on the American founding. Like other Founding Fathers — George Washington especially comes to mind — Franklin believed that God providentially ordered world events, particularly the formation of the United States of America. His public rhetoric was shot through with biblical imagery. And he believed in the social usefulness of religion for republican government; hence, the call to prayer.

And yet, these mature religious beliefs, though sincere, were neither orthodox nor evangelical, a fact demonstrated in depth by Thomas S. Kidd in his recently published Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston to devout Puritans who raised him and his siblings in the doctrines of evangelical Calvinism. In his teenage years, under the influence of skeptical writings by Lord Shaftesbury and Anthony Collins, he left that faith and became, in his own words, “a thorough deist.”

Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

Unfortunately, the word deist conjures up the image of a clockmaker god who winds up the universe then leaves it alone. That does not accurately describe Franklin’s mature belief, however. Deists of that stripe, to point out the obvious, do not issue the kind of plea for prayers Franklin made at the Constitutional Convention.

“The key to understanding Franklin’s ambivalent religion,” Kidd writes, “is the contrast between the skepticism of his adult life and the indelible imprint of his childhood Calvinism.” To be sure, Franklin was skeptical of orthodox Christology (i.e., the Incarnation) and evangelical soteriology (i.e., justification by faith). He was consistent on these points throughout his adult life, though he expressed the scope and intensity of his skepticism at different times and in various ways. What mattered to him more than what one believed was how one lived.

This moralism was not atheism, however. Five weeks before he died, in a letter dated March 9, 1790, Franklin described his creed to Yale’s Ezra Stiles, an evangelical Christian, this way:

I believe in one God, Creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to him, is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.

Not nothing, religiously speaking, but not fully Christian either.

Franklin’s Calvinist rearing no doubt influenced his religious beliefs. Most obviously, it gave him a biblical idiom in which to express himself. Less obviously, warm relationships with evangelical Christians such as his sister Jane Mecom, evangelist George Whitefield, and others moderated his skeptical tone and made him appreciative of evangelicals’ good works. Throughout his life, these evangelicals pleaded with him to put his faith in Jesus, but at the end, all he would say is this: “I think the system of morals and his religion as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see.” Again, not nothing, but not Christianity.

Franklin’s ambivalent religion points to an important truth about the role of religion in America’s founding. Many evangelical Christians think of America as a Christian nation founded on biblical principles. This is not a new belief, and it is not entirely wrong. From the start of the colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth Bay and all the way to the present day, America has been a nation of self-professed Christians. Protestant political theology exercised tremendous influence on the American colonists; the Bible suffused their public rhetoric, and established churches shaped their public piety. In the 19th century, due to waves of revival, evangelical Christianity became the de facto established religion of the new nation.

And yet, alongside this Christianity sits something less than Christian. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, we might call it non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism. It is a peculiarly American faith. Shaped by Christianity, but not Christian. Sounding like the Bible, but not biblical. This was Franklin’s faith, and the faith of other Founders too, such as Thomas Jefferson. When we query the role of religion in the American founding, we must take this non-doctrinaire, moralistic theism into account, for it was present and it was influential. This was the reason why, for example, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson described God in generic terms — “Nature’s God”— rather than specifically biblical ones.

This truth about the role of religion in America’s founding generates two points of application for evangelical Christians, in my opinion. First, we must recognize that the American experiment is a joint venture, not a sole proprietorship. Yes, orthodox and evangelical Christians played an important role in the establishment of America. They did not play the only role, however.  Alongside them and sometimes in conflict with them, theists of a non-Christian variety exercised influence on the development of our nation. Benjamin Franklin is proof of that

(In fairness, the same reminder needs to be issued to skeptical Americans today who deny Christians a role in the Founding. Not only were they present and influential, but atheists played no role. Even the radically skeptical Thomas Paine argued for the necessity of belief in God, after all.)

Second, given the foregoing point, it behooves orthodox and evangelical Christians to be more mindful of political rhetoric. Invocations of God — whether in American history or at the present time — are not necessarily invocations of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Too often, we read our Christian convictions into the theological pronouncements of the Founders, which means we misread them. By describing the religious life of Benjamin Franklin in detail over the course of his life, Thomas S. Kidd helps us better understand Franklin’s faith, which as much as American evangelicals love Franklin, was not our own.

 

Book Reviewed:
Thomas S. Kidd, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

P.S. I wrote this review for InfluenceMagazine.com. It appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Best. Conspiracy. Ever.

Make sure to watch it all the way through. And read the credits; they’re hilarious.

_____

“Egypt in crisis talks after Muslim mobs attack Christian churches” or “12 dead in Egypt as Christians and Muslims clash”? GetReligion.org tries to sort out the facts.

_____

Is a bad marriage better than a good divorce? “Social scientists are concealing the harm that divorce, single parenting and stepfamilies do to children. Not only that, they are also hiding the benefits which even unhappy marriages bestow, not just on children, but on the couples involved.”

_____

Is a national curriculum a good idea? “National control over curriculum creates a single lever you can pull to move every school in America. Would conservatives trust progressives, and would progressives trust conservatives, not to try to seize control of that lever to inculcate their religious and moral views among the nation’s youth? And if you don’t trust the other side not to try to seize the lever, is there any reasonable alternative to trying to seize it first?”

_____

In “Europe’s Concerned, Worried, and Doubting,” David Mills reflects on the differences between European and American reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden.

_____

California college adds major in secularism. Of course, on many college campuses today, students get a minor in it already, though without knowing it.

_____

“How Christianity and capitalism can ‘heal’ the world.” An interesting article about “social investing.” Theologically, however, I’d prefer to delete –ity and capitalism from the title.

_____

“LGBT ‘Welcome’ Ad Rejected by Sojourners, Nation’s Premier Progressive Christian Org.” I’m on the opposite side of the issues from Rev. Robert Chase, but I too wonder how a Christian magazine can avoid taking sides on this issue.

_____

In “Judas,” Lady Gaga goes clubbing with Jesus, who’s a Latin biker, and… Oh, who cares! There’s no “shock value” in this video, only “shlock value.”

  _____

In closing, and a bit more reverentially, Carrie Underwood and Vince Gil shine on this country rendition of “How Great Thou Art”:

I totally want to go to whatever church these two provide “special music” for.

 _____

 P.S. Shameless self-promotion: Check out my article in Enrichment: “Up There, Down Here, Among Us, In Me.” It’s about praying for God’s kingdom.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: