Disruptive Witness | Book Review


“The work of conviction and calling is the Holy Spirit’s,” writes Alan Noble, “but different times and cultures present different barriers to hearing and comprehending the good news.” Some of these barriers are bad ideas, which can be overcome through good apologetics. Others are cultural trends that are harder to spot because they shape the warp and woof of daily existence.

In Disruptive Witness, Noble identifies two such trends: “(1) the practice of continuous engagement in immediately gratifying activities that resist reflection and meditation, and (2) the growth of secularism, defined as a state in which theism [i.e., belief in God] is seen as one of many viable choices for human fullness and satisfaction, and in which the transcendent feels less plausible.”

Together, these trends create what Noble calls “distracted, buffered selves” (emphasis in original). People in the developed world are distracted by technology and buffered from the transcendent by a pervasive secularism that teaches this world is all there is, so make whatever meaning of it you can. In such a culture, religion is possible, as long as it is understood merely as a subject value rather than an objective fact.

After explaining what technology and secularism has done to Christian faith, Noble outlines a strategy for “disruptive witness.” This strategy centers around reorienting “personal habits,” “church practices” and “cultural participation” in ways that de-emphasize technology and open people’s hearts and minds to the possibility of the supernatural.

Disruptive Witnessis a timely, relevant work of cultural diagnosis, thought-provoking even if you don’t agree with all of Noble’s prescriptions.

Book Reviewed
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age(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 review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.comwith permission.

P.P.S. I have an interview with Alan Noble about the book here:

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Speaking Truth in a Distracted, Secular Age | Influence Podcast


To be a Christian is to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the place and time in which you live. Every age presents unique challenges to, as well as unique opportunities for, Christian witness. In this episode, I talk to Prof. Alan Noble about how Christians can bear witness to Christ in the midst of a distracted, secular culture.

Alan Noble is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and author of Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age, published by IVP Books and hitting bookstores on Tuesday, July 17.

P.S. This podcast is crossposted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

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

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

Review of ‘Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?’ (revised edition) by John Fea


John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction, rev. ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Few questions in American politics generate as much controversy as the relationship between church and state. On one side are Christian nationalists who contend that the nation was founded on religious principles. On the other side are secularists who argue it was founded on Enlightenment principles. The controversy between them is evident, most obviously, in the seemingly endless First Amendment cases brought before our nation’s courts to determine whether that amendment’s “establishment” and/or “free exercise” clauses have been violated. But behind the evident legal controversy lies the latent historical controversy, in which the same contending parties dispute the facts and significance of the Founding Era.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? by John Fea is an excellent introduction to that question and should be read by both Christian nationalists and secularists alike, for it corrects the historical errors both sides commit and draws a balanced portrait of the role religion did (and did not) play in the American Founding.

In the Introduction to the book, Fea—an evangelical historian at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania—explains why the question the title of his book asks is so controversial, namely, because both sides to the controversy are seeking a “usable past” to buttress their side in contemporary political debates. Historians, he goes on to argue, should avoid such present-mindedness and seek to understand the past on its own, often complex terms.

Fea then unfolds his argument in three parts:

Part One examines the history of the idea of Christian nationalism from the ratification of the Constitution (1789) to the present day. Chapter 1 examines the dominance of evangelical Christianity in America from 1789 to the end of the Civil War. Chapter 2 surveys the different concepts of Christian nationalism at play in post-bellum society until the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Chapter 3 continues the story until 1980, focusing especially on how Christian nationalism affected mainline Protestantism, American Catholicism, Cold War religious unity, the Civil Rights Movement, and the emerging Religious Right. Chapter 4 looks closely at that last group, noting the resurgence of conservative, evangelical Christian nationalism since 1980.

Part Two answers a question: “Was the American Revolution a Christian event?” Chapter 5 shows that both Virginia and Massachusetts colonies were explicitly, legally, and institutionally Christian communities with established churches, but that the nature of their establishments varied widely and their actual practice often fell well short of Christian ethical norms (as, for example, the practice of African slavery and ill treatment of the aboriginal populations). Chapter 6 argues that the intellectual underpinnings of and justifications for the American Revolution were based more on secular Enlightenment ideas than biblical principles. Chapter 7 extends this argument by showing how pro-revolution clergy often read those Enlightenment ideas into their preaching of the Bible, rather than deriving their preachments from biblical principles.

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 examine the form of religion that influenced the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and Constitution, respectively, and note the controversies over religious freedom that gripped the colonies during these years. The God of the Declaration (“nature’s God”) is ambivalent, capable of being recognized by both Christians and Enlightenment theists alike. (For an excellent study of the common theological ground between these two groups during the Founding, see God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution by Thomas S. Kidd.) The Articles of Confederation left the establishment or disestablishment of religion in state hands, with Massachusetts retaining its established Congregationalism (until 1833) and Virginia disestablishing its Anglicanism through the yeoman efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, against the contrary efforts of Christian nationalists such as Patrick Henry. Regarding the Constitution, Fea notes the irony that leading Christian nationalists—such as Patrick Henry, again—were anti-Federalists in the ratification debates precisely because the Constitution did not acknowledge the nation’s Christian heritage. And he concludes by discussing what Jefferson’s “wall of separation” did and did not mean at the time.

Part Three investigates the religious beliefs of George Washington (Chapter 11), John Adams (Chapter 12), Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 13), Benjamin Franklin (Chapter 14), and John Witherspoon, John Jay, and Samuel Adams (Chapter 15). Of these, only the last three can be considered “orthodox” in Christian doctrine and practice. Fea describes Washington as a latitudinarian Anglican more interested in religion’s social utility than in Christian doctrine or practice. Adams is a “devout Unitarian,” Jefferson a “follower of Jesus” who separated the supernatural husk from the moral kernel of Jesus’ life and teaching, and Franklin as an “ambitious moralist.” They disagreed on doctrine but agreed on one thing: “religion was necessary in order to sustain and ordered and virtuous republic” (a point which Kidd also argues in God of Liberty).

I highly recommend Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to all readers, but especially to those interested in the debates surrounding the role of religion in our nation’s history and the contentious issues of church-state separation. It is clearly organized, well written, thorough in its research, and judicious in its conclusions. It will—or should!—complexify the simplistic historical interpretations of both Christian nationalists and their secularist opponents. Such complexification, I hope, will tamp down the fires of contention and lead to greater cooperation as both religious and secular Americans see their stake in our collaborative national experiment.

The revised edition of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? features a new cover, corrects mistakes in the previous edition, updates the bibliographies at the end of each section, and includes an Epilogue that discusses new developments since the 2011 publication of the first edition. Otherwise, the text is the same as the first edition.

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

P.P.S. Check out my Influence Podcast with John Fea on the book.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com.