The Liberty University *Falkirk Center” shows its theocratic tendencies

The Falkirk Center at Liberty University published a very revealing tweet over the weekend:

I

My response:

P.S. They also misspelled Roosevelt and “its” in the second tweet in this screenshot. Both of these tweets were deleted, but several of the good folks on Twitter captured screen shots and passed them along.

Springsteen’s “House of 1000 Guitars”

Letter to You is here. My favorite song so far is “House of 1000 Guitars”:

I am sure people will interpret this song in different ways, but my interpretation starts with Springsteen himself. Here is a taste of Brian Hiatt’s recent Rolling Stone piece:

The album’s only actual reference to current events is in one line, a glancing reference to a “criminal clown” who “has stolen the throne” in a song that otherwise transcends politics, the sweeping anthem “House of a Thousand Guitars,” in which [Roy] Bittan’s E Street-redux piano looms large. That song, which paints a beguiling picture of a rock & roll heaven on Earth, a place “where the music never ends” and fellowship reigns, a destination not far from his “Land of Hope and Dreams,” is important enough to Springsteen that he dashes into the house and grabs his MacBook so he can listen to it again before we discuss it.

Once he’s back at the table, he plays the song over the computer speakers, eyes shut, head nodding to [drummer Max] Weinberg’s beat. “It’s about this entire spiritual world that I wanted to build for myself,” he says, “and give to my audience and experience with my band. It’s like that gospel song ‘I’m Working on a Building.’ That’s the building we’ve been working on all these years. It also speaks somewhat to the spiritual life of the nation. It may be one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. It draws on everything I’ve been trying to do for the past 50 years.”

I disagree with Hiatt. This song doesn’t “transcend” politics. It’s all about politics. It is about a politics of hope. It is about citizenship in an alternative political community that speaks power to the “criminal clown” who “has stolen the throne.” This prophetic community is defined by friendship and fellowship and beauty and art and the search for meaning and the things that bind us together.

Springsteen is telling us not to worry–“it’s alright yeah it’s alright.” He urges us to keep announcing this community of hope from the small town bars and the large stadiums, or wherever you have a platform and voice.

Right now we “tally” our “wounds and scars,” but we belong to a place “where the music never ends.” There is a “now” but “not yet” quality to the song, not unlike the way Christians understand the Kingdom of God.

The song goes very well with “If I Were a Priest,” a song that chronicles Springsteen’s call to forge such a community among his followers.

Amy Coney Barrett and the “Kingdom of God”

Notre Dame Law School professor Amy Coney Barrett is on Donald Trump’s short list to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Trump met with Barrett yesterday.

Back in September 2017, I called your attention to political philosopher Bill McCormack’s piece at America. Read that post here.

I also wrote about California Senator Diane Feinstein’s claim that “dogma lives loudly” in Barrett. Read that post here. In that post I republished Notre Dame president John Jenkins’s letter to Feinstein. Here it is again:

Dear Senator Feinstein:

Considering your questioning of my colleague Amy Coney Barrett during the judicial confirmation hearing of September 6, I write to express my confidence in her competence and character, and deep concern at your line of questioning.

Professor Barrett has been a member of our faculty since 2002, and is a graduate of our law school. Her experience as a clerk for Judge Laurence Silberman of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is of the highest order. So, too, is her scholarship in the areas of federal courts, constitutional law and statutory interpretation. I am not a legal scholar, but I have heard no one seriously challenge her impeccable legal credentials.

Your concern, as you expressed it, is that “dogma lives loudly in [Professor Barrett], and that is a concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” I am one in whose heart “dogma lives loudly,” as it has for centuries in the lives of many Americans, some of whom have given their lives in service to this nation. Indeed, it lived loudly in the hearts of those who founded our nation as one where citizens could practice their faith freely and without apology.

Professor Barrett has made it clear that she would “follow unflinchingly” all legal precedent and, in rare cases in which her conscience would not allow her to do so, she would recuse herself. I can assure you that she is a person of integrity who acts in accord with the principles she articulates.

It is chilling to hear from a United States Senator that this might now disqualify someone from service as a federal judge. I ask you and your colleagues to respect those in whom “dogma lives loudly”—which is a condition we call faith. For the attempt to live such faith while one upholds the law should command respect, not evoke concern.

Now Barrett is getting criticism for a remark she made about the “Kingdom of God.”

Christian conservatives like Barrett are not the only public figures who talk about the Kingdom of God.

Obama said this on the presidential campaign trail in 2007. At the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said:

My Christian faith, then, has been a sustaining force for me over these last few years,” Obama said. “All the more so, when Michelle and I hear our faith questioned from time to time, we are reminded that ultimately what matters is not what other people say about us but whether we’re being true to our conscience and true to our God. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Jimmy Carter also believes that Christians should be working to promote the Kingdom of God. Here is an interview with NPR in which he talks about “God’s Kingdom on Earth.”

All Christians believe in some version of the “Kingdom of God.” Students of American religious history know that this phrase has been used just as much by Christians on the left as on the right. The idea of ushering in the Kingdom of God was at the heart of the early 20th-century movement known as the “Social Gospel,” a form of Christianity committed to bringing faith to bear on matters of poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice. In fact, the social gospelers talked about bringing God’s kingdom to earth a whole lot more than the Protestant fundamentalists. Most conservative Protestants in the early 20th-century showed little concern for social issues. They just wanted to get people “saved” and ready for the rapture.

But how does Amy Barrett use the phrase “Kingdom of God?” The source of all the controversy today comes from a 2006 commencement address to the graduates of Notre Dame Law School. You can read that address here. A taste:

Sometimes we’re tempted to say that a Notre Dame lawyer is a different kind of lawyer because he or she is an ethical lawyer. But that can’t be right. Our profession is in pretty deep trouble if the only ethical lawyer is the different one. When you leave here, hold yourselves to the highest ethical standards, and be leaders in that regard. But maintaining high ethical standards ought to be something that characterizes our whole profession—not something that causes Notre Dame lawyers to stand apart.

So if being a different kind of lawyer is not defined by the body of knowledge you have mastered or by the ethical standards you are expected to maintain, might it be defined by the kind of law you choose to practice? The banner hanging in the main reading room says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Surely we can expect that, as a Catholic law school, our commitment to social justice will lead a higher-than-average percentage of you to choose to work on behalf of the disadvantaged and oppressed. We can expect Notre Dame lawyers like my own classmate, Sean Litton, who left a successful and lucrative practice at Kirkland & Ellis to work for a human rights organization with the mission of eliminating sexual trafficking in southeast Asia. Many of you, like my classmate Sean, will work in the public interest sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you. But many of you will work in the private sector, and Notre Dame will be proud of you too. It cannot be that being a different kind of lawyer is defined by the kind of law one practices, for that would leave too many of our graduates out of the definition.

So what then, does it mean to be a different kind of lawyer? The implications of our Catholic mission for your legal education are many, and don’t worry—I’m not going to explore them all in this short speech. I’m just going to identify one way in which I hope that you, as graduates of Notre Dame, will fulfill the promise of being a different kind of lawyer. And that is this: that you will always keep in mind that your legal career is but a means to an end, and as Father Jenkins told you this morning, that end is building the kingdom of God. You know the same law, are charged with maintaining the same ethical standards, and will be entering the same kinds of legal jobs as your peers across the country. But if you can keep in mind that your fundamental purpose in life is not to be a lawyer, but to know, love, and serve God, you truly will be a different kind of lawyer.

As she closes her speech, Barrett encourages the graduates of this Catholic law school to:

  1. Pray about their calling as lawyers
  2. Give a percentage of their salaries to the church and other charitable causes
  3. Seek a Christian community that will assist them in advance their calling as agents of the kingdom of God.

I have written a lot at this blog about the “Kingdom of God.” My understanding of the meaning of this phrase is very similar to Barrett. While some might use the phrase “Kingdom of God” to promote some kind of theocratic takeover of government, this is not how most Christians use the term.

Christians believe that the Kingdom of God was initiated when Jesus died and rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order–the coming Kingdom– when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom. A longing for this kingdom is at the center of Christian hope. This is why we pray as Jesus taught us: “They Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here is Oxford University historian and theologian N.T. Wright from his book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

The practice of the law is a way in which Christians can live-out their callings as faithful members of the God’s Kingdom. This is what Barrett was telling the graduates of Notre Dame law school.

The real question is whether or not Barrett, if nominated and confirmed, would confuse the Kingdom of God with her responsibility to interpret the law of the United States of America. They are not the same thing.

This clip has some of Barrett’s 2018 responses to the questions of Democratic Senators during her confirmation hearings. I’d recommend stopping it at about the 2:37 mark.

UPDATE: I just read Jack Jenkins’s piece on this at Religion News Service. It includes several quotes from Catholic theologians and other experts claiming that it is perfectly fine for Senators to ask Barrett if and how her faith will shape her legal decisions as a Supreme Court justice.

Who’s afraid of critical race theory?

Donald Trump has turned Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a campaign issue in the hopes of winning white evangelicals and other conservatives who fear that an academic theory that they know little about is somehow threatening American democracy. Between his attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project, he just might win back a few 2016 voters who were contemplating pulling the lever for Biden or another candidate in November.

On Friday night, September 4, 2020, Russell Vought, the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, released a memo demanding that the Executive Branch stop teaching CRT as part of required “training” sessions for federal employees.

Vought’s memo condemns seminars that expose employees to the idea that “virtually all White people contribute to racism” or “benefit from racism.” All programs that include discussions of “white privilege” or the notion that the United States is an “inherently racist or evil country,” the memo states, must immediately “cease and desist.”

Trump may have learned about CRT from a segment on Fox News. On September 2, 2020, Fox host Tucker Carlson interviewed Chris Rufo, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank best known for its advocacy of the “intelligent design” view of creation. After studying CRT for six months, Rufo concluded the theory has become the “default ideology of the federal bureaucracy” and is being “weaponized against the American people.” He described CRT as “a cult indoctrination” and demanded that Trump bring an end to it immediately. The president was apparently listening.

So what should we make of CRT? Like all academic theories, we ought to engage it thoughtfully. Critical race theory is one way of helping us come to grips with the fact that some groups in society oppress other groups based on the color of their skin.

In their helpful introduction to CRT, scholars Richard Delgado and Jean Sefancic identify five major themes of this theory.

First, CRT affirms that racism is an “ordinary” or “common” part of everyday life. In other words, racism is more than just individual acts of prejudice against people of color, it is a system of discrimination built into American institutions, especially the law.

Second, CRT affirms that since White people benefit from such systemic racism, they will not have the incentive to do anything about it. Shock events such as the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha might alert White people to racial injustice, but it is unlikely such tragedies will lead to a sustained anti-racism.

Third, CRT affirms that race is “socially constructed.” This means that the racial categories we use are not biologically determined but invented by human beings. There is nothing inherent about any race that should lead to its oppression. Racism is thus best explained by a close examination of American history to see how men and women in power “constructed” the idea of racial difference and promoted bigotry based on those differences.

Fourth, CRT affirms, to quote Delgado and Sefancic, that “no person has a single, easily stated, unitary identity.” For example, I am a male, white, a product of the American working class, and a Christian. These different identities are often mutually dependent on one another and when taken together make me a whole person. CRT uses the technical term “intersectionality” to define the way these different identities overlap and intersect.

Fifth, CRT affirms that Black people and other people of color “are able to communicate to their White counterparts matters that whites are unlikely to know.” At the heart of CRT is storytelling. This is the primary way that people of color can explain the racism that they encounter daily. It also implies that people of color are more equipped to talk about the plight of the racially oppressed than White people.

Critical race theorists are often suspicious of liberalism, both the Left and Right variety. As a product of the Western intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, liberals champion universals—the things that we hold in common as human beings regardless of race. CRT celebrates what makes human beings unique and different. The appeal to the universal values of the Enlightenment, its adherents argue, always favors the White people who have defined and benefited from those values.

Much of CRT sounds a lot like some of the things I learned in college, seminary, and graduate school. Back then we studied these things under the rubric of “American history” and “Christianity.”

For example, I don’t remember reading anything about CRT while working toward my Ph.D in American history. But I did not need these high-falutin academic theorists to see how racism was embedded in the history of the republic. All I needed to do was study the documentary record with my eyes open. One cannot ignore the long history of White people oppressing Black people. White people have had advantages–privileges even–that Black people and other people of color have not. To acknowledge white privilege is to be a good historian.

It is also difficult to study American history and not see continuity between the past and present. The legacies of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and white supremacy are still with us just like the founding fathers’ ideas of liberty, freedom, and individual rights are still with us. Indeed, racism is “ordinary” and “common” in American life. It is not some kind of aberration practiced by a few “bad apples” who make occasional appearances in the narratives we teach about the past.

A few weeks ago I was teaching the students in my U.S. history survey course about seventeenth-century Virginia. This colonial society passed laws that defined Black men and women as slaves for the purpose of quelling disgruntled poor whites (former indentured servants) who had a propensity for social and political rebellion. The codification of race-based slavery in Virginia law resulted in the social, economic, and political advance of these marginalized White colonials.

Were there individual acts of racism in colonial Virginia? Of course. But what the Virginia government did was systemic–its leaders embedded racism in the culture of the settlement. While this is an early example of systemic racism, we can point to many other instances in American history where White people were able to achieve something called the “American Dream” on the backs of slavery and other oppressed and marginalized people.

Trump’s decision to root-out CRT will inevitably win him points with his Fox-News-watching Christian conservative base, but is CRT something Christians should fear?

As an undergraduate and seminary student at evangelical institutions, I learned that Christians should not be surprised by injustice and evil in this world. Rather, we should expect it. The world is a fallen and broken place. My professors drilled this into my head through a reading and re-reading (occasionally in the original Hebrew language) of Genesis 3. Sin manifests itself in both individual lives and cultural systems.

Since Christians believe in human sin, we should have no problem embracing CRT’s affirmation of systemic racism. At the same time, we should always be ready to offer hope–rooted in Christ’s atoning work on the cross and the promise of resurrection—as a means of healing a world that is broken. We may never overcome the damage of systemic racism on this side of eternity, but we cannot ignore our call to be agents of reconciliation.

Is it true that White people have no incentive to do anything about racial injustice because they benefit from it? American history certainly bears this out. The story of our nation is filled with White men and women who witnessed racism on a regular basis and did nothing to stop it. Some of them knew it was wrong but lacked the courage to do anything about it. Others simply did not care.

Christian critics of CRT celebrate abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Wilberforce, or William Lloyd Garrison, but these courageous activists were the exceptions to the rule in 19th-century America. The “heroic man” or “heroic woman” view of the history of moral reform does not account for the long record of White Christian complacency on racial injustice. In the end, any Christian who takes a deep dive into the American past will find heroes to emulate, but they will also find that most White people were complicit in sustaining a system of white supremacy.

What about the social construction of race? When Thomas Jefferson said in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) that Africans were “inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was degrading the human dignity of Black people, men and women created by God in His image. Racism entered the world when sinful human beings forged communities that privileged some and excluded others.

Christians can also agree, to an extent, with the idea of intersectionality. We all possess different social identities and there are times when we face injustice that stems from those identities—injustices that our legal system fails to address.

Our urge to downplay the identities that define us as human beings is understandable and, in many cases, good. A flourishing society will always be built upon the things we hold common as human beings. A thriving Church will always be built upon the knowledge that one day White Christians and Christians of color will share together in the new heavens and new earth promised in the Book of Revelation. A central message of the Book of Acts and Pauline epistles is summed-up best in Galatians 3:38: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all one in Christ.”

But God has also made us different. We are products of history. Our faith will always be understood and navigated through the circumstances that have shaped us and provided us with multiple identities in this world. While we all want to be one in Christ, and should always be about the work of reconciliation and unity as Jesus reminded us in John 17, we must also remember, as theologian Miroslav Volf writes, that God notes not only our “common humanity,” but also our “specific histories.”

Finally, CRT’s emphasis on storytelling is something Christians should value. The Christian tradition is full of men and women telling stories of suffering, sin, and redemption. When Black people tell their stories of encounters with racism it should provoke empathy in the hearts of White Christians. We understand the power of testimony.

Of course, stories can be manipulated for selfish or political ends. And personal experience does not always translate to expertise on a subject such as African American history or literature. But those who dwell on these matters miss an opportunity to cultivate a more just democracy through compassion and understanding. It is time to exercise some humility. This means we need to stop talking and start listening to the stories African Americans are telling us.

In the end, if critical race theorists can teach me something I don’t know about how I may have benefited from white oppression (even if I may not commit overt acts of racism) or how to have greater solidarity with my black brothers and sisters, why wouldn’t I want to consider it?

As a Christian, I want to see the world through the eyes of my faith. I want my “theory” to be the teachings of the scriptures and the Christian tradition. This may mean that I embrace parts of CRT and reject other parts. I know very few academics—Christian or secular—who adopt theories in toto.

There is much truth in CRT, and all truth is God’s truth. We have nothing to fear.

Wednesday Night Court Evangelical Roundup

Court Evangelicals at Table

Since my last update, a few things have changed in court evangelical land. Neil Gorsuch, one of two Donald Trump Supreme Court nominees, has defended LGBTQ rights and has proven he may not be the best court evangelical ally when it comes to questions of religious liberty. I imagine some evangelicals who are looking for a reason to reject Trump at the ballot box in November may have just found one.

Police reform and debates over systemic racism continue to dominate the headlines. On the COVID-19 front, more and more churches are opening this weekend and Donald Trump is preparing for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What do the court evangelicals have to say?

In an interview with Charisma magazine, James Dobson writes:

In an outrageous ruling that should shake America’s collective conscience to its core, the U.S. Supreme Court has redefined the meaning of “sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” Not only was this decision an affront against God, but it was also a historical attack against the founding framework that governs our nation.

Dobson says nothing about Trump or how Gorsuch burned white evangelicals on this decision.

I don’t know if Louie Giglio supports Trump, but he is now apologizing for his use of the phrase “White Blessing”:

The apology seems honest and sincere.

Jenetzen Franklin praises Trump as a great listener and defender of law and order.  But Trump’s police reform speech failed to address the systemic problem of racism in America. It attacked Obama and Biden and it defended Confederate monuments. Is this big action?

Johnnie Moore, the guy who describes himself as a “modern day Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” is doing the same thing as Jenetzen:

Greg Laurie interviewed South Carolina Senator Tim Scott on police reform. Scott talks about the “character” of police officers and shows a solid understanding of the Bible, but the issues of racism in America go much deeper than this. I encourage you to listen to Gettysburg College professor’s Scott Hancock upcoming interview at The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

The Laurie-Scott conversation is a step in the right direction, but it focuses on striking a balance between law and order (Scott quotes Romans 13) and individual acts of racism.  The real conversation should be over to have an ordered society and address systemic racism. Today, for example, Scott said that the United States is not a racist country.

Robert Jeffress is “thrilled” to have Mike Pence speak at his church for “Freedom Sunday.” Expect fireworks. Literal fireworks! Once again, it will be God and country on display.

Here is another view of Pence.

Last Sunday, Jeffress addressed the Floyd murder and its aftermath with his congregation at First Baptist-Dallas. He summarized his response to our current moment in three statements:

1. God hates racism. Jeffress FINALLY admits that First Baptist Church was on “the wrong side of history” on matters relating to race. This is a huge step! It would have been nice to have this history included in the church’s 150th anniversary celebration, but I don’t think I have ever heard Jeffress say this publicly.  Let’s see where this goes. First Baptist-Dallas has some reckoning with the past to do.

2. God hates lawlessness. Jeffress says that there is “nothing wrong” with peaceful protests, but he condemns the looting and riots. He does not say anything about the root cause of the riots. One more question: Does God hate Christians who disobey unjust laws? I think Martin Luther King Jr. had something to say about that. So did most of the patriotic pastors during the Revolution. You know, the guys who created America as a “Christian nation.”

3. Racism and lawlessness is not the problem, the problem is sin. Agreed. The sin of racism pervades every institution in America. In order to address the problem of racism we need to go beyond mere calls for personal salvation. American history teaches us that some of the great evangelical revivals led to abolitionism and other forms of social justice. At the same time, some of the great evangelical revivals led to a deeper entrenchment of racism in society. Jeffress’s church, which celebrates its history of soul-winning, is one example. Also, let’s remember that when Frederick Douglass’s master got saved during an evangelical revival, he became more, not less, ruthless in his treatment of his slaves. We will see what happens this time around, but individual spiritual regeneration does not always solve the deeply embedded problems of race in America.

Now I want to hear how this generally good, but also insufficient, message applies to Jeffress’s support of Donald Trump.

James Robison is right. But so is Jurgen Moltmann when he said that Christians must “awaken the dead and piece together what has been broken“:

Tony Perkins is talking with David Brat, the dean of the Liberty University School of Business, about law and order and the breakdown of K-12 and higher education. Perkins thinks the real problem in America is a “lack of courage.” I did a post about courage a few weeks ago.

Brat wants Christians to be “prophets, priests, and kings.” Yes. Here is something I wrote last month about such royal language:

What does it mean, as Scot McKnightN.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

Gary Bauer just retweeted this:

Perhaps he should have made a caveat for Christians in prayer. But let’s face it, the court evangelicals don’t do nuance very well.

Ralph Reed is fully aware of the fact that Gorsuch and Roberts have betrayed him and his followers. Yet don’t expect him to throw out the Christian Right playbook anytime soon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to retire and Reed will no doubt try to make the 2020 election about the Supreme Court:

Rob McCoy, the pastor of Calvary Chapel of Thousands Oaks in Newbury Park, California, invited Charlie Kirk, the Trump wonderboy, to preach at his church last Sunday. McCoy introduced him by quoting Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever it admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Kirk then got up and gave a fear-mongering political speech that ripped evangelical pastors who have participated in anti-racist protests. At one point, Kirk told the Christians gathered on this Sunday morning that if the Left “takes him down” he “will be on his feet” not “on his knees.” This was an applause line. If you want to see hate preached from an evangelical pulpit, watch this:

And let’s not forget Charles Marsh’s twitter thread exposing Eric Metaxas’s use of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to attack Black Lives Matter.

Until next time.

Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

What Should We Make of Ralph Reed’s “Christian Case” for Trump?

GOP political operative Ralph Reed recently appeared on the Eric Metaxas Show. Watch:

Thoughts:

2:45ff:  The interview begins with a discussion of the quarantine. Reed seems to be making a case that coronavirus deaths and the shut-down of the economy are both “life” issues. This is certainly true. I am glad to see Reed is extending his understanding of pro-life politics beyond abortion. If Reed is willing to think about what it means to be pro-life in a way that takes him beyond abortion (or disease-based deaths), perhaps he is open to going a step further by starting to think about pro-life policy in terms of poverty, immigration, and the environment.

5:00ff: Reed says that Hillary Clinton was an “unspeakable alternative” in 2016. I understand why he said this. I have argued that Hillary Clinton’s decision to ignore evangelicals in 2020 was a huge political mistake. But I also think Reed’s views on Clinton are based more on recent history than theologically-informed politics.

The history of anti-Hillary sentiment among conservative evangelicals reaches back at least to Bill Clinton’s first campaign, when Hillary defended working in her law practice during her husband’s governorship by saying, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” To many who embraced the importance of traditional family roles, this seemed like a disparaging attack on their values. Then, when revelations of her husband’s marital infidelities surfaced, conservatives who challenged his character saw only defensiveness–and maybe something of a double standard–in Hillary’s response. She seemed willing to overlook her husband’s shortcomings, but she was ready to attack her husband’s accusers to advance a political agenda. In a Today interview in 1998, following the Monica Lewinksy affair, Clinton said that the impeachment allegations against her husband were little more than a “vast-right-wing conspiracy.

Many of these values voters have been so deeply influenced by the political playbook of the Christian Right that they were incapable of seeing Hillary Clinton, a devout mainline Methodist, as anything but an enemy. Fear of a Clinton victory blinded them to the fact that, not only did she have far more experience than Trump did, she also championed a position on paid leave that would have strengthened families, had a humane immigration policy, and defended the rights of women, children, the poor, and people of color. Many Christians see plenty of biblical themes at work in her positions, but these are not the themes long championed by the Christian Right. It is worth noting that there were evangelical leaders, including Ronald Sider and Thabiti Anyabwile, who said she was the best evangelical choice in 2016.

Notice how Reed does not use the words “unspeakable alternative” to describe Trump.

13:45: Reed says: “As Christians we hold a dual passport. We are citizens of a Kingdom that is here and yet to come, but we are also citizens of the United States. And we have to be good stewards of that citizenship.” This statement speaks volumes. Reed seems to imply that these dual identities are somehow equal. (I don’t think he really believes this, but political captivity makes people say strange things). If the Kingdom of God has a “here” dimension (in addition to a “yet to come” dimension), as Reed acknowledges, then the Kingdom of God is an alternative political community. What else could it be? It’s a Kingdom, right? And if Jesus reigns over this Kingdom, then its citizens–Christians guided by the Holy Spirit– must say something by way of moral critique to the earthly powers and kingdoms that rival it.

What does it mean, as Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, and Matthew Bates, among others, have argued, that Jesus is King? What role do Christians play as a royal priesthood, proclaiming the truth of God to the darkness and, as Wright puts it, “reflecting God’s wisdom and justice into the world.”And there’s the rub. Reed’s Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God as understood by many conservative evangelicals, looks the other way when a ruler from another kingdom (so to speak) practices immorality. They do not seem to take their citizenship in this Kingdom as seriously as they take their American citizenship or, at the very least, they seem unwilling to say more about the tensions between the two. (There is, of course, a deep history behind the conflation of these two kingdoms).

14:05: At this point, Metaxas starts to sing the praises of the Christian Right political playbook designed in the late 1970s to win the burgeoning culture war. As I have argued multiple times, including in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, this political playbook teaches Christians that fear, power, and nostalgia are the predominant ways of engaging political life. This playbook is barely Christian. Yes, as Metaxas goes on to say here, Christians must speak to the culture as representatives of the Kingdom of God. He is right to criticize the rapture culture of modern evangelicalism that tells us not to worry about this world because we will be leaving soon to meet God in the air. But Metaxas’s public theology (if you can call it that) is severely limited. Kingdom ethics teaches Christians not to put their trust in political strongmen and grasp at worldly power. He is correct in his desire to engage the culture, but wrong in his approach. Sadly, he has the majority of American evangelicals on his side and this enables him to sustain his brand.

14:48:  Metaxas references his recent debate with David French. (See the transcript here and see my commentary here). Metaxas argues that Trump is a man of character because he has “fulfilled his promises” to evangelicals. Does Metaxas really believe that Trump is somehow different from any other first-term politician who wants to fulfill campaign promises to get re-elected? Metaxas is scraping the bottom of the barrel. His Trump cheerleading seems to have blinded him from the possibility that evangelicals are being played. Is this what evangelical political engagement has come to? Are we now defining presidential character–something that our founding fathers said a lot about–on whether or not a president keeps his election promises? Is “Make America Great Again?” all we’ve got?

16:25: Reed mentions Joe Biden’s ethical challenges. Here, in my view, Reed misses the point. Trump is not a man of character. His tweets and public statements are not only disgusting, but they mobilize the ugly populism that make-up a significant part of his base. They should not dismissed, as Reed does in this interview. Trump’s racist remarks at Charlottesville empowered white supremacists. His immigration policies, including keeping humans in cages, is unChristian. His narcissism got in the way of his ability to handle the coronavirus effectively and lives have been lost as a result. He worked with a foreign country to influence the 2020 election.

I don’t know all the details about this Tara Reade-Joe Biden controversy. If it turns out that Biden harassed Reade, I will condemn it. Granted, it looks like we will have an imperfect choice to make in November, as we often do. But Joe Biden’s character as a man far exceeds Donald Trump. Moreover, his policies are more just, humane, and in some ways more Christian than Trump. (See my comments on Hillary Clinton above).

20:00: Reed addresses the charge that pro-Trump evangelicals who condemned Bill Clinton for his moral indiscretions in 1998 are hypocritical. (I and others have made this charge on multiple occasions and have documented this here at the blog and in Believe Me). Reed argues that with Clinton it was more than just sexual because he also lied and obstructed justice. But if you read the 1998 remarks of James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Gary Bauer, and Wayne Grudem, it is clear that they all thought Clinton was ill-equipped to serve as president almost entirely because of the sexual affair and his willingness to lie about it. Of course, Trump has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women (granted, not in the Oval Office, as far we know) and he denies every charge. He has also told thousands and thousands of lies to the American people unrelated to his sexual escapades. And, if I remember correctly, Trump was also impeached for obstructing justice and trying to cover-it-up. I can’t get my head around Reed’s logic here. What am I missing?

20:30: Reed claims that he did not disqualify Clinton because of his immoral past, but instead disqualified him on the issues. Fair enough. It sounds like Reed does not belong in the Dobson, Graham, Bauer, Grudem camp here. (Does someone want to check him on this one?). But then he says this:

My argument in the book is: if you’re going to exclude someone from serving in society because they’ve made mistakes in the past and because they’ve come up short, then I think that is not only contrary to good citizenship, I think it’s contrary to the Gospel. Throughout scripture, God takes people who are the dismissed, the demeaned, the failures, the outcasts, the people who came up short, the prostitute, the women who had five husbands and was then living with the Samaritan women at the well–these are the people who Jesus reached out to. And I personally think that what Christians did with Donald Trump was they extended grace to him, they hoped for the best out of him, and they accepted him for who he was and where he was and they  hoped to move him along by loving on him instead of throwing rocks and judging him.

It is hard to argue with grace and love. Indeed, Christians are called to pray for those in authority. I hope Reed will apply the same test to the next Democratic president, whether it is Joe Biden or someone else. But at what point does the grace period end? In the Old Testament, God decided Saul was not His guy. And we can think of other similar examples in scripture. Granted, God’s grace to human beings is endless. He will never stop pursuing Donald Trump. But isn’t there a difference between God extending grace to Donald Trump in his personal spiritual life and evangelicals looking the other way on Trump’s indiscretions and then justifying their behavior by invoking Christian grace? Please stop using the doctrine of grace as a political tool.

What about love? If Reed and evangelicals truly love Donald Trump they should take him aside and tell him that his character, rhetoric, narcissism, and many of his policies make him ill-equipped to serve in this role. They will tell him that God is not happy with his behavior. They should give him some hard-love, like the prophet Nathan did to David in 2 Samuel 12. They should lovingly speak truth to power and tell him it is time to go. Why don’t the court evangelicals use their “unprecedented access” to the White House to channel the voice of God to the 45th President of the United States?

22:10: Eric Metaxas wonders why non-evangelicals have such a “cartoonish” view of evangelicals. He fails to realize that evangelicals are mostly to blame for how “secular” people view them. They have damaged their witness, but instead of reminding his listeners of this, Metaxas chooses to play the victim.

I’ll stop there.  Watch the video and draw your own conclusions.

Three Sundays in April (Part 3)

pastor-robert-jeffress

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 12, 2020, Donald Trump watched the Easter Sunday service at Robert Jeffress‘s First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. What did he hear?

Jeffress, at age 64, is younger than Greg Laurie (the subject of Part 2 in our series), but he is much more traditional. I don’t think I have ever seen him without a suit and tie. His hair is cut short. He carries a big Bible. And his church has a robed choir.

While Jeffress has long-been a celebrity in Southern Baptist circles, I had never heard of him until he made national headlines during the 2012 presidential campaign. In October 2011, Jeffress was in Washington D.C. to introduce Texas governor Rick Perry at the annual Values Voters Summit. After he completed his introduction, Jeffress told reporters that Mitt Romney, one of Perry’s opponents in the GOP primaries and a practicing Mormon, did not deserve the votes of evangelical Christians because he was a member of a cult.

After a little research, I learned that this was not the first political stunt Jeffress has pulled. He has always loved the limelight. In May 1998, while serving as the pastor of the Wichita Falls (TX) Baptist Church, Jeffress led a protest against the Wichita Falls Public Library for acquiring books titled Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. After a member of his congregation checked these books out of the library and showed them to Jeffress, the pastor wrote a check for $54.00, sent it to the library, and vowed never to return the books. According to the Associated Press, the plan backfired.

In December 2010, his third year at First Baptist-Dallas, Jeffress created a website–grinchalert.com–to shame local stores that advertised using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There was a place on the website where readers could add a store to the “naughty list.” Jeffress appeared on CNN to defend his antics.

Today, Jeffress can be seen regularly on Fox News and Fox Business News. If there is an opportunity for a Trump photo-op with evangelical leaders, Jeffress is on the first plane from Dallas Washington D.C.  We have covered him extensively here at the blog and I wrote about him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In addition to his role as a pastor of a large congregation, Jeffress is a culture warrior–a political operative who wants to restore the United States to its supposed Christian roots.

Jeffress grew-up in First Baptist Church-Dallas, a flagship congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention with a long history of racial segregation and Jim Crow. This history, it is worth noting, is absent in a series videos created for the church’s 150th anniversary in 2018. One of the videos extols former pastor W.A. Criswell, one of the most famous Southern Baptist preachers of the 20th century and a segregationist, as a “champion” of “race and family values.” Criswell led Jeffress to faith in Jesus when the current pastor was a five-year-old boy. Jeffress was baptized, married, and ordained in the church. First Baptist-Dallas was the site of his first sermon.

After graduating from Baylor University, Jeffress completed a Master of Theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the bastions of dispensational theology in America. This was an unusual choice for a young Southern Baptist. Most aspiring ministerial candidates in Texas attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dallas Theological Seminary is non-denominational. In 2003, Jeffress said that his ordination council “grilled” him about his decision to attend this seminary. He claimed he went to Dallas Theological Seminary because he was attracted to the work of Christian Education professor and Bible teacher Howard Hendricks.

While at Dallas Theological Seminary, Jeffress imbibed the “end times” theology that has informed his numerous popular books, including Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, Countdown to Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola are Only the Beginning, and A Place Called Heaven.  Like Greg Laurie, Jeffress thinks that believers will one day meet God in the air as part of an imminent rapture. Those remaining on earth after the rapture will live through seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns with his saints (the true believers raptured seven years earlier) to establish a millennial kingdom. According to this view of biblical prophecy, Jews will eventually return to Israel, rebuild the temple, and accept Jesus as their Messiah. This explains why Jeffress believes Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was important. God is using Trump to advance His purposes and prepare the world for the last days through the president’s contribution to the restoration of His ancient “capital” city.

When Donald Trump pointed his web browser toward First Baptist-Dallas on Easter morning, he was met with a hearty welcome from Jeffress:

Today I’d like to say welcome to a very special guest visitor, a great friend of mine, our great president Donald Trump. Mr. President, we’re so honored that you would choose to worship with us today. And I know there are millions and millions of Christians all over this country who are not only grateful for you, but they are praying for you regularly for that continued wisdom that comes from God as you navigate us through this crisis we’re in. We are going to get through this, we are going to make it to the other side, but we want you to know we are praying for you.

After his message to Trump, Jeffress introduces the First Baptist choir and orchestra. He tells his listeners that these songs were recorded before social distancing guidelines went into place. The choir begins with the classic Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I am not sure when this music was recorded because the sanctuary is full. Is this from last year’s Easter service? Did the church hold a mock Easter service sometime before the quarantine? I’m not going to try to figure this out. Whatever the case, the music sounded great and it is very appropriate and uplifting for Easter.

When Jeffress comes back on the feed, ready to preach, he offers yet another welcome to Trump. Before he starts his sermon, he says: “Mr. President, our church absolutely loves you.” He adds: “We appreciate your strong articulation of the Christian faith. I’ve never heard a stronger affirmation of faith than the one you gave Friday, Good Friday, in the Oval Office. We thank you for your commitment to religious liberty.”

I have no doubt that Robert Jeffress has preached a version of this sermon every Easter Sunday of his ministerial career. From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, there was nothing controversial about it. Jeffress focused on the empty tomb, Jesus’s victory over death, and the future resurrection of believers. This is pretty basic Easter fare. He did not mention Trump and he did not talk about politics (although he did take a few shots at liberal theologians who deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection).

But like Laurie on Palm Sunday, Jeffress only got it half right. He failed to mention that Jesus’s resurrection initiated the Kingdom of God. He failed to note that those who embrace the Christian Gospel are citizens of this Kingdom and are thus called to practice a form of citizenship defined by New Testament ethics.

Recently, through my reading of the works of Oxford University New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright, I have been reflecting on the political nature of the Kingdom of God. As I wrote in my last post in this series, the members of this Kingdom must speak truth to the principalities and powers of this world. Citizens of the Kingdom should respect government authority, but must also call the ruling powers to task when it is appropriate. As we read in the New Testament Book of Acts, the earliest Christians found the courage to challenge the authorities of their day through the power of Jesus’s resurrection and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Here is part of Wright’s commentary on on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, a passage that directly connects the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to the Kingdom that this resurrection initiated:

We should not ignore the political overtones of this, another letter to a Roman colony. The whole paragraph is about the Messiah through whose “kingdom” (basileia) the one true God will overthrow all other authorities and rulers. “Resurrection,” as in Pharisaic thought, belongs firmly within kingdom-of-god theology; and every first-century Jew knew that kingdom-of-God theology carried inescapable political meaning. The present “ordering” (tagma) of society places Caesar at the top, his agents in the middle, and ordinary people at the bottom; the creator’s new ordering will have himself at the top, the Messiah–and his people, as in [1 Corinthians] 6:2 and elsewhere!–in the middle, and the world as a whole underneath, not however exploited and oppressed but rescued and restored, given the freedom which comes with the wise rule of the creator, his Messiah, and his image-bearing subjects. This passage thus belongs with Romans 8, Philippians 2:6-11 and 3:20-21, as, simultaneously, a classic exposition of the creator God’s plan to rescue the creation, and a coded but powerful reminder to the young church, living in Caesar’s world, that Jesus was lord and that at his name every knee would bow. (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 337-338).

Jeffress misses this dimension of the Easter story. For him, Easter is all about Christians getting to heaven. But the Easter message has both “on earth” and “as it is heaven” dimensions. And one day, as the hymn-writer says, “earth and Heav’n [will be] be one.

Jeffress’s theology leaves no place for the church to speak truth to power. This approach to Easter is pretty common among American evangelicalism. As we will see in our next post in this series, too many evangelical churches offer a kind of cheap grace that measures results in the “decisions” people make–decisions, they believe, that will secure a place for them in heaven.  As a result, the church does not connect the resurrection power of Jesus to the task of social, cultural, and political engagement beyond abortion, religious liberty, and other Christian Right favorites.

Yes, Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world, needs to hear about saving faith and eternal life in Jesus. (Unless, as many court evangelicals have suggested, he is already “saved”). But Easter is also about the announcement of Jesus as a ruler who will one day topple all the empires of the world. It is time that the evangelical church, especially during Eastertide, reminds the president of this theological reality.

Three Sundays in April (Part Two)

Greg Laurie-01

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 5, 2020, Donald Trump announced that he would be watching the Palm Sunday service at Greg Laurie‘s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. What did he hear?

Laurie is 67-years old, but he still exudes California cool. He is always tan and he usually makes appearances in blue jeans, denim or leather jackets, sun glasses, and sneakers. (Imagine a member of Beach Boys getting “saved” and forming a megachurch!) In my early days as an evangelical Christian, I used to listen to Laurie on the radio. If I remember correctly, my local Christian station scheduled his program between John MacArthur’s “Grace to You” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.” I liked Laurie because he seasoned his sermons with jokes and popular culture references. (He has written inspirational books about Johnny Cash and Steve McQueen). Over the years, Laurie has successfully cultivated his brand. According to one website, he has a net worth of $20 million. Preaching the Gospel has been good to him.

Laurie’s biography and spiritual journey is also a part of his appeal. He was born in Long Beach, California. As he wrote in his memoir, Lost Boy, he came from a very dysfunctional home. He was raised by a single mother who was married seven times. Laurie has described her as a “raging alcoholic” who looked like Marilyn Monroe. In high school, Laurie tried to satisfy his search for meaning with drugs until, at the age of 17, he found God through the controversial ministry of charismatic “hippie” preacher Lonnie Frisbee. This led Laurie into the Jesus People Movement and he quickly came under the influence of Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith, the balding middle-aged pastor often considered the leader of the movement in Southern California. Laurie led a Bible study at a local Episcopalian church that eventually grew into Harvest Christian Fellowship. Today the church reaches more than 15,000 people at four different campuses, including one in Maui, Hawaii.

Laurie speaks often of the religious revival he witnessed during the early years of Southern California’s Jesus People Movement. He wrote about it in his 2008 co-authored book Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today. Led by Smith and Frisbee, California hippies were turning away from acid and sex and becoming followers of Jesus Christ. People were getting “saved” and Smith, Frisbee and others were holding massive baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Influenced deeply by what he saw and experienced, Laurie would pursue a dual, but closely related, calling as a pastor and an evangelist.

With Smith’s guidance, Laurie began leading mass evangelistic events–Billy Graham-style crusades– in Anaheim Stadium. He called them “Harvest Crusades.” In 2016, The Los Angeles Times reported that over 500,000 people had made professions of faith during these events. These crusades also reveal the close connection between evangelical culture, spectacle, and consumerism. Laurie is a master marketer. In their book, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, scholars Richard Flory and Donald Miller visited a Harvest crusade and noted the sale of Harvest-themed clothing, books, CDs, stickers, and pins, including a T-shirt modeled after the movie Napoleon Dynamite that said “Jesus Died for Pedro.” In 2018, the event included a freestyle motocross show.

Like most evangelical megachurches, Harvest Christian Fellowship is holding online services during the coronavirus pandemic. Laurie calls these services “Harvest at Home.”

On Palm Sunday, Laurie and his team appear on a carefully constructed set that includes a fake-brick facade covered with Laurie family photos and the revolutionary-era Pine Tree Flag inscribed with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.” (More on this below). Laurie sits front and center behind a fancy music stand. His worship band sits around him on couches and comfortable chairs. Everyone is social distancing in an appropriate fashion. On the couch to Laurie’s immediate right sits his wife Cathee and his son Jonathan. Those who designed Laurie’s set seem to be going for a look somewhere in-between a comfortable white suburban, middle-class living room and a hip urban coffeehouse. At one point Laurie refers to the set as the “front room.”

This is what Donald Trump saw when he live-streamed Laurie’s Palm Sunday service on April 5, 2020. Before the service began, Laurie welcomed Trump:

I want to welcome a very special guest to our service today and he happens to be the President of the United States. Mr. President, thank you for joining us. And thank you for talking about the importance of the church in your press conferences. I know had mentioned earlier [that] it was your hope that maybe we would be meeting in person on Easter and unfortunately that has not worked out. But the amazing thing is that we are able to reach a lot of people now online. Since we started this online experience we’ve seen our numbers explode and in the last few weeks we’ve had over a million people watch us. And I think that’s because Americans are looking for hope, they’re looking for answers, and their looking for truth. And I am so glad that you know how important that the church is. President Trump I want you to know that we are praying for you and for the Vice President as he heads up this COVID-19 Task Force. We’re praying that this coronavirus comes to an end and we’re able to get out again to our churches, and to our businesses, and into the wonderful life we all enjoy as Americans.

Laurie is right. People are looking for hope, answers, and truth during this pandemic. Indeed, the Gospel can provide hope, answers, and truth. But why did Laurie talk about how God can meet these needs in the context of a welcome message to a president who offers little hope, few answers, and endless lies? Why compromise the Gospel message on Palm Sunday in this way? I wonder how many people immediately checked-out at this point.

The service begins with Christian artist Phil Wickham leading an acoustic performance of the praise song “Hosanna.” This song, of course, points the audience to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John describes Jesus riding into the city on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. The “great crowd” that gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival waved palms and sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

After a prayer and several more songs, Laurie delivers his sermon. He begins by complaining about those who are not properly social distancing and others who are hoarding toilet paper. He encourages his online flock to be “selfless, not selfish.” We are off to a good start.

For Laurie, and for nearly all Christians, the story of Palm Sunday points us to Jesus’s death on the cross on Good Friday. This understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, according to the dominant evangelical view of the atonement, teaches that Jesus’s death satisfied the wrath of God. Someone needed to be punished for the sins of the world and God chose his own son to die in our place. It is now up to individual men and women to repent of their sin and accept God’s gift of salvation accomplished through Jesus’s death. When people accept Christ as Savior, and truly believe it, they will receive eternal life in heaven. It is this gospel message that drives Laurie’s entire ministry–both as a pastor and an evangelist.

It also drives Laurie’s eschatology, or his view of the “end times.” Like his mentor Chuck Smith, and like most of the Jesus Movement that surrounded Calvary Chapel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Laurie believes that true Christians–those who have accepted Jesus as Savior–will one day be removed from the earth through an event known as the rapture. In this view, Palm Sunday points us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Those who believe in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection from the dead will one day be raptured and join God in heaven. Those left on earth still have an opportunity to accept Jesus as Savior, but they will need to endure seven years of “tribulation.” This will be a time when Satan will rule the earth through the Antichrist until Jesus comes back again (the so-called “Second Coming) with all those who were raptured earlier. Jesus will defeat the forces of evil and will reign on the earth for 1000 years before all true believers finally go to heaven where they will spend eternity with God. Theologians call this eschatological scheme dispensational premillennialism. According to American historian Larry Eskridge, our best interpreter of the Jesus People Movement,  Laurie’s generation was exposed to this teaching by reading Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth.

Laurie’s view of the cross and eschatology explains the rhetorical move he makes six minutes into his Palm Sunday online sermon. He stops and invites those listening at home to accept Jesus as Savior:

Now I’m going to do something I don’t normally do. Usually, if you listen to me you know that at the end of my message I will extend an invitation for people to believe in Jesus. And I am going to do that at the end of the message, but I am gonna do it right now, and I’ll tell you why: cause I’m talking to somebody right now that is scared, somebody that is afraid of the afterlife, somebody who is not sure that their life is right with God. And I’m gonna tell you right now, if you want God to forgive you of your sin, if you want to know that you’ll go to heaven when you die, if you want to be sure Jesus is living inside of you, right now I’m gonna lead you in a prayer, and I’ll do it again at the end of the message because sometimes people tune out early and they tune in late….

Laurie knows Trump is watching. He knows that Trump has a short attention span. He also realizes that Trump’s announcement that he would be “attending” Laurie’s service on this day has put him and his message in front of more viewers than usual. Laurie wants to make sure those viewers, including Trump, are right with God. This, he believes, is the best message he could ever deliver to a President of the United States.

It is at this point in the sermon that Laurie merges his passion for evangelism and spiritual revival (forged during his “Jesus Revolution” days) with his Christian nationalism. He makes a few references to the “Kingdom of God.” For Laurie, the Kingdom of God is spiritual in nature. One day, sometime after the Great Tribulation, God will establish an earthly kingdom, but for now the Kingdom of God rests in the “hearts of men and women” who believe Jesus has died for them on the cross. This view of the Kingdom allows Laurie to move freely into a version of Christian nationalism. If the Kingdom of God is solely spiritual, then it is not the kind of kingdom that earthly powers should worry about. Its citizens, in other words, are tasked with preaching the Gospel and getting people into heaven. Christians, as members of God’s Kingdom, are not tasked with speaking truth to power. In this sense, Laurie’s Kingdom is not really a kingdom at all. It is not a rival or an alternative to the other kingdoms of the world, in this case, the United States of America.

Laurie says, “when God wants to send a spiritual awakening to a nation it starts first with his people.” He quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people which are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins, and heal their land.” There is nothing inherently wrong with preaching this verse, but for the past couple of decades the Christian Right has been applying it to the United States of America. Mike Pence has been making subtle references to this verse during the White House coronavirus press briefings when he ends his prepared remarks with the phrase “heal our land.” In 2016, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore addressed the Christian nationalist’s misuse of this verse. (It is worth noting here that Laurie’s church recently became a member of the Southern Baptist Convention).

Laurie connects his use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 with his desire for another Great Awakening. Evangelicals, of course, should all be praying for spiritual revival in the life of the churches. But when one tries to connect prayers for revival to American exceptionalism, or the idea that one day God will restore or reclaim America’s Christian roots and “heal” the country through such a revival, he is on shaky historical and theological ground. Laurie is already on record, in a talk at The White House, trying to connect the First Great Awakening of the 18th century to American nationalism, a lesson he seems to have learned straight from the Eric Metaxas playbook. (He also does it here). And now, in his Palm Sunday sermon, he links spiritual revival and American nationalism to the “Appeal to Heaven” flag hanging on the wall behind him. He says that George Washington, who commissioned the flag, understood that our only hope to become a nation was by the intervention of God.” Historically, as I have written about before, the relationship between Christianity and the American founding was a very complicated one. For Laurie, “heal our land” connects spiritual revival with a movement to return to some kind of Christian golden age in American history. But I am not sure such an age ever existed. Laurie’s use of “heal our land” is the evangelical version of “Make America Great Again.”

Should Laurie call for a spiritual revival in this time of anxiety? Yes. Should he use American history to do it? No.

Here is a thought: what if a spiritual awakening led Christians to take-up their Kingdom of God duties as related to justice and sacrificial love? What if such a revival called immoral political leaders to task? What if such a revival resulted in mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean and a call to fight for the least of these (yes, this would include the unborn as well as the poor, the immigrant, and the suffering)? What if such an awakening resulted in persecution?

Laurie continues to move through the story of Holy Week by referencing Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Jewish temple. During this scene, we learn about God’s “righteous indignation” against the religious leaders who are using the temple for immoral and materialistic purposes. Laurie also takes this opportunity to teach us that Jesus was a “man’s man” who was strong enough to overturn tables. If the Kingdom of God is merely in our hearts, then the lesson we learn from Jesus clearing the temple has something to do with righteous anger and masculinity. But if Jesus was really inaugurating his Kingdom on Palm Sunday, then he must, in a now-but-not-yet sense, already be King. And we, as members of the kingdom by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit–followers of Jesus–should be carrying-out that kingdom through lives defined by love, mercy, and justice. Again, a kingdom is a political community.  Though Jesus’ Kingdom will not reach its fullness until His return, Christians, as citizens of this Kingdom, still have responsibilities to contribute to its advancement by living in accordance with Christian ethics (the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind) and speaking truth to the existing kingdoms of this world.

When Jesus entered the Temple during what today we call Holy Week he was challenging both the religious and political authorities of Israel. When he stood before Pilate in John 18-19 he told this imperial official that the Roman Empire is no longer in control. It has been defeated. Yes, God in his sovereignty will allow this empire to run its course (just like he will allow future empires to run their courses), but all man-made empires will one day be replaced by the Messiah’s Kingdom of justice, peace, and love. (This is the essence of Christian hope). Until then, it is the responsibility of citizens of this Kingdom to remind the leaders of the world that God is in control, not them. When the leaders of the world fail to advance policies that care for sick, help the poor, and alleviate suffering, citizens of the Kingdom must speak.

What if Laurie added this interpretation of Holy Week to his Palm Sunday message? What kind of message would such a sermon send to the most powerful man in the world and the millions listening online?

As a historian, when I listen to Laurie I am reminded of just how much the Jesus People Movement broke with the larger youth counterculture of the 1960s. Yes, the kids who flocked to Chuck Smith dressed like hippies and had long hair, but that seems to be where the comparison ends. None of the social commitments of the secular counterculture–the rejection of materialism, the opposition to war, the concern for justice–seem to have translated to this wing of the Jesus People Movement. Laurie’s “Jesus Revolution” was only revolutionary in a spiritual sense. Yes, the Gospel’s capacity to change and transform lives can be revolutionary, as it was for Laurie himself as a “lost” Southern California kid and as it was for me in the 1980s. Jesus died for our sins and we wait in expectant hope for what Revelation 20 and 21 describes as a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But when we embrace Jesus’s saving work on the cross we are also signing-up as citizens of His Kingdom–a Kingdom that requires a sense of social and political responsibility that extends well beyond the fight for religious liberty and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It requires us to speak truth to power in all its forms.

Lurie only got it half right on Palm Sunday. And because he only got it half right, our corrupt president, assuming he watched the entire service, never gained a full understanding of what Jesus was proclaiming during Holy Week and why such a message might cause him to tremble.

CREATE!: Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

LeafYesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

The Kingdom of God in American History

45c39-elias_boudinot

Elias Boudinot, Founder of the American Bible Society

Ralph Keen is writing for us this week from the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City.  Keen is Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2018 he was president of the ASCH. Here is his latest post.  Enjoy!

The Kingdom of God was the focus of a session in which Rhys Bezzant (Ridley College, Melbourne) brought to light the importance of Kingdom language in Edwards. In Bezzant’s view, the Kingdom was both an element in Edwards’s own conversion and the systematic “scaffold” of his theological edifice. The language of the Kingdom serves as a key to understanding Edwards’s pastoral agenda. Caleb Maskell (ASCH exec sec) then offered an account of the 1816 founding of the American Bible Society, tying it to a narrative of eschatological anticipation promoted by elite “formalist evangelicals” who felt it their God-given duty to Christianize the young nation and protect it from the “dangers” of democracy.  Vince Oliveri (Bristol) offered an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s 1932 essay “Thy Kingdom Come” with attention to its critique of both otherworldliness and secularism. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the German church crisis of the 1930s was, in Oliveri’s view, strongly influenced by his experience of the Black church in NY.

Not All “Two Kingdom” Christians Ignore the Government’s Unethical Behavior

Tinder 2People like Robert Jeffress give “two-kingdom” theologians a bad name.  (Get up to speed here).

Even if one embraces the idea that the Sermon on the Mount or the Great Commission should not dictate government policy, Christians are still required to speak and act when the government exerts itself in unjust, untruthful, and hateful ways.

My favorite two-kingdom thinker is retired University of Massachusetts political scientist Glenn Tinder.  Here is what Tinder says in the “Social Transformation” chapter (4) of The Political Meaning of Christianity:

…if Christians are even more pessimistic about human beings than are conservatives how can they favor reform?  How can they do anything but cling to all institutions, however unjust, that counteract the chaotic potentialities of  human beings and achieve a degree of order?  There are three interconnected answers to these questions.

First of all, Christian principles place one in a radical–that is, critical and adverse–relationship to established institutions.  The Kingdom of God is a judgment on the existing society; the imminence of the Kingdom of God symbolizes its impermanence.  Jesus was crucified because his presence and preaching were unsettling to reigning religious and political groups.  Jesus did not seek the violent overthrow of these groups, but neihter did he show much concern for their stability…

The second answer to the foregoing questions is that these basic attitudes have to be acted on.  This is a matter of spiritual integrity.  To be opposed to the established order in principle, but in favor of keeping it exactly as it is, is an incongruity necessarily destructive of prophetic faith.  Beliefs are not genuine unless they affect one’s conduct as well as one’s mind.  To anticipate the coming of the Kingdom of God is merely sentimental, a private frivolity, unless one seeks ways of reshaping society according to the form of the imminent community.  The Christian universe is not, as we have seen, an eternal and changeless order; it is a universe moving, under the impetus of the Word of God, toward radical re-creation…

Finally, however, it must be said that Christianity forbids us to assume the inevitability of failure.  It requires hope, and hope pertains to the immediate, as well as the eschatological, future…It is reasonable to be skeptical concerning the possibilities of social transformation.  But human beings have no warrant for holding fixed opinions in this matter, for they cannot know the kind or degree of change God intends to effect in history.  And those who accept Christian principles do know, through Christ, that all things move toward the Kingdom of God, however humanly incomprehensible the movement may be…

This Week’s Patheos Column: America, a Great and Flawed Nation

Of all the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson is the most complex. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence—the document that declared that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—one of the greatest statements on religious freedom in the history of the world. He was the founder of one of our great public universities—the University of Virginia. He defended the rights of the common man and he staunchly opposed big and centralized governments that threatened individual liberties.

At the same time, Jefferson was a slaveholder. Although he made several efforts to try to bring the “peculiar institution” of slavery to an end, he never succeeded. Jefferson needed his slaves to maintain his Virginia planter lifestyle—complete with all its consumer goods and luxury items. He was in debt for most of his adult life. And he is likely the father of several children born to his slave Sally Hemings.

Jefferson’s story reminds us that history is complicated. As Christians, we must always remember that there are no heroes in history. We are flawed, sinful human beings in need of redemption. Even the great ones, like King David, fail. But there are also no villains in history. All of us have been created in the image of God and thus possess dignity and worth. History reminds us that when we put our confidence in people, whether they lived in the past (such as the founding fathers) or live in the present, we are likely to be inspired by them, but we are just as likely to be disappointed.

Read the rest here.