Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Of all the things that have come as a result of the Church’s gender debates, nothing must excite Christian publishers more than the boom in writing devoted to women finding their place in God’s kingdom. And it’s only beginning. The first generation reared entirely within those debates is coming of age, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and telling their stories. This phenomenon became undeniable last October when the controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood propelled it to the New York Times’ Best Sellers list.  And now, almost exactly a year later, Sarah Bessey offers the latest in this growing genre with her first book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women.

Bessey is a blogger, conference speaker, mother of three, and self-described “happy-clappy Jesus lover.” She carries her passion and intimate style into Jesus Feminist, often writing directly to her reader (at times even calling her “luv” and “friend”). In this, Bessey aligns herself not only with the ideology of past social activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe but with their literary style as well—one that evokes empathy and demands ownership of the cause at hand.  Jesus Feminist

Sometimes this personal approach borders on the sentimental, but it is consistent with the purpose of Jesus Feminist. While Evans entered an alternative universe, assuming the roles and characteristics of the fabled “biblical woman,” Bessey stays solidly within her own, making Jesus Feminist less an apologetic for feminist theology than a personal account of how feminism might fit with the faith.

A Bonfire on the Shore

Bessey opens Jesus Feminist with an invitation to “lay down our ideas, our neatly organized Bible verses, our carefully crafted arguments” and join her at a “bonfire on the shore.” She expresses her exhaustion with the gender wars and calls us to stop lobbying for a seat at the “Table”—the word she uses to describe the religious establishment—and instead to identify with the outsiders and seek “unity beyond conformity.”

At one point in the publication process, Jesus Feminist had been subtitled An Invitation to the Kingdom of God Waiting on the Other Side of our Church’s Gender Debates.” While this eventually changed, the emphasis is central to the book. Bessey calls women to participate in the redemptive pulse of the gospel—whether that means fighting human trafficking, supporting educational opportunities for women, or baking a casserole for a shut-in neighbor. In this sense, Bessey’s theology is clearly kingdom-oriented, brimming with themes of progress, justice, and equality. Her rhetoric would be as at home in the abolitionism of the mid-1800s or early 20th-century progressivism as it is in the current post-evangelical landscape.

And yet, Bessey’s passion for ”bringing in the kingdom” does not devolve into naïve optimism.  She acknowledges the challenges, roots her vision solidly in Christ’s resurrection, and paints a vivid portrait of God’s “dreams” for the world. In fact, she does such a good job that even the most curmudgeonly among us will find it hard not to ask “Where do I sign up?” Continue reading


Evangelical Theology: A Review (of a section)

Michael Bird has written a new single-volume systematic theology titled Evangelical Theology. His publisher, Zondervan, offered complementary volumes in exchange for reviewing one of the book’s sections. That’s the kind of offer that I find difficult to turn down, and, thus, here we are today.

Evangelical Theology Michael Bird

Given the choice of which section to review, I selected Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom, thinking that it would contain some address so-called “Christ and Culture” issues. However, this section is actually Bird’s section on eschatology. In fact, Bird never does address the competing political theologies like two kingdoms or transformationalism in this systematic.

After getting past this misunderstanding, I settled in to explore what Bird says about last things. Bird is a respectable mainstream Evangelical on these matters. He makes cracks at the expense of folks who think Ross Perot or Hillary Clinton are the Antichrist and includes the following general disclaimer:

“[T]he unhealthy theological division created by eschatology combined with fantastical books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Jerry Jenkins and Tom LaHaye’s Left Behind series might make it prudent for us to retreat from the business of eschatology and distance ourselves from the controversy and lunacy that seems to go with the field”

Despite this, Bird believes that it is inappropriate to merely leave it there, say Jesus wins in the end, and call it good. To make this point, Bird borrows a list of seven reasons from Richard Hays:

  1. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to carry Israel’s story forward.
  2. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for interpreting the cross as a saving event for the world.
  3. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for the gospel’s political critique of pagan culture.
  4. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to resist ecclesial complacency and triumphalism.
  5. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology in order to affirm the body.
  6. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to ground its mission.
  7. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about death.

Despite making this case for holding a detailed theology of last things, Bird still maintains that these are second order matters of doctrine and disagreements over the details should not be grounds for ending fellowship. In my experience, this position on last things will resonate with most Evangelicals today. In my skimming of the remainder of the book it appears that most of Bird’s positions are similarly broadly held.

Stylistically, Bird’s approach is exhaustive but without becoming boring. He moves quickly past positions he does not embrace, which is an editorial necessity for him to keep the volume under 900 pages.

To illustrate the depth Bird is able to achieve, here is his treatment of the Millennium. He finds the postmillennial view to be “easiest set aside,” as society is manifestly not gradually getting better. He quotes one paragraph from A.A. Hodge and finds it unconvincing. Three pages and six footnotes total. He then moves to amillennialism, which he finds very attractive but unable to sufficiently account for Revelation 20. This also takes him just three pages and six footnotes. Finally, he explains premillennialism and his reasons for holding that position in ten pages and twenty footnotes. Each section is also accompanied with a handy graphic that summarizes the order of events in each millennial view.


I believe Bird has written a very helpful systematic theology. Perhaps the best description of its eschatology section is that it is unobjectionable. In other words, I believe it achieves precisely what it set out to do. While I am not enough of a connoisseur of systematic theologies to compare Bird’s work to its competitors, Bird’s work strikes me as very competent and accessible. I will keep it on my shelf next to Wayne Grudem’s.

Book Review—Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade

Disclaimer: The author of this book is my father-in-law.

Clarke Forsythe’s Abuse of Discretion is an interesting and compelling examination of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions of 1973. Although its provocative title betrays an understandably distinct ideological bent given Forsythe’s role as Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life, the book is an exhaustively researched analysis of the decisions’ legal reasoning and social repercussions.Abuse of Discretion

Mr. Forsythe’s 350-page work is divided into two major sections: “Mistakes” and “Unintended Consequences.” In the first half, he recounts the road that led to Roe, examining state and federal court decisions that affected the Justices’ discussions in 1973. He explores several factors that played a role in public perception of abortion leading up to the decision: popular fears of population control, the proliferation of birth control, the persistence of poor data on maternal deaths, the American Law Institute’s ‘Model Abortion Law,’ and the American Medical Association’s endorsement abortion’s legalization.

Of course, the unelected Supreme Court is not supposed to be concerned with opinion polling (even if more recent decisions suggests otherwise). What troubles Mr. Forsythe are the grave errors in legal reasoning and procedure that led to the Roe and Doe decisions. He raises significant questions about the factual record in both cases: in the lower courts, Roe and Doe introduced no evidence and neither involved any witnesses subjected to cross-examination.  Furthermore, due to a 1970 federal statute, no intermediate appellate court conducted the usual screening for these evidentiary shortcomings.

The centerpiece of Mr. Forsythe’s legal argument is the Supreme Court’s “abrupt expansion to viability,” referring to the arbitrary line that the Court created in expanding abortion rights. Viability, the point at which an unborn child can survive outside of the womb, was thought in 1973 to occur around 28 weeks of gestation (children have actually survived after being born at less than 22 weeks).  As it turns out, the Justices were particularly influenced by Judge Jon Newman, a brand new District Court Judge in Connecticut who, months after being sworn into office, struck down a state abortion statute and asserted without citing any law that “the state interest in protecting the life of a fetus capable of living outside the uterus could be shown to be more generally accepted.” Before long, the Justices were parroting this same line to each other and their clerks in internal memos. It is surprising that the Justices would take their cues from a District Court Judge, especially when the Supreme Courts of Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama had all implicitly questioned or explicitly rejected the doctrine of viability before the Supreme Court settled on it in 1973.

Of additional note is the Justices’ medical “data” to support their legal reasoning. Forsythe counts only seven medical articles used in the controlling Roe opinion. These seven sources include a leading abortionist’s personal report from a medical conference in Communist East Germany, two more of the same author’s non-peer reviewed articles (of 2 and 3 pages each), a report of the International Planned Parenthood Federation of London lacking any references to peer-reviewed data, a six-paragraph “letter to the editor” written by a Czech doctor, an article examining abortion in Soviet bloc countries, and a New York City report on the effects of a year-old abortion statute. The inclusion of these questionable sources is all the more troubling to Forsythe given what seems to be the Court’s willingness to overlook clear deficiencies. When a Supreme Court clerk, for example, authored a memo that drew Justice Blackmun’s attention to devastating problems with the New York City report, the Justice scrawled a stylistic correction over the memo’s topic sentence, but elaborated no further on its content.

In an analysis of the social consequences of Roe and Doe, the second part of Mr. Forsythe’s book walks away from legal reasoning and delves into issues of public health, women’s rights, and public perception. Starting with Roe and recounting a daisy-chain of court cases that have combined to eliminate most clinic regulations, Forsythe accuses the Justices of creating a public health vacuum through their ill-informed decision. A better tactic, he asserts, would have been for the Justices to strike down the Texas statute (in Roe) and leave intact the Georgia regulations (in Doe) making sure that abortions could be done with as little risk as possible to the woman.

Forsythe closes his work with an examination of Roe’s consequences in the area of women’s rights: “Has Roe solved the problems it was supposed to solve for women?” The author asserts that this is most emphatically not the case. Ironically, abortion amplifies the coercive power of uncommitted men in romantic relationships:  Forsythe cites research by George Akerlof and Janet Yellen (yes, that Janet Yellen) that concludes “the legalization of abortion reduced women’s ability to withhold premarital sexual favors from men.” In another instance, a series of articles by the Washington Post suggested a link between abortion’s availability and domestic violence. In all, Forsythe suggests that abortion has had a negative impact on gender equality.

Mr. Forsythe makes a persuasive case. His book contains (by my count) 1,061 footnotes that occupy eighty-nine pages, followed by a twenty-one page bibliography. His analysis is thorough and he is unafraid of taking on opposing legal arguments, exploring the details of early English common law on abortion and explaining why arguments for legal distinctions between “quickening” and “viability” make no sense in the 21st century.

But the book is not just about legal arguments. It also explores the non-judicial aspects of the decision—the “unintended consequences”—and traces the social and medical impact of the Judicial edict. It is here, however, that I would lodge my first complaint about the book. Although unafraid of presenting both sides of a legal argument, Mr. Forsythe hardly makes room for opposing social science data. It is not difficult to imagine why: the potential for political taint in such data and the number of ways methodologies can be manipulated mean that social science debates can often devolve into accusations about the deficiencies of small-n studies, selections on the dependent variable, or inadequate control variables. These limitations notwithstanding, I think Forsythe’s argument could have benefited by a brief methodological analysis of some of the data that points to an overall societal benefit from abortion.

Forsythe’s legal background is quite apparent, as the book reads more like an amicus curiae brief than a George R.R. Martin novel: It will convince you, but it will not enthrall you. In most instances, though, Forsythe is conscious of his non-lawyer audience and is careful to explain the nuances of the English common law and the layers of the Federal court system in lay language. But on occasion (and perhaps inescapably), passages become a bit laden with jargon.

This was most apparent in his all-too-brief overview of the basic facts regarding both cases. A brief 3-5 page primer on such facts and the crucial points of the Justices’ decisions would have helped immensely. Who were the plaintiffs? What was the exact nature of the complaint? What were the basic statutes at issue? Although all of these details emerge within the first several chapters of the book, the clarity of the argument throughout could have been enhanced with a very basic opening foreword or even an illustrative chart.

My final complaint is very specific. On two separate occasions, Forsythe claims that “99 percent of abortions are for social reasons alone.” If this is true, the statistic cuts directly against the common refrain that abortion is all about “women’s health.” Unfortunately, this claim has no corresponding footnote pointing to a source—the only time in the book when a reference I wanted was not there.

In all, this book is a good addition to the existing historical literature on the abortion decisions. As a newcomer to this genre and written in time for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it has the distinct advantage of drawing on forty years of social science data, legal cases, and other scholarship to draw important conclusions about the broad impact that abortion’s near-unlimited legalization has had on American society. Hailed by some as a landmark achievement for equality, the Roe and Doe decisions of 1973 now need to be reexamined on the merits of both their presuppositions and their consequences.

Zac Crippen (@ZacCrippen) is currently pursuing an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes Scholar. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Sally.

The Sports Gene: Review

What role does genetics play in the success of athletes competing at the highest levels? Well, it’s complicated.

David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance just came out in hardcover from Current and is available on Kindle soon.[1]Sports Gene

My own research interests include the non-deliberative dynamics of human interaction (currently in the context of affect theory as it relates to non-critical modes of interpretation in theatrical contexts—nerd alert). The excerpt from The Sports Gene published at fascinated me for its familiar human dynamics in a less-familiar context. Epstein’s questions arise from documented—and sometimes delightfully obscure—cases in sports past and present: Why can’t MLB superstars hit Jennie Finch? (They’re not even close.) How much do reaction times have to do with athletic talent? (Almost zero.) Are Jamaican sprinters (see Bolt, Usain), Kenyan distance runners, and NBA 7-footers genetic freaks with innate advantages? Well, it’s complicated.

The better we understand human genetics, the more difficult it gets to pinpoint genes for speed, height, eyesight, and the trademark attributes typically advantageous to athletes. Furthermore, thenurture component of athletic talent is as much a part of Epstein’s research if not the book’s marketing. How much part does training play? How much part does environment play? Epstein is persuasive that genes can make a defining difference, but we can’t just breed superheroes. The book is absolutely worth reading for this balanced consideration alone, and not just as it applies to sports. Here are a further few reflective take-aways: Continue reading

A Reading Guide for 2013

In the Andersonian fashion of asking questions, I submit that one of our urgent questions is this: What are the possibilities of the vita contemplativa in the late modern world? In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche lamented, “Because there is no time for thinking, and no rest in thinking, we no longer weigh divergent views; we are content to hate them. With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to a land and its people from the train.” What a sharp observation! We moderns view life from a train window – blurred. Nietzsche continues:

The farther West one goes, the greater modern agitation becomes; so that to Americans the inhabitants of Europe appear on the whole to be peace-loving, contented beings, while in fact they too fly about pell-mell, like bees and wasps. This agitation is becoming so great that the higher culture can no longer allow its fruits to ripen; it is as if the seasons were following too quickly on one another. From lack of rest, our civilization is ending in a new barbarism. Never have the active, which is to say the restless, people been prized more. Therefore, one of the necessary correctives that must be applied to the character of humanity is a massive strengthening of the contemplative element. And every individual who is calm and steady in his heart and head, already has the right to believe that he possesses not only a good temperament, but also a generally useful virtue, and that in preserving this virtue, he is even fulfilling a higher duty.

How, then, can we moderns, in our train-zooming and bee-buzzing world, undergo that “massive strengthening of the contemplative element”? In my own life, I try to slow the acceleration through five practices: lectio divina, liturgy, cooking, walking, and reading.

For this post I will focus on reading. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then after years of rapturous listening to Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, I’ve developed his gift of bibliography. Other than John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, I’m not aware of any contemporary Christian who has a more refined taste in books than Myers, who consistently brings forth treasures from his deep-sea diving in the sea of published works. Permit me to be a bibliographic fascist of sorts, dictating what new and forthcoming titles sound promising from various publishers.

My favorite American academic publishers are the trinity of Ivy League schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

From Harvard: Literary critic David Mikics demonstrated his virtues as a slow reader in The Art of the Sonnet, so I am excited to read Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (October 2013). As an instructor of literature, I goad my students to control their “ecosystem of interruption technologies” in order to develop the habits of deep attention, otherwise the reading of Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment is nearly impossible. Mikics shows “exactly how the tried-and-true methods of slow reading can provide a more immersive, fulfilling experience. He begins with fourteen preliminary rules for slow reading and shows us how to apply them. The rules are followed by excursions into key genres, including short stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays.”

If we follow Nietzsche’s exhortation to “weigh divergent views,” then every Christian should engage the secular humanism of philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. In Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (October 2013), she asks this big question: “How can we achieve and sustain a ‘decent’ liberal society, one that aspires to justice and equal opportunity for all and inspires individuals to sacrifice for the common good? In this book, a continuation of her explorations of emotions and the nature of social justice, Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love. Amid the fears, resentments, and competitive concerns that are endemic even to good societies, public emotions rooted in love—in intense attachments to things outside our control—can foster commitment to shared goals and keep at bay the forces of disgust and envy.”

Another divergent view that should be weighed is Albert Camus, the most honest atheist that I’ve encountered. Continue reading

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Review

Ruthie Leming lived in a little way. While her older brother left their rural Louisiana hometown to chase a big city journalism career, Ruthie stayed, married her high school sweetheart, became a teacher at the local school, and raised her three daughters a stone’s throw from her childhood home. When terminal cancer took hold of her, her brother watched as the town did its best to fill the void of the sick, faithful mother and wife, then cried with them at her graveside. It was the little way of life that drew her big brother back home to Louisiana.

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life is a memoir, biography, and meditation all rolled up in one.  Rod Dreher traces the divergent paths he and his little sister took in life, from their different experiences as children and adolescents, to their very different lives as adults.  Ruthie’s cancer diagnosis rocked the Dreher/Leming clan and whole St. Francisville community, including the many students whose paths she had altered. Dreher chronicles how Ruthie, her family, and community coped during her last days and eventual death. But he also lays bare his attempts to reconcile with his sister and father, who always resented his Francophile tastes and big-city exodus. Dreher’s return alone couldn’t fix the wounded relationships in the family. And it’s in that realization after Ruthie’s death where Dreher does some of his most poignant storytelling.The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Little Way shows how exhausting it can be to understand even our own families and why building and sustaining meaningful relationships will always be lifelong work. Dreher’s struggle with his sister and father, and even with Ruthie’s oldest daughter, show how bitterly we fight and how elusive reconciliation can be. In the last chapter, during a trip in which Dreher treated Ruthie’s oldest daughter with a trip to France, she nearly leveled him with the revelation about her deceased mother: Ruthie had never approved of Dreher’s moving or his career and, worse, his attempts to grow closer to his nieces would likely be in vain because of Ruthie’s opinion lingering in her daughters’ minds. Dreher never shies away from telling the truth about complicated family relationships.

That transparency almost wrecks the book early on. One Christmas when newly married Dreher and his wife came back to Louisiana and labored to make an authentic French meal for the family, the Lemings and Dreher’s parents refused to eat, protesting Dreher’s turning his back on his country roots. The episode paints some of the story’s protagonists as so vindictive as to make them difficult to sympathize with. Even with the rich narrative, I occasionally wanted to see more showing rather than telling, and some passages read more as a string of blogged vignettes rather than a connected narrative.

Yet these days we feel the book’s themes more and more, which demonstrates its timeliness. Continue reading

Summer Reading for College Graduates

It’s late May, which means that across the world, twentysomething college students are graduating or preparing to graduate: departing campuses and communities that have shaped them deeply and venturing off into the wide open spaces of adulthood in a way that is (for most of them) wholly new. The transition from college to post-college life is a significant one for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that for many college grads, being a student (that is: being forced to read things, write papers and take exams for coveted grades) is all they have known for the last 17 or so years.

For many of them, “learning” has largely been something they associate with pressure, stress, and the confines of parental control and expectation. Education is something that has been prescribed, mapped out and scheduled-to-death for them as long as they can remember. To graduate from college, then, is among other things to liberate oneself from the notion of education as bureaucracy (curriculum checklists, units, requirements, pre-reqs, to-dos, tuition payments, etc.) and to replace it with a notion of education as a choice, or (even better) education as a pleasure. That is, if it is replaced at all.

The sad reality, I suspect, is that after degrees are conferred, many graduates consider their education to be concluded. Which I guess is the expected conclusion to an educational system primarily built around preparing students for the next thing, culminating in a college degree that translates into a job. If the telos of education is practical preparation as opposed to, say, the seeking of truth and the ability to ask questions well, then of course it makes sense that once a job is attained or a lucrative skill mastered, education ceases to be a priority.

But practical training and skill development are only part of education’s purpose. Degrees are not the end goal. Education should be a lifelong pursuit. To exist is to always be on a continuum of known and unknown, discovered and undiscovered. “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot.

That’s why, if I were to give one piece of advice to college graduates, it would be to find ways to keep the pursuit of knowledge and truth an active and lively pursuit in your life. One way to do that is to keep reading. Embrace the fact that, for the first time in many years, you can read what you want to and you won’t have to take a test or write a term paper about it. Learn to take pleasure in it. Make it a daily habit. Reading for “fun” is one of the most important things one can do to stay motivated to keep learning.

Read anything. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, tweets, billboards, poems (please read poems!), essays, journals, Wikipedia, and so on. Also, watch movies. Documentaries. Blockbusters. TV. Go to concerts. Museums. Take walks. Run. Travel. Try new restaurants. Develop an expertise or a habit. Discuss current events. Debate a friend. Sit on your front porch smoking pipes while discussing theology (or drinking scotch while discussing politics). Do any and everything you need to do in order to grow in your curiousity about the world and your desire to understand it more deeply.

Oh, and keep reading books.

On that note, I thought I’d give a few recommendations. The following are five books that have either come out recently or will be released very soon. They are books that I think are particularly inspiring and motivating for those of us who may be in a transition moment in life but still doggedly in pursuit of the good life: living, growing, thinking, believing and questioning well.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), by Alan Jacobs

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of DistractionI can’t think of a better book to recommend to a graduate as a first venture into the world of post-college reading. Jacobs dispels the notion that reading should be a chore, or that only highbrow Great Books are worth our time. “Read what gives you delight–at least most of the time–and do so without shame,” he argues, making the case in characteristically elegant fashion that reading can and should be something that gives us pleasure. Happily, Jacobs’ own finesse and wit as a writer makes the book itself a pleasure to read.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013), by Douglas Rushkoff

Present ShockI recommend this book as a companion piece of sorts to Jacobs’ book, with emphasis on the “age of distraction” part. Rushkoff–the media theorist guru behind the Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool and The Persuaders–more or less attempts to connect every zeitgeist-defining thing in our world today (Instagram! Zombies! Tea Partiers!) to shape a unifying theory about how we are both more and less “present” than ever. Obvious at times but mostly quite insightful, Present Shock is the sort of “magnifying glass on your world” book that is important to read every so often because it thinks deeply and critically about contemporary life and, in turn, helps the reader to do the same.

When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012), by Marilynne Robinson

When I was a Child I Read BooksMarilynne Robinson is my favorite public intellectual. She has that rare, C.S. Lewis-style combination of being both a winsome communicator and an intellectual heavy-hitter. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and can write better than just about any other living writer, in both nonfiction and fiction (read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead for proof). She is awesome, and her most recent essay collection is too. When I Was a Child I Read Books is not easy reading, to be sure. It’s challenging. But it will inspire you to want to think as broadly and as deeply as she does about a vast array of things: religion, contemporary economics, “new atheists,” science, literature, geography, Moses, hymnology, and yes, childhood reading habits.

Death by Living: Life is Meant to be Spent (2013), by N.D. Wilson

Death by LivingI had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this book (which comes out later this summer) and writing a review of it for Christianity Today. I can’t recommend it enough. Following and expanding upon themes in his Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson shows that he is not only one of his generation’s most gifted and original thinkers but also one of its best writers. Featuring some of the best prose you’ll see this side of Marilynne Robinson, Death by Living is a beautiful array of memoir, theological reflection and narrative vignette that oozes wonder about the world and humility before God. For college grads cynical about things like religion, purpose-driven lives and “making a difference”–and yet unwilling to abandon these notions entirely–Death by Living is the poolside reading I recommend.

The End of Our Exploring (2013), by Matthew Lee Anderson

End of Our ExploringIn a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Matt’’s latest, The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? It’s en vogue today for young Christians to put on airs of intellectualism (you know: tweed sport coats, pipes, Jacques Ellul reading groups…), but the image of thoughtfulness is not enough. Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.

Why Cities Matter: A Review

My latest post on hating suburbia precipitated a great number of substantive responses. I want to continue the discussion by reviewing the new book, Why Cities Matter by Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard. Both men are pastors of Gospel Coalition-ish churches in Boston and Silicon Valley, respectively. They are also aspiring Kellerites. Not only does Keller pen the foreword, but there are nearly twenty citations to his book Center Church, several attributions to his articles like “A Biblical Theology of the City,” and even one reference to his unpublished notes.

The book’s title encapsulates its purpose; Um and Buzzard endeavor to explain why cities are important to the economic and evangelistic future of the world. They do this with both sociological data on how and why cities are centers of power, culture, and worship, and then theological reflection on God’s view of cities.Why-Cities-Matter

Their theological insight takes the form of a biblical word-study of “city” from Genesis to Revelation. It is not exactly the most contextually sensitive of readings. For example, they write that Jesus ministered in an “undeniably urbanized environment” because he makes reference to courts, market squares, and interest-bearing accounts, and they write that Paul’s letters are “even more urban than we think” in that they are “written from cities to cities… [so Paul] does not need to argue for the necessity of ministry to cities.” For those of you scoring at home, Jesus is urban even though he’s in the countryside because he mentions cities, and Paul is urban even though he doesn’t really mention cities because he is in the city. Like proverbial men with hammers, they certainly see a great number of nails.

I wish this was the only absurdity in their biblical study of cities, but it is actually typical. Other exegetical stretches include: “Eden may well have included buildings,” “God is the ultimate, creative, entrepreneurial urban planter,” and “When God’s people’s commitment to the urban mandate fizzled out, he personally took up responsibility for the mission, took on human flesh, and was born into the city (Luke 2: 11).” FACT: According to scholars, the population of the City of David at the time of Jesus’ birth was 300 – 1000. I had touched on this odd exegetical phenomenon in my first piece on Metro-Evangelicals, but the sloppiness continues to amaze.

The remainder of the book contains helpful missiological advice for reaching cities and it is here that Um and Buzzard hit their stride. They counsel avoiding twin temptations of city living: “overadapting” by conforming one’s life to the culture of the city or “underadapting” by privatizing one’s faith in order to be approved by peers. One technique they suggest is to understand the storyline of your city—that is, the dreams and cultural values of your locale—and rewrite it with a Gospel ending.

The gospel doesn’t eradicate a city’s story, but it brings completeness to it. Once a city’s story has been challenged, it must be retold. And it must be retold to show that a city’s story can only find a happy ending through Jesus’s substitutionary resolution and completion of the themes of the city’s story line. The gospel resolves the thickening tension in the city’s narrative, and shows that resolution, relief, and rest are to be found only in Jesus Christ.

This is wonderful advice, but it would seem equally applicable in urban, suburban, or rural environments, which brings me to the chief weakness of the book.

Equivocating on the Meaning of “City”

From the outset of the book there is ambiguity as to the definition of “city.” Keller’s foreword lays out some facts about the increasing importance of cities. He quotes the CEO of Gallup that “as goes the leadership of the top 100 American cities, so goes the country’s economic future.” Continue reading

Ryan McIlhenny’s Kingdoms Apart (Part 2): Redeemed Culture as Christian Witness

I am really pleased to welcome (again) Matthew Tuininga to Mere-O.  A Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, Matthew is one of the sharpest young Christian voices working at the intersection of religion and politics. The first part of this review can be found here. I commend his blog to you highly.  – MLA

The first and last chapters of the book, however, by Ryan McIlhenny, articulate a much better model of Christian cultural engagement, a model in substantive continuity with a basic two kingdoms paradigm if perhaps not with that of “the Two Kingdoms perspective” engaged in this book. While I do not agree with McIlhenny on every point, I do find his overall perspective to be a helpful step forward.

In the opening chapter McIlhenny, who is quite sympathetic with criticisms of certain versions of neo-Calvinism, explains why he nevertheless believes it should not be abandoned. But what is the neo-Calvinism that he is defending? The core assertion, he notes, is that Christ’s sovereignty extends to every square inch of the cosmos. He then develops this assertion in terms of four basic tenets: the cultural mandate, sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace. What is striking about this core assertion and its four tenets is that they are equally affirmed, if with some qualifications, by the leading Two Kingdoms advocate David VanDrunen. Is it possible that VanDrunen’s own project presupposes a basic neo-Calvinist theological framework?

The main difference to McIlhenny, it seems, is that while VanDrunen emphasizes the commonness of cultural activities by virtue of the Noahic Covenant, neo-Calvinists affirm that creation always had a Christological telos and that those who are redeemed in Christ are to witness to that telos in everything that they do. “Thus, for the neo-Calvinist, understanding the continued relevance of the cultural mandate, a changed life through the gracious work of Christ, opens one’s eyes to attend to the wounds of a broken world, spreading the gospel and demonstrating the love of Christ to the whole earth. Christians necessarily act on their transformed lives. Whatever Christians do, even the most quotidian of things such as eating and drinking, they must do for the honor and glory of God” (xxi).

But does VanDrunen really disagree with this point? I cannot speak for him but I am certainly not aware of anything in a two kingdoms paradigm that would lead one to say anything differently. The real question, then, is what does McIlhenny think this acting on the basis of transformed lives look like? And for that we need to turn to the last chapter of the book.

In the last chapter of the book McIlhenny articulates his model of cultural engagement: Christian Witness As Redeemed CultureAlthough the chapter is a revision of an essay in which McIlhenny tried to articulate a middle way between neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms perspective, even here McIlhenny is clearly seeking a position that embraces the best insights of both perspectives. Indeed, invoking H. Richard Niebuhr’s five models of Christ and culture he reminds his readers that the models “are not isolated categories to choose from. Each one overlaps, and they are better understood as corresponding moods that every Christian feels when engaging culture” (252). Stating his desire to “bridge the aisle by highlighting a feature of Christian cultural activity that both Two Kingdoms and neo-Calvinist thinkers can agree on” he stresses the character of Christian cultural engagement as a matter of witness and service in expression of Christ’s kingdom, a “setting apart” of Christian activity as “redeemed culture” in place of the transformational activism that seeks to be “externally sacralizing” by “redeeming culture, as if it were a thing to which redemption needs to come” (253). In short, McIlhenny favors transformed witness over transforming conquest.

Key to McIlhenny’s argument is his careful and scholarly definition of culture. He distinguishes between a view of culture as a thing or object that is given to us without meaning, a view he suggests VanDrunen implicitly espouses in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and culture as a language of meaning, or to take the phrase of Clifford Geertz, which McIlhenny appropriates, a “transmitted pattern of meetings” (260). “Failing to recognize culture as language puts us in the habit of confusing culture with nature. It is crucial to understand this point. Presupposing culture as a thing, I believe, is a problem common to both neo-Calvinists and Two Kingdom proponents. Culture is born from human interaction with nature, as stated above, but is distinct from it” (261).

In other words, McIlhenny is suggesting that when VanDrunen emphasizes commonality between what believers and unbelievers do he is talking about nature itself, the objective stuff of life. And McIlhenny does not disagree that when it comes to this the activity of Christians is often no different from that of unbelievers. But he suggests that to properly understand what is going on in cultural engagement we need to recognize that human beings constantly and inevitably use the stuff of nature in ways that communicate meaning. In the context of the antithesis that both he and VanDrunen affirm, therefore, the ways in which Christians understand and communicate the meaning of what they do has to be fundamentally different from the way in which unbelievers do.

To be sure, the project of Christians should not be to seek to transform the culture of unbelievers – an impossible task. Continue reading

Ryan Mcllhenny’s Kingdoms Apart (Part 1): Stirring the Waters

I am really pleased to welcome (again) Matthew Tuininga to Mere-O.  A Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, Matthew is one of the sharpest young Christian voices working at the intersection of religion and politics.  I commend his blog to you highly.  – MLA

The dust jacket of Ryan McIlhenny’s new book Kingdoms Apart declares that the book “focuses on the two competing positions rooted in the Reformed tradition: neo-Calvinism, a nineteenth-century school of thought associated with the Calvinist polymath Abraham Kuyper, and the Two Kingdoms perspective.” I’m not sure who wrote this description but in many ways it is misleading, if for no other reason than that one of the main things I take away from the book is that there are not “two competing positions” rooted in the Reformed tradition. Not only do the perspectives of the authors range from a moderate Kuyperianism to a more radical form of neo-Calvinism, and not only does the book clearly argue that John Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective should be distinguished from the proponents of “the” Two Kingdoms perspective being disputed in the book, but many of the book’s authors either acknowledge or implicitly demonstrate their own reliance on a version of the two kingdoms paradigm. In that sense the book’s subtitle on the front, “Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective,” is more accurate than the description on the back.

(Note: Throughout this essay I capitalize Two Kingdoms when referring to the particular perspective the authors are engaging, which they associate with David VanDrunen, Darryl Hart, Michael Horton, and Jason Stellman. When referring to broader two kingdoms thought such as that of John Calvin, I leave the term uncapitalized.)

The book begins with a forward by James Skillen and an introduction by Ryan McIlhenny, both of which defend a neo-Calvinist account of creation redeemed in response to the Two Kingdoms perspective. But McIlhenny’s defense is of a chastened and moderated neo-Calvinism, informed by McIlhenny’s own sympathies with two kingdoms logic. In the last chapter of the book, which he also writes, he defends not so much a model of Christian engagement transforming culture as he does a model of Christian witness as redeemed culture. I’ll return to McIlhenny’s argument below because I think it is probably the most helpful contribution of this book.

The second and third chapters of Kingdoms Apart are parallel accounts of the degree to which the most prominent Two Kingdoms advocate, David VanDrunen, accurately describes the two kingdoms doctrine of John Calvin. I am particularly interested in these chapters because John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine is the subject of my dissertation at Emory University. The first, by Cornel Venema, is the more polemical and critical of the two. Venema helpfully illuminates some of the different emphases between Calvin’s theology and that of VanDrunen, but his description of VanDrunen’s project appears in language VanDrunen never uses (i.e., an “ecclesiastical kingdom”; “two hermetically-sealed realms”) and that obscures the ambiguity and depth of VanDrunen’s project. Venema’s own reading of Calvin is somewhat thin at points (he portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as largely an explanation in lieu of the Anabaptists of why Christians should submit to civil government) and perhaps a little too colored by Venema’s neo-Calvinist commitments, although Venema does make the helpful point that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31).

Gene Haas is also critical of VanDrunen’s account of Calvin on natural law and the two kingdoms, but Haas’s criticism is more about VanDrunen’s emphasis (i.e., he exaggerates the distinction between the two kingdoms as well as Calvin’s optimism about human knowledge of the natural law in civil matters) than it is about the substance of his argument. Haas’s own account of Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective is excellent, highlighting the close connections Calvin drew between the two kingdoms and the doctrine of the church, especially pertaining to the unique character of church discipline. Haas rightly portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as an eschatological distinction between Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which appears fully only at Christ’s return, and the concerns of the present life (the political or civil kingdom); even as the institutional structures of this age (such as the civil jurisdiction) are to submit to Christ and his word, they should nevertheless not be confused with Christ’s spiritual kingdom. “Believers have the tension of living both for the eschatological realities of Christ’s return and for the social realities of a sinful world” (55).

I describe these chapters on Calvin at length because in some ways the greatest weakness of the book is that the authors largely avoid clarifying the relation of their theologies of creation and redemption to the broader two kingdoms theology articulated by figures like Calvin. This obscures the degree to which many of them maintain the reformer’s basic two kingdoms commitments, despite their criticism of the contemporary Two Kingdoms perspective.

There is no need for me to summarize every chapter of the book but I do want to highlight some significant arguments in a few chapters. Continue reading