I’ve read a lot of books in the last couple of years. These books helped me to understand more about how Christian nationalism and evangelicalism have affected the American church. I believe that each of these would be valuable to you, for varying reasons. I’ve included the Amazon blurb for each, as well as a link to the Amazon listing for the book.
“Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality” by Richard Beck
I really appreciated this book’s explanation of the theology of disgust. It inspired me to write an entire blog post – or more precisely, it facilitated a blog post on a topic that I’d been inspired to write just a few days before starting this book. So it was incredibly timely for me. I had begun to see how disgust is weaponized by the church in so many different ways, and how it contributes to an overriding sense of xenophobia (fear of the other) within Christianity, which leaves us pathalogically unable to enter into ministry and relationship with people starkly different than us. Yet, that is our very mission: to bring healing and salvation to the poor and needy and unclean around us. So we’ve got to get over that focus on ritual cleanliness. This book does a great job of pointing out how it’s created within Christianity, and that can help us to avoid the traps.
Amazon description: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Echoing Hosea, Jesus defends his embrace of the “unclean” in the Gospel of Matthew, seeming to privilege the prophetic call to justice over the Levitical pursuit of purity. And yet, as missional faith communities are well aware, the tensions and conflicts between holiness and mercy are not so easily resolved. At every turn, it seems that the psychological pull of purity and holiness tempts the church into practices of social exclusion and a Gnostic flight from “the world” into a “too spiritual” spirituality. Moreover, the psychology of purity often lures the church into what psychologists call “The Macbeth Effect,” the psychological trap that tempts us into believing that ritual acts of cleansing can replace moral and missional engagement. Finally, time after time, wherever we see churches regulating their common life with the idiom of dirt, disgust, and defilement, we find a predictable wake of dysfunction: ruined self-images, social stigma, and communal conflict. In an unprecedented fusion of psychological science and theological scholarship, Richard Beck describes the pernicious (and largely unnoticed) effects of the psychology of purity upon the life and mission of the church.
This book was worth the time and money I spent on it, but it’s far from the top of my list. It gave me a lot of useful insights into those who refuse to abandon the evangelical label. I disagree with many of them, but I can appreciate the arguments, and if nothing else, it’s sharpened my understanding of the various positions around postmodern and post-Trump evangelicalism.
Amazon description: Evangelicalism in America has cracked, split on the shoals of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, leaving many wondering if they want to be in or out of the evangelical tribe. The contentiousness brought to the fore surrounds what it means to affirm and demonstrate evangelical Christian faith amidst the messy and polarized realities gripping our country and world. Who or what is defining the evangelical social and political vision? Is it the gospel or is it culture? For a movement that has been about the primacy of Christian faith, this is a crisis.
This collection of essays was gathered by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who provides an introduction to the volume. What follows is a diverse and provocative set of perspectives and reflections from evangelical insiders who wrestle with their responses to the question of what it means to be evangelical in light of their convictions.
Michael Brown is a through-and-through conservative evangelical Christian, and he really didn’t like what he saw happening to his church leading up to and following the Trump presidency.
I really did NOT like this book, and would NOT recommend it to anyone in the circles I am inhabiting these days. With that said, I WOULD recommend it to my evangelical conservative Christian family and former church friends, because Brown speaks their (my former) language while nonetheless being unflinchingly critical of their seduction into Trump worshippers.
Basically, mixed in with correctly and cogently analyzing how the evangelical church has behaved for the past seven or so years, he spends far too much time pushing back against anything even remotely liberal or progressive, both social and religious. And that clashes mightily with my current understanding of the Bible and the world.
That’s a shame, because he’s got a lot of really good things to say about how the evangelical church got completely coopted by its lust for power and control and nationalism.
Some books aren’t for everyone.
Amazon description: Was the relationship between evangelical Christians and Donald Trump a match made in heaven or a marriage made with hell? Did Christian conservatives trade their reputation for a seat at the political table, or is this just a false accusation from the Trump-hating, Christian-bashing, leftist media? And how did Donald Trump go from unlikely presidential candidate to superhero to political savior in the eyes of his supporters?
“What It Really Means for the Bible to Be Divinely Inspired” by Zack Hunt
This was a fairly quick read. Zach Hunt’s main thesis seems to be that the fundamentalist and evangelical inerrant approach to reading the Bible, coming from a misreading of the word translated "God-breathed," is misguided and leads to all manner of misuse of the scriptures to oppress people, ignoring the overarching point of the Bible that it is all about love, how we love people practically and like Christ would love them. It’s a view I had come to adopt already before reading this book but he summarizes some of the main ways that the fundamentalist church in America, with its slavish devotion to inerrancy, has lost its way and has led to a dying church.
The book style is fairly conversational and often pointedly irreverent, I think sometimes overdoing it to make a point. Also, he doesn’t hesitate to use this platform to argue against the conservative views on a number of hot button issues in current American Christianity such as racism and LGBTQ. While I agree with his views, it maybe weakens the book somewhat by getting caught up in topics that are certainly valid but are secondary to his main focus. Because they are so controversial right now, this approach will chase away the very people he hopes to convince about what "God-breathed" means and what it implies for us as faithful, Bible-believing Christians who might choose to lay aside the notion of inerrancy.
For these reasons it’s a good book for people already on the progressive spectrum of Christianity, giving some good talking points and data, but won’t likely do much to advance the cause.
Amazon description: Could there be good news in biblical imperfections?
What if the imperfections and contradictions in Scripture aren’t an accident? What if they were allowed to be there by the Holy Spirit in order to draw us beyond the literal words on the page and deeper into the spiritual truth God is trying to teach us? As provocative or unorthodox as that might sound, it is in fact a very ancient way of understanding what it means for the Bible to be divinely inspired. In this thorough and disarming book, author Zack Hunt explains how we got here and offers a practical and easily accessible approach for reading and understanding the Bible that doesn’t require a PhD in biblical languages.
As the disillusioned leave the Church in droves and the deconstructing search for better answers to eternal questions, this book repositions Scripture in the life of the Church to allow it to be what it was meant to be all along: a source of life, hope, and freedom for all. Godbreathed will reclaim the idea of biblical truth and reveal it to be not a list of beliefs to affirm or laws to be followed, but an invitation into a new way of living and loving on earth as it is in heaven.
“Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez
Wow. Okay, this book, the target of my second book study, is a mixed grab bag of indisputable history facts with a bit of grandstanding from someone who was clearly wounded by patriarchy. But despite the flaws that we uncovered, it’s another deep dive into a side of American history that is both undeniable and simultaneously steadfastly ignored by the evangelical branch of America’s church culture. Worth the read.
Amazon description: Jesus and John Wayne is a sweeping, revisionist history of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, revealing how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism—or in the words of one modern chaplain, with "a spiritual badass." As acclaimed scholar Kristin Du Mez explains, the key to understanding this transformation is to recognize the centrality of popular culture in contemporary American evangelicalism. Many of today’s evangelicals might not be theologically astute, but they know their VeggieTales, they’ve read John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart, and they learned about purity before they learned about sex—and they have a silver ring to prove it. Evangelical books, films, music, clothing, and merchandise shape the beliefs of millions. And evangelical culture is teeming with muscular heroes—mythical warriors and rugged soldiers, men like Oliver North, Ronald Reagan, Mel Gibson, and the Duck Dynasty clan, who assert white masculine power in defense of "Christian America." Chief among these evangelical legends is John Wayne, an icon of a lost time when men were uncowed by political correctness, unafraid to tell it like it was, and did what needed to be done. Challenging the commonly held assumption that the "moral majority" backed Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 for purely pragmatic reasons, Du Mez reveals that Trump in fact represented the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values: patriarchy, authoritarian rule, aggressive foreign policy, fear of Islam, ambivalence toward #MeToo, and opposition to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQ community. A much-needed reexamination of perhaps the most influential subculture in this country, Jesus and John Wayne shows that, far from adhering to biblical principles, modern white evangelicals have remade their faith, with enduring consequences for all Americans.
“The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism” by Paul D. Miller
Read this book. Seriously. This is an essential expose on Christian Nationalism in the US, and its deep and dark dangers to the entire American system. The author comes from a very highly experienced and scholarly position, and very carefully sources all his points and assertions. If you want to understand what’s happening in America today as parts of the evangelical church try to "take back America for God," you really seriously need to understand this material.
Amazon description: Long before it featured dramatically in the 2016 presidential election, Christian nationalism had sunk deep roots in the United States.
Paul D. Miller, a Christian scholar, political theorist, veteran, and former White House staffer, provides a detailed portrait of—and case against—Christian nationalism. Building on his practical expertise not only in the archives and classroom but also in public service, Miller unravels this ideology’s historical importance, its key tenets, and its political, cultural, and spiritual implications.
Miller shows what’s at stake if we misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and the American nation. Christian nationalism—the religion of American greatness—is an illiberal political theory, at odds with the genius of the American experiment, and could prove devastating to both church and state. Christians must relearn how to love our country without idolizing it and seek a healthier Christian political witness that respects our constitutional ideals and a biblical vision of justice.
“Why Do the Nations Rage?: The Demonic Origin of Nationalism” by David A. Ritchie
This is a pretty potent book that presents some scriptural understanding of principalities and powers, and shows how Biblical concepts like "the prince of Persia" translate into realities of demonic strongholds over modern "nations" – which are not political entities per se, but a broader category of political or ethnic or regional domains. It then begins to consider how people funnel religious energy into nationalism, and how this nationalism can usurp even a Christian world view. It’s not focused just on Christian nationalism; it uses plenty of illustrations and examples from other nations to make the case.
Amazon description: What if we understood nationalism as a religion instead of an ideology? What if nationalism is more spiritual than it is political? Several Christian thinkers have rightly recognized nationalism as a form of idolatry. However, in Why Do the Nations Rage?, David A. Ritchie argues that nationalism is inherently demonic as well. Through an interdisciplinary analysis of scholarship on nationalism and the biblical theology behind Paul’s doctrine of "powers," Ritchie uncovers how the impulse behind nationalism is as ancient as the tower of Babel and as demonic as the worship of Baal. Moreover, when compared to Christianity, Ritchie shows that nationalism is best understood as a rival religion that bears its own distinctive (and demonically inspired) false gospel, which seeks to both imitate and distort the Christian gospel.
“Not in It to Win It: Why Choosing Sides Sidelines The Church” by Andy Stanley
This is a stunningly insightful book about today’s American church culture that turns everything into conflict and spends so much of its energy battling in the culture war. But Jesus showed something shockingly different – even to His own time – He choose to surrender, and He never once attacked or tried to overthrow or take over the government of His day. He simply loved people and surrendered His life, and His example changed the world.
Amazon description: Is it possible to disagree politically and love unconditionally? The reaction of evangelicals to political and cultural shifts in recent years revealed what they value most. Lurking beneath our Bible-laced rhetoric, faith claims, books, and sermons is a relentless drive to WIN!
But the church is not here to win. By every human measure, our Savior lost. On purpose. With a purpose. And we are his body. We are not in it to win anything. We are in it for something else entirely. That something else is what this book is about.
Jesus never asked his followers to agree on everything. But he did call his followers to obey a new command: to love others in the same way he has loved us. Instead of asserting our rights or fighting for power, we need to begin asking ourselves: what does love require of me?
The words in Amazon’s description, including "galvanizing," "scathing," and "clarion call," are certainly on point. This will be a "love it or hate it" book, for sure. I’d love to sit down with Dr. Hendricks some time and interview him. I’m absolutely certain that I would learn an amazing amount from him in a short time.
This book was chock full of factual historical details about the formation of evangelical thinking, like a number of other books described on this page. He methodically addresses all the hot-button topics against which modern evangelical Christians are up in arms right now, including social justice, abortion, workers’ rights and big business, gun control, homophobia, and more. He tears gaping holes in the justification for the right-wing position for every single one of them.
I was already familiar with almost all the ideas which Dr. Hendricks addresses, and I had read several reviews by conservative evangelical Christians railing against this book being supposedly filled with heresy and left-wing socialistic views. However, he provides reasonable and rational and inspired answers against the multitudes of right-wing and evangelical claims. There are certainly some areas where I take issue with his assertions, for example just one or two instances where I think the Bible translation he used results in a particular spin that the original Greek or Hebrew might not support. But on the whole, I found very little in this book that did not have a strong factual basis and scriptural support.
I appreciated that he was careful to distinguish between "evangelical" and "right-wing evangelical," and to repeatedly emphasize that modern right-wing evangelicalism bears extremely little resemblance to its origins.
He was also scathing in his identification of the sudden downward spiral represented by the election of President Trump, and the evangelical church’s running after him as their darling, and I believe with good reason.
Perhaps the most shocking statement in the entire book was found halfway through the epilogue: "But their full possession by a spirit of antichrist can be considered to have occurred when their leaders made a devil’s bargain with Donald Trump to defend his avalanche of lies, hate mongering, blatant immoral indecency, and outright attacks on the democratic rule of law in return for his support of their agenda to dominate American society." Ouch. If he is correct, this would explain a lot. And with the perspective available to me from spending much of the last year separating myself from both evangelicalism and right-wing ideology, I can see the truth in this stunning indictment.
Amazon description: A timely and galvanizing work that examines how right-wing evangelical Christians have veered from an admirable faith to a pernicious, destructive ideology.
Today’s right-wing Evangelical Christianity stands as the very antithesis of the message of Jesus Christ. In his new book, Christians Against Christianity, best-selling author and religious scholar Obery M. Hendricks Jr. challenges right-wing evangelicals on the terrain of their own religious claims, exposing the falsehoods, contradictions, and misuses of the Bible that are embedded in their rabid homophobia, their poorly veiled racism and demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, and their ungodly alliance with big business against the interests of American workers.
He scathingly indicts the religious leaders who helped facilitate the rise of the notoriously unchristian Donald Trump, likening them to the "court jesters" and hypocritical priestly sycophants of bygone eras who unquestioningly supported their sovereigns’ every act, no matter how hateful or destructive to those they were supposed to serve.
In the wake of the deadly insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol, Christians Against Christianity is a clarion call to stand up to the hypocrisy of the evangelical Right, as well as a guide for Christians to return their faith to the life-affirming message that Jesus brought and died for. What Hendricks offers is a provocative diagnosis, an urgent warning that right-wing evangelicals’ aspirations for Christian nationalist supremacy are a looming threat, not only to Christian decency but to democracy itself. What they offer to America is anything but good news.
This book left me shaking my head wondering why I’d never really thought through all the problems with celebrity Christianity, and more than that, how many ways we allow hero worship to creep into our faith practices. I’ve long been concerned about the BIG celebrities, especially after listening to "The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill" podcast, but even the small and local celebrities, can cause trouble in our doctrine.
It also ended on a great reminder that Jesus’ way of making disciples and influencing culture was always the non-obvious, humble, self-sacrificing way, and that should apply to our leaders too.
Amazon description: Many Christian leaders use their fame and influence to great effect. Whether that popularity resides at the local church level or represents national or international influence, many leaders have effectively said to their followers, "Follow me as I follow Christ." But fame that is cultivated for its own sake, without attendant spiritual maturity and accountability, has a shadow side that runs counter to the heart of the gospel. Celebrity–defined as social power without proximity–has led to abuses of power, the cultivation of persona, and a fixation on profits.
In light of the fall of famous Christian leaders in recent years, the time has come for the church to reexamine its relationship to celebrity. Award-winning journalist Katelyn Beaty explores the ways fame has reshaped the American church, explains how and why celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, and identifies many ways fame has gone awry in recent years. She shows us how evangelical culture is uniquely attracted to celebrity gurus over and against institutions, and she offers a renewed vision of ordinary faithfulness, helping us all keep fame in its proper place.
“Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” by John Fea
I found this book to be a very helpful walk through early American history – both before and around the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, up through the Bill of Rights. It’s chock-full of well-sourced historical writings of the Founders themselves. Rather than starting from a "yes" or "no" answer, Fea addresses the question with equanimity and patience. The answer, to give a bit of a spoiler, is a resounding "maybe – it really depends on how you define ‘Christian’."
Amazon description: John Fea offers a thoroughly researched, evenhanded primer on whether America was founded to be a Christian nation, as many evangelicals assert, or a secular state, as others contend. He approaches the title’s question from a historical perspective, helping readers see past the emotional rhetoric of today to the recorded facts of our past. This updated edition reports on the many issues that have arisen in recent years concerning religion’s place in American society including the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, contraception and the Affordable Care Act, and state-level restrictions on abortion and demonstrates how they lead us to the question of whether the United States was or is a Christian nation. Fea relates the history of these and other developments, pointing to the underlying questions of national religious identity inherent in each. "We live in a sound-bite culture that makes it difficult to have any sustained dialogue on these historical issues," Fea writes in his preface. "It is easy for those who argue that America is a Christian nation (and those who do not) to appear on radio or television programs, quote from one of the founders or one of the nation’s founding documents, and sway people to their positions. These kinds of arguments, which can often be contentious, do nothing to help us unravel a very complicated historical puzzle about the relationship between Christianity and America’s founding."
This was a powerful book to me. It’s really written to pastors and church leaders, but I found it very useful to help me understand the Biblical role of pastors and churches, in contrast to what is visible today in the American evangelical church systems in which I was raised. In particular, it calls us to recognize when we’ve gotten a little too focused on metrics and numbers and the business of church, and not focused enough on the ministry and people within the organization.
Amazon description: “In my first seminary class, we were asked to introduce ourselves and say why we enrolled. I’ll never forget what one student said ‘My denomination wants me to have an M.Div., but once they see I can grow a big church, I don’t think they’ll make me finish the program.'” The priorities of this future pastor were startling, but he’s not alone in them.In the years since that class, author and minister Skye Jethani has seen more and more pastors swallowed by the celebrity syndrome. Not long ago, ministers were among the most trusted and admired people in our culture. But not anymore. A 2013 study from Gallop revealed that Americans’ admiration for clergy has reached an all-time low. That, taken with reduced trust of institutional religion overall, makes it easy to see why ministers feel insecure about their calling. In response to this trend, some pastors have looked to emulate those who are praised by the culture—business leaders, entertainers, and social activists. This has led to a new understanding of what a minister should be. We’ve turned away from viewing our pastors as shepherds, and now expect them to be celebrities. Immeasurable will help ministers recognize the cultural forces shaping their view of the calling, and then reimagine what faithful church leaders can look like in the twenty-first century. Through short essays and reflections on the pastor’s soul and skills, this book will help prospective pastors explore their calling to ministry, and it will help veteran pastors reframe their vision for the work. Drawing on cultural dynamics, personal stories, and his own experience working in a church and with church leaders, Skye Jethani will address matters like ambition, anger, community, consumerism, fame, health, justice, platform, preaching, rest,simplicity, success, vision, and more. There are endless resources to help pastors do the practical work of ministry, but there are far fewer that speak to the pastor’s soul and spirit. Immeasurable provides affirmation and encouragement for church leaders faithfully serving God. It commends the true work of ministry—shepherding, teaching, encouraging—while redefining what we mean by success in ministry. It’s a book church leaders can return to again and again for insight and inspiration.
“Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church” by Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens
This was a very impactful book to me. It’s written by three very different US-born white evangelical men – a pastor, a missiologist, and a parachurch ministry leader. Each brings their own unique perspective and experience to the book, yet it’s a very coherent work. Its basic thrust is carefully assessing the struggles facing the American church, particularly the evangelical wing of the church, and frankly and openly considering its blind spots, particularly in how it has marginalized other communities and other worldwide Christians, cutting itself off from the insights and blessings that those communities bring to Christianity. The four themes of the book include the kingdom of God, the image of God, the word of God, and the mission of God. The entire book is deeply insightful, and well worth your time.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about this book to me was how it opened my eyes to the contributions from Christians outside the United States. It challenged a lot of my assumptions about the primacy and superiority of the American church’s doctrine and spiritual wisdom. Reading this book has put a new desire in me to begin learning about how the church in other cultures and nations understands the Gospel and God Himself; I am convinced that such study will give me great insight into my own faith and a new rich ability to connect with God at a deeper level.
Amazon description: With our witness compromised, numbers down, and reputation sullied, the American church is at a critical crossroads. In order for the church to return to health, we must decenter ourselves from our American idols and be guided by global Christians and the poor, who offer hope from the margins, and the ancient church, refocusing on the kingdom, image, Word, and mission of God.
The authors say:
We’ve written this book because we believe American Christians are at a critical crossroad, and the very soul of the American church is at stake. Jesus Christ promised that his church will endure until he returns again (Mt 16:18). He did not make that promise to the American church, however. If we are to stem this tide of decline and decay, it will take all of us—and it will take humility to listen to voices of the church beyond the White American evangelical stream of the faith which has long assumed leadership.
Wow. I highly, highly recommend this book.
I’m really conflicted on how to write this review. It was a deeply, personally, painfully challenging book, on multiple levels. It directly poked at many things I grew up with in my life, and despite all the changes in my heart and actions in the last two years, it still found me jerking back as yet another nerve was touched, a fiery sting of recognition of my own shortcomings.
At the same time, it often felt like sitting in the therapist’s office as the author poured out her heart – her white, American, privileged, evangelical, self-sufficient, superior heart – over the injustices she became aware of, and became aware she was complicit in. There was constantly a tension between feeling my own discomfort and sometimes pain, and vicariously watching her intensely feel her own discomfort and sometimes pain.
And yet, despite this discomfort, I came away from each session feeling as if there was a deep hope and peace amidst the pain, a recognition of the amazing gift to which we Christians have ready access if we can just step back from our pursuit of affluence, of autonomy, of safety, and of power (her four major sections), and see the world – and "the least of these" among us – through God’s loving eyes.
Amazon description: Affluence, autonomy, safety, and power. These are the central values of the American dream. But are they compatible with Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves?
In essays grouped around these four values, D. L. Mayfield asks us to pay attention to the ways they shape our own choices, and the ways those choices affect our neighbors. Where did these values come from? How have they failed those on the edges of our society? And how can we disentangle ourselves from our culture’s headlong pursuit of these values and live faithful lives of service to God and our neighbors?
“The Other Evangelicals: A Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians – and the Movement That Pushed Them Out” by Isaac B. Sharp and David P. Gushee
I loved this book. Over the last year, I’ve read probably two dozen books that detail some aspects of the history of evangelicalism, and this book basically wraps up all that history into one fairly dense and incredibly thorough summary.
The pure-as-the-wind-driven-snow concept I have long held about evangelicalism is, to put it very mildly, total whitewashing. Oh, and literally "white." The history of how we got to modern (even pre-Trump modern) evangelicalism is actually rather pocked with quite a bit of mess, a lot of it wrapped up in racist, segregationist, and outright pro-slavery theology. The ways that evangelical leaders have put fences around which people are allowed to claim the label "evangelical" have been outright harmful in many cases.
I understand that how we got to a given set of beliefs doesn’t necessarily define the rightness of those beliefs. But it should nonetheless inform our assumption about whether those beliefs are inherently trustworthy. When a system of thought has its origins in very ungodly actions and practices, it deserves extreme scrutiny.
In a nutshell, once my "evangelicalism is perfect" mental structure cracked, it fell apart fairly quickly as I encountered fact after fact after fact that eroded the previously-perfect foundations in my mind. And this book does a careful, thorough, and very readable job of packaging all of that history, topic-by-topic, into a single volume.
Amazon description: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "evangelical"?
For many, the answer is "white," "patriarchal," "conservative," or "fundamentalist"—but as Isaac B. Sharp reveals, the "big tent" of evangelicalism has historically been much bigger than we’ve been led to believe. In The Other Evangelicals, Sharp brings to light the stories of those twentieth-century evangelicals who didn’t fit the mold, including Black, feminist, progressive, and gay Christians.
Though the binary of fundamentalist evangelicals and modernist mainline Protestants is taken for granted today, Sharp demonstrates that fundamentalists and modernists battled over the title of "evangelical" in post-World War II America. In fact, many ideologies characteristic of evangelicalism today, such as "biblical womanhood" and political conservatism, arose only in reaction to the popularity of evangelical feminism and progressivism. Eventually, history was written by the "winners"—the Billy Grahams of American religion—while the "losers" were expelled from the movement via the establishment of institutions such as the National Association of Evangelicals.
Carefully researched and deftly written, The Other Evangelicals offers a breath of fresh air for scholars seeking a more inclusive history of religion in America.
I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who’s trying to understand the literalist, inerrantist people in their lives. Smith does a great job of showing how Biblicism is effectively impossible on its own terms. But in doing so, he’s not trying to destroy the authority of the Bible; I’d suggest that he does the opposite, and shows how strongly useful the Bible can be when we read it on its own terms instead of trying to cram it into our own particular doctrines.
Amazon description: Biblicism, an approach to the Bible common among some American evangelicals, emphasizes together the Bible’s exclusive authority, infallibility, clarity, self-sufficiency, internal consistency, self-evident meaning, and universal applicability. Acclaimed sociologist Christian Smith argues that this approach is misguided and unable to live up to its own claims. If evangelical biblicism worked as its proponents say it should, there would not be the vast variety of interpretive differences that biblicists themselves reach when they actually read and interpret the Bible. Far from challenging the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Smith critiques a particular rendering of it, encouraging evangelicals to seek a more responsible, coherent, and defensible approach to biblical authority.
This important book has generated lively discussion and debate. The paperback edition adds a new chapter responding to the conversation that the cloth edition has sparked.
“Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth” by John R. Franke
Franke does a good job in this book of arguing against the very common "my way or the highway" approach to Christianity, where we are so focused on boundary creation and maintenance that we have a hard time even imagining how we could be "one" with other denominations even in our own nation, much less people of vastly different cultures. Yet, that was Jesus’ prayer in John 17: "Make them one, Father, even as you and I are one," more or less.
So if we can’t get past our own doctrinal walls with fellow Christians, how could we ever become one?
This fits neatly with something about which I’ve been passionate for some time: doctrinal humility – the idea that if there are many different approaches to worship and the Word in all the different denominations, and if very skilled and intelligent readers of the scriptures cannot agree on a single doctrine, it’s extremely likely that whatever I personally believe is actually very incomplete, and not only should I be humble about my beliefs, I actually should assume that I NEED others and their beliefs to become complete, to become "one" with not only them, but in such a way as to properly and fully represent the Father and Son to a watching world.
So Franke basically asserts that it’s impossible to represent all of God with any one limited doctrine, and that it’s a fallacy to assume that the RIGHT answer is ever going to be "they all need to become like me."
Doctrinal humility. It’s hard, but necessary and valuable.
Amazon description: If Christians are part of the one body of Christ, how do we account theologically for the multiple expressions of our common faith? If God is ultimate truth, why is it so difficult to agree on issues related to truth? Must we sacrifice a commitment to truth in favor of a pragmatic unity in the church? Or must we hold on to our perception of the truth at the expense of fracturing the church? For John Franke, truth versus unity is a false dichotomy. In this provocative yet thoughtful book, he argues that orthodox and biblical Christian faith is inherently pluralist, and that this diversity, far from being a problem that needs to be overcome, is in fact a blessing from God and part of the divine design and intention for the church. Suggesting that Christians should affirm the reality of ultimate truth, but cautioning humility regarding our grasp of it, Franke sets forth a relational theology in which the many expressions of revealed truth—Christ, the Holy Spirit, and Scripture, along with a diverse church—together witness to the expansiveness of the one God. "John Franke asserts the plurality of truth, not as a capitulation to non- or anti-Christian thought, but rather as an expression of profoundly Christian thought—and specifically, of emergent, missional, and Trinitarian Christian thought. In so doing, he gently implies that the dominant alternative view—that white, modernist, Western Christian scholars and institutions have a monopoly on truth—is actually a capitulation to modes of thought and power that have betrayed the life and gospel of Jesus Christ."
“Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America” by Russell Moore
I have mixed feelings about this book.
First, the good: It’s a powerful indictment of the evangelical church in America today, and Moore is unafraid to call out the church for what he sees. And I think he’s right about his analysis: the evangelical church has largely sold itself out, and only has itself to blame for its decline and all the ugliness of the last few years. A lot of what Moore says is absolutely true, and frankly, it’s damning.
But here’s what troubled me about the book: it’s disjointed. First, it only has five chapters for 266 pages, and there are really no subheadings. Each chapter therefore covers a TON of ground, taking maybe 45 minutes or so to read (and I’m a fast reader). To be quite honest, Moore rambles. In the acknowledgements after his conclusion, Moore notes that the book developed from his newsletter, and it shows: it really does read like a lot of individual vignettes kind of strung together, loosely grouped around topics. If he had a serious plan for each voluminous chapter, it certainly doesn’t show. In the end, I felt like I could have read the first five or ten pages of each chapter and gotten his point, and the rest was somewhat-related filler.
Also, and I admit this is particular to me, I’m not quite on Moore’s page about a number of more conservative viewpoints. He spent a lot of words (scattered through each chapter) calling people back to conservatism, and in so doing, he’s sure to lose some progressive leaders. Since I spent 45 years in that camp until very recently, I could handle it, but other long-time liberal or progressive Christians may have a hard time seeing his bigger points amid the conservative preaching. With that said, it’s who Moore is, and I was expecting no less from him. And honestly, it’s good to see a conservative calling out his fellow conservatives for their failures.
I’m glad I read the book; he makes some good points I hadn’t seen before, and he gives voice to a lot of my own concerns. I’m not sure it will be convincing to people thoroughly enmeshed in the issues he’s raising. But coming from someone with his long-time and well-respected evangelical credentials, perhaps it would be a good book to recommend for friends or relatives who got sucked into the Trump and MAGA vortex.
Amazon description: Former Southern Baptist pastor and Christianity Today editor-in-chief Russell Moore calls for repentance and renewal in American evangelicalism.
American evangelical Christianity has lost its way. While the witness of the church before a watching world is diminished beyond recognition, congregations are torn apart over Donald Trump, Christian nationalism, racial injustice, sexual predation, disgraced leaders, and covered-up scandals. Left behind are millions of believers who counted on the church to be a place of belonging and hope. As greater and greater numbers of younger Americans bleed out from the church, even the most rooted evangelicals are wondering, can American Christianity survive?
In Losing Our Religion, Russell Moore calls his fellow evangelical Christians to conversion over culture wars, to truth over tribalism, to the gospel over politics, to integrity over influence, and to renewal over nostalgia. With both prophetic honesty and pastoral love, Moore offers a word of counsel for how a new generation of disillusioned and exhausted believers can find a path forward after the crisis and confusion of the last several years. Believing the gospel is too important to leave it to hucksters and grifters, he shows how a Christian can avoid both cynicism and complicity in order to imagine a different, hopeful vision for the church.
The altar call of the old evangelical revivals was both a call to repentance and the offer of a new start. In the same way, this book invites unmoored and discouraged Christians to step out into an uncertain future, first by letting go of the kind of cultural, politicized, status quo Christianity that led us to this moment of reckoning. Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.
I’ll update this list as my reading continues.
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