By / Nov 1

“I don’t think the average Christian is nearly political enough.”

For Christians paying any attention to political developments in the United States, these words may seem ill-conceived at best, or just plain crazy. Just think, in 21st-century America, the term “evangelical” has been so co-opted by politics that it describes a demographic increasingly viewed as a voting bloc more than a religious community. We might better wonder if we’ve gotten too political. But for Patrick Schreiner, associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the new book Political Gospel: Public Witness in a Politically Crazy World, these words aren’t crazy at all, nor are they ill-conceived. They’re tethered to the main argument of his book, that “Christianity is political“—a reality, it seems, we’ve come to collectively overlook.

Rather than viewing Christianity and politics as two wholly different spheres that sour when mixed, Schreiner argues that “[Christianity] and politics are . . . completely and wholly overlapping.” And because they’re so intertwined, Christian discipleship would do well to “not separate what God has joined together,” so to speak (Matt. 19:6). But, lest we misunderstand Schreiner’s aim, Political Gospel “is not an argument for one party over another,” nor is it “a manual for policies,” nor even “an argument for a third way;” instead the book “offers a framework” that leaves readers “recognizing Christianity is quite political, but maybe not in the way [they] think.” 

Christianity is political

“It has become a truism,” Schreiner writes, “to state that Jesus didn’t come with a political message. As the common trope goes, though Israel expected a warrior-king to come riding on a white horse to overthrow Rome, he came with a spiritual message about their hearts. Jesus simply wants a relationship with you.” 

Have you ever heard someone make this statement? Have you ever made it yourself? 

“The problem is,” he continues, “this is a half-truth. Jesus made a political announcement. He declared himself to be King. We have one ruler to whom we are loyal . . . he is the King of kings.” With this, Schreiner drives the stake of his argument firmly into the ground—”Christianity is political.” In fact, he argues that “the whole biblical storyline,” and “all the vocabulary of salvation,” even, “can be put under the banner of politics.” He goes on: “The substance of Christian hope at its foundation is political. Thus, Jesus was not merely urging a revolution in personal values. He was not aloof to political concerns; it was the very purpose of his coming.”

Politics defined

Over the years, our working definition of politics has become skewed and is now assumed to mean something more akin to partisanship. And partisanship, “the wheeling and dealing along party lines” or the “endorsement of candidates by pastors” is not what Schreiner argues for. He’s also not advocating for “the merging of church and state.” Instead, he means “politics in terms of public life, the ordering of society, enacting justice, and the arranging of common goods.” And because “God is sovereign over the whole world,” not just “the inner reaches of the human heart,” the gospel has significant political implications. 

Politics in its proper place

But Schreiner is “not merely suggesting Christianity has political implications.” He argues that “Christianity is itself a politic. It is an all-encompassing vision of the world and human life…meant to be enacted in the church, showcased to our neighbors, and spread to the world.” If that’s the case, then Schreiner is right: Christians should indeed be more political. But to what degree, and in what way?

In Political Gospel, the charge is for readers to put politics in its proper place, which requires that we “recover the true political nature of our message” and reassert our allegiance to the “King of kings,” letting his vision of the world and its proper ordering shape our public and private lives. And while we are called to be more political not less, the model of Christian political engagement put forth by the New Testament, as Schreiner argues, is surprisingly paradoxical. 

The paradox

The way in which we understand Jesus’ message to be political and the way we apply and enact his message in our current political environment consists of a series of paradoxes, as it did for Jesus and the first-century church. We are to embody what Schreiner calls “the way of the kingdom” and “the way of the dove;” “the way of subversion” and “the way of submission;” “the way of the lion” and “the way of the lamb.” It is these tensions—these paradoxes—that are to mark our thinking and our ethic as “political disciples” of the King of kings.

Way of the kingdom, way of the dove

“When Jesus stepped onto the scene, his first words were fully political: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mark 1:15). Gospel. Kingdom. Believe. All of these are politically loaded terms.” With these words, Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was officially breaking into the Roman world of his day and, therefore, rivaling its political order. And he went further, calling people “to enter this new polis (city)” by transferring their allegiance, and enacting the kingdom’s dominance, for example, by disarming one of Rome’s “mascots” (the exorcism of legion, Mark 5:1–20). In his life, Jesus “proclaimed, presented, and performed a new public, social, and political reality”—he “was the bearer of a new political regime.” And he was crucified for it.

But, though “Jesus proclaimed the way of the kingdom he “enacted it as the way of the dove.” He was not “an anarchist, revolutionary, or social reformer.” And he didn’t bring the kingdom by way of “the sword.” Instead, the political ethics of Jesus were marked by persuasion, servanthood, mercy, peacemaking, meekness, love, and submission. They are what Schreiner calls “the ethics of the dove.”

Way of subversion, way of submission

In observing the life and ministry of Paul, we encounter the subversive nature of the gospel message—a message that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). As he traveled from city to city, Paul constantly had “political accusations” levied against him: he was accused of “subverting the Roman Empire,” “acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees,” and disturbing “the Pax Romana,” or peace of Rome. And why were these charges raised against him and his companions? Because Paul proclaimed the gospel of God’s in-breaking kingdom and established “political assemblies” (i.e., churches) all over the Roman Empire whose members pledged allegiance to a King not named Caesar. 

But like Jesus, “Paul proclaimed the way of subversion [yet] did so in the way of submission.” Paul is accused of being “an agitator, a plague, a leader of a rebellion, and someone who desecrated the temple,” but maintains that he is innocent of these charges. Rather than leading rebellions, Paul subverts the Roman Empire while submitting to it. 

Way of the lion, way of the lamb

In the book of Revelation, we read of Jesus as the King of kings, the one whose throne “stands above every earthly throne,” whose coming will mark the fall of every other empire. At his return, the “city of God” will finally supplant the “city of man” and “complete the redemption of the redeemed.” We will join him in the city whose “gates will never be shut” (Rev. 21:25). One day “The Lion will return and [conquer] all other kingdoms.” 

But what are we to do in the meantime? Should we try to hurry the kingdom by taking up the way of power? To conquer the city of man by legislating our King’s victory now? Schreiner says no, “We are called to conquer. But the way we conquer shocks us.” The way of the lion must be “embodied in the way of a slain lamb.” We are to conquer by being in Christ, by bearing witness to Christ, and by waiting on Christ faithfully. “In many ways, we are to continue in normal everyday Christian responsibilities looking forward to Christ’s return.”

Our public political witness

In Political Gospel, the charge is not for readers to make politics ultimate but to put politics in its proper place. Too often the church has chosen one of two ways—either partisanizing or privatizing our “politic”—that either overlook or refuse to see the political nature of our message, both of which reveal and result in “malformed political discipleship.” On the side of partisanism, our political discipleship “comes from talking heads on cable news” instead of from “reflections on the implications of our faith for public life.” Here, our partisan loyalties are prized over loyalty to Christ. On the other hand, we can also privatize our faith, refusing to see “how the gospel should shape our public habits [and] stances.” Here, we become “politically quietistic or innocuous,” with nothing to offer a society in dire need of our “political gospel.” Both approaches reveal a misplaced politic and a counterproductive or ineffective public witness.

But how we “behave” politically—how we “respond to the government,” how we interact on social media, how we speak of our elected officials, how we think—”is part of [our] witness.” And, currently, our public witness is floundering. The time is ripe for us to bring “our political lives in conformity with Christ.”

“The gospel is political, but it is political in a way no one expects.” And followers of the way are political, but should engage in politics in a way no one expects. But, like every generation, we face a political choice. “Will we follow the cross in our political engagement or our own ideas? Will we let fear drive our decisions, or trust God? Will we submit to his way, or carve out our own paths?” In Political Gospel, Patrick Schreiner helps readers answer these questions, offering a new paradigm from which to think. True to his aim, readers will leave convinced not only that “Christianity is quite political” but that Christians themselves are not “nearly political enough.”

By / Sep 24

What is the relationship of Old Testament laws to the American government? How ought Christians respond to the decline of cultural influence? What are the ways that Christians exercise power within the public square? These are some of the questions that animate Christian Reconstructionists, a group that likely is less well known than broader denominational or theological identities such as Baptist, Catholic, evangelical, or Reformed. Crawford Gribben sheds light on this group in his book, Survival and Resistance in Evangelical America: Christian Reconstruction in the Pacific Northwest. While the ERLC does not subscribe to the tenets of Christian Reconstructionism, it is important to understand this numerically small but influentially growing movement, as Gribben’s work shows. 

In Gribben’s recent study of the movement, particularly in the community centered around Moscow, Idaho, he found that these evangelical Christians were continually navigating the tension between resisting the wider culture around them because of its rejection of Christian values and hopefully expecting that there would be a cultural renewal and return to God’s laws and standards, though likely not in their lifetime. Though a numerically small group, these Reformed evangelicals have shown themselves to be adept at marshalling soft influence through avenues such as publishing, homeschooling curriculum, and the founding of a Christian liberal arts college. Gribben’s study is an excellent introduction to the lived realities of this movement, its history, and the ways that theological principles have practical outputs in the project of cultural renewal. 

Gribben, a professor of religious history at Queen’s University Belfast, was kind enough to answer a few questions related to the movement and his scholarship. 

Your book is a study of Christian Reconstructionists, a particular group of Reformed evangelicals rooted in the writing of R.J. Rushdoony, and more recently pastor Douglas Wilson. What are the distinctives of this movement? 

Christian Reconstruction is the name of the social theory that an Armenian-American Presbyterian minister, R.J. Rushdoony, began to develop in the late 1950s. As its descriptor suggests, it’s a social theory that argues that modern societies should be reorganized in terms of biblical law. While the movement is varied, its advocates tend to argue that the judicial laws in the Mosaic covenant, as a reflection of the “general equity” of the moral law, as the Westminster Confession puts it, should be adopted by modern states. This position is often described as “theonomy.” But Reconstructionists don’t just argue that these laws should be adopted by modern states — they also expect that these laws will be adopted by modern states. Their confidence that modern states will be reconstructed according to biblical law reflects their widespread commitment to “postmillennialism” — the expectation that the preaching of the gospel in this age will result in extraordinary revivals, to the extent that, before the return of Christ, the global population will in large part be regarded as Christian. 

These ideas — “theonomy” and “postmillennialism” — might seem strange, even outlandish, to modern evangelicals. But these claims, and others like them, were made by reformers and Puritans. In fact, many of the colonies that came to make up the states of New England were led by ministers and theologians who were committed to these views. What makes Christian Reconstruction so distinctive within the broader cultures of evangelicalism is that its arguments are being made in a religious landscape that has largely abandoned claims that were once normative within American Protestantism to embrace instead the principled pluralism of the American constitutional tradition.

The plan proposed by the community in the American Redoubt (Idaho, Montana, Wyomin, and the easter portions of Washington and Oregon) shares some similarity to that of others, such as Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. Is this just a wider dissatisfaction with American culture, or is there something unique going on with those who are moving to the Redoubt?

Yes, there are similarities between the kinds of people who are moving into the Redoubt and those who are attracted to Dreher’s Benedict Option. In fact, Dreher has explained that he had intended to include in his book a chapter on the Moscow, Idaho, church that is led by Doug Wilson, until some controversial decisions made by congregational leaders relating to the pastoral care of a sexual offender changed his mind. But there are also some important differences between the Reconstructionists and Benedict Option Christians. Most importantly, while both groups are withdrawing to a large extent from mainstream society, the Reconstructionists do so with much greater confidence they are building communities that will survive the crisis in American culture and that will emerge to create, entirely organically, the institutions that will hold together the new — and newly Christian — United States. I think it’s also important to note that the Benedict Option idea appeals to Catholic and Orthodox groups. Christian Reconstructionists tend to be emphatically protestant (though their protestant credentials have been questioned by some of their critics, especially in relation to the “federal vision” theology with which Wilson has in the past been associated).

In the book, you emphasize the role that the group’s theology plays, particularly their postmillennial eschatology. Why does this cause them to react differently than other evangelicals to a shifting culture? 

Well, as Wilson put it in one of our conversations, it’s so much easier to play when you know you’re on the winning team. While lots of larger evangelical communities are losing ground — at least in the sense of shrinking membership — the Moscow, Idaho, community is pushing forward with some very ambitious plans. They make no secret of their intention to make Moscow a Christian town — nor of their expectation that the world will be converted to Christ. I think this expectation provides this community with a very distinctive confidence. While other groups of evangelicals are scanning the headlines for the signs of the times, or are persuading each other not to “polish the brass on a sinking ship,” as some premillennial critics of social action put it, the Moscow Christians and their Reconstructionist fellow travelers are developing concrete plans to survive and resist what they perceive to be an extraordinary moral collapse. And they’ve been very successful. 

In Moscow, they have established a classical Christian school — one of the founding institutions of a network of similar schools, whose conference was addressed in 2019 by Senator Ben Sasse — as well as a high quality liberal arts college and music conservatory. Members of the congregations associated with this community run very successful businesses, including the publishing house that does most to promote the group’s ideas. Overall, they’ve created an ecosystem that publicizes their ideas, that encourages migration into the area, that supports new arrivals with employment opportunities, school and other educational ventures — and this kind of growth is, of course, positioning the community as the fulfilment of its own prophetic expectations. Success breeds success — and so it will be interesting to see how Wilson’s new Amazon talk-show, “Man Rampant,” contributes to this positive feedback loop. 

There is a consistent theme of the tension between rhetoric and theology, most clearly in the renewed interest in the theology of the “lesser magistrate.” How does this work itself out for the congregants who are not actively looking to take up arms against the government, but do exist in a culture where that is possible and sensationalized (as with the fiction novels you mention)?

That’s an interesting question. Very few of the people we met while doing fieldwork for this book were interested in talking about taking up arms against the government – and none of those who did were attending Wilson’s church. I think a lot of the discussion about “resistance” is largely rhetorical. The old protestant doctrine of the “lesser magistrate” is certainly important in these circles. But the small number of Christian Reconstructionists who have turned toward violence — like Paul Jennings Hill — have been consistently denounced by thought leaders in the movement. All of the people we met within the Moscow congregation were living what might in other circumstances be regarded as fairly ordinary lives — working, shopping, going to church, and so on. The more militia-orientated people tended to prefer to keep themselves to themselves.

For many of the Reconstructionists, it is through cultural renewal, rather than political or violent action, that America can be saved. This is, as you note, one of the problems that Rushdoony had with the Religious Right in the 70s and 80s: they focused on political power rather than spiritual regeneration. How has the modern movement tried to focus on this goal of cultural renewal? What is their hope in the long term for America?

As I said before, members of the Christian Reconstruction movement work for and expect to contribute to the conversion of the United States. And that word “conversion” is key. The emphasis in their writing and speaking is not on coercing citizens into a Christian republic — despite the claims of their critics. Instead, Reconstructionists argue that as individuals are converted, they will influence their families for Christ; as families are converted, they will influence their neighborhoods for Christ; and so on. They expect a bottom-up transformation of American society, not any kind of transformation imposed from the top-down. That’s why these believers tend to avoid any participation in politics — even at a local level. While they might enjoy talking about the reconstruction of the legal system, or tax codes, they are often kept busy enough building Christian families, running businesses that reflect their Christian commitments, and going to church. In fact, you might say that in day-to-day life most of these believers are indistinguishable from their evangelical neighbors — except that, when they pray “thy kingdom come,” they expect to see it happen before the return of Christ, and they anticipate that their everyday lives will make a real contribution to that end.

Much of the book is built around the community in the American Redoubt, and particularly in Moscow, Idaho. Even the magazine, Credenda Agenda, as you note promulgated old ideas and new books, “but most of all it sold the community that was gathering around [Doug] Wilson’s ministry” (115). What is the role of the community for this movement, and how does that shape their activity?

The idea of community is really at the heart of this project, I think. From the 1990s, Credenda Agenda  — the magazine that did most to promote the group’s ideas — was never about one man. Instead, it brought together a range of writers who were capable of producing smart, satirical, and theologically sophisticated arguments. The letters page of each issue showed that readers found what they read attractive. They liked the idea of being part of that kind of community. And the institutions that this group established were designed to reinforce that community — a K-12 classical Christian school, then a liberal arts college, and so on — all taking their place in the positive feedback loop that I mentioned before. Online testimonies from some of the most recent migrants into the area still emphasize that this idea of community — maybe even ideal of community — is what drew them to Moscow. 

This group isn’t numerically large, and you even state that they don’t exist inside the religious mainstream. However, they are becoming increasingly influential. How so?

You’re right — the community isn’t especially large — in fact it’s tiny by comparison with many megachurches, even in Idaho. But this group projects its soft power very deliberately and very effectively. Wilson’s most recent venture — the Amazon talk-show called “Man Rampant” — seems to be surviving on that platform. Wilson has a nose for publicity. He co-authored a book with Christopher Hitchens and participated in a hymn sing in Moscow that resulted in arrests and attention on Twitter from President Trump. There is a real sense of crisis in American culture at the moment. This group’s influence is growing because they know how to articulate what might be at stake in that crisis, and how to present a response to that crisis that turns it into a single moment in the great sweep of victory by which the “kingdoms of the world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And that’s why their influence is only likely to grow.

By / Sep 14

There is an ongoing clash occurring in much of American Christianity to see who will occupy the seat of supremacy in the church. While that seat rightly belongs to Christ, who Scripture says is “head of the church” (Col. 1:18), we’re witnessing a growing number of Christian focus more on self that on the Savior. To that issue, Dean Inserra has written a new book entitled Getting Over Yourself: Trading Believe-in-Yourself Religion for Christ-Centered Christianity.

Inserra, a graduate of Liberty University and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and a consistent voice for the Christ-centered Christianity he advocates for in this book. For a Christian culture that has prioritized the self nearly above all else, Getting Over Yourself is a challenging but needed rebuke from a pastor whose intent is not to shame the reader, but to set his or her feet on the only path that leads to life—which is Christ himself.

The “Instagramification” of Christianity

Inserra opens the book by recounting an experience he had one weekend while he and his wife were out of town. After hearing of a new church plant in the town they were visiting and its pastor, and visiting this purportedly gospel-centered church, he started to notice a troubling trajectory in the weeks and months that followed. “The message started resembling that of a motivational speaker who happened to also believe in God . . . When I first visited the church, I had seen a gospel-preaching pastor, and now he seemed more like a hype man, like a keynote speaker brought in to motivate the sales reps at a company conference” (11-12). Over time, Inserra awakened to the fact that this was no isolated incident, but a growing reality within American Christianity.

While the prosperity theology of yesteryear no longer has the same influence it once did, our religion is no less influenced by the pursuit of prosperity. It just looks different now. “Instead of the health-and-wealth message of late-night Christian television, the new prosperity gospel centers on self-actualization and self-worth, wrapped in a Sunday morning pep rally where the gospel of self-fulfillment is preached with passion” (29). In other words, this form of American Christianity preaches and practices self-centered religion and uses God as a means of procuring its blessings.

In this way, contemporary American Christianity has conformed to the culture we often encounter on social media. The pursuit of trendiness, personal success and betterment, and victory are all placed at the center of what it means to be Christian, making a mockery of the actual way of Christ. In this farcical “Christian” iteration, one of the central tenets of following Jesus—taking up one’s cross daily—has been lost.

Retrieving Christianity’s cruciformity

From start to finish, this new prosperity gospel fails to deliver on its promise. Though the self is integral to the Christian life—it is our selves that are brought into life with God—the self is not centermost in the Christian story, either now or in the eternal life to come. Everything revolves around Christ, the one through whom and for whom all things were created. Therefore, the Christian life is to be lived through Christ and for Christ, not through the self and for the self.

The Christian life is nothing less than cross-shaped living. This means that we are to crucify the pretty veneer that the prosperity gospel advertises, the “trendy and successful life” (17), the “socially approved life” (43), “selective bible reading” (89), the pursuit of “greater things” (99), and “pop-Christian discipleship” (121). All of these lead to the vain pursuit of a life that God never promises in the Scriptures. They all promise a cross-less, Christless Christianity. As Inserra asserts, “the unspoken implication” in all of this “is that Jesus isn’t enough – He’s a means to an end” (47).

But, of course, Jesus is not a means to an end. He is the means, and he is the end (telos) of life itself. He’s the whole point, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The one by whom and through whom we are being saved, and the one to whom we are being conformed. The way of the Christian life is not to prioritize or idolize the self, but to deny the self and take up one’s cross and follow Jesus. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross, and Inserra is pleading with his reader to follow the Savior’s cruciform life. Indeed, as Jesus says, this is the only way to become his disciple.

Whose name will be made great?

Whose name will be great? This may be the central question driving Inserra’s book. Does the Christianity you ascribe to valorize the self, or does it valorize the Christ? Does it acknowledge Jesus as the point, or does it place the self in the center? At your most honest, which of you is glorified in your Christian imagination? These are questions that we all must answer, not just those in the cushy, comfortable chairs of today’s pop-Christian congregations.

Though Inserra takes aim at the trendiness and success and social approval that marks the “Instagramification” of Christianity, as he calls it (12), it is not ultimately these things that are the problem. As Christians, we may experience success and social approval at times. These are not necessarily realities to be avoided. The real problem is the heart that is set on these things, even to the extent that it uses Christianity and Christ himself as a means of obtaining these markers of “the blessed life.” Jesus will not be used in this way. 

Instead, as Inserra preaches throughout this book, the blessed life, with its innumerable and unimaginable benefits, which far outshine any that pop-Christianity promises, are obtained in one way: union with Christ. While the prosperity gospel preaches “your best life now,” which usually translates to “favor” in the form of health and wealth, the actual gospel preaches abundant, eternal life, even when the “favor” and influence of pop-Christianity is missing. After all, “It is from the cross where an abundant life is understood” (151).

So, the question bears repeating: in your practice of Christianity, whose name will be made great? If we want to follow Jesus—truly follow him—the answer is clear. We must join with John the Baptist in saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This is the starting point and ongoing ethic of “getting over yourself.” So, follow Inserra’s lead, and trade in the “believe-in-yourself religion” that so plagues American Christianity for the Christ-centered Christianity of the Bible. 

By / May 18

Our modern culture seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Issues of selfhood, sexuality, and religious liberty continually dominate the national conversation, prompting us to wonder how we got here and how we are to move forward. Carl Trueman, in his recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, helps us to understand and answer these questions. For Christians seeking to make sense of Western culture, his book’s survey of the past helps “bring clarity to the present and give guidance for the future.” 

To that end, Trueman spent some time recently answering our questions to help us do just that — understand our present moment and live faithfully in the midst of it.

In the opening chapter of your book, you discuss how the sexual revolution has a broad historical context and isn’t a revolution chiefly about sex or sexuality but “a revolution in how the self is understood.” Can you tell us why the contemporary misunderstanding of “selfhood” is so dangerous? 

The contemporary understanding of selfhood grants decisive authority to inner feelings. This ultimately fosters both a plastic sense of what human nature is and reduces morality to a matter of personal taste in the service of personal happiness. That creates a situation where society’s moral codes are inherently unstable (and thus societies tend either to chaos or authoritarianism).

As you close your introduction, you say, “The task of the Christian is not to whine about the moment in which he or she lives but to understand its problems and respond appropriately.” How would you say Christians in the United States are doing in this regard and, moreover, how would you advise Christians who would like to understand and respond to the problems in our moment more faithfully? 

It is hard to generalize. If social media is representative, then Christians on the left and right seem angry, bitter, polarized, and engaged in a civil war over everything from race to sexuality.  But my experience of Christians outside of that social media world is that, while they are concerned about developments in the wider culture, they are actually interested in thinking through these issues in a more careful manner because they face them in their everyday lives with reference to co-workers and beloved family members. 

As to advising such, I would say: stay away from being pulled into social media debates as much as possible — they seem to serve more for the self-promotion of the protagonists than the advancement of understanding — read widely and thoughtfully on the key issues and resist the temptation to treat other people as labels rather than as individuals made in the image of God.

In a day when tensions are high and charity seems to be waning, your book seeks to represent the views and opinions on the other side of this argument with fairness and integrity. Can you talk about why this is important?

In part, this merely reflects my approach in the classroom. I always try to think myself into the skin of whichever thinker I happen to be teaching in order to present their thought as carefully as I can before offering any critique. But in a day as polarized and laden with distracting rhetoric as ours, it also helps to lower the polemical temperature and allows a proper, more dispassionate focus on the issues. In addition, it is important because my purpose is to persuade my audience, and that requires me to show that I take seriously the positions I reject and do so for good reasons, not simply out of bigotry. Of course, in a therapeutic age, some will always see an alternative view as offensive, and, rather than engage the argument, they will resort to claims that their critic is setting up a straw man. The important thing is to make sure such claims are incorrect.

In Part 1 of the book, you spend time talking about first, second, and third-world cultures, which are categories, in this context, that describe the grounding for a society’s moral values. Identifying much of our Western culture as third world (denying any sacred order), you discuss the difficulties present when a second-world representative (one who believes in a sacred order) “clashes with a representative of a third world,” a common situation here in America. For Christians engaging in these “clashes” that you describe, is there any hope of winning over persons who subscribe to a third-world view? If so, how?

We need an approach that acknowledges this difference and adopts a strategy that goes beyond the normal intellectual apologetics to which Christians typically default. The third-worlder may have repudiated sacred order but he cannot rid himself of the basic human desire for those basic goods, freedom and belonging, even if he has no idea what they might look like or how a definition of them might be justified. This is where the challenge lies for Christians. 

We need to demonstrate in our church communities that our love for each other is practical proof that freedom is belonging and belonging is freedom, in accordance with biblical teaching (belonging to Christ, one is made free). In short, the Christian apologetic must be as much practical as it is theoretical. Indeed, the practical is necessary in order to make the theoretical plausible to the third-worlder.

You mention that virtually no one today or in recent history is/was reading the philosophers that you identify as foundational to our current predicament. And yet, here we are, buying into the worldviews that they put forth, some of them hundreds of years ago. How did we get from Karl Marx, for instance, to the cultural norms that we’re witnessing today?

To ask that is to raise the perennially vexed question of how material factors and ideas interact in the shaping of history, to which I can offer only a very simplified answer here. In brief, matters such as technology, world wars, globalization, immigration, etc., have shaped social behaviors that have cultivated intuitions in us which resonate with ideas of those such as Marx. For example, Marx’s abolition of the pre-political is now the default intuition of us all. We may not have read Marx but the presentation of erstwhile pre-political institutions such as family, church, or even the Boy Scouts in popular culture as having political significance has served to make Marx’s point an intuitive part of how we think about such things.

Likewise, you cite the power of media and art in shaping a viewer’s worldview. Why do media and art possess such formative power over whole societies? And considering their power, how should Christians proceed with consuming these art forms and others?

Media and art affect us in numerous ways, too many to recount here. News, movies, soap operas, etc., present narratives, and narratives easily come to grip our imagination. I often use the example of gay marriage. How did gay marriage come to be so widely accepted so fast? It was not because vast numbers of the public were reading books on the philosophy of sexual relationships. Rather, it was the power of the positive narratives of programs such as Will and Grace that helped to shape the public’s moral imagination. 

Further, platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram serve to increase the scope for self-creation and for life as a public performance. The Nietzschean ideal of acting out one’s life as a work of art is thus something everyone can achieve; more than that, it is something we are all encouraged to achieve. My advice to Christians is therefore: be very careful about such things, and be very self-conscious about how they can shape our thinking.

You mention Charles Taylor a lot in your book and his use of the term “social imaginary.” This is a concept many Christians are unfamiliar with. Why is it helpful or important?

The social imaginary is Taylor’s term for the set of intuitions we have that make society possible.  We all have a large number of shared convictions, beliefs, and practices that are not things we have consciously worked out from first principles but have in a sense simply absorbed from the culture around us. It is therefore a helpful concept in both making us aware of how intuitive many of our beliefs are and therefore allows us both to reflect upon them and to see how complex the relationship of our beliefs to our cultural milieu is.

Near the end of Part 3, you make the statement that “when we address matters of sexual morality, we are actually addressing questions about the nature and purpose of human beings, the definition of happiness, and the relationship between the individual and wider society between men and women.” Can you expound on this? What does sexual morality have to do with the nature and purpose of human beings? 

The fact that sex has shifted from being an act, something we do, to an identity, something we are, clearly indicates that modern notions of sex are intimately wrapped up with what we consider to be the purpose of our lives and the nature of fulfillment. That this shift has taken place, therefore, also indicates that society has changed its view of our purpose and fulfillment.  Think about it: if sex is primarily for procreation or confined within the bounds of marriage, then it is about somebody else — my children, my spouse. If it is primarily about my identity and my pleasure, then it is a self-directed matter, with others only being significant to the extent they facilitate these things. Look at how a society thinks of sex and you can see how a society thinks about the purpose of individual existence.

In discussing how psychology has come to trump biology, you state that nowadays “the personal “sense” of the body is important, and if that “sense” is out of step with a person’s “deeply felt” identity, then the body can be modified. So the reality of the body is not as real as the convictions of the mind.” With this in mind, how important is it that Christians recapture and promote a biblical theology of the body? 

Extremely important. The Christian distinction between body and soul (to which I am committed) can tend to lead us to think of the soul as the real thing and the body simply a house or a machine which we inhabit. We need to stress the integral unity of body and soul, that we do not ‘inhabit’ our bodies as we might ‘inhabit’ a house; we are our bodies. This is very helpful when it comes to a matter such as trans ideology which is predicated on the notion that some people are born ‘in’ or ‘with’ the wrong body. No. If your body is an integral part of you, then it is nonsense to say it is the wrong body. 

But the implications go beyond the trans question. A rich theology of the body underlines our dependence upon others, shapes our understanding of life, from conception to physical death. I would go so far as to say that a biblical theology of the physical body is the most important need in Protestant ethics at this time.

You argue that “when it comes to how we think of ourselves, we are all expressive individualists now, and there is no way we can escape from this fact. It is the essence of the world in which we have to live and of which we are a part.” How does this typically play itself out among Christians? If “there is no way to escape this fact,” is it possible to be a healthy Christian in a culture of expressive individualism? 

We need to be nuanced here. Not all aspects of expressive individualism are bad. Some emphasis on inner feelings, for example, is necessary to do justice the existential demands of the gospel. Further, if I witnessed a crime — a mugging, for example — and felt no inner revulsion, then I would arguably be morally deficient. And Christian praise should acknowledge feelings as well — as we find in the Psalms. 

Where it becomes problematic, however, is when those feelings become the final authority. Christians too can be vulnerable to the ‘It feels so good, it must be OK’ kind of moral logic. We can come to identify human flourishing with simply ‘feeling happy’. And we can allow our worship — our praise songs, our prayers, our sermons — to degenerate into reflecting that kind of therapeutic, human-centered thinking. Our problem is not that we are not feeling happy; it is that we are in a state of rebellion. 

How to handle this? Well, that would take another large book, but I would say that being aware of the problem is the first step.

The book closes with a discussion of what the future may look like. On the topic of religious freedom, you envision a clash between the rights of religious conservatives and the rights of sexual minorities, conceiving it as nearly impossible that both sides can be accommodated. This could potentially put religious freedom as we understand it in jeopardy. What, if any, measures can the church be taking now to ensure that religious freedom endures for people of all faiths?

We should use our civil rights and liberties to press for legislation to protect religious freedom.  We should be co-belligerent with those who share the same concern but who may not share our faith. And we need to remember that religious freedom, even in the Constitution, is not an absolute, unconditional right. Sacrificing children to Moloch is not, for example, protected under the First Amendment. Religious freedom is protected to the extent that it is seen as a social good. And so we need to comport ourselves in our communities in a manner which indicates that the practice of the Christian faith is a beautiful and beneficial thing for society as a whole.

By / Apr 26

“Our world has more and more information, but less and less wisdom,” says Brett McCracken, author of the recent book, The Wisdom Pyramid. “More stimulation; less synthesis. More distraction; less stillness. More pontificating; less pondering. More opinion; less research. More speaking; less listening. More to look at; less to see. More amusements; less joy. There is more, but we are less. And we all feel it.” 

Though the age of information has created a real predicament for us, we are not called to yield to the currents of our day that are sending us downstream and away from the path of life. Instead, as Christians, we are called to swim upstream toward wisdom and toward true human flourishing. To that end, Brett McCracken has given readers a helpful tool to aid us on our journey toward a life of wisdom. He recently spent some time interacting with us on several of the ideas in the book, which you can read below. 

One of the major aspects of The Wisdom Pyramid is the likening of our information intake to that of our food intake. Your “Wisdom Pyramid” in some ways mimics the intent of the USDA’s “Food Pyramid” published in the early 90s. Why do we need a similar tool for the development of wisdom?

The same logic that gave rise to the Food Pyramid—that the composition of our physical intakes can make us either physically healthy or sick—applies as well to our spiritual health. The ideas we take in can make us spiritually healthy or spiritually sick, wise or foolish. Just as for our physical health we need to be mindful of the types of foods we are consuming, and in what proportion, we also need to be mindful of the intakes coming into our hearts, minds, and souls. The voices we listen to, the sources we look to for information, the places we spend our time — all of it shapes us, for good or for ill. I wrote the book because I’m seeing a lot of imbalanced information diets these days (including in my own life!), and it’s making us sick. 

In the book’s introduction, as you describe our “unwise age,” you write about the problem that our brains are overstimulated. What are the consequences of having a constantly overstimulated brain? How does it affect our ability to think?

There is research showing that our brains are expending so much energy doing constant triage — sorting through the glut of information encountered on any given day — that there’s increasingly little energy left to spend on deeper level thinking: reflection, synthesis, critical evaluation. Of course, these are exactly the mental skills we desperately need if we are to be wise. Our brains are being rewired by the fragmented, disconnected, hyperspeed nature of information consumption today. And the rewiring is causing us to forget how to think carefully, slowly, and in a focused way. Mentally we live most of our days online in a “mile wide, inch deep” sort of mode. Over time, that leads our brains to lose the ability to go much deeper than an inch on anything, even if we wanted to. That’s scary.

You describe how, as with eating food too fast, consuming too much information too quickly isn’t healthy for us. As it relates to developing wisdom, why does the fast intake of information not transfer to the cultivation of wisdom?

When we consume information too quickly, we rarely take sufficient time to vet the quality of that information. Is it sound? Is it biased? Is it presenting both sides of the story objectively? Is it omitting something important? Media today tends to focus on sensationalized headlines and incendiary angles, to get people to click or watch. When we consume information too quickly we are passive pawns who click on things indiscriminately and then retweet or share without thinking twice about whether we should. We are gullible and reckless. 

Wisdom often means withholding immediate commentary until sufficient context and facts are known. Wisdom is patience and restraint in a world where we’re beckoned to opine, rage, and comment on events in real time. Foolishness is what makes QAnon conspiracy theories go viral. Foolishness is what perpetuated false narratives about Jussie Smollett and Nick Sandmann (among many others) before full contexts and facts were known. Foolishness rushes to judgment and situates things too quickly, and simplistically, in partisan narratives. All of this foolishness comes about because we go too fast. Wisdom is countercultural in part because it insists on a slower, more careful pace in a relentlessly fast world. Cultivating wisdom is necessarily a patient endeavor—which makes it an increasingly hard endeavor in today’s world. 

You go on to assert in chapter 1 that the constant glut of information serves to fragment our lives by orienting our attention everywhere but the place in which we physically find ourselves. Why is this significant?

This is an incredibly damaging dynamic. The internet and social media are placeless — everywhere and nowhere, all at the same time. By sucking our attention constantly into the endless conveyor belt of controversies, headlines, injustices, diversions, and pseudo-events that populate our feeds, we can easily spend our entire lives attending to things far removed from our immediate contexts, leaving us with little energy or interest to engage the (usually more mundane) realities right in front of us.

You take aim in chapter 2 at the popular phrase “redeeming the time,” saying that “instead of being content with silence in the “in between” moments of life,” we can’t help but “do something, anything, to maximize the time” (40-41). How might this phrase “redeeming the time,” and our practice of it, be misguided? What do we gain by trading the constant hum of information for silence?

The impulse to “redeem the time” is understandable, especially for Christians who have a clear mission and want to make every moment matter. There’s so much to do, so much to know, so many books to read! The glut of content (much of it excellent) makes it even harder to resist the “optimize every moment” mindset. We have to remember, though, that rest is God’s idea. He created the Sabbath. He also created humans with limits; he created us to need sleep. No human can be “always on,” even if we live in an always-on world. I’ve found in my own life that some of my most fruitful and creative stretches come out of a time when I prioritized rest. Some of my best ideas come when I’m just still and not doing. I’m convinced that silence and empty, unmediated space in our lives is absolutely essential for our wisdom. It helps us slow down and think more carefully. It helps replenish our overtaxed brains and our overwhelmed senses. 

Can you discuss the correlation between living in a technological society and the growing tendency to “reject the truth of the body,” as you say? How can we resist this tendency?

The more we live our lives in the ethereal, abstract, disembodied spaces of the internet, the more detached we can get from physical, embodied reality (of which our own bodies are just one part). The more we live in the “virtual” reality of online life (where there are few limits on the identity you want to present to the world), the less we feel constrained by actual reality, not least the reality and accompanying limits of our given physical bodies. This is why, for example, something like transgenderism has risen to prominence in the internet age. There are other factors that have contributed to it, but the idea that one’s “gender identity” can be something wholly detached from biology—gender as a “reality” as easily constructed and changeable as a Facebook profile picture—is an idea that can gain unique traction in a virtual world of avatars and digitally performed/manipulated identity.

Wisdom is countercultural in part because it insists on a slower, more careful pace in a relentlessly fast world.

How do we resist the distorting effects of the digital age? How can we guard against the ways our own concept of self can be shaped in a virtual world? Part of it is making sure we spend enough time in the offline world. Go outside more! Exercise. Get your hands in the dirt. Do things that make you aware of your body—what it can do and what it can’t do. This is part of why I included nature as a key component of wisdom in The Wisdom Pyramid. All sorts of foolishness arises when we distance ourselves from God’s creation and forget that we, too, are creatures God made. But there is wisdom to be found if we’re aware, attuned, and grateful for creation’s rhythms, order, and design.

In the book, you mention your dad often. How did his habit of consistently reading the Bible affect you as a kid?

Habits of wisdom are first and foremost picked up by observing them in others. You can be told Bible reading is important, but it becomes more believable and real when you see it in practice. This was the case for me, growing up with a dad who I often saw reading, studying, and treasuring the Bible. I have such clear memories of him sitting in his chair with a big old Bible, stuffed with church bulletins and Scripture memory cards, with a fountain pen and highlighter. It signaled something in my young mind and soul about the importance of the Bible. I hope my own sons have similar memories of me.

In chapter 5, you say that “Our inflated focus on global awareness depletes our capacity for local action” (96). Can you expound on this? To what extent should we prioritize local action over global awareness?

Neil Postman described this in terms of a severing of the connection between information and action. For most of human history, the only information one had access to was actionable information, and so there was a connection between what filled our brains and what our bodies did. But after the telegraph and then even more so with subsequent innovations in mass communication (especially the internet), suddenly we were exposed to huge amounts of information from far away places—information which we consumed but could not really act on. In the social media era this is now the majority of information that fills our brains—information that is inactionable aside from awareness and maybe some social media commentary. No wonder we are so angsty and mad all the time. No wonder our mental health has never been worse. Our brains and souls were never meant to bear the burden of so much information that has little real-world application in our lives. Constant awareness without recourse to tangible action leaves us feeling impotent and frustrated.

You argue that books are a “massively important source of empathy.” In what ways do books help cultivate empathy in us? Why is this important?

When you read a book you are literally practicing the wisdom of James 1:19: “be quick to listen, slow to speak.” You are giving your silent attention to another person’s voice, perspective, and experience. You are humble and teachable (which is not to say gullible or uncritical). To read another’s perspective in a book — whether a nonfiction argument or a fiction narrative — you are walking in another’s shoes. And walking in another’s shoes can’t help but cultivate in us empathy. A book is far better than a tweet for helping us understand where someone is coming from. That’s why reading books by authors on the “other side” or various arguments, or even reading books by a hostile opponent, can be good for us. Even if we still vehemently disagree with their arguments and perspectives, reading their book helps us see that they are human whose passions and perspectives are shaped by a story — just as yours are.

What are some of the books, both Christian and non-Christian, that you would recommend to readers as they seek to grow in wisdom?

That’s a question I could answer in a thousand ways. So I’ll just mention five that have shaped me personally: C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory; Marilynne Robinson, Gilead; J.I. Packer, Knowing God; Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death; and John Stott, The Cross of Christ.

In contrast to what some would say, you state that “the internet and social media desperately need people of light to stay rather than leave” (154). How would you encourage Christians who do stay to both guard themselves against the woes of the internet and social media and to function as people of light as they engage?

Any mission field holds the risk that the missionary entering it will be changed more by the culture than the culture is changed by them. This is certainly true of the “mission field” of the internet and social media. If we spend all our time online, even with good intentions of being a winsome Christian presence there, it will likely shape us in profound and disturbing ways. So the first thing I’d say to Christians seeking to be light in the darkness of the internet is that we simply can’t spend all day, every day, online. It will suck us dry. We’ll get sick. 

Healthy presence online, I’m convinced, is only possible if we are visitors but not permanent residents online. The people posting the worst, most vile things on social media are often the ones who never live offline. Their entire diet is made up of the junk food of social media, so of course they are sick and spreading sickness in what they post. For Christians to be spreaders of health and wisdom online, we need to be healthy and wise—and we’ll only be healthy and wise if we’re drawing nourishment in other places than just the internet. This is ultimately what I hope readers take away from The Wisdom Pyramid. We can’t give what we don’t have. And so if we are to be a faithful, life-giving presence online, we need to start with our own health and our own habits.

By / Apr 8

As 2020 ended, many anticipated that the turning of the New Year would bring with it a fresh dose of hope and a reprieve from the hardships that marked the last year. And, in some ways, it has. COVID-19, at least in America, seems to be trending in a promising direction, vaccinations continue at a rapid pace, and life is slowly beginning to look more normal. But while one pandemic seems keen on abating, another more insidious pathogen continues to intensify. 

I’m speaking of our “outrage culture” and the anger that fuels it. Outrage culture, sadly, is a phenomenon that has enticed us far and wide, even within the church. And, based on Tim Kreider’s commentary, “enticed” is the exact right word. He says, “Outrage is like a lot of other things that feel good but over time devour us from the inside out. And it’s even more insidious than most vices because we don’t even consciously acknowledge that it’s a pleasure” (emphasis added). Pete Ross calls our anger and outrage an “acceptable and addictive drug of society” which convinces us that we’re smart, we’re right, and “we have the necessary ideas to fix everything. That we’re the ones that need to be in charge.” We apparently can’t help but participate in outrage culture because doing so feeds a Pharisaical self-righteousness that feels good. It coddles the pride that, unless God grants repentance, will result in disgrace and, ultimately, our destruction.

Proverbs and the way of wisdom

Sadly, among the Christian community, our outrage and self-righteous Pharisaism is often aimed toward one another. Dan Darling calls this “a kind of performative self-flagellation incentivized by a social media environment that rewards hot-takes, shaming, and appealing to tribes,” all of which spills out of a heart angered by the internet controversy of the day. And day after day, Christians, with unbefitting outrage, continue to “rhetorically sacrifice” their own brothers and sisters in the faith. 

If our anger and outrage—forms of self-righteous pleasure-seeking—are rooted in pride, then the book of Proverbs shows us a better way. Proverbs 11:12 says, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” The way of outrage culture is the way of belligerence, the way lacking in self-control, the way of slander and self-righteousness; it is the way of pride. But the way of wisdom is the way of humility and charity, of compassion, of patience and long-suffering; it is the way of holiness. 

But, the question remains, can Christians resist the enticements of outrage culture? From the Proverbs of Solomon to the book of James, the Bible answers this contemporary question with a resounding yes. By the power of the Spirit, humility and charity are the first two steps forward. 

  1. Humility

Rick Warren, in his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” which is generally a fair statement. But, in the case of outrage culture, where the tendency is to lambaste our opponents because “we’re right and we need to be in charge,” thinking less of ourselves and the primacy of our expertise is an effective place to begin. Biblical humility, though, does not advocate for a self-deprecating view of oneself. Rather, it advocates for a right view of oneself, recognizing that we are creatures, recipients of God’s common grace who are offered God’s saving grace found in Christ, just like those we’re raging against.

Further, because we know that “pride goes before destruction,” as Solomon warns, we can be sure that if we practice the ethic of the outrage culture, with its furious fits and spats, any authority that we possess or hope to possess will ultimately be taken from us. In so doing, we will have proven ourselves unqualified. There is no attribute or behavior more unbefitting of the kingdom of God than the sin of pride.

Jesus tells us in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Unimaginable honor and authority await those who have humbled themselves before God. We will not show ourselves capable of entering God’s kingdom or exercising the rule he promises to entrust us with until humility becomes our fundamental orientation toward our Father in Heaven, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors, whether online or in-person.

  1. Charity

Scrolling down a Twitter feed or a Facebook timeline, it’s often hard to imagine that Christians take Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount seriously. Though he was clear on the mountainside that day that he expects his followers to love not only our neighbors but our enemies, this has proven to be an elusive standard. Even the most intuitive act of charity, “loving those who love you,” often seems too ambitious for the people of God in our online interactions.

But, Jesus and, later, the Apostle Paul, were not offering quips or suggestions to be implemented at our discretion. They were showing us the way of righteousness, the narrow way of the kingdom, the way of the children of God. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “For he (God) is gracious to the ungrateful and evil” (Luke 6:35). “Charity is kind,” says Paul, “it doth not behave itself unseemly . . . is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil . . . beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” (1 Cor. 13:4, 5, 7, KJV). “This is the way,” God is telling us. “Walk in it” (Isa.30:21).

God the Father, through God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit has commanded and empowered us to live our lives with a charity that is other-worldly and that we learn from him. Thus, as we seek to resist the lure of outrage culture and embody the way of Christ, let us take seriously these words of Andrew Murray: “Let our temper be under the rule of the love of Jesus. He alone can make us gentle and patient. Let the vow that not an unkind word about others will ever be heard from our lips (or read in our writing) be laid trustingly at His feet. Let the gentleness that refuses to take offense, that is always ready to excuse, to think and hope the best, mark our dealings with all.”

Outrage toward indwelling sin

Not all outrage is off-limits for the children of God, though. A Christian ought to be appalled at the lingering depravity and brokenness of the world; it is our native response. In fact, to pray “thy kingdom come,” as Jesus taught us, is itself a statement of outrage against the world’s fallenness. But woe to us if we believe it right to do violence against God’s image-bearers with uncharitable and outrageous words.

There is a place where the full force of our outrage can be levied: Toward indwelling sin. John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Rather than adopting the ethic of outrage culture and spewing rage at one another, and taking pleasure in it, we would do well to redirect our attention inward, toward the indwelling sin “waiting to destroy everything we love,” as Matt Chandler has said. The Apostle Paul says, “if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Life and death are before us. Shall we yield to the pride of our flesh and join the carnal chorus of outrage culture, a culture that loves its sin and hates its neighbor? Or shall we aim our outrage inward and, by the Spirit, put to death these self-righteous deeds of the body?

Brothers and sisters, may we be a people who embody the ethic of God’s kingdom, not that of outrage culture. May we be a people who keep the commands of Jesus, all of them. And, humbly, may we begin by loving our neighbors and hating our sin.  

By / Feb 12

In this episode, Josh, Brent, and Lindsay discuss the rundown on the Trump Impeachment trial, COVID-19 infections plummeting, the latest on masks, COVID-19 vaccines, the IMB appointing 30 new missionaries, the results of Super Bowl 2021, and what changes are coming in baseball this year. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including the Policy staff with “Supreme Court strikes down California’s ban on indoor worship,” Alex Ward with “The courage of Ruby Bridges and her family,” Gunner Gunderson with “’He looks like me!’: Demonstrating the possibility of belonging,” Chelsea Patterson Sobolik with “How the Chinese Communist Party is persecuting Uyghur women.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Devin Maddox for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Devin

Devin Maddox is the trade books publisher at B&H Publishing Group, and director of the books ministry area at LifeWay. He graduated with a BA in Christian ethics from Union University and an MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently he is completing a PhD in applied theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, focusing his research on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early life and writing. Devin is married to his college sweetheart, Cara; they have three boys and live in Tennessee. You can connect with Devin on twitter: @devinmaddox

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Rundown of Trump Impeachment Trial
  2. Trump on path to acquittal despite evidence
  3. To heal America’s divide, we must get back to facts
  4. Covid infections are plummeting
  5. The latest on masks
  6. The Covid vaccines have shattered expectations
  7. AstraZeneca Covid-19 Vaccine Effective Against U.K. Variant in Trial
  8. The digital homework divide
  9. Chinese spacecraft enters orbit around Mars
  10. IMB appoints 30 missionaries, celebrates $5 billion in cumulative Lottie gifts
  11. Bucs beat Chiefs in Super Bowl; celebrate with boat parade
  12. Baseball changes for 2021

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  • A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: by Jared Kennedy. This short book walks through six conversation topics designed to help you apply the truth and hope of the gospel to the complex issue of gender. 
  • Stand for Life: At the ERLC, we stand for life. Our work to save preborn babies and care for the vulnerable is vital to our work. Believing that abortion can end in our lifetime, will you join us as we STAND FOR LIFE?
By / Jan 15

In this episode, Josh, Brent, and Meagan discuss president Trump becoming the first president to be impeached twice, the increased national guard presence at the U.S. Capitol, COVID-19’s raging numbers, new thoughts on COVID-19 immunity length, US Space Command, Alabama winning the National Championship, and ‘Way Maker’ topping the charts in 2020. Meagan and Josh also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Carl Laferton with “3 ways smartphone usage can distort our perceptions: Habits, theology, and Christian discipleship,” Jason Thacker, and Josh Wester with “Understanding Twitter suspensions and the need for consistent policies,” and Russell Moore with “The Roman Road from Insurrection.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Haley Byrd Wilt for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Haley

Haley Byrd Wilt is an associate editor for The Dispatch. She previously reported on Congress for CNN and The Weekly Standard. Haley and her husband Evan live in Washington, D.C. You can connect with her on Twitter: @byrdinator

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Trump becomes first president to be impeached twice
  2. Here are the Republicans who voted to impeach Trump
  3. Here’s what the U.S. Capitol looks like as impeachment is underway
  4. Axios: Next move is the Senate
  5. Multiple resignations in wake of Capitol riot
  6. Capitol Hill police chief resigns, said he requested back-up
  7. US Space Command Headquarters is coming to Huntsville
  8. Air passengers entering the United States will be required to present a negative COVID-19 test, according to the CDC
  9. Coronavirus Immunity May Last Years, Possibly Even Decades, Study Suggests
  10. Covid is raging
  11. Alabama wins national championship
  12. ‘Way Maker’ top 2020 worship song

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Sponsors

  • A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Your Children About Gender: by Jared Kennedy. This short book walks through six conversation topics designed to help you apply the truth and hope of the gospel to the complex issue of gender. 
  • Stand for Life: At the ERLC, we stand for life. Our work to save preborn babies and care for the vulnerable is vital to our work. Believing that abortion can end in our lifetime, will you join us as we STAND FOR LIFE?
By / Oct 19

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

How does my faith in Jesus connect with my work life? How does Sunday relate to Monday?  What difference does the gospel make when I’m stocking shelves, turning wrenches, or answering phones?  

These are the types of questions that commonly haunt the everyday, ordinary Christian. For those who are serious and sincere in their faith, but who are not part of a pastoral staff or religious nonprofit, what role do they play in God’s kingdom on a day-to-day basis? Connecting the dots between the Christian faith and missionary work is easy. Connecting the dots for truck drivers and dental assistants is hard.  

In the past 20 years, evangelicals have enjoyed a surge of attention and resources dedicated to addressing this intersection of faith, work, and vocation. Christian foundations, think tanks, Christian centers, seminaries, and denominational networks have dedicated much money and attention toward the development of content (books, documentaries, study Bibles, etc.) to inform the Christian laity about the importance and necessity of their roles as “ministers of reconciliation” regardless of their job titles.  

While these efforts have proven positive for both pulpit and pew, much work remains for the masses. This must not be an occasional conversation in the church. It must be part of every church’s strategy to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry” (Eph. 4:12).  

In his commentary on Ephesians, the late John Stott referred to Eph. 4:12 as an “every member ministry.” And, indeed it is.  The “work of the ministry” is not the proprietary business of pastors and missionaries. It is the calling of every Christian to connect Jesus to their work, modeling love for God and neighbor, being salt and light at every time and place, and last but not least, to conduct their work with a love and excellence that proclaims the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  

Every kind of work is a sacred calling 

Gene E. Veith’s book God at Work has quickly become a classic in the Faith and Work titles.  Written in 2002, Veith approaches the conversation employing the Lutheran framework for vocation that emerged amidst the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.  

The Reformers, especially Luther, sought to reclaim the notion of calling (vocatio in Latin) for the Christian laity. Veith writes, “In scrutinizing the existing ecclesiastical system in light of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the Reformers insisted that priests and nuns and monastics did not have a special claim to God’s favor, but that laypeople too could live the Christian life to its fullest” (18). This dovetailed nicely with the well-known reformational emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine that “all Christians enjoy the same access to Christ and are spiritually equal before Him” (19).  

The “priesthood of all believers,” Veith clarifies, did not turn all Christians into pastors. But it did turn “every kind of work into sacred calling.” Building upon this foundation, Luther and the Reformers recognized multiple callings for every Christian, including the calling to work, family, citizenship, and church.  

“The doctrine of vocation, though it has to do with human work, is essentially about God’s work and how God works in and through our lives.”

Each of these vocational categories receive a chapter in Veith’s book. But, before diving into these, he considers “How God Works through Human Beings,” wherein he employs the Lutheran Two-Kingdom’s model to explain how God works through means. Following Luther, Veith puts forward distinct spiritual and earthly kingdoms in which God uses the spiritual kingdom to restore sinners and to rule in their hearts, equipping them for everlasting life. This finds “tangible expression in the Church” and its activities (29).  

Just as God uses the means of the church to accomplish the purposes of his spiritual kingdom, he also works through means of the earthly kingdom, especially natural law, to accomplish his plans. As well, he works through even the so-called “secular” vocations of people in the earthly kingdom. “That is, He institutes families, work, and organized societies, giving human beings particular parts to play in His vast design” (30).  

In chapters three through five, Veith addresses “The Purpose of Vocation,” “Finding Your Vocations,” and “Your Calling as a Worker,” respectively. These are among the most helpful and insightful chapters as they crack open the reality of an “every-member-ministry” way of life for all Christians. Veith pulls the conversation off the stage of the extraordinary and into the realm of the everyday, ordinary Christ-follower.  He writes, 

“This means that vocation is played out not just in extraordinary acts—the great things we will do for the Lord, the great success we envision in our careers someday—but in the realm of the ordinary.  Whatever we face in the often humdrum present—washing the dishes, buying groceries, going to work, driving the kids somewhere, hanging out with friends—this is the realm into which we have been called and in which our faith bears fruit in love.” (59) 

This emphasis on the “ordinary” is right and beautiful and has gained greater traction in recent years. An arguable extension of the “faith and work” movement has been the revival of interest in everyday liturgies that see all of life as sacred and holy, purposeful before God despite how extraordinary it may or may not be. Veith goes on to say, “The doctrine of vocation, though it has to do with human work, is essentially about God’s work and how God works in and through our lives” (59). If there were a one-sentence summary to the book, this would be it. He repeats this idea at the end of chapter five, reflecting on those who responded to the planes crashing into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Those responders insisted their bravery was simply, “doing their jobs.” Veith responds with, “That is the doctrine of vocation. Ordinary men and women expressing their love and service to their neighbor, ‘just doing our jobs’” (75).  

Following dedicated chapters on the callings to family, citizenship, and church, Veith offers three short but important chapters on the “Ethics of Vocation,” “Bearing the Cross in Vocation,” and the conclusion, “Resting in Vocation.”  In a particularly poignant section in the “Ethics of Vocation” chapter, Veith discusses “sinning against vocation.” Despite the deluge of resources on faith, work, and vocation in the past decade, the notion of “sinning against vocation” remains largely left out and underdeveloped. Veith suggests that one way to look at sin is as a “violation of one’s calling.” “Since the purpose of vocation . . . is to love and serve one’s neighbor, failure to do so is a sin against one’s vocation” (135).  

Reflections for today

I have three brief reflections on the book.  

First, while Veith is a top-shelf academic and intellect, perhaps the greatest feature of God at Work is its accessibility. In keeping with the Reformers’ intention of reclaiming Christian vocation/calling for the laity, Veith’s book is written and organized brilliantly for the thoughtful layperson, the trained pastor, or theologian—and everyone in between. 

Second, while I remain unconvinced of the two-kingdoms approach to God’s world, the four-fold approach to vocation (work, family, citizenship, and church) remains foundational for my own thinking, teaching, and preaching on calling. Veith’s explanations and insights on these areas of Christian calling remain among the best in the literature, informed by the primary and secondary sources but distilled for all audiences. 

Finally, while tempted to mention again the great emphasis on the “ordinary” noted above, I’ll refrain in favor of a deep appreciation for the final chapter on “Resting in Vocation.” By this, Veith means both contentment in one’s calling and the importance of Sabbath as part of our calling in Christ. As a friend once said to me, “Rest takes work.” Indeed, it does, and Veith does not neglect to remind us of this in the final pages of his book. Doubtless, anyone who reads God at Work would wish for more than eight pages dedicated to the importance of rest. Nonetheless, Veith leaves the reader with plenty to consider for all of life, working and resting.  

Veith’s God at Work made a deep impact upon its release in 2002 and continues to occupy an important place in the ongoing conversation on faith, work, and vocation. Veith’s book was one of the first I read on the topic as a college student transitioning to seminary. The writing was simple, but the ideas were new and profound for me at that time, and they remain organizing principles for how I understand and live into my own callings every day. May God at Work remain not only on the shelves of those teaching and preaching about Christian vocation; but may it find its way to the bedside table of all Christians that each may become a mature and ministering worker of God. 

By / Sep 16

Over the weekend, news broke that two law enforcement officers in Los Angeles were targeted, seemingly at random, as a gunman ran up to their parked vehicle and opened fire. Sustaining life-threatening injuries, the two officers were transported to a nearby hospital. And following the shooting, reports surfaced that a crowd of protestors had gathered outside of the hospital’s emergency room. The crowd apparently blocked the entrance to the emergency room as at least some present screamed and chanted obscenities, including vile expressions of their desire that the officers involved would perish. 

The news was chilling, but the heinous and wicked nature of the attack was solidified after video of the shooting began to circulate online. It was unquestionably a senseless act of violence. But the insanity of the moment was further compounded by the reports that others, with actual knowledge of the incident, then called for the death of the two victims of such brutality. Those actions reflect, in a staggering fashion, the moral cancer infecting American culture today. 

Devastating brokenness

Sadly, this was hardly the only reminder of our world’s devastating brokenness in recent days. For several weeks, much attention and criticism has been directed toward “Cuties,” a new film acquired by Netflix telling the story of a young Sengalese girl torn between two worlds–her family with its traditional Muslim culture and her dance troupe of preteen girls. Originally released in France and highly acclaimed, the film won an award from the Sundance Institute in February. And according to its defenders, “Cuties” aims to reflect the pressures on young women growing up in a hyper-sexualized culture. 

But ahead of releasing the film on its streaming platform, Netflix advertised “Cuties” in a way that played-up and glamorized the sexuality of young adolescent girls. The promotion of the film was obscene. It not only objectified the young women featured, but made an illicit spectacle of underage girls that was tantamount to soft core pornography. Whatever the film’s supposed virtues, the sensual and provocative images of children “dancing” across the screen was rightly met with public (and bipartisan) outcry. Senators Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz condemned the film along with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who claimed “Cuties” would “certainly whet the appetite of pedophiles.”

To return to California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a controversial bill, Senate Bill 145, into law. That bill updated certain statutes related to offenders convicted of sex crimes in the state, specifically of statutory rape. Under the new law, judges in the state may now exercise discretion as to whether or not an offender must go on the sex offender registry in certain cases involving same-sex sexual activity. Defenders of the bill argued that it merely ended a form of discrimination in California’s judicial system by allowing judges to exercise the same kind of discretion regardless of the sex of the victims and perpetrators. But entirely overlooked by supporters of the new law was the fact that the legal “parity” created by this law simply extended the bad law already on the books in California. Expanding protections for adults to sexually exploit and prey upon children is no kind of justice.

These are but a few examples of the moral decay on display all around us. And the truth is, it doesn’t matter what direction you look. The effects of sin and signs of brokenness are everywhere. So how are Christians supposed to live faithfully in a world that celebrates violence and sanctions the sexual exploitation of children? Each day Christians in the United States face myriad problems of unbelievable complexity. What are we to do when the problems are overwhelming and solutions are hard to come by?

Spiritual maturity

Learning to live faithfully in a fallen world requires the development of spiritual maturity. And this is where we find some good news. Through Jesus, God is in the business of redeeming this fallen and broken world. Not only that, but living in this time between the times is not a new problem for the people of God. Since Jesus ascended into heaven, his people have been left with the task of bearing witness to him through our lives, words, and deeds. But each generation of Christians has had to fight to faithfully bear witness amid all kinds of pressures and circumstances–amid every kind of sin and brokenness and evil. And if we are to face these problems, we must prioritize the work of spiritual formation.

Christians should not be surprised when our world displays its brokenness. But we should never forsake an opportunity to show the world a better way.

It isn’t always clear what the best response is to any particular manifestation of evil. When Disney partnered with China’s communist government to film the movie Mulan–a government which is actively persecuting and potentially perpetrating genocide against Uighur Muslims–after the same company threatened to cease filming operations in the state of Georgia over a pro-life law being considered there, Christians were rightly outraged. But what is the best response? Refuse to see the film? Boycott Disney? What about Netflix? Is ignoring “Cuties” enough? Should we also cancel our subscriptions? And what if our government is itself perpetrating evil?

The point is, answers aren’t always easy or obvious. Addressing such matters requires tremendous wisdom and spiritual maturity. But God has equipped us to prepare for these moments. This is part of the reason Christians have the church, the Scriptures, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the new covenant, we don’t face any of these difficult issues alone. 

For believers, the Spirit of God lives within us and guides us through these challenges. Not only that, but God has not left us to guess by what kind of standard we are to live. He has provided us with the written Word as a revelation of himself, his work, his nature, and his plan of redemption. He has also brought us into his body, the church. As believers, we belong to something much bigger than ourselves. We are children of God and we stand together not only with our brothers and sisters in this age but in every age. We not only learn and benefit from the wisdom and experience of our contemporaries, but throughout church history we see a long line of Christian witnesses from whom we can learn so much about navigating life in a world that is under a curse.

None of us can solve every problem. Nor will we ever successfully eradicate the presence of evil from our world. Only Christ can do that– and has promised to do so upon his return. But until then, we can still work to oppose evil and injustice. We can speak against acts of violence and oppression. And we can speak up for the vulnerable and for those without a voice. Christians should not be surprised when our world displays its brokenness. But we should never forsake an opportunity to show the world a better way.