Saturday, November 23, 2013

Setting the Record Straight...

Alternet has put up a useful article on "5 Christian Right Delusions and Lies about History" that's worth a response. This piece is interesting for a couple of reasons, first because it shows how the other side sees (and often stereotypes) us; second because it shows the kind of image we have admittedly helped to create for ourselves; and third it gives us (well, me at least) a chance to set the record straight.

Of course, even before doing that, we have to acknowledge that there certainly are Christians who believe these things. That is not an admission that Christians are always lying and delusional about history. There are atheists who believe that all Christians are immoral and awful people, but the fact that some atheists believe something so blatantly untrue does not discredit all atheists. There are a lot of Christians, and between us we hold a whole host of diverse historical views. And while I certainly don't claim to represent all of them, I at least hope to show that Christians can be reasonable and honest when it comes to understanding the past.

Below are my responses as a Christian to the claims about how we see history:

Claim 1: "Joe McCarthy was a good guy. A new and extremely toxic myth is beginning to percolate in on the Christian right: Insisting that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a paranoid alcoholic who saw communist subversives in every corner, was actually an upstanding guy fighting for God and country. In 2003, Ann Coulter published a book she claims vindicates McCarthy..."

Response: Leaving aside the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, Ann Coulter speaks for no Christian group or denomination, I am quite happy to admit that Joe McCarthy did some awful things (sorry, I'm too ignorant of that aspect of history to speak to his personal life-he may or may not have been a "paranoid alcoholic", but that's more than I can say).
I am, however, equally happy to admit that the goal of fighting communism was (and is) an admirable one.
Does that mean Joe McCarthy was a good person? Of course not. Good general ends do not justify evil specific means.
I'd like to think that whether Christian or atheist, we can simultaneously reject McCarthyism AND communism without even necessarily bringing religion into it.

Claim 2: "What the Founding Fathers believed. For people who downright deify our Founding Fathers, the religious right is really hostile to accepting them as they actually were, which is not particularly religious, especially by the standards of their time. But David Barton, a revisionist "historian" whose name comes up again and again in these kinds of discussions, has spread the belief far and wide in the Christian right that the Founders were, in fact, fundamentalist Christians who are quite like the ones we have today."

Response: Really, I should direct you to my recent series rejecting much of the terrible history put forward by Barton-like writers, but even without turning to specific historical points we can hopefully all admit that there are good and bad historians on each side of this argument. Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all Christian are just as wrong as those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all secular Enlightenment thinkers (and hence precursors to modern atheist humanists).
Moreover, there are reputable and talented historians who are Christian and reputable and talented historians who are atheist. When it comes to the American Founding, we should search out those who are reputable and talented historians on each side of the issue rather than the ones who sacrifice accuracy to ideology. As I've noted elsewhere, Christians above all others have a vested interested in historical honesty and accuracy--our faith depends upon it!

Claim 3: "God’s protection. If you believe the lie that the Founders intended this to be a religious nation and that secularism is only a recent development, it’s not much of a leap to decide next that God, in his anger, has turned his back on the United States. And therefore that bad things are happening to us because he doesn’t protect us anymore."

Response: Again, there are certainly Christians who believe this, but there are also any number of Christians who don't. If you want to read a good book by three solidly Evangelical scholars (well-known and academically solid ones) who lead the Christian charge against this position, I'm happy to endorse The Search for a Christian America by Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch.

And I suppose in passing that I should point out that there's a bigger problem here. At the end of the day, Claim 3 is not really a historical question at all. Claiming that the reasons God does or does not do something in history are not ultimately historical questions. We are told what God is doing (that, in some sense, is the full definition of history), but we are certainly not told why. When Christians say "God has done X in history because of Y;" and when atheists reply by saying "no he hasn't!" (Or even "there's not God at all, so the Christian statement is meaningless.) Both have stepped outside of the realm of history and into theology and metaphysics. And while there is certainly a connection between those fields, I would suggest that on some level both sides are making categorical errors.

Claim 4: "Roman civilization. The Christian right doesn’t just like to lie about our own history; they lie about other nations, too. A popular theory on the right is that the Roman Empire “collapsed” because growing decadence and liberalism caused people to, I don’t know, be too busy screwing to govern. It’s always a little hazy, but the formula is standard: Romans started having a bunch of sex, stuff fell apart, warning for America."

Response: The great historian Edward Gibbon--certainly no Christian!--wrote in his masterpiece The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the cause of the fall of Rome was... moral decline. Specifically, he argued that the immoral Christians distracted the virtuous pagans from the business of government with their obscure theological debates, and so the Empire fell. I find this argument endlessly fascinating, if ultimately uncompelling. Does this, however, mean that all secular humanists believe that Christianity caused the fall of Rome? Of course not.
That's a fairly superficial response, but on even a closer analysis we can see that to believe that this is how Christians view the fall of Rome is to be fundamentally ignorant of Christian history and theology. The definitive text on the subject was written by someone who was there: Augustine's City of God. In this book Augustine--the greatest theologian since the writing of the New Testament--says explicitly that Rome did not fall because of immorality. Or at least, it did not fall because it got less moral--it rose to power and then fell for exactly the same reasons that every other nation does: because of God's mysterious providence. When I said above that we can't know why God does things the way He does in history, I was really just cribbing from Augustine's book. God's actions are not dominated or driven by human morality or immorality--heaven help us if that ever becomes the case!
Again, I'm not saying that there aren't Christians who make this argument. I am saying that it's not the traditional or even the dominant modern one.

Claim 5: "French revolution. One problem with characterizing the American revolution as Christian instead of secular is that there was another one shortly thereafter, built on the same basic ideals, that was undeniably secular due to the aggressive attacks on Catholic power. If the French were so secular, how could the Americans not be? The answer to the conundrum is to lie and claim there was some kind of gulf between the ideals of the French Revolution and the American Revolution."

Response: While I confess I don't follow the modern Christian political right as much as I should, I don't know that I've seen a groundswell of hatred for the French Revolution coming from Evangelical popular writers. (That's more of a paleoconservative concern anyway--a demographic which is sadly lacking in Christian thinkers.)

If there is, well then this might be a case of "a pox on both your houses." To say that the difference between the Revolutions comes down to a question of being Christian vs. being atheist (as the article claims Christians believe) is wrong; but so is claiming that the French and American revolutions are really driven by the same spirit. After all, whatever it might eventually become, the American Revolution kicks off when American colonists believe that their rights as British subjects are being violated. And to the best of my knowledge, no one (Christian or otherwise) has made the patently silly claim that such was the origin of the French Revolution.
This isn't to say the revolutions were unrelated (Thomas Paine being a key connection), but it is to say that there's more complexity here than either side tends to realize. For more discussion on this, traditionalist conservative writers are where you want to go, not modern Evangelicals.

I suspect that one reply to these comments will be "yes Coyle, you may not believe these things, but all those stupid Christians out there do. And really, the fact that you hold these opinions suggests that you might not be a very good Christian in the first place."
I suppose the first statement might be true, and the second one certainly is true (if we're talking holiness). After all, as I noted above there are a lot of Christians out there who believe a whole host of things. But, I think it's a bit problematic to point at the extremes of, say, the Tea Party and then try to tie that to all right-leaning Christians. There are those sorts, to be sure. But there's also a hefty number of agrarians (like some of the folks at Front Porch Republic); thoughtful postmoderns (like the folks at Postmodern Conservative); and throughout academia who are doing the hard work of trudging through history for the benefit of the church and the world alike. And, well, I'm just not convinced that all of these small movements taken in the aggregate are the minority. They're not necessarily organized, and they're not all concerned with the same issues, but they're also not small in number.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thoughts on Negative Reviews

I love being a book reviewer. Not only do I get free books out of it, but I also get to read them and then tell people what I thought. And really, reading and having opinions are two of the things I do best (not necessarily in that order).
Being a book reviewer is, well, it's like someone gives you a piece of cake, asks you to eat the cake, then asks you what your opinion about the cake is, and then applauds you for giving your opinion on the cake (if you do it well enough and fairly often).
Of course, it's not all cake. Sometimes you are given brussel sprouts and lima beans, and you have to review those too. There are books that it's good for us to read, even if they're not completely enjoyable.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we're given cardboard. It's not good for you, but you can eat it and it won't kill you.
But every once in a while, someone hands you a plate with a giant, steaming pile of horse droppings on it. Which often raises a difficult problem for a reviewer? What do we do when that happens? Do we try to find the positive, no matter how obscure ("It looks like it was a good year for alfalfa and oats!" "My, the color scheme certainly matches the smell in just the right way!")? Or do we unleash our inner honesty and give a negative review?

Micah Mattix over at The American Conservative gives five reasons why negative reviews are good things:
(I'll summarize here, but the whole article is worth your time)

  1. "First, it’s called criticism for a reason because you’re, like, supposed to think and, like, evaluate the quality of something?... If a book is ugly, a critic needs to explain clearly why and support his or her judgment with proof, not hide behind veiled criticisms.
  2. Second, and related to the above, writing or publishing only positive reviews is impractical and encourages an unhelpful kind prejudice (pre-judging) because it would seem to require either the suppression of negative reviews or a misguided attempt to determine whether a book is good or bad before reading it.
  3. Third, bad books are harmful. There seems to be the attitude amongst the only-positive-review crowd that bad books are really not that harmful to culture, and that, therefore, they should simply be ignored.
  4. Fourth, only publishing good reviews is harmful to the critic and to criticism. The value of criticism is in large part related to trust. If readers don’t trust a critic to provide them with honest and reliable criticism, why would they read his or her reviews? And if a critic or a book section never publishes a negative review, how can readers determine if either the critic or the book section is honest and reliable?
  5. Last, negative reviews are fun to read. "

Saturday, November 9, 2013

My Reflections on the Worst of the Worst- "Under God" by Toby Mac and Michael Tait: Book Review

So, I finally finished this problematic and troublesome book. If you are friends with me on Goodreads, you'll know that I gave it 3 stars, which might raise some eyebrows given the awful things I'm about to say about the book. Just so you know, my rock-solid rule is that if a book is well-written, it gets a minimum of three stars. In an era when anyone can crank out a book for a minimum investment of time and resources, quality writing needs to be celebrated and rewarded. Aside from the content, the style and construction of this book were quite good.

But when it comes to the content, this book is right on the border between "worthless" and "dangerous." Since I've already commented on some of the specifics (links at the end), I'll keep it general here.

Disclaimer (which I've given before): I am in no way questioning whether or not the authors of this book are Christian. I'm merely commenting on their political philosophy, interpretations of history, and theology.

In general, there are two fundamental problems with this book: its bad history and its bad theology.

Bad History

I've already dealt with some of the more specific egregious historical errors, but in general Under God is problematic in how it lays out a two-sided approach to American history. On the one hand, we are given a vision of a golden past where America was God's nation and all the Founding Fathers were Christian. This past gradually declined into the present, where atheism has run rampant and we have gotten away from our roots as a Christian nation. Story after story of our Founders' faith (even the anti-Trinitarian John Adams is used at one point, along with the cultist Sojourner Truth) are thrown out before us along with out-of-context quotes, questionable interpretations, and frankly a one-sided view of history. It probably bears repeating that not only were most of the Founders NOT Christian, even the few that were could not agree on whether or not the American revolution was a good thing (to say nothing of the later Constitution--which Christians for the most part seemed to oppose).

We must remember that "The Founders" were not a monolithic entity whose spirit we need to try to recapture today, they were a diverse group of individuals and factions who each had their own views on religion, politics, and the world. I'll include some links below for good overview sources for the Founding Period that will give a better interpretation of the various views of the generation of the 1770s.

Alas, that's not the only problem. On the one hand we have the Golden Age view of American history. On the other hand, Under God gives us a vision of a past mired in the sin of slavery, racism, and sexism. Over time, so the book implies, we have gradually clawed our way out of this past into the enlightened present, where these horrible evils are dead and we have true brotherhood in our nation (or would have, if only we'd get back to our Christian roots). To be sure, the darker aspects of American history are relevant and do demand much more attention than they've been given (especially at the popular level), but I'm not convinced this is the way to do it. While most of the stories on this topic in Under God are by themselves unobjectionable and fairly straightforward (if not always completely historically accurate), as the book progresses a pattern begins to unfold--a pattern intended to suggest that America used to struggle with these evils, but no longer does. As a result, I believe these past-negative stories are little more than a cathartic "see, we believe in sin too--but fortunately it was all in the way back when, and we've moved beyond it." Which works if we're talking about slavery (the bulk of the book's attention, though Native Americans and suffrage get nods as well). Clearly we no longer have slaves--that is an evil that has been vanquished. And yet, if we start talking about greed, or apathy, or pride, or gluttony, or self-indulgence, or, well, any other of a host of sins that we could raise, it's hard to see how we can have any kind of rosy view of moral progress (or regress) in America.

But so what? It's a history book, shouldn't everything be about the past anyway? This is a big deal because Under God's treatment of sin in American history requires absolutely nothing of the reader other than a feeling of shame and regret, followed by a feeling of relief as we note that the things which cause our shame and regret are increasingly in the distant past. True, we are perhaps concerned at the atheistic tendencies of the present, and filled a longing for the golden days of yore when everyone was a Christian. And maybe we're even tempted to get angry at the decline of religion in modern America (though to be fair, Under God steers away from that particular emotion for the most part). Yet you will search in vain for something that will personally convict you or in any way challenge you to change your life. Of course, this is a history book--in that sense it should be all focused on the past. (Well, 'history' book.) But the stated agenda at the beginning of the book is to "ignite a passion and inspire you to learn more about the great heritage you have and to seek out the unfinished work left to do." (9) A noble enough goal, but not one met by Under God.

Bad Theology

Really, the best thing I can do is point you to Miles Mullin's post on Thomas Kidd's blog, where he takes on the project of the group behind the publication of this book (the "Wallbuilders"). Mullin writes of how according to this worldview:
The United States has been uniquely blessed because of its Christian character...
If the founders used Christian words, they must mean what we mean.  Divorced from their context, quote after quote made founder after founder sound evangelical.  Even Charles Carroll, the sole Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, came across sounding like a good Baptist...
At the end of the presentation, [the listeners] were left with the following impressions: the founders were religious.  They were religious just like me.  Because they were religious like me, God has uniquely blessed America, per Psalm 33:12.  And, if we want the blessings to continue, we need to elect righteous people.
The same agenda is at work in Under God. This is idolatry of the second-highest order (the first-highest of course being actually worshiping statues), wherein the Christian life is identified with the life of the political community. Americans are not God's people--not even the Americans of the Founding generation. Only Christians can lay claim to that title, and even then not because of anything inherent to us (either where we're born or what nation we're born into), but only because of the grace of God and His kindness in Christ.

As believers, we must remember that our country is ultimately not America--that is a temporary and passing thing. Our city has eternal foundations with God as its architect and builder. It will last forever, while America (and England, and France, and China, and Israel, and all the other nations of the earth) will eventually cease to exist, either through the providential working of history over time or immediately when Christ returns. There is no spiritual benefit that inherently comes from being an American--we may have different opportunities than Christians in other nations (easy access to good books, for example), but we are by no means better because we live in a nation that God loves more. As I pointed out in a previous post, America holds a place in God's providential plan for the world, but it is not any more special a place than that of any other country.

And, [sigh], I've got more of these books to read, so I should save something for later reviews. The short version is this: we must never put our faith in our nation, or in God's blessings on our nation. And we should certainly never assume that if only we all become Christians, America will become some sort of elect country. Our hope should be centered on Christ alone and His atoning work on the cross. Salvation does not come through having a country full of Christians, salvation comes to us when we reject our sin and embrace the Gospel offer in faith.

I've included some links below if you want to read more on the subjects mentioned in this post.

Previous Comments on Under God:
First Thoughts
Second Thoughts
Third Thoughts
Bet You're Surprised I had this Many Thoughts
Latest Thoughts

For Further (and better) Reading
American Founding:
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
The Creation of the American Republic by Gordon Wood
Novus Ordo Seculorum by Forrest MacDonald
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter MacDougall

Political Theology:
City of God by Augustine
Lectures on Calvinism by Kuyper
Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and Living in God's Two Kingdoms by David Van Drunen
The Search for a Christian America by Noll, Hatch, and Marsden
Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane
Just a note: this last one is difficult and dense, but it's also a great introduction to how Christians interacted with the state in the first four centuries AD. I know of no secondary source that compares in terms of richness and depth for any other period of history...