Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.
The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life
Vincent Bacote (Zondervan) $11.99
Summary: A great introduction to a viable Christian framework for public life.
Best For: Anyone wanting a concise introduction to public theology and winsome Christian engagement in the public square.
Three things make this little volume of great interest to supporters of CPJ. For one, Bacote, a professor of theology at Wheaton College, is a longtime friend of the Center and has been an eloquent voice for the contemporary relevance of principled pluralism and the Christian perspective of the late Dutch statesman and Christian scholar, Abraham Kuyper. Indeed, Bacote wrote The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper and continues to do his own academic work with these concerns often in the foreground. Second, this book is short and easy to read. It is not precisely about politics and government, but more broadly about public life, cultural engagement, and responsible involvement in society for the common good.
In fewer than 100 pages, Bacote reflects on his own spiritual coming of age amidst the rise of the so-called Christian right, his discovery of other theological resources that might offer an alternative to the quagmire of both the right and left, and how evangelicals can be nonpartisan agents of reform in civic life. His story is helpful for those needing a basic introduction to a viable Christian view of public life. Third, this is just one volume in a new series on “ordinary theology” which explores how daily Christian discipleship must be embodied in the real world. Alongside Bacote’s book is another on the experience of surgery, one on sexuality, and one on new urbanism. All four are lovely, accessible, and helpful resources that support the overall vision of CPJ.
Possible: A Blueprint for Changing How We Change the World
Stephan Bauman (Multnomah) $22.99
Summary: A blend of theology, spirituality, storytelling, and astute practical guidance about meaningful practices for sustainable change.
Best For: Anyone wanting to understand the principles and practice of lasting change.
Bauman is President and CEO of World Relief, and his expertise on global anti-poverty work and economic development merits our close attention. The endorsements for this book are remarkable, with rave reviews from Tony Hall (former US Congressman and former Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), Ron Sider (author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and the CPJ-friendly overview of Christian political thinking Just Politics), and International Justice Mission founder Gary Haugen. Haugen says, “With his decades of experience in transformational development, Stephan Bauman issues a clarion call to each of us: Invest your life in God’s world-changing work… A compelling perspective on our calling, our orientation to suffering, and the anatomy of lasting change.”
This is indeed a moving, spiritually inspiring book. But it is “the anatomy of lasting change” that brings fresh and important insight, with visionary Kingdom theology illustrated by moving stories giving credence to the “blueprint” language promised in the subtitle. Hope-filled, creation-restoring, eschatological insights from Moltmann, Wright, Al Wolters, and others are fleshed out with strategic tactics from the “appreciative inquiry” school. There are useful tools for anyone wishing to move towards greater civic involvement or political responsibility. While not a “handbook for activists,” it is a blessed blend of theology, spirituality, storytelling, and astute practical guidance about meaningful practices and faithful steps towards deeper involvement.
Who Rules the Earth? How Social Rules Shape Our Planet and Our Lives
Paul F. Steinberg (Oxford University Press) $29.95
Summary: Steinberg researches historical archives about various (successful or unsuccessful) environmental campaigns, interviews change makers all over the globe, and offers his own expertise on comparative international studies.
Best For: Anyone interested in research-based social activism, civic renewal, policy formation, environmental law, sustainability, design, or how good governance for the sake of the earth can wisely be achieved.
Steinberg explores how various attitudes, habits, customs, programs, policies, and laws effect social change, especially around environmental sustainability. He is a captivating storyteller, social historian, and biologist who researches historical archives about various (successful or unsuccessful) environmental campaigns, interviews change makers all over the globe, and offers his own expertise on comparative international studies. Much more could be said about this thrilling book that is useful for anyone interested in research-based social activism, civic renewal, and policy formation. (The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book!)
Steinberg includes energetic reminders of the role of institutions, non-governmental agencies, and bureaucracy, even if he mostly explores political rules. This book will resonate with those who appreciate CPJ’s understanding of the inter-relationship of various social spheres and dimensions. Also of note is his largely non-ideological orientation and his deep commitment to ecological activism. I highly recommend the book as a must-read for anyone interested in environmental law, sustainability, design, or how good governance for the sake of the earth can wisely be achieved.
American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
Christian G. Appy (Viking) $28.95
Summary: Appy examines the relationship between the Vietnam war’s realities and myths and its impact on our national identity, conscience, pride, shame, popular culture, and postwar foreign policy.
Best For: Anyone interested in how US culture has grappled with the legacy of that watershed war and the forces that shaped our foreign policy.
University of Massachusetts history professor Appy, known for his book Patriots, is highly esteemed in the field of Vietnam studies. In this greatly anticipated major work, he offers insightful analysis of how US culture has grappled with the legacy of that watershed war. (CPJ itself emerged during the painful and contentious final years of the war, developing a foreign policy vision that was skeptical of American exceptionalism, without embracing pacifism or doggedly anti-American attitudes.) Americans are undoubtedly still trying to reckon with the tumult and consequences of those years.
We live in the aftermath of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter; the secrecies revealed in the Pentagon Papers; the military funding legislation that developed as a strategy to end the war; the revulsion against carpet bombing and massacres; and so much more from the 60s and 70s that shaped how wars are debated and conducted in our time. This book – called “brilliant, beautiful, and painful” by Peter Davis, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts & Minds, and “a triumph of originality” by Nick Turse (Kill Anything That Moves) – is going to be valuable in further reckoning. It helps us explore the forces that shaped our foreign policy and examines how policy experts, pundits, veterans, and ordinary people responded. American Reckoning is well written, drawing on “a rich tapestry of sources” and is a book which itself deserves a reckoning.
The Road to Character
David Brooks (Random House) $28.00
Summary: A study of virtue and character (and its erosion in recent generations) that draws upon classic categories, such as sin and redemption, and classic authors, such as Augustine and Kant.
Best For: Anyone who wants to re-balance the scale between our “resume virtues” (achieving wealth, fame, and status) and our “eulogy virtues” (kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness).
Few thoughtful nonfiction books have gotten as much good attention this season as this one did when it was released last month. Most CPJ friends consider Brooks an ally in many ways, a witty and winsome social conservative who writes for the Washington Post and appears regularly on NPR in dialogue with E.J. Dionne. Moderate and friendly, he has appeared at many evangelical gatherings in recent years, and the acknowledgements in this new work indicate his friendships with theologians and pastors such as Timothy Keller.
His explorations in this fascinating study draw upon classic categories, such as sin and redemption, and classic authors, such as Augustine and Kant. Few popular pundits bring such wide reading and deep pondering to their political analysis. Whether you agree with all of his political perspectives or predictions, or even with all of this study of virtue and character (and its erosion in recent generations), The Road to Character is a magisterial and fabulous book that will surely be discussed throughout the summer and beyond.
Interestingly, in one of the early public lectures on the themes of the book, CPJ Visiting Fellow Michael Gerson served as a respondent and gave a generous, deeply moving, and thoughtful review. There have been many good discussions of Brooks’s exploration of character, the great historical illustrations he uses, the people he talks about, and the social observations he makes, but few have been as generous and compelling as Gerson’s.
Political Agape: Christian Love and Liberal Democracy
Timothy P. Jackson (Eerdmans) $40.00
Summary: Jackson explores the nature and political implications of Christian love offering important insights from the thinking of great civic-minded Americans such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Best For: Anyone interested in a nuanced view of agape in contrast with other ethical systems, including those that emphasize the local church and those that are perhaps more pragmatic.
This is the latest release in the scholarly Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series (edited by CPJ friend John Witte, Jr.) and is the third major work by Jackson exploring the nature and political implications of Christian love. Professor Jackson teaches ethics at Candler School of Theology and here contrasts his nuanced view of agape with other ethical systems, including those that emphasize the local church and those that are perhaps more pragmatic, offering a “too-easy accommodation with modernity and secularity.” One of the great contributions of this astute work is how it interacts with the most renowned scholars of philosophical liberalism (Dworkin, Rawls, Stout, Wolterstorff) and anti-liberals (Bonhoeffer, Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Milbank), as well as several of the most important feminist critics writing today.
The book is academically rigorous and detailed, offering important insights from the thinking of great civic-minded Americans such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor Jeffrey Stout of Princeton notes that, “The chapters on sanctity and dignity and the concluding reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. are among the best things ever written on these topics.” Political Agape also includes mature chapters reflecting on how the author’s framework might guide our thinking about several key ethical issues, such as same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and adoption.
Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried
Ronald J. Sider (Brazos Press) $19.99
Summary: Sider reflects upon case studies of peaceable conflict resolution, exposing the lie that violence is always necessary for the establishment of public order.
Best For: Anyone interested in an insightful study on the power and purpose of nonviolent protest and resistance.
Sider has been one of the most consistent evangelical thinkers, writers, and activists for social justice in our time. Although some take exception to his Biblical reasoning, those who read him carefully and all who know him personally have respect for his commitment to the gospel and to the authority of Scripture as the frame for thinking about contemporary social issues. In his many books, Sider has called for Christians to follow what he sees as plain Biblical teaching. Although he stands in the Anabaptist tradition of Biblical nonviolence, he has not written widely on pacifism. This new book, therefore, is a major contribution to the larger body of Sider’s work.
Sider documents many instances where nonviolent action has overcome tyranny and brought peace without resorting to lethal violence. From well-known campaigns like Gandhi’s to lesser-known, dramatic stories from Liberia, East Germany, or the Arab Spring, nonviolent direct action has been effective. This is the heart of the book, reflecting upon case studies of peaceable conflict resolution, exposing the lie that violence is always necessary for the establishment of public order. This collection of dramatic studies suggests that while most Christian churches hold to the just war theory, all followers of Christ should be inspired to work for alternatives to war, seeking nonviolent solutions to international tensions. The classic teaching of the just war theory demands that we pursue nonviolent options before resorting to killing, so even those not committed to nonviolence should promote alternatives to warfare prior to approving violence.
Richard Mouw, himself an ethicist in the Reformed tradition who holds to the just war theory, has written an eloquent foreword to Nonviolent Action. He calls the book “an excellent exercise” and a “richly instructive guide.” Robert George, the renowned conservative scholar at Princeton, similarly affirms Sider’s project. He writes, “When Ron Sider talks, I listen. When he writes, I read. Whether or not one is a pacifist – I am not – one has something to learn about the power of nonviolent protest and resistance from Sider’s careful and thoughtful study.”
The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition
Amy Kittelstrom (Penguin Press) $32.95
Summary: Inspiring stories of the lives (and ideas and the inter-connections between) religiously informed political leaders from John Adams to Jane Addams.
Best For: Anyone wanting to explore how these public intellectuals and civic leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are standing in a broad Christian tradition, relating faith to what we now call public life.
This latest volume in the esteemed Penguin History of American Life – a series whose founding editor was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. – has already garnered immense praise from some of the finest history writers working today. Jill Lepore calls it “a stunning history of the opening of the American mind. Through a shrewd study of seven subtle thinkers, Kittelstrom explores the place of belief, faith, and virtue in the intellectual traditions that lie behind American liberalism.” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Walker Howe says that “Amy Kittelstrom here pours new life into intellectual history for scholars and concerned citizens, whether they are religious or not.” David Hall of Harvard says, “Turning the pages of this remarkable book, I found myself moved by its intellectual range and lucidity…”
Not all readers will agree with what Kittelstrom calls “the American reformation” and many of us will need to ponder her descriptions of the formation of a “religion of democracy.” This is a splendidly interesting book, with inspiring stories of the lives (and ideas and the inter-connections between) religiously informed political leaders from John Adams to Jane Addams. Books and ideas obviously shape every era, but it is important to learn how these public intellectuals and civic leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are standing in a broad Christian tradition, relating faith to what we now call public life.
Fools Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion
Os Guinness (InterVarsity Press) $22.00
Summary: A beautiful call to be winsome and persuasive in our efforts to engage real people with the true gospel.
Best For: Anyone interested in learning the artful ways of persuading others without falling for the temptations of sales pitches or marketing ploys.
This is a lifetime’s worth of Guinness’s impressive reflections, a synthesis of much of what he learned from his three most significance mentors, C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and sociologist Peter Berger. It is gospel-based and Christ-centered, of course, but is profoundly aware of sociological matters, reminding us of the challenges of living faithfully in our contemporary culture. Guinness tells us that he has waited to write this book, keeping true to a promise he made that he would not write about apologetics prematurely.
Guinness has written shorter books that critiqued the ethos of the mega-church and the ways in which many evangelicals were seduced by the techniques of the late modern world. Guinness begins Fools Talk with an astute analysis of our faith in efficiency and PR. He laments how we have not grappled much with the most profound philosophical/structural questions of our times (How do we live amidst the choice and change of our fast-paced culture? Can we resist the reductionism of rationalism without erring on the side of postmodern relativism?), and he calls us to be cautious of “the devil’s bait.”
Mostly, this book is a beautiful call to be winsome and persuasive in our efforts to engage real people with the true gospel. Since there can be no formulas for faithful evangelism, we simply must learn the artful ways of persuading others without falling for the temptations of sales pitches or marketing ploys. Can we be earnest, nimble, caring, and creative in our use of rhetoric and story and reason? Can we learn how to persuade without being rude? Of course, persuasion is a personal art, developed from experience in real-life relationships with conversation partners of all kinds. Guinness reminds us that we must win over the real people we care for – not just win arguments. We must “beware the boomerang” by realizing that needlessly negative styles can come back to haunt us, leaving a legacy of mistrust and cynicism.
The civic and political implications of this are huge. Public life has become markedly more secular, and the public’s mistrust of religion in public life must be overcome. Many outspoken Christians have relied on “proclaiming and preaching, protesting and picketing.” It is time to learn the art of persuasion.
A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World
Mark Meynell (Zondervan) $18.99
Summary: Meynell presents fresh ideas for restoring trust by showing how the gospel can offer hope, even amidst the cultural discord and the alienation many feel from prominent social institutions such as business or government.
Best For: Anyone who wants to address the realities of broken trust and the creeping cynicism that pervades Western society.
All public advocacy must grapple with the state of the culture and the attitudes of the citizenry. What might we need to know about the ethos of the land and the nature of the people’s hearts? One aspect of our current malaise is a distrust of authority and a disinterest in the role of institutions. We must address the realities of broken trust and the creeping cynicism that pervades Western society.
Meynell was a senior minster at the legendary All Souls in London (known as the church where John Stott served.) He offers here an astute set of reflections on the cynicism of our jaded population. He presents fresh ideas for restoring trust by showing how the gospel can offer hope, even amidst the cultural discord and the alienation many feel from prominent social institutions such as business or government. This stimulating, poetic new book has garnered rave reviews from CPJ friends such as William Edgar, Steve Garber, Chuck Garriott, and it has a short but splendid foreword by Christopher J. H. Wright.
-Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds Books