Category Archives: American History

PREDICTING THE FUTURE

Os Guinness told me that he has no respect for self-styled scholars who think they can predict the future. It usually results in more heat than light.

Yes, we are in troubled times. Responsible people are not futurists, but responsible people are aware when upheaval due to competing ideas is afoot. We are definitely at such a time.

People like the Princeton historian, Daniel Rodgers, along with the political theorist, Yuval Levin, use the word fracture to describe what is going on in America. We have fractured, and so split into various tribes that are turning on one another.

There are now very different visions of what it means to be an American. A shared story/idea seems like an impossibility, yet we Christians have hope. And yet, that hope is eschatological, so our country as we’ve known it may be altering in ways we never imagined.

 

JOHN LOCKE OR JOHN CALVIN?

A friend asked about the individual in Christianity. Here is what I dashed off:

It is a big topic of course so here is where I typically begin. We now live on the other side of the Enlightenment. It sought to make the self sovereign.

The “self as individual” idea emerges which is a novel one for understanding personhood.

Westerners now look at the Bible through a lens that over privileges the individual (literally undivided one).

Yes, every single person is precious, a sinner, and in need of redemption, but groups and various associations are talked about a lot in the Bible. Groups of people are talked about both favorably and unfavorably. In those groups when one sins (Achan at Ai) all suffer.

Yes, there is still individual accountability per Ez 18, but nations will also be judged. Americans do not have a great way to understand all this other than those who believe large sections of the Old Testament no longer applies to Christians.

I’m afraid our exegesis is at times more beholden to John Locke than John Calvin!

MADISON’S RELEVANCE TODAY

Madison’s political philosophy was greatly influenced by preacher and Princeton president, John Witherspoon.  Witherspoon’s influence is apparent in places like the Federalist Papers where you see Madison’s realistic view of man’s fallen nature.

“Democracies allow the greatest number of citizens in ruling, Witherspoon notes, but often, as he learned from Aristotle, they degenerate into mob rule, ‘deceived by demagogues’ and ‘subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.’”

Do you think that is a word for us today?

Repost

SOME ENCOURAGEMENT/FINAL REFLECTIONS

Some Encouragement/Final Reflections

Like you, I have plenty to do, so will make this my final (at least for the time being) post on the racial crisis. My correspondence was heavy these past days. I am grateful for all those conversations but must pivot to other matters including the final edits of a book my publisher is waiting on.

Here you go…

I reject Critical Race Theory (CRT). Full stop. For those who know me, that will come as no surprise.

When I use “white privilege” I don’t have in mind the various tenets of CRT. I am a Christian who is seeking to think biblically and theologically about this issue. And historically. No claims to perfection about my reflections, but I am trying to make sense by writing (Augustine said writing clarified his thinking and writing showed him what he thought).

I’ve had many good conversations in the last couple days. Some have helped me to think in clearer ways about this issue. Some have shown me that there are differences of emphasis, and some have reminded me that complex issues are not resolved overnight.

One difficulty with any complex issue is that groups are hardly monolithic. Saying all people in a certain group believe x is not reflective of what exists in any group: a myriad of perspectives.

My use of “white privilege” as I mentioned in a quick blog post on June 6 was “not a punt to liberal, political ideology, but rather the manifest witness of God’s Word.” Manifest may be the wrong word because we can disagree how clear that emerges from the pages of Scripture. 

Here is where I should say more about “white privilege.” As one friend said, since the term is used in a certain way by those who hold to CRT, perhaps another term is needed. I think that is good counsel. I am looking for a way to communicate that some/many (certainly not all) of us white people can be oblivious at times to the struggles those from other backgrounds face.

Making sweeping assertions is a constant temptation but should be resisted. If you are familiar with the conditions of many whites in Appalachia, you will know that they have less “privilege” than affluent African Americans in the suburbs. Class is not being talked about enough these days, but it is also worthy of our attention. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a good reminder of this reality.

One last word for all of us: Let’s not get weary in well-doing. That is clearly biblical! See Gal. 6:9. We must fight the tendency to hunker down in our own world and so leave the messy problems for others to address.

In modern life there are more controversies than any one person can address. You may be called to other things. All of us need great wisdom to discern where and how our time should be spent.

We Christians have a huge advantage because we have God’s Spirit to empower and direct us. We don’t go it alone. We also can shout the glorious truth that our God is triune. The beauty of true unity, but never at the diminishment of diversity, really does exist and is worthy of emulation. 

I’m planning to design a t-shirt that says, “MAKE THE TRINITY GREAT AGAIN!”

 

WHAT WHITE CHRISTIANS CAN/SHOULD DO

I am sixty-two years old. I am white. I was not responsible for either of these two things, but I am responsible for many other things.

A good friend asked me what we as Christians in the majority culture here in America can do with respect to the racial crisis. There are many things, but here are a few in no particular order, except for the last which is of first importance.

*We Christians need to stop being so consumed and/or afraid with how terrible we believe America is at this point in its history. Instead, we should spend our time making sure we are clear on all of God’s truth, compassionate to every person, and courageous even if it is costly. This will keep us Christians plenty occupied. It is animated by the reality that “judgment starts with the household of God.” (I Peter 4:17)

*It is great to have African American friends, but you will not have much to offer any friend if you are not grounded theologically. I used to give disclaimers whenever trying to promote the study of theology for all Christians. No longer. Knowing what and why you believe the Christian faith to be true is the most practical pursuit of life. This leads to my next thought.

*If you unable to give compelling reasons for why the trinity has much to offer not just with the racial conflict in America, but with many other pressing matters, please study up before you go out representing what Christians believe. The unity and diversity of the trinity has far-reaching implications for all sorts of things. Again, get studying if you can’t articulate in compelling and clear language all that the trinity (and other Christian beliefs) has to offer.

I have asked several Christians why the trinity is compelling including a Dallas Seminary trained pastor. Except for my wife and a handful of others, I typically do not receive a great response. Most Christians sign their church’s doctrinal statement with a thin understanding of what they are agreeing to. I concur with J.I. Packer that the most pressing issue for the church is robust education. Again, no apologies.

*We must make concerted efforts to get out of our echo chambers. Most of us live in some sort of echo chamber. In addition, we should avail ourselves of theological education that is increasingly aware of two thousand years of Christian reflection not just what happened after the Protestant Reformation. All the major Protestant Reformers would agree with me on this!

*There is a good chance many of us have significant homework to do. Homework is another word I used to apologize for when talking with adults! To quote President Bush #41 “Not going to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

If you have not read it, begin with reading Narrative of a Slave by Frederick Douglass. There are many more things I would add, but that is a good place to start.

*Be aware of false dichotomies. Believing that people need to trust Jesus as Savior is not at odds nor diminished by acknowledging “structures of evil” or “institutional racism.” Or “white privilege.” If we want to be biblical, we will need to juggle many truths at the same time.

We Americans do not tend to be the most thoughtful people. The great observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, appreciated several things about America. However, he saw the problem of superficial thinking in our country almost two hundred years ago. American Christians are not immune from the tendency to emphasize one (many times valid) truth at the expense of other truths.

*Last, but obviously most important, we will need God to convict, direct, and motivate us to do these things, things many of our fellow Christians either denigrate or worse still, do not think about at all.

I am grateful to my friend, Dr Vince Bacote of Wheaton College, for his input on this post. As it is always said at such points, but with good reason, I alone am responsible for the content. I am glad that Vince agreed that what I wrote should be “common sense” among Christians. Sadly, foundational truths should not be assumed in our day and age.

 

 

                                                                                                                                   

FALSE DICHOTOMIES

I will only speak for what I know best. The white, evangelical community traffics in various false dichotomies. Yes, individuals sin, but so do nations. The Bible is full of such teaching. On the other side, individual people are tied to communities. Consider how one person, namely Achan, brought a group into judgment.

Also, keep in mind that “the person understood as an individual” (literally undivided one) is a staple of the Enlightenment not the Bible. Before the Enlightenment we understood who we are as persons as we look to something bigger than ourselves: our community, family background, ethnicity, and religion. That idea has been lost both in the broader, secular culture and sadly among many Christians.

I agree with CJ Rhodes.

CJ Rhodes
@RevRhodes
How convenient it is that when it comes to racism and white supremacy, the Evangelical solution is individualized heart change (which I believe in, btw). But when it comes to any other justice matter the Religious Right endorses, the solution is institutionalized policy change.
Dr. Robert Jeffress
@robertjeffress
·
The only cure for the racism in America is a changed heart that comes from trusting in Jesus Christ. To try and heal racial divisions without that changed heart is like trying to cure cancer with a Band-Aid.
HT for tweets: Thabiti Anyabwile

 

NEW BOOK BEING PUBLISHED

I just signed a contract with Leafwood which is the trade publication of Abilene Christian University. 

The advance is modest, but definitely helpful for paying some bills.  Most of all, I am glad to have another publisher that is producing some terrific books, both in style and content.  

Mine is an introduction to the study of history tentatively titled, Making Connections: Discovering the Riches of the Past.  It will be out in Fall of 2021. 

CORONAVIRUS, PLAGUES, AND JESUS

The Black Plague (1348-49) brought terror on an unimaginable scale, wiping out up to half the population of Europe. One work, Piers Plowman, written shortly after the disaster, included these arresting lines:

Kings and knights, emperors and popes;

Death left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;

Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.

Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights

Swooned and died in sorrow of Death’s blows…

For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,

And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

(As quoted in Norman F. Cantor, In the Wake of the Black Plague)

Sadly, the conclusion that “God is deaf” does not comport with what we find in Scripture. Circumstances, as many of us were well reminded this past Sunday by Pastor Andrew Forrest, are hardly an accurate gauge to determine whether God is with us or not. As Andrew said so well, Genesis mentions several times that “God was with Joseph” when Joseph’s circumstances were dire.

In a much earlier epidemic around 260 AD, Christians believed they were the hands and feet of Jesus. Bishop Dionysius described them this way:

Many of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took care of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen…

(As quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity)

Perhaps our responsibility will not involve loss of life, though we should never count it out. We do know that it should include kind gestures and acts of everyday generosity. And we should never fail to tell stories to one another. The therapeutic effects of good storytelling are attested throughout human history:

The Italian Renaissance author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the plague outbreak in Florence in 1348. The disease ravaged the city, reducing the population by around 60 per cent. Boccaccio described how Florentines “dropped dead in open streets, both by day and by night, whilst a great many others, though dying in their own houses, drew their neighbors’ attention to the fact more by the smell of their rotting corpses.”

According to Pace University’s Martin Marafiot, Boccaccio’s prescription for an epidemic was a good dose of “narrative prophylaxis.” That meant protecting yourself with stories. Boccaccio suggested you could save yourself by fleeing towns, surrounding yourself with pleasant company and telling amusing stories to keep spirits up. Through a mixture of social isolation and pleasant activities, it was possible to survive the worst days of an epidemic. 

(As quoted in André Spicer, “The Decameron—the 14-Century Italian Book that Shows Us How to Survive Coronavirus,” accessed at www.newstatesman.com)

The Decameron tells bawdy and humorous stories. It sought to help people keep their wits about them during a time of great upheaval. Christians may not believe in telling bawdy stories, though some of us feel more freedom in that regard than others! Wholesome humor, however, is always a good idea.

Telling stories to one another ought always to be part of our spiritual repertoire. The greatest story is of a God who comes near, suffers for us, and one day will fix all that is broken. What a hope not only during the challenge of coronavirus, but for each day no matter how catastrophic the circumstances.