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Very Short Review: The Religious Roots of the First Amendment

Wednesday, July 24th, 2013

There are two ways to tell the story of how America (eventually) secured religious liberty in the First Amendment. Conventional wisdom in the scholarly realms is that secular Enlightenment figures—John Locke and the like—overcame religion with reason. So religious liberty was a victory for Enlightenment intellectuals. The other way to tell the story is that it was, in fact, religious folks who were the earliest champions for religious liberty—and not just for practical reasons (like to avoid persecution). They did it for theological reasons. Thus religious liberty was a victory for the Christian faithful of various stripes.

Nicholas Miller defends this second way of telling the story in The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestantism and the Separation of Church and State (Oxford, 2012). His thesis is that Protestants from Martin Luther on down to the time of the First Amendment held as a theological principle “the right of private judgment” in biblical interpretation and in religious matters. His book is an effort to trace this continuous thread across several continents and a couple hundred years. It is a great introduction to the heritage of liberty in the Protestant traditions. And it makes a compelling case that those same Enlightenment intellectuals may well have been influenced by dissenting Protestants.

Anyone interested in the origins of religious liberty in America will benefit from this excellent scholarship written very clearly. The introduction and appendix can bring you up to speed on the best current works on this topic. And it puts current religious liberty issues in very helpful perspective.

Review: Awaken Your Senses

Monday, July 9th, 2012

What does forgiveness taste like? How does grace sound? These are the kinds of questions Brent Bill and Beth Booram invite readers to consider in Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (IVP 2011).

Bill and Booram don’t downplay the importance of more traditional, verbal sorts of communication. But they do lament that the majority of our spiritual education comes from “sermons, books, Bible studies and other spiritual resources that instruct our thinking” but often “miss our souls.” This gives us a spirituality informed by half our brain—the left half, which interprets our experiences—and largely ignores experience itself, which is why the right half of our brain is important: it “does the experiencing through our senses.” The authors want us to use both sides of our brains and our five senses to gain an experiential knowledge of God. They want to “help more of you [singular] experience more of God.”

To do that we must each learn how to interpret our daily experiences as sacraments, means of God’s grace in our lives. So, after a brief introduction, the book is divided into five sections, one for each of the senses: tasting, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling. The bulk of each section is given to practical spiritual exercises related to a specific sense.

The introduction to the section on taste, for example, points to the Jewish Passover Seder meal as an example, with biblical origins, of how taste can teach. Every flavor on the Seder plate represents something of spiritual significance. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery. The charoset, a sort of chutney made of fruit and nuts, represents the bricks and mortar the Hebrew slaves made during their enslavement. The saltwater represents the tears of the people. And so on.

In the spirit of the Seder, Brent Bill suggests making a menu on which each food is representative of some aspect of your personal spiritual journey. The intrepid can prepare the menu and eat it as a spiritual experiment (if you don’t have the time to actually cook everything, he invites you to imagine the meal). While eating, think about what each food represents. Savor the flavors. Meditate on the experiences they represent. Let the meal serve as a means of connecting to the grace of God in your life.

Full disclosure, I haven’t tried this yet; not exactly. But my wife and I have done something like this. When we decided, after several years of deliberation and setbacks, to begin the adoption process, we ate dinner at a favorite special-occasion restaurant. Almost two years later, a possible adoption fell through. At the last moment a birth mother chose a different couple to raise her baby. And we went back to the same restaurant, this time to mourn. I still remember what I ordered: peppered steak and mashed potatoes. I believe that meal will always bring to mind the profound grief we experienced that week. We would have celebrated at that restaurant the day we got news of our new baby boy. But we didn’t have time. We got the call on Friday afternoon and brought him home on Monday morning! Even so, today the eatery serves as something of a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Sounds strange. But because we marked the beginning of our journey there, commemorated the lowest point of it there, and one day—Lord willing—will celebrate our journey’s end there, that menu is likely to always have spiritual significance for us.

Oh, and lest you worry that the opening question of this review (“What does forgiveness taste like?”) is rhetorical, Booram suggests a practice involving vinegar and peppermint that might give you some idea.

The authors’ language of “sacrament” might bother some readers. Are they proposing new “works” by which to earn God’s favor? No. They define “sacrament” broadly as anything that helps us experience and internalize God’s grace. And they never give the impression that these exercises will put you in God’s good graces. Instead, they remind us of our profound creatureliness. That is to say that God doesn’t need us to observe this sort of spiritual exercise. But we need them, or something like them, because we’re not as smart as we think we are. We can’t just think and will our way into godliness. The more of our body and minds we engage in the process of spiritual formation, the more likely we are to truly be transformed into the image of Christ.

Review: Father and Son

Monday, June 18th, 2012

As far as I’m concerned, I became a father around 1pm on Monday, March 12. When I woke up that morning, my son was ten days old, and I had not yet met him. That night Amy and I went to sleep with a seven-pound stranger swaddled in a bassinet beside the bed.

By the reckoning of the state of Illinois, I became a father this past Monday, June 11, when a friendly judge, satisfied of our competence to parent, said “Congratulations” and sent us on our way. Just like that.

Becoming a father under these circumstances means that I have all the fears and insecurities I suspect every father has, plus a few more related to having an adoptive and transracial relationship with my son. So I went looking for guidance from books. I looked at several books about fatherhood before I decided to read Walter Wangerin’s Father and Son: Finding Freedom (2008). Wangerin has two adopted children, both African-American, one a son. I hoped he would offer specific wisdom for the adoptive father of a black son.

He didn’t, really. So in that respect, Father and Son did not meet my expectations. The book isn’t about adoption per se or about raising adopted children or about the challenges of being a multiracial family. The book is about the relationship between Wangerin and his son, Matt, who happens to be adopted.

The gist is this: Though Wangerin has four children, Father and Son is about his relationship with Matt, who is the second eldest child in the Wangerin family. As things develop, Matt grows from a joyful baby to a daredevil child to a rebellious teen to a jobless, homeless, alcoholic young adult. The book records how Matt consistently breaks his curfew, steals, drops out of college, falls in with the wrong crowd. All of this, it seems to Wangerin, is part of Matt’s desire to find freedom from the strictures of his parents’ rules and expectations.

But the book isn’t really about Matt. It’s about the author’s struggle to parent a child who seems determined to ruin his own life. It’s about finding freedom as a father desperate to balance affection and discipline. How do you enforce rules when a child is immune to punishment? What does love look like—tough or tender? These are questions I suspect many fathers ask. And frankly, it may have been too much for me too soon. I had plenty of insecurities about fatherhood before I read Father and Son. Now I think I have more. 

That said, the central theme of the book is a quiet and consistent reminder that God is always at work in the lives of his children, even the straying ones. And I needed to hear that now, at the beginning of my role as father. I cannot imagine striking out on this journey without a deep conviction that our Heavenly Father is covering my foibles and failures with his grace.

One unique feature of this book is that Wangerin’s son Matt writes a section from his own perspective, which is appended to the end. It is moving to read how father and son remember and interpret some of the same experiences differently.

By the end of the book, I had the impression that Wangerin was communicating this: whether fatherhood begins in a delivery room or a courtroom, all earthly fathers have our Heavenly Father as an example of love, discipline, self-sacrifice, and passionate pursuit. Our goal is to gradually be remade after his image.

Review: The Gifts of the Small Church

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Jason Byassee and I both published books on small-church ministry at the same time last year. We are now eternally linked on (“frequently bought together”). I had the privilege of reading and reviewing The Gifts of the Small Church for Leadership. The review is below.

Power in Small Packages

The cover art of Jason Byassee’s The Gifts of the Small Church may give the wrong impression. With its ceramic serving dish, quilted pot holders, and soft, sacred light, the cover may communicate that the book is a collection of sentimental reflections on the virtues of humble, homey country churches.

Don’t be deceived.

For the first couple years of their marriage, Byassee and his wife, both United Methodist ministers, pastored three churches at once. Jason served one, and his wife had a “two-point charge” (two churches that share a pastor). The book is a reflection on their experiences—experiences that convinced Byassee that the small church is “God’s primary way of saving the world.” Instead of talking about why the small church is a (or the) problem in American Christianity today, Byassee artfully demonstrates how it’s an important part of the solution.

But his purpose is not to promote a style or model for ministry. He doesn’t advocate for particular leadership qualities or principles. Byassee doesn’t try to tell pastors how to make their small churches larger. Instead, (and I think this is fantastic) Byassee’s approach is perfectly suited to the subject matter. In rural places (in the South at least), when you ask a question, you get a story in response. This is Byassee’s tactic.

To the question, “What do you mean that the small church is God’s solution?” he answers by telling stories and distilling their lessons.

Chief among these lessons is that the small church is a place where a pastor—if he or she is paying attention—can learn to be a Christian. The intimacy of the small church gives you opportunity to learn forgiveness, and not primarily by offering it to others but in receiving it from them. The locations of small churches put pastors in close proximity with people who earn enough of a living. These folks can teach the wise pastor what the apostle Paul knew: how to be content in lean years and grateful in fat ones. The pain in small churches forces pastors to be priests, in the proper biblical sense. He must beseech God on behalf of the people and speak His consolation to them. The small church can teach you to mourn and comfort, live fully and die well.

Perhaps most profoundly for people who reflect on the nature of leadership, the small church can teach the pastor that “Leadership positions aren’t resume builders or ego satisfiers.” The biblical call for Christian ministry, Byassee suggests, is to imitate the Good Shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name and who actively pursues the lonely one in danger.

In other words, couched subtly behind the docile cover and the beautiful prose is a call for pastors to take their vocations seriously and to recognize the small church not as a step-stone in one’s career path, but as a place where God may dispense a unique grace to the faithful pastor.

Byassee is not blind to the challenges of small church ministry. He speaks candidly about feuds and small mindedness. But he also challenges the assumption that small churches are full of primitive and uneducated people. Byassee’s experiences in small churches broadened his cultural horizons, much to his surprise.

The author explains in one chapter how serving along rural churchgoers, many of whom owned guns and lived to hunt, challenged his urban and liberal assumptions about gun-toting conservatives. In another he describes how he began his appointment bent on working for racial reconciliation, only to discover that it was harder than he expected—and that some of his congregants were a step ahead of him.

I grew up in the rural South, where the action of Byassee’s book takes place, and have served in small churches there. It was important for me, then, that the characters and circumstances ring true. They do. You will recognize the people in these pages, and that will make their stories all the more moving and hilarious. And that’s important, because it takes guts to write a book like this. Byassee has a subtle and serious point to make about the pastor’s soul and the state of Christianity in America. But he lets the stories speak for themselves. There is much wisdom here, for those with ears to hear.

At just over 100 pages long and beautifully written, The Gifts of the Small Church is a great day-off read. You can easily read it in a Monday morning. But the characters to whom Byassee introduces you, and the implications he draws from their stories, will linger with you. This is a book worth reflecting on, not just reading.

Faith and Art: For the Beauty of the Church

Monday, May 31st, 2010

As a writer, soon-to-be educator, former pastor, and member of our church’s worship committee, I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between Christian faith and worship and the arts. I was pleased, then, to run across this book, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books, 2010). Edited by W. David O. Taylor, the book is an introduction to the many aspects of the place of the arts in the church–there’s a chapter on a theology of art, liturgical art (art and worship), the role of the pastor in supporting artists, and the place of artists in the local church.

The first chapter is a brief theology of art by Andy Crouch. Andy’s goal, he says, is “to convince you that the gospel is more truly and deeply about culture in general, and the arts in particular, than we have yet imagined.” This perspective will be familiar if you’ve read or heard about Andy’s book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP, 2008).

Andy’s provisional definition of art is “those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility,” that “which cannot be turned into a means to an end, but asserts itself as an end–intrinsically, and in some ways inexplicably, worthwhile.” An example he offers is the difference between a wall and wallpaper. A wall is utilitarian; it holds up the roof, which keeps our heads dry. Wallpaper is not utilitarian. It doesn’t make the wall more stronger; it just makes it more beautiful. Andy believes that for the most part, Christians have embraced utilitarian culture (the wall). But we have a hard time justifying art (the wallpaper).

Then he makes an excellent point. What worship and art have in common, he says, is that they are both unuseful. Worship is not utilitarian–when we sing and pray and listen to Scripture, we don’t coerce God into acting a certain way. We are, in a sense, not accomplishing anything. Thus our attitudes about worship and art will likely inform each other. “If we have a utilitarian attitude toward art,” he writes, “if we require it to justify itself in terms of its usefulness to our ends, it is very likely that we will end up with the same attitude toward worship, and ultimately toward God.”

Andy’s distinction between utilitarian cultural artifacts (like a wall) and intrinsically valuable art pieces (like wallpaper) are helpful. But I’m not sure I buy it entirely. I think, for example, of Flannery O’Connor. Peacocks show up fairly frequently in her fiction. As I understand it, she used the peacock to symbolize divine extravagance in general and the Roman Catholic Church more specifically. The peacock, with its bright, pretentious feathers, is a bit ridiculous unless you believe there is a creative God behind it. In the same way, the Catholic church’s robes and incense and  antiphons all seem like nothing more but pomp and circumstance, unless you realize that these extravagances are offered in honor and reflection of the great, wasteful grace of God.

So, it seems, O’Connor and Crouch agree. Yet at the end of the day, her fiction was didactic. She had a purpose for writing; her art had a use, it was utilitarian. She  hoped her stories would awaken her readers to the grave and supernatural realities of sin and grace. It may have been extravagant to attempt to do so through fiction. But it was a utilitarian extravagance. Scripture itself is a bit extravagant in that way. It would have been simpler, perhaps, if the content God wanted us to know had been articulated in pure nonfiction–in tables and laws and lists. The Bible has some of that. But there is more story, poetry, parable, and apocalyptic visions–beasts and dragons and vials of blood. This literature is art par excellence. But it is a means to an end–the end of sanctification and communion with God.

In other words, I would like to draw a finer line between art and utility. I don’t mean to say that Christians who are artists must be didactic, or that all their work must have a utilitarian goal. Perhaps instead I am trying to justify myself as an artist, whose work–as a scholar, journalist, and writer–is always didactic, always utilitarian. This work, I hope, can still be art.