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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.

Strategically Small Church Ebook Short

Monday, May 7th, 2012

If you’re interested in The Strategically Small Church but don’t like to buy a book until you test drive it, you might be interested in this ebook short from Bethany House. Small Church, Big Impact is essentially a selection of three chapters from The Strategically Small Church that make a satisfying read on their own. It’s available both for Kindle and Nook. And it’s about 1/3 the length (56 pages) and 1/3 the price (around $3) of the full-length book.

Check it out. If you like what you read, you can still find the whole book online here and here.

Recommended Holy Week Reading

Monday, March 29th, 2010

In just a few days, we’ll celebrate the Resurrection of the Son of God. That’s no small thing. And I won’t speak for you, but for me it’s hard to prepare for Easter. It seems to me that celebrating something as world altering as the resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead–and all that event means for us mortals–requires that we get ourselves in the right frame of mind. Easter morning, of all mornings, should not just be another Sunday morning.

Not long ago I admitted that I’m not terribly good at observing Lent, the historical Christian method of preparing for Easter. Mortifying the flesh and all that is as hard as it sounds. And even in the years when I’ve faithfully upheld my Lenten commitments, I’ve found it hard to connect my superficial sacrifices–going without chocolate or coffee for six weeks–with the sufferings of Christ.

So what to do.

One thing that I’ve found helpful for putting me in the way of Easter is reading fiction. I can’t explain why exactly (although I’m working on an explanation), but I can connect several significant spiritual turning points in my life to experiences with reading fiction. As much as I like thinking about theology  in the abstract, it only really strikes home for me (or so it seems) when it’s embedded in and embodied by a story. Two years out of the last several I’ve read a novel during Holy Week that put me in the frame of mind to truly experience the significance of the Resurrection. Let me recommend them:

The first is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. Greene was a Catholic novelist, journalist, short story writer (etc.) who wrote through much of the twentieth century. He is noted for capturing the pathos of life in modern times; consequently, he can be a bit depressing, really. But The Power and the Glory is a fine book. The gist of it is this: there is one priest left in a particular province in Mexico. Communists have taken over and they have forced all the Catholic priests to apostatize, marry (which is a rejection of their ordination vows), or face the firing squad. All the priests but one. The remaining priest is no hero. He drinks too much. He’s a bit pathetic. We never even learn his name. But he’s convinced that when he ministers to people, God shows up. So he keeps on, performing baptisms, officiating communion, and basically waiting for the authorities to catch him and put him to death. Graham models this story on the Passion narrative of Christ–it is a series of events that appear to be leading inevitably to execution. And along the way, the book offers ample opportunity to reflect on the nature of faith, the calling of God, and the hope we have both in death and new life.

The second is like the first. I finished Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, on Good Friday a few years ago. Silence is set in Japan in the 1600s. Endo modeled this novel after The Power and the Glory, so it, too, is a passion narrative. The novel follows a Catholic missionary from Portugal who has been captured by the Japanese authorities. They are trying to exterminate Catholicism on the island, but it has persisted underground for some time. So they keep the priest in prison and make him an offer: as long as you cling to your faith, we will torture and kill any Japanese Catholics we can find. Recant your faith, and we’ll leave them along. Moreover, we’ll set you free and give you a good job in the administration. The priest is moved, of course, by the fact that his persistence is costing many peasants their lives. And he is haunted, too, by the fact that God remains silent through the ordeal. It is a test of faith. Like the first one, this book offers much fodder for contemplation, especially regarding what it means to be faithful unto death, just as Christ was.

Like Greene, Endo was a Catholic author in the twentieth century. I’m not necessarily advocating their theology. I’m thoroughly Protestant, and there are aspects of Greene and Endo’s novels that probably won’t make a lot of sense to a Protestant reader. Nevertheless, these extraordinary stories just might help you get your mind turned toward Easter before it’s too late. And don’t worry–they’re both relatively short. So if you pick them up today, you should have plenty of time to finish before Saturday.

Happy reading.