Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society by R. R. Reno

What Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society Is About

R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things, the only magazine to which I subscribe and read regularly. His book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, takes its inspiration from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” For Reno, this grand idea of the possibility of a truly Christian society has been rejected by, and therefore lost to, American culture, much to that culture’s detriment. This is not to say that America ever was a genuine Christian society, but that the mere thought of such a society has vanished.

At the heart of the American story, one discovers the idea of freedom. But what is freedom? Reno argues that the meaning of freedom has shifted over time, and is now understood as “unimpeded choice and self-definition.” Freedom has become an end in itself, a sort of circular reasoning that never escapes the orbit of its own justification. We understand ourselves as free for freedom’s sake, not to perform a duty or responsibility for some higher good beyond ourselves. This, he argues, is a dangerous misunderstanding that deconstructs social norms upon which the poor and weak depend for stability and livelihood.

The logic of faith runs counter to the cult of freedom. The freedom for which Christ makes us free is quite different from the freedom championed by modern liberal culture, the freedom of self-determining, even self-defining, choice that ends up paradoxically reinforcing our slavery to worldly powers. …Christian freedom grows in proportion to our obedience to Christ and to the natural truths of the human condition. A society encourages human flourishing to the degree that the supernatural authority of God’s revelation is proclaimed and the natural authority of his creation sustained.

-Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, p. 5-6

We need a Christian society because only Christ offers the freedom that is full and true. Apart from him, haunted by the half-truths of post-protestant preaching, a culture’s pursuit of freedom becomes militant to the point of tyrannical. “Securing a total freedom – always only for the sake of freedom – will require us to criminalize nature.” (p. 31) Nothing, even nature itself, can withstand our quest for absolute autonomy. This is seen most clearly in progressivism’s sudden and militant campaign for transgender rights, in which nature’s most basic (and forthright) indicators of gender are despised as oppressive transgressors of the individual’s right to self-definition. But the self is not a reliable telos of freedom. True freedom is discovered only in the service of something beyond the self. “In order to be free we need a higher truth to serve. …Our American dream of freedom will become a nightmare if we do not put it in the loyal service of something greater than ourselves.” (p. 36-7)

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Onward by Russell Moore

What Onward is About

Onward by Russell Moore is a call for American evangelicals to engage the culture in a way that is faithful to the Gospel. American culture has changed. It is no longer allied with Christian values. The Bible Belt is collapsing. In Moore’s view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. For too long American culture has embraced Christian values while simultaneously rejecting the Christian Gospel. This has created a cultural Christianity that is a perversion of the true faith, a moralism that exalts Jesus as right or correct, without submitting to him as Lord. “We ought to see the ongoing cultural shake-up in America as a liberation of sorts from a captivity we never even knew we were in. The closeness of American culture with the church caused many sectors of the American church to read the Bible as though the Bible were pointing us to America itself.” (p. 7)

The demise of the Bible Belt and American Christianity is an opportunity too good for the Church to miss. This allows for a sort of purification of the Church in America, a disentanglement from partisan politics and ethnic nationalism. The end of American Christianity ought to open the eyes of Christians in America that our country is not, and really never was, Christian. Rather than clinging to the last vestiges of political influence, we ought to turn our attention to true Gospel influence, which is far bigger than any political party’s platform. In a particularly prescient passage, Moore writes, “If politics drives the gospel, rather than the other way around, we end up with a public witness in which Mormon talk-show hosts and serially-monogamous casino magnates and prosperity-gospel preachers are welcomed into our ranks, regardless of what violence they do the gospel. They are, after all, ‘right on the issues.'” (p.32) In the wake of the election of President Trump, and the strong evangelical support that helped get him into office, this passage cuts to the core of what is wrong with American Christianity.

Keep Christianity Strange Onward by Russell MooreThe thematic thrust of Onward is made clear in a pithy statement, written in bold letters, on the back cover of the book: Keep Christianity Strange. Calling to mind bumper stickers like “Keep Austin Weird,” Moore urges us to recover the peculiarity of the Gospel. When culture faith become entangled, it is always faith that suffers. The Christian faith lost its peculiar power in America precisely because it became normal. As Moore writes, “The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority – in any fallen culture – even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us. The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.” (p. 29) The systems of the world are always antichrist; they are always inimical to the Gospel and the transformative work of the Spirit. This was as true in ancient Rome as it is in modern America.

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The Spirit of Early Christian Thought

What the Book is About

The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is a survey of the greatest thinkers of the early church on a broad range of subjects. Each chapter is dedicated to a single topic, such as the Trinity, virtue, politics, or apologetics. Wilken artfully weaves thoughts from at least two primary writers in each chapter, diving to the depths of the issue, offering the wisdom of the ancients to a modern audience. Wilken is careful not to rely on the same thinker over and over, so the audience is treated to a wide range of authors, including Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and others. He admits, however, that there were four giants, so to speak, to which he returned more often than the rest: “Origen in the third century, Gregory of Nysa in the fourth, Augustine in the fifth, and Maximus the Confessor in the seventh.” (p. xix) Any student interested in learning from the great masters of the Church would do well to start with these four.

As noted above, Wilken’s approach is to tackle one issue in each chapter, and to do so under the guidance of two ancient writers. While he does not typically quote any author at length, he pieces together their thoughts and gives them flesh through his own prose. The reader may be left with the hunger to hear more directly from Origen or Augustine, but the effect is to give the audience the best of their thoughts in modern formulations. A typical example can be taken from the first chapter, which dealt with the Christian concern of apologetics.

In the debate between Christian thinkers and their critics the central issue was where in the search for God reason is to begin. Christians argued that Christ had brought something new; the life he lived, though fully human, was unlike that of anyone who had lived earlier. …For the Greeks, God was the conclusion of an argument, the end of a search for an ultimate explanation, an inference from the structure of the universe to a first cause. For Christian thinkers, God was the starting point, and Christ the icon that displays the face of God. “Reason became man and was called Jesus Christ,” wrote Justin. Now one reasoned from Christ to other things, not from other things to Christ. In him was to be found the reason, the logos, the logic, if you will, that inheres in all things.-The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, p. 14-15

In taking this approach, the reader must trust that Wilken has done his homework, and is faithfully presenting the thoughts of each author. While I often found myself longing for lengthier quotations, I came to conclude that Wilken’s approach was best. Nearly two thousand years separate my mind from the ancient author’s words. In such a sweeping survey, it is helpful to have a learned mediator bridge the gap between the style of their writing and the form of prose which best suits modern readers.

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Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

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The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart

What the Book Is About

In The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart makes a compelling case for classical theism. Drawing from a wide array of sources, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu thinkers, Hart weaves together their most basic theological strands into a beautiful tapestry of the divine. With tremendous respect for the past, he reaches back into the Middle Ages and the classical period to to pull together a grand vision of God who is “the unity of infinite being and infinite consciousness, and the reason for the reciprocal transparency of finite being and finite consciousness each to the other, and the ground of all existence and all knowledge.” (p. 324)

As well as Hart makes the case for classical theism, he also builds a powerful case against atheistic materialism and Naturalism. He asserts that “materialism is among the most problematic of philosophical standpoints, the most impoverished in its explanatory range, and among the most willful and (for want of a better word) magical in its logic, even if it has been in fashion for a couple of centuries or more.” (p. 48) There are many reasons for this in Hart’s mind, but perhaps none more potent than the need for a “necessary reality,” or in other words, something that does not depend on anything else for its existence.

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