The Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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The Bookshelf: The Last Christians

So much of American Christianity, especially of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist varieties, carries within it a striking ideological contradiction.

On one hand, Christians in America, even if they don’t embrace the theologies outright, carry the assumptions of the prosperity gospel, and of violent nationalism. That is to say, many American Christians would affirm that God does indeed heap blessings and riches on His (because in this view, it’s almost always a male God) believers, and one particular way He does this is through the power of American military and economic hegemony.

On the other hand, many American Christians seem to think they are part of a small, persecuted, and powerless minority, strangers in a strange land that they have no responsibility for. Rather, a powerful, secular, globalist elite runs things, and is doing everything it can to stamp out American Christianity, mostly through feminism, abortion, same-sex marriage, and public schools.

lastchristiansENThese two views stand in stark contrast to one another, and to reality. That reality shines forth in Father Andreas Knapp’s superb book, The Last ChristiansIn it, Andreas tells his own story, of meeting refugee Christians in his own hometown of Leipzig, Germany, and how that leads to a trip to Iraq, on the border of ISIS territory, and his own growing fascination with and passion for the Christian communities who live there.

These Christian communities, located now in refugee camps in Mosul and Erbil, but originally from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia, are the last remnants of the earliest Christians. Still speaking Aramaic, the language of Christ, they trace their lineage back to the early desert fathers, and even further, to the earliest churches planted by Paul and the Apostles.

Today, they are threatened by the rise of ISIS and other forms of militant Islam. Forced to flee their homes, their culture is in danger of disappearing, as families are split apart and their cultural and religious heritage is forgotten. Knapp recounts the stories of the refugees he meets in Leipzig, and on his trip to Iraq, painting beautiful and painful pictures of a people who are a global treasure, but who are forgotten by the so-called Christian West, despite politically-conveinant talking points otherwise.

At times, Father Knapp veers towards blanket condemnations of all Muslims, militant or not, in the plight of these Christians. At one point, he comes awfully close to declaring that the very nature of Islam is violence and intolerance. This kind of rhetoric can obscure the points he also makes about the millions of Muslims who have been victimized by ISIS as well.

More relevantly, he does point the finger for the rise of ISIS and hyper-militancy in the Middle East, and the destruction it has reaped for the Christians he cares about, at the truest cause: American and Western hegemony, colonialism and reckless petro-capitalism. He writes,

“I wonder what Arab countries would look like today had oil not been discovered: no interference from Western colonial powers; no billions upon billions of petrodollars for the Islamist arms build-up. What course would modern Islam have taken without the vast sums of money pumped into the construction of mosques and the recruitment of Salafist from around the world? Was the black gold really a blessing for the Gulf States and their inhabitants? How many battles have been fought in this region over access to the oil wells – in the two Worlds Wars, the Gulf Wars, and to this day?”

Father Knapp is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the problems facing not just the Eastern Christians, but the entire Middle East today. Yet, despite our complicity in their problems, the West largely ignores the plight of Eastern Christians, to say nothing of the millions of others who face persecution. Instead, so many American Christians are narrowly focused on the so-called persecution of “Happy Holidays” and Starbucks cups and religious freedom issues. At the same time, many American Christians gleefully participate in rhetoric and military hegemony that leads to the deaths of Christians and Eastern Christian culture. Father Knapp relays one particularly relevant example:

“The lack of understanding sometimes shown by our media on this issue may have other causes too. For one thing, it is hard for us to imagine how radically the political environment inhabited  by Eastern Christians differs from our own, to the extent that they can be made to suffer as hostages for the freedoms of the West. This was brought home to me by the uproar in the Middle East over European political cartoons depicting Mohammed. Such cartoons are a normal phenomenon in free democratic societies but, thanks to our globalized world, can trigger violent reactions in other, undemocratic systems. Thus, when caricatures of Mohammed were published in Denmark in 2006, the terrorist Mujahideen Council announced that Christians in Iraq would pay the price – which they duly did.

This is what persecution and minority status looks like. Not cakes for LGBT people or state capitols free of religious imagery. It’s death and displacement. When American Christians insist on burning Korans to make a political statement, they don’t suffer consequences. Instead, Eastern Christians in Mosul and Raqqa become their scapegoats, carrying their sins into the desert.

Andreas Knapp’s book is eye-opening and heartbreaking, but should be required reading in churches across America, especially churches who feel they are being persecuted. There is a real cultural and historical tragedy occurring in the Middle East, as the remnants of the oldest Christian communities are being wiped out due to the decisions American and European leaders have made. It’s time for all of us – myself included – to wake up and realize what is happening. The Last Christians is a good place to start.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

The Bookshelf: At The Heart of The White Rose

There is a paradox constantly present in times of persistent crisis. The world around us is going to hell, seemingly. Yet, at home, life goes on almost unblemished. In our modern times, this paradox is especially present. For the last sixteen years, our nation has been at war in at least two different theaters. Scientists are unanimous in their assessment that the climate is almost at a point of no return, and in half a century vast swaths of the world will be uninhabitable. Anti-democratic forces are gaining hold more and more worldwide, and hundreds of millions of people live in a state of not knowing where their next meal is coming from. And right here at home, the most extreme, right wing administration in American history is reshaping the norms of American politics in terrifying and unreal ways. 

Yet, for so many of us, life just continues to roll on. We may know about all these crises, but we are so well-cushioned – a nice home, a readily accessible food source, good schools, decent neighbors, a consistent paycheck – that its hard to feel like we are in a moment of crisis at all. You could close your eyes, and it would almost all just fade away.

However, we don’t think of moments of historical crisis in that way. Surely, in actual moments of crisis, it must be overwhelming, the constant feeling of dread and insecurity one would feel. World War II, for instance, would seem like a time when normal life would stand still, and a daily sense of extremes would dominate. This would seem especially true in war-era Europe, and probably even more acute in war-era Germany.

The reality, however, is almost certainly the opposite, more akin, actually, to our present reality. This feeling of detachment and normalness in the midst of earth-shattering crisis is present throughout At The Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl.

Hans and Sophie were brother and sister, alternately the oldest and youngest of a larger brood of children, growing up in the first half of the 20th century in Nazi Germany. In their early 20s at the outbreak of war on the continent, both are conscripted into national service for the Reich, Hans as a military doctor, and Sophie in the compulsory Nazi youth organizations.

Yet, neither are Nazi supporters. Hailing from a highly educated, well-to-do family, they are well-read and intellectual, and both write obliquely of their horror at the rampant nationalism and violence going on around them. Eventually, along with a substantial group of friends and acquaintances their age, they begin writing and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Munich. Their group is dubbed “The White Rose.” After six subversive pamphlets, Hans and Sophie are caught distributing leaflets at the university in Munich, and subsequently executed. Hans was 24; Sophie just 21.

At The Heart of the White Rose is a collection of excerpts from their letters and personal diaries, kept between 1937 and their deaths in February of 1943. And despite the wartime setting, the sense one gets of reading the letters is normalness. Without the editorial inserts between letters and chapters, one would hardly know the circumstances they were facing. Hans, being in the military, obviously speaks often of his deployment first in France, then in Russia. But these references all come admidst rumination on philosophy and religion, vivid descriptions of nature, and mundane topics such as the need for clean laundry and money from home.

Sophie, who we meet when she is just 15, is a normal teenager of time, fond of biking and boys and nature. As the war continues, you watch her become a bit harder, at times forlorn. In her diary, she struggles both with her burgeoning religious beliefs, and also with self doubt. Yet, she maintains deep friendships with far-flung friends via letter, and her inherent optimism is always there.

This is a heartbreaking book, precisely because of the mundanity of the letters and diaries. Obviously, Hans and Sophie could have never imagined all this would be compiled and read nearly a century later. But, because we know where this story is going -not just the deaths of Hans and Sophie, but also the concentration camps, the ghettos, the atrocities of war – you read these letters with the feeling you are watching the moments just before a devastating car crash in slow motion.

In the second half the book, Hans and Sophie both begin to grapple with Christianity, which seems to have become a topic of interest among the White Rose members. Hans is ever the philosopher, writing academically of theological notions, grappling with them intellectually. Sophie, on the other hand, in her diary, is much more visceral, wrestling mightily with the existence of God, and her relation to such a being. I was astounded at just how articulate and brilliant both of these amazing people were, and acutely aware of the grand tragedy of their deaths.

Both Hans and Sophie’s last letters were written the day before they were arrested, and just five days before they are sent to the guillotine. Hans writes to his girlfriend, Rose; they appear to be going through a difficult moment in their relationship, exacerbated by their distance. Hans last words on paper are a wish for another letter from her quickly. 

Sophie writes to her best friend, Lisa, that she had been playing a piece by Schubert on her sonograph, and beautifully describes the piece. “You can positively feel and smell the breezes and scents and hear the birds and the whole of creation cry out for joy. And when the piano repeats the theme like cool, clear, sparkling water – oh, it’s sheer enchantment,” she ends the letter. Less than 24 hours later, she would be in the custody of the Gestapo. The enchantment in this amazing collection of personal writings is found in the privilege of being privy to the everyday lives of these normal, ordinary heroes, and seeing that they aren’t all that different from us, that the world they were living in was not so different from ours.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”