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: Escape Routes

Christianity provides an extensive theological framework for a variety of important topics. Perhaps the most important subject it gives a lens to is that of human suffering. The Christian faith centers itself around the suffering act of God, experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The Suffering Servant is a widely popular image of Christ, and the stories of the martyrs feature prominently in church tradition.

In this light, Johann Christoph Arnold’s little book, Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapper in Life’s Little Hells, is a vitally important read on how to apply real-life theological understandings to the suffering nature of human existence.

Any regular reader here knows I am not a fan of the “self help” model of religion that 21st century American Christianity so often falls into. Yet, over the past month, I have begun to become intensely interested in a “theology of suffering,” chiefly as a result of reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God. While I certainly don’t want to narrow the life and message of Jesus down to a simple how-to guide of dealing with the hard parts of life, I do think the faith, at it’s core, should be oriented towards better lives for all human being. And a crucial part of that work is addressing and putting into perspective the suffering every person experiences in their lives.

Arnold, through the use of stories about people’s life’s, addresses the various aspects of suffering. Running through lonlieness, despair, difficult pasts, the struggle of success, and (interestingly) sex, he shows the universality of suffering in the human experience, and thus is able to effectively address the loneliness someone struggling though any of these areas surely feels. This arc culminates in the highlight of the book, Chapter 7, entitled, simply, “Suffering.” Arnold tells several stories again, culminating in the life of Bishop Oscar Romero.

The book ends on more positive notes. One of the most noteworthy, and surprising, moments of the book, is in the chapter entitled “Travel Guides.” Arnold illustrates the lives of three people who endured much suffering, and yet persisted, carrying through to significant and lasting impacts on the world. Surprisingly, one of the people he highlights at this point is Che Guevara, the Communist revolutionary who fought in Cuba and Angola. 

To encounter words of praise towards the leftist icon from someone within traditional Christianity is, well, rare, to say the least. And Arnold certainly doesn’t gloss over the most unsavory aspects of Guevara’s life and legacy. But crucially, he is able to draw out Guevara’s love for the regular people of Latin America, a love that drove him to fight against oppression and imperialism around the globe.  As a young left-leaning person, I obviously grew up around images of Che. I have always been intrigued by the man and the passion he exemplified, but was troubled, as a pacifist, by the violent methods he employed at times. Arnold, in this section of the book, is able to put my mind at ease.

He does all this in service to his broader goal, of normalizing the act of suffering and reassuring those who suffer that they aren’t alone, that even great men and women in history suffered greatly on their way to the things they did in the world. I found this little book an easy and enlightening read. Indeed, as Arnold shows, suffering is a key component to the Christian experience. For every Prosperity Gospel success story of big houses and helicopters, there are a thousand suffering campesinos, toiling everyday for pennies. Their experience is the dominant experience of the Christian movement. Their lives provide the primary paradigm for understanding Christian theology. And it is their suffering that Jesus took on and identified with, and called us all to recognize. The Suffering Servant isn’t an unobtainable ideal; the Suffering Servant is each of us.

As always with the books I receive from Plough, I of course was bothered by the allusions to traditional views on sexuality and reproductive issues, but they are few and far between here. Escape Routes is a lovely little book, and can be a highly useful resource for those enduring suffering (that is to say, all of us), and those who are called to be shepherds to those who suffer.

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 Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Bookshelf: “Six Months to Live”

I have a thing for presidential biographies.

I love reading about our leaders, their lives and their presidencies. I have many on my shelf – Adams, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Truman, both Roosevelt’s, among others.

A couple years back, I read a book called “Brothers”, by David Talbot, about the John and Robert Kennedy. One thing the book kept relaying, in the words of those who knew him, was JFK’s overwhelming sense of mortality. He had a keen awareness that life was intimately perishable, and at any moment he could be struck down.

Of course, he was, in 1963, at the hands of an assassin. And that fact about JFK, his awareness of his own mortality, has long since stuck with me.

I’ve not experienced a lot of death in my life. Both of my grandfathers have died, one of whom I was particularly close to. My mother’s older brother died in his 30’s, and he and I are much alike. My wife’s aunt died a few years ago, while we were all gathered around her hospital bed. Compared to most people in the world, I suppose my direct exposure to death has been relatively light.

Yet, I’ve always been especially aware of death. The idea of dying young has always had a morbid fascination to me. We seem to be made to live and prosper across a fairly long span of years, and yet, so many people do not. Lives are cut short everyday, by gunshots and car wrecks and natural disasters and disease. Those people never get to live out a “full” life, whatever that may be. In the view of us left, they were taken early, and we all miss out on the things they may have brought to the world.

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“Six Months to Live” By Daniel Hallock 134 pages Plough Publishing House

“Six Months to Live,” by Daniel Hallock, is the story of 22-year old Matt, who is diagnosed out of the blue with terminal lymphoma. A healthy, fun-loving young man, Matt grew up in the Bruderhof community of Pennsylvania. His illness and death was a pivotal event for the small, close knit Christian community.

The book does a wonderful job of introducing you to Matt, of helping you to understand who he was, so much so that, when you get to his inevitable death near the end, it truly saddens you. You feel like you are losing a friend. Told mostly from the words of his attendant doctor, Matt’s final hours are strikingly detailed and heavy.

But throughout the book, the recurring theme is one of hope. Through faith, family and community, Matt and his wife Cynthia, whom he married a month after his diagnosis, come to grips with his fate, and help guide their friends and family through the difficult steps of letting go. It’s a beautiful illustration of grappling with mortality, of accepting a terminal diagnosis, and thriving through the end of one’s life.

It makes you grapple with your own mortality. What is to stop you from walking into the doctor later this week, and being given your own terminal diagnosis? I know that’s a rather morbid thought, but it’s one we should all think about. How would you life differently? What would you do? Who would you be with?

We live in a world that seems to treat death as an accident, as something unnatural and terrifying. Yet, death is inevitable, and even normal. Death comes to all of us. As Christians, we believe that death’s sting has been defeated. Resurrection is our comfort; death does not have the final word, but instead hope moves us forward always. No matter the final outcome, we know death is but a temporary roadblock to eternal life. All things die, but all things live on.

Matt lived on. The impact he had on his family and friends and classmates and even total strangers is readily apparent in the reading of his book. His resurrection is indisputable; he lives on in the words and memories and actions of those who knew and loved him, those who gained a sense of rebirth as a result of his death.

I quibble with the theology throughout; the constant invocation of “God’s will” and “God’s plan” in relation to Matt becoming terminally ill doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t think death and suffering is God’s plan or will for anyone, even in the light of resurrection. God wills full and healthy lives for us all, and joins us in active mourning every time a life is cut short.

But this doesn’t mean God is abandoning us to a terrible fate, a world of despair and sadness. The world works how it will; nature produces disease and illness, and our place in this ordered universe means it will strike us. But God has the final, love-filled say over that reality: Love wins in the ends, life goes on, we are resurrected.

As Matt’s friend Steve puts it in the book,

Matt’s death was actually a victory over death-over the powers of darkness, self-indulgence, and pride. It was a victory because it brought him and all of us around him back to the essentials; to the things of eternity-to the childlike spirit each of us needs in order to be part of the kingdom of God.

Amen.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishing House in the hope that I would write a review. 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 Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”