Category Archives: Book reviews

The Christian in the City of Man

David T. Koyzis (Ph.D. University of Notre Dame), an EPSA member, is professor of political science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.  He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003). This article originally appeared in Comment, the opinion journal of Cardus.

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era
by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner (Moody, 2010)

Addressing primarily American Christians, the authors, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, argue that evangelicals ought to participate in the political life of their country, not just as citizens but as believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Throughout this book, Gerson and Wehner take issue with the religious right, which they believe has pursued a skewed agenda insufficiently attentive to the needs of the poor and which they believe has been needlessly confrontational when greater civility would have borne more fruit. As an alternative, the authors urge a more thoughtful approach, taking seriously the need for government to pursue order, justice, virtue, and prosperity. It is worth noting that this book was published by Chicago’s Moody Publishers, which until now has not generally been known for producing books on religion and politics.

Is There Political Wisdom in the Bible?

Carl Trueman, a professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a book on politics: Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (P&R, 2010). This is one in a string of Christian books on politics that have come not from political scientists but from theologians (Grudem, VanDrunen, O’Donovan, Hendricks, Gutenson).

Trueman is one of the deservedly leading Reformed theologians of our day. That, together with his British perspective on our political life, brings this particular book to our attention. You can find my assessment of it at Worldmag.com in “Republocrats and Political Wisdom.”

My point of departure with Trueman is here:

Of course Trueman is happy with our democratic and capitalist system because it seems to work better than all the others. But he sees no underlying principles that should unite all Christians behind it in an act of faith. “The bottom line,” he writes, “seems to be that politics as a whole is an art, not a science, and that individual political philosophies are generally eclectic.”

I have praise (he’s against what I’m against: individualism, consumerism, unconscious secularism) and critique (he misses the significance of political philosophy for Christian political thought).

A 21st Century Protestant Political Vision

Angels in the Architecture, by Jones and Wilson, and Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism are both books that attempt to provide a theologically based (that is to say, Christian) account of all of life. Both books recognize the crisis of our times and offer a way up and out. That crisis is not the budget crisis in Washington nor is it the looming threat of legalized homosexual “marriage,” though these are related to it. It is the crisis of modernity, the unraveling of the modern project in the last 150 years or so. It is the crisis of nihilism and of our lost humanity. (We’re sure it’s here somewhere, but we no longer know where to look.)  These books were written exactly 100 years apart, but the older one provides a better understanding of the crisis and its resolution.

Angels in the Architecture

The problem with Angels in the Architecture (Canon Press, 1998) is that it is not a book. It is the introduction to a book that someone who actually knows something really ought to write. After an exciting introduction that promises much, Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson show in all the subsequent chapters that they are far from up to the task of completing what they started.

They begin by laying out the alternatives for the future as “modernity or medievalism,” an admittedly paradoxical suggestion. Their thesis is essentially that Medieval Europe was developing a full-orbed, thoroughly Christian understanding of all of life. “The medieval period is the closest thing we have to a maturing Christian culture” (p.17). That is what made it “Christendom.” 

But the Reformation cut short its full development. It was “a crucial outgrowth of medievalism.” The Reformers could not carry on that application of Christian principles to every corner of life as they were distracted with survival on the one hand, and developing those theological principles themselves. “It was a time to focus on truth amidst a slaughterhouse—abnormal—but it would be a great mistake to try to make emergencies the model of a culture….”

Jones and Wilson claim to pick up this great historical task of sketching out and initiating what they call “Medieval Protestantism.” The vision of what they call “middle earth” was silenced historically “by tyrannical Rome and a blinding Enlightenment” (p.17).  Thus, in their book their aim is “to sketch a vision of a whole life and a whole culture” (p.15). No small ambition. But I read on.

They are strong on diagnosis, but short on remedy.

  • “Modernity’s empire has dominated the world for only three centuries, even though the soul of the modern vision is that of the meat cleaver’s counter: stainless steel—cold and functional and sterile, with efficient smears of blood. Modernity is a busy place, spinning with silicon speed that goes ever faster but never forward, people pressed into cities full of loneliness” (p.16)
  • “Modernity and its natural child postmodernity are pleased with their rejection of truth, beauty, and goodness—the three faces of culture.” (These three faces are a theme in the book.)
  • “Modern evangelicalism is just that—modern—in love with modernity, in love with individualism, egalitarianism, and perfect boxes” (p.17).
  • “Yet we thin-souled moderns are so proud of our rejection of poems and stories and paintings. We lead half-lives and die with less” (p.22).

Stirring stuff! At this point, I am expecting a book that draws upon broad learning and philosophical depth, something from undiscovered sages that will rival Nietszche for his poetry and provocation and make Allan Bloom look hopelessly ill-equipped to face the foe. Instead, they give us a uselessly vague “broad landscape of hues” (p.15).

Let’s rediscover beauty, they say. Sure! But what is it? Are they arguing for make-up and haut couture? If we follow their cue, will we sell our homes, move into tiny apartments, and build cathedrals?

They say our use of Greek philosophy violated the Christian antithesis, and they give a nod to the later medieval nominalists, as though that can be a philosophical resting place. It wasn’t then and it can’t be now. How then shall we think? They give us no indication.

They have a chapter on the importance of laughter and another one on enjoying good food. Great. I can see the dawn of civilization breaking through the steam of the lasagna.

Lectures on Calvinism

Kuyper, by contrast is a learned man who knows that of which he speaks. The great Dutch theologian and later the Dutch Prime Minister delivered these Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary (still orthodox at that time) in 1898. Kuyper claims that Modernism’s clash with Christianity is an assault by “an all-embracing life-system.” When you understand that feature of modernity, you see that if Christianity is to overcome in the conflict (centuries old, at this point), “we have to take our stand in a life-system of equally comprehensive and far-reaching power” (p.11). He presents us with various comprehensive views of life that have animated civilization in the past: pagan, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, and Modern. His account of modernity has lost none of its relevance, and his remarks on Islam are more pertinent today that he could have imagined.

Calvinism, he says, is not just a theology for worship, church order, and personal salvation. It provides a deep life-principle that applies to all aspects of life and gives them a liberating coherence. That principle is the sovereignty of God that calls us to live in the equal dignity of image-bearers under his divine government and before his holy presence in grace (coram deo). The cultural compromise of contemporary Evangelicalism shows that it lacks that broad organizing life-principle. In his own day, Kuyper spoke of Protestantism in general, “[wandering] about in the wilderness without aim or direction, moving hither and thither without making any progress” (pp.18-19).

Kuyper traces all that is best in modern western civilization to Calvinism, and he shows you how it happened. He provides provocative and illuminating lectures on politics, science, and art, and in the final lecture looks to the future. He distinguishes between special and common grace. He identifies various independent “spheres” of life. He gives criteria for these distinctions, shows the government’s limited role with respect to them, and shows the dignity and prosperity that comes from their preservation and cultivation.

Though a staunch Calvinist, he is not simply anti-Roman. He calls Reformed believers to work with Roman Catholics in the great confrontation with Modernism, though he notes that their influence is more fruitful in countries where they are not in power, i.e., in nations of a Calvinistic heritage. You can see the roots of First Things and the Acton Institute in these pages (pp.183-186).

We thought that repelling the Nazis was the great battle to preserve what Churchill called “Christian civilization.” In fact, the 500 year battle with modernism is that battle, and is reaching its peak in our day here in America. It has been easy to fool ourselves that we are still a Christian country beating back a challenge from a culturally hostile elite. And there has been a lot of truth in that characterization. But when we institute same-sex marriage, when we finally pulverize the building block of society, we can finally say that as a people we have fully apostatized. There is no longer even the semblance of a Christian society left. Then the church should be provoked to adopt the stance of alien in Babylon, and work out a comprehensively Christian cosmology over against the surrounding culture, instead of merely disagreeing over this moral issue and that.

Kuyper is a great help for those interested in launching that project.

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).

Reforming Politics One Citizen at a Time

 (A review of Matthew T. Parks and C. David Corbin, Keeping Our Republic, Principles for a Political Reformation. Resource Publications, 2011. $14.)

 After the 1789 Constitutional Convention adjourned and the exhausted delegates spilled into the streets of Philadelphia, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got–a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s response, always wise and witty, was, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

 Is that just an old-fashioned word…like “virtue” or “Presbyterian?” You don’t hear it much anymore. In fact, to describe America as a republic is to distinguish yourself as part of a well-informed elite. It is far more common for people to speak of our country as a “democracy.”

 But when we press for democracy in developing nations, i.e., for free and fair elections and universal suffrage, are we making them just like us? Surely not. There is more to the genius of the American political experiment than the rule of a majority vote. But there is also less. When we moved to universal adult suffrage with the nineteenth amendment, did we take on a different form of government? Did we move from oligarchy to democracy? Only the cynical say so.

 They don’t understand, however, what the authors of Keeping Our Republic understand, and what the Founders before them understood. America is a republic, a particular form of democratic self-government, and we forget this to our peril. So our Assistant Provost, Matthew Parks, and PPE Dean David Corbin have written this slender but important volume to take their fellow citizens through a crash course in who they need to be politically if their liberty is at all precious to them, republicanism 101 as it were. They offer the book in the hope of leading a twenty-first century “political reformation.”

 The remedy we usually hear for the American decline is to “throw the bums out!” But if a healthy republic requires healthy republican citizens—people who understand what liberty is and what it requires, and who are vigilant in its defense—then the battle for our republic is in the citizens themselves. Popular government—government of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln put it—is a delicate institution that depends on there being citizens who understand the principles of liberty and are disposed to sacrifice the immediate pleasures self-indulgence for the noble prospect of self-government.

 So the focus of this book is not populist elite-bashing, much as the entitled Ivy Leaguers who think it their natural right to rule us surely deserve it. It is Joe American to whom the authors are speaking, and no doubt also José American, as well as any citizen legislators whose consciences turn them to learned patriotic books. “We have lost touch with what it means to be a citizen of a republic.” The task therefore, is that we all, regardless of political party, “relearn how to think and how to act as republicans.” This book is for making citizens once again out of the subjects we have become.

 (This review appeared originally in the May 2011 issue of The Empire State Tribune, the student newspaper at The King’s College.)

David C. Innes is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City, and co-author of the forthcoming Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media).

Kendall on Our Civil Religion

Grant Havers at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, Canada, has published this review of Willmoore Kendall’s and George W. Carey’s The Basic Symbols Of The American Political Tradition (Catholic University of America Press, 1970). You can find the essay, “Willmoore Kendall for Our Times,” at www.VoegelinView.com.

This work, which is primarily based on Kendall’s lectures on the American political tradition given at Vanderbilt in 1964 (including additional lectures edited by Carey in the last chapters), reveals one of the most astute minds ever to shape American conservative thought. As Kendall’s last work, it also provides an essential antidote to the ailments afflicting American conservatism today.

Grant’s recent book is Lincoln and the Politics of Christian Love (University of Missouri Press, 2009).

Havers on Johnson on Churchill

EPSA’s Grant Havers, professor of philosophy and political studies at Trinity Western University in Vancouver, has reviewed Paul’s Johnson’s recent book on the great man, Churchill (Viking, 2009), “Oblivious to the Weight of History.”

Anyone in search of a short yet useful introduction to the life of Sir Winston Churchill will find it in Paul Johnson’s biography.  Johnson, a long-established historian of the modern age, has penned a readable and informative account of the life, personality, thought, and actions of a political leader who is aptly described as a “mass of contradictions.” (p. 19)  Out of these contradictions Johnson has culled a portrait of a statesman who not only saved Britain from Nazi tyranny; he saved the cause of civilization itself. 

Read the whole review at Voegelinview.com.

Harold Kildow Reviews Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism

Harold Kildow Reviews Hunter Baker’s The End of Secularism

Science is a method masquerading as a metaphysics. E.A. Burtt long ago captured the hubris and spirit of religious antipathy inherent in the secularist temptation in this memorable aphorism. The pretension of scientific knowledge to a larger place than is warranted has been there from its modern rebirth in sixteenth century Europe, and, like the worrisome tendencies one sometimes sees in a toddler, has grown to be its defining character. This pretension to set itself up as an all encompassing and totalizing form of knowledge did not take long to express itself socially and politically. The gain in confidence for philosophy from the stunning early (and continuous) progress in what we now call the hard sciences came almost completely—at least among the educated—at the cost of Christian and biblical belief in a creating and sustaining God whose providential ordering included the moral and political world. As scientific investigations proved increasingly accurate and profitable in their own proper fields, a longing for equal progress in morals and politics promoted the slow motion catastrophe of modernity’s self delusion as mankind’s maturity. Religion and superstition belong to mankind’s childhood; Reason and Science mark the beginning of man’s taking responsibility for himself, and the putting away of childish things. The rationalization of the world, including the human life world, seemed to modernity and its adherents the obvious path forward, the darkness and violence of religion left behind.

The branch office of Science spearheading social and political operations is Secularism, and is the focus of Hunter Baker’s admirable The End of Secularism (Crossway Books, $17.99). Secularism has taken the brilliant results of scientific rationalism as the superior basis for extending the social peace and toleration that were the lauded benefits of the settlement coming out of the Reformation, beginning with the 1555 formulation cuius regio, eius religio. The later work of such as John Locke in formulating the political liberalism that perhaps marked a climax run in the history of liberty, had as one of its pillars religious toleration. A corollary is that government is not in the business of caring for souls—and thus a salutary separation of church and state is called for. It is but a short rhetorical step from there to the default understanding regnant to this day, to wit: toleration, liberty, and all the good things of our Western political patrimony depend upon a strict neutrality in government when it comes to religion. Thus secularism is the sine qua non of a well-ordered, and peaceful, democratic nation. Of course, Baker’s title announces the end of secularism, not its ascendancy; his brief but thorough treatment (194 pages not including notes and a very valuable bibliography) belongs in the hands of students and their professors, parishioners and their pastors, and everyone concerned that the referee has entered the game as a contestant.

Elite opinion, at least since the French Enlightenment, has tended to secularism and outright atheism. But the baleful effects of elite belief are less pronounced in societies or eras where government does not imagine itself to have authority over all or most of the public’s life. The era of Big Government is, sadly, still with us; and as its power and authority have increased, the number of perches for self styled elites has increased, and like the branches of a well watered tree, offers refuge and sustenance for many an obnoxious bird. What makes secularism especially obnoxious in Baker’s telling is its deceptive posture as morally neutral—and its concomitant assertion that the threat to social comity is solely from religion. Remove religion and its entirely unwarranted moral certainty from the public square, and, voilà!, problem solved, the era of life and light can begin in earnest.

But secularism, to bring another metaphor, has its hand on the scale while selling us the goods. Baker surveys the various settlements between Church and States and the theories underpinning them, beginning with Constantine and Augustine, the medieval church fathers, the English revolutions, the French Revolution, and on to the American Founding, to establish in fine fashion the predicate for the problem. The historical and social science background given in the early chapters perfectly unfolds into the dissection of the philosophical fraud of scientism that gives secularism its current, but waning, street cred.

The overlap of the Christian and postmodern critiques of the totalizing knowledge structures of modernity are reaffirmed in this volume, as the increasingly interesting (because honest) Stanley Fish makes an appearance to call out secularism on its rigged game. Always good when one can enlist an opponent as an authority for one’s argument.

The End of Secularism is a tightly reasoned, well presented primer on a hugely important topic of interest to every Christian and every open minded skeptic, and will reward close attention; the highlights, underlines, and marginalia throughout my review copy each would form the basis of an essay. Go and get this book, and absorb its lessons.

Harold Kildow earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University. He partners with EPSA member David Innes to discuss current events on their joint blog, Principalities and Powers.