We must read – or re-read – these three crucial volumes:
Yes I know, calling a recent book – or a recent anything – classic can be a risky thing to do. After all, usually we reserve the term ‘classic’ for something that has stood the test of time – and that usually means a long time. But certain things, including certain books, can be somewhat newer yet still deserve the appellation ‘classic’. Here I want to look at three of them.
And I may turn this into an irregular series. The articles will be a halfway house between a proper book review and a recommended reading list. But they will be one way to alert others to some authors and some books which we really should not forget about – or be introduced to for the very first time.
The three volumes I have chosen for this piece were all penned during the 80s. All are written by American Christians who were born in the 30s. All deal with how Christians should deal with politics, social issues and the culture wars. All are excellent works indeed, and all should be on your bookshelves.
Here I will simply say a few words about each author and the book, and then offer a few quotes.
Kingdoms in Conflict by Charles Colson (Zondervan, 1987)
Colson (1931-2012) was well known for his involvement in the Nixon administration and the Watergate affair. But he became a Christian while in prison, and went on to pen numerous important books, as well as serve in very practical ways, such as in founding Prison Fellowship.
In this crucial volume he looks at the issues of church and state and how the two should proceed. He includes moving vignettes of how Christian political and social involvement has been best exemplified, as in Wilberforce and abolition; Bonhoeffer and Nazism; Cardinal Mindzenty of Hungary; Cardinal Sin of the Philippines; Cardinal Wyszynski of Poland; and others. It is a clarion call to Christian interaction with society that avoids the twin errors of politicising the gospel or privatising the faith.
“Wise men and women have long recognized the need for the transcendent authority of religion to give society its legitimacy and essential cohesion. One of the most vigorous arguments was made by Cicero, who maintained that religion is ‘indispensable to private morals and public order . . . and no man of sense will attack it.’ Augustine argued that the essence of public harmony could be found only in justice, the source of which is divine. ‘In the absence of justice,’ he asked, ‘what is sovereignty but organized brigandage?’ In the West the primary civilizing force was Christianity. According to historian Christopher Dawson, Christianity provided a transcendent spiritual end which gave Western culture its dynamic purpose. It furnished the soul for Western civilization and provided moral legitimization…” p. 47
“Paul also says that government’s authority is from God; it is a delegation. Therefore, governments – all governments – whether they acknowledge it or not, rule under god. But does God give an unrestricted delegation? Certainly not. As Jesus made clear with the coin, there are two realms – and Caesar is not to usurp what belongs to God. Any government that violates the law that is higher than its own is exceeding the legitimate authority God has granted. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘If government persistently and arbitrarily violates the assigned task, then the divine mandate lapses.’
“In that case the state becomes evil incarnate, as in Nazi Germany. Instead of acting as God’s instrument of preserving life and order, it does the reverse, destroying life and order. Then, the church must resist. Though as argued earlier, the church’s primary function is evangelization and ministering to spiritual needs; as the principle visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God, it must be the conscience of society, the instrument of moral accountability. Richard Neuhaus eloquently wrote that ‘the church can and should subject to moral questioning every political agenda or cause, thus keeping the entirety of human politics under the transcendent judgment of God’.” p. 329
The Naked Public Square by Richard John Neuhaus (Eerdmans, 1984)
Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) was on an interesting journey. He began as a man of the left but then moved to the right. And later in life (in 1990), he left Lutheranism to become a Catholic. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things. He also penned numerous important works, including this one.
In it he makes the case that politics has broken loose from its sacred source. Modernity has clashed with tradition, and society has become desacrilised, with statism, hedonism, humanism and decay the bitter fruit. There is need to reconstruct a public philosophy that is again built on the firm foundation of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
“We hear it said, also in the churches, that every question is finally a political question. We can be very grateful that that is not true. If one means that the gospel of the coming kingdom is about the coming of the ultimate New Politics — the new and right ordering of all things — then, in that sense, everything is political. From the Christian perspective, to live in the presence of that final promise is to know that there is nothing that is not engaged by the promise’s fulfilment. But that is not what is ordinarily meant by politics, and it is not the meaning of politics in the present discussion. Politics is the business (more art than science) of governing. It has to do most essentially with power-getting, keeping, and exercising it. I am aware that this is not a very elevated view of politics. Politics can involve nobler works and even visions. But they are not essentially what politics is about. We should resist being taken in by inflated and romantic views of politics. It is in the interest of politicians and the hordes of people who make their living by talking about what politicians do to disguise the stark and simple truth that they are engaged in getting and keeping power. Power, in turn, is the ability to get other people to do what you want, and not to do what you do not want. People who make their living doing that are said to govern.” pp. 29-30
“The deeper truth is that reform, if it is real reform, is an exercise of love. Prophecy, if it is real prophecy, is an exercise of love. Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah employed such harsh language in criticizing the children of Israel precisely because they thought more of the people than the people thought of themselves. The prophets were in love with, were possessed by, a vision of the dignity and destiny of those they addressed. The outrageousness of sin and failure was in direct proportion to the greatness of God’s intent for his people. Prophecy was always an exercise of love, never of contempt, for those to whom the prophet addressed his criticism.” p. 70
Idols for Destruction by Herbert Schlossberg (Thomas Nelson, 1983)
While this author (1935-2019), may not be quite as well known as the other two, as an able historian he was well-placed to pen this book , and it rightly deserves its place here. The book’s subtitle explains what his subject is all about: “Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society.” Our culture is in a major war – a war between the one true God and all the false gods seeking to displace him.
If we refuse to worship the God who is there, we will worship something – anything. And whatever that may be, it is idolatry. Thus part of the Christian calling is to pull down, to destroy, those idols. But I am not referring to pulling down statues or destroying images. I refer to challenging the intellectual and ideological idols of our day. And they are many.
“Perhaps the most characteristic feature of modern history, one which impinges upon virtually every area of life, has been the development of the nation-state. So pervasive is its influence, so ‘normal’ do its vast powers seem, that to read a document that seeks to limit severely the scope of those powers – even so recent a one as the Constitution of the United States – evokes a sense of great antiquity and strangeness.” p. 177
“What is widely regarded as a struggle between the religious and the secular is really a struggle between religions. The current strife over such issues as abortion is perfectly in order, because it is an attempt by both sides to establish a rule of order in accordance with basic religious precepts. Man is the autonomous ruler of himself, able to define right and wrong and frame statutes according to whatever he defines as just. Or else man is created and sustained by a holy and just God who declares on matters of right and wrong in the form of law. Both are religious views held by faith. In the most basic sense there is no such thing as a secular culture.” p. 275
“Society’s most important institutions serve the socializing function, making people better balanced and adjusted to the way things are. And that is why they are so dangerous. All education is of necessity value-laden, and the public school is the most powerful of these instruments of conformity. Its goal is to instil society’s norms and to discredit deviant ideas. The best elements of the Christian school movement – often dismissed as an expression of racism by the humanist defenders of the status quo – is a determined No! by parents to the homogenization of American life, a recognition that the model to which their children are intended to be conformed has become evil.” p. 310
It is hoped that those of you who have not yet read these books will now be tempted to do so. And for those of you who already have them, it might be time to pull them off the shelves and blow off the dust and give them another good perusal.
There are pros and cons in being a lifelong insomniac: While it has always been a pain, sleepless nights can have some benefits. I often do my best thinking when tossing and turning at 2am. And often it will result in a new article the next day – if I can remember it all! Last night I thought of three older books that I really should write about. But now I can only recall two of them! Grrr. So Colson was my last minute addition. Probably after I post this piece, the missing third title will come back to me!