Christian, Church history, Culture, nonfiction, philosophy, politics

Hippies of the Religious Right

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Hippies of the Religious Right: From the counter-culture of Jerry Garcia to the Subculture of Jerry Falwell. By Preston Shires. Originally published in 2007. 287 pages.

You can tell an awful a lot about a man based solely on when he was born. Or at least, that’s what I read somewhere once, although I can’t tell you where even though I just spent 5 minutes clicking about trying to find it. Nevertheless, I believe there is a large grain of truth to the sentiment, and it strikes at the heart of what Preston Shires discusses in his book, Hippies of the Religious Right.

If I understand him correctly, Shires is exploring the culture and expression of belief in the young generation of the 1960s, many of whom became the devoutly religious and politically active in what was referred to from the late 1980s and onward as the “religious right”. That spirit of activism, coupled with the importance of the individual  are ideas of the 1960s with its rebellion from stilted, politically correct, hypocritical religious practices, gave way to a generation of Christians determined to be open, authentic, and inclusive in their faith.

It’s normal to be liberal when you’re young and grow increasingly conservative as you age. I read that somewhere also, but having lived it and witnessed in others, I can safely attest to the veracity of the statement. Given that, it makes sense that as the hippies of the 60s who never really abandoned faith in Christianity as the one true way grew up, they would return to the fold bringing with them what *worked* from 60s activist culture.

In a nutshell, Shires contends that:

Ever since the coming of the Jesus Freaks, born of the generation gap and rebellion against the technocratic establishment, evangelicalism has been injected with an activist fervor that encompasses the whole of life. That activism and commitment stimulated and nurtured the Christian Right. p.209

He continues the thoughts:

The greatest irony of the traditional interpretation of the Christian Right as a negative reaction to the sixties’ counterculture is that most evangelicals agreed with such a definition in the late 1970s ans still agree with it today. And with this understanding, they confidently stand dismissive of the sixties’ counterculture. But if it had not been for the counterculture, there may never have been a Christian Right, because the counter culture gave to evangelicalism the rebellious spirit, the youthful activists, and the committed voters it so needed. p.210

In other words, large swaths of the mainstream church were lukewarm (like Laodicea, I suppose), lacking any kind of real fervor or alternative to the greater corrupted society. Enter sixties’ radicalism.

I appreciated the pains Shires went to to present his arguments with as little ideological interjection or pontificating as possible. He made it clear early on the book that he would not be doing so, and he kept his oath. He leaves it to the reader to make their own decision about the rightness or wrongness of the conclusions he has drawn.

I am of two minds on the matter myself. On the one hand, I agree completely that the seeds of the religious right as we have come to know it were not only planted by the 60’s counterculture, but were nurtured and watered by the young people most influenced by that culture. What I’m not sure of is whether that was ultimately a good thing. The potholes along that roadway as a means of spreading the gospel have proven to be wide and deep, disabling the journeys of many earnest Christ seekers along the way.

Preston Shires definitely gives his readers a lot to think about. It’s a good book, although the tone is very academic and studious. If you’re interested in reading it, be warned that it’s not a quick conversational read. It really is written for those of us who are sincerely interested in the topic.

4 out of 5 Stars

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Church history, European history

Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648

christendom destroyedChristendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648, by Mark Greengrass. published November 2014.

First a confession: I didn’t read the entire book. I was slogging through the first 5 chapters while switching back and forth to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy to re-engage my mind. I am a history buff, and as such I thought I would find this nearly 700 page book more interesting than I did.

Or, that was the case until I decided to skip over Greengrass’ exploration of human migration, human replenishment, and the effects of climate change on the way these things took shape. There were some interesting portions as he delved into the lifestyle and political landscape that laid the framework for the 1517 religious upheaval which gripped and forever changed Christendom.

One of the marks of true reading is pushing through those parts of a tome that may be a little less exciting for the purpose of understanding the whole. I couldn’t go the distance with this author however,  so after the first 5 chapters, I decided to just skip to the good part, at the halfway point, the tenth Chapter.

Chapter 10, titled Schism, describes and dissects the fallout of the Reformation.  From this point I was completely engaged and found this book a wealth of historical information, well presented.

Most interesting to note was the fact that much of what is attribute to Luther’s intent seems far radical than his original intent, although there did come a point in his lifetime when he was resigned to the reality that there could be no reunification of the Church he originally set out to reform.

The portions that covered John Calvin and his influence on the church were also informative as Calvinism has been a long fascination of mine, one that has caused me no small bit of angst in years past. Once again, this author’s description of Calvin’s position is much more benign than that of the rigid determinists who have carried his mantle after his death:

For Calvin, predestination was not an invitation to anxiety about God’s justice but a full stop to speculation on the matter. To the question: ‘Am I saved?’ he replied that belonging to the Church and knowing Christ in one’s heart were signs of election. That was liberation from angst. There was no need to build an ark. The rest was about living with Christ in the world, a midst a conflictual maze of human passions. Chapter 11, p. 364

In later chapters he gets into the ensuing conflicts between Protestants and the Catholic church (some of which were violent), and living with the newly formed religious divisions. He also explores the encroaching influence of Islam as it grew in Ottoman lands to the east. Also contributing to Christendom’s demise was the separation of the close ties between the RCC and the heads of state. Charles V was the last Roman emperor to be crowned by a pope in 1530.

This book is, for all intents and purposes, a European history work. Even the use of the word Christendom is clearly referencing a distinct geographical region at a precise period of time in history rather than the universal church as we often use the term.

There is no doubt however, and the author makes it clear, the cultural stage and atmosphere had been set for Luther’s protest and attempts at reform. Luther was, if you will, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

It was a heavy read for me at points, despite my being an enthusiastic student of history. All that said, I liked it well enough. I think it would have been a better book if didn’t read like a textbook at several points.

Grade: B-/C+

Christian, Church history

From “Our Great Big American God” to “Christless Christianity”

I have recently discovered the extreme value in reading more than one book on important topics; preferably from different angles. This is probably going to be a thing. Book reviews that cover two books at once.

great big american godOur Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever Growing Deity, originally struck me as a favorable read despite some initial objections to its liberal bent. I agreed with much of what Matthew Paul Turner had to say concerning the increasingly American presentation of the God of the Bible. More than that, it was pretty funny.

Turner’s description of believers he has encountered and known, with their extensive use of Christianese and shallow presentation of Biblical truth resonated with me. His description of his friend “Caroline” at the beginning of chapter 3, who described Jesus as her husband, and whose response to every bit of good news no matter how trivial, was a breathy “Praise Jesus”, and who response to every bit of bad news no matter how trivial, was an equally breathy “Help them, Jesus!” made me literally laugh out loud.  A lifetime in the church coupled with nearly 20 years of trying to deprogram and connect to a true and living faith rather than such caricature caused me to let my guard down while reading this book.

It was well referenced historically, and makes some valid points, but it ultimately fails to do what it set out to do, unless the end game was to mock conservative, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Oh yes, and to suggest that the gospel is all about social justice to the exclusion of any demand to live righteously. He has plenty to say against our Americanized version of the Faith:

Ronald Reagan loved borrowing the words of Winthrop to define America, something he did throughout his political career. But in 1989, during his final speech as president, Reagan sat in the Oval Office and explained his own vision:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined….He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

Was that how John Winthrop saw it? It’s not that Ronald Reagan’s vision was particularly evil, but Reagan’s “city” is very much a nationalized idea. Winthrop seemed far too consumed with the pursuit of humility12 to cast such an American-focused ideal. As a Puritan, he certainly doused his “humble thoughts” with more than a dash of pride; still, he can’t have imagined an America that resembled anything remotely similar to the Godtropolis that Reagan (and Palin) seemed to visualize.

Or perhaps Reagan was right. Maybe Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” was indeed a municipality brimming with capitalism, patriotism, and a very liberal immigration policy. Lucky for Reagan, Winthrop never fully explained the details of his vision.

However, that is all he does.  If that was the goal, Mr. Turner succeeded, and in quite an entertaining style. Just as in the Ann Coulter book, the jokes and quips got tired. Turner, at least, is a decent writer. What he failed to offer was any view, Biblical or otherwise, of who the God of the Bible actually is and how we should rightly worship Him.

C-

christless christianityChristless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton, is a another book which examines the state of the Christian faith as it has been tweaked and redesigned according to American sensibilities. Horton’s critical eye however, contains a much deeper sense of purpose and search for Biblical truth.

As such, despite reaching many of the same conclusions as Turner regarding slick marketing and self-esteem boosting theology,  Horton is clearly much more concerned with the health of the church going forward, and a return to sound doctrine. From chapter 1 (full chapter can be read here):

I think our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted by the habits and rituals of daily life in a narcissistic culture. We are assimilating the disrupting and disorienting news from heaven to the banality of our own immediate felt needs, which interpret God as a personal shopper for the props of our life movie: happiness as entertainment, salvation as therapeutic well-being, and mission as pragmatic success measured solely in terms of numbers.

So, in my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith. The claim I am laying out in this book is that the most dominant form of Christianity today reflects “a zeal for God” that is nevertheless without knowledge—particularly, as Paul himself specifies, the knowledge of God’s justification of the wicked by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works (Rom. 10:2, see vv. 1–15). Fourth, there are a lot of issues I would like to address about our American captivity that will not be taken up here.

Most of these issues I have treated elsewhere, especially in Made in America, Power Religion, and Beyond Culture Wars.2 The idols that identify the Christian cause with left-wing or right-wing political ideology are merely symptoms that Christ is not being regarded as sufficient for the church’s faith and practice today.

As the media follows the growing shift among many younger evangelicals from more conservative to more progressive politics, the real headline should be that the movement is going back to church to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ rather than becoming a demographic block in the culture wars. So my focus in this book is on whether Christ is even being widely proclaimed in the nation where half the population claims to be evangelical.

Horton takes an excellent turn at succinctly diagnosing the problem (p.71):

We are swimming is a sea of narcissistic moralism; an easy listening version of salvation by self-help.

Yes, that sounds about right. He calls for a return to a Biblical, accountable, creedal faith that first starts with acknowledging our need for repentance from sin.  He also offered quotes and documentation by clergymen from all corners, Reformed, Catholic, and Evangelical who agree with his diagnosis. Another good excerpt from chapter 2, page 63:

Jesus lamented that the religious leaders of his day were like children playing the funeral game and the marriage game, but they could neither mourn over their sins when John the Baptist came, nor dance in celebration at the arrival of the Son of man (Matt. 11:16-19). Similarly today, the preaching of the law in all its gripping judgment and the preaching of the gospel in all of its surpassing sweetness merge into a confused message of gentle exhortation to a more fulfilling life. Consequently, we know neither how to mourn nor how to throw a real party. The bad news no longer stands in sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring genuine conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory. (emphasis mine)

Overall, an excellent book.

A