Book Review: “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Greg Boyd

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America is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. Our founding fathers were Christians. America is a second Israel, a chosen nation to promote God’s message around the world. Christians in America need to take America back for God–we need to outlaw abortion, pass laws to protect the sanctity of marriage, and fight for Christian prayer in schools.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It certainly does to me–a homeschooled daughter of conservative Christians. My school textbooks read America as a Christian nation through and through–until the corrupt sixties destroyed everything. Admittedly, I generally took this story of history with a grain of salt–but I know plenty who had been raised on the secularly revisionist history of the US who now take this “Christian” version as gospel truth. To them, the call to “take America back for God” is THE calling of the American church.

Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation challenges these and other assertions of the “religious right.”

Boyd’s primary thesis is that Christians miss the point when they make political involvement central to faith. Boyd argues that there is a fundamental difference between the way “the kingdoms of the world” operate and the way “the kingdom of God” operates. The kingdoms of the world attempt to change behavior by exercising power over people; while the kingdom of God changes hearts as the church demonstrates what Boyd calls “power under” living–service and self-sacrifice, following the example of Christ in the cross. Boyd argues that when Christians emphasize politics (a “power over” approach), they dilute or pollute their Christian witness–and fail to walk in Christ-like “power under” love.

I have to say that this book was rather uncomfortable for me–pretty much all the way through. While Boyd states from the beginning that his beef is not merely with the “religious right” but with any political agenda that the church takes on as its own, 100% of his criticism is of the religious right. As a conservative, and one who would probably be lumped by pollsters into the category “the religious right”, I struggled against the temptation to be offended by Boyd’s one-sided criticisms of conservatives.

I spent at least the first three chapters “reserving judgment”. I wanted to hear Boyd out, to really listen to what he had to say. And I’m glad I did.

Boyd’s strength in this book is his clear emphasis on how the kingdom of God differs from the kingdom of the world–and that the primary concern of the Christian should be to exercise kingdom of God “power under” rather than kingdom of the world “power over”. He makes a wonderful point that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world are completely distinct–and should be kept completely distinct.

“To be sure, a version of the kindgdom of the world that effectively carries out law, order, and justice is indeed closer to God’s will for the kingdom of the world.… But no version of the kingdom of the world is closer to the kingdom of God than others because it does its job relatively well. For God’s kingdom looks like Jesus, and no amount of sword-wielding, however just it may be, can ever get a person, government, nation, or world closer to that. The kingdom of God is not an ideal version of the kingdom of the world; it’s not something that any verison of the kingdom of the world can aspire toward or be measured against. The kingdom of God is a completely distinct, alternative way of doing life.”
~Greg Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation

Boyd does a good job, in my opinion, of urging Christians to see living in a Christ-like, others-serving, “power-under” manner as their primary call; rather than seeking political influence as their primary goal. What Boyd does less well is clearly articulate how a Christian might have a godly attitude towards and involvement in politics. That is, one could easily read Boyd and think that the only appropriate thing a Christian can do in relationship with politics is to quietly vote his or her conscience. While Boyd never explicitly says that a Christian could never campaign for a candidate or cause, run for office, or otherwise “move and shake” politically–that is the impression that this book gives.

Because I am not a huge fan of the “Christian nation” narrative made popular in works such as Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory, I was not particularly worried about or offended by Boyd’s alternate narrative which makes America out to be an almost completely secular nation (a la current secular revisionist history.) However, my reading on the subject (two excellent books on church and state and the founding of America are Jon Meacham’s American Gospel and Steven Waldman’s Founding Faith) suggests that the reality fell somewhere in between these two extremes. Again, since my presupposition (as well as my reading of history) falls somewhere between the two extremes, I took Boyd’s rendering with a grain of salt, just as I have with Marshal and Manuel’s. But I wonder if Boyd’s extreme secular interpretation fo history would drive away those who have fully bought into what Boyd calls the “Myth” of a christian nation–making them unable or unwilling to see his true thesis amidst their (partly justifiable) outrage.

I have tons more thoughts on The Myth of a Christian Nation–but I’m already running rather long. This book (and the book club with which I read it) challenged me greatly, changing my mind on some things, clarifying my thoughts on others, and encouraging me to search deeper on yet more. Even though I do not find myself agreeing with everything that Boyd has written (or perhaps because I do not agree with everything Boyd wrote), I am very glad that I read this book–and that I chose to hear Boyd out through the sections which I could have chosen to take deep offense at.

I encourage other readers to do the same. Read this book, choose to reserve judgment, choose to quell the offense you might be tempted to take, choose to search through and pray through Boyd’s thesis. Maybe Boyd will change your mind. Maybe he won’t. But I promise you that you’ll have a deeper and wider perspective on the kingdom of God and on how politics may or may not fit in that for having wrestled with Boyd’s arguments.

Rating:4 stars
Category: Religion and Politics
Synopsis: Boyd argues that “the quest for political power is destroying the church.”
Recommendation: Many may find this book offensive (I know I was definitely tempted to take offense)–but I think Boyd’s thesis is certainly worth grappling with. Christians (particularly those who are interested in politics) would do well to read this book and wrestle through the ideas found within.

Thankful Thursday: Book Club

Today I’m thankful…

…for whichever friend it was who “liked” MIQRA’s Facebook Page, making it show up on my newsfeed

…for God’s providence that had me “like” MIQRA despite my general abhorrence for “liking” things (on Facebook)

…that I saw the book club announcement and “just happened” to save it

…that Evan directed me to the videos that convinced me to go

…that the Barnes and Noble in Omaha had a copy of the book–which I drove up to buy, which then locked me in to attending even when I was tired and starting to second guess my decision the first evening.

…for Jake’s familiar face that first night

…for Chad’s affirmation of my contributions (and of my writing)

…for Brian and Emily’s concern that I get to my car safely, walking me there or giving me a ride

…for walking and talking with Julie about homeschooling

…for Randy asking me about the week I missed book club

…for Nate’s passionate articulateness–so different and so similar to my own

…for Tom’s thoughtful observations and carefully reasoned comments

…for Jason’s baby :-) and a wee bit of fellowship with a real-life blogger (I’m the only really regular blogger of my “real-life” acquaintances until Jason)

…for the comfort of knowing that I wasn’t the only one who had a hard time wrestling with Christian involvement in the military–thanks so much, Jason H, for sharing

…for the others whose names aren’t coming to mind now, but who welcomed me, engaged my mind, and didn’t roll their eyes when I opened my mouth yet one more time.

…for the book itself, The Myth of a Christian Nation, which challenged and stretched me–and expanded my vision of the kingdom of God

…for the curly headed barista who prepared my Italian Soda, no cream, every Monday night

…for the discussions that brought me from bad mood to good

…for the genuine acceptance, questions, and offers of help that so many extended when I shared about “off-topic” parts of my life

…for the amazing God who has allowed me, at least for this season, to know Him with such marvelous comrades.

Thankful Thursday banner

Does the cross promote pacifism?

Notes on John Stott’s
The Cross of Christ
Chapter 12: Loving Our Enemies

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while know that I’m in a book club that’s reading Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation (our last meeting is tonight, boo-hoo.) Well, Boyd, who appears to be from an Anabaptist tradition, seems to be a pacifist (I’m reading the last chapter, about violence, right now).

If you’re at all familiar with my family, you know that I have two brothers in the Marines (currently, they’re “poolies”.) John leaves for training in October. Tim’ll leave in January.

And a few of you know that, over the past year, I’ve developed friendships with several people who ascribe to a basically pacifist or nonviolent position on the basis of their faith–in Christ.

It’s been an interesting process, sorting out my own thoughts in relation to pacifism and the cross and how the two relate–or if they relate.

I definitely don’t have it all figured out. I don’t have any problem with personally being non-violent (I don’t have any desire to join the military, etc.)–but I’m not sure if I’m ready to suggest that others should also subscribe to non-violence, or that I should promote non-violence as national policy, etc.

Of course, those are merely side issues compared to the big question that I’m wrestling with, that is: How does the cross inform a Christian’s involvement or non-involvement, support or opposition, approval or disapproval of war and other acts including violence? Or, to put it more simply: Does the cross promote pacifism?

Many of those within my book club (who tend towards non-violence) have said that they do believe in some concept of justified violence–that states have some authority to “wield the sword” (a la Romans 13) which results in violent acts of justice. The question, then, is whether Christians can and/or should be participants in this just violence. This has been my primary struggle.

John Stott addresses Christian involvement in state administration of justice (including via violent means) in The Cross of Christ:

“It is important to note that Paul uses the same vocabulary at the end of Romans 12 [‘do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath’] and at the beginning of Romans 13 [‘he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath’]. The words ‘wrath’ (orge) and ‘revenge/punishment’ (ekdikesis and ekdikos) occur in both passages. Forbidden to God’s people in general, they are assigned to God’s ‘servants’ in particular, namely officials of the state. Many Christians find great difficulty in what they perceive here to be an ethical ‘dualism’. I should like to try to clarify this issue.

First, Paul is not distinguishing between two entities, church and state, as in Luther’s well-known doctrine of the two kingdoms…

Secondly, Paul is not distinguishing between two spheres of Christian activity, private and public, so that (to put it crudely) we must love our enemies in private but may hate them in public….

Thirdly, what Paul is doing is to distinguish between two roles, personal and official. Christians are always Christians (in church and state, in public and private), under the same moral authority of Christ, but are given different roles (at home, at work, and in the community) which make different actions appropriate. For example, a Christian in the role of a policeman may use force to arrest a criminal, which in the role of a private citizen he may not; he may as a judge condemn a prisoner…and he may as an executioner (assuming that capital punishment may in some circumstances be justified) kill… This is not to say that arresting, judging, and executing are in themselves wrong (which would establish different moralities for public and private life), but that they are right responses to criminal behavior, which however God has entrusted to particular officials of the state.”

~John Stott The Cross of Christ

This makes a lot of sense to me–but still leaves the question open in my mind: But should a Christian seek out “official” roles in which they must perform actions that are not permissible to them in their “personal” roles as private citizens and members of the body of Christ?

The Week in WordsSince bulk of this post is an extended quote from Chapter 12 of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ, I’m linking it up in lieu of my regular Week in Words post. Collect more quotes from throughout the week with Barbara H’s meme “The Week in Words”.

(See more of my notes on The Cross of Christ.)

***I’d also like to clarify that we should attempt to keep our comments Christ-honoring. I know that this is a topic that can get people riled up (I do, after all, belong to a military-ish family, and you know those pacifists :-P) But let’s try to be respectful.****

WiW: A “Christian” Nation?

The Week in Words

I’m still working my way through Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation with my Monday night book club–but as so often happens, one book spawns another. When I saw Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, I was curious to hear what he had to say about religion in America. I’ve only read the introduction so far, but it appears that this could be a VERY interesting treatment of the topic.

Meacham clearly sees the United States as unique and exceptional (I’m a bit of an American exceptionalist myself), but attributes this exceptionalism neither to a Christian founding of the nation nor to a non-Christian founding of the nation (as many might). Rather, he seems to attribute this exceptionalism to the interesting balance that the founders merged between secular government and religious freedom. I’m most intrigued by the potential of this book.

On America’s early years:

“America’s early years are neither a golden age of religion nor a glowing hour of Enlightenment reason. Life was shaped by evangelical fervor and ambitious clergy, anxious politicians and determined secularists. Some Christians wanted to impose their beliefs on the rest of the country; other equally committed believers though faith should steer clear of public life. In the fulcrum stood the brilliant but fallible political leadership of the new nation. The Founding Fathers struggled to assign religion its proper place in civil society–and they succeeded.

On opposing claims made regarding the Founding Fathers:

“The right’s contention that we are a ‘Christian nation’ that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument….Conservatives are not alone in attempting to appropriate the Founding for their own ends. Many Americans, especially secular ones, tend to stake everything on Jefferson’s wall between church and state….The wall Jefferson referred to is designed to divide church from state, not religion from politics.

On how religion has shaped America:

“Taken all in all, I think history teaches that the benefits of faith in God have outweighed the costs….Guided by this religiously inspired idea of God-given rights, America has created the most inclusive, freest nation on earth. It was neither easy nor quick: the destruction of Native American cultures, the ravages of slavery, the horrors of the Civil War, and the bitterness of Jim Crow attest to that. And there is much work to be done. Yet while the tides of history are infinitely complex, other major Western powers have had a worse time of it than America, and our public religion, with its emphasis on the supremacy of the individual and its cultivation of moral virtue, is one reason why….Religion alone did not spare America, but the Founding Fathers’ belief in the divine origin of human rights fundamentally shaped our national character, and by fits and starts Americans came to see that all people were made in the image of ‘Nature’s God,’ and were thus naturally entitled to dignity and respect.

Quoting Robert Ingersoll (in what I view as the most provocative statement yet, especially in light of our discussion group):

“Our fathers founded the first secular government that was ever founded in this world….our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword…

I’m interested to see how Meacham develops these thoughts throughout the book!

Collect more quotes from throughout the week with Barbara H’s meme “The Week in Words”.

WiW: Patriotism and the Christian

The Week in Words

I’ve been reading and discussing Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation with a book group here in town. The reading–and the discussion–has been intellectually and spiritually stimulating. Some of my assumptions have been confirmed–but far more have been challenged, forcing me to think through how being “in but not of” the world informs a Christian’s political involvement.

Boyd on the calling of the church to be “set apart”

“We utterly trivialize this profound biblical teaching if we associate our peculiar holiness with a pet list of religious taboos…No, the holiness the New Testament is concerned with is centered on being Christlike, living in outrageous, self-sacrificial love. If you make this your life aspiration, you will certainly be peculiar–about as peculiar as a Messiah dying on a cursed tree! You will be a ‘resident alien.'”

Although I might disagree with Boyd over how involved a Christian can be in politics, I sincerely appreciate Boyd’s emphasis that the kingdom of God is not about promoting a certain political or social agenda but about being Christ-like (the culmination of course, of Christ-likeness being exemplified in the cross.)

Boyd on Patriotism, at Relevant Magazine via Becky S. on Facebook

“So over the Fourth of July weekend—and all year—be appreciative of your country. Be patriotic. But make sure your patriotism pales in comparison to your sacrifice, commitment and allegiance to the Kingdom of God.”

I was glad I saw this article linked by a friend on Facebook. From where I’m at in The Myth of a Christian Nation (Chapter 4), Boyd appears to be bashing any “proud to be an American” sentiment. I’ve been relatively cautious about making conclusions based on just these few chapters, but I’m glad to have this notice that Boyd doesn’t have a problem with patriotism in general, just overemphasis on patriotism at the expense of the Kingdom of God. :-)

Collect more quotes from throughout the week with Barbara H’s meme “The Week in Words”.

Impromptu Pleasures

Several weeks ago, a general announcement of an upcoming book club showed up on my Facebook news feed. I read through the announcement, and while I was not a particular invitee, the book looked interesting and the announcement stated that anyone was welcome–so I clicked the “maybe attending” button.

I nearly forgot all about it in the intervening weeks, what with preparing for Tim’s graduation and Debbie’s bachelorette party, and working on my thesis and the like.

But on Sunday night, the book club made its way onto my “coming events” sidebar and I realized I had to make a decision. I read through the announcement again and decided that yes, I really did want to attend this book club.

Problem was, it was much too late to try to purchase the book online.

So I searched around all of Lincoln’s stores, trying to find the book. The next morning, I searched again. No luck. None of Lincoln’s booksellers had a copy of Gregory Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation.

When I searched at Barnes and Noble, however, I discovered that there was a copy at one of the Omaha stores.

And thus began my wild hare.

“Rebekah Menter is contemplating driving to Omaha today to pick up a book. Am I crazy?” my Facebook status read.

A friend directed me to a discussion of Evangelical politics featuring three panelists, including Greg Boyd.

I watched a few clips of the event and decided that I was DEFINITELY interested in reading this book.

My next Facebook status? “Rebekah Menter is taking a spur-of-the-moment trip to Omaha. (What I will do for a book…)”

My trip was uneventful, quiet, nice. I got the book and returned home.

What turned this into an impromptu pleasure was that, having spent an extra couple of hours of my day tracking down the book, I HAD to go to the book discussion.

And so I did.

I didn’t know anyone who was going to be there (at least I didn’t think I knew anyone)–so I wasn’t really sure how I was going to find the group in the midst of one of Lincoln’s busiest coffee shops. Thankfully, someone had the book out, so I was able to introduce myself.

“I don’t know anyone here,” I said, “but I’m here for the book club.”

At which the fellow facing away from me looked up and gave a “What are you talking about?” expression.

I guess I was wrong. I did know someone.

“Sorry, Jake. I didn’t realize you were here.”

It turned out to be a wonderful night. I enjoyed meeting new people, getting bit of an intro to the book. But most of all, I enjoyed the passionate discussion that I found myself embroiled in after the “formal” book club portion ended.

It’s been so long since I had a real, honest-to-goodness, face-to-face passionate discussion about the issues of our day. It was refreshing, energizing, invigorating (let’s see how many more synonyms I can come up with :-P).

Needless to say, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I’m so glad I made that impromptu decision to lock myself into going.