Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland
Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland

Chris Stevens JKP • November 11, 2020

 Tom Holland is famous for writing large volumes on history in an age when many people do not read big books or care (ignorant?) about anything before the invention of Facebook. Despite such trends, Holland has found a strong following. In his newest volume, Dominion, Holland covers about three millennia in an engaging style. His thesis and aim catch the eye of any cultural analyst and Christian who likes to read. The premise is that “Time itself has been Christianised,” therefore, Holland’s “ambition is hubristic enough as it is: to explore how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way we do” (p. 12). In short, the book attempts to trace the influence Christianity had on Western thought and its embeddedness in Western societal structures.

      I found Holland’s writing very well-researched, engaging, at times humorous, and despite being 543 pages of material, to be a page-turner. While not my favorite style, he writes in circular patterns to display the interconnectedness of events and movements. For those who do not like dull history books, you will find the writing style enjoyable and informative. I want to offer two points; one is the reason for my enjoying the book, and the other is my critic.

      On a positive note, I like many parts of the book. I like that there appears to be an audience in the world that still cares to hear about Christian history. As a Christian with a history degree and serving in scholarly engagement, the book hits a sweet spot for me. But more importantly, I like how Holland looks at Christian history with a different lens than those from within the guild of Theological Studies or as a church historian. He portrays events more bluntly, which I find refreshing. For instance, he colorfully highlights the irony of Roman Catholicism’s tyranny against any who infringed on her authority. Holland says, “Such exclusivity was sternly guarded. Those who disturbed it, and refused to repent, might expect to be silenced, expelled or put to death. A Church that worshipped a God executed by heedless authorities presided over what has aptly been termed ‘a persecuting society’” (p. 11). Holland continues to make pointed and unique observations through the middle-ages, the Reformation, Enlightenment, the rise of modern science, Marx, Lenin and John Lennon, and right up to Pulp Fiction and Donald Trump. Many readers will find lots of facets of the story to enjoy.

       On the flip side, as a Christian pastor-scholar, I was often curious precisely Holland meant by describing something as being very much in the vein of Christianity. For instance, to place Voltaire, the Quakers, the Collegiants, and Spinoza in the same stream as Constantine, John Paul, and Luther does seem rather odd. However, Holland does attempt to make his case that “Voltaire’s dream of a brotherhood of man, even as it cast Christianity as something factious, parochial, murderous, could not help but betray its Christian roots” (p. 392). Holland sees Marx, Lenin, and Lennon as having similar paradoxical roots as Voltaire. To be sure, Holland is not claiming people or movements were Christian, but that what was driving them was the spirit (Geist) of Christianity. 

      In short, what Holland sees as an essential spirit--not Holy Spirit-- of Christianity is an engine for change. For Holland, Christianity functions as a means to criticize the perceived wrongs of society and recast the way society should evolve. However, Holland betrays that his version of Christianity is not the one faith proclaimed around the world for two millennia, but the version of Christianity known in America as Modern Liberalism (note the capitalization). Modern Liberalism attempts to address the felt needs of the present moment with the elements of Jesus believed to be most applicable to evoke change, but it often lacks roots or long-term direction.

      As a Christian pastor, I do not participate in this version of Christianity. While I agree that Christians should call out the ills of society and spread a message of change, it is not a wild free for all to address felt needs. Instead, Biblical Christianity is anchored in the covenant document of the one God who rules over all time and place. The document of the scriptures is a rule-governed basis for Christian thought and practice. It is broad and deep enough to be applicable in different times and places, but there is still a clearly defined basis. Therefore, Biblically-based Christianity can say that Spinoza and Voltaire were not developing in a Christian vein, even if they were influenced by Christianity. Holland’s approach neuters the capacity of Christianity to determine if something is wrong or right, or in other words, if something is orthodox and orthopraxis or not.

      As Christians called to discern rightly, we need to read and think deeply about what is claimed to be a ‘Christian thing.’ We need to think deeply about what it means to change the world, be in the world, and be against the world. These are different things, and Christians are called to engage in all three in different ways.  

In conclusion, I think folks in my circles will enjoy Dominion. They will enjoy reading one perspective on the history of Christianity, even if we may demure if it is authentic Christianity or not.


Rev. Dr. Chris S. Stevens

John Knox in Ruston

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Work Matters
Work Matters

Chris Stevens JKP • November 04, 2020

The very notion of work is something that tires Americans. The morning trudge to work is undoubtedly not something that brightens the morning for most people. There are certainly a few matters at play but bearing it with an insufferable attitude is not an appropriate Christian response. After reading Tom Nelson’s light read, Work Matters, I wanted to provide a few briefs thoughts to encourage us to have a better biblical perspective on work.

First, scripture explains our current condition. Reading Genesis 1-3, we find humans were crafted and designed in a manner to work. In the beginning, humans were assigned a profitable workload. Working and keeping the Garden-Temple of God’s holy presence was intrinsically valuable, and the reward of spending time in God’s presence would have been exhilarating. However, the consequences of sin were damaging. Adam and Eve were told at least three consequences: a) being driven from God’s presence robbed us of our daily reward; b) our labors will be toilsome (i.e., thorns and thistles); our labor lost a lot of its intrinsic value as we are striving not for holy presence but daily sustenance.

Second, people do not live for bread (i.e., things of the world), but to commune with God (Matt 4:4). If we think biblically about having j-o-b-s, we find work has value. While that value is not equal to guarding and keeping the holy Garden-Temple, it is valuable. We work not only to have stuff (truck, boat, books, etc.), but more importantly, to provide (food, shelter, education, etc.). Parents work to provide for children and for their own needs (2 Thess 3:12). All Christians work to provide for the outposts of heaven to shine a heavenly light into darkness, aka., the local church. Work has value because it is an instrument to an end, and it also provides a place to carry out a more profound office.

Third, all Christians have the role of the office of believer. We carry this office out in every sphere we live and serve. Having a secular job gives a Christian permission to bring love, mercy, and the gospel into places outside of the church building. As a pastor, I can’t just walk into any workplace, but the Messianic Kingdom Participants who work there do.

Nelson has a good quote, “a proper biblical understanding is that all Christians are called to ‘full-time Christian work,’ doing good work well for the glory of God, regardless of their specific vocation” (p. 45). I think Nelson offers a good reminder. Ultimately, we should consciously be mindful that we take God’s work with us everywhere we go, including our secular vocations.

Fourth, you might not be preaching the gospel during a coffee break, but your conduct at work reflects poorly or appropriately on Christ. If you are an insufferable human, the boss is trying to fire because no one wants to be around, I bet your pastor doesn’t want you to pass our church fliers. But if you are a quality worker, marked by the fruits of the spirit, please pass out fliers for John Knox! A Christian who works with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is a blessing to the work environment and a positive reflection on Christ and his church (Gal 5:22-23). Likewise, the willingness to apologize when imperfect in these fruits at work also reflects well on Christ.

Fifth, work has a positive end for the world. Martin Luther contended that ‘God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.’ Work that is not sinful is good for society. Remember that when God’s people were in Babylonian exile, he told them, ‘build houses … plant gardens … have sons and daughters … Pursue the well-being of the city; Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it thrives, you thrive” (Jer 29:5-7). Our good labor is good for society.

So tomorrow, and the next day, when the alarm goes off, know that your work has value both for the present felt needs and for longer-term purposes. If you struggle with work, then give Work Matters a quick glance to encourage you.

 


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Helen Sword
Helen Sword

Chris Stevens JKP • October 21, 2020

Helen Sword, Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write


Ever feel like a lazy, unproductive slug? A person filled with good intentions and a side of shame for failing to follow through on those intentions? Welcome to the world of many moms, dads, children, and me. Social media only heightens these feelings by giving a false portrayal of human life. I am tired of the productivity books, hacks, and tricks. Not that they lack gems here and there, but that they suggest people are all the same. Many popular works turn humans into robots by portraying a guarantee of productivity by merely doing what seemingly worked for someone else.

      Drinking more coffee? There is a limit … trust me. Staying up late? I’ve been diagnosed as an insomniac twice. No more, thanks. Humans are diverse, intricate creations. We do not all function or operate the same. Those we are around, the roles we play in our circles of responsibility, and our goals are all different. So why would we approach improving our productivity as if there was a one size fits all?

      Interestingly, I still find it necessary to read a book or two on the matter regularly. I was thankfully turned toward one I liked. Helen Sword in Air and Light does not attempt to offer a ready-made blueprint of productivity and academic success. For many, such a guide would only serve to heighten the sense of failed attempts and unfinished drafts. What Sword does offer is a window into the lives of other writers, academics, and professors who share the struggles of work and focus. While her research and target audience are fixed on academic writers, I believe her findings are insightful for moms, dads, singles, and children. In short, everyone.  

      Sword interviewed 100 academic writers and editors and gathered data from 1223 others whose job it is to write. She presents the information in excellent prose, reporting the challenges of working as a writer. If you are an academic writer under the Grafton Line (who isn’t?), then I think you will enjoy the read. You will find comfort in the anecdotal reflections of babying an idea toward a publication.

Additionally, I found that Sword’s research and reflections apply to a broader audience than academic writers. All people with responsibilities struggle with those responsibilities. We struggle to convert intentions to accomplishments, and we struggle to be responsible for our time. Consider this little gem from chapter one:

“You can’t lose time behind the back of a sofa or discover a forgotten stash tucked away in a kitchen drawer. You can’t mint it like coins or spend it like cash. Nevertheless, academics talk constantly about making time, finding time, carving out time to write. We fantasize about having more of it, and we bemoan our chronic lack of it” (p. 17).


Sword vividly displays a truth about human limitation; we don’t make time. God alone does, but he gives a certain amount to each person. Some more, some less, but in all cases, it is a gift we don’t deserve. Reading books on productivity or even thinking about them can be discouraging. But I believe there is a comfort in knowing the truth, successful people who struggle too. All people find their tasks difficult even when they do them well.

Contrary to social media that portrays life as easy, glamorized, and always pretty, I think all should be encouraged by Sword’s research. The road to productivity is as diverse as there are people. So, if you are a mom who feels you only ever add to your to-do list, or a dad struggling to turn a to-do list into a somewhat accomplished list, then know you are not alone. I am right there with you.


Rev. Dr. Chris S. Stevens

McMaster Divinity College

Pastor at John Knox in Ruston


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Virus as a Summons to Faith
Virus as a Summons to Faith

Chris Stevens JKP • October 19, 2020

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2020. 80 pp. Pbk. ISBN 978-1-7252-7673-4. $14.00

 

(The below is a book review for the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. It is modified for use at John Knox.)

 

Scared silent is a thing we have all experienced. Fear can all too easily grip our hearts and overwhelms us. Being frightened all too often drives out or at least causes damage to faith. The church at large has experienced this many times in history. In the last few months, we have witnessed this response in North America. 

Walter Brueggemann did not become silent when a virus, commonly called Covid-19, began to sweep North America and the world. He went to the keyboard to unleash his voice in the way he often has done. He wrote an entire book and had it in print in under two months. Virus as a Summons to Faith is exactly what we need to hear during this time and all times that calamities strike.

Brueggemann addresses critical areas of concern for the Christian personally, the church corporately, and how to move forward in greater faith. For the benefit of the church I serve, Redeemer Traverse City (RedeemerTC.org), I want to focus on Brueggemann’s primary concern. He addresses the question many asked during this pandemic. Is this pandemic a curse from God? Wisely Brueggemann does not presume to be an all-knowing prophet, but he does try to offer a prophetic voice that encourages the growth of a critical faith wrestling with scripture.

Turning attention to key Old Testament passages, readers are confronted with the reality that God works in varied ways. Brueggemann highlights three lines of interpretative options: transactional, purposeful enactment, and enacted in freedom.

The transactional interpretation of events sees a quid pro quo reaction from God. This line of thinking is most clearly display during the Mosaic administration. Passages like 2 Sam 24:12–13 and Deut 28:20–34, among many others, present pestilence as unnatural events in response to personal or community disobedience. The Lord will pour forth curses because the people “have forsaken me” (Deut 28:20). It is possible to view the current pandemic as such a response from God. Brueggemann allows readers to contemplate the possibility of the North American church suffering based on the sinfulness in the land. 

I find it unsurprising that some may ask, am I being punished for sin? Or, more broadly, is the church suffering for her sins. However, the church must question how the New Testament, specifically the New Covenant, transforms such a quid pro quo response from God.

The second interpretative lens is the “purposeful enactment of force” for the “specific purpose of YHWH” (p.5). This trajectory is mainly drawn from the events in Exodus. Brueggemann highlights that God does specific actions, and he explains their divine purposes. For example, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened for the express purpose that God will be glorified (Exo 14:4, 17). The destructive power of the plagues—analogous to the pestilence of a pandemic—is at least two-fold. Their end is to rescue his people and proclaim that YHWH is God to the Israelites, the Egyptians, and all the nations. Consider Rahab’s statements in Joshua 2:10–11, or the Gibeonite’s in Joshua 9:9. The destructive power of God poured out in Egypt spread a message to the nations. A message that this God, the covenant YHWH, is mightier than all others.

Contrary to many popular views of divine power, Brueggemann explains that “YHWH, it turns out, has many tools of sovereignty beyond the force of love” (p.10). Destructive force, and the enactment of terror is something God has done to bring about the good of his people and his glorification among the nations. Such passages and understanding of God is an excellent biblical reminder to the North American Church that has experienced very little martyrdom and persecution in the last few centuries, especially in comparison to China, North Korea, and former communist states.

The third interpretive option takes us beyond the ability of human interpretive prowess. It requires acknowledging that God’s sovereignty is beyond the capacity of people to comprehend the world (think of passages like Deut 29:29 and Isa 55:8). Brueggemann defines some actions of God as arising from “the sheer holiness of God that can enact in utter freedom without reason, explanation, or accountability, seemingly beyond any purpose at all” (p. 10). For a full display of this freedom of God, readers are turned to events in Job. The enacted wonders in Job 38–41 are not explained, but they cause Job to respond that he is not God. Brueggemann concludes that one of the critical results of God’s actions is to “expose Job’s anemic capacity for understanding” (p.10). We should learn this object lesson.

In an age where seemingly endless information is only an internet search away, and there is no shortage of opinions on everything. The present church needs to have humble wonderment restored. God’s holiness and utter freedom in all of his actions should lead to the response that he alone is God, and we are not. Brueggemann encourages the understanding that this pandemic, and all calamities, is no different. It is an event under God’s direct sovereignty, where the divine intent is unlikely to be fully comprehended. It elicits a mental and emotional response that should, when rightly oriented, foster greater faith.

Those who have read Brueggemann over the last four decades know that the restoration of awe and wonder is a primary goal of his work. While not explicitly giving a final interpretation to the divine intent in and through the pandemic, Brueggemann does see that the church and her preachers are authorized to guide Christians into such wonderment (p.18). It is the restoration of imaginative wonderment, guided by scripture, that turns pestilence into a season where faith grows as it seeks mercy.

Using 2 Sam 24, Brueggemann exposes the problematic reality that David faced for his sins. David confesses that he has sinned and acknowledges that punishment is expected. The important thing to understand is that David chooses direct action from God rather than punishment from indirect actions. David does not flee from God. Rather he anticipates God will dispense mercy amid the pestilence. As it may be preached, “we may dare imagine with David that the final word is not pestilence; it is mercy” (p.26). Faithful hope in the God of mercy is a primary lesson we should draw from this season of a pandemic. 

From these object lessons in redemptive history, Brueggemann teaches that the hope needed in this season is the Christian hope that rests on a firm foundation. It is a hope based on God and current events. It is not a hope based on the whimsical expectations of a quick vaccine or a rational governmental response. It is not a hope that hides behind platitudes like, ‘we will get through this.’ The Christian response to a season of pestilence is to foster a faith that firmly rests in a hope founded upon the “conviction that God will not quit until God has arrived at God’s good intention” (p.32). Churches should be proclaiming a restorative message that does not hide from the pain caused by death, fear, and anxiety. Instead, the church should proclaim that war, pestilence, and famine are accountable to God. This theological acknowledgment can restore an imaginative hope, which in kind robs the pandemic of its capacity to disorder life (p. 43).

If Paul can rightly say that death has lost its sting because of the resurrection of Christ, then pestilence has also lost its sting when we are firmly fixed on the sovereignty of God. We trust in his goodness and promises of transformation that are chiefly displayed in the gift of Christ.            

While the book is short, it is content-rich and nourishes faith. It challenges and comforts with the Scriptures. The social reordering that Brueggemann offers will challenge ideas of returning to the past experiences of normal. Brueggemann is daring enough to imagine a social order that is greater. Dare I say, a restoration and break-in of thy kingdom come.

One shortcoming is that the reader may feel a ten percent expansion would help. At times there is an abruptness, and the end comes quickly. However, it does not deter from the quality of the book, and the need to quickly address the season can forgive such small matters.

A final aspect to highlight is the pro-offered prayers. At the end of each of the seven sections, Brueggemann provides psalm like prayers that confront different aspects of the season. They are great for personal prayer, liturgical guidance, and community reflection.

As a pastor, I heartily recommend this book to all Christians. It is not light reading but rich reading. I recommend it to all Christians who have questioned how to respond to the season and wondered if scripture offers any reflection. I also heartily commend it to church leaders looking for ways to lead their fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.

 

Rev. Dr. Chris S. Stevens

McMaster Divinity College

Pastor at John Knox Ruston

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