Archives For Book Bites

27840609

Well, Mike Bird has done it again. “It” meaning “written a book.” This time it is a primer on The Apostles’ Creed, aptly title What Christians Ought to Believe, and Zondervan was kind enough to send me a copy. In just over 200 pages Bird introduces readers to the creed, explains why you need it, and then devotes roughly a chapter per phrase of the creed. At the end of most chapters, he summarizes the story of the creed so far, and in every chapter he offers a few resources for further reading.

While focused on The Apostles’ Creed, this volume is a good companion to Bird’s larger systematic Evangelical Theology (which I still need to post a review summary for). There is similarity here to a previous Zondervan publication, Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith, and then later rewritten abridgment Pilgrim Theology (I’m more a fan of the latter rather than the former, although the price makes it less enticing). However, in that case, the small volume was covering more or less the same ground, just in a more accessible way. Here, Bird is writing about The Apostles’ Creed, but when a more in-depth discussion is warranted on certain points, he can merely direct readers to where he’s covered it in his larger volume.

As it stands, this would be a good volume to use to introduce readers to theology, but through a classic, catholic (little c!) creed. There is just enough here to get your feet wet, and then wade into the waist deep water of the beliefs that all Christians should share. It would make an excellent book for a small group that wants to study theology in an organized way, but doesn’t want to commit to a systematic. Plus, you have the advantage of Bird’s clear and at times humorous writing style. The result is an accessible engaging volume that effectively introduces readers to Christian doctrine.

9780830840953 (1)

On the other end of the spectrum is Thomas McCall’s An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology. While no less clear than Bird, this slim (less than 200pp) volume introduces readers to philosophical theology. Well, I suppose the two terms are not exactly interchangeable. Philosophical theology developed out of philosophy of religion as the tools of philosophy were applied to Christian theology.

Now, the preferred term is analytic theology. Quoting from William Abraham, McCall uses this definition: “it is systematic theology attuned to the skills, resources, and virtues of analytic philosophy” (16). This comes from the introduction where McCall helpfully lays out what analytic theology should be, and then clears up misconceptions about what it isn’t.

The remaining four chapters demonstrate analytic theology in practice. First, in relation to our understanding of Scripture. Second, McCall shows analytic theology’s virtues when it comes to the history of doctrine. The next chapter puts analytic theology to use in a case study concerning creation, evolution, and the historical Adam. The final, briefest chapter, is where the invitation in the title comes in, as McCall casts vision for what analytic theology can contribute and encourages readers to pursue it.

All in all, this is an excellent introduction to what could easily be an overwhelming field of study. It defines the topic clearly, puts it into practice in a variety of subjects, and shows that it has value for the church and world. Hard to ask for more than that.

recommeded-reading-challies-header

Well, summer is officially over. I finished up teacher orientation last week, so school is basically back in session. As you can see, I still managed to do a good bit of reading, making a bit of progress on Tim Challies Reading Challenge. That will slow down considerably this month, and probably for the fall as a whole. As I’ve though about it, I’ll probably need to write a post or two about the different approaches to reading I take in different seasons of life. I don’t want to spoil that here though. Also, if you missed it, check out my theological add-on to Challies Challenge.

Here’s what I read in July, that I won’t write on elsewhere:

And here’s what I’ll end up posting a review on sooner or later:

Lastly, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m up to 66 books in the lists below, but I’ve read 104 new books total this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (9 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (10 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (14 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (33 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

capc_member-offerings_standard-300x300

For a couple of years now, I’ve been a staff writer with a website called Christ and Pop Culture. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably seen me reference it, and perhaps link to articles I’ve written. Recently, my writeup on Unashamed posted (a good companion to The Soul of Shame) and you can get it free for a brief time. You can read my full write up here.

That’s right, by being a member of Christ and Pop Culture, you can support the writers who put out pretty stellar content on the site, and get free books (and other stuff too). You can read more about membership here. In my time doing the write ups, here’s some of the books that were available:

That should give an idea of the track record of books that are offered. Recently, I was working on a write-up for David Dark’s Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious, Due to a slight miscommunication, a more full length essay was already commissioned on it, and you should be able to read that here. Before I found that out, IVP had graciously sent me a hard copy of the book, so I felt like I should still post my thoughts on it.

9780830844463

Dark writes in a meditative style, which makes the book a fairly easy read. However, he is helping readers reflect on their religious practices. Many of these might not seem to be so religious on the surface, and so Dark’s style helps disarm readers and move them toward reflection. In doing so, he shows that if we have entered into relationships with others and with facets of our culture, we have engaged to some extent in religious practices. Culture itself is intimately tied to religion and Dark subtly unmasks the connection. You can get a better feel for what he’s up to in the book by watching this video. Had you been a member before now, you would have just snagged yourself a copy!

9781433550744

Another book that I received thanks to Crossway before I knew it would be free for members is Andy Naselli and J.D. Crowley’s Conscience What It Is, How To Train IT, and Loving Those Who Differ. I liked this book so much that I immediately put it to use in class and decided to require it next year for my 11th grade Bible class. There are several diagrams within that I tried to recreate on the board (which is difficult for a lefty, but I’m a professional at this point). I am told it was helpful to several students as they prepare to navigate going away to college and starting to live by a different set of rules (or at least not having as many rules as previously).

While a short book, I think it does a masterful job of covering a much neglected topic in practical theology. D. A. Carson thought so too and that’s probably why he wrote the foreword. As try to navigate the straits between legalism and licentiousness, a book like this helps to clarify the discussion and offer a way for Christians to think about their Christian liberty and how it relates to those in their community. I would highly recommend this book, and it’s free if you’ve become a Christ and Pop Culture member by now. If not, why keep waiting?

29928144

I’m always on the lookout for helpful primers on the subjects I study. Often, introductory texts can be so daunting it is hard to know where to start. Thankfully, new books continued to be published. Even if there is overlap at times, that just means there are more options for just the right audience. In that light, here are three primers I’ve come across recently that I really enjoyed.

First off, J.A. Medders and Brandon Smith have published Rooted: Theology for Growing Christians. Russell Moore thinks its legit and you should too. I corresponded with Brandon a bit about it and then the publisher, relatively new Rainer Publishing, graciously sent me a review copy. In a relatively brief 120 pages, Medders and Smith introduce readers for the need to study theology, and then cover four key topics: God, His Word, Redemption and The Gospel, The Church and The Future. Experienced readers will notice this is the basic contours of a systematic theology. However, this is written for someone who doesn’t know that and so it is jargon free. Though not necessarily in narrative form, the topics are expounded in relation to the general story line of Scripture. This gives the book a good connection to biblical theology and makes the entry point easier for someone who hasn’t study the topics in detail.

Because of its style, length, and focus, I decided to make it a required book for my 9th grade Bible class. Traditionally, this class is an Old Testament survey, but since I teach Systematic Theology for 11th grade, I thought it might be a good introduction earlier in high school to prepare them for a more detailed study a couple of years later (if you’re curious, I use Bible Doctrine for that class). I suppose I’ll have more to say after putting it to use in class this next year, but I’m excited to see it help open up a window into studying theology for many students.

Unparalleled_Covers_3

While we’re discussing books I’ve liked and decided to use in class, let’s talk about Jared Wilson’s Unparalleled: How Christianity’s Uniqueness Makes It Compelling. Thanks to Baker Books, I snagged a copy and devoured it pretty quick, as is my custom with many of Wilson’s book. I was reading as I was finishing up my last spring with a senior class I had taught since they were freshmen. Many of the topics in Wilson’s book had come up in class throughout the year, either directly or through Ask Anything Friday. Looking ahead to the next graduating class, I thought they’d benefit from reading a solid book in a conversational tone to supplement our class discussions.

Topics that Wilson tackles include subjects like how the Trinity is practical/relevant, the difference between the Christian God and other gods, how the Christian view of humanity is both the most realistic and optimistic, how Jesus claimed to be God, and how he triumphed over evil and injustice. You know, pretty basic stuff right? Actually, several of these are potentially thorny issues. There are full length apologetics books on each of the topics Wilson addresses, but he introduces readers to the core issues in an understandable way. In other words, I think he presents his case for Christianity in a way that a high schooler could pick up on and (hopefully) not get too confused. Even if you’re not using this book in a class like I am, it seems like it would be a great book to read with a friend who has legitimate questions and wants to explore what makes Christianity so unique and compelling (to borrow from the subtitle). As with the previous book, I’ll try to remember to let you know how it works out in class.

9780830840939

Lastly, and not for a class (unfortunately), IVP sent along Douglas Groothuis’ Philosophy in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to A Vast Topic. The history of Western philosophy, while a footnote to Plato, is not an easy topic to master. The best way to march through the history is with Coppleston’s volumes (11 I think). But, most of us don’t have time for that. What you do have time for is Groothuis’ book. You also have no excuse to not know something about philosophy since it shapes just about everything in our culture whether you like it or not.

Because you’re hopefully curious at this point, these are the seven sentences that Groothuis uses to introduce us to the history of philosophy:

  • Man is the measure of all things (Protagoras)
  • The unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates)
  • All men by nature desire to know (Aristotle)
  • You have made use for yourself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you (Augustine)
  • I think, therefore I am (Descartes)
  • The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing (Pascal)
  • The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all (Kierkegaard)

Certainly other key sentences could be chosen. However, I think this is a good balance of ancient and modern, and covers a broad range of topics within philosophy. It is hard to imagine two more influential sentences than those listed by Socrates (found in Plato’s writings, just FYI) and Descartes. Likewise, the sentence from Augustine is from his Confessions, which is a must read for anyone really, regardless of your interest in philosophy. It is both an introduction into Christian life and conversion, and the first autobiography of sorts.

The sentence from Protagoras gives you an idea of the foundations of Western philosophy, a tradition that sought knowledge without recourse to revelation. Likewise, the sentence from Aristotle shows just how relevant philosophy is to any context, ancient or modern. The last two sentences show that philosophy can easily cross over into psychology and that for me, was my initial draw to the subject. I was blown away by my intro to philosophy class early in my studies at Liberty. Since then, I’ve come back to it again and again, and this little primer by Groothuis is a great introduction to the topic.

recommeded-reading-challies-header

I mentioned last month that May was a mess. June didn’t get too much better in terms of local events that became national events. However, as you can see below, I did a lot of reading. I’ve intentionally tried to read more books outside of my normal patterns (biblical and theological studies) and it has been quite rewarding. As I continue to make progress on Tim Challies Reading Challenge, I’m recapturing the joy of reading one book at a time (corny, right?). Also, if you missed it, check out my theological add-on to Challies Challenge.

Here’s what I read in June:

Lastly, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m up to 58 books in the lists below, but I’ve read 79 new books total this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (8 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (8 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (13 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (29 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

9780830836765

Apologetics is becoming more and more about finesse. Maybe it always has been. Straightforward presentations of facts and figures don’t usually cut it. There’s gotta be an angle.

I think some of this comes down to the audience. If you’re writing apologetics for other Christians, you don’t have to pay as much attention to persuasion. They’re already persuaded, but want to know the underlying foundations of Christianity. On the other hand, if you’re writing for people other than Christians, you have to pay attention to persuasion.

Along these lines, I’d recommend True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World by David Skeel. Thanks to IVP, I was able to read a copy at the beginning of summer. Skeel is S. Samuel Arsht Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He’s also an elder at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. In his book, he takes five key topics, ideas, beauty, suffering and sensation, justice, life and the afterlife, and explains how Christianity offers a better explanation of these given phenomena than materialism does. As he puts it, “My claim is a very simple one: Christianity tells us more about each of these paradoxes than you may think” (15)

While the ideal reader will be fairly intellectual, the tone and style are highly accessible. Perhaps because Skeel is a professor of law by trade, his writing is particularly clear in the midst of sophisticated discussion. It’s a short book but I’d imagine it making for many good pub discussions with an atheist friend or two. Skeel also writes as someone who didn’t grow up in a religious environment. After his curiosity was aroused in college lit classes and he read the Bible for himself that his journey toward Christianity began. Again, as he says, “The sheer beauty of the Bible is what first drew me in, and it’s still what I go back to when I’m asked over a beer late at night why I believe Christianity is true” (86).

All this to say, if you’re looking for a concise, yet compelling presentation of Christianity’s explanatory power, this is your book. I’m tempted to make it a late addition to one of my Bible classes, but I might just save it for book club.

27840614

In a similar vein, and also at the beginning of the summer, I read through John Dickson’s A Doubter’s Guide to The Ten Commandments thanks to BookLook Bloggers. It is a follow up to A Doubter’s Guide to The Bible, and from what I can now tell, part of an on-going series (next book is a A Doubter’s Guide to Church). Dickson seems to be primarily writing for a secular audience and tackles the idea that our ideas of ethics come from Moses and Jesus.

The opening chapter illustrate how pervasive the Ten Commandments are in the world (past and present). Next, Dickson raises the question of why we aspire to be good in the first place. He then offers three keys for understanding the Ten Commandments. These have to do with how Jesus “transposed” the commandments, that they can be divided into two tables (related to God and man), and that they are a “charter of freedom.” From here, Dickson goes command by command to finish out the book. He spends more time on the first five, and notes on the 6th that the remainder are fairly self explanatory (119). This is probably fair, and I’m sure there were certain constraints that kept the page count under 200.

All in all, I think this is great book to pass along to someone interested in ethics, law, justice, and perhaps politics. It is written with skeptics in mind (hence the title), but I would imagine many Christians would benefit from reading it as well. As a side note, I wish it had an index, but I appreciated that in the absence of footnotes, we were given parenthetical citations with publication info rather than endnotes. Combine this with the previous book I talked about and you’ve got a book skeptics book club reading list going.

DisappearingChurch_PRINT.indd

Lastly, thanks to Moody I was able to get a copy of Mark Sayers’ Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience. The subtitle gives you the two parts of the book. In the first, Sayers analyzes our current post-Christian culture and our craving for relevance. He then connects this analysis to an ancient heresy. In this case, it’s gnosticism, which he sees as a “gospel of the self.” In a perceptive chart, he compares ancient and modern versions of gnosticism to what the true gospel actually teaches. To give you an idea what he sees as contemporary gnosticism, here’s that column (65):

  • Your world is inferior [to mine]
  • The mundane is the problem
  • Turn your body into a perfect-looking body
  • Look inward to find the real you
  • Escape the mundane to the amazing life
  • Move toward the perfect life through tips, tweaks, hacks, and the secrets of success
  • You are a seeker, pursuing fulfillment through incredible experiences and pleasure
  • Move past organized religion and find spirituality
  • Move toward fulfillment by breaking past the barriers set by tradition, religion, and others
  • It’s all about you

If you ask me, that’s a pretty good snapshot of contemporary culture. This underlying philosophy gives rise to all kinds of movements and trends. With this description and critique in place, Sayers spends the second half of the book sketching the path of gospel resilience. He deals with rejecting the implicit prosperity gospel, how churches can stop catering to public opinion, and the need to deliver truth among other topics. As is often the case, the solution is only as good as the diagnosis is accurate. I think if Sayers is right about his cultural analysis (and I think he’s on to something), then what he offers in the second half of this book is probably something many church leaders need to interact with. I’ll probably need to ruminate a bit more on it, but I’m also probably gonna pass the book on to my pastor and see what he thinks.

recommeded-reading-challies-header

Well, May was a mess and for reasons I’d rather not explain at the moment. But, school’s out and it’s finally summer. I didn’t blog quite as much in May, but I did manage to post my April Update as part of Tim Challies Reading Challenge. Reading was about the same as last month, but continues to grow more varied. Some of that is the time of year. Some of that is because theology books have started boring me. I’ve started questioning my reading a little more, and may become more ruthless about it to start reading more for enjoyment rather than rote habit (which is honestly how you make it through some books in the biblical and theological categories). If this sounds a bit cranky, you’re probably right. And I should probably explain more of my thinking in a separate post. For now, here’s what I read last month:

Also, as it my custom around this time of year, I re-read some Bill Bryson books (The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, A Walk in The Woods). If you’ve never discovered or read anything by him, consider this my strong recommendation.

Lastly, if you’re keeping score at home, I’m up to 45 books in the lists below, but I’ve read 57 new books total this year.

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (8 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (4 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book written by a Puritan
  • ☒ A book recommended by a family member (Batman: The Killing Joke)
  • ☐ A book by or about a missionary
  • ☐ A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
  • ☒ A book written by an Anglican (Paul and The Trinity)
  • ☐ A book with at least 400 pages
  • ☐ A book by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien
  • ☒ A book that has a fruit of the Spirit in the title (Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World)
  • ☐ A book with a great cover
  • ☐ A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
  • ☐ A book about church history
  • ☒ A graphic novel (Watchmen)
  • ☐ A book of poetry

THE COMMITTED READER (11 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (22 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

recommeded-reading-challies-header

Around this time last month, I posted my March Update as part of Tim Challies Reading Challenge. Reading was down slightly this past month, as was blogging (to say the least). Rather than spring training games, it was a week in California that through everything off, but boy was it worth it (still hanging in there with Mad Men too, just started season 6). I decided to not really annotated the list this month. Believe it or not, the truncated list is kind of a pain to add new reads to, so I’m back to the full list of books. The benefit is that it saves me time and now you can see what kinds of books I might read in the coming months.

Here’s the April reads:

Here’s the whole list, in case you’re curious (and even if you’re not):

THE LIGHT READER (8 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (2 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book written by a Puritan
  • ☐ A book recommended by a family member
  • ☐ A book by or about a missionary
  • ☐ A novel that won the Pulitzer Prize
  • ☒ A book written by an Anglican (Paul and The Trinity)
  • ☐ A book with at least 400 pages
  • ☐ A book by C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien
  • ☐ A book that has a fruit of the Spirit in the title
  • ☐ A book with a great cover
  • ☐ A book on the current New York Times list of bestsellers
  • ☐ A book about church history
  • ☒ A graphic novel (Watchmen)
  • ☐ A book of poetry

THE COMMITTED READER (8 BOOKS)

  • ☐ A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with
  • ☐ A book written by an author with initials in their name
  • ☐ A book that won a ECPA Christian Book Award
  • ☒ A book about worldview (The Experience of God)
  • ☐ A play by William Shakespeare
  • ☒ A humorous book (This is Awkward)
  • ☐ A book based on a true story
  • ☐ A book written by Jane Austen
  • ☐ A book by or about Martin Luther
  • ☐ A book with 100 pages or less
  • ☐ A book with a one-word title
  • ☒ A book about money or finance (The God Ask)
  • ☐ A novel set in a country that is not your own
  • ☐ A book about music
  • ☒ A memoir (The Pastor: A Memoir)
  • ☒ A book about joy or happiness (Happiness)
  • ☐ A book by a female author
  • ☒ A book whose title comes from a Bible verse (Eat This Book)
  • ☐ A book you have started but never finished
  • ☒ A self-improvement book (Nudge)
  • ☐ A book by David McCullough
  • ☒ A book you own but have never read (The Work of Christ (Contours in Christian Theology))
  • ☐ A book about abortion
  • ☐ A book targeted at the other gender
  • ☐ A book by a speaker at a conference you have attended
  • ☐ A book written by someone of a different ethnicity than you

THE OBSESSED READER (21 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

recommeded-reading-challies-header

Around this time last month, I posted my February Update as part of Tim Challies Reading Challenge. Reading was down slightly this past month, as was blogging. That was mainly because I had spring break and took advantage of having spring training games in my backyard. That, and I’ve started watching Mad Men. Once again, I have a slightly more annotated list this time around. Key word is slightly. I’ve also truncated the checklist to just include books I’ve finished at this point. If you want the whole list, see either my January Update or Challies original post.

Here’s the March reads:

THE LIGHT READER (7/13 BOOKS)

THE AVID READER (1/26 BOOKS)

THE COMMITTED READER (6/52 BOOKS)

THE OBSESSED READER (15/104 BOOKS)

(image via challies)

9780830828142

Between the time I write this and you read it, I will have voted in the Florida primary. Kind of seems like an exercise in futility at this point, but since I could walk to the polling place (or drive by it on the way to gym) it also seems wrong to not exercise my civic duty before I exercise by upper body and quads. Also, since the polling place is a Unitarian Universalist church, it will be nice to see that location being used for something productive (just kidding, although not really, I’m just being ironic given what I said just a few sentences ago).

Anyway, let’s talk politics.

Recently, IVP Academic sent me a couple of books on the subject, as did Zondervan. The first I’ll mention is Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft. It is part of the Christian Worldview Integration Series, which I’ve commended previously (here, here, here, and here). Along with J. P. Moreland, Beckwith served as a series editor, and this gave him a chance to put the vision in the series preface into practice.

Over the course of 5 chapters, Beckwith covers topics like separation of church and state, secular liberalism, natural rights and natural moral law, and the Christian’s relationship to liberal democracy. The opening chapter gives a taxonomy of the branches of study within politics. All of this takes place in about 130 or so pages. While this makes it seems like a primer on the topics addressed (and it is), Beckwith offers sophisticated analysis of the issues he discusses and I found it particularly thought provoking. This is especially so for the final chapter on natural rights and moral law and whether one can ground either of those in God’s absence (short answer is no).

I think this book should be a if not the starting point for Christians who want to think more deeply about politics. Other books may be more comprehensive, but this one is more foundational (especially the opening chapter charting the lay of the land) and sets better groundwork (especially if you value philosophy). As there is a need for Christians to be more political savvy (not just more involved), this book is the place to start.

26263542

The next place to stop off might be Zondervan’s Five Views on The Church and Politics. I’ve mentioned my fondness for multi-view books many times before. This one is no exception, although I felt that the contributors could have duked it out a bit more in the responses (especially for a book on politics). Whereas Beckwith’s book is more about thinking through the nature of political science and a Christian’s place in relationship to it, this book is focused more on the church’s relationship to political life. In other words, it is one thing for Christians to have certain expectations for private political involvement. It is another to try to dictate what the church at large should be doing in regards to political life.

Taking cues from Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture, the contributors here are plotted along a similar spectrum:

  • Anabaptist (Separationist): Thomas Heilke
  • Lutheran (Paradoxical): Robert Benne
  • Black Church (Prophetic): Bruce Fields
  • Reformed (Transformationist): James K. A. Smith
  • Catholic (Synthetic): J. Brian Benestad

Each author was responsible to trace the historical development of their position. Then they were to consider their tradition’s view on the role of government, as well as also addressing the extent to which an individual Christians and churches should be involved. The goal is to lay out the theory underlying each tradition’s view, which is then applied to the practical situation of policy debates about domestic poverty (17). The authors for the most part complete their task well and in concise fashion. I found myself agreeing in part with each in one way or another, but found the most agreement with Smith’s Kuyperian vision.

What tends to emerge as you read is that each tradition is variegated such that each author is part of a spectrum within their own label. I think Smith is the most self-aware of this, but other authors either comment on themselves or others in the response sections. Speaking of the response sections, they tended to be a little more agreeable than most books like this that I’ve read. I think this might further illustrate politics can be messy. In other words, while the authors could be agreeable in their responses, they can’t all be fully on the same page regarding how involved the church should be in political life or even which kind of policies flow from “the” Christian position. For reasons why this is, one would need to jump back up and read Beckwith’s book.

9780830840946

Finally, for a book that is not on politics per se, but definitely details some of the influences in American political life, you should read John Wilsey’s American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion. In a nutshell, here’s the argument of the book:

Exceptionalism is an aspect of American civil religion. Closed American exceptionalism entails the five theological commitments I listed above [chosen nation, divine commission, innocence, sacred land, glory], each conflicting with the Christian gospel and potentially leading to idolatry, so it must be discarded. But open American exceptionalism – while it remains a part of civil religion – serves as a benefit to the nation, to religion and to the world by fostering a civic engagement informed by freedom, equality, and justice. (20)

The first two chapters of the book explain the historical roots of American exceptionalism. It is kind of like the new patriotism and entails a web of beliefs and moods about the status of the nation (“we’re different”), it’s mission (global peacekeeper, model for others, etc), and its character (“we’re better and everyone should be like us”). Wilsey makes a distinction between open and closed exceptionalism, which is important to keep in mind:

Closed exceptionalism is unrealistic and unchristian because it locates life’s ultimate purpose and meaning in America itself as the millennial fulfillment of human experience. But open exceptionalism find its expression in the American creed of individual freedom, natural rights, justice and equality (32).

Exceptionalism is not the problem per se, but rather how it is construed in relationship to the American story can be problematic. Thinking of America as a chosen nation that has a right to the land it inhabits and is on a divine mission to save the world is closed American exceptionalism. This plays itself out when one views immigrants (who make up the nation to begin with) are problematic because they intrude and wants to build higher and higher walls to keep them out. On the other hand, one could have a view American as exceptional, but see this land as a beacon of hope to the oppressed and offering unique opportunities for the advancement of human flourishing. The question is whether your view of exceptionalism leads to a wagon circling mentality or to offer a helping hand knowing you come from a place of privilege.

With this in mind, the rest of the chapters tackle the theological commitments that go with closed exceptionalism. The roots and development of each receive their own chapter length treatment. The final chapter reiterates the point that the closed version of American exceptionalism is not compatible with Christian faith, either theologically or practically. On the other hand, a model of open exceptionalism is good for civic engagement and human flourishing.

This is an important read for anyone who has believed or was taught that America is (or was) a Christian nation. Certain strains of that teaching are highly problematic (and Wilsey examines several that appear in homeschool curricula in the final chapter) and do more harm than good when comes to our perception of our nation. To help correct our view of our nation, while still maintaining a high view of it, I’d recommend working through Wilsey’s book this political season.