After completing his series on "Subjection to God and Submission to the State," Pastor John asked me to write an article suggesting some recommended reading on Christians and civic life, both historic and contemporary. I’m honored to be asked and happy to do so.
A classic treatment of the relationship between Christians and the world is Augustine’s massive tome, The City of God, written against the backdrop of the fall of the Roman Empire at the hand of the barbarians. Augustine distinguished between the eternal City of God and the temporal City of Man—two rival cities shaped by opposing loves and working toward different ends. Nevertheless, the dual divine command to love God and to love neighbor requires that we work for the common good of the City of Man, even as we are citizens of the City of God who proclaim the gospel to our neighbors that they might become our brothers. A contemporary examination of these themes is Two Cities, Two Loves: Christian Responsibility in a Crumbling Culture, by the late James Montgomery Boice.
Another significant development in Christian thought was Martin Luther’s teachings on the two kingdoms (followed largely by Calvin as well). Luther believed that the civic kingdom must be distinguished from the spiritual kingdom. While Christians should labor in both kingdoms, they must never confuse the different roles of each. A contemporary volume from this perspective is Chuck Colson’s Kingdoms in Conflict.
One of the most significant volumes in the twentieth century was Carl F. H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Written in 1947, it was a stirring wakeup call for the Church, which had become disengaged from political and social matters due in part to an unbiblical understanding of the Kingdom of God. In short, Henry was calling for Christian cultural engagement based on deep theological reflection. Russell Moore has recently sought to expand on Henry’s proposal with his book, The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective, which Al Mohler has called “a landmark book by one of evangelicalism’s finest minds.” (You can read an interview (PDF) with Dr. Moore about the book and listen online to a lecture of his entitled “Christ in the Public Square: Toward a Theology of Christian Political Engagement” (RealPlayer required).)
Twenty-five years ago Francis Schaeffer published his short but illuminating book entitled A Christian Manifesto. The basic problem he saw with the evangelical view of culture and government is that it viewed things “in bits and pieces”—pornography, breakdown of the family, abortion, etc—“instead of totals.” Schaeffer labored to help us understand that it is a massive worldview change that has happened, and he sought to re-lay the foundation for truth, morality, freedom, and civic engagement. As Schaeffer once said: “Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality—and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth.” Nancy Pearcey—who first encountered Schaeffer as an agnostic at L’Abri—has recently done for Schaeffer what Moore has done for Henry: expanding and applying his thought to the 21st century. Every family should own a copy of her landmark volume, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. James Sire calls it “the best work on cultural analysis from a Christian standpoint available today.”
The books I have mentioned so far deal with the issue of Christians and the civic life in general. But in order to be fully informed, we should also be aware of books that deal more specifically with the most controversial topics of our day. With that in mind, what follows are some important books on more specific issues. I hasten to add a word to the wise: not all books are created equal! Read discerningly. I’ve included links to Amazon.com so that you can preview those books that seem most helpful and relevant.
The Law Written on Our Hearts
In Romans 2:15 the apostle Paul refers to the work of the law written on our hearts. Distinct from God’s special revelation (Scripture), it refers to the common moral sense, those foundational moral principles that all of us know. The idea is summed up in the title of J. Budziszewski’s brilliant book, What We Can’t Not Know. Budziszewski (pronounced boo-jee-SHEF-ski) has also penned The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, which examines the way secularism suppresses the moral law. A more advanced treatment of natural law is found in The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis, by Princeton law professor Robert P. George, one of the great thinkers of our time.
Church and State
A book that tackles the relationship between church and state and address the issue of “legislating morality” is Legislating Morality: Is It Wise? Is It Legal? Is It Possible? by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. For an important historical study, see Daniel Dreisbach’s academic volume, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State, which shows just how seriously Jefferson’s original meaning has been misunderstood.
I would encourage every Christian to own at least one copy of a standard evangelical survey of ethics. Such a volume provides the best arguments from Scripture and reason regarding a wide range of topics (e.g., abortion, contraception, euthanasia, capital punishment, war, civil disobedience, homosexuality, marriage and divorce, the environment, etc.). The one I turn to most frequently is Ethics for a Brave New World by John Feinberg and Paul Feinberg. Also worth consulting are John Jefferson Davis’s Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, Scott Rae’s Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, and Norman Geisler’s Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. These books not only treat individual topics, but also set forth frameworks by which to approach ethics in general. Still worth reading is John Murray’s classic text, Principles of Conduct.
Family and Marriage
The best work on the biblical teaching regarding marriage and family is now Andreas Köstenberger and David Jones’s God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation. William J. Bennett defends marriage and explores the moral collapse of the American family in his book, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family.
Homosexuality and Abortion
When we think about the “culture wars,” these two explosive topics are among the first that come to mind. Homosexuality and American Public Life and Same-Sex Matters: The Challenge of Homosexuality, both edited by Christopher Wolfe, provide some thoughtful cultural reflections on homosexuality and gay-marriage. (For the biblical case against it, see the ethics books cited above.) One of the most comprehensive volumes on sexuality—especially the way in which our culture has paganized it—is Daniel Heimbach’s True Sexual Morality: Recovering Biblical Standards for a Culture in Crisis.
Two short treatments on abortion are Greg Koukl’s booklet, Precious Unborn Persons and Randy Alcorn’s book, Why Pro-Life? Caring for the Unborn and Their Mothers. Alcorn also has longer volume, ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments. Scott Klusendorf’s excellent articles are always worth reading. For those who want a more advanced treatment, Francis Beckwith’s Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights remains unsurpassed. And for those who enjoy the dialogue format, there is Peter Kreeft’s The Unaborted Socrates: A Dramatic Debate on the Issues Surrounding Abortion.
Fascism, communism, and socialism are ideologies that have produced untold destruction in the twentieth century. Ronald Nash’s Poverty and Wealth: Why Socialism Doesn’t Work and Gene Edward Veith’s Modern Fascism: The Threat to the Judeo-Christian Worldview explain and refute these systems, as well as showing the prevalence of their presuppositions in some unexpected quarters.
Two thinkers from the past whose thought continues to influence modern politics and economics are Marx and Machiavelli. Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft has used a method of fictional dialogue that is both entertaining and enlightening: Socrates Meets Machiavelli: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Author of The Prince, and Socrates Meets Marx: The Father of Philosophy Cross-Examines the Author of The Communist Manifesto. It is a sort of Oxford “Great Books” tutorial. (Future volumes are planned on Sartre, Freud, Descartes, Kant, and Kierkegaard.)
Many don’t know that Wayne Grudem, before going to seminary and getting a doctorate in New Testament at Cambridge, majored in economics at Harvard. His short, accessible book, Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business, argues that ownership, productivity, employment, commercial transactions, profit, money, some inequality of possessions, competition, borrowing and lending are all fundamentally good, providing many opportunities for glorifying God as well as many temptations to sin. For a more advanced treatment, see Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which examines democratic capitalism from a theological standpoint.
Justice and Poverty
Disinterest in justice and the poor are not options for Christians who want to remain obedient to God’s Word. Unfortunately, many Christians have absorbed unbiblical definitions and unworkable theories about these issues. Ronald Nash’s Social Justice and the Christian Church will do much to clear muddled thinking on social justice, capitalism, and socialism. (See also Nash’s Poverty and Wealth, cited above.) One of the best books on confronting poverty is Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion. This influential book shaped the welfare reform debate in America, as Olasky set forth the social history of an earlier time in our history when social Calvinists sacrificed for the “worthy poor” instead of unlovingly giving handouts indiscriminately. Olasky’s call is for us to abandon pseudo-compassion for a tough, genuine, sacrificial compassion that actually accomplishes something more than just making us feel good about ourselves.
The role of God and the church as it relates to terrorism is a crucial issue. Two short books that came out shortly after 9/11 sort through some of the issues, from different but complementary angles: Gene Edward Veith’s Christianity in an Age of Terrorism and R. C. Sproul’s When Worlds Collide: Where Was God?
Christians often rightly wonder what their perspective on war should be. How does Christ’s blessing of the peacemakers (Matt. 5:9) fit with Paul’s statement that the government “does not bear the sword in vain” (Rom. 13:4)? A very helpful, accessible treatment of just-war theory is Darrell Cole’s When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight. Chuck Colson, who has read and taught on just war for years, says that nothing he has studied taught him as much as Cole’s short volume. A more advanced treatment, focusing upon the recent challenge of terrorism and America’s role in the global war on terror, is Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.
Islam and Other Religions
For a book that explains the teachings of Islam and offers numerous suggestions for interacting and witnessing, see Colin Chapman’s Cross and Crescent: Responding to the Challenge of Islam. A brief, helpful overview of major world religions is Dean Halverson’s The Compact Guide to World Religions. I should also mention that John Piper’s “Tolerance, Truth-telling, Violence, and Law: Principles for How Christians Should Relate to Those of Other Faiths” repays careful re-reading.
There are numerous helpful volumes on race. I’ll mention just one: Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom hefty volume, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. Linda Chavez calls it “the most important book on race to appear since Gunner Myrda’s An American Dilemma.” While not written from a Christian perspective per se, I have found their judgments to be measured, sound, and enlightening.
There are a number of excellent books that examine issues like evolution. U.C. Berkely law professor Phillip Johnson has courageously exposed the philosophical presupposition of naturalism lurking beneath most secular conceptions of law, education, and science. His book Darwin on Trial changed the nature of the public discourse and ushered in a new era of study on intelligent design. He has also written a shorter, easy-to-understand guide as well: Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds. (Other books by Johnson on the role of naturalism are Reason in the Balance, The Wedge of Truth, and The Right Questions.) If you buy only one book on science, however, I would highly recommend C. John Collins’s Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? Collins has degrees from M.I.T., as well as a Ph.D. in the study of Hebrew. Besides teaching Old Testament at Covenant Seminary, he is also the Old Testament editor for the ESV Bible. The book has its genesis in a request by a homeschooling mom who wanted help in teaching her kids about science. This convincing book, written in an engaging style, is the result.
Tolerance and Relativism
“Relativism” and “tolerance” are among our culture’s most cherished values. A short and effective refutation of relativism can be found in Relativism: Feet Firmly Planting in Mid-Air, by Greg Koukl and Francis Beckwith. It defines and critiques relativism, and then examines issues like abortion, homosexuality, political correctness, multiculturalism, and tolerance. A helpful book on tolerance and truth is The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity, and the Culture Wars, by Brad Stetson and Joseph G. Conti. Stetson and Conti rightly argue that tolerance (properly defined) is a Christian virtue that must be recovered. They also critique the distorted forms of tolerance so prevalent in our culture. A more detailed and sophisticated analysis can be in J. Budziszewski’s True Tolerance: Liberalism and the Necessity of Judgment.
On the Web
There are numerous blogs and sites that contain helpful commentary on cultural issues from a Christian perspective. One of the most useful is the work done by Albert Mohler. On Dr. Mohler’s website, you read both his blog and his daily Crosswalk.com column. You can also subscribe to receive Dr. Mohler’s daily news links and suggested articles.
Our Attitude in Cultural Engagement
As important as what we believe about the world is the way in which we conduct our engagement. Yale law professor Stephen Carter—a frequent contributor to Christianity Today—has written a couple of books on the necessary virtues for civic engagement: Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy and Integrity. I would also highly recommend C. J. Mahaney’s forthcoming book, Humility: True Greatness. It won’t be published till September, and it doesn’t deal with political engagement, but it is an excellent meditation on a virtue that most people don’t think of when they think of Christians in the public square. Finally, John Piper’s article, “Taking the Swagger Out of Christian Cultural Influence,” should be read and heeded by us all.
As we read and think and engage, may God give all of us grace to be in the world, not of it—interacting with the world though not identifying with it.
Laboring, with you all, between two worlds—