31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2010
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Books on Christ and culture or Christianity and politics are all the rage these days. While some publishing houses are churning out New Atheist book after New Atheist book, other houses are getting who's who in Christian circles to write on Christ and culture or politics and religion. Both are hot ticket items these days. Thankfully, the former's popularity seems to be waning (too boorish), while interest in the latter is rising. But, there's more to be thankful of. The latest author to enter this ever-growing market is Carl R. Trueman. As a Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia), Trueman is qualified to write on this topic; not only that, he brings a fresh and unique perspective to the American debate, writing as a Englishman who has lived in America for the past several years. He describes himself as a British round peg jammed into an American square hole.
I have developed a keen interest in Christ and culture/politics issues over the past couple of years. I am still reading in the field and trying to put those aspects I have found persuasive into a more coherent picture---though I know it will remain fuzzy in places, and puzzle pieces will also be missing. I have been positively influenced by several contemporary thinkers (though not agreeing with them on all points, even strongly disagreeing on some), here are some of the influences: Greg Boyd, D.A. Carson, Oliver O' Donovan, John Frame, Os Guinness, Timothy Keller, Darryl Hart, Michael Horton, Ken Meyers, David VanDrunen, and David Wells. With the publication of Republocrat, I am pleased to add Carl Trueman to this list.
Trueman's basic thesis is that being theologically conservative does not entail being unconditionally politically conservative (or liberal). His main motivation for writing the book is that he fears Christianity is in danger of alienating members of its population, especially the younger members, by drawing too close a connection between the essentials of the faith and our current American expression of political conservatism. Though he did not say this, I can safely assume that he feels the same way about any connection between Christianity and liberal politics too. While I applaud this motivation, it is noteworthy that similar motivations drive the publication of books like Peter Enns's Inspiration and Incarnation, as well as the current surge in books seeing to show the harmony of Christianity with Adam-denying evolutionary theory. I am not trying to poison the well here, and I am not sure there is anything of interest in pointing out the similarities in motivation, but I wonder if there's a slippery slope somewhere nearby? Are we in danger of alienating members for teaching that man has an immaterial soul? How about teaching eternal retributive punishment in hell for the reprobate? Same with inerrancy and evolution. Are these "essentials" that make up "Christian fidelity" (xx)?
In Chapter one, "Left behind," Trueman begins by critiquing the "New Left," wisely softening the blows he will later deal to conservatives. The basic criticism given to the "New Left" is that it in leaving behind the "Old Left" it has become preachy and has opened the door for "everyone to become a victim and for anyone with a lobby group to make his or her issue the Big One for this generation." Whereas the "Old Left" was concerned with oppression, it limited this oppression to "material, empirical issues--hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease . . ." The "New Left" expanded the category of oppression to "psychological categories," where this category is conceived in terms of "'Authenticity' and 'inauthenticity'" which is an entirely subjective way to categorize (p.17). For example, homosexuals have been oppressed and thus not allowed to live a lifestyle that is "authentic" (p.12). Another example is to consider the women who have been "oppressed" and not allowed to live "authentic" lives because they have to be bogged down by a child. Thus, abortion allows women to be "authentic," and the "New Left," ironically, fails to give a voice the voiceless, which is the origin of the left (p.12-13).
Trueman also applies this criticism to many evangelical liberals who vote Democrat "in a kind of schoolboyish 'Aren't I naughty?' kind of way." The psychologizing of oppression allows them to self-righteously critique others in a way that doesn't cost anything. He cites, as a recent example, how many left leaning evangelicals criticized Wheaton College's appointment of Philip Ryken to college president. Trueman notes that while evangelical liberals complained "about how dreadful it was that the job had been given to a middle-class white male intellectual rather than a representative of a minority," none of these middle-class white male intellectuals "gave up their own job to make way for a minority candidate and to help with the ending of oppression." Trueman notes that these kind of complaints make the evangelical left "look ridiculously sanctimonious and self-important." It is the type of complaint that, "costs the whiners nothing and [is] therefore worth nothing" (p.15-17).
Conservatives might rightly scratch their head at what Trueman takes to be the "Old Left." Conservatives (and capitalists) have long tried to point out that they are "concerned with oppression . . . limited to material, empirical issues---hunger, thirst, nakedness, poverty, disease . . .", or at least that they can be so concerned (cf. Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice). Indeed, many have pointed out that the numbers seem to suggest that when government taxes less and gets out-of-the-way, charitable giving goes up. Plenty of conservatives have been charitable; very charitable. So, some might claim that Trueman is not playing fair. That is what I was thinking while reading this chapter. However, I believe Trueman sets himself apart from those conservatives at the end of the chapter when he writes that he believes "society and government . . . has a role to play in health care and helping the poor" (p.18, emphasis mine). Now, it should be admitted that "has a role" is vague, but I think Trueman thinks the role should be more involved than most conservatives would want to grant. Trueman does not get specific here---that's not the point of his book---and so there is nothing to critique. It should be pointed out that for what this chapter intends to do---critique the "New Left"---it succeeds.
Chapter two is titled, "The Slipperiness of Secularization." In this chapter Trueman looks at the issue of "secularization" and wonders whether America has escaped it as much as some on the religious Right seem to think. Mind you, Trueman admits that there is a difference between the secularization that happened, and continues to happen, in Europe, and what is going on in America. America is definitely more "religious." Trueman reports the lament of a pastor in Grand Rapids who said that only half of the local population would be in church on Sunday. "Wow, Trueman thought to himself, "that's a tragedy? Back home we'd call that a revival beyond our wildest dreams." Still, Trueman wonders if a secularization hasn't happened in American churches. The main question he asks in the chapter is to wonder whether the "American church has maintained the loyalty of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution" (p. 26-27). Trueman's answer is: sure looks like it.
While he begins by picking on soft targets like Hinn and Osteen, he claims that many of the more conservative churches have bought into a more sophisticated version of the prosperity gospel. Trueman agrees with David Wells's critiques of Evangelical mega and emergent churches, but wonders if similar critiques could be offered of protestant churches Wells might favor. Trueman thinks so. He begins by pointing out that the secular idea of "rights" spills over into church membership, such that church vows are not taken seriously at all. We're individuals with rights and we have no problem ditching a church if it offends our rights, perhaps even in ways that are theological counterparts to those who sue fast food restaurants for not telling them the coffee is hot (p. 28-32). Another indication of secular values is that celebrity syndrome, a "preoccupation with superstars" (p.37). Secular society has Access Hollywood, "the church has---well, insert your name here" (p.39).
"Not-so-Fantasic Mr. Fox," is the title of chapter three. I have to admit, this chapter was a little weird for me. Not because I like Fox news---far from it---but because not only did it seem like Trueman was settling a personal score (Rupert Murdoch is blamed for Trueman's exiting the conservative party, xxiii), I'm not sure the intended targets of his critique will read this book. Much of this chapter reads like a gossip column. Rupert Murdoch does not come out looking good. The gist is that those who think Fox news is a bastion of family values need to recognize that it is owned by a guy three times divorced and who had nude images published in one of his British newspapers. But most who think this read more Colson than Trueman.
Having said that, I should add that Trueman rightly points out that all news organizations are biased, and all trade in offering substanceless soundbites masquerading as sophisticated and rigorous analysis of current events. Trueman also disabuse people of the notion that Fox is the paragon of religious virtue some seem to bestow on it. Furthermore, Trueman is also correct in pointing out that those like Beck and O'Reilly make wild claims and poor arguments, not to mention employing conspiracy theories to scare viewers.
Trueman then goes off on a little conspiracy theory of his own, where he concludes that maybe "Fox's political posturing as the brave advocate for and defender of conservative values is just that---a piece of posturing." This possible conspiracy is shown by pointing to Fox's anti-family values shows, like The Simpsons and their 6:00 PM time slot, the time families are supposed to be eating dinner together (p. 54-55). Conspiracy, you decide? As I said, the conspiracy theorizing got a little weird for me, but maybe Trueman was just having fun, mocking the conservative "birthers" and MSNBC-leads-to-homosexuality-if-you-watch-Rachel-Maddow crowd.
Whatever the case, the conclusion of the chapter was solid: Trueman pleads with Christians---conservative and liberal---to use their God-given critical thinking faculties when watching any news show. Not only that, Christians need to look at all sides of the issue, rather than "surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices" we should "seek to listen to a variety of viewpoints" (p.58). This perspectivalism is a useful tool in getting Christians to be what the old Greek apologists said of the ancient Christians: they were "the best and most informed and thoughtful citizens there are, not those whose stock-in-trade are clichés, slander, and lunatic conspiracy theories" (p.59). On second thought, I guess Trueman doesn't buy The Simpsons conspiracy theory after all!
In the next chapter, "Life to the Max," Trueman looks at Capitalism. He begins by offering some critiques of Max Weber's popular, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Insofar as one doesn't put much weight into Weber's arguments, the criticisms won't bother their conception of capitalism. Next, Trueman moves from Weber to a more general critique, the tendency to see capitalism as God's system of economics and our American successes as proof that capitalism is the epoch of history. The basic criticism here is that we shouldn't absolutize the moment of our passing present. Trueman admits that contemporary capitalism is the best means of producing wealth that we know of, but that doesn't mean it is "reality" period. It does not represent "the end of history" (p.68).
Capitalism has one basic principle, according to Trueman, "profit" (p.68). However, this might seem overly simplistic when compared to what we might read in, say, Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics (see especially ch. 6). Trueman also engages in many slippery slope arguments in his critiques of capitalism, i.e., "it can lead to x." Besides the claim that capitalism produces little Pelagians, Trueman also points to what he sees as the creation of a "consumer culture." Regarding this latter claim, Jay W. Richards notes that the argument "identifies the symptoms of a real disease, but, unfortunately, misdiagnosis the disease" Richards goes on to point out that this "critique of capitalism reduces to little more than aesthetics masquerading as economics" (cf. Richards, Money, Greed, and God, ch.7). Though I don't agree with all of Richards's claims, I think he successfully rebuts the whole "capitalism creates consumerism" critique. Indeed, it seems Trueman isn't entirely consistent in this chapter. He switches back and forth between the terms 'capitalism' and 'contemporary capitalism.' His advice was not to absolutize any particular historical circumstance, but he seemed tempted to want to absolutize some of the problems he sees with a particular capitalist culture with capitalism per se.
Another criticism of his is that capitalism "creates one of the kinds of societies where discussions of [euthanizing the unproductive old and using abortion to lower welfare costs] might well take place" (p. 76). I don't entirely follow this criticism. Certain Eskimo tribes are known for leaving their elderly to die, and many ancient societies took part in the practice of either abortion of abandonment. These societies were not capitalistic. Again, it looks like a symptom has been attributed to a wrong disease.
Trueman ends on a good note, but it seems out of touch with the chapter. Trueman says that we must not think capitalism "is the gospel" (p.78). I can give an "Amen!" along with three cheers to this. But it doesn't seem to me the arguments in the chapter were aimed toward this conclusion. I also agree with Trueman that we should not "engage in the idolatry of assuming that the capitalist way is God's way in any absolute sense" (p.78). Again, "Amen!" But these points are of a different nature than much of the chapter. If Trueman meant for his criticisms of capitalism to support the claims that capitalism has problems so it can't be God's way, I'll grant him a couple of points, but some of his critiques were, in my opinion, wide of the mark; or, at least, non-sequiturs.
Chapter five deals with democracy and is titled, "Rulers of the Queens Navee." The basic theme of this chapter is raised by the question, "Why do those who have a great capacity for subtle thinking in matters of theology seem to prefer to think in terms of very straightforward, black-and-white, if not Manichaean, categories when it comes to politics" (p.80)? Trueman notes that politics is very complicated and representative democracy does not offer an outlet where the complexity and nuances are able to be considered. It is not "conducive to subtlety" (p.81). Thus, a Christian's check in a ballot box should bring some pain because of the "trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality" (p.83).
Along with this, Trueman notes the many cultural conditions that are not conducive to thoughtful engagement with the issues. One such problem is the television, which gives us televised debates where sound-bite answers are considered conclusive and where only the most tanned and sexy politician wins the debate. Thus, aesthetics has become more important than substance. Along with this criticism is that contemporary politics is about story telling. There are stories that people buy into and that color their perception of policies and the days events. The "maverickism" of McCain and Palin played into the rugged individualism story, such as we might see in a John Wayne film. In actuality, they were hardly mavericks. Indeed, in American politics it is almost impossible to be a maverick and get anything done.
Coupled with this story telling culture is that the political battle has become a battle over character. Political candidates or policies are shot down or built up by linking it to bad or good character traits. So those on the left try to point out that someone has a character that is oppressive to women, and some on the right point out that Al Gore flies gas guzzling planes to lecture us on saving the environment. Trueman notes that these points might "speak to issues of personal integrity and consistency, . . . [but it] does not necessarily render [the] arguments garbage" (97). The point here is that arguments are being ignored and avoided, it is pointing out sins or failings is what matters most. I agree with this, but I wonder if Dr. Trueman applies this point to his criticism of Rupert Murdoch when he writes, "Bottom line: Murdoch himself does not embody the kind of family values that are so near and dear to many conservatives." Besides that, there is something to be said of the character traits of our leaders. Aristotle at least thought so, and he was no tanned American news anchor.
Trueman concludes this chapter by distancing himself from any Utopianism, he doesn't offer an alternative to these problems. But he does want to help people "realize the truth of what [he] is describing in order that we, as Christians and as citizens, are able to engage both politics and the political process in such a way that we are aware of the problems, limitations, and realistic expectations of what they can deliver" (p.98). Trueman wisely notes that as Christians we should not carry around pictures of the president looking like the Joker from Batman: The Dark Knight, nor engage in the kind of sound-bite, sophistical rhetoric that characterizes much the political "dialogue" today. "The Christian in civic society should set an example to others of what the best citizen looks like, not simply reinforce stereotypes of what the worst appears to be. And that applies across the political spectrum" (p.99). Again, "Amen!"
Chapter six is a "Concluding Unpolitical Postscript." Trueman reiterates some of his points and worries. He presses home that we should not expect more out of politics and politicians than is warranted. He points to the failures of republicans to do (much of) anything about abortion, as well as the limits our political system places on any elected official, and so we need to have "a realistic understanding of what is and is not possible" (103)---this includes "Yes we can!" and "Change we can believe in" mantras. Trueman also repeats his worry that Christians are being driven away by too close a connection between Christianity and Right wing politics. But I add that we must remember that God's elect persevere, though we should also recognize God uses means. Trueman also repeats his worry that Christians avoid a politics that accuse our leaders as criminals or "scream mindless abuse at those they disagree with" (109). He ends with what he hopes to see: "I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome clichés, character assassinations, and Manichaean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process" (110). To that we can, again, say, "Amen."
Despite my registering some areas of disagreement with Trueman, I would recommend Republocrat without reservation. I would especially recommend getting it for your more "American Evangelical" friend or neighbor, especially if they align themselves with the "Religious Right." Not that those who read P&R don't need to hear what Trueman has to say, I think most of us are more nuanced than the positions Trueman attacks. And so to bring up another criticism: I fear those who most need to read this book most will not, and that may be the biggest flaw. If you buy this book and read it, please give it away to those I mentioned above---or, better, buy them their own copy. That is better because this way Trueman can make a larger profit! Kidding aside, I think this book will prove helpful for Christians, especially those in the above categories, and the kind of help it offers is, despite my unsettled views on the Christ and society/politics debate, the kind of help I strongly believe we desperately need.
(Also, check out Reformed Forum TV's interview with Carl Trueman about this book.)
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2010
Got this new book by Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary Philadelphia as a throw-in to get my recent purchase from WTS over the magical $40 mark to get shipping for a buck. Really glad I did. Excellent little book that only took me two hours to read. Including the intro and forward it is about 125 pages.
Now I of course disagree with Dr. Trueman on some of his thoughts on free-market capitalism and gun-control and universal healthcare. Though I agree wholeheartedly with the negative side that he notes on this and believe that only through a Christian worldview can it be kept in check. Even more to the point Biblical Law looks a lot more like a "nanny-state" than most conservatives would like to think and or believe.
On another front his description of politics in America is spot-on (to use a British colloquialism). He does a good job I think in describing the many contradictions on the Left and the Right when it comes to ideology. He takes a not-so-veiled shot at Fox News and its commentators that are featured at 5:00pm and 8:00pm. His criticism of Fox comes from two angles. First its founder Rupert Murdoch hardly espouses the policies that the news network's idealogical mouthpieces preach. Secondly is the irony of the "family values" network's use of highly attractive and scantily clad anchor babes (to use a Limbaugh phrase) as well as the need for Fox News to belittle the intelligence of its watchers by reducing every issue to a Manichean "liberal = evil" and "conservative = good". For those of you wondering he does take full aim at MSNBC and Olberman/Maddow as well.
Overall an excellent book and well worth the money and effort.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Sacred cows die hard. And tipping them is not just anyone's game. When it comes to conservative American evangelicalism, there may be no cherished belief that needs to die more than its explicit allegiance to one political party.
An evangelical attachment to the history of America and to patriotism has colored its views on how the church should interact with the political sphere. And in the past few decades, with the meteoric rise of "the religious right", the result has been an American version of Christianity which mixes zeal for conservative politics and Christian virtues. Along the way, a popular misconception has arisen on the part of secular and non-evangelical alike: the evangelical gospel is confused with a moralistic concern for "family values".
Carl Trueman, a witty and winsome Brit, tackles this problem in a new book recently released by P & R Publishing. In "Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative", Trueman speaks from an outsider's perspective on the political landscape facing American Christians today. He understands that some of his views will be frowned on from both sides of the American aisle, but he pushes forth in an effort to challenge the tendency toward a one-sided approach and overly simplistic view of politics which he sees as so prevalent in the conservative circles in which he ministers today (as dean of Westminster Theological Seminary).
Written in a witty and personal fashion, with a Brit's sense and control of the English language, the book draws one into the discussion even as it disarms the would-be critic. I found it a quick and engrossing read, even if the argument seemed to overreach on some points. He offers pertinent and sometimes disturbing examples from recent political history to drive home his points, and in the end is quite convincing.
He starts out with a criticism of today's "left". He shows how originally the liberal concern for the marginalized and the poor spurred British Christians to political involvement and an embrace of classic liberalism. Since then, liberalism has grown to treat any perceived marginalization and threat to be equivalent with the real economic and physical problems, for example, that were caused by industrialization in the late 1800s. So the mother of an unwanted child is facing undue pressure to keep her child, and she along with a gay person who wants full acceptance by society both deserve the protection of modern liberals. Meanwhile, the true problems of poverty and economic marginalization which continue to plague our world get left behind in the posturing and the fuss over the more visible, concerns of today's liberals.
He then moves on into the conservative kitchen, and tackles American exceptionalism, and the patriotic flavor of American Christianity responsible for such absurdities as "The Patriot's Bible". Where he really scored points with me was in his treatment of the Fox News channel. He drives home his point that no news media outlet can be completely unbiased. He also shows how the founders of Fox were moved by the almighty dollar, like anyone else in the secular world. His cautions on this point deserve notice:
"When it comes to listening to the news, Christians should be eclectic in their approach and not depend merely on those pundits who simply confirm their view of the world while self-evidently using terminology, logic, and standard rules of evidence and argumentation in sloppy, tendentious, and sometimes frankly dishonest ways...." (pg. 56)
That the free market, capitalist system was a Christian concept derived from studying Scripture was one of the high points of my own Christian education. And Trueman takes aim at that whole idea. The system runs on good old fashioned, greed (which is actually sinful, mind you). And not just greed -- discontent and dissatisfaction are built into the structure of our American economic system. The solution to economic hard times is for us consumers to show more confidence and fork out more money. And exactly how is this is a Christian concept, again? Let me allow Trueman himself to speak to this point more directly:
"...we have no basis for absolutizing the social organization and the attendant institutions, practices, and values of our passing present than anybody in ages past. Feudalism seemed like the wave of the future when it was at its zenith, yet it has passed away, at least in the West. European imperialism seemed set to dominate the world forever and a day at the end of the nineteenth century, but along came two world wars that put an end to that notion...." (pg. 67)
Viewing our system as the best there ever was, is also a bit evolutionary in nature, Trueman contends. Somehow man has figured everything out now and our system is the best hope for the world. We need to liberate the world from their a-capitalism, and bring salvation by means of the free market.
He rounds out the book by discussing how democratic politics in our modern age are positioned such that every difference between the parties has to be emphasized and enlarged so that they can gain power. Careful, nuanced political debate is not served by today's sound bites and smiling photo ops, either. Trueman's postscript argues that the abortion issue doesn't have to be the be-all, end-all political issue for Christians in a fallen society like ours. He says, "It seems clear that the democratic legislative path to reducing or even outlawing abortions is proving remarkably unfruitful.... following from this... is there any point in allowing the matter to be the make-or-break issue on which individuals make their voting decisions at election time?" (pg. 106). He argues that incremental change can be pursued within either party, and before abortion will be outlawed a majority of Americans need to view it with distaste.
You won't appreciate, or agree with, all Trueman's concerns, but you will be challenged to think about what role the church should have in the political sphere. Should a church side with the conservative agenda so explicitly that non-conservatives are unwelcome, even if they also believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I think not. And if you pick up Trueman's short book (only 110 pages), I suspect you'll at least admit this much by the time you've read it. The Church of Jesus Christ should be wide enough to accept Christians of various political persuasions. The gospel, not politics or national pride, should unite us.
I want to close with an extended excerpt from Trueman's conclusion. I don't want to steal his thunder, but I feel this is the best way to give Trueman the hearing he may need for you to actually pick up his work and give it a listen.
"Christians are to be good citizens, to take their civic responsibilities seriously, and to respect the civil magistrates appointed over us. We also need to acknowledge that the world is a lot more complicated than the pundits of Fox News (or MSNBC) tell us.... Christian politics, so often associated now with loudmouthed aggression, needs rather to be an example of thoughtful, informed engagement with the issues and appropriate involvement with the democratic process. And that requires a culture change. We need to read and watch more widely, be as critical of our own favored pundits and narratives as we are of those cherished by our opponents, and seek to be good stewards of the world and of the opportunities therein that God has given us.
"It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchallenged and unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign-policy issues.... We need to... [realize] the limits of politics and the legitimacy of Christians, disagreeing on a host of actual policies, and [earn] a reputation for thoughtful, informed, and measured political involvement. A good reputation with outsiders is, after all, a basic New Testament requirement of church leadership, and that general principle should surely shape the attitude of all Christians in whatever sphere they find themselves. Indeed, I look forward to the day when intelligence and civility, not tiresome cliches, character assassinations, and Manichean noise, are the hallmarks of Christians as they engage the political process." (pg. 108-110)
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing for review. The reviewer was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
I bought Republocrat almost a year ago, but never got around to reading it until today. It is a short book, easily read in a few hours, but packs a big punch. The topics that Carl Trueman, the author, covers are an insightful, outsider's take on American politics. It certainly gave me some perspective on many issues and will give me much more to think about for the future.
The Great Things About This Book:
* Excellent writing. Politics = Boring, but the author really engages with the readers effectively here.
* Insightful. His takes on Capitalism & Christianity, Patriotic Christianity, Fox News, and abortion are some of the most concise, penetrating political arguments I have ever read.
* Short. There is a big payoff here for a short amount of attention.
The Not-So-Great Things About This Book:
* Poor editing. Found 4 mistakes without looking on my first read through. Too many for a 100 page book by a respected publisher.
* Short. Two-edged sword here . . . the concise format made the arguments too condensed in places. Would have liked to read more about Marx and the final chapter could have covered a much larger territory.
* Capitalism. The section on Capitalism was very good (70-78), but it was also too small. This is a needed corrective and there is much wisdom on the few pages here, but it unfortunately suffers from a lack of space. The capitalism the author critiques is necessarily too narrow because of the format.
All in all, this is an excellent book that I would highly recommend to any Christian interested in politics. This is my first book to read by Trueman, but I plan to buy many more based on his witty writing and insightful take on politics.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 4, 2011
If you're looking for a book that will re-affirm what you already believe about politics, this book will be a disappointment. Carl Trueman knows that, and he doesn't care. "I am simply delighted that I will disappoint so many different groups of people in such a comprehensive manner," he writes in the introduction.
And he's right. Nearly every group of people will find some complaint with Trueman's arguments. The Liberal Left hates his stance on hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage. The Religious Right frowns on his refusal to walk the Republican party line. Libertarians reject his insistence that nationalized health care and welfare programs are not incompatible with liberty and the free market.
Perhaps those most off-put by this book will be the politically apathetic, who cry "can't we all just get along?" while steering clear of argument and conviction. If there is one thing Trueman makes crystal clear, it is that if we care about the world and the people around us -- and as Christians, this is non-negotiable -- we must care about politics.
Few, if any, will find wholesale agreement with Trueman's political views. He is prone to overstate his case (which he himself admits in the book), and is intentionally provocative. He sets up strawmen and rips them apart. Surprisingly, all of these factors work together to hammer home the central theses of the book, "that conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas" and that Christians need a much more nuanced understanding of politics and political issues than is typical in today's America, when aesthetics (the character and rhetoric of politicians and pundits) have replaced discourse and debate is framed as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil in which candidates and parties must be either totally right or totally wrong.
The intensely logical Carl Trueman knows exactly what he's doing when he resorts to the use of logical fallacies. He wants readers to disagree with him. He wants to roil American Christians out of our comfort with the system of "politics-as-usual" that we've grown up with (Trueman immigrated to the United States from England about ten years ago). This is a good thing. We need to be roiled, and his status as an outsider (not to mention his lack of hesitancy to engage in confrontation) gives Trueman a unique position to do it.
Besides a general encouragement to pick up this book and read it (which will only take an hour or two, as the entire thing is only 110 pages), I have just a few comments on the actual content of the book. While Trueman's trenchant critique of American politics begins with the Left -- and he is brutal in his condemnation of the modern Liberal agenda -- much of the book is aimed directly at the political heart of conservative Christians who identify themselves with the Republican party. This is not necessarily because he aligns himself more with today's Democrats, but because his intended audience is conservative Christians, and the reality is that most of these also consider themselves politically conservative. Thus, he spends the bulk of his time addressing the particular weaknesses of this audience.
What most interested me was his description of the plight of the "Old Liberal", which is how he describes himself. Old liberals used to be those who concerned themselves most with improving the condition of the poor, something that was close to his own heart as a Christian. Over time, however, with the utter failure of Marxism as an all-encompassing political system based on the welfare of the economically oppressed, Liberals began to mesh their ideas about poverty and oppression with Freud's psychoanalysis, leading to a redefinition of oppression. Now, instead of being primarily concerned with aiding the poor, the "New Left" exists to promote the agenda of those who define their own victimhood (women who believe abortion is a right, homosexuals who want to marry, etc). Democrats still promote themselves as the party of the working class, but these social issues are of little concern to those who struggle to provide for their families, and often clash with the values of the average poor person.
While I personally believe that conservative fiscal policies and free markets can be most beneficial to the poor, Dr. Trueman's question is a valid one for discussion. Who is now the advocate for the economically oppressed? Where do those whose primary political concern is the condition of the poor turn?
On the negative side, Trueman is at his overstated best (or worst) in devoting an entire chapter to Fox News. While you'd be hard pressed to find a conservative who thinks less of Fox News and pundits like Glenn Beck than I do, even I think this assault on Fox is a bit over-the-top. Yes, conservative Christians tend to have a very unhealthy attachment to Hannity, O'Reilly, and company. Yes, the belief that Fox is in any way "the unbiased news channel" is absolutely ridiculous (and deserves to be ridiculed). Yes, Rupert Murdoch is a sleazy and unscrupulous businessman who knows pandering to the Religious Right makes him a lot of easy dollars. But Trueman could easily have made these points in much less than the twenty pages he devotes to them. He accuses the Left of having "lost all sense of proportion with regard to what is and is not of most pressing importance," but surely the same can be said of an author who devotes 2o% of his book to the faults of a single news organization.
It can be maddening to read at times, but this book will make you think. It is not likely to cause anyone to totally change his mind about any important issues, or to radically change her political philosophy. But hopefully it will help to start a discussion we've needed for a long time. As he writes, "politics is an art, not a science". Like any art, politics deserves careful consideration, interaction, and debate. And, just as people will have different preferences and appreciations for art, there is no reason to believe that all Christians must hold exactly the same position on every political issue. It is okay for Christians to disagree about the best way to further God's Kingdom (just ask Paul and Barnabas) and to live as citizens in a fallen world. In the end, God will be glorified. In the meantime, healthy debate and civil discourse make us all better.
Read this book. You'll be glad you did.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2011
I enjoyed this new work by Carl Trueman. It covers the Christian's proper alliance and responsibility to culture and politics. Professor Trueman (History professor at Westminster Theological Seminary) is always a delight to read, even when one disagrees with some of his conclusions. His theological analysis of conservative movements and the modern Left is both fascinating and instructive. The book is only about 120 pages but manages to make the reader rethink assumed political allegiances. One should know the issues and try to apply the biblical WV when one votes and not necessarily listen to Media Hosts as suitable authorities.
Published by P & R, so even with its faults it is very solid; powerful and convincing.
In this breezy yet informative book one finds:
- Trueman's assessment of modern secularization and the new left
- The reason one should not blindly follow popular politicians, secular agendas, media stars, and conservative culture aims
- Why the author opposes gay marriage, but is for greater gun control
- Why Christians should not be loyal to one political party
- How many politicians promise one thing, yet after elected, they evolve into centrists
- Why the Left lost its way
- and the errors of the Fox News Network (the Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox).
All Trueman's books that I have read have been clever and engaging, including this potent little resource. Reformed Forum named it one of the top books for 2010.
There Are Moral Absolutes: How to Be Absolutely Sure That Christianity Alone Supplies
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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Trueman briefly, and engagingly, provides a much needed commentary on a very real danger to the church in our time, the linkage of faith to very specific political positions. While he does not spare those who would tie more main line groups to liberal political positions, the main thrust is directed at those who have made it almost an article of faith to espouse all things Republican or even Libertarian in order to be properly evangelical and theologically conservative.
Though a few reviewers have criticized the author's Eurocentric viewpoint, this is a strength, as he is able to provide a bit more distanced, and much more objective, view of the current situation here in the US, and he does not argue for "European" positions on the topics he covers either.
Perhaps it will be easiest to see his overall approach to many issues by including a comment he makes about health care delivery:
"It is not obvious to me from reading Scripture that God really cares one way or the other about how health care is delivered. Sickness is a result of the fall. As it was part of God's own character revealed in Christ to reach out with compassion to those ill and suffering, so it should be part of the character of God reflected in Christians to act in a manner consistent with this. I would suggest it means that believers should consider health care a good thing and want to see as many people helped by it as possible How that is done, to what extent the state is involved, etc., are legitimate subjects for debate and not something that should divide Christians as Christians." (page 94)
Note that last sentence; all too often there are political and economic positions that are dividing Christians in our culture, when we should instead be focused on sharing the Gospel and caring for those around us in a far more compassionate way.
So get yourself a copy of Republocrat, read it, and then share it with your friends across the political spectrum.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2011
This caught my attention after a peek through the table of contents and summary on the back, along with the title seemingly specifically crafted to induce strong assumptions and heated opinions.
It's a quick read, just a little over 100 pages and includes 6 concise essays by Trueman concerning various aspects of the current political situation in America from a Brit-moved-West perspective and through the lens of a Christian worldview.
One of the primary things he addresses (and attacks) is the tendency of the modern-day Baptist-influenced Christian to feel some odd obligation to hold an extremely conservative, far-Right political standing. This tends to involve: voting Republican across the board no matter what (true to the party, right or wrong), praising and faithfully listening to Limbaugh, Hannity and (God-forbid) Beck, relying on the aforementioned names for your only political news and education, and failing to realize that these men are more-so entertaining, fabricated personalities spinning conspiracies than they are actual journalists presenting well-informed arguments.
There's obviously a bit more to it than that, but his point being that Christians tend to want to associate themselves with the people and party that is closest to `Christian' (which may be in fact very far from the actual teaching of the Bible) in the values they/it upholds because they think it is somehow righteous or `patriotic' or even because they feel they have to in order to please the churchly company that surrounds them. Trueman argues that while clearly Christians by nature of belief in Scripture have a general set of convictions, morals and standards that they would appreciate seeing upheld in their country, their ultimate political associations and loyalties should have little to do with their faith. And right now, it seems the far-Right have deeply intertwined politics with `faith' (especially since Bush's presidency; an outspoken Christian), which has led to some seriously heated-up emotions under the banner of (perhaps) `fighting for what God would want.'
Trueman also goes into how the Left in America has become somewhat of a joke, and how he has found that what is considered `extreme Left' in the U.S. is actually pretty near the center in England. It would be helpful to mention here that Trueman essentially considers himself a Democrat, though he adamantly reiterates over and over that he feels the current Left is far from their roots and have pretty much `lost their way.' In it's origins, Democracy cared much for `being the voice of the voiceless' and caring for the oppressed (as in, the impoverished, disabled and those without healthcare... though just about anyone can claim some sort of `oppression' for the category under which they fall these days). Now the litmus tests for whether you're a `true follower' have been boiled down to your position on abortion (which has become inseparably tied to women's rights, which is bizarre and absurd) and gay rights. Things get messy when it becomes so focused on (again) deep-seated emotional arguments and a politician's standing on marginal issues that minority groups have gotten themselves all riled up about.
Anyway, for sake of keeping this a reasonable length and leaving (for the best) Trueman's arguments up to him, as I surely am doing poor justice to them here, I'll just mention briefly that these other topics are covered in the book; How Fox News may in fact not be all that unbiased after all, a history of the Left in the UK including a look at Marx and what we can actually learn from him, the idea that election campaigns are essentially more about the appeal and appearance of the person than they are about the validity of their argument, how Capitalism has ultimately sold us (heh) an unsatisfying result and how it's really not that great a system but it's better than the other choices so heck let's make the best of it, etc.
Though the book deals little with spirituality or theology, Trueman's message throughout the book to Christians specifically is clear: be mindful and careful. Be well informed. Educate yourself and weigh the facts against Scripture, be prayerful and intentional about voting. Essentially; be a responsible and good citizen who has a healthy concern for the well-being of their country and fellow man, but be cautious in your acceptance of something just because it is largely accepted by the Church or is presented in such a way that seems... `Christiany.' This may seem like common sense, but it is surprising how much one can be influenced by the strong (though perhaps often misled) opinions of good old fashioned, upstanding, patriotic Christian Americans (and uh... who really wants to be one of those?).
Ultimately, as I alluded to above, our (a follower of Christ's) primary allegiance is not to our country, but rather to the Lord, and our chief concern is not to just get someone from `our team' into political seats so that we can further moralize America, which doesn't actually help anyone but only selfishly promotes our own mental comfort. God is sovereign over the leaders appointed worldwide (Daniel 2:21) and both the good and evil men are used to His purposes, so we are to trust Him for that and remain faithful in the situation in which we live. Citizenship on Earth is temporary, so preach the Gospel while you're here and take political changes in stride, but don't get too preoccupied with things that ultimately are out of our control and not really our concern.
I would still very much recommend it to the `non-religious,' believe me, he'll preach at you even less than I have here. It's a well-presented challenge to reevaluate your thinking and will perhaps inspire some new thoughts about politics, the media and trying to figure out how to live in this day and age.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2011
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I finally got around to reading Republocrat, a fairly small and easy to read book by Carl Trueman. Carl is a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and a British transplant to America. Moving from Britain to the U.S. has to be a little disconcerting under any circumstances but when you go from the church culture of Britain to the rather unique church culture of America, it must be especially jarring. In Republocrat, Carl looks at the way that politics, especially conservative politics, has become intertwined with evangelicalism to the point that for many they have been indistinguishable.
At the outset it is clear that the dividing lines in politics are quite different. Positions that might seem right of center in Britain probably fall into the liberal category in America. While Republocrat takes aim mostly at right-wing politics in the American church, because that is where most evangelicals fall, he doesn't spare the Left either. I especially liked this quote:
"The Left...has degenerated at points into little more than a knee-jerk and childish reaction against anything middle America and middle Britain consider valuable or worthwhile." (Republocrat, pg. 14)
That is spot on (I think that is what Brits say). Carl takes some pains to talk about the difference between traditional liberal policies that had more to do with working conditions for laborers, women's suffrage, actual oppression versus the new identity politics of the modern Left, a political movement that is perpetually aggrieved and outraged about any sort of restrictions on their behavior or anyone making a nickel of income more than someone else. The historical background of politics in Britain was quite helpful to me as a reader to give me some of the background that formed where Carl was coming from. What I know about British politics is restricted to "The Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher, more recent PM Tony Blair and the members of parliament harrumphing and taking thinly veiled shots at one another during debates.
In some or perhaps many places, Carl misses the mark by a lot. One area where I think he is off target by a lot is the way he seems to divide up "church life" and "regular life". For example:
"There is no Jew or Gentile in Christ's church; nor should there be any English or American; patriotism is a fine civic virtue and Christians should be good citizens, but it should be checked at the church door as we enter the threshold of Christ's kingdom, not that of Thatcher or Clinton or Bush." (Republocrat, pg. 36)
The idea that there is something magical when we stand on one side of a church door as opposed to the other is a common misconception and completely false. The Kingdom and the work we are called to is by and large outside of church buildings, not inside it. The presence of a cleric, a pulpit, stained glass and pews doesn't not herald to believers that they stand amidst the Kingdom. I would argue that patriotism has no place among God's people in any circumstance, not just when they are in their Sunday best listening to a sermon.
I also think he is off the mark a bit on Fox News. I don't think many people really think Fox is "neutral". I reference Fox News knowing full well that they are a more conservative outlet and as such are intentionally a counterpoint to the rest of the "mainstream" media (NBC, CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN, NPR, etc) that are overwhelmingly liberal. "Fair and Balanced" is a cute slogan but where it is fair and balanced is in providing a ready source of news from a decidedly conservative viewpoint
Having said that, I fully expected to find a lot to disagree with but that doesn't change the fact that Republocrat is an inexpensive book and quite entertaining. Most importantly it is thought-provoking and something that many Christians dwelling in America should give thought to. Is there a danger in placing so much of our political allegiance with one party? Are we harming the Gospel witness by identifying with one brand of political discourse? We need to think about these issues. If you are interested in an alternate view to the dominate American understanding of politics and the church, Republocrat is a great place to start.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 27, 2011
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Republocrat is a call to Biblical discernment as much as it is a discipleship tool for American Christians, who are interested in political engagement from a primarily conservative point of view. This short (a little over a hundred pages) work is an attempt to get theologically conservative Christians to think critically about their allegiance to conservative politics. It is written wittily and pointedly, and if often should strike close to home to many people who accept the tenets of contemporary conservative politics as being one and the same with conservative Christianity.
Trueman, a professor and dean at Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia, brings a mirror to contemporary Christians, through his perspective as a British native, and his experience of the real lack of close interaction between evangelicals and the Conservative Party in Britain.
Probably his most rattling points to many will be his attempts to point out the fallacies of embracing much of the conservative media, such as the opinion shows on the Fox network, while at the same time embracing a conservative Christian life and discipleship. I do think his strongest chapter is regarding a critical engagement with capitalism, and a be all and end all of how we are to live.
Much of his argument, that often modern evangelicals who make fine distinctions between different theological points are willing to embrace Manichean thought (all is good vs. evil) without any regards to the irony or the discrepancies involved. As a result, many develop an unnatural cynicism, not based on the nature of man, but based on their false hope of the connection between certain types of politics and good and peaceful living.
So what appears to be at first, a gentle rebuke of some of the populist and very popular manifestations of many Christians embrace of contemporary American conservatism, is actually a call to live a consistent, thoughtful, more Biblical life. I expect the best audience for this book will be upset at some of Trueman's points, particularly with his criticism of much that they hold dear.
Modern America, with its two parties and mass media, regardless of ideology, uses techniques that suppress serious thought and for the Christian, serious critiques about how a kingdom outside this world interacts with the kingdom's of man. So for many, I think this little book could be a helpful corrective to be more thoughtful, and more gospel driven citizens of heaven, seeking the good of the city they presently live in.