About the Author
Timothy J. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
Collin Hansen (MDiv, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) serves as vice president of content and editor in chief for the Gospel Coalition. He hosts the Gospelbound podcast and coauthored Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age. He serves as an elder for Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and also on the advisory board of Beeson Divinity School. You can follow him on Twitter at @collinhansen.
Timothy J. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
Read an Excerpt
Christianity and the Great American Experiment
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them."
If we want to understand the question of this book — how can Christianity begin the process of rebuilding its influence in American society? — first we need to know our history. As Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard famously put it, life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards. And what's true of individuals is also true of societies.
So we should start by asking, how did Christianity lose its influence in American society? Our efforts to rebuild its influence can't succeed unless we understand why it declined. Unfortunately, this history isn't well known, so we often end up fighting the wrong battles with the wrong weapons.
Quick quiz: Who said the following, and when? "The Christian people of America are going to vote as a bloc for the man with the strongest moral and spiritual platform, regardless of his views on other matters. I believe we can hold the balance of power."
Jerry Falwell in 1980? Pat Robertson in 2000? No, it was Billy Graham — in 1951. That a man as intelligent as Graham could be so naive about how the world works points to a deep problem in American evangelicalism. Many evangelical leaders were saying similar things for most of the twentieth century. When we look into the history of Christianity and American society, we start to realize the problem is not what we may have thought it was.
We want to pull a lever and see the world change. Political involvement is not the issue; the joy of God is the issue. Remember, the joy of God is the state of flourishing in mind, heart, and life that Christians experience by the Holy Spirit. We've been so anxious to influence society in the past century that we've ended up going after a lot of shortcuts. For some it's politics, for some it's education, for some it's evangelism. We've been pulling a lot of levers. The common thread is that we're pulling these levers so hard, we leave no space for people to encounter the joy of God.
Christianity and America: Three Stories
American evangelicals tell themselves three different stories about Christianity's influence in America. Each of these stories comes from a particular approach to American history. So getting American history right is going to be the key to sorting out the various stories we tell ourselves about Christianity's place in America.
The first story is the "Christian founding" narrative. This is essentially a tale of stolen glory. According to this telling, the American founding was an essentially Christian act. The people who tell this story today might no longer use the phrase "Christian nation," because it can create misunderstandings. But they do depict the American founding as, at bottom, the enactment of a new model of society more in line with Christian teaching than any before. This Christian social order was the culmination of the Reformation. Thanks to Martin Luther, true Christian teaching had been unleashed from its medieval captivity, and eventually it found social expression (however imperfectly) in the American founding. Responsible people will of course be faithful to the facts; the deism of a few founders, and the shaky theology of many more, will be duly acknowledged. However, after all the caveats and nuances are accounted for, this story depicts Christianity — Christian doctrine and practice — as the foundation of America.
The villains in this story are the major anti-Christian intellectual movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: biological and psychological reductionism in science; narcissistic subjectivism in the arts; materialism and dualism in philosophy; pragmatism in ethics. While these movements found great success in Europe, at first they were contained to a minority in America. But they continued to grow and develop, hatching ever more hideous progeny to torment a vulnerable world: Nihilism, socialism, Fascism, Communism, Nazism. Time and again, in the fight against these evils, the only nation that embodied an essentially Christian form of social organization — America — took its natural place as leader and captain. And America triumphed, because its ideas and institutions were better, having been formed by Christianity.
And then the other side got smart. It organized to infiltrate America's leading institutions from within, especially its schools. In the space of a generation, the secularism that had long been a festering sore on America's cultural life became a cancerous tumor. Christianity's rightful place as the source of America's guiding ideas was usurped. At home, disorder in all forms was on the rise; abroad, we lost our ability to fight our enemies.
In stark contrast to this "Christian founding" narrative, the second story about Christianity and America is the "secular founding" narrative. This is a tale of disillusionment. According to this telling, true Christianity never had much influence on American society. The true church is at enmity with the powers that control the world; it flourishes spiritually only when it refuses the temptation to flourish culturally. The world is ruled by evil, so cultural flourishing means selling out to the world. Again, responsible people will be faithful to the facts; the genuine Christian faith of many of the founders and some influence of ideas borrowed from Christianity are too obvious to be denied. But in this story, the American founding was most importantly a product of "the Enlightenment," which is depicted as an implicitly anti-Christian movement. Some of its ideas were good as far as they went (freedom of religion, civil equality, the rule of law) and may be historically connected with Christianity in some ways, while other ideas were bad (Deism, perfectionism). What they had in common was that they were joined together as components of a larger thought system that was antithetical to Christianity. This mixed bag of essentially non-Christian ideas was dressed up in a cloak of theological language for the sake of maintaining respectability and attracting votes in a country with large numbers of believing Christians.
So in this story, the central organizing dynamic of politics in America has always been a process of cloaking non-Christian ideas (good ones and bad ones) in Christian language. The rise of explicitly anti-Christian ideas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was only the natural development of the earlier rise of non-Christian Enlightenment ideas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These ideas reached their logical conclusions sooner in Europe, where the churches were dying so there was less and less need for the pretense of Christianity. (And the European churches were dying because they had sold out their theological integrity in order to influence society!) The final blossoming of explicitly non-Christian social organization in America in the 1970s was really just the revealing of something that had always been there. Now, the competition is between politicians who appeal explicitly to secularists and those who continue to dress up their agendas as Christian to manipulate churches and voters.
This is a story of disillusionment in both the good and bad sense. In the good sense, it is disillusionment because an illusion has been removed. Since the turn away from "Christianity" in the organization of American life in the 1970s, the true nature of the social order has been revealed. American culture has not necessarily become worse than it always was; it has just become more honest about its non-Christian character. In the bad sense, it is disillusionment because it stems from, and teaches, a cynical attitude about society and Christianity's role in it. Politicians — and for that matter any other socially prominent people — are almost always manipulators who want to get something from the church.
The third story is not really much of a story at all. It's more of an attitude of indifference. Let's call it the "it doesn't matter" narrative. The church doesn't need to wrestle with the questions of history and American society. That's not our department. Our job is just to preach a message of repentance, faith, personal regeneration, and justification; make as many converts as we can; and leave it up to individual Christians to fit into society in whatever ways seem best to them. If the church invests a lot of effort taking positions on the questions of history and society, that will distract us from our real job: maximizing the number of people who convert.
This doesn't mean that the great questions of history and society are removed from the life of the church. These questions still matter to people, so the church will still talk about them, even if it has nothing distinctive to say about them. Aid to Africa, recycling, civility — the church will endorse whatever causes, ideas, and positions happen to be prominent in the culture, as far as it can do so without betraying its core message. That way the gospel will be situated within the cultural views that people outside the church already hold, so the decision to believe in Christ will seem more plausible to those people. In effect, it becomes part of the church's job to support and reinforce whatever views are already predominant in the population it wishes to reach.
True Facts, False Stories
History is not just facts, it's a story. The facts are important; fidelity to the facts is essential to good history. But it takes a story to turn facts into history.
You can get all your facts right, and still get the story wrong. Here's how a pastor of mine once illustrated this point. Suppose I told you that I once saw a group of masked men strap someone down to a table, rip his chest open, and cut out his heart while it was still beating. Now suppose I told you that I once witnessed a life-saving heart transplant operation. Same set of facts, but two totally different stories.
Unfortunately, all three of the stories we've been telling ourselves about American history are inadequate. They can point to true facts, but they don't quite arrange those facts into a true story. And, as will become clear later, these false stories have been undermining our engagement with American society for a century.
The inadequacy of the "it doesn't matter" narrative becomes clear as soon as we identify its real implications. Where this story predominates, churches take the facts about Jesus and insert them into whatever sociocultural story the world is already telling itself. Thus the church becomes, in practice, captive to the world's story. Functionally, the church reinforces everything the world says about human life except for the relatively narrow set of facts that the church identifies as the gospel message.
That brings us to the two substantive stories. Both of these stories highlight true and important facts in the historical record. However, both of them are false as stories. They string the facts together into a larger structure of meaning that misleads.
The Christian founding story highlights — accurately — that the ideas of the American founding were importantly influenced by Christianity in numerous ways and were better aligned with biblical principles than the aristocratic and confessional political systems of the old regime. It also pushes back against the tendency to treat anything associated with the Enlightenment as necessarily anti-Christian. The Enlightenment was not a single movement but was manifested very differently in different parts of Europe, and in some places Christian ideas were an important part of it. You cannot prove that an idea is non-Christian merely by connecting it in some way with something called "the Enlightenment."
The secular founding story highlights — accurately — that the American founding was not a Christian movement as such and was importantly influenced by anti-Christian thinking on several fronts; that the American social order is not a Christian social order as such (not even "unofficially"); and that the founders all called themselves Christians but were very uneven in their doctrinal orthodoxy. In that environment, all sorts of ideas were plausibly labeled as "Christian" — sometimes in manipulative ways.
While both stories highlight facts that are true, neither story is true as a story. The quickest way to see this is to notice that neither story is able to explain the facts that are highlighted by the other. If a story not only contains true facts but is true as a story, it ought to be able to account for the key facts that might be brought to challenge it. Significant unexplained facts are good reasons to doubt a story; too many unexplained facts of too great a significance will undermine our belief in the story.
For example, the Christian founding story can certainly acknowledge, but it cannot really account for, the rationalism of the founders. If this story were true, we would expect that whatever failings the founders had would be a matter of inadequate forward movement — a failure to challenge old, unreformed (literally, pre-Reformation) ways. Yet their failings were much more modern than medieval. In some ways, you will not find three people more diverse in ideas, goals, and personalities than the three men who led the drafting of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson, the man of great discoveries and new frontiers, of romantic idealism, perfectionism, and radicalism; John Adams, the man of justice and civilization, of law, conservatism, and discipline; and Benjamin Franklin, the man of practicality and compromise, of trial and error, negotiation, and comity. Yet all three believed that reason — and a pretty narrow concept of what counted as "reason" — was the proper organizing principle of all life. If their project was really the Reformation overthrowing the vestiges of medievalism, where did this all-encompassing rationalism come from?
Meanwhile, the secular founding story can acknowledge, but cannot account for, the critical role played in the founders' thought by the idea that human life is sacred and sinful at the same time. With few exceptions, we find the founders relying consistently on this assumption — that the human person combines irreducible dignity and systematic moral dysfunction. This is the bedrock wisdom upon which their whole system is based. And it was just this integrated understanding of the simultaneous goodness and badness of human nature that made their system superior to the aristocratic and confessional systems that came before it. But where did they get this idea? The Enlightenment provides no sources for it. Indeed, wherever Enlightenment thinkers deviated from earlier Christian approaches to human nature, it led immediately to tyrannical political ideas far worse than the old medieval aristocracies and confessionalisms. When Thomas Hobbes introduced into the modern world a reductively materialistic understanding of human nature he had picked up from ancient Greco-Roman writers, there was no gradual unfolding process of realization through which people eventually figured out that materialistic anthropology implies authoritarian and unlimited absolutism in politics. Hobbes himself saw this implication and made it the organizing principle of his political thought. Similarly, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau reintroduced Plato's ethical subjectivism to the modern world, he recognized that it implied a revolutionary social radicalism that would override all civil protection for personal freedoms, and he made this the organizing principle of his political thought. The Enlightenment writers who replaced medieval aristocracy and confessionalism with constitutional democracy and freedom were the ones whose thinking about human nature retained a firm grounding in Christianity — Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, Blackstone. Where, then, did the American founders get the anthropology upon which they built their whole system, if they did not inherit it from Christianity?
Ambiguity: A Glorious American Achievement
This critique of the two substantive stories about Christianity in American history might be summed up in this statement: The American social order was never either clearly pro-Christian or clearly anti-Christian. Ross Douthat has described America as a civilization driven not by Christian orthodoxy nor by heresy, but by a perpetual social tension between the two. The relationship between Christianity and the nation's political and social structure has always been ambiguous. In fact, the relationship between the church and the social order is ambiguous in America in a way and to a degree unlike anything seen in any other country in the world, either before or since the founding of this country.
And by that remarkable fact there hangs ... a story. This ambiguity was not a historical accident; it was, in fact, the whole point of the American founding. An adequate history of Christianity and America ought to be built around the story of this ambiguity. And quite a story it is. We might call it the "cooperative founding" story, because Christianity and its spiritual enemies created America together.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Joy for the Word"
Copyright © 2014 Greg Forster.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Timothy J. Keller 13
Introduction: Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room 17
Part 1 Let Men Their Songs Employ
1 Christianity and the Great American Experiment 33
2 The Church and the World 65
Part 2 Let Earth Receive Her King
3 Doctrine: Teaching and Preaching 111
4 Devotion: Worship and Spiritual Formation 135
5 Stewardship: Calling and Discipleship 159
Part 3 He Comes to Make His Blessings Flow
6 Sex and Family 181
7 Work and the Economy 213
8 Citizenship and Community 251
Conclusion: He Rules the World with Truth and Grace 277
Recommended Reading 295
General Index 307
Scripture Index 311
What People are Saying About This
“Bouncy title, thoughtful subtitle, tight writing, and nuanced analysis: Joy for the World lays out enjoyably what we need to understand to save freedom of religion. Greg Forster brilliantly shows that we should expect, embrace, and work to preserve a crowded and uncomfortable public square, because if we’re scared by it the naked public square that results will weaken Christianity and America.”Marvin Olasky, Editor in Chief, WORLD Magazine
“The miracle of Christianity is that it offers a joy that goes beyond emotion and a hope that goes beyond time. In Joy for the World, Greg Forster presents a picture of this joy that inspires readers to hope and live in such a way that they transform their communities, their culture, and their world.”Ed Stetzer, Executive Director, Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, Wheaton College
“This book is against sequestrationthe sequestering of Christian life into ‘spiritual’ enclaves and churchly ghettos. But it also wants the church to be the churchuncompromised, vibrant, and filled with joy. Both are necessary for the Christian community to be an agent of transformation in the civilization in which God calls it to serve, witness, and bear fruit. Greg Forster argues for a renewed form of holistic obedience, and he does so not only with joy, but also hope. Recommended with enthusiasm!”Timothy George, Distinguished Professor of Divinity, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
“When I speak or host my daily radio talk show, I deal with three categories of Christians. Many believe we should be isolated from the culture or conclude that Christians who engage the culture can’t make a significant difference in the world. Others believe we should engage the culture, but don’t know how. Then there is the remnant trying to engage the culture that could use some instruction and encouragement. This book is for all three. Forster encourages us to be salt and light, explaining how Christians can make a difference and be a significant witness for Christ. This is a book for all Christians.”Kerby Anderson, President, Probe Ministries; Host, Point of View radio talk show
“Forster’s deft grasp of history, philosophy, and theology enables him to offer up this rigorous yet accessible book. He offers rich, unique insights into the story of how Christians lost their civilizational influence. More importantly, he describes how a vigorous embrace by the church of whole-life discipleshipthat shapes our personal, family, workplace, and community livescan create Jesus-followers who are genuinely good citizens and good neighbors.”Amy L. Sherman, Senior Fellow, Sagamore Institute for Policy Research; author, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good
“Greg Forster offers a passionate call for Christians to pursue industrious, thoughtful, and patient labor in all of their life’s callings for the humble and biblical goal of blessing their neighbors. Those tempted to dismiss their ordinary occupations as necessary evils will find much to challenge and motivate them in these pages. Especially helpful are Forster’s chapters on economics and politics, and their stimulating discussion of work, citizenship, and neighborliness.”David VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, Westminster Seminary California
“With a refreshing depth of biblical, historical, and cultural insight, Greg Forster presents a compelling way forward for the church to rebuild influence in American society. Joy for the World opens up broad vistas of the Spirit-filled life with its transforming power, yet remains wisely tethered to the hopeful realism necessary for living with true joy in a fallen world. This book is tailor-made for every follower of Jesus who desires to embrace an integral and influential gospel-centered faith lived out and embodied in every nook and cranny of life. I highly recommend it.”Tom Nelson, Senior Pastor, Christ Community Church, Kansas City; President, Made to Flourish; author, Work Matters and The Economics of Neighborly Love