Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review - Myth of a Christian Nation

Not too long ago, CNN had a special entitled God's Warriors. During the segment on Christianity, one of the people they interviewed was a megachurch pastor named Gregory Boyd. Astonishingly, he was arguing against the notion that America is somehow an inherently religious nation and that pretending it is, is not only harmful to our country and constitution, but also harms faith.

So back in October I picked up a copy of his book The Myth of a Christian Nation (Subtitle: How the quest for political power is destroying the church). I've been slowly plodding through it over the course of the past month and a half and finally finished it a little over a week ago.

The main theme of the book is that trying to control people by legislating morality is antithetical to the entire premise of Christianity. He points out that Jesus, although living in a politically charged climate, did not weigh in on political issues or try to influence the government. Instead of exerting a "power over" mentality, he tried to change people by transforming hearts to influence actions in a "power under" mentality.

American Christianity, Boyd points out, does the exact opposite; They try to influence action to control hearts. As such, instead of getting Christians that actually follow the teachings of Christ and befriend the downtrodden, we get arrogant, self-righteous, pious pricks. No disagreement from me there!

He illustrates the proper behavior of a true Christian on pg 144 where he describes the plight of a pregnant, unwed teen mother who was afraid to tell her parents of her pregnancy for fear they'd kick her out. Instead, she confided in a close family friend that, instead of passing self-righteous judgment, offered to support her in any choice she made, shelter her if her parents did kick her out, and help pay for the child should she decide to keep it. As a result, the girl did end up keeping the child. Boyd describes this as being truly "pro-life".

Boyd makes several other good points to support his argument. Another one was on page 137 in which he argues that perhaps the reason that American Christianity is so obsessed with homosexuality, is that that is (typically) the one sin they don't have (although some people suspect that it's also flogged because so many are and they're trying desperately to deny it). As such, they focus on that one in an effort to ignore their own faults. Hypocrisy at it's finest!

Another example at the marriage of Christianity to American politics Boyd gives is that it has become popular to think of the enemies of America as enemies of Christianity. Freedom is assumed to be a "Christian value" (Boyd points out it's not), and thus, when terrorists are out to "destroy our freedom", it's not only a war on America, it's a war on Christian virtues and thus, Ameri-Christians become even more incensed. This obsessive, bloody devotion to the perceived virtues of religion is what perpetuates violence, Boyd argues. Although he didn't mention it, this isn't a new trend either. While fighting Communism, religion was again used as an excuse to further conflict. They were "godless Commies" and since we're the God minded people, we are more righteous, and thus, we need to slap God on our money and pledge! American values are Christian values. Don't believe me? Check the billboard. Instead, we allow these wars to be perpetuated in the name of our perceived religion. Boyd seems to want to think that for a "true" version of Christianity, this would somehow be a different case, but as Voltaire pointed out, "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." After all, how many wars have been perpetuated in the name of Atheism? As Boyd puts it, it's hard "to motivate one group to kill another and be willing to be killed by others without convincing them that there's a religious dimension to their tribal cause." (p 100)

While I was reading much of this book, I happened to be listening to the cast recording of Les Miserables, and much of what Boyd was saying made a great parallel to the plot. For those that aren't familiar with Les Mis, it's partially the story of a sinner, Val Jean, who is released on parole, and then steals silver to sell from a pastor that took him in when no one else would. He is caught and instead of piously condemning Val Jean, he tells the officers that he gave Val Jean the silver in order to start a new life, "buying his soul for God." It struck me that this is precisely the point Boyd is going for. Had the pastor turned Val Jean away as so often happens, he would not have been saved and thus, no further good could come. The tit for tat, eye for an eye system would be preserved.

So this was the main theme of the book: American Christianity isn't real Christianity because they go for the bloody "kingdom of the world" mentality rather than the "kingdom of God." Americans are no more Christian, more pious, more pure, than the rest of the world. We just like to think we are. Boyd even goes so far as to admit that most American Christians "lack even an elementary understanding of the faith they profess." This is clearly stated in the first chapter, but then repeated in slightly different ways for nearly 200 pages. I have to sometimes marvel at how amazingly dense the average Christian must be if a pastor feels that he has to repeat himself for 200 pages to get a single point across.

Regardless, the main premise of the book was one that I could agree with. I'd love to see some Christians that were more humble and not condescending asses. If they wanted to actually be nice and try to "transform my heart" or whatever nonsense they'd like to call it, they're more than welcome to try, although I doubt it will get them anywhere.

But although I agreed with the main premise, this doesn't mean that there weren't things that Boyd said that I found either disturbing or flat out wrong.

One of the things Boyd constantly calls for is more prayer. Not the government sponsored type that so many Ameri-Christians are clamoring for, but personal prayer. He points out Americans "place more confidence in our individual and corporate political activity than [we do] in prayer (p 119)." On pg 177, he suggests that one person praying does more than an entire army. Instead of participating in the Civil War to end slavery, he suggets, we should have prayed our way out of such a large conflict. This is nothing short of complete stupidity given that studies have shown that prayer does not work. As the adage goes, "One pair of hands at work does more than a thousand clasped in prayer."

Boyd also argues for blind faith and ignorance. If you trust "worldly effectiveness" over "kingdom faithfulness", then it is a sign that you are relying too much on "common sense." Get that? He explicitly says that if you follow what works there is something wrong with you! Instead you should blindly follow your faith.

This is just part of the Christian mindset that should seriously disturb any right-minded person. Another aspect Boyd argues for is that Christians should make sure they're persecuted because "as terrible as they often are, persecutions have usually had a positive kingdom effect (p 181)." I think I'll have to go with Charles Bradlaugh when he said, "I cannot follow you Christians; for you try to crawl through yourlife upon your knees, while I stride through mine on my feet."

Overall, the book made a point that I think should be taken to heart by Christians. If Christians actually practiced what Boyd preaches, I wouldn't have nearly as much of a problem with them. However, it's just replacing one form of nuttery with a less offensive, but no less crazy form. In fact, it seems to me that Boyd's form is more ludicrous when it advocates giving up rational thought for faith, but at the very least, it's certainly less dangerous to our Constitution and to the world in general.


Gary McGath said...

I came to this post by way of your LiveJournal crosspost. Just for the halibut, I'll reply here rather than there.

Boyd sounds like a good guy, however many mistakes he's made. I'd probably enjoy a conversation with him.

Here's an amazing coincidence: I was just listening yesterday to the London cast album of Les Miserables, the first time I'd taken it out in years, and was still as much moved by it as ever. One little complaint, though: the protagonist's name isn't "Val Jean." It's Jean Valjean. It's relevant to me since I'm in the position of helping out a friend who may be released from prison soon. He says the charges against him were false; I don't know for sure, but I'm inclined to believe him. It could create some interesting complications if he has nowhere to go.

Anonymous said...

It looks like someone has confused the American Civil War with the American Revolutionary War.

If it was you, you can fix it. If it was Boyd, you can poke fun.

Jon Voisey said...

Thanks for catching that. The instance I was referring to was indeed the Civil war. I've updated the post.

All these silly war things confuse me. But that's why I'm an astronomer. Not a historian. ;)

Anonymous said...

Angry Astronomer:

I have no problems with Christians trying to implement their beliefs in the political arena. My problem is that their beliefs happen to be complete rubbish.

The whole notion of democracy is founded upon the assumption that citizens will actively participate in civic life. Christians have just as much of a right to attempt to influence the legislative process as anyone else.

The remedy doesn't lie in trying to persuade Christians to exit the political arena. Rather, it lies in educating the populace so that our public policy decisions are no longer guided by idiotic religious beliefs.