Friday, December 05, 2008

The Myth of a Christian Nation: Book Review

(The brevity of this review is because I wrote it for goodreads, which has a 10,000 key stroke max.)

Boyd’s book was a very interesting read for me. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had such a roller coaster reading experience as reading this book. I have read books where I agree with some of it but not all of it. That should be fairly common. Only the intellectually insecure seem to discount everything someone says simply because s/he says something you disagree with. But with this book, I literally agreed with one sentence 100% and then disagreed with the very next sentence 100% and then agreed with the very next sentence 100%. I would be tracking and nodding my head saying “Amen!” only to suddenly find myself disagreeing in the strongest of terms.

The book has its draw backs as far as the structure goes. Boyd’s writing style is smooth and conversational (being based on a series of sermons he preached at his church in ‘04), that’s not my gripe. It is one of the most repetitive books I’ve ever come across. Boyd constantly repeats himself, using the same language and illustrations throughout. It doesn’t border on overkill, it is overkill. I suspect this is on purpose though. Boyd is trying to “drive home" a point. Nevertheless, the constant repetition does get a little tiresome. Very tiresome, actually.

Boyd’s central thesis is that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political ideology.” They are guilty because they (attempt to) “fuse the kingdom of God with the kingdom of the world.” These two kingdoms are radically different. But despite that, many American Christians think the “kingdom of God’ is about a particular form of government, political program, outlawing abortion, keeping gays from getting married, keeping “God” on our money and “under God” in the pledge, placing the ten commandments in court houses, and fighting for prayer at Friday night football games. Boyd says this is misguided. Any such fusing is idolatrous and has a negative effect on the message of Christianity. Boyd doesn’t argue that Christians should have no involvement in politics. He doesn’t argue that any particular political issue of the day is right or wrong. He just thinks that “finding the right political path” doesn’t really have “anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God.”

Boyd follows the basic insights of such historians of American religion as Marsden, Noll, Yoder &co. Boyd believes that the idea that America was (is) a “Christian nation” is largely founded on myth, anachronisms, misunderstandings, and shallow exegesis of the Founders’ writings. The claims that are marshaled out as the usual suspects that supposedly prove the Founders’ deep and pious commitment to Christianity, are largely nebulous claims about ‘religion’ and ‘morals,’ along with deistic claims about ‘God.’ At times, they make claims explicitly stating they had no intention to found a uniquely “Christian nation.” But, such myths are typically seen as the grounds that underwrite oft repeated claims about “taking America back for God.”

Boyd finds something almost inherently evil and sinful in the kingdom of the sword (another name he gives “kingdom of the world”). He claims that Satan rules this kingdom (he lumps all governments under the one rubric “kingdom of the sword/world”) and that it is always seeking to gain “power over” (Anything? Everything?), while the “kingdom of God” is characterized by “power under.” One “wins” according to human tradition and common sense, the other “wins” in ways totally foreign to common assumptions of what “winning” looks like. Here, think something like, “the victory of the cross.” By human standards, a dead messiah hardly looks like a winning messiah.

We frequently think our ideas on political issues and interactions with the world are “righteous” because “fallen humans tend to identify their own groups as righteous and any group that opposes them as evil.” Due to our narcissism we think that whatever we think is right, automatically mean that God thinks it’s right. Hence Bush’s claim that we are “rid[ding] the world of this evil.” Of course the rest of the world sees us in highly different terms. A militant (or non) Muslim might get the idea that we are militants if they saw some of our church services where the American flag waves across a big screen, complete with jets doing a fly-by and the congregation singing “God bless America,” all wrapped up with a sermon on how we need to pray for our president and our “boys” who are out “keeping America safe from evil,” all with the providential blessing of God, of course. “Despite our widespread reputation, of course, we evangelical Christians often insist that we are loving; it’s just that the world is so sinful they can’t see it -- or so we tell ourselves.” And so George Bush: “I’m amazed that there’s so much misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us…like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.” We know what’s best for the world. We’re just out to help people, yet we help countries that have oil interests while the genocides in many African countries continue unimpeded.

On top this, Boyd also finds that the church has a terrible history whenever they have been in charge. The early church wasn’t like the Constantinople church. When the church gained political power, terrible and scary results were brought about. Boyd finds the political-Christianity, always just a baptized version of “kingdom of the world” government, have engaged in racism, massacre, witch hunts, hypocrisy, tribalism, marginalizing, and all sorts of other things incompatible with “the kingdom of God.” He cites Frederick Douglas’s reaction to the expression of “Christianity” he saw in his contemporaries. Thus Douglas: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognized the widest possible difference-so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

All of this Boyd uses as support of his repeated claim that “No one has ever been called a heretic for not being loving enough.” He wonders why? Boyd sees true Christianity as primarily about our actions. Christ is primarily a moral exemplar. And of course this is just a function of his clear Emergent approach to Christianity. Boyd is described on the front cover as an “electrifying preacher.” And he frequently says such cool, relevant things like, “We need to have an outrageous love.” Rather than discuss some of the problems I see in some of what I said above (I did not mean the above as an endorsement of Boyd, though I agree with some of it), I’d like to springboard off Boyd’s last point to discuss what I find is the biggest error in his book.

Boyd claims the “kingdom of God” expands by us our “act[ing] like Jesus.” Christianity and the kingdom is not “primarily” about “confessing…magical truths.” God’s kingdom is “manifested and expanded through the faithfulness of his subjects, and so where people choose peace over violence and forgiveness over retaliation, acting in the interest of others rather than out of selfish interest, the kingdom of God is present.” We are to be “Christlike,” even “incarnating ourselves” into the world’s problems. True statements like, “our confidence isn’t to hang on power brokers of human history” is followed by claims that our confidence hangs on our being “committed to walking in the way of Jesus of Nazareth.” We “conquer by … making it our sole task , movement by moment, to manifest the unique righteousness of the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of God…always looks like Jesus.” “What if we just did the kingdom?” “Doing the kingdom …transforms peoples hearts and therefore transforms society.” We are to love all people “with a Calvary love.” Since Jesus dies “for all people” then we are to “love all people” with “the same Calvary love that drove Jesus to the cross.” We love, we don’t judge. “If you want to judge someone else, you first have to be sinless.”

These are all direct quotes from Myth. And it is statements like this that make Boyd’s book dangerous. The subtitle of the book is, “How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church.” But it is Boyd’s teaching that will destroy the church far more efficiently than misguided Christians exhibiting a zeal without knowledge. As should have been self-evident from the above, Boyd is teaching a works-based gospel. Confusing law and gospel. The kingdom expands and people are transformed by what we do, not by what they believe Christ did for them. Boyd critiques that historic understanding via an argument from pejorative: “magical truths.” Our “confidence, again, rests on what we do. We need to “do” the gospel. “Live” the gospel. None of this is good news! It’s quite scary, actually. If our good works and righteousness is how the kingdom advances, then, with a healthy doctrine of sin, I dare say there will be no advancement and there is and will never be a “kingdom of God” here on earth. No one will ever be transformed. The gospel, which is a proclamation of good news about something that was done for us, has been turned upside down. Can there be anything more dangerous to Christianity than a denial of the gospel?

Of course other errors result due to Boyd’s Arminianism. Jesus “came to redeem the world.” “Now, through his death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished the task for which he came. He defeated the kingdom of darkness and set humanity free. In principle…the world has been reconciled to God.” “In principle all have already died in Adam and been made alive in Christ.” And of course applying Romans 5 to all means that all have been made righteous (in principle). “So by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (v.19). And how he escapes universalism is another question, “For if by one man's offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ” (v.17). Boyd gets around the difficult questions by maligning doctrine. But if doctrine, i.e., “magical truths,” actually matter, then if Calvinist exegesis is correct, Jesus’ death on the cross was an exclusive love (cf. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, for example) and so fails to be a proof text for the kind of love we are to show all men whoever. Besides, who gave Boyd the right to declare us all 'lil messiahs? As if we could actually mimic the salvific, redeeming, one-time, accomplished love of Christ dying as the “lamb of God.” The exclusivity of this death is seen in the very precondition of its intelligibility - the Old Testament Day of Atonement. The sacrificial lamb’s death was always for Israelites, never for non-Israelites. Likewise Jesus’ death - with the New Testament’s teaching on “Israel.”

Boyd's guiding ethic also seems to be nothing other than Fletcher's situation ethics. Boyd says that, "The only criteria that matters, then, in assessing whether anything has any value within the kingdom that God is building on earth is love..." (emphasis original). Fletcher says, "Christian situation ethics has only one norm or principle or law that is binding and unexceptionable, always good and right regardless of the circumstances ... that is love" (Fletcher, Situation Ethics, 1967, p.30). So one could add the problems inherent in situation ethics to Boyd's argument in the book. Boyd's Arminian emphasis on what has been rightly dubbed "wuv," causes him to say that the best expression of a "kingdom woman" was that she told a girl thinking about abortion that she would love her and support her whatever her decision. If she chose to get the abortion, "Becky" would help her through the post-abortion recovery, provide her a place to live if her parents threw her out. Of course we should love people thinking about abortion. But this is one of the problems with Boyd's fluffy, situation ethic. It's fairly loose. How do we love our neighbor? Ask a thousand different people, get a thousand different answers. But Boyd lets the fluff cloud his thinking. What if the girl told "Becky" that she wanted to kill her mother? Would "Becky" offer to help her through the post-matricide!? Boyd's view of love leads him further to say that God's "kingdom" is not one of judgment. But one wonders if he's heard of hell? If he knows anything about the typological kingdom of God in Israel and how they operated? Judgment is indeed part of the kingdom of God.

Further problems arise when we see that “Christianity”, as divorced from “magical truths,” all of a sudden has been transformed by Boyd into a name that can be applied to even Buddhists. It’s not about what is believed, it’s “primarily” about how you act. The “kingdom of God” is evident in those groups that “choose peace over violence and forgiveness over retaliation, acting in the interest of others rather than out of selfish interest.” So the historic lines between “Christian” and “non-Christian” have been blotted out. That’s why Boyd can use Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples of “kingdom people,” while questioning those like the Puritans, for instance. On Boyd’s terms, a socially “loving” atheist group that exhibit’s the above traits is where God’s kingdom is “evident”, while a group of sinful Christians who repeatedly fail to live up to Boyd’s standards but yet continues to trust and rest in the righteousness of Christ alone being imputed to them, is not Christian. This is all a confusion of law and gospel. Between an announcement and our actions. (We can add that a major problem with Boyd's view here is that when we look at the empirical evidence, the only "kingdom of God" that has been authorized to exist here on earth (Israel) didn't look like what Boyd's idea of a kingdom of God would look like. Israel engaged in some pretty bloody campaigns on behalf of God's request!)

Lastly, Boyd makes self-refuting claims. Given that it is obvious that he’s “judging” a certain segment of the church, and given the plausible assumption that Boyd is a sinner, then he removes the foundations upon which he seeks to judge these Christians: “If you want to judge someone else, you first have to be sinless.” Boyd says that “Jesus never judged Gentile sinners,” and Paul never did either. He claims we never find talk about how Gentiles are sinners when Jesus or the apostles speak to Gentiles (and never mind his atrocious rendering of Acts 17!). But this is manifestly false. “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent“ (Acts 17:30). But why should these Gentiles be told to “repent” if they weren’t “sinful?” And to call someone “sinful” is to “judge” them, but the Apostle was not “sinless.” So, how could he “judge” these people and “force” his “Christian” view of morality on them? Given how he takes "world" in all the soteriological passages, then when John speaks of the "world" rejecting "the light," how is that not universal? Boyd can't have it both ways. And of course to claim that "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," is to claim that all men are sinners, even Gentile men...and women!

Given the brevity of this review, there was much I could not go over. There was much good I would like to commend (there's some valid and needed indictments of American Christianity inside), but given some of the claims I addressed above, I cannot recommend this book without clearly warning of the works-based religion Boyd proclaims to mankind. There is no mention that church is primarily a place where the gospel is preached and the sacraments administered. Indeed, the contrary is claimed. Church is the place where the “troops” are rallied to go out and “transform” the “kingdom of the world” through its “actions” of “self-sacrificing Calvary love.” I don’t know about you, but that’s unappealing to this sinner. I need to go to church to rest. To get fed. To hear proclaimed what was done for me and what I can never accomplish on my own. I know Boyd wanted to write on “The Myth of a Christian Nation,” but instead he propounded “The Myth of a Graceful Christianity.” Boyd’s cherished “kingdom of God,” is just another therapeutic moral deism.” A “Christless Christianity.” No one has ever been called a heretic for being “unloving” because that’s not something you can be called a heretic for! Heresy is about deviation for essential "magical truths." If heresy could be indexed to our actions, then guess what? We're all heretics; yes, even Greg Boyd. This is more evidence that Boyd confusions our actions with the good news encapsulated in “magical truths,” comprised of words, on actual, physical pages of the Bible. Boyd has just traded one version of moralism for another one. One Christless Christianity for another.


  1. Paul: He just thinks that “finding the right political path” doesn’t really have “anything to do with advancing the kingdom of God.”

    Vytautas: Is it because the kingdom of God is the agent of political change? If so, does he also confuse the two kingdoms by making the church dominant over the kingdoms of this age?

  2. Yes, he does argue that in a sense. Not in any "warlike" way, I guess. That is, not if it involves anything "unloving," like war, for instance. But he says we shouldn't let the Gov. help people, the church just needs to "do the kingdom" and fix all the woes of society. Go build homes for kids in the inner city, provide safe homes for pregant woman and either help them to raide their baby, or comfort them after they've decieded to abort it, solve world hunger, etc. Of course he makes us so busy that there's no time to rest and get fed. No time for the gospel.

    So, yes, I think he makes the same error he blames on others. He thinks he's not by his "power over/power under" distinction and his claim that "whenever you do nice" that's where the kingdom is located. So, of course, when the Gov. helps those in poverty, they're "doing the kingdom."

  3. "In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." James 2:17 It seems to me Boyd is not negating faith but pointing out the obvious that you need to have both to qualify as a living faith.