Theology & Culture (12): My Favorite Colleges, Persons, Blogs, Journals, and Books

By way of conclusion, allow me to point out a few institutions, persons, and publications which seek to approach to theology and culture in a robustly Christian manner. Please keep in mind that I must be concise to the extreme; even in an attempt at concision, this last installment is more than twice as long as I intended.

Institutions of Higher Education

I am happy to mention The College at Southeastern (C@SE), where I serve as a dean and professor, as a unique evangelical and Baptist institution of higher learning which takes seriously the integration of faith and learning. One unique aspect of our college is our core curriculum which centers not only on biblical-theological studies but also on the great books and ideas of western civilization. Each student who enrolls to pursue their baccalaureate education at C@SE will take at least four seminars in History of Ideas. In these seminars, they read philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche; they read theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Calvin, and Luther; they read literature by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Chaucer, Sartre, and DuBois. As they read these texts and many others, they trace the influence of ideas, they critique those ideas theologically and philosophically, and they develop their own rational and creative capacities. All of this is done with an eye toward bringing their core theological convictions into conversation with the arts, the sciences, the public square disciplines, etc.

Among universities, it would be difficult to find a more exemplary institution than Union University, led by David Dockery whose Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008) sets forth a coherent and compelling vision for how Christian higher education can serve the church and society. Union’s faculty members are publishing serious academic research in their respective disciplines, and doing so precisely because they take seriously the integration of faith and learning. Houston Baptist University is a research institution with which to be reckoned, and which is serious about faith and learning, as is exemplified in the hiring of Robert Sloan and the subsequent launch of their new journal The City (a journal of intellectual, social, and cultural consequence, even after only two years of publication). There are quite a few other exemplary institutions, but for the purposes of this brief blogpost, I have focused on the aforementioned three, all of which are aligned with my network of churches, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Exemplary Persons

Over the course of the past 50 years, there have arisen some great men and women who exemplify Christian interaction in various dimensions of American culture. In the discipline of philosophy, I think of Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Arthur Holmes, David Cook, and William Lane Craig. In the arts, I am reminded of Leland Ryken, Gene Veith, and Alan Jacobs. In the natural sciences, I think of Michael Behe, Stephen Barr, and Charles Thaxton. In public theology and the public square, I am reminded of Francis Schaeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, Lesslie Newbigin, and Al Mohler. And the list could go on, but this short list suffices to point out that younger evangelicals have some excellent (though imperfect) models of faithful cultural engagement and cultural work.

Informative Blogs

Al Mohler’s Blog. I began reading Al Mohler’s blog soon after I returned from my two year stint in Central Asia. Dr. Mohler blogs daily about a wide range of issues, and does so from a conservative evangelical perspective. If you would like to be acquainted (from an evangelical perspective) with the latest books being published, the most important issues surfacing in public discussion, and the most influential thinkers in contemporary life, this blog is perhaps the best place to start. For students who are interested in expanding their mind, I would say to you: Mohler’s blogposts can be read in 5 minutes or so, and are much more profitable than espn.go.com. (Although there’s nothing wrong with ESPN. Just sayin’.)

Justin Taylor’s Blog. This blog aggregate points its readers to the best books and blogs in the Christian world, many of which deal with theology and culture.

Arts & Letters Daily. I’ve just recently started browsing this website, whose niche is linking to significant blogs and essays daily. These blogs and essays are “here comes everybody.” They are written by men and women from across the ideological spectrum, and therefore are helpful for keeping the pulse of contemporary society and culture.

Substantive Journals

First Things. Richard John Neuhaus started this journal, which is published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life. First Things is founded on the premise that ideas matter, and that the ideas that matter most are those involving religion, culture, and politics. Its essays are written by world-class scholars and cover nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture. For eleven years, I have looked forward to the day that this invigorating monthly arrives in my mailbox.

Touchstone. This magazine is a journal of “Mere Christianity,” styled after the likes of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesteron. Worth a read.

The City. This elegant journal, published by Houston Baptist University, is an evangelical counterpart to First Things, covering nearly any topic at the intersection of theology and culture.

Exemplary Books

In this section, I will note a few books, journals, and websites under various dimensions of theology and culture. My intention is to provide a few basic books for those readers who would like to begin reading and thinking in various areas of theology and culture. These lists are nowhere near being comprehensive, nor are they necessarily the best books to begin reading on any given topic. Instead, they are selections from my own shelves. They are books that I have found helpful in thinking through the task of living faithfully and thinking Christianly within my own (American) cultural context.

Christianity & Culture (General)

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. An engaging and persuasive treatise on the Christian community’s calling to “make culture” rather than merely “engage the culture.”

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction on how the biblical narrative fosters a worldview that in turn shapes the entirety of the Christian life, including especially culture work and cultural engagement.

Horton, Michael. Where in the World is the Church? A fine introduction to the role of the Christian in culture.

Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. A recent and influential argument that Christian strategies for “changing the world” are doomed from the start, because they fail to recognize the role of the cultural elite in fostering such change.

Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. A classic text discussing Reformed theology as a life-system, fleshing out its implications in religion, politics, science, and art.

Moore, T.M. Culture Matters: A Call for Consensus on Christian Cultural Engagement. A brief little book arguing for Christian cultural engagement based upon the lessons learned from five historical case studies (Augustine, Celts, Calvin, Kuyper, Milosz).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. This text has become the modern benchmark for discussing Christianity and culture.

Schaeffer, Francis. How Then Shall We Live? The modern classic on the subject by the doyen of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life. An introduction to Martin Luther’s theology of vocation.

Christian Faith & Learning

Dockery, David. Renewing Minds: Serving Church and Society through Christian Higher Education. An excellent and accessible treatise on how to recover a robust and authentic view of faith and learning.

Holmes, Arthur. The Idea of a Christian College (rev. ed.) An evangelical classic. A slim little volume that packs a powerful punch as it sets forth the distinctive mission and contributions of a Christian college.

Marsden, George. The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. A 20th century classic which provides a compelling argument that mainstream American higher ed needs to be open to explicit expressions of faith in an intellectual context.

Noll, Mark. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. A compelling argument that evangelicals should value the life of the mind.

Plantinga, Cornelius. Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living. A deep and sustained interaction with the biblical narrative and its implications for faith, learning, and living. Very accessible.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. A collection of essays in which Nicholas Wolterstoff applies his high-octane brain to the notion of faith and learning in Christian high school education.

________. Educating for Shalom: Essays on Christian Higher Education. An collection of essays in which Wolterstoff thinks publicly about faith and learning in higher education.

The Arts

Gallagher, Susan V. and Roger Lundin. Literature Through the Eyes of Faith. An excellent introduction that shows how the reading of literature helps us interpret life and experience.

Godawa, Brian. Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment. This is the single best guide to a theologically astute analysis of movie plots.

O’Connor, Flannery. “The Church and the Fiction Writer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

_________. “Novelist and Believer” in Mystery and Manners. This essay provides insight into the relationship of faith and writing from the consummate Christian author.

Rookmaaker, H.R. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. A modern classic that offers penetrating insight into modern art and the intellectual context beneath it.

Ryken, Leland. Windows to the World: Literature in Christian Perspective. A primer on the subject of literature and truth that shows the importance of the imagination in reading.

Schaeffer, Francis A. Art and the Bible: Two Essays. Two brief essays on how to think about art from a biblical perspective from one of the patriarchs of evangelical cultural analysis.

Veith, Gene E. State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe. A useful guide to understanding both the biblical foundations for art and the contemporary art world.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic. A fairly technical treatise on the reality that art does not exist merely for aesthetic contemplation but that it functions in everyday life.

The Sciences

Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. A fetching read about a central problem with Darwinian theory by a working biochemist. The book is technical but accessible to the lay reader.

Carlson, Richard F., ed. Science and Christianity: Four Views. Not surprisingly, four views on the relationship of science and Christianity.

Davis, John Jefferson. The Frontiers of Science and Faith. A terrific exploration of ten current scientific issues and their intersection with Christian theology and life.

Hunter, Cornelius. Darwin’s God. A biophysicist examines the theological issues underlying the formulation of Darwin’s theory of origins.

Pearcy, Nancy R. and Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. An analysis of the way in which Judeo-Christian thought funds the scientific enterprise, including a look at mathematics and scientific “revolutions,” and the discipline called the “History of Science.”

The Public Square

Audi, Robert and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Public Debate. A somewhat technical discussion of Christian convictions and the way in which believers should dialogue in the public square. Audi argues that Christians should appear “naked” in the public square, while Wolterstorff (himself a political liberal), argues Christians should come “fully clothed.”

Budziszewski, J. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. A useful explication of the way in which natural law benefits discussions about morality in the public square written by a former nihilist turned Christian who teaches philosophy at the University of Texas.

Mouw, Richard J. and Sander Griffioen. Pluralisms and Horizons: An Essay inChristian Public Philosophy. An unpacking of the problem of political consensus in a pluralist environment, which includes a helpful comparison and contrast of major thinkers on the topic, including Rawls, Nozick, and Neuhaus.

Nash, Ronald. Social Justice and the Christian Church. Nash offers an impassioned plea for social justice founded upon biblical principles wedded with free-market ideals.

Neuhaus, Richard John. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. A very influential and well-argued text on the place of Christian conviction in public political discourse. (Fear not, there are no pictures.)

Newbigin, Lesslie: Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. An enduringly influential work on confronting western culture with the gospel.

Novak, Michael. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. A vigorous examination of capitalism and democracy with a particularly good articulation of a “theology of democratic capitalism.”

American and Western Culture

Anderson, Walter Truett. Reality Isn’t What it Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Sheik, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. An entertaining little romp through contemporary Western culture.

Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. A one-volume history of modern Western culture with particular attention to the intellectual underpinnings of cultural movements.

Bloom, Alan. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. Though this book is a bit dated, it is still an important treatise on the cataclysmic changes in Western civilization in recent years and the influence of higher education upon them.

Cantor, Norman F. The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times. An interesting tome about 20th century American cultural movements.

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution. A fine little analysis of American society and culture with particular attention to the influence of the sexual revolution upon various spheres of culture.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. The Crisis of Our Age. An influential and unfortunately too much ignored monograph that shows the crisis of the materialistic nature of contemporary Western civilization.

Worldview

Goheen, Mike and Craig Bartholomew. Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In my opinion this is the best one-stop introduction to Christian worldview, ordered by the biblical narrative and applied to such issues as culture work and contextualization.

Nash, Ronald H. Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas. A good introduction to the subject that shows how to adjudicate between worldviews.

Naugle, David K. Worldview: The History of a Concept. The seminal work on the history of the concept of worldview.

Sire, James W. The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 3d. ed. A readable presentation of major worldview options.

Wolters, Albert M. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. A concise theological reflection on worldview.

Theology & Culture (11): Why The Academy Matters to God

The university is perhaps the most influential institution in American society. It certainly is a funnel though which hundreds of thousands of young people pour out annually into every sector of American life. Further, many universities and academic disciplines have become breeding grounds for adamant (if not militant) resistance to Christian belief and practice. In fact, when 18 year old believers enter college, they will often find a scenario in which the smartest people they now know are opposed to the core convictions of Christianity. It is likely that these same students are utterly unprepared to think critically and therefore tend to either (1) compartmentalize their religious life and their academic life, allowing the two lives to run on parallel tracks and holding the two in an ever-unresolved tension; or (2) allow their academic influencers to overturn their Christian convictions, largely because they (the students) are unaware of any top-shelf minds in their disciplines who take seriously the charge to integrate their Christian faith with their academic learning.

By the time I entered seminary, I had begun to read widely in various academic disciplines because I had encountered faculty members and students on multiple university campuses who seemed to make a good case against Christianity from within their own disciplines. In other words, the broad intellectual milieu in the United States is one in which secular forms of rationality are privileged. As David Dockery puts it, “The ‘cultured despisers’ of religion regard faith, Christian faith in particular, as irrational and obscurantist. They consider that it may be necessary to tolerate and perhaps even accommodate faith on campus by providing or recognizing denominational chaplaincies, student religious groups, and so forth. But religious faith, even when tolerated, is understood as at best irrelevant to, and at worst incompatible with, serious and unfettered intellectual inquiry and the transmission of knowledge to students.”*

I was driven to “vindicate” God. In reality, I knew that I did not have to, and was not able to, “vindicate” God. But I did want to be able to show God’s glory and the truth of his word in every academic discipline and by extension in every dimension of human intellectual life and culture.

After seminary, I lived in the former Soviet Union for two years, at which time I gained an even clearer grasp of what the university looks like bereft of Christian influence. My best Russian friends were taking undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy, psychology, philology, and physics, as well as other disciplines. They continually articulated to me a sort of nihilistic worldview, as well as a fragmented and disordered view of the academic disciplines, which is precisely what one would suspect when truths of God’s existence and creation are “banned” from the classroom. Those truths are exactly the truths upon which the academy was founded and began to flourish.

In fact, the founders of Harvard College published a pamphlet in 1643, containing their mission statement: “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the maine end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternall life, Jn 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”** Other Ivy League schools had similar Christian foundations which enabled them to view their colleges as “uni-versities,” places of learning in which one could find a “u-nity” of truth, a unity that revolved around a God who created all things, who sustains all things such that they consist in him, and who endowed man with the ability to learn about what he created.

The founders of many of our best universities understood that one of the most profoundly good ways of loving God is to know his handiwork and the most fruitful way to do our learning is to approach the data of our discipline with a Christian framework and core presuppositions. For this reason, Cornelius Plantinga writes, “Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God. In addition, the learned person has, so to speak, more to be Christian with.” Indeed we should want to “knead the yeast of the gospel” through everything that happens on campus, so that all of a student’s rational, creative, and relational capacities would be “permeated with the spirit and teaching of Christianity.”***

As we discussed this in our seminar, I observed that my Theology & Culture students came to a consensus on at least several matters: (1) the university is an institution of formidable and formative influence on many or most of our American young people, and God’s people would be naïve and even unfaithful to neglect it; (2) our attempts to be faithfully present in the academy should not be limited to explicitly Christian universities, but also should extend to our public and private universities; (3) a robust biblical theology of culture is deeply consonant with a robust biblical theology of education, such that we should be driven to foster an environment in which our evangelical young people seek earnestly to glorify God in their studies. In a sentence, we should fight the a-theological, non-academic, and even anti-intellectual impulses within the evangelical community; and (4) everything we had discussed in our Theology & Culture seminar, and therefore everything we have discussed so far in this blog series, finds its expression and its deepest and most abiding challenge within the four walls of our educational institutions.

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*David Dockery, Renewing Minds (Nashville: B&H, 2008), xiii.

**”New England’s First Fruits,” quoted in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, The Puritans (New York: American Book, 1938), 702.

***Cornelius Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian View of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), xi; xiii.

Theology & Culture (10): Why The Public Square Matters to God

Evangelicals have always wanted to “change the world” and it seems American evangelicals have increasingly tried to do so through political action. We want to change the world, I think, because we want this world to reflect more accurately the world that God intended when he created, and to foreshadow more accurately the world that is to come. We know that God created the heavens and earth in a state of shalom or universal flourishing. And we know that shalom was broken when Adam and Eve sinned, such that humans are alienated from God, from each other, from the created order, and even from themselves.

Our alienation from God is at the core of broken shalom. Because we are not at peace with God, we will not be at peace with our fellow humanity, with God’s creation, or even with ourselves. Fellowship with God leads to fellowship in every other sector of society, every dimension of culture, every thread in the fabric of human existence. We are not at peace with each other, and this is made clear by such things as war, murder, rape, slander, embezzlement, selfishness, and greed. We are not at peace with God’s created order, and this is made clear by our utter disregard for his creation and creation’s sometime hostility toward humanity. Finally, we are not even at peace with ourselves, as is evidenced by our feelings of alienation, our restlessness and dissatisfaction, our deep depressions, and other disorders of the psyche. We are fragmented and disordered at the depths of our being.

Because of this broken shalom, the world is not the way it is supposed to be. Our local communities as well as our state, national, and global communities reflect this brokenness. In recognition of this present reality, we want to help “make things right” as a way of reflecting God’s intentions for his creation. We rightly recognize that the public square is a significant place in which to stand and engage our communities in an attempt to order things rightly.

Unfortunately, however, we often rely almost exclusively on either private spirituality or public political coercion, neither of which strategies represent the comprehensive and compelling manners in which Christians can work for the shalom of their multiple communities (local, state, national, and global). Such strategies ignore the way in which we can work through mediating institutions (churches, non-profit organizations, businesses, etc.), formal and informal media outlets (papers, magazines, blogs, TV, etc.), vocations (service industries, business, arts, sciences, education, etc.) and societal connecting points (coffee shops, book clubs, etc.) to work for shalom.

In my recent Theology & Culture seminar, two of our most vigorous discussions centered on (1) religious language and argumentation in the public square, and (2) the failure of a majority “Christian” nation to build a society that reflects their vision for the common good.

In the first discussion, we discussed three models for interaction in the public square. The first model is provided by John Rawls, who argues that we should decide political matters from behind a “veil of ignorance.” He argues against “thick” theories of the good, which would utilize religious, moral, and philosophical arguments in the public square. Rawls wants people to set aside their most deeply ingressed beliefs when arguing for the public good. This model fails, however, because (1) it is not possible to set aside our most deeply ingressed beliefs, and (2) Rawls evidences this by holding deeply and religiously to his most ingressed belief, which is democratic liberalism.

The second model is provided by Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that “naked squares” are not possible. We are always and necessarily making arguments that are “thick” in nature. We come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing. We cannot sever our public selves from our private selves. For this reason, we should come to the public square wearing our ideological clothing, and work for the common good by working for public consensus. Christians have motivation to do so because we believe that Christianity, by its very nature, fosters the common good.

The third model is provided by Lesslie Newbigin, who is more similar to Neuhaus than to Rawls. Newbigin agrees with Neuhaus that naked squares are not possible, but unlike Neuhaus does not think that we should seek public consensus. He argues that we should endorse public pluralism. Newbigin’s context was different from Neuhaus’, in that he was primarily interested in situations in which Christianity is a minority belief, and in which the Christian’s role in society is clearly and obviously one of a “missionary.”

In our seminar we were able to agree that Christians should bring their convictions to the public square. They should work for consensus when possible, but recognize that we increasingly live in a post-Christian context where consensus will not be possible on many issues (in spite of the fact of a law written on the heart). Further, we should practice wisdom in deciding when to draw primarily upon general revelation to provide a compelling case on some matter of public significance, and when to draw more explicitly upon Christian Scripture.

A second discussion revolved around James Davidson Hunter’s argument that Christians are not likely to foster real and enduring change in American society and culture largely because we have relied upon personal evangelism, political action, and micro-level social reform rather than supplementing those things with a focus on being “faithfully present” in the inner circles of the cultural elite. He argues that real and enduring cultural change has always been leveraged by the cultural elite, including especially the early growth of Christianity, the Reformation, and the Awakenings. He writes, “In short, when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly. Persistence over time is essential; little of significance happens in three to five years. But when cultural and symbolic capital overlap with social capital and economic capital, and in time, political capital, and these various resources are directed toward shared ends, the world, indeed, changes.”*Therefore, he argues, Christians should seek “faithful presence” at all levels of society, including our vocations and other spheres of cultural influence.

In our seminar, we concluded that (1) our network of churches has not always placed value on the workplace and the various dimensions of culture, and in particular has not worked hard to foster an environment where our people might find themselves among the cultural influencers in Hollywood, New York, Wall Street, New Haven, or Cambridge. Therefore, we hope to acknowledge the Bible’s robust theology of culture, and its attendant motivating thrust toward culture work and cultural engagement, and work hard to be faithfully present in every sector of society and dimension of culture; and (2) because none of us in the room were postmillenial (we were premillenial and amillenial), we do not expect that our public square work will not usher in Christ’s Kingdom. Instead of ushering in his Kingdom, we are bearing witness to that kingdom and providing a foretaste of that kingdom by bringing Christian love and Christian thought to bear upon the public square.

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*Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford, 2010), 43.