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The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald J. Sider

The Scandal of Evangelical Politics by Ronald J. Sider
Baker Books, 275 pages, 2008. Reviewed by Chris L. Rice.

This is an exciting time to be an Evangelical with an active interest in politics. In the early part of the twentieth century Evangelicals were known to be withdrawn, and then, in the early 1990s we rushed headlong into a single partisan agenda. One leader within the movement at this time (Ed Dobson) typified the approach as “ready, fire, aim.” The movement lacked careful reflection and a wholistic Biblical ethic that focused on the whole person. In his latest book, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World?, Ron Sider lays out a new framework for political engagement that draws on his many years of learning, teaching, and practicing mainstream political diplomacy. The work is stunningly ecumenical, drawing on what Sider sees as the need for consensus among several streams of Church history and tradition. Sider draws on Jurgen Moltmonn, Reinhold Neibuhr, Abraham Kuyper, Karl Barth, John Howard Yoder, and alludes to the important work of Lutherans such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dr. Sider successfully shows us that we need a methodology that carefully and prayerfully engages politically, but that does not neglect the important role of the Church as an equally important and uniquely separate realm from the State. This simple point is a minefield for theorists. How much, if at all, can the State be trusted? How much can fellow Christians be trusted when we disagree on so much? In his own irenic manner, Sider concentrates on the Scriptures and the issues on which Evangelicals have had success, and looks forward to a better future despite the many setbacks. Sider knows that politics, like life itself, is full of tragic failure.

Over the last twenty five years Evangelicals have pursued a path that neglected the Church’s true riches and instead sought power for its own sake. Sider seems sure that that era is waning. He continually draws our attention to the document “For the Health of the Nation,” which he helped draft for the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

“The Bible makes it clear that God cares a great deal about the well-being of marriage, the family, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, care for creation, peace, freedom, and racial justice.” (pg. 233)

On the personal side, I’m excited by Ron Sider’s treatise (for that’s really what this is) and especially his desire that Evangelical politics be communal in nature, that instead of separate camps we have open think tanks. I’d just love to see that in action. Are Richard Land and James Dobson going to faithfully attend open dialogues on Peacemaking and Creation Care? Will they be endorsers of Dr. Sider’s idea (pg. 205) that churches invest millions on CPT styled peacemaking delegations to the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe? Will Land and Dobson change their minds on the Global Warming and the earth’s oil supply?

See what I’m getting at? Evangelicals have sharp differences on peacemaking and the environment, and let’s not forget economics! It was only one year ago now that these same leaders who signed the NAE document sought Richard Czik’s ouster for supporting it! With this in mind is consensus really possible? If we’re looking at real numbers, most Evangelicals are Southern Baptists! Hello! I hope to God Dallas Theological Seminary adopts Ron Sider’s book into its classes. But I’m not holding my breath.

I believe in what Ron Sider is doing in this book. I’m not always satisfied with his approach in particular chapters. Having cut my own teeth on Bonhoeffer and Barth, Sider is certainly no dialectician. He can’t seem to speak backwards and forwards at the same time. At times he seems to fear postmodernism, and sounds downright pollyanish about democracy in another place, but then the further I read, I realize he’s not speaking of any particular democracy on earth but the idea of democracy within his own model. He believes in democracy in so far as it has checks and balances, fair courts, and ability to fairly distribute wealth. But then again, what is American democracy really like?

At any rate, this book really inspired me, educated me, taught me that there’s so much more to be learned about political diplomacy. James Skillen of the Center for Public Justice is prominent in this book along with many other policy analysts such as Stephen Monsma, and Stephen Carter. (Buy the book for the bibliography alone.) If you’ve ever felt alone or unique in your political vantage point as an Evangelical, pick up this book. Its one of those that you have to bookmark in front and back, reading the text and the notes together very carefully. I’ve spent a month of in depth reading with it, and quite honestly I could go through it again. Most importantly, this book fosters intelligent conversations. Its real heart is to create honest dialogue in our churches. Lord knows we need more of that.

BTW, Palmer Seminary’s conference is coming up March 28-30. Find a schedule here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, ecclesiology, ecumenism, Evangelicals, Politics, theology

Stories with Intent by Klyne R. Snodgrass

Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus
by Klyne R. Snodgrass, Eerdmans, 2008. 846 pages.

I know of no better way to review a book than to describe the way in which I’ve been recently chastened and informed by it. At the end of 2006 I did a little meditation on the Parable of the Sower as it related to working with the homeless. Here’s what I wrote:

Ministry of good news to the poor is, in essence, a work of the Kingdom of God. Now in this work, just as in the parable of the soils in Mark 4:1-20, the good news of the kingdom does not always meet with good result. In this story the sower casts his seed for all the soil. In our work of spreading good news to the poor we will often meet with stolen, sun scorched and thistle choked results. The soil is not always ready but we must remember that the sower is always impartial. God’s Grace often seems misplaced in us human beings. I’ve been writing lately about men on Commercial Street in Springfield without ID, many with the disease of alcoholism, mental illness or drug addiction. Now many would say that these poor are used up soil who no longer have a place for the seed of the Kingdom. But the Scriptures indicate that the poor are a crucial part of God’s Kingdom and that ministry to them gives us a glimpse into God’s new order of things. (Luke 1:52-53; James 2:5)

What I find beautiful about this parable of the soil is with what complete abandon the sower spreads his seed. By some standards it is careless, disregarding economy or even ergonomics. Why waste seed in places where it won’t grow? Its impractical, even insensible. But this is the Kingdom! No expense is spared within the possibility that here too in the darkest, rockiest, and thorniest places the Kingdom might flourish. As long as we have breath in our bodies and blood in our veins we do not lie beyond the grace of God. We must believe this, because this gospel was freely preached to us! If we know ourselves rightly, we know that God’s work in us does not cease after we agree that it begin. There is still thorny ground in all of us. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares reminds us that the enemy has sown weeds even in the good crop and that only in the End will God’s Harvest be revealed.

I have to confess, I was really proud of my new little insights. But yesterday I got “schooled,” as we used to say in my neighborhood, by Klyne Snodgrass’s new book, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. My approach in this little meditation was ignorant on a few levels: historically, hermanuetically, and (most painfully) theologically. Other than that there is no problem. :-)

I’ve met Klyne, he’s preached many times here at JPUSA, and will be sharing with us again over Easter. So please consider my comments here as coming from one who appreciates correction. I love this parable, and I love Klyne’s well rounded treatment of it. Here’s the passage from his book that directly speaks to what I was doing:

Would anyone sow seed this way? Does the sower sow carelessly and with abandon, possibly mirroring an indiscriminate proclamation of the message, or is his sowing realistic practice in the ancient world?. . . The evidence shows that plowing occurred both immediately before and after sowing. Plowing before sowing was recommended but not always done. . . We do not know whether plowing preceded in this case or not, and the parable does not care. Parables do not give unnecessary details. Nor is the point that the sower sows haphazardly or with abandon, even on the road where seed will not grow, and no theological conclusions should be drawn along these lines. The point is that the sower and his seed had various results. The farmer does not intentionally sow seed on the road; rather some seed falls alongside the road.” (pgs. 166-167)

Snodgrass concludes the question with this crucial point:

In none of the accounts, though, is there any indication of a farmer disappointed with his losses. The picture is a realistic portrayal of ancient farming practice where incidental losses occurred, particularly in Palestine with its shallow earth and plentiful thorns, but also where a bountiful harvest resulted. (pg. 167)

So what is the correct focus and interpretation of this parable? Snodgrass lays it out:

The parable is a description of various responses to hearing God’s word and surely depicts the responses Jesus encountered in his own ministry. . . Real hearing is hearing that leads to obedience, and we should not forget that the Hebrew verb for hearing (sama) is often translated in English as “obey.” In response to further inquiry about the parable by those ready to obey, Jesus pointed to the hardness of heart motif and the parallels between his ministry and that of Isaiah. No other interpretation is even attractive. (pg. 170)

There’s a lot more in Stories with Intent regarding this one parable, but I wanted to just give a taste. He covers every parable of Jesus and includes other stories with parabolic qualities that he confesses are not necessarily outright parables. The format generally follows along these lines:

Intro, Parable type, Issues requiring attention, Helpful Primary Source Material (such as the other biblical material, early Jewish writing (like 2 Ezra), Greco-Roman writings, Early Christian Writings, and Later Jewish writings), Comparison of the Gospel Accounts, Notable Textual Features, Cultural Information, and then, finally the explanation of the Parable. This is all followed by a list of recommended reading. When the title says Comprehensive, it’s not kidding!

I’m sure that laypeople, pastors, and students—as well as New Testament scholars will all find this resource accessible. It makes rather obscure sources readily available for general readership. The parables of Jesus are much richer than I had ever realized. Stories with Intent reveals how much more I have to learn.

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