Monthly Archives: October 2008

Jeff Sharlet. The Family

I really wanted to like this book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. I think it is important. I had read an article by Sharlet in Harper’s a few years ago about his encounter with a secretive group of fundamentalist Christians playing power politics in the Washington, DC shadows. I also regularly read his blog, “The Revealer.”

He has a fascinating and frightening story to tell–and I think he is onto something and have no reason not to think he is a fairly reliable reporter.  He traces the development and philosophy of an exclusive and reclusive organization known as “the Family” through the life and work of its founder Norwegian immigrant Abraham Vereide and Vereide’s successor Doug Coe.

Most known for its sponsorship of the National Prayer Breakfast in DC and its work with the Christian Embassy, “the Family” as portrayed by Sharlet, has had a kind of Zelig-like existence in relation to many of the key events of the last half of the twentieth-century, showing up in key moments through its cultivation of close relationships with powerful people from around the world.

So, Sharlet has a noteworthy story to tell. However, as much as I wanted to like it, I ended up seeing this book as a loose, baggy monster that falls short of the task it sets out to accomplish. Sadly, it didn’t have to be this way. Sharlet has personal experience with the Family that adds important insights to his analysis. He has done extensive archival work in what appear to be largely untapped sources. He writes engagingly.

However, in the end, I felt frustrated with this book. It is way too long. It takes Sharlet forever to tell a story and then, often, the point of the story remains elusive. He gives extensive detail on Vereide’s early life but we are never quite given a clear sense of why. Then the last part of the book seems to completely spin out of focus as Sharlet gives us vignettes into Pastor Ted Haggard and contemporary evangelicals in Colorado Springs with no clear sense of their connection (if any) with the Family. The book peters out in the end (to this reader’s relief and annoyance) with no sense of resolution or concluding analysis.

I found myself trying to figure out what I had learned. I am sure that the history of the Family is very important. It’s influence seems highly problematic for people who care for genuine democracy and justice in our society and the wider world. But instead of hooking the reader with his own experience followed by an account the history of the Family (which Sharlet does do, though in an unnecessarily rambling and vague way) then leading to the payoff of an in-depth and reliable account of the problems of how the Family operates (both for American Democracy and for the witness of Christianity), Sharlet forgoes the analysis and strikes off into what seem to be largely irrelevant tangents into the by-ways of evangelical Christianity in the U.S.

I recommend this book only for those with a deep interest in fundamentalist Christianity and its influence in American political life. Sharlet gives us information unavailable elsewhere. But I can’t imagine the general reader persevering to the end of this book.

Book review index

Triumph of the Lamb: Introduction

The book of Revelation continues to gain a great deal of attention–for better and for worse. Back in the 1980s I paid sustained attention to this amazing piece of literature and wrote a short commentary.  Here is the introduction to the commentary, which was called Triumph of the Lamb (Herald Press, 1987; reprinted by Wipf and Stock).

Jonathan Kirsch—A History of the End of the World

Jonathan Kirsch, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, takes on the Book of Revelation in A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, a best-selling book from 2006.  Though he is not a professional biblical scholar, Kirsch has certainly done a great deal of homework.  He writes engagingly and with a fair amount of passion.  However, his interpretation of Revelation is marred by a proclivity to read it in the most violence-supporting way possible–in order then to reject it.

The best contribution the book makes is to detail some of the many ways the book has been used to support extremist violence throughout the past 2,000 years.  Unfortunately, though he mentions one peaceable interpreter (Jacques Ellul), he does not engage the arguments of the wide scholarly stream that interprets Revelation as a book advocating Jesus-like persevering love as the model for Christians (see elsewhere on this website).

I share Kirsch’s antipathy toward people who justify violence by citing verses and themes from Revelation. I would prefer using Revelation itself to argue against such use, though. And I share Revelation’s antipathy, over against Kirsch, toward great human empires such as the Pax Romana (and the Pax Romana). I believe this antipathy in Revelation finds expression in ways that underwrite radical nonviolence in resistance to the systemic violence of empire. Kirsch’s sanguine attitude toward Rome hinders his ability to appreciate Revelation’s truly radical politics (neither pro-establishment or pro-violent revolution).

Kirsch has done a good job of making one strand of contemporary Revelation scholarship accessible to a general audience of educated readers. For that, he deserves praise. But because he ignores other (peaceable) streams that read Revelation with a much more sympathetic spirit (while also rejecting the violent future-prophetic views), he misses a chance to enlighten his audience even more.

Our confession as Mennonites of Jesus as Lord

Here is an article I published in 1995 (Gospel Herald) called “No other foundation can anyone lay than is laid: Jesus Christ.” This article was assigned to me as part of a series of articles the magazine ran on the newly formulated Mennonite confession of faith.  I was asked to provide reflections on the article in the Confession on Jesus Christ.

This article takes a narrative approach to christology, linking together our stories as modern people with the gospel story of Jesus. Special attention is paid to Jesus’ death and resurrection–with an emphasis on how those two events point us toward life, toward ethical faithfulness.  The article strikes a consistently positive tone. Only in asking what is not mentioned in the article would one begin to get a sense that this portrayal of the meaning of Jesus is presented as an alternative to christologies that emphasize Jesus’ divinity and his death as a sacrifice needed to satisfy God’s honor (or wrath or holiness).

Andrew Bacevich. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.

Andrew Bacevich has emerged as an important critic of American imperialism. He retired from the Army as a colonel and for many years was active in conservative political circles. He’s now a history professor at Boston University. In his important book,The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2005), Bacevich argued from the right as a true conservative concerned with how the military-industrial complex has corrupted and endangered American society with its imperialism.

Since that book came out, Bacevich’s credibility has, tragically, been enhanced due to the death of his son in combat in Iraq.  He has made more common cause with progesssives, and now has published The Limits of Power as part of “The American Empire Project,” a series of books featuring numerous writers more identified with the left side of the political spectrum (such as Noam Chomsky, James Carroll, and Walden Bello).

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism is a worthy addition to this important series.  Problems identified in Bacevich’s earlier book have only intensified.  He discusses three interrelated crises in our society–the economy, the political, and the military.  With the first two, he gives a helpful if somewhat summary analysis.  It his third major discussion, of the military crisis, that the book hits paydirt.

In just 45 pages, we get an insider’s perceptive explanation of the problems that beset the American military system.  The major problem, Bacevich believes, has been incompetent leadership. He shows how military and political leaders have learned all the wrong lessons from the wars in Iraq (especially) and Afghanistan.  The lessons that have been learned (realizing that the military needs to be oriented toward the “next war” [e.g., rooting out insurgents, nation-building, and training and advising “host nation” forces], the need to empower military professionals vis-a-vis political leaders, and the need to repair the relationship between army and society [perhaps by reinstituting a draft]) are actually conclusions that will push the U.S. farther down the road of self-destruction.

Bacevich argues that instead of preparing for more effective engagement in “small wars” we need to devise a nonimperial foreign policy.  Instead of giving top military leaders more power vis-a-vis politicians, we need to find a way to develop and promote skilled leaders instead of the type who have risen in the ranks in the past generation.  And instead of expanding our military with a draft, we need to find ways to transform our professional army into a force for genuine national defense and service to the American republic (as opposed to the American empire).

Bacevich concludes, “American doesn’t need a bigger army.  It needs a smaller–that is, more modest–foreign policy” (169).

This is good stuff. All of us who oppose the Pax Americana should be grateful that Bacevich’s voice has emerged.  At some point down the road, though, after making common cause with people such as Bacevich, the Christian pacifist will recognize the need to part ways. Bacevich, in the end I think, wants to reform the system and create a kindler, gentler superpower that still relies on the power of the sword in furthering its self-interests. I suspect his reformist instincts will ultimately be shattered on the realities that our military-industrial system as its exists will never lend itself to the kind of changes Bacevich would advocate.  Perhaps then he will move further away from the idea that it is possible to have the kind of permanent military infrastructure he seems to envision and still have a functioning and humane democratic society.  Then maybe he will help in dismantling rather than reforming what we presently have.


Peace Theology Book Review Index

The Old Testament Prophets

How do the writings of the Old Testament prophets speak to our world today?  In a series of short articles published in the Mennonite Weekly Review during the summer of 2007, I share some reflections on various of the prophets with special attention to their ethical significance.

These articles may be found via the following links:

Let Justice Roll (Amos)

Loss of Loyalty (Hosea)

Call to Faithfulness (1 Isaiah)

Healing Will Come (2 Isaiah)

What God Wants (Micah)

Heeding a Prophet (Zephaniah)

End of Tyranny (Habakkuk)

A Nation Doomed (Jeremiah, 1)

Faithfulness in Exile (Jeremiah, 2)

Grief that Heals (Lamentations)

Turn and Live (Ezekiel)

Prophetic Relevance (Zechariah)

Malachi’s Last Word (Malachi)

New book on the “homosexuality” issue in the churches

I have co-authored a book with Mark Thiessen Nation, Professor of Theology, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, where we debate the issue of homosexuality.  Here is a link to information about the book, called, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality

Here is a link to my main chapter in this book, “A Theology of Welcome.”

Brian McLaren. Everything Must Change

Brian McLaren is an evangelical pastor who has gained prominence in recent years as a leader in what has been called the “emergent church” movement. In his pursuit of an authentic gospel, McLaren has grown increasingly radicalized politically and ethically. Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, published in 2007 by Thomas Nelson, provides a chance for McLaren to articulate a theologically and ethically integrated call to think carefully about the relevance of the story of Jesus for current social problems.

I’m not sure about the effectiveness of McLaren’s attempt to personalize his discussion by injecting his own experiences visiting Africa. However, there is not question in my mind that he has identified precisely the kinds of issues people of faith must be facing in our contemporary world. His term “suicide machine” for contemporary culture under the strangehold of militarism and corporate capitalism is not hyperbole.

What makes this book so important is McLaren’s effort to face head on the major systemic problems of our world in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. The book I would compare this one to is Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers. McLaren is not the scholar or original thinker that Wink is, but he is a more accessible writer and is up-to-date (Wink’s book came out in 1992).

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. I had the privilege of meeting Brian McLaren this past summer. He struck me as a sincere, committed Christian thinker and pastor. I am thankful he has “emerged” during these troubled times.


Peace Theology Book Review Index