Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Fitting Way to Spend October 31


I just finished putting together a chapter for a collection of essays edited by Ray Van Neste, director of the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. My chapter is on the impact of the Reformation on the art of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The book will be part of a larger celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous act of impertinence, his nailing of the 95 Theses to the chapel door at Wittenburg, October 31, 1517. I was honored to be asked to contribute the essay, and I couldn’t help but think of the appropriateness of submitting on the 498th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses.

See the website for the Reformation 500 Festival at Union, a three day conference to be held March 9-11, 2015. Plenary speakers will include Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University, Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute, and Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary. Plan to attend if your schedule permits.


Do Ghosts Exist? Oh Yeah.


But they aren’t what you may think they are.

So on this All Hallows Eve, let me speak to one of the most common questions I used to get from people all the time while serving on a pastoral staff. Do Christians believe in ghosts?

Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was talking about this last night on Twitter–which got me thinking about the subject.


First, a couple of stories.

1. About 10 years ago, I was having some work done on a shotgun by a gunsmith whom someone had recommended to me. I can’t remember his name, but I do remember that he was a master at his craft. We got to know each other over the course of several weeks, and I came to like him very much. He was quiet, absorbed in his work, not chatty at all. But we did talk about our backgrounds. I found out he had an M.Div. from Gettysburg Seminary, and when I asked him if he believed in ghosts–given the fact that 25,000 people suffered violent deaths there in the space of 3 days in 1863–I’ll never forget his response. He stopped what he was doing, looked at me over his glasses right in the eyes, and said, if you didn’t believe in ghosts when you got to Gettysburg Seminary, you sure did when you left. He didn’t elaborate. Then, he simply returned to his work.

2. My grandmother moved into a new house she had built shortly after her husband had died in 1969 on the outskirts of Gordonsville, Virginia. I remember visiting that house when I was little, and finding it fascinating. She died when I was only 6, but for years, I had a recurring dream of being in the pasture across the road from her house. In that pasture, I would meet my grandmother and my uncle, who died in a tragic car accident. My aunts told me that my grandmother believed the house was haunted, and they thought so, too. They lived in the house for two years after my grandmother died, and they thought there was a connection between the house and my recurring dreams.

Thirty years later, my wife and I found ourselves living in the same community as my grandmother had lived at the time of her death. I took my brother on a drive to her house one afternoon, because he hadn’t seen it during all that time. I said, why don’t we drive up the driveway and see if anyone is home–maybe they’ll invite us in when we introduce ourselves. This being rural Virginia, the people who lived in the house were very friendly and welcomed us inside. We had a great deal of fun going from room to room, and experiencing a flood of wonderful memories.

After visiting for about an hour, the owner of the house said to me, “This may sound strange, but did your grandmother ever say anything about this house being haunted?”

I was speechless.

3. My great aunt and uncle lived in the same house in Ennis, Montana for almost 60 years, but they weren’t the original owners of the house. My Aunt Joan always said that the house was haunted. She surmised that the “ghost” was the spirit of a young child, because she would find random toys on the floor of the house as if a little one had just gotten up from playing. After so many years of being in the house, Aunt Joan and Uncle Chet just got accustomed to sounds of laughter, lights coming on or off at random, and the little marbles and jacks that would show up on the floor in the night or while they were out. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the prospect of their house being haunted, but I didn’t take it all that seriously.

One evening at about 10, I was sitting in the dining room of their house writing a letter to a friend. I was all alone in the house at the time, and concentrating on my letter. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a small person running up and down the upstairs hallway.

Out the door I went, and slept in the bunkhouse that night. I never finished that letter.


So what’s the deal, at least from a theological perspective? Hebrews 9.27 states, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Jesus said in John 5.28-29, “an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” Jesus’ words are consistent with Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 12.2–“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”

It would appear that Scripture teaches that, after death occurs, we are all held accountable for our lives before God, the only One to whom we are ultimately responsible, since he is our Creator. Those who put their trust in Christ arise to the newness of eternal life. We see this throughout the entire Scripture, but a couple of passages in particular serve as examples of this teaching–

“For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will you allow your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In your presence is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16.10-11

“Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” Isaiah 26.19

“Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.” Ezekiel 37.13

“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11.25-26

“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” I Corinthians 15.22

So, if there is no intermediate state by which spirits of the dead roam the earth, how do we explain the myriad and diverse accounts of apparitions? Many of us have had direct experiences of encountering apparitions–we’re not simply relying on History Channel episodes. Some of us have seen or heard things that have no rational explanation except that of an encounter with an apparition.

Scripture itself suggests that such encounters are possible. One of the strangest stories in all the Bible is found in I Samuel 28. Here we have Saul going to the witch of Endor, and asking her to bring the prophet Samuel up from the dead so that he might consult with him (I Samuel 28.13-25). To Saul’s utter shock and awe, Samuel appeared and sternly rebuked him, reminding him of his sins and of the fact that God had chosen David in his stead to be king of Israel. My own position (and that of St. Augustine, I might add) on the identity of the personage brought up by the witch of Endor is that it was indeed Samuel, and God brought him up to rebuke Saul for his sins (as well as the witch herself, for her spiritualism, which was, and remains, a grave sin.)

But we must remember another key passage from the New Testament, a passage that sheds light on the true identity of apparitions that the living sometimes encounter. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11.14-15, “No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore, it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.” To be sure, Paul is talking about living false prophets and apostles, who go about spreading heretical teachings. But clearly, the Apostle Paul is warning his readers that the devil and his servants have great power to deceive we who are among the living, and draw us away from some of the most significant truths of the Scriptures, namely, that all have sinned (Romans 3.23), all stand accountable to God upon their deaths, and there are no second chances for the dead to get it right on earth after their deaths.

Jesus told the Pharisees that Satan is a liar–“Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” In that same verse, he said that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.”

What better way to deceive and murder then to draw us away from the truth of the gospel by convincing us that there is no sin, no hell, no heaven, no accountability to God, no atonement for sin, and no eternal life united with Christ?

Ghosts are real. But they are not spirits of the departed. They are demons, attempting to deceive, and draw us away from the gospel. They can strike fear into our hearts, but there’s no cause for all that. The glorious Christ declares, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Revelation 1.17-18). He who has life in and of himself gives life to those who put their trust in him. Those who are Christ’s need have no fear of the grave, or of those who would have us believe they are among the dead.

American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion Now Available!


Time for a little shameless self-promotion–head on over to InterVarsity Press to order your copy of American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea. The book has been released, and the copies in the IVP warehouse need to be depleted!

Amazon will have copies starting November 23, so you’d still need to pre-order with those good folks.

I’ve been told that reviews of the book are coming up soon in Christianity Today and The American Conservative. Also, watch for a couple of podcast interviews to be released soon–from Liz Covart’s Ben Franklin’s World and one with Art Remillard on Marginalia: First Impressions.

Two American Exceptionalisms in Sam Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism


Just finished reading Sam Haselby’s excellent book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford, 2015). I am writing a review of the work for Fides et Historia, but I thought I would write a few things about it here on the blog as I collect my thoughts for the review.

The book’s thesis is two-fold: first, westward expansion from 1783 through 1830 answered the question about what American nationality would mean. Second, American nationality was decided largely as a result of a conflict between frontier revivalism of the early Second Awakening and the missionary movement of Northeastern Protestant elites. In sum, frontier revivalism won out over Yankee reformed Protestantism. The presidency of Andrew Jackson, with his attack on Bank of the United States and his policy of Indian removal, demonstrated that American identity would be expansionist and nationalist. The immediate beneficiaries of this new concept of American nationality were the Southern planters, who were able to export slavery and a plantation society into the territories of the Old Southwest and subsequently become the wealthiest ruling class in the world.

While there are many interesting parts of the book, one of the most arresting points comes toward the conclusion. Haselby places Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress (December 6, 1830) in contrast with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863). While Lincoln sought to bring the Declaration of Independence to its logical conclusion by recognizing human dignity in “all men,” he cast the Civil War and emancipation as “the transformative events of nineteenth century American history,” in Haselby’s words. But Jackson’s 1830 address to Congress, which in part explained the rationale for the explusion of Native Americans from locales ranging from the southern Appalachians to Louisiana was, according to Haselby “the first explicitly racist statement on the political community from a sitting US president, and it was also the first time a US president turned to a theological justification for an imperial act.”

In answering his Northern critics who “often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country,” Jackson claimed that “no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself” for Native Americans. (Seriously?) Benefits to the Native Americans included separation from the white settlers, freedom from the power of the states from which they were leaving, and furthermore, they could “pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions.” Perhaps they would even “cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Nevertheless, the Native Americans should be grateful for their removal, Jackson said. “Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. . . . To save him . . . from utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”

As Haselby pointed out, Jackson’s policy was exclusionary, while Lincoln’s vision was one of inclusion. Jackson’s policy of removal was the perpetration of a great theft, but Lincoln’s purpose was to seek, as Haselby described, “the righting of a wrong.”

Both Jackson and Lincoln represent two distinct forms of American identity. One is a closed form, and the other is open. One is imperialistic, the other exemplaristic. One is self serving, the other is self examining. One lays hold of “Christianity” for justification, while the other looks to political and ethical ideals on which the country was founded: equality of the human condition, individual freedom, and democratic republicanism.

Americans have always seen themselves as the exception to the rule in human history. Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the unique geographical, political, religious, and social circumstances of America’s founding and early career and said “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” Both Jackson and Lincoln saw America in exceptional terms. But Jackson’s and Lincoln’s brands of exceptionalism were polar opposites in that one was closed, the other open.

We see these two articulations of exceptionalism throughout America’s career as an independent nation. Closed exceptionalism always hijacks Christian theological themes, whereas open exceptionalism is a political/social construct devoid of appeals to theology. In this way, open exceptionalism establishes a helpful starting point for patriotism and civic engagement that is not idolatrous, nor does it depend on twisting Christianity into an American form.

Haselby’s work presents a detailed and well-argued history of where religious nationalism—closed exceptionalism—comes from in the early republic. And once religious nationalism was ensconced in the American mind, it took on a life of its own. We continue to live with its legacy in our own day.

Washington, DC Bound for the S-USIH Conference


I’m looking forward to attending the meeting of the Society for US Intellectual History in Washington, DC this week. The theme of the conference is “Problems and Their Publics.” Here is the theme description:

In his classic 1927 work of political philosophy, The Public and Its Problems, John Dewey theorized that a “public” was only called into being when problems arose that affected the common interests of large numbers of people and that required collective action in order to be solved. But Dewey fretted that “the movie, radio, cheap reading matter,” and other amusements of a growing consumer society had distracted people from attending to the most significant political problems of the day, thus making collective action much less achievable. Contemporary scholarship has often flipped Dewey on his head, arguing cultural forms, even cheap amusements, demand scholarly attention precisely because they invoke collectives, identities, discursive communities, publics. But how have “publics” been defined in the past? Around what problems have they organized, fractured, and reformed? What are the relationships, for example, between forms of media (magazines, radio, film, blogs, television), forms of entertainment (comic operas, cartoons, wild west shows), institutions (universities, museums, corporations), the state (and ideas about it, including consent, rule, and toleration), and the formation of “publics” in the past?

I will be presenting on a panel alongside Seth Bartee, Chad Pecknold, Dan McCarthy, and Randy Boyagoda as we discuss the topic “Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical: Conservatism After the Age of Buckley.” I will be situating free church evangelicalism within the American conservative tradition, answering the question, are free church evangelicals conservatives?

There are a lot of really interesting panels to choose from this year. Here are several I’m interested in attending—

“The Intellectual History of Statecraft
Chair/Commentator: David Wrobel, University of Oklahoma
Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon, First Federal Congress Project, “Titling the President: Negotiating Executive Authority in the Early American Republic”
Andrew Porwancher, University of Oklahoma, “The Jewish Founding Father: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden Life”
Amanda C. Demmer, University of New Hampshire, “The Emergence of ‘Normalization’ in Cold War Foreign Policy”

Roundtable: “Framing the History of the U.S. in World Affairs: Imperialism, Isolationism, and Internationalism”
Chair: Raymond Haberski, Jr., IUPUI
Christopher McKnight Nichols, Oregon State University
Michaela Hoenicke Moore, University of Iowa
Michael Kazin, Georgetown University
Jackson Lears, Rutgers University

“Nineteenth Century African American Political Thought” (Sponsored by the African American Intellectual History Society)
Chair/Commentator: Kami Fletcher, Delaware State University
Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland, “Samuel Cornish, Willis Hodges, and the Making of American Citizenship”
Kellie Carter Jackson, Hunter College, CUNY, ‘“At the Risk of Our Own Lives:’ Violence and the Fugitive Slave Law in Pennsylvania”
Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “Secularism and Frederick Douglass’s Political Thought”

Roundtable: “Christian Nationalism in American History”
Chair/Discussant: Mark Edwards, Spring Arbor University
Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University
Raymond Haberski, IUPUI
Lauren Turek, Trinity University
Steven K. Green, Willamette University
Matthew Sutton, Washington State University

“Rethinking the Confederacy’s Intellectual History”
Chair/Commentator: Ian Binnington, Allegheny College
Sarah E. Gardner, Mercer University, “‘We Need Something To Read Dreadfully’: Reading on the Confederate Lines”
Jonathan Daniel Wells, University of Michigan, “Race and Southern Newspapers under Union Occupation”
Katherine Brackett Fialka, University of Georgia, “Textual Healing: Confederate Women, Occupation, and Reading”

Roundtable “African American Intellectual History: The State of the Field” (Sponsored by the African American Intellectual History Society)
Chair: Christopher Cameron, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Brandon Byrd, Mississippi State University
Greg Childs, Brandeis University
Ashley Farmer, Duke University

American Imperialism, American Narcissism”
Chair/Commentator: Randal Maurice Jelks, University of Kansas
Tracy A. Butler, University of Houston, “Good Neighbors? The Rise of American Tourism in Mexico and Culture as Imperialism”
Donald Earl Collins, University of Maryland University College, “‘We’re #1:’ How US Imperialism Drives America’s Obsession With Itself, and the World’s Obsession With America”
Natalie M. Schuster, Frostburg State University, “Natural Power: Truman, the Cold War, and the Manipulation of Disaster Relief Policy”

“‘To Extirpate These Savages’: Race, Indian Policy, and Early American Expansion”
Chair/Commentator: Stephen Feeley, McDaniel College
Lisa Mercer, Ball State University, “‘As Pleasant Meat As Rice’: Indian Corn, American Identity, and Colonial Expansion”
Nathan Wuertenberg, George Washington University, “‘We May Become One People’: The Revolutionary War, US Indian Policies, and the Formation of American Identity”
James Feenstra, George Washington University, “‘There Are Agents from Some Foreign Power, Instigating Them to Mischief’: The War of 1812 and Anglo-Indian Conspiracism in Creek Country”

“God and the Nuclear State: Accommodating Theology to the Demands of the Cold War”
Chair/Commentator: Healan K. Gaston, Harvard Divinity School
Joshua Mather, St. Louis University, “Cold War Quakers: The Americans Friends Service Committee and U.S. Containment Policy, 1949-53’
Isaac May, University of Virginia, “Theologian of the Quaker Republicans: The Cold War and the Repudiation of Pacifism”
Ian Carr McPherson, Union Theological Seminary, “Window of Vulnerability, Window of Opportunity: The Debate over Nuclear Deterrence and the Soul of the Christian Right in the Reagan Era”

What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.