Category Archives: evangelicalism

New Book on Joel Osteen Forthcoming from Phil Sinitiere

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Love him. Hate him. To say Joel Osteen is a controversial figure in American Christianity is to substantially understate the case. Here in Houston, Osteen is a fixture in the religious life of the city. Phillip L. Sinitiere, co-editor of Christians and the Color Line, co-author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, and co-editor of Protest and Propaganda: W. E. B. Du Bois, the Crisis, and the American Marketplace has written a history of “how Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen.” His book traces the history of the Osteen family as well as that of Lakewood Church, and it will be coming out in the next five months or so from NYU Press.

Phil is the inimitable “Baldblogger.” He will be writing posts in the months ahead as the book goes through the final stages of production and hits the shelves later this year. If you are interested in Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and how they fit into the larger context of the history of American evangelicalism, you won’t want to miss this book.

Go over to “Baldblogger” to see what Phil will be doing to lay the groundwork for his book. Here is a taste:

Salvation with a Smile is the first critical, scholarly book-length study of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Over the course of eight chapters, I explain how Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen and how Lakewood Church became the nation’s largest megachurch with over 40,000 members. This study is a deeply historical investigation of these questions, while in the book I also use oral history sources and ethnographic observation to develop a profile of Lakewood in contemporary times. I track the history of Lakewood from its origins with John Osteen and run the story up to the present, in which I examine Joel Osteen’s expert approach to televangelism and historicize the numerous critics who have spoken and written denunciations of the “smiling preacher.”

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The Tradition of Place and Civil Religion

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Just got Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister in the mail today. I’m excited to read it–and also excited to have the opportunity to be hosted by the political science department at my alma mater, Furman University, to hear Dr. McClay lecture on Alexis de Tocqueville next week.

The fifth chapter on my exceptionalism book will be dealing with this topic of the tradition of place in American civil religion. Americans have historically considered their land as divinely favored, given its great size, bounty, and beauty. But over the past several decades, this sense of place has been lost. I’ll be writing on some various views of place in American civil religion, and I hope to make a meaningful contribution to the conversation in the book.

I also hope to present a paper on the topic. I’ve proposed a paper for the Evangelical Theological Society meeting next November entitled “God Shed His Grace on Thee”: The Tradition of Place in American History, Civil Religion, and Local Evangelical Churches. I hope it gets accepted. Here is my abstract, and I’d love any constructive feedback you may have:

One of the more ironic turns in the history of American culture is a general shift in attitude concerning “place.” The Puritans who settled New England in the 1600s saw tremendous theological significance in the physical space they occupied west of the Hudson River. The tradition of assigning theological significance to places in America continued well into the twentieth century. One has only to consider the patriotic songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to see how Americans viewed their land in Edenic terms, particularly favored by God. But since the end of World War II, Americans have largely abandoned this traditional aspect of civil religion, this powerful sense of place. Technology, transience, convenience, urban sprawl, globalization, and many other factors have contributed to this loss of the civil religious tradition of place.

The church has, in large measure, taken part in this abandonment. Historically, evangelical churches in America have sponsored and supported civil religion. This unique aspect of American churches was underscored in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville in the first part of his definitive book, Democracy in America. But in an effort to pursue and preserve relevance, many evangelical churches have largely abandoned the tradition of place. Many churches have no architectural or aesthetic distinctives linking them to their respective places. Cemeteries are no longer laid out when new church buildings are constructed, having the effect of severing a believing community’s memorial and generational ties. And many churches seek mission opportunities that are distantly located from their own communities. These and other examples demonstrate how many American churches have lost their own sense of place, to the detriment of their Christian identity and engagement with their localities.

This paper will argue that the tradition of place has profound theological significance in worship, aesthetics, missions, and American culture. The loss of a sense of place is an emerging theme in American culture (see for example Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister, eds. Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America, New Atlantis, 2014; Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to ‘Holy Land’ Theology, Baker, 2010), and evangelical churches have a unique opportunity to direct the dialogue. In doing so, churches in America can make meaningful contributions to the coherence of community and quality of life for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

The Fracturing and Marginalization of Evangelicals

Just finished writing a review of Ken Collins‘ work, Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration for the Westminster Theological Journal. It is an outstanding work that traces the history of evangelical Christianity in America since 1925. Collins’ main thesis is that in the wake of their loss of cultural influence in the early 20th century, evangelicals sought to compensate by reaching for political power. But this reach failed to recover the Protestant cultural consensus of the 19th century, or the intellectual credibility that evangelicals enjoyed prior to the Scopes trial. Instead, evangelical Christianity in America was fractured into liberal and conservative factions, indirectly contributed to the cultural marginalization of religion in general, and lost its prophetic vision and voice amid the many challenging social issues of contemporary times.

Collins identified several fascinating aspects of evangelicalism in his historical treatment, but the aspect that stuck out the most in my reading was his critique of both liberal and conservative evangelicals’ identification of the church with a political agenda. Liberal evangelicals, such as Campolo and Wallis, are too quick to see public policy through the lens of a social gospel. Conservative evangelicals, like Land and Falwell, frequently see America as God’s representative on earth. Both have a way of conflating America with the kingdom of God, albeit in different directions. But by politicizing the message of the gospel, both groups have contributed to the loss of a political theology in public discourse. Religion once was a public activity, in other words, religion had a voice in public policy (cf. the Progressive era). Now, however, religion is seen as a purely private affair best kept within the four walls of a church. Collins explains how evangelical Christians, in their desire for political power, helped to contribute to that wrong understanding of the role of religion.

Much of what Collins says in his work is relevant to the book I am now writing for IVP Academic on the history and theology of American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion and nationalism. By using theological categories to define American exceptionalism, evangelicals distort the meaning of Christianity and exalt America to transcendence. The dangers inherent in this are legion.

What is Collins’ solution? I think he is on to something here–evangelicals have work to do in two directions. First, evangelicals can recover a political theology by appealing to natural law arguments to advocate for the dignity of human beings as created in the image of God. His model is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s appeal to white clergy in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In this, evangelicals can make headway (slow headway, to be sure) in offering reasoned defenses of their positions on pressing social issues such as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty. Second, evangelicals must reject liberal and conservative factions and recognize that there is immensely more that unites them than what divides them. They can also reach out to Roman Catholics, who have been their allies in pleading the Christian case on social issues. Related to this, evangelicals must purify themselves and be true to their calling as ambassadors for Christ (King spoke of this in his letter, too), in order to allow the Spirit to empower them.

Collins’ work has a great deal to offer. The question is, are evangelicals even interested enough to pay attention? That remains to be seen.

Happy Holidays! …Or Something Like That


The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons are upon us.

I love this time of year. I love the weather (even in Houston), the break from toil, the time with friends and family, and I especially love to live these holidays through the eyes of my little children. I also love to reminisce about celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family when I was growing up. And I love to worship God in the context of these holidays at home, at church, and in my devotional times.

What I don’t love is all the chatter that flies around about the terms we use to describe Christmas. In the weeks ahead, there will be much outrage over the substitution of “Christmas” with “holiday.” There will be bumper stickers, Facebook memes, blog posts, and even sermons from committed believers communicating messages like “Keep Christ in Christmas,” “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” etc. There will be other pithy catchphrases. There will probably be protest movements over the fact that stores and government agencies no longer say “Merry Christmas” but instead, “Happy Holidays.”

Enough emotional energy is going to be generated over this issue in the weeks to come to light a small Midwestern city.

Can we stop?

Let me be blunt. Who cares what the White House calls the big Christmas tree in Washington? Who cares what Wal-Mart employees are or are not allowed to say in greeting their customers in the month of December? Who cares if the county courthouse stops putting a nativity scene out front? It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because none of that diminishes the meaning of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in the slightest. The political correctness of department stores and government employees has no bearing on either the celebration of the birth of Christ or the significance of that event in human history. Christmas is a holiday celebrated by Christians, and if non-Christian individuals or non-Christian entities do not want to celebrate it, that’s fine.

What does matter is the impression Christians give to those non-Christians during the Christmas season. When Christian folks express outrage over what Christmas is called, or what greeting to use, they are letting the world in on their priority list. They are also letting people in to their attitude toward the culture. Thus, how the term “Christmas” is used around town is of supreme importance; and if the culture substitutes “Christmas” out in favor of another term, then a line has been drawn between “us and them.” How are these impressions consistent with the Great Commission?

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, who came into the world to save the lost from the death penalty of sin. The Incarnation is celebrated by people who actually believe that God came in the flesh by being born of a virgin. This event is not celebrated by those who do not believe. That’s perfectly logical and acceptable.

The celebration of Christmas has been utterly corrupted in many ways by the culture. Everyone knows that. One way it has been corrupted is that it has become a civil religious holiday. That is, the celebration of Christmas has the American God as its referent, and commercialism as its method.

When the state and the marketplace abandon this form of Christmas, and substitute it for some amorphous, inclusive, civil religious season that has vacation days and consumption as its identifying marks, I would say that’s a good thing. Why should Christians desire that the celebration of God’s Incarnation in Christ be specially identified with those things?

If we Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas, the way to do that is to make the Incarnation of Christ the focus of our celebration. We should not insist that non-Christians celebrate, or even recognize, our celebration of the Virgin Birth. We should see the secularization of Christmas in the culture as a way to clarifythe meaning of Christmas—and welcome that secularization with open arms! The secularization of Christmas liberates us to reject the idolatry of civil religion and the various forms of the corruption of Christmas. We ought then to share the good news of the Incarnation with non-Christians, and do so in sincere love.

The non-Christian world will know us by our love and our accurate and authentic communication of truth; they will not know us by our sloganeering and protests.

Are You a "Paleo-Evangelical"?

Thomas S. Kidd posted an article on The Anxious Bench a couple of weeks ago that I’ve been meaning to comment on for several days now. This particular Sunday night offers me a good opportunity to do so.

He wrote about a segment of evangelicals who do not fit neatly into the category of “traditional Republican.” This represents a change that has taken place since the 1990s, and perhaps even the 2000s, when evangelicals could largely be counted on to fully support certain traditional Republican platform planks: a commitment to American exceptionalism, a strong national defense (and readiness to use force overseas), and confidence in Republican presidents and Congressional majorities to enact lasting and meaningful social changes (think repealing abortion, defining marriage as between a man and a woman, stopping the flow of illegal immigration, etc.)

Without stealing his thunder, I will summarize Kidd’s article by saying that paleo-evangelicals are “reluctant Republicans” on three main issues–a) they are less comfortable with American civil religion, b) they are not as confident that political parties can follow through on their lofty promises, and c) they are not sure that certain issues come in as uncomplicated a package as they are often presented. Here is a sample of Kidd’s comments:

The mainstream media loves politically liberal evangelicals, especially at this time of year, as we wonder whether the evangelical base will turn out sufficiently to win the election for the Republicans. But the media seems to have missed another category of evangelical that is ill at ease with the Republican Party. Borrowing loosely from the term paleoconservatives, let’s call them paleo evangelicals.

The paleo evangelicals are not liberal in any sense. They come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: some are deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation; some are sympathetic to Roman Catholic social doctrines and traditions (if not all Catholic theology and ecclesiology); some are deeply conscious of the church’s mission outside of America; some gravitate toward outlets such as The American Conservative or the Front Porch Republic, publications and blogs focused on the conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.

Kidd is putting his finger on the beginnings of a major change in evangelical Christianity, in my view. I not only agree with Kidd, I think that the trend he is identifying is bound to continue. As the generation of evangelicals defined by the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition grows older and loses influence, a new generation arises to take its place. In my own experience in twenty years of ministry as a pastor, Christian school teacher and administrator, and seminary professor, I have seen these changes firsthand.

Perhaps paleo-evangelicals will bring about needed perspectival changes in church life, as well as in politics. As they shift their confidence and loyalty away from political parties, perhaps they will also embrace a more rigorous Christ centered value system. Maybe evangelicals will place more of their attention on the person and work of Christ than on whether or not Wal-Mart allows their employees to say “Merry Christmas.” Maybe evangelicals will be more concerned about the ethical treatment of children of illegals than whether or not George Washington was a Christian. Or maybe evangelicals will care less about the so-called “worship wars” and care more about the ethics of war as it relates to the projection of American power.

The exciting thing is to watch how evangelicals relate to the culture in which they live. Perhaps too, evangelicals will look to how previous generations have done so, and learn from their mistakes as well as their triumphs.

Something seems wrong about this…

David Barton has produced a new study Bible entitled The Founder’s Bible. It has not yet been released but it is available for pre-order.

Barton bills himself as an historian, and on the front cover of the book, he is labeled as a “signature historian.” I’m not sure what that is exactly. I do know that Barton reads his political agenda into the past. This has the inevitable result of distorting the past and misinforming his audience. His recent book, The Jefferson Lies, is a good example of his presentist interpretation of the past. Go to John Fea’s blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” to read his detailed critiques of this work. You can also get Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right, which is a good answer to Barton’s work and historical method.

What I find more distressing, apart from Barton’s presentism, is his use of the Scriptures to forward his politico-historical ideology. With all due respect to Barton, the world simply does not need yet another study “Bible” that is aimed at a particular audience and topic that really have nothing to do with the central message of the Scriptures.

The subject of the Scriptures is Jesus Christ, and His work making atonement for human sin. The message of the Scriptures is the gospel of God revealed progressively through His people Israel, and thence through His Son, who Himself is the Word.

The relationship of the Bible to the founding of the United States is an interesting, edifying, and relevant issue. But to cast that issue as the focus of the message of the Bible is unconscionable. I have not seen Barton’s Bible, but what he is doing may even be fairly called prostituting the Bible out for his own ideological hobby-horse agenda.

The production of Barton’s Bible points to another deep problem for evangelical Christians. That is, their view of Scriptures as reflected in the number of “study Bibles” that have become available in the past several years. One list of study Bibles contains 183 titles, such as the American Patriots Bible, the Men of Color study Bible, the College study Bible, the Holy Spirit Encounter study Bible–and the list goes on.

I realize that the purpose of producing study Bibles that are geared to specifics topics, audiences, and agendas can make the Bible seem more relevant and attractive to folks who may not otherwise read the Bible. But something definitely does not seem right here. Why is the message of the Bible itself not a sufficient witness to the truth claims that are made within its pages?

Barton is next up in a long line of writers and publishers who feel the need to spruce up the Bible by framing it consistent with a particular agenda. I’m sure it will fly off the shelves. Still, I wonder if this is not an example of being a false prophet, of speaking a word that God has not spoken.

“‘I did not send these prophets,
But they ran.
I did not speak to them,
But they prophesied.
‘But if they had stood in My council,
Then they would have announced My words to My people,
And would have turned them back from their evil way
And from the evil of their deeds.'”
Jeremiah 23.21-22

Isn’t this the purpose of God’s word after all?