Speaking in the Public Square: A Review of Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology

The following review was originally published on The Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley.

In October 2017 Wesley Theological Seminary hosted the Wesleyan Political Theology Project, a conference which brought together the scholars represented in Exploring a Wesleyan Political Theology  [Ryan Nicholas Danker, General Ed., Wesley’s Foundery Books, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2020] to explore what it means as Wesleyan Christians to speak in the public square. In the online promotional video for the conference, Michael McCurry, a professor at Wesley, spoke of the bitterness, polarization, and division in our country, and said, “We want people to come away from this conference knowing how to have gentle, loving conversations within their ministry settings.” Hopefully the participants did that, but this book falls short of such a practical concern.

In his introduction, editor Ryan Nicholas Danker, who teaches Methodist studies at Wesley, acknowledges Methodism’s history of political engagement and raises the question that the essays in this book seek to address: Is it possible to identify “a distinct Wesleyan political theology or political characteristics informed by its mission to ‘spread scriptural holiness across the land’” (8). If so, it must take into account Wesley’s “overwhelmingly optimistic view of Grace,” the accountability at the heart of the early Methodist movement, and Wesley’s concern for the poor (3).

The opening essay from McCurry, former press secretary in the Clinton administration, offers a partly autobiographical “practitioner’s view” on Wesleyan political theology. Of all the writers in this volume, he appears to have the most on-the-job credibility to address the polarization in our society and the inability of many churches “to maintain membership and relevance.” He also has the courage to say, “I believe that part of the dilemma is the failure of the church to connect the good news of the gospel to the very matters that the congregation sees playing out in the controversies that swirl in the public square” (25-26).

In “Big Appetites and No Teeth,” William J. Abraham, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, confesses that “like most United Methodists when it comes to politics, I have a big appetite and no teeth. I want to see the world transformed, but when it comes to getting my teeth into the details and into the causal stories involved, then it’s another story.” That is my favorite quote in the whole collection, but Abrabam bites off more than he can chew when he uses his 15 pages to commend Theodore Weber’s Politics in the Order of Salvation: Transforming Wesleyan Political Ethics as a way to understand the thought of Edmund Burke “refracted through a Wesleyan lens” (43).

Ryan Nicholas Danker’s chapter, “Early Methodist Societies as an Embodied Politic,” makes the case for discerning a Wesleyan political theology through studying “the political context in which early Methodism arose and the place of Methodist societies within that context . . . .”(48). They are “the key to early Methodist political engagement” and “the means by which both holiness of heart and life and concern for the other were combined in holistic, relational community” (51). He contends that politics ”was never the focus of the Wesleyan movement, but rather of Methodist politics was an aftershock of the overwhelming emphasis of early Methodists on the experience of holiness” (61). In other words, “[a] Wesleyan political vision depends on the power of transformed human hearts engaged in community”(10).

In her essay, “Salvation and Social Engagement,” Laceye Warner of Duke Divinity School describes the contributions of three Southern Methodist women –Mary McCloud Bethune, Belle Harris Bennett, and Dorothy Ripley–who exhibited an expansive view of evangelism in their ministries. Warner writes, “Evangelism at times suffers from a disconnect between its personal and social components because of too-narrow biblical interpretations and the ideological lines drawn by the Fundamentalist-Modernist split of the early twentieth century”(70). She concludes, “ The representative evangelistic practices of these women resemble the integration of ministries of word and deed commissioned by Jesus Christ in the Gospels” (95).

James Thobaben, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, draws the attention of contemporary Methodists to Wesley’s main mission, the conversion of souls. Granting that the early Wesleyan-Methodist movement in England and the American colonies did result in social and economic change, he argues that “to prioritize social justice over evangelism or above the immediate faith community is to misorder Wesley’s priorities” (100). Contending that since mission of early Methodism was not “to change society but to convert people, and that would, consequently, change the culture” (115), Thobaben wants modern Methodists to practice an “engaged sectarianism,” one that is “marked by personal and local practices of purity, mercy, and justice” (123).

The last section of the book treats “Methodism and Other Traditions.” In his essay the “The Word of Reconciliation,” Edgardo Colón-Emeric, who teaches at Duke Divinity School, writes that the church’s divine vocation is to speak the word of reconciliation and engage in acts of reconciliation. As an example of one who lived out the ministry of reconciliation, Colón-Emeric lifts up Oscar Romero as “an exemplar of the practical divinity Methodists aspire to embody” (135) and comments that “like Wesley’s, Romero’s theology is grounded in the life of the church and has a popular orientation” (136). Both had a theological approach that allowed them to communicate to the academy and to non-academic people. In describing Romero’s ministry of reconciliation in El Salvador, Colón-Emeric practices the practical divinity he so admires in Wesley.

In the final and most practical, thought-provoking chapter of the book, “The Meaning of Pentecost,” Luther Oconer critiques a form of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity in the U.S. that has “espoused an uncritical form of nationalism” (156) steming from “dominion theology,” which “teaches that Christians need to exercise full authority or ‘dominion’ in all areas of life, including politics” (169). Oconer’s critique of “dominion” theology and its drive toward “restoration of a Christian hegemony” (169) in the U.S. sheds much light on the Christian right’s support of President Trump. Oconer notes that half of the presidential evangelical advisory council is made up of people with ties to Pentecostalism, a movement with strong historical and theological links to the Wesleyan movement. Not only does Oconer critique Pentecostal/Charismatic politics, but provides an understanding of Wesley’s political theology, one in which Jesus’ incarnation as “the ultimate expression of God’s love” (169) is the motivation.

This book was written and edited before the COVID-19 pandemic, before growing awareness of the depth of our nation’s racism, and before the rancor and polarization of the 2020 election reached fever pitch. From the perspective of now, many of these essays lack passion and connection with the public square. Wesley was a practical theologian. I wish that some of these seminary professors had tried harder to expand their potential audience by following his lead.

The Last Night

Tonight there won’t be a crowd in Times Square and hopefully most Americans won’t be singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight in a bar or at a party because they know that 340,000 Americans have died of COVID and they are willing to protect themselves and others by staying home.

At this time last year I posted a video I’d created to accompany “Last Night / Auld Lang Syne” which Noel Paul Stookey and George Emlen adapted and  arranged with a new lyric.

Here’s to the last night of the old year
And to the new year yet to be
Yet before these days become
A distant memory
Old friend, new friend
Shall we gather here
And share a song to celebrate
This last night of the year (1)

In the video are many photos of friends and families having good times together.  Watching it can make you sad that these photos represent the kind of year that you didn’t have.  Most of us want 2020 to be “a distant memory” as soon as possible.  Although the photos don’t depict the year we’ve had, I offer this video and “song to celebrate / This last night of the year.”  May 2021 be a happier, healthier year for our country and for you and your loved ones!

(1)“Last Night / Auld Lang Syne,” Adapted & arranged with new lyric Noel Paul Stookey / George Emlen, © 2018 Neworld Publishing ASCAP and recorded on Somethin’ Special by Noel Paul Stookey 

And a Big Grin

Photo by Bill Finley

It’s almost 11:00 a.m. on Friday, September 17, 2016.  Bill and I are seated at a table in the far end of an elongated, almost empty, hotel restaurant near the Pittsburgh airport. We’ve reserved in the quietest place possible because for the next couple hours, I’ll be interviewing Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary before his concert with Peter Yarrow. Though this isn’t the meeting room we asked for, at least there’s a kind of indoor fence between us and the main dining area.  I’ve asked my gregarious husband to eat his lunch before Noel arrives, to stay and chat while Noel and I order our meals, but to please disappear when the interview begins. 

In late January I’d sent a proposal to Noel, which began something like this:

I am a United Methodist clergywoman / writer who has recently researched a curriculum piece on respecting other religions when I discovered One Light, Many Candles. That discovery led me to your recent CD/DVD, and last week I heard from the review editor at Sojourners that my review of At Home: The Maine Tour will be published.  My research, listening, and writing the review have sparked an idea for a book about your music, spiritual journey, and social justice work. 

Two and a half months, two more emails and a published review later, I heard from him.  Since then Noel and I have been emailing, but I’ve never talked with him on the phone.  His last email asked me to call him around 11:00 am after he’s had time to rest from his flight.  I’m just a bit nervous. I want to present myself as a professional writer, not a giddy fan. After all, I haven’t followed his solo music or PP&M music since the ‘60s. I’m going to keep a straight face. I dial and he answers.

“Hi, Noel, Bill and I are here in the restaurant when you’re ready to come down.  We’re way in the back, and I’m wearing a turquoise shirt.”

He adds,  “And a big grin.” 

Remember Clement Moore’s lines the moment after St. Nick comes down the chimney.  

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread

I’ve just received the verbal equivalent.

Now, four years later, our collaboration on this book goes on.  I recall the FaithLink curriculum piece that led me into this journey.  In November 2013, 130 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Paris, France, and its northern suburb of Saint Denis.  Most prominent in the news of the day was a mass shooting in the Bataclan (theatre) that left 90 dead.   The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility. Almost immediately anti-Muslim sentiment and violence increased globally among people who didn’t understand the difference between the Islamic religion and a militant, fundamentalist Islamist group.

Since 2007 I’ve been a part of the writing team that produces FaithLink, a digital United Methodist curriculum for study groups on current affairs and faith. After the Paris attacks, I was in line for the next issue to be written. The editors and I wasted no time deciding that the topic had to be interfaith understanding. In doing the research I ran across One Light, Many Candles, a multi-faith program in word and song presented by Noel Stookey and the Reverend Betty Stookey.  Betty had begun developing in program in her role as chaplain at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which had a religiously and culturally diverse student body. She continued that development later when she became minister-in-residence at Wesley Theological Seminary. 

That Noel Stookey is married to a clergywoman who has developed such a program got my attention.  I started reading more about them and was impressed with their depth of understanding, their spirituality, and their efforts to help us human beings “overcome our differences and see our commonality without fear of losing our spiritual integrity.”

Long story short, I ordered some of Noel’s latest CDs and started listening. I found in his solo music deeply reflective lyrics, occasional comic relief, profound but humble reverence, and beautiful melodies played by an accomplished guitarist. Two years earlier Bill and I had lost our only child to cancer.  At age 33, she left behind her husband and their six-month-old baby.  The grief was still fresh.  One Noel’s songs, “Every Flower” includes this couplet, which inexplicably brought hope and healing to me:

Some [flowers] are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by love and set free

On the surface, “Every Flower” has a simple lyric, but the power of poetry, of metaphorical language, is that it works beneath the surface, reaching inner places like nothing else can, especially when it is woven into beautiful, engaging melodies and rhythms.

Another feature of Noel’s lyrics that I appreciated from the start was his reticence to using religious language to communicate about the Divine.  That appeals to me because I’m highly skeptical of the misuse and abuse of God talk, which seems more prevalent in public life than it was even four years ago.  His songs are the epitome of Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” 

For those of you who may have wondered why I post so many announcements about Noel’s projects and concerts on my FB page, now you know.  Speaking of which, this weekend he has been one of many artists who are giving their time and talents to Share the Journey: A Concert for Compassion to raise money for organizations that work extensively to serve and assist migrants, immigrants, and refugee families. 

On Sunday, October 18, Noel will appear in concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.  Tickets to this virtual event will allow you to see it anytime between tomorrow night and November 18. The orchestra will be playing some Joplin and Copeland, and Noel will be singing some of my favorites, including  “Facets of the Jewel,” which is central to One Light, Many Candles, and “In These Times,” written in 2007 but curiously applicable to right now.  

The book is also the reason I write so few blog posts, but we’re entering a phase of writing in which my research is focused on contemporary topics that may evoke more frequent posts.   I hope so.  Regardless, I’m still wearing a big grin. 

Not a Prop

“Let me be clear. This is revolting. The Bible is not a prop. A church is not a photo opt. Religion is not a political tool. God is not your plaything,”  wrote James Martin, SJ, last night on Twitter.  He is a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, and his is a succinct statement of why church leaders and theologians from centrist and progressive Christian traditions are appalled and outraged at President Trump’s photo opt  in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.  

In a CNN interview, the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, the Episcopal bishop of Washington, said, “Let me be clear: The President just used a Bible, the most sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and one of the churches of my diocese, without permission, as a backdrop for a message antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”  She continued. “I just want the world to know, that we in the diocese of Washington, following Jesus and his way of love … we distance ourselves from the incendiary language of this President. We follow someone who lived a life of nonviolence and sacrificial love.”

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry issued a statement that said, in part, that Trump’s actions “did nothing to help us or to heal us.”   

“The Bible the President held up and the church that he stood in front of represent the values of love, of justice, of compassion, and of a way to heal our hurts.”

Curry continued, “We need our President, and all who hold office, to be moral leaders who help us to be a people and nation living these values. For the sake of George Floyd, for all who have wrongly suffered, and for the sake of us all, we need leaders to help us to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”

I know that this outrage must be confusing for people outside the church who associate Christianity with right-wing politics, closed-mindedness, rigidity, authoritarianism, fundamentalism, racism, and hate.  The fact is that anyone can wave a Bible, anyone can call themselves Christian, and anyone who can attract followers–even if it’s done by manipulation– can build an edifice with a bell tower and call it a church.  Externals do not make it so.   With apologies to Paul, a first century B.C.E. letter writer and follower of Jesus:  If I can amass power, be elected to the highest office in the land, have my photo taken in front of the church of Presidents while I hold up  the sacred text of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and have not love, I am but dissonant bells ringing in my own delusional tower.

Photo by Sarah Wardlaw vis Unsplash

Review of Evangelicals, ed. by Mark Nolls, David Bebbington, & George Mardsen

Evangelicals

Up front I confess that I read this book as a progressive clergywoman baffled by the reported 81% “evangelical support” of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and beyond.   I came to Evangelicals:  Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be (Eerdmans, 2019)  with the questions that the subtitle proposes to answer: What are the differences between the evangelicals who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t?  What happened in the history of this movement that results in such wildly different understandings of Christian faith and practice, all described under the umbrella term evangelicalism?

The book didn’t disappoint.  I discovered that many evangelicals ask the same kinds of questions and that there are no simple answers. I was left with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the issues, for the writers represented in this extensive anthology, and especially for the creative curation of editors Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George Mardsen.  These three globally respected historians bring their vast scholarship to address “the contemporary American controversies posing the greatest difficulties for a coherent, factual, and responsible understanding of ‘evangelicalism’” (1).

In the introduction  co-editor Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College who previously taught at the University of Notre Dame, identifies three crises related to the word “evangelical.” The most obvious is the support that a huge majority of white U.S. evangelical Christians give to Donald Trump.  When Daniel Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%” went viral in January, only a small percentage of followers of American politics failed to recognize its subject matter by its title alone. While not denying that support, Noll points out that pollsters usually identify evangelicals as those who say they were born again.  Then he asks this question: “ . . . if significant numbers of African Americans have been born again and have been voting for Democrats–in even higher proportions and over a longer period of time than white evangelicals have voted for Republicans–how can anyone speak responsibly about “evangelical support” for Donald Trump?” (3).

Part 1, covering over half of the four–part book, deals with “The History of ‘Evangelical History” and leads off with co-editor George Marsden’s introduction to his 1984 Evangelicalism and Modern America Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls evangelicalism as a “conceptual unity” defined by its emphasis on five beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (22-23).

Co-editor David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and currently a visiting professor at Baylor University, has also articulated another widely used characterization of evangelicalism which is less theological and more descriptive than Marsden’s.  He describes a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” [a term capitalized in the U.K.]: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort;  biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (34).

The rest of Part 1 contains essays reflecting on the meaning of evangelicalism, the difficulties in defining it, and debates evoked by Mardsen’s and Bebbington’s descriptions of its characteristics.  All of the writers in Part 1 focus on the long, rich, and complex history of evangelicalism.

The essays in Part 2 attempt to explain the origins and growth of evangelical support for Trump.  The titles themselves are intriguing: “A Strange Love? Or: How White Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald” (Michael S. Hamilton);  “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity “ (Kristin Kobes Du Mez); “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism” (Fred Clark).  Part 3 contains 5 essays that assess the meaning of evangelicalism today. Thomas Kidd asks whether the term is redeemable. Timothy Kelly reflects on whether evangelicalism can survive Donald Trump and says, “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever” (255).

One of the most provocative essays in Part 3 is Molly Worthen’s “Idols of the Trump Era.”  For it she interviewed Kaitlyn Schiess, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Liturgy of Politics:  Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor  to be released later this year [1]. Schiess describes a new ritual that has taken the place of Sunday worship and Bible studies–nightly viewing of conservative cable news.  Worthen quotes Schiess: “The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing the people do every night.  It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America” (257). Worthen, intrigued by Schiess’ ideas, writes, “When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer:  pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences” (257-58).

In his essay  “To Be or Not to Be an Evangelical” Brian Stiller contends that the  word evangelical has been “disfigured by political pundits, muddied by protestors from the left and right, and brought into dishonor by self-proclaimed spokespeople who excuse inappropriate behavior and language as the necessary price for political power.  The center has shifted, and many Evangelicals now wonder where they fit” (273). Then he examines the term’s global nature, the way it defines “a major, self-conscious stream of Protestantism,” its roots and history, and the polarization with the U.S. and concludes that he will keep it because it will outlive the current controversy.   However, he rejects the term’s baggage: “To impose this first world debate on hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide would be worse than a mistake; it would be a new form of first world intellectual colonialism” (277).

In Part 4 the editors reflect on how evangelical history might inform current American debates,  George Marsden offers a global perspective on American evangelicalism, and David Bebbington reflects on the political history of British evangelicals. In the concluding essay Mark Noll writes,  “In the United States, it may be the case that the ‘e-words’ should be put to rest for a season because of their excessive entanglement with national political controversy. But even where ‘evangelicals’ and evangelicalism’ lose their cogency in one location, it does not mean that the words are irrelevant for those with the world in view.”

To reflect on and appreciate this book is to live in the tension between the historical perspectives of Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden and the immediacy of the political / religious controversies in the U.S.  I found myself wanting to skip over some of the historical essays to the ones about the current situation. At times I wished that the editors had found a way to integrate the historical with the contemporary.  On the other hand, this tension is embedded in the nature of anthologies, and this one offers the equivalent of a college course on evangelicalism past and present. For those who seek to understand who evangelicals “have been, are now, and could be,” this book is an excellent place to start.

[1] https://www.apologeticssimplified.com/podcasts/2020/1/13/interview-with-kaitlyn-schiess-exploring-political-theology

This review appeared in April 2020 edition of Englewood Review of Books.