Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation

In her latest book Jesus and John Wayne, Calvin University history professor Kristen Kobes Du Mez makes a depressingly solid case for how we arrived at this historical moment that includes self-proclaimed Evangelicals storming the U. S. Capitol building on Jan. 6th. In fact, given recent events, the book seems extraordinarily prescient, in a prophetically tragic sort of way.

Du Mez argues that Christian nationalism amounts not to an aberration within evangelicalism broadly, but rather has been intentionally propagated for decades by a host of voices from within. This brand of Christian nationalism centers on male-dominated, sexist, patriarchal, militant patriotism that readily confuses a very particular vision of the nation (with a contrived and revisionist history) with the very essence of the gospel itself. And the pervasive symbol of this hyper-masculine, largely Caucasian, and often abusive form of Christianity, was none other than the womanizing, heavy drinking actor, John Wayne (note: I had assumed when I first picked up the book that John Wayne functioned as something of a metaphor for evangelical machismo. I was shocked to learn how frequently and overtly the connection actually shows up). Evangelical support for a Casino owning, womanizing, and downright vulgar candidate like Donald Trump thus was not an anomaly, but the inevitable result of an Evangelicalism that for decades framed itself (or rather framed the manliness of its men) as the last great hope of a nation and the nation as the last great hope of the faith.

Positively, the book is extremely well-researched and the arguments built on stacks and stacks of concrete examples (so much so, the reader is left feeling a bit sorry for Dr. Du Mez and her research assistants for having to actually read and digest all the keyboard punching that passes for evangelical literature). But it is the sheer breadth of research that makes her case so compelling. As someone who locates myself somewhere in that strange intersection between Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism, I had been attuned to the discipleship crisis, to all too-pervasive toxic leadership, and to widespread Christian nationalism, but until reading this book I had no idea what deep trouble we are really in. And yes, this is a positive quality of the book because we cannot begin to dig out of our current predicament, we cannot begin to work toward a better future until we acknowledge and have a serious reckoning (and repentance) with our sordid past.

Negatively, one reads Jesus and John Wayne and is left thinking that perhaps evangelicals are wholly without a single redeeming quality. I found myself wishing that Du Mez had balanced her critique with some of the good that evangelicals do, such as the millions they give to charitable causes, the sacrifices that many evangelical missionaries make to share the gospel in very dangerous places, their sometimes flawed but well-intended compassionate outreach, and perhaps, the ways in which a new generation of conservative Christians seem less prone to these errors than were their parents. But perhaps now is not the time, nor this the work, for self-congratulatory back slapping. We’ve done enough of that and some of it has landed us in the perilous position we are in. So, in the end, I think Du Mez’s instincts were right on.

I hope everyone who considers themselves an Evangelical will read this book. More importantly, I hope those who read it will join together in working for a better future.

Unhelpful (and unbiblical) Things Pastors Do During a Global Pandemic

For the most part, I am inspired by what I see in the church right now. People are being smart, caring, and kind. Two of my students today told me how young people at their church are shopping for the more vulnerable elderly. Some churches are distributing food and others are actually providing testing!

But some are doing things that, frankly, are neither helpful nor biblical. Here are five things I’ve seen churches and pastors do recently in response to Corona virus that were bad ideas. Please…do not…

  1. Declare that this virus is the judgment of God for the sin of__________. Why is this a bad idea? Because 1) it presumes an awful lot that simply cannot be known, 2) if it were true, then why would those not guilty of that sin be effected, and 3) it reflects poorly on the gospel of grace we are called to preach and embody, particularly toward those suffering from this disease and their families. The fact that God used recognized prophets in Israel to declare the judgment of God on peoples and nations does not mean that such prophetic offices carry over directly into the New Testament church. While the gift of prophecy certainly is one the NT speaks of frequently and favorably, the NT prophetic task centers on the gospel of hope–the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and proclaiming that message. This is why Luke in his citation of Isa. 61 (Luke 4:18-19) stops short of the words “the day of vengeance of our God” and instead ends his quotation mid verse, at “to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Today, the church is called to preach hope, not despair. Are there times to talk about judgment and hell? Absolutely. But in the midst of a global crisis when bad news is everywhere, maybe we should focus on The Good News!
  2. Reject the wisdom of experts in science and government. I watched in horror this week as an evangelist declared that it was anti-faith to not come to church. This person was an admitted follower of Kenneth Hagin and the so called “word of faith movement.” And you may have seen the insanity going on at Liberty University, where students, faculty, and staff are expected back to work this week because Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks it will keep students safer by keeping them on campus. Of course, everyone knows that the real motivator is likely money. And when you love money more than people, you make really bad decisions. As the apostle Paul said, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
  3. Add to the political divide. Ok, I really struggle with this one because every day I see politicians on both sides of the aisle making bad decisions and unable to work together even in the midst of a national crisis and it makes me angry. But as tempted as I am to share that tweet or post or article that shows how inept these people are, I have to stop and ask myself, “what good will it do? Will it help people who are dying of this disease? Will it help me love my neighbor? Will it show that I am a child of God and filled with the fruit of the Spirit?” The answer to all these questions is no. So, lets take this opportunity for the church to truly shine because we have decided to stay above the political fray and be agents of healing rather than causes of division.
  4. Stoke fear. These are fearful times and people need comfort. Let’s not forget where that comes from and that throughout history the church has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in the goodness of God in the midst of really devastating trials–far worse than the Corona-virus.
  5. Dole out platitudes and cliches. This is not the time to offer pat answers to people’s deep searching and questions about faith, about God, about pain, about anxiety or any of the other multitude of challenges people are dealing with right now. Sometimes our presence, our silent presence can be our greatest gift to a hurting world. Wisdom will guide us.

Why Character Matters (even when there’s not a global pandemic)

I’ve been thinking a lot about character lately, in part because I’ve been working on a book on compassionate discipleship for about three years now and this subject is always bouncing around in my brain.

But this afternoon as I was preparing an online lecture on missions for our University of Valley Forge Students, I came across a list of character traits in a book called Introducing Missions, by Scott Moreau, Gary Corwin and the late Gary B. McGee. The list seemed especially applicable these days and so I thought I’d share my own version of their list (with some minor changes and with my own elaborations for life in the time of COVID-19). So, here they are:

1.Focus on people over tasks – put people first, and your tasks will become richer and more meaningful.

2.Can withhold unproductive criticism – If it can go without saying, it probably should.

3.Tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility – change is the only constant. Embrace it and your stress levels will drop dramatically!

4.Empathy – laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry, and offer practical help to both (and platitudes and cliches to neither)

5.Openness in communication style – say what you mean, mean what you say. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Life is so much simpler this way.

6.High cognitive complexity – don’t fall for the intellectually lazy blame game or for making an entire race culpable for…anything.

7.Good personal relational skills – get along with folks. Its a lot less work than the alternative.

8.Perseverance – don’t give up. The answer/solution/relief is likely closer than you think.

Stay safe and joyful everyone! Jesus is in control!