Book Review: Myth of a Christian Nation – Greg Boyd

10 08 2008

A few months back I picked up a copy of Dr Greg Boyds “The Myth of a Christian Nation”. The title grabbed me. A few days earlier I had a discussion with a friend who was quite in favour of New Zealand becoming a “Christian” nation, so I thought it would be helpful. The book was a very short read, and I finished it in a day. But I was quite dissapointed with his treatment of the subject. While it  was always going to be a difficult subject, and I applaud Dr Boyd for his efforts, I was simply not impressed.  Those who would expect a balanced and carefully exegetical view of Christianity and Politics will be dissapointed too. I found Dr Boyd to be very biased towards pacifism and prone to making large unsubstantiated claims.

For example he claimed that world missions had been ruined by the fact that Americans claimed to be “one nation under God” or a “Christian nation”. While I agree that this is a harmful for missions I don’t know of any missionary who goes out with that premise. My church has several church planters out from America and none of them are flying the American flag as part of their mission. None of them are out to bring political freedom to different parts of the world. In fact I’ve never met a missionary (and I’ve known a few) who ever bring up politics during missions. They are kind, friendly, accepting and they spread the gospel in deed and word. More importantly they reach the people on a level they understand. Dr Boyd made a terrible straw man of missionaries to prove his point.
Another half truth he propogated was that muslims extremists were simply responding to the evils of the crusades and bigotry of Christians. That is an extremely one sided view. While some muslims may be trying to right the wrongs of the past, they are by no means innocent of the past. Islam was a religion founded on violence and indeed many extremists get their justification from explicit commands in the Koran.

Dr Boyd also builds on these premises for future chapters to “prove” his arguement. I found myself saying “Yes and Amen” to some points he made such as “The kingdom of the world is characterised by Judgement. The Kingdom of God is characterised by amazing, even scandalous Grace.” But then in the same chapter he would go on to suggest that Grace doesnt count for much unless we are working to maintain it. He stressed that God’s kingdom depended largely on us remaining faithful, and in true Arminian fashion resorted to guilt tripping (Thats not to say that Dr Boyd is Arminian in his theology but many of techniques of persuasion had that ring to them).

Again building another strawman, Dr Boyd seemed to blame to the ills of Christianity on White middle class Americans. Instead of making the problem a global one in which all humanity was to blame, Dr Boyd is merciless towards white people. I found that ironic and disturbing. Firstly Dr Boyd is a white middle class American. Secondly this would not encourage any sort of unity within the body but would continue to promote division. Not all white middle class Americans behave in the manner he describes. Another half truth is that we are fed a lot of propoganda from politicians about patriotism and just wars, which is correct. However he attempts to convince us of His view with much the same teachnique.

Dr Boyd continually pointed out that the entire world was “under the sway of the evil one” and that our struggle was not against “flesh and blood”. While I agree on this point he only presents half the truth, insisting that Satan was responsible for every evil that was going on in the world. There was very little treatment of an individuals sin nature and how that needs to be dealt with. For Dr Boyd it seems there is a demon on every corner. This is not a balanced view at all. Dr Boyd is also a proponent of open theism. He made statements like “God abandoned a nationalistic way of defining the kingdom of God when it didn’t work with the Israelites.” This is a strange interpretation of the history. As if to say God’s plan A failed so he moved to plan B. Rather it was always Gods plan to fufill the law in Christ and not to abandon it. This doesnt make sense of what Jesus said “I have not come to abolish the law but to fufill it.”

Towards the end of the book Dr Boyd attempts to answer some “objections” and “questions” such as “Should Christians serve in the military?” or “Should Christians serve in their countries wars?”. He gave some pretty pacifistic answers with very little support apart from that “We should look to the example of Jesus.” That amounts to a theology of “what would Jesus do?”. The Bible is remarkably silent on some things and I don’t think we’re justified in holding people to our own consciences. While we are to look to the example of Jesus we are also to rely on the Holy Spirit within us and our consciences. To simply say that all Christians should not serve in the military at all or go to war is to give pat answer to a complex problem. We cannot simply give lip service to the complexity while asserting a simple answer. Of course there are no just wars, but is it better for Christians to go to jail for five years because of their objections to milatary service? Is this not a matter of conscience before God rather than a hard and fast rule?

Where I found myself most in agreement with Dr Boyd was his section that dealt with Church history. He showed clearly that whenever Christians had seized power and tried to regulate an entire nations beliefs it resulted in more bloodshed rather than unity. On this I wholeheartedly agree. We have no precedent to cite on any nation being better as a result of Christian governance. Every example is as immoral and corrupt as the next nation. But having to wade through the whole book for this small bit of truth just wasn’t worth it. For those who are looking for an extensive treatment of a Christians engagement with Culture and Politics, you should look elsewhere. This book is likely to confuse less mature believers who will not be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Overall this book does not present anything new, its all stuff I’ve heard before. I wonder what kind of effect this book would have had on William Wilberforce?

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2 responses

15 08 2008
m slater

Grant,
Thanks for your review of “Myth of a Christian Nation” I thought it looked interesting as well, but perhaps I will find another book to explore those issues. Disappointed to hear that it did not live up to its potential.
I do think that especially we evangelicals need to start realizing how much we have allowed fealty to certain political movements and an almost religious patriotism to co-opt our idea of being faithful to Christianity and the values of God’s kingdom.

“Dr Boyd is also a proponent of open theism”

Yes, and that would be an issue for me in reading him, I have a rather hard time taking open theism seriously. Not that I disagree with all of it, for example I agree that the level of influence Greek philosophy has had on how we view and speak of God is not helpful. Not all the ‘attributes of God’ listed in traditional accounts are all that easy to find in the Bible. However, having read a few books on both sides I find their overall position to be lacking.

“Towards the end of the book Dr Boyd attempts to answer some “objections” and “questions” such as “Should Christians serve in the military?” or “Should Christians serve in their countries wars?”. He gave some pretty pacifistic answers with very little support apart from that ”We should look to the example of Jesus.” That amounts to a theology of “what would Jesus do?”.”

Is a ‘what would Jesus do’ theology such a bad thing? I mean phrasing it that way it sounds rather shallow, but it does not have to be, just look at the ana-baptist tradition. I think the reason these arguments don’t always resonate is because we are not that used to going to the Gospels to build our theology as opposed to heading right for Paul. Right or wrong, there is nevertheless a pretty convincing case to be made for Jesus teaching a non-violent faith and it seems that for the first 300 years of the faith pretty much everyone saw it that way. Only when we were put in a position of power did we start thinking it might be ok to use to tools of the nations to advance what we think is right.

17 08 2008
aworthydiscussion

Hey, thanks for the comments. My point with the “what would Jesus do” theology is that it is very shallow and I have not found it to be any help. Jesus fed 5000, so I should I? Jesus raised people from the dead, so should I?
Clearly the theology has problems with it. Do we simply turn the power of the gospel into a set of morals and behaviours? From my experience this has lead people to do that.

My reason for speaking against Dr Boyds pacifistic stance is that Jesus never spoke against civil action, nor did he promote it. We do not do justice to the issues if we simply whitewash them with a WWJD theology.

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