One of the pleasant surprises that has arisen from the political turmoil our nation experiences is a spike in the number of young Christians who take an interest in public theology. They may not always use the phrase “public theology,” but they are asking intelligent questions about issues at the intersection of Christianity, politics, and public life. Often, these embryonic public theologues ask for recommended reading.
In light of the growing interest in this area of study, I offer in this post a dozen sets of resource that I often recommend to budding public theologians. I’ve included a variety of resources, some of which represent views I oppose. However, the majority of the resources fit my preferred “Reformational” model. And, for the most part, I’ve limited myself to books I’ve read cover to cover.
As a brief preface, I should mention that “public theology” is similar to “political theology,” but by these two academic subdisciplines are not synonymous. They are similar in that both disciplines arose in reaction to secularism and sectarianism, and both disciplines speak theologically about political realities. But they are different in that political theologians focus primarily on the political sphere, whereas public theologians tend to focus on society’s total architecture—including not only politics, but also the arts and sciences, scholarship and education, marriage and family, sports and competition, and business and entrepreneurship.
1. Surveying Different Views of Christianity and Culture
Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is a minor classic in 20th century theology; it provides a historical classification of typical Christian views of the relationship between “Christ” and culture. In combination with Niebuhr’s book, you’ll want to read D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited and Craig Carter’s Rethinking Christ and Culture. Carson critiques Niebuhr’s theological framework and argues for a more cruciform understanding of the Christian’s place in culture. Carter also critiques Niebuhr’s theological framework as well as Niebuhr’s privileging of Christendom in the conception of his categories. James K. A. Smith’s brief article critiques Carson from a Reformational point of view. In this video and this article, I summarize and critique five historic views of grace and nature (Christianity and culture).
2. Introducing a Reformational View of Christianity and Culture
Al Wolters’ Creation Regained is an extraordinarily lucid conceptualization of the Reformational worldview; it can be employed easily for a preacher or professor who wishes to provide the undergirding for a Reformational understanding of culture. Goheen and Bartholomew’s Living at the Crossroads is a worldview text that also functions as a fine introduction to Reformational public theology.
When cultivating a genuinely Reformational view of Christianity and culture, we should take care to emphasize the head and the heart. Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is a slim but powerful volume arguing that Reformational Christianity provides a sturdier worldview than modernism, and showing some ways that Christian convictions should shape our approach to various spheres of culture: religion, politics, science, and art. James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom goes beyond Kuyper’s worldview approach to show how and why human beings are “lovers” and not merely “thinkers.” Although Smith’s book criticizes the shape of certain Kuyperian approaches, it is best understood as an insider’s attempt to help make the Kuyperian tradition healthier.
3. Understanding our Secular Context
If we want to bring the West into an effective encounter with the Christian gospel and its ensuing worldview, we must engage in both biblical and cultural exegesis. And, in a Western context, that entails an exegesis of our secular age. (Note: the books I recommend in this section make quite a demand on the reader.)
First, I recommend Jewish-American sociologist Philip Rieff’s My Life among the Deathworks, a prescient analysis and evaluation of the West’s attempt to sever society and culture from the influence of religion (for a concise summary and evaluation of Rieff, here is my “A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age”). Second, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Like Rieff, Taylor provides an evaluation of the rise and development of our secular age, the most helpful aspect of which is his description of what it feels like, existentially, to live in such an age. (For a brief summary and evaluation of Taylor, here is my “Tayloring Politics for a Secular Age.” For a summary of Taylor’s thought, see James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular.)
I also recommend literary critic George Steiner’s Real Presences and Grammars of Creation, which argue that modernity has broken the “covenant” between word and world, engendering skepticism and irony while subverting meaning, morality, and creativity; Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce’s The Crisis of Modernity and The Age of Secularization, which make the case that the modern west is now an “opulent society” that has rejected Christianity for the twin ideologies of scientism and eroticism; Australian sociologist John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture, which argues that secular humanism has made our culture into a “colossal wreck,” divesting life and death of their divine meaning, thereby undercutting the moral order and ruining our social fabric; and public theologian Richard John Neuhaus’ American Babylon. Neuhaus argues that the relativism of American universities has radically reshaped American society and culture, and for the worse.
4. Understanding the African-American Experience
The institution of slavery was like an environmental disaster on the moral ecology of our country, the negative effects of which continue to haunt our nation. Any public theologian worth his salt will make is a priority to read on regularly about racial justice and the African American experience.
For theological reflections on the Civil Rights Movement, James M. Washington’s A Testament of Hope invaluable as an edited collection of MLK’s sermons, speeches, essays, interviews, and autobiographical reflections. Through these, we are able to “hear” what MLK had to say about race, racism, nonviolence, social policy, integration, black nationalism, and the ethics of love and hope. Also, it would be beneficial to read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, given Thurman’s influence on MLK.
For contemporary treatises on racial reconciliation, see John Perkins’ Let Justice Roll Down and One Blood, both of which are among the best books I’ve read this decade. John Perkins should be recognized as a national hero for his work in racial reconciliation and community development. For more resources from John Perkins, click here. Don’t miss Carl Ellis Jr.’s
Free at Last? The Gospel in the African-American Experience; although Ellis wrote this book for African-American Christians, it is also a very helpful resource for white Christians because it helps us understand African-American history and culture from the perspective of a respected black leader and theologian. For more resources from Dr. Ellis and his wife, Dr. Karen Ellis, click here. Finally, check out George Yancey’s Beyond Racial Gridlock, a very helpful and accessible book that defines racism, evaluated four secular theories for overcoming racism, and provides a distinctively Christian way of defining and overcoming racism.
5. Making Culture and Stewarding Culture
Andy Crouch’s Culture Making is an engaging and persuasive treatise on the Christian community’s calling to “make culture” rather than merely “engage the culture.” James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World argues that Christian strategies for “changing the world” are doomed from the start, because they fail to recognize the role of the cultural elite in fostering such change. I pair these two books not only because they cover some of the same terrain, but also because Hunter criticizes Crouch’s book. After reading the two books, including Hunter’s criticisms of Crouch, you’ll want to read Crouch’s two fine replies here and here. Makoto Fujimura’s Culture Care argues that culture is “not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care.”
6. Reading from the Major Ecclesiastical Traditions
The most important historic resource for an aspiring public theologian is Augustine’s City of God, in which we observe a masterful public theologian bearing witness to the gospel in the midst of a declining empire. I recommend either the Modern Library edition or the abridged version with a foreword by Vernon J. Bourke. Many public theologians—from vastly different ecclesial traditions—draw upon Augustine and even seek to locate themselves within a broadly Augustinian framework.
Also important is exposure to exemplary work of public theology or political theology from some of the major ecclesiastical traditions. For starters, I recommend Jacque Maritain’s Man and the State (Catholic), John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (Anabaptist), Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision (Lutheran), Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations (Reformed Anglican), and Jonathan Leeman’s Political Church (Baptist).
7. Building a Public Theology in the Kuyperian Tradition
My second recommendation is to learn as much from Abraham Kuyper as you can. In terms of primary resources, I recommend starting with Lectures on Calvinism and the Kuyper Centennial Reader before going on to read the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology (12 vols.), especially Our Program: A Christian Political Manifesto. In terms of secondary resources, I recommend Richard Mouw, Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Personal Introduction (compact and accessible); James Bratt, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (a scholarly but accessible biography); Craig Bartholomew, Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction (the gold standard commentary on Kuyper and the Kuyperian tradition); Luis Lugo, ed. Religion, Pluralism, and Public Life (essays mining Kuyper’s legacy in order to “put it to work” in the twenty-first century); and John Bolt, A Free Church, A Holy Nation (an exposition of Kuyper’s public theology in conversation with contemporary issues and debates).
My third recommendation is to read some contemporary works of public theology in the line of Kuyper. I recommend David Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions (the gold standard work in Kuyperian political science, critiquing the idols that undergird modern political ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, nationalism, and conservatism); Richard Mouw and Sanders Griffioen, Pluralisms and Horizons (a fine little volume addressing the problem of Christian faithfulness in a plural society); James Skillen, The Good of Politics (a concise introduction to politics from a biblical, historical, and contemporary perspective); Jonathan Chaplin, Talking God (arguing for the validity of religious public reasoning); James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King (from within the Kuyperian tradition, Smith draws heavily upon Augustine and O’Donovan to offer a contemporary Reformational public theology); and, finally, my contribution to this discussion in One Nation under God, a small and accessible introductory textbook for undergraduate students.
8. Promoting a Christian View of Gender and Sexuality in our Secular Age
Gender and sexuality are disputed and contentious topics in our secular age. I recommend starting with Daniel Heimbach, True Sexual Morality (a comprehensive evangelical argument against the pagan sexual ethic that pervades our era); Russell Moore and Andrew Walker, The Gospel & Same-Sex Marriage (a biblical evaluation of the same-sex marriage movement); Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? (a natural law evaluation of the same-sex marriage movement); Rosario Butterfield, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (a wonderful memoir written by Butterfield, formerly a radical feminist, lesbian, tenured professor of English who now is an evangelical Christian writer married to a Presbyterian pastor); Andrew Walker, God and the Transgender Debate (a biblical evaluation of gender dysphoria and transgenderism); and Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally (a natural law evaluation of gender dysphoria and transgenderism).
9. Promoting a Christian View of Life and Death in our Secular Age
As John Paul II noted in Evangelium Vitae, the West is now enveloped in a “culture of death.” Any public theologian worth her salt must be able to make the case for human dignity and a culture of life. I recommend Daniel Darling, The Dignity Revolution (a compact treatment of human dignity, showing its application to a variety of contemporary social and political debates); Richard John Neuhaus, “We Shall Not Weary, We Shall Not Rest,” (Neuhaus was an extraordinary man and compelling writer, and this pro-life essay is him at his best); Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (a scientific and philosophical case that the fetus is a human being from the moment it is conceived); Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case against Abortion Choice (probably the best systematic philosophical and legal treatment of the pro-life position.
10. Bringing the West into an Encounter with the Gospel—via Politics and Public Life
Upon returning to the U.K. after three decades as an Anglican missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin devoted his life to helping bring the West into a “missionary encounter” with the gospel. I recommend Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks, in which he explains what it will take to bring the secularized West into a genuine encounter with the gospel, and Truth to Tell, in which he argues that the gospel is a public truth in the light of which all other modes of thought should be evaluated. In a similar vein, Heath Thomas and I recently wrote a book, The Gospel of our King, that expounds the Christian gospel and applies it to our social, cultural, and political life in this world. Finally, “Powerful Witness from a Position of Weakness,” an essay I wrote about political witness in a secular age.
11. Cultivating a Christian Disposition
One of the most difficult things to do in our dysfunctional, vitriolic, and effluvial public square is to maintain a genuinely Christian disposition—one that combines truth and grace. Toward that end, I recommend Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency, which calls for the cultivation of Christian civility in an uncivil world; Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk, which appeals to Christians to recover the lost art of persuasion; Tim Keller, The Reason for God and Making Sense of God, allows the reader to see one of our era’s finest apologists in action, combining truth and grace to make the case for Christianity in a secular age; Russell Moore’s Onward, which is a warm-hearted and compelling call for Christians to engage the culture without losing the gospel; and last, but by no means least, Rosario Butterfield, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, which is a stirring call for Christians in a secular age to tear down walls by opening our homes to our secular neighbors.
12. Studying to become a Public Theologian
If you’re serious about studying public theology, I invite you to come study with me and my colleagues at The College at Southeastern and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
For undergraduate students, I recommend especially one of the following three courses of study:
- Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics and Economics
- Bachelor of Arts in Justice and Social Ethics
- Bachelor of Arts in Humanities
For graduate students, I recommend:
For doctoral students, I recommend:
- PhD in Theological Studies with a Concentration in Public Theology