Replacing Rallies with Revivals
3. Finally, Boyd promotes a rather naïve distinction between what he sees as government's ability to merely "control behavior" and the church's ability to "transform hearts." By the end of the book, this translates into a de-emphasis on systemic injustice and a renewed emphasis on conversion as the solution to social ills. "The goal of kingdom people," Boyd concludes, "must be to free the oppressor from his or her oppressed heart, which in turn frees those who are oppressed by them." He confidently claims, in Dickensian spirit, that "when hearts are transformed, behavior follows." One can almost see Scrooge making his way to the altar.
Yet as Marx pointed out, transforming the hearts of capitalists doesn't do anything to disturb systems that foster oppression. Indeed, unless he's out to judge the salvation of others (which he won't, given his antipathy toward "judgment" of any sort), wouldn't Boyd have to concede that many American evangelicals with "transformed hearts" look like everything Boyd is against?
Ultimately, Boyd concludes that politics and government work on the "outside," but the Holy Spirit works on the "inside." I think he is wrong on both counts.
First, the practices associated with idolatrous nationalism don't just touch my "outside." In Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith mistakenly thought that no matter what Big Brother did to his body, it could never get to his insideto his mind, his heart, his passions. Eventually, of course, it did. The chilling lesson of 1984 is that the machinations of the state can even shape what we love. Winston, you'll remember, ends up in lovewith Big Brother.
Second, the Spirit's transformation of hearts is not the kind of magic that Boyd suggests. Rather, the Spirit works through material, embodied practices of sanctification and discipleship to form citizens of the kingdom of God. Without practices that "control behavior," the indwelling and transformative power of the Spirit often lies dormant. Without laws that challenge unfair systems, even Christians find it easy to overlook inequities.
So is Boyd simply inviting us back to pietism? I'm afraid so. My question is: Can evangelical thinking about cultural engagement leave behind the either/or of Constantinian triumphalism vs. pietistic retreat? To escape an oscillation between these two unbiblical extremes, we must nurture a more nuanced and creative political imagination.
James K. A. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College. His most recent book is Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic).
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The Myth of a Christian Nation is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Woodland Hills Church has more information on the book, as well as downloadable audio of the sermon series on which the book is based. The church also has copies of coverage of the book in the mainstream media, including a New York Times front-page article.
More about Greg Boyd and his other books is available from his website.
Smith's initial comments on Boyd's book, or rather, on The New York Times's coverage of it, received several comments at the Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank blog.
Today's Christian, a Christianity Today sister publication, also looks at Boyd's book in an article posted today.
Also posted today is an article on what evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges in politics for the next 50 years.