Results tagged “Book Review” from Reformation21 Blog

The Foundation of the New Perspective


Admittedly the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) isn't so new anymore. As a significant scholarly hermeneutical movement, it goes back at least as far as the late 1970s with the groundbreaking work of E. P. Sanders. It goes back even further if we take into consideration the endeavors of a Montefiore and a Moore. The NPP is old enough now to have had a plethora of erudite nuanced critical responses (one thinks of Newman, Gathercole, Westerholm, Kim, Carson, Waters, and the like). As I write this review, my scanning of the web has revealed several new studies slated for forthcoming release. One of the most recent, and I would suggest, best interactions with the NPP is Robert Cara's Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul. I believe Cara succeeds on many levels. Before I get to my assessment I want to describe what Cara has done.

Cracking the Foundation is divided into four chapters, followed by a concluding summary and an appendix on Jewish literary sources. The first chapter (19-36) is a fine introduction to the NPP and its relation to the doctrine of justification and the question which is a bug-a-bear for any serious interaction with the NPP: is it a unified movement, therefore justifying the appellation New Perspective or is the movement a conglomeration of different perspectives whose only unity is in the rejection of the traditional Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul and the Second Temple Judaism that lay behind him? In looking at this question Dr. Cara seeks to focus his attention on E. P. (Ed) Sanders' argument that the Judaism of Paul's day was not a legalistic works-righteousness based religion but was a grace-based faith and that this perspective was nearly universal across the spectrum of views representative of Second Temple Judaism. In a nutshell, covenantal nomism is the view that one gains entrance to the people of God by election (i.e., grace) and stays in by obedience to the Law (i.e., works).

The second chapter (37-75) is devoted to providing clarifying definition (one is tempted to say the author provides 4K or Ultra HD clarification) as to what works-righteousness is and what it entails. Cara sets the two hermeneutical-theological systems of covenantal nomism and the classic Reformed bi-covenantal framework side by side. This is a wise move since there is some formal similarity between the two views that could be and indeed has been confused for substantial agreement. The author first looks at classic Reformed covenant theology with its covenant of works and covenant of grace and the traditional distinction between uses of the Law (specifically the second and third uses of the Law involving the Law as schoolmaster which leads us to Christ and the Law as a guide to the Christian life) and Cara concludes the first half of this chapter with the burning question about the final judgement and justification and their relationship to one another. Cara is to be commended for his clarity of expression and explanations of what can be very technical material. The second half of the chapter is devoted to the history of the covenantal nomism idea in the work of Sanders and his precursors (C. G. Montefiore, George Foote Moore, and Krister Stendahl) and successors (specifically James D. G. Dunn and Nicholas Thomas [Tom]Wright). The author then delineates the features of covenantal nomism and offers an initial critique. At the very least, these two systems of thought are neither identical nor similar. To use somewhat anachronistic systematic terms (which are nevertheless very accurate), Second Temple Judaism, variegated as it really was, included at least semi-Pelagian sentiments. Neither full-scale Pelagianism nor semi-Pelagianism are healthy or biblical.

The third chapter (77-125) involves an examination of a variety of Jewish literary sources more or less influential in Paul's time and his Jewish world. The author recommends readers unfamiliar with the literature to read the appendix on the Jewish sources before delving into the third chapter and that makes solid sense. The appendix (207-272) provides not only a helpful survey of the kinds of literature deriving from the Second Temple period, but it offers principles of evaluation and assessment. At the very least we readers can gain insight into the author's method of evaluating the multitude of literary sources he sifts through. An example is whether a given text is reflective of Pharisaical thinking in Paul's day or whether it reflects later developments. It is not as simple as dating the text proper, but also ascertaining whether the theology expressed reflects an earlier age. Getting back to the third chapter, Cara looks at texts from the Apocrypha, the OT Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Rabbinic literature (the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud, etc). Cara demonstrates that at least some within the Second Temple Jewish period expressed a works-righteousness orientation.

The fourth chapter (127-195) provides a look at works-righteousness in the so-called "Deutero-Pauline" books (books which Cara rightly believes really were authored by the Apostle Paul but which many critical scholars, including NPP writers, believe were not written by Paul but perhaps by disciples of Paul. These books, usually ignored in studies on Paul in the NPP literature, include Second Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Timothy, and Titus. Because these texts are bypassed in both constructing a Pauline biblical theology and then assessing what problems Paul had with the Judaism of his day, Cara sees the necessity of giving them their due. Specifically, Cara puts Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 3:4-7, and Second Timothy 1:8-10 under the microscope. Before offering his own assessment of the substance of these passages, he reviews the perspective of three non-NPP scholars on these texts (I. Howard Marshall, Michael Walter, and John M. G. Barclay). Having closely examined these passages Cara concludes that these three texts clearly address the problem of works-righteousness in the world of the Apostle Paul. Following his own exegesis of these texts, the author looks at the assessment of these passages by Sanders, Dunn, and Wright. Cara concludes the chapter by offering critiques of these scholars on these texts. As Cara rightly notes, even if you think these books were not authored by Paul, you would still need to account for such a clear misunderstanding of Paul by his disciples at such an early date.

Dr. Cara concludes with a summary of his work (197-205). This is extremely helpful since it would be quite easy to lose the forest for all the trees. We are reminded that E. P. Sanders offered his covenantal nomistic reading of Second Temple Judaism as an all-pervasive gracious pattern of religion. Cara rehearses the ground that has been covered in this book and concludes that some, at least, within the fold of Second Temple Judaism did express a works-righteousness orientation. This undermines Sanders' thesis about the gracious nature of covenantal nomism. Sanders, as others have pointed out, fails to reckon with the idea of grace assisting a sinner rather than raising the spiritually dead to life. It also undermines the nearly universal extent of this pattern of religion. If there were elements within Second Temple Judaism that did embrace works-righteousness then the classic Lutheran and Reformed reading of Paul (the so-called "old perspective on Paul") has no need of revision and the foundation of the whole NPP enterprise is revealed to be called into question. It turns out that Paul was addressing perennial issues that never seem to die away. It is part and parcel of fallen human nature to try to find acceptance with God based upon our own works-righteousness (i.e., merit).

Robert J. Cara succeeds at making his case on at least three levels. One, he writes with crystal clear prose. The style is both straightforward and elegant. Profound scholars do not always make the best and clearest writers. Writing like this is deceptively simple. What one finds easy to read was most assuredly not easy to write. Two, Cara focuses his attention on the Sanders' covenantal nomism thesis and therefore sets aside otherwise interesting and tempting bunny trails. The NPP movement is wide and varied and it would take and indeed has taken multitudes of tomes to address it. At the end of the day what unites the disparate NPP scholars is the mere rejection of the old Protestant perspective on Paul. Third, the author marshals the incriminating evidence that there were in fact people and groups within Second Temple Judaism that held to a works-righteousness religion. To defeat Sanders' thesis Cara did not have to demonstrate that all sects within Second Temple Judaism were works-righteousness oriented. All he needed to do, and this he handily did, was to show that at least one sect or group held to a legalistic works-based faith. The foundation of the whole NPP enterprise is on shaky ground. This is not to say that everything any NPP scholar has written is worthless (that is patently false and absurd), but that the driving premise of the NPP is misdirected. Cara has produced a work of surpassing worth and will no doubt be the standard work on the topic for many years to come.

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels


One does not have to preach, teach, or even read the New Testament for long in order to discover how steeped its authors are in the Old Testament. The OT surfaces on virtually every page of the NT. It serves a range of purposes, whether for witness to unbelief or for the instruction and guidance of the church. And it speaks with divine authority - like the NT, it is the very word of God.

One salutary trend in the last generation of the academic study of the NT has been a growing estimation of the place and importance of the OT to the NT. Students of the NT increasingly appreciate the degree to which the OT is woven into the warp and woof of the NT message. To attempt to read the NT independently of the OT is to misread the NT.

A pioneer in this branch of recent scholarship is Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. His Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) invigorated the study of the apostle Paul's use of the OT. His recent release, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016), promises to do the same for the Four Gospels.

The substance of ESG consists of four chapters detailing the method and practice of each of the Four Evangelists in handling the Old Testament. Introductory and concluding chapters frame these four chapters. Although brief, these two chapters set forth the principles and methods that inform the book as a whole. As such, they merit particular attention.

Two terms characterize Hays' understanding of the Evangelists' handling of the OT writings. The first is "figuration." The Gospels evidence what Hays, following Erich Auerbach, terms "figural interpretation." What is "figural interpretation"? It is a correspondence between "two events or persons" that "can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first" (3). Hays distances figuration from "prediction" - "figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the OT authors - or the characters that they narrate - were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ" (2, cf. 359). Positively, the NT writers engage in the practice of what Hays terms "reading backwards." In light of the redemptive and revelatory work of Christ in his death and resurrection, the NT writers "retrospectively" read or "reinterpret" the OT in "transformati[ve]" ways (358). The conviction that Jesus is Israel's Messiah and that he was crucified and raised from the dead comes to define, characterize and distinguish Christian readings of the OT from all other readings of the NT.

The second term that characterizes Hays' understanding of the Gospel writers' engagement of the OT is "metalepsis." Metalepsis is "a literary technique of citing or echoing a small bit of a precursor text in such a way that the reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came and then reading the two texts in dialogical juxtaposition" (11). Metalepsis is hardly unique to the biblical writers. It surfaces in other literature, classical music, and even popular film and music.1 It is a technique that the NT writers use to great effect. They may employ it at multiple levels -when, for instance, they quote the OT, allude to the OT, or echo the OT ("quotations" are "introduced by a citation formula or ... feature the verbatim reproduction of an extended chain of words...;" "allusions" either "imbed several words from the precursor text" or "explicitly mention notable characters or events;" an "echo" is "a word or phrase that evokes, for the alert reader, a reminiscence of an earlier text," 10). As importantly, metalepsis serves the NT writers' greater end of explicating the person and work of Jesus Christ with reference to the Scriptures of the OT. OT quotations, allusions, and echoes, whether they are expressly metaleptic or not, are the brushes and oils with which the NT authors paint the portrait of Christ in their writings.

How does Hays see each Evangelist turning to the OT in order to craft his particular portrait of Christ? Hays shows how each Gospel engages the OT in order to tell the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Mark handles Scripture in a way that, "like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive" (98). There are comparatively fewer citations in Mark than in other Gospels - "Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions" (ibid.). If this is Mark's narrative technique, what, then, is the narrative or story that Mark tells? As the curtain rises on the Gospel, Mark understands "Israel still under exile," requiring nothing less than "divine intervention" for her "deliverance" (16). John the Baptist's sudden appearance at the beginning of Mark heralds both impending eschatological judgment (Mark 1:2-3 and Mal 3:1 [LXX]) and a new exodus (Mark 1:2-3 and Exod 23:20 [LXX]). The one who will bring this restoration is not John but Jesus, whose death, Mark underscores, "stands in direct continuity with God's covenant with Israel" (Mark 14:24-25 and Exod 24:8, Zech 9:11) (35,36). Lamentably, the Jewish leaders' blindness and resistance to Jesus not only signifies that they are under divine judgment, but also serves to bring Jesus to the cross (44). Jesus' parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12), however, deftly engages multiple OT texts (Isa 5:1-7, Gen 22:2, Gen 37:20 LXX, Psa 118:22-23) to point to the vindication of Jesus and the restoration of the people of God (ibid.).

Mark's portrait of Jesus is inexplicable apart from his handling of the OT. Precisely in referencing many passages from the OT, Mark presents Jesus as Davidic king, the Son of Man, the Crucified Messiah, and the God of Israel. Mark, for instance, affirms "Jesus' identity with the one God of Israel" not "explicitly" but precisely "through riddle-like allusions to the Old Testament" (62), such as Isa 40:3, 9-10 in Mark 1:2-3; Psa 107:23-32, Job 38:8-11, Psa 89:9, Psa 106:8-12, Isa 51:9-11, and Psa 44:23 in Mark 4:35-41; and Jer 8:13 in Mark 11:12-14.

Mark also crafts the church's identity with reference to the OT. Mark 13, with multiple echoes of Daniel, Isaiah, and Joel, sets the church's persecution in the context of the "time of crisis that precedes God's final saving action and restoration of justice" (91). The opening lines of Mark (1:1-3), in their echoes of Psa 2:7, and Isa 64:1, 40:15, 17, serve, with other texts in Mark, to characterize the church as "a community that owes ultimate allegiance to God," not Caesar (94). The church, furthermore, has a call to bear witness to Jesus Christ before the nations - a matter less stated than presupposed in Mark, not least in his engagement with the OT (Mark 11:17 with Isa 56:17; Mark 13:10 with Isa 2:2-4; Mark 15:39 with Mark 1:11 and Psa 2:7).

We may offer briefer synopses of the ways in which Hays sees Matt, Luke, and John presenting Israel, Christ, and the church by way of engagement with the OT. Like Mark, Matthew depicts Israel's history, at the opening of his Gospel, in terms of an exile poised to conclude through Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus brings Israel's story to a conclusion as he "embodies the radical covenant obedience that God has already desired of his people" and "gathers around himself a new community within Israel" (139). Matthew shares Mark's conviction that Jesus is one with the God of Israel, expressing it explicitly (1:23, 28:20). Matthew, furthermore, gives Jesus' identity "Israeological specification," even as Jesus brings fulfillment to "Israel's story" (139). That is to say, Matthew's account of Jesus' suffering and triumph echoes the history and experiences not only of the nation, but also of such leading figures of the nation as Moses, David, and Solomon. Since Matthew understands the OT to be a "narrative of God's mercy [that] embrace[s] the Gentiles," the people of God will not only contain Gentiles but be commissioned to go into the world to make disciples of the nations (175).

If Matthew characteristically understands the OT in terms of predictions that find their fulfillment in Christ, then Luke understands the OT in terms of promises that find their fulfillment in Christ, a point especially emphasized in the opening chapters and in the concluding chapter of his Gospel (192, 193). Luke, furthermore, prefers "implicit correspondences, suggested through the literary devices of allusion and echo," the cumulative effect of which is to "create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory" (193). Luke understands Israel in need of "liberation" from "captivity to oppressive powers" (195). She is in need of a new Exodus, and it is Jesus, the Divine Redeemer, who has come to accomplish that work. Luke draws from the OT in order to show that the redeemed people of God must assume a posture of "confrontation" against the "power of empire" and of "revelation to the Gentile world" (265).

John shares the Synoptics' conviction that one must "read backwards" and so "reinterpret Scripture in light of a new revelation imparted by Jesus and focused on the person of Jesus himself" (283, emphasis original). But John differs from the Synoptics in an important respect. While John does cite, allude to, and echo the OT, his "intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory" (284). John prefers selected "images and figures from Israel's Scripture" to shine light on the identity of Jesus (ibid., emphasis removed). Consequently, Israel, her festivals, law, and history constitute the "symbolic matrix for [John's] portrayal of Jesus" (289). For this reason, Hays notes, "it is hard to distinguish the Evangelist's interpretation of Israel from his interpretation of Jesus" (ibid.). In like fashion, John represents the people of God in two leading images with deep roots in the OT - a vine and a flock of sheep. Significantly, both images further illumine the Vine and the Good Shepherd to whom the church belongs (343).

No survey can do justice either to the encyclopedic scope of ESG or the complexities of its exegetical engagement with hundreds of passages from the Gospels (and the OT). What about ESG commends it to the reader as meriting careful study and reflection? We may point to three strengths of the work. First, ESG provides readers with a helpful conceptual and terminological apparatus to reflect with care and precision on the use of the OT in the Gospels. While "figuration" and "metalepsis" may not be household terms, these terms endeavor to capture precisely how the Evangelists read the OT. Acknowledging the distinction among quotation, allusion, and echo proves helpful to readers of the Gospels in ascertaining the "volume" of an OT engagement in any given passage of the Gospels. Hays will occasionally alert readers to a particularly "low volume" engagement. After arguing for an echo of 2 Kings in Luke 24:31, he appends a disclaimer. "This proposed reading of a hypothetical faint echo goes far beyond anything that can be ascribed with any degree of confidence to Luke's authorial intention," not withstanding the "unexpected satisfactions" that "the linkage yields" (242). Hays, then, commendably exercises a measure of restraint in advancing this reading. Whether or not readers agree with his assessment of this (or any other) text, ESG provides them the tools with which to make informed exegetical judgments.

A second strength of ESG is its individual attention to the ways in which each Evangelist interprets the OT. While the Gospel authors share a body of core convictions about the person and work of Christ and the OT's relation to Christ, these convictions come to expression in distinct ways in the Four Gospels. Hays helpfully highlights the ways in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John characteristically relate the OT to Christ - Mark's indirect and elusive engagement of the OT; Matthew's preference for prediction and fulfillment; Luke's emphasis upon promise and fulfillment in the context of a grand and global narrative; John's visually oriented selection of images from Scripture that highlight the unique identity of Jesus Christ. Awareness of these patterns will not only assist one to be a more careful reader and expositor of this portion of the canon, but also help one to appreciate the breadth and reach of the ways in which Christ brings the OT to fulfillment.

A third strength of ESG is its strong emphasis upon the deity of Christ as a central message of each of the Four Gospels. Higher critical scholarship has long been dismissive of historic Christianity's insistence that the NT teaches that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Among the Gospels, Hays observes, Mark and Luke are "usually thought to have the 'lowest' or most 'primitive' Christologies" (363). It is refreshing, then, to see Hays, writing from within and to historical critical scholarship, argue that that the Four Gospels bear united and unambiguous testimony to the full deity of Christ. Hays does not merely argue this point from such express statements as those of John 1:1, 18. Rather, he primarily argues this point from the ways in which the Evangelists handle the OT in relation to Jesus. When one properly grasps the web of OT interactions evident in Mark 6:45-52, for instance, it is difficult to deny that Mark is calling his readers to understand Jesus' identity with the God of Israel (70-73). Hays patiently demonstrates that the quantity and volume of such evidence vindicates the historic church's longstanding understanding of the NT's testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ.

Reformed and evangelical readers will, at points, find themselves in disagreement with ESG. Even here, however, ESG provokes its readers to reflect carefully upon important dimensions of the study of the Gospels' engagement with the OT. We may take up one such matter that sits near to the center of ESG.

Hays insists that the Gospel writers engage in the practice of "reading backwards." That is to say, the NT writers read the OT retrospectively. Convinced that Jesus is Israel's Messiah, the Son of God, crucified and raised for the sinners, the NT writers scour the OT to discern instances in which the OT writers prefigure Christ. Hays terms this practice "revelatory retrospective reading" (259). Hays alternately characterizes the resultant interpretations of the OT in terms of transformation, transfiguration, and continuation (in distinction from the "negation or rejection" of the OT, 363). Hays insists that the patterns that emerge on the pages of the Gospels evidence "a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives" (359, emphasis removed). Thus, not "human intentionality" but "the mysterious providence of God" accounts for the correspondences, whether on the micro- or macro- level.

In advancing these claims, Hays is concerned not to insist that the process works in reverse. "Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament authors - or the characters that they narrate - were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ" (2). More polemically, Hays distances himself from the claim that "the authors of the Old Testament's narratives and poems actually did intentionally forecast the details of Jesus' life" (359).

Hays accurately claims and demonstrates that the NT writers testify to their own insensibility prior to the resurrection to the ways in which the OT comes to fulfillment in Christ (see John 2:22, Luke 24:22-27). He is correct to say that the cross and resurrection of Christ were redemptive and revelatory events, and that, in light of this new revelation in Christ, the disciples in community read earlier revelation with new eyes, as it were.

But the NT writers suggest that there is a connection deeper still between earlier and later revelation. To take an example from the companion volume to Luke's Gospel, Peter in his Pentecost sermon, after citing David's words in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28), says of David, "Brothers I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses" (Act 2:29-32). Peter is saying that David, in his capacity as a prophet, spoke in advance of the resurrection of Christ. Peter would later say something similar of all OT prophets - "concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Pet 1:10-11).

It is for this reason that, when Paul entered the synagogues of Judea and the broader Mediterranean world, he made a point of proving or demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22, 17:2-3, cf. 18:28). That is to say, Christians could and did publicly advance the claim to unbelievers from the OT that Jesus was the Messiah, and that by way of rational demonstration. Surely this project was only feasible if these Christian believers were convinced that their convictions resided in the OT text itself and were capable of demonstration or proof independently of one's commitment to Jesus of Nazareth.

The NT writers, to be sure, are largely silent concerning the degree to which the OT authors were aware and conscious of the One to whom they were pointing. They are generally content to affirm that the OT authors pointed to Christ. The NT writers are more concerned to insist that the project of "reading backwards" is a possible undertaking only because of the organic and progressive character of biblical revelation. This character of revelation offers a ready explanation why the NT writers are not doing violence to the text of the OT, much less the intention of the human authors of the OT. None of this is to say that Hays affirms that the Gospels' readings of the OT are violent or contingent. It is to say that "reading backwards" at best only partly accounts for the manner in which the Evangelists read and explained the OT.

ESG is sure to set a new standard for the study of the Old Testament in the Gospels, and deservedly so. For those who are seeking both clarity in how to read the OT along with the authors of the Gospels, and insight into the particular ways in which the Evangelists handled dozens of text of OT Scripture, ESG will not disappoint. On those occasions when readers dissent from ESG, they will nevertheless find ESG a stimulating and worthwhile conversation partner. Thoughtful readers cannot but emerge from ESG with a conceptually clearer grasp of the ways in which the Gospels handle the OT. And since the authors of the Gospels take us to the OT precisely in order to take us to Jesus Christ, the effort expended in reading and reflecting upon ESG will be well spent.

Guy Prentiss Waters 
James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament 
Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, MS   

1. To offer but two recent examples of the latter - the Coen brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) consciously and repeatedly echoes Homer's Odyssey; Beyoncé's "Hold Up" (2016) similarly samples the Andy Williams' 1963 hit, "Can't Get Used To Losing You." One may understand each modern work while ignorant of its earlier quoted material. But knowing and appreciating the quoted material enriches and lends depth to one's understanding of the newer work.


A Review of Robert D. Putnam and David Campbell's

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us


"King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter.... As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been." (1 Kings 11: 1, 4)


Relationships matter, for they shape our loves and our loves direct our lives.


This is the primary conclusion of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam in his massive study (550 pages) of American religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Every several years there is a must read book about the state of American religion. James Davison Hunter's To Change the World and Robert Putnam's American Grace are two that fit this description.


Scholarship is sometimes viewed as thinly veiled biography. Putnam and his co-writer David Campbell's life stories reflect many of the book's conclusions. Putnam was raised in an observant Methodist home, but later converted to Judaism at marriage. His children were raised as Jews. Putnam is best known for his book on social trust, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001). Campbell was raised a Mormon after his mother converted from Catholicism. His Protestant father eventually converted to Mormonism as well. The authors' life stories reflect the "religious churn" that is so common in American religion, a churn that is the central theme of the book.


American Grace is largely a statistical study of the changes in American religion over the past fifty years. Illustrating the points being made analytically through survey research are descriptive congregational vignettes. For a study of its kind, the book is extremely readable, filled with interesting nuggets and factoids, and sweeping in its scope and conclusions. Its focus is predominately U.S., but its analysis has relevance to the entire North American religious scene. His central question is "How can religious pluralism coexist with religious polarization?"


Putnam finds little decline in levels of American religiosity. "In terms of private religious behavior one finds virtually the same rock-steady levels of religiosity" (71). Unlike Hunter, he uses aggregate individual statistics and does not discuss the institutional social location or cultural capital these religious beliefs or believers have in public life. Hunter might retort that even if individual religious fervor is high, its social location has radically shifted from the past as religion today is being treated as a kind of personal hobby.


Putnam uses a seismic metaphor to frame his analysis: an earthquake with two major aftershocks. The earthquake was the Sixties. "The Sixties represented a perfect storm for American institutions of all sorts -- political, social, sexual, and religious" (91).

The first aftershock began in the 1980s with an upturn in religiosity characterized by the alignment of religiosity and conservative politics. To Putnam, the rise of the Religious Right was a cultural aftershock stemming from the upheaval of the Sixties.


This in turn was met with another aftershock beginning in the 1990s and 2000s where young Americans became disaffected from religion because of its political orientation. This reaction is clearly described in David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons' Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity. "Young Americans," reports Putnam, "came to view religion as judgmental, homophobic, hypocritical, and too political" (121). The consequence of this second aftershock is a large disaffection of young Americans from religion. Today 20 to 30% of post-boomers identify themselves as religious nones (123). The distinguishing characteristic of these new nones among the millennials after 1991 is their stance on homosexuality.


This is the big picture framework of the analysis: an earthquake with two aftershocks. This recent alignment between religion and partisan politics is historically unique, though it is an experience that has characterized the entire lives of post-boomer youths. "Religiosity has partisan overtones now that it did not have in the past. While there are exceptions, the most highly religious Americans are likely to be Republicans; Democrats predominate among those who are least religious" (369). Saying grace at meals corresponds highly to partisanship, he finds. "The creation of a new coalition of the religious represents a major change in the foundation of the American political system," and the God gap is widest for those under the age of 35 (377).


Religiously fueled partisanship is historically a dangerous mixture. Sociologist James Davison Hunter suggests that culture wars can become much more volatile in his Before the Shooting Begins (1994). Europe's Wars of Religion loom large in the collective memory. Putnam claims that this is not a likely danger in America. First, Putnam sees the current religious coalition unraveling in the coming years as the issues that fueled it wane in importance: specifically, homosexuality is becoming accepted by most Americans while attitudes toward abortion are being met with ambivalence. Putnam sees these partisan issues losing their galvanizing force. The guns are being holstered.


However, there is an even more pervasive reason Putnam believes partisanship will decline and that is due to the everyday lived experience of pluralism. The high degree of intermarriage, consumer attitudes toward religious choosing, the growing religious diversity of one's immediate social networks have tended to mute religious conflict in America. In short, lived experience has trumped theological boundaries. Americans continue to be religious, but the sharp edges, particularly absolute attitudes of exclusivity, have been worn off. This is in Putnam's mind America's saving grace. "When American's associate with people of religions other than their own -- or with people with no religion at all -- they become more accepting of other religions" (547). The impact of Solomon's wives comes readily to mind.


These finding may be a comfort to Harvard public policy professionals, but they are hardly a comfort for orthodox believers. It is an indictment more than an encouragement to the church. American Christianity has never been very belief oriented. In general, theological rigor, comprehension, and concern for it have declined since the early 19th century. Religious conviction has become a consumer choice riddled with expressive individualism and couched as therapeutic self-help -- the church of Oprah.


In large measure, the evangelical church has served as an accelerant to these tendencies. "The United States has conservatives aplenty, but it lacks traditionalists, if for no other reason than so many religious conservatives are the inventors of new forms of religious practices" (162). Hip and relevant, evangelicals have simply followed the 1980s over-reliance on politics and now the 2000s tendency to live and let live. The immediate cost outlined in this study is the loss of the coming generation. Putnam finds that the retention rate of religious nones is higher than that of all major religious traditions. Church members are not passing on their faith to their children.


Another sobering finding is that while high-octane rhetoric has been devoted to the issue of same-sex marriage, an issue relevant to only a small faction of the U.S. population (the CDC reports about 2-3%, while researchers at the University of California put the number of homosexuals in America as low as 1.7%), meanwhile huge shifts have taken place on attitudes toward sex before marriage -- what the Bible calls fornication. "The best evidence is that the fraction of all Americans believing that premarital sex was 'not wrong' doubled from 24% to 47% in the four years between 1969 and 1973 and then drifted upward through the 1970s to 62% in 1982" (92). Today attitudes toward sexuality are the best indicator of church attendance. It appears that many in the church have taken their eye off a far more pervasive problem among a far larger number of Americans.


So Putnam's cheery "faith without fanaticism" may play well in Boston and in the halls of academia, but in many quarters it sounds closer to "faith without truth" and is a sobering assessment of the integrity of American religious belief and practice.


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Used here by permission of Dr. John Seel.


John Seel is a cultural renewal entrepreneur investing in people and projects that foster human flourishing and the common good. Dr. Seel interest in culture began as the son of medical missionaries in South Korea. John has his doctorate in American Studies from the University of Maryland (College Park).


John is also the president of nCore Media, a high tech start-up that provides supercomputing solutions to the entertainment industry for special effects and CGI rendering ( nCore Media is based in Los Angeles, CA.

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