Volf, Miroslav and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016, pp. 256, $21.99, hardcover.
Due to the presidential election of 2016, Christian publishers offered numerous resources which focused on pertinent issues related to faith and culture. Among the vast array of books published on public theology in 2016, this book was regarded to be one of the best. In fact, Publishers Weekly, the international trade journal of book publishing, selected Public Faith in Action as one of the “Best Books of 2016.” After reading this book, I agree that such praise is warranted. Interestingly, this book arose out of Facebook posts the authors used in an effort to help Christians through the issues surrounding the 2012 US presidential election. Regardless of which election year is in view, Christians must contend with the cultural responsibilities and applications of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Miroslav Volf (Dr. Theol., University of Tübingen) is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in New Haven, Connecticut. He has written more than fifteen books, including A Public Faith, Exclusion and Embrace (winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion and selected among the one hundred best religious books of the twentieth century by Christianity Today), and many other books. Ryan McAnnally-Linz (Ph.D., Yale University) is an associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. In addition to his scholarly writings, he has coauthored articles with Miroslav Volf for Sojourners, The Christian Century, and The Huffington Post. Readers unaware of Volf’s contributions over the years will find this book to be a helpful introduction to his thought and theological nuance. In fact, I suspect this work will cause further investigation, and that is just what the authors desire. Volf and McAnally-Linz clearly identify why this book is necessary: “Public life isn’t just for politicians or celebrities. Each and every one of us lives a public life because every life has a public dimension running through it” (p. x). The author’s premise is clear: one’s faith commitments must not be sequestered away from their cultural implications because Christianity is a public faith. In fact, the authors maintain that one’s Christian faith must be an active faith which includes everything from “our attitudes, our purchases, and our conversations” (p. xi).
The book is structured into three parts. In part 1, the authors provide the basic Christian commitments that inform public life. In this section, readers are helped by introductory comments regarding Christ as the center of the Christian faith, the commitment his followers make to him and the Scriptures, the Spirit’s work in human flourishing, and the importance of reading the Bible contextually. Jesus and the Scriptures are the core commitments of a public faith, and a “commitment to public engagement as Christ’s disciples draws us to the Scriptures as the touchstone for discerning Christ at work. Christ in the world cannot be different from Christ in the Scriptures” (p. 7). Part 2 is entitled, “Convictions,” and this section contains the bulk of the book. The authors maintain that some of the chapters in part 2 “contain fairly definite recommendations about public policy, but their overall purpose is not to lay out a policy platform; rather, it is to sketch out how life together and its institutional implementations might look today if they reflected, however brokenly, the coming kingdom of God” (pp. xi-xii). Readers will no doubt sense a theology of the kingdom of God, with Christ as the center, to be the overall framework for their call to action. In part 3, the authors suggest five character traits that must fuel and guard the Christian’s convictional engagement. These five traits include courage, humility, justice, respect, and compassion. Readers will find part 3 to be refreshing at times, while also sensing the underlying challenge the authors bring to readers. For example, in chapter 21, which is entitled Courage, the authors address the tension between legitimate concerns for a nation’s security and the real need of Syrian refugees. They argue that it “takes courage to stand up for our moral obligation to care for the refugees” (p. 180). They follow this statement up with a helpful, if not underdeveloped, section on the relationship between courage and risk.
There are numerous strengths to this book, and there are a few weaknesses. For brevity, I will describe the strengths and weaknesses together. First, the authors helpfully instruct readers that Christianity informs every aspect of one’s life. One cannot bifurcate Christianity into public and private compartments. Christians must mount a worthy effort to remain engaged in culture and resist the temptation to be satisfied with a lifestyle of a disgruntled cultural commentator. For this reason alone, Christian students (and especially those seeking to pursue ministry) should read this book. The Christian faith is, in fact, an active faith, and Volf and McAnnally-Linz articulate this belief clearly and winsomely. Secondly, the authors realize that we need less polarization and more conversation. While the authors do take positions in this volume I find problematic, I appreciate their obvious goal of promoting meaningful conversations around these issues. At the end of each chapter, the authors include a “room for debate” section, which includes helpful questions for readers to consider when formulating a position consistent with the Christian faith. Students and ministry leaders can learn from this practice and implement similar invitations in their discussions with others.
Third, the authors treat marriage and family by maintaining that one must distinguish between the ecclesial question (how should churches respond to same-sex unions), the legal question (should same-sex unions receive the same treatment under the law as traditional marriages), and finally, the moral question (what kind of sex is permissible). Their argument is that Christians should agree on the legal question (we should support the appropriation of benefits to same-sex unions) even if Christians disagree regarding the ecclesial and moral questions. The ecclesial and moral questions should be addressed within one’s church with “minimum possible rending of the body of Christ” (p. 88). While Christians may not prefer the nuance in this argument, it is a helpful approach for dialogue purposes. One criticism of this particular chapter is the lack of conservative voices in their “Resources for Further Reflection” section. Issues such as the environment, poverty, torture, policing, and many others are areas where more Christian reflection is needed. While the authors only provide limited analysis on these subjects, readers will be assisted in their search for dialogue. Throughout the book, readers will detect that the authors argue for more government intervention as part of the solution to so many of these issues, while so many other thoughtful Christian observers argue for less government intervention. Thus, thoughtful engagement must persist among Christians in our public theology.
In summary, students and ministry leaders will find this book to be an overall help even if there are a few areas of concern. The authors should be commended for their approach to these issues.
Justin L. McLendon
Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, AZ