Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Seeking the City" by Chad Brand and Tom Pratt: A Review

They who will not rise to defend the good and innocent are doomed to be enslaved and consumed by evil. (690)
Changing the world sounds grand until you consider how poorly we do even at changing our own little lives (823)

The latest shibboleth of egalitarian distributional advocacy is "save-the-planet" talk.

Who should and can do the best job [at caring for the poor?] Government cannot give compassion, nurture, or personal consideration - the things the Bible associations with love. It can [only] give money and services. The government does not make a good mother or father, and it does not build a home.

Without the foundation of the sanctity of familial relations there can be no lasting basis for a stable society. (83)
The one permanent earthly structure Jesus did authorize was his church. (185)

While in college and seminary, my favorite Bible passage was Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. I can concur! One cannot graduate from my alma mater without a real love and appreciation for books. Yet at the same time, it is humbling to know that, especially in a digital age, the writing and publishing of books knows no ends.

Yet there is one other proverb Solomon does not give us worth our attention when it comes to reading: Not all books are created equal. Some books are worth brief attention while others are worth a serious study. Some books rehash old ground while others birth a movement. There is a clear difference, for example, between Your Best Life Now and Mere Christianity

Recently I was given a complimentary copy of Dr. Chad Owen Brand and Thom Pratt's masterful book Seeking the City: Wealth, Poverty, and Political Economy in Christian Perspective (Kregel, 2013). The book numbers over 900 pages and took over a decade to write and publish. The authors have served in the pastorate, business world, and academia and bring those experiences and expertise to this insightful book of theology, politics, and market economics. 

In my experience as a pastor, Christians are often opinionated in matters of politics and the economy but rarely have a wholesome, robust theological and Christian perspective on the subject. The authors seek, in this volume, to provide the reader with a theological treatment and exegesis on these difficult issues. A brief review cannot do justice to the major arguments and themes of the book but I offer the following.

First, the book's thesis. Near the end of the introduction, the authors write:
We believe that though the Bible does not spell out an economic or political philosophy as such, that a free-market system of economics accompanied by a political system that elevates human freedom, classically conceived, is most consistent with the teaching of Scripture. We recognize that, since humans are sinners, a system of checks and balances in such a system will be necessary for its success and that the political structure should be concerned to provide an environment that promotes a maximum of equal opportunity for all. We believe that such convictions are implicit in Scripture and find their highest point of historical development in the founding and refounding of the American experiment. We further believe that this structure is under assault in our day and may not survive the distant future. That is a main part of our concern. (38)
In order to defend this thesis, the authors explore three areas: the biblical theology, historic theology, and practical theology (my terms). In the first part, the authors provide an extremely helpful and thorough survey of the biblical narrative with special attention to creation, the fall, the decalogue, the prophets, the ministry of Jesus (especially the Sermon on the Mount), and the apostles. Regarding the role of Scripture in their study, the authors write, The Bible is the true metanarrative and foundational document for human understanding of the world, the way it "works," its past rightly interpreted, its present rightly comprehended, and its future fully anticipated (47-48).

From there, the authors provide the same insight into how history, with special emphasis on the Christian Church, has dealt with the issues of politics and the economy. The survey especially highlights Christian thinkers like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. By the time the authors arrive at the American experiment the narrative slows down. One important figure here is John Smith whose Wealth of Nations defines laissez faire economics and the authors develop his thoughts and how Christian thinkers like Calvin influenced him.

Finally, the authors tackle contemporary challenges and issues (this is an oversimplification) in light of the biblical and history perspective. The political and economic challenges of climate change (global warming today, global cooling four decades ago), Keynesian economics, progressive policies, ecology, the creation of wealth, charity, social justice, egalitarian government solutions (824), etc. Here, the authors apply the principles developed to the challenges today.

Because I will later blog through the book I will refrain from exploring its major arguments. In the mean time, I want to highlight a number of a few key points and strengths of the book. First, the authors have served Christianity by writing a theological work focused on political economy. Most popular books on the subject attack the so-called culture wars or defend free markets without any serious treatment of theology. Likewise, other works of theology fail to apply Christian doctrine to the public square. This makes this volume worth the investment and careful study.

Secondly, the book is well-written. I will resist the real temptation of providing a number of examples. Though the book limits its audience to those with some biblical and theological background and education, the authors have not simply thrown a textbook together, but rather articulate their views extremely well. 

Thirdly, if I could summarize one major point of the book in one sentence it would be, No government can love my neighbor for me (760). Government, at best, can enforce what the authors call coercive neighbor-love (761) while the Bible calls on the Christian to love their neighbor out of love for God. This is, at least to me, a major, underlying argument of the authors. God created us to work, build, cultivate, and contribute to society and the economy. Prosperity is often the result of hard work, but prosperity is not our goal, doxology. Therefore, the God who loves our neighbor has commissioned us to equally love and serve our neighbor. 

Government can never and will never accomplish this. Therefore, claiming that raising the minimum wage or taxing cigarettes is "the moral thing to do," is not consistent with Christianity. Demanding redistribution rarely motivates the individual, made in the image of God, to sacrifice and serve other image bearers. Love is not a by product of legislation, but of the cross. While Christ suffers on the behalf of sinners, progressive applaud themselves for passing legislation. These two are not morally equivalent.

I highly recommend this volume and consider it a book that is worth one's time and investment. At first I hesitated to consider its pages mostly due to its length, but, like all great works, quickly discovered I should have picked it up sooner. 

In the end, the authors make a compelling case for limited government and a free market not based on Republicanism, but theological principles. The authors avoid the dangers of advocacy (vote Republican!) and oversimplified fault-finding (blame Democrats!) prevalent in most books of this nature.  
I will conclude as the authors do:
C. S. Lewis years ago seemed to be warning of a terrible time and place where perpetual winter prevailed at the behest of the white Witch, her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia (or so she imagined herself), who deplored Christmas and was defeated only when the sacrificial Aslan returned from the among the dead to defeat her. His Chronicles of Narnia, couched int he guise of children's stories, teach far more than fairy-tale lessons. In our opinion, if the real world of ruling-class, czarist fantasies continues to set the agenda, a long winter threatens the political economy and constitutional liberties of an enervated and supposedly secure populace with no Christmas in sight. Lewis was prescient: "Of all the tyrannies, tyranny sincerely expressed for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent oral busybodies." We must concur. (877-878)

And I too.

This book was given to me courtesy of Kregel Publications for the purpose of this review.

For more:
"Flourishing Faith" by Chad Brand: A Review
Brand on Coveting and Classwarfare
The Secular vs the Sacred: Brand on the Influence of Luther
Why Capitalism is More Progressive Than Progressive Socialism
Poverty and the Breakdown of the Family: Santorum Raises an Important Point
Economic Freedom Is Better: A Video Worth Considering
The Gospel and the National Debt:  Why Only the Cross Can Save Us From Ourselves - Part 1 
The Gospel and the National Debt:  Why Only the Cross Can Save Us From Ourselves - Part 2 
The Economics of Greed:  What Economics Can Teach Us About the Gospel
Occupy Wal-Mart?: So This is What the Kingdom of Heaven Looks Like  
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