A few years back, a pastor asked me to recommend a book that could help him guide his congregation in thinking biblically about politics. In creating The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor, Kaitlyn Schiess (pronounced “Shess”) has written exactly the book I would like to have given him. Schiess is a young evangelical ThM student who is also an award-winning staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture, having contributed to Christianity Today, Relevant, and Fathom Magazine. And she has wisdom beyond her years.
The Liturgy of Politics begins with a foreword by Michael Wear, who served in the White House faith-based initiative during President Obama’s first term. He is also the author of Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House about the Future of Faith in America. His connection with President Obama will be off-putting for some in Schiess’s audience, but it needn’t be. Schiess understands her demographic, and she helps readers discern their own blind spots far beyond the Democrat/Republican divide. Drawing on Scripture, history, and contemporary political theology, Schiess offers something better than a “how to vote” book or a “how should I approach certain moral issues” guide. Instead she explores the question “Who should we (the church) and I (as an individual belonging to Christ’s body) be in the world?”
In her first chapter, “Apolitical or Unexamined: What Spiritual Formation Has to Do with Politics,” Schiess calls us to critically examine the influences in our lives. She does so by posing a key question to ask ourselves: “What am I being formed to love?” She argues that Christians tend to equate spiritual formation with only such practices as church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer. But she argues that we are also formed by watching TV, by reading, watching, and listening to the news, by tuning in to pundits, listening to podcasts, seeing films, and engaging in social media—to name a few. And we are formed by our perception of the narrative we have inherited. As an example, Schiess describes the perception of increased evangelical involvement in politics as going something like this: “We were generally apolitical until motivated by moral decay, especially as evidenced by the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.” In actuality, the catalyst for evangelicals’ increased involvement was the IRS decision to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University due to the school’s ban on interracial dating. Schiess challenges disciples of Jesus Christ to consider critically the answer to this question: “What story am I buying into?”
Having made her readers aware of the many sources of our stories, in her next chapter, “Of This World: The Prosperity, Patriotic, Security, and Supremacy Gospels—False Narratives of Great Influence to US Evangelicals,” Schiess identifies some specific narratives rampant in American evangelicalism. She notes that many believers “have accepted the gospel of the free market, trusting that a capitalist society will reward those who work hard” (41). Consequently, many tend to associate crime and immorality only or primarily with poverty and laziness. Yet “we have just as much reason to associate wealth with shady business deals, mistreating or exploiting people, and sexual immorality” (44).
From looking within evangelicalism, Schiess next shifts the focus to believers’ influence outside the church. In chapter 4, “For the Life of the World: Spiritual Formation and Public Life,” she reminds readers that the “big picture” of personal salvation and sanctification is far more holistic and global than personal pietism. God’s vision involves his people as instruments of reconciliation for the whole world. Drawing on Scripture, she puts to good use her training in systematic theology as she traces God’s global vision for his people in relation to the nations. Schiess then turns to church history to provide examples of how “personal piety was subsumed under, but not eliminated from, the life of the community” (62). Such being the case, she argues, political involvement is part of stewarding the earth, extending far beyond city councils, judgeships, and elections.
“A Story to Live Into: Scripture and Political Formation” is the topic of the fifth chapter. Here Schiess helps readers see that a Western individualistic approach to the Bible has promoted a tendency to miss that God “cares a lot more about how a community treats their most vulnerable—including the flawed social structures that oppress them—than he cares about the religious activities we dutifully perform” (76). Prior to the printing press—that is, for most of church history—people did not have personal Bibles or personal quiet times. They learned their Bibles not in individual spaces, but in community. And whereas today’s “personal quiet time” typically happens apart from the community of faith, those who hear the Word of God—as did our forebears—in the context of the gathered church are more inclined to “read Scripture with the needs and burdens of other people in mind” (80).
Having explored how Scripture can and should form believers in community, the focus turns to how the church itself shapes political engagement. In “EKKLĒSIA: The Church as a Training Ground for Political Engagement,” Schiess argues that as a people formed weekly by the grand narrative of God’s story, we have in view the coming kingdom; and the church has habits and practices designed to shape us as witnesses to it. In “The Rhythm of Our Lives: Time, Music, Confession,” as the title suggests, she looks at the specifically Christian orientation the church has to time, as observed in the church year, as well as the music we share, the confessions we make, and even the spaces we inhabit. These orient us to and shape us for a different kingdom. And we have one more factor to aid us in political orientation—preaching. The Word proclaimed in gathered space forms us for political involvement as Christians. The spoken word does not even need to be overly concerned with political education, she says. “But it does need to be courageous enough to resist the temptation to shy away from the political implications of the text” (130).
In chapter 8, titled “Bent on the Coming Kingdom of God: Spiritual Disciplines and Political Formation,” Schiess explores such practices as prayer, Sabbath, fasting, feasting, and hospitality. She argues that these spiritual disciplines are not labeled “spiritual” because they lack impact in the physical world; rather, “they are spiritual because they are means by which the Holy Spirit works in the life of the community of God” (153). In the chapter that follows, she uses the example of Augustine in his City of God and Confessions to illustrate how the community of faith can learn to think about politics and “read” our political world (155). Augustine’s theology, she says, particularly the narrative of the two cities, “helps pilgrim citizens of the city of God seek policy change and social transformation that is neither entirely hampered by theologically informed pessimism nor constrained by the competing stories of the earthly city” (168).
Finally, in “Creation Redeemed: Eschatology and Political Formation,” Schiess notes dangerous social and political effects if eschatology has as its only end a vision of heaven. She argues that “the evangelical obsession with end times predictions, charting out timelines, and focusing our attention on heaven keeps our worship and our eschatology separate—and that has disastrous political consequences” (190). With a call to integrate worship with future hope, she takes readers back to the Garden and God’s original vision for humans to cultivate, create, and flourish. She then reminds Christians that the end of our story is one of redemption—and our commission has not changed (176).
The sum total of Schiess’s work is that she packs a prophetic punch about American evangelicals’ complacency, our ignorance of Scripture, and our cultural conformity. How well she knows us! But rather than leaving us despairing, she calls readers to repentance with a vision of hope. Her epilogue, “Shalom,” summarizes her argument: “We are moving toward a political reality, and our formation should be in line with that reality” (188).
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