Seeking the City: a book review.

Christians through the ages have found a variety of ways of navigating wealth, poverty and politics. In the modern era, the American church is divided between fiscal conservatives and social progressives and everything inbetween. Underlying the diversity are different attitudes towards wealth and poverty and different understandings about how to respond to the poor. Chad Brand, professor of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his co-author Bible-teacher Tom Pratt, take a look at the biblical and historical approaches to economics and politics and draw out some implications for today (from a conservative perspective).

Seeking the City: Wealth, Poverty and Political Economy in Christian Perspective begins by examining what the Bible tells us (about economics (part 1), before delving into the two thousand year history of Christian political economic engagement (part two). Part three endeavors to tell us how we should live as evangelicals in light of these biblical-theological and economic realities. Five assumptions under-gird the work as a whole. First, ‘a biblically informed  economic outlook is essential for evangelical faith and social interaction.’ Second, ‘the Bible does not explicitly lay out a theory of economics and social justice.’ Third, all Christians ought to be concerned about the poor, the widowed and orphaned. Fourth, a marketplace is essential to produce wealth and create access for it for all people (though politicians divide on how much intervention government should have in the marketplace). Finally, materialistic/secular societies are in opposition to biblical Christianity and brings us into confrontation with the wider culture (27-29)

Brand and Pratt spend roughly two-hundred and fifty pages looking at what the Bible has to say about socio-economic and political realities. Unfortunately I found this to be the weakest part of the book. They do examine the broad themes of all Scripture, looking at the Old Testament’s narrative, legal, poetic and prophetic material before examining the New Testament witness. They also make many astute exegetical observations. Unfortunately, they make conclusions here that go beyond what the biblical text warrants. For example they posit that the idea of systemic and structural evil is a modern fad whereas the Bible sees the root of our problem as personal, human sinfulness and ‘failure to rule ourselves. (73). I fail to see why these are in opposition. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of kingdoms and rulers who created structures and systems that led people into sin. This doesn’t deny personal culpability for injustice. Also, Brand and Pratt dismiss contemporary appropriations of the concept of Jubilee or the Acts church as examples of economic redistribution. The former because it was originally based on a divine fiat for Israel to underscore their Convenantal identity (97). The latter because it is nowhere commanded or repeated (192-6).  These observations are quite right, though puzzling. It is as though Brand and Pratt miss the evocative significance of having a radical socio-economic leveling in the first ever church or a built in economic reset for the nation of Israel (and yes I know that redistribution in the Jubilee sense was not a total equalization of all economic resources, simply a time to restore what was lost and originally given as Divine gift). I also found that their chief interlocutors are all Evangelicals (i.e. Craig Blomberg, Ron Sider) when there has been a great deal of  other literature done on Biblical economics which they show little or no awareness for.

Part two proceeds on much solider ground and is really the ‘meat’ of the book. As the their largest section, Brand and Pratt devote themselves to describing two-thousand years of  Christian approaches to economics and politics. They begin with Christianity under the Roman empire, take us through patristic sources, medieval scholastics, the reformation and beyond. Because they write as Americans, and for Americans, they lay particular emphasis on American economics and politics (five of the twelve chapters focus on the U.S.). I tended to agree with their analysis of medieval, and Reformation era history. As they draw closer to the modern period, they have a decidedly fiscal conservative read on current economic realities. For example, the Great Depression was aggravated because of Hoover and FDR’s New Deal (chapter 20).  However they do a great job of describing the plurality of evangelical views on economics post WWII (chapter 21).

In Part three they set a socio-political agenda for Evangelicalism today. There is some good material here, but they also devote themselves to reiterating conservative talking points (i.e. they describe ‘climate change’ as politically motivated  ‘junk’ science rather than resting on a broad scientific consensus and have little positive to say regarding creation care, though they acknowledge that it is the responsibility for wealthy nations). But they also argue for morality and social engagement (as all good conservatives would and should!) and speak intelligently about the effects of globalization. Certainly their is some good food for thought here and they have done a great deal of ground work before taking readers to this point!

All works of practical theology are written from a peculiar ideological vantage point. This book is no exception. The authors are two white middle-class evangelicals and write from that context. That doesn’t mean that they are unaware of the problems of racism and its affects on society. In fact, their preface relays a story of confronting racism during the civil rights era and they go on to make some astute observations about civil rights. However their conservative political bent also, in places blinds them to the contributions and insights from the evangelical left (or the left in general). The so-called social-gospel has at times de-emphasized the necessity for personal salvation, but the gospel is more than personal salvation. It is has social implications. Brand and Pratt are not always fair and balanced in their presentation but I appreciate their irenic tone through most this book. I find many of their conclusion ill-founded and overblown (coming from my perspective as a moderate). I give this book 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Kregel Academic for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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2 thoughts on “Seeking the City: a book review.”

  1. Thanks for the review James. I was interested in this book, but then I saw how long it was and decided I wouldn’t have time for it. I’m glad you took the time to interact with it.

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