Hope for a Post-Hope and Change America: a book review

Reclaiming Hope by Michael Wear tells the story of faith in the Obama administration. Before he turned twenty-one in 2008, Wear was already a White House staffer, appointed by the president to the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships as one of the youngest WH staffers in the modern American political era. He had previously worked with Barak Obama’s election campaign and he would go on to direct faith outreach for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

240_360_book-2109-coverGiven this bio, Wear is obviously sympathetic to Obama and his legacy; however what he offers here is both sympathetic and critical. He describes Obama (and his own efforts) to intersect with people of faith and address their concerns, and the places where he felt Obama had failed to build bridges to religious communities. His book is part memoir, part political analysis with some theological musings thrown in for good measure.

The first five chapters of Reclaiming Hope, are autobiography. Wear describes his improbable journey to the White House, meeting Obama and working on the campaigns and in the White House. Despite Obama’s Christianity and his respect for people of faith, faith was of secondary importance to the administration. Many of Wear’s colleagues were ignorant of faith concerns, and occasionally antagonistic to religious concerns. This biography section gives an insider look at a few places where Obama wrestled with religion in the public sphere (i.e. his distancing himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, his meeting with evangelical leaders, his appointment of Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration, etc).

The next three chapters discuss in greater detail how the Obama administration addressed (or didn’t address) the concerns of people of faith. In chapter six, he discusses abortion. While Obama and the Democratic Party are officially pro-choice, the policies that Obama promoted during his administration were aimed at reducing the overall number of abortions. The number of abortions decreased, during his tenure they were at their lowest in years with a higher number of adoptions. Nevertheless, Obama’s abortion policies were not well received by those on the Religious Right, and weren’t adequately Pro-Choice for some on the left. Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

Chapter seven examines the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act and the tone-deaf way the administration responded to Christian’s who felt their religious freedom was being infringed on.Chapter eight describes Obama’s evolution on same-sex marriage, which put him more and more at loggerheads with traditional, religious folk.

In chapter ten, Wear describes the second inauguration. In contrast to the first inauguration, the evangelical pastor Obama had asked to pray (in this case Louie Giglio) was vehemently opposed because of a twenty-year-old sermon against homosexuality. In his first inauguration both Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical megachurch pastor, and the first openly gay Episcopal  bishop, Gene Robinson prayed—a testimony to Obama’s ‘big-tent,’ inclusive approach to religion. At his second inauguration, the lines between Right and Left had hardened.

Wear’s final two chapters wax theological on the meaning of hope, not in the political sloganeering sense, but in the Christian sense. Politicians offer a piecemeal  and little hope, but Christian hope is Jesus—our hope for today and evermore. Wear closes with thoughts on how Christian’s ought to engage the political landscape, bringing hope to realms of religious freedom and race relations.

I appreciate the insider perspective Wear brings to faith and politics in the Obama era. He reflects on the places where he feels like Obama was true to his vision, and the places where he dropped the ball.  Wear strikes a nice balance between narrative and analysis. I also appreciate the insight he brings as a person of faith from the left side aisle. If Christianity gets coopted by the Right, the Left is often ignorant of the Bible and Jesus. That brings a unique sense of challenges.

This is an interesting read for anyone interested in faith and politics (something we won’t get away from in the Trump era). The hope for America and the world is not this president or the last one. Or the next. It is Jesus, hope of the nations and change we can believe in. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

The Leap of Paradox: a book review

If you want a simple, step-by-step approach to the Christian faith don’t read The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. Like his earlier volume, Pursuing Justice, Wytsma examines an idea from many different angles. In the former book he looked at the mosaic of justice. Here he turns around the jewel of ‘faith’ in all its mysterious and messy glory. This isn’t a book about easy faith with pat answers.  Wytsma is much more interested in the paradoxical nature of faith–how walking by faith calls us to ‘live the questions’ (13).  In the place of answers, Wytsma calls us to something deeper: trust in God.

That Wytsma examines  a topic from various angles shouldn’t be too surprising, he wears a few different hats. He is the lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon and a philosopher who teaches at Kilns College. As the founder of The Justice Conference he moderates a discussion on biblical justice and how to care for the vulnerable. He is also a C.S. Lewis aficionado. So in these pages Wytsma offers reflections that are pastoral, theologically rich, philosophically deep and practically engaged. There are a number of rich insights here, though not always ‘easy reading.’

Wytsma begins his paradoxical look at faith by examining Joshua’s defeat of Jericho. The plan that God gave Joshua was to walk around Jericho with the ark and blow horns, watch the walls fall down and take the city. From a strategic perspective this is a terrible plan, but through it God demonstrated that the victory was his and not the might of Joshua and Israel (4). The Jericho example sets us up for the nature of faith–where we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Sometimes the stuff God calls us to makes no sense, from a human point of view. Wytsma writes, “Walking by faith doesn’t bring the control or sense of satisfaction we desire, and over time, it guarantees a measure of suffering. Walking by faith on the other hand, can feel like walking blind–an even more dangerous idea–and we know that it, too, will involve suffering. Both alternatives seem undesirable.” If that was where things ended, faith or no faith carries no special promise. But Wytsma goes on, ” It is the faithfulness, the promise, and presence of God that give us a way out of the catch-22″ (16). God, and God alone provides a way through the paradox.

In chapter three Wytsma (with a great deal of Kierkegaard) describes he nature of  authentic faith as trust in God, though we don’t understand him (26). In chapter four he discusses how Christian wisdom may look like folly to the uninitiated and therefore close-communion with God is required for us to know that we are on the right track. In chapter five, Wytsma examines the imperative of justice for all who claim Jesus as savior. Chapter six examines how the pursuit of happiness (in the ancient sense) encapsulates all that is necessary for human flourishing and therefore is a necessary component of the virtuous and godly life. Chapter seven examines the interplay between doubt and faith, Chapters eight and nine examine personal calling where chapters ten and eleven examine the wider cultural landscapes. Chapter twelve examines the role of church and the final three chapters unfold the eschatological dimensions of faith.

I appreciate many of the insights Wytsma has here. I am a new pastor who has been preaching on discipleship through Lent and I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of discipleship. Wytsma has been a good dialogue partner and has pointed me to other theologians too. Where a lot of pastor/authors are light on content, and where justice practitioners sometimes lack thoughtfulness it is refreshing to read  a book from a justice-loving-pastor which is meaty, challenging, theological and inspiring. This is a comprehensive guide to the pursuit of God and it gives space for questions, doubt and uncertainty while still calling us to greater trust and obedience. That I appreciate.

My convoluted (and small) critique of this book is that I think he emphasizes the personal dimensions of faith at the beginning of the book to the exclusion of  its communal aspects. Wytsma doesn’t explore the church until chapter twelve. Eschatology comes later. Yes, I know he is a pastor and he cares about justice (which he addresses beautifully in chapter five), I just wish the company of witnesses was named earlier and given their due throughout. I give this book a solid four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.