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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review of Jesus Untangled: Crucifying our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb

Speakeasy, gave me an opportunity to read and review a copy of Keith Giles' Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics to Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb.

I have been on the hunt, for quite a while now, for good books which will address the complicated relationship between US Christians and the US Government from a (broadly) Anabaptist perspective. Giles' Jesus Untangled is in a league with Greg Boyd's Myth of a Christian Nation though it has something of a different focus and intended audience. 

Giles explains in the introduction that this book began life as a series of blogs which were then edited and reworked into the final book. This is actually evident when reading it, both for good and for ill. On the positive side, the blog-like informality (though the book is well sourced with supporting research) is really compelling and makes for an easy read. Many of the later chapters in the book, very much "feel" like reading well written blog posts. On the negative end though, those same chapters have a bit of a tendency to repeat themselves in a way that would make sense on a periodical blog series but seems superfluous in a book. Overall though Jesus Untangled is scores high marks for readability, which is an important quality for those of us looking for resources to recommend to our more nationalist-inclined Christian friends. 

In Jesus Untangled Keith Giles sets out a strong argument that Christians have, since Constantine, become entangled with the politics of "this world" to the detriment of our capacity to focus on and inhabit the Kingdom of God. Throughout the book he works to demonstrate that "to be friends with the world is to be against God" and he makes his point compellingly. 

In fact I think the real strength of the book is in its ability to introduce readers to an Anabaptist, "Kingdom Theology" approach to thinking about their own relationship to government. Giles is both charming and challenging throughout, and nearly always grounds his arguments in the sort of solid, conservative, exegesis which is so compelling to many Evangelicals. It is likely that the average US Christian will want to reject many of Giles ideas about voting (Giles is against it), violence (Giles insists that the Way of Jesus is non-violent), corporate power (remember the camel and the eye of the needle) and so forth. The temptation will probably be to dismiss him as a liberal (Giles refuses the identity) but it will be hard for them to do so in light of his careful interpretation and application of the Bible. So for those who are already sympathetic to an Anabaptist Christian politics, this book will be an excellent conversation starter with your more Evangelical friends. They may not like it exactly, but they won't be able to simply dismiss it either.

My personal favorite portion of the book was actually something of a lemma. In Chapter 2 A Matter of Perspective Giles spends some time outlining and justifying his hermeneutics. He sets his approach—which he refers to as "Jesus-centric"—in apposition to what he calls "flat-bible" interpretation. I suspect that this section in particular will serve as a strong introduction to Christocentric hermeneutics—an approach which many Evangelicals have hardly encountered. Giles is at his best here, dancing back and forth between being challenging and being winsome. 

He also includes this illustration by David Hayward in the
book and it just made me really happy to see it in print.
My only real critique of the book has more to do with false expectations than with any real failing on the author's part. Because I have already read a number of books in this vein, and because Giles opens with references to the 2016 election, I had hopes that he would move beyond pointing out the problematic nature of Christian entanglement in the power and political structures of human government, to recommendations and reflections on what disentanglement ought to look like in today's world. There is some of this—Giles is clearly against voting, war, and capitalist oppression—but he really doesn't get into some of the more thorny practical and pastoral questions. I finished the book still wanting to know what he thought about Christians in America protesting against violent, unjust, and oppressive policies of the government. It never really became clear to me whether he was advocating a sort of withdrawal from public involvement, or had some third way of "disentangled engagement" in mind. 

Overall then, I would highly recommend Jesus Untangled for anyone who is interested in, or even just willing to engage in, questions about the legitimacy of Christian engagement in politics. My take is that this book is written largely with conservative Evangelicals in mind and it is just the sort of medicine I would have benefited from back when I was a conservative Evangelical. If you have already moved into a post-republi-christianity mindset, then you will still find the book encouraging (and will likely find that Chapter 2 alone is worth the price of admission) but you probably won't find it as challenging as the first group. Either way, Jesus Untangled is an easy, and engaging read and very much the sort of book that I would like to see talk about more.

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