August 30, 2013
By Byron Borger
Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) Jordan J. Ballor (Wipf & Stock) $26.00. In this column, I sometimes highlight books that help us deepen our citizenship and be thoughtful about contemporary political involvement. Other times, I explain the strengths of books that help ordinary Christians nurture the Christian mind so that we can think Biblically about responsible civic life. Sometimes those books are more basic, suitable for small groups to read together, and occasionally they are more academic and complex, important for scholars and those called to mature political reflection.
And then there are books like this one, a new and splendidly tricky book to categorize. Ballor, currently pursuing a PhD in historical theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, is very well read and a dedicated student of political and economic theory. Although his book is not simple, he is a fine popularizer, writing serious material in sometimes playful ways, with the occasional nod to pop culture, drawing on themes from Deadwood or Lost or a contemporary novel. The book is neither introductory nor scholarly. Readers of journals such as First Things, Cardus, or The Journal of Markets & Morality (for which he serves as the executive editor) will most appreciate the four long essays in this volume. Ballor often cites, with unusual insight, the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Bonhoeffer, and Kuyper.
Ballor also works as a researcher for the Acton Institute, a historically Roman Catholic think-tank that explores “ordered liberty” in ways that tend to favor, with some qualification, the development of free market economics. As with other classic conservatives, such as Russell Kirk and those at Acton, Ballor is very interested in the intersection of society, culture, politics, and economics. As such, he is in conversation with everyone from Rod Dreher (and his writing about “crunchy cons”) to James Davidson Hunter (and his work on “faithful presence”) to leaders of the “civil society” movement, advocates of voluntary associations and “third places” that help humanize localities without relying on direct involvement by the national government. He knows well the ideas that animate the Center for Public Justice, including Kuyper’s notions of “sphere sovereignty” and the Catholic social theory of “subsidiarity.” By interacting with these sorts of substantive theological concepts and these classic voices, in addition to those considered to be on the Christian left such as Ronald Sider or Jim Wallis, Ballor gives us both astute and provocative social analysis and an overview of varying views and approaches.
The book’s cover suggests that it is about the work world, and there is a bit included about vocation, calling, and jobs. But most of the book explores more general matters: Where does authority lie in our society? Should the church make pronouncements about social and economic policies? How are we morally formed? What really do we mean by politics, and what is the proper task of the state? And how do we, desiring to make a difference in God’s fallen world, “get our hands dirty”? Ballor’s eloquent voice will challenge us to think hard, even if we do not concur with all of his ideas. Because this is a tricky book to describe in terms of its ideological direction, it cannot be easily categorized, making it ideal for us to deepen and exercise our discernment about faithful public life.
Reformed Means Missional: Following Jesus Into the World edited by Samuel T. Logan, Jr. (New Growth Press) $19.99 This brand new book is both a careful set of essays about the nature and implications of a “missional” vision, and it is also somewhat of a manifesto. Published by the World Reformed Fellowship, it is a splendid set of thirteen chapters and several afterwords, exploring how a conservative, Reformed theological vision should propel its adherents towards redemptive action in the world. There are a few famous writers here, such as Tim Keller and Chris Wright, but some are lesser known. Some chapters address fairly general concerns, such as what we mean by the phrase “missional,” how the local church can embody God’s Kingdom vision for God’s creation, how social action and evangelism relate, and how proper theology can shape and compel faithful action.
Other chapters are detailed, offering specific case studies of Kingdom witness in several spheres of life. Among these case studies is a wonderful piece about an urban health care center in North Philadelphia, a good piece about global poverty, a moving chapter about global violence against women, and a splendid study of secularism in Europe. From the challenges of Islam to the pastoral quandaries about sexual ethics to the ministry of those working among migrant churches, this book covers much ground, all from a reliable, missional perspective. It lays a very good foundation for a Reformed vision of “believing and doing” and shows how the church can reach out to the world in gospel-centered but multifaceted ways. This book hopes to clarify and direct its readers towards a more robust, Biblical, and effective wholistic witness in the world. For that, we should all rejoice!
- Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.