Thursday, October 08, 2015

Kings and Presidents by Tim and Shawna Gaines

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I am going to have to get over my prejudice. I've been a Nazarene all my life and been using products from the Nazarene Publishing House for pretty much as long. Deservedly or not, it's often been pretty bland. I know this is an issue with many publishers - in an attempt to market to the widest possible audience there's a hesitation to say something challenging or difficult. I'll confess I've come to have pretty low expectations of NPH.

This is a new NPH, though. With all of it's turmoil in the last several years, a new publishing house has emerged with the same name, but new priorities. I've reviewed two books this year - Theology of Luck and now Kings and Presidents - both are evidence of new thinking and new doing at NPH.

Any evangelical book on politics is a dicey proposition, but Tim and Shawna Gaines do an admirable job navigating those treacherous waters. Emerging from an election season sermon series in 2012, they uniquely look at our political perspectives, rather than tackling specific issues. This might seem a cop out, at first, but ultimately Kings and Presidents pushes deeper into the assumptions and foundations upon which we've built our political ideals and invites us to real self-reflection that could very well lead to real transformation. I know it brought out some new depths in my own thinking (that I've outlined in another post).

I want to reiterate I'm blowing smoke here. I went to seminary with both Tim and Shawna and while I always think they provide quality depth and content, the focus and presentation of their writing in past books has never really impressed me. This book is different, though. They really seemed to find their stride in important ways. The introduction and opening chapter can drag a bit and sometimes feel repetitive, but the conclusion of each section shows strong unity with the whole and provides a sense of satisfaction upon reading.

These early section are difficult if only because there is a need to be gentle in introducing such a fragile topic without stepping on toes too early. These introductory chapters, which really outline the larger frame of reference for the book, more than adequately set the stage for the deep, probing, and challenging material to come. They're looking at politics with an eye towards comparing two worlds - the world of kings and the world of the kingdom - in other words, how humans have organized the world and how God is organizing the world. The book attempt to draw the distinction between these two and help readers discern how each is impacting their lives and thought.

It's done uniquely by looking at some of the stories in 2 Kings (the old testament book, not some unmade prequel to David O Russell's fantastic movie). By bringing us so far outside any cultural or historical familiarity, the authors are able to address very pointed and specific political points without necessarily addressing contemporary political landmines.

That being said, there are some points of critique. While I applaud Tim and Shawna for mentioning actual contemporary political issues where appropriate, I think they could've done a better job challenging the Church in the book's conclusion. I heartily agree that the purpose of Christian politics is reconciliation, a further, deeper purpose than the secular political aim of tolerance. At the same time, there could have been greater emphasis on the importance of tolerance as a necessary step to reconciliation and kingdom life. Sadly, we live in a time where many people (and many Christians) view intolerance as a means to finding the kingdom of God. There could have been a stronger statement about the path by which Christians achieve their aims in the world.

Likewise, while Kings and Presidents deftly highlights how both major US political parties fall short of kingdom vision, there is a place, especially in this book, to highlight the specific difficulty we often have in associating with one party or the other. Tim and Shawna effectively make the case for seeing the world and its political problems through a specifically Christian lens, but stop short of challenging the potential incompatibility of this with a party-centric lens. We can differentiate the tendency to align with one party or another from affecting a party allegiance; this could have been outlined better.

At the same time, Kings and Presidents far outpaced my expectations, mostly refusing to avoid difficult challenges and presenting some truly deep and insightful exegesis in original and unique ways. I generally give four stars in a book is well written or if it's content is especially important or useful. This book gets five stars because it's both - and maybe bonus points for the degree of difficulty. Kings and Presidents is a book that definitely will help any Christian or congregation better address politics and life through the eyes of Christ.

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