on August 25, 2020
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Politics, Theology
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A generation of young Christians are weary of the political legacy they've inherited and are hungry for a better approach. They're tired of seeing their faith tied to political battles they didn't start, and they're frustrated with leaders they thought they could trust. Kaitlyn Schiess grew up in this landscape, and understands it from the inside. In The Liturgy of Politics, Schiess shows that the church's politics are shaped by its habits and practices, even when it's unaware of them. Spiritual formation, and particularly a focus on formative practices, are experiencing a renaissance in Christian thinking―but these ideas are not often applied to the political sphere. Schiess insists that the way out of our political morass is first to recognize the formative power of the political forces all around us, and then to recover historic Christian practices that shape us according to the truth of the gospel.
Over the past few years, I have appreciated Kaitlyn Schiess’s unique voice as a young, seminary-educated woman who is devoted to the essentials of an orthodox faith while also pushing back against false narratives that have hijacked evangelical American Christianity. When I learned that she was going to publish a book, I knew immediately that I wanted to read it, but unfortunately, I ended up having significant reservations about it. Based on the marketing that I had seen for this book, I expected it to speak to a popular audience, but it is very academic and dense, and even though Schiess clearly points out the ways that our spiritual beliefs shape our political engagement for good or for ill, I do not think that the people who most need to rethink their political approaches will be likely to read it.
She addresses issues related to how the American church has emphasized patriotism, prosperity, security, and supremacy at expense of the full gospel and appropriate social engagement, but she writes in a very academic tone and tends to assume that her audience already agrees with her. Many of her readers are other young evangelicals who are interested in liturgical practices and want to respond well to these recognized issues, but if she wanted to also persuade people who are unaware of the problems with these views, or who would argue in favor of them, she would have needed to approach this in a more nuanced way, instead of painting with a broad brush or assuming nefarious reasons behind someone’s beliefs.
Schiess cites from a lot of insightful thinkers, and does a great job of summarizing James K. A. Smith’s view of spiritual formation, which she builds on here with a political focus. However, she sometimes quotes someone else’s opinion as evidence for one of her points without providing her own supporting information or explaining how this other writer came to their conclusion. In some cases, she never even specifies who originally made the assertion, and I would flip back to the notes section to find the source details. I found this frustrating, because even though the people who originally presented these statements may have done so with communicated logic and clarity, Schiess simply quotes their words as if they are authoritative, without producing any supporting evidence to confirm the claim.
Also, she occasionally uses straw man arguments to make her point. When she writes about the false gospel of prosperity, she points out that Christians often make moralistic judgments based on someone’s financial status. I agree that Christians often wrongly judge poor people, assuming that they haven’t worked hard enough or trusted God enough, but Schiess assumes that the reverse is also true, and that Christians see wealth as an inherent sign of God’s blessing and someone’s personal righteousness. Her critique is surely true in some cases, but this unfairly characterizes the church at large. Christians routinely talk about the problems with workaholic lifestyles, the dangers of dishonest gain, and the risk that people will prioritize earthly gain instead of their spiritual lives and relationships.
Later, when she addresses the importance of reading Scripture within an interpretive community, she makes a more egregious straw man argument. She claims that when Christians believe that the only way to know God’s word is through private study, then they are essentially saying that countless Christians throughout history did not know God’s word, simply because they did not have their own Bibles. It is true that the early church experienced Paul’s letters read aloud to the whole community, and this context does challenge people’s blind spots, but because evangelicals have historically emphasized the importance of preaching and routinely gather for Bible studies, it is extreme and unfounded for her to claim that evangelicals think that personal study is the only way to know God’s word.
Also, she never mentions what a revolutionary and extraordinary blessing it was for more recent historic Christians to be able to approach the Bible directly. In Martin Luther’s era, only scholars who were trained in Latin had access to the Scriptures, and when priests read aloud from the Bible, their congregants could not understand the language. Luther undertook to translate the Bible into German so that the common people could encounter God’s word directly and understand what it said, and Schiess’s attempt to de-emphasize the cultural concept of the “quiet time” ends up neglecting the vital historical importance of people having direct access to the Bible.
More General Than Practical
This book is also very general and vague. Schiess is right to avoid being prescriptive, since people come from different backgrounds and contexts, but she writes constantly about social justice issues in the vaguest of terms, emphasizing privilege and marginalization in a rote and repetitive way and only rarely fleshing out what this looks like in people’s real lives and church communities. This disappointed me, because at the beginning, she very clearly illustrates how financial and social privileges give people the luxury of choice and can help buffer them from public policies that they don’t like. There, she is direct and practical, encouraging Christians to consider their neighbors’ needs instead of only focusing on what affects them personally, but she tends to assume that privilege is the root of all problems, over-attributing church and cultural issues to homogeneity and a lack of active social involvement on behalf of the marginalized.
One particularly striking example of this appears when she writes about liturgical practices at church. She mentions that when one of her seminary classmates and his wife went to a more liturgically based church, even though he loved it, she “withered.” Schiess explains that even when something seems great in theory, high ideals may not translate into reality, but she immediately jumps to attributing any weakness in a liturgical church to “characteristic malformations” in which the stated beliefs do not match up with a church’s social justice. This evades the question of why different worship styles work better for some people than others, and seems to malign this particular church, assuming a particular deficiency that fits Schiess’s narrative. If she knows more about this specific situation that would support her interpretation, she does not share any of those details.
One of my favorite chapters is the last one, in which Schiess writes about how Christians’ views of eschatology shape their views of the earth and their mission. She clearly explains several complex themes from Revelation, and shows how a biblical view of the resurrection and the earth to come can turn people’s views of the afterlife upside down, helping them engage with the world now instead of viewing heaven as an otherworldly escape from present problems. In my opinion, this chapter is much stronger than the others, and I wish that more of the book had shared its direct and practical emphasis, showing how a change of views should directly change our behavior.
I wanted to like this book, and I wish that I didn’t have to write such a critical review, especially since I haven’t earned a seminary degree or published a book at such a young age. Still, even though I appreciate Kaitlyn’s personal maturity and contributions to the church, The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor fell flat for me through its argumentative flaws, limited practical examples, and tendency to attribute every problem to privilege and marginalization without grounding these hot button concepts in clear, specific examples that set boundaries for the topic and show people how to address these issues. Other people may find this book helpful, especially if they haven’t read or thought before about how spiritual practices form our lives and consciences, but this was a disappointment to me.