Conservatism and Nationalism

Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgement (2008), 183-184:

Nationalism is a posture of demand or recrimination: demand for a political order based on national identity, or recrimination for threats made against an existing one. Its mood is very different from conservatism, the revolutionary or protectionist note sounding discordantly against the harmonious conservative resonance with tradition. And to single out national identity as a uniquely important cause repudiates the conservative faith that the totality of existing practices creates national identity.

Yet for all these differences there is a deep affinity between nationalism and conservatism, which should not be missed. Both adhere to the vision of the state as expression. Conservatism is necessarily nationalist in a weak sense, in that it regards all social institutions as contributing to an organic whole which finds expression in the state. The strong nationalist is, one could say, a conservative who has lost his faith, for whom the sense of identity is no longer given immediately and on the surface of things, but must be recovered from the depths in which it has been buried. So nationalism stands to conservatism as a warning of dissolution, a constant reminder that a political vessel launched on the calm waters of self-satisfaction may founder in the neurotic waves of insecurity.

Longform and the Affections


Michael Reeves, writing about Karl Barth’s loquaciousness in his new book: Theologians You Should Know: An Introduction: From the Apostolic Fathers to the 21st Century (Crossway, 2016), page 280:

Barth believed that the task of theology is the same as the task of preaching, and thus preaching is just what he does in the Church Dogmatics. But preaching is not about merely conferring information: it is about winning hearts, and thus involves the sorts of persuasion and repetition that take time. Points must be reinforced, the readers won. The result is that Barth can be deeply moving to read. It also means he is peculiarly resistant to being quoted. Context is needed, and this is why, when he is quoted, he usually sounds impossibly complicated and so off-putting. Perhaps most important of all, though, the fact that Barth writes in such a sermonic, almost story-telling style actually means the reader can relax. Failing fully to grasp a few pages really will not matter, for the sweep of the argument is larger than that.

Looking for the bigger picture is the main thing. Colin Gunton put it like this:

Barth is an aesthetic theologian. Barth worshiped before he theologized. His love for Mozart is to be noted here. The structure of Barth’s theology is assertive, it is not argumentative; it can be considered as a sort of music. In the sense that Barth is not concerned to argue any more than Mozart is concerned to argue, Mozart just plays. I think that is Barth’s aim: to play on the revelation of God so that its truth and beauty will shine.

Of course, that does all mean that Barth demands you give him time. He will not dish out theological fast food. But giving him time does make one a more thoughtful theologian.


Mere Christianity (A Biography about a Book)

Of the most intriguing 40 Christian non-fiction titles published in the first half of 2016, historian George Marsden’s new book — C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography — stands out immediately. Published in Princeton’s pioneering series, “Lives of Great Religious Books,” Marsden has written a biography about a book, and if that sounds boring, it’s not. Lewis’s classic has a backstory worth telling and Marsden has told it in one of the best books of the year.

marsdenWhen it comes to Amazon’s bestselling books in Christian apologetics, Mere Christianity has claimed first place ever since I can remember. The book was originally the product of a series of short eight-to-fifteen-minute talks delivered on BBC radio by Lewis during World War II, and delivered to an increasingly post-Christian British audience who now lived under perpetual fear of night bombing raids.

He gathered a listening audience of between 1–1.6m, which was big but not huge (the evening news update programs would draw ten-times that number). He pulled the short addresses off with great skill and imagination, but it was all met with mixed reviews in the British press, and generated an almost unbearable amount of fan mail for Lewis.

Marsden retells the amazing story of how God used one wartime intellectual, but also a novice apologist and lay theologian (CSL), to invest himself in the immediate medium at his disposal (BBC), in a dire time in world history (WWII), to produce talks that would become three separate books, then one book, that would be published and would spread globally in the 1950s, and then largely drop off and get forgotten during the sexual revolution in the 1960s (except at Wheaton College under the key influence of Clyde Kilby), and then would surge in the late 1960s and take wings in the 1970s — largely by the long-tail of word-of-mouth spread — leading to a swell of posthumous sales and popularity and eventually to Amazon’s top spot.

In the end, what makes Mere Christianity so powerful? All Christian non-fiction apologists will pay close attention as Marsden summarizes the key features of Lewis’s work (pages 153–188):

  1. Lewis looks for timeless truth as opposed to the culturally bound.
  2. He uses common human nature as the point of contact with his audience.
  3. Lewis sees reason in the context of experience, affections, and imagination.
  4. He is a poet at heart, using metaphor and the art of meaning in a universe that is alive.
  5. Lewis’s book is about “mere Christianity.”
  6. Mere Christianity does not offer cheap grace.
  7. The lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is based on the luminosity of the gospel message itself.

A respected historian has retold a worthy story any Christian reader or writer will benefit from hearing. Like his biography of Jonathan Edwards, though shorter by 460 pages, Marsden has once again pulled off a masterpiece of history, in retelling the fascinating life of one of the most influential Christian books in the past century.