Book Review: American Gospel by Jon Meacham

American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a NationAmerican Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation by Jon Meacham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fair and Balanced (for real, not like Fox News)

Meacham is a gifted historian and not a bad lay theologian. Though not writing from an evangelical perspective, he is fair to evangelicals without pandering to them. Appendix A, a collection of source documents of (mostly) the Founders writing about religion, is helpful for deflating the myth that we are a Christian nation, while at the same time helping us see that many of the founding fathers were men of deep personal piety. I wish there were more chapters– that he would have dealt with issues rather than eras. That would have made it easier to go back and reference specific points of history. And if the hard copy (I read it on kindle) has an index, I will probably buy it for future reference.

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Bad Move, Devil

Why it was really stupid of Satan to quote Psalm 91 to Jesus.

  

11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
    lest you strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

Psalm  91:11-13 (ESV)

I’ve loved using Desiring God’s Fighter Verse app to grow in the discipline of Scripture memorization (If you want to know more about it, I love telling people about it!) For the past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through memorizing Psalm 91. And this week, we come to verses 11-13. Many Christians are already familiar with verses 11-12, because this is the Scripture the devil tried to tempt Jesus with in Luke 4:9-11.

But here’s the thing: Satan should have known better than to quote that verse out of context. He should have known that Jesus would know ALL of Psalm 91, especially verse 13:

You will tread on the lion and the adder;
    the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

And here’s the thing about the other thing: Psalm 91:13 isn’t the first or the last time God’s Word says something about trampling a serpent underfoot. The first time is all the way back in the Garden of Eden. The first sin has been committed. Adam and Eve have fallen. God is about to banish them from the Garden. But tucked in the middle of this narrative, in God’s curse of the Serpent, we see the first messianic prophecy–what theologians and all lovers of lots of syllables call the protoeuangellion:

15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.”

Genesis 3:15

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“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve” painting by Sister Mary Grace Remington (notice the serpent!)

God, speaking to the serpent, says, “There will come a day when an offspring of this woman (other translations call Him “her seed”) will crush (“bruise”) your head. Where else besides in a virgin birth would one ever talk about the seed of the woman? This can only be talking about Jesus!

Can’t you imagine Jesus thinking of that prophecy every time he read Psalm 91:13? And don’t you imagine Jesus immediately thinking of Psalm 91:13 the minute Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 to Him? And don’t you think Jesus was already anticipating when the Holy Spirit would inspire Paul to write, in Romans 16:20:

20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. 

Satan knows Scripture. But he doesn’t know the story. Let that not be true of us today!

Today in Christian History: July 17


On this date in 1674, Isaac Watts was born. Watts changed the way the English church worshiped. Before he came along, Protestant churches in England and Scotland  would only sing hymns that were rhymed translations from the book of Psalms. Which isn’t a bad practice, unless, of course, you want to talk about Jesus, the Cross, the resurrection or anything from the New Testament. 

Watts changed all that. In one sense, he was the English church’s first contemporary worship leader. Thanks to someone who dared to do what hadn’t been done before, we now have “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross;” “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed;” “Joy to the World;” “O God, Our Help in Ages Past;” and around 750 other hymns. 

In his later years, Isaac Watts once complained about hymn singing in church: “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.”

What would he say today?

Today In Christian History: July 8


On this date in 1939, after just a month in America where he was to lecture, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back home to Germany.  Writing to Reinhold Niebuhr, he explained his decision: 

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

Bonhoeffer chose to go back to his home country (booking passage on what would be the last passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic) even though he knew it was dangerous.  He had hope in the gospel. He believed that after the war he could help reconstruct the Christian life in Germany, but only if he shared in the sufferings of his brothers and sisters in Germany. 

Bonhoeffer was ultimately hanged in a German concentration camp in April 9 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated by US Infantry divisions. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose danger over safety; solidarity over separation; and persecution over personal comfort. Did he fail in his desire to participate in the rebuilding of the church in Germany because he was executed? Not in the least. 

 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

John 12:24, ESV

Today in Christian History: June 14


On this date in 1910, the World Missions Conference opened in Edinburgh, Scotland. There were 1200 delegates, primarily from North America and Northern Europe. 

People were optimistic and hopeful. The 1800’s was a century of great missionary expansion, with the world’s population of Christians expanding from less than 25% to greater than 35% (note: these figures come from Stephen Lawton’s The Christian History Devotional which has no footnotes or verification). They adopted the theme, “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation.” However, as Lawton notes,

They were unaware that brewing in Europe and elsewhere were totalitarian ideologies whose followers would also show great confidence—and would be willing to change the world by force not persuasion.

So where are we now, more than a century after Edinburgh? Here are a few observations:

  1. Evangelism itself is more global. As mentioned above, the first World Missions Conference in Edinburgh primarily drew representatives from Northern Europe and North America. But at the 2010 World Missions Conference, also in Edinburgh, there were delegates from more than sixty nations. Lawton writes, “the missions scene was dramatically changed with thousands of missionaries from Asia, Africa, and Latin America—some taking the gospel to their own people but some taking the word to an increasingly secularized Europe and United States.” In conjunction with the June Edinburgh meeting there were also meetings held in Tokyo in May, Cape Town in October, and Boston in November. 
  2. Evangelism is more ecumenical.  The first Edinburgh conference was exclusively Protestant. The centennial Edinburgh conference included representatives of the Evangelical, Protestant, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches, as well as the Roman Catholic Church.
  3. The world is less Christian. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure where Lawton got the figures, or by what criteria he says the world was 35% Christian in 1910. That number seems high to me. But for sure, that number seems ridiculous today. The Pew Forum marks the world Christian population at 31%, but that number is inflated with individuals (and even entire countries) that self-identify as Christians but have no concept of a personal relationship with Christ. 
  4. There is still so much work to be done. Edinburgh’s rallying cry of “evangelization in this generation” has to be our cry as well. Jesus said, “The gospel must first be preached to all nations, and then the end shall come.” (Matthew 24:14) Ironically, 106 years after Edinburgh, Southern Baptists are meeting this week in St Louis, and are talking about the very same things. Their theme? “Awaken America. Reach the World.” 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

Today in Christian History: June 10

On this date in 2005, Kenneth Taylor, author of The Living Bible, died at the age of 88. Taylor, the father of ten children, was burdened that his children couldn’t understand the King James Version of the Bible. So he began work on a paraphrase, using the KJV and the American Standard Version as his texts. He began with the Epistles, and released Living Letters in 1962. Since no established publisher would accept his manuscript, he started his own company. He named it Tyndale House Publishers after William Tyndale, the martyr who first translated the Bible into English. 

Living Letters was followed by Living Prophecies (1964), Living Gospels (1967), and other portions of the Bible. Finally The Living Bible, complete with its distinctive green cover, was published in July 1971. Millions of readers loved it, and by 1974 it accounted for 46 percent of U.S. Bible sales. Even as late as 1977 it still outsold other versions.

Here’s the thing: I make fun of The Living Bible a lot. I cringe at Acts 4:36 in “The Green Monster. They’ve changed it online now, but here’s how it reads in my 1972 Second Edition:


I turn my nose up at The Living Bible and say things like, “Well, it’s not a translation. It’s a paraphrase of another English translation, which wasn’t all that accurate to begin with.” I’ve pointed out that Taylor’s ThD was not in Greek or Hebrew. 

But what I forget is that The Living Bible’s publication in 1971 coincides with when I learned to read. The first Bible I remember owning was The Children’s Living Bible. I devoured it. That was followed by my sister’s copy of The Way, which I still have. 


My point is that it never occurred to me that the Bible wouldn’t be easy to understand. Because of Kenneth Taylor’s boldness, vision, and dedication, I grew up loving God’s Word. 

As a pastor I’m often asked which translation of the Bible is “best.” My answer: the one you’ll read. Because the most scholarly, literal, accurate translation of the Scripture that sits on your shelf is inferior to the most basic paraphrase that you hide in your heart. 

Today in Christian History: June 9


Two deaths happened on June 9, separated by about 1800 years. One was an emperor; the other a missionary. Both contributed to the spread of Christianity.


In AD 68, the Roman emperor Nero cut his own throat at the age of 30. Nero was a notorious persecutor of Christians. According to Tertullian, he was responsible for the deaths of both Peter and Paul.  The early pagan historians Tacitus and Seutonius describe Nero’s persecutions in gory detail, including setting Christians on fire to light his garden parties at night. But although these historians were not Christians themselves, they both acknowledged the role Nero’s bloodlust had in generating sympathy for the martyrs. Two hundred years later, Tertullian would write, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”


Nearly two millennia later, on June 9, 1834, missionary William Carey died. Carey spent nearly 40 years in India without a furlough– leaving England in 1893 and remaining in India for the rest of his life. He translated the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Arabic, Hindi and Sanskrit. Considered the father of modern missions, Carey laid the foundation for how missionary work is done today. His best known quote: “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”