The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life
By Michael R. Wear
(Zondervan 2024)

Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies
By N. T. Wright, Michael F. Bird

Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church
By Stephen O. Presley

The After Party: Toward Better Christian Politics
By Curtis Chang, Nancy French

Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty
By Ephraim Radner
(Baker Academic)

We’re sitting in our first pre-marital counseling session, taking our turn at the church wedding rite. At a time like this, you’re looking for tactical solutions, rhetorical tools. The pastor, Jim, names some marriage books we might want to read. But the main thing to do, he says, is simply to be a Christian in our home and in life-building together.

A long time has passed since then, and I still think about Jim’s advice often. The idea, as I’ve come to receive it, was this: The callings of God to love him and neighbor, to practice the fruits of the Spirit, to seek justice and love mercy, should give shape to and direct things like communication, sex, and money, the particulars of which can and will look different based on changing variables and contexts.

Beyond marriage, like it or not, life together requires some level of politics, which is probably why Aristotle described humans  as “political animals.” Yet politics in this country and in 2024 often seems less than human.

This spring, books about Christians and politics flood stores. Many fit the usual fare, and they all range in both their angles and their value. Among one set of books — five in particular — the impetus seems to be re-establishing politics as a human endeavor — or at least something that’s not anti-human. Interestingly, a unifying theme of these books sounds a lot like my decade-old marriage advice.   

In The After Party: Toward Better Christian Politics (Zondervan), out in March, authors Curtis Chang and Nancy French try to reorder Christian political engagement, backgrounding specific political issues in order to foreground those of character and virtue.

In their formulation, politics for Christians is an issue of how, not what: not of issues or policies, but of inhabiting corporate life as certain kinds of people. This Christian-first conception of political activity dovetails with the formational argument of Michael R. Wear’s January release, The Spirit of Our Politics: Spiritual Formation and the Renovation of Public Life (Zondervan), which applies some of the spiritual practices of Dallas Willard to political life.

In a slightly more practical approach, the most recognizable theologian in the Western world, N.T. Wright, and Australian theologian Michael F. Bird call Christians to a particular, active witness among 21st-century political developments.

“The Christian vocation is neither pious longing for heaven nor scheming to make Jesus king by exerting force over unwilling subjects,” write Bird and Wright in the book’s preface. “Instead, Christians should be ready to speak truth to power, being concerned with the righteous exercise of government, seeing it bent towards the arc of justice and fulfilling the service that God expects of governing authorities.”

Specifically, Wright and Bird want Christians to be active in support free democratic societies and opposition to autocracy and nationalism. The book is Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies (Zondervan), which came out in late March.

Of course, conversations around how or why to participate in politics presupposes that we should participate in the first place. We isn’t necessarily a forgone conclusion.

You’ll recognize at least three broad ways we Christians have lately attempted to find meaningful, sustainable ways to be in the world around us: Isolation (think The Benedict Option), confrontation (forms of Christian nationalism), and mediating positions (James Davison Hunter’s “faithful presence” model). These are the lay of the land presented in Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church (Eerdmans), out in March, by historian Stephen O. Presley. He posits that if our world increasingly mirrors that of first- and second-century Christians (he lays out evidence to suggest it does), then our path toward “engagement” should look like the early church’s.

Presley argues for cultural sanctification, a term he takes from missiologist Vince Bantu, to describe an earlier approach to being Christians in public.

“Cultural sanctification recognizes that Christians are necessarily embedded within their culture and must seek sanctification (both personal and corporate) in a way that draws upon the forms and features of their environment to transform them by pursuing virtue,” he writes.

Cultural Sanctification is not about politics, per se, and it’s not heavily prescriptive, but Presley does point to specific models of cultural sanctification in Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Blandina, Origen, and others.

The books by Wear and Chang and French emphasize local politics, as does a growing anti-polarization sentiment. The March release Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty (Baker Academic) by Canadian theologian Ephraim Radner, presents a radically local politic: a narrowed political vision in which Christians work out their  political vocations in generally the same arenas as their family vocations.

He writes: “Our Christian calling is to limit our politics to the boundaries of our actual created lives and to the goods that stake out these limits: our births, our parents, our siblings, our families, our growing, our brief persistence in life, our raising of children, our relations, our decline, our deaths. These mark the goods of our lives along with the acts that sustain these goods, like toil and joy, suffering, prayer, and giving thanks. Christian politics is aimed at no more and no less than the tending of these ‘mortal goods.’”

Mortal Goods, of these five worthy and important books, stands as the most original and probably the most intriguing, even if even I’m uncertain how we’d apply his model to American life.

Back to Jim. I can’t remember exactly my immediate thoughts about his marriage advice. But given the self-help vibes that float around the engagement season, I can imagine it felt inadequate. But on this side of marriage and married life, it’s proved profound. Among other reasons, because nearly all of the tactical issues that seemed pressing — the whats — have changed and shape-shifted a dozen times. Just being a Christian just hasn’t