Book Review: Good News for the Public Square - Editor Timothy Laurence (2014)
If you had a quick scroll through the social media feeds of an average British student, or if you cast your eyes over the crowds at most recent demonstrations and protests in London, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the young people of today are some of the most politically engaged in British history. And there’s definitely a really good case to be made that even over the last few years, university students and teenagers have begun to think more and more about their place in society and public life.
But amidst the clarity and self-assuredness, I think there’s often a quieter inwards sense of exasperation in the way young people think about public life in the UK - a sense that we don’t have the answers, can’t see a way forwards, and lack trust in our political systems. Despite having more access than ever to the big political questions of our day, young people in the UK are still less likely to vote than any other age group. Though much of Gen Z wants to challenge injustice and create a fairer world than ever before, a 2014 Ipsos Mori survey showed that only 34% of young adults thought that “today's youth will have had a better life than their parent's generation.”
And Christians certainly aren’t immune to this. In fact, some of the strongest statements of exasperation I’ve heard about social division and politics, have been from my Christian friends - whether they’ve felt disappointment at the conduct of prominent Christians in the public square, or whether they’ve felt Christianity has become a casualty in a raging culture war. Perhaps, however long and hard they look into God’s word, they can’t imagine how it could possibly speak into the complex and fractured society they see before them.
I’ve certainly sensed some of this disillusionment in myself at times. I wonder if you have too? Here are four questions that might lie at the heart of these feelings. How many of these have you asked yourself, or heard a friend ask? (Think of it like a Buzzfeed quiz to measure your political exasperation!)
- How do I know if these leaders really know what they’re doing??
- How should I know who to believe??
- How do we know that would even make things better??
- Is real change even possible??
These questions actually correspond to four ideas - four ideas that the writers of Good News for the Public Squarethink are absolutely central to public life and government in God’s world. In fact, the whole book is structured around this framework - ‘four paradigms of rule’ -
authority - what is the role of those in charge?
truth - how do we know what is true about society?
goodness - what is good for society?
hope - how do we get from here to our vision of societal flourishing?
The claim of Good News for the Public Square is that those four questions, that often we ask in exasperation, are familiar because they correspond with a framework for good government given to us by God in his gospel. We see these themes come up as questions and areas of conflict everywhere from party politics to SU drama, but more importantly we see them posed and answered throughout God’s dealings with his people.
We live in a messy world and the as the book points out, ‘we don’t find the public square shaped as it should be’ (GNPS, p.xvii). Our understanding of these four concepts, their origins and their true purposes, is murky and distracted by selfishness. Human government rarely fulfils its true God-given calling to protect against evil and promote goodness and truth. No wonder we find political disillusionment so easy to fall into.
But it is into this environment that Christians have such an opportunity to witness to God’s true purpose for authority. Because as Good News for the Public Square so beautifully points out, we see these four elements of God’s design for government, the questions and longings of society, answered in their fullness in the character of Jesus - creator, reconciler and redeemer. Good News for the Public Square even finds these four themes in the words of John 14 v 6 - “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” ‘Incarnate in Christ is authority (echoing the LORD’s name, “I AM”), truth, goodness (“life”) and hope (“the way”).’ (GNPS, p.xviii)
Each chapter of Good News for the Public Square takes one of these four paradigms, showing us how God’s plan for government and it’s culmination in Jesus Christ speaks into it. There is loads of practical wisdom for Christian engagement in political life, and even great encouragement for Christians exasperated and disillusioned at the thought of entering the public square as followers of Jesus.
Authority - What is the role of public authority?
One of the most striking themes that runs through the chapters of Good News for the Public Square is an appreciation that government and authorities are a blessing from God which He gives them out of the same character from which He gives all His other gifts. It’s easy to look out at the world today and think of governance and authority as no more than an unfortunate means to an end, inevitably broken and flawed.
The first chapter of Good News for the Public Square challenges this kind of thinking by not only showing the beauty of authority as a gift from God, but also how worldly authority fits rightly within God’s plan for creation. The authors write that ‘[i]f God is love and humans have civil needs, we should not be surprised to find that God has instituted public authority’ (GNPS, p.35). The chapter describes government as part of God’s provision for the world, and goes on to discuss how public authority is called to reflect God’s love for creation, demonstrated in Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice.
This emphasis on love is a really powerful antidote to disillusioned or expedient attitudes towards governance, in a world where authority can often feel imposing and distant. When public authority understands its limitations and accountability to God’s higher authority, it truly can fulfil its calling to encourage good, protect freedom and restrain evil. The authors are under no illusions that the authorities we see around us very often do not fit this mould. But we should be encouraged that a better kind of authority is possible, and spurred on to witness to the sacrificial love of Jesus in the public square, even whilst selfishness and expediency reign
Truth - How can we know what is good?
Good News for the Public Square moves on in chapter two to the idea of ‘public truth’ - a shared idea of what is true about society. Perhaps as public life feels more and more divided we can lose faith that those who disagree about society will ever see eye to eye. Or perhaps the words ‘public truth’ conjure up images of state propaganda and political manipulation. In this context, the second chapter of Good News for the Public Square sets out to show that not only is the pursuit of common good useless without a sense shared truth, but that knowledge and truth are not illusory, but can be the basis of political judgement.
The chapter argues that, as Christians especially, we are called to make sure that law stands on evidence and truth, not arbitrary judgement, bribery or ‘mere power’. But moreover, as Christians we have a firm basis and a special insight for our understanding of what is true about society.
As those who know Jesus and his character intimately, we can be sure that the world that was made through him is coherent, rational and knowable. And as those who know the ways in which the fall and our human limitations can distorted our perceptions of what is true, we can explain why humans divide and head down dead ends so easily.
But even more as Christians we have God’s word, which gives us special insight into what is true about the world and about humans, and by which God graciously works against the effects of the fall on human minds. The chapter goes on to argue that the bible can even be a source of truth, not just for Christians, but for society as a whole, mediated through the witness of God’s people.
How this works is clearly not straightforward, and Christians certainly don’t always agree on how it should happen. But this chapter works through objections really practically - for example in pointing out that the bible should not eliminate the need for sociological study, and instead we can 'read the world’ better by reading the bible, and ‘read the bible better by reading the world’ (GNPS, p.67). This chapter above all is a great encouragement that though human understanding is clouded by our subjective context, Christians can strive for truth in public roles confidently.
Goodness - What does true flourishing look like
Assured that we can make coherent judgements about society, Good News for the Public Square goes on to help Christians think about what human flourishing looks like - what is good for society? The third chapter discusses the patterns God laid out for flourishing in his promised land, how we understand these in the light of Christ, and how Christians can witness to these patterns as they engage with public life.
All people experience goodness because we all live in a world created good. And we experience God’s goodness most clearly when we live in accordance with his design. However as with truth and authority, the fall means that we distort God’s principles, given with clarity to his people, “calling ‘good’ ‘evil’ and ‘evil’ ‘good’” (GNPS, p.87).
Chapter three returns to the laws and principles given to God’s people for life in the promised land. In the Ten Commandments we see an ordered picture of human flourishing, and in the biblical ‘jubilee principle’ from Leviticus 25 we see God’s regenerative love enacted in society to repel the effects of sin (GNPS, p.78).
Good News for the Public Square is clear that we shouldn’t make use of these laws by imposing them theocratically on a society that doesn’t know anything about the God who gave them. These laws need contextual interpretation, and we should never kid ourselves that perfect laws can change hearts and minds - only God can do that. This chapter takes up the Ten Commandments instead by grouping them to illustrate God’s priorities for human flourishing - the protection of freedom, family, human life, property and justice. And it also takes us repeatedly back to Jesus - the lens through which we interpret God’s laws for his Old Testament people, and the only one who can set human hearts free on the inside.
This is definitely not the only approach by which Christians can use God’s law to bless and guide in the public square, and there are many Christian organisations dedicated to thinking about how we can 'arrange society in accordance with the biblical order for flourishing human life’ (GNPS, p.87). (If you are interested in issues like this, the Jubilee Centre might be a good place to look.)
Hope - What can truly make the world better?
Good News for the Public Square points us to this unique blueprint we have as God’s people for human flourishing in his world. But the book also calls us to think clearly and practically about how we use this knowledge in our dealings with the secular world.
One of the most important reminders that we are given throughout Good News for the Public Square is that political principles and legal protections alone can never truly bring society to the fulness of God’s vision for human flourishing. Only God’s life in us through Jesus can bring true goodness to human lives.
So in chapter four on the final paradigm of hope, the authors of Good News for the Public Square sketch out the ways in which the spread of the gospel brings political benefit to society. The gospel of Christ calls authority to justice and impartiality, as we see that God’s law applies fairly to all, and humility, as we remember that the true messiah is coming again. The gospel also brings practical realism to the public square, as it shows the authorities the limits of political power to make society good. Though authority cannot change human hearts, good government should emulate the love of Jesus by taking into account the hearts of its people. This looks like not imposing laws that a government’s subjects cannot understand or follow, and not attempting to use the sword of temporal authority to enforce consensus.
In this chapter especially, Good News for the Public Square speaks into the relationship between our callings as Christians both to gospel proclamation and loving, practical engagement with the world around us. This is a complex and layered question, but whatever our natural bias is on this issue, Good News for the Public Square challenges us with the truth that both callings are the fruit of God’s carefully ordered and sovereign love for humanity, and ‘devotion to one does not necessitate the betrayal of the other’ (GNPS, p.8). In fact, by God’s sovereignty gospel proclamation and Christian public engagement both work for the good of the other.
This chapter contains some of Good News for the Public Square’s greatest reliefs for a disillusioned Christian looking out at the public square. We are encouraged as we have been throughout the book that the gospel’s implication for Christians is not to try and ‘fix society immediately through perfect law’, but to ‘bring hope to the world by loving our neighbours’ (GNPS, p.xxii). This calling motivates both our public engagement and gospel proclamation, and this love is in fact the fruit that Jesus promises he will bear in us through His Spirit. Any Christian can do this, in any public role or forum in which they find themselves. And we can trust that getting involved in the public square in an authentically Christian way will bless our neighbours temporal lives, and pave the way for the spread of the good news (GNPS, p.115).