The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark NollTakeaway: Cultural blind spots affect our reading of scripture far more than we realize.

There are very few books I have recommended more over the past year or so than Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis.  It has been about over a year since I originally read and reviewed it, so I thought it was a good time to read it again (that and the price dropped.)

One of the clear takeaways from this book is that we often do not see our own cultural blind spots.  For instance, an argument that most pro-slavery Christians did not hear or respond to is that the main difference between American Slavery and the slavery of biblical times was that American Slavery was racially based.  Because civil war era White Christians were so convinced that Blacks as a race were inferior it was inconceivable to most that there could be non-racially based slavery or that free Blacks could or should be considered equal to Whites.  And this was true for the vast majority of Christians whether they were from the North or the South, and whether they were for or against slavery.

Those outside the US were also able to call out Northern hypocrisy in ways that many that were in the US were blind to.  Many Europeans wanted to question the North’s willingness to participate in the economics of slavery (by carrying cotton and tobacco on its ships and making clothing in its factories) or by the widespread and overt racism that was true of both the North and the South’s treatment of Blacks whether free or slave.  Virtually no major US religious leader was for full citizenship of Blacks on biblical grounds let alone in practical issues like interracial marriage or education.

Noll makes clear what we often want to gloss over: issues of Biblical interpretation, cultural assumptions, ethics, history are complicated.  We cannot view civil war era people as ‘backward’ or ‘unenlightened’ without questioning our own assumptions.  What areas are we culturally blind to?  Where does our own Christian ethics and theology fall short of the real goal of God?

Noll does not deal with this explicitly, but for me, I kept coming back to the fact that these people, that I theologically disagree with, were still Christians.  I don’t know how you can justify enslaving another human being, but they did.  I would call that sin and I think it was.  But sin does not prevent us from being Christian.  Looking at it another way, Addiction can keep you from God.  But a person can be saved and addicted to alcohol or drugs.  The addiction (which is sin or at least is the result of sin) prevents you from living the full and complete life that Christ desires for you.  But our salvation is the result of God’s grace, not our sinlessness.

This is one of the best illustrations of why we need careful historians to help us remember the world and the history that came before us.  The Civil War as Theological Crisis is not a simple book.  Noll is a very nuanced historian and I am very much oversimplifying his argument, but it is well written and worth picking up is you are interested in history, the study of scripture, or the ways the church confronts culture.

The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle EditionAudible.com Audiobook 

2 Comments

I am currently listening to The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Although coming from secular viewpoint, it covers much of the same ground as Noll’s book. Lincoln was very moderate in his views on slavery and for a long time thought the best option was colonization, sending free slaves back to Africa or elsewhere. It some of his speeches in the 1850s he specifically states that he does not suggest makes blacks equal social or political rights. It sounds like Noll’s book would make a good follow-up to Foner.

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