Book Review — The Liturgy of Politics by Kaitlyn Schiess

Think for a moment upon the things that have influenced your politics and the things that influence your politics in your daily and weekly routine. You read The New York Times every morning over breakfast and shriek with joy at the latest column from Maureen Dowd. Over lunch, you read Christianity Today. After dinner, you sit on the couch and relax with Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.

Wait, no? That didn’t describe you? Of course not. When you wake up, you roll out of bed and read the latest hot take on Things Above Us. You read The Epoch Times every morning over breakfast, listen to Rush Limbaugh and Ben Shapiro all day at work, and relax after dinner with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. It’s a miracle you can fall asleep as you lay in bed, blasting phone light into your pupils and retinas, raising your pulse and blood pressure as you read the latest religio-cultural persecution story from toaster aficionado Todd Starnes. Did you hear that the Air Force blocked the Southern Baptist Convention’s website?

In The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess (pronounced “Shess”) seeks to point out that practices like those above actually form us both politically and spiritually and that we can do better.

A generation of young Christians are weary of the political legacy they’ve inherited and hungry for a better approach.

They’re tired of seeing their faith tied to political battles they didn’t start, and they’re frustrated by the failures of leaders they thought they could trust. Kaitlyn Schiess grew up in this landscape and understands it from the inside.

Spiritual formation, and particularly a focus on formative practices, are experiencing a renaissance in Christian thinking—but these ideas are not often applied to the political sphere. In The Liturgy of Politics, Schiess shows that the church’s politics are shaped by its habits and practices even when it’s unaware of them. She insists that the way out of our political morass is first to recognize the formative power of the political forces all around us and then to recover historic Christian practices that shape us according to the truth of the gospel.

— from the back cover

Schiess’s first point on the things that form us politically and spiritually is overall well-founded with some reservations. Unfortunately, the second point falls short and is likely to bounce off readers who aren’t already attracted to what she recommends or who are already averse to its ever-present framework.

“Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor”

Why did I decide to review this book? That term “spiritual formation” sticks out like a sore thumb. Schiess is presently a Th.M. student at Dallas Seminary, and I’m a Th.M. graduate of the same. Therefore, the term “spiritual formation” has a certain connotation. Within a seminary context, spiritual formation in its most innocent possible form is a mandatory group study program in which a group of peers goes through a group study for sanctification purposes. The seminary obviously has a strong interest in not sending theologically-trained spiritual train wrecks out into the ministry, so the existence of a sanctification program itself is not a problem. However, the term also shares a commonality with the spiritual formation movement heralded by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster, who advocate spiritual disciplines that include contemplative prayer. I read and reviewed Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline a couple of years ago, and it is indeed a spiritual train wreck. However, I don’t want that to prejudice you this early into this review of The Liturgy of Politics. I typically save such items that may prejudice the reader until the end of the review, but “spiritual formation” is literally on the cover of the book, so I have to address this now. Be that as it may, Schiess makes no direct references to Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, or Renovaré in Liturgy, so please don’t impute these upon the book to start off.

Schiess essentially uses “spiritual formation” interchangeably with “liturgy,” not directly in terms of high-church Sunday worship but those things routinely in our lives that form us spiritually. “These are not limited to spiritual disciplines or corporate worship but encompass both—and more.” (15) Your personal “liturgy” may or may not include elements that I jokingly listed at the beginning of this review. Just as a 1 Cor. 14:40 Sunday service should form us spiritually since we do it every week, a steady diet of Ben Shapiro and Fox News will form us politically, and the divide between the two may not be as strong as we want to admit. To illustrate this, Schiess recalls having seen Sen. Bernie Sanders and author/speaker Ann Voskamp speak separately at Liberty University convocation when she was an undergraduate.

When Sanders came to speak, many students responded with the oft-repeated argument: “Caring for the poor is a job for the church, not the government!” Their issue was not ostensibly with his care for the poor and marginalized but with his methods. But Voskamp’s message, which completely avoided large-scale political solutions to the problems of poverty and injustice, was met with similar discomfort. Our views on poverty itself, not just economic philosophies or political strategies for addressing it, seemed to have been shaped primarily by our political convictions. (23)

“Politics” in Liturgy is not merely government policy, decision-making, and elections, itself but everything that it touches. If you pick up the book, you’re going to have to remind yourself of this persistently lest a good number of things fail to make sense. Politics affect the way our neighborhoods look, the schools our kids attend, the stores in which we shop, the food we eat, and the cars we drive. “When we work at a local food pantry, we’re working amidst a number of regulations that determine how nonprofits function.” (15–16)

All this leads to our liturgies — our routines — forming us at an affective level. When it’s affective, it affects our political and spiritual thinking.

Four Gospels

According to Schiess, “We all live in light of some gospel or other—the good news that while we suffer from a fundamental problem with the world, salvation is possible if we submit to a new ruler of our lives and become part of a new people. Our gospels each have their own creation or origin stories, a ‘fall’ where evil enters those stories, and the promise of salvation in someone or something.” (39) The third chapter is dedicated to illustrating four examples of these gospels. They are not the only ones, and they do overlap, but they do illustrate much of the ‘spiritual formation’ that Schiess is getting at. (40)

In explaining the prosperity gospel, Schiess is not referring so much to the Word of Faith movement but faith in our capitalist system.

Many American Christians have unwittingly accepted the belief that we are in control of our lives, particularly our financial futures. We have accepted the gospel of the free market, trusting that a capitalist society will reward those who work hard. Even if we recognize the frailty of our bodies, we rarely recognize the fragility of our finances. God might not guarantee good health to the faithful, but the free market guarantees success to the hardworking. Which necessarily means that if you are not successful—if your business fails, you lose your job, or you bills pile up—you are at fault and your failure is a moral one: America rewards the righteous with wealth, and you poverty is a result of your sin. (41)

The patriotic gospel is one that “requires uncritical allegiance to one’s country,” and “For Christians, it usually takes the form of applying biblical promises or blessings intended for Israel or the church to America.” (45) Given that Schiess attended Liberty University, I join her lament in her having been force-fed and overdosed on this kind of thinking.

The third gospel Schiess lists is the security gospel. For a reader who hasn’t balked too strongly at the preceding two gospels, this is where the balking probably begins. The security gospel says that “My community can make itself safe. My nation can make itself safe. The world is just and fair, and if I do and say the right things, I will stay safe.” (48) This is easy enough to deny at a surface level, as Scripture doesn’t call us to safety. A later illustration conveys deeper consequences:

Those with financial resources can live in gated communities, avoid “dangerous” neighborhoods and public transportation, or even hire private security. This is one of the consequences of the security gospel: we must prioritize our own safety over meeting the needs of other people. We see this logic in our own discomfort interacting with the poor in our own cities, our unwillingness to live and work in impoverished communities, and in fear-based immigration and refugee policies. (50)

This last line concerning “fear-based immigration and refugee policies” probably deserves some pushback. Most of us would argue that governments have a responsibility to protect citizens within their own borders and that we should not turn a blind eye. In fact, the enhanced ability not to turn a blind eye to asylum seekers and illegal immigrants is one reason why I personally support policies such as constructing a border wall and enhanced screening. But I digress.

Earlier in this review, I conveyed that I typically save things that will unnecessarily prejudice the reader towards the end of the review. This is the part where I have to stop that because the fourth gospel Schiess lists is the supremacy gospel, and it’s the kind of supremacy you’re probably thinking already: white supremacy.

In America, our religious imaginations are corrupted by a legacy of slavery and racism, and we will continue to be formed by the gospel of white supremacy until we truly learn our history, wrestle with it, repent of it, and find contextual ways of rectifying it. (53) [emphasis added]

It becomes immediately apparent that Schiess is not using ‘white supremacy’ to refer to Klansmen but to systemic injustice. More explicitly, Schiess gives us a solid definition of racism from the social justice perspective:

Many of us think of racism as intentionally bigoted beliefs or actions, prejudice against someone that is cognitively affirmed and acted upon. In reality, racism is a system of oppression based in race—a system that is communicated affectively and experientially. (54)

Thus, according to Schiess, if you are a beneficiary of historical preferential treatment of whites, you must repent of racism.

Reading through these four false gospels feels like reading through caricatures of the church. Surely, we can find archetypical examples of any of these (First Baptist Church in Dallas obviously), but they are hardly as prevalent and influential as Schiess implies.

Recovering Historic Christian Practices

Now that we’ve gone over the problems as described, let’s go through the proposed solution, best summarized from the back cover as “to recover historic Christian practices that shape us according to the truth of the gospel.” The following is not comprehensive but will hit the highlights.

The Role of Scripture

No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America…. North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as a people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their “common sense” is sufficient for “understanding” the Scripture.

— Stanley Hauerwas

Schiess comes quickly out of the gate in the fifth chapter with this opening quote. She later states, “reading Scripture by yourself is one pitfall to avoid.” (82) This is so strange and troubling in light of Psalm 1:2–3; 119:11; and Acts 17:11 that I had to look up the fuller context of the Hauerwas quote, and said context doesn’t make its facial assertion any more palatable. As a reviewer, I have no choice but to hold Schiess accountable to the whole thing.

Instead, Schiess provides recommendations including “reading the whole story” including the use of a lectionary (to keep from avoiding uncomfortable portions of scripture) and the public reading of scripture (as opposed to private rather than doing both).

This chapter also contains plenty of the same social justice thinking we saw earlier. Most notably, it criticizes the “silence by many white churches on horrific instances of racism like the KKK rally in Charlottesville.” No church can possibly call out every social ill, as my TAU colleague Michael Coughlin explains here.

The Role of the Church

The sixth chapter is fully titled: “Ekklēsia: The Church as a Training Ground for Political Engagement.” The theme is that the church is not merely here for evangelization but also to improve the world by being “a new body politic, an embassy for the kingdom of God, the community of citizens who serve another king.” (94) The general gist here is that the church, rightly understood in these terms just quoted, needs to be fighting systemic injustice.

The church is also where we practice the sacraments (Schiess’s choice of word) of baptism and the eucharist, practices that have inherent political implications because they indeed are of another kingdom. And yet in Liturgy, both of these get pointed towards the critical theory view of injustice. In the eucharist portion in particular, Schiess’s take on 1 Cor. 11 stands in contrast to the post I wrote on the same passage more than two years ago. In short, it is not the actual existence of “social inequalities” themselves that Paul condemns but rather allowing those inequalities to profane the Lord’s Table. So much emphasis gets placed on the eucharist as a political act that the substitutionary death of Christ seems to take a back seat.

Spiritual Disciplines

The eighth chapter begins with the following quote:

Through activism we confront toxicity in our world; through contemplation we confront it in ourselves.

— Phileena Heuertz

Anytime spiritual disciplines and “contemplation” get paired in the same context, red flags start flying because this hearkens back to Richard Foster and his view of contemplative prayer as extrabiblical revelation. Those red flags would be correct in the case of Heuertz, author of Mindful Silence: The Heart of Christian Contemplation, co-leader of The Gravity Center, and enneagram guru.

The irony here is that hearkening to contemplative prayer was completely unnecessary to open the chapter, as the rest of the chapter makes no explicit mention of contemplative prayer. The closest we get is: “If prayer is a true encounter with the living God, the God who commands his people to seek justice and protect the vulnerable, this encounter should shape us into a people who witness to his character and follow his commands.” (137) Reading contemplative prayer into this quote without any further justification would be uncharitable, but positively quoting Heuertz remains problematic and suspicious.

The rest of this chapter covers the Lord’s Prayer, fasting, feasting, sabbath, and hospitality, and it includes positive quotes from Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day and Roman Catholic mystic Henri Nouwen. And, of course, the direction is the same in terms of social justice, going so far as to quote that “The sabbath should be a ‘weekly reminder to all, that injustice and inequality is to be overthrown.'” (143, emphasis added) Inequality being read in hendiadys with injustice is notable. Is economic inequality unjust? The chapter reads as if Schiess is trying to benefit from the spiritual formation movement without getting into the messy, extra-biblical revelation stuff, which is pretty much the stance of Dallas Seminary as well.

Then again, some more web browsing revealed a “Practices for Election Season” guide on Schiess’s website which, in fact, does positively quote Richard Foster in the context of the spiritual discipline of simplicity.


** Augustine as archetype?


What About Evangelism?

In short, evangelism is hardly mentioned. It’s not a book about evangelism, so we shouldn’t expect even an entire chapter, but if politics is engaging the general public square, all the way from voting for POTUS down to the school board and the PTA, shouldn’t evangelism come into play somewhere in here? In a subsection that concerns our worship music, we read, “If the only real problem is the hearts of fallen people, we will rightfully evangelize and disciple people but neglect to address the systemic forces that keep them in poverty or oppression.” (124) And in the chapter concerning the church, the Great Commission is framed in terms of the church’s social mission:

When you understand the social and political implications of the gospel, the Great Commission ends up looking very much like the original command to rule and reign over the earth. The church is not peddling religious experiences; it is capturing the loyalties and affections of a people who serve their king by stewarding their creation.

Schiess makes plenty of sound points in The Liturgy of Politics against the Christian conservative political machine which likely finds its archetype in her alma mater, Liberty University. However, Liberty University is hardly an archetype of typical American churches which she calls “white American churches,” so she in effect attacks churches for non-sins. Our inability to separate the things that form us politically versus spiritually is important to note as we begin to conclude this presidential election season. However, Liturgy conflates the social work of the church (which is a legitimate thing, I must note) with the modern social justice movement and then condemns churches for not following suit, all while seemingly discounting the importance of evangelism and regeneration in the lives of those whom the church seeks to serve.

The Verdict

  • For edification purposes: Not recommended. Liturgy is mostly an unjustified attack upon the church from a secular social justice framework.
  • For research purposes: Not essential. Liturgy is presumably not as archetypical of the Christian social justice movement as more popular works like White Fragility, The Color of Compromise, and Divided by Faith, though it does have its place within the general evangelical effort to make voting for pro-choice candidates palatable for professing Christians. At one point, I put it down and temporarily gave up on reading it about three quarters of the way through because I found the repeated notions of injustice tiring. I probably would have put it down sooner and never picked it back up if I had not been planning on writing this review.

Post-judicial Evidence

Now that we’re at the end of the review, here’s the prejudicial stuff I didn’t want forming you before you had a chance to review less prejudicial evidence.

  • The foreword of Liturgy is written by Michael Wear, who writes for The Gospel Coalition and directed faith outreach for the 2012 reelection campaign for President Obama.
  • In the portion of the second chapter concerning affective information, Schiess discloses that one way to get herself motivated about her homework is to watch a movie trailer where a woman overcomes obstacles in a male-dominated arena. Very often, the trailer is that of On the Basis of Sex (2019), a biopic of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (27)
  • Did you notice that I haven’t mentioned abortion yet? Let’s address that. Schiess places no priority at all in Liturgy upon ending abortion. It’s mentioned in terms of being a traditional issue that conservative Christians care about, but it’s clearly not part of Liturgy‘s purpose. The same aforementioned caution towards mandated denouncement of a KKK rally would apply here if the book were not so heavily tilted towards notions of social justice.
  • At the risk of incurring the wrath of my TAU colleague, Justin Bullington, I’m going to link to a TGC article, namely its review of Liturgy. The author’s overall perspective closely aligns with that of Schiess, but he also rightly opines, “Because Schiess frequently wields a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel, those who may benefit from her writing the most are instead the least likely to read it to completion.”

Schiess, Kaitlyn. The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s