Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Politics of Evangelism, Part II: Attending to the Context

The context to which we must attend in America cannot be treated as if it were separable from the interconnected dynamics between the church and popular culture, and vice versa. Thus, in our appropriation of Bryan Stone’s analysis of the rival stories of Constantiniasm and modernity available to Americans living today, we will also take into account the cultural critique of Wendell Berry, both toward the church and wider society.

That the church in America finds itself in a situation ostensibly (but pervasively) described as “separated” from the state, seemingly relegating the “political” and the “public” to that under the state’s governance and leaving the “spiritual” and the “religious” for the church, is a double deception. In light of this supposed separation, Christians are able to convince themselves (in capitulation to a view given to them by modernity) that their proper subject or business is the “inner” or “personal” or “private” dimensions of life; yet simultaneously they retain no less Constantinian assumptions than past Christians, only they bring them in the back door of American exceptionalism or allegiance to a particular political party, rather than directly (and thus truthfully) from their understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Hence Christians in America can at once be enormously politically committed and active—can indeed be ferocious in the absoluteness of their devotion to various political strategies—and at the same time claim that Christianity is a-political, or serves merely as the “values” behind their political engagement, or does not lead one way or another to political allegiance.

And yet Constantine the Great looms large and potent in the consciousness of Christians in America.[1] “Constantiniasm” takes the name of the fourth century emperor who “converted” to Christianity and whose efforts to legalize and normalize Christianity in the Roman Empire led, mutually, to the mutual crowning of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, and to the baptizing of the Empire by the church. The term names that historical movement and mindset—or, better, the narrative—“of the church’s forgetting its journey and making itself at home in the world.”[2] Instead of a beleaguered but visible social body anticipating its true home in God’s good future, now sojourning in the midst of the wider world, the church in the grips of the Constantinian story forgets its own story and collapses the boundaries between “church” and “world” such that to be a citizen is to be a Christian. It is no large jump from here to assimilate to the world’s ways of being as more normative—that is, more “realistic”—than the church’s given way of being—that categorically unrealistic life of cruciform discipleship to Jesus of Nazareth—and thus to baptize and even to bless the assumption of violence and coercion in the “necessary” task of Christianizing the world. And yet the “Christianizing” here named is merely the extension of some accepted portion of the world deemed “Christian”—whether Rome or England, Germany or America—over against the rest of the world deemed insufficiently “Christian.”

The story of modernity supplies the other side of the coin of contradiction so widely circulated in Americans’ conception of Christian faith.[3] Basically, modernity names the time after the Enlightenment in which civilized, autonomous persons in industrialized nations realize or decide “the chaplaincy function of the church is increasingly no longer necessary—or, rather, that function will now be relegated largely to the sphere of the private.”[4] The central subject in the modern story is the individual, free from arbitrary and oppressive authorities, left alone to decide for him or herself what is best. To the extent that “religion” is allowable in such circumstances, it is essentially a private affair, between “me and God,” and if a community like the church exists, it exists to facilitate the production of this kind of “spiritual” individuals. Supposedly a proper rebuke to the errors (and horrors) of Constantiniasm, modernity demarcates a clear line between “private” and “public,” such that what goes on in the world of politics, economics, war, and the like is not properly related to or even able to be addressed by the world of the religious—that is, the church.

We can clearly see the ways in which these two seemingly contradictory construals of the role and function of the church in relation to the world exist—in fact, flourish vibrantly, if destructively—in the life and imagination of the church in America. The point of coinherence between the two is striking: the Constantinian vision of the church is transposed onto America, so that American military might and economic power are truly the lords of history, while Christians who privately confess Christ as Lord leave the parochial sphere of the church in order to act “responsibly” in the “wider” world. The preservation, extension, and ascendancy of the American nation is understood as that which unites diverse persons, establishes peace, provides for justice, and goes forth to share the providential gift of its own life with a wayward world. Christians, therefore, pledge allegiance to this project, to this mission and this people, without realizing that they are, in fact, supplanting the God of Israel with an idol.

The church, of course, is not innocent in falling prey to this temptation. The state did not just “come along” and snatch false worship out of unwitting Christians’ mouths. Christians were and are inextricably caught up into this web of idolatry and nationalism. Furthermore, the church in America has created and perpetuated ugly and destructive habits that have proved more disastrous than anything “the state” could ever have imagined. Wendell Berry indicts the church in particular for being “so exclusively dedicated to incanting anemic souls into Heaven,” that “modern Christianity has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo.”[5] For “in its de facto alliance with Caesar, Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation,” “presum[ing] to be able to save the soul as an eternal piece of private property.”[6] Rather than model its life on that of Christ, who “from the manger to the cross, was an affront to the established powers of his time,”[7] Christians in America, having handed over their imagination to the state, conceive of their task simply as valuing the spiritual to the denigration of the material, and therefore as shifting individual, disembodied souls from “the bad place” to “the good place.”[8] The consequences of this radically reductionistic reversal of faithful Christian practice may be seen in nearly every aspect of cultural life, not least the degradation and devaluation of creation.

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[1] See Bryan Stone, Evangelism After Christendom (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 115-30.
[2] Stone, Evangelism, 116.
[3] See Stone, Evangelism, 131-70.
[4] Ibid., 131.
[5] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 114.
[6] Berry, Sex, 115, 114.
[7] Ibid., 115.
[8] Ibid., 114.

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