This morning I walked into my office–where I spend my days providing affordable housing to the elderly–and found a discrete manilla envelope waiting on me. No, it wasn’t pornography. It was something more scandalous. It was Mark Van Steenwyk’s new book The Unkingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance. Surprise, surprise–this timely tome was published by InterVarsity Press, an outfit not usually known for radical Christian fare. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but that’s not entirely true. Sometimes you can get a good flavor by seeing who wrote the blurbs on the dust jacket. A name with which I have long been familiar jumped out at me: Ched Myers, author of the exhaustive political commentary on Mark, Binding the Strong Man. A name you can trust. Ched had this to say:
Mark’s perspectives will seem new and troubling to American Christians, yet they are rediscovering the historic stream of gospel dissent to empire that has always survived at the margins of the church, following the Jesus who forever afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.
With a heady foam like that, I am ready to drink. I will be engaging this book over the next several days here at my blog. After that, my blog will be on hiatus for a while as my wife and I move to California. I want to offer a caveat up front that this post will probably be the lengthiest engagement with the text I’ll share–partly because of time constraints, and partly because you tend to find much of the important stuff in a good introduction. And this is a good introduction.
I’d like to begin my engagement with The Unkingdom of God with Mark’s introduction, entitled Waking from the American Dream. I like that. I would suggest that as we see a reemergence of radical Christianity in the U.S.–a Christianity capable of living a compelling story of discipleship in contrast to the American empire–what we are seeing is a generation of Christians awakening from the American Dream. For our parents, our grandparents, and–alas!–the vast majority of our churched peers, the American Dream has been our religion. American exceptionalism and imperial messianism have been the altars at which we bowed. We have sacrificed our children to national security. We have sacrificed our families to the demands of the market. We have abdicated the church’s vocation of peacemaking and mercy to the professionals of the welfare state. And the church has remade itself in the image of our imperial gods. The professionalization of ministry has become deeply entrenched in our church culture to the extent that ministers can ply their trade with the clinical detachment and pleasant smile of a doctor or a car salesman. Churches mirror the managerial culture of the bureaucratic state. If the American Dream is actually, as Christopher Lasch described it over two decades ago, the “pornography of ‘making it,’”* then American churches (not all of them, but enough for me to state this as a general fact) have descended into the depths of cult prostitution in the temple of the American Dream. This is a painful truth to speak, and I do not say such things lightly.
Of course, many Christians would recoil at this characterization. After all, things are really not that bad. Are they? The church’s arrangement with the American Dream produces bright-eyed, clean-living young people like this guy, after all:
That’s our author, Mark Van Steenwyk, in his mid-1990s incarnation, “Garth.” Van Steenwyk says of this persona: “I was just a poseur. My garb was like a costume trying to communicate something: I was America.” Van Steenwyk continues:
To me the American dream was a pure thing . . . That dream meant that every citizen could achieve whatever was in their ability. It meant that all people, no matter the situation they were born into, could be free to pursue comfort and happiness without the constraint of others. And it was the job of the United States to bring that dream to the rest of the world, even if it meant fighting against those who resisted the dream. It was this dream that made America great. It was our collective dream for all people; it was God’s dream. (11-12)
Now, we American Christians know full well that: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. (Matt 6.24). Likewise, we know that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God (James 4.4). These words have been drummed into our heads repeatedly, especially when the “other master” or “friendship with the world” involves reading Harry Potter; celebrating Halloween; being unreservedly nice to a gay person; or the unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But when it comes to the American Dream–and the powers of unrestrained capitalism and military imperialism, with their attendant claims of messianism and exceptionalism–we American Christians have made a clever rhetorical move. What we do is to equate the American Dream with the divine will. So there is no conflict. The American Dream is not a master that vies for allegiance with God; friendship with God and the American Dream is one and the same. The American Dream is no enemy of God. You can serve God and the American Dream simultaneously, for really there is no distinction.
Although Van Steenwyk describes the church he grew up in as “a charismatic church–and not just the raise-your-hands-in-the-air kind. Ours was the cast-out-demons kind” (18), this formal equation of God and Americanism is not peculiar to conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches. Not hardly. For other forms of Americanism obtain in many of the liberal mainline churches, as well. At least in my neck of the woods, you are as apt to find a large American flag adorning the sanctuary of a United Methodist or Episcopalian church as you are a Southern Baptist-affiliated one. Stanley Hauerwas once described the state of popular Christian piety–and I’d argue that these words are especially true for American Christians–thus: “What is important, it seems, is that Jesus be accepted as one’s ‘personal savior’ . . . This view of grace is often shared by conservative and liberal Christians who otherwise think they are in deep disagreement. But conservatives and liberals differ only in how they think Christians should conform to the world.”**
Van Steenwyk recounts his own “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior” moment during a Bible camp he attended during his teenage years. Any of us who ever went to church camp or a youth rally knows what those moments of conversion look like–hormonal kids weeping to near-catatonia, then being herded off to get baptized in a swimming pool to break the tension. Our author looks back on that “conversion” with reservation now:
What I experienced was something of a conversion, but evangelicalism traditionally recognizes only one form of conversion . . .[The] call for repentance [is often reduced to] “saying you are sorry for sin and accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” . . . Repentance is, unfortunately, often understood as an event rather than a posture.” (16-17)
These anemic accounts of repentance and conversion that arise in a Christianity that has come to a turf agreement with the American Dream robs us of the ability to live in such a way that, as Hauerwas likes to put it, makes the world the world. For instance, an American Christian teenager may still buy into consumer culture. They can do pretty much whatever their peers do so long as they don’t have sex in the back of their hand-me-down Chevrolet Malibu. And even if they do that, they can console themselves with the knowledge that at least it wasn’t gay sex. For instance, when I was a teenager in a Church of Christ youth group, Jesus’ teachings about persecution and counting the cost of discipleship were explained in terms of missing out on some normal teenage rites of passage. Persecution might mean that I was made fun of for skipping a mid-week scrimmage game to attend Bible study, or because I refused to go to prom because proms had dancing and dancing might lead to sex. Granted that I was a socially awkward kid with little or no inclination towards organized sports, so none of those accounts of persecution was particularly compelling. In truth, the gospel of the church captive to the American Dream is one that does not make us enemies in our culture (unless we happen to have a Democratic President at the time). That gospel cannot speak intelligibly about counting the cost of discipleship, for there is really no cost to count.
What I especially relate to in Mark’s account of his youth amongst American Christendom is his how church leaders worked so hard to disillusion him of any idea that Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty or nonviolence were to be taken literally (pp. 16-18). “I assumed that the Bible was full of metaphors and poetry and prose and illustrations,” he recalls. “I didn’t read it literally. Except for the parts where it was, you know, obvious. I treated the life and sermons of Jesus in a much more straightforward manner than, say, the book of Revelation or Jesus’ parables.” Little did he know his “straightforward” readings of the life and words of Jesus were leading him “astray.”
The really obvious statements about turning the other cheek and selling your possessions were obviously not obvious. And the seemingly obscure and esoteric visions found in Revelation were, in fact, pretty easy to understand. Just substitute “locusts” for “helicopters” and “beast with seven heads and ten horns” with “European Union.” (16-17)
Now, I grew up in a faith tradition that is decidedly amillennialist, which means that we more or less ignore Revelation, except to point out that our premillennialist counterparts who would read “helicopters” for ‘locusts” are silly. But my own suspicions that we were, in fact, disobeying Jesus when we failed to pray for our enemies during the first Gulf War, got ten-year-old me in all sorts of trouble. I mean, we could somehow tease out of Col. 3.16 that you shouldn’t use a piano during your worship service (since Paul said only to sing), but Jesus’ instructions about nonviolence and enemy-love admitted all sorts of exceptions. Our author notes that, since he went to a “casting-out-demons” kind of church, their response to his interpretations of scripture was to hold an exorcism to rid him of “the spirit of poverty” and “the spirit of rebellion” (18). Now, I did not go to a “casting-out-demons” church, but let me assure you–even non demon-casters have their forms of social control to silence dissenters.
It was these exorcisms that transformed young Mark Van Steenwyk into the cowboy-hat-adorned “Garth.” Van Steenwyk concludes his introduction with the question: “What was it they cast out of me that day?” I suspect it was the awareness he felt that night around the bonfire at church camp, as other campers related traumas in their lives they were offering to God–an epiphany he had described like this:
I felt connected to the suffering of the other campers, and even more confusing, to the suffering of the world. Nothing in my life had prepared me for that experience . . . [I]t felt cosmic. It didn’t feel abstract, either; I felt as though I could feel the woundedness of the world. And the most painful part of that experience was that I knew, deep in the center of my being, that I was a part of that woundedness . . . My experience of suffering was, I believe, an invitation to engage the world differently.” (16-17)
This identification with the suffering of the world, and invitation to engage the world differently, is the stuff of repentance and conversion on Jesus’ terms. These make up the throbbing core that animates faithful discipleship. Do you see what Van Steenwyk is saying? He is saying that our churches are willing name what is holy demonic, and summarily exorcise it! This is pretty damned close to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12.22-32).
Even if you or I find nothing else that Mark Van Steenwyk has to say in this book in the least bit true or compelling (and I seriously doubt this will be the case), we all need to pay serious heed to the American church’s captivity to Americanism. And what this capitulation has brought us to: that we would perform an exorcism on a teenage boy for daring to take seriously Jesus’ invitation to love our enemies and share our stuff. Whatever Van Steenwyk’s vision for the church and discipleship, it must be superior to what obtains these days, by default. I look forward to further reading and sharing.
*Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 33.
**Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 60.