With the Look of Real Wood

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I don’t often read a book twice because time is short and there are so many others to get to. Of course such a sweeping statement would not include the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings, or Code of the Woosters, which will always repay multiple readings.

In theology, I read Luther’s Bondage of the Will a couple times because it was simply so good. I read Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination twice — once as an Arminian and then again, years later, to see if he was as much of an idiot in the chapter on the atonement as I remembered, which he wasn’t. The idiot, as it turns out, was somewhere else. Chesteron’s Orthodoxy I have read more than once (not sure how many times) because he is so bracingly sane. I am currently reading Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction for the second time simply because prime rib is very good. But most books I read are one-timers, and I also have a shelf of books that did not inspire me to get all the way through. Maybe someday.

I say all this because I have just started my third read through Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. I am doing this because it is one of the best books I have ever read, a profound book that needs to be urged on another hundred thousand Christians or two. It is the kind of profound that doesn’t requires mountains of turgid prose to carry it; turgid profundity is rarely profound in the basic sense of the word anyway. If Copernicus had dashed off the sentiment that maybe the earth goes around the sun, and had done this on the back of a napkin at a restaurant, the pithiness would not take away from the profundity, but would rather add to it. I am reading Leithart’s book again because I am convinced that it is a bomb that has not yet gone off, although that is just a matter of time. It was published in 2003, and so far we have not yet gotten to the red wire/green wire moment in the movie. But we are almost there. The only person hurt by the book thus far has been John Robbins, and that is only because he was frightened by the title.

Leithart is advancing the idea that “the Church is a culture, a new city, a polity unto herself” (v. 7). He is against Christianity as an ism, a set of ideas that individuals adopt or not, as it suits them. As such, “Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church” (p. 13).

“Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization” (p. 17).

“In short: Paul did not attempt to find a place for the Church in the nooks and crannies of the Greco-Roman polis. The Church was not an addition, but an alternaticve to, the koinonia of the polis” (p. 27).

“The Church’s competitors are nation-states and international political bodies like the United Nations” (p. 34).

“Christian political activism is as modern and worldly as Christian political quietism, since both are based on the (false and heretical) assumption that being the Church is not already political activism” (pp. 35-36).

“Religious factors are not secondary additions to cultural effort; religious factors are always already there, always incarnate in the cultural pursuits themselves. Culture always embodies religion” (p. 37).

“The gospel is the announcement that God has organized a new Israel, a new polis, the Body of Christ, and that the King has been installed in heaven, at the right hand of the Father; thus the gospel is politics” (p. 37).

None of this is to say that City of God has reached its maturity, or that we don’t have many things to work out, problems to solve, and so on. It is simply the recognition of what God has actually done in principle by establishing His kingdom here. And we were told to pray for the kingdom to come, not for the kingdom to go.

Now, why is this post under the postmodern heading? Because in these individualistic times, it is easy to think that the Church is a koinonia-fellowship over against the “just me and my Bible” approach of many modern individualists. Many of the emergent churches are trying to emphasize community more, and to (sort of) lean against the rampant individualism of modernity. Now the corporate identity of the Church is inconsistent with this kind of modernist individualism. But it is quite possible for sects, cults, and other social organizations to challenge this kind of individualism without ever challenging the ruling polis. This makes the Church into a sect, into a disciplined sub-group within the public square, a purveyor of what Leithart identifies as Christianity. But the price of admission is that the group has to agree to never, ever, rock the boat. The Church, by this understanding, challenges free-floating individuals, as though they were the competitors. But this is just one more special group competing for market share. The Church scrambles for members, just like Rotary Clubs do, or ham radio operators, or creative anachronism fans, or square dancers.

But read this again:

“The Church’s competitors are nation-states and international political bodies like the United Nations” (p. 34).

I can understand why many Christians would be reluctant to do this. “But we do not preach the gospel faithfully. We preach Christianity. And therefore we avoid the clash” (p. 34). I am reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s junior officer in the Civil War, who protested to his commander that “any further display of valor by my troops will bring them into collision with the enemy.” But I cannot understand why anyone who was reluctant in this way would ever dream of calling himself “postmodern.” Ha. I repeat my earlier point. A genuine postmodernism, the real article, as opposed to the thin veneer versions going around these days (“with the look of real wood!”) has to challenge the ruling polis in the same way the early Christians challenged Rome. It does not pretend to have challenged Rome simply because it has emphasized problems with Mithra worship, or that of the JWs, or the individual selfishness of Demetrius of Corinth, or the corporate policies of WalMart. The Church challenges the ruling gods. Christianity, as Leithart defines it, is very careful not to do anything of the kind. The Church challenges the false theonomy of the false gods. The Church is a trouble-maker. The Church says that there is another king, this man they call Jesus.

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