POST CHRISTIAN: What's Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care? By Christian Piatt. New York: Jericho Books, 2014. 214 pages.
It is common place to say that we are living in a post-Christian world. Religion remains a relatively strong presence in the United States, but demographic studies are warning us that whatever place Christianity has had in the past, it is losing ground. This is especially true among younger generations. As the Christian hegemony in the west fades away, we have begun to see the effects of the collapse of Christendom, that fifteen centuries plus alliance between Christianity and western culture. It’s already collapsed in Europe. It’s in its death throes here in the United States. The question that people of faith, especially those of us charged with religious leadership, what will the future look like?
Christian Piatt is among those writers and analysts and activists who have attempted to answer the question of what Christianity will look like going forward. Christian brings to his work a long list of books and articles, along with work with both the denomination of which he is a part and the congregations that he and his wife have served – she as pastor and he as a key member of the ministry team at those churches. In fact, his wife, Amy, is the Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Portland, Oregon. First Christian Church has been in existence since 1879. It holds a place of prominence in the city of Portland and in the Disciples community. It represents stability and strength. It gathers in a beautiful early twentieth century sanctuary. Amy and Christian, however, were called to that church to help it navigate this new post-Christian age.
The question that Christian poses concerns whether there is something present in Christianity, That is, is Christianity, as we now have it, sans the long-standing cultural supports, fixable and sustainable? Perhaps more important, do we care about whether Christianity survives? To answer this question we must make an important distinction between Christianity as a faith tradition and Christendom, which is a cultural entity. As the pastor of a congregation with a long and storied history, I have something invested in the future of Christianity. While I do believe that we have entered a post-Christendom era, in which the cultural trappings of the faith have begun to die off, I do believe there is something valuable embedded in the Christian tradition. That would be the gospel of Jesus. At times it can be kept under a bushel, to use a phrase Jesus used, of cultural elements, when set free it has the power to change lives and the world itself. Late in the book, Christian brings into the conversation the image of the "Refiner's Fire." He recounts that growing up he had thought of this fire as separating believer from non-believer (he grew up fundamentalist), but what he discovered over time was that the Gospel needs to be put to the refiners fire so that dross that has attached itself to the gospel can be burned away, revealing the message of Jesus. In many ways that’s the point – what is left after the dross is burned away? Can we live with that?
Standing at the center of the book is a series of fourteen chapters that contrast seven scandals and seven virtues (the scandals and virtues are alternated with each other). The scandals are: pride, certainty, lust, greed, judgment, fear and envy. Contrasting with these seven chapters are seven others lifting up humility, faith, love, charity, mercy, courage and justice. These contrasting elements are discussed in the context of a broader vision, which Christian identifies as a hunger. In contrast to Peter Rollins’s idea that the hunger present in human life is a vacancy, Christian suggests that it is instead an idling engine. This hunger is restlessness, the sense that “we can be more than we are, and the world can be better.” This hunger leads us to believe that we must do something about the way the world is. If God is love, which Christian affirms, there must be something that makes us able and willing to take the risks required by this love. In contrast to Augustine who says that God will satisfy our restlessness, Christian does not believe that religion will satisfy this hunger. Instead, seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus, we see what the world could be, “and until these things become reality, they haunt our dreams and they occupy our waking hours. We’re compelled by a hunger to realize this kingdom vision in our everyday world” (p. 23).
I have long found Christian’s writings to be provocative and interesting. Whether serving as author or editor he has provided the Christian community with resources that challenge the status quo and call the church to a broader vision. That’s not to say I’m always in agreement, it’s just that I’m pushed to see things differently. That is true of this book as well.
There were a few areas of concern. I’m not sure I would turn to Barth Ehrman for information on the development of early Christianity. He writes with an edge that often is present in fundamentalists turned agnostics/atheists. At the same time, while I do believe there is development in thought and practice within ancient Judaism, there is the possibility of supersessionism creeping in to the way he places Jesus at the end of the development of the biblical story. It’s not a full blown supersessionaism, but I’ve been sensitized to such things. The question then is – how do we understand Jesus as part of the stream of Jewish interpretation that originates in the Hebrew Bible, and gains a different expression in the teachings of Jesus. Then, there’s the matter of neologisms (new words or new usages). In a discussion of theopoetics, a field of theological study that is rather new to me, he uses the term apocryphal in a way that differs from how it’s traditionally understood. It would have been helpful to me to have had the word defined in context.
Being a theologian as well as a pastor I hold on to the idea that what we believe is important and in fact related to how we act. One of the chapters I especially liked made that point explicit. The chapter is entitled “Millions in the Hands of an Angry God.” In this chapter, he explores what he calls the “Christian scandal of fear.” He makes note of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion survey that studied how people view God. That study from 2006 discovered that nearly half of Americans affirmed either an Authoritarian God (number one on the list) or a Critical God. These folks believe that God is rather angry. For some this angry God is engaged (Authoritarian) and some believe God is angry, just not very involved in our lives. Christian then writes that “the vast majority of churches are filled with people who maintain faith in this fundamentally angry God.” Not only that, but “they keep churches and denominations functioning, and they keep ministers employed” (p. 149). While psychological studies show that belief systems can affect brain function, what does this reality suggest about the mental stability of church people? Furthermore, can the church survive with a Benevolent God (ranking a poor third after Authoritarian and Distant)? This leads to an important insight – for clergy especially – theology does matter. The question is: how do we move people from an authoritarian vision to a benevolent one?
Christian’s book should take its place of importance alongside other books that wrestle with our current context and ponder whether we are entering a new time of awakening. He serves a prophetic purpose, calling on us to examine our faith and our message. He invites us to proclaim a message of radical love, one that abandons fear and pursues justice. As for whether we are entering a time of awakening or not, Christian will leave to history to decide, which is a good idea. What we can do, and what he encourage us to do, is prepare for something new. That may or may not involve the institutional church, but “our business is to seek with an open heart and eager mind, every day, what it is we have been created to be,” even if we screw it up occasionally (p. 204).
If you’re willing to take a journey that will challenge and provoke, then Christian can be a worthy guide. You may not like or agree with everything (I don’t). But, he is right about the current state of the church and the world. The status quo will not sustain us. The hunger will keep us restless – as long as we live unless we try to suppress it with religiosity – for God’s vision of the world. If you’re willing to take a ride, then pick up the book and see where it takes you.
Note: Review based on an Advanced Reader Copy -- pagination could change.
Note: Review based on an Advanced Reader Copy -- pagination could change.