A Peculiar People
By Rodney Clapp
Chapter 1: The Church as Unchurched: How Christians Became Useless
Having grown up in theUnitedMethodistChurchmyself, I distinctively remember Sunday-school curriculum that taught us Christians are people who are polite to the postman. If there is no more to it than that, Christianity is just archaic language and mystified formalities that get in the way. 18
A Christianity reducible to therapy or activism is, in the end, sentimentality. 18
Christians feel useless because the church feels useless. And the church feels useless because it keeps on trying to perform Constantinian duties in a world that is no longer Constantinian. So the grace is this: Christians feel useless because they are no longer useful for the wrong thing, namely serving as chaplains in a sponsorial religion. 23
BeforeConstantine, “the church considered itself, not the state, to be carrying the meaning of history.” 25
The question is no longer, ‘How can we survive and remain faithful Christians under Caesar?’ but now becomes, ‘How can we adjust the church’s expectations so that Caesar can consider himself a faithful Christian?’
Constantinian culture appears to promise much in return for the church’s sponsorship, but the contract carries terms that actually, if subtly at first, require the church to stop being the church, a people who worship and follow not the amorphous god of deism but the quite specific God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. 29
There is a place for the church in a postmodern world, not as a sponsorial prop for nation-states but as a community called by the God explicitly named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 32
Chapter 2: The Church as Private Club: Irrelevant for Constantine’s Sake
Interiorization and individualization were not purely philosophical invasions which took over because they were intellectually convincing. They explained and justified the growing distance from Jesus and his replacement by other authorities and another political vision than theKingdomofGod. Quoted from Yoder, 34.
Over the last two centuries the Christian church inAmericahas grown progressively less stimulating and challenging, becoming more and more of a reactive or merely reflexive institution.
But notice what happens when Christianity is psychologized. When this is done, the focus shifts from social change to how the individual can adjust to the status quo. Unasked is the question whether it is genuinely healthy to adjust to a system that may itself be sick. 39
Chapter 3: The Church as Nation State: Why America is Not the Issue
Because we have so readily privatized faith, we find that the institution or corporate expression of our faith can occur only through the indisputably political entity called theUnited States of America. 45.
What I want to get at is the too easy American assumption that this nation is somehow more tangible and concrete than the church. 47
The church’s participation in God’s life happens not primarily in the minds and hearts of individuals…but in the public Eucharistic celebration by which Christ joins individuals to himself and so makes them his own community. 57.
In the end, Christians do not need a nation-state for the public, cultural and historical life of their faith. We do no so need a nation-state because we already have the church. Thus for Christians the more urgent political question is not ‘Will America (or some other nation-state) survive?’ but ‘Will Christians from all over the world, in various communions, be able someday to eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus Christ together and in peace?’ 57
Chapter 4: The Church as Type: Why Christians Should Thank God for the Culture Wars
Ariostotle’s most powerful insight is that in every society, moral life is based upon ethos, that is, character formation according to socially bred customs and habits. For Aristotle, then, there can be no sharp separation of the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ nor of the inward ‘heart’ and the outward behavior. Quoting Ronald Beiner, 70.
The culture wars can be welcomed on the count that they help return us to a place where we can conceive of Christianity as a way of life, as a specific manner of being and doing in the world. 75.
The culture wars free the church from the Constantinian shackles that have confined it for seventeen centuries. 75.
Chapter 5: The Church as Church: Practicing the Politics of Jesus
Christianity was not individualized and privatized at its origins, when it was a Jewish sect. 76
(The Early Christians) saw themselves as embodying a national, or social, or political, way of life.Israel’s story was, in a profound sense, their story – and they did not psychologize and etherealize it to make it theirs. 77.
No first century Jew could imagine that the worship of their god and the organization of human society were matters related only at a tangent. (NT Wright) 77.
Mark, in calling what he had written a ‘Gospel,’ was meaning to evoke evangel as it was used within the Roman cult of emperor to refer to announcements of the birth of an heir to the throne, of the heir’s coming of age, accession to the throne and so forth. If so, the writer of the Gospel is comparing thekingdom ofGod come in Jesus to the quite this-worldly and politicalkingdom ofCaesar. 80.
The early church could have easily escaped Roman persecution by suing for status as a cultus privatus, or ‘private cult’ dedicated to ‘the pursuit of a purely personal and otherworldly salvation for its members,’ like many other religious groups in that world.
The logic of Christianity involves the claim that the ‘interruption’ of history by Christ and his bride, the Church, is the most fundamental of events, interpreting all other events. (John Milbank), 89.
Chapter 6: The Church as Worshipping Community
In its baptism the church boldly insists that there was a kind of kinship, a particular allegiance, more significant and constitutive than that of the biological family or the state. 100.
More than anything else baptism into voluntary faith communities was seditious because the Reformers could not conceive that the basic fabrick of society would survive if one opened the door to freedom of religion and the resultant pluralism of religious perspectives. (Dale Brown) 101.
The difference is not that psychological grammar is inherently more practical, more ‘real,’ more concrete than theological grammar. The difference is that there is a community ready to concretize and put into practice psychological grammar, while the church has accepted the marginalization of it’s language; it has concretize and practiced its theological grammar less and less. 105.
- The Eucharist discloses and forms us to be a people based on the common good of Christ’s lordship.
- The Eucharist discloses and forms us into a people who are radically egalitarian.
- The Eucharist discloses and forms us into a people who have the resources to face conflict and admit failure.
- The Eucharist discloses and forms us to be a people who are nonviolent.
Worship is not simply world changing. It is, indeed, world-making.
Chapter 7: The Church as Parade
I reject the terms of those who think the church at its worship is necessariloy inward focused and removed from the ‘public’ world. 115.
The church does not exist for itself, but for its mission and witness to the world on behalf of the kingdom. 116.
It is not true to its own cultural identity unless it is constantly critical of itself and its shortcomings in the light of the kingdom. 116.
Primarily theology was not a reflection about God but an encounter and engagement with God. Theology in such a setting was plebeian in that it was done by the common people and not by academic elites.
Under no circumstance can war be considered a good. And for Christians, it is impossible to presume that the resort to lethal force is compatible with respect for the sacredness of human life or fidelity to the gospel of Christ. The original just war question implies that nonviolence is the Christian norm and that the use of force can only be moral by way of exception, if at all. Violent force should be presumed to be incompatible with a fundamental Christian moral orientation. (David Hollenbach), 124.
Chapter 8: The Church as Listening Community
The Bible was never meant to be read first and foremost alone. 127.
Not just in the biblical period, but in most of the sweep of Christian history, it is an anomaly to imagine a quiet time or a privately read daily office as the keystone of Christian spirituality. The invention of print was a major factor in the move toward privacy and privatized spirituality. 127.
To understand the Bible as a private or individual manual is to remove it from its context as the charter of the church. It is a book for the people of God, not the individuals of God. Such honoring of private interpretations, and disrespect for communal interpretation, leads to our current state in which a new denomination is formed at the rate of one every week. 129-130.
The turning of our interpretive backs on community and history has in fact been fueled by a distortion of sola Scriptura. 130.
It’s a Protestant conceit that the welfare of the church depends on the welfare of print. 133.
Ours is a God who did not write to create the world, but spoke it into being. Our God did not ‘inscribe’ the Son but ‘uttered’ him. The Son himself left nothing in writing. 135.
God’s word is not first and foremost abstract belief, propositionalized truth. So it is that Jesus – a person, not a proposition – is presented as the supreme and unique embodiment of the Word. And he is constantly about embodying the words of life. 136.
Biblical interpretation is fundamentally the life, activity, and politics of the believing community. That is to say, the church does not so much apply Scripture as perform Scripture. 138.
Chapter 9: The Church as World
“Foundationalism” is the pervasive Western philosophical doctrine that all rational belief must be build on the foundation of a-cultural and universally compelling beliefs and realities, themselves in no need of support. 141.
Foundationalism has consequently eroded because that singular, universal, supposedly nonparticular foundation could never for long or everywhere be agreed upon. 144.
The exercise of rational judgment is itself an activity carried out in a particular context and essentially dependent on it. (Toulmin) 144.
The only thing special about God’s people is that they are God’s people. They are not necessarily more virtuous, more numerous, intelligent or beautiful than any other people. They are unique only (but what an only!) because they have been engaged by the sovereign God of the universe. 147.
(The Church) Far from being an insulated, elitist community, it is called especially to open its doors to those it might otherwise most readily ignore. 148.
Like nothing else, having clearly defined enemies gives us a brisk, clear identity and course of action. We become those who oppose this obvious evil, and what we must do with our lives is battle to squelch or eradicate it. What happens when these very enemies who have provided us the definition of our goodness are called into community alongside us?
There is finally no absolutely secular sphere precisely because the world has been reconciled to God in Christ. 154.
Thus the aim of the church as itself a culture, a way of life, is not simply to withdraw from or uncritically embrace neighboring cultures….the issue is not whether to participate in other cultures, but how and when to participate. What Christians are called to is discerning and selective engagement, engagement discerned and selected on Christian terms. (Kotva) 155.
The point then is not to arrive at a list of acultural dos and don’ts that resolve conflicts universally and finally. It is instead to see that God called the church into being as its own culture, as a witness within and through the vicissitudes of time and history. 156.
Chapter 10: The Church as Mission and Message
Renewed attempts at evangelism are widely and deeply hindered because most of them still rest on Constantinian assumptions. 159.
Except in its Anabaptst form, the Protestant Reformation did not break with the medieval understanding of church and state that animated Columbus and the conquistadors. 161.
Revivalism is a profoundly Constantinian approach to Christian mission…It presupposes a knowledge of the languages and practices of faith. It is an evangelistic strategy that depended on the American population being Protestant. 163.
Evangelism in the revivalistic cast was not (and is not) a call to become a part of a new people, a ‘holy nation,’ a contrasting community. It presumed not initiation into the transnational church but a reawakening of faith in the individual American – who, exactly as an American, was supposedly already something of a (Protestant) Christian. 163.
There was no appeal to ‘abandon most of the standards of the respectable American middle-class way of life. It was to these standards, in fact, that people were converted.’ (Geogre Marsden, 164).
When evangelism is marketing, God is nothingmore than guarantor (yes, the sponsor) of whatever the market has already determined is good and valuable. 165.
The Bible knows nothing of preoccupation with the isolated, acultural individual and his or her inwardness. It instead shows a keen and abiding concern with time and place, with unfolding history, human societies and physical creation. 165.
For the earliest church, then, evangelism was not a matter of inviting individuals to recall what they somehow already knew. It was rather a matter of inviting them to become part of nothing less than a new humanity, reborn of the last Adam who was Jesus the Nazarene. 165.
But Paul’s message stands: no matter how the world is divided – East and West, black and white, conservative and liberal, gay and straight, developed and developing, communist and free, democratic and nondemocratic – none of these categories are more basic to identity or formative of the self than belonging to God and one another in Christ. 166.
In the final analysis it was not the miracles of itinerant evangelists…that impressed the populace – miracle workers were a familiar phenomenon in the ancient world – but the exemplary lives of ordinary Christians. (Bosch) 166.
- requires that evangelism be understood not simply as declaring a message to someone but as initiation into the world-changingkingdomofGod.
- requires that the convert understand that he or she is becoming a member of a new race, humanity or family.
- requires that Christians understand witness as corporate and not only or even primarily individual.
- requires that Christians not assume common understanding between themselves and those more determinatively shaped by other cultures.
- requires that Christians understand and practice evangelism as proposing rather than imposing Christ.
It means that the church must renounce any attempt to make or manipulate others into wearing Christian shoes, accepting the Christian way of life. Christians are required instead to affirm our willingness to suffer the consequence of opposition to Christian culture. 171.
It definitely entails dialogue rather than monologue, that the Christian evangelist not only speak but also listen to learn how words and actions are being interpreted. 171.
Chapter 11: The Church as a Way of Life
The church in different times and places has been able to accept, variously, socialism and capitalism. But at its best the church in whatever country has always recognized that socialism or capitalism or any other economic system known to humanity could become oppressive and unjust, and has put limits on what Christians should accept of any such system. 176.
But the Christian family does not live, as some families in some cultures have, to perpetuate a name or preserve a nation-state by providing taxpayers and soldiers. The Christian family is defined by its action as an agent of the church to witness to the truth of thekingdomofGod. 176.
The church is itself a culture, changing and ideally growing, sometimes correcting itself, sometimes finding itself corrected by others, but never pretending that it can or should want to withdraw from history and society and public affairs. 177.
Christianity as culture nee not at all be incorrigible, which is to say immune to correction or change prompted from ‘outside.’
Christians do not find truth ‘out there,’ detached from their lives, so much as they ‘live in it and so declare it in everything they do.’ 185.
Chapter 12 The Church as a Community of Friends
Christians are called to live the story, not restate it in the form of universalized propositions. 188.
Non-Constantinian Christians are in no position to overthrow that system. What we can hope to do, most often and over the long haul, is survive it and subvert it to its own good. What we are about might then be called sanctified subversion. 200.
Contemporary political and ethical theory seems to ignore entirely the nature and social significance3 of friendship and other special relations such as family. As a result we are left devoid of any language that can help articulate the significance of friendship and family for our personal and political existence. 207.
Eucharist moves us toward being a forgiving people, for we are ill-advised to approach the table if there is a tablemate whom we have not forgiven.