The Babylonian Captivity of the American Church (1)

If the Bugle Gives an Indistinct Sound, How Will We Be Awakened?

Over the last month or so I have done a series of twelve blogs on the “The Spiritual State of the Nation.” I wrote these after reading the results of several exit polls following the November election. I sought not so much to explain the political landscape as to ask what was happening to the spiritual life of Christians in 2012? My desire, in these articles, was to reflect on our present spiritual state and what we can and should do about it. Now I would like to propose an adequate theological and social model for how we should live in these very different times.

Lessons from the Protestant Reformation

Scholars and students of the Protestant Reformation know that Martin Luther wrote three important polemical books in the second half of 1520. These books, all quickly printed and distributed quite widely, helped to fuel the growing Protestant movement. They were equal parts prophetic, provocative and bombastic. Whatever he wanted to accomplish in writing these books, the result was that the church could no longer retain its cozy relationship with the state and the German culture, at least in the form it had known for centuries as it was connected to Rome.

booksThe first book, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, was published in August. The second, Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, came in October and the last, On the Freedom of a Christian, appeared in November. Perhaps the best known of the three is On the Freedom of a Christian. But the title of the middle volume, Prelude to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, strikes me as extremely relevant to our present consideration regarding how we should respond to our present spiritual and ecclesial malaise. What Luther attacked was the medieval Catholic Church. He had no way of knowing that what he ultimately unleashed would alter the future of Christianity around the world. He certainly had no framework for speaking about a Christianity that was not coupled with Christendom, what was called the Corpus Christianum. (This term was generally used to describe both the church as all the redeemed. It also referred to “the whole Christian polity” and its impact on the culture around it.) The term Christendom thus refers to how people, in a widely cultural sense, have understood being Christian in the world. Christendom, at least in America, created an extremely hospitable culture in which the visible church could function as the moral conscience and informer of the nation’s values and laws. This is why some refer to America, quite falsely on the one hand but truthfully in a secondary sense, as a “Christian nation.”

Let me explain this a bit further. In the Muslim world Islam creates a civilization, a deeply religious culture that is openly sympathetic to Islamic laws, customs and values. In the Christian world, understood here as Christendom, the same type of thing has happened, albeit in a way that is generally less restrictive as we see in the modern era. This Christendom culture is often suited to our general social and moral preferences as Christians. But the simple fact is this–great civilizations have been built upon broad coalitions rooted in religion, be it Islam or Christianity. Now the modern world is engaged in a great struggle, a struggle between the “broadly” Christian/secular Western world and the, often more narrowly defined Muslim world. Many Christians in American write and speak about the clash of these two civilizations in terms that reflect their own historical understanding of this rather ancient struggle. These Christians are firmly convinced that unless the West, and America in particular, recovers Christendom as a culture then we will lose the “war with Islam.” This struggle is real, make no mistake about it. But the question remains: “Is the call that Jesus gave to his church about saving  and making a Christendom-type civilization or is it about making disciples who then will engage with their neighbors not as a powerful political and social entity but as faithful servants of Christ who became a humble servant of all?”

If the election of last November did not send clear signals about what has been happening to our culture, and more particularly to the church in American culture, then I am not sure what it will take to get the attention of our Christian leaders about our present and future religious context.

In 1 Corinthians 14:8 we read, “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” If ever we needed to hear  a distinct “sound” of the gospel it is right now. But this is precisely what I believe we now rarely hear. I discussed this new reality with a good friend, a faithful shepherd of a wonderfully effective church, just a few weeks ago. He informed me that in 2013 he was going to lay out a case to his congregation about these times and demonstrate what the gospel called them to be and do. He told me that he was going to teach them to think and live during a time that he would call: “The Babylonian Captivity.” With this in mind I went back to Luther’s treatise and thought about his concerns in the sixteenth century. Then I thought about out time and my friend’s words to me over lunch. I think he has an excellent point and is on the right track.

 

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