Against Christianity by Peter LeithartBook Reviews, Evangelicals — By Dustin R. Steeve on November 17, 2009 at 12:00 am
“Christianity is the heresy of heresies, the underlying cause of the weakness, lethargy, sickness, and failure of the modern church.” So opens Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity. Dr. Leithart, a conservative Presbyterian minister and Senior Fellow of Literature and Theology at New St. Andrew’s college, seems an unlikely candidate to levy the charges made in this book. His project, to convince the Church to reject Christianity in favor of Christendom, is challenging not only because Christianity has an international establishment and following, but also because Dr. Leithart rebukes popular thinking by both modern, mainstream evangelicals as well as post-modern emergents.
The book is comprised of five chapters titled: Against Christianity, Against Theology, Against Sacraments, Against Ethics, and For Constantine. The last chapter might seem surprising given that Constantine plays the part of the villain in the narrative told by foes of doctrine loving, corporate church, purpose driven Christianity. More surprising than Leithart’s admiration of Constantine is the form of prose Leithart uses to undermine the entire Christian project: each chapter is comprised of dozens of brief meditations. As a result, he often does not give the reader an adequate understanding of the roots or trajectory of his ideas. Nonetheless, he succeeds in provoking thought.
Christianity, Leithart argues, is a religion formed around a haphazard arrangement of modern values and practices. It understands Christian community to be a religious layer on social life; it emasculates biblical religion through intellectualization and privatization. Instead of confronting the language of existing culture with a robust language of its own, it offers theology, a sterile environment in which one speaks of God using clean terms, removing Him and His work from time in order to dissect timeless truths. Theology merely adds religious words and phrases to the stock of existing language.
Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity, embraces modernity’s disdain for ritual, opposing and giving supremacy to the Word over the sacraments. It accepts the postmodern civic myth by creating “temporary emotional communities,” post-modern tribes, instead of growing genuine, settle community life. When it bothers to concern itself with tradition and the sacraments, it pursues false questions about symbols versus realities. Finally, Christianity embraces segregation between Christianity and its work by speaking in terms of its “implications” for social or political life rather than speaking in terms of transformation. It reduces the gospel to a philosophical viewpoint in order to engage in conversation about ethics, a project of godless men to justify a godless morality.
Leithart concludes his book by sharing his view of the mission of the Church. The Church is called to be both countercultural, a separate city within the world’s cities, and also an actor subverting culture, converting whatever culture she finds herself in. To this end, Leithart holds up Constantine as an example. Constantine subverted the Roman Empire to the Church, making it the official religion of the empire, thereby establishing Christendom. Upon the establishment of Christendom under Constantine, the empire underwent a kind of urban renewal. Leithart quotes Rodney Stark arguing that cities once filled with strife, chaos, and crime were revitalized by the Church such that new norms and new kinds of social relationships were able to cope with urban problems such as homelessness and poverty. It brought a new and expanded view of the family to the empire, and offered a new basis for social solidarity so that cities could face epidemics, fires, earthquakes, and other tragedies. Earthly power became attentive to the Church and the Church governed the city. Argues Leithart, “The mere presence of the Church means the end to ‘business as usual’ in the earthly city. Always and forever, an end to business as usual.” However, Christianity has abandoned this project, choosing instead to subvert itself and coexist unnaturally with earthly powers. As a result, Leithart asks his readers to consider whether the Spirit has abandoned the Church.
Against Christianity has something to say to both sides of the theological debates between moderns and post-moderns. Leithart’s emphasis on story versus doctrine, his emphasis on the need of the Church to be authentic, and his concerns that the Church has become too subservient to modernity’s arrangement of the secular versus the sacred seem to challenge the assumptions of mainstream, evangelical moderns. However, Leithart’s belief that we ought to establish Christendom and his view that the Church has a language all its own that transcends all cultures and is accessible by all people should challenge some key assumptions of the post-modern emergents. The book occupies a middle-ground all its own between the warring philosophies and offers readers a captivating alternative vision for the future of the Church. ‘