The publication date for Becoming a Christian in Christendom was November 01, 2016.
I feel badly for Jason Mahn that this book emerged in the immediate aftermath of a nation struggling to understand itself, as it elected one Donald J. Trump to the American presidency. Some of the most compelling writing of the closing days and weeks of 2016 was about what this choice told us about ourselves, who we were and what we mean to each other. The national election – the thematic genre argued – gave us the opportunity to make decisive choices about our future, moral choices that exceed the coordinates which appear on electoral ballots. What kind of nation will we become? What are American values, and are we willing to pay the price for our partisanship, for our tribalism, for the respective sense of self-righteous clarity that our values (justice or freedom, social responsibility or individual choice, globalist expansion or identitarian withdrawal) are the best way to mark out who we are and what matters to us.
Central to this discussion was the idea that “to make America great again,” we must protect, at all costs, the central role that Christianity has played in our national narrative. It is to hold the line against the threat of religious pluralism to what Mahn calls the “redundancy” of American Christianity. Religious diversity dilutes not only the dominance of Christianity in our culture, but also challenges the presumption of the role that Christianity plays in the myth of American identity.
Luckily for us, Mahn offers his readers an opportunity to take up again, in this specific context, questions that have haunted American Christianity for generations. And I say American Christianity because, based on Mahn’s telling of the story, these forms and communities of faith have a unique struggle, due to a shared cultural and historical attachment to the American project, which has used Christianity as the vehicle for its geopolitical aims. The resultant dynamic then, is a variation on Christendom, a religious form of political life and identity in which, as Mahn argue, Christianity is assumed and normal, making the idea of becoming Christian in America a redundant feature. To be American is to be Christian. This means that most Americans, by virtue of this sense of being American, spend very little time actually complementing and discussing amongst themselves what it means (or what it would mean) to be Christian. They don’t actually consider what this identity demands of them, in both their private and public lives, what kinds of commitments follow from this claim, and what must be different about their lives and communities (in relation to others within our social world), pursuant to this claim. Without this kind of collective deliberation, individuals and communities do not practice Christianity. They ignore teaching, instruction, and formation that is so central to becoming Christian because they do not see the need for it. Love for God is wrapped up in love for country, and is already present and represented in their allegiance to the values of American civic and cultural life. Indeed, one wonders (and I think Mahn’s book is very helpful on this score), whether one can truly become a Christian in Christendom.
The anxiety such a conclusion produces within the theological framework of American Protestantism specifically in which faith is understood as decision, choice, and conviction is what inflamed so many of the sources for Mahn’s book: John Howard Yoder, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Stanley Hauerwas. But make no mistake: Mahn has his own ideas about how all this fits together, and so goes beyond simply another trendy ‘criticism of Christendom.’ This is not a “250 pages about the giants” followed by “50 pages of vague, underdeveloped ideas that will be explored in a subsequent volume” book. This is a piece of constructive theological ethics in the best sense of the genre.
Mahn’s central premise (following Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer closely) is that Christianity and its communities are radical alternatives to the Christianity of American culture. What that alternatives look like (and whether they will be appealing to American Christians) are always the tricky parts of projects like this. The contours of this alternative are stark. Mahn’s Christianity is a skinny one; the church is a remnant community that is equal parts radical and ordinary, whose values are governed by principled commitments to peacemaking, hospitality, and a self-conscious inclusivity towards others, all of which are powered from internal awareness of its own particular (and peculiar) justification. Christianity is a strange, cruciform faith, and as such, will not be appealing to those in power, or those who hope to gain proximity to wealth or fame. Christendom does and so it will always be funded, it will always be televised, but a Christianity that is not normal, assumed, or ‘for everybody’ will always operate at the margins, for the marginalized. It is a community of fools, of losers. In a social and political when social and political life is constantly diluted to a childish distinction between winning and losing, Christianity finds moral clarity of resistance in these times of trouble by turning back to
“a shared witness to a God whose majesty takes the form of a servant-hood, a god who is revealed in the depths of human suffering, a God who would rather die than kill…The church is strange because it is a church of the cross, and the cross is strange because it is the cross of God.” (343-344)
Reading this symposium will help you understand, not just what happened in American Christianity in early November 2016, but more importantly what the church of the cross, the church of the foolish, must do in order to become a community of resistance, not just against Trump and the dark forces swirling around him, but also against the dynamics of the American myth that privilege it within our culture.