Review: Becoming a Christian In Christendom: Radical Discipleship and the Way of the Cross in America’s “Christian” Culture

1] Jason Mahn places Luther’s theology of the cross, and accounts of discipleship in writings of Lutheran theologians Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in dialogue with what he calls the “Anti-Constantinian” writers John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas. In doing so he wants to help American Christians think carefully about what it means to intentionally be a Christian in what some (but not Mahn) would call a “post-Christendom” culture.

[2] Mahn believes America is not becoming “less Christian” but that many Americans now believe in a watered down, inoffensive, “default” cultural Christianity that makes few demands. This generic faith makes it difficult for individuals to articulate how their faith makes them act in ways that are distinct from the surrounding culture. Sociologist Christian Smith calls this form of faith, which posits that God makes few demands, loves everyone and wants them to be happy, “moralistic therapeutic deism”. This generic faith is disconnected from the richness of particular denominational theologies and practices that could help individuals discern how the Christian life might come alive in contemporary society. Learning what it means to live a Christian life requires a formational community to teach the dispositions of a life of faith. Mahn writes that “if Christians hope to see themselves, God, and the neighbor truthfully, they cannot simply step away from all the authorities, stories, and practices that define the Christian life. Instead, they need to be willing to embody their particular traditions and worldviews more fully”. (p. 45)

[3] Contrary to contemporary churches that poll images and messages that “resonate” with worshipers, the ancient church instructed individuals on true sources of joy and right desire. Rather than catering to listeners’ preferences, it reformed the desires of worshipers to a more Christ-like pattern. Given the prevalence of Freud’s thought in our cultural context, Americans often believe that happiness is about the fulfillment, rather than the transformation, of desire. Yet for Mahn this approach is the opposite of a faith that includes sacrifice and an obedience that “brings a deeper joy but also, asks a great deal more of one” (p.60) Mahn takes Kierkegaard to be calling Christians away from easy forms of cultural Christianity, toward development of a faith that sustains one “alone out on 70,000 fathoms of water”.

[4] Mahn puts Kierkegaard in conversation with Charles Taylor. For Taylor the buffered self of modernity is able to claim that it is an individual self without a larger place in the cosmos. This has some parallel to the notion of the authentic self, which is often claimed by those who drop out of particular religious communities. Mahn cautions again overemphasis on the authentic self, noting that “perhaps the newest and knottiest form of Christendom blends faith with longing, taste, and personal preference, making Christianity one option among many for seeking comfort and self fulfillment, useful to those who happen to feel drawn to it.” (p. 83) Perhaps part of this problem is that faith becomes about subjective fulfillment, not objective obedience. Certainly, Mahn is not recommending unquestioning obedience, but he is asking readers to consider that faith might require uncomfortable and painful sacrifices.

[5] From Kierkegaard, Mahn turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings on political resistance to unjust and un-Christian structures. Emphasizing the nuance and complexity of Bonhoeffer’s work, Mahn proceeds to discuss changing notions of what is holy about America. If the early Puritans sought to make America a holy nation under God, contemporary Americans seem to want to turn America into God. Once America “becomes God” there is little room for a theological critique of American action. Bonhoeffer resisted the notion that the “nation” could become holy, since holiness was the province of the church, which is a separate “kingdom” from the state. Following Ron Thiemann and other thinkers, Mahn notes that Luther did not “disenchant” the world as did other Protestant reformers. Instead, Luther emphasized God’s presence in the world. Bonhoeffer notes that for Luther, the Two Kingdoms, while distinct, were nonetheless in conversation, helping one other within their proper spheres through continuous dialogue.

[6] Turning to the notion that the church has become the “chaplain of culture” Mahn notes that “anti-Constantinian” critics of Christianity have claimed that it now simply blesses the desires of a powerful secular state, rather than challenge it. This means that the church becomes the ally of another political culture rather than maintaining its own distinct culture. While the trope anti-Constantian is widely used by Hauerwas and Yoder, this reviewer wishes that Mahn would have been more careful not to lump these writers together so easily. Some authors question whether Hauerwas is really an accurate expositor of the details of Yoder’s thinking.

[7] Looking at alternatives to the “chaplains of culture” model of church, Mahn discusses two interconnected visions of ways Christians can be disciples. The first comes from Mennonite communities that continue to maintain distinct practices of non-violence, communal discipline and common life. The second comes from New Monastic communities that are often not tied to one specific denomination but seek to embody in radical and concrete ways that vision of Jesus on a local level. For Hauerwas, Christianity should help us, “cope with tragedy, trust God, remain patient, and learn to die well” (p. 139) rather then simply bless the contemporary patterns that surround such events. But learning these practices requires being part of a community that inculcates them over time. One must learn to dwell with the church as the church, with its own politics distinct from those of society.

[8] Mahn helps Lutherans think about how the theology of the cross can help foster discipleship amid cultural forces that urge accommodation. If some Mennonite and other radical Anabaptist theologians want to imitate the social practices of the early church, theologians of the cross want to continually correct the church’s self understanding, constantly on guard against Christian temptations to rest too easily in contemporary visions of the church as already having “arrived” at proper moral understanding. Bonhoeffer becomes the mediating figure who combines the high Christology of Luther with a focus on discipleship and the Sermon on the Mount found in Mennonite, Brethren and other radical church traditions.

[9] The book then applies the distinctive vision set therein to the realities of economics, war, and politics. While space constraints prevent discussion of these chapters in depth, they do help Mahn show the implications of his vision when it meets practical social issues.

[10] Finally, Mahn urges in his closing chapter that Christians must become vigilant about their beliefs and practices, capable of resisting Christianity’s too easy accommodation to the state and the culture. They must learn to think carefully and critically about cultural issues from a Christian perspective, and constantly choose again and again what seems to be the faithful way of Jesus. Thus, discipleship becomes a daily practice of conscious choices in the midst of culture. It means relocating Christian practices from socially comfortable spaces in order to serve those who are disadvantaged in shelters, prisons, and throughout urban and rural communities. It is only when Christians remind themselves that they worship a God who chose the cross rather than conquest, that they will remember their counter-cultural witness. For helping us think through what it requires to remain faithful to this God, we are in Mahn’s debt. This is a stunning vision of discipleship, grounded in social analysis, richly theological, rooted in Lutheran traditions while conversant with popular sources such as Hauerwas that are read across denominations.

Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.