What Crisis in Christianity?!? Andrew Sullivan Reax

The editor of a major newsweekly once told me that if he wanted to double the sales of the magazine for a week, he just had to put Jesus, Mary, or angels on the cover. Newsweek, even after the ousting of its staunchly Episcopalian editor, Jon Meacham, still plays this game more than other newsweeklies. So it was no surprise that the latest acquisition by Newsweek/The Daily Beast, the vaguely Catholic Andrew Sullivan, penned the Holy Week cover story on Jesus and the crisis in Christianity.

According to Sullivan, who often publicly quarrels with his own church, the crisis in Christianity is that the church has become too political, thus corrupting the central message of Jesus. Get Jesus back into your heart, and screw the church. That’s Sully’s thesis.

Many of the bloggers I read disagree. Here’s a round-up of them, including a riposte from Sullivan himself:

Father Robert Barron at RealClearReligion:

The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience.

Diana Butler Bass at HuffPo:

What Sullivan apparently does not know is that some Christians, from pews, pulpits, and classrooms are asking the right questions–and are working toward a spiritually renewed and intellectually credible Christianity. These new questioners make up what I call America’s “exile” faith communities–the creative but often ignored Christians found in liberal mainline churches, emergent evangelical gatherings, and progressive Catholic circles. With growing awareness over the last two decades, they have been engaging this crisis, listening to the grassroots questions of American religious life, and constructing new patterns and practices of faith. For them, the questions are becoming clear–and some answers are emerging.

Paul Pastor at Out of Ur:

There once was a writer named Sullivan
who wanted to give Christ a mulligan,
so he said “people, please—ditch the Church so diseased,
and remember what Jesus taught us again!”

Scott Paeth at Against the Stream:

To be Christian, he seems to be arguing, means to reject the use of power, and he responds to a commentator who notes that we’re always exercising power by saying “well: duh,” and referring back to the fall. But I think this sells the question of power short. Power is not simply the power of coercion, which is how Sullivan wants to use it, and thus not simply a product of the fall, rather, power is constitutive of our very being. To exist is to exercise power, not simply because of the fall, but because that’s what existence means.

In this respect, I think that Sullivan has perhaps drunk a bit too deeply from the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, and not deeply enough from the work of Paul Tillich.

And, at Patrol, all the bases are covered:

Jon Fitzgerald:

Sullivan misses the mark not only on his prescription for the crisis, but on his diagnosis of the crisis itself. It is not that Christianity has been politicized, but that a certain politicization of Christianity is quickly coming to stand for all Christianity.

Kenneth Shepherd:

If Jesus had a political message it does not mean that that message is necessarily theocratic or totalitarian, as Sullivan seems to suggest. If Machiavelli and Locke were not thinking about setting up our political world, but addressing their own in their own terms, that does not mean that they have no contemporary political or philosophical relevance – but that such relevance must work through critical history, not in spite of it. Finally, if liberalism has a metaphysical basis, in common with all other political thought, it does not mean that its historical superiority – if that is what we want to claim – is necessarily called into question. Rather, the issues become contested and qualitative: we embrace the politics of Jesus in better or worse ways, we appropriate history through better or worse practices, and we defend democracy with better or worse arguments.

David Sessions:

I’m not sure Andrew’s political framework is up to the task of diagnosing the real crisis we face as inhabitants of Western democracy. If only things were as easy as putting a mutant political Christianity back in its cage…

Andrew describes Jesus’ ideas as “truly radical,” for example, “love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth.” His project is to convince us that these “radical” ideas are also “apolitical,” that when salvaged from the tangle of theological and political movements that have distorted them, they are something pure, spiritual and otherworldly. Like a good liberal individualist, he reads all of these virtues as a kind of private interior experience, something I’m not sure Jesus ever intended them to mean.

Andrew Sullivan replies to David Sessions:

I don’t buy this. The Romans executed Jesus reluctantly in the Gospel account, and the Gospels tell us they did not regard him as a political threat. Moreover, his injunction to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is God’s under imperial rule couldn’t be less political. It shocked his contemporaries that he was indifferent to the distinction between colonist and colonized. He even made a point of hanging out with the empire’s most reviled apparatchiks, the tax-collectors; and declared the faith of a Roman centurion as remarkable. He was executed at the behest of the Jewish authorities who rightly regarded Jesus as a threat to their faith. What Jesus did at the last Seder meal was blasphemous enough. Pope Benedict is right that the political actor before Pilate was not Jesus but Barabbas – and it was Barabbas who was freed.

David Sessions’s final rejoinder:

Liberalism (note I mean the whole liberal system, not the American left) is anti-political; it has a constant need to hide its biases, limit the field of discourse,  and pretend and that any kind of actual political conviction is a product of “fundamentalism” or crazed partisan zeal. If you read Andrew’s blog or any op-ed columnist in a major American newspaper, you know the deal. The greatest sin in liberal politics is believing in something and refusing to compromise.

Did you read Sullivan’s essay? What do you think of it?

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  • I have always found the relationship between politics and the church an interesting one. The church, in my experience, is not politicized, except for on very specific issues. For instance, if I were to say “I am horrified that Americans are not standing up in protest against the National Defense Authorization Act, one of the most blatant and egregious attacks on our freedom that I have ever seen.” I would hear something along the lines of “You worry too much about the government. You know Jesus didn’t bother himself with politics. God’s in control, just leave it to Him,” but if I were to say “Did you hear about the latest gay marriage law?” I would set off a firestorm of political opinion. Most interestingly if I were to respond “You worry too much. Jesus didn’t bother himself with politics. God’s in control, leave it to Him,” I would be reminded that it is our duty to stand up against such evil. (For the record, these aren’t random thoughts, they are paraphrasing of actual conversations I’ve had.)

    As I often point out, there are more than 38,000 denominations of Christianity and the basics of God/Creator-Jesus/Savior are about all most of them have in common. Beyond that within each church there are a myriad of differing beliefs, Biblical interpretations and opinions on any given issue. Because of that it seem to me that any attempt, from within or without, positive or negative, to throw a blanket of generalization over “Christianity” is absurd.

    This debate over whether or not their is a crisis in the Christianity reminds me quite a bit of the tension between the “99%” and the “1%”, how you see the arguments is greatly affected by where you land on that spectrum.

  • Travis Greene

    Sessions is right. I like Sullivan, but he’s basically channeling Harnack here. In what universe is “love your enemies” apolitical?

  • And to what I wrote: http://ijoey.org/blog/?p=731

  • Dan Hauge

    One thing I find a bit ironic, in Sullivan’s last comments toward the bottom: He maintains that Jesus was not political because “The Romans executed Jesus reluctantly in the Gospel account, and the Gospels tell us they did not regard him as a political threat.” Yet most historical NT scholars would say that the Romans’ role in crucifying Jesus was stronger than the gospels necessarily depict.

    What is ironic about this is that in the original article, Sullivan chastises conservative Christians for “adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory.”

    So, which is it, Andrew? Taking the historical-critical line (which would emphasize Rome’s role in executing a political messiah), or appeal to the literal words of the Gospels with all of their fallible memory?

  • I normally don’t bother with Newsweek, but I saw this in the airport and skimmed it. My reaction was; when was religion not politicized??? Moses was a law giver, David was a King, and Jesus’ lineage from him was important enough to include in the Bible. Separation of church and politics is a very new idea, and one that church has fought.

  • +1

  • Pingback: Pub Theology Topics April 19 | Bryan Berghoef()

  • Is Sessions aware that Sullivan actually considers himself a moderate conservative, more Republican than Democrat?

    Sure, he leans left on particular issues (I’m always pointing out that “left” or “right” depend on what issues you’re talking about), but to write him off as a symptom of what “liberalism” is about (in his final response) seems to me to be a mischaracterization that can only come from not being more aware of who Andrew Sullivan is….

    • David is quite aware of Sullivan’s politics. But many observers no longer consider Sullivan a Republican.

  • I now expect to see following the economic and
    political crisis of those who seek to impose an unjust and wicked
    economic system on the world, a terminal religious crisis striking
    Christendom. There is no doubt that Christendom and the present economic
    system which is in terminal crisis are two horns of the same beast. The
    fall of Christendom will come with the fall of that circle which
    patronizes them.

    At the fall of idolatry Christendom people will wake
    up to find out that the Lord’s whose kingdom they are now slaving to
    build is not Jesus but are from the aristocracy of religious monarchy
    who look more like the Salvatore Muddies in museums and private
    collections of their sponsors. The next big news of crisis scandals and
    chaos that will be coming from the world press will be about the
    religious circles as idolatrous Christendom meets its Waterloo.