The early Christians had a funny notion that their lives were to be the primary argument for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. They lived peculiar lives, radically different from the surrounding society. What happens though, when society co-opts the language, symbols and rituals of the church? The society may be quite religious, but that religion will be anemic and often antithetical to Christian discipleship. How then must Christians live as disciples of Christ in such a society? This is the question that Tripp York addresses in his new book Third Way Allegiance: Christian Witness in the Shadow of Religious Empire.
York writes, “I have found that such religiosity… often renders faithful Christian discernment difficult, as being a Christian becomes almost synonymous with being an ‘American.’”(13-14) To help Christians in the U.S. discern how to move from merely being religious to being a radically different community exemplifying the way of Jesus, York considers no topic too “sacred” to critique. Mother’s Day to militarism, Thanksgiving to Christmas, and even the most hallowed of all American rituals, voting, are all targets for York’s insightful theological prodding and dissection. Each essay is a gadfly buzzing about, persistently provoking readers to ask better questions and devote themselves more fully to Christ.
The Crocodile Hunter and Star Trek find themselves in pages beside tales of saints and martyrs, and this combination of pop culture and history along with probing questions and keen theo-political insight engages readers and presents York’s vision of faithful discipleship.
Third Way Allegiance begins with a section on the witness of the Christian community. York recounts exemplary lives, to speak to the truth of the Gospel and to exhort readers to reconsider what faithful witness looks like. He makes the outrageous claim that “Christianity is simply not philosophically defensible” (16). While this may be an overstatement, York is right in arguing that the way Christians live our lives is the best evidence for the existence of the God revealed in Jesus. These stories provoke readers to question our lives. “Do we live lives of quiet methodical atheism – believers when we speak, yet atheists in our actions?”(18)
Chapter one, “How Absurd is Your Christianity?” explores the way Christianity has been viewed by both opponents and loyal adherents. York argues, with Tertullian, that Christianity is believable precisely because it is foolishly impossible. For Christians then, “the only thing for us to do is to live lives based on this impossible truth so that others can revel in the absurdity of Christianity, too. (23)
York makes an interesting rhetorical move by turning his attention in the next chapters to the treatment of nonhuman animals. St. Francis and Steve Irwin serve as examples of faithful interaction with the animal world and witnesses to our common Creator. These chapters also raise questions about vocation and calling as they pertain to discipleship and our collective witness to the goodness of the creation groaning to be reconciled with its Creator.York then recounts the lives of three disciples who drive home his point that “our witness becomes our best argument for the existence of God.” (42) He concludes the section with a discussion on the madness of retaliatory violence and the godliness of peaceable martyrdom “contend[ing] that a faithful witness to the way of God requires the kind of justice that assumes peacefulness that in turn produces an authentic martyrdom.”(46)
Section two asks “What does evangelism have to do with the understanding of justice after Jesus?” (49) York responds by accosting American militarism, selfishness and pride, and their undergirding systems. He juxtaposes allegiance to Jesus and allegiance to the nation-state with questions like “When Jesus demands that we love our enemies and our leaders demand that we kill them, whom do we obey?” (62) York even proposes Christians refrain from voting (gasp) as a form of political witness. The section ends with, “if there were no witnesses to God, then the world would be lost…” (78) While I wonder if this overestimates the burden on Christians, York is right that our witness, as a distinct polis, is needed in this fallen world.
The final section is the most challenging because York unleashes a salvo against some of the ‘holiest’ of American traditions. Should Christians rethink celebrating Christmas? How about Thanksgiving, or Memorial Day? York argues, quite persuasively, this is indeed the case. These holidays, he posits, either promote the secularization of Christianity or “to remind citizens of the United States who they are in order to be who the nation-state needs them to be.”(82) Likewise, York suggests Christians be cognizant of the variety of ways prophetic figures can quickly be re-framed, repackaged and sold as heroes of the very government who saw them as enemies. When voices for justice are replayed as voices for the status quo, Christians must carry on their prophetic legacy.
The challenge is that the church in America regain its distinct and peculiar witness, refusing to settle for the deceitful and petty civil religion, determined to live in faithful allegiance our King. Third Way Allegiance is a primer for the discussions that must be had if the church will ever regain its proper witness. The provocative yet succinct essays along with the discussion questions at the end of each one make this one of the most helpful resources for churches concerned with authentic Christian discipleship in America.
Justin Bronson Barringer is a writer who is doing grad work at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is also the co-editor of the forthcoming book, A Faith Worth Fighting For: Questions and Responses About Christian Nonviolence.