Thursday, July 18, 2013

Revenge of the Bourgeois Paul? A Response to Anthony Bradley


Back in May, Anthony Bradley wrote a post in the Action Institute PowerBlog entitled "The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed." In Protestant circles, perhaps no more damning epithet can be proposed for an idea or a movement that that it is "legalistic." Calling someone a "legalist" lumps him together with the Galatian agitators of old, who demanded circumcision and Torah observance of Gentile converts to Christ. Other presumed bedfellows include, inter alia, Roman Catholics, who view human effort as a genuine instrumental contribution to final justification, as well as old school fundamentalists who, as I know from personal experience, had a penchant for assigning divine warrant for their extra-biblical "standards" of personal holiness.

As the title of his post indicates, Bradley has his sight set on Christian groups that promote "radical" and/or "missional" Christianity and thereby marginalize "ordinary God and people lovers," to quote his tweet that generated the subsequent discussion. Such an emphasis on mission as the overarching business of the church both corporately and individually is, in Bradley's view, detrimental because it shames those who "'settle' into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, 'aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.'" Moreover, such a missional emphasis, according to Bradley, feeds the narcissism epidemic rampant in the current Zeitgeist, in that it shames people into thinking that being an "ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about" is being unfaithful to our calling as Christians. "Missional" Christianity thus, in Bradley's view, compromises the classic Protestant theology of vocation, according to which Christians can make a positive contribution to human flourishing "in any sphere of life." "Why," Bradley asks, "is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders?"

Before I go any further, let me make it perfectly clear that I understand his native hesitation to follow ideas and movements that are "trendy." At the same time, however, Bradley does himself no favors by painting with too broad a brush. There is "missional," and then there is "missional." Yes, some adherents shallowly ride the crest of the ascendant wave. Others, while having good intentions, write and think merely at the popular level. Then there are scholars such as the Langham Partnership International's Chris Wright, whose massive The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2006) really should be required reading for all thinking Christians today. When I describe myself as advocating a "missional" Christianity, it is Wright's vision to which I adhere. And that means that the church, both as a corporate body and individual members, actively participate in the mission of God to redeem his creation as such has been revealed on the pages of the New Testament (see pages 22-23). Such is clearly not a narcissistic pursuit, and if such an emphasis "shames" Christians who prefer to live according to the schēma of the world which, as Paul says, is "passing away" (1 Cor 7:31), so be it.

Likewise, I too affirm a robust view of vocation in which Christians can work for the Kingdom of God in any sphere of life to which God has called them. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that Bradley and I operate with divergent theologies of work. In particular, if the venue of his post was not clear enough, what he says makes it evident that Bradley assumes the goodness of an unfettered free market in which participation in and of itself is sufficient to validate its worth (so long as the worker loves God and neighbor). I, on the other hand, am not so sanguine in this regard. Human beings were created to be God's image, and the Christ event has ushered in the initial phase of the eschatological kingdom by virtue of which Christ's followers can truly image God and reflect the realities of the new creation. The point of work is not just to "work hard" (such can be just as narcissistic as the "radical" and "missional" emphases Bradley abominates) but to work so as to reflect God in the world Christ came to redeem. Some vocations, to be blunt, are more amenable to such reflection than others ... and they are usually the ones at the lower end of the pay scale.

One particular passage in Bradley's post opens a window into his soul, and thus into what really ticks him off about the recent "missional" emphasis:
As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” that they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.
In response, I hardly know where to begin. Nonetheless, this snarky passage, and Bradley's repeated complaints against "anti-suburban Christianity," demonstrate that his post is, if anything, little more than an apologia for suburban Christianity and, even more basic, suburbanism as a post-World War II American societal phenomenon. Today's Millennial "missional" Christians supposedly have taken their cue from their ungrateful Baby Boomer parents who, despite their Builder generation parents who virtuously moved to the suburbs "to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease," "despise[d] the contexts that provided them advantages." Thus the current "disdain" of the suburbs and emphasis on mission to America's (I would argue neglected) cities is not merely induced by shame and predicated on narcissism, it is also a retrograde step in the grand sweep of the American experience.

Now I am a Boomer, born in 1957. I, too, was raised in suburbia, my parents moving out of West Philadelphia to settle in Havertown when I was a wee lad of 7. I gratefully acknowledge the advantages such a move gave me in the educational arena, my alma mater Haverford High being consistently rated among the elite public schools in the nation. But is suburbia the Elysium Bradley so obviously believes it is? Surely he, as an African-American, is aware of the racism that was often involved in the mass exodus of middle class whites from America's great cities to the suburbs in the post WWII era, of which such concerns for "safety" and "schools" were often transparent, coded euphemisms for the desire to isolate themselves from the growing numbers of blacks who had migrated to the industrial cities for work earlier in the century. Many of us suburban-reared Boomers who prefer cities do so because of the aesthetic sterility, poor land management, and environmental consequences of the auto-centric culture spawned by suburbia. Moreover, does Bradley imagine that the quest for "material ease" and affluence ("saving and investing"), i.e., materialism, that undergirds the "American Dream" and its culturally dominant suburban paradigm is consistent with the New Testament ethic for material possessions? (well, he is a research fellow at the conservative Acton Institute, so I guess the answer is "yes"). Are "arts and social justice activities" deserving of being snarkily dismissed in comparison with those occupations whose sole purpose is to contribute to the mindless global economy? In my view, it is precisely such poorly compensated activities that better image God and promote God's kingdom than those that more stereotypically support the "American way of life" (Likewise, I take his comment about "sound economics" with a pinch of salt, realizing that he, as a laissez-faire capitalist, is simply referring to conservative economic theory, not the dominant economic views of the academy). Finally, his "shock" that a couple might actually consider forgoing having children of their own so as to take care of orphans is surely rhetorical (Claude Rains's Louis Renault comes to mind) ... or at least I hope it is. Is such an entirely admirable decision really a bad thing? Such feigned shock boggles the mind.

What Bradley in effect advocates is a Christianized bourgeois lifestyle in which people get married at a young age, have kids early, work hard, save, invest, and love God and neighbor. Now, the Jesus Creed is indeed central to what it means to live as a Christian. I couldn't agree more. Likewise, there is nothing intrinsically or necessarily wrong with living a classic middle class life, as long as affluence is not one's goal and one is generous with one's possessions to a fault. Most importantly, however, such a life is not antithetical to the "missional" focus Bradley abominates. Indeed, I would argue that the greater problem in the American Christianity I have been a part of for half a century is an affluent church that is too caught up in the American Dream to get its hands dirty for the sake of its poorer brothers and sisters, let alone the hurting world among whom they live and breathe.

Interestingly, the text Bradley uses to support his advocacy of living a "normal" life is one that, properly understood, doesn't support his position at all. 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-11 reads as follows: "But we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, to aspire to lead a quiet life, to attend to your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you." Read with uncritical American eyes, it would appear that St. Paul here is commending the bourgeois life: work hard and live a quiet, "respectable" life so as not to depend on others' generosity or insert themselves unnecessarily in their lives. Such eisegesis, however, while a "natural" reading to many Americans, certainly cannot claim to be the apostle's historical intent in the Greek culture to which he was writing. 

As Bruce Winter has persuasively argued, the context in which this exhortation must be read is that of the day's dominant social structure of private patronage (see especially his Seek the Welfare of the City [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1994] chapter 3, "From Secular Client to Christian Benefactor"). Those in Thessalonica and elsewhere who didn't "want to work" (thelei ergazesthai, 2 Thess 3:10) were not, in the parlance of today's self-righteous right, simply "lazy moochers," whether motivated by eschatological enthusiasm or otherwise. They were free-born members of a strata of society that, as clients, received support from wealthy patrons to whom they reciprocated by giving honor (dignitas) and advancing their interests. Likewise, "working with one's hands" is not simply a synecdoche referring to "honest work" of any kind, but specifically a reference to the artisan life lived by persons who were of sufficiently low social status as to wield no political influence whatsoever, and whose manual labor was generally despised by the Greek aristocracy as well as others who aspired to higher social status. Likewise, to be "ambitious to be quiet" (philotimeisthai hēsychazein) and "to mind one's own business" (prassein ta idia) reflects language used at the time to refer to to engaging in public, even political, affairs. For Paul, Christians were to refrain from living or desiring to live the client lifestyle, no matter how socially desirous, in which one receives financial support in exchange for publicly advancing the interests of one's benefactor in public and/or political affairs (see also Gene Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians [PNTC; Grand Rapids and cambridge: Eerdmans; Leicester: Apollos, 2002] 208-12). By contrast, if one "work[ed] with one's own hands," he or she would "have need of nobody" (1 Thess 4:12).

The upshot is that Paul was working, not simply to put a Christian spin on the client-patron relationship but, as Winter argues in reference to a similar passage in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, to hasten its demise (After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change [Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001] chapter 9, "Secular Patronage and Christian Dominance"):
For Christians it was not the transformation of the role of clients but its demise. In its place Paul enjoined all Christians, including former clients, to work and thereby have the wherewithal to undertake 'good works', i.e., benefactions, for those in need—a role that was the traditional domain of the elite. All able-bodied Christians were to be benefactors to others rather than clients.
This is truly a word that has counter-cultural relevance to an American church steeped in affluence, which too easily can justify its pursuit of wealth, power, and influence with the pieties of "hard work" and "respectability" drawn illegitimately from Paul's instructions to his fledgling churches. Yes, hard work is good. Living a "respectable" life, defined circumspectly, is also fine. But Paul would have had no sympathy for the life of "saving and investing" Bradley and others believe is the essence of living respectably in today's world. Indeed, to cite a text I mentioned earlier, the apostle truly believed that the schēma of this world, its "external structures," if you will, was in the process of its demise, and that one should consequently live in the light of what he believed was the imminence of the eschaton. Yes, as Bradley suggests, what we need are "ordinary God and people lovers." But one truly wonders whether he has reflected deeply enough on what such love of neighbor really entails, let alone the utter self-abnegation our Lord demanded from all who would be his disciples.

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