From Myth to Truth
by Gregory Thompson
What should we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called?
The Christian church is in the midst of a cultural moment in which its existence is troubled by two realities. On the one hand, the Christian church is—always and everywhere—to devote itself to repairing the harm done by wickedness, greed, and violence in our midst. And yet on the other hand, much of the Christian church in America is—and has long been—one of the greatest justifiers and perpetrators of these very things.
As I have wrestled with this reality over the past 20 years, I have come to believe that the church in America, if it is to truly be a people of repair, must deliberately undergo a number of shifts in both the substance and the structure of its life.
In my previous article, I suggested that the first and perhaps most important of these shifts is the shift from Dominion to Communion. This, I noted, is fundamentally a shift in the way we are to understand the purpose of our faith. This is because it entails a shift from a life lived for the purpose of extending God’s dominion over the world—a goal which, for all of its real biblical merit, currently expresses itself in our lives as an obsession with power, an idolization of impact, and instinct toward cultural conflict—to a life lived for the purpose of dwelling with God and sharing in His presence in the world.
This shift, I believe, is not a shift away from life—even a transformative life—in the world. It is, rather, a shift in motivation, means, and ethos as we live that life. It is a vision that insists that we live our lives—intellectually, emotionally, bodily, relationally, vocationally, etc—always and everywhere out of a hunger for communion with God and with our neighbors, and that everything we do and the ways in which we do those things is an expression of that primordial purpose.
In what follows, I wish to consider a second shift—the shift from myth to truth.
From Myth to Truth: A Shift in Context
I describe this shift as a shift in context, but what I mean more precisely is a shift in the ways that we interpret the cultural and historical moment in which we live. In order to clarify what I mean, I’ll narrate the ways that this shift has taken place in my own life.
I became a Christian in the 1980s. Those who lived through it (or who study it now) will remember that this was a time marked by a very particular and very powerful understanding of our cultural moment, an understanding that took deep root in much of the American Christian church. By the nature of the case, that cultural understanding was broad and deep, with roots and implications that extend far beyond the scope of an article like this one. Even so, its core features can be easily summarized, not least because they continue to be so readily evident among us.
The account goes something like this: We live in a binary world of good and evil, a world in which the good is wholly good and the bad is wholly bad. The good, as it happens, is us; specifically the United States of America, God’s chosen nation, and the Christian church which is both its source and its steward. And the bad, as it also happens, is wholly outside of us; lurking malignantly in the teeming hives of communists, feminists, and leftists who oppose the legitimate interests of both God and nation and who, with seemingly relentless cunning, seek to undermine “our way of life.” Because of this, the work of Christian faithfulness in our time consists in defending our faith and our nation against the manifold invasions of the godless, and—through the righteous deployment of strategies ranging from evangelistic crusades to nuclear warheads—to ensure the triumph of light both in our nation and throughout the world.
There’s no doubt that this is a rough and ready summary; a summary that simplifies a host of geopolitical complexities and ignores the presence of some very real theological demurrals. Even so, I believe that the core features of this view of the world established the lens through which generations of American Christians perceive both themselves and the context—both local and global—in which they lived. Those features? A binary world, an innocent self, an external enemy, an ethos of besiegement, and the sacralization of cultural triumph.
As a political account of the world, it was compelling, an account that made sense not only of emerging political alliances but also of some of the native narrative themes of American—and American religious—history. It was also compelling as a religious account, an account that explained the spiritual complexities of the world and charted a clear course for faithfulness within it. I myself felt its power.
The problem—as I came slowly to understand—is that this account is almost wholly rooted in myth. Consider, for example, its embrace of a binary world. Is it really the case that the boundary between good and evil falls along lines of political ideology or national territory? Or the innocent self—is it really the case that either the American nation or the church that legitimates it is innocent of the theft of land, the enslavement of human beings, or the blindness of greed? What of the external enemy? Can it be plausibly claimed that the enemies of truth and the vandals of faith, hope, and love are always someone other than ourselves? Or the ethos of besiegement. Does not the claim that the wealthiest, most powerful, and least politically constrained people in the history of the world are actually victims have the character of farce? What, finally, of the sacralization of our own cultural violence? Is it not obvious that, in our relentless drive for divinely sanctioned triumph over our neighbors, we are simply re-enacting the pagan moral impulses of conquest? As I asked and answered these questions in my own life over the course of two decades, I found that I was—bit by bit—setting aside this myth and seeking to live more fully in light of the truth.
And yet, specious and farcical though it is, this interpretation of our cultural moment continues to control the moral imaginations of so much of the Christian church in our time. Indeed, its features remain everywhere evident. As long as we remain committed to this myth, we will never become a people of repair. We will, instead, be a people of rage and recrimination—as indeed many of us are.
Because of this, the call to be a people of repair requires us deliberately to shift from an interpretation of our context rooted in myth, to an account rooted in truth. That truth? That this is God’s world and that always and everywhere God loves all who are within it. That neither our nation nor our church nor our selves are wholly innocent, nor are our cultural foes wholly evil. But that—as Solzhenitsyn (who spent his career fighting against this mythology) put it—“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.” That Christian work in this world is not best understood in terms of either the defense of our own political interests in fear, nor as forced extension of those interests through power, but as the self-sacrificial act of loving our neighbors—friends and enemies alike—and devoting ourselves to their well-being.
This shift, I believe, is critical to the sanctification of the American church. For it is only as we renounce our simplistic and self-serving account of the world, repent of our addiction to our own innocence, and repudiate both the defensive ethos of besiegement and the violent need for triumph that we will become what God has called us to be: a people both capable of and committed to lives of repair.
Thompson will explore more shifts needed to repair the world in the weeks to come.