Christian Piatt. postChristian: What's Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?. New York, NY: Jericho Books, 2014. 224 pp. $20.00.
One gets a lingering sense of déjà vu reading postChristian: What's Left? Can We Fix it? Do We Care?, a new book by Christian Piatt, founder of Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado, and creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series. There’s the neo-Schliermachian attempt to deal with the newest wave of Christianity’s “cultured despisers” and the edgy, progressive attempt to ruffle feathers (“This book is going to piss you off!”). But the déjà vu results primarily from realizing halfway through the book that rather than being post-anything, Piatt’s newest work is just another spin around the liberal/conservative theological merry-go-round that leaves readers standing right where they started.
Piatt attempts to address Christianity’s increasingly uncertain place in (one must assume American) society by talking through vices and virtues of the church. At the end, the main takeaway is to be more loving, more accepting, to those around us in the hope that we can take our place alongside our cultured brothers and sisters as contributing members of the human project. The message is more cliché (thoroughly in keeping with much 20th- and 21st-century mainline Protestant theology) than threatening. It reminds me of when I worked for an organization advocating for human rights in North Korea and would corner people at activities bazaars by asking if they “supported human rights.” Um, of course. In response to Piatt, obviously we would respond with resounding support for loving our neighbor, but this framing merely begs the question, “What does Piatt mean by the word ‘love’?” Because it is clear that we disagree.
Fuzzy concepts and poor logic are among the consistent and severe problems in this short volume. There’s the odd hypocrisy of denying the right to make truth claims by making a truth claim or of arguing for the importance of subjective understandings and experiences only to claim that one genre of such subjectivity is acceptable whereas other apparently are not. It is never quite clear which “church” Piatt is addressing/targeting (evangelicals? prosperity gospellers? fundamentalists? mainliners?). Then there is the curious use of “institutions” as almost a slur while showing a rather startling lack of understanding of what the word even means or that institutions could be judged good or bad but never avoidable. And despite all the encouraging and optimistic language, by the end of the book it is hard to tell whether “claiming the message” and “following the call of Jesus” are anything more than a hollow cultural marker used simply for its surface recognizability.
The misrepresentations and uncharitable characterizations some Protestants have consistently leveled at other parts of the church are the background noise of this book's missed opportunity. We are either striding briskly toward the post-Christian precipice or perhaps just waking up to the fact that he have already gone striding over it. And understanding what that catastrophe implies for us and requires of us as the church in the United States will be one of the central questions with which the church will wrestle in the coming decades.
In order to understand that question in Piatt's volume and beyond, we first need to interrogate its most central term: “post-Christian.” Piatt defines it this way: “Post-Christianity is an often-misunderstood term. It means that today we live in a culture where Christianity is no longer the baseline for cultural identity and discourse” (3). But this somewhat simplistic definition misses what is most troubling in Piatt’s argument. Are we Christians living in societies that are post-Christian (again, a largely European and North American phenomenon) or that Christianity itself is becoming something more effectively described as post-Christianity? Piatt seems to indicate the latter.
As a clearly important cultural moment seems to be taking shape around us, we feel greater pressure than at any other time since perhaps the 1960s. But while we go about trying to determine what it will mean to live in a period that may feel like cultural exile, we should not fall prey to the desire to define this time as some stage of development that has no equal or that offers a threat or challenge unlike any the church has known. Because if seen with historical and global perspective, we are entering a situation much like what the church has often faced in other times and places. We can never be post-Christian because we are simply continuing to be what we have always been: Christians. Followers of Jesus. Seekers of the Way leading through Christ and to the Father. With challenges that are new, to be sure, but more so in their immediacy than in their exceptionality.