Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput’s new book, Strangers in a Strange Land, has garnered much attention in most of the circles I frequent. Depending on the group of peers to which I refer is a testament of much of the polarized political culture we now inhabit. For the more liberal Christians, words and phrases such as reactionary, alarmist, too fixated on human sexuality, or — my personal favorite — lamenting the loss of white Christian privilege are the kind of expressions one might expect to come face to face. On the other hand, for the conservative Christians, ideas like timely, sober, reflective, and honest might be what a reader would expect to encounter.
The first book I had ever read by Archbishop Chaput was Render Unto Caesar, released in 2012, that offered a blueprint for Christian engagement in the public square. In it, he connects the reader to the ancient west where much of the customs and general decency we now take for granted were only made possible because of Christian witness and sacrifice. For what it is worth, he earned a perennial fan in me with its release. In Strangers in a Strange Land, he offers a much less optimistic account of our role. In the first line of the book, he makes a clear distinction between Christian hope and optimism. We have hope because Christ died and rose again, but we do not have the luxury of “whistling past the grave.” As Chaput writes, “People who hold a classic understanding of sexuality, marriage, and family have gone in just twenty years from pillars of mainstream conviction to the media equivalent of racists and bigots. So what do we do now?” As I have experienced, this sentiment reaches much further.
First, it seems worthwhile to acknowledge the complicity that we had in contributing to the current state of affairs. During the Vietnam war, which Chaput mentions as a turning point toward the toxic atmosphere we now inhabit, Thomas Merton wrote about Christian’s role in empowering secular culture by sacrificing our beliefs in the name of good citizenship. Most specifically he cited the fracturing of Christian credibility by acquiescing to the secular authorities in manners such as war. He wrote a compelling essay on these thoughts called Violence and the Death of God: or God as Unknown Soldier which can be found in the book Faith and Violence. Further, one needs not look hard at the partisan lines Christians align themselves under to recognize the prophetic nature that Merton wrote. American citizens who still align with the Christian faith tend to perceive our state of affairs, and whether a writer is a reactionary or a prophet, as Republicans or Democrats first. Even if one does not agree that it was war in the twentieth century where Christians were not Christian enough, there are plenty of other cultural issues to draw where we have sacrificed our inheritance for the false promises of Caesar.
Nonetheless Chaput lays much blame at the feet of his own generation, the baby boomers, for not taking their faith serious enough to find it worth passing on. One mustn’t look much further than the 2016 elections where the worst kind of Boomer decadence was on full display in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, we have all enjoyed the spoils of the most materially prosperous country in the history of the world and now the hens have come home to roost. Chaput emphasizes the gradual hostility towards Christians in pop culture and the decision in Obergefell and Hodges coupled with the Obama Administration’s complicity in furthering the toxic atmosphere. These observations seem spot on from the world I occupy, as I have watched, much of the negative feelings towards orthodox christianity had lain dormant up until the Obergefell decision. But now the toothpaste is out, and we will not be putting it back in.
The book can be seen as a plea for Christians to unplug and return to living as a witness to the radicalism of the Gospels. He refers to the proliferation of technology as having a narcotic effect on society as a whole. It offers empty calories, much in the way fast food has, to the individual that has decimated the once vibrant community life relied on for all of our social needs. In other words, to live counter-culturally for the 21st century Christian means turning off the television, unplugging the social media, and participating in rebuilding the micro communities so that the macro can once again flourish. It also means speaking truth in love no matter how it is received.
My last point I would like to make regarding this book is whether one falls on the side that believes this is unadulterated alarmism or it’s opposite, his remedy seems to be one all Christians can agree is noble. We must rebuild our vibrant culture from the ground up. This means becoming more active in our communities. Most of my peers are of the liberal persuasion, and we still engage on matters all over the board. We also agree on many matters until the culture wars are broached. The kids in my Sunday school class seem to think that the whole world is angry, though there is never a sad face in the circles we occupy. So while I do fall on the side of Archbishop Chaput’s book as being one to take seriously, I cannot help but notice that no one is angry or ready to brandish the guillotine on either side of the partisan line. At least this not the case when I am interacting with acquaintances locally. This to me, is the spirit of the book and many of the other apocalyptic themed that are coming out. Our strength is local. While there are powerful people with large bankrolls who will not stop until every Catholic hospital in America performs abortions and hysterectomies on physically healthy women, most of the people we encounter day to day are normal people who wish to live normal lives. Those are the people who’s hearts can be changed through diligence, fidelity to the truth, and Christian love. And maybe by the time our children are adults, we will once again be seen as the leaven of society.