Considering the vigorous dialogue that followed James’ post earlier in the week, I want to keep the discussion going by drawing attention to James Kay’s editorial in the July issue of Theology Today. Kay raises important questions related to American Christianity and what he describes as the ‘idols’ claiming the allegiance of some American evangelicals (e.g. nationalism and militarism).
The context for Kay’s remarks is the firestorm that followed Pastor Gregory Boyd’s sermon series in 2006 at his Minnesota mega-church in which he rejected the notion that the United States is a ‘Christian’ nation, refused to hang the American flag in the sanctuary, and urged that Christians stopped glorifying American military campaigns. The result? A thousand members left Boyd’s church, some before the end of the sermon series.
In light of the problem represented by the scenario at Boyd’s church, what American Christians require, Kay argues, is a healthy dose of ‘atheism’ – atheism’s protest against all deities that is. Christians need to take atheism’s critique captive and press it into the service of a robust cultural criticism, one that can identify and reject the idols that inhabit the church’s societal setting.
‘Pastor Boyd’s public airing of his disbelief in certain de facto dogmas of the evangelical movement…withdrew sacral support from the American idols that were claiming unqualified Christian allegiance and sanction from the language and practices of the church. The lesson here is that in order to become a true Christian or a true pastor, at least in America, one may have to become something of an atheist. Perhaps the protest of traditional atheism against all deities, when taken captive by the gospel (cf. 2 Cor 10:5) and thereby “regenerated” and “reformed,” can be impressed into the gospel’s service of cultural criticism.
…In the Greco-Roman world, where many gods were tolerated and honored as transcendental strands binding together a cosmopolitan empire, the refusal of Christians to take part in the customary obligations and oaths of civil religion (“Caesar is Lord!”) must have made them appear thoroughgoing atheists to their devout neighbors. In light of this history of resistance to popular forms of socially sanctioned religion, its retrieval might lead Christians to greater faithfulness to the disbelief entailed by the gospel. By honoring their ancient reputation as atheists, Christians might be emboldened to utter an occasional “anathema” to the reigning deities of contemporary society (‘Christian Atheism?’ Theology Today, 65 (2) July 2008: pp 142-43).’
Kay’s remarks, both perceptive and direct, should raise some questions that we can pursue here with some specifics: What are the reigning ‘idols’ and ‘deities’ of contemporary society threatening to hold the allegiance of American Christians? And, what might ‘Christian disbelief’ (Christian ‘atheism’) entail for those committed to the Gospel?
On the eve of the American presidential elections, discussions such as these can become unnecessarily (or at least too quickly) polemical. In posting Kay’s remarks on American evangelical Christianity, my point is not to argue for or against specific issues but to get us thinking about the practice of ‘Christian atheism’: standing for the Gospel and in doing so standing against the ‘deities’ that hold sway in American culture. A practice that has always characterized the church when it was most faithful to the Gospel.
What might some of these ‘idols’ be and how is their allegiance manifested by Christians? That’s where our discussion should start. What do you think?