David Bentley Hart has written a challenging piece at Commonweal, called “Christ’s Rabble,” in which he asks “whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ.”
How does the New Testament describe such persons? Hart speaks of them generally in these terms:
…I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.
Hart wrote this piece in the context of two experiences: doing a new translation of the NT and being involved in a series of lectures in which he argued that genuine Christianity and capitalist culture are incompatible.
My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values.
Hart notes that theological teaching about wealth and poverty made a significant turn early in Christian history (he cites Clement of Alexandria as an example). Instead of taking the New Testament at face value, in all its “raw rhetoric,” Clement and those who followed him distinguished between poverty of spirit (the true and required impoverishment) and actual material poverty (which is not required).
Eventually, this theological movement reached another important moment in the Reformation, when religious anxiety became focused on “spiritual” pathologies such as “works-righteousness,” replacing concerns about actually seeking holiness in our actions and deeds. David Bentley Hart has no stomach for what he thinks amounts to the Reformation’s actual denial of NT teaching: “In a sense, the good news announced by Scripture was that Christ had come to save us from the burden of Christianity.”
The lusty embrace of the material and everyday as embodied in Luther is attractive to Hart — he calls it “the sanctification of the ordinary,” and suggests that it is “Protestantism’s single greatest imaginative contribution to Christian culture as a whole.”
Big problem, however. In Hart’s reading, it simply doesn’t fit the logic and imagination of those who wrote the New Testament. When he reads its pages, rather than seeing a kind of creational “common sense,” he finds only “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” in its teachings. This extremism is not occasional or extraordinary but forms the “entire cultural and spiritual atmosphere” of the Gospels and epistles.
We saw this emphasis in our recent study in James, and Hart correctly observes that James’s radical teachings about poverty and wealth are given in an apocalyptic context, in the light of what Hart interprets to be imminent “final judgment.” Unfortunately, in my view he does not follow the narrative logic of that observation. Is it possible that NT readers are not to universalize all these sayings but rather recognize that we must take into account the crises Jesus and the apostles were facing (for example, the Fall of Jerusalem) when we read texts that tell us that “riches will not save” and that we must not put any trust in earthly security?
There are many places in the epistles where the setting seems to be peaceful enough and where apostolic exhortations don’t even bring up the subject of wealth and the kind of communistic sharing that Hart commends as more “Christian” than modern capitalism. In these more serene everyday contexts, Paul and the other apostles speak a lot more about relational concerns within the churches, keeping a good reputation among their neighbors, and cultivating the virtues of faith, hope, and love. I don’t see them calling business people to abandon their concerns or give all their profits to the poor. When he took his offering from Gentile congregations to help the poor in Jerusalem he urged them to give willingly and did not lay upon them radical obligations regarding their personal finances or possessions.
In my opinion David Bentley Hart overplays his hand when he writes these words as a universal description of the early Christians:
The first, perhaps most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that they were a company of extremists, radical in their rejection of the values and priorities of society not only at its most degenerate, but often at its most reasonable and decent. They were rabble. They lightly cast off all their prior loyalties and attachments: religion, empire, nation, tribe, even family. In fact, far from teaching “family values,” Christ was remarkably dismissive of the family. And decent civic order, like social respectability, was apparently of no importance to him. Not only did he not promise his followers worldly success (even success in making things better for others); he told them to hope for a Kingdom not of this world, and promised them that in this world they would win only rejection, persecution, tribulation, and failure. Yet he instructed them also to take no thought for the morrow.
And he betrays the utter impossibility of his proposals when he suggests that Clement may have had good intentions about trying to accommodate the Gospel’s teaching to a more Christianized society, but it was the Desert Fathers who actually “took the Gospel at its word.”
Really? I don’t see Jesus or the apostles suggesting that all believers literally abandon the world and go to the wilderness. Paul’s counsel to the Thessalonians, for example, couldn’t be clearer or indeed, more bourgeois:
“Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1Thess 4:11)
I happen to think that Luther’s teaching on vocation was and is a needed corrective to this view that genuine Christianity is only legitimate in its “radical” forms. Hart’s description, to me, is hagiography not reality. Those who are called to more radical vocations are no more holy than anyone else, and they are certainly no more genuine.
Whether it comes from Protestant evangelicals like Francis Chan or David Platt, or from Catholics or Orthodox leaders like David Bentley Hart, the pronouncement that all Christians must be “radical” (however that looks), is in my opinion a misreading of Scripture, an unfortunate denigration of two thousand years of Christians who lived ordinary yet faithful lives and a burden far too heavy to bear to place on God’s people today.