More imagining required

I really wanted to like this book. That’s a terrible way to begin a book review, isn’t it? Yet, that’s how I must start talking about Reclaiming Our Political Roots: Rethinking Church in Nationalist Times, by Yohan Hwang (Wipf & Stock, 2020).

I really did want to like it. I had just finished Scandalous Witness: A Little Political Manifesto for Christians,” by Lee C. Camp. That book raised a lot of good questions about the nature of Christian witness and the relation of Christ and culture.

Curiously, it never mentioned a book that I thought loomed over every page. That’s the classic Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon.

I was hoping Hwang’s book would bridge the gap and bring the prickly Hauerwas-Willimon vision closer to reality. Alas, Hwang doesn’t pull it off. He is prone to overstatement of the problem and understatement of a solution.

He begins strongly enough with the assertion that “the church is and should be our true body politic, not the nation-state.” He says it’s deplorable that “we live as Americans first and Christians second.”

You can excuse the exaggeration when he claims: “Overall, the real problem is that the church has ceded all political and economic matters to the state” and “has basically been relegated to providing a social club for like-minded people.”

What’s needed, he says, is “a reimagination and restructuring of society in which the church is politically involved in all facets of our lives.” Super. But he doesn’t do nearly enough reimagining to convince me that his ideas of restructuring have a snowball’s chance of becoming reality.

I am sorry to say that his book is tedious, repetitious and overly simplistic. It relies too much on questionably broad generalizations, caricature and circular, sometimes elliptical, arguments. Far too many times he says, “Like I said” and “I do not want to be misunderstood.”

It was hard for me not to misunderstand. He says: “There was a time in which the church was truly a political body that integrated every aspect of life under itself.” He is not clear when that time was, though he seems to point to the Middle Ages. At least then, he says, the church knew what it was supposed to be about.

As for the church again becoming a true politic, Hwang offers three examples, only one of which I found relevant, and that is the place where he teaches, Chicago Hope Academy, a Christian high school. Even then, he is not clear how this example can be applied by a church that is fractured by theological squabbling and political infighting.

Hwang credits Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh for fueling his exploration of Christianity as a true alternative reality. Hauerwas even writes a positive blurb for the back cover. But Hwang never convincingly shows how the church can be an outpost, a colony that shows the world what life was mean to be like.

Through Speakeasy, I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.

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