Christianity's unanticipated surprise

April 17th, 2022

We think we already know what Christianity is. And, to some extent, we are right. On the long march from its origins until now, Christianity has penetrated almost every layer of every society and culture in the North Atlantic West. Pull out Christianity from the complex tapestry of Western history, and the whole thing would unravel. Whether in fine art or architecture, pop culture or celebrity athletes, corner churches or political debates, intellectual circles or policy wonks, Christian language, Christian images, Christian influence, and Christian legacies abound. Even the religion-haters, as misinformed as so many of them are, turn out to have Christianity in particular in mind when they go on the attack.

But in an equally important sense we are wrong. We don’t really know what Christianity is. The stronger currents of the last two or three centuries have carried us away from basic Christian understandings of the human being and the world in which we live, as well as from habits of being informed by Christianity’s long history that structured much of common life. The biblical God is no longer the horizon of human life; the human is an autonomous individual now, able to determine for itself what it wants for itself and how to get it; the public square is consistently championed as a place where religious people should not bring their convictions; major moral decisions are made by reference to personal preference and sentiment; churches are seen to be the same thing as other “voluntary societies”; economic realities have erased Sunday as a unique mark of the week, and so on. These currents are all related in complicated ways, but the effect of their combination on present existence is rather simple to name and easy to see: we have developed societal amnesia and ignorance of what Christianity originally was—and what it still can be.

And this is the mark of our time in the West: Christianity is still so much here with us that it is utterly familiar and has receded from us so far that we do not know what it is. This is not a step-wise process—here, then not here—but a simultaneous reality. Christianity is at one and the same time here and gone, familiar and forgotten. This is the world in which we live.[1]

This larger environment is so pervasive, in fact, that even large swaths of Christian life itself have begun to mirror the current situation. We continue to talk of God, of course, but within an assumed framework about “justice” or “evangelism”—and many other things besides—that actually treats God as something like an important addition to the truth of specific causes people already support. We are at home and comfortable in Christian language and use it for whatever we care about, but all the while we remain strangers to the vital biblical and ecclesial patterns that originally surprised the world. We go about our work speaking Christian, as it were, but remain captive to the cultural terms that have been dictated to us.

Many Christians today thus cut off the chance for surprise and renewal in our time with an assumption that we already know what the biblical God is or should be doing in the world. Under the supposition that we already know what we need to know, we fail to develop a scriptural imagination and to learn the vibrant streams of tradition that create Christian expectation and new work—and we thus miss the revitalizing potential of rediscovery.

Originally, Christianity was a surprise. It was not anticipated, and many of the things it brought with it as it came into the world were completely surprising. No one could yet take it for granted, and no one had forgotten what it was. Some—notably the Romans, off and on—did try to extinguish it, but to no avail. Instead, over the course of a few centuries, Christianity grew from a minute Jewish sect into the dominant religious force in the Roman world. Sociologists of religion have various explanations for this growth—some more, some less plausible—but what should be common to all of them is the fact that no one could have predicted it.

At its origins, Christianity’s surprise was a person, Jesus the Messiah, crucified and raised. To receive this surprise and rebroadcast it, the earliest Christians discovered that they had to tell the story of everything. And the story they told put them in the world in a particular way: Christians know they live in the time where they serve Jesus in a still-fallen world that is being newly created even now, awaits his final return, and hopes for the eternal healing of all that is. What did it mean to live in this kind of time?

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At the heart of Christian discernment about this question and at the center of their surprise for the world was the revelation of the human as the image of Christ. This vision of the human—one and all—was a Christian invention and put into the world a creature that the world had yet to see. Before the Christians no one had thought that every human— whether high, low, or anything in-between—was exactly the same as every other, and no one had thought that all of them were to be treated as if they were the very Lord of the world. In a very real sense, the Christians took the human as such, and therefore each and every instance thereof, to be the “incarnation” of Jesus Christ. It is patently obvious that this vision took some time to develop, and it is patently obvious that Christians both then and now have betrayed their own vision. But that it came into the world at all, that it served as the compass for Christian behavior far and wide, that it made its way around the Mediterranean in a society that had no use for it—and longed for it all the same—is itself nothing short of absolutely stunning. Except perhaps for a few adumbrations from Jewish tradition, the Roman world was completely unprepared for it, and was caught by surprise.

Of course, there are vast differences between Christian life in the first couple of centuries and today. We cannot simply reinstate the exact kind of things the early Christians started as if twenty centuries have not gone by with their multilayered, immensely complicated cultural and ecclesial differences. We can, however, learn from the early Christians how to foster and renew the imagination required to develop fruitful witness and work. The surprise of Christianity for today, that is, is not a simple “now go and do this” five-year program. It is, instead, a call to a patient discernment of the heart of Christian witness in a complex world of “here and gone” where familiarity, ignorance, distortion, opposition, disappearance, and love of things Christian simultaneously occur.

Such complexity means that what it is to be Christian in the West is up for grabs. It is “up for grabs” because our present moment is so confusing, so misleading, and so promising all at once. Christianity will always be intertwined with the cultures in which it comes to exist; there is no such thing as uninculturated Christianity. But our current inculturation teaches us by habit and media exposure to think we have seen genuine Christianity on constant display, when in fact what we often see are only its various extremes or distortions. For example, one minute we hear a megapreacher claiming that God is finally bringing America back to its Christian roots; the next we read about the president of a famous seminary who denies the resurrection of Jesus. The very next we hear about the impending “rapture”; and directly after that we’re told that Christians are supposed to achieve nothing less than full justice in this present world. We also know, of course, about Christianity’s precipitous decline in once-thriving communities: the mainline denominations in America are clearly drying up and withering. And the Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptists have been beset by scandals. Taken together, all of this cries out for a fresh voice and a fresh vision, in short, for the surprise that Christianity brings.

Reinvigorating present Christian witness will not, however, be easy; it will require us both to engage in deep and habitual formation in the core patterns of the tradition and to create communities of discernment and risk charting some new paths. And doing these things, to put it plainly, will take time. The work of recovering the surprise of the early tradition and embodying it today cannot avoid taking time. There is no way magically to stop Christians from playing seesaw politics—crying “God’s back in charge” or “the rapture’s coming,” depending on who’s in control at the moment—or to convince various ideologically driven groups overnight that there are more important things than one’s self-proclaimed identity or desires for this-worldly political change. To the contrary, the work of training Christians in the fundamentals of what made Christianity so explosively powerful when it entered the world will demand diligent and prolonged effort in both formal and informal ways: grade schools, seminaries, divinity schools, colleges, universities, churches, parachurches, coalitions, community centers, youth sports, local clubs, various media outlets, online/distance learning, faith-based social services and innovation, foundations, philanthropies, redemptive entrepreneurship, and more. In brief, we need to be nimble and boldly pursue fresh ways of educating, forming partnerships, and living out the truth of the gospel. We should not expect our effort to reweave the tattered social fabric if by that we have in mind a return to some version of a nominally Christian society of earlier decades. Such times are long gone. But we can expect, as the early Christians did, to see God at work in startling and palpable ways in the full range of how people actually live in the world. And we can turn our imaginations loose in service to God’s good work.

Ours is a time where reaching to the wellspring of the tradition and responding creatively might well be the wisest and best way to reintroduce authentic Christian witness in the midst of the confusion and clamor. Surprise, in fact, is baked into the very stuff of Christian origins. Focusing on it takes us into the heart of what it is to understand Christianity at all, and thus what it is to remember and relearn the life-giving power and witness that went with being Christian at the beginning. This remembering and relearning can, in turn, surprise us all over again and chart a life-giving and hope-filled course for our witness today.



This article is excerpted from Christianity's Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope by C. Kavin Rowe (Abingdon Press, 2020).


[1] Our context is now “pluralist,” of course, but in the North Atlantic West, pluralism is a way of saying that there are other ways of being in the world on offer than Christianity. Christianity is still the dominant cultural backdrop to these alternatives, even to secularity. The rejection of religion in the North Atlantic West is not so much a rejection of an abstract concept (“religion”) as it is a rejection of the history of influence of Christianity or of Christianity itself. Few Western secular intellectuals have really tried Hinduism, for example, or have it in their crosshairs. Nietzsche is an excellent example of the power of Christian influence in the West. He knew that when you want to reject God, the God you need to reject is the Christian God.

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