Book Review – Between Babel and Beast

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective by Peter J. Leithart (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012) is a thought-provoking book for Christians who want to be the light and salt of the world today. This volume is a follow-up to his previous book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010). For those who read Defending Constantine, this book presents us further opportunity to catch a glimpse of Leithart’s dynamic, yet rather unconventional mind on the very important topic of cultural engagement. For those who have not had a chance to read Defending Constantine, you can find my review here.

In part 1, Leithart presents a survey of biblical accounts of empires, from the pre-flood cities of Cain and Lamech to the fall of Babylon in Revelation. What underlies this survey is his conviction that “Politically, the Bible is a tale of two imperialisms” (the Abrahamic and Babelic empires) (p. xi). To some extent this part is a presentation of an “empire-centered” hermeneutic: The entire framework of Leithart’s interpretive process is centered on “empire.”

Leithart holds that after the long succession of empires beginning with Babylon and ending with Rome, Jesus as the Son of Man received the kingdoms of the earth (e.g., Persian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman) and as the Ancient of Days gives them to His faithful disciples. Hence, He is imperium-in-se who replaced the ancient system (Israel in empire) with a new, “Abrahamic empire” which marked the end of “Israel-in-Empire, οικουμηνη.” And the embodiment of Jesus’ Abrahamic empire is none other than the church. It is no longer the earthly empires that protect God’s people from destruction. “Instead, the church as the fifth empire keeps its doors open day and night so that kings from across the sea will be able to enter and pay homage to the Son who reigns from Zion” (p. 51).

In part 2, Leithart examines “Americanism,” which he defines as “the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblically laced heresy” (p. xii). While part one is a biblical presentation of empire, part two is a historical presentation of empire—how Christendom, “God’s imperium,” lost its metapolitical framework of Christian politics to secular politics over the centuries and how this contributed to the birth of “Americanism.”

Leithart argues that “God’s American Israel” was a phrase that was a “fundamental paradigm to help early American settlers understand their role in God’s history” (p. 67). The Puritans who settled Massachusetts Bay Colony believed that they were the modern-day Israel who were led by God to an unknown land for divine purposes. Their mission therefore was to serve and advance the Kingdom of God as bearers of freedom and justice. Consequently, the distinction between Christianity and their political agenda (freedom and justice) became fuzzy. America soon began to use its military power to impose its philosophy on the world. In the end, Leithart concludes, “Early in our history, we did not have the power to impose our will on the world. But as our power increased, Americanism was there, able to impel a Babelic form of imperialism” (111).

In part 3, Leithart examines how America succumbed to Americanism and “freely consort[ed] with beasts if it [would] serve our political ends” (p. xiii). Attention is given to political and military dealings and economic policy in the 20th century to argue that America stands between Babel and beast. Leithart’s words are alarming. He states, “Babel-like, we believe we have brought history effectively to its conclusion: American democracy is everyone’s tomorrow. Babel-like, we want everyone everywhere to confess with one lip our American creed of liberty, democracy, and free markets. Babel-like, we are anxious until everyone looks like us . . . until we can force most everyone to play by our rules” (p. 134).

In conclusion, Leithart calls for a repentance of being Americanists. American churches should “teach and preach from a de-Americanized Bible, one that understands that the imperium of the church [“Jesus is an imperator” and the church is “God’s imperium”], not American hegemony, fulfills the hopes of Israel” (pp. 151-152). He argues that the church should not discourage Christians from participating in government or the military. Yet, the church should encourage Christians to participate in a way that changes America and turns her resources and power to justice, charity and peace.

Although I appreciated Leithart’s scholarship and presentation of this important topic, a few questions need to be raised. I am not certain about Leithart’s three types of world empires: Babel, Beasts and Guardians of God’s People. Leithart argues extensively that the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires fit into this last category, Guardians of God’s People—though he admits they were not this exclusively. Yet, as the Bible attests, God can use even the evil of the world to advance His Kingdom. As God used the ravens to feed Elijah, which were considered by the Israelites to be an unclean and detestable bird, God can use the most detestable thing in the world to bring glory to Himself.

Further, while I am in basic agreement with Leithart that God can use empire (along with other human institutions) to advance His kingdom, I am not certain I would agree with Leithart that empire is the ideal vessel to achieve this end. As mentioned above, God can use the most detestable thing to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Jesus called some of those who prophesied in His name “evildoers” (Matt 7:21-23). In this sense, Leithart’s concepts of an Abrahamic empire, the church as God’s empire and the fifth empire may be an oversimplification of admittedly complex biblical accounts of historical empires.

In my view the real gems of this book are found in parts 2 and 3. Leithart’s warnings to American Christians are shocking: “What if America is herself locked in the ancient logic, the satanic cycle? What if Americanism, increasingly detached from the checks and balances that orthodox metapolitics provides us, has left us prey to the same sacrificial dynamics as Islam” (p. 81)? I grew up in Japan where imperialism ruled about 100 years. For me at least, America is the country that heroically ended Japanese imperialism that contributed to two world wars and resulted in the exploitation of other Asian countries. But, the same America is the country that brought devastation and indescribable human suffering to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thus I agree with Leithart that “America stands ‘between Babel and beast’” (xiii). Yet, I believe that Leithart’s message can also speak to Christians around the world—after all, we human beings are so easily blindsided by our own good that we often overlook our own evil in pursuing our goals. How easily we imprison the prophets. I appreciate Leithart’s challenging warnings, and therefore highly recommend this book.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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Book Review: Defending Constantine

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  • Paperback: 373 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (September 2010)
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  • “What is a Christian view of politics?” “Does the church have political power?” “If so, how should we Christians exercise such political power in order to advance the Kingdom of God?” Questions like these naturally come to mind when we think about the relation between the church and politics. There is no easy answer for such weighty questions. In this book, Peter Leithart looks for the answer in Constantine. Perhaps, for many, it is a surprising place given the fact that Constantine’s accomplishments as emperor are often overshadowed by questions about the sincerity of his faith. His defense of Constantine is twofold: First, he aims to defend Constantine by refuting scholars who accuse the emperor of being a tyrant, egoist, opportunist and the like and by providing a “fairly fair account of Constantine’s life and work” (10). Second, he argues that “Constantine provides in many respects a model for Christian political practice” (11).

    In the first part of the book, Leithart presents his scholarly interpretation of what kind of Christian emperor Constantine was. He begins with the background of how Constantine rose to power as emperor and describes how he changed Rome. Leithart states, “He [Constantine] was a sincere if somewhat simple believer. He knew some portions of the Old Testament and perhaps the basic outline of biblical history, and he could summarize the story of the Gospels. For Constantine, God was a providential Judge who supports the righteous and destroys the wicked, and he believed that the church had to be unified if it was going to offer pleasing worship to God” (302). Leithart demonstrates solid scholarly work in his interpretation of historical writings to present a fair portrayal of Constantine. Yet, it is fair to say that his own voice seems to overtake the voice of Constantine from time to time.

    In the latter part of his book (Chapters 12 to 14), Leithart engages with John Howard Yoder, whose work in pacifism has received considerable attention and who also coined the term “Constantianism,” which is defined as “a set of mental, spiritual and institutional habits that gets into the blood of careless Christians” (310). His engagement with Yoder is delightful. His criticism of Yoder, as Leithart clearly states, is not mainly historical, but theological. Still, Leithart argues that Yoder gets fourth-century church history completely wrong: He misconstrues his “entire reading of church history which is a hinge of his theological project” (11).

    “He [Yoder] argues that the early church was uniformly, or almost uniformly, pacifist and that Christians who served in the military would have been excommunicated . . . the evidence for Christians in the army in the mid-second century represents an accommodation to worldliness, a sign of drift and ultimately apostasy . . . Constantine consolidated and institutionalized this drift into a centuries-long apostasy” (258). However, Leithart asserts that the historical evidence is too ambiguous to make such a judgment call. Instead, Yoder’s rather hasty judgment may show that his historical interpretation is motivated by his Anabaptist background, instead of a fair examination of the historical evidence.

    Yet, Leithart sympathizes with pacifism. Not with the same intensity as Yoder, of course, but he agrees with Augustine that “One does not pursue peace in order to wage war, he wages war to achieve peace” (337). And this is indeed what we see in the Bible: “The Bible is from beginning to end a story of war” (333) to bring the world the benefit of peace. In this way Leithart shows his appreciation of Yoder. In fact, agreeing with Yoder, Leithart contends, “If there is going to be a Christian politics, it is going to have to be an evangelical Christian politics, one that places Jesus, his cross and his resurrection at the center. It will not do to dismiss the Sermon on the Mount with a wave of the hand (‘that’s for personal life, not political life’) (332). However, for Yoder, this cannot be accomplished with the help of empire, while for Leithart it is plausible because God finds His vessels in unlikely places.

    In conclusion, I believe that what these two theologians seek is the same: To advance the Kingdom of God. Yet, they differ in how to achieve this end. As a student of theology, I find myself in basic agreement with Leithart. Although I disagree with a number of points that he makes throughout the book, I agree with his basic principle: God can use empire, government, and social institutions to advance His Kingdom, as Scripture supports. Yet, I am not fond of Leithart’s interpretation of the Bible as a story of war. I agree, though, that a canonical reading of the Bible is a crucial key to understanding how we should participate in advancing the Kingdom of God. For this, Jeremiah 29 is crucial. How should we understand “seek the welfare of the city?” Perhaps, if we examine Jeremiah 29 in light of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26-28, and the new earth and heaven of Revelation 21-22, we may come to see that God also brings redemption to this fallen world and we are to participate in this redemptive work of the created world (Rom 8:19-21). As William T. Cavanaugh rightly states, “If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom.” It is plausible to conclude that Constantine was one of God’s vessels to advance the Kingdom of God.

    — Reviewed by Naomi Reese

    * Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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