A timely book, Dr. Allan R. Bevere, a United Methodist pastor and professional fellow at Ashland Theological Seminary, issues a call to the Church to regain the position of prophetic witness. To be sure, this small book has salvos against both the Left and the Right, and equally so the uninvolved, which must lead to a choice – either we ignore Bevere or we heed him. The author knows his limitations, both in space and the cultural situations, but he is able to provide a firmly grounded piece which addresses the involvement of the Church today, and calls it from the pride of place and the sidelines to a place that protects its prophetic mantel.
He presents this work — some 62 pages along with a few more for the always helpful, “Further Reading” — in seven succinct chapters. In doing so, he is able to tackle various issues, such as chapter two, entitled Jesus and the Reconstitution of Israel: The Church as the Chosen Nation. Note, that this is not supersessionism, but takes the narrative of Israel and the manner in which it sought to be a political force instead of doing what God had commanded to apply that to the situation of the Church, so that Scriptural Authority is maintained and theological heresy is avoided. After all, the Church often seeks a seat at the Table of Political Discourse, often aligning itself to one political issue or another. And sometimes to one Party or another. And this, this issue of Left and Right, for a lack of a better word, dominionism, is something else that Bevere tackles.
This equity of scrutiny was a rather difficult chapter to deal with, since I usually view the work of Jim Wallis (Sojourners) as not exactly equal in intent to the Religious Right. After all, Wallis is not bent on taking over the American Government in the name of God. Right? However, Bevere makes several salient points, in that taken for what they are, both the Left and the Right have the same goals, to reshape the U.S. into a Christian society through the Government, albeit with different visions of what that society and government should look like. I’ll have to ponder this more, but if Bevere is correct, then his (Not So) Modest Proposal in chapter seven becomes that much more enticing.
Interesting to those of us who constantly rail against Constantine and stand in favor of the separation of Church and State, is chapters three and four, which deal with the Right and the Left, respectively. In doing so, he exposes the flaws in the argument that the Enlightenment helped to end Constantine’s rule and that the United States, following Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, helped to take Government out of Religion. To the author, nothing could be farther from the truth. To the reader, it becomes apparent that some of the Founding Fathers were indeed, as Bevere writes, the Modern Lieutenants of the ancient Roman Emperor. After all, and I’m trying to not reveal too much of the argument, when religion is separated from the Government, but the Government continues to rely upon religion to produce model citizens, the idea of the separation of Church and State becomes little more than propaganda. These chapters feed directly into chapter six, in which he discusses the limitations of the American Church.
And this is his problem. The subtitle of this book is “The Character of the Church in the World” but more often than not, it is about the American Church and the Church in America. Granted, we see European models beginning to develop based on the work of the American Church, but to readers who are not American, the focus on the American Church may seem a little disingenuous. Of course, rarely do we see in other parts of the world, the contention between the Church and the Political Realm as we do in the United States, whether it be from C. Peter Wagner and the descendents of Jerry Falwell on the Right or Wallis and others on the Left. Indeed, as he discusses in chapter five, Americans confuse this country with Ancient Israel (British Israelism, anyone?), and the dangers of this viewpoint.
In the final chapter, Bevere gives his proposal. His is an idea worth considering in light of what the author states, “Until Christendom is abandoned by Christians, the church’s mission and witness in the world will be seriously undermined.” One of the proposals, which struck me the hardest, was his words on our materialism. In this, I’ll have to ponder how to personally respond to this, not because I think he needs it, but he is speaking prophetically, and I believe he is correct. So then, to ignore his words here may do me injustice. Bevere has been truly prophetic in most of his work here. It is not easy to digest all of it, and upon doing so, there may be pieces that may be indigestible; yet, whether or not one completely agrees with his proposal, many of the facets of the proposal are sound enough to reconsider.