America’s Sense of Mission

Russell Blackford

The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth: Restoring Our Democratic Ideals, by Burton L. Mack (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017, ISBN 9780300222890) 310 pp. Hardcover, $28.00.

 


Burton L. Mack is a prominent scholar in the field of early Christian history. He is the author of an extensive body of work examining the origins of Christianity up to and including the all-important fourth century CE, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. He’s especially noted for investigating Christianity’s pagan sources and influences and is well placed to tell the story of its rise to a position of power under a series of late Roman emperors beginning with Constantine the Great. This is also the story of how Christianity, with its pacifist elements and its emphasis on humility, became an aggressively proselytizing and exceptionally persecutorial religion.

During the reign of Constantine, the Church consolidated its doctrines and established its canon of sacred texts. Thereafter, throughout the fourth century and beyond, it swelled in worldly power as well as moral and spiritual authority. After the fall of the Western half of the Empire, the Church became the dominant political force in Europe, involving itself in all aspects of public and private life in the Empire’s successor kingdoms. This arc could be thought of as the rise of the Christian myth, but Mack’s new book, The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth, tells us little about it. True, there is some interesting discussion of Christian origins in the first few chapters but with little detail or novelty. Thereafter, the whole idea of a rise of the Christian myth falls away. Unexpectedly, Mack also tells us very little about the fall of the Christian myth or if this signifies the Church’s loss of power and credibility since the arrival of European modernity (say, five hundred years ago).

According to Mack’s account, the Church invented a model of religion based on the ancient idea of an “aristocratic temple-state and its cosmic myth of the Kingdom of God.” It developed a notion of divine sovereignty to structure its own hierarchy and “to preside over the actual kingdoms within its sphere of influence as their moral conscience.” In the end, however, its power was eroded by a series of grand historical changes:

But [the Catholic Church] was hardly prepared for the Enlightenment or the Protestant Reformation, the demise of feudalism, and the emergence of the nation-state. All of these historical changes in social practice and formation were rooted in interests other than cultivating righteousness or indulging the church’s interest in piety.

This makes for a fascinating story, but you’re warned that Mack simply does not tell it. There is still much to uncover about how and why Christianity declined in its political power and its intellectual and moral credibility. There’s a lively debate among historians as to the relative impacts of urbanization, the rise of modern science, and other tendencies that arguably undermined its role. But the two sentences that I’ve quoted immediately above this paragraph are fairly much all that Mack has to say on the subject.

Thus, his focus is not in any sense on the rise and/or fall of Christianity or of the Christian myth (however that is understood). If anything, his subject matter is the remarkable persistence of the Christian myth—at least in a restricted sense and at least in the United States of America. He describes and laments certain aspects of continued religiosity in the United States, but what has persisted, in his view, is no more than a certain mentality that he understands as a Christian one. This has survived in the attitudes of the U.S. government and military, even after losing its hold on the imaginations and loyalties of ordinary Americans. It underlies ideas of American exceptionalism and the influential conception of the United States as a global policeman:

We have pared down “Christianity” to its “myth” and then to its “mythic grammar” and finally to its cultural mentality. It will be the unacknowledged cultural mentality of the Western tradition in its American formation that we will want to trace as the underlying cultural logic that allows our representatives to rationalize our “missions” abroad.

Thus, Mack blames most of what he sees as wrong with the world, and especially with American society, on the “lingering strength” of a certain kind of religious mentality within American politics. He claims that many aspects of American politics reveal “an unexamined acceptance of the Christian concept of being the chosen people, having divine privilege, and being charged with a mission to lead the world” and so interfere with the affairs of many other nations. In this account, the U.S. government/military attitude has been one of evaluating foreign cultures as essentially fallen or worse, “and thus in need of instruction and conversion, never appreciation and understanding.”

Looking back on the book, near the end, Mack alleges that a culture of late capitalism (a term that he borrows from Fredric Jameson) has displaced the mentality of Christianity for most Americans, but that a Christian mentality of mission prevails within governmental and military circles, wreaking international havoc. Summarizing the entire thesis, Mack states: “We discovered that what was left of Christendom’s big picture was not the memory of an epic narrative couched in a cosmic universe but only a mentality that gave privilege to Western attitudes of superiority and power.”

Speaking for myself, I doubt that I discovered any such thing in the process of reading The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth. Though Mack makes numerous assertions about the political effects of an ongoing Christian mentality, he provides little detailed evidence and connecting argument. At most, he offers one way of looking at, or interpreting, Western (especially American) history and politics.

Much as I dislike any religious influence on government actions, it is not clear to me, at least from reading The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth, that Christianity itself, anything that could be called the Christian myth, or even a Christian mentality of some kind, has exerted a major influence on recent American foreign policy. If there’s a case to make out, it must be found elsewhere—not in this book—and developed independently. It would have been far easier for Mack to demonstrate a Christian influence on the widespread resistance, in the United States and elsewhere, to LGBT rights and women’s abortion rights, but he shows no interest in these issues. Likewise, he might have discussed America’s relative sexual puritanism compared with most of Europe. (If anything, however, he seems to dislike contemporary “libertine” Western morality.)

Much of the book consists of lengthy denunciations of corporate capitalism. They may be justified, at least in part, because capitalism’s imperative of constant economic growth does indeed require restraints, especially to obviate the environmental impacts. On its face, however, this seems to have little to do with Christianity or a Christian myth or mentality. Early last century, Max Weber argued that Protestantism, especially its Calvinist variants, historically encouraged capitalist enterprise. However, Weber’s thesis is out of favor with historians, and Mack does not rely upon the same reasoning or provide convincing evidence of his own.

We can blame Christianity for the persistence in the United States of Christian conservative politics and thus a focus on so-called “values issues.” But Christianity may deserve little, if any, blame for nuclear pollution, conflicts about nuclear proliferation, out-of-control weapons manufacturing, the rapid arming of militias in developing countries, global warming from human activities, very great national and global wealth inequalities, ongoing violence and instability in the Middle East, and political deadlocks in Washington, D.C. Could a case be made to implicate Christianity, or a Christian mentality, in at least some of these problems? Yes, almost certainly. My frustration is that The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth never makes the case. Its style of argument is far too loose and impressionistic.

Mack does offer a positive vision of a desirable social and international order. This, I infer, is what is meant by the subtitle Restoring Our Democratic Ideals. He urges that the United States become a social democracy and embrace cultural diversity. He asks for America to work with the established European social democracies, the European Union, and the United Nations “for a global world of social democracies” and “a polycultural global civilization.” This is possibly noble, but there is no detail about how it could be achieved or how it would operate.

A few paragraphs ago, I quoted a passage that commences with talk of paring Christianity down to its myth and then to its mythic grammar and cultural mentality. In just those two sentences, Mack places the words or expressions Christianity, myth, mythic grammar, and missions in quotation marks, though he is not discussing them as linguistic items but using them in the ordinary way. Such profligate use of scare quotes is typical of his prose. For example, he writes, “Then there was the 9/11 ‘attack’ on the World Trade Center towers that traumatized all of us Americans.” But why place the word attack in scare quotes as if it were not really an attack? Similarly, he discusses “the 9/11 event that the Bush administration called a ‘terrorist attack,’” and he continues throughout the volume to place the word terrorist in scare quotes.

To be fair, the boundaries of what counts as terrorism are contested by jurists, political scientists, political philosophers, and others. However, Mack ought to provide his own analysis of the concept if he is going to use scare quotes continually, with the implication that 9/11 and other atrocities usually regarded as clear-cut examples of terrorism were not really terrorism. Elsewhere, he places ordinary words and expressions such as selfies, social media, and texting in quotations marks in contexts where they are being used straightforwardly and are not being identified and analyzed as linguistic items.

Some of this is explicable. As he spells out clearly at one point, Mack rejects, or at least doubts, much of the terminology used in contemporary political discourse. Hence, he strives continually to create a sense of distance from it. Filling the text with scare quotes that are largely unexplained certainly conveys that much, as well as a certain distaste, but it is taken to such lengths that it renders some of the book’s prose almost unreadable. To make matters worse, Mack also employs knowing, insider wordplay such as his unexplained and repetitive use of “dis-ease” to mean “uneasiness” or “anxiety.” A point is conveyed, of course, but the device palls quickly.

By contrast, he is happy enough to write as follows: “Planet Earth has been talking back to the industrial civilization of the West. America has been having trouble hearing what the planet is saying to us.” Notice that there are no scare quotes around the words talking back, hearing, or saying. This is just as well, since the text is clear without them, but none of these words or phrases applies literally. Mack is thus willing to use figurative language when it suits his rhetorical purpose, all the while liberally sprinkling scare quotes around language that is not figurative. This is a linguistic performance calculated to appeal to the like-minded, but it will surely make the book less persuasive to anyone who is not already sympathetic to its politics.

The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth discusses important issues to do with America’s current political mindset. It is not really about the historical rise and fall of the Christian myth or even, exactly, about restoring democratic ideals. Rather, it proposes a new direction for American politics: one that is more welcoming of non-Western cultures and in general more along the lines of European social democracies. This might be independently defensible, but Mack does not justify it convincingly, and in that sense his book is disappointing.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.


Burton L. Mack is a prominent scholar in the field of early Christian history. He is the author of an extensive body of work examining the origins of Christianity up to and including the all-important fourth century CE, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

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