Sullivan Responds

In a post I wrote yesterday critical of Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek article “Christianity in Crisis,” I noted that works of power were and are necessary for the transmission of the Gospels’ practical messages.  Sullivan responds:

Well: duh. I did not write that Christians live in an unfallen world in which power doesn’t exist. Of course we don’t. We are constantly exercizing power in different ways, and the Gospels are, of course, a product of the struggle for power between various sets of Jesus’ followers. But that was Jefferson’s point! His project was to try to extract from the New Testament those words of Jesus that he believed were the least infected by this. And my modest proposal is to return to that spirit in seeking a faith as far removed from power, violence and coercion as humanly possible.

Depending on what we mean by “power,” I seek a similar faith myself, but a lot rests on what kind of power we’re talking about.  Contra Sullivan, I don’t read the crucifixion as symbolic of “a total renunciation of worldly power,” because a degree of worldly power–religious, if not state–is needed to sustain the crucifixion’s symbolism.  Yes, Jesus refused earthly power and said his kingdom was not of this world.  Good thing too, because I’m as opposed as Sullivan to the marriage of church and state.

However, even if we follow in the footsteps of Jefferson and remove from the bible any mention of Jesus formally instituting a church and arrive at only the practical doctrines of Jesus himself, we still find a person implicitly calling for the exercise of worldly power: the power to speak, to record, to translate, and–where power really comes into play–to interpret.

Power is a dangerous thing, of course, and religious power is no exception.  I can understand the desire to seek a faith as far removed from power as humanly possible, though I gather Sullivan and I disagree on how far removed faith and worldly power should be.  Historically Christians have been horrible at exercising power, religious or otherwise.  Distance would seem to be called for, but as religion presupposes a degree of worldly power, I propose that Christians out to learn how to wield power wisely, responsibly and virtuously, rather than renounce power in an effort to embody some sense of  “sheer Christianity.”

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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4 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    I would maintain that the greatest role of interpretation, where it amounts to power, is involved in explaining away the plain message of Jesus’ teachings, in order that they might be brought into conformity with the demards of worldly power: e.g. Give all you own to the poor and follow me. That needs no interpretation until one decides that one can’t live with what it plainly says, at which point one begins to spin it.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      You arrive at even plain meaning by means of interpretation. Moreover, it’s through interpretation that you conclude that the plain, surface meaning is the meaning you ought to take (or not take, or take in addition to other meanings).

  2. Rodak says:

    Perhaps. But to say that is only to do a little dance away from the point that I’m making rather than addressing it. The only question with a teaching such as the one I used above as an example is whether it is to be taken literally, or as some kind of metaphor. I refer to the way Jesus himself lived, and the way he instructed his disciples to live, to contend that He meant it literally. But we can’t do it. Or won’t. That’s the problem. It wouldn’t allow for such an elaborate institution as the Church, for one thing.