Book Review: ‘Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy’ by Luke Bretherton

Review by Bryan McGraw. Bryan McGraw is dean of social sciences and associate professor of politics at Wheaton College.

It’s no secret that the last number of years have been rather dispiriting, socially and politically, for Christians of almost all stripes in the United States. For social conservatives, the constitutional affirmation of gay marriage and the attendant shift in Americans’ views on sex and sexuality more generally showed just how much their political strategies of the last 40 years have failed, leading some of them to throw their lot in with someone of rather questionable personal and political pedigree, Donald Trump. For progressives, Trump’s election in 2016 heralded a potential reversal in what they had hoped for on all manner of issues of “social justice.” For all believers, the seeming secularization, especially of younger Americans, heralds a future within which Christians will again need to think deeply about the nature and purpose of politics and their relation to the American democratic order.

For several decades now, one of the more interesting voices trying to help Christians (in the US and elsewhere) think about these sorts of issues has been the British scholar Luke Bretherton, now a professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School. Bretherton has written extensively about the interrelationship of Christianity and democracy with an eye toward encouraging Christians to embrace democracy as a comprehensive social ethos, not just as a pretty decent means of organizing politics. His latest book, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, pulls together a number of previously published articles and threads them together with some new writing in an attempt to help us map out how living in the midst of our pluralist, conflict-ridden, and often frustrating democratic polities can help inform—and be informed by—the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

A Mapping Exercise

Though Bretherton often offers what amounts to a pretty standard set of politically progressive nostrums—he seems particularly vexed by market capitalism—the book is not merely a brief for whatever currently passes for liberal politics in contemporary Western democracies. He also knocks certain strands of liberation theology for being overly indebted to “worldly” frames of social analysis, expresses skepticism regarding some aspects of state-centric social democratic programs, and suggests that too much of modern “humanitarianism” functions as a kind of noblesse oblige, salving the conscience of the rich without materially changing the causes of unjust poverty. The reader who attempts to pull out any kind of straightforward political program or even a detailed political theology is likely to finish rather frustrated.

But that is hardly a vice, for the book really is a mapping exercise, a set of theological and practical reflections that emerge out of Bretherton’s own engagement with particular theological and political traditions and the sorts of practical problems we find all around us. Indeed, the book sometimes feels like a bit of a bewildering slog, as it churns through arguments about black theology, Pentecostalism, sovereignty, the global economy, and much else over the course of 14 chapters and roughly 460 pages. I suspect that a book about half the size would have really sparkled, but I also suspect that in cutting so much, he would have undermined the purpose of his theological method. At some point, I came to realize—and I hope this was his intent—that engaging this long list of particular subjects is precisely the point: Understanding how to think about the world in light of Christ necessarily means allowing the world to help us make sense of Christ’s revelation. And that means working through others’ views and experiences.

In one sense, this is both right and necessary. The democratic order, for example, is premised on the inalienable dignity of the human person, and though Christianity and Judaism bore that truth into the world, we Christians have only come to realize its political implications in any kind of full-bodied way through an engagement with modernity, even if modernity itself is always simultaneously attempting to draw from and escape its own theological sources. We have and should learn even from our most vociferous critics. So regardless of whether we might agree with Bretherton’s particular judgments in this or that case, the book as a whole is a reminder that even the most abstract attempt to reflect theologically on the nature and purpose of politics will find itself caught up in the particular contexts of its day—and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Source: Christianity Today