Oliver O’Donovan begins the sixth chapter of his Desire of the Nations, a chapter concerned with the status and legitimacy of Christendom, by considering what made the political witness of the early church compelling:
Christ had gone up on high; he had led captivity captive, and given gifts to men. So the nations and rulers of the world were confronted with the rule of God, triumphantly present in a community that owned no other rule. No account of the pre-Nicene church can do it justice if it overlooks the extraordinary missionary triumphalism to which this faith gave rise. These Christians saw themselves riding on the wave of the future, conquering society with the word of truth and the blood of the martyrs, God’s own strategy for success. It was only a matter of time before the pagan empire, too, with its repellant idolatry, would yield before Christ’s army. And so it happened (as it seemed) at the Milvian Bridge.
One way of reading Mere O contributor Tara Isabella Burton’s weekend essay in the New York Times is that it could be an exercise in missionary triumphalism. There’s a swagger to Burton’s prose, no surprise to those who wisely read her regularly. But the swagger isn’t merely the swagger of a gifted stylist, as it had been in Burton’s pre-conversion work.
Rather, it is the swagger of a person who has encountered reality and then, turning back to view the unreal offerings of a world in rebellion against its creator, rightly reckons that reality is far more interesting. This, of course, is precisely what makes both Chesterton and Capon so delightful to read: There’s not a trace of fear in either of them.
What’s more, by drawing in aesthetics and an at times alarmingly transgressive embrace of the traditional liturgical tradition of the western church, Burton perhaps has supplied her readers with a way out of the tedious and tiresome debates about a young Christian left—a debate that we’ve been having concerning millennial Christians since at least the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, if not longer. For Burton and her fellow Weird Christians, it is not that Christian faith has caused them to shift to the left, simply becoming a reliably Democratic voting bloc in the same way the old Religious Right is reliably Republican.
Rather, it is that in embracing Christianity they have embraced a vision of the good life that confounds all of the prominent visions currently on offer in the United States:
More and more young Christians, disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith. As the coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns throw the failures of the current social order into stark relief, old forms of religiosity offer a glimpse of the transcendent beyond the present.
Many of us call ourselves “Weird Christians,” albeit partly in jest. What we have in common is that we see a return to old- school forms of worship as a way of escaping from the crisis of modernity and the liberal-capitalist faith in individualism.
The triumphalism of this vision is a welcome and much-needed recovery. It marks a rejection of the fear that fueled both boomer evangelicalism and boomer Catholicism in different ways. For Boomer Evangelicals, the great fear was that traditional forms of Christian liturgy would prove tiresome and irrelevant to the rising generation. This fear gave birth to a mode of liturgy that is part TED Talk, part youth top 40 concert.
For Boomer Catholics, the great fear was that traditional church teaching would prove unpalatable to young people and irrelevant to the modern world. The result was a hollowing out of the church’s moral teaching which has been and continues to be morally, theologically, and spiritually disastrous. Indeed, it is perhaps worth noting that the arguable high point of the Franciscan papacy has been a moment that, in both form and content, repudiates the fearfulness of boomer Catholicism.
And yet there are dangers for those Christians that Burton profiles in her essay. If a defining ill of the consumeristic Christianity of the boomers has been the development of a curated, self-defined spirituality, then there is more than a whiff of it in the friend who Burton describes tuning in to Latin Masses said at various parishes across the US.
Even in its appeal to ‘punk’ there is perhaps a warning for Burton’s fellow travelers, of whom I am likely one: It is not hard to find Ramones tee-shirts prominently displayed at suburban department stores. It is not hard to find bougie grocery stores that play the Who on the in-store sound system as their customers stroll through the aisles trying to settle on which of the 17 brands of salad dressing they’ll buy to go with their kale salad.
Inherent in the nature of American consumerism is the ability to ingest, assimilate, and spit out even its most strident critics. Anything can be made into a brand and perhaps nothing can be more easily branded than the anti-brand faux-rebelliousness of recent punk culture. If Weird Christianity is to make good on its missionary promise, then it will need to avoid the obvious danger of becoming the Hot Topic to Willow Creek’s Old Navy or Boomer Catholicism’s Land’s End, all of which are welcome at American capitalism’s table.
How will that slide toward unreality be avoided? To begin, it will be avoided by regarding weirdness as an incidental good, but not a goal in itself. Weirdness can be branded and commodified. The Bruderhof? Not so much. But then that is precisely the point: The Bruderhof is not trying to be weird; they are merely trying to be faithful. To paraphrase one of this magazine’s favorite characters, weirdness can only ever be a by-product, never a goal in itself, which is what makes the particular transgressiveness seen at points in Burton’s editorial potentially concerning.
Foregrounding fidelity rather than mere weirdness comes with a possible discomfort of its own: Will weird Christians hold the line on Christian teachings regarding sexuality? Their unflinching commitment to life with regards to the abortion issue is not in question. But there is a striking absence of discussion of sexuality on anything ranging from contraception to LGBT issues in Burton’s column—a point that did not prevent the piece from being ridiculed on precisely these grounds by true cultural progressives:
Yeeaaaahhh sorry I think you're gonna have a hard time making homophobia and misogyny cool again, let alone "punk." And little authoritarians who hate women and are attracted to extremism are not particularly new or interesting. https://t.co/6KUX4nDC79
— Jill Filipovic (@JillFilipovic) May 8, 2020
This, of course, is the thing about missionary triumphalism: It is courageous, joyful, and relentlessly focused on the majesty and beauty of God as he is presented to us in the Christian message. To the extent that weird Christianity likewise shares in these goods, we should rejoice that it is receiving its 15 minutes of fame.
But the triumphalistic Christians of the past shared something more than their property and common joy. Quite often they shared the same place and cause of death. True martyrdom is most certainly weird. But it will never be brandable or, even, punk.