Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective

June 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

babel-and-beastI don’t usually read books on politics. I did review Grudem’s Politics According to The Bible a while back, but that might be the only book that was expressly political. In conjunction with my lack of political reading, I don’t usually read a lot of books on America, either from a pre-millennial eschatological perspective or otherwise. But one thing I do, is read books by Peter Leithart. So, when he writes a book about America and empires in biblical perspective, I do what I can to take and read.

Leithart is a Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho and serves on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church. He has written numerous books, and as he explains, the present book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective, is a kind of book length footnote to Defending Constantine (x). He then cautions, “If you are not the kind of person who likes reading footnotes, you ought, as Lemony Snicket would say, set this book down immediately and look for something less wonkish for your beach reading.”

When I read that, I knew this would be another Leithart book I liked (because unlike endnotes, I love reading footnotes).

But then, I read Leithart’s further warning and knew I was in for a treat:

My reading of Scripture will offend scholars whose political sympathies incline toward the left, but the reading of American history that occupies the latter half of this book will offend Christians whose political sympathies incline toward the right (x).

Leithart thus wants to challenge “popular understandings of American history and the political stances that result from them.” As he continues:

For a generation, conservative Christians have accepted and taught a one-sidely rosy view of America’s Christian past, and in practice Christians have confused “restoring America” with promotion of God’s kingdom and His justice. Against this American mythology, I contend that the “American faith,” though unthinkable without the heritage of Christendom, represents a heretical departure from the political heritage of the church. American Christians need to assess our past accurately if we are going to act faithfully in the present. Until American churches actually function as outposts of Jesus’ heavenly empire rather than as cheerleaders for America – until the churches produce martyrs rather than patriots – the political witness of Christians will continue to be diluted and co-opted (xi).

As you might expect, Leithart anticipates offending many (“I expect to offend many, perhaps everyone.” – Leithart) but sees stumbling blocks as necessary. I’m not sure we have to pick between martyrs and patriots (a concluding point of his), or if I fully want to follow Leithart’s ultimate practical suggestions. But, I think his book presents a necessary corrective and critique on how Christians view America. Since it is delivered from within conservative evangelicalism rather than from without, I think it will gain more traction. But then again, Leithart is often a voice from the margins (he does live in Idaho).

Overview

As for the actual flow of his book, Leithart divides it up into 3 parts. First, and perhaps most valuable, he presents a survey of the biblical presentation of empires, or a kind of biblical theology of empire. He spans everything from the pre-flood cities of Cain and Lamech to the harlot Babylon in Revelation. Chapter 1 presents a tale of two imperialisms: God’s and Babel’s. Chapter 2 fleshes this out further and introduces the concept of a messianic empire, as well as a beastly empire. As he concludes:

The struggle of the Old Testament is not empire verses non-empire, but between rival imperialisms, rival visions for the political salvation of a human race divided linguistically, culturally, and religiously in the wake of the rebellion at Babel. This is why empire is always a seduction for Abraham’s children. For Israel, looking at Babel is like looking in the mirror. Israel is a parody of Babelic empire, and empires counterfeits of Israel (33).

Chapter 3 then moves into the New Testament, simultaneously fleshing out the vision of the messianic empire known as the kingdom of God and the ultimately beastly empire seen most clearly in Revelation.

Part 2 is more historical and starts with a chapter revising our understanding of America. It is titled “Heretic Nation” and here Leithart fleshes out the roots of “Americanism.” In the introduction he defines this as “the fundamental theology of the American order, a quasi-Christian, biblical laced heresy” (xi-xii). Its roots go back to the Puritan settlers, the Founding, and the Civil War. Leithart explains further in chapter 4:

“Americanism” was initially constructed from the misshapen fragments of the metapolitical outlook of Christendom. The Puritan Founders of New England were orthodox Christians in all their theological beliefs, but they laid the foundations for Americanism because of their tendency toward a nationalist, an-ecclesial reading of Scripture, their enthusiasm for nationalistic eschatology, and their privatization and individualization of the Eucharist. As Americanism developed, these tendencies settled into habits, and the result was the fourth great biblical religion (66).

The reading of Scripture he mentions tends to confuse typology related to the kingdom of God with America, resulting in a confused eschatology in which America is the political future to which all nations should aspire. This can go hand in hand with a notion of sacrifice that confuses patriotism with martyrdom (which was mentioned above in this review) and makes the American community the primary sacred community rather than the church.

Chapter 5 then explains America’s relationship to the broader world, especially highlighting our forays into empire building early in our history. Leithart sees America as acting “neither more or less foolishly or wickedly than other nations have” (109). We have more or less acted like a Babel but have thought to ourselves “that we are fulfilling a divine mission on behalf of the human race.”

This is fleshed out further in part 3 which starts with a chapter on America’s activity as a Babelic empire. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, but is a reminder that there is only one kingdom of God, and it’s not America. Acting as a Babel is where most empires find themselves, though it is not the “cherubic” or guardian-like ideal.

In chapter 7 Leithart explores how America is prone to consort among beastly empires like Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other lesser beasts. This chapter, along with chapter 6, is a well-researched treatise on current events in American politics, though not necessarily the events that make the news. Leithart makes a good case that America is in a precarious position, one of being between being a Babel or a Beast. We certainly aren’t beastly at the moment, but Americanism actually lends itself toward beastial policies which are what lead to persecution of the church. We are perhaps seeing hints of that in current events, but time will tell.

Conclusion

Overall, I think Leithart’s work is most valuable in its descriptive aims. He clearly loves America and the church even as he critiques the former out of his more zealous love of the latter. He identifies the problem as Americanism, not so much the nation of America per se. This keeps him from demonizing empire in general and American in particular. Because he has rooted his study in a biblical theology of empire, he is able to evaluate America’s imperial status more objectively. His concluding thoughts offer his vision for a way forward that I don’t think all will agree with, even if they like his reorienting of our understanding of America. He basically presents a call to martyrdom that will force America in its Babelic state “either to acknowledge Jesus as imperator and the church as God’s imperium or the begin drinking holy blood” (i.e. become a beastly empire). Whether or not that is the way to do things is probably a question for a different post, but it gives you an idea of where Leithart is coming from.

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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