A Peculiar People:
The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society

by Rodney Clapp, InterVarsity Press, 1996, 251 pp.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

This is one of the first books I read in the late 90s written by an evangelical that agrees with the Anabaptist understanding of what happened to the church in the third and fourth centuries. Indeed, Rodney Clapp draws heavily on John Howard Yoder to make the case that the Constantinian Shift, in which the church and state made peace with each other, constituted a captivity of sorts of the church by the state. In a sense the church became a “sponsor” of western civilization, acting as its “chaplain”.

The question is no longer “How can we survive and remain faithful Christians under Caeser?” but now becomes “How can we adjust the church’s expectations so that Caesar can consider himself a faithful Christian?” (26).

Clapp outlines clearly how this sentiment has persisted until the end of the twentieth century. Even the Protestant Reformation did not challenge this church/state synthesis. In North America, while boasting of the separation of church and state, the church has nevertheless continued to play its role as “chaplain” in a broadly defined “Judeo-Christian” culture.

According to Clapp, the pluralistic culture that has emerged in the last century finds it increasingly awkward to recognize the “church as chaplain” in its midst. This awkwardness is augmented, he says, by the rapid demise of the modernism of the last four centuries in the face of a rising postmodernism.

Based on this analysis, Clapp argues that…we Christians find ourselves in a situation much more closely analogous to that of New Testament Christians than to the Christendom for which some nostalgically long (77). So what does that mean for the church? Clapp offers three possible options.

First is the route of sentimental capitulation. By that he means that the church concedes that it has no real message for our changing times, but hangs on sentimentally to some Christian language and practices – anything to avoid being labeled a fundamentalist or a rigidly controlled conservative. This option, Clapp suggests, will spell the death of Christianity.

The second option is retrenchment. Clapp suggest there are various ways to attempt retrenchment. One is to attempt to rebuild a “Christian” nation by using Christian political clout to pass laws in line with Judeo-Christian values – even though there are no card carrying Judeo-Christians around. Another is to remind those in power that religion can be the glue to hold together the disparate parts of a nation. A third is to privatize religion, seeing it as a necessary component to making citizens healthy, wealthy and embodied comfortably in the emerging culture. But all of these attempts will fail, according to Clapp, because through them Christians will still be trying to…perform Constantinian duties in a world that is no longer Constantinian (23).

The only viable option open to the church, according to Clapp, is that of radicalization. Christians must now embrace the theological, political and sociological dead end of Constantinian Christianity. There will be a place for the church in postmodern times, argues Clapp. Not as chaplain of a society they are attempting to “sponsor”, but as unapologetic followers of the Way. And that Way, similar to that of the way of early Christians, will mean a rediscovery of true Christian community.

Much of the book then explores the nature and function of such communities of faith. The bottom line, according to Clapp, is that in order to be viable at all in the context of an emerging postmodernism, the church must reinvent itself in the image of the pre-constantinian church. A tall order indeed. But it is the only faithful way into the future, according to Clapp. And I agree.