Seeing Christ Embodied in Healthy and Mature Ways.
A Review of
Mark Van Steenwyk.
Christian Archy. (Areopagus Critical Christian Issues Series)
Reviewed by Chris Smith
Christianity. Anarchism. The two, I imagine, would be understood by most people as at odds with each other. I have long been inclined to think that they are compatible and was pleasantly surprised to find these two recent books that seek to reconcile the two: David Alan Black’s Christian Archy and Mark Van Steenwyk’s That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism. Both books are brief, helpful introductions, more like pamphlets in format than books, perhaps a tip of the hat to the long tradition of anarchist pamphleteering.
Black’s Christian Archy takes a conceptual approach, choosing to survey the biblical and theological literature on the Kingdom of God from the perspective of Christian anarchism. “There is perhaps no clearer example of the church’s misguided appropriation of the world,” begins Black, “than the god of nationalism. Instead of following Jesus, whose kingdom is marked by powerless love, we have attempted to use Christianity to support worldly power” (1). Black proceeds to recognize the influence that the work of Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller have had on his thought. The remainder of the book reads like an very basic introduction to the key ideas of both of these important thinkers. The book is obviously aimed at (more conservative) church audiences that have a basic grasp on both the Bible and theology. The middle chapters of the book introduce the basic tenets of “Christian Archy” and its implications, explore the relationship between church and kingdom, and a chapter on “the power of the powerless (people of God).” The material it covers is good and works pretty well as an introductory survey, but it seems to move way too quickly, leaving one with many questions, particularly in the church and kingdom chapter.
Van Steenwyk’s That Holy Anarchist, is the more rooted of the two books, introducing not only Christo-Anarchism (as the author prefers to call it), but also the historical tradition of anarchism. This little volume is offered as a basic survey of the intersections of these two ways of being, noting a conspicuous lack of such introductory works, as the existing works on these intersections tend to be “academic, expensive, laboriously long, or written by long-dead Russians.” Van Steenwyk, however, begins with an examination of the kingdom of God – or as he puts it, the unkingdom of God, as a means of distinguishing that it is completely different from the kingdoms of this world. Then, he proceeds, very wisely to define what he means by both anarchism and Christianity. This is a very helpful and necessary chapter, as misunderstandings abound on both sides. He then proceeds to offer a “brief survey of Anarchic Christian History,” weaving a thread through the centuries of the Christian tradition, including the Early Church, the Bogomils, the Lollards, the Anabaptists, the Quakers and Catholic Workers, and then offers a few brief thoughts on the meaning of this history and how we might interpret it. “While some groups influenced later groups, there isn’t a successive chain of radical Christianity. The anarchic impulse,” says Van Steenwyk, “isn’t passed down through the ages like a baton. Rather it emerges and re-emerges. I believe that the Spirit of God creates anarchy.”
The book’s next chapter examines the “anarchic impulses in scripture,” and Van Steenwyk works to refute the assumption that anarchism isn’t biblical, a tricky hermeneutic question. He suggests an answer to this question by sketching a basic reading of the biblical story that is compatible with anarchism. The book concludes with a couple of insightful chapters that name some of the tensions between anarchism and Christianity, the foremost of which is the temptation to collapse one into the other.
Van Steenwyk’s That Holy Anarchist proves successful in its efforts to be a clear and helpful introductory work, and likely will be the book that I recommend to people inquiring about the possibility of Christo-Anarchism . For readers coming from very conservative evangelical traditions, Black’s book might be a better choice. I wish that all Christians would take the Kingdom (or unKingdom) of God as seriously and as thoughtfully as both these authors do, for then we would be much further down the road in seeing Christ embodied in healthy and mature ways.