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Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity

Jonathan Malesic.
Published by Brazos Press in 2009

That we Americans live in a radically pluralist society is no secret. For some time now, there has been concern among thoughtful Christians that America may be heading down the same road that Europe trod in recent decades – the road to a radically secular, post-Christian society. However, this trend is called into question, increasingly, as Americans seem more inclined to embrace a kind of religious syncretism than to abandon religious faith altogether.

Thus, in America, we do not have too little religion in public life; we may have too much. Whereas in Europe political pundits and politicians may be disinclined to speak about their faith in public or to offer distinctively religious arguments to justify their various policy positions, Americans are quite different. Indeed, here in the United States, nearly every policy position imaginable is given a religious rationale by someone. With regard to the Christian faith traditions, for example, conservative Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants often enter the public square in opposition to abortion and gay marriage and perhaps in support of free market principles and American expansionism. In contrast, mainline Protestants and other liberal Christians tend to oppose the very policies that conservative Christians support and support nearly everything they oppose. And of course, both groups base their arguments on, what seems to them, biblical and theological grounds.

One of the strange consequences of the hyper-politicized Christianity found in America is that words like “conservative” and “liberal” can be more important identity markers than words like “Catholic” and “Protestant” or even, God help us, Christian and non-Christian. Thus, many Protestant evangelicals find that they have far more in common with conservative Roman Catholics than they do with liberal Protestants. Likewise, conservative Christians of various stripes may have far more in common with their fellow non-Christian conservatives than they do with liberal Christians. What we often find in America, then, is a Christianity that has become highly conformed to the social and political context within which it exists. Moreover, the American public square is so saturated with religious language that public figures often appeal to religion in order to promote their own careers. If a politician hopes to be elected, for example, then she is wise to talk about her faith openly in order to gain sympathy from a highly religious public.

Perhaps no theologian has been more critical of this trend than Stanley Hauerwas. Forover three decades, Hauerwas has argued that the Church must not draw its identity from the surrounding culture. The Church must learn to be the Church, first and foremost. Christian communities need to be clearly distinctive from non-Christians and consequently offer a clearly distinctive witness. We are betraying the gospel, argues Hauerwas, if we offer little more than biblical and theological justifications for largely secular social and political platforms. For Hauerwas, the Church must be distinctive in order to get its witness right, since the Church’s public witness is at the heart of its mission to serve the world.

Importantly, Jonathan Malesic’s Secret Faith in the Public Square is largely in agreement with Hauerwas’ critique of the role played by Christians in American public life. Malesic, like Hauerwas, believes that the Christian faith should be clearly distinctive and that Christians must struggle to avoid accommodation to an unchristian culture. However, Malesic’s prescription differs from that of Hauerwas, and this book is largely meant, it seems, to offer Christians sympathetic with Hauerwas’ views an alternative way forward. What Malesic suggests is that when “Christian identity is thought to be useful largely to confer status on someone . . . then the true purpose of being a member of the . . . church has been lost” (23). Accordingly, his objective is “to show how American Christians can save their religious identity from their own opportunistic impulses” (21) by keeping their identities secret.

The book has an introduction, nine chapters, and an epilogue. Part 1 includes six chapters and focuses on the concealment of Christian identity in three historical figures: Cyril of Jerusalem, Søren Kierkegaard, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Part 2 offers Malesic’s constructive proposal and includes just three chapters, the last of which seeks to distinguish this project more clearly from that of Stanley Hauerwas. A brief epilogue explores the theme of secrecy in two works of fiction: Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor and The Moviegoer, by WalkerPercy.

Although Cyril of Jerusalem, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer may seem like an odd mix offigures to focus on, they all have in common a context where Christians figured prominentlyin the public square, and they all recommended strategies for extracting the Church from apotentially corrupting culture. With Cyril of Jerusalem, the context was the fourth-centuryRoman Empire. The Constantinian shift was underway, and the church ranks were swelling.Indeed, becoming a Christian was now advantageous socially and politically. In order toclarify the boundaries between Christianity and the larger culture, Cyril practiced the “disci-pline of the secret,” which was a “liturgical practice of withholding all knowledge of thesacraments from catechumens until their baptism” (35). This practice, according to Malesic,helped the church maintain an identity that was clearly distinct during an important time oftransition. The context for Kierkegaard’s work was quite different. His mid-nineteenth-cen-tury Danish milieu was that of late Christendom and the early stages of “consumer capital-ism” (78). In his Works of Love, Kierkegaard advocated a kind of “secret faith” that entailedanonymous acts of charity and neighbor-love as a means of subverting bourgeois cultureand its deformed view of love, which is based on ideas of commercial reciprocity.

Bonhoeffer ’s circumstances are well known. He lived and worked at a time when therewas far more at stake than the Church’s accommodation to culture. The German Christians,instead, were being consumed by a truly demonic and imperialistic nationalism. In this con-text, Bonhoeffer advocated a “secret” identity for Christians where “professions of faith,prayer, and the liturgy and sacraments” were performed “behind closed doors” and onlyamong other Christians (123). Such secrecy, Malesic suggests, “is a strategy meant to addressthe church’s need to preserve its member ’s distinctive identity at a specific moment in thehistory of its contact with the secular” (124).

When Malesic begins to clarify his proposal in the final chapters, he addresses a number of questions that arise naturally in response to his project. How, for example, is the church to fulfill its role as witness to the world if much of its character remains secret? Are there hidden dimensions and public dimensions of the faith? How do we hold these different dimensions together? What about evangelism? I will not attempt to explain Malesic’s answers to these questions here, though I will suggest that they seem sound. As I have already mentioned, the final chapter focuses on the distinction between this project and that of Stanley Hauerwas. Much of the discussion is focused on, what Malesic believes is, Hauerwas’ failure to appreciate the importance of secrecy and invisibility in Bonhoeffer ’s thought. Whereas Bonhoeffer believed that the church’s sacramental and liturgical life should remain secret because it would have to be corrupted in order to be made comprehensible to a rebellious world, Hauerwas contends that liturgy and sacraments offer a witness to the world because they tell the story that Christians believe has the power to “re-narrate” the world (234-235). Although this is a helpful chapter, it would have been better if Malesic had engaged a broader array of Hauerwas’ writings. One wonders whether the difference between their positions is, in large measure, a matter of emphasis. I will leave it for those more familiar with Hauerwas’ oeuvre than I am to decide.

Although the book’s title is provocative, and the thesis could be misinterpreted as quite novel, what Malesic is really advocating is as old as the Christian faith itself and very much alive in more liturgical traditions. We Christians must be very careful to draw our identities from Jesus Christ and not from secular culture. Because the world does not know Christ, we should expect that our corporate worship, especially, will be a mystery to the world. We should not expect that our vision of Christ’s coming Kingdom will be easily translatable into the language of the public square. Learning the mystery of liturgy and sacrament is necessarily to embrace Christ’s kingdom, which is unseen by many because, though it is always coming, it is not yet fully here. In our prayers, and in the love we show to others, the counter-cultural wisdom of the eternal Logos must be determinative. We should not expect a rebellious world to understand. We offer a credible witness to secular culture only if much of our life together remains secret.

Although readers may have difficulty determining exactly what Malesic is proposing in the early chapters of this book, the second part brings things together nicely. This is a book that should be of interest to anyone concerned about the integrity of Christian worship and witness in secular culture.

Cite this article
Bryan C. Hollon, “Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 331-333

Bryan C. Hollon

Malone University
Bryan C. Hollon is Professor of Theology at Malone University.