"I don’t think you’re starting another religion; you’re doing something else entirely. I am a religious consultant, not a political revolutionary. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to work together . . . "
The Church can cut across the grain of existing human social and cultural life only if she bears some likeness to existing societies. If she is a completely different sort of thing, then societies and nations and empires can go on their merry way ignoring the Church, or, equally deadly, find some murky alleyway to push her into.
But if the Church is God’s society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city, then a territorial conflict is inevitable.
Year: Sometime in the mid-first century A.D.
Scene: Conference room, Barnus Marketing Consultants, Jerusalem office.
Characters: Georgus Barnus, religious marketing consultant; two weather-beaten fishermen named Peter and John; and a spry, sharp-eyed former Pharisee named Paul.
Barnus (consulting a parchment): I understand, gentlemen, that you want to start what we in the business call a “New Religious Movement”—or “nirm” for short. Is that right?
John: I suppose so.
Barnus: I should tell you the market is flooded. There are more religions on offer today than you can imagine. And just because you come from the East doesn’t give you any edge. Lots of nirms are coming from Persia and further east, and they’re spilling over into Asia and as far as Rome. Maybe you should consider some other line of business. Are you sure you can make it in this market?
Peter: But we have the truth. Those other religions serve false gods, and the living God has commissioned us to take good news to all men.
Barnus: Sure. Well, I’m a consultant, and I wanted to make sure that you knew what you were getting into. Full disclosure and all that; we don’t want to end up with some messy lawsuit, do we? Anyway, the first thing we do in this kind of situation is scope out the market, see who the competition is, and find our niche.
Peter: Ah, Mr. Barnus. I need to explain something. You’ve mentioned the market a few times. But we meet in houses, not in the market. Barnus (chuckling): No, no. I see the mistake. You’ve misunderstood me. This is quite funny. I’m using market in a metaphorical sense. Imagine there’s a market place where people are selling religious things. . . .
John: Like amulets and calves’ livers?
Barnus: No, no. Eternal life, satisfaction, contentment, that sort of thing.
John: I see.
Barnus: Very good. Now, I’m suggesting that we think of the various religious options around the Roman world as a “market” in this metaphorical sense. All kinds of religious goods are being offered, there are different methods of “payment,” and so on. We need to know where you fit in. What are you offering? Who is offering the same kind of goods? Who’s the competition? How do people pay? Is your “price” competitive?
Paul: OK. What can you tell us about this “market”? (making quotation marks with his fingers).
Barnus: You said you meet in houses? Maybe the thing to do is position yourself as an alternative to traditional household religions. That would be a tough market to get into, though. Household religions thrive on being dusty and ancient; not many new “household” religions get off the ground. As you know, domestic, ancestral religions are among the oldest and most venerated religions in the Roman world and in Asia. Roman households are all equipped with hearth fires that not only serve as furnaces but as domestic altars. A portion of every meal is tossed into the fire as an offering to the ancestors who are, in some way, identified with the flame. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
John: Yes, that might work. After all, Jesus taught us to call one another brothers, and we do think of ourselves as the “household of God.”
Peter: That’s right. Our worship, Mr. Barnus, includes a meal; we have older men who lead the church and teach us; and we do have women and children in our assemblies. We do want to cultivate the atmosphere of a family.
John: And Jesus said that we had to leave father and mother to cling to Him. He taught us that we are a new family “competing” (fingering quotation marks) with old families.
Paul: This is all true. But you are both forgetting something very important.
Peter: What’s that?
Paul: We are a household and a family, but we’re not connected by blood. You see, Mr. Barnus, we have Jews and Gentiles in our gatherings, and people from every land and tribe and tongue. That’s part of the good news God wants us to preach. While we may be a household, we’re a very unusual sort of household.
Peter (blushing): Of course. How could I have forgotten that?
Barnus: Let’s list “household religion” as a “subordinate competitor,” then. But we still need to figure out your main competition. Would you say that you’re a “client cult”?
John: Could you explain that a bit?
Barnus: Certainly. A client cult is a specialty religion, you might say. Each god has a particular capability—say, healing disease—and his priests are able to communicate that benefit to cult members.
Paul: Yes, I know how this works. A person approaches the priest of one cult on Monday for help in his business, and goes to another priest of a completely different god on Wednesday to ensure a safe pregnancy for his wife.
Peter: Well, that’s nothing like what we’re talking about. It sounds as if client cults don’t demand the kind of devotion we expect. That really is like a marketplace.
Barnus: That’s right. Client cults have adherents, but nobody “converts” to a client cult.
John: And the gods of those cults are nothing like the God we serve. We’re apostles of the Creator of all things, not a “specialty god.” He’s one God, the only God, and He demands that we worship and serve Him alone.
Barnus: Do you mean that you expect your members to abandon all the other cults?
John: That’s right.
Barnus: Well, you might want to reconsider that. That’s a pretty steep price to pay. You may not be competitive.
John: We’ll take our chances.
Peter: I just had another thought. Client cults don’t really form a community, do they? If clients come and go as they please, it’s every man for himself.
Barnus: Good point. I can see you’re talking about a completely different set-up. Client cults are not really the main competition. What about mystery religions? You know, those cults with secret initiation rituals and all that stuff about dying and rising with the gods. They have a more communal feel to them, and they talk a lot about “salvation” for their worshipers.
Paul: I’ve never had much time for mystery religions.
John: Neither have I. But we do have a rite of initiation that’s all about dying and rising with Jesus. At least that’s similar. And I’ve heard that some of those mystery religions actually wash their initiates, just like in baptism.
Peter: I’ve heard that too. But, if I understand it right, those baths are not the initiation; they are just preparation for a very complicated initiation. It’s not much like baptism at all, really. We just dip them in water, say a prayer, and it’s over. That is the initiation. Remember Pentecost? If we had to put all those converts through a mystery initiation, we’d still be doing it.
Paul: That’s true, Peter. Besides, mystery religions are like client cults. Somebody initiated into one of them might be worshiping other gods too. For us, baptism divides between us and the rest of the world.
Barnus: This is fascinating. I brought up those religions first because I figured those would be the closest competitors. But this raises an interesting problem. Those are all private religions. Maybe what you’re proposing isn’t a private religion at all. Maybe you’re talking about a new public religion.
Peter: Like the Jews.
Barnus: Exactly. Jews aren’t a client cult or mystery religion. Technically, legally, they form a politeuma in many cities, a more or less self-governing community, a “virtual city within the city.”
Paul: That’s exactly what we’re after. We see ourselves as a new city within the city. We’re a transformed Israel, a people called to be Jews in a new way. Our groups are like colonies of a heavenly empire right in the middle of earthly cities.
Barnus: Well, Judaism is definitely one of the leading competitors.
John: And don’t forget the civic religions. That’s what I first thought of when you mentioned “public religion.”
Barnus: Hmm. Let me make sure I understand you. As you know, the cities throughout the empire have always been religious as much as civic organizations, and the same is true of the city of Rome, its colonies, the associated municipiae, and the military installations throughout the empire. For Greeks and Romans, being a citizen is bound up with participating in feasts and holidays, which include worship of the city’s gods. To be Greek or Roman isn’t just an ethnic or political fact; it’s religious.
Paul: That’s still true today, and not just in Rome. Most of the cities in Asia still worship their traditional gods, even if they worship some Roman gods too. I remember being in Ephesus and getting into trouble with the worshipers of Artemis. There was a riot, and I nearly got pulled into pieces. They realized that my preaching about Jesus threatened their whole city.
Barnus: So, you’re saying that you intend to enter the market of civic religions?
John: Sure, and don’t forget emperor worship. Since Augustus, it has been spread everywhere, and it’s bestial. We intend to attack that too.
Barnus: Excuse me? Did you mention the imperial cult?
John: That’s right.
Barnus: Do you mean that you’re intending to compete with the imperial cult?
Paul: Yes. We’re sent to proclaim that there’s another king, one Jesus. We preach that there’s another empire, the kingdom of God, which brings true peace on earth, not just the truce that Rome forces on people. Resistance to Rome and all its false and idolatrous claims is pretty central to what we’re doing.
Barnus: You’re talking about another king? Do you understand what this means? The imperial cult is backed up by the power of Rome. I mean, it’s not like you could take on Rome and win.
Peter, John, and Paul: Why not?
Barnus: Gentlemen, I’m very sorry. I can’t help you. You have completely misunderstood what we’re doing here. I don’t think you’re starting another religion; you’re doing something else entirely. I am a religious consultant, not a political revolutionary. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to work together. [Barnus gathers up his parchments and leaves in some haste, forgetting to close the door behind him. The three apostles shrug, and head off to the temple to preach about Jesus.]
Leithart, Peter J.. Against Christianity (pp. 18-25). Canon Press.
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