Book review: ‘The Great Reckoning’

Dec 3, 2018 by

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In October, the longtime evangelical leader Pat Rob­ertson weighed in on the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in a Saudi consulate. According to Robertson, the United States needed to tread lightly with the Saudis. After all, he said, we have “$100 billion worth of arms sales” with Saudi Arabia and “cannot alienate our biggest player in the Middle East.”

The Great Reckoning

The Great Reckoning

In other words, the murder might be forgivable in light of more important interests like financial profit and a desire to keep Saudi Arabia well-supplied with U.S.-built weapons.

As a pacifist and a Christian, I found Robertson’s perspective shocking.

Robertson’s comments brought to mind Stephen Mattson’s excellent new book, The Great Reckoning: Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ. In the opening chapter, Mattson describes being a student at Moody University on 9/11 and how for days after that terrorist attack he and other Moody students pretended to enact vengeance on Muslims, using an old mattress as a stand-in for followers of Islam who deserved their wrath. Mattson and his peers wielding knives on the mattress and punched it with great force.

“With a morbid passion inspired by hate, patriotism and fear,” Mattson writes, “we unleashed violence upon this unnamed Islamic enemy and defended our country — God’s country — from evil forces.” Often, after play-acting such violence, Mattson and his peers would head out into the Chicago streets to evangelize others, presumably directing them to Jesus.

Only much later did Mattson recognize that his fervent desire  to kill a supposed enemy did not reflect the teachings of the Prince of Peace. In this way, Matt­son was like Robertson,  who suggested Saudi leaders might get a pass on murder because of a lucrative military deal. Both beliefs suggest a misunderstanding of the Gospels, colored by nationalism and military might.

Thinking back on the post-9/11 moment at Moody University, Mattson realized he and many other Christians had acted in ways completely against the words of Jesus: “Instead of seeing our world through the lens of Christ, we saw our Christ through the lens of our own religious worldview.”

Mattson considers the many ways contemporary Christians have failed to follow the Christ they purport to serve, arguing that it is time for followers of Jesus to grapple with what has become of Christendom in our current cultural climate.

He defines Christendom as “a form of Christianity that has gained cultural and social and political dominance. [It] blesses and is blessed by the political realm in which it enjoys widespread popularity.”

While Christianity is religious belief founded on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Christendom is something else entirely — a way of life founded on power, privilege and a system of religious and cultural beliefs that contract what Jesus of Nazareth actually preached.

Mattson critiques the Christendom now prominent in the United States and the culture it has produced: Racism and sexism are widespread. Immigrant children are separated from desperate parents at the southern border. Teenagers can no longer feel safe in their schools because a powerful gun lobby has blocked any meaningful legislation that might give them a modicum of protection.

Drawing parallels with the Great Awakening of the 18th century, Mattson calls for a similar revival, save for this difference: the Great Reckoning should be “a time of soul-searching and candid reflection on what we as Christians have allowed Christianity to become.”

The Great Reckoning challenges Christians to consider the harm they have done to different people groups. In a convicting chapter, “Sins of the Church,” Mattson highlights many of the ways churches have sinned against others: women, children, people of color, those with disabilities and mental illness, non-Christians, the poor, gender and sexual minorities. Mattson names how Christians and institutions have caused harm to others. He calls this a confession and a request for forgiveness.

Although some are reticent to participate in such confessions —arguing that they have not sinned individually against marginalized people groups — Mattson rightly argues that this confession needs to be part of Christianity’s great reckoning. If the church is to be transformed, those with power and privilege need to acknowledge specific ways Christians have hurt others, lament the mistakes made by the church and seek transformation.

According to Mattson, Christians cannot authentically share the gospel’s good news if they don’t acknowledge the church’s sin. Jesus’ message loses power when those with power and privilege continue to embrace an institutional culture that marginalizes others.

Given our polarized political climate, some might fear Mattson’s book is merely a partisan polemic. It is not. The Great Reckoning calls out Christians across the political spectrum, arguing that our allegiance as believers should not be to party or country but to the kingdom of God.

When political parties become obsessive in their efforts to woo Christian voters, Mattson writes, they are “sacrificing the kingdom of God for the kingdom of mortals.” The reckoning of Christendom means grappling with the ways politics and Christianity have become linked. Mattson reminds readers of the costs that accompany this marriage. This is an especially important reminder for Anabaptists, for whom allegiance to God, rather than government, is an essential part of our heritage.

Despite its grim view of present-day Christendom, The Great Reckoning is fundamentally a hopeful book. Mattson ends his work by looking toward that hope, suggesting that there are actions Christians can take to heal the church and the people it has too often broken.

He focuses our attention on the Bible’s grand narrative of love, a love that reaches those on the margins, dismantles power and privilege and replaces empty political rhetoric with the teachings of Jesus.

The Great Reckoning challenges the failures of contemporary Christendom, reminding us that following Jesus demands walking a different way.

Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.

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