The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth

Restoring Our Democratic Ideals

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Burton L. Mack
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300222890.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Burton Mack is a scholar of the New Testament and Early Christianity who has been associated with the Jesus Seminar. Now in the emeritus phase of his career, Mack wrote The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth to provide a summary overview of Western history as a whole, with the goal of advancing the cause of what he calls “social democracy” as an answer to the current political malaise in modern America. While his leanings are obviously anti-Republican, Mack’s argument is not simplistically pro-Democrat in that he acknowledges that those on the left can also be co-opted by capitalist priorities and special interests. While his prescription for how society ought to develop becomes hazy toward the end of the book, Mack does gesture in the direction of the “social democracies of Europe,” by which he seems to mean countries such as Sweden (280).

The central assumption at work in the book is the notion that human beings are myth-making creatures. Myths are big picture interpretations of reality that take into account the natural world, the social world and its history, and the spiritual realm. Even if this last element is rejected, as in atheistic communism, there is still going to be a shaping and guiding myth for society and an interpretation of how human beings ought to interact with nature. The central chapters of this book explicate the tools that Mack has developed throughout his career for making sense of the human situation, such as “social interests,” “social issues,” and “cultural analytics.” Mack’s key influences include Anthony Giddens (The Nation-State and Violence, University of California Press, 1987), Frederic Jameson (Postmodernism: or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991), Jonathan Z. Smith (Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, University of Chicago Press, 1982), and Raymond Williams (Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Oxford University Press, 1976). He refers often to his own previous books, The Christian Myth (Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), Myth and the Christian Nation (Zondervan, 2008), and Christian Mentality: The Entanglements of Power, Violence, and Fear (Routledge, 2011), which may leave the reader wondering why this current book has been written. What is he saying now that he had not said before?

Mack’s central argument here seems to be a version of the secularization thesis, namely that Christianity dominated Western culture for many centuries, but it is now on the wane and will gradually fade away into extinction. What are we modern Westerners to do with this vacuum? How can we invent a new big picture mythology that will take the place of Christianity, unify us, and focus our energies in a positive direction? There are two main lines of critique of Mack’s message that immediately present themselves at this point: (1) Is he failing to take seriously the deep and subtle influence of Christian ideas on Western culture, an influence that is now “baked into” the thinking even of those who call themselves “secular” ; and (2) Is he wrong about the waning of Christianity—and religion more generally—in the twenty first century? On the first line, there are many authors whose books have complicated the secularization thesis by rejecting a simplistic dichotomy between the “religious” and the “secular.” Among these are William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford University Press, 2009), Michael Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press, 2015), John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Basil Blackwell, 1990), and Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Belknap Press, 2014). Two other authors are immensely important in this regard—Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007), and René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Orbis Books, 2001). Mack does not show any evidence—that I can detect—of rising to the level of historical understanding represented by these books. Girard, in particular, speaks very powerfully about the biblical roots of our modern—rhetorical—concern for victims, which is a countervailing motif to our modern propensity for killing—actual—victims. It makes no sense to simplistically say that we are living in a “post-Christian” era when our most effective lens for understanding our own behavior is the notion that we are continually reenacting the crucifixion of Christ.

On the second line of critique, Mack seems to be expressing a personal hope that religion will fade away rather than presenting evidence that it actually is fading. Predicting the future is always risky business; predicting cultural and religious change is, in my view, beyond risky, bordering on the impossible. Referring to the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, Mack claims that “the social logic of the erstwhile Christian myth had nothing to say to the contemporary world of social interests that had emerged since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution” (78). I am at a loss to know what he means by “nothing to say”—given the many, though admittedly varied, comments of a theological nature by these presidents and their advisors. We also need to consider the extent to which Barack Obama has claimed that his thinking has been influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. It would come as a surprise to the members of the American Academy of Religion [AAR] who identify as Christians, regardless of denomination or place on any conservative-liberal spectrum, that they all have “nothing to say” to the current social and political atmosphere that is theologically substantive. The constant stream of articles and books the AAR produces would seem to suggest otherwise. I closed the book wondering to myself if perhaps I found it uninspiring because it is actually the case that the author has nothing to say that is very original.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is associate professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 11, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Burton L. Mack is Wesley Professor of Early Christianity at Claremont School of Theology. Pioneering the study of Christian origins, his nine books include The Lost Gospel. He lives in Claremont, CA.

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