Brian Zahnd is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Everything he writes, from books to Tweets, deeply resonates with and challenges me.
Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile might be his best book (at least my favorite of of the ones I’ve read). Nationalism has long been the greatest temptation for American Christians. That’s not necessarily fair to American Christians, for this has been the biggest temptation to Christians since the beginning (and probably before the beginning). Empires are seductive and have a lot to offer. Whether it is Babylon or Rome, Britain or Germany or America the lure of bowing at the foot of the nation strong.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to be on board with Empire? Strong military that keeps you safe by killing the bad guys (and we’re the good guys, right?). More goods to consume than you can imagine. An economy that never slows down and offers you, at least it says, all the money you can earn. Power and comfort and consumption…mmmm….
Jesus calls his followers to a totally different way of life. Yet it is patently obvious most of us who claim the name Christian have deeply compromised our faith, creating some sort of syncretization between Empire and Jesus. Of course, there can only be one god at the top and when we try to combine these two, the Empire always wins.
Zahnd’s book is challenging and honest and covers a good bit of scripture and history. He even ventures into the specifically American political by pointing out his distaste for Trump years and years ago. American evangelical support of Trump is just the end of decades of submitting their faith to Babylon.
As all of Zahnd’s books, this is one any and all Christians should read. Highly recommended.
Honorable Mention – The Autiobiography of Malcom X
I am trying to pair the “Honorable Mention” books with books that are similar, so why is Malcolm X’s autobiography paired with Brian Zahnd? Well, they both take honest unflinching looks at the brokenness of America. These looks come from different perspectives of course. But for Christians who might read someone like Zahnd, reading Malcolm X is also a good idea.
For some interesting background, I was assigned this book to read during an American Religions course way back in 1999. Honestly, I do not recall if I actually read it or not. I assume I read enough of it to pass the class. In the ensuing 20 years, I have always kept this book on my shelf even as I often donated some old books to used bookstores.
It seemed like a good time to finally read it. I was surprised to discover a slip of paper with notes jotted on it from throughout the book, so I guess I at least read most of it. As a side note, it was interesting to see what 19 year old me wrote.
Overall, this is a fascinating story of someone who I know I have had misconceptions about, and based on the way the Civil Rights movement is discussed, so have many, many other people. Malcolm X is sometimes seen as promoting the bad path, the violent path, in opposition to MLK Jr’s good nonviolent path. Malcolm does address his reputation as promoting violence in this story, and he does so by consistently pointing out the long history of white violence. Though it appeared by the end he developed a respect for leaders whose methods he disagreed with, he certainly had harsh words for those promoting integration. Yet, he’s way more complex, interesting and prophetic than how he is popularly portrayed as in discussion or media.
This is why I’d say this book is a must-read if you want to have an opinion about Malcolm X. I mean, you don’t need to have an opinion about him. But like any historical figure, when his name or ideas come up, its would be nice to admit ignorance or admit all our knowledge comes from people with an agenda rather than our knowledge coming from the source. In other words, learn about Malcolm X (and MLK Jr and any other historical figure) before we assume week now what they taught and stood for.
Finally, I thought Malcolm’s words about Christianity were near prophetic and as true today as they were in his day. Here’s just a taste:
“Well, if this is so. If the so called ‘Christianity’ now being practiced in America displays the best that world Christianity has left to offer – no one in his right mind should need any much greater proof that very close at hand is the end of Christianity”
“And what is the single greatest reason for this Christian church’s failure? It is its failure to contest racism. . . The Christian church sowed racism – blasphemously; now it reaps racism. . . I believe that God now is giving the world’s so-called ‘Christian ‘ white society its last opportunity to repent and atone for the crimes of exploiting and enslaving the world’s non-white peoples. It is exactly as it was when God gave Pharaoh a chance to repent. But Pharaoh persisted in his refusal to give justice to those whom he oppressed. And, we know, God finally destroyed Pharaoh.
The white America really sorry for her crimes against black people? DOes white America have the capacity to repent – and to atone? Does the capacity to repent, to atone, exist in a majority, in on-half, in even one-third of American white society?” (377).
Those are powerful words that it is only too clear that white American Christianity is still plagued by racism and has not repented of our racist past. Thus, Malcolm X’s words ring down through the decades.