September 20, 2004

A Peculiar People: the church as culture in a post-christian society

Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Author:Rodney Clapp
Overview of the Book

Since the days of Constantine, the church has "enjoyed" a time of power and influence. Even in the United States, a nation that allows for the freedom of religion, Christianity has been the de facto state religion until only recently. But in the past few decades, much to the consternation of many who call themselves Christian, this tacit relationship has been not just threatened, but almost completely broken, leading to what is today referred to as the culture wars.

Rodney Clapp believes that the current climate, in the midst of these culture wars, is a good opportunity for Christianity to come to terms with itself. Many Christians operate under the impression that America is (or at least, recently was) a Christian nation. (In fact, much of the world sees the U.S. that way). But Clapp devotes a fair amount of time to his postulation that America could be better defined as a gnostic nation.

Clapp begins his book with an explanation of how the Church has gotten to where it is today (a point where many see it as largely irrelevant and useless). He then argues in great detail what the church should be: a people of God, a nation, with its own culture, its own language and its own customs. He by no means is referring to our current consumer-oriented christian culture (where Christians wear WWJD bracelets and speak in Christianese). He encourages the church not to become something new to fit with the times, but to rather recognize what we already are, and to take hold of the advantages that provides (advantages such as the tool, perhaps even a weapon, of forgiveness).

The type of church that Clapp is arguing for is most likely not what you might guess. He is certainly not saying that we need to be bigger and better as Bill Hybels (pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and in some ways the father of the American mega-church movement as well as the seeker-sensitive movement) would advocate, nor is he encouraging the marketing gimmicks of Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose Driven Church). Rather, he’s encouraging the church to be the church: a group of people, learning together to follow God and to love each other.

Concerns -- Possible Problems You May Encounter in reading this book

One struggle I had in reading this book was that though Clapp uses familiar words, he uses them in a way that is unfamiliar. He really should provide a glossary of some sort so that the reader won’t get tripped up on his choice of words and miss his message. I’ve tried to compile a mini-glossary on my own (both to better help me understand what I’m reading, and to help my husband and others who are reading this book). Please note, the definitions listed below may not be exactly what Clapp meant when he used these words, but I tried to develop each definition based on context.

Political: Don’t even begin to think of this word in terms of Democrat vs. Republican (or whatever your country’s main political parties may be). When Clapp uses the word political (as well as I can figure) he is referring more to issues of national import, national identity, and national history (and in this book, the nation that is being discussed is the Church).` Unfortunately, I think that in a couple of instances, Clapp does use the word “political” to mean what we often consider it to mean (taking sides in a partisan setting). Which only adds to the confusion when one comes across this word.

Liberal: When we consider the word liberal, we often think in terms of partisan politics. Democrats are considered liberal. The media is considered liberal. Homosexuals are considered liberal. But when Clapp using the word, he’s harkening back to the origin of the word liberal from the Latin, liber, meaning free. In other words, independent. A right wing Republican can still be considered liberal in Clapp’s definition because it has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with one’s view of the individual. A person who believes that their relationship with God is solely between them and God and not for perusal or input from other’s is liberal.

Retrenchment: I still haven’t figured this one out. If you’ve read the book and think you have a handle on this, please add it to the comments section. I know it has to do with the response of some Christians to the culture wars. And I know its a bad response. I think it has to do with trying to get things “back to the good old days” but I’m seriously not certain of that.

Kudos -- Specific Reasons You Should Read This Book

Narrative Logic: Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon have written a book called Resident Aliens. In it, they describe a concept called “narrative logic.” Though I think they define the term better, I think Clapp does a better job at delving into various topics and showing how that narrative logic comes to play. All three of these authors that Jehovah God is a God of history. He has shown himself to and through his people and the story of his people has been recorded in the Bible. This narrative, then, guides the logic the church should use in making decisions (How do we relate to each other? What is our purpose? Who is God? How should we respond in this instance? etc.)

Purity of the Church: In the denomination that I am currently a member of, one thing that is promised upon entrance into the church is that I (the entering member) pledge to pursue the purity of the church. Despite the fact that we all say this, I think that we rarely do it (or even have any clue what it means to pursue the purity of the church.) Reading books such as this one, in my opinion, are a step toward that end. The book doesn’t lay out specifics of how a church should look (such as stating how many and what kind of meetings should be held each week, or stating which kind of music should be played), but gives a general outline (from many different perspectives so that if one doesn’t click with you another might) of what church is and how it should look. It should be a place of love and forgiveness, of community and of practicing together, in a safe place, how we should be living out in the world.

Good Group Discussion Book

Though this is a good book to read on your own, I suspect it would be exponentially better when read and discussed with others. Practical applications could better be drawn out. Difficult sections could be explained or argued about until they make better sense. And the topics that the book addresses are good to have brought up in church settings. As the church we should be mindful of who and what we are. We shouldn’t assume that we can glide through “church” without ever taking it seriously. (We often leave the serious business to the paid staff.)

Though I think a non-Christian might find this book interesting, it’s certainly directed at Christians. I believe that this book would be appreciated by anyone that likes to sift through ideas, concepts and philosophies. For those that don’t like sorting through the nitty-gritty, I’d recommend reading this book out loud with someone else so that they can help do that sorting (since I believe you’ll still find value in the activity).


  1. "He then argues in great detail what the church should be: a people of God, a nation, with its own culture, its own language and its own customs. He by no means is referring to our current consumer-oriented christian culture (where Christians wear WWJD bracelets and speak in Christianese)."

    I think that this is so true. Christians should not be recognized by a symbol they wear on their body or by their words, but rather through their love, their actions and their attitudes.

  2. unfortunately we're often known by our predjudice, our apathy, and our bitterness. :-(


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