Strangers in a Strange Land
Charles J. Chaput
Henry Holt, 2017. 288 pp.
Captain America is a story of anachronism. After being frozen in ice during World War II, he awakes in modern-day New York and quickly realizes how foreign he is. His values aren’t shared, his cause is considered outdated, and his epistemology is challenged (“The world is different now,” he is constantly told). Christians in America are encountering a life not unlike the Captain’s—waking up to a culture that no longer shares our presuppositions about God, reality, and humanity. We are foreigners, or pilgrims, in a world that is not our home.
Charles Chaput adds his Catholic voice to the argument that we now live in post-Christian America, a world in which Christianity is seen as irrelevant, regressive, or even hateful. Some are quick to dismiss such a thesis as an overreaction to cultural changes, or the response of privileged whites to the loss of political power. Chaput—himself a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop—counters these dismissals by spending two-thirds of his book outlining the multifaceted problem facing American Christians.
Tracing the emergence of the problem, Chaput embarks on a journey through American history, culture, and political theory from our nation’s founding through the present. This isn’t a book about politics (see Render Unto Caesar), yet Chaput spills quite a bit of ink outlining early American political thought. He connects the American founders’ reliance on natural law with observations by Alexis de Tocqueville about American democracy’s emphasis on individual freedom. Chaput concludes that democracy without moral guardrails elevates the autonomy of the
individual above all other concerns. Christianity, along with “any other institution that creates bonds and duties among citizens,” hinders self-expression and, therefore, self-fulfillment.
Much of America’s post-Christian worldview is connected, according to Chaput, in one way or another with our views on marriage, sex, and the family. I initially discovered Chaput’s book through an excellent excerpt on marriage. Chaput argues that sex is “intimately connected with how we understand ourselves as human” and the human family connects individuals in bonds of commitment and service.
Chaput rejects the way that American individualism has relegated sexual ethics to a private matter outside the purview of any authority. He characterizes the sexual revolution as a technological battle against human limitations. Even if Protestants disagree with Chaput on the licitness of contraception, there are many points to find agreement on the ways marriage and family have been twisted by American culture and need to be recovered.
Along the way, Chaput pens a manifesto on the stewardship of truth, as well as an analysis of American culture through the lens of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. We are strangers in a strange land because we are made for the City of God, yet live in the City of Man. How are we to live in the ensuing clash of values?
In the final third of the book, Chaput proposes a way forward for Christian countercultural living. As he says, “We can’t simply blame the culture. We are the culture.” The only way to have an impact is to begin living differently. It’s well worth sticking with the book for these exhortations to live like Christ. Chaput unpacks the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-11) and contrasts each statement with American cultural values. After being inundated by the media’s vision of the good life, I need this reminder that it is blessed to be poor, meek, and persecuted. In addition, he illumines a proper Christian perspective on persecution through an ancient Christian document (Letter to Diognetus) and stories of modern martyrs. I appreciate that Chaput isn’t out to demonize American culture; instead, he is pointing out real problems and calling Christians to love the culture by living uniquely.
It’s easy to sense that Chaput is a man with a deep appreciation for beauty. He regularly references art and literature, and calls readers to recognize the beauty in creation. In a culture where humans are often seen as “interchangeable reasoning and consuming units,” the elevation of human dignity and the imago dei is a stream in the desert.
Jesus promised that following him would appear strange to others. We live in a time where Christian belief and practice makes less and less sense to the rest of our country. And yet, we live as people of hope on a pilgrimage home. I welcome more voices like Chaput who will call “small-o” orthodox Christians in America to live the only kind of life that will present Christ to the world.