Growing up in an evangelical church setting means that I am annoyingly familiar with the paraphrased version of Romans 12:2. Be in the world, but not of the world. This paraphrased verse haunts me wherever I go. How can I come to terms with this paraphrase? Thinking back to my evangelical up bringing this paraphrase was used to convey the idea that the Christian lives in the world, but does not conform to the practices of the world. However, this was all reduced to an ultra-conservatism that has little to do with Christianity. Don’t be secular; only uphold “Christian values.” Resistance to secularism does not do the church any kind of service, rather it spawns such annoyances as Christian politics, family values, Christian music, Christian Book stores, Christian movies, etc. Can it be said that any of these exercises of creativity advance the Christian project? No. To lay out a critique of the way Christianity attempts to resist the secular I will import several ideas from Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri use the terms modernity, anti-modernity and altermodernity to parse out certain movements against the current hegemony. The contention here is that the evangelical resistance to secularism is a type of anti-modernity, though, what is needed is a movement of altermodernism, a rupture in the discourse and the negotiations of power.
First, a clarification of terms and how they relate to the problem posed here. Modernity is a paradigm of thought that has its interests in progress and enlightenment. Everything that may push back against modernity is labeled as superstitious or backward. Movements and resistances that work against modernity, but contained within modernity, are anti-modern. The anti-modern is a resistance that does not seek to overturn current power relations, rather simply change the prevailing hegemony. Hardt and Negri note that some examples of anti-modern movements are proletarian resistances, slave rebellions, peasant revolts and to a lesser extent Christian movements to create an evangelical and non-secular culture.
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that there is a clear difference between a slave revolt and making cheesy Christian music. This contention is worth keeping in mind, but the evangelical Christianity has a larger political goal in America that is clearly anti-modern. Among evangelical Christians, one can see a real resistance to secularism. In this resistance to secular culture one can find a serious political agenda. This political agenda is not to topple the dominant paradigm of power, but rather legislate certain cultural values.
Moving past modern and anti-modern, Hardt and Negri present a third option, altermodernity. Altermodernity can be understood succinctly through a famous Zapatista slogan, “A world in which many worlds are possible.” The idea of altermodernity is to not simply resist, but to move from resistance to alternative. Hardt and Negri explain,
“We intend for the term “altermodernity” instead to indicate a decisive break with modernity and the power relation that defines it since altermodernity in our conception emerges from the traditions of antimodernity – but it also departs from antimodernity since it extends beyond opposition and resistance.”
Altermodernity is a rupture with modernity and anti-modernity because it moves beyond any fixed resistance. A notion of resistance and anti-modernity is necessary, but one must not get stuck in anti-modernity.
Then, what does this all mean for Christianity? There is a resistance to modernity to be found in evangelical Christianity, but evangelicalism has become stuck in resistance. Christianity ought not be so interested in legislating morality or creating a culture of resistance that keeps “Christian values,” rather Christianity needs a rupture with the current modes of power. When one speaks of the kingdom of God it is something altermodern, it cannot be legislated and it cannot be understood in the current paradigm of power. Taking Jesus seriously means desiring a world where there are no such things as scarcity and property does not have such a hold over us. The kingdom of God is altermodern in that it is a rupture with modernity and anti-modernity. It is a movement that claims that the first are last and that the hungry will be filled with good things.