In book 18, Augustine looks side-by-side at the writings and thinkers of the City of Man and at the rulers and prophets of the City of God, from the time of Abraham until (basically) Augustine’s own time. I’ve not been able to blog the book, and now there is too much to try and cover all of it, so I will just note some of the themes I’ve seen and then try and dig into one of them. Major themes from book 18: Augustine demythologizes the pagan myths and the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses by naming their origins; he looks at every Old Testament prophet and finds prophecies that point to the Christ, which gives us a nice picture of how we can read those books in a Christian way; and, he spends a fair amount of time discussing the development of the Hebrew canon of Scripture.
As I promised in the previous post, my hope for book 18 was to trace America as the greatest current representative of the City of Man – a city that values self and features division. Augustine spends a lot of time in the book demythologizing the myths of the City of Man, so maybe I can work to do some of the same for America. Many others have done this more completely (I like Michael Gorman’s work in Reading Revelation Responsibly plus Peter Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast), but I’ll give it a go.
First, the Founding Fathers. While it’s true that no American worships the Founding Fathers as gods, as the Romans worshipped their best leaders, there is a kind of veneration that seems common among some American Christians. Some of us see them to be icons of virtuous leadership, and the Constitution to be a nearly perfect Christian document for establishing and leading a nation. Hate to burst your bubble, but they weren’t, and it isn’t. Now, I trust that Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, and all were good men trying to do their best. The same way that Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama are good men who have tried to do their best. They were all hated by various groups of their contemporaries, they all did some pretty good things alongside some pretty terrible things, they were all compromised and inconsistent with themselves, and they all loved God about as well the rest of us – which is to say, not very well. And the Constitution is a pretty good founding document, with a fair amount of humility and a touch of biblical truth. But, let’s be honest, most of the Constitution owes more to the atheists who led up to the French Revolution and all its chaos than it does to the Bible. Three branches- legislative, executive, and judicial? That from Moses/David? How about Montaigne? Bill of Rights – that from Ezra/Hezekiah/the prophets? How about Voltaire? A democratic structure established by social contract – is that Solomon/Joshua/Jesus? Look at Rousseau. The whole structure of the nation is not biblical, it’s French. Wise, thoughtful, pretty helpful, but not divinely inspired. And the French version of revolution ended up with tyranny and awfulness. Which some social commentators see coming in America, too.
Second, American exceptionalism. America is a great nation. Has been for some time now, basically since the world wars. Before that, the nation was a powerful North American country, and a country that fought against itself. Sounds very like a regional power that grew into an empire through war. Like every other representative of Babylon in human history – Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. America is great, now. But democracy and religious freedom (currently under threat here anyway) are not God, and passing them along to other nations does not amount to serving as the “city on a hill”. I’m thankful to be living in this nation now, and there are a lot of other places where I would be much worse off than I am, but this is not a divine or exceptional nation in history. This is not the New Jerusalem or New Israel or the Kingdom of God.
Third, the liturgy of America worship. Yep, America has worshippers, and a liturgy. The Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, the hymns “God Bless America” and “America, the Beautiful”. They bind us to America heart and soul. They make us love America more and serve her more fiercely. And so we gather at all kinds of events and worship America and bind ourselves to her – sometimes even at our worship services, supposedly dedicated to God. America is not God. “God and Country” is a kind of blasphemy.
And that is enough for today. Blessings,