You know we’re in exile when you discover some good theology in Babylonian literature.
Many cultural analysts liken our situation today to the Judeans in the Babylonian exile. They were outsiders, exiles, in a land of exile. Western (including American) Christianity is an outsider, or exile, operating outside the arenas where American cultures are mainly made.
One way to recognize this is to do what the sons of Judah (a small percentage of the Judeans in Babylon) did over the course of their first three years in exile. They studied the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1). But why?
C. S. Lewis knew why. Everyone is made in God’s image, so Lewis believed everyone gets at least part of the story right. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true.” Lewis felt that Christianity is not just the fulfillment of Judaism, but all faiths, for all faiths get some things correct.
Put another way, Lewis was confident that pagans, in the fine phrase of Edward Norman, got it “broadly right.” Shrewd Christians study pagan literature, as Paul studied Athens’ pagan poets to see where they got it broadly right. The sons of Judah did likewise in Babylon.
This is why I read the Economist, an international weekly newspaper that focuses on current affairs, international business, politics, and technology. It’s good Babylonian literature.
And it occasionally touches on theology. In a recent article, the magazine highlighted what cannot be achieved online when it comes to the faith. First, the magazine writes, “God does not work as well over Zoom. The ineffable is lost.”
Ineffable means indescribable, what Augustine wrote: “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” God desires more to be experienced than explained—touched more than merely discussed.
Pre-Enlightenment churches get this. We see this in the art, architecture, the smells, and so on. They evoke a sense of wonder, the ineffable.
Much of American Christianity doesn’t get this. In older traditions, the Eucharist is the centerpiece of the service, so God doesn’t work well online for he isn’t present in the Eucharist online. Newer, Enlightenment traditions see the sermon as the centerpiece of the service, so they feel God does well online because instruction can be done well online. But this model does away with the ineffable, which is best experienced in the bread and wine.
The Economist gets this. “Transubstantiation, it is widely agreed, is not possible over the internet.” That’s good Babylonian theology, even if you’re unfamiliar with the word transubstantiation.
It’s the conversion of the substance of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ at consecration. Only the appearances of bread and wine remain. Many pre-Enlightenment traditions hold to this, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Or they hold to consubstantiation, where the substance of the bread and wine coexists with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Either way, pre-Enlightenment churches recognize the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not possible over the internet.
Why not? Pre-Enlightenment traditions are embodied, where flesh-and-blood ministers must be present to consecrate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. These traditions take seriously Jesus’ words that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no part in me.” This embodied presence is not possible over the internet.
But with the advent of Enlightenment rationalism we see disembodied faiths, where the real presence of Christ is reduced to merely symbolic presence. Jesus isn’t actually present, so, as the Economist wryly notes, “Companies selling communion wafers and wine have been doing a brisk trade to worshippers stuck at home.” Just throw away the leftovers.
This horrifies pre-Enlightenment traditions. They recognize, as Tim Keller writes, that the Lord’s Supper is the “ultimate renewal ceremony” of the marriage covenant between Christ and His Bride. In the Eucharist, every little bit of Jesus’ body and blood that’s left over is not disposed of in the trash. Horrors.
But the fact that Babylonian literature such as the Economist has to remind us of this fact tells me American Christianity is in exile… and only a few get it.
 C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Eerdmans, 1970), 54.
 Richard John Neuhaus, “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” First Things, Vol. 88, September 1998, pp. 30-35.
 “Lockdown has turned Christianity into a winner-take-all business,” The Economist, April 3, 2021.