The early church and its franchises.
I had to cough-barf my way through Robert Wright’s article on religion and globalization in the April 2009 Atlantic. It’s called “One World, Under God,” and it tries to explain the spread of early Christianity by way of analogy with modern global business. Maybe if you already like business-speak you’ll have an easier time with it than I did, but talk of branding (with its implicit and possibly valid linking of consumers and cattle) always grates on my ears. So we have painful stuff like this:
“If you view Paul not just as a preacher but as an entrepreneur, as someone who is trying to build a religious organization that spans the Roman Empire, then his writings assume a new cast. For Paul, the doctrines that now form the most-inspiring parts of the Christian message are, in a sense, business tools. They are tools that let him use the information technology of his day, the epistle, to extend his brand, the Jesus brand, across the vast, open, multinational platform offered by the Roman Empire.”
“Still, finishing the job—fully exploiting the commercial and moral currents moving across Rome’s imperial platform—required meeting the needs of Paul’s most important recruits. When people open a local franchise—a McDonald’s, a Pizza Hut—they do so because they expect to get something in return. What did people get in return for making their homes Christian franchises?”
Strip away the annoying analogy and the article still has some meat: the rapid expansion of the early church is fascinating, and there’s much worthwhile scholarly debate over how churches organized themselves in various cities and how these churches then related to each other. Though Wright gestures towards the possibility that the early Christians might have tried to spread these doctrines because they actually believed they were true, you would get the impression that the whole church thing was just a big networking opportunity. But why on earth would someone endure torture or execution, as many early Christians did, just for a networking opportunity? When you reduce the spread of Christianity, at least in the first few centuries, to the material benefits converts expected to receive, you lose nearly everything interesting.
At any rate, I take exception to Wright’s fuller thesis, and not just his extended metaphor. Wright argues that modern virtues like tolerance and the crossing of ethnic boundaries emerge from the pragmatic requirements that anyone trying to build an international organization encounters. “History,” Wright says, “expands the range of non-zero-sum relationships.” This is the utility of the brotherly love that Paul preached—it makes us choose peaceful (and apparently commercial) relationships over adversarial ones.
But the dark side of the expansion of “the range of non-zero-sum relationships” is that it often involves forcing some weaker party to change their way of living so that they fit into the “non-zero-sum” game. There’s a cost to entry, and globalizing movements often force people to pay it. Christianity, when it’s at its best, offers conversion as an invitation into a new way of living rather than a command, but I’d be a fool to deny that the Church has been just as guilty of coercion as any aggressive modern state or corporation, and guilty over a much longer period of time. The globalization that Wright describes seems to be purely benign in its tendency to gently bring people into the big economic game, but surely this is an idealized globalization, far removed from the messiness of what happens out there in the world. Suffice it to say, I’m far less optimistic about our proximity to this ideal than Wright is.