Malesic, Jonathan. 2009. Secret faith in the public square: An argument for the concealment of Christian identity. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Jonathan Malesic is assistant professor of theology at King’s College, Wilkes–Barre, Pennsylvania and has been at this small, urban Catholic college since 2005. He currently teaches courses on the theology of Jesus and how individual lives are shaped by western religions. (See–09/Malesic.htm for more details.)

The book (SF) is dedicated to Msgr. Stephen P. Happel (1944–2003), former dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America and one of Malesic’s professors.

SFis divided into two parts: 1) Concealment of Christian identity in the theological tradition,
and 2) Concealment of Christian identity in contemporary America.

Malesic became convinced that he should advocate secrecy about Christian identity after a chance encounter with a customer at a parking lot. The encounter is not detailed but the thesis of the book is clear: “Religious identity has long been a form of currency in American society” (13). It has been used for political and personal benefit, “tainted by the materialistic self–interest that helped to melt down and mint their [American] Christian identity into a coin of the realm” (16). Malesic points out that Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to keep the identity of the Messiah a secret and that they should not “throw [their] pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). He is even more critical of the motivations of American Christians, who he believes display their identities “from a desire to exploit every possible advantage in their public lives” (20). His solution is for Christians to conceal their identity in the modern public square, not because he follows secular liberals who want to remove it, but because he believes it is bad for Christianity.

Malesic sees the irony of using Christian language and a Christian publisher to call for Christians to keep out of public circulation, but notes that even as someone violates quietness by shouting “Be quiet”, so he must also argue publically to promote privacy. However, as a professing Catholic, he does not seem to note the irony of the ostentatious nature of his own religious hierarchy in public, manifested by their clerical dress and massive churches.

In Part One of SF, Malesic calls up the words and actions of Cyril of Jerusalem, the Danish theologian Kierkegaard, and the German theologian Bonhoeffer, to add weight to his arguments that promote secrecy. Even today the Catholic and Orthodox churches promote the “discipline of the secret” (p. 35) and withhold knowledge of the sacraments from catechumens until they have been baptized.

Cyril was Bishop of Jerusalem from 350 to 387 BC and was well aware of the power of secrecy as a social force, represented by hierarchy and ritual. But simply having a secret does not give power; rather “For that to happen, other people need to know that you have a secret, and they need to want to learn the secret from you” (p. 41). It follows that there must be some way to advertize that you hold the secret.

Cyril used secretism in his pre–baptismal catechesis, where the creed became a “password and pact” and granted access to baptism. He reminded his candidates that the boundary that separated them from the faithful would be revealed to them at the proper time. He was also a master politician and propagandist, demonstrating that “being a Christian in the fourth century afforded a range of privileges” (p. 58), including tax exemptions, the right of appeals to bishops and preferential treatment in public office, and other favors.

The main point of Cyril’s discipline of secret was to make sure the new members became stakeholders in the churches traditions of liturgy and doctrine and to have “moral responsibility to preserve their souls is a state of grace by avoiding sin” (p. 73).

Kierkegaard was a son of one of the wealthiest men in Denmark and lived lavishly off a small fortune, yet became a moralist, a philosopher and a writer. He had studied (unsuccessfully) to become a Lutheran minister. He believed that Christianity should be made difficult and, as a suffering prophet, he demonstrated disillusion with the economic aspects of consumption and trade in his society. His passion for “hidden inwardness” led to seeing truth not merely as a proposition one could assent to, but as an inner attribute that did not look for praise or recognition. He claimed that keeping the secret of faith protected Christians against the “indolence of habit” (p. 94). Such secrets of inwardness had to be kept hidden from the public.

Malesic notes that Kierkegaard wished to “reinvigorate and revalue Christian faith at a time when bourgeois modernity had rendered faith a breezy and flimsy willow branch” (pp. 116–117). He also promotes the reasoning of Kierkegaard’s distinction of “inner” and “outer”, where inner relates to the secret life and outer the cosmopolitan consumerism and economic situation.

Bonhoeffer was a martyr, so his life and concerns were hardly secret, but Malesic maintains that Bonhoeffer’s calls for Christians to make themselves visible in the world did not mean that he excluded hiddenness altogether. Rather, due to the incapability of Christians to take reconciliation to the world, they should be silent, pray and wait for God’s time (p. 123).

Malesic spends considerable time attempting to define Bonhoeffer’s use of Arkandisziplin, i.e. Christians confessing their identity in secret and concealing it from the public. This meaning coincides with the ancient practice of “the discipline of the secret” (p.126). In this way the mysteries of the faith would be protected against profanation. However, baptism “remains a decisive marker of Christian identity,” as well as the Eucharist, the creed and the “Our Father” recitation (p.132). Bonhoeffer also taught against hypocritical public prayer because of its quest for the individual to appear righteous before others.

Like Cyril and Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer wanted Christians to perform “deeds of hidden righteousness.” We do not need to say to the world “I am doing this because I am a Christian” because deeds done in silence “are a Christian’s mission to the world, drawing persons to a willingness to make the verbal confession of faith” (p. 142). Such deeds forestall the propaganda of self–righteousness, although Bonhoeffer recognized that German Christians needed to protest the states interference with the church. Of course, Bonhoeffer did this and it cost him his life.

The second part of SF is on the concealment of Christian identity in contemporary America. It is Molesic’s consideration of what kind of community can be built around keeping one’s faith secret. What does it mean to be secret about our Christian identity? In addition, is this type of life a violation of the standards expected in a secular democracy?

Here Malesic is aware of the paradox: concealing one’s identity on the one hand and, and yet opening up our “selfhood” to others and thereby acknowledging responsibility. The identities he promotes are both those of historical accident (nationality, race, gender, religion, etc.) and those that are a result of a person’s choices (which also include religion). “Identities are cultural products, placing the individual in a community” (p. 164), which is a small–scale public (like a family), but also allowing certain differences.

Malesic describes the identities that can follow in various contexts because “The issue of Christian identity is central to this book.” (167). He wants Christians to retain their religious identity but to exhibit it only in certain contexts.

SF seems at times post–modernistic. For example, Malesic’s emphasis on concepts such as “interiority”, where he cites Abraham as the proto–sage of secrecy (but not responsibility) as when he concealed from Isaac his intention to sacrifice him. Abraham’s story teaches a lesson about the necessary hidden nature of discipleship, as well as the rewards that follow it.

Malesic finds “inwardness” in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity because “they are all founded on belief in a historical revelation that occurred in a particular place and time and given to a particular person or finite group of persons” (pp. 170–171).

The next to final chapter of SF is “The church as a community of hidden disciples” and reiterates the notions of secrecy and tradition, loving one’s neighbor as initiation into the “secret of faith”. Malesic’s claim is against the grain of contemporary mission theology, which he interprets as “using the gospel to serve self–interested worldly ends” (p. 200). He believes evangelicals have thrived in public life because they are a network of influence drawing colleagues into important positions. “For instance, evangelical elites prefer to establish and encourage professional internship programs for young Christians rather than participate in the mass rallies and prayer services” that younger “populist evangelicals” favor (p. 203). It is not just evangelicalism that has over identified with American culture but “virtually every religious group in America has capitulated in one way or another to American ways of thought and life” (p. 207).

The final chapter, “Secret faith’s fulfillment of the church’s mission in America,” is an imaginary debate or “engagement” with Stanley Hauerwas, who wrote “Performing the faith: Bonhoeffer and the practice of nonviolence” (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004). According to Malesic, Hauerwas misread Bonhoeffer by asserting that Bonhoeffer wanted an explicit and highly visible witness to the world. Malesic disputes this and re–asserts his thesis that “Being truthful about oneself and about the gravity of one’s commitments may therefore require holding some things back from others” (p.232). Unseen Christians may blend in with society but work in such a way that they are leaven in the world. But a “particularly dangerous sin for the church in America is individual Christians’ use of the visibility of the church to serve their interests in public life” (p. 237).

An epilogue concludes the book. It is called “The challenge of ambiguous religious identity in Wise Blood [by Flannery O’Conner] and The Moviegoer [by Walker Percy].”

Malesic writes SF from a view of suspicion, dissatisfied as he is of the motivation of Christians who use their faith for their own purposes and not to honor Christ. Generally speaking introverts may find his reasoning helpful, but extroverts probably not. Church members of a liturgical persuasion may likewise be in sympathy with his viewpoints, but charismatics may will find them offensive, in particular to make “secret” any aspect of their faith. Christian anthropologists may recommend SF more than missiologists, or theistic evolutionists more than “young earth” adherents. Despite the tendency of SF to polarize readers on one side or the other, I recommend the book for serious students of American culture.

For those who question Malesic’s arguments, simply turn on a Christian TV station at almost any time of the day and night and see how evangelists, preachers, teachers, musicians and others use their books, vitamins, prayer cloths, DVDs, music, and so on, to advertize and complement faith and the gospel. If that is not enough, visit the websites of Christian tradesmen, politicians or polemicists and see the techniques they use to gain support and sympathy from their clients and audiences.

We can also examine the websites of Christian organizations, such as universities, seminaries, missions and churches to note how the gospel is sold daily. Such promotion cannot necessarily be “hidden,” but to what extent has the mole of American consumerism infiltrated the Christian message?

Karl Franklin, International Anthropology Consultant, SIL International, Reviewed May 2010

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