Earlier this summer in Naples, Italy, I noticed a captivating mural. It depicts the tumult of that beautiful but oft-conquered city. And it reminds me of our own unsettled times.
Over the centuries, a host of nations—the Romans, Normans, French, and Spanish—all visited Naples, promising truth but delivering conquest and oppression. Two representatives of these invading peoples are depicted in this picture, brandishing guns while holding out a book of veritas (truth), presumably the Bible. Receiving their message is a cartoon figure called Pulcinella, a classic Neapolitan character who represents the region’s plebians, or common folk—those we now call “average Joes.” In the painting, Pulcinella exhibits a cynical expression. This isn’t his first evangelistic rodeo. He knows when missionaries show up bearing firearms, it usually doesn’t end well.
When I saw the mural, it reminded me of my own parcel of the Lord’s vineyard in suburban Chicago, where advocates of culture-war politics and ecclesial jingoism prepare for battle. Their objectives are commendable, but as with Naples, their heavy-handed partisanship has bred cynicism, a jaded inclination that regards the “truth” as a political power play. With a Pulcinella-like grin, more and more common folks respond, “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”
In this day of partisanship and skepticism, how do we promote genuine gospel renewal in our churches and communities? We find an example by returning to Naples in the fourth decade of the 16th century.
It was a moment, like our own, of profound anxiety and disenchantment. A few years earlier, German and Spanish soldiers had sacked Rome, leaving the city in ruins with thousands of civilian corpses floating in the river. Now those Spanish soldiers were garrisoning in Naples, imposing yet another social order.
While gloom filled the public square, some citizens managed to resist the temptations toward cynicism and militancy. They were a collection of clerics, poets, power brokers, and influential laypeople who gathered in secret to study the Scriptures and pray. Two of them, Juan de Valdés and Pietro Carnesecchi, had worked in the court of Pope Clement VIII and had direct ties to Charles V’s court. Then there was Giulia da Gonzaga, Countess of Fondi, considered the most beautiful woman in Europe, to whom a steady flow of love poems poured in from adoring princes and Roman Catholic prelates.
Though the levers of power and influence were at their fingertips, these Neapolitan evangelicals chose communion with God over politics. They gathered to read Scripture, starting with Paul’s letter to the Romans. To avoid imprisonment by the Inquisition, they met in the countryside as a Bible study group on Sunday afternoons. Why Romans? Well, they reasoned, the book was stimulating renewal in Germany and Switzerland. Why not in southern Italy?
Experiencing God’s Kingdom
Though the levers of power and influence were at their fingertips, these Neapolitan evangelicals chose communion with God over politics.
In 1536, the “golden-mouth” preacher Bernardino Ochino arrived in Naples. He delivered a much-anticipated Lenten sermon series at the Basilica of San Giovanni Maggiore. Clerics, laypeople, and the city’s leading citizens turned out to hear him. Even Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, returning from a military expedition in Tunisia, was present. Contemporaries described the sermons as awe-inspiring, revolutionary, and life-changing. They spurred the immediate publication of the Alfabeto Christiano, Naples’s first evangelical manifesto of faith, as well as several Bible studies and fellowships throughout the city. Such renewal came not by marshaling temporal might but by the power of the gospel.
Perhaps the most poignant summary of this Neapolitan fellowship was expressed decades later in 1567 by Carnesecchi, before he was publicly beheaded and burned for heresy. Describing the quality of friendship, theological interaction, and enthusiasm for gospel proclamation, Carnesecchi described his Bible study as il regno di Dio (“the kingdom of God”).
Living the Gospel
What does the kingdom of God look like in this contemporary moment? How do we embody and proclaim Christ’s truth in the world today in a biblically chaste way? Russell Moore recently addressed these questions in an article identifying the dangers of heavy-handed partisanship and cynicism. “We must refocus our attention on conversion rather than culture wars,” he said, “and actually read the Bible rather than mine it for passages to win arguments.”
Political pugnacity is a dead end. The way out of our cynical age won’t be found, as the checkered history of Christendom teaches us, in militant assertion of truth. It comes, rather, as Jesus brought the kingdom—in poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, mercy, and even in loving one’s enemies.
Renewal came not by marshaling temporal might but by the power of the gospel.
Yes, we must continue to embody and proclaim God’s truth in the public square—and do so with earnestness as though lives depend on it, because they do. But with equal measure, we must manifest Jesus’s counterintuitive character, lay down our rhetorical firearms, listen to those with whom we disagree, and offer them a taste of Christ’s kingdom on earth.
Like the brave and joyous evangelicals of Naples, let’s humbly beseech God to cleanse us of all unrighteousness, lifting up holy hands without wrath and dissension. Let’s mourn over injustices and prayerfully seek pure and peaceable wisdom from above. In this way, we can exhibit lives of godliness to a watching world and gently proclaim Christ’s glorious gospel without compromise. Perhaps even Pulcinella will listen. As our Lord has said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).