The course of Christianity has been marked by pulsations of advance, retreat, and advance.
–Kenneth Scott Latourette, Volume I, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age
Christianity is a faith that is solidly grounded in history.
–Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, preface to The NIV Harmony of the Gospels
That history includes periods we’d like to forget but can’t because of their lingering influence. Reasons for the Crusades of the Middle Ages were as much economic as religious, a desire for new lands and wealth. We inherit fallout from the Crusades to this day in many of the conflicts in the Middle East.
Colonizations in the Americas evidenced the same split personality. Jamestown vied with Plymouth. Our country inherits this conflict, careening back and forth, stressing economics at one time and community in another.
Some Christians lived more closely to what Jesus taught than others. While Crusaders marched, religious orders treated the ill and destitute in Europe. As the industrial age dawned in the 1700′s, with its disregard for the vulnerable, Christians began schools for children of the poor. They fought against slavery and inhumane working conditions and crowded prisons.
Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, so the saying goes. Sudden change burst on the world stage—terrorist attacks or revolutions in Arab nations. Others creep in more slowly—social changes due to increased numbers of women in the work force or new methods of birth control. In either case, knowledge of history gives us a better ability to develop reasoned and compassionate responses to such changes.
“Stories about World War II, Pearl Harbor, and the like, are always popular,” an editor told me. By contrast, I find more intriguing the decades following this war, the decades of the hippies and the flower children. If the child is father of the man, as the poet William Wordsworth wrote, these years spawned the present that we now inhabit.
The turbulent sixties and the years following led to 1989, the watershed year of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The texts and twitters of the Arab Spring in 2011 and beyond mirrored the earlier events.
All wars change the societies that experience them. World War II brought the United States, kicking and screaming, onto the world stage. We have often played our role reluctantly, much more interested in domestic issues. The Vietnam War tore the country apart. The meshing of the antiwar movement and the New Age reverberates with us to this day, precursor of current polarization.
Quiet Deception, a novel of mine billed as a mystery, follows the protagonist, a college professor, from the days, seemingly so innocent, of his childhood shortly after World War II. His participation in the horrifying Vietnamese conflict transforms him. He stumbles into the society that follows, with its loosening of age old constraints.
How he and the other characters resolve the jarring collision of tectonic plates from two eras is the subtext of the mystery’s solution.
“Do you think we’re in a post-Christian age, like a lot of people say?” asked Taylor.
Patrick leaned forward. “To talk about post-Christian seems a bit chauvinistic to me—Western chauvinistic, I mean. I think I’d use the term post-Christendom. Christianity seems to be retreating in large parts of what we call the West, but it’s growing rapidly in much of the rest of the world.”
—From my novel Searching for Home
Do we live in a post-Christian era or a post-Christendom one? The difference in naming is critical. One is oriented toward previous Western dominance, the other is more inclusive.
The term Christendom denotes a time when European countries espoused a common faith. Christianity may or may not be thinning in Europe and North America. It is certainly not diminishing in Africa, Asia, and South America.
“I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any renewal of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and the love of the world . . . .”
Christians who take seriously the teachings of Jesus are less likely to abuse alcohol and other drugs. They are more likely to marry and to remain faithful. They are more likely to devote time to the rearing of their children. They are more likely to search for careers with meaning and to work harder in those careers when they find them. They are more likely to give money to causes outside of themselves and to be careful with the rest of their money.
Such habits encourage productive lives and often result in greater financial rewards. Then, according to Wesley, founder of the movement that began the Methodist denomination, the cycle kicks in again. Serious religion and its disciplines languish, he suggested. Christians become more interested in the fruits of their labor than in the labor itself or the life altering decisions that guided them. They fail to curb self-seeking tendencies.
Is it possible to avert this cycle? No doubt, but surely it takes a conscious decision not to yield to the goals that so consume us when our material lives improve. One must continue to grow spiritually, to choose intentionally rather than drift, and to remember the less fortunate after one is no longer one of them.
September 17th of this year marked the 150th anniversary of the date when more Americans lost their lives in a single day than ever before or since. At least 23,000 Americans were killed in the Civil War battle of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Maryland in 1862. At the end of the day, the lines of battle were hardly changed.
Why was the Civil War fought? Why did two peoples, sharing a common heritage, end up fighting eyeball to eyeball in the sunken road at Antietam?
Otherwise reasonable people became too angry to discuss differences. Southerners cared more for their cotton economy and its slave labor than in justice. The North knew its own exploitation of immigrant labor, yet often saw itself as superior and worked from a position of self-righteousness in dealing with the slavery issue.
Yes, slavery was abolished, but segregation took its place because war did not change people’s minds. Wars seldom do. The excesses of the gilded age in the North continued well into the twentieth century, with its exploitation of cheap immigrant labor.
Unfortunately, the angry Antietams remain with us: the world wars of the twentieth century; 9/ll; mass killings in schools, workplaces, and houses of worships in this country; the bloody riots of the last few weeks in the Middle East, and our own political attack ads.
A fitting tribute to those who died would be our dedication to civil discussion in our own communities and politics, then our support of groups who seek to bring opposing sides together in the flashpoints of the world.
The columnist Ross Douthat suggested that American Christians must find a way “to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom—and more and more like the diverse and complicated Empire where their religion had its beginning . . .” (From The New York Times News Service, 2010.)
We have witnessed an extreme makeover of the Christian-oriented western culture that was called Christendom. Christianity has lost much of its influence in the larger society. Much conflict in the stories I write focuses on the struggles of American Christians to deal with the changed views that surround them. Often the characters live for a time in other cultures where religion remains a part of everyday life.
They understand, as I did after similar experiences, how closely intertwined are religion and government in some non-Western nations. It is a part of the national identity of those societies. Should one group’s religion be forced on a society to preserve that identity?
Is preservation what drove the early Christians? Perhaps one key is found in Douthat’s observation that today’s society is much like that of the Roman Empire. The Christians of that day did not try to change the Empire with a political movement. Instead they caused the Empire to change itself because their way of living attracted people to Christianity.
Once Christianity became compulsory for all, it lost much of its power. Small groups within the state churches dared live the radical lifestyle of Christ and pass on the Christain faith. The outer life, which springs from the life within, cannot be forced.