Visiting a relative’s grave site in a Nashville cemetery, my brother pointed out a nearby grave for a neighbor of our family. He told me a story pulled from our family’s history. Our relative, call him Odis, too old to fight, sold insurance during World War II.
As is common, friends and family depended on him for their insurance needs. The neighbor, call him Edward, had insured his house with Odis before he left to serve with U.S. forces, part of an air crew that made regular bombing runs over Europe. His wife lived in the house, hoping for her husband’s return, whenever that might be.
One day Odis noticed that Edward’s policy was due for another payment. “Don’t send out the notice to his wife,” he said. “We’ll wait as long as we can. Her husband’s plane was shot down over Europe, and he’s reported as missing in action.”
I waited for my brother to recite the rest of the story, for surely there was more. Yes, the plane had been hit by enemy fire. The crew bailed out. Edward, the last one, discovered that his parachute was defective. He jumped, resorting to his emergency chute. It deployed, almost knocking him out with its force. He revived to see a German fighter plane with his sights on him. For whatever reason, Edward never knew why, the German pilot did not fire on him but buzzed past. I like to think the pilot chose to show mercy.
Edward landed in a field, where resistance fighters picked him up before the Germans could find him. They got him out through enemy lines, his final rescue being by boat, and he returned to America.
A few weeks after the report that he was missing in action, Edward walked into Odis’ office and paid his insurance bill.
His grave and that of his wife, dates of death sometime in the 1980′s, rest within sight of the graves of Odis and his wife.
” . . . this preemptive assault on secularism with all it entails, strikes me as frightened and antagonistic.”
—Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books
“His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
—John 2:17 (NRSV)
No nation has ever belonged completely to God. The Jewish nation repeatedly fell into idolatry. So-called Christian nations, though influenced by Christian teaching, have erred greatly at times from carrying out the principles Jesus taught.
Today in the United States, Christians seem perplexed at secularism’s strength, as though it were something new. Secularism has existed beside Christianity since the first Christian missionaries carried the gospel to the Roman world and beyond.
In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine increasingly favored Christianity as the Roman Empire’s established religion. Before that time, Christianity grew because of the way Christians lived in a pleasure-loving, inhumane world. People were increasingly drawn to the “narrow way” which called its adherents to lives of forgiveness and compassion.
When Christianity became the “established” religion, it tended to succumb to the ways of the world and to seek power. Religious leaders like St. Francis, akin to Old Testament prophets, repeatedly called for a different kind of life, serving as role models for a return to the way of Jesus.
Christians have always lived amid secularism. Secularism wanes when Christians practice what Jesus taught and draw people to him. They are less effective when they seek power.
From the time native Americans dealt with British immigrants in the 1500′s at Jamestown and later at Plymouth, diverse peoples have migrated to the country to be known as the United States. Many of the early immigrants were Christians of various Protestant persuasions. Jews entered, too, as well as Catholics and a few atheists and agnostics. Some of the founding fathers were desists, a belief based on reason rather than revelation.
After the United States was formed, Europeans looked askance at the U.S. Constitution for not creating an established church. Surely the nation would fail, lacking any moral compass.
Instead, religion flourished in America. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians immigrated in larger numbers, escaping turmoil in the old countries. Catholicism bothered some Protestants, with its ties to Pope and priests, but eventually Catholics were incorporated into the mainstream.
By the time of the Second World War, the majority of Americans wouldn’t have disagreed with their designation as a “Christian” nation, or at least a Judo-Christian one.
The aftermath of that war and the ones to follow again upset established suppositions. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims joined the American mix.
Now, it seems, atheism is the latest bubble in the cauldron. As noted, atheists have been present since earlier times, but they have increased in number. According to some reports, the “angry” phase has passed, and the presence of atheism is accepted by many as a part of the mainstream.
Whenever a group loses dominant status, its members may fight to retain their position by the use of laws and/or force. Such a reaction is seldom successful in this country. The freedom from religion as well as to practice any religion runs deeply. However, if Christians take the early church for their example, they will not only survive but thrive. The early church was a subversive minority in a pleasure seeking world directed by elitist power brokers. They showed their faith, not by seeking domination, but by living what they believed.
Christians have been here before. The Roman Empire knew them well.
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.