It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.
So far I have been interested mainly in recent history. I would now like to take my readers back beyond the twentieth century, beyond even the past five centuries, to the moment when, in my judgment, an event happened that symbolizes a shift away from traditional Christendom to the modern Christendom that would see a decline in Christianity and the rise of a secularized alternative to it. The event symbolized the decline of a civilization directed toward the kingdom of heaven. It symbolized the end of paradise and the birth of utopia. Continue reading
The month that leads to the holiday of Christmas has become the most beloved period of the year in the west. It is a time of socializing, holiday-themed entertainment, and feasting.
In fact, the period has become so intense that many become quite weary of it by the time the actual day of Christ’s birth arrives. Some people reach December 25 feeling stressed out by holiday activities, annoyed by the monotony of holiday music, and bloated by weeks of excessive eating. On December 26, the ultimate symbol of Christmas festivity, the Christmas tree, is tossed into the garbage and life returns to its normal, non-festal mode.
This is not how Christmas was celebrated historically. The weeks leading to the holiday were kept as a period of penitential abstinence and expectation, of waiting. And this meant fasting. This practice, largely ignored by most of modern Christendom, was the means toward the fullest and most joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. The adage even arose that in order to feast, one must learn first how to fast. Continue reading
In a recent post on his excellent blog, Joel Miller confronted the scandal many make in our contemporary culture about the historical veracity of images and accounts of Jesus’s birth. An Orthodox Christian, Joel has much to say about western Christianity from an eastern Christian point of view. That goes for his most recent piece, which responds to an Atlantic magazine article (“Your Christmas Nativity Scene is a Lie,” December 13, 2015) “exposing” the historical inaccuracies of nativity scenes throughout America during the holiday season.
The author of the Atlantic article “reveals” to his large audience that the depiction of an ox and an ass in many such scenes is not supported by the “evidence” of the Gospel accounts, but, as Joel Miller notes, totally misses the very scriptural foundation (Is. 1:3) for these animals regarding the Messiah whom so many rejected. The point is, an icon is not a photo snapshot. It is a revelation or proclamation of a reality that includes but goes beyond the immediately visible. “It’s curious,” Joel observes, “that people who at times snicker at wooden literalism become so woodenly literal.”
Indeed. Continue reading
If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Continue reading
Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks. Continue reading
It has begun. In fact, it has been going on for a couple of weeks now, since the celebration of Black Friday. The world around us is celebrating Christmas. Malls are ringing with carols. Restaurants are humming with patrons. Offices are cheerful with festivity. That December 25 is still weeks away does not really matter. The world loves a party, and Christmas provides a month of opportunities. It is delightful, and there is no other season of the year like it.
The world is celebrating what in the course of two thousand years has become the central holiday of winter. (Even in Australia, where it is summer: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way; summer in Australia; on a scorching summer’s day”!). Yet as it does so, it impoverishes its very understanding of the world, or cosmology.
Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, a holy day (“holiday”) for Christendom since earliest times.
Nicholas was an early fourth-century bishop, a victim of pagan persecution, and a saintly defender of the poor and the afflicted.
The following is a traditional icon of him, still used in Orthodox Christian worship today (the scenes around the borders depict events from his life):
It is remarkable that his image was ultimately transformed in our post-Christian Christendom to look like this:
How did this happen? What historical changes occurred to change the fourth-century ascetic into a symbol of indulgent consumerism?
For those interested in finding out, I can recommend a website that lays it all out. It makes for very interesting reading, especially in the wake of the Black Friday rush for the malls!
In any event, finding a pair of images better suited to tell the history of the secularization of Christendom would be hard to find.
Image credits: Wikipedia and Multi-Lingual Living
Less than a week ago, Muslim terrorists attacked and killed more than a hundred people in Paris, leaving many more wounded and suffering. France, recently distinguishing herself as aloof from America’s “war on terror,” has now (in the words of President Francois Hollande) declared herself “at war” with ISIS. French jets have begun to bomb military targets in Syria to defend France and the west from radical Islam.
Indeed, not only the west but the world community has expressed deep sympathy for France, reminding one of the global expressions of solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The United States and France, along with the west as a whole, have much in common. We are hated by Muslim extremists.
Apart from the psychological fact that fanatics always need someone to hate, the following are three particularly apparent reasons: Continue reading
In a recently published book (hot off the press this year), a professor of history at Illinois State University claims that America’s culture wars are over. Or at least they should be. A War for the Soul of America, by Andrew Hartman, is a history of the struggle against cultural change that has occurred in America since the 1960s. That history is now over, he claims, and advocates for a secular, permissive, and pluralistic culture are the victors. Their opponents have been defeated by the statistics. Surveys indicate that the social values of the left have been normalized in American society, with the majority of even young Republicans now favoring, for example, the legalization of gay marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges (decided in June, apparently after the manuscript was sent to press) would only seem to confirm this.
In one sense, the struggle for America’s soul is presented by the author as what it obviously was: a conservative and religious backlash against the rise of movements advancing the separation of church and state, abortion rights, feminism, and gay marriage. But what is curious about the narrative is the way it presents this backlash, not as the struggle to uphold any kind of absolute standard of moral behavior and cultural good order, but as a process of social-psychological adjustment. If polls reveal that the values of the 1950s are dead, then, the author suggests, continued resistance to the new cultural order is futile.
What I find perplexing in this professor’s triumphant liberal narrative is its ultimate point of reference: the 1950s. Was that decade really the definitive moment in the history of American values?
Would it not be more effective to evaluate the history of contemporary American culture from a broader perspective? To launch that history in the 1950s ignores some twenty centuries of moral formation, minus fifty years. It also sets up the liberal narrative imposed by this author with a sure victory. And yet there is so much more to a moral society than what one finds in America in the 1950s.
In short, would it not be useful to evaluate our present culture and its problems from the perspective of the total history of Christendom, of which America represents a rather recent and incomplete picture?
This is what I hope to do in the posts ahead.
The story of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow is a remarkable one, and well known by many Orthodox Christians in our time. Like so many of the stories of the New Martryrdom, however, few Americans know about it. One of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, it was originally built in the nineteenth century. But it was blown up on orders of Joseph Stalin in 1931, and became the site of a remarkable–and almost comic–effort by the Communists to establish a new, post-Christian culture. Rebuilt after the collapse of Communism, it is in some ways a monument to the resilience of Christianity in the modern world and of the durability of Christendom. Continue reading