Vladimir Lenin and George Washington: Two Cults, Different Ideals

When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 the Communist Party was eager to immortalize him. The cult of Lenin that resulted went further than all earlier efforts in the history of Christendom–Christian or post-Christian–to glorify departed leaders.

The case of the United States is an interesting contrast. On the one hand, there were undoubted similarities. The “apotheosis of George Washington” depicted on the interior of the Capitol dome in a capital city named after the first president drew upon the pagan Roman practice of deifying departed emperors (that is, literally declaring them to be gods). Allen Browne Washington was also glorified by a political culture in the early American republic that sought to create an almost mystical sense of his ongoing presence, expressed later by innumerable sites scattered throughout the eastern United States claiming that “George Washington slept here.”

The difference between the cult of Washington and that of Lenin, however, was not just that the one was committed to individual rights and the other to totalitarian dictatorship. What really made the difference was that while Washington showed relative indifference to traditional Christianity and seems to have favored its Enlightenment alternative of deism, Lenin was an atheist and intended to create a civilization of atheists. And it was this goal that colored the cultural revolution that gave rise to his posthumous cult. Continue reading

“Lenin Lives!”

It was one thing to kill Russia’s Christians, and another to destroy Russian Christendom.

In a certain sense, of course, the elimination of Christians would achieve this end. In addition to Orthodox lay people such as the New Martyr Daria (whose execution I recounted in my previous post), most of the clergy was killed off or consigned to places such as Solovetsky Monastery, which was converted to a kind of clerical death camp.

Prisoner at Solovetsky Monastery

Prisoners at Solovetsky Monastery

Of some fifty thousand parish priests in 1917, only about five thousand existed two decades later. The bishops faced even greater odds against survival.

Without a body of the faithful or the clergy to lead them, the Communists reasoned, Christendom would wither and disappear. But they could not wait for that. They had seized power in the name of an entirely new and post-Christian civilization and intended to usher in its supporting culture as quickly as possible. They were men in a hurry.

And so they launched a cultural revolution on several “fronts.” In this post I will introduce one of them: The notorious cult of Vladimir Lenin. Continue reading

The Face of a Typical New Martyr

There is no such thing as a typical Christian martyr, for each one is unique in his or her witness to God’s love for the world. At the same time, each martyr was a person living in the age to which God assigned him, and therefore was joined to and served to sanctify the world during that time.

Thanks to modern photography (and the bureaucratic efficiency of totalitarianism), we know what a lot of the Christians who were shot to death for their faith in the Soviet Union looked like. New Martyr Daria ZaitsevaPrecisely, vividly, and even in some cases rather artistically. Continue reading

Shooting Christians

Yesterday’s news of the killings at Umpqua College in Oregon included a detail that, if true, reminds us that even senseless acts of violence occur within a cultural context.

The murderer was reported to have asked his victims if they were Christians before shooting them in the head. Non-Christians and those that declined to answer were reported to have been shot in non-lethal areas of their bodies. There is no point in speculating about the motives of a psychopath, other than to observe that somewhere he acquired a conviction that Christians are a threat to the world in which he briefly sought to live. That “somewhere” is our post-Christian culture. Continue reading

Cultural Revolution

Before the culture wars of contemporary American Christendom, there were the cultural revolutions of Europe’s totalitarian regimes.Lenin1917SovietPoster-3

When Trotsky hurled his “dustbin of history” curse upon those who declined to follow Lenin and the Bolsheviks in establishing a socialist utopia in 1917 (see my previous post), he was not only excoriating political rivals. He was suggesting that the Russian Revolution was about more than politics. It was also about culture, that is, it was about the radical transformation of beliefs and values. Continue reading

How Was Paradise Manifested in Early Christendom?

I have defined Christendom as a civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world around them. ISR-2013-Jerusalem-Holy_Sepulchre-dome

A very long time ago, this core value was grounded in the traditional Christian experience of paradise. This experience, the very kingdom of heaven, was joined to life in the world. God was everywhere present within it. Having entered into the world and assimilated it to himself through the incarnation, he gave new life to it and this in turn inspired a totally new approach to it. Christians now saw every aspect of worldly existence in light of the kingdom of heaven, which, while not of this world, was nevertheless in this world through the presence of the Church.

As a result, family life was transformed from a means toward security, status, affection, or sexual gratification into a real encounter with God and a taste of salvation. More problematic was the state, which after Emperor Constantine’s conversion rolled back the blood sports of pagan Rome, but did little to eliminate slavery and continued to descend into savage cruelty in its irrepressible lust for power. I will write about these and other examples of early Christendom in due time.

For now, though, let me direct your attention toward the way ancient Christian worship and the liturgical arts manifested paradise. Perhaps the best example of this is the central dome of a church building, which hovered over the inhabitants of Christendom (especially in the east) as the heavens do over one standing in the middle of a field in the darkness of the night. But instead of looking upward to behold the moon and stars, Christians beheld the face of God incarnate. An icon of Christ Pantocrator (which means “all-mighty” in Greek) was typically painted within the interior of the dome and gazed down majestically on those assembled.

To be sure, this was a breakthrough in the history of architecture and painting. But it was much more than that. It was a proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near” to this world.

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An interesting question to ask is, If a great percentage of the population of Christendom regularly stood within a church building and gazed upward into the face of an incarnate God who was visibly manifested in their midst, what effect would it have on their vision of the world around them?

A Triumph of Absurdity

While the Wagnerian suicide of Adolf Hitler in 1945 may have been the perfectly consistent end of a modern nihilist (see my previous post), the death of Albert Camus in 1960 was not.

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True, this great French novelist and philosopher–a recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1957–was fascinated with nihilism, and even spent a good part of his early career as an exponent of it. Convinced with fellow existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that God does not exist, he celebrated the absurdity of human action in the face of its resulting meaninglessness. An early work was The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus the ancient figure of Sisyphus pushing a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down again–for all eternity–was the ultimate mythos of modern Christendom. For him, Sisyphus was a kind of post-Christian “hero of the absurd.”

Yet far more than his fellow existentialists, Camus was a dynamic thinker. He was never satisfied with his conclusions about the moral dilemmas of the modern west and progressively explored their root problems. This was the case with his fictional account of Nazi totalitarianism, a novel called The Plague. This beautiful book (one of my students once commented after reading it in our course that it made him “proud to be a human being”) took Camus beyond nihilism, back toward the central concerns of traditional Christianity.

Part of his inspiration was, interestingly, a lifelong attraction to Saint Augustine that contradicted his otherwise atheistic convictions. In the novel, evil is absurd, yes, and all-pervasive, but the protagonist’s response to it is not. A physician, he applies the cure of sacrificial love knowing that he can not completely annihilate the evil in this world, but knowing that he can prevent its triumph. Himself an atheist, the protagonist comes in spite of himself (and perhaps in spite of the author) to the remarkably similar conclusions of traditional Christianity. Indeed, some see Camus’s allegory of Nazism as a “proto-Christian” step in his intellectual development.

If so, his next work of fiction–and, alas, his last–went much further. The Fall is a very strange short book about a man who compulsively confesses his sins to a bartender. The man in question is a former judge, and an atheist. Or so he claims. Yet his preoccupation with a great sin he once committed reveals the weakness of his self-proclaimed nihilism, which he associates with Friedrich Nietzsche (who, it might be noted, was one of Hitler’s intellectual heroes). In the case of The Fall, Camus now takes his study of evil–what modern philosophers call theodicy–away from society and government and locates it . . . deep within the heart of the individual.

By this time in his career Camus had been visiting a Roman Catholic monastery off and on and was increasingly drawn to the values of traditional Christianity. It is significant that the sinner in the bar has the given name of Jean-Baptiste–John the Baptist, who once preached a “baptism of repentance.” His family name is also significant–Clamence, similar to “clemency,” or mercy and forgiveness. The problem is, he is an atheist. From whom does he need forgiveness?

Camus’s dynamic and honest struggle to confront the moral and philosophical problems of a post-Christian Christendom did not end with The Fall. Though self-consciously an atheist until the end, he continued to be drawn to the Christian anthropology of Saint Augustine.

Then, one day in 1960 he decided to accept the invitation of a friend to drive him to Paris by car. He would have preferred the train and had even bought himself a ticket. But nevertheless he agreed to drive. Along the way, the car went off the road and slammed into a tree.

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Camus was killed instantly. At only forty six years of age, the restless philosopher who had traveled beyond modern nihilism into the heart of traditional Christianity might very well have gone further. It was a tragic end to a remarkable intellectual journey, and perhaps a truly absurd one as well. They even found the unused train ticket in his pocket.

A Final Lullaby for Hitler

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April, 1945 was not a good month for Hitler or the German nation he ruled. The Third Reich teetered on the brink of collapse and a national catastrophe loomed. As American soldiers fought their way across the Rhine River from the west, the Russians moved inexorably toward a doomed Berlin from the east. Soon the city Hitler had once dreamed of redesigning as a monument to Nazism would be reduced to rubble by the Red Army. Mere boys were conscripted to mount a hopeless defense and young women prepared for the worst at the hands of the approaching conquerors. The atmosphere was simply apocalyptic. And it was in exactly this atmosphere that a symbolic but unnoticed moment in the history of modern Christendom was played out.

Albert Speer, the evil genius of German wartime munitions production and a professional architect–indeed, the very man Hitler chose to give Berlin its modernistic face lift–organized one final, climatic performance of the city’s world-famous philharmonic. The event must have been surreal. He tells of it in his remarkable memoirs, Inside the Third Reich.  I always find myself fascinated by this work, written as it was by a man who looked over Hitler’s shoulder at some of the most important scenes in the history of Nazi Germany (he can be seen immediately to the Fuehrer’s right in the famous photograph taken before the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France).

The musical performance Speer organized as the capital was encircled served as a kind of artistic last will and testament of National Socialism. As such, it provided a kind of swan song or perhaps even final lullaby for the visionary Fuehrer who had now withdrawn underground into his bunker to prepare for the end, brooding over plans to kill himself.

What was Speer’s musical taste for such an occasion? What else could it be? Richard Wagner’s opera Goetterdaemmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. Wagner was, of course, the preeminent composer for Hitler, and the final opera in the series the Ring of the Nibelung contained an ending that was as nihilistic as Hitler’s vision of the world. I will have much to say about Wagner’s place in the history of Christendom in later posts. It is really quite significant. For the moment, it is striking how well the music suited that vision.

In the final scene of the work, the heroine Brunnhilde, who is herself preparing to commit suicide by riding atop the funeral pyre of her lover Siegfried, pauses for a moment to sing softly to her absent father, the impotent god Wotan. In fact she sounds more like a mother singing a bedtime lullaby to her child. “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” she coos, “rest, rest, O god!” And then the ten-minute march toward the destruction of everything begins, as the Rhine River overflows and the palace of the gods, Valhalla, comes crashing down in flames. It is marvelous music, beautiful and stirring and, when put to use by the Nazis, chilling. If any of my readers has never experienced it, one particular good production (with Gwyneth Jones singing the lead) can be watched here. As the smoke rises on stage at the end of the  performance, the scene looks rather like what I expect Berlin did after its fall in 1945. 

“Rest, rest, O god!” These words say quite a bit about modern Christendom. No longer convinced that a heavenly paradise can be attained in this world, no longer hopeful that a secular utopia can be built in its place, the values of twentieth-century Christendom found it difficult to resist nihilism. And in the case of the Nazis, to a horrendous degree.

And what was it like to attend that final concert in the doomed Nazi capital? One account related that when it was over, and the chords of one of modern Germany’s greatest musical compositions gave way to the distant thud of approaching tanks, a Nazi official was standing by to distribute cyanide tablets to Berlin’s true believers as they departed.

Was such a scene inevitable for a culture that had lost its moorings in both paradise and utopia?

“One Nation under God”

UnderGod01  It has been a decade since the Ninth Circuit Court sought to ban the use of the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, sparking a brief but violent firefight in the culture wars that mark American politics today. Though prominent Democrats as well as Republicans denounced the decision–soon nullified by the Supreme Court’s intervention on technical grounds–many wondered if it was a sign that American Christendom was reaching the end of its history.

In a fascinating new book, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse explores the origins of the famous phrase contained within the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as other religiously charged phrases and ceremonies at the heart of modern American politics. One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015) is a provocative account of religious rhetoric in American political life. Kruse argues that the Pledge’s famous “under God” clause represents an invented tradition, and one of very recent provenance during the aftermath of the Second World War.

As a study of what Kruse calls “religious nationalism,” the book is of great interest to any one trying to make sense of the role played by Christianity in the modern state. For this reason, I found it to be a fascinating parallel to my book The Making of Holy Russia: The Orthodox Church and Russian Nationalism before the Revolution.  There I argued that the religious nationalism of many modern Russians–most recently Vladimir Putin himself– was in fact a rather new historical phenomenon. But whereas I located it in the missionary activities of Christian leaders, Kruse in the case of America sees big business and political conservatives as the source.  In any event, the role of religion in modern political life–Russian as well as American–can not be ignored.

The conviction that America is fundamentally a Christian nation whose identity rests on the twin pillars of religious freedom and political liberty has long characterized political rhetoric, becoming in recent decades more and more a monopoly of the right. Kruse reveals that expressions of it such as “one nation under God” and “in God we trust” are indeed recent, at least in official usage. A large part of his narrative documents the formal approval of these phrases by Congress during the 1950s, a time when America was struggling to define herself in opposition to the Soviet Union. America was defined in that heady context as not atheistic, and as a result political leaders on both sides of the aisle were compelled to emphasize her religious heritage. 

The history of the Pledge is particularly interesting within this narrative. Readers learn how the original form of the Pledge–predating the Cold War–lacked the “under God” clause and how it was drafted by a self-proclaimed Christian socialist and nephew of the famous radical Edward Bellamy, who attacked nineteenth-century American capitalism in the famous utopian novel Looking Backward. This is deeply ironic for Kruse, as the Pledge would ultimately come to be used as a weapon in the hands of big business and the political right.

What is perhaps most interesting in this book is the debate about American Christendom that surrounds it. Not only does the author engage the question of the origins and character of America’s “religious nationalism,” he is shaped and perhaps even reacting to it himself. My guess is that he does not regard it very favorably. But like it or not, he does reveal that the end of American Christendom is still a long way off.

So What’s with the Women?

This blog is about the history of Christendom, so what’s with the curious-looking women in the header’s image?

Well, these are very special women and they have a great deal to say about the content of my blog. They adorn one of the most famous temples in Christendom, and one that brings both its eastern and the western halves together in a common experience of paradise. It is the Basilica of Saint Appolinare the New in Ravenna, Italy. Listeners of my podcast already know of its importance in the history of western civilization’s architecture and painting. (If you haven’t listened to that episode, you can do so here). It was built in the sixth century by the western Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great but consecrated in the time of eastern Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who proved to be even greater).

These women are also noteworthy because they are, after all, women. Christendom transformed ancient society’s attitudes toward women, elevating them according to traditional Christianity’s standards of sexual dignity and the value of the human person, female as well as male. (You can listen to my podcast on this topic here).Sharing equally in “the image of God”–that essential feature of the traditional Christian vision of humanity–they are depicted here standing equal to and not behind a matching image of men on the wall opposite to them. They hold crowns of glory in their hands.

But most importantly, the image I chose for the blog’s header features one of the most explicit statements about the core experience of Christendom. These women have a purpose. They are going somewhere. What is their destination? The iconographer who depicted them, by integrating his work with the very architecture of the temple, subtly directed their bodies toward the altar area at the easternmost part of the building (to the right of the image we see). The women are therefore oriented, which literally means “facing east.” That is their destination. And not just that, but facing east and moving in its direction they are experiencing paradise, because according to traditional Christianity (and Judaism) paradise is planted in the east (Gen. 2:8). Living in this world, they belong to the kingdom of heaven which is not of this world but which has broken into it and is already present within it. They live in paradise.

This is the core experience of Christendom.