For observers of modern nationalism, something remarkable recently occurred in the eastern borderlands of western civilization. Though scarcely noted by anyone this side of the Vistula, millions of Ukrainians joined together on July 28 in what was touted by journalists and politicians as one of the most significant celebrations of their statehood ever. Continue reading
My new book The Age of Paradise is scheduled for release next week. Readers of my blog might like a taste of what to expect, so here is a summary of its content and the contribution it seeks to make in assessing our post-Christian culture today.
The book is the first of a four-volume history of Christendom, a subject defined as a “civilization with a supporting culture that directs its members toward the transformation of the world.” At a time of renewed interest the future of Western culture, it traces that culture to the beliefs and values of the early Church. Many historians regard the Renaissance or Enlightenment as the definitive moment in the rise of the West, while others locate it in the so-called Middle Ages (I try to avoid the term) when a distinctive Roman Catholic Christianity prevailed in western Europe. I have looked instead to the ancient Christianity of the first millennium. There I find within the East especially the foundations of what the West would one day become.
At the heart of the narrative is a culture of “paradise,” an experience of the kingdom of heaven that saturated the cosmology and anthropology of traditional Christianity. This experience was manifested in the community ideal of agape love. It was articulated in a theology emphasizing “deification,” the process whereby human beings take on the very attributes of God. It was publicly observed in statecraft, where a principle of “symphony” held the government to a principle higher than sheer power. And it was expressed especially by the arts of iconography and temple architecture, which vividly proclaimed the presence of the divine on earth. I argue that one of the core values of modern Western culture—the utopian transformation of the world—is to be located first of all in the paradisiacal culture of Christendom during its first millennium.
The Age of Paradise is the first part of a series entitled The Rise and Fall of What the West Once Was. It appears in the wake of successful and provocative publications by conservative Christian authors such as Rod Dreher’s best-selling The Benedict Option, R.R. Reno’s Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, Anthony Esolen’s Out of the Ashes, and Charles Chaput’s Strangers in a Strange Land. It addresses the same audiences as these excellent works, but pursues a direction of cultural inquiry that is largely lacking in them: the deep and often neglected history of an “other” West that is, in the end, very different than the one to which we are accustomed. That West is the Christendom that preceded modern times. The Age of Paradise is being released with the conviction that in order to address and perhaps even solve today’s “crisis of culture” it is necessary to rethink where it came from and where in the future it might go.
The secular holiday that Americans along with so many other nations around the world celebrate today is often regarded, by historians, as the product of commercial interests. After Anna Jarvis (d. 1948) succeeded in obtaining Woodrow Wilson’s presidential approval for a national day of honoring mothers in 1914, the story goes, national associations of florists, stationers, and chocolatiers seized on it as an opportunity for expanding their still regionalized and modest early twentieth-century markets. Money was to be made in the commemoration of motherhood, and, as so often happens, capitalists hijacked what otherwise would have been a grassroots effort to honor one of the most altruistic experiences of human life. Indeed, poor Jarvis herself, later in life, appears totally to have lost confidence in the official holiday and became notorious for her interventions in its continued celebration, more than once being arrested for demonstrating publicly against the influence of commercial interests.
Such is the madness of modern Christendom. But what is also interesting in the story of Mother’s Day, celebrated (following the date set by Wilson) in nearly one hundred different countries on the second Sunday of May, is that it perpetuates a feature of pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, and even pre-secular Christendom. This feature is the organization of time around a calendar rooted not in this world, but the kingdom of heaven. That calendar was originally liturgical, grounded in the experience of man’s relationship with God. It was established over the course of many centuries by the early Christians, who looked on the ancient world’s calendars as powerless to communicate the radically new life they were experiencing. That life, centered upon the incarnation of God, was one of gratitude. And so, an entirely new system of time measurement arose between the first century and the eleventh century that gave thanks to God for the salvation he had delivered to the human race in Jesus Christ.
There came to be innumerable feastdays in this Christian calendar. And some of them remain today in our post-Christian Christendom as reminders of its Christian origins. One of the most prominent is Christmas Day, which literally commemorates the incarnation (though, as traditional Christians following the ancient calendar will know, the Lord’s Nativity is only one of several incarnational feasts that include Theophany/Epiphany, Meeting of the Lord/Presentation, and the Annunciation).
On a weekly basis, though, much more influential by reason of its frequency is what we call in the English language Sunday, but which most other languages influenced by Christianity name with some variant of “The Lord’s Day.” This was the name for the First Day of the week among ancient Christians, and it caught on over time as faith in Christ’s resurrection on that day spread from one European and non-European people to the next. Hence, Kiriake (Greek), Dominicus (Latin), Dimanche (French), and Domingo (Spanish). Beautifully and uniquely (I do not believe any other tongue on earth does this), the Russians call the day not The Lord’s Day, but The Day of the Resurrection (Voskresene).
As the latter example shows, the Day of the Lord is the day on which early Christians proclaimed that Christ had risen from the dead, and on this day a special celebration of thanksgiving became standardized almost immediately. So, when many centuries later, in an increasingly secular twentieth-century America, Anna Jarvis and her supporters managed to have a day set apart for the commemoration of mothers, it was natural and providentially appropriate that that day be Sunday. Of course, for many at the time Sunday had ceased to carry its solemn liturgical meaning of Thanksgiving. It was by then simply the day of the week most likely to accommodate family get-togethers and festivities. So it is in our time.
Yet, the echo of human gratitude to God echoes still a bit on Mother’s Day. Apart from the annual celebration of Thanksgiving Day, this secular feast is probably the most gratitude-laden. Jarvis herself had insisted that the day be named in the possessive singular and not in the possessive plural (“Mothers’ Day”) to enhance personal feelings of gratitude and love by individual children for their individual mothers.
And what could be more faithful to the early Church’s vision of the calendar than that? By the hundreds of millions, on this day people throughout the cosmos assemble to give thanks for what they had no control over: Their origins through the care and love of their mothers. Many mothers fall short, and all who are worthy of their role would be the first to admit that. But few human relationships better incarnate the sacrificial love that Christians have always experienced in their God, a love which, since early times, was built into the very calendar by which they lived their lives.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Photo credits: David Crump Daily Mail.
The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.
One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.
The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further. 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.
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.