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Living Amid the Ruins

April 9, 2008 Leave a comment

Almost four years ago I wrote about the fall of modern structures, suggesting that gatekeepers like government, media, church, and education were crumbling due to their reliance on a modern worldview that had collapsed. Later I was to discover that 30 years earlier, Ivan Illich had been thinking and writing in a far more comprehensive way on a similar theme.

As some people proclaim they are tired of church, others proclaim they are tired of voting. In fact, there is a great deal of disappointment and distrust of church, government, science, universities, and more. Whenever frustrations move from personal, localized distrust to mass distrust then something is not working in the society. I think this is a sign of breakdown of the Western world

Today while I was driving over to eat dinner with our little community, I started thinking of ways to better explain what I mean by the end of the Western world.

When we speak of the Western world, we generally refer to the commonality of cultures between people of Western Europe (including US and Canada). While the local languages may differ, there are certain common symbols that guide our way communicating, impacting the way we think and act. These symbols are rooted in a common core that reaches back to the forces that shaped our modern Western world: Christianity and Greek philosophy.

Even though many people reject Christianity and have never studied Greek philosophy, these symbols still shape the way they see the world. If we look backward into an earlier era such as the Medieval world, we are looking back to a time/place when people shared a different symbol set. The symbols may include a certain set of rituals such as the Latin Mass and a set of Holy Days. While there where local variations, the common mass and the common calendar defined a way of experiencing life and communicating life.

Each local area may express and develop the symbols uniquely through particular types of clothing, speech pattern, songs, dances and so on. In other words, the stuff of life that connects people: family, dress, home, language, worship, etc. When we speak of a world, we are suggesting that there is a commonality of symbols that caused people to see the world/understand the world in similar ways. While each person viewed and experienced the world slightly differently, a common set of boundaries for defining the world was shared by most of the people.

When I speak of the Western world, I am speaking in a similar way. The Western World might in one sense be a combination of eras that stretch back to ancient Rome up through today. In that sense, the Western world contains many worlds such as the Classical, the Medieval, the Renaissance and so on. The controlling group of people in any given era share some common core of meaning that allow them to communicate and build a society together. Every world is always fragile and never independent of the people within it.

As the Western world passed through the Enlightenment and moved toward the modern world, there was a great anticipation among many people that the world was going to get better. We could understand the world around us through disciplined reason. We could observe the world around and find the real. A sense of hope in progress propelled many of family and individual to expect a better world tomorrow. (This is a super simplistic reduction.)

While a sense of hope and anticipation led the charge, a certain pessimism also begin to grow. The multiple tensions within this world stretching for tomorrow might show up in the arts through artisits like Charles Dickens who kept reminding the “civil” world of an underclass with struggles and pains.

Charles Darwin exemplifies this expectancy of the progress just like many revivalist preachers did. Their zeal and hope were expressed in vastly different ways but a common threat still held them in a one world. Some people saw beneath the fabric and knew it was unraveling. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche both identified a rotton apple within their world even if one moved deeper into faith while the other move away from it.

As the nineteenth century waned and the twentieth century waxed, a growing denizen of thinkers, writers and artist began to question the fundamental symbol sets that held the Western World together. Then Einstein rocked the science world with his theories. WW1 resulted in over 40 million deaths (Wikipedia). From 1918 to 1919, influenza killed off between 2.5% and 5% of the world’s population (see Wikipedia). These strains kept building and pressuring a world view that was already starting to crumble. As Yeats proclaimed, “The center cannot hold.”

Within ten years, nations around the world descended into a Great Depression and then another devastating war (WW2), which demonstrated that even science could prove the demise of the world through atomic warfare. These external strains were only coupled within internal strain that questioned the core symbol sets that pointed to a hopeful future, that trusted our reason, that believed in what we could see, smell, hear and taste.

Gradually more and more groups of people began to notice the problems of the Western world. It’s wasn’t as rosy as we had believed. The institutions made of people (like government and education and church) could act destructive. And collectively people could really be destructive. The stories and symbols and ideas that held this world together seemed questionable. They also allowed for slavery, prejudice, destruction of native American lands and families, sexual injustice.

The 60s was not a surprise blip on the map of the 20th century. It was when masses of young people finally abandoned the common symbols that bound the West together. The death that impacted many thinkers at the end of WW1 had now spread to young people. Some suggested the world would be so much better if we did away with all the trappings of Western civilization like religion and nations and conflicts.

The symbols that were cracking in earlier centuries completely collapsed in the twentieth century. Even the basic symbols sets of common language were questioned. Could we really even find a common meaning? RD Laing suggested that we could and would never know anoyone elses experience beyond our own. The meaning of words and even the trustworthiness of our own observations were questioned. We saw a man land on the moon, but did he really land on the moon? We saw a plane crash into the two towers, but did we really?

While the late 70s to the present have tried to turn the clock back before the 60s, it cannot happen. The 60s were an explosion of mass doubt and disbelief in the Western World that was a long time in coming. And yet the contradiction of the 60s (as well as the contradication of many would-be messiahs today) is that the people before screwed everything up but this modern project really does work and if we just make a few tweeks, through out a few behavoirs and add a few new gadgets, we can still make the world a better place. Using some vague modernist idea of progress, people continued to rely on a world view that was busted and broken.

We’ve watched over the last 40 years, the collapse of this world view played out in our institutions (made up of people who are losing their common symbol set). From the government corruption to the shootings at the schools, we see a world where we no longer trust institutions (and no longer want to go to church).

This disintegration is being played out all around the Western world, including the fighting in Iraq. While most people will point at someone or something else as the problem, they fail to see that the whole ship is sinking. We can never go back to 1950 (or the garden for the matter). Now we go forward to a new creation, a new world.

When I say that the Western World is dead, I mean that the symbols expressed in ritual and language and ideas no longer bind us together. So we abandon this civilization and revert to a tribe of like-minded people for comfort and security (liberal, green, conservative, libertarian and so on). We are living at the edge of chaos even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

We chaos will not prevail. The West will move forward. A new articulation of the future will eventually speak a vision of the world that will draw the masses together and we’ll move forward beyond this interim period. We will probably not even realize when that happens. But it will. And as I Christian, I believe that we will move forward learning and living out the radical implications of our confession in even more fuller ways. We are moving from glory to glory.

What will it look like to move forward? Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy suggested we move look back to move ahead. And many have begun to look back. The challenge of the church is to articulate through the voice of humility the way forward that leads to the resurrected Christ Jesus who calls us from glory to glory.

The Late Great Medieval World

April 8, 2008 Leave a comment

I love studying the Christian Celts, particularly the golden period of the 5th to 8th century. What little we know about this world seems offer a balance to our world today. Their faith was less abstract and more rooted in every day living. Their prayers engage every activity of the day with God’s grace–from sweeping to stirring fires to milking cows to taking walks. They are rooted in community. They seem more in touch with creation.

It is easy to project back all our ideals to a period in the ancient past. (And to ignore many of their fatal flaws.) And we really don’t have enough information to paint a clear picture of that period. But we do have some writing and images that suggest a more integrated worldview between natural and supernatural as well as a connectedness to the land and the community/tribe.

While the Christian Celts may have brought some unique perspectives to the world, they also represent a way of thinking and living that was characteristic in that world. But this world came to an end. In a simplistic summary of history, I’ll point out a few major events.

The Western Church and the Eastern Church officially split in the Great Schism of 1054. While this split resulted from centuries of tension, it marks a formal break in the church that violates the love of God among His people.

A series of Crusades took place between 1095 – 1272. Millions of people lost their lives and the participation was debated then as now.

It appears to me that the next two events are judgments on the West possibly as a result of the Great Schism and some of the abuses of the Crusades but also maybe for other factors. These judgments in one sense represent the end of the medieval world (just as WW1 and WW2 represent the end of the modern world).

The Great Famine 1315-17 – While famines were a constant threat, this famine resulted in 1 million deaths, marking the end a population growth between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The Black Death – 1338 – 1375 – During these years, it is estimated that over 75 million people died. The Western world looked completely different. Entire towns ceased to exists, families lines ended, the social fabric fell apart.

The Medieval worldview did not have the energy to move this broken population forward. If we were using our terminology today, we might say that the world entered into a post-Medieval world. The world had to be rebuilt through new ideas, symbols, economic systems, cultural orders and more.

Part of reaching for a new world emerged in what we now call the Renaissance (14th – 17 th century). This emerging world had two competing interests: secular and Christian.

Martin Luther posts his 95 theses in 1517. While reforming voices and movements echoed through the church, this seems to mark the articulation that leads to a new world view. Secularist would prefer to speak of Renaissance, but I think the Reformation maybe the more defining transformation of the period. The energy of this worldview gave birth to modern science, classical music and more.

While the shift was not so dramatic, this new world gave birth to our modern world (both good and bad). The strain between secular and sacred only grew during this period. The doctrine of the Trinity was not guarded or articulated much during this period. James Jordan suggests that the unequally yoked marriage of Christianity and Greek thought propelled this world forward but eventually corrupted this world as well.

(I think Ingmar Berman’s “Seventh Seal” is exploring the end of the modern world via a story on the end of the medieval world while inverting Kirkegaard’s aesthete, ethicist and knight of faith.)

This world showed signs of breaking in the 19th century but the fundamental collapse was World War 1 and the echo of World War 2. We live in the arftermath of a world that died before most of us were born. Much like the post-medievalists, we live in a time that awaits a fresh articulation.

More on this later. I’m going to bed.

The Late Great Planet Earth

April 8, 2008 Leave a comment

Late Great Planet Earth

I grew up under the haunts of songs and stories that anticipated the immediate destruction of the earth. Instead of visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, I slept with visions of Armageddon. While I disagree on all the particulars, I think folks like Hal Lindsey intuitively realized we were standing at the end of the world. Or to be exact, we were standing in the remains of a world that already ended.

The other day when writing Why Don’t We Want to Go to Church, I suggested that judgment came on the West in World War 1. I might go even farther by suggesting that World War 1 and World War 2 mark the end of the world. Most of us grew up in a world that had already come to an end.

I’ll clarify by suggesting what I mean by world. On a personal level, all of us have experienced the end of one world and the beginning of another world. We are already comfortable with language that suggests worlds end. Thus the common phrase, “His whole world fell apart.”

A world is the time and space where I live. Whether conscious or not, I express that world through symbols of language, clothing, hairstyle, relationships and more. A child uses a specific language. It may be English but it will include words and sentence constructions that reflect the age of that child. As a child moves from into adulthood clothes change, language changes, currency changes (real money replaces tokens or toy money), relationships and more. The child leaves one world and enters another.

This is not limited to a personal level. The world of city can come to an end. We speak of the end of an era, which indicates time, but the end of an era will also impact space, so a city may pass from one world to another. A large company may employ a high percentage of people within a city. Other businesses spring up to support the workers. One generation passes through the city in this world. So the next generation only knows the city with the businesses and culture and particularities that have sprung up around that city.

If the large company leaves the city or goes out of business, the world of that city comes to an end. Businesses close. People move away. The few who remain live in a vastly different landscape and may even speak of the city as a “ghost town.” A world that has died but has not yet been born again.

I would suggest that the Western world died in the early part of the twentieth century, and it has yet to be born again. But a new world is coming. In case this doesn’t make sense yet, I’ll follow-up with a second post exploring how the medieval world came to an end, and how the new world emerged slowly (over the course of at least a hundred years).

And eventually I’ll connect all this back to the 10 commandments.

New World Order

April 5, 2008 Leave a comment

Yesterday I suggested that the new world came under judgment:

But this new world came under God’s judgment. While we see the beginnings of judgment in nineteenth century, the clearest image of judgment is World War 1. This war marked the end of the Western Christian world, and we are still reeling from that war. The Western church has been under judgment since that war. Yes we’ve seen some hints of revival, but the forms are dead.

Today I was reading through an newsletter from James Jordan dated January 1, 1994 and came across this quote:

My central purpose was to show that God manages history through crises that bring about new models of world order. After the coming of the gospel, we have seen God do this twice, as the Early Church crisised into the Medieval, and the Medieval into the Reformation. We are at the brink of a new complete cultural crisis and transfiguration today.

James Jordan, Peter Leithart and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy are all worth studying to begin to understand the era in which we live.

Why Don’t We Want to Go to Church?

April 4, 2008 3 comments

Lately, everywhere I turn I meet someone else who tells me that they would prefer to stay home than go to church. These are not embittered Christians or backslidden saints, but ordinary, faithful believers who have been actively involved in church for much of their life. At our last retreat, a lady brought up this topic and asking for responses. I barged in with answer that was typically too long and muddled to make much sense. For over thirty minutes (or more) I rambled on and on about the 500 hundred years. By the time I finished talking, I don’t think anyone had any idea what I was saying, and I neither did I.

Yesterday I answer the same question but someone captured what I was trying to communicate in about five minutes. I thought I might post it to display my ignorance to the world. Per Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, I believe the future must be articulated. (This ties in with another post I need to write about the tendency of the Word.) While many voices led up to a and away from the Reformation, God chose to use Martin Luther as the articulate voice that changed the world. Others came along like and interpreted various nuances of this new world, but Luther was the person chosen to call forth a new world.

But this new world came under God’s judgment. While we see the beginnings of judgment in nineteenth century, the clearest image of judgment is World War 1. This war marked the end of the Western Christian world, and we are still reeling from that war. The Western church has been under judgment since that war. Yes we’ve seen some hints of revival, but the forms are dead.

In the Scripture whenever judgment comes upon the people,  restoration begins with a return to the law (and the ten commandments in particular). We will not find the articulate voice for the future in the latest study on church growth/church problems. We must follow Luther’s lead and go “back to the sources.” While the culture around him cried out, “Back to the source” and returned to Greek thought. Luther returned to a different source: the Word of God.

When asked about prayer, he suggested the Lord’s Prayer, the 10 Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed provided the basis for a “Simple Way to Pray.” Like the wilderness children Moses addressed in Deuteronomy, we have grown up in the wilderness. We were born in a Western church under judgment. But He is stirring and calling us forward. I am compelled to go “back to the sources.” So I am listening, meditating, repenting and wrestling through the call of God revealed in these 10 Commandments.

What’s Wrong with the Church II (Disorganized Church)

March 19, 2008 3 comments

Contining from the last post, I reiterate that these ideas are my own flawed eyes and insights.

I’ve been involved in some form of home church meetings for the past 17 years, and for nine of those years with the same group of people. At times it has been painful, discouraging and exhausting, and that’s probably because it has been a small family. This is about a choice to love and to continue building relationships, and not about, “If it feels good, do it.” (Which is what a lot of American Christianity looks like to me.)

I’m not blind to the weaknesses of home churches, and I do not believe that they are some kind of panacea for the body of Christ. While there are many challenges, here are some problems that initially come to mind.

1. Sectarian and judgmental – Many home churches movements that I have been around use words like “Basilica” to describe the larger, organized churches. They fundamentally believe that these churches are some expression of paganism or compromise with the greater culture. And I admit, our group has struggled with feelings like that at times. When I first started participating in home churches meetings, a good part of the meeting would be devoted to castigating other large churches.

Our little group has tried to discipline our tongues and spirits not to stand in judgment on the church system. When I’m in a group (home churchers or otherwise), I do my best to refrain from the common tendency to point out all the flaws of paritcular churches, movements or “TV Evangelists.” For the most, these groups are not part of my world, and I simply need to keep my mouth shut.

This pattern of judgment and criticism toward the larger body of Christ seems to be a pattern in various small church/simple church movements over time. Now I don’t deny that this pattern can show up in any size and type of church, but it seems particularly magnified in the home churches with an us vs. them mentality. (There’s a good sign though in that some newer home churches see themselves as missional extensions of a larger body.)

2. Low commitment – Because of the casual nature of home churches, I’ve watched many people come and go. People may disappear for weeks at time and then reappear. While I don’t like the heavy-handedness I sometimes see in churches, this overly casual attitude can limit the possibility for real intimacy over time. It is hard to reveal our weaknesses in front of people who may have no deep commitment to the relationship.

3. Doctrine of the Holy Spirit – While some home churches embrace the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, I’ve seen a tendency to reject His action in history. What do I mean by this? They tend to read church history through the lens of how a bunch of people messed up the church and turned into a pagan substitute for the body of Christ. And only a few faithful held to the true calling of the church. I see this as a practical denial of the Holy Spirit’s involvement with the church. As though somehow God couldn’t keep sinful man from ruining the church He created, so a few faithful have to keep relighting the true torch of faith and passing it on.

Any groups (home church or otherwise) that are looking for some pure expression of the church, end up putting more confidence in man’s plans and designs than the Holy Spirit’s guiding presence to preserve and present the church as the Bride of Christ. God calls sinful men into His kingdom of love. He transforms them in the midst of a called-out community of other sinful men. Of course, our humanness interferes and ends up wounding and distorting. But the wonder of God’s providence is that He works out His purposes in the midst of our fallen lives and creates a masterpiece (as Paul so wonderfully captures in Ephesians).

4. Continuity through time – One of main problems of I see home church and large Evangelical churches is the breakdown in continuity through time (past-future-present). But I will pause here and write a bit about that in the next little post.

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