Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age skewers the notion that secularism is the result of a straight-shot progression from religious superstition to objective rational belief in science. His historical survey delves into the complexities of the historical record, and along the way, he shows how easy it is to interpret history as a way of justifying our own biases.
The Progressive’s Abandonment of the Past
The non-religious person today who is fully convinced that ours is the era most privileged and progressive and advanced in human history will find it unnecessary to reach into the past and retrieve insights that may be useful for contemporary society. The past is something we are escaping from, not something we would ever turn toward.
“Those who identify totally with our times can easily accept a straight theory of progress,” Taylor says. “We have nothing to learn form past epochs; insofar as they were different from ours, we can set them aside as irrelevant” (745).
This explains why, on a controversial issue such as the definition of marriage, appealing to thousands of years of history or worldwide consensus can so easily be brushed aside with the swoop of the hand.
You’re appealing to tradition and history? There are other things in history we’ve evolved from, including the subjugation of women or the use of slavery. Who cares if history is on your side? The future is on ours.
Whatever we find in the past that does not fit with the contemporary zeitgeist can be swept away without even the slightest engagement.
The Conservative’s Search for the “Golden Age”
The religious person, on the other hand, is more likely to commit the opposite error. Feeling the pressure of increasing alienation from the modern age, and holding tightly to the significance that comes from believing in transcendence, the Christian is likely to pine for the “good old days” when belief in God was assumed, not challenged, when the burden of proof was on the shoulders of the irreligious, not the devout.
The thoroughgoing progressive believes things have been getting better, not worse, and the thoroughgoing conservative believes things have been getting worse, and not better.
As such, the Christian is likely to push for a return to a previous era. Taylor explains:
“They (the Middle Ages, or the seventeenth century, or the pre-60’s America) got it right, and we have to repudiate whatever in modern times deviates from that standard” (745).
Because evangelicals see ourselves tasked with engaging and resisting the culturesimultaneously, we always face the temptation of pining for a golden era of Christianity.
The Early Church
Some believe in the pristine days of the early church and want to return to the simplicity of those times. But a cursory reading of the New Testament reveals that the earliest days were not flawless. Doctrinal crises, moral quandaries, disciplinary actions, and divisive factions often carried the day. There is much good we can retrieve from the early church, but we cannot and must not try to return.
The Great Tradition
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the church fathers. I have benefited from the writings of Chrysostom, Augustine, Hilary, and Basil. The recent translations and commentaries on these ancient works offer us spiritual nourishment.
And yet, it is a mistake to think of the centuries of ecumenical councils as a “Golden Age.” These were also the years that gave us an amped up neo-Platonic vision of the body, downplayed the ordinary Christian life, led toward ascetic extremes, and married church and state to the point crusades could be led in the name of the Prince of Peace.
The Reforming Puritans
The gospel-centered crowd today is most likely to look back to the Reformation and the subsequent centuries. We look back with gratitude for the recovery of justification by faith and the Puritan era of personal piety, doctrinal precision, which stirred revivals that shook the landscape of early America.
But even here, we are wrong to spot a “Golden Age.” All the Reformational heroes are marred in one way or another: Luther’s anti-Semitism, Calvin’s egregious treatment of doctrinal disputants, Edwards’ acceptance of slavery, etc. Geneva is a Ghost Town with buried treasure still being unearthed; it is not a home we can ever inhabit again.
“Immediate to God”
In short, there is no Golden Age of Christianity. Taylor quotes Ranke’s famous phrase unmittelbar zu Gott applied to the ages of history. Loosely translated, it means all ages are “directly or immediate to God.”
In other words, these ages “differ because each mode of Christian life has had to climb out of, achieve a certain distance from its own embedding in its time… But far from allowing these modes to be neatly ranked, this is the difference which enables them to give something to each other” (745).
Church History as Treasure Box, Not a Map
What is the takeaway for evangelicals today? In contrast to the progressive’s rosy view of the present and untested view of the future, we may often be standing in the middle of the road with our hands outstretched, saying, “Stop and consider!” as the rushing crowd surges forward to a future unable to fulfill their utopian dreams.
But we must also resist the temptation to see a past era as necessarily “better” or “worse” than our own. Church history is a treasure box, not a map. We don’t honor our forefathers and mothers by seeking to return to their times; we honor them by receiving their wisdom and learning from their victories and failures. We retrieve from the past the elements and tools needed for faithfulness today.
There is no “golden age” of Christianity in the past, only an unbroken line of broken sinners saved by the grace of God and empowered to transmit the gospel to the next generation. One day, we’ll be history and our insights will be in the treasure box too. Let’s make sure we’ve given our best.
Ten years ago this fall, Lost debuted on ABC. It was groundbreaking drama with a premiere that smashed records and garnered a a rabidly devoted fan base.
Six years later, Lost ended as a letdown for many of its most faithful fans. Why did the show draw such attention? And why did it prove ultimately unsatisfying for so many viewers?
How Lost Drew Us In
Lost was at the forefront of “the binge-watching era,” a phrase used to describe the immediate consumption of entertainment through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Because previous seasons of Lost were available on DVD and later online, viewers could start at the beginning whenever they wished and “catch up” on the show before joining the rest of the country for the new episodes.
And make no mistake, watching the show on television mattered. Audience participation was as vital to the experience as viewing the show itself. Coworkers discussed the show in the office the next day. Fans took to websites and blogs to share their theories, revel in the mysteries, and critique other people’s ideas.
The producers of Lost didn’t talk down to us. They expected us to catch the show’s philosophical bent. They wanted us to look up the famous thinkers Lost’s characters were named after – Rousseau, Locke, Faraday, Charlotte Staples Lewis, etc. They infused the show with religious imagery, ancient myths, and a mix of scientific and political theories.
As a result, Lost raised the bar for TV watching. The show was savvy and smart, with interesting characters and a gripping storyline. In our world today, people are closer than ever in public spaces of multicultural display (i.e. the airplane), and yet we are farther apart in our failure to know and understand the people around us. Lost created a microcosm of human society, a group of individuals united by tragedy, yet utterly divided in their opinions of how they can best battle the elements, resist their evil impulses, and discover the purpose for their lives.
Lost also captured the inner angst of our secular age – the desire to discover something beyond our own lives. The show depicted a world haunted by the echoes of transcendence. That’s why a common theme in the early seasons was the showdown between the “Man of Science” (Jack) versus “Man of Faith” (Locke). There was never any doubt that Lost would end up squarely on the Faith side of the equation, because the island was charged with cosmic grandeur. Even so, the man of faith would come with wrestle with doubt, and the man of science would be drawn to the island’s magic.
At every turn, the writers reinforced the idea that humans are part of a larger narrative, a grand scheme. The crossing of our paths is not accidental. A divine purpose ripples through creation and surprises us in ways the analytical mind cannot fully grasp.
Meanwhile, the sociological part of the show provided the greatest opportunities for character development. A disparate group of people from different cultures and backgrounds inhabit a deserted island. We watch them as they seek to create a society on an island full of ruins of failed experiments and dashed utopian dreams. Lost was gripping because it introduced us to characters we cared about and wanted to survive.
How Lost Lost Us
In Lost‘s later years, fans wondered if the show could answer all its mysteries. We began to doubt the overarching narrative. In order to continue to maintain the audience, the producers had to simultaneously resolve old mysteries and introduce new ones. As the mysterious elements began to pile up, the show began to slide toward chaos. The science fiction elements began to dominate the plot, often at the expense of character development.
In the first season, the island was a backdrop for the characters. Over time, the island’s unique attributes began to upstage the uniqueness of Lost‘s characters.
Then, after six years of promises, the show concluded with a widely watched finale that angered and disappointed the majority of viewers who’d come along for the ride. Lost premiered with a bang and went out with a whimper, a confusing amalgam of spiritual symbols that left viewers scratching their heads.
It turned out that Lost‘s biggest strength proved to be its biggest weakness. Its ambitiousness in creating characters whose lives intersected according to a cosmic purpose couldn’t keep pace with itself. The reason we watched Lost was its bold promise that everything will soon make sense. The reason we were let down was that the “sense-making” turned increasingly inward; the haunting transcendence of the island was reduced to the psychological deliverance of the characters.
The finale shouldn’t detract from Lost‘s many enjoyable moments. We imagined ourselves on the island with Lost‘s colorful cast of characters because we also inhabit a world of individual stories that are connected to a cosmic narrative that makes sense of reality. Lost drew us in because it reflected our own attempts to find meaning and love in a culture caught between science and faith.
But Lost let us down because all it could do was point ever so faintly toward the grand finale we long for in the deepest part of our souls – the last chapter of this present world when all wrongs will be righted, all injustices will cease, and we will finally understand purpose and pain.
Maybe that’s the best takeaway from Lost. Its contribution was to awaken people to the mysteries of the world around us. And with its thirst for transcendence, Lost still points beyond itself in the human search for answers to life’s greatest questions.
I recently caught up with Kevin Belmonte about his book D.L. Moody – A Life: Innovator, Evangelist, World Changer. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
Trevin Wax: How did the Chicago fire impact Moody’s life and ministry?
Kevin Belmonte: On a personal level, it was devastating. Moody and his wife Emma lost a home they loved. And on the night of the fire, they sent their daughter and son for safety’s sake to stay with friends.
That said, it was unknown for several hours whether the children had indeed reached safety, and their daughter remembered that Emma Moody’s hair began to turn white during that awful night of worry.
In terms of the future course of Moody’s life and legacy, he relocated to his birthplace, Northfield, Massachusetts, within a year or so of the Chicago fire.
To be sure, Chicago always held a special place in his heart, not least because of the famous mission school he started there in the slum called Little Hell – a school Abraham Lincoln once visited in 1860.
And of course, he founded the Chicago Avenue Church there (the predecessor of the great Moody Church today) and the Chicago Bible Institute (the forerunner of Moody Bible Institute).
But increasingly, in the years after the fire, Northfield became Moody’s base of operations, with all that this meant for the schools he founded there, the world-famous “Northfield Summer Conferences,” the Student Volunteer Movement, and much else besides.
Trevin: In what ways did Moody’s ministry and ecumenical partnerships lay the groundwork for the neo-evangelical movement led by Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga?
Kevin Belmonte: Moody’s mere Christianity was at the heart of his public profession of faith. It was never more in evidence than when he said:
“Talk not of this sect and that sect, of this party and that party, but solely and exclusively of the great comprehensive cause of Christ …. There should be one faith, one mind, one spirit – and in this city let us … actualize this glorious truth …. Let us contend for Christ only … May the Spirit of God may give us one mind and one spirit to glorify His holy name.”
One might say as well that if C.S. Lewis was the great champion of “mere Christianity” in the 20th century, Moody was the same in the 19th. Why so?
1. Look at the four schools Moody founded. When created, Moody Bible Institute – or the Chicago Bible Institute, its name in Moody’s lifetime – was, in his phrase, “undenominational, or, better, interdenominational.”
The Northfield Seminary, Mount Hermon School, and The Northfield Bible Training School were just the same.
By Moody’s death in 1899, over 5,000 young people, from 18 countries, had been educated in The Northfield Seminary and Mount Hermon School alone. That’s reflective of considerable influence among educators and young people of his time.
2. Look at the books published as part of “The Moody Colportage Library,” a series of books which sold in the millions during his lifetime and had an international readership.
This library was described as “a series of books by well-known Christian authors, undenominational, thoroughly evangelistic, for all classes of readers, in several languages.”
3. Look at the world-famous Northfield Summer Conferences, held for two decades prior to Moody’s death in 1899. Eight hundred students from Yale alone attended them. These conferences were noted for their “catholicity.”
The description given by Moody’s Irish-born son-in-law, A.P. Fitt, is revealing:
“… not a single truth held by evangelical Christianity has failed of due honor in the teaching from the Northfield platform. Not only so, but presentation has been effected through men of every branch of the universal church. A bishop may be followed by an unordained evangelist.
This means more than mere interdenominationalism. While no sect or denomination is ever allowed to present the particular point or points of its difference, it is felt that each stands for certain truths held alike by all branches of evangelical Christianity. Hence, while no controversy arises to mar the sweetness of fellowship, there results a majestic harmony of affirmation.
The value to constructive faith of this agreement…can hardly be overestimated. Northfield undoubtedly finds in this one great secret of its influence.”
In the last summer of his life, 1899, Mr. Moody himself defined the Northfield Conference platform:
“The central idea of the Northfield Conference is Christian unity, and the invitation is to all denominations and to all wings of denominations; but it is understood that along with the idea of Christian unity goes the Bible as it stands.
We seek at these meetings to find points of common belief. Too frequently when Christians get together they seek for the points upon which they differ, and then go at it. The Christian denominations too often present a spectacle of a political party split into factions…”
4. Look at the writers represented in Moody’s classic anthology: One Thousand and One Thoughts from My Library (1898). Here, Moody cited 225 authors – covering nearly all the centuries from the advent of Christianity to 1898.
Of ancient writers, Moody owned books that held the wisdom of Anselm, Augustine, Seneca, and Tertullian. Christian mystics were represented in the writings of Madame Guyon, Madame Swetchine, and Thomas à Kempis.
Catholic writers were also on his shelves. Apart from those already cited, Moody’s book held selections from Francis de Sales and Nicolas Caussin.
The Anglican/Episcopalian tradition was well represented in passages from Richard Baxter, Phillips Brooks, Richard Cecil, John Newton, Jeremy Taylor, and H.W. Webb-Peploe, prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Puritan writers had a place as well, among them Thomas Brooks and John Flavel.
Moody often cited women writers such as Geraldine Guinness, Frances Ridley Havergal, Leila Mott, Elizabeth Prentiss, and Hannah Whitall Smith.
Many dissenters as well, from across the denominational landscape, were in Moody’s book, including John Bunyan, Thomas Chalmers, Timothy Dwight, A.J. Gordon, Matthew Henry, Blaise Pascal, and Charles Spurgeon.
One key theme sets Moody’s book apart. It’s a very fine anthology in its own right, but it also stands testament to the emphasis on mere Christianity that pervaded his life and career.
5. Look at the tribute paid by distinguished Moody scholar Dr. Lyle W. Dorsett:
“Although he saw no virtue in abolishing denominational distinctives, he carried an abiding aversion to focusing on what he considered nonessentials. He particularly disliked labeling, criticizing, then breaking fellowship with brothers and sisters of different traditions.”
Dorsett also wrote that “class lines as well as denominational ones were constantly crossed” during the revival in Great Britain during the 1870s.
6. Look at the church Moody founded in Chicago. Will Moody, his son and biographer, said of The Illinois Street Church:
“There was mutual concession in unessentials. If some parents wished to have their infants christened this was [done]; but if there were others who were convinced that they must receive the believer’s baptism and that by immersion, this too was provided for by a special baptistry built beneath the pulpit. In the fellowship of the Illinois Street Church, at its inception, was illustrated the spirit of the old Latin motto: ‘In essentials loyalty; in unessentials liberty; in all things charity.’”
The manual of this church, when its name changed to The Chicago Avenue Church after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, was “revised by Mr. Moody and his brethren, a short time previous to his departure for England” in 1873. That manual stated:
“This body of believers desire to be known only as Christians, without reference to any denomination; yet regarding all who hold and preach the truth contained in our articles of faith as equally belonging to the same Head; and are thereby free to co-operate and unite with them in carrying on the work of our common Master.”
7. Last of all, look at the Dedication Bronze for the Memorial Chapel at The Mount Hermon School.
It celebrates the Anglo-American heritage of Mere Christianity. Though built expressly as a memorial for Moody’s sixtieth birthday, he wouldn’t allow this to be mentioned on the bronze tablet in the vestibule, which reads:
“This chapel was erected by the united contributions of Christian friends in Great Britain and the United States, for the glory of God and to be a perpetual witness to their unity in the service of Christ.”
It’s the “back-to-school” time of year: the season of buying textbooks, gathering school supplies, and meeting your kids’ teachers. But should it be?
Should Christians leave the public schools and send their children to private or Christian schools? What about homeschooling?
Nothing revs up a parent more than having a family’s educational choice questioned or challenged. But I believe it’s important to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each approach to schooling, and I think we can do so in a civil and respectful manner.
The book Perspectives on Your Child’s Education presents four major options for the Christian family. Each contributor makes a case for his preference and then defends it after being critiqued by the other contributors. Here are three of those choices (I’ve combined the “open-admission” and “covenantal” Christian schools into one), and the strengths and weaknesses of each:
Option #1: Public School System
Troy Temple makes a case for considering public schooling. He does not believe parents should send their children there as “missionaries,” though some speak that way. Neither does he believe public schooling should be required of all Christians. But he does believe public schooling in places where teachers are at least respectful to Christianity is a legitimate option.
The Case For
- The Christian family has opportunities to serve the school and be involved in the lives of the lost.
- The Christian family has the opportunity to be a witness in conversation and communication.
- Shelter and safety for our kids should not be the priority of Christian parents, but the Great Commission.
The Case Against
- The secular worldview of the public school system distorts the goals of education and excludes value judgments that are an important part of education.
- Should Christian families allow 30 percent of their children’s waking hours be in an environment that is implicitly anti-Christian?
- It is not necessary for the Christian family to partner with the public school in order to fulfill the Great Commission.
Option #2: Christian School
G. Tyler Fisher makes a case for open-admission Christian schooling, and Mark Eckel argues for covenantal Christian schools. These positions are more alike than different, so I will treat them together here. These authors believe that holistic education must include Christian teaching (over against the public school advocate) and that teachers well trained in their fields are best equipped to give children the skills to succeed (over against homeschool advocates).
The Case For
- Education is unavoidably theological, and a Christian school provides a biblical framework that builds God-centered purpose into every part of life.
- Christian teachers serve as partners with Christian parents to instruct children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
- A Christian school trains children to identify, analyze, and critique unbiblical worldviews.
The Case Against
- Christian schools create a “huddle” mentality and can isolate children from opportunities to interact with unbelievers in the world.
- Christian schooling is not as efficient as homeschooling, and teachers can never replace parents as the primary educators.
- Christian schools do not necessarily do a better job than public schools when it comes to academics.
Option #3: Homeschooling
Michael Wilder makes a case for homeschooling, since Scripture places on parents the ultimate responsibility for a child’s education. Because public schooling fails to utilize a Christian philosophy of education and because many Christian schools do not live up to their high standards, Wilder believes homeschooling is often (not always) the best choice.
The Case For
- Formal education is one aspect of a larger, integrated discipleship process – a responsibility that belongs to parents.
- Parents can be flexible in the educational environment they create and in how to best instruct their children.
- Homeschooling takes responsibility for education back from the state and returns it to the family.
The Case Against
- Parents may not have the education they need to prepare their children to succeed academically. Schools provide expert interaction beyond what parents can provide.
- Isolation from the culture can hinder the church’s mission in the world and lead the family into a “clannish” mentality.
- Unless parents intentionally seek social opportunities, children may experience inadequate socialization.
Which Option Do You Choose?
Before opening the discussion, I believe it’s important to remember that the church is united by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not by agreement on the best approach to educating our children. It worries me whenever I visit a church where every family has chosen the same educational path (whether it be an exclusively homeschool family church, Christian school clique, or public school involvement). Bible-believing Christians can and do come to different conclusions on this matter.
But our differences should not preclude good and open conversation. Whichever option you choose, you will be served well by people who disagree with you, who point out the weaknesses to your approach. That way, we can acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each and then seek to minimize whatever weaknesses our approach entails.
How have you come to a conclusion regarding education? And why?