Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Trending away

In the late 1960s I was embarrassed, being a fan of the Beatles (who, of my generation, wasn't? or rather, isn't?) almost every time John Lennon got himself in the newspapers that my parents read. Drugs, including LSD (briefly as it turned out), the weird second wife, the album cover that disappeared almost as soon as it appeared, are almost forgotten compared to this one little, out of context quotation that enraged Americans, but that was practically unnoticed in England and Europe, originally published in an interview for the London Evening Standard in 1966:

"Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first - rock 'n' roll or Christianity."

Before judging Lennon harshly, especially for those who have come across these words for the first time, he later said that he did not approve of that much popularity, and could as easily have said "television is more popular than Jesus now" as "we're"-presumably the Beatles - "more popular, etc." More importantly, he said over and over again that he was talking only about his native country, England, and nowhere else. (In fact, three years later he said, "I'm one of Christ's biggest fans, and if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ's message, then that's what we're here to do." Sadly, his understanding of that message appears to have been terribly muddled.) That he was naive, and honest almost to the point of psychosis, is also to be weighed among other factors, such as having, in cognitive terms, an earliest memory of German planes in the sky over Liverpool, the harsh whistle of falling bombs and ground-shaking explosions while his mother, in a state of panic, rushed him to the closest bomb shelter. Added to an IQ known to have been well above genius level, and a lifetime of artistic endeavor, he was predestined not to be boring. This complicated man died, quite tragically murdered, in 1980, having said the same day that he was a "Zen Christian." He left us confused about his meaning, as always.

The element of truth

The real problem about what John Lennon said in 1966 is not what so many were quick to assume, as expressed in knee jerk reaction. The real problem is the element of truth in what he said. The Beatles were more popular than the Lord Himself among youth in England, as was Frank Sinatra among an older set of Americans, as is television, as are video games, and as are many things of this world to very many people. The eccentric artist spoke all too accurately.

As another man, also named John, wrote centuries earlier about Jesus Christ: "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." (John 1:10)

Another problem with John Lennon's statement in 1966, when read in America, was that a thing called religion was still a necessary element of respectability. "Good people" went to the church of their choice, whether or not they believed. It was expected, and not bad for business. But, throughout Europe and England, the decline had set in. The only people going to church anymore were those who went for a reason deeper than mere respectability (as had Lennon himself until, as a teenager, a "bad vicar" of the C of E banned him from coming back to his church because he had laughed during a service).

Post Christian cultures

However, America has become very much like Europe where religion is concerned. Forty percent of American children, according to a Washington Times report last year, are now born out of wedlock. And, the good news for them is that they were spared the ravages of the abortion holocaust to be born at all. Meanwhile, Christianity is constantly growing in Africa, including growth among Continuing Anglicans, even though many African Christians live with persecution. What they have going for them is the joy of their faith and belief that the Holy Spirit is the One who still breathes life into the Church everyday.

About Europe I have written before in Touchstone:*

"We know the story of the Prodigal Son, and its message of repentance and forgiveness. The opening of the story focuses on the beginning of his fall, the waste of his inheritance, by which he is known forever. Prodigality in this case was about extravagance, and the satisfaction of lusts.

"It seems that another kind of prodigality can take hold of people, just as wasteful and disrespectful of a father’s labor. It is the throwing away of a valuable inheritance in return for nothing at all, as if it were, itself, spent on the husks that the swine did eat rather than on something alluring. This kind of prodigality is the waste and ruin of modern Europe."*

And so also of modern America.

But, for those of us living in what may be described as post Christian cultures, we need to see our position in terms of an opportunity. Is it really Christianity that has declined, or is it the respectability of religion? If it is the latter, then perhaps we may become better acquainted with the cross of Christ as a result, just as our persecuted brethren are acquainted with it in a different way. Should we approach the decline of respectable religion as a disaster or as an opportunity? Considering that we are stuck with the decline as a fact on the ground, let us take the opportunity, namely the opportunity for evangelism in terms that cannot help but have authenticity because only genuine and sincere believers bother.

Of course, we have seen the dangers also, that some resist the decline by altering the Christian Faith into something that an unbelieving culture might still treat as respectable. These are the ones who think to create a new and improved Christianity, by their amoral/immoral standards, and by strange doctrines. That, too, we cannot remove from the picture.

The decline is very real, and therefore so is the opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Dear Father
I think I understand what you're trying to say though I don't think you needed the John Lennon reference to make your point.Of course being in the minority who liked the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles it could be that your post is beyond my understanding.

Jack Miller said...


I think you should just...

"Let it be".

Fr. Robert Hart said...

Well, my favorite "band" was Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

Jack Miller said...

As an aside...

My clarinet teacher as a youth was Charlotte Owen
(see- )

Her husband was Charles Owens, principle percussionist under Eugene Ormandy in the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

I had lessons once a week for five years at their house.

Anonymous said...

Concerning 'trending away' and our favourite bands:"I know it's only rock 'n' roll but I like it."

Jack Miller
Needing to get back to serious work like making sure the rectory's roof gets shingled before the rain comes I'll leave this thread with a quote of the one time heavy weight champion and great orator Larry Holmes "All I got to say is I ain't got nothin to say."

The Shrinking Cleric said...

I can certainly relate to your description of the post-modern world, particularly Europe. My wife and I returned in October 2009 from a 10-day cruise of the Mediterranean. Of course, being a priest, I dragged my poor bride to every church I could find from the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (a monstrosity, in my opinion) to St. Paul's Shipwreck in Valetta, Malta (an unbelievable beauty, complete with a relic of St. Paul's arm and the pillar on which he was beheaded).

However, in all of these churches, even the venerable St. Peter's in Rome, I was left with the sense that I was visiting a museum rather than a church. Most of the churches had beautiful high altars that were never used, having been replaced by picnic table altars placed to accommodate the Novus Ordo. Europeans seem to have responded to this change by abandoning their Christian life, choosing Brunch over the Eucharist.

Sadly, I had a similar experience in London in 2002, where I saw magnificent churches that would sit bereft of worshipers. On Sunday at St. Paul's in London, for example, there were more people in the gift/coffee shop than there were at Vespers.

That this same affliction has come to America is now no longer in doubt and I fear that our society has long since past the tipping point where faith can be restored. This is particularly troubling since the morality that guided our society formerly was unabashedly Christian and even people who did not hold themselves up to this standard at least had the common decency to not flaunt their weakness or, dare I say it, their sin. Unfortunately, postmodernism has successfully removed the anchor of faith and allowed our society to drift into the turbulent seas of relativism.

I'm not as optimistic, Father Hart, as you are. I do believe that our world can be healed and converted. However, I also believe that this is going to be made terribly difficult by the indifference to truth that is so rampant in our world. If St. Athanasius were alive today, he would probably pull his hair out after hearing for the umpteenth time, "Well, that's your truth. I'm glad it works for you. Just don't try to force your beliefs on me"

By the way, my favorite orchestra/conductor combo is The Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of George Szell.

Fr. John said...

Well said Fr. Bob! I am optimistic to a fault, but your words ring true. But the Times they are a changing, and a hard rains gonna fall, that means something bad's gonna happen. That's when we will see people coming back to faithful Christianity in droves, or to Antichrist if he's revealed himself by then.

Anyway, I've been thinking about preaching a revival. I think I'm gonna start in Freedom Park which is across the street from St. Hilda's Saturday week. Why don't you join me?

My maternal grandfather was a street preacher and I saw him in action so I know how to do it. It's easy, I'll teach you.

Mark VA said...

In the context of this discussion, I think it would help to define more precisely what is meant by "Europe".

The common definition of "Europe" seems to focus on the western parts of that continent, especially the bigger countries - England, France, and Germany come to mind, followed by Spain and Italy, and occasionally a few others. I see this definition of "Europe" as a relic of the Cold War.

If this is what is meant by "Europe", then yes, the Catholic Church has suffered a decline there. The overall cultural and demographic trends of these countries seem to lead away from Christianity - but perhaps even that may be an over-generalization. There are counter-currents in those places that offer some hope for the restoration of the Catholic Faith. Plus, we don't know when the instinct for self preservation will finally kick in for the secularized parts of their populations.

On the other hand, if a broader definition of "Europe" is accepted, then the situation of the Church doesn't appear as dire. There are places there where the Catholic Faith is vibrant, population exchanges are unlikely, and accepting some "Western European modernity" is not synonymous with surrendering one's Catholic faith. Plus, the faith of many mature members of these populations has withstood a challenge more serious than Western European secularism.

I would say that if a broader definition of Europe is accepted - the "first" and the "steerage" classes if you will - then the situation of the Catholic Church in that part of the world is mixed.

Best Mozart - Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra.

Allen Lewis said...

I think one of the best things to happen to Christianity in the United States is for it to lose its "respectability".

Christians in the US have had it too easy and have grown flabby because of lack of opposition. Now that we are being picked on by the Elitists and the moral relativists, the Church (the real Church) is seeing solid growth again.