The 'culture wars': a Christian civil war?

The classical world of Greece and Rome was a beacon of high cultural attainment, blossoming science and religious pluralism.

Into the miraculous splendour and achievement of Rome entered Christianity, which quickly sent the Western world spiralling into a millennium of darkness and superstition.

Finally, the redeemed rationality of modern Europe liberated us all from dependence on blind faith. The Dark Ages of Christendom were over, and the Enlightenment brought us out of the abyss into a new era of reason, science and progress.

Or so the story goes.

Never mind that the classical world was also a beacon of cruelty, sexual violence and genocide, utterly antithetical to modern notions of justice and equality. Never mind that Christendom brought with it hospitals and universities, care for the vulnerable and the seeds of modern science. Never mind that the Enlightenment sprung up as a result of the convulsions of Christian Europe, resembling Christianity far more closely than anything pre-Christian.

Tom Holland on culture wars

Tom Holland (the historian, not Spiderman) The Book Club / Audio Boom

The anti-Christian account of the history of the West, having burned for so long with “the ghastly light of a thousand inane legends”, is increasingly falling out of favour, along with the “New Atheists” who peddled it. [1]

But the assumptions on which it rests remain. Even among educated Christians, we are so numb to the unique contributions of our faith that we may be persuaded by those who pretend they are a dime a dozen.

In fact, perhaps the most potent proponent of the Christian faith against such accusations is not himself a Christian – at least not in the full sense of the word. According to historian Tom Holland (not the actor who played Spiderman), the modern narrative is all wrong, with profound implications for the way we view our culture – and especially our cultural conflicts.

Is God a conservative or a progressive?

A friend once told me that his church was hosting an unusual sermon series. One week the topic was “God is a conservative”; the next week it was “God is a progressive”.

What do you think?

If you find troubling the idea that God is neither strictly conversative nor strictly progressive, that might be worth reflecting on.

Christianity, especially in the United States, is often associated with conservatism. After all, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has spoken to us through the law and the prophets and ultimately through Jesus. Some “conservative” political positions seem to line up with the biblical story, as do ideals like authority, community, freedom, tradition and high moral standards.

But the same God is the God of the New Covenant, who is making all things new. This God is love, and is deeply concerned with justice, compassion, equality, young people and his creation.

If you find troubling the idea that God is neither strictly conservative nor strictly progressive, that might be worth reflecting on.

But this also illustrates Tom Holland’s thesis: the culture wars of the modern West are really a Christian civil war.

A Christian civil war

Of course, Holland does not mean that everyone in the West unknowingly believes that Jesus rose from the dead. He means instead that the values, assumptions and vocabulary of both “conservatism” and “progressivism” are inextricably Christian.

He illustrates the point with two analogies. First, Holland thought that Christian values are like the water we swim in. Over time he came to prefer the image of a nuclear bomb, with radioactivity breathed in long after and far away from the initial explosion.

“Compressed within [Paul’s] letters … is pretty much everything that makes Western society today distinctive.” – Tom Holland

A popular historian of classical antiquity, Holland was always captivated by the power and glamour of the ancient world. “If I thought about Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate,” he recalls, “I was wholly on the side of Pontius Pilate.” The eagles, togas, power and glamour of Rome were attractive to Holland in his youth.

But the longer Holland’s imagination inhabited a world unmediated by Christian assumptions, the more “alien and frightening” it felt.

Beginning with the sense that the modern West remained profoundly shaped by the pre-Christian influences of classical antiquity, Holland now believes that our Greek and Roman inheritance has been mediated almost entirely through Christianity. In fact, he says, “Compressed within [Paul’s] letters … is pretty much everything that makes Western society today distinctive. You can trace almost everything back to these.”

Holland presents the Beatles as the paradigmatic example.

A Christian comeback

Holland even thinks Christian assumptions have been subtly “making a comeback” over his three decades of writing books. Whatever our opinions on them individually, Holland says modern social movements, like #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, anti-colonialism and the gay rights movement, taking their lead from the American civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr., rest on “profoundly Christian” assumptions.

“Why do we think it’s wrong for very powerful men to sexually abuse their ‘inferiors’? Why do we think it’s wrong for powerful states to throw their weight around? None of these questions would’ve made any sense at all in the pre-Christian world.”

The culture wars: freedom and equality

Accordingly, almost no one thought to question the condemnation of Harvey Weinstein, despite sexual violence being the pre-Christian historical norm, because modern Western culture is so intimately shaped by Judeo-Christian sexual ethics.

Fascinatingly, Holland presents the Beatles as the paradigmatic example of the divorce of Christian values from the Christian faith that took place especially in the 1960s. Influenced by African American gospel music and raised in England, where Christianity was old news, the Beatles sang All You Need Is Love without any explicit reference to Jesus – except when they expressed their perception that Christianity stood in the way of universal love.

When we get to the centre of Western culture, we find the cross.

The scandal of the cross

This unmooring remains to this day, such that the “culture wars” of the “secular West” remain shaped by Christian values in at least three profound ways.

First, like Christianity, the claims of modern cultural warriors are universal – so often and so naturally made on the basis of ultimate moral rights and responsibilities.

Second, like Christianity, the modern West is constantly convulsed by an instinct for revolution – for re-creation, for bringing down authorities, for reformation.

Third, like Christianity, when we get to the centre of Western culture, we find the cross. In every argument about race, colonialism, freedom, gender and everything else, the one inarguable and profoundly Christian assumption is the dignity of each individual person. When everything else is stripped away, the Christian transformation of vulnerability and weakness remains our central cultural myth. The crux (pun intended) of every culture war remains the cross of Christ.

Modern-day crucifixion

This is powerfully illustrated by Holland’s own experience with crucifixion.

In 2017, Holland visited Iraq to film a Channel 4 documentary about ISIS. The Iraqi city of Sinjar had recently been liberated, but ISIS remained a mile away. Victims of ISIS terrorism were the Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq. The city was smashed to rubble, the women were enslaved, and the men’s corpses littered the ground, reminding Holland of the way the Roman army devastated the towns of their victims.

When he heard that ISIS had crucified Yazidi men, Holland describes feeling a “great abyss of dread”, for the first time finding himself in a world where the cross was not a symbol of victory and dignity for the vulnerable, but a billboard for the victory and power of the regime.

Can you imagine living in a world where the cross represents the power of an unstoppable empire, not the power and love of the crucified God?

So the question is: have you felt it?

Have you noticed the utterly transformative effect of the gospel on our culture? Can you imagine living in a world where the cross represents the power of an unstoppable empire, not the power and love of the crucified God?

However destructive our “culture wars” are, they are a civil war, between people who share convictions that make no sense apart from the gospel of Jesus.

Let’s pray that the same gospel will continue to reshape countless lives, and let’s continue to share the good news: Rome, ISIS, the modern West and every other earthly power will be outlasted by the kingdom of God.

[1] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, p.36.

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