Fiddling (or Strumming the Ukulele) While Christendom Burns

A couple of short responses, because I’m busy job hunting and working on music today. Yes, I am literally strumming my ukulele while Christendom burns.

Why celebrate the demise of Christendom? Well, the reasoning is complex for me.

First, remember — I was tossed out of a Christendom church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for being too much of a sinner. I have, to one extent or another, been an outsider all of my life. Someone who was not allowed to belong. Or who was deliberately and brutally excluded. Now, I’ve long blamed that on America, but I’ll be blunt — I hold the church in America somewhat responsible for that as well.

Someone once noted, in a biography of Joseph Stalin, that the reason so many Jews were revolutionaries in late 19th and early 20th century Russia was because Jewish life was so very precarious in late 19th century Russia. Jews could not be vested in order and stability, and those who didn’t leave (and even many who did) were drawn to revolutionary ideologies which sought to topple the whole system that restricted where they could live and subject them to regular violence. (I’ve always thought central to neoconservative thinking on tyranny was the Jewish experience in Russia as a kind-of cultural memory.) For many, bolshevism was intended to bring about a better world, but it would do so by demolishing the existing one.

And I get the appeal. The world has not been particularly kind to me (even as a great many people in it have been). Institutions have not been kind. The church, for all the kindness and belonging I have found in it, has not been kind. It has not welcomed me very well nor accepted me. Late American Christendom has no place for me. To ask me, then, to support an order that deliberately excludes me is asking a lot. It’s asking a great deal of me to reach out beyond myself, to see a good I can only tangentially experience, or be a part of. It’s basically telling me: I have to support and even love the order that beats the crap out of me and leaves me half-dead by the side of the road. Because the alternative could be worse.

Yes, I get the alternatives could be worse. Many of those old bolsheviks, if they didn’t die in the Revolution or the Civil War, perished at Stalin’s hands in the dank cellars of the Lubyanka. Post-Christian modernity will eventually come to demonstrate just how cruel it can be.

But to ask me to love Christendom … is asking too much. I cannot know if there would have been a place for me in a more confident Christendom of another era. I think so, just like there was a place for my very opinionated and abrasive Grandpa Featherstone as a senior civil servant in the middle of last century. (He would not survive government service, or maybe any other institutional life, today.) But there clearly is no place for me today. It’s hard, then, as one deliberately excluded, to feel all warm and fuzzy because the thing which deliberately excluded me is busy collapsing.

I suppose that makes me a bit of nihilist.

I try to balance this with my sense of call, and knowing what we are called to — to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that God loves us. In some ways, this is going to be harder in post-Christendom, and the church structures which empowered and enabled that kind of care and love will be restricted or simply go out of business. It will make it harder to materially care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned.

But I’m Jeremiah here. There’s no saving this church from collapse, from defeat, from conquest, from exile. I truly believe that what is happening to the church right now is something of God’s judgement on us — on our faithlessness, on our idolatry (we eagerly and happily worshiped the gods of modernity too), on our lack of hospitality to strangers, and on our unwillingness to truly care for the weak, the vulnerable, and the abandoned. We squandered our inheritance long before Nebuchadnezzar and his soldiers showed up.

I don’t think I’m so much celebrating the collapse as simply stating the obvious — there’s no defending Jerusalem from the armies of Babylon besieging us. To save yourself, you need to accept defeat, to accept exile, and trust in God. Because this journey is not about what we do, but it is about what God does. And God is faithful. Christ is faithful. We are church not because we are kind and decent people, but because God has called us. We shall be redeemed. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, maybe not for many decades or even centuries hence. But we, as God’s people, will be redeemed.

Until then, we need confess our faith — Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again — and live, and love our neighbors, as if that is the only thing that matters. Because it is. This brave new world will break, brutalize, and discard a great many people. They are who we need to love.

9 thoughts on “Fiddling (or Strumming the Ukulele) While Christendom Burns

  1. When I think of Christendom, I don’t just think of the American church, but of the longer history and the presence of the saints. I can’t help but think of the Screwtape Letters, C. S Lewis ,writing a letter from the senior to the junior devil on temptation says ,

    One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

    Your situation is a bit different, because you feel deliberately excluded, but I find much comfort in thinking of the history of the saints, and of the indestructible character of the church. I’ve never felt like an insider in American church, either. I think peoples tribal instincts are very strong, and often the church is all-too-human. I don’t like large groups, even of Christians. The moral, spiritual, and intellectual heritage bequeathed by Christian culture is a light in darkness. To let it go quietly for materialism, power, sexual expression, is not something I can be neutral about.

    • And I generally agree with you. All I will add here is that the letting go happened long ago, and there’s not much we can do about it.

  2. That should say “The moral, spiritual, and intellectual heritage bequeathed by Christian culture, however, is a light in the darkness.

  3. Much of the heritage spoken of here was corrupted and increasingly misunderstood even before it was let go. But I’m all for grabbing it back. It’s just that there don’t seem to be institutions which can or want to grab it back without prioritizing their own favorite corruptions of it, if at all. But that’s OK. I grab anyway. And I don’t think I come away empty-handed. Those who seek and revive what they love will have something honest and true to share, God willing, and maybe that will forge them into a community of sorts (or a variety of scattered communities) which will help to revive and preserve that which it values. The God willing part is crucial. Christ builds the church out of our enthusiasms. [The root of the word “enthusiasm” is Greek en-theos: God within us.] Every time it has been done successfully, that’s how it was done. God willing.

    • Well, that’s what I think “The Benedict Option” ™ is all about. I’ve been a proponent of such a thing long before it entered Rod Dreher’s mind, mostly because I know what it’s like to live as a member of a religious minority and am very comfortable with it.

  4. To call it the Benedict Option calls to mind the early Middle Ages, but it is also in other ways and circumstances the Waldensian Option, the Anabaptist Option and even the Calvinist Option. The Calvinists happened to be (in the long run) successful enough to become majorities (little Christendoms) in some locations; this could happen partly because they were specifically concerned about finding, out of scripture, substitutes for the traditional props of Late Medieval social order – often making mistakes in the process, I think, but nonetheless creating strong structures, for better or worse.

  5. Oh, yes purchased your book today on Amazon. Tried to donate but the site said my card was invalid.

  6. Your article that is in “Christianity Today” was read by our current pastor during the sermon last Sunday, at St John’s in Somonauk. Very interesting and rewarding article that he shared with us. I know that the outcome of the internship wasn’t all that favorable, but was great to hear what is going on in your life today.

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