Hope in a Time of Captivity and Persecution

In reading the latest essay by Paul Kengor in Crisis, I was taken aback in learning about James K. A. Smith’s misguided and mean-spirited attack on Rod Dreher, Anthony Esolen, and Archbishop Charles Chaput, whose recent books, among other things, offer the self-evident thesis: American culture is going to hell on a hand basket.

As a former evangelical who attended an evangelical college and seminary, I’m convinced that Smith, an evangelical philosophy professor at Calvin College, should know better. Calvin College of Grand Rapids, Michigan, is 113 miles west of Flint, Michigan, so at least I know he hasn’t been drinking the same water. Once again I am reminded of humanity’s amazing capacity for denial even in the face of cultural indicators that provide very compelling evidence to the contrary:

Kengor cites the Obergefell vs. Hodges SCOTUS decision (same-sex “marriage”) and the subsequent fallout: “…faithful Christians being sued, boycotted, picketed, harassed, demonized, dehumanized, bullied, fined, jailed, shut down, and generally destroyed for, oh, simply begging not to be forced to bake a cake or provide flowers or snap photos for a ‘gay’ wedding ceremony…”

Consider also how the totalitarianism at our universities has influenced Millennials not only there but in our broader culture. Ben Shapiro, a popular speaker and yarmulke-wearing gadfly on college campuses, references a November 2015 Pew Research Poll that reveals that 40 percent of Americans, 18-34 years of age, believed it was proper for the government to prevent citizens from making statements that minority groups would find offensive. Our “leaders of tomorrow” would shut the First Amendment down through the barrel of a gun.

Readers of Crisis are familiar with these outrages and the “truth decay” that is happening in American Catholic culture, where, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, 58 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly believe that divorced and remarried parishioners, who have not been through the annulment process, should be allowed to receive Communion; 42 percent think that cohabiting couples should be able to partake of the Eucharist, and only 46 percent think that pre-marital sex is a sin. If this study provides a window into American Catholic culture, what does it say about the broader culture outside the Church?

We are like Jeremiah in 587 BC watching the Babylonian army reduce Jerusalem to a debris-strewn apocalypse or Augustine witnessing the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD. As bleak as things can look sometimes, we must remind ourselves that, as counter-intuitive as this may sound, much good can come out of a period of captivity.

Historian Paul Johnson makes a strong case that Israel flourished more in captivity than in freedom. In Babylon the Jewish exiles were (1) cured of their idolatry; (2) the office of the scribe emerged with its accompanying Rabbinic literature; (3) synagogues began; (4) Scripture was taught with renewed fervor; and (5) the Jewish people were more unified than they had been for centuries. Maybe today’s cultural captivity will remind the Church again that heaven is our true home and that we really are spiritual exiles, strangers, pilgrims, and sojourners on earth who need to start acting like it instead of slavishly accommodating to the secular Zeitgeist.

Perhaps I’m naïve but I think there is room for a kind of guarded optimism in engaging the culture. One reason for this is the legacy of modernism both in the West and in America. Though often a bitter enemy of religious faith over the decades, the modernist sensibility, though it competes with post-modernism, is still open to reason and empirical data in many conversations in the public square. For example, when looking at the data on fatherless families, especially in the black community, you don’t have to be a person of faith to realize that a two-parent home (all things being equal) is better for kids than a single-parent family. The evidence speaks for itself.

When clear, compelling evidence is presented with conviction, it can still change minds. Anecdotally, by the grace of God, I’ve seen this in my own life and in scores of testimonies in listening to talk radio over the years just on the Dennis Prager Show alone. Sometime take a gander at the popular Munk Debates that take place in Toronto, Canada. See how a left-leaning, cosmopolitan audience changed their minds on the global refugee crisis. A similar dynamic can be seen in world-class evangelical Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s debates with atheists. Though the levels of denial, when encountering reason and facts, can be breathtaking at times in our culture, there still are fields to harvest on the fruited plain.

In taking back the culture, crafting the message is very important, but, even more so, is the sanctity of the messenger. In his late-in-life conversion to the Catholic faith, Malcolm Muggeridge was greatly influenced by Mother Teresa. She didn’t present any erudite arguments for conversion: her life was the most compelling argument. For Muggeridge, it wasn’t so much what was taught; it was what was caught in being around the diminutive saint.

Cultural captivity and persecution can lead to spiritual renewal, which plays a major role in the sanctity of the believer. In assessing the five major developments that happened to the nation of Israel during the Babylonian Captivity, at least four and maybe all five can be categorized “spiritual renewal.” The prophet Daniel, during this time of exile, prayed three times a day and influenced the culture around him. In our own time, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen credited his significant impact in the Church and on the broader culture to his practice of spending one hour each day adoring the Blessed Sacrament.

I can’t think of a better place to start in taking back the culture than participating in the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Think of how a younger actor idolizes a famous older actor. After a while he begins to resemble the older actor in his body language, countenance, cadence and timbre of voice. He becomes what he adores. You see some of this with some “method actors” (e.g., James Dean) who came after Marlon Brando.

With the practicing Catholic there can be a parallel sanctity that flows out of Adoration and into the surrounding culture. He or she is configured to the image of Christ. Anyone who has ever been told by a person who finds out you are a believer, “I thought there was something different about you,” knows this is true.

This is a good example of culture being downstream from religion and exposes the futility of hoping that each election cycle—i.e. politics—can somehow renew the culture. Politics is downstream from culture and not vice-versa. Your political party may hold all the levers of power and the culture can be in utter ruin. A moral majority can become a moral minority while your side is winning most of the elections.

Lent is an excellent season to slow down and begin or re-commit to certain practices and devotions that provide a venue for beholding and adoring Christ: spending time before a beloved icon, praying the Rosary, the Divine Mercy, the Liturgy of the Hours; practicing the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, exercising a new reverence in Mass as if you really were partaking of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, etc.

Slowing down is easier said than done. In my last essay in Crisis, I finished writing the piece then rushed through the process of identifying my links in the article. This hurrying caused me to forget to give more credit to a source who pointed me to some of the more important links: Ben Shapiro. As part of my penance, I’d like to highly recommend his book about American universities, Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth, and an excellent lecture he gave at Hillsdale College.

Lent is a time that, although we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices, we try to return to hearing the still, small voice; that although we could, like Martha, be concerned about many things, we devote ourselves anew to the one necessary thing. Jesus defined this as sitting at his feet and listening to him (Lk. 10:38-42); King David described it as beholding the beauty of the Lord in his temple (Ps. 27:1-4); the apostle Paul pursued it as knowing Christ in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his suffering, becoming like him in his death (Phil. 3:4-14). These descriptions are all one piece because this is all the same Person.

May all our efforts during this Lenten season to behold and adore Christ sanctify our lives and help us in taking back cultural real estate for his coming kingdom.

Jonathan B. Coe

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Jonathan B. Coe is a graduate of Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska, and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He is the author of Letters from Fawn Creek, a volume of spiritual direction, and lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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