Even among us postmillenial types, it is a common enough foible to imagine that we are living in a dark and decadent age. We look back with nostalgia and longing to an earlier Christian culture, to a time when everyone went to church, society lived basically in accord with Christian morality, Biblical teaching was enshrined in law and followed in national and international affairs, and orthodoxy was universally accepted and taught in the pulpits. Nowadays, it is clear, we have rejected God and are suffering His judgment.
So it is strange when one starts reading works from these good ol’ days and finds the same old complaints about the irreligiousness of society, the same laments about impending judgment.
Recently, I had the opportunity to read two things which helped reveal just how one-sided this narrative really is–Patrick Collinson’s brilliant study The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society, 1559-1625, and an essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Violence Vanquished”
In the first, Collinson offers a wonderfully thorough and lively portrait of ecclesiastical life in Elizabethan and Jacobean society–the period following a successful reformation, and before the waning of piety that an ensuing formalism is thought have caused–here, more than any time, we might have expected a picture of the good ol’ days in action. And yet, wherever we look, we find the familiar problems of modern society? Power-hungry and amoral rulers? Check. Corrupt church leaders? Check. Incompetent, uneducated, and/or immoral ministers? Check. Widespread ignorance of Scripture and orthodox theology? Check. A populace that seems by and large apathetic about the faith and inconsistent at best in putting into practice? Check. Absence of children and young people from church altogether? Check. Loose sexual mores, with widespread practice and acceptance of premarital sex? Check.
Not that Collinson’s point is to paint a gloomy, cynical picture. Far from it; one of his main burdens in the book is to demonstrate the relatively robust health of the English church in this period. The bitter invectives of the Puritans, and their certainty that theirs was a church rotten almost to the core, are shown to be just as without foundation as the “good ol’ days” mirage. The reality? The English Church in this period was a lot like many churches in many periods–a mixed bag, with a large number of inconsistent professors and practitioners, and a small minority of fully dedicated and zealous believers, whose leadership consisted of a few true saints, a few true villains, and a generous helping of well-intentioned but imperfect and usually undereducated clergy, who were sometimes too strict, sometimes too lax, but on the whole, slowly nurtured their parishioners into greater piety and maturity.
Very well, then. Perhaps they had their problems back then too. But one can hardly say that we have much improvement to be thankful for, right? Well, not quite. When was the last time one of your friends was robbed and murdered while traveling? Or when your town was attacked by a neighbouring town over a resource dispute? In his recent WSJ article, “Violence Vanquished” (a précis of a book he has just published, The Better Angels of Our Nature), Steven Pinker challenges us to come to grips with just how peaceful a society we (and by we, he means the whole world) enjoy now. Homicide rates in the Western world are only a few percent of what they were five centuries ago; violence and execution as a form of legal punishment has been dramatically reduced (except in Texas 😉 ); feudal conflicts and tribal violence have been banished from most of the world; leaving inter-state conflict as the only large-scale form of organised violence. But inter-state violence is huge nowadays, right? Wrong. The death rate today from inter-state conflict is only a few hundredths of a percent.
Pinker’s narrative is a bit overstated, perhaps, relying too much on the relatively short period of history that has elapsed since the end of the Second World War, and his explanations are decidedly secular, giving the credit to evolutionary factors, the Enlightenment, and the rise of the State (though perhaps these latter two deserve more credit than we are usually wont to give them), and none at all to the leavening effects of Christianity. Nonetheless, he certainly has a point, and one well-worth attending to in an age of ubiquitous media, when single murder cases from thousands of miles away can dominate the headlines for months on end, creating an illusion of ubiquitous violence.
The moral of all this is certainly not complacency. There is more than enough sin in the world to get worked up about, more than enough that still needs to be done for Christ’s kingdom to get us up off our lazy bums. But discontentment with our present lot and ingratitude for our present blessings are vices; and constantly assessing the present by comparison, not with the realities of fallen human existence, but with some utopian Golden Age, leads readily to an extremism that sets its face against the wickedness of the world and embraces dangerous creeds and schemes in a vain attempt to restore the lost Golden Age. When we realise that every age has had its share of vices and virtues, we will be more able to exercise patience in our efforts to make our world a godlier place today.