What Good Ol’ Days?

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.  


3 thoughts on “What Good Ol’ Days?

  1. Kent Will

    Those are points always worth remembering; however, I think it does make sense to think of our present day as a comparatively dark one, not, indeed, in point of overall moral tone, but in point of what God we worship. In the Middle Ages and Reformation there were gross sins aplenty, but they occurred among people who generally agreed that the God of the Bible was the true God and ought to be worshiped, and that the Church was the true Church and ought to be obeyed. There were plenty of unrepentant homosexuals, adulterers, and murderers in high places, as today. But unlike today, there was no serious move afoot to claim these vices were virtues, and to attempt to reorganize society on an atheistic basis the better to accommodate them. That, I think, is the key difference between the age of Faith and our own revolutionary, secular order. Thus looking back on certain good old days is a foible of which I am unashamed.Years ago I heard someone make a distinction between the sins of healthy, and those of an unhealthy society. The distinction seems valid to me, and explains the difference between, for instance, the newly converted barbarians of the 8th and 9th centuries and the decaying society of imperial Rome in the 4th century. The Romans were almost certainly "better behaved", but it's a bit shallow to judge the state of a society on that basis alone. The barbarians were heading one direction; the empire in another. While thankful for whatever stability we currently enjoy, I am not jumping up and down too much over it, considering some obvious trajectories.Lastly, at least in the English-speaking countries I'd want to credit the evangelical revivals (whatever their defects) far more than the Enlightenment or the secular State for the improved morality of the past few centuries. Non-English speaking countries had the Enlightenment but not the revivals, and their general domestic-moral tone was, as little as a century ago, acknowledged to be far lower. Moreover, a general suppression of brigandage and petty warfare is one of the acknowledged benefits of a strong imperial presence in the world, which is just what we have had since World War II. But it is only a temporary side effect, and there is at least a debate about whether the benefit is worth the cost in local independence, economic exploitation, and other things that get Brad Littlejohn riled up. 🙂

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  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks so much for the pushback, Kent. I was intentionally quite one-sided in the way I wrote this in order to provoke some discussion (as the blog seems to have been unaccountably dead in the past couple weeks), and your response is just the sort of thing I was hoping for. On the whole, I agree with your response as a counterweight that needs to be thrown in the balance, but let me dispute on a couple points.1) I do think you underestimate a bit the number of people in premodern "Christendom" who did not agree that "the God of the Bible was the true God and ought to be worshiped, and that the Church was the true Church and ought to be obeyed." Not, of course, that they dared do so by open dissent or denial, but there was probably a sizeable minority who didn't really care to believe either and didn't bother themselves much with the subject. Even more so, I think you underestimate the willingness of earlier Christian societies to "claim that vices were virtues"–I have been surprised in encountering the subject tangentially in several of my readings how often late medieval and even post-Reformation conceptions (not just practice) of sexual morality fell short of what we consider to be the essentials. Nonetheless, you are certainly right that the last century has seen a serious deterioration in public conceptions and professions of religion and morality at least in the West–though one could point out that this has been counter-balanced by the opposite in the Third World.2) Again, you are probably basically right. However, I think it is important to caution ourselves by remembering that almost every period of church history (with a few notable exceptions–e.g., Eusebian Rome, 17th century New England) has in general thought of itself as living in a time when the trajectory was bad, when things were going downhill. We should remember that there is never just one simple overarching trajectory of "society" or "culture" or "religion" as a whole. There are all kinds of different trajectories intersecting and moving in different directions at any given time, so that one can identify real threads of progress amidst real evidence of decay. There is a great deal of the latter to be apprehensive about–and indeed, my natural tendency is to focus on this and be alarmed by it–but it shouldn't blind us to the positives as well–lest, failing to acknowledge them, we fail to capitalise them, and let them too fall into decay. 3) Again, in general, I'd agree–I recall we interacted about this some time ago on another post I made. But I want to beware of refusing to give the Enlightenment any credit, as we shouldn't let partisanship cause us to refuse historical facts. I'm no expert on the subject, of course, so I'd hesitate to pronounce either way; but I at least want to open to the possibility that the Enlightenment deserves some of the credit it claims here. Likewise, on the benefits and problems of the rise of the State, and the rise of empire. You are quite right that all these things get Brad Littlejohn riled up, and I don't want to recant any of that. However, I find it striking how universally post-Reformation Christians saw the unity forged by emerging states as an enormous blessing to society, and as a realisation of much of what Christianity stood for. There is a temptation to idolatry in that direction, and that line was certainly often crossed. Nonetheless, it would be churlishly ungrateful for use to refuse to acknowledge that "a legitimate monopoly on the use of force" even if it seems an undesirable concept, is perhaps better than simply anyone and everyone feeling free to resort to the use of force. It may well be that all we have witnessed in the last sixty years is just a temporary side-effect of imperial power; but the period of British imperial hegemony was considerably less peaceful than the last sixty years, and public aversion to the concept of war and violence (still in the 19th-century seen as very much "dulce et decorum") is much greater now, which gives me hope that it is not all merely a temporary advance.

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  3. " It may well be that all we have witnessed in the last sixty years is just a temporary side-effect of imperial power; but the period of British imperial hegemony was considerably less peaceful than the last sixty years, and public aversion to the concept of war and violence (still in the 19th-century seen as very much "dulce et decorum") is much greater now, which gives me hope that it is not all merely a temporary advance."Amazingly late to this discussion, but thought I'd throw in my 2p.It may well be that all we have witnessed in the last sixty years is just a temporary side-effect of hyper-industrialism's astounding material prosperity brought on the back on unprecedented ecological degradation. Never before have so many gained so much (in a material sense) or each generation been able to pass on such staggering growth in consumption and wealth to their children.And perhaps, never again.

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