September 3rd, 2010

Renascence and Reformation

“So where do we go from here?”
David Essex, Rock On (1973)

It’s funny how one line of a song can stay with you forever; or at least for a lifetime. I was born in 1961 and “came of age” as they say in the 1970’s. I heard this song, Rock On, a lot from my older brother who was an accomplished guitarist and singer who played it endlessly along with other classics like House of the Rising Sun. But what is it still doing in my head after all these years? I became a Christian in 1978 and purged my music collection, and my mind too I assumed, of all secular music and yet still it lingers. I think perhaps because, within the context of the song, and even more so the context of a culture, it strikes me as profound.

I know a lot has been written about the 60’s and 70’s and the seismic cultural shifts that wracked America but let me add a Christian perspective to the mix. I was 8 years old when Woodstock happened, making me a bit of a latecomer, so rather than “We” let me say “They”, were what Don Mclean later called “A generation lost in space”. But how did they get so lost? They were children growing up in the United States of America, a nation that by all accounts was a bastion of Christianity. And this was what some would argue was the golden age of Christian influence in America with a hundred million church going citizens raising their children in Christian Sunday Schools that were both well funded and well attended. What went wrong?

Here’s what I think happened. America had experienced a great spiritual awakening in the late 1700’s fueled by fiery itinerant preachers like Jonathon Edwards. This lasted through the early to mid 1800’s further animated by Methodist Camp Meetings dedicated to seeking holiness and a 2nd act of grace. And after the horrors of the Civil War Dwight Moody found a broken and heart-sick nation that was ripe for yet another great revival that carried us through the end of 1800’s. World War I, The Dust Bowl, a stock market crash and the Great Depression dominated the better part of the first four decades leading off the 20th century and those issues kept the people of God in a place of desperate need. World War II, again, cost so many lives and demanded so much sacrifice that once again it was no time for Christians to wander far from a place of prayer and devotion in the face of so much sorrow and devastation.

But then came the 50’s. America emerges victorious as a Super Power and consumerism is born. Everybody has a house and a car and jobs are plentiful. And that’s good because households now need two jobs to pay for it all. But what happens to the church? It dies from the inside out. People are the same everywhere in each generation when it comes to serving God. He has our full attention when things are bad but when things are good we get distracted. Pretty soon the people who won the war, the Greatest Generation they have been called, are more interested in kneeling at the altar of conspicuous consumption than serving the God of the Bible. I think, for many, Christianity becomes simply a religion.

So what happens next? A generation of children find themselves in a nominal Christian culture for the first time here in America. And by nominal I mean Christian in name only. Their parents attend church and claim to believe in the God of the Bible but like in Isaiah “With their lips they worship me, says God, but their hearts are far from me”. This is clear in a society where the point of life for many Christians becomes a house in the suburbs and an affluent lifestyle that refuses to redress the evils of slavery and poverty inherited from the past. What happens is that a generation stands up, looks it’s parents in the face and says “You are a fake. Your religion is a fake, and your God is a fake “. And they are right. That’s why they won. When David Essex sings his song written in 1973 and asks “So where do we go from here? Which is the way that’s clear?” this is not the lost, angst-filled teen of the late 60’s this is the triumphant young man bursting with freedom surveying the landscape and saying “We won. Now what?” It’s easy to destroy a thing, it’s much harder to create something good out of the ashes.

One of the things that I remember from reading the book How Should We Then Live? Was the author pointing out that the Renascence and the Reformation are two branches of the same movement. The Catholic Church has become a hypocritical and oppressive force in society and in breaking away the various inhabitants of Europe seem to react in one of two ways. One large group, the founders of The Renascence, cast off the false religion and return to classic Greek culture for inspiration in art, music, literature and education. Another large group, the founders of The Reformation, cast off the false religion and return to the Bible to correct (rather than reject) their relationship with God. When I hear that line from the song, “So where do we go from here?” I can’t help thinking that the same thing happened here in America.

I started thinking about this when I read an article in an old 1970’s Readers Digest that chronicled what it called a “dynamic and measurable” religious revival that occurred in America in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was sparked by the preaching of men like Billy Graham and David Wilkerson and produced, among other things, a powerful movement called The Jesus People around Chicago. I realized that I was a product of that movement in America. It was called being “Born Again”, a rather new phenomenon in 1978, and it seems to have been caused by the same societal pressures that brought the rock & roll rebellion. So in effect, I was one of those conquerors who found myself in a divided and decimated society where Christianity has once again been exposed as a false and hypocritical religion to be thrown down in rebellion.

I look back now and I see myself standing bewildered in the rubble of a post Christian culture unaware of all that my older comrades had won. Some asked the question “So where do we go from here?”and turned to Eastern mysticism or Eastern religion for answers. Others turned to the satanic influences found in heavy metal and acid rock or simply went after “sex, drugs and rock & roll”. Thank God some of them made the choice of the earlier reformers and returned to the Bible because they were the ones who launched the movement that captivated me with the Gospel and the relationship that it affords me with the God of the Bible and his Son Jesus Christ.