The Great Nightfall?
But it seems that something has happened that
has never happened before; though we know
not just when, or why, or how, or where.
Men have left God not for other gods, they say,
but for no gods; and this has never happened before
That men both deny gods and worship gods,
professing first Reason,
And then Money, and Power, and what they call
Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the
Bells upturned, what have we to do
But stand with empty hands and palms upturnedT.S. Eliot
in an age which advances progressively
T.S. Eliot said there were two ways of looking at a crumbling culture. The first says that a society ceases to be Christian when material prosperity becomes its overriding individual and corporate aim. The second viewpoint maintains that a society has not ceased to be Christian until it becomes something else. Eliot believed that the culture of his day, the 1940s, was predominantly negative yet still Christian. The choice for the future, he said, was between the formation of a new Christian culture and the acceptance of a pagan one.
I believe that the decades since Eliot wrote those words have tipped the balance. Vestiges of Christian influence still remain; but those Christian absolutes that have so profoundly shaped Western culture through the centuries are being consciously rejected by the men and women who direct the flow of information and attitudes to popular culture: communicators, educators, entertainers, and lawyers. As Eliot put it, “Paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.”1
This cultural crisis is all the more sinister because it is invisible to those who have already become captive to its lie. Radical individualism, which has brought us to this critical juncture, blinds most people to the fact that there is a crisis. Freed from the archaic impediments of family, church, and community, these men and women cannot see how their liberty has enslaved them to alienation, betrayal, loneliness, and inhumanity.
They’ve grown so accustomed to the dark, they don’t even realize the lights are out.
G.K Chesterton accurately described their plight: “There are commonwealths, plainly to be distinguished here and there in history, which pass from prosperity to squalor, or from glory to insignificance, or from freedom to slavery, not only in silence, but with serenity. The face still smiles while the limbs, literally and loathsomely, are dropping from the body. These are people that have lost the power of astonishment at their own actions.”2
Will the great nightfall soon be upon us?
Whittaker Chambers, the skeptic turned Christian who saw the 20th century first as a Communist spy and then as an impassioned defender of the West, died despairing: “It is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. This is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the fire, and bury them secretly in a flower pot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.”3
Perhaps the barbarians have already won. Perhaps the great nightfall will soon be upon us. Theologian Donald Bloesch proposes that it may be out of the utter destruction of culture that the church will emerge, phoenixlike, from the ashes. We don’t know.
But one thing we do know: it isn’t necessary that such predictions comes to pass. As Christians we cannot be historical determinists. There are no inexorable elements propelling history. God is sovereign over human events.
Yet it is men and women, under his jurisdiction, who write the pages of history through the sum of their choices. We never know what minor act of hopeless courage, what word spoken in defense of truth, what unintended consequence might swing the balance and change the world. “The death of a man at a critical juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his disgrace, have brought innumberable calamities on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a girl at the door of an inn, have changed the face of fortune, and almost of Nature,” said Edmund Burke.4
Burke was referring to historical figures. The man who died at a critical juncture was Pericles, the Athenian general who shaped his culture; the man who retreated was Prime Minister Pitt on his retirement from public life. The child was twelve-year-old Hannibal, taking an oath to one day attack Rome; and the girl at the inn was Joan of Arc.
How barbarism was overcome in the dark ages
Before Rome’s fall, its citizens had lost the characteristics that had made them distinctly Roman: discipline, respect, and obedience. Incest and adultery had invaded families, breaking the natural bonds of love and commitment and setting yokes of bitterness, disdain, and hatred in their place. Moral education had been supplanted by indolence, corruption, and decadence.
Thus damaged from within, Rome was unable to resist direct barbarian assaults from without. The once great empire fell in the fifth century, and Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe whose cavalry proved superior to the foot soldiers who had sustained and advanced the Roman empire for centuries. During the next few centuries, chaos ruled Europe. Warring bands of illiterate Germanic tribes opposed and deposed one another. Cities and cultural centers disappeared as inhabitants were scattered across the land in crude huts and rough towns. Literacy, law, and order – the pillars of civilization – crumbled, and the aristocratic culture of the ancient Western world nearly disappeared. Early medieval Europe seemed destined for complete barbarism.
One force prevented this. The church.
Instead of conforming to the barbarian culture of the Dark Ages, the medieval church modeled a counter-culture to a world engulfed by destruction and confusion. Thousands of monastic orders spread across Europe, characterized by discipline, creativity, and a coherence and moral order lacking in the world around them. Monks preserved not only the Scriptures but classical literature as well; they were busy not only at their prayers but in clearing land, building towns, and harvesting crops. When little else shone forth, these religious provided attractive models of communities of caring and character; and in the process they preserved both faith and civilization itself.
It is important to note that the church challenged not only the values of the barbarians but those of the Roman Empire as well. Living by a value system dictated by the kingdom of God, they rejected both Roman and barbarian lapses of character, uprooting such attitudes as the aversion to physical labor predominant among the Roman masses and the barbarian love of violence. As points of light in a dark age, they called attention to the values of an endless age. And in so doing, they saved their civilization.
Though the world now appears far more sophisticated than when the Visigoths overran Rome, it’s only because today’s barbarians wear pinstripes instead of animal skins and wield briefcases rather than spears. Like the monastic communities of the Middle Ages, the church today can serve as outposts of truth, decency, and civilization in the darkening culture around us. For even though the church itself is shot through with an individualism that cripples its witness, even though the church today – like the medieval monastic communities – is made up of sinners like you and me, it is the one institution in society that still has the capability to challenge culture by bearing witness to God’s transcendent standards of absolute justice and righteousness.
Why? Because the church has an independent locus of authority beyond itself, beyond the state, beyond the tides of passing fashion. The church cleaves to the absolute standards of Scripture and is infused with the work of the Holy Spirit to guide it.
The monastic orders of the Dark Ages could not have modeled communities of character if they had looked like the troubled world about them. Today, in a new age darkened by the collapse of character and the dissolution of faith, the church cannot model the kingdom of God if it is conformed to the kingdoms of man.
Too often in recent years the church has suffered from the same collapse of character that is so widespread in our culture. Too often the church has been apathetic, marked by individualism, and constrained by the love of self rather than the love of Christ.
If the church today is to be the church, it must diligently protect its spiritual integrity. This begins with what the Greeks called metanoia, which means a “change of mind” and is translated in the New Testament as “repentance.”
No less mysterious than God’s dealings with nations is the inexorable operation of his Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals. When a person repents – changes his or her mind – God takes control of even the most indomitable spirit. No one exhibits this more clearly and dramatically than G. Gordon Liddy, as colorful a character as any Hollywood director could order up from Central Casting.
A student of Nietzsche, the German philosopher who venerated the will to power as the highest of human goals, Liddy saw the world as a challenge to be conquered. Even as the Nixon White House tumbled around him [during the Watergate political scandal during the Presidency of Nixon in the 1970s that resulted in the indictment of several of Nixon’s closest advisors, including Liddy and Colson], Liddy would not be broken.
Eventually Gordon was sentenced to twenty-one years in prison for his role in Watergate. And when I visited him there, he was as tough and unrepentant as ever. As he tells it in his autobiography, titled, of course, Will: “Chuck asked me if I had ‘seen the light.’ ‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m not even looking for the switch.’”
Liddy served four years and was released. Then Liddy and his wife moved to a different state, and in the process renewed a friendship with former FBI colleagues he had known for thirty years. Liddy had always been drawn to these people; they were intelligent, compassionate, well-read. So when they asked him to study the Bible with them, he agreed – but only after spelling out his terms. “I’m an agnostic,” he said. “I’m here because I’m interested in the Bible. Period. Please do not try to convert me. I don’t want to be bothered.”
Liddy, you see, felt no compelling need for God in his life. His interest in the Bible was purely historical. But then he thought about his friends and their thirty-year example of Christian love and excellence. “If they are persuaded of the correctness of this,” thought Liddy, “then maybe I should take another look.”
Many people, says Liddy, experience a “rush of emotion” in conversion. Yet for me there came a “rush of reason.” He realized Christ was who he claimed to be, and Gordon Liddy became a Christian.
Since then, the man who wrote Will has said, “Now the hardest thing I have to do every single day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather than what is my will. What does Jesus want, not what does Gordon want. And so the prayer that I say most frequently is, ‘God, first of all, please tell me what you want – continue the communication. And second, give me the strength to do what I know you want, what your will is, rather than my own.’ I have an almost 57-year history of doing what I want, what my will wants, and I have to break out of that habit into trying to do the will of God.”5
Repentance is a rare message in today’s church because it requires confrontation with an uncomfortable subject – sin. And sin does not sell well in our feel-good culture. When sin gets personal, people get skittish. Only the conviction of personal sin, however, brings us to Christ.
G.K. Chesterton observed that the doctrine of original sin is the one philosophy empirically validated by 3,500 years of human history. Certainly the Middle East, South Africa, Central America, Northern Ireland, and the streets of America testify to that fact. Yet we are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. Unless the church recognizes this and preaches it, there is no way it can be a strong model of an alternative community of character to a culture corroded by sin.
Communities of Light
The monks and nuns of the Dark Ages acted out of obedience to God, and God used their faithfulness – without their knowing it – to preserve culture and ultimately restore Western civilization. As Christopher Dawson [an early 20th century Christian historian who wrote many books on cultural history and Christendom] has said: “The culture-forming energies of Christianity depended upon the Church’s ability to resist the temptation to become completely identified with, or absorbed into, the culture.”6
Only as the church maintains its distinctiveness from the culture is it able to affect culture.Out of tiny monastic outposts come education, moral endurance, and artistic excellence that can save a civilization. And out of holy obedience today, in communities of light, will come what he wills, as we are faithful.
- T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1968), 18.
- G.K. Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology, ed. P.J. Kavanagh (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 359.
- Quoted in Russell Kirk, “The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky,” Modern Age (Spring, 1985): 113.
- Quoted in Russell Kirk, “Wise Men.”
- Quotes taken from the transcript of a speech Gordon Liddy delivered at a Good Friday prayer breakfast, April 17, 1988.
- Quoted in Russell Hittinger, “The Two Cities and the Modern World: A Dawsonian Assessment,” Modern Age (Spring/Summer,1984): 193.
Excerpt from Against the Night © 1999 by Charles Colson. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Top image credit: Photo of Rome Colosseum at sunset, from Bigstock.com, © by twindesigner, stock photo ID: 267026080.
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship, an international Christian outreach to prisoners. He has written a numerous books, including Born Again and Kingdoms in Conflict.