February 2009 - Vol. 27

Commuters, Munich, Germany, photo by Don Schwager

Living in the New Dark Ages

by Charles Colson

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 upturned
  in an age which advances progressively
                                     T.S. Eliot
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.            > Go to Next Page
Charles Colson is the founder of Prison Fellowship, an international Christian outreach to prisoners. He has written a numerous books, including Born Again and Kingdoms in Conflict.

Excerpt from Against the Night © 1999 by Charles Colson. Published by Regal Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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