“The Word and the Videotape”—with such a provocative title I could discuss Christ and technology or Billy Graham’s television evangelism. But the real subtitle for this talk should be something like “The Christian’s Relationship to the Spirit of the Age,” and more particularly, our relationship to the spirit of this age.
It has been said that the Greek concept of history was cyclical, while the Jewish concept was linear, but this is an oversimplification. The Jews did recognize the presence of historical cycles—we perhaps should say “epicycles”—within the line of history that leads toward the Day of the Lord and the vindication of the righteous. Human society swings as a pendulum from romanticism to classicism to romanticism, from prudery to promiscuity to prudery, from skepticism to mysticism to skepticism, from spirit to matter to spirit. Each age recognizes the excesses of its predecessor, vows to compensate for those excesses, and heads deliriously for the other extreme, certain of finding Eden, Utopia, and a pot of gold upon its arrival. Where is the community of faith in all this cycling and swinging? More often than would have been expected, it has been a breath of fresh air from the depths of Christianity that set the pendulum swinging, but once the swing got up momentum, it was Christianity too that put up the greatest resistance to the pull of the opposite extreme toward which the culture was racing.
For example, the Italian Renaissance is often blamed for or credited with the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which made atheism popular. It was the Renaissance, we are told, that changed man’s focus from the God-centeredness of the medieval period to the man-centeredness that ushered in the Enlightenment. Yet it was the Reformation, not the Renaissance, that posed the biggest threat to the medieval authority system; the Renaissance was carried on reasonably comfortably within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. But the Reformation questioned the authority of the institutional church and gave a high place to the individual conscience and reason in interpreting Scripture and determining the proper Christian ethics. This recovered understanding of the individual’s dignity and responsibility before God came as a breath of fresh air, but it began a swing of thought and culture that ended at the extreme of a belief in complete human autonomy in the absence of God. The individual conscience before Godbecame simply the individual conscience and autonomous reason with Voltaire. And Christianity found itself resisting the momentum of a swing that Christianity had begun.
The reason is that in the eyes of the Christian any extreme is too simple a solution for the problems that have always faced man—problems of identity, society, ethics, suffering, death, love. A solution to the racial problem or the cessation of war in Viet Nam, while such problems must be major concerns, is not the solution to man’s predicament. Things just are not that simple. The Christian sees this not through superior intellectual powers but simply because he has been given a plumbline that runs down through history, a standard established by God, revealed to man, and lived out in the context of human society by God himself, Jesus Christ. The plumbline is not lukewarm compromise or an Aristotelian “Golden Mean.” Rather, as G. K. Chesterton observed, we see Christianity precariously harnessing opposing passions together, both at full strength. In the life of the Church it is balance, not mere moderation, that is the key.
Of course this is a good deal more complicated than simply running with the Spirit of the Age as the pendulum swings from extreme to extreme. But if the Christian’s approach to society is the right one, we should probably expect it to be a bit complicated if we recognize the complexity of the problem. It is like C. S. Lewis’s comparison of the fields of religion and physics. Lewis says:
The old atomic theory is in physics what Pantheism is in religion—the normal, instinctive guess of the human mind, not utterly wrong, but needing correction. Christian theology, and quantum physics, are both, by comparison with the first guess, hard, complex, dry, and repellent.… Christianity faced with popular “religion” is continuously troublesome. To the large well-meant statements of “religion” it finds itself forced to reply again and again, “Well, not quite like that,” or, “I should hardly put it that way.” This troublesomeness does not of course prove it to be true; but if it were true it would be found to have this troublesomeness. The real musician is similarly troublesome to a man who wishes to indulge in untaught “musical appreciation”; the real historian is similarly a nuisance when we want to romance about “the old days” or “the ancient Greeks and Romans.” The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies—a wretched pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it [Miracles].
And so it has been a part of the Church’s mission to its society, to the culture, to the “Spirits of the Ages” in which it has lived, that it call the culture back from the extremes and try to hold it to the center plumbline. The Church’s success at this has varied down through the centuries. There have been times like our time when, as Yeats said, “the center cannot hold,” when the Church seems unable to restrain a culture gone mad with change. At times the Church loved the comfort and security of the old extreme too much to spur the swing back to the timeless standard. At times it came close, at least temporarily, to fulfilling that part of its ministry—as, for instance, in the Christian culture that grew up in Puritan New England. (It is one of those quirks of popular mythology that we are taught to despise the Puritans largely on the basis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s biased view of them. Hawthorne notwithstanding, the Puritans probably had the greatest positive influence on the formation of American education, government, and family.)
But regardless of its influence or lack of influence in a society, the Church must hold firm to the center, calling the society back from the extremes to the only answer to man’s personal and societal predicament. And for us and our age, at least part of what that means is that we must be people of the word in the midst of a culture of the videotape. The videotape represents a swing of the pendulum not totally wrong but (as Lewis says) needing qualification. Two aspects of this swing that should especially concern Christian education and educated Christians may be stated as two doctrines of our generation:
Doctrine One: Personal sensory and emotional experience, the irrational and the subconscious in man, all have more to do with the meaning of life for man than does rational thought and communication or historical public knowledge. The world is in the mind.
Doctrine Two: The answer to man’s problem must come through change, the future, and the new; the past and the traditional are of no use in the twentieth-century situation.
Doctrine One, that “the world is in the mind,” is no new idea; two centuries ago William Blake was preaching it, and he was not the first. But the videotape and its father the television have infused this element of subjectivity and mysticism into our culture with new force. In The Medium Is the Massage Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore comment:
In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point. This creates a sort of inwardness, a sort of reverse perspective which has much in common with Oriental art.
Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness. “Time” has ceased, “space” has vanished. We now live in a global village … a simultaneous happening. We are back in acoustic space, horizonless and boundless. We have begun to structure the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy divorced us.
Electric circuitry is Orientalizing the West. The contained, the distinct, the separate—our Western legacy—are being replaced by the flowing, the unified, the fused.
T. S. Eliot has awakened us to the fact that somewhere in our not too distant past (he blames Milton) our emotional life and sensibility became divorced from our intellectual life and sensibility. Feeling got divorced from thought. The marriage was in good shape at the time of Shakespeare and Donne. By the time of Pope and Swift, the intellect had gained the upper hand; Wordsworth in English literature and Rousseau in philosophy led the successful revolt of emotion against intellect at the turn of the nineteenth century. Today, if McLuhan is right, we have an even more radical revolt of emotion against intellect, of non-reason against reason, of the mystical against the historical and the public, than that Romantic revolution. Now, this is not all bad, of course; but the revolt is so extreme this time that there is a danger that the primitive will engulf the literate, and that the word will be discarded as a useful means of communication. Many of us have seen from our own experience that the television child may grow up antiliterate, rebelling against the rigor involved in reading and thinking. He wants to experience, to feel, and to act, but not to think. Plodding, methodical thought is on the ropes.
The Church has not remained unaffected by this neo-Romantic, even neo-primitive revolution. In theology we see the emphasis on the Scriptures as a setting for divine-human encounter rather than a propositional revelation of truth about God and man. This began as a neo-orthodox reaction against nineteenth-century rationalistic higher criticism, but it is now part of the neo-evangelical reaction against fundamentalism’s concern for doctrinal orthodoxy. The focal concerns of today’s evangelical academia are not the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of the Scriptures, or the nature of the atonement; rather, in evangelical colleges and seminaries the stress is placed on community, love, concern, Christian brotherhood, and social involvement. None of this is bad; it is, in fact, one of those moves back toward the plumbline. But we are betraying our society if we allow it to rush headlong into the subjective, the mystical—as McLuhan says, “the flowing, the unified, the fused”—without a word of warning. The problem is not so simple that psychological experience, or even undefined “love,” will solve it. So we must be people of the word—not simply the Word of God, but the word as a valid communication of thought. We must be people of the word calling our videotape society back to the public, historical standard of God in Christ.
What does it mean to be people of the word? In education it means that education is more than an experience, that a novel (for instance) can be rewarding intellectually whether or not it “turns us on” emotionally. That class hours at the secular university should be more than polemics for Marxism or women’s liberation or peace or even ecological balance and love of nature. And that class hours in the Christian college should be more than devotionals with the material as our jumping-off point. It means that in our involvement with the issues of our time, study and thought must precede action; that we must respond to Viet Nam on the basis of what we know, not on the basis of our feelings about war or death.
In our Christian life it means we have a responsibility to know theology, to read theology, and to read Scripture for information about God as well as encounter with him. It means a commitment to study the whole counsel of God, all that Scripture teaches, Old and New Testaments, and not simply to read and reread the Gospel of John. It means too that our community must be rooted in plain, prosaic truth capable of being stated in straight linear thought. That we must back our symbols and slogans—“loving Jesus,” “born again,” “God is love”—with pedantic, logic-chopping doctrine. For we have no community if we are all using these symbols to mean different things. And we have no Christian community unless our definitions and doctrines are rooted in biblical theology. This is not to disparage Christian mysticism or our neo-evangelical versions of it; but it is to say that in an age of mysticism such as ours, the Church must insist that the only true mysticism has its roots down in the mud of history. Against the Oriental monism represented by the videotape, we must stand for the word, not only the Word of God but also the word of man, defining and giving substance to the Church as a Christian community.
Our responsibility to be people of the word in a society of the videotape has implications as well for twentieth-century doctrine number two: the new is the good, and change must be the savior. For the videotape is just one technological expression of a society enamored with the new and the young, brightness and ingenuity, the latest developments, up-to-the-minute news, revolutionary discoveries in laundry detergent, late model cars, mod fashions, grand openings, teen-age rock idols—in short, contemporaneity. Children rule families and students rule universities, all with the nostalgic blessing of broadminded parents and administrators; Tom Jones restores to his often predominantly matronly audience the illusion of youth it needs to feel “with it.” The word relevance is so shopworn that the meaning is almost wrung out of it; but one thing it must mean for our society is “the quality of pertaining to that which happened not earlier than yesterday, and preferably today or tomorrow.” The aged are not honored for their wisdom; they are despised or at best pitied for their old-fashioned, traditional ideas. Somewhere we have gotten the idea that the new equals the good and that change always means progress. How could we be so simple? Change can mean progress, to be sure; and much that is “traditional” needs change. But the Christian knows that change in and of itself is no savior and the new is no god. And that the lasting is as relevant to us as the latest transience—more relevant, in fact, since that which is ever true about man and his world will retain its relevance after even American technology has passed away.
Those of us who are out to set education straight would do well to remember this. Henry Steele Commager in a recent article in the Saturday Review entitled “Has the Small College a Future?” issues a warning against an over-involvement by the academic community in the issues of the day. Commager says, in part:
Just as colleges should resist the demand for more courses, they should resist the demand for “relevance,” as undergraduates commonly understand that term. Almost the whole of our society and economy—and, alas, much of our educational enterprises—is engaged in a kind of conspiracy to persuade the young that nothing is really relevant unless it happened yesterday, and unless it can be reported in the newspaper and filmed by television. It is the business of these and other media to be relevant; it is not the business of the college or university to be relevant. The academy has other relevancies. It must be relevant to the past and to the future, to our own society and to very different societies. It must be as relevant to art and music and philosophy as it is to urban problems or race relations, confident that neither urban problems nor race relations can be understood except through philosophy and history [Saturday Review, February 21, 1970].
Part of our calling as people of the word in this society is to keep our culture in dialogue with its past, to prevent it from closing itself off from the truth and depth of our Western heritage, and particularly our Christian heritage. It is through the word written that we can have dialogue with men of other centuries; and this sort of dialogue gives a depth of perspective that, together with the guidance of God’s Spirit, can protect us from getting tossed about by every wind of doctrine that our generation embraces. But to have this preservative effect in our society we must ourselves know those men who have gone before us in the faith.
In this area we evangelicals have been guilty of a subtle sort of Sadduceeism regarding our Christian tradition. The Sadducees, as you will remember, accepted only the Pentateuch as fully canonical, denying that the records of Israel’s historians and poets and prophets were fully inspired. And we have closed the canon with the Apocalypse of John, rightly enough, considering the warning at the close of that book and the early Church’s decision. But we have likewise closed ourselves off from the eighteen centuries of Christian history that lie between that time and ours. We know John 3:16, the names of the twelve apostles, and the history of the New Testament Church. But have we met Athanasius or Augustine or Aquinas? Do we know The Imitation of Christ? Have we read what the Reformation was about from the pens of Luther and Calvin and Zwingli? Do we know the early Christian humanists, More and Erasmus? Have we communed with the great Christian poets, Dante and Spenser and Donne and Milton and a fine Puritan poet in our own country, Edward Taylor? Have we lived with Pascal’s Thoughts? Have we worshipped with the Book of Common Prayer? Are we aware that Jonathan Edwards wrote something besides “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?
Now, I am not suggesting that we add all this to the canon of Scripture. What I am saying is this: To be a Christian without Dante and Spenser and Milton is almost like being a Jew without the Psalms; to be a Christian without Augustine and Aquinas and Calvin is almost like being a Jew without Isaiah and Jeremiah. By means of the word we have a community that transcends an age to unite all ages. It is a community that can cope with the videotape while holding on to the word, a community that grounds the mystical in the historical and judges private experience on the basis of the public Word of revelation. One of our Christian brothers from the past, John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s in London during the reign of James I, has described our Christian community in this way:
The Church is Catholic, universal; so are all her actions: all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engraffed into that Body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators: some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another [Meditation 17].
It is difficult in times like these to believe that the love of God is the greatest power in the universe. Jesus experienced the world’s evil at its worst. The torture of the nails on the cross represented the most cruel physical evil, the anger and abuse of his enemies and the treason of his friends the worst mental evil. Jesus might have turned against his enemies and damned this world. If he had, there would have been no Christianity.
Instead he prayed in words too deep for tears, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Baring himself to the sharp fangs of anger, hatred, and cruelty, he implied, “You can do anything to me, but you cannot make me stop loving you.”
That was the real defeat of the men who crucified Jesus. After they had done their worst, they could not conquer his spirit of love and make him like themselves. That is what makes Christianity deathless and dauntless. And that must be our response. It is our only way out.
The cross was reserved for the worst criminals. It was considered so despicable that it was not mentioned in polite society any more than we would discuss the gallows or the electric chair at a dinner party today. As his loving heart dripped drop by drop upon that criminal cross, the cross was transformed into the most glorious symbol we know. His creative and sacrificial love is so great that if he were put to death today, that love could transform the gallows or electric chair into the loveliest symbol of our faith. Jesus’ love remains to conquer all the hatred and malice in the world. Are we willing to ally ourselves with a love like that?—Dr. WILLIAM R. BARNHART, minister emeritus, Circular Congregational Church, Charleston, South Carolina.
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