The early Christian theologian and moralist Tertullian (circa 155–223) warned the Christians of his day against attending “spectacles,” specifically theatrical performances and gladiatorial combats. Both these spectacles frequently involved pagan ceremonies and worship; in addition, the theater was built on immorality and licentiousness, the combats on cruelty and blood lust.
If Tertullian were to return and visit late twentieth-century America, he might find that the theater—including the films—has become rather similar to what he remembered of the Roman stage, but of course he would find that the combats, gradually abolished after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, have no counterpart in modern life. Or would he? We have no gladiators, and there is very little deliberate violence in our arenas. But we do have our “combats,” most notably pro football, which columnist Carl Rowan calls our nation’s “new religion,” and which reaches its climax with the January Super Bowl. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer commented last fall, “Empty pews dot the beautiful churches on Peachtree Street. There will be no empty seats at Atlanta Stadium.”
When Christians were present in the arenas of the Roman Empire, it was usually as victims for the wild beasts. The presence of Christians at modern-day spectacles is ordinarily much less painful. Yet modern spectacles, like those of Tertullian’s day, may represent a temptation and a danger for Christians. When a Green Bay minister can say of his city, “Everyone’s schedule—every family, every church—is determined by the playing schedule of the Green Bay Packers,” then something is wrong with our priorities. “Six days shalt thou labor,” said the Lord, and he did not add, “but the seventh is reserved for spectacles.”
Evangelical Christians like to think of themselves as not conformed to this world, but transformed (cf. Rom. 12:2). But on closer inspection, evangelicals, it seems, often do more or less what the rest of the world does, though usually later and less cleverly.
A case in point is the attitude of American religion toward the United States government. There was a time in the United States when almost everyone was so uncritically patriotic as to be virtually blind to all our own vices and equally oblivious of the virtues of others. And this attitude was exemplified by almost all segments of American religion, from the most conservative to the most liberal. Even Unitarians elevated not only “the neighborhood of Boston” but also the American way of life to the status of one of their rare articles of faith.
For a whole variety of reasons, in the last two decades religion has been turning more and more against government. We cannot go into the reasons here, but we suspect that the current religious frenzy for government-hating may be no easier to justify critically and rationally than the earlier phase of universal adulation. The liberal Protestants turned first. Now large numbers of Catholics have joined the chorus, and recently evangelicals have begun to chime in. Not only evangelical fringe groups but responsible conservative organs have begun to cry that the United States government exacts “worship” from Americans just as the Roman emperors and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon did from their subjects.
We find the comparison a bit far-fetched, though we do not deny that there are some elements of similarity between modern America, imperial Rome, and Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. What interests us here is that in this, as in so many other things, we seem to have another example of evangelicals trotting breathlessly after the secular bandwagon, trying feverishly to leap aboard. CHRISTIANITY TODAY happens not to have leapt (yet), and we like to think it is because we are more critically alert and less conformist. No doubt evangelicals who are “in advance” of us will think we are even slower and less clever than they.
But perhaps at this point, where evangelical opinion is beginning to show a noticeable cleavage, we should all stop and ask ourselves where the transformation we profess ends and mere conformity to this world begins. On this and other issues, it should be our zeal to develop a truly biblical way of looking at the situation, not merely a second-hand edition of the world’s worn-out styles.
Britain Into Europe
When the British turned Winston Churchill out of office right after his greatest triumph, the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, the voters, whether they realized it or not, were deciding on what Churchill called “the liquidation of the British Empire.” Victorious Britain, like defeated Japan, was gradually reduced to its home islands.
Now that the glory of its overseas empire, in Tennyson’s unwittingly prophetic phrase, “is one with Nineveh and Tyre,” Britain has drawn the conclusions from its changed role in a changing world and—after many hesitations—has joined the European Common Market. Thus by peaceful means Europe has gained a degree of unity unparalleled since the days when it all was ruled by imperial Rome (the Roman Empire never included much of what is now Communist-controlled Europe). At many times throughout the Middle Ages, there were attempts to create a European unity on a Christian basis. More recently Napoleon and Hitler tried to unify the Continent by force; both attempts foundered on the opposition of Britain—and Russia.
Now Britain has joined the Continent. But a little late in the day, for the Christian self-consciousness that characterized statesmen such as Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle has become rare among Europe’s leaders. Rome ruled Europe by military power and administrative skill; in the Middle Ages, Europe sought a spiritual unity based on a common faith. After World War II, a European Defense Community was proposed but not realized. Now a large measure of unity has come with the Common Market, a unity that, as the name suggests, is based on trade.
The expanding Common Market, whether or not it is seen as having a clearly defined place in the biblical prophecies concerning the end of the age, is evidently destined to assume increasing prominence in world affairs. As its unity becomes ever more of a fact, it has the potential to become the greatest single concentration of economic, industrial, and intellectual energy in the world. By what spirit will it be guided? Of the major partners, France and Italy have strong and antagonistic Roman Catholic and humanistic heritages, whereas West Germany is divided on paper between Rome and the Reformation. Britain brings a different heritage—insular, Anglican and Presbyterian, and evangelical. But in reality all seem swayed more by materialism than by any spiritual tradition. Let us hope they bring their best strengths into a uniting Europe.
Responsibility Or Restraint
After prescribing the punishment for the crime of false witness, the Bible adds, “And the rest shall hear, and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you” (Deut. 19:20). The Bible’s basic approach to the problem of wrongdoing is one of accountability: a person is to be held responsible for his actions, and where evil has been done, the appropriate sentence is to be promptly carried out, for otherwise “the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil” (Eccles. 8:11).
Compared with the biblical pattern, modern American society shows a marked decline in the principle that an individual is responsible for his own actions. Not all crimes, it seems, are reported to the police; of those that are, only a small number end in the arrest of the criminal, and by no means are all arrested criminals, even though guilty, convicted, nor do all convicted criminals finally undergo punishment.
Where responsibility after the fact cannot or will not be required, then the fear of doing evil, of which Deuteronomy 19:20 speaks, vanishes. Then what is society’s solution? The alternative to responsibility for the wrongdoer is restraint for everyone.
A classic example is aircraft hijacking. Because the supposedly civilized nations of the world cannot agree to extradite a few score hijackers and let them answer for their misdeeds, all air travelers must submit to restraint—intensive personal searches and checking of luggage—and incidentally to the increased air fares created by all these security measures. Similarly, because it is extremely unusual in the United States (not in Europe) to hold people seriously to account for drunken driving, even when they have caused serious injury or death, the government plans to require that all cars be equipped with a complicated and expensive device to restrain the irresponsible drinker from taking the wheel. Of course, all automobile users will have to pay its cost, and perhaps people rushing an injured child to the doctor or otherwise understandably agitated may also find themselves “restrained.”
The shape of the future should be clear. Individual responsibility after the fact seems to be out. The result, as the Bible clearly warns, is that “the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil.”
General restraint may be a kind of solution, but is it preferable to responsibility? Or is it not rather a necessary step on the road to 1984?
Harry S. Truman
A minimum of religious ritual attended the funeral last month of Harry S. Truman, thirty-third president of the United States. It was as he had planned, and in keeping with his practice of keeping faith a relatively private affair. Ostensibly out of deference to the pluralism of our society, many persons who are in the limelight avoid taking any public religious stand.
Truman did say in his memoirs that upon reaching the oval office “I silently prayed to God that I could measure up to the task.” A few hours after taking the oath he told a group of reporters and pages, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now.” Speaking to Congress for the first time he said, “At this moment I have in my heart a prayer. As I assume my heavy duties, I humbly pray to Almighty God in the words of Solomon, ‘Give, therefore, thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people that I may discern between good and bad; for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?’ ”
Perhaps this prayerful spirit, coupled with his reluctance to articulate his Christian beliefs, grew out of the humility of the man. Truman seemed to be conscious of his limitations, though he seldom used them as an excuse to back away from a difficult situation if the responsibility to tackle it fell upon him. His decision to unleash nuclear power as a military weapon revealed a willingness to take an enormous risk when he felt it was necessary. His recall of General MacArthur showed he had the courage to restrain the military when the occasion demanded. To what extent his big decisions were the right ones is still a matter of conjecture: some analysts commend his strong stand against Communism, for example, while others lament that the most populous country fell to the Communists while he was President.
The only major religious controversy in which Truman was involved concerned his announced intention to send a full-fledged ambassador to the Vatican. He gave up the idea after a storm of dissent arose from Protestant American leaders. The incident produced some tension for a time between Truman and his pastor at the First Baptist Church in Washington, Dr. Edward W. Pruden. Pruden opposed appointment of a Vatican envoy, but he says that he believes Truman conscientiously felt the move would be helpful for gaining information about the Cold War and that the President was not motivated by any desire to gain favor with Catholic voters.
Pruden highly respects the memory of Truman. He recalls that Truman did not want to be catered to as a worshiper. Truman once wrote the clergyman saying that he should not feel inhibited in his preaching by the presence of the President in the service.
Keying 73 to Christ
Dr. Vergil Gerber shows how to change Key 73 from a noun to a verb in A Manual For Evangelism/Church Growth. This ninety-six-page workbook for local congregations is coming off the press late this month. It is a step-by-step guide for church outreach, with straightforward instruction on how to uncover problems and seek their solution. Copies are available from the publisher, William Carey Library, 533 Hermosa Street, South Pasadena, California 91030.
Mercy For Managua
For the third time in its relatively brief history, the Nicaraguan capital of Managua has been ravaged by an earthquake. Few people now living remember that first earthquake in 1885, but a number of Managua residents still recall the devastation of 1931. The December 23 earthquake was the worst, and was even more acute because it came on the heels of a drought that had ruined a number of crops.
It will be many months if not years before the city can get on its feet again. Many groups are sponsoring relief efforts (see News, page 39). Christians around the world, especially those who live in abundant surroundings, have an unusual opportunity to show love for their fellow men who are in desperate need.
Those Broken Resolutions
Surely one of the traits of wisdom is the ability to gauge one’s own potential. About this time of year, many of us become despairingly aware that we possess all too little of that ability. We have broken New Year’s resolutions because we aimed too high; we once again overestimated our possibilities. The Psalmist apparently sought a greater measure of the ability to know his own potential when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” He wanted to plan his schedule to intelligent advantage. That’s still our challenge, and it ought also to be our prayer. If our goals are too modest, we are programming waste. And if we venture beyond our depth, we invite frustration.
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