In an address to the United States House of Representatives September 25 commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the convening of the Continental Congress, journalist-scholar Alistair Cooke warned his hearers that the United States and the world today are faced with three immense dangers: crime and violence in the cities has become greater than at any time since the fifteenth century; the prospects of world-wide, ruinous inflation are greater than at any time since the 1920s; and overshadowing all the rest there is the prospect of man’s nuclear self-extermination.

The content of Mr. Cooke’s address, apart from a few pertinent biblical allusions, was almost entirely secular. Even so, and despite the festive nature of the occasion, he voiced a sense of foreboding strongly resembling the apocalyptic mood expressed by Malcolm Muggeridge at the Lausanne congress in July (printed in CHRISTIANITY TODAY, issue of August 16). Only a few days earlier, the American president and his secretary of state, on different occasions, had issued somber warnings of what the future may well hold in store if the nations of the world cannot change the course on which they are now headed.

It is significant that Cooke, with his acute sense of history and our relation to it, mentioned that we are in danger of reverting to conditions that have not existed since the fifteenth century, which was the last century of what we now call the Middle Ages, just before the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Of course, many factors, secular and spiritual, coincided in bringing about the change from the medieval to what we call the modern: the voyages of discovery, colonization of the sparsely populated and immensely rich American continents, the rediscovery of classical civilization and art that we call the Renaissance, and the humanistic revival that promoted—among much else—the study of the Scriptures in their original languages. This last accomplishment Luther, Erasmus, and Calvin had in common, however great their differences otherwise may have been. Now many factors combine to threaten a dismal transition, being predicted by many, to what Roberto Vacca has called The Coming Dark Age (Doubleday, 1973). Other students of modern society, though they may share the Christian faith and hence have an assurance about eternity entirely different in quality from the hope-against-hope of the secularistic futurologists, nevertheless find it hard to be optimistic about mankind’s prospects on this earth. Thus Jacques Ellul, in several works, seems to suggest that the Christian’s only valid attitude is one of suffering witness in a dying world order, the expectation of a crown of life that will come only, in the words of St. Stephanos, “sorrow vanquished, labor ended, Jordan passed.”

Article continues below

There is tremendous reassurance in the confidence that, though in the world we have tribulation, Jesus Christ has overcome the world, and that we, if we suffer with him, shall also reign with him. Yet the fact that Christians have this confidence, which can be a great source of strength at a time when the world seems to lie in the valley of the shadow of death, should not mean that we are without hope or expectation for our present age. The fifteenth century, to which Cooke referred and which Johan Huizinga called “the autumn of the Middle Ages,” was a troubled century indeed, and it was followed not by the darkness of winter but rather by a springtide of the re-emergence of the Gospel.

With the rediscovery and reinterpretation of the evangelical faith initiated by Luther and the other Reformers there came something that had been sadly lacking in Huizinga’s “autumn”: assurance of personal salvation, confidence about one’s standing with God. With the confidence that one could, in the words of Luther’s hymn, with impunity “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also” and surely be received into the Father’s house, came a rediscovery of the biblical pattern for personal life and conduct and a far-reaching transformation of society.

American society, and what is loosely called “Christian civilization” as a whole, has virtually cut itself off from its biblical base, and in consequence has forfeited not only the personal assurance that comes with evangelical faith but also the quality of social peace that comes with a general respect for the principles of biblical law. However, as long as it is still day, what has been largely forfeited may yet be regained. Perhaps our cold, dark, and anxious winters can be followed by a rediscovery and recovery of the Reformation confidence of the sureness of God’s salvation. Even as we despair of so many of our secular works, we can still have recourse to the finished work of Christ, which can be ours by grace, through faith, apart from the works of the Law.

A new Reformation, based on a renewed attentiveness and obedience to the revealed Word of God, will certainly accomplish what Hebrews says, in bringing “many children to glory” (2:10). And it may well do more than that, in bringing new justice, fresh honesty, and ultimately renewed life to institutions and nations already anxiously regarding the lengthening shadows of a coming dark age.

Article continues below
Newspeak Again?

Americans, on the winning side during World War II, used to mock Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’ practice of cloaking defeats in circumlocutions such as “executed a planned withdrawal to previously prepared positions.” In George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, Nineteen Eighty-Four, governments impose an entirely new language in order to obtain complete spiritual conformity from their faceless subjects. In his monumental study Propaganda, Christian sociologist Jacques Ellul describes how the tremendous literacy campaign of Mao Tse-tung’s China provided hundreds of millions of new readers with nothing but Mao’s thoughts to read, and hence largely determined what the world’s most populous nation would think.

In the normally more critical, even cynical West, we too have succumbed, perhaps through the force of constant repetition, to the habit of using the tendentious, Newspeak-like terminology of the Communist world in our everyday speech. We readily speak of “people’s democracies” and use the word “liberation” to mean the kind of violent revolution that imposes a totalitarian dictatorship (progressive, of course!).

Unfortunately the American government itself, supported by a large part of the media, is moving toward the practice of introducing new, often meaningless or even misleading terminology to accustom people to accepting ideas and policies that they would find obnoxious if presented in a clearly understood form. For example, Congress has specifically forbidden the impostion of racial and other quotas in educational and hiring practices. But the Department of Health, Education and Welfare has successfully circumvented this law in its Affirmative Action program by not imposing “quotas” but requiring subject institutions to set “goals” acceptable to HEW. The word quota has a bad sound to Americans, reminiscent of discriminatory immigration policies, but goal, of course, is a good word.

Another ominous Newspeak trend in America is the division of the old concept of euthanasia (mercy killing) into “active” and “passive” euthanasia. It has long been standard medical practice, acceptable or even desirable from an ethical point of view, to allow a dying person to die without further drastic measures to prolong his life when it is evident that such measures in effect only prolong the process of dying. Since this practice is hardly controversial, although it has no resemblance to “mercy killing,” to call it “passive enthanasia” accustoms the public to the term and helps to prepare the way for widespread acceptance of “active” or real euthanasia. Thus we avoid all the unpleasant moral and ethical controversy sure to be stirred up by any attempt to institute euthanasia, understood as “mercy killing,” as lawful and private policy.

Article continues below

Today the world is much closer to 1984 than when Orwell wrote, and the nearness is not only chronological. Christians, committed to a Word of God that has ultimate meaning and truth, above all others should struggle to prevent the language we use every day to describe and sometimes to determine our actions and our thoughts from slipping or being remolded into any kind of Newspeak.

The Oil Languisheth

“The field is wasted, the land mourneth, for the grain is wasted, the new wine is dried up, the oil languisheth” (Joel 1:10). From a period of unprecedented abundance, at least in the industrialized countries of the world, we are now moving into a situation similar to that described by Joel’s prophecy. A recent agricultural report from France indicates only that the grape harvest is outstanding, so this year at least the new wine has not dried up. But an outstanding grape harvest will scarcely help the French obtain oil, of which they must import over 90 per cent of their needs.

The situation in which the French may find themselves—trying to trade a huge surplus of unwanted wine for badly needed, extravagantly-priced oil—is all too typical of the situation facing all the highly developed countries and the oil-poor majority of underdeveloped ones. What they need is available only at tremendous cost; what they have to trade for it is unwanted or needed only in minimal quantities.

The few money-earning export items of India, for example, no longer suffice to pay that populous nation’s relatively small oil bill. With 600 million people (one-sixth of the total world population), India consumes less oil than France, but its minimum oil needs, at today’s exorbitant prices, have exhausted its foreign-exchange assets. India has less than nothing left with which to pay for other vitally needed imports. Their slow, slight progress towards minimally acceptable living conditions has now been drastically set back by an action that fattens the profits of the oil producers.

When the oil-producers quadrupled the price of oil in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, it was widely felt that this was primarily intended as a means of marshalling world-wide support against Israel, and that the prices would drop once the Arabs received some satisfaction in their conflict with that tenacious nation. It was not only the anti-Israel Arabs who quadrupled their prices, however: Indonesia, Nigeria, Venezuela, and even Canada acted in concert with the rest of the oil cartel.

Article continues below

The oil-producing nations have a right to a fair return on the resource of which they have something approaching a world monopoly. Oil is an exhaustible natural resource, and once it is gone, the countries that grew rich on oil profits may be impoverished if they have not prepared in advance for this turn of events. It may well be true that, even though the oil costs only a few cents a barrel to produce, a fair price for the producing nations would have to be higher than the approximately two dollars paid in the summer of 1973. But can a price be just if it impoverishes or destroys the consumer?

The whole world is rather in the situation of the Egyptians of Joseph’s day, who had to sell their land and their possessions and ultimately go into indentured service in order to pay Pharaoh for the stockpiled grain of which he had a monopoly—and which, ironically, they themselves had produced during the “fat years.” A curious modern parallel to the ancient Egyptian situation lies in the fact that it was the industrialized nations who discovered and developed for the largely undeveloped oil nations the resources they now are using to choke the economic life of the rest of the world.

Many in the traditionally Christian West have been conditioned to have a rather guilty conscience toward the Arabs, who were attacked and at times conquered by European Christians during several centuries of the so-called Crusades. (Of course, the territories for which they were fighting, including the Holy Land, had been Christian for centuries before the Muslims erupted onto the world scene in an unparalleled series of rapid conquests.) And there is no doubt that many Muslims have remained bitter toward the “Christian” West ever since the Crusades. The present policy of the oil cartel will indeed, within a few years, spell economic ruin for the rest of the world and with it a breakdown of world order.

Quite apart from the immorality of using a virtual monopoly to impoverish one’s trading partners, the oil-rich nations should recognize that the course on which they are presently embarked promises to end in disaster for everyone, not least themselves, whether they see it yet or not. If it is a Christian duty to serve the cause of peace, it is our obligation to warn the oil-rich states against driving the other nations of the world into a situation where possibly suicidal violence appears the only alternative to slower but sure strangulation.

Article continues below
The Breadth Of Christian Art

Robert Hughes writing in Time magazine recently called the Vatican’s newly opened collection of modern religious art “an embarrassing document of religion’s inability in recent years to provoke aesthetic responses.” Although many critics claim that we are in an “art explosion,” only a few artists are frequently cited as using biblical or liturgical themes and symbols for subject and inspiration—Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Georges Rouault. And Dali at least was not an orthodox Christian.

Perhaps this dearth of Christian art is due to secularism or our “post-Christian” condition. Are young Christians with talent still too much influenced by their forebears who deeply distrusted art? Or is it that older Christians misunderstand the works of young Christian artists who have been influenced by Rouault, Picasso, and Klee?

Franky Schaeffer, painter son of L’Abri director Francis Schaeffer, claims that “art is usually viewed by churches as either something secondary or useless.” In an interview with Right On, the Berkeley-based paper sponsored by the Christian World Liberation Front, Franky explained that “Christian art is something much wider than Christian art as a ‘thing,’ as opposed to secular art.” He distinguishes between honest and dishonest art, rather than between secular and sacred art.

Rembrandt used both secular and sacred themes in his paintings, and today’s Christian artists want to do the same. The promise found in John 10:10 cannot be isolated into one acceptable area. Christian art must be more than a decoration for another medium. If it is not, we will continue to find, as Franky Schaeffer put it, “Christian art [that is] just the sterile message removed from life.” Evangelicals need to recapture the broad Christian understanding that made possible both “The Road to Emmaus” and “The Night Watch.” Otherwise we may see more and more young Christian artists turning to the opposite extreme—art for its own sake.

A Baleful Tax Proposal

Christian schools and institutions have traditionally had a hand-to-mouth existence. In the midst of the current raging inflation, their problems are greater than ever. And now one provision of a new tax bill proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee adds a further threat to their already precarious financial position.

Article continues below

For a long time tax laws have permitted people to donate items like land, houses, stocks, and works of art that have appreciated in dollar value without paying the capital-gains tax that would have been imposed had the items been sold instead. For instance, a person who had paid $100,000 for a farm now worth $500,000 could give the farm to a qualified organization and deduct from his taxable income (over a period of years if necessary) the $400,000 gain in value.

But under the new tax bill, before taking the deduction the donor would have to report the difference between the purchase price and the current value as ordinary income. Obviously the considerable tax advantage to donors that makes this sort of gift attractive would no longer exist.

There are good reasons for arguing that such a change would be unfair and counterproductive. In the first place, the gift item may not be any greater in actual purchasing power than when it was first bought. If the dollar value of a house has risen 500 per cent, the purchasing power represented by the house has not increased if the cost of what the owner would buy with the money from the sale has likewise increased 500 per cent. Even if the property owner simply sold the house without making a gift to charity, he would suffer a loss in purchasing power after he had paid his taxes. This is unfair.

Second, and more important, is the fact that charitable institutions will suffer. It is important that the government not fund religious work even if it were legal to do so, and it is important that the government not have a monopoly on educational, cultural, relief, and other forms of charitable work. Such endeavors should be encouraged, not hindered. This change in the tax laws would create problems that outweigh the financial gain to the government.

The legislators should take a hard look at the implications of this bill, and the taxpayers should let the lawmakers know where they stand.

Why Are People Starving?

While consumers in the industrialized countries grumble about rapidly climbing food prices and frequent shortages, North Africa, Honduras, and Bangladesh are reporting increasing numbers of deaths by starvation. Millions in India, too, are on the verge of death. Births are outpacing agricultural production, and the monopolistic pricing practices of the oil-rich nations are creating increasing shortages of vital fertilizers. Millions of people are sure to die of hunger. Hard decisions will have to be made about who will receive food from our limited supplies and who will be allowed to starve. Some are already beyond hope, and even if they could be kept alive, their existence is already reduced to a level that can hardly be called human.

Article continues below

Does God care about dying babies, small children with distended stomachs, adults reduced to skin and bones? If so, why does he do nothing about it? The answer is that God has in fact done something about it, but men refuse to accept what he has done. As a consequence, mankind is headed toward mass suicide. The multitudes—including the powerful and wealthy “elites”—refuse Jesus Christ, and turn instead to idols, whether to the literal idols of some Eastern religions or to the more sophisticated idols of the West: money, power, sexual indulgence.

The truth of God is being demonstrated in human history: as we sow, so shall we reap. Judgment always follows the repudiation of God and the offer of his free grace. And lest we think that because famine conditions are presently worse in several non-Christian nations, we who live in “Christendom” will be spared, we should reflect that much of the Christian world, while not “unevangelized,” is apostate, and that if we fail to repent, we too shall face the same and worse.

Yet there is hope. There is conditionality with God. A great word in Scripture is if. If people will turn to Christ, if they will love one another, if they will claim the promises of God—then God will respond and healing will come. Those of us who are Christians—and who, for the most part, live in wealthy and favored nations—should deprive ourselves of our luxuries and surpluses and do all that we can to alleviate the worst suffering of our fellow humans. And even as we try to remedy certain temporal ills, we must recognize and proclaim that ultimately, from the perspective of eternity, there is only one answer: not social service, revolution, or political change. The answer is Christ, who called himself the Bread of Life—and who can both help us to endure a difficult life in time and give us life eternal.

Coffin-Corner Kicks

Christians readily recognize that life is a struggle, what sportwriters used to call “a see-saw battle.” Ultimately we will win, because Christ’s atonement means the defeat of sin, death, and hell. But in the meantime we will be losing some battles. There are times when we are doing well simply to hold the line. We may even have to give up points, though we know that the final score will be in favor of God and his redeemed.

Article continues below

Here and there in Scripture we get instructions on how to behave while we are on the defensive, when it is not the time for aggressive initiatives. At one point Paul cites forgiveness as a defensive measure. He says he forgives “to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us” (2 Cor. 2:11). This is inspired revelation, and we should heed it and acknowledge the connection between forgiveness and defense against Satan, even though we may not fully understand it. Evil has been done (Satan has gotten the ball), but to fail to forgive is to make matters worse (to let him gain ground on us).

Another admonition for defensive “play” is found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: we are to put on “the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” This much-preached-about passage tells us what to do when we are under attack, and we can draw a great deal of encouragement from the resources listed here.

The point is that it is not always possible to be carrying the ball and heading toward the goal line. Sometimes we must give up the ball, try to stand fast, and let the Holy Spirit call the plays.

One time-honored defensive maneuver has come back into its own in pro football this year because of some rule changes: the attempt to punt the ball out of bounds as close as possible to the opponents’ goal line. The idea in “kicking for the coffin corner” is to turn the ball over, but to put the other team in such a hole that it will play conservatively and nervously. Although the opponents will still be on the offense, they will be in a place where mistakes will cost them dearly.

Similarly, in the Christian’s life it’s a good principle to try to keep the enemy as deep in his own territory as possible. When he gains one advantage, we should not let discouragement cause us to let him have other advantages also.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.