The situation of the ancient and modern church seems strikingly similar: both are minorities in predominantly pagan cultures. The early church, of course, was eventually successful at converting its culture. So the natural question is, Are there any lessons we can learn to help us convert our culture?

We posed this and other questions to Robert Wilken, professor of history at the University of Virginia. He is the author of many books on the early church, including Remembering the Christian Past (1995), and he is an editorial adviser to First Things, a journal that examines religion and modern culture.

Are the worlds of ancient Rome and the modern West parallel?

In some ways, yes: this culture is no longer our culture. It still has many Christian elements in it: the calendar (with major holidays like Christmas and Easter—though even they have been denuded), church architecture, choral music (much of which is Christian), art, and the like. But with the passing of each generation, the sensibility of the culture is less Christian. The feeling of being a distinct minority was very much the experience of early Christians.

But our situations are different in one key respect: today we in the West live in a post-Christian world, in an aggressive secular culture. This culture has known Christianity, and it is bitter toward Christianity; the culture is in revolt against what existed before. Ancient paganism did not have that kind of bitterness. It was curious about Christianity, even incredulous.

But what about the persecutions?

By the time you get to Decius in the middle of the third century, some Romans believed Christianity was a formidable foe. But Porphyry, the most thoughtful critic of Christianity in that period, recognized that Jesus ...

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