Some Myths I’m Giving Up for Lent: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
My family background is largely southern, coming from the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. While such a background brings many things in terms of personality, chief among the character traits are melancholy and nostalgia. Melancholia, that sense of tragic loss, was once considered the province of southern writers in particular, although many in the north considered it a personality disorder. Of these two character traits, however, I think the nostalgia is quite possibly the more dangerous for it places the past, along with our memories, within a “golden glow” of something that, upon reflection, was not as “golden” as we try to make it out to be in our thinking. More than that, it allows the past to intrude upon the present as our current reality cannot possibly measure up to the warm golden glow of nostalgia. As a good friend of mine, the late Bishop Michael Henshall (affectionately known to his clergy as “Basher”) used to say, “Duane, nostalgia is not a Christian virtue…”
Yet, I sometimes think that we have tried to make nostalgia a Christian virtue, to our detriment.
We do this largely through the promulgation of myths concerning the past. Now to be clear, the myths we promulgate have an element of truth to them. That is the nature of a myth in literature. Yet the truth is often hidden or, sometimes, simply distorted as we wrap the past in the clothing of our own imagination and highly selective memories. In creating these myths, what took place in the past is always “better”, “more heroic”, and “happier” than anything we can ever experience here and now in the dull and lusterless present. We then have two choices – first, to simply say, “the best is gone” and we’re left with the dregs; or secondly to chase after the myth of an unreal past which, in reality, cannot be obtained as it never really existed.
So, I’ve decided to give up some myths for Lent… and hopefully longer.
1. “There was a golden age of the Church.” Really? Exactly when did that happen? Perhaps the first three hundred years with outbreaks of persecution and the Church rent by schisms and heresies. Or maybe the Imperial era with the corruption of court politics and the invasions of the Goths and Vandals. Then again, we could look to the Middle Ages in which centers of learning were behind the walls of monasteries and literacy was a rarity. It was a time in which the Church accumulated wealth and allowed the growth of a lay piety riddled with superstition. And what shall we say of the Reformation era? Yes, theology prospered in some places, but it was in the midst of a splintered Europe, the Thirty Years War, widespread mutual persecution, famine and disease and a settlement that left little settled. The fact is, there has never been “a golden age” for the Church. There has, however, always been a faithful remnant who have lived out Christian lives, often in the midst of chaos and who, through their theological reflections, have left us the richer. If it sounds similar to 2019, you’re probably right.
2. “When I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, America was a Christian nation with a church on every corner.” We long for the days of the Catholic parish with three Masses on Sunday morning, all packed. The Episcopal Church was considered a country club establishment known as “the Republican party at prayer”. Lutheran catechism classes were large and everybody watched Fulton J. Sheen or Billy Graham on television. Yet, much was hidden from view. We now know the extent of abuse that was happening in the Roman Catholic Church as guilty priests were moved from parish to parish and files were kept secret. Clergy involvement with politics – from Billy Graham to Roman Catholic cardinals – was taken as normal. Prejudice toward Roman Catholics was exposed for the world to see in the campaign of John F. Kennedy. This is not to even mention segregation, the KKK, Bull Conner, racist sermons from southern pulpits, or little girls dying in Sunday School rooms in the Birmingham bombing. As the 1960s evolved, the catechized children of that generation, by and large, rejected traditional Christianity and many embraced religious values from other cultures or simply abandoned the Church altogether. It remained, once again, for a faithful remnant to learn, teach and to remain sensitive to God’s work in the world. If it sounds similar to 2019, you’re probably right.
3. “I remember Calvary Chapel and Southern California back in the day… that was when God was really moving…” There is no doubt that something happened in the late 1960s and the 1970s with the emergence of the Jesus Movement and the evangelical revival that accompanied it. Time Magazine went so far as to proclaim “The Year of the Evangelical”. Huge numbers of young people were caught up in the movement that seemed to emerge all over the US and much of Western Europe (especially the UK and the Netherlands). Yet, we have to look at the reality as well as the image we have built in our minds. Lonnie Frisbee, without doubt, was a charismatic figure. He also struggled with his sexuality and his activities would make many of us recoil. He also had no grasp of basic Christian doctrine or practice. Most of us who came out of that era would have to admit that we did things, and believed things, that we would now consider way beyond the pale. In many, if not most, evangelical churches of the time, nepotism was the rule of the day with little accountability – either moral or financial. Any of us who were a part of that time know the number of times we rolled our eyes, or simply looked the other way. Yet, for all the glitz and glamor (much of it faded quickly) a remnant emerged. In time, many would commit themselves to learning and for almost two decades would fill numerous seminaries across the denominational landscape. Some would meet Peter Gillquist and move into Eastern Orthodoxy. Others would follow John Michael Talbot into the Roman Catholic Church. Some, as myself, would become friends with Robert Webber and discover the Anglican tradition. Still others would occupy seats of learning at Fuller, Wheaton and Gordon-Conwell. Yet, we should be clear, it was once again a remnant of the movement as a whole.
Now it is 2019.
To be honest, the reality is better than the myths. So, for Lent, I’m giving up the myths and giving myself over to the reality in 2019. “Basher” was right, “nostalgia is not a Christian virtue”, but being a faithful remnant in the current state of the Church may be a virtue indeed.