Church Life, Outreach, Missions
Entering the Middle Ages...Again
by Ed Vasicek
Over the years, people have told me that I have a rather unique ability: the
gift of seeing the big picture. They have told me that I am capable of seeing
forests while others see only trees. Others, I am sad to report, have told me I
am a brick short of a load and don't know what I am talking about. In my own
mind, I believe sometimes I am the one, sometimes the other. I can be very
intuitive, but my intuition is not always dependable.
The subject matter which I am about to write may sound fantastic: it is up to you to decide which of the two aforementioned assessments best describe it. It is the result of many thoughts coming together over time, but I am convinced that I am on to something.
In preaching classes, I was taught that if the group to which you speak (or write) tends to be favorable to your proposition, you should share it early in the presentation. If, on the other hand, you perceive your audience to be resistant or hostile, you present it toward the end as a conclusion based on evidence. This latter approach might be appropriate here, but I have chosen to rebuff accepted wisdom and take my chances.
My proposition is this: America, and American Christianity, is heading into a new "Middle Ages" type of culture. We are going back into a sort of medievalism.
"Aha, I know which of the above describes your theory, Vasicek. But you are not a brick short, old buddyyou got a bunch of bricks missing! And not a touch of mortar!"
Shame on you. Hear me out. I am not saying we are going back to castles with knights in armor (though our entertainment will go more and more to such themes, as seen in movies like Star Wars). But we are beginning to, in principle, replicate some (not all) of the elements of the era of feudalism.
In Medieval times, most people were serfs, a minority were vassals, and a small minority were lords. The lords lived in their castles, the vassals were nearby and provided governing councils and military leadership, while the serfs farmed in utter poverty.
In America, we are experiencing a shrinking middle class. Downward mobility can occur quickly (through drugs, pregnancies out of wedlock, etc.) and our lower class is growing quickly while the upper and upper middle class are growing a little. In our society, the lords live in the best neighborhoods (or in estatesseen Champagne Shores lately?), the vassals in the better suburbs, and the serfs in the inner city (often working poor paying "service" jobs). Certain professionals seem unfairly overpaid, which helps to reduce the viability of the middle class. Indeed, the entire health care monster may bring down many formerly middle-classed people.
The Middle Ages commenced because of the chaos and violence caused by the fall of the Roman Empire ("Humpty Dumpty" of Mother Goose fame is actually based upon this). The insecurity caused by invading barbarians forced the populous to surrender their freedom (and become serfs) in exchange for security. We do not have that in America exactly, but we do have generations raised in a climate of great insecurity: children of divorce, children born out of wedlock, abused/molested children, children who fear going to school. And it is very likely that government will be forced to step in and, in the process, reduce our freedoms.
The Middle Ages were days of violence; people would only wander a few miles from their place of birth for fear of their lives. Are we approaching that situation, slowly but surely? I hope we never get to that pointbut I wonder. It is that way in some big cities now.
If you have heard my preaching for any length of time, you know I am very opinionated that Christians, and Americans for that matter, have lost our ability to think. Everything is de-intellectualizedeven church services are more like, "church for dummies" (at least the mega-churches). In my view, every hour of TV knocks off a miniscule fraction of a percentage of our I.Q.'s. Only the "elite" are doing the thinkingthe middle class vegetates more and more and just takes directions. In church it translates to, "Let the Bible scholars and theologians do the thinkingjust tell me how to live." This is the mentality, incidentally, that gave rise to Medieval Catholicism (and still characterizes modern Roman Catholicism).
In our country, over half of our adult population cannot read at an eight grade level. No, that is not total illiteracy, but the direction is downward. It is a growing problem. And those who can read are reading less and less every year.
The Middle Ages was a period of cultural stagnation. Young people of Generation Y (and the transitional "Generation X," to a lesser degree) are gravitating toward Swing music and Swing dancing. Although the rage has yet to hit Kokomo, it will soon. That, in my view, (and in that of Dr. James Dobson) is a very good trend. But as much as I hate rap music and some forms of rock music, it signals the end of new direction: America is ready to look back, choose, and settle down.
Even more fascinating is the draw of younger generations to liturgical church services. Episcopalianism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Lutheranism are steadily picking up young adults in growing numbers. It seems that, having grown up with unstable homes and in an unstable society, young people today are looking for routine, tradition, and consistency. They want the "same old same old" that baby boomers dread.
Those of you who are older and remember when the younger generations volleyed to allow contemporary music, shorts, jeans, and variety into church services, take heart. You may live to see the day when the younger generation tries to promote a dress code, weekly reading of a creed, recitation of the Lord's prayer, anthems sung with an organ, and a totally predicable, formal service. The Baby Boomers will respond, "But we worked so hard to bring in freedom and cultural relevance!" Their pleas will fall on deaf ears.
Ironically, this formalistic church could very well become the seeker sensitive church of tomorrow. And the most popular churches already cater to people who do not want to thinkat least not too deeply. I could live with solid creeds and formality: I could not live with a church were the Bible was minimized and Christians were not trained to think.
If I am right, the coming "Dark Ages" will not be without technology, and I don't think we will have bouts with bubonic plague. But there are some similaritiestoo many of them if you ask me.
Should we fight the growing Medievalism? I don't think so. I don't think we cansome cycles of history are inevitable. But we should make an effort to see to it that the dominant church of the new Medievalism is in tune with Scripture and that those who name the name of Christ learn to think, even if society adopts sheep-like brainlessness. Let's not repeat the church's failure of the last time around. We've got another shot at Medievalism. Let's do it right this time.
Reprinted from the June 1999 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA