Reclaiming our Christian Roots
William Willimon, a professor of religion at Duke University, speaks of a momentous event which quietly took place on a sultry Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina.*
That Sunday evening in the heart of the Bible Belt in this great nation of ours, the Fox Theater opened on the Lord's day for the first time. Seven teenage attendees of the Youth Fellowship at Buncombe Street Church made a pact to enter the front door of the church, be seen, and then quietly slip out the back door and go to see the show at the Fox.
That, Dr. Willimon says, was a watershed in the history of Christianity in the United States. The Fox theater served notice that it would no longer bow to the church, and went head to head in the battle for the hearts and souls of young people, and that evening, the Fox decisively won the first skirmish.
Greenville South Carolina succumbed to the wave of secularity sweeping across America in the turbulent decade of the 60's and the long running era in which Christianity dominated the American worldview unceremoniously came to an end.
I was born three years after the Fox theater heralded a new era, and my family's roots in America go back only to the early 80's, just a few years removed from the tumultuous era of the 60's and much of the 70's during which America found herself ambushed by an onslaught of social and cultural upheaval. As a new arrival to the country, I only got to witness the aftermath and learned about the decades through the lens of history and discussion with those who braved through the period as adults.
They had their own Greenville stories and fondly recalled with a touch of nostalgia the decades prior the 60's when America was a "God fearing Christian nation" where Judeo-Christian values were the norm and opening theaters on Sunday was unthinkable.
In the years following that Sunday evening, the secular culture grew increasingly brazen in its defiance of the church. Three years after the Fox theater opened for business on Sunday for the first time, John Lennon declared that the Beatles were now "more popular than Jesus," stepping on the already frayed nerves of American Christians reeling from the rapidly changing culture.
Throughout the formative years of my life, I stood side by side with others who, finding themselves increasingly under siege and alarmed by what they saw as the nation's continuous slide into moral deprivation, went onto fight back and even lash out at the culture. They were still fuming over what they viewed as a blasphemous statement from Lennon.
As a new American from a "pagan" nation where the marginalization of Christianity was rampant, I was determined to see to it that my adopted country reclaim its rich Christian heritage. Fondly recalling the story of an American missionary who befriended my great grandfather nearly a century ago, I felt a strong sense of kinship with this country I came to love as my spiritual homeland. To me and others, events like the one in Greenville heralded a dark godless era and John Lennon's statement put an exclamation mark on it.
Dr. Willimon, however, has an entirely different take on what took place in Greenville. You see, he was one of the seven teenagers who skipped church and sneaked into the Fox theatre that evening. When the culture sidestepped to allow the church to be the only show in town, it was assumed that people grew up Christian, simply by growing up American. But that assumption came to an end when the theater delivered the message that evening that it would no longer offer free rides to the church.
That, Dr. Willimon asserts, was one of the best things ever happened to the church of Jesus Christ in America. No longer is it assumed that the church and the culture see eye to eye and now Christians must realize that they are a peculiar people with their own peculiar identity, and learn to live as aliens in a strange land.
After extensive soul searching and the studying of Scripture, I have come to agree with Dr. Willimon. I have come to conclude the assumption that people grow up Christian, simply by growing up American is downright heretical in violation of every principle taught by Jesus and practiced by the first century Christians.
The notion of the Christian faith being an extension of a particular nationality was absolutely unheard of in the fledgling first century Christian Church. In fact, Christians, faced with intense persecution from the surrounding culture called themselves "aliens" and "strangers" simply passing through the present world as "sojourners." They spoke of living in peace with their neighbors, and conducting themselves as examplary law-abiding citizens.
Waging so-called "culture wars" against their pagan society was literally two thousand years and two continents away from their minds. Today the "war" has become a de facto tenet of the faith in the American Christian church. Sadly the tone of belligerence has drawn lines and fostered the us-against-them mindset while sidelining the true message of Jesus Christ.
We bitterly complain about the supposed disrespect and mis-characterization of our faith. Doing away with references to God in school curriculum, coins, and public monuments has galvanized Christians, but what do those things really have to do with our faith? Besides, as the saying goes, respect is to be earned, not to be demanded or worse yet, legislated.
We do not and should not bow down to some generic deity concocted by government officials on dollar bills and coins. Whether public monuments carry references to God, or lack thereof, does absolutely nothing to affirm or discredit my faith. My faith comes God Himself. My faith comes from my own relationship with God. My faith comes from what I read in the Bible, not the Constitution of the United States or the pledge of allegiance.
In retrospect, I believe the Fox theater did the church of Jesus Christ a monumental favor by spurting us to reclaim our true identity as Christians. As intoxicated as he was in a stupor of self-absorption, Lennon inadvertently uttered what deserves to go down as one of the most profound theological statements of the 20th century.
Jesus himself on trial before the disdainful eyes of Pontius Pilate declared, "My Kingdom is not of this world."
As saturated with "Christian values" the foundation and fabric of this nation may appear, America is ultimately of this world while Jesus' Kingdom is not.
The words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn are haunting. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970 for his writings which exposed the atrocities of the Soviet Gulag.
The goal of the Gulag was not just the eradication of religiosity, but complete and thorough dehumanization. Reflecting on his harrowing years in prison, he penned the following words:
It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. So, bless you, prison, for having been in my life.
American Christians today behave as though the line between good and evil passes between the Republican and Democratic parties, between America and the rest of the world, and between the middle class and the underclass.
Solzhenitsyn's words remind us that what ultimately matters are human hearts, not states, classes, or political parties.
Instead of longing for the good old days when America was Christian, how about the days of the early church when Christians were Christian? Instead of bickering over the popularity of Jesus in America, how about striving for the supremacy of Jesus in our own lives?
We must wage "war" not against our neighbors, but against ourselves in our own hearts and souls. That is where the war must be fought with all of our might and with all our fervency.
That is how we can reclaim our Christian roots dating back not to the founding of our nation two centuries ago, but to two thousand years ago when Jesus built his Church with his blood.
And that is how we Christians can be Christian again.
* Dr. Willimon's story is taken from James Van Tholen's Where all Hope Lies (pages 59-64). It is an outstanding collection of sermons