The recent vandalism of Glastonbury’s Holy Thorn Tree at Christmastime has got me thinking about some strange connections which seem to be manifesting themselves. We always like to think that we know how things work, but that isn’t always the case. And, as anyone involved in science and technology will tell you, sometimes recognising the counter-intuitive is the first step of knowing the truth.
It’s not clear whether the destruction of the Holy Thorn Tree–which is purported to be the descendant of a tree planted in England by Joseph of Arimathea–was motivated by its religious significance or not. My guess, however, is that atheists all over the UK are raising their glasses in a toast to this event. The more the evidence of Christianity is eradicated from the British Isles, they say, the better.
But atheists weren’t always the ones to raise their glasses either. Many years ago my father retained an Austrian immigrant to design an experimental pile driver that ran off of liquid propane gas. I was home from university and was taken to lunch with my father and his consultant.
The consultant looked at me and what I was drinking. “You believe in God?” he asked me.
“Yes, I do,” I replied.
“I knew you did,” he observed.
“How?” I asked.
“You drink beer,” he said. “Atheists don’t drink.”
I’ve never shared my faith quite that way before or since.
It seems that everything is topsy-turvy, as I noted recently about civil marriage being the province of the upper reaches of our society after the sexual revolution being started from same upper reaches. And that brings us to back to the Thorn Tree: although today secularists are happy to see it chopped down, the first time it saw the axe it was under Oliver Cromwell and his “Roundheads,” which lead Britain under an austere regime that is only rivalled by supporters of shari’a law.
Cromwell also abolished the celebration of Christmas, an abolition that survived the Restoration and had to wait until the nineteenth century and Dickens to see a comeback. Today we have our own secularist roundheads who are looking to abolish it again, as anyone who follows Todd Starnes’ blog knows. Not only are they out to banish explicitly Christian things such as nativity scenes, but they’re even gunning for Santa Claus and the colours of red and green, as if the latter represented a gang. (And then, of course, the city of Philadelphia regaled us with this…)
Ever since the Reformation, the Anglophone world has been a tug of war between two groups: the “Roundheads,” or those who want an austere, disciplined way of life, and the “Cavaliers,” who want something a little rowdier. Both English and American Civil Wars were fought over this; both sets of Roundheads (Cromwell’s people and the North) were religiously motivated, and in both cases the Roundheads won the war. But in both cases there was a reaction. In England we had the Restoration, in the U.S. we saw the South rise again, first in the consciousness of the American people (with sympathetic portraits such as Gone With the Wind) and later with the region’s economic resurgence. It’s only now that there is a semi-systematic campaign to run Old Dixie down again; we’ll see plenty of that starting next Monday, the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s secession from the Union and the beginning of the War Between the States.
What we are seeing now, in my opinion, is a secular Roundhead movement. Oh yes, they ostensibly encourage sexual freedom and trash those who don’t, but they’ve never even tried to lower the drinking age (or abolish it altogether,) they’re not as a group behind the legalisation of marijuana, and well-heeled secularists can’t bring themselves to divorce civil marriage, either for themselves or for others. There’s no particular groundswell amongst non-believers to reduce the gaggle of mindless laws we have in this country. Bourgeois propriety reigns with the godless; in fact, they spend an enormous amount of time trying to convince the rest of us of their morality and how it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral.
Part of the reason is that atheists are frequently, in this country at least, extracted from religious backgrounds. As someone raised Episcopalian in Palm Beach, I find this an alien experience. It’s unfortunate all around: not only do they abandon the faith in their creator, but they bring with them the same censorious moralism they claim to dislike in their backgrounds. Fundies once, fundies forever, it seems, just a different belief structure. That’s why, I suppose, we see so many billboards on buses and elsewhere proclaiming there is no God and that science is the best, and yet we fall further and further behind the rest of the world in science and math education where the results really count.
With this new Roundhead movement, the Cavaliers are caught off balance. In deepest perplexity are the Evangelical Christians. Theological and ecclesiastical descendants of one or both of the Roundheads in the last two civil wars, they wake up to find themselves in the Cavalier camp, a place they’re not quite prepared to be.
So what will be the result of this? And what are the Cavaliers to do in the face of it?
As noted earlier, the Roundheads won both civil wars. It should also be noted, however, that the Anglophone world has been blessed by being able to fight their seminal internal bloodbaths without serious foreign interference. (The Germans should have been so fortunate during the Thirty Years’ War.) Consider the War Between the States: while two halves of this nation engaged in the mass suicide of a generation of its manhood, the worst foreign interference going on was the French putting Maximilian on the throne in Mexico, and when the Americans were done with their exercise, they bared their teeth long enough to take care of that. In this much smaller world we live in, it’s unlikely that we will have that luxury. Remember, atheists: it’s the results that count, and your tenacious belief in evolution won’t get you far when you’re left behind economically and militarily.
As far as the Evangelical Cavaliers are concerned–and I’m not talking about a Bible study group at the University of Virginia, although they need to help out–the best first step is to proclaim and live the Christian life as a celebration. We’ve wasted too much time plugging upward social mobility when the system is increasingly rigged against that. And we need to proclaim and live that Christianity places real life beyond politics, and that the church’s survival is beyond that of the nation.
When my family moved to Chattanooga fifty years ago, we did so right at the start of the centennial celebration of the War Between the States. To grow up with that, even for a short time, made an impression, not only of the high costs of civil war, but also of the simple fact that “one nation” isn’t a given. Now that half a century has passed and we’re re-examining all of that again, it’s time to engage in some serious thought about where we’re going before the Anglophone’s world’s next convulsion becomes its last.