The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Robert Webber, for many years, taught Theology and Church History at Wheaton. His evangelical credentials were flawless, from his undergraduate years at Bob Jones University to his doctoral degree from Concordia, St. Louis. He even had the great fortune to marry the daughter of Harold Lindsell, the long time editor of Christianity Today. I first met Bob in 1979, shortly after he had written his classic book Common Roots, exploring the call of the Early Church to modern evangelicals. We became friends and occasional correspondents over the next number of years. He was a force of nature. Visiting his office at Wheaton, a window looked out on onto the Billy Graham Center… except Bob had surrounded the window with icons! Curly hair, mustache and a mischievous smile, he was clearly on his own journey. It was a journey back and forward, to what he termed an ancient-future faith.
Robert Webber died in 2007. His last book was, Who Gets To Narrate The World?. I have to take Bob at his word, that “… this book is primarily about the face off between Islamic and Christian ideology” (p. 102) which he believed would be the struggle of this century. Yet, however much I am willing to allow Bob or, indeed, any author to lay out in plain terms the intent of their writing, I have to take issue with Bob’s perception, at least in this case. Moreover, as a result of the Pew Research Study of 2007 and the more recent exhaustive study America’s Changing Religious Landscape (May 12, 2015) it has become abundantly clear, at least to me, that this book was really about something that transcends the mere geopolitical/theological confrontation between Islam and the West. Rather this book sought to explore the nature of a Christian community and theology that is, literally, “adrift”. It is a community (across almost all denominations and faith traditions) that is no longer anchored to the cosmic redemptive narrative which Webber’s book considers essential to confront the dual challenges of Islamic fundamentalism and secular humanism. It is my conviction that this drift has become accelerated in the course of the last forty five years with a marked decline in denominations and Christian faith traditions across the board in America and in Europe. We may rejoice that in the latest Pew study, evangelicals seem to have somewhat held their own, but in a time of population growth, they have actually suffered a loss as well. If we also include in the Pew analysis that the evangelicals surveyed included numerous faith communities whose theology can only be described as “Christianity light”, the picture becomes even more sobering.
I have hinted at what I believe is the cause of this acceleration in referencing the poem The Second Coming, written by Yeats in 1919. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Within numerous denominations and faith communities, the center has not held – whether that center consisted in confessions of faith, standards of ministry, training and/or pastoral care, or the idea – yes, even the mere idea – that the Church holds a cosmic redemptive narrative separate from the contemporary post-modern secular construct. Yes, in many denominations and numerous independent faith communities there are those who are “the best”, that is, men and women of faith who cling tenaciously to that cosmic redemptive narrative, but often without “conviction” as they look to the practical realities of “paycheck and pension” or, perhaps even worse, cast a jealous eye at the full parking lot of the megachurch down the street that has embraced an entertainment/consumer approach replete with the latest audio-visual equipment, well rehearsed praise bands and development professionals on staff. Then, of course, there are the “worst”. Denominational leadership has, in many cases, been taken over by people far more doctrinaire on “issues of the moment” (for instance, LGBT marriage, ordination, etc.) than any Biblical fundamentalist discussing Genesis. On the other hand, megachurch pastors across the United States and in some parts of Western Europe enjoy what is considered “success” in local “church plants” or “worship centers”, or on television, YouTube and internet streaming, promoting a consumerist, individualistic, and, in this last year, a political approach to Christian faith wholly divorced from history, tradition, or community. Moreover, both of these sets of leadership do what they do with “passionate intensity”, and dare I say it, on occasion, with a degree of ruthlessness.
All of this is to say, the center has not held. Indeed, there is no longer a center to hold in much of what we see in church life today. With apologies to Robert Webber, it is not that the Church no longer provides the world with the revolutionary narrative of creation, fall and redemption with all that it entails; the sad fact is that this narrative is either no longer held, or has been lost, by many, if not most, Christian denominations and communities in 2017. The narrative is no longer, as Bob wrote in 2007, “held dear by every Christian body” (p. 117) apart from cultural or civic formulations.
To use a modern reference, it is as though we are Peter Jackson, the famed New Zealand director, and we have decided to film The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but we have decided that the idea of a gold ring as a main character is too abstract a concept for audiences to grasp, so we film the cycle without it. We have the actors, the costumes, the special effects, the script writers, the New Zealand locations, but the story – the narrative – is gone, so the film no longer makes sense. It no longer makes sense to the participants in the film; it no longer makes sense to the audience that comes to view the finished result. The film is beautifully shot, the actors are superb, the special effects are stunning, but the story – the compelling narrative at it’s heart is gone. It is a mere one time “event”, (similar to youth oriented “worship events” that are now in vogue) devoid of meaning and without any lasting significance.
Webber always asserted that the “path to the future runs through the past”. Let us, however, be clear – Our calling is not to be antiquarians, or curators of a museum.
Rather our calling, as I have said elsewhere, is to “authenticity”; to find the central tenants of the Christian narrative in Scripture, Church History, the Creeds, the Church Year, Worship, Social Justice, and Polity and to give them an authentic life in 2017. It is a daunting task of recovery. It is not for the faint of heart and, apart from the promise that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church, there is no promise of success. We may hope with Yeats, that “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” Yet, perhaps that revelation may be our own renewed commitment to that ancient-future faith, which my friend held so dear, and the discovery of a new, but ancient way to “narrate the world”
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD