“The world of 1906,” wrote Violet Bonham Carter in her biography of Winston Churchill, “was a stable and a civilized world in which the greatness and authority of Britain and her Empire seemed unassailable and invulnerably secure…. Powerful, prosperous, peace-loving, with the seas all round us and the Royal Navy on the seas, the social, economic, international order seemed to our unseeing eyes as firmly fixed on earth as the signs of the Zodiac in the sky.”
Think of it: living before the devastation and slaughter of World War I, before the rise of Communism and the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, in an age far more innocent than our own. The prosperity and stability of the British Empire in the Victorian Era would, people thought, only grow stronger with a new king, in a new century, enlightened by the bright beams of progress.
Of course, not everyone was fooled.
In 1907, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, reading the signs most people didn’t noticed, published his dystopian End Times novel, Lord of the World. Set in the early twenty-first century, Benson foresaw a time when busy workers “had learned at least the primary lessons of the gospel that there was no God but man, no priest but the politician, no prophet but the schoolmaster.” He envisioned a world in which Christianity had all but vanished with little hope of resurgence, a world where the marginalization of Christians morphed into persecution and finally genocide.
In the novel, an elderly statesman explains the situation to an young priest: “First, you see, there was Materialism, pure and simple that failed more or less—it was too crude—until psychology came to the rescue. Now psychology claims all the rest of the ground; and the supernatural sense seems accounted for. That’s the claim. No, father, we are losing; and we shall go on losing, and I think we must ever be ready for a catastrophe at any moment.”
Lord of the World came to mind (mine and others) last Tuesday after hearing Princeton University’s McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Dr. Robert George at the tenth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC.
“My message for you today is a somber one,” he began. “The days of acceptable Christianity are over. The days of comfortable Catholicism are past. It’s no longer easy to be a faithful Christian, a good Catholic, a faithful witness to the truths of the Gospel.”
Comparing our era to the events of Jesus’ Passion, he noted, “Things were easy in those Palm Sunday days, standing with Jesus and his truths was the in thing to do, to be part of the crowd, waving the palm branches, shouting ‘Hosanna!’” But Palm Sunday has passed; Good Friday looms with the crowds beginning to cry for crucifixion.
On Good Friday, he said, most of the disciples fled in fear and shame. Only the beloved apostle, John, and Mary, his mother, stayed with Jesus as he hung on the cross. George challenged each of us to decide whether or not to stay with them. “The question each of us must face is this: am I ashamed of the Gospel? And that question opens to others: am I willing to pay the price that will be demanded if I refuse to be ashamed? Am I willing to give public witness to the massively politically incorrect truths of the gospel?”
Standing for biblical teaching—specifically teaching about sexuality, marriage, and life—is no longer acceptable as Brendan Eich who lost his job as president of Mozilla, David and Jason Bentham who lost their show on HGTV, and others have discovered.
“They threaten us with consequences if we refuse to call what is good, evil, and what is evil, good,” said George, “They demand [we] conform our thinking to their orthodoxy, or else say nothing at all.” Break their rules and, like the beleaguered Christians in Benson’s novel, we could pay a steep price in our careers, our social standing, our friendships, our fortunes, and our futures.
Nonetheless, as Msgr. Benson knew and as Dr. George reminded the crowd, the story doesn’t end on the Cross. “We would much rather be acceptable Christians, comfortable Catholics. But our trust in Jesus, our hope in his resurrection, our faith in the sovereignty of His heavenly Father, can conquer fear. By the grace of almighty God, Easter is indeed coming.”
In 1907, many thought Benson’s novel too negative and pessimistic and, no doubt, many still do. In 2014, many think George’s address too negative and pessimistic. Perhaps they are, but I doubt it.