I've been reading this book, Choose The Life, by Bill Hull for quite a few weeks now. I've been reading slowly, for better absorption, in the mornings during my quiet time. It's both a simple book and a challenging one: simple in the sense that it's easy to read and to understand and challenging in terms of living it out.
Here is the summary sentence: "Ours is a gospel that calls every person to believe what Jesus believed, live as he lived, love as he loved, serve as he served, and lead as he led." It emphasizes the spiritual disciplines and radical community in the context of (mostly) the existing church.
One of Hull's premises is a familiar one: that the church has lost its understanding of discipleship and has lost its way. So this made me wonder whether there has ever been a time in which the church as a whole--or even the majority of Christians--has really lived the disciple life, at least since Constantine baptized the entire Roman Empire (whether they wanted it or not).
Of course, there have always been movements of God in every era and they continue into our own. But we start with about 1000 years of darkness, superstition, ignorance, paganism and violence. We emerge from that, after wasting quite a bit of time on the Crusades, into the highly structured, segmented church that gives birth to the Reformation, which gets off to a wonderful start until the Reformers, having escaped being killed for their beliefs, start killing each other. Then all God's children--on both sides of the religious schism--take turns killing each other based on whichever monarch happens to have manipulated his/her way to power with the blessing of whichever Church he/she happens to belong to. Meanwhile, the average Christian continues to be ignorant and superstitious.
Blessedly, the Enlightenment comes along to give us another option and things settle down for awhile but certainly no one would say that we were leaning toward following Jesus. Instead, we become very impressed with ourselves and our intellectual and creative abilities and modernity gains a foothold, leading us to the very recent past, in which the church emphasizes doctrine over transformation, "living right" over love, church membership over discipleship. Now, some say, we are at the end of the modern age and postmodernism--if we can ever figure out what that is--is the way of the future.
All this to say, I'm not sure the "good old days" have ever truly existed in the kingdom of God. A woman was once lamenting the state of our culture to me (I think she was upset about not being able to pray at football games) and said that we can just look at what is happening in the world and see that God's judgment is obviously on us since it has never been as bad as it is now. I wondered (silently, since I'm not THAT big of a dork) what she would have done with the 14th century, when almost half the human population of Europe died in a plague and the rest descended into darkness and ignorance and endless war.
I'll acknowledge that in our own culture, a couple of generations ago, we at least had a common spiritual language, a common ethic, a common cultural religious experience. I agree that the loss of that commonality is something to mourn but maybe we have glazed the past with a Norman Rockwell-esque patina. I don't believe that--at the time--it necessarily transformed us into followers of Jesus who lived his life with passion and love.
Actually, realizing that there isn't anything to go back to is good news. It reminds me of Jesus' message, which rejected efforts to reestablish the days of Moses or David in favor of a new kingdom of radical love that the world had never seen before. Maybe it's time for us to give up on the idea that followers of Jesus must be a majority (in our culture or in our churches) and instead embrace the challenge to follow Jesus on the fringes, where God has always seemed to be most powerfully at work. Rather than trying to reclaim an ideal past, we are called forward to change the future. To me, that feels like good news.