The Christian worldview has lost considerable influence in the west since the 17th century. This is largely due to the powerful influence of humanism levied by the great literary giants of England and America. These were the apostates. Granted, apostasy is a slow process and a Christian nation doesn’t get corrupted within a mere twenty years. The masses of the 16th century would never have bought the blatant atheism we face today. But during the 17th and 18th centuries, the hearts of men began to turn ever so slowly towards a man-centered epistemology, metaphysic, and ethic. Once the 19th century arrived, men like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain expressed their new-found faith in humanism with sharp tones and stunning clarity.
The greatest wars ever fought in the history of the world are not those fought by sword. The greatest battles are fought in the realm of ideas. Never have so many people been caught up in a man-centered, secular form of humanism as we have seen here, in the dying of the Christian west. Never have the stakes been this high. Never have so many people apostatized from the Christian faith since the beginning of the Christian church 2000 years ago.
The day has arrived that Christians must fight back, or there will be no Christians left. It is time to stop losing this fight. Christians must engage their worldview vigorously in the world of great literature. If they do not, their children will be overcome by man-centered ideas, and the great apostasy will take even more in the generations to come.
The great classic writers were dangerous men. They handled dangerous ideas. You can get badly wounded as you read their great books. You have no business reading these “classics” if you are not well grounded in a biblical, God-centered way of looking at the world first.
Optimism and Pessimism
Should Christians generally think positively or negatively of the classics produced by the great English and American empires? Should we view the great authors through a lens of optimism or pessimism? When Christian thinkers grapple with the controversy over the classical literary works, this should be the underlying question, but for the most part, Christian thinkers seem to err towards optimism, and that is for several reasons. First, if they have made it through the rigor of the academy, they have almost without exception been inducted into the fellowship of the Puffed-Up Ones. That is, they have gorged on the “knowledge that puffs up” (1 Cor. 8:1). These academics think it unseemly to criticize the works of the “brotherhood” in the academy. Thus, the “great” authors are beyond criticism and they stand in a class of their own. The ideas they express may be fawned over, appreciated, reviewed, and analyzed. But nobody accuses them of an evil, unsanctified, unregenerated, rebellious heart, and few declare their literature heterodox or dangerous.
Still, we need to be fair. There are good Christian men who wish to give proper credit where credit is due. It is good to give credit to Christ, who has ruled western thought and life since the fall of Rome. We ought to recognize any point at which there is influence of a Christian worldview or Christian ideas. We can rejoice that even the unbelieving humanist is not always self-consistent to his own humanism.
The rise of the great modern empires coincided with the rise of a rebellious spirit towards Christ and His reign. The first great empires of the modern age were Spain and France, both of whom used the power of the sword to persecute true Christian believers. Those first great empires didn’t last long, however. Following these empires came the English empire and the American Empire. Particularly through the 19th century, the English empire rose to its towering influence over the entire world, while a deistic, materialistic, and atheistic apostasy spread like wildfire through schools, universities, and churches. After 1500 years of Christian thinking working its way into the language and life of England and America, a tidal wave of apostasy virtually exterminated it over the succeeding 200 years.
How did it happen? Iain Murray summarizes the work of the great English literary giants of the 19th century in his book The Undercover Revolution. By their personal professions, these literary giants actually intended to apostatize from the Christian faith, and they intended to take millions with them. We are pessimistic when we read the great writers, not because they founded their work on 1500 years of Christian thinking, but because they chartered a course towards apostasy. It is their trajectory that bothers us. We can see the trajectory as clear as day now that we look back. We can see their gradual rejection of God in their metaphysic, their rebellion against a Christian ethic, and their rejection of the more committed forms of Christianity such as that of the reformers and the Puritans of the 1500s and 1600s.
If you cannot make out the trajectories of apostasy in the great classic writers of the 1580s to the 1900s, you do not understand history and you are not reading literature rightly. Literary work and artistic work represent trajectories. They point us in a direction. It is unfair to judge a single work of an author apart from the rest of the body of his work, but it is even worse to judge a writer’s contributions apart from the religious context of his culture and his upbringing. A 16th century writer, being fresh out of 1000 years of Christian heritage, who ekes out an isolated profane statement in one of his theater scripts exhibits more apostasy than a post-modern “artist” who dips crosses in urine.
What about the great philosophers of the modern age?
Their Parents Named Them “John.”
Jean Jacques Rousseau.
John Stuart Mill.
John Paul Sartre.
What do you find in common with these men? You don’t need to think too deeply to come up with the answer! Yes, they all share the same first name. They are also all brilliant thinkers who made a tremendous influence on the world. John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau affected political philosophy. John Paul Sartre influenced culture and entertainment, and John Dewey was the father of modern, secular education. But they all had the same first name. They all lived in the western world (Europe and America), and they all were named after the Apostle John who wrote the fourth Gospel. Many years ago, in a different era, the west had a Christian heritage. That is why parents named their sons “John.” But a new religion gradually worked its way into the western world from the time of the 15th century humanist renaissance, to the present day.
It is undeniable that Christianity has made an indelible impact on language, art, architecture, music, education, hospitals and healthcare, charity, science, political freedoms, the treatment of women, respect for human life, and the elimination of pagan practices like Sati, child sacrifice, and chattel slavery. For over a thousand years, Christian burials replaced cremation, and it would have been hard to find any instances of cannibalism, homosexuality, body mutilation, or tattoos. These gross manifestations of pagan life were almost completely absent from Christian societies… until 1900, when everything began to change.
Change always comes gradually. The ideas come first, followed by the consequences. The idea men are usually called “philosophers.” Within 100 years, their powerful ideas will impact the most brilliant writers, educators, musicians and artists. Then, it will take another 100 years for those ideas to filter into the mass culture. It is a three step process.
1. The first step is for the intellectual philosophers to develop revolutionary humanist ideas and live these ideas out in their own lives.
2. The the second step is for great literary masters and artists to incarnate the ideas into literary and art forms, which are then used in the universities and academies. This is how humanism captured the major institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries.
3. In the final step of the process, the philosophies of the 19th century work their way into the mass culture through motion pictures, music, and mass media. We have seen this happen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
It is vitally important that any student be able to discern the harmful ideas at the foundation of our current culture. At least 95% of all current thought processes, cultural expressions, media, the way families live, and educational endeavors is rooted in the destructive ideas of the 18th and 19th century philosophers. It would be a shame if our young people failed to discern these ideas.
By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them
For those wishing to discern false teachers, Jesus Christ provides a helpful test that may be employed by even the least intelligent of His followers. “By their fruits you shall know them.” A man is not to be judged merely on the merit of his ideas. His ideas may be judged by the fruit of his life.
That is why it is important to know that Marx’s daughters committed suicide, and that Rousseau abandoned his five children on the steps of an orphanage, and that Ernest Hemingway wished to kill his father and then took his own life. For those who may not have the time to study the confusing labyrinth of these men’s twisted minds, it is sometimes just faster to take a look at their “fruits” and draw a quick conclusion as to the nature of the “tree.” Even if our children cannot discern the trajectory of the ideas laid out in the writings of these philosophers, at the very least he should know something about the lives and fruits of these men, who served as the intellectual leaders during the fall of the western world.
If our nation’s major academic institutions have led the apostasy away from the Christian faith, it is helpful to assess the content of their educational programs, because the roots of the apostasy are found in the universities. From the beginning, colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Bowdoin, and William and Mary incorporated a thoroughly Greek and Roman education. As early as 1685, Increase Mather (the last Puritan, and the President of Harvard college), complained that the pastors trained at the college knew more of Cicero and Aristotle than they did of Paul, Moses, and David. He did what he could to purge Aristotle’s ethics from the school and replace it with biblical ethics, but to no avail. By 1705, Harvard College was under complete control of the Latitudinarians.
But it wasn’t the Greeks and the Romans who set the trajectories for the western world, as much as it was the western philosophers who attended those universities. In the end, it was Christian apostates like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, and John Dewey that made the difference. At first, they may have been affected by the humanist ideas of the old Greek and Roman writers. But they developed their own version of humanism for the modern world.
Then, the literary giants took their queues from the philosophical giants, and weaned the American liberal arts curriculum away from Christian thinking entirely. It was a gradual process, but eventually John Calvin and John Bunyan were playing far less of a role in the high school literature curriculum of the 1880s and the 1920s, than did Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain.
If American secular high schools of the 20th century were self-consciously humanist in their trajectory, it would be wise for Christians to take a look at the list of the core books that made up the curriculum in these high schools. The list is not hard to construct.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter
Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn
Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath
J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye
These critically-important books selected as literature curriculum for high schoolers were far more important than the Sunday School curriculum taught in the churches. These were the “great” books and the “great” authors that framed the minds of hundreds of millions of American school children for the last five or six generations. Who were the great masters and what did they teach our children? What were the fruits of these great writers? What did they accomplish? Did hundreds of millions of school children come to be more humanistic in their thinking after sitting at the feet of these great masters? “By their fruit, you shall know them.”
This is no time for naiveté. Ideas can be dangerous. Educational methods and content are important. You can destroy yourself by sitting at the feet of the wrong teachers. Choose your teachers wisely, or you and your children will find yourselves participating in the ever-widening apostasy of the west.