I’ve been reading a book by Rodney Stark called “The Rise of Christianity.” Stark is a sociologist by training, so he approaches the subject from this perspective. He traces the rise of Christianity during the first few centuries AD.
There are a number of points he makes that are thought-provoking for our present context. Stark notes that the Roman culture of the first few centuries featured the following characteristics:
– Lack of value attached to human life
– Lack of emphasis on the virtues of mercy and pity
– Lack of respect for women (women were married off early and husbands had no expectation to remain faithful to them)
– Belief in impersonal “gods” and forces
– A culture where everyone generally looked to his own needs first
In reading Stark’s description of the Roman culture during this period, it occurred to me that we seem to live in the midst of a similar culture today. I would argue that each of the attributes of pagan Roman culture applies to modern, popular American (and Western) culture today. We abort our babies, use the poor for political purposes (rather than to help them), still don’t value women as God’s creations, believe in “fate” and “destiny” and astrology and all other manner of forces, and place ourselves and our needs in front of everything else.
Stark notes that in the first few centuries AD, when the Church encountered this pagan Roman culture, the Church offered something unique. The Church came into this pagan culture with the message that God created us and all things, that He has had mercy upon us by sending His Son to die and rise for us, that all people are valuable (including women and children), and that God is personal and calls us into relationship with Him and each other. Since God did not remain far off, but came to us in the flesh to die and rise for us, then we (as His people) ought to similarly serve others in self-sacrificing love.
Thus, the Church offered a counter-culture to the pagan culture of the time. I think that in our present context we are also surrounded by a pagan culture, even if at times it attempts to paint itself with the veneer of Christianity. The true Christian faith can come into this pagan culture and proclaim God’s involvement with His creation and His love and mercy for us. The more we proclaim the apostolic faith the better we can provide people hope based in the Gospel.
The Church conquers the gates of hell through the power of the Gospel, since Christ has defeated sin and death. So, the Church ought to proclaim this Gospel wherever she can, calling people to repentance, forgiving sin in the name of Christ, and reminding people of our ultimate hope in Christ. This ultimate hope and promise given to us by God through Christ is the resurrection of our bodies and life everlasting with Him and each other (i.e. the rest of the Church) in the restored creation.