“The word Irish is seldom coupled with the word civilization.”
With such a thoroughly politically incorrect statement, thus begins Thomas Cahill in his wonderfully titled book, ‘How the Irish saved Civilisation.’ It’s never going to be a classic, but from that opening sentence it’s a stimulating, engaging and sometimes provocative book, whose thesis may well have pertinent lessons for the Christian church in these present times.
For it’s a troubled world which meets us as we take our first tentative steps into another new year: and although it’s often with a superficial, manufactured hopefulness that we greet the calendar change, there are clouds all along the horizon which suggest there may be serious storms ahead.
The wind has got up and there’s turbulence now all around. No wonder it’s with real foreboding that many are viewing the future here in this land on the fringes of the continent. The world as we’ve known it for centuries is falling apart at the seams.
Politically there’s certainly a mess. Brexit has seen to that. It’s created, indeed, the potential not simply for growing confusion but for increasingly widespread chaos.
Morally, too, there’s a similar mess. The ‘trans’ debate and the street-wise advocates of ‘Queer Theory’ thinking have seen to that. It’s created not freedom so much as anarchy, and has birthed now a culture as mixed up, confused and self-contradicting as any our history has known.
And socially, too, there are rumblings we’re starting to register, ‘tremors’ in the fabric of our western world which are suggestive of the turmoil and trouble to come, harbingers of chaos and confusion.
There are today great ‘people movements’, not seen or known on such a scale for (quite literally) simply ages. Some of these ‘people movements’ are physical and geographical; huge waves of people surging powerfully westwards and northwards, like some great human tsunami, persuaded that there must be something better than the life they’re presently living.
War and conflict, oppression and corruption, poverty and disease, famine and hunger: rising water, lack of water … all these things and more have triggered these great waves of human movement whose impact may well prove to be as hugely devastating in effect as those terrifying tsunamis which an unseen, underwater earthquake sets in train.
But there are other ‘people movements’, too, today: movements more of ideology and thought, movements spawned in cyberspace, and growing with what sometimes seems a monster-like rapidity in the modern-day ‘laboratories’ of so-called ‘social media’ accessible to all. These movements, too, form weighty and subversive waves of thought, which sweep, tsunami-like, across the landscape of society, with little thought or care (or so it seems) for what the reconfigured landscape will be like.
Tsunamis occasion great mess. Always.
They’re not a sort of large-scale ‘irrigation project’, well-planned, controlled and monitored, resulting in improvement, growth and genuine prosperity. They have the opposite effect: the great rolling waves may look both impressive and ordered – but when they make landfall it’s chaos they always create.
There was just such a surging tsunami of people at the time of, and maybe, indeed, you might argue, as the cause of, the end of the great Roman Empire. The Huns and the Goths and the Visigoths and .. well, you’ll remember it well from your schooldays perhaps. Wave after great wave of people movements surging across the contours of this continent and sweeping aside the cultured institutions of a one-time mighty empire.
Result – chaos. What history labels the ‘dark ages’.
Which is where the Irish come in. Thomas Cahill put it like this – “.. as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labour of copying all of western literature – everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had over-whelmed. ..”
Some fifteen hundred years and more far down the line from then, we too now live at the end of a different empire; and we, too, are faced by the same sort of challenge today. It’s ‘rubble’ and chaos, confusion and mess, which increasingly now we, too, may be starting to see.
And if that is the case, then it’s Babel we’re seeing again (Gen.11.1-9).
Confusion is the consequence of sinful pride, that spirit of self-confidence intent upon creating a society in which the Lord will have no place at all, nor any part to play.
A new, much more sophisticated breed of ‘matted, unwashed barbarians’ have descended on the cities and the citadels of this, our much-loved land, overturning and uprooting in a calculated, and yet wholly indiscriminate way the Bible-based foundations of our life.
So here is the challenge with which we now find ourselves faced – “’When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’” [Psalm 11.3].
The whole of the psalm addresses this one vital theme. What do we do when tsunamis bear down on our land and their waves wreak their havoc across all of our cultural contours and all our societal landscape?
Do we simply give up, and resort to a ‘ghetto’ existence? Do we do as the psalmist had heard some suggest, and ‘flee like a bird to our mountain’? That’s to say, do we just retreat to our bunker, keep our heads right down and wait ‘til the whole thing’s blown over?
Anything but, declared David. His opening gambit is simple and short – “In the LORD I take refuge.” And how you respond when the faith-fuelled foundations are being deliberately, systematically and comprehensively destroyed is determined by that stated bedrock of faith.
We trust the LORD. Period. No matter what may be happening around us. No matter how great the turmoil.
We don’t need to hide – because He is our refuge and we hide ourselves in Him. And we refuse to lose hope – because He, the LORD, is still in charge, He sees all that’s going on, and He will sort it out.
The ‘retreat-to-your-bunker’ perspective is often the default approach which Christians are tempted to take: that ‘shrug-of-the-shoulders’, ‘some-you-win-some-you-lose’ attitude is an easier, more comfortable option, for sure.
Such was certainly the easy, ‘laissez-faire’ attitude and stance adopted by many back at the end of the 5th century, when the foundations of that ancient world were so suddenly and emphatically being destroyed: it seemed to many, as Cahill puts it, that “.. the end was no longer in doubt: their world was finished. One could do nothing but, like Ausonius, retire to one’s villa [the Roman equivalent of ‘fleeing like a bird to your mountain’], write poetry, and await the inevitable.”
And then there is this wonderful sentence from Cahill. “It never occurred to them that the building blocks of their world would be saved by outlandish oddities from a land so marginal that the Romans had not bothered to conquer it, by men so strange they lived in huts on rocky outcrops and shaved half their heads and tortured themselves with fasts and chills and nettle baths.”
He goes on to quote the respected historian Kenneth Clark – “for quite a long time .. western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles [I think it’s actually less than that] from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.”
Perhaps it’s our calling today in Christ to be such ‘outlandish oddities’ ourselves: men and women seeming strange and weird to the world around, who dare to buck the trend, who choose to stand on that great pinnacle of Rock we know the Lord Jesus Christ to be, risen and rising high above all seas of change, and who thereby save, for future generations, ‘til He comes again, those ‘building blocks’ of the city of God wherein that life in all its fullness is aye known.
Are you up for the adventure?
Yours very warmly in the service of the King,