In his book, “The Triumph of Christianity,” (which, by the way, was one of Chuck Colson’s favorite books) historian Rodney Stark describes the Roman world of that first Christmas Eve.
The gods, Stark writes, “were everywhere and thought to be undependable.” Apart from “some magical powers” and “perhaps the gift of immortality,” there was little to distinguish them from their human worshipers: “they ate, drank, loved, envied, fornicated, cheated, lied and otherwise set morally ‘unedifying examples.’”
And, not surprisingly, they didn’t care one bit about those who worshiped them. All they wanted was to be propitiated.
In other words, Christ entered into a culture in which the gods of the age were not worthy of worship.
And Roman society was just as oppressive and undependable as its gods. For most people, life in the empire’s cities could be fairly described, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Thomas Hobbes, as “nasty, poor, solitary, brutish, and short.”
This was the world into which Christianity was born. And still Christianity triumphed, not least of which because it offered an alternative to the oppression of Roman society. It offered another way than the dead-end of paganism, a way so compelling that it outweighed the obvious social disadvantages of being identified as a Christian.
As Stark writes, “in the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity offered an island of mercy and security.”
I hope that when you hear Stark’s words, you realize that we also have something far more compelling to offer our contemporaries as well.
Many of our contemporaries also worship deities that are undependable and scarcely distinguishable from their worshipers.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “worship” as “the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for a deity.” Worship transforms the worshiper. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “the Gods we worship write their names on our faces; be sure of that . . . thus, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
Emerson wrote that without even foreseeing the age of “social media,” in which we increasingly worship what we’ve become or at least what we imagine ourselves to be. Many pages on Facebook and Instagram can, with almost no exaggeration, be called “shrines.”
Our deities are as much of a dead end as the pagan gods of Rome. And like all idol worship, self-worship can be a lonely activity. Just like the Greek gods, who didn’t play well together, today’s pagans are far from anonymous, but just as isolated as their ancient predecessors. A 2011 Cornell study found that the average American has only two “good friends.”
What Christians today have to offer is remarkably similar to what the early Christians had to offer: what Stark called an “intense community,” a place where, instead of being surrounded by strangers, they are surrounded by “brothers and sisters in Christ.” A place that when the hard times come, as inevitably they will, “there [are] people who care — there are people who have the distinct responsibility to care.”
Stated succinctly, what Christians have to offer is a better way of being human than anything currently offered in contemporary society.
That’s why, despite the often-distressing state of our culture, I remain hopeful. The Christian alternative is just as desperately needed today as when the early Church offered it to the Romans. Like them, we must proclaim and embody that alternative.
And if we do, it could be another Christmas Eve all over again.
And friends, as we prepare to gather with our own friends and family to exchange gifts and celebrate the light of Christ coming into this world, I would ask you remember BreakPoint and the Colson Center in your year-end giving. Thank you so much. And have a very merry Christmas.
A version of this commentary first aired on Christmas Eve, 2014.
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