Lampooning the Enlightenment

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a Christian wrote a satire that brilliantly lampooned the modernist ideas of our age: like the idea that man can solve all his problems through education and technology? And what if the book were so brilliantly entertaining it became a huge best seller, and even a great classic, taught in schools everywhere for centuries to come? Well such a book was written, nearly three centuries ago. I’m talking about Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It’s a stinging satire and it’s as fresh today as it was when Swift wrote it. It forms part of a magnificent Christian literary heritage that we desperately need to reclaim. Jonathan Swift was born in Ireland in 1667, at the beginning of what is called the Enlightenment, or the so-called Age of Reason. Because the Enlightenment was essentially a reaction to the bloody religious wars of the previous century, it unapologetically exalted human reason over religious faith; it took on an especially low view of Christianity. But as a Christian himself, Swift took a low view of the Enlightenment. And soon after becoming an Anglican clergyman in 1695, Swift began satirizing Enlightenment thinking in withering works of fiction. The most popular: Gulliver’s Travels. According to Professor Daniel Ritchie of Bethel College of Minnesota, Swift’s satire “was directed against rationalism and the contemporary optimism concerning human perfectibility, which omitted any consideration of human sinfulness.” But those same Enlightenment concepts form the ideological foundation of our own society today. The idea that we humans can perfect ourselves and create a utopia is even more prevalent now than it was in Swift’s day. So, too, is the idea that the fundamental problems that face humanity can be solved by technology. According to today’s “enlightened” thinkers, more medical research and better medicines will vanquish sexually transmitted diseases; more sex education will abolish teenage pregnancies; computers in the classroom will abolish laziness and lack of initiative. But the problems of mankind have never been technological. The real issue is our own sin, just as it always has been. Scripture teaches that left to our own devices, we will use science and technology to oppress rather than to bless our fellow man. This century, with its gulags, killing fields, and concentration camps, has provided horrific confirmation of the biblical teaching. Most of us who studied Gulliver’s Travels in High school were never taught the distinctly Christian nature of Swift’s satire. Our secular academics tend to see Swift as a kind of curmudgeon speaking against the prevailing ideas of his day. Many of them miss the stunning correlation between those ideas and our own, three centuries later. And that’s why we Christians need to read and study classic literature like Gulliver’s Travels. And when your kids read this book in school, be prepared to point out to them it is a Christian satire and explain to them who Swift was. And after you read the essay, you just might be inspired to get a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and read it again. Maybe read it aloud to your kids. You’ll be giving them an entertaining lesson in which you expose the follies of our own age.


Chuck Colson


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