Strangers in a Strange Land   Leave a comment

Today, a friend emailed me one of those frequently-forwarded notes detailing news I might have overlooked.  In this case, I had: the death of Anne Roche Muggeridge, wife of her far-better known husband Malcom Muggeridge.  Mrs. Muggeridge was author of The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church [HarperSanFrancisco 1990], which details the turmoil within post-Vatican II Catholicism, particularly in Canada.  The note on her death included a quote from the introduction to her book.

Several statements in that quote got me to thinking.  So, let me begin with those statements, for it turns out that Mrs. Muggeridge (a Roman Catholic) said some things that are pertinent to understanding modern evangelicalism.

First these things:

Catholicism is not just a religion: it is a country of the heart and of the mind. No matter how resolutely they turn their backs on it, people born within it never quite shed their accents.

and shortly thereafter she wrote this:
“I belong to the race of people,” wrote the great Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac, “who, born in Catholicism, realize in earliest manhood that they will never escape from it, never leave it. They were within it, they are within it, and they will be within it for ever and ever.”

Now, why did this get me to thinking about evangelicalism?  Well here’s why …
My wife’s paternal ancestors were Apostolic Christians who settled in Illinois in the middle of the 19th Century, immigrants — religious refugees, actually — from Switzerland.  Their ecclesiastical patriarch was a man named Samuel Heinrich Froelich, whose pacifist religion brought him and his followers into conflict with the civil authorities.  Hence, their immigration during the 19th Century from Switzerland to various parts of the world including Japan(!), as well as North America, Mexico, and Paraguay.  Barbara’s great-great-grandfather and his brother settled around Roanoke, Illinois, purchasing thousands of acres of swamp land for a pittance, draining it (they had learned their agricultural hydrology in Switzerland), leaving themselves owners of exceedingly rich farmland.  They bequeathed to their sons large prosperous farms and businesses in town.
What’s this got to do with Mrs. Muggeridge?  Well, hang with me a bit longer …
Some years ago, my wife Barbara was speaking in a church up in that area, and her host (a cardiac specialist) had been born and reared in the Apostolic Christian Church (same group as Barbara’s father’s family).  He married a lovely AC lass, and during their marriage they migrated outside the Apostolic Christian fold for less sectarian climes.  When my wife and her hostess met, they wondered if they might be related (ACs mostly marry only other ACs, and so everyone eventually gets related to everyone else). 
As the two women were comparing notes, the subject turned to “leaving the AC fold,” and the hostess remarked to Barbara “It’s like leaving the Roman Catholic Church for most of us.”
Intrigued, Barbara drew her out on what she meant.  It turns out that what she meant is pretty well captured by that French Catholic novelist Mrs. Muggeridge quoted in the introudction to her book.  And, even though a few born into the Apostolic Christian fold  eventually depart from it, it remains true that (to borrow Mrs. Muggeridge’s phrases) the AC Church is not just a religion: it is a country of the heart and of the mind. No matter how resolutely they turn their backs on it, people born within it never quite shed their accents.
Barbara’s father departed the AC church when he moved to Texas as a young man, seeking his agricultural fortune.  But, he never quite “shed the accent” he acquired in his AC cradle.  Indeed, he retained a pretty pronounced accent, even though educated at Wheaton in the 1930s.
Now, the point:  whatever else Mrs. Muggeridge is talking about in her book (I haven’t read it), I expect she’s discussing the comprehensive and coherent Roman Catholic culture that began to be trashed after Vatican II.  I know that many conservative contemporary Catholics whom I read complain about this more or less constantly when the subject comes up.  And, those discussions always remind me of that hostess and her observation of her and her husband’s migration from the AC church into evangelical Protestantism (which, in those days, was equivalent to or kissin’ cousin to fundamentalism). 

As near as I can tell from the outside, the Romans and the ACs were alike insofar as each religious community effected a comprehensive, coherent, soup to nuts, cradle to grave culture, a world-view that included everything.  No upper-story, lower-story notions of truth and reality for them.  And, the respective and comprehensive world-views each possessed was different from what one found out in the world, even the far more “Christian” world of 19th century America.
This sort of feature common to the Romans and the ACs can also be detected in the long-forgotten enclaves of simple Anglicans, to judge by what I read of Anglican history, though Anglican culture of the genuinely orthodox kind seems to have been concentrated in the sub-suburban and rural parts of England.  You can hear the same observation made about conservative Lutherans whose German roots are still sprouting shoots in many LCMS parishes to this day.  And, you can add to this group any number of ethnic enclaves of Eastern Orthodoxy which flourish mostly unobserved in religiously polyglott America. 

Compared with these ecclesiastical communities all of which sustain a comprehensive and coherent world-view that is maintained in opposition to “the world,” the garden-variety evangelicalism one sees today is as stable as jello.  Maybe even less so, for jello remains … well, jello … while evangelicalism is continually reinventing itself into ever-novel iterations of worldliness, bereft of guideposts, paths, even lacking greater sorts of landmarks such as sudden valleys or distant mountains.   
The whole enterprise of modern evangelical religion is less like the City of God and far more like a rock concert and the fluid culture surrounding it, or the Jay Lenno show and the generation of TV fans who channel surf from one late-night one-man show to another.  In those rare times I stumble across pop-culture religion — religion that is “consumable” as any pop-culture is supposed to be — it’s as if I had wandered into the aisle at JoAnn’s or Hobby Lobby where you can find (as I did yesterday) displays of crosses in a bewildering variety of styles ahd shapes, all made of poly-resin, and as affordable as anything else that is made in China.
Perspective adds its own twist to these sorts of thoughts.  Mrs. Muggeridge appears to be lamenting the movements of the Catholicism she knew as liberal Catholic bishops strove (and still strive) to turn Roman religion into liberal Episcopalianism. On the other hand, Christians within the matrix of K-Mart  Protestanism who sense that the Church at worship ought to somehow look, sound, and feel different than the world, will view post-Vatican Catholicism as a treasure-trove of classical Christianity. 
When I’ve read the testimonies of evangelicals who have poped, many acknowledge up front that doctrine was NOT prompting their move into the Roman Church.  After all, evangelicalism these days doesn’t put much store in doctrine, right?.  No, it was this cultural dimension to things that persuaded them that the “evangelical” churches they inhabited were not really a Christian home, but rather something far, far off the reservation of anything that looked like, acted like, or sounded like the Church they encountered in the Bible or in the past 2,000 years of Western Christianity. 
And, so, these evangelicals — finding themselves homeless in their evangelical churches — went looking for something within professing Christendom, something that said “home” to them, rather than “the world.”  At a minimum, they sought a church that bore at least some resemblance to what they read about the church in the history books.

For those who had this fuzzy sense that they were off the reservation and who stumbled across the Christian Classics Ethereal Library online and got to reading the Fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries — well! They sometimes turned into fervent evangelists for Catholicism or Orthodoxy.  And, just as often, they became fire-breathing opponents of Protestantism, equating the latter with the only expression of it they’d ever known (e.g. modern evangelicalism).

One aspect of a Christian’s life in this world is captured in the life of a pilgrim, a nomad, one who is passing through but not attaching to the environs he inhabits.  But, are Christians to feel themselves to be pilgrims within Christendom itself?  I confess to feeling like a stranger in a strange land when I walk through the doors of most of the kinds of churches that I ought to feel some kinship with.  Mrs. Muggeridge felt that way about Catholicism in Canada at the end of the 20th Century.  What she may not have realized is that others, Protestants, evangelicals (or, those who used to identify themselves with that term) — all these too lament the way “home” now feels more and more like a circus.


Posted October 12, 2010 by Fr. Bill in Anglican, Evangelicalism, Improper piety, Proper piety

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