Christianity’s weird success

Christianity’s weird success. By Greg Sheridan.

Christianity will revive in the West in a very big way in coming decades. (If this prediction is wrong, I invite any reader to tax me on it severely in 50 years.) For the West is entering a phase of paganism. And history shows paganism is inherently ripe for conversion. …

Anthony Fisher, a thoughtful student of cultural history and the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, argued recently that “as the old religion fades, a pagan hedonism fills the void”. He gave a pithy summary of the stats: “Those who do believe and count religion as important in their lives are now just over half of Americans, a quarter of Canadians, a fifth of Australians and a tenth of Britons, French and Germans.” …

“There is a generation that is innocently unaware of the content of the Christian story, and also unaware of the Christian contribution to their secular values,” [Kanishka Raffel, the impressive Anglican Archbishop of Sydney] tells Inquirer.

Would I call them pagans? Greek and Roman pagans worshipped gods of war and sex and power. And so does our society today. The pagan gods are back, but we don’t use religious names for them today. The world those gods created was brutal. And it was made much less brutal by Jesus.”

Paul Morrissey, president of Campion College, has a similar view: “People under 40 have no real idea of Christianity and are basically pagans. So Christianity does appear weird to them. But that weirdness can be attractive. Where Christianity has become fully liberal it just fades into the background.”

The weirdness of Christianity that Morrissey identifies was central to its success. Christianity was just as weird to the sophisticated first-century Graeco-Roman civilisation of the Mediterranean as it is to the most disillusioned sophisticate of today.

20 years after Jesus’ death, the missionary Paul (aka Saul) wrote a famous letter from Corinth, a Roman city in Greece:

Corinth then was a big, raucous city. It had been a Greek city for hundreds of years and earned a reputation for extreme licentiousness. It practised the cult of Aphrodite and one legend had it there were a thousand temple prostitutes, though some scholars think this was a slander put about by Athenians who saw Corinth as a rival. To “Corinthianise” meant to engage in prostitution.

Corinth made the mistake of rebelling against Roman rule and in 146BC the Romans destroyed it completely, a reminder of how red in tooth and claw the ancient world was.

The Romans founded a new Corinth in 46BC, It was a Roman city in Greece. …

It was a wild and cosmopolitan place. Sailors from all over the Graeco-Roman world frequented its ports. Its base population was originally freed Roman slaves. Its leading citizens quickly amassed big fortunes. … A big proportion of Corinth’s population were slaves. … The gulf between rich and poor was enormous.

Its elite was rapacious and self-seeking. Paul’s boss, St Peter, in his first letter, described Roman life as “debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, idolatry and reckless, wild living”. Corinth put Rome in the shade. What we would now regard as human-rights abuses were routine. Fathers had the right to kill their children after birth if they didn’t want them. Masters could do whatever they liked with their slaves. …

All of these features mixed together. Big dinners, official and private, were a feature of city life. These routinely featured gluttony, excessive drinking and the serv­ices of after-dinner prostitutes.

So, a very sophisticated city of the time.

The usual lies and mockery ensued when the Christians arrived:

So into this teeming, rich, competitive, sharp-elbowed, striving and corrupt city came the early Jesus movement, known as the Way, planted initially by Paul.

The Christians were by far the weirdest, most countercultural movement ever known in that city. …

The first Christians were accused of incest because they called each other brother and sister; they were accused of cannibalism because they spoke of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood; they were accused of atheism because they had no visible gods and didn’t worship any of the pantheon of pagan gods.

Their sexual ethics were regarded as bizarre, the idea that all human bodies, even the bodies of slaves and of lowborn women, possessed ineradicable human dignity, that young men should exercise restraint, that marriage was a bond of mutual surrender and giving: what planet did these nut-jobs come from?

Jesus successfully introduced the idea that there was a greater power to whom we will all answer — today’s Earthly rulers included — so behave yourself!

Even more grotesque, in the view of Corinthians, of Greeks and Romans alike, was the Christian view of power. They worshipped a crucified Jew. This tiny, uninfluential sect thought the inverted power of the cross more important than empire and city. …

Paul’s message is repentance, redemption and resurrection, that the old world is over because Jesus has come with his message of repentance and love, and he has conquered death. Jesus has inaugurated a new way of living, in which human beings are elevated to their true destiny.

Paul, who is often bad-tempered and discouraged, is nonetheless on fire with the love of Christ. He is an organisational and theological genius, and a prodigious engine of energy. Time and again in Acts, Paul is imprisoned, and frequently enough flogged, for the scandalous things he preaches. But he’s no sooner released than he’s doing it again. …

Paul had a fanatic heart; fanatics drive history. …

Love recurs constantly. Famously, Paul declares: “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Paul insists absolutely that Christ is physically risen and that everyone will rise from the dead eventually. If that is not true, he says, then “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”. The real alternative to belief is insatiable hedonism and lust for power.

No coercion:

But the gospels, and Paul’s own words, make it clear that the Christian communities have an obligation to spread the message of Jesus to everyone. Not to compel anyone to follow that message but to preach it to everyone, to make it available to everyone. …

Melbourne 2022:

In our time, the case of Andrew Thorburn, who was effectively sacked as chief executive of Essendon Football Club because it turned out he was chairman of a group of conservative Anglican churches where one of the pastors, a decade ago, had preached a sermon giving expression to orthodox Christian teaching on abortion and sex outside marriage, and in the orthodox Christian view marriage is between a man and a woman, is instructive.

None of these teachings is remotely compulsory for anyone to follow, of course, no more compulsory than in first-century Corinth. But the demented reaction, the rage and hysteria against the very idea that traditional Christian teaching could receive any tolerance in the new public square, was almost insane.

Essendon finally apologised to Thorburn, but the striking thing was how few non-religious voices were raised in his defence. It’s an unmistakeable sign of the trend to make it all but illegal to profess Christian beliefs. …

Times change:

When Jesus died on the cross the apostles were terrified and could barely move out of their meeting room. After he rose from the dead they became the bravest and most consequential force human history has seen. They were able to do this because Jesus is the truth.

The way they did it, among cultures more uncompromisingly hostile even than our own, can teach today’s Christians invaluable lessons.

Christians today rarely talk about sex, because they’re not that sort. But sex was a large part of the Christian revolution.

Today’s left is quickly leading us back to a pagan, licentious past of nasty and often predatory sexual practices — from which society will again revolt back to a more Christian life.

Phil writes:

The article today by Greg Sheridan that you posted is wonderful. You posted an article with a similar theme a few days ago and that prompted me to order the book referenced therein by Kyle Harper “From Shame to Sin”.

I’m not a practicing Christian — find it impossible to accept that there’s a God, but recognize that it’s the foundation of our moral teachings and our civilization. I’m conflicted!

You don’t have to believe in God to be a functional Christian, if you realize that Christianity is a political movement to protect the weak from the strong — especially from the sexual predation that was rife in Jesus’ time 🙂 People have almost lost sight of that today.

The supernatural stuff barely makes sense and is mostly poorly evidenced — but has long been the preferred selling point of the religion. Big mistake, IMHO. But the politics and psychology of Christianity is accurate and useful (just ask Jordan Peterson). As you point out, it was the foundation of our (previously-successful) society.

hat-tip Stephen Neil