In my last post, I acknowledged the “falling apart” of our present version of American Christianity. “Fallings apart” are always painful, and this one is no different. We mourn the sense of chaos, the suffering of the faithful, the indifference of those who should know better, and, most of all, the befuddlement of those tearing down the walls all the while thinking they’re defending them. Peter Wehner sheds light on the real-time disintegration here. It’s the topic “du jour,” so there’s plenty of wise commentary out there. Timothy Keller begins a long analysis here.
I’m all about the ruins, though, not the reconstruction. That will be the responsibility of those far more creative and visionary than I am. I can, however, comment on ruins and their value.
The basest use of ruins is to deconstruct the building blocks and use them to construct something new, something, even, alien to their original use. This is not an act of appreciation, per se, merely of utility. It happens, and sometimes the outcome is beneficial to humanity, but we lose a great deal in this kind of exchange. An example: Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice was constructed with pilfered stone and statues from Constantinople’s Hippodrome when the city was sacked in 1204—a sports venue converted into a house of worship.
There are, however, at least three ways to appreciate ruins, to benefit from them, to let them bless us. Three human ways, and one bonus divine way.
1) Ruins teach us the long view of human history: no power, no human achievement, no cultural privilege lasts forever. Stand for a moment in front of the Roman Forum, or maybe the Roman Colosseum in Italy. Or tour Versailles, France. Or ponder the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China. It’s good for us to be reminded that these people and powers and principalities are all gone now. We may be in the throes of falling apart, but it has happened before and being human means accepting that. Being Christian, however, means seeing in these things Jesus’ warning: “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down. … These are the beginning of birth pains. … The one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Do not cling to human accomplishments, especially religious ones.
2) Ruins can serve as vessels of recollection: beauty and goodness are ephemeral, but their scent remains. Now we stand in front of Whitby Abbey, a 7th-century monastery that now stands open to wind and rain and bird life. Thanks to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, and multiple other disasters, the abbey no longer “functions.” What value, then, does it have? It remains as a witness to past faithfulness, past beauty, past seasons of goodness and effort. It echoes with centuries of night prayers and emanates a sensual radiance that stimulates our spiritual hunger. Ruins can draw us out of our techno-fever and the writhing rush of life, awakening us to the lingering fragrance of salvation as it was once celebrated, “the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved.” Ruins leave imprints on our souls, if we search for them. (If you have time, and like such things, check out these stunning pictures of ruined churches in Italy.)
3) Ruins can be severe warnings: “never again” has to be accompanied with keen questions and acts of will. Here we stand before the ruins of Theresienstadt, a Nazi labor camp that deported its residents to the killing camps. Cold, crumbling walls; a rusty maw-shaped crematorium; a “welcome” portal that declared “Works Frees.” Why do we not erase these ruined horrors from the earth? Because our “never again” means always remembering that we did these things. How did it come to that? What decisions were made that led to that? What choices and desires, banal in the beginning, could culminate in a holocaust? And what are we doing today to ensure that those things never happen again? Where are our choices and desires leading us? What must we say NO to in order to avert such gross travesties?
So, three ways to appreciate the ruins around us, even the ruins of American Christianity. Things fall apart, and no system or structure or network of power lasts forever. These disintegrations are merely the beginning of the deconstruction of what we cling to, and God will have us cling to nothing but him. Their demise does not mean that we cannot stand firm to the end.
But as we consider the ruins around us, let us remember the beauty and goodness they represent. Let us gather the godly zeal of the Puritans, the fervor of the revivalists, the stalwartness of the abolitionists, and the suffering passion of the slave churches. Let us breathe in the faithful labors of the Women’s Missionary Societies and the simple prayers of Children’s Church and the crammed note-taking of all the Bible studies and the monthly reception of the Lord’s Supper. And then, let us ask the hard questions: what choices have we made that have contributed to the ruination of these things? What choices must we now make to create something new, something life-giving? Where does the Spirit lead us today?
We look around with dismay, with a sense of profound loss and grief, even perhaps with a sense of hopelessness. What can be done with such ruins? This blog’s name is Dry Bones for a reason. We stand around and look at a valley of dry bones. Can these bones live? Ezekiel’s answer is the only one we have: “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” And yet out of the ruins of a demolished Jerusalem, God anticipated city streets filled with boys and girls playing in them. “Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?” (Zech 8.6)
And now, one final bonus divine way of appreciating these ruins. God says, let them become ruins! He is “removing what can be shaken—that is, created things, so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Heb 12.27-28). We are receiving an unshakeable kingdom, and all the constructions and deconstructions are just so many “frontier outposts.” They rise, they fall, but at its heart, King Jesus reigns in undaunted, fearless joy. As Charles Williams wrote: “The Centre cannot be touched; all that can possibly be done there has been done, outside Jerusalem, under Tiberius.”