The word paradigm is used literally as a grammatical term, but it can also be used metaphorically to refer to a shared set of basic assumptions. A paradigm shift occurs when a community rejects its old assumptions in favor of a new set. The perspective of the community changes and it sees the world differently than it did before.
American Christianity has operated throughout its entire history with what could be called a “daylight paradigm.” It has been able to adopt the basic assumption that most Westerners—and especially most Americans—had significant exposure to biblical ideas and held a generally Judeo-Christian understanding of virtue. It has been able to assume that a broadly Christian outlook occupied the cultural high ground, if not in the centers of power, at least among the masses. American Christians have been able to leverage this Christian consensus into significant ecclesiastical success and even into political influence. They have been able to appeal to what Jerry Falwell called a Moral Majority.
From every indication, those days are now past. The cultural momentum has shifted toward a radicalized version of secularism and pluralism, with even the most generic Christianity representing a minority perspective. Repressive legislation and public policies are already being implemented and Christians are being forced to treat moral impossibilities as if they were realities. Already governments are employing the use of force to deprive Christians of their livelihoods if they will not participate in the charade.
While no human can see the future, it will likely hold worse sanctions for people who are loyal to God. The heathen have always raged and the kings and rulers of the earth have always taken counsel against the LORD and against His anointed. They have always wished to throw off the bondage of divinely-imposed moral restrictions. When such people have been held in check, as they have been in America for hundreds of years, they are eager for payback. They are not contented to allow Christians to live out their virtues, certainly not in any public way. They will use the armed might of the state to force Christians to recognize and participate in vice. They will punish those Christians who refuse. It is certain that they will do these things because they are doing them already.
In short, we are standing on the edge of a precipice. We have been living in the daylight—that is, in a civilization that has been shaped largely by biblical perspectives and norms. We are about to plunge into the night. We are at the door of a Dark Age.
What makes a Dark Age dark? Not the lack of technology. Not the dismantling of governments and other institutions. Not the absence of toys and amusements. Not the paucity of information. A Dark Age is dark because of the decline of virtue and the decay of morals. People who are highly learned, technologically sophisticated, artistically talented, and socially proficient may nevertheless be savages. When their savagery is directed against the people of God (as it inevitably is), all of their advantages merely make them more efficient opponents of truth, goodness, and beauty.
The night is coming. American Christians have been living as if the sun shone upon them, but the shadows are falling and the light grows dim. The time has come to abandon the daylight paradigm and to adopt the paradigm of the Dark Age. Christians must adjust their eyes to see in the night.
What assumptions must Christians adopt during the Dark Age? Their basic perspective can be summed up in a few brief propositions. First, the expression of their views will be increasingly unwelcome, especially in the public square. Second, their ability to operate from the relative insulation of a subculture will be directly challenged. Third, pressure will increase, both officially and unofficially, to call good evil and evil good. Fourth, Christians will have no weight to throw around in either the social or political spheres.
Under this altered perspective, Christians must not view themselves as Moses, leading a nation into the promised land. They must not even view themselves as Elijah, calling a chosen people to repentance. They must view themselves as Mordecai or Daniel, as exiles in a brutal and foreign land—just as they should have all along.
What does it take to survive in a world that hates truth and twists virtue? American Christians have been spared from asking this question for generations. The time has now come to ponder it.
A second question is just as important. For at least three generations, American Christians have tried to teach their children the meaning of Christianity by offering them fun and games. This program has left increasing numbers of young people unable to resist the perspectives of secularization. The American church has won more and more young people to less and less Christianity. If the world is finally about to show its brutality, how can children be instructed so that they will shine as lights in the darkness? How will future generations of Christian leaders be equipped to shepherd their flocks through the savage days to come?
The answers to these questions will not be new. Previous generations of believers—whether in Babylon or in Rome, under the black heel of the Nazis or the red banners of Communism—have had to find their own answers. Surely these elder brethren and sisters in the Church Militant have something to say to American Christians in the early Twenty-First Century.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
George Herbert (1593-1633)
Awake sad heart, whom sorrow ever drowns;
Take up thine eyes, which feed on earth;
Unfold thy forehead gather’d into frowns:
Thy Saviour comes, and with him mirth:
And with a thankfull heart his comforts take.
But thou dost still lament, and pine, and crie;
And feel his death, but not his victorie.
Arise sad heart; if thou dost not withstand,
Christ’s resurrection thine may be:
Do not by hanging down break from the hand,
Which as it riseth, raiseth thee:
And with his buriall-linen drie thine eyes:
Christ left his grave-clothes, that we might, when grief
Draws tears, or bloud, not want an handkerchief.