A guidebook for Christians experiencing cultural vertigo
STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND: LIVING THE CATHOLIC FAITH IN A POST-CHRISTIAN WORLD By Charles J. Chaput Henry Holt, $26, 288 pages
Those who recently attended an Easter Vigil service no doubt got a taste of what it’s like to be a Christian in a post-Christian America. Perhaps a car or two idled by the throngs gathered around the paschal flame, or maybe a few people gaped and whispered, some pulling out a smartphone to record the mysterious ritual. If your Easter Vigil service slowed down traffic, caused onlookers to stop and stare, and led to the hushed whispers of passersby, then you are doing something right, according to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.
In his latest book, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” the prelate tackles the question vexing so many Christians today: In a culture increasingly hostile to the religion that nourished its roots, should Christians retreat or engage? Archbishop Chaput’s response is unambiguous: engage, with vigor.
As the head of one of America’s grittiest and most urban dioceses, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput is an authoritative voice weighing into this debate. But his book speaks beyond the streets of Philly all the way to into the corners of the broader culture, where the traditional family structure is imploding, the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution is still ravaging, new dogmas of gender identity and hyper-individualism are emerging, and Americans are increasingly beholden to the “idolatry of progress,” which, stripped of any Christian meaning, is a wayward monster that devours anything in its trajectory.
Most recently, the Archbishop documents clearly, it is Christians who stand in the path of the hurtling course of anything given the label “social progress.” And while the instinct to withdraw from a culture intent on snuffing out the very Christian values that built it up from the foundations is understandably real, “Our task as Christians,” he writes, “is to be healthy cells in society.”
The book, drawing heavily from Christian thinkers both early and modern, makes the undeniable case that this task is written into the very nature of Christianity. “Christianity,” he writes, “is a restless faith. It points us beyond this life, but also seeks to remake the world in holiness.” Not only are we called to be happy saints in our day, he argues, but society needs the presence of active Christian witness, fully alive with the “freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” to quote the Holy Father, or else society begins to whither.
It is Archbishop Chaput’s diagnosis of the advanced state of this spiritual decay that is one of the book’s greatest contributions. He surveys post-Christian modernity with a cool-eyed clarity — from the replacement of belief in society with “pragmatism and desire” to the corruption of science to the grip of consumerism and the corresponding rise of the throwaway culture to the breakdown of the family and its resultant destruction of the entire “cultural ecology” that once sustained a healthy society.
He focuses in particular on the cult of progress that has risen as the golden calf of a neo-pagan culture, dissecting with dexterity the irony of a culture that latched onto the concept of progress because of Christianity now using the concept as a means to squelch, in particular via “laundered words and empty slogans” its core beliefs and to humiliate its adherents.
His book stresses the profound significance of home, especially at a time when the numbers of refugees and immigrants in the world are at record highs, weighing heavily on the national conscience. “Home is more than a building.” He writes, “We are creatures of place, from the smell of the soil to the green of spring. Human beings need change, difference and variety, all of which are fed by the seasons and our travels. But we also need familiarity, permanence, and roots. This is the essence of home. Home anchors us. It locates us in the world. It surrounds us with the safety of love.”
But what happens when you no longer feel at home in the place you call home? This is the essential question that “Strangers” confronts. It reads like a guidebook for Christians experiencing vertigo in a day when the technology giant Apple is heralded for its “magical revolutionary promise” “precisely because” founder Steve Jobs “believed in no higher power” (as the Archbishop cites a Wall Street Journal essay after Mr, Job’s death), but the Catholic Church’s promise of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ has become almost anathema to utter in polite company.
Archbishop Chaput recognizes the choice that Christians face in today’s disorienting times. Now is not the time for Christians to retreat, he argues, nor has it ever been. To the contrary, despite all the talk of marching progress, his book shows that in fact it is Christianity that has always stayed the course in the quest for souls. “Strangers in a Strange Land” is an essential tool and weapon for every man and woman willing to battle on in this essential and eternal struggle.