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

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Ash­ley E. McGuire Ash­ley E. McGuire is a se­nior fel­low with The Catholic As­so­ci­a­tion and the au­thor of “Sex Scan­dal: The Drive to Abol­ish Male and Fe­male” (Reg­n­ery).

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.

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