“It was the Best of Times,
It was the Worst of Times”
by Mary Ann Kreitzer
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” Thus Charles Dickens began his Tale of Two Cities set during the French Revolution. Dickens’ words, however, could equally apply to the early years of the new millennium. While the cynic may say, “It is all the worst,” the person grounded in Christian faith knows God acts powerfully when things seem bleakest. Examining a few issues of faith and culture, one sees lights in the distance. While each “best of times” scenario has an ugly “worst of times” twin, Christians know with confidence that God’s grace will overcome evil.
Faith: The Best of Times
An amazing sign of hope occurred at Easter when Pope Benedict publicly celebrated the baptism of Cristiano Allam, a highly-regarded Italian journalist who converted from Islam. Paul Likoudis of The Wanderer wrote an insightful article describing the millions of Muslim conversions to Christianity taking place all over the world. “According to the evangelical Charisma magazine,” he wrote, “more Muslims have converted… in the last two decades than in all of history…The Arabic television station Al Jazeera reported in 2003 that an estimated six million Muslims convert to Christianity each year.”
While most Muslims join evangelical churches, their acceptance of Jesus Christ may be the first step on the road to the fullness of the truth. Their actions are certainly a rejection of the Muslim notion of jihad or holy war. They have traded the scimitar for the cross. Now, the challenge is to urge the larger Muslim community to do the same, or at least take the first step, to sheath the scimitar.
As Allam wrote in a public letter in the largest newspaper in Italy, Corriere della Sera (quoted in The Wanderer), “It is time to put an end to the abuse and the violence of Muslims who do not respect the freedom of religious choice.” Allam called for the defense of threatened Muslim converts who “hide their faith out of fear of being assassinated by Islamic extremists who lurk among us.” He went on to urge his fellow Muslim converts, “that the moment has come to leave the darkness of the catacombs and to publicly declare their desire to be fully themselves.”
Allam’s reference to the catacombs is more than symbolic. Muslim converts may, like the first century Christians, represent a new Pentecost (or the new springtime of which John Paul II spoke). Like the early Christians, they pay a high price to testify to their faith. How many will suffer, perhaps even martyrdom, for leaving a religion that executes apostates? Their sacrifices promise to water the parched and near dead European Church; their children may re-Christianize the west. What a splendid irony if Muslim converts with their openness to life reclaim the Holy Land of Europe and the Middle East from the moral relativists whose anti-life hedonism has ushered in the demographic winter.
By making such a public demonstration, Pope Benedict also sent a clear message that we are an evangelical church and ecumenism does not mean indifferentism. All faiths are not the same and the call to bring all men to Christ and baptize them, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” continues today. Likoudis ended his article on the “upheaval in Islam” by quoting from Abu Daoud (pen name for a Muslim convert) who wrote in the Anglican St. Francis Magazine. “Wouldn’t it be delightful for a bishop to proclaim openly and publicly that his diocese welcomes Muslims to attend church and is willing and able to catechize and baptize people interested in converting.” Yes, indeed, and wouldn’t it be delightful if that bishop were Catholic.
Faith: The Worst of Times
Unfortunately, conversions go both ways. One of the most effective proselytizers drawing Christians away from the faith today is not a minister, mullah, or rabbi. She is an entertainer and new age guru, Oprah Winfrey. While calling herself a Christian, Oprah evangelizes for the new age and has for years intermingled false spirituality with makeovers, menus, and interviews. While her TV show blends the bland with the bad, Oprah offers the full package through A Course in Miracles led by her friend Marianne Williamson. The course airs daily on her radio station and is available on her website. Miracles claims to be “mind training,” but even a cursory review exposes it as warmed over values clarification (VC) and mind control. For those unfamiliar with VC, its purpose is to throw out the past and start over. There are no good or bad values; there is no such thing as doctrine. The individual must discover his own values, not through reason, but feeling. Man is his own god, his own savior.
The course uses self-hypnosis techniques and begins by eliminating the past. Nothing has meaning, neither the things in the world or the person’s own thoughts. By lesson ten, the mask is lifted: “This idea [that my thoughts don’t mean anything] will help to release me from all that I now believe.” If this sounds like brainwashing, it is.
The course uses faith language, but meaning is twisted. By lesson 45, titled God is the mind with which I think, the individual is morphing into god. Several lessons later he is the light of the world whose function is to save it. No need for Jesus; man is the world’s savior. And that’s only lesson 64; 301 to go, one for each day of the year. Anyone following the daily exercises, which focus on creating one’s own reality, would numb and befuddle his mind, the perfect milieu for controlling it.
What makes the program even more dangerous is that it mixes truth with lies. Those not grounded solidly in Christian doctrine can easily be taken in. Williamson sounds Christian; she is not. In fact, according to Carrington Steele, author of Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid, Williamson has described herself saying “I’m a magical witch, and I can feel it in my bones.”
Oprah’s new age promotion doesn’t end with the Williamson course. In January showing the zeal of a missionary, she began a ten-week program with Eckhart Tolle, author of A New Earth. The live program allows viewers to ask questions and actively participate. Already over two million log on for the 90-minute class which includes guided meditation.
According to Steele, Oprah and Eckhart’s show teaches that “Heaven is not a location,” but an “inner realm of consciousness.” Jesus on the cross is an “archetypal image” who represents “every man and every woman.” Steele documents other teachings from Eckhart’s website: “My mind is part of God’s. I am very holy. My holiness is my salvation. My salvation comes from me. Let me remember that there is no sin Do not make the pathetic error of ‘clinging to the old rugged cross.’ The only message of the cross is that you can overcome the cross.”
Oprah currently is running the largest weekly church service in the world, complete with meditation and the “liturgy” of the word. The richest woman in the United States with 15-20 million TV viewers has a TV show, a website, a radio station, a You Tube presence, who knows what else? Her new age promise of peace and happiness is seducing millions of people away from Jesus Christ, and many of her followers are impressionable teens and young adults. Catholics must expose this danger and work to rescue the vulnerable who fall prey to it.
Culture: The Best of Times
The culture of death is so far advanced that it is tempting to be pessimistic about the future. However, when a pendulum begins to swing back it starts out slowly before it gains momentum. Signs of hope in the culture are like the mustard seed, tiny. In contrast the evils assailing us seem insurmountable. But just as the mustard seed grows to be a huge tree and a little yeast can leaven the whole loaf, Christians can water the seeds and be good strong yeast. Then the small signs of hope will expand and transform the culture just as in the first century.
A major sign of hope is the growing home school movement . Almost invisible twenty-five years ago, families now educate between 1.9 and 2.4 million youngsters at home according to figures from the National Home Education Research Institute for the 2005-2006 school year. Home schoolers dominate both the national geography and spelling bees. Colleges, even the ivies, eagerly solicit home school graduates. But more importantly, those who home school for religious reasons are raising their children in the way of the Lord to be salt, light, and yeast for the world.
Seton Home School in Front Royal is the third largest Catholic school in the country outranked only by DePaul in Illinois and St. John’s in New York. Like a number of other faith-based home study groups, their curriculum is explicitly religious. In contrast to the public schools which integrate sex education, alternative lifestyles, and other immoral ideas into teaching materials, Seton teaches the faith in every subject. The English student practices grammar with sentences about saints and martyrs, and spelling often tests words from the catechism. The late Fr. John Hardon considered home schooling families the monasteries of the modern age preserving Catholic culture and tradition.
Another encouraging sign is the proliferation of Catholic lay groups and apostolates evangelizing, catechizing, and defending the faith and culture. Organizations, book publishers, magazines and newspapers, websites, message boards, blogs, etc. are tools being used by thousands of laity to re-Christianize the culture and build enthusiasm for the Judeo-Christian heritage. Not all groups are explicitly Catholic. Many pro-life organizations, for example, are non-denominational, but increasingly, they reject not only abortion, but contraception as well. The link between the two grows clearer with every new manipulation of life.
The on-going trend of university-educated moms (54%) rejecting the marketplace to stay home with their children is also encouraging. In 2006 a prominent feminist, Linda Hirshman, fulminated on Good Morning America that women have a duty to get out there in the corporate world where they belong. Feminist voices that once touted “choice” now condemn the choices of moms who prefer playgroups and peanut butter to corporate meetings and power lunches. Nevertheless, moms are staying home in increasing numbers to the outright hostility of their feminist sisters.
As far as younger women are concerned, more and more teens are rejecting the Britney Spears slut fashion statement, electing to dress modestly. Type in “modest fashion” on the web and hundreds of thousands of hits pop up including modestybydesign.com featuring beautiful prom gowns and purefashion.com, a spinoff from Challenge, a Catholic leadership program for girls. Pure Fashion started in 2005 and in only
two years grew to “an international faith-based program that encourages teen girls to live, act, and dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God.” The 8-month character formation program teaches girls poise and confidence through training in public speaking, hair and makeup techniques, and the social graces. It culminates in a city-wide fashion show displaying modest dress. As the poem goes, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Enhancing the dignity and beauty of women must result in a cultural shift embracing the love and life-giving aspects of human sexuality. All of the signs mentioned here are small, like the five smooth stones in David’s pouch, but it only took one to slay the mighty Goliath.
Culture: The Worst of Times
While little seeds of cultural renewal germinate, one can’t deny that the barbarians are within the gates pillaging and burning. There is no shortage of Attila the Hun clones today. The culture of death attacks from all sides: science and medicine, education, politics, even religion. Readers are well aware of the damage from contraception, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, sex education, etc. Another issue that gets little attention, but devastates families is “no-fault” divorce (NFD) which is actually divorce on demand.
NFD Laws began proliferating across America in the 70s, and by the mid 80s most states had signed on, although NFD actually got its first push from the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution in Russia. They wanted to destroy the bourgeois institution of marriage as a step in creating the Communist state. NFD says that either spouse can end the marriage at any time for any reason whether the other agrees or not. Can any other contractual arrangement be dissolved so easily?
Families pay a high price for the freedom to choose divorce. Economically, spouses are much worse off after divorce, particularly single moms. Children deprived of a parent are more vulnerable. On every cultural indicator related to the family, intact biological/adoptive families perform better: children are less likely to use illegal drugs, become sexually active, join gangs, or commit crimes. They perform better academically, have fewer behavioral problems, and are emotionally healthier.
Parents are better off as well. Married women are much less likely to be abused than their shack-up sisters. Men experience less depression. Other beneficiaries of stable families are government and taxpayers. A recent study by Georgia State University economist Ben Scafidi estimates that divorce and out-of-wedlock births cost the U.S. $112 billion a year in welfare service, lost tax revenue, etc. Strengthening the family benefits everyone. Hopefully, the nation will recognize self-interest and begin to promote legislation that supports families.
Faith and culture were front and center in peoples’ minds during Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to America. The Pope addressed both the best and the worst of times throughout his trip. He recalled the sex abuse crisis in the Church calling for repentance and urging outreach to bring victims to healing. He visited and blessed Ground Zero in New York City, site of the worst terrorist attack in American history. He called for the need to raise awareness and educate citizens about serious moral evils and the dangers of relativism.
Pope Benedict knows from personal experience what it is to live in the worst of times as he shared in his meeting with the seminarians and young people: “My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew – infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion – before it was recognized for the monster it was. It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good.” While encouraging the young people to thank God for their liberty, he warned, “The power to destroy does, however, remain. To pretend otherwise would be to fool ourselves. Yet, it never triumphs; it is defeated. This is the essence of the hope that defines us as Christians.”
Finally, it is hope that marks this as “the best of times.” The future opens before the young and, by prayer and work, they can transform a culture of death into a culture of life and hope. The pope concluded his talk with that message. “It is from within the Church that you too will find the courage and support to walk the way of the Lord. Nourished by personal prayer, prompted in silence, shaped by the Church’s liturgy you will discover the particular vocation God has for you. Embrace it with joy. You are Christ’s disciples today. Shine his light upon this great city and beyond. Show the world the reason for the hope that resonates within you. Tell others about the truth that sets you free.”