Some years ago, Holy Cross Father James Burtchaell published a seminal book entitled The Dying of the Light. The central thesis of this study was that hundreds of universities that began under religious auspices and for religious purposes—the University of Chicago, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, to name just some of the most prominent—have undergone so thorough an erosion of their original identities that now they are utterly secular in orientation. A particularly interesting feature of Burtchaell’s book was his analysis of the slow, subtle process by which the change from fervently religious to blandly secular took place: slight changes, little adjustments, tiny concessions barely noticed at the time, but all of them conducing finally toward the inevitable secularization. The Dying of the Light was meant to be a sobering lesson and a wake-up call to many Catholic universities today, which find themselves on a similar path to compromise.
One of the great icons in the Catholic Church today is Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Timothy Dolan of New York making his way up the aisle to commence Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. While the congregation belts out the opening hymn, the good Archbishop thumps his episcopal crozier on the ground, beams at all and sundry, kisses babies, embraces young and old, calls out the names of friends he recognizes, and generally speaking, spreads good cheer in every direction. One would have to be either catatonic or positively Scroogian in temperament not to find the scene utterly delightful.
In my years as an observer of and commentator upon things religious, I’ve become rather accustomed to radical positions. There is just something about religion that can bring out the irrational in both its advocates and opponents. For the most part, therefore, over-the-top opinion pieces and Internet commentary just roll off my back, but occasionally something comes along that is so egregious and indefensible that I sit up and take notice. This happened twice last Sunday when I read editorials in the pages of the two major newspapers in my hometown.
Every once in a while, a video unexpectedly becomes an internet sensation, garnering attention all over the place and spreading like wildfire through the virtual world. Just this past week, a phenomenon of this type has emerged in the form of a slickly produced video of a twenty-something-year-old man in a leather jacket half rapping, half speaking a poem about Jesus and religion—more specifically how the former came to abolish the latter. Incredibly, this five-minute video (without much musical or visual enhancement) featuring a single person offering a not very sophisticated argument, as of today has garnered upward of 12 million views! A student of mine at the seminary first clued me in to the video, but then, through the Word on Fire website and Facebook page, I was flooded with requests to comment on it. So here goes.
A recent survey has indicated something that should lift the hearts of Christians everywhere, namely, that the fastest growing religion on the planet is Christianity. This explosive growth is on particularly clear display in Africa and Asia, where churches and seminaries can’t be built fast enough to accommodate the need. It is especially important that we in the West become cognizant of this state of affairs, for with the rise of secularism and the fall-off in church attendance in Europe, Canada, Australia, and America, we can far too easily assume that Christianity is in a state of permanent decline. Au contraire, in point of fact.