How the West Was Christianized

Ten years ago I wrote a book called Against the Night, drawing a parallel between our own day and the sack of Rome by barbarians in ancient times—and warning that the modern barbarians are already at the gates. Little did I know that, a decade later, I would write another book—this time about how the ancient Vikings and Vandals were eventually subdued by the Christian church... and how we too can overcome barbarism in our day. But to do so, we must understand how the medieval church was so successful. When Rome was sacked in 410 AD, Christians were shocked. By that time, the empire had been largely Christianized, and believers frantically asked why God had not protected them. Where was divine providence? These questions prompted Augustine to pen his great book, The City of God, warning Christians that they should not confuse the earthly city with the heavenly one. Nor should they view enemies of Rome as necessarily enemies of God. In fact, what believers really ought to do, Augustine said, is get on the ball and convert the barbarians! And that's exactly what the Church did. After Rome fell, successive waves of barbarians overran the Roman Empire, pillaging and destroying. Cities were reduced to rubble and Roman civilization was destroyed, to be replaced by small kingdoms ruled by illiterate, barbaric warrior-kings. In this time of cultural dissolution, it was the Church that preserved not only the religion but also the art, literature, and philosophy of Western culture. Take, for example, St. Patrick, missionary to the Irish. St. Patrick courageously faced down pagan druids, who still practiced human sacrifice. He faced down fierce Irish warriors, who hung their enemies' skulls from their belts as trophies. Into this bloodthirsty culture St. Patrick brought the Christian message of love and forgiveness—with remarkable results. Within his lifetime, the warriors cast aside their swords of battle, and a culture of war and illiteracy became a culture of peace and learning. What's more, this vibrant Christian culture then sent out a flood of missionaries all across the European continent. The monks carried on their tradition of copying the Bible, along with the other classics of Western literature. Everywhere they went, the Irish monks carried their Bibles and books around their waists—just as the Irish pagans had once tied their enemies' skulls to their waists. Lasting peace could not come to Europe, however, until the barbarians themselves were evangelized. One of the most exciting chapters in the history of the Christian church is the conversion and transformation of the barbarians from bloodthirsty warriors into peace-loving farmers, living by the work of their hands instead of by theft and plunder. This is how Christians are meant to function in society—not defeatist nor despairing but always ready to rebuild and restore. Like the Roman Christians in Augustine's day, we too live in a society that was once largely Christianized, but is now succumbing to barbarism. And we too should be rolling up our sleeves and working to convert the barbarians and rebuild the culture.


Chuck Colson


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