This unprecedented decline in literature and art is only one manifestation of a more far-reaching phenomenon; it is only one instance of that narrowing of the range of personality which has been going on in the modern world. The whole development of modern society has tended mightily toward the limitation of the realm of freedom for the individual man. The tendency is most clearly seen in socialism; a socialistic state would mean the reduction to a minimum of the sphere of individual choice. Labor and recreation, under a socialistic government, would both be prescribed, and individual liberty would be gone. But the same tendency exhibits itself today even in those communities where the name of socialism is most abhorred. When once the majority has determined that a certain regime is beneficial, that regime without further hesitation is forced ruthlessly upon the individual man. It never seems to occur to modern legislatures that although “welfare” is good, forced welfare may be bad. In other words, utilitarianism is being carried out to its logical conclusions; in the interests of physical well-being the great principles of liberty are being thrown ruthlessly to the winds.
… The truth is that the materialistic paternalism of the present day, if allowed to go on unchecked, will rapidly make of America one huge “Main Street,” where spiritual adventure will be discouraged and democracy will be regarded as consisting in the reduction of all mankind to the proportions of the narrowest and least gifted of the citizens. God grant that there may come a reaction, and that the great principles of Anglo-Saxon liberty may be rediscovered before it is too late! But whatever solution be found for the educational and social problems of our own country, a lamentable condition must be detected in the world at large. It cannot be denied that great men are few or non-existent, and that there has been a general contracting of the area of personal life. Material betterment has gone hand in hand with spiritual decline.
Such a condition of the world ought to cause the choice between modernism and traditionalism, liberalism and conservatism, to be approached without any of the prejudice which is too often displayed. In view of the lamentable defects of modern life, a type of religion certainly should not be commended simply because it is modern or condemned simply because it is old. On the contrary, the condition of mankind is such that one may well ask what it is that made the men of past generations so great and the men of the present generation so small. In the midst of all the material achievements of modern life, one may well ask the question whether in gaining the whole world we have not lost our own soul. Are we forever condemned to live the sordid life of utilitarianism? Or is there some lost secret which if rediscovered will restore to mankind something of the glories of the past? (Christianity and Liberalism)
J. Gresham Machen did live through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Heck, he even lived through World War I, the Great one, in which he mixed hot chocolate and sold cigarettes, under the auspices of the YMCA. At the front in France, he also led Bible studies for American soldiers. Could Machen have have been exposed to the flu in both Europe and North America? Could he have been a carrier? If he succumbed to pneumonia in 1937 (as he did), was that an indication of his capacity to withstand the flu of 1918?
Four years later Macmillan came out with Christianity and Liberalism. There Machen had a crisis in mind different than public health:
What is the duty of Christian men at such at time? What is the duty, in particular, of Christian officers in the Church?
In the first place, they should encourage those who are engaging in the intellectual and spiritual struggle. They should not say, in the sense in which some laymen say it, that more time should be devoted to the propagation of Christianity, and less to the defense of Christianity. Certainly there should be propagation of Christianity. Believers should certainly not content themselves with warding off attacks, but should also unfold in an orderly and positive way the full riches of the gospel. But far more is usually meant by those who call for less defense and more propagation. What they really intend is the discouragement of the whole intellectual defense of the faith. And their words come as a blow in the face of those who are fighting the great battle. As a matter of fact, not less time, but more time, should be devoted to the defense of the gospel. Indeed, truth cannot be stated clearly at all without being set over against error. Thus a large part of the New Testament is polemic; the enunciation of evangelical truth was occasioned by the errors which had arisen in the churches. So it will always be, on account of the fundamental laws of the human mind. Moreover, the present crisis must be taken into account. There may have been a day when there could be propagation of Christianity without defense. But such a day at any rate is past. At the present time, when the opponents of the gospel are almost in control of our churches, the slightest avoidance of the defense of the gospel is just sheer unfaithfulness to the Lord. There have been previous great crises in the history of the Church, crises almost comparable to this. One appeared in the second century, when the very life of Christendom was threatened by the Gnostics. Another came in the Middle Ages when the gospel of God’s grace seemed forgotten. In such times of crisis, God has always saved the Church. But He has always saved it not by theological pacifists, but by sturdy contenders for the truth.
Maybe long winded, but this is a way to let Old Life readers know that Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC, is conducting a Wednesday night book discussion on-line. They are using Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and people using the world wide interweb are welcome to join the discussion.