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The Missionary and the Sieve of Time

“People look at all the trashy books, movies, and music of today and compare them to books from the past and bemoan the fact that the standards for the arts have collapsed in recent decades. The truth of the matter, however, is that the past has plenty of trash in its own right. The trash of the past simply did not survive to the present. The ‘historical classics’ of today were not well known in their time, but their worth carried them down through the years to our own time. Because we’re inundated with today’s popular trash, we cannot yet see the best of today’s authors and filmmakers and musicians. In ten or fifteen years history will weed out what’s useless, permitting the cultural gems from our current decade to be clearly seen.”

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“People look at all the trashy books, movies, and music of today and compare them to books from the past and bemoan the fact that the standards for the arts have collapsed in recent decades. The truth of the matter, however, is that the past has plenty of trash in its own right. The trash of the past simply did not survive to the present. The ‘historical classics’ of today were not well known in their time, but their worth carried them down through the years to our own time. Because we’re inundated with today’s popular trash, we cannot yet see the best of today’s authors and filmmakers and musicians. In ten or fifteen years history will weed out what’s useless, permitting the cultural gems from our current decade to be clearly seen.”

My eighteen-year-old daughter made this statement a few days ago. A very astute observation, it highlights two important facts of life and of mankind’s psychology.

First, men are so eager to idolize the past that they unthinkingly accept the absurd proposition that our own modern time is unique in its concentration of depravity, mediocrity, and base passions. Yes, that’s correct: it is not the lack of knowledge about the past that makes them believe such absurdities concerning the present. It is the self-conscious idolatry of the past that motivates their view.

Fallen man lives in the past, denies the present, and is afraid of change and of the future. It is quite ironic that both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (touted by our modern pagans as “progressive” social forces) were actually considered by philosophers of the time as a return to the glories of the old classical world. These were the “conservative” movements of their times, with Christianity being criticized as the agent of social change which brought the evils of modern civilization upon mankind. The “noble savage” was the ideal of the philosophes, and against this yardstick civilized man, motivated by Christian moral convictions, was the embodiment of evil.

But such idolatry of the past is not limited to the non-Christian crowd. Dispensationalism, with its newspaper exegesis and obsession with the growth of contemporary evils, is just a form of such idolatry of the past and denial of the present. Even among non-dispensationalist Christian commentators, the obsession with recording modern evils to the exclusion of the victories of the Kingdom of Christ in our midst continues to prevail. The rise in sodomite political activism is advertised as a sign of the demise of the West, while few are willing to listen to the lessons of history. History teaches us that throughout its history, Christendom has seen a similar rise in sodomite activism, and each time the sodomites were unable to perpetuate their activism for more than one generation. Our present time is simply not unique in terms of this specific sin and perversion.

In general, political conservatives in the U.S. and Europe are also pessimistic about the future, leading them to ever-increasing political compromises with their opponents.

Fallen men, as well as redeemed men who lack a Biblical worldview, always find their Golden Age in the past, and always tend to view their present as the ultimate level of degradation in history.

History as a Filter for Cultural Trash

Second, time acts as a sort of sieve for the collective cultural memory of mankind, preventing the cultural “trash” of one generation from seeping into future generations.

Among my collection of old books there is a textbook on commercial geography for the state schools in Britain from 1905. The cover and the title page are ornamented with a sizable swastika which, at the time, was a very popular symbol in Britain. And yet, there’s hardly anyone in Britain today who would believe the swastika to have ever been a once-popular symbol in their own native land.

This sieve of time is so effective that one generation may end up having completely twisted ideas about the generations of their parents and grandparents. In fact, even their parents and grandparents only retain memories of past events that the cultural sieve of time permits them to retain. After forty-five years of Communist indoctrination, many elderly people in Bulgaria liked to tell me how Bulgaria was “economically destitute” before 1944, whereas the objective economic data show that the country produced a large surplus of food products and exported foods even in the worst economic times facing Europe, 1942–1944. (And yet, after forty-five years of Communism, the most common sight on the streets of Bulgaria was lines of people waiting to buy food.)

My daughter’s observation needs to be modified in one thing only: the sieve of time indeed sifts out the cultural trash of the generations, but that trash is not defined by some objective qualities of the cultural product. Culture is religion externalized; therefore, a culture will tend to evaluate everything through the lens of its religious beliefs. Cultural transfer from one generation to another, therefore, will depend entirely on the religious legacy of one generation that’s passed to the other. A book will be declared worthy to be remembered based on the religious convictions of the new generation, as conditioned and trained by the previous generation.

Modern atheist scholars and historians love to point to the fact that many works of the classical pagan philosophy (mainly Plato and Aristotle) had been lost in Christendom and only recovered later, from Muslim or Jewish sources, being translated to Latin from Arabic. This fact is used to make the case that Christian Europe was somehow an intellectual backwater that cared nil for the preservation of intellectual knowledge.

From the perspective of logic, such a conclusion puts the cart before the horse. The obvious challenge to refute it iswho says Plato and Aristotle are the standard for intellectual knowledge and cultural advance? A simple overview of the intellectual life of Christian Europe between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1200 will show that a staggering amount of books were preserved, far above what the Muslim world can brag with. St. Augustine’s The City of God and Isidore’s Etymologies were still selling well enough to warrant several printed editions in the sixteenth-century only, a good nine to ten centuries after their authors had died. Even works by Christian authors who lived in the Muslim parts of the Middle East—John of Damascus, for example—were preserved in the West, not in the East where they lived.

Obviously, the non-preservation of Plato and Aristotle was not motivated by some imagined lack of interest in, or hostility toward, intellectual knowledge. They didn’t make the cut because, from the perspective of a developing Christian civilization, they weretrash. Muslim and Jewish scholars preserved them because, while Islam and modern Judaism claim to be monotheistic religions, they are so only superficially. Being anti-Trinitarian, they are deeply humanistic and therefore essentially pagan and polytheistic. They share many more presuppositions and philosophical ideas with classical paganism than with Christianity. Plato and Aristotle presented a worldview that Muslims and Jews could identify with. Even today, Muslim scholars consider Aristotle’s most distinguished pupil, Alexander of Macedon, to have been a devout Muslim, and the “Two-Horned One” in the Quran is believed to be Alexander himself. (Whatever happened to Alexander’s claims to be a son of Zeus himself, a polytheistic notion supposedly contrary to Islam?)

The Religious Engine That Drives the Sieve

The sieve of time, therefore, is religiously motivated, whether such motivation is self-conscious and intended or is the product of unintentional selection and imputation of “worth” by those who invest the effort in reading and educating themselves. In some cases, the sieve of time has been the result of an explicit governmental policy, as in the reign of Manasseh (2 Kings 21). We today find it baffling that the Temple could still function without the book of the law, and that the priests couldn’t even recognize the value of that book when they saw it (2 Kings 22). These facts bear testimony to the power of the sieve of time in the cultural life of a nation.

In other cases, the sieve was a command by God to individuals to remove the temptation to return to a past of idolatry and superstition (Exod. 34:13; Acts 19:19). Most of the time, though, the sieve of time has been the product of the gradual selection of the “right” books by those who invest their time in reading. This adds one more factor to our statement above: the sieve of time is religiously motivated, but only by the religion of those who read for understanding and then apply what they read. R.J. Rushdoony’s statement that “[h]istory has been dominated … by the committed few who stand unconditionally on their faith” has direct application to what books will be considered “trash” and destined to be forgotten, and what books will stand the test of time.

Once a book is sifted out of history, then, it loses its ability to build culture. Thus, the religion that captures the minds of the active readers in one generation will have the privilege to control the book market of the next generation, and will take hold of the culture of future generations.

Many missionaries in the early centuries of Christianity knew this truth and built libraries, sifting out the trash and leaving only what was valuable. Isidore of Seville continued the work of his older brother, Leander, in building a library in Spain to preserve the valuable knowledge of the classical world. The Frisian murderers of St. Boniface found nothing but books in the big trunk that he carried with him on his missionary trips. Obviously, his example of having books and reading them was meant to create a thirst for reading and knowledge in his listeners and converts that he would satisfy by offering them healthy Christian literature. Cyril and Methodius, before they started their first mission trip, not only created an alphabet fit for the Slavic language but also spent twenty years translating all the Christian literature available at the time into that writing system, essentially creating an entire literary tradition from scratch. For the next ten centuries, all literature in the Slavic languages was exclusively Christian. Monasteries and churches in the early years of Christianity acted as local libraries, preserving manuscripts and training the future authors of Christian literature.

Cultural Tools of the Missionary

All these factors are relevant to the work of the missionary. A modern missionary who doesn’t work hard to turn his converts into active readers, who in turn sift out cultural trash, is not really doing anything of historical significance. American missionaries today are a bit too focused on organizing regular “services” on Sunday morning for converts who lack the discipline to be active, voracious readers. In the final account, such converts will be culturally powerless to challenge the prevailing religion of their societies.

 History marches forward, and this march is primarily manifested in the two religious groups—covenant-keepers and covenant-breakers—becoming each more epistemologically consistent with their faith. In the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13, the growth of the wheat and the tares gradually made it obvious that the same field contained two different species of crop. In the same way, as history progresses, it will be increasingly impossible to speak of one culture within the same society. Every society will contain two cultures in itself, and these two cultures will militate against one other. Which culture will prevail depends on which culture is more willing to assert its religious standards for what constitutes cultural trash and therefore deserves to be forgotten and thrown out. At the same time, God imposes His own providential sieve upon all things: “every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13).

The cultural battle, thus, can be said to boil down to one question: who will create the greater number of active readers among his followers, the missionary or his opponents? The missionary must guide his readers to select books with discernment, so that they are equipped to judiciously separate the wheat from the chaff and consign the latter to cultural oblivion. In so doing, the missionary and his followers will be accused of “narrow-mindedness” and “anti-intellectualism.” After all, aren’t Plato and Aristotle the culturally-accepted standard for intellectual excellence?

But the truth that the missionary must always keep in mind is that it was vitally necessary for Christian Europe to set aside the stagnant worldviews of Plato and Aristotle in order to develop the dynamic, future-oriented, optimistic, practical worldview which created Christendom. If that trash hadn’t been sifted out for a time, history would have stagnated, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ would then see no progress.

The same holds true today. Unless the trash of paganism old and new gets sifted out of the books purporting to shape future generations of readers, history will continue to remain stagnant. This is why the job of the missionary is to make sure the sieve of time works toward the goal of reordering cultural values in terms of what God has planted on earth for His Kingdom’s sake.

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