a counter-culture in a world
engulfed by confusion
by Charles Colson
The Great Nightfall?
T.S. Eliot said there were two ways of looking at
a crumbling culture. The first says that a society
ceases to be Christian when material prosperity
becomes its overriding individual and corporate
aim. The second viewpoint maintains that a society
has not ceased to be Christian until it becomes
something else. Eliot believed that the culture of
his day, the 1940s, was predominantly
negative yet still Christian. The choice for the
future, he said, was between the formation of a
new Christian culture and the acceptance of a
But it seems that something has
has never happened before; though we know
not just when, or why, or how, or where.
have left God not for other gods, they
but for no gods; and this has never
men both deny gods and worship gods,
professing first Reason,
then Money, and Power, and what they call
Life, or Race, or Dialectic.
Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the
Bells upturned, what have we to do
stand with empty hands and palms upturned
in an age which advances progressively
I believe that the decades since Eliot wrote
those words have tipped the balance. Vestiges of
Christian influence still remain; but those
Christian absolutes that have so profoundly
shaped Western culture through the centuries are
being consciously rejected by the men and women
who direct the flow of information and attitudes
to popular culture: communicators, educators,
entertainers, and lawyers. As Eliot put it,
“Paganism holds all the most valuable
This cultural crisis is all the more sinister
because it is invisible to those who have
already become captive to its lie. Radical
individualism, which has brought us to this
critical juncture, blinds most people to the
fact that there is a crisis. Freed from the
archaic impediments of family, church, and
community, these men and women cannot see how
their liberty has enslaved them to alienation,
betrayal, loneliness, and inhumanity.
They’ve grown so accustomed to the dark, they
don’t even realize the lights are out.
G.K Chesterton accurately described their
plight: “There are commonwealths, plainly to be
distinguished here and there in history, which
pass from prosperity to squalor, or from glory
to insignificance, or from freedom to slavery,
not only in silence, but with serenity. The face
still smiles while the limbs, literally and
loathsomely, are dropping from the body. These
are people that have lost the power of
astonishment at their own actions.”2
Will the great nightfall
soon be upon us?
Whittaker Chambers, the skeptic turned Christian
who saw the 20th century first as a Communist
spy and then as an impassioned defender of the
West, died despairing: “It is idle to talk about
preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It
is already a wreck from within. This is why we
can hope to do little more now than snatch a
fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful
of ashes from the fire, and bury them secretly
in a flower pot against the day, ages hence,
when a few men begin again to dare to believe
that there was once something else, that
something else is thinkable, and need some
evidence of what it was and the fortifying
knowledge that there were those who, at the
great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve
the tokens of hope and truth.”3
Perhaps the barbarians have already won.
Perhaps the great nightfall will soon be upon
us. Theologian Donald Bloesch proposes that it
may be out of the utter destruction of culture
that the church will emerge, phoenixlike, from
the ashes. We don’t know.
But one thing we do know: it isn’t necessary
that such predictions comes to pass. As
Christians we cannot be historical determinists.
There are no inexorable elements propelling
history. God is sovereign over human events.
Yet it is men and women, under his
jurisdiction, who write the pages of history
through the sum of their choices. We never know
what minor act of hopeless courage, what word
spoken in defense of truth, what unintended
consequence might swing the balance and change
the world. “The death of a man at a critical
juncture, his disgust, his retreat, his
disgrace, have brought innumberable calamities
on a whole nation. A common soldier, a child, a
girl at the door of an inn, have changed the
face of fortune, and almost of Nature,” said
Burke was referring to historical figures. The man
who died at a critical juncture was Pericles, the
Athenian general who shaped his culture; the man
who retreated was Prime Minister Pitt on his
retirement from public life. The child was
twelve-year-old Hannibal, taking an oath to one
day attack Rome; and the girl at the inn was Joan
How barbarism was
overcome in the dark ages
Before Rome’s fall, its citizens had lost the
characteristics that had made them distinctly
Roman: discipline, respect, and obedience.
Incest and adultery had invaded families,
breaking the natural bonds of love and
commitment and setting yokes of bitterness,
disdain, and hatred in their place. Moral
education had been supplanted by indolence,
corruption, and decadence.
Thus damaged from within, Rome was unable to
resist direct barbarian assaults from without.
The once great empire fell in the fifth century,
and Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, a Germanic
tribe whose cavalry proved superior to the foot
soldiers who had sustained and advanced the
Roman empire for centuries. During the next few
centuries, chaos ruled Europe. Warring bands of
illiterate Germanic tribes opposed and deposed
one another. Cities and cultural centers
disappeared as inhabitants were scattered across
the land in crude huts and rough towns.
Literacy, law, and order – the pillars of
civilization – crumbled, and the aristocratic
culture of the ancient Western world nearly
disappeared. Early medieval Europe seemed
destined for complete barbarism.
One force prevented this. The church.
Instead of conforming to the barbarian culture
of the Dark Ages, the medieval church modeled a
counter-culture to a world engulfed by
destruction and confusion. Thousands of monastic
orders spread across Europe, characterized by
discipline, creativity, and a coherence and
moral order lacking in the world around them.
Monks preserved not only the Scriptures but
classical literature as well; they were busy not
only at their prayers but in clearing land,
building towns, and harvesting crops. When
little else shone forth, these religious
provided attractive models of communities of
caring and character; and in the process they
preserved both faith and civilization itself.
It is important to note that the church
challenged not only the values of the barbarians
but those of the Roman Empire as well. Living by
a value system dictated by the kingdom of God,
they rejected both Roman and barbarian lapses of
character, uprooting such attitudes as the
aversion to physical labor predominant among the
Roman masses and the barbarian love of violence.
As points of light in a dark age, they called
attention to the values of an endless age. And
in so doing, they saved their civilization.
Though the world now appears far more
sophisticated than when the Visigoths overran
Rome, it’s only because today’s barbarians wear
pinstripes instead of animal skins and wield
briefcases rather than spears. Like the monastic
communities of the Middle Ages, the church today
can serve as outposts of truth, decency, and
civilization in the darkening culture around us.
For even though the church itself is shot
through with an individualism that cripples its
witness, even though the church today – like the
medieval monastic communities – is made up of
sinners like you and me, it is the one
institution in society that still has the
capability to challenge culture by bearing
witness to God’s transcendent standards of
absolute justice and righteousness.
Why? Because the church has an independent locus
of authority beyond itself, beyond the state,
beyond the tides of passing fashion. The church
cleaves to the absolute standards of Scripture and
is infused with the work of the Holy Spirit to
The monastic orders of the Dark Ages could not
have modeled communities of character if they
had looked like the troubled world about them.
Today, in a new age darkened by the collapse of
character and the dissolution of faith, the
church cannot model the kingdom of God if it is
conformed to the kingdoms of man.
Too often in recent years the church has
suffered from the same collapse of character
that is so widespread in our culture. Too often
the church has been apathetic, marked by
individualism, and constrained by the love of
self rather than the love of Christ.
If the church today is to be the church, it
must diligently protect its spiritual integrity.
This begins with what the Greeks called metanoia,
which means a “change of mind” and is translated
in the New Testament as “repentance.”
No less mysterious than God’s dealings with
nations is the inexorable operation of his Holy
Spirit in the lives of individuals. When a
person repents – changes his or her mind – God
takes control of even the most indomitable
spirit. No one exhibits this more clearly and
dramatically than G. Gordon Liddy, as colorful a
character as any Hollywood director could order
up from Central Casting.
A student of Nietzsche, the German philosopher
who venerated the will to power as the highest
of human goals, Liddy saw the world as a
challenge to be conquered. Even as the Nixon
White House tumbled around him [during the
Watergate political scandal during the
Presidency of Nixon in the 1970s that resulted
in the indictment of several of Nixon's closest
advisors, including Liddy and Colson], Liddy
would not be broken.
Eventually Gordon was sentenced to twenty-one
years in prison for his role in Watergate. And
when I visited him there, he was as tough and
unrepentant as ever. As he tells it in his
autobiography, titled, of course, Will: “Chuck
asked me if I had ‘seen the light.’ ‘No,’ I
replied. ‘I’m not even looking for the switch.’”
Liddy served four years and was released. Then
Liddy and his wife moved to a different state,
and in the process renewed a friendship with
former FBI colleagues he had known for thirty
years. Liddy had always been drawn to these
people; they were intelligent, compassionate,
well-read. So when they asked him to study the
Bible with them, he agreed – but only after
spelling out his terms. “I’m an agnostic,” he
said. “I’m here because I’m interested in the
Bible. Period. Please do not try to convert me.
I don’t want to be bothered.”
Liddy, you see, felt no compelling need for God
in his life. His interest in the Bible was
purely historical. But then he thought about his
friends and their thirty-year example of
Christian love and excellence. “If they are
persuaded of the correctness of this,” thought
Liddy, “then maybe I should take another
Many people, says Liddy, experience a “rush of
emotion” in conversion. Yet for me there came a
“rush of reason.” He realized Christ was who he
claimed to be, and Gordon Liddy became a
Since then, the man who wrote Will has said,
“Now the hardest thing I have to do every single
day is try to decide what is God’s will, rather
than what is my will. What does Jesus want, not
what does Gordon want. And so the prayer that I
say most frequently is, ‘God, first of all,
please tell me what you want – continue the
communication. And second, give me the strength
to do what I know you want, what your will is,
rather than my own.’ I have an almost 57-year
history of doing what I want, what my will
wants, and I have to break out of that habit
into trying to do the will of God.”5
Repentance is a rare message in today’s church
because it requires confrontation with an
uncomfortable subject – sin. And sin does not
sell well in our feel-good culture. When sin
gets personal, people get skittish. Only the
conviction of personal sin, however, brings us
G.K. Chesterton observed that the doctrine of
original sin is the one philosophy empirically
validated by 3,500 years of human history.
Certainly the Middle East, South Africa, Central
America, Northern Ireland, and the streets of
America testify to that fact. Yet we are not
sinners because we sin; we sin because we are
sinners. Unless the church recognizes this and
preaches it, there is no way it can be a strong
model of an alternative community of character
to a culture corroded by sin.
Communities of Light
Out of tiny monastic outposts come education,
moral endurance, and artistic excellence that can
save a civilization. And out of holy obedience
today, in communities of light, will come what he
wills, as we are faithful.
The monks and nuns of the Dark Ages acted out of
obedience to God, and God used their
faithfulness – without their knowing it – to
preserve culture and ultimately restore Western
civilization. As Christopher Dawson [an early
20th century Christian historian who wrote many
books on cultural history and Christendom] has
said: “The culture-forming energies of
Christianity depended upon the Church’s ability
to resist the temptation to become completely
identified with, or absorbed into, the culture.”6 Only as
the church maintains its distinctiveness from
the culture is it able to affect culture.
1. T.S. Eliot, Christianity
and Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, Inc., 1968), 18.
Chesterton, A Chesterton Anthology,
ed. P.J. Kavanagh (San Francisco: Ignatius
Press, 1985), 359.
3. Quoted in
Russell Kirk, “The Wise Men Know What Wicked
Things Are Written on the Sky,” Modern
Age (Spring, 1985): 113.
in Russell Kirk, “Wise Men.”
5. Quotes taken
from the transcript of a speech Gordon Liddy
delivered at a Good Friday prayer breakfast,
April 17, 1988.
6. Quoted in
Russell Hittinger, “The Two Cities and the
Modern World: A Dawsonian Assessment,” Modern
Age (Spring/Summer,1984): 193.
Colson was the founder of Prison
Fellowship, an international Christian
outreach to prisoners. He has written a
numerous books, including Born Again
and Kingdoms in Conflict.
from Against the Night © 1999 by Charles
Colson. Published by Regal
Books, www.regalbooks.com. Used by
permission. All rights reserved.