Last week I picked up a copy of Mark Noll’s What Happened to Christian Canada?, a short read which examines the circumstances surrounding the trend towards secularization in Canada in the second half of the 20th century. While it’s no secret at all that Church attendance in on the decline in Canada, and has been for some time, several questions came to mind while I read, like; does high church attendence (Canada in 1950 had better church attendence numbers than the US and Quebec was among the highest in the world) equal a Christian society?; do low numbers indicate Christianity is no longer influencing?; is there even such a thing as a christian society?
The last of these questions is probably the one I pondered the most. What is a Christian country? 70 years ago the majority of Canadians went to church regularly, even took part in other activities like bible studies, sunday schools, and other charitable work. But does this make society “christian”? In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell suggests that Christian is great as a noun, but not as an adjective. In other words people can be Christian, but how does music, politics, education, culture become christian? Is the U.S. christian because it enshrines God in the constitution? Are they closer to God because their federal government has not (yet) passed a bill legalizing gay marriage?
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parable of the weeds:
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’
The Kingdom of God is something which operates alongside that which is not of the Kingdom. Jesus compares the Kingdom to yeast being worked through the dough (Mt. 13:33). At what point do we decide to call a nation entirely penetrated by the gospel in such a way that we can call it collectively “Christian”? In other words, is Christendom a valid expression of the christian faith; can we see the gospel permeating the structures of society and culture in such a way that it is distinctively different from everything else? Post-Constantinian Europe saw many attempts to create Christian nations and Empires, which looked remarkably similar to all other nations and Empires. What I understand to be the message of the Kingdom of God is that it bring renewal of life and reconciliation to mankind from God. Jesus is more subversive than to just upend a political system and purge the old ways and put in a new whitewashed system on top (see Jesus’ perspecitve on Pharisaic application of Torah in Matthew 23:13-39). Church attendance is a positive thing, but God is more interested in hearts and minds than in political agendas, and a society of people keeping to a mold of traditional values. I would suggest that the Kingdom is no more or less present now than in ages past. The Kingdom belongs not to a geo-political entity with the right laws but to the poor in spirit and those persecuted for righteousness.
Of course all of this has little to do with the actual content of the book (that will have to wait for another post), just a question sparked by the opening pages in which Noll begins “with the assumption that there once was a Christian Canada which is now gone”. Noll does not really dive into the question of the possibility of christian nationhood, but stays within the framework of social and political changes in Canada away from traditionally held christian values towards an open, secular, welfare state.