Miley Cyrus, with her raucous performance at the MTV awards show August 25, may be a good poster child for the "post-millennial" age into which Western Civilization has sunk.
Once, the teenage pop star declared herself a Christian, but Hollywood and contemporary culture soon took care of that. The child, brushed by the old tints of southern Bible Belt Christianity, came of age – if not maturity – in the era of the fade of a consensus favoring the Bible and Christianity.
Miley Cyrus went from identifying with Jesus to posting a Tweet apparently aligning her with a scientist, who, among other things, suggested that evolution was the absolute truth and people could "forget Jesus."
I confess I did not watch her MTV performance, but reading about it made me think of theologian Karl Barth's question to the German people as he watched the slide of their civilization in the 1930s: "Was there and is there really no one among you at all who can lead you back to the simplicity of the straight and narrow way?" Sadly, only about a third of the church in Germany answered Barth's call in the Barmen Declaration, becoming the "Confessing Church" with its patron saint and prophet Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Two thirds of the church sided with Hitler.
This is why the biblically based church in this era may be in for a tribulational season. In a period of national suffering – like 911 – the church must focus on its pastoral role. But in a deconstructive age intent on pulverizing the value system that makes authentic civilization and freedom possible (and not mere anarchy) the church must take on the prophetic function, pointing to the "straight and narrow way."
Otherwise, to return to Barth, there is no one to warn of the cliff the society is blindly dashing toward and guiding the way back from the edge. This means the church must be willing to be hated – like prophets have always been hated. This also means she will suffer.
The "millennium" now fading was that era of general consensus in western society around the values revealed in the Bible. Like the broad agreement that, in John Adams' words: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
As the contemporary church finds its prophetic voice, and increasingly warns its civilization that in-your-face-God rejection threatens its very survival, persecution will come. In fact, history has been down this deadly road before, many times.
During the seasons of society's rebellion, there is a determined effort to silence the pesky prophetic voice. First, there is the attempt to get the prophetic community – the church – to accommodate to the new culture. When that fails, the prophetic church is marginalized, shoved out of the public square. But real prophets won't be silenced, so next the cultural establishments try isolation, quarantining the church within its own walls. But the prophets keep violating the quarantine, so next the elites resort to scorn, ridicule, and mockery, styles Hollywood has crafted to searing form. Ultimately, the desperate need to silence the contrarians, the prophets, relies on regulatory power, like today's "hate" crimes. Finally, all efforts having failed, the black-hooded elites seek to eliminate the prophetic voice altogether.
There is nothing new under the sun, and neither is this pattern. It describes what the church experienced in the Roman Empire, especially in the fourth century, when, according to historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, persecution of Christians reached a "crescendo."
Earlier, Nero was known for his overt cruelty, but the fourth century ruler Julian the Apostate applied more subtle means of persecution. In our time, the early days of the millennial collapse, the tribulations coming to the prophetic community may be more Julian than Neronian.
Julian, a lapsed Christian, believed the only way he could save Rome was to revive its old religions. He abandoned Christianity, but ran smack-dab into a feisty church living under, in Latourette's words, "claims of the Gospel" that were "so radical, so sweeping… so uncompromising… that opposition and even persecution are to be expected."
The Christians were "atheists" according to one popular myth in fourth century Rome, because they wouldn't worship the Roman establishment's preferred deities. They were "unpatriotic," refusing to serve in an army whose oath included the confession of Caesar as "lord." They were immoral, conducting "love feasts" behind closed doors. Above all, says Latourette, the early Roman Christians "were derided as haters of the human race."
Because the church "threatened the existing structure of society" (its consensus), it began to be regarded as a "force" that "would overturn the existing culture," writes Latourette. Thus, he says, Christianity came "to be feared by the established order."
As it is feared now when it challenges the presumptions of the post-millennial age and its consensus-defining establishments.
Julian the Apostate was aware that the first and second century gore had proven "fruitless," in the words of another church historian, Philip Schaff. So, Julian "abstained from bloody persecution" because he did not want "to give the church the glory of a new martyrdom."
Instead, Julian turned to the strategies of marginalization and isolation. Christians lost standing in the courts, were excluded from military office, and burdened with excess taxes. Julian turned all the state schools over to the "heathens" (in Schaff's words), and would not allow Christians to teach in the arts and sciences. Christian students either had to forego education or they had "to imbibe with the study of the classics in the heathen schools the principles of idolatry."
It would seem in our post-millennial age when Miley Cyrus and so many others have forgotten Jesus, that a Julian-style tribulation is rising upon the prophetic church. "Tribulation," in the Greek New Testament, is thlipsis, referring to the hefty stone that squeezes the oil from olives or juice from grapes. "Tribulation" is therefore intense pressure. The church that challenges the contemporary culture's abandonment of biblical values will be under much bullying to accommodate. When she does not, she will be silenced in whatever way the new Rome can find effective.
The present-day church must therefore learn all she can about how the early church in the Roman Empire not only survived, but flourished. That's the topic of the final part in this series, coming next.