“We must choose to cast our lot either with a society that admits only private faiths … or we must hoist a banner to a higher Sovereign, the Lord of lords and King of kings.”
Twilight of a Great Civilization: The Drift Toward Neo-Paganism
Published by Crossway Books in 1988, Twilight of a Great Civilization is Henry’s most comprehensive examination of proper evangelical relations with American culture and politics. The text is best read in the wake of The Christian Mindset in a Secular Society (1984), and Christian Countermoves in a Decedent Culture (1986).
Whereas The Christian Mindset concerns more practical advice for Christians engaging in politics, and Christian Countermoves details the necessity of Christ in the modern cultural and politic sphere, Twilight of a Great Civilization expounds more broadly Henry’s philosophy. The text is not easy to summarize. The book does not strive toward one “main” argument or understanding, rather it reads more like a collection of essays addressing topics surrounding culture, religion, philosophy, and history.
Summary of Contents
The book is broken up into six sections, each containing 3-4 chapters. In Section I, “The Rise of Neo-Paganism,” Henry details the ways in which he understands western culture to be on the decline. Principally, his critiques and concerns revolve around rampant post-modernism relativism, amoral naturalism, and unexamined transcendentalism. Section II, “Essentials in the Battle for Truth,” presents Henry’s case for Christ and for the Christian mindset. Henry portrays a depraved humanity, hopelessly in need of Christ, and a destructively subjectivist culture, in need of biblical moral grounding.
In the third section, “Illusion, Idealism and Biblical Truth,” Henry argues that evangelical theology needs to be deeply biblical and theologically rooted, rather than socially oriented. Henry uses liberation theology, capital punishment, and evangelical ecumenism to address the boundaries between biblical convictions and social amiableness. Section IV, “Education and the Quest for Truth,” concerns Henry’s critiques of western academia, which are basically the same as his critiques of western culture; namely, the displacement of absolute values in favor of relativism. Henry’s vision for university education is somewhat “classical.” He understands a good education to be one that cultivates humility and uses texts that could range from Plato’s Republic to the Bible, in order to answer perennial questions concerning the “who,” “where,” and “why” of human life.
Section V, “Confronting Neo-Paganism,” is written to Christian spiritual and intellectual leaders. Henry refutes the presumption that Christianity is “counter-cultural” or “incompatible” with culture. Rather, he argues that western culture needs Christianity, and more specifically, it needs academic and philosophically-minded Christians who are able to confront destructive philosophical trends and embolden human dignity and rights. The final section, “Before Hell Breaks Out,” reiterates and contextualizes the challenges from his 1947 text, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. Henry continues to argue that Christians need to be amongst the vanguard of those fighting against social injustice, at the forefront of academic scholarship, and working always towards evangelical cooperation.
Henry’s final challenge to Christians of modernity is best conveyed if left in his own words. He writes:
“We must choose to cast our lot either with a society that admits only private faiths, and then simply add another idol to modernity’s expanding God-shelf, or we must hoist a banner to a higher Sovereign, the Lord of lords and King of kings. Just as the Christian witness to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” invited unrelenting persecution by Roman authorities, so also Christianity’s reiteration of a universal validity-claim still invites and will continue to invite the entrenched hostility of modern intellectual authority. But our awesome imperative as Christian scholars is to address the divided mind and civilization turmoil of modernity. The loss of Biblical theism takes its steady toll as world-wisdom declines from theism to humanism and then from humanism to animalism, the neo-paganism of our time. If evangelicals believe that the enduring corrective of modernity’s badly-skewed ethical and epistemic compass is the self-disclosed God and His moral agenda, they had better say so and live so in this crucial turning-time in America.” (181)