There’s No Place Like Rome: How Should We Then Live, pt. 3

Note: This series is intended to be a pocket commentary on How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer. If you’ve worked through the book or video sessions on your own or in a Classical Conversations Challenge II class, I welcome your comments and ideas below. 

There’s No Place Like Rome

In today’s culture we base most of our decisions on how they affect us and our families. Only after that do we consider our community or our country. In ancient times the reverse was true. You and your family were much less important than the city or country you lived in, to the extent that when Socrates had to choose between drinking poison or being banished from his city-state, he chose poison. That choice seems crazy to the modern mind. We could probably think of at least a dozen nice places to be exiled! To Socrates, life outside his city-state was so unbearable that death seemed a better option. Though the city-state concept created an impressive loyalty in its citizens, it wasn’t a strong enough foundation to build a society on, and Greece collapsed. Even its strong religious tradition wasn’t enough to save it.

Rome had enough power to conquer Greece, but not enough to keep law and order in its own Empire. Armed gangs roamed the streets. Desperate for peace, the Romans thought that a dictator could pull the factions together and give the Empire time to regroup. The joke was on them, since dictators don’t willingly give back power. Roman dictators wanted more and more, eventually even demanding worship as gods. But even a living, breathing god with the power of life and death wasn’t enough to hold the Empire together, and Rome fell apart.

Christ lived and died during this era, and the will of his followers baffled and intrigued those around them. Christians had a basis for belief larger than themselves or the Roman Empire. It rested on a God so big He could claim to have the power to save the world, and yet so personal He could care about saving an individual soul. Rome persecuted Christians not because they worshipped another god—gods were a dime a dozen in Rome—but because Christians were a threat to the state. They looked to a higher authority. Rome was actually fairly tolerant of other religions as long as they didn’t cause trouble and were willing to worship the god who mattered most: the emperor. Christians failed both tests, refusing to worship Caesar or mix their religion with the one around them (syncretism).

This was an annoyance when most Christians were poor Jews. But when the middle and upper classes began converting in large numbers, authorities realized that the Christian Problem had to be addressed harshly and on a grand scale. Surely a show of bald force (perhaps with lions?) would be enough to  get these rogues to back down. After all, bullying others into submission had worked quite well to expand the Empire. But to its consternation, Rome couldn’t stamp out this fire, no matter how many greusome ways it thought up to kill Christians. Instead, when direct stress was placed on the Christian faith, it overcame even torture and mass murder to become the state religion under Constantine.

Roman culture itself didn’t have that kind of strength. By the end of the Empire, most citizens simply didn’t care that the world as they knew it was on its way out. Their focus was on themselves and their own pleasure, whatever that happened to be. One way we can trace this apathy is to look at Roman art over the years. It went from beauty to carelessness. Music became so pretentious ordinary people couldn’t understand it. State-sponsored art lost any sense of morality.

When the government became so bloated the people couldn’t afford to pay the taxes, Rome doubled down, demanding more money and taking more freedom. But brute force didn’t work any better on ordinary Roman citizens than it had on Christians. It only increased the distance between the government and the people to the point they didn’t care at all.

Rome didn’t fall from pressure from outside. It fell because it kept whacking off a leg to stand on.

For discussion:

*In the book, how does Francis Schaeffer describe the rise of dictatorships in Rome?

*What makes the Christian God different than Greek and Roman gods?

*Do you think Christianity has the same kind of will to stand up to culture today as it did during Roman times? Why or why not?

*Can you find examples of early Roman art vs art when the Empire was crumbling? What kind of differences         do you see?

For the introductory post in this series, click here:


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