Though I don’t remember consciously thinking about it, I believe that at some level and to some degree I’ve been guilty of a common conceit — of thinking one’s own time and place is superior to that of any other. Commenting on this propensity, C.S. Lewis wrote of a conversation with an elderly gentleman in which he quizzically observed that the men of every country are inclined to think their women are the most beautiful in the world. The old man’s ready response was to say, “Aye, but in England it is true.” Lewis was not the least bit amused that the old man had completely missed his point.
It is one thing to read in a book about the invention of an efficient steam engine by Scotsman James Watts and the contribution this made to the history of the industrial revolution, but this was shortly before the American Revolution, and so, in comparison to the span of American history, this event seems like ancient history. But in comparison with the evidence of the early history of England, stretching back to the time of the Romans, which we’ve encountered the last few days traveling though England and Scotland, it is a relatively recent event. The last few days, one moment we’ve been looking at the nearly 1,900-year-old remains of Hadrian’s Wall and a few moments later stopping to get fuel at a service area along the “motorway” – part of a highway system every bit the equal of our Interstate system – where we were able to fire up the laptop and send an e-mail via the service center’s hotspot providing free access to the Internet.
The ubiquitous access to the Internet, along with seeing every other person talking on a cell phone – about the same number as we saw out walking their dogs even in the rain – provided clear evidence of the advanced state of the technology available in Great Britain; it all conspired to put a very large dent in my largely subconscious preconception that the United States was several steps more technologically advanced than other countries of the world. It was a wakeup call to see how very similar we all are.
I grew up hearing my grandfather refer to the trunk of the car as the “boot,” not realizing what it revealed. Seeing the ready laughter and puckish humor of some of the Scots we encountered the last few days gave me a clue – though it didn’t actually explain this national characteristic – about my grandfather, father, and uncles, who could be such jokesters and who enjoyed teasing me unmercifully as a young girl. But when it came to defending their country, those Shaw brothers were as ready as any Scotsman to bleed and die to defend their homeland during World War II.
What is perhaps most amazing about England and Scotland is seeing the ancient and the modern so closely juxtaposed. One minute we were looking at the imposing remains of the elegant superstructure of Melrose Abbey, founded in 1136, and the next we turned a corner and were back in the 21st century.
Along many of the narrow back roads, stone walls on both sides butt right up to the edge of the pavement, making passing another car a tense business at times, and often the walls are tall enough to form a tunnel that makes the countryside invisible on both sides. I can only guess at the age of these walls crowned with a heavy layer of moss – but there were two things that struck me. One, the walls not only line the road but periodically they would go from the road straight up the treeless hillsides for a distance that I would estimate to be as much as a mile; the backbreaking labor it took to transport and position the heavy stones is more than I can imagine. Two, as you might expect, the winter weather causes the stones to tumble down in spots. Often, where they had been recently repaired, it appeared that either the skill of the modern workmen was not equal to that of the men who originally constructed them, or they lacked the time and will to make the repaired section as skillfully laid and sturdy as the old wall.
It has been simply amazing to see what the builders of previous centuries were able to construct without the tools we have today. Heavy stones were quarried, shaped, adorned with ornate carvings, and somehow lifted multiple stories into position to construct immense castles and cathedrals that had to have taken several lifetimes to build. The patience and craftsmanship of their workmanship is staggering to behold. So much for my nae conceit that my day and my place are superior to all others.
Not only have England and Scotland instructed me in my heritage, they have given me a glimpse of what may lie in the future. The erosion of their national identity and the picture this reveals of what may become of our country is not an appealing one. Everywhere there are beautiful old churches. But a great many of them do not appear to have worshiping congregations. In fact, many of these grand structures built in the distant past with the sacrificial contributions of the devout are no longer in use or have been converted into museums, restaurants, office buildings, or other commercial enterprises. We see some of this in America, but such conversions are more than matched by new churches being built.
Not only is there an increased degree of secularism, the hostility in Great Britain towards Christianity is not limited to negative commentary in the press as is common in the United States. It has become integrated into the legal system. Recently a woman was fired for wearing a small cross to work, and a man who expressed opposition to homosexual behavior based on his religious convictions was summarily fired even though he did not initiate the conversation but was responding to an inquiry from a co-worker as to the teachings of his Christian faith. Another man was attacked by a mob on the street because he condemned homosexual behavior. The end result was astonishing: he was arrested on the grounds that he had incited the attack.
This week in Britain has been “family week.” At the family values conference at which I spoke, I met many wonderful pro-family advocates who are working diligently to bring renewal to their country. The struggle they face, however, is daunting, as it is becoming increasingly so in the United States. Materialism and self-centeredness abound in all of the advanced nations of the western world, and the consequent isolation and disconnectedness of people is hardly compensated for by the incessant gabbing on cell phones you see at every turn. The realities of their values are nowhere more evident than in their refusal to shoulder the responsibility of reproducing. Fertility rates in all of the Western European nations are well below replacement, and a large proportion of those women who do have babies are following the example of Angelina and Brad and are skipping a trip to the altar to first enter the state of holy matrimony God planned as a safe haven for children.
The British Empire of the past is gone; time may prove otherwise, but the impression is that the future has become irrelevant to the modern day British. Today is everything. They show little sign of the patience and fortitude of their ancestors who marked their land with sturdy stone walls, great cathedrals, and looming castles. In olden days, their ancestors defended their lands and families with their lives. Today, who knows? If we in America do not shake ourselves awake and recover the values of our forefathers, we will follow their example into moral decay and national decline.