1920s America can be summed up by two things: movies and booze. The first film was shown in Berlin in 1895, and Edwin S. Porter madeThe Great Train Robbery in 1903, but it was the '20s in which the cinema began to come into its own. As for the alchohols, the '20s were marked more by their absence than their presence, or rather by the fact that imbibing was forced to go underground, which it promptly did.
In America, it's much more acceptable for one's vices to flourish in secret than being exposed to die unsightly deaths. Hence, movies were shown in theaters, and whiskey was guzzled in speakeasies. Meanwhile, the moral underpinnings of the world's youngest nation were being chopped up, thrown in the fire, and used to fuel a cultural revolution so vast it didn't even look like a cultural revolution to later generations. But it was, and there was no recovery.
Following the First World War, people began to wonder out loud if the one thing they believed permanent and inviolable (that is, Western Civilization) would actually survive or was even still intact. Amid the ensuing confusion and terror, a lot of clothes were taken off, a lot of drugs ingested, and a lot of heresy preached from church pulpits. It became a free-for-all in which only the lewd and lawless could expect to survive. Sadly, those who could do something about all this angrily turned away and ignored it.
Which left nothing but a mad dash for moral license and distorted identities. A lot of people tend to think of the '20s as part of the mythic Good Old Days, mainly because of the Great Depression (the assumption being that sin stops when the money stops flowing) and the 1950s (when a perverse picture of Suburban Perfection showed up on TV, the cheap bootleg version of film). But the Roaring Decade was anything but straightlaced.
If you want to know how the Free Love Hippies of the 1960s went All Wrong, you'll need to learn about the 1920s first. Here their grandparents made the connection between liberal Christianity, empty moralism, Darwinism, emergent atheism, and the Love of Money, and concluded that they were a Lost Generation, irreconcilably cut off from the past. For most of them, this was not a bad thing, but a fun thing.
Many of them were forced to grow up in World War II, but the dissolute seeds of hatred toward authority had already been sown, and once the liquor taps were unplugged things quickly went downhill. But that was the '40s. In the '20s, people didn't even need booze because they were intoxicated with the nuttiness of sexual freedom, narcotics, sinful acts displayed in moving pictures, big crime, etc.
This is a pretty bleak picture of the 1920s, admittedly. It wasn't all bad (J. Gresham Machen was busy bringing reform to the Presbyterian church in the United States), but it was bad enough. Secular people dubbed it the Roaring Twenties decade, after all. And while plenty of Americans (and a handful of Europeans) still maintained the Old Morality, the diseased ideas that would lead to the complete and utter downfall of Christendom were spreading like supercancer.
The one group that should have stopped all this was too busy getting off track itself. The Christian churches were either neck-deep in Fundamentalism which was largely anti-intellectual and therefore unequipped to fight the new secularism, or were already in the throes of liberal theology which denies everything of any importance to the Christian faith, like the deity of Christ, the reality of heaven, and the sinfulness of humanity.
Fortunately, a few hangers-on clung to the truth of the Bible and the historic Christian faith. Some, as the above-mentioned J. Gresham Machen, wrote scholarly and popular works alerting Christians to the dangers. Others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were seeing the wicked tendrils of liberalism still clinging to their shoulders and beginning to awaken to evangelical conservatism and the beauty of the creeds.
The answer to all wickedness is always Jesus Christ. The '20s were decidedly bad from a moral and religious standpoint, but then world history is more or less a succession of corrupt cultures in need of the truth of Christ's Gospel. When studying the past, it's essential that we not allow ourselves to see things through rose-colored glasses or to ignore truth because we don't like it. But it's just as important to know that Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and the only sure place of safety is in Him.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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