The repaganisation of the West
The return of Greco-Roman values
In the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, a group of seven people – and their dog – hide in a cave to avoid persecution at the hands of the Roman emperor Decius around the year 250 AD, only to awake during the reign of Theodosius II two centuries later.
They had been told to worship the Roman idols and recant their faith, but chose instead to give away all their worldly goods and retire to a mountain cave to pray, where they fell asleep. Decius then had the entrance to the cave sealed up.
They slept for 196 or perhaps 373 years – the sources vary – but at any rate, it was a very long sleep.
According to the story, in the reign of Theodosius, around the year 456, a landowner opened the cave and found the sleepers inside. They imagined that they had been asleep for only a day and sent one of their number off to the town to buy food.
Here they found that their faith, once persecuted and despised, was now the official state religion of the empire and almost everyone was a believer, or at least pretended to be. A huge amount can change in the world when you’re asleep.
The story makes me wonder what a modern-day sleeper who had gone into a cave in 1960 would find on awakening in 2023.
In London, Vienna, Berlin and capital cities across western Europe, he’d see a strange selection of colourful flags displayed on buildings, including government buildings, and even on the embassies of the United States and other countries.
If he visited in June, he’d see far more of these ubiquitous colours, and notice that there was a religious procession throughout major cities bedecked in them, although it wouldn’t look like the Corpus Christi celebrations he remembered, and certainly featured fewer clothes.
He might read about dozens of cases of vandalism and arson against churches in Canada, which followed mass hysteria about the Catholic Church burying the victims of its abuse, a hysteria fuelled by politicians and which turned out to be untrue.
He’d see that country’s prime minister tweeting (never mind having to explain what that meant) stuff like: ‘Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people are valued – and deserve better. As we mark #SistersInSpirit Day, we remember those who have been murdered or are missing, and we stand with their families and their communities.’ In fact, he’d find that country strange in every way.
He would also hear about increasing numbers of churches being burned down in France and demolished in England. He’d read about a 170-year-old Christian house of worship in Oldham, Lancashire, pulled down by the council over fears it would attract vandals and become an ‘eyesore blighting the local area’ – although this rather invites the question who the real vandals are. Indeed, this is the third church in the town to be recently knocked down.
He would notice popular musicians using satanic imagery in a way that doesn’t even shock but just raises a yawn. He might see that Canterbury Cathedral, the seat of the English Church since the days of St Augustine, was hosting ‘school disco’ nights playing the music of the Spice Girls, Britney Spears and S Club 7.
He would note that blasphemy laws are no longer in use, and that artists are even given state funding to produce work which mocks Christ or the Virgin Mary. But he might, after a while, note that they have been replaced by newer, and far stricter, forms of blasphemy law. He might also have heard about the hysteria that followed the death of the man it was now a crime to mock, a convicted criminal put to death in the West’s most powerful empire.
He might read how in Finland two people have essentially been put on trial for their Christian beliefs, accused of ‘hate speech’ and interviewed by the police after questioning the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s official partnership with a Helsinki Pride festival. Päivi Räsänen faces up to two years in jail for publicly voicing her opinion on marriage and sexuality in a 2004 pamphlet and for debating the subject in a 2019 radio talk show.