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You are reading this in the English language; the emerging real-world Esperanto at the center of global communication.
But, chances are, only a small minority of you have a majority of English blood running through your veins. I probably have a little—my paternal line weaves back in time through Kentucky, up the Ohio River and into Pennsylvania. Hard to avoid folks with English background in those environs in those days…
You can gauge the relative strength and influence of languages by the number of Wikipedia articles in each. Dutch is surprisingly high. Portuguese is ascending (Brazil and Co.). Japanese is too complicated to write (three alphabets and 2,000 Chinese characters). Russian, one of the great idea-storing literary languages in human history (Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Lenin, etc), is dropping in influence with its dismal demographics.
There is no one Chinese language. China is more like Europe than like any one country. Same with India.
So this is remarkable. How did this little river town called London trick the world into speaking its language?
I just spent the week in Kensington, a posh, huge neighborhood in West London. This was the heart of Victorian England. For those of you who are not history nuts, that’s the 3-4 generations leading up to the disaster that was World War I, the first shots of which were fired in 1914. We’ve had a worldwide hangover ever since.
Without World War I, we would have had, perhaps, no Great Depression. Hitler would have been a moderately happy postcard salesman, unscarred by trench warfare PTSD. No holocaust. Which would have meant no Ha-Tikvah and only a tiny Jewish minority in Palestine. Thus no constant Middle East turmoil. Probably no space program (launched with WW 2 savoir-faire, a la Von Braun GmbH). The airliner I’m riding in (also a product of WW2 know-how) would not be nearly this advanced. America and Russia would have stayed at home. Thus no Vietnam. Lenin would not have ridden the train into disintegrating mid WWI Russia to take control. The current Tsar would be, in 2011, a bit like the Queen of England. We’d be watching the royal Russian weddings on TV.
But back to pre-WWI England. The Victorians controlled planet Earth for the handful of generations preceding. And the Victorians who were in control lived in Kensington. Their actual homes are still there, very much built to last, now going for bazillions of pounds, just for an apartment (a “flat”).
So why the Victorians, and not the others?
- The Americans stayed home because they had a huge frontier to settle.
- Ditto for the Russians.
- The Germans were almost, compared to the coastline-rich Brits, landlocked, and they only became a unified nation called “Germany” in 1871. The Victorians already had a huge head-start.
- The French (And I have a quart or two of Quebecois blood, so I tend to root for them…) lacked the spiritual backbone to get the job done. They weren’t sure what they believed. They were either old school Catholics (On your bucket list: read the plaques on the Sacre Coeur Church portals in Paris at sunrise—I make this pilgrimage every time I’m there) or atheists reliving the revolution and hoping to turn Notre Dame church back into the Temple of Reason (which they succeeded in doing for a season).
The Victorians won the race for global domination; and survived the two world wars, coming out, barely, on the winning side. The result: Almost anywhere in the world today you can use English to get by. This, along with the quirky survival of the tiny Jewish ethnicity for millennia, is one of the two great quirks of history.
How did all this come to be?
I was sitting in the balcony at Holy Trinity Brompton, a neighborhood Church of England congregation in Kensington, yesterday, looking straight down over the railing at the stage. It was packed to the rafters. You had to look around the Victorian concrete columns to see what was happening on the stage. Blazing rock music with smoke and lasers. Euphoric worshipers (most of whom much better educated and richer than I am) with both hands in the air shouting Jesus Christ, you are Saviour of all…over and over. Note: All of the photos on this essays are live HTB worship shots.
I looked up and around at the interior of the smallish church. Not much acreage on the floor. About four stories high, counting the vaulted neo-Gothic ceiling. Memorial plaques all over the walls, dating from the early 1800’s… One to “a very good postman indeed.”
I pictured the building full of Victorian Christians in the late 1800’s, at the height of Britannia’s power. Because it is in the past, we think of the people as old, but, on average, they were younger than we are. Were they filled with the same sense of euphoria and destiny?
I looked to the left at the stone pulpit. Its canopy read: Establish Thou the work of our hands.
There’s a lot of content to that little sound-bite.
A young French couple was to the left of me in the church balcony. The petite, stylish woman was literally leaping up and down while singing.
The 20-something young man on my right was from Holland. Friesland. Singing. In English.
West London is coming alive spiritually. I spent a good deal of time with the Bishop of Kensington yesterday afternoon, Paul Williams. He is in his very young 40’s and exudes warmth and energy. He had story after story of Anglican parishes growing and thriving. Christmas attendance was up 20% this year from a year before in London.
I have a feeling that this stirring is nothing new. It is a re-vival of a deep core spirituality that was there when the Victorians set out to civilize the world and teach everyone their language.
It is what separated them from the French. It is why the French failed.
The Victorians had spiritual backbone.
Pragmatic. Positive. Destiny-filled. God-fearing.
We have seen that Muslims with spiritual backbone can cause the much richer, much better armed world to hold its breath at a moment’s notice. Spiritual backbone is really important. A total secularization of our society would turn us into collective boneless chicken.
I reached out and leaned on the Victorian concrete pillar, as the music elevated the worshipers to a whole ‘nother place, and pondered about where this century will be going. This church, HTB, may not be the largest church in the English-speaking world. But it may be, through its vibe and its Alpha Course, one of the most influential. For my money, and I get around, it is #1 in this regard.
HTB is one of the spiritual artesian springs of Planet Earth.
Not sure what will happen in the decades to come.
But don’t count out the young, vitalized, Christians from Kensington.
They will be in the mix as the world gets shaped and re-shaped.
They fully intend to remake society.
They’ve been there before…