Archive for November, 2011

It appears that mainstream journalists are not the only ones to give disproportionate attention to the sensational. We must always remember that if the news were “fair and balanced” it would be, above all, boring. But the mundane is, by definition, not “news”. But it IS life. In academia, sociologists, anthropologists, and archeologists set out to find life. But where do their noses often lead them? To news!

Philip Jenkins, in his discussion of Christianity in post-colonial Africa, laments how many scholars have chosen to study small independent and unorthodox movements. These small groups often follow a local leader who reports dreams and prophecies. Even in the most inclusive estimates, these groups account for less than 10% of Christians in Africa. Where is the motherload of Africa’s now 400 million Christians? In “boring” churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, etc. (though often charismatic flavours of these). Now what could be more mundane than interviewing some Catholics about what they believe? Isn’t that all written down somewhere already? But if we wish to understand the face of Christianity in the next half century, that’s exactly who we need to be talking to. Reform movements should focus their energy there, rather than cleaning up a few recent heretics that may have sprung up here and there in the power vacuum.

Another example: In my hometown, during the last election season, I saw hundreds of Obama bumper stickers. It seemed like every other car I passed had one pasted on the rear. I could count on perhaps two hands the number of (who was it?) McCain/Palin stickers I saw. But come election night, the Republican candidate carried the state without breakin’ a sweat. What gives? The progressives are noisy and the conservatives are, by nature, boring. That’s a big part of what being conservative is all about.

The news anchor interviews someone interesting, someone loud, down in the square occupying wall street or shouting something curious. He doesn’t interview the bloke that just walked past the camera on his way to the office, munching on a bagel from the little stand on the corner. That guy is totally boring. Forget him.

What Christians get all the “buzz”? Rob Bell and his velvet-covered books, Mark Driscoll with his macho-man antics, Ted Haggard and his gay lover, Robert Schuller and his bankrupt Cathedral, Jeremiah Wright and his liberation theology, Fred Phelps and his tiny group of outlandish protesters. Who will never get any airtime? Thousands of long-faithful priests, thousands of flawed, but loving, caring, and effective pastors and laymen.

Standing far above all of these men, who are the people most “boring” of all? Who are the ones utterly ignored by modernism? Stay-at-home mothers! Chances are, they are most often the boring Christians too. The guy walking to work with the bagel from earlier? Also a Christian. Faithful, flawed, boring. Makin’ the world go round even more than you can imagine.

Infant Christians are not apostate, but rather immature. Forgive them.

You do not whip a 7-year old child for their inability to drive a car. Instead, you teach them to read. You drive the car for now.

The idea that turning to Jesus Christ instantly flushes all sin and immaturity from your life is a revivalist myth. When you are born again, it is as an infant, not a fully formed adult. Do not despair when you continue to wrestle with destructive habits established over many years. To do so simply puts you in league with Saint Paul. Christ brings grace to you. His kindness leads you to repentance. His grace can and will motivate you to turn from your ways. The Holy Spirit sometimes affects us in quick and dramatic ways. Glory. But grace is secured before all this, by his work, not ours.

Once again, I can’t help thinking that Girard could have helped Leithart’s thesis about Constantine. In the end, he concludes that Rome’s baptism was an infant one – that Constantine was a Christian, just an immature one. Why conclude that his philosophy on slaveholding would immediately look as fully developed as something from James Madison? Other people are appalled that he didn’t lay down his sword or disband the army. Isn’t that what a REAL Christian would do? Seriously though, how could such a thing even enter his imagination? People argue about philosophies and ideologies and belief systems, but Girard says those aren’t the things that really drive people. People are driven by mimetic desire. So if Constantine wasn’t as good of Christian as we modern folk want him to be, it wasn’t for lack of faith, but for lack of a MODEL. What does running an empire in a non-brutal, non-pagan way even look like? Did anyone in AD 313 have much of a clue? Well, clues, absolutely, but a fully formed accurate vision? Good grief, no. So we got a mixed bag. So what?

George W. Bush was a contemporary evangelical head of a national super-power and he was DEFINITELY a mixed bag. And he had all of the best Christian reformers and saints of the last thousand years to look to. Perhaps he was just paralyzed by politics? The impression I often get from Bush is that he was well-meaning but confused. Perhaps he had too many advisors, too many options. Constantine, on the other hand, seems to have been well-meaning, but impulsive – trying to find his way and, when faced with a crisis would occasionally fall back into the old imperial ways of executing a few people here and there to seemingly patch things up.

I don’t deny that the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of men. He does all the time. God has all the time in the world though. Over and over we see that He often performs his works over the course of many generations. Our lives are such tiny little puffs of smoke, we want him to heal us overnight! But He is telling a long story. People want Constantine to be so much better than he really was. But if he can’t be that, then they flip it around and use him as a handy scapegoat and the root of many of the Church’s very real problems during the middle ages.

As for Leithart’s book, one of the endorsements states that he “helpfully complicates Christian history”. That is accurate I think, even if he is misreading his critics, (as they argue he is) or if some of his conclusions seem strange or radical.  Any time someone is being utterly dismissed, some complication is healthy. When skeptics seek to complicate everything, they are doing it to pull the world down into the void. When a Christian seeks to complicate things, it should be to ask “Can we try to extend grace to this flawed person?”

I’ve been reading two history books, one on the history of Christianity in Ethiopia, as well as Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine. I’ve often wondered why so many folks seem to be enthusiastic about studying ancient Greek and Roman history. I have a friend who has read probably a hundred books on the subject and can name all the emperors, wars, bishops, dates, etc. My own education provided none of that and it is one area I’m attempting to patch up a bit. Next up is Eusebius.

As for the level of interest though, I think I have realized an important reason behind it. People study Rome because they CAN. Of all the hundreds of interesting cultures and civilizations in history, the Romans actually wrote everything down.

Constantine was converted to Christianity in 313 AD and we have tons of information about it – many volumes written by local historians, records of the laws he made, even quite a few of his own personal letters.

In parallel, the emperor of Ethiopia was also converted around 330 AD. What do we know about him though and what he did? Almost nothing. One of the few clues we have that it even happened is that he changed the pagan moon and star symbol on the local currency to that of a cross. Archeologists have also dug up some old churches from soon after. That’s about it though – barely even enough to start filling things in with your imagination. Contrast that with the mounds of primary data we have about Rome during the exact same century.

In the book on Rome I am reading, the bibliography is thick. In the book on Ethiopia, the “bibliography” is largely a list of 100+ names of people that were interviewed by the author. At least half of his task was to just to sort through the legends and come to some sort of consensus before he could begin to comment on the past.

What will people in the distant future have to study our age? 100,000 hours of CNN on archive? Will everyone’s old blog still be floating around the cloud? I’d still like to put something in print.

Jenkin’s brings up an interesting point that I wasn’t aware of. I’d always had the impression that modern liberalism was a 20th century invention, contra Machen, contra pre-war conservatism. Driven largely by evolutionary biology, it came to dominate political discourse and undermine the “mainline” churches in the 1960s. It turns out though, that all of this stuff had arisen 100 years before… and been subsequently smacked back into oblivion. Secularists today honestly think the church is on the brink of becoming completely insignificant. But they thought that last time too, and the time before that. Yawn.

The rationalism prevailing in many Protestant churches was overwhelmed by a new evangelical revivalism, which received an enormous boost from the revivals that began in 1798. Far from dominating the American scene, Unitarian-Universalists today comprise around 0.2 percent of the U.S. population. So thoroughly was eighteenth-century liberalism obliterated that many modern writers tend to assume that its ideas were invented anew by Victorian skeptics and rationalists, or perhaps grew out of the controversies over Darwinian evolution. Then as now, the triumph of secular liberalism proved to be anything but inevitable.
-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.11

A while ago, I sat down and tried to come up with a theology of sin that would jive with the work of Rene Girard. I failed, but came up with a few decent questions along the way. This was my unedited stream of thought.

I think, if you want to have a very robust Girardian anything, you are going to need a Girardian conception/definition of sin. What then is lust? Some sort of accelerated envy? Sexual lust is a perfect example and we might as well deal with it head-on.

The common, popular view of sexual desire is that it is something with its origin inside, solely inside the lusting ones body and mind and it projects outward and desires to possess outside things, objectify women to satisfy this internal fire. But if Girard is right about anything, then we must be imitating an outside model first. I think its really easy to fit this with beauty and aesthetics. Outside things shape and mold the desire into a particular image, but I do not believe they are the ROOT cause. I also reject raw biological need, though it clearly plays a part. It is likely the most truly “independent” force in the mix. Where though, does the chief mimetic source lie? What exactly are we imitating and who is it?

The who must be God and the what must be creating in our own image. The greatest of all God’s acts at the beginning, the most desirable thing and the most desirable thing for Satan to twist, was creating man. When we procreate, we bask in it’s glow. We feel for a moment like God, back on the virgin earth, shaping the soil into someone like… himself. We cannot downplay the existential power of the false substitute of sexual lust.

How does Christ free us from this? A new creative model? No envy? Huh?

No, this doesn’t work at all. For what is more distant from a man’s mind than children when his eyes are full of flesh clicking through porn? It much more closely resembles a heroin addict shooting up. Is there a deeper anthropological explanation to this? The chemical neuroscientists appear to have it nailed down. It seems that I must take a different approach. What the hell is the man desiring when he is in the throws of lust? Where did he pick it up? Why does it run so deep?

In contemplating this for some time over a drink, I am no further along. I think that many men do not ever venture past this point. The artist writes a song which is probably far more appropriate. The rest? They must dismiss it as unsolvable, or assign it to the bin marked “mysteries”. I suspect that even bookish Presbyterians do this, all the rest of their puritan talk notwithstanding. Can Girard contain the propellent to catapult one beyond into the “mysterious distance between a man and a woman” (to quote U2 again)? Lust proper has no procreative end. There seems to be no long-term in mind, except perhaps long term possession – a prolonging.

The traditional, non-Girardian view seems to ring true. The desire is born from this animal, testosterone-driven instinct and then we imitate others in how we aim to satisfy it specifically. In our youth we discover and experiment with what arouses us and we eventually pursue it within the bounds of our conscience and social constraints.  As (and this is important) we pursue many OTHER things as well. We have a lot of irons in the fire with regards to our self-fulfillment and meaning-derivation agenda.

It must begin with Eve. Even before the serpent arrived Adam slept with Eve. Why? Perhaps he longed to get back to himself? He was split. But their fusion is sloppy and prevented by – you name it. More than their own sin. This is why there will be no marriage in heaven (according to Jesus). Even that can not be “fixed” by the removal of selfishness and death. For a better unity it must be torn down utterly and made new. It’s original purpose was not it’s original purpose. Behold the Lord will make all things new – but not this. In place of this He will make a new thing – at the dawn of a new humanity. OR will He LEAVE it in place, just to make heaven a more interesting place? Lord knows there must be more action there than the typical water colourist give it! Reconsidering, I think it must be the formal institute of marriage that gets the axe, not all gender distinction. Then again, why was Adam split in the first place? He was too alone? This sort of thinking gets dicey pretty fast.

“Help the starving children in Africa” has become a cliche fundraising phrase. It seems to get tossed around by charities even when their goals are only distantly related to doing just that. In the same way, conservatives and liberals, Christians and secularists have tried to leverage the 3rd world in their rhetoric – to tell a certain kind of story.

Over the past half-century or so, whenever global South Christianity has gained attention in North America or Europe, it has been through the form of what might be termed two dreams, two competing visions, each trying to deploy that new religious movement for its own purposes. For the Left, attracted by visions of liberation, the rise of the South suggests that Northern Christians must commit themselves to social and political activism at home, to ensuring economic justice and combating racism, to promoting cultural diversity. Conservatives, in contrast, emphasize the moral and sexual conservatism of the emerging [3rd world] churches, and seek to enlist them as natural allies. From their point of view, growing churches are those that stand farthest from Western liberal orthodoxies, and we should learn from their success. A liberation Dream confronts a Conservative Dream. For both sides, though, the new South is useful, politically and rhetorically.

Both expectations, liberal and conservative, are wrong, or at least, fail to see the whole picture. Each in its different way expects the Southern churches to reproduce Western obsessions and approaches, rather than evolving their own distinctive solutions to their own particular problems. One difficulty is deciding just what that vast and multifaceted entity described as the Third World, or the Two-Thirds World, actually does want or believe. The South is massively diverse, and conservatism and liberalism are defined quite differently from the customary usages of North American or European churches. Conservative theological or moral stances often accompany quite progressive or radical economic views. As Southern churches grow and mature, they will increasingly define their own interests in ways that have little to do with the preferences and parties of Americans and Europeans.

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.16

This all rings true, having observed exactly what Jenkins is talking about, from both side, very often. In reality though, these African’s and other third world Christians have their own ideas about how to do things.

There is a considerable group of Episcopal congregations in the United States who have broken off from their newly elected gay and feminist bishops and have instead subjected themselves to black African bishops in Rwanda and Nigeria. The AMIA is one such group that I would enjoy the opportunity to work with at some point. In this way, they we found a conservative ally. What’s funny though is the reversal of what we imagined our new African relationship to be like. It’s not us adding them to our crew. It’s them adding us to THEIR crew. We have to be the humble, teachable ones.

Everywhere the Gospel goes, everywhere Christianity goes, it encounters existing people and cultures. These established people were shaped by their current religion (the one being supplanted) as well as the kind of work they do, the kind of music they like, how literate they are, and even by things as simple as what they eat or what the weather is like in the region. Their genetics even play a role. Everywhere, Christians take on a certain shade of the surrounding culture. And in general, this is good. Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are previous in his sight, etc. Africans have got to MOVE during worship! Highly education Britons would rather sing 4-part harmony while standing still.

syncretism: The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

The church of the first century as described in the New Testament epistles is one divided by geography. Each regional church had absorbed some cultural and folk religious beliefs into it’s culture. This is why the Judaizers (who wanted to keep much of the Levitical law intact) were denounced in one letter and the intellectually elite gnostics in another. Corinth had trouble with long established sexual promiscuity leaking into the congregation. Some were rich, some where poor, some were really poor. No matter how hard beliefs are codified and written down, there will always be significant variation on the ground. Theology affects life and just as often, vice versa.

In Latin America and Africa, the devotion to certain local pagan deities was sometimes morphed into the veneration of the saints. In the worst cases, the Virgin Mary took on side-effects of the regional fertility goddess. In more innocuous cases, the local heroes of the old paganism were canonized and their biographies reinvented. Early Chinese Christians had a Saint Confucius. This made the new church seem a bit more homey and less alien to the locals. Opinions vary among scholars and church leaders as to whether this sort of thing is really terrible or no big deal. That it can be distraction from the core of the Gospel is indisputable though.

This sort of thing happens with all other religions too. I was intrigued to discover that Buddhism in southeast Asia is filled with local folk religious elements – belief in evil spirits, magic amulets, etc. None of these have anything to do with the core beliefs of Buddhism. These sorts of supernatural elements are seen as ridiculous by the more intellectual branches, such as the Zen Buddhism more common in northern China or Japan.

Now we Americans are a Christian nation based on the Bible itself! The founding father’s didn’t have a folk religion! We have a clean theology. Just look at how nice and tidy our confessions are! OK. Not really. So what has American Christianity absorbed? “Rugged American Individualism” – certainly an idea with some positive qualities, but one that can be convincingly traced to a “just me a Jesus” soteriology that is completely unaware of the larger community – even our own children. “The American Dream” of capitalism and opportunity combined with Christianity leads to the prosperity gospel (God wants you to be rich) – a rather unique (and destructive) export from the United States.

The Roman Catholic church modeled it’s authority structure on the Roman government. This seemed to work great for a couple centuries but after the empire’s collapse seemed, in hindsight, like a pretty flawed way to organize the priesthood. Congregationalism is church ruled by a formal democracy. That can be a mixed bag too.

In both of the history books I am reading, the development of an indigenous Christianity is promoted as having a much more permanent and powerful effect on the people. Demanding doctrinal purity on lots of small details has historically alienated the new excited converts. Africans were very interested in Jesus, but less interested in all the details of Anglican or Roman liturgy, which seemed to have more to do with British Colonialism than God. The same is true with every other group of western missionaries. Ethiopia in particular took a rather isolationist stance. It’s version of Orthodoxy and later Protestant Pentecostalism are pretty unique. Many accounts of the underground church in China also emphasize how little input they have taken from westerners.

Jenkin’s gives an interesting example here to demonstrate:

We must be cautious about seeing such new movements through the lens of our own conflicts. As an analogy, imagine the situation in the seventh or eighth centuries in what was still, numerically and culturally, the Near Eastern heart of Christianity, in Syria or Mesopotamia. Picture a meeting of church leaders who have gathered to hear a report from a traveler from the remote barbarian world of western Europe.

The traveler delights his listeners by telling them of the many new conversions among the strange peoples of England or Germany and the creation of whole new dioceses in the midst of the northern forests. Impatiently, the assembled hierarchs press him to answer the key question: This new Christianity coming into being, is it the Christianity of Edessa or of Damascus? Where do the new converts stand on the crucial issues of the day: on the Monothelite heresy, on Iconoclasm? When the traveler tells them, regretfully, that these issues really do not register in those parts of the world, where religious life has utterly different concerns and emphases, the Syrians are alarmed. Is this really a new Christianity, they ask, or is it some new syncretistic horror? How can any Christian not be centrally concerned with these issues? And while Syrian Christianity carried on debating these questions to exhaustion, the new churches of Europe entered a great age of spiritual growth and intellectual endeavor.

-Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom, p.16

So how much of this sort of thing is OK? I’m not sure, but I think my initial position is that for a burgeoning Christianity, some of this mixing is not that big of a deal. Immature Christians may have genuine belief in Jesus Christ, but still believe all kinds of silly things on the side. These are rooted out through teaching and love from caring pastors and positive peer pressure. The Holy Spirit will also lead people to abandon their old ways as their hearts change. When these folk elements are institutionalized, then reform over the coming years and decades will hopefully improve things. I believe that it is completely impossible to not mix in something. Only robots could have an untainted faith. Still, some syncretism severely undermines the Gospel by tacking on works righteousness. These elements need to be expelled from the get-go. Our dead works need to be repented of, not integrated.

I’d like to briefly tie together three sources regarding the work of Christian missionaries working among indigenous peoples.

Last night, my wife and I watched the first part of Ken Burn’s documentary on the history of the western United States. Christian missionaries, usually in the from of Spanish Roman Catholic priests are a regular presence in the story. They are nearly always function as terrible bad guys in the narrative. They are occasionally well-meaning, but generally destructive – forced conversions and confessions at gunpoint, whipping the natives down the road to church, etc. There was awful abuse in the name of Jesus Christ.

It’s the same story of American conquest that I heard all growing up and I don’t doubt that much of it was terrible and true. But is that the whole story? Philip Jenkins, in discussing the explosion of Christianity in Latin America thinks this MUST only be one side of the coin. It couldn’t have been all conquest or Christianity would not have “stuck” so hard and fast among the millions of natives.

“The new Christianity was unquestionably associated with robbery and tyranny, leaving a sinister heritage over the coming centuries. In the initial decades, the depth of conversions was questionable. Moreover, native converts were granted admission to communion only on the rarest occasions, a policy that acknowledged the shallowness of conversions. Just as seriously, natives were almost never ordained to the priesthood.”

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.35

Sounds like a train-wreck, right?

“Far from being a formula for effective conversion, the record of colonial Latin America sounds potentially like a story of disaster, so much so that it is baffling that Catholicism would ultimately plant such deep roots in this continent. Yet the ordinary people who were ignored and despised by the churches created their own religious synthesis, which became the focus of devoted loyalty. Lacking priests and access to church sacraments, Latin American people concentrated instead on aspects of the faith that needed no clergy, on devotions to saints and the Virgin, and they organized worship through lay bodies… Catholicism not only established itself, but became an integral part of the cultural identity of Latin Americans, in all parts of that very diverse landscape. As an institution, the impact made by the church was partial and often inadequate, but Christianity itself flourished.

He returns to this idea quite often. There is something special about Christianity that makes it remarkably appealing, even when it is obscured by abusive rulers. It takes on a life of its own and grows, especially in the ignored rural areas. Jenkins, in writing a scholarly piece of history and sociology doesn’t come right out and say it, but I believe that he (along with myself) would attribute this “special appeal” to the work of the Holy Spirit.

I am also reading a recent book by Ethiopian scholar Tibebe Eshete concerning the rise of Evangelicism in Ethiopia during the past century. In his introduction, he mentions something that really caught my attention. Though protestant pentecostal churches were established in the 1920s, evangelicals only claimed a tiny slice of the population for a long time. It only took hold in a few rural areas among poor farmers. Then, in the 1960’s, it exploded and now accounts for nearly 20% of the whole country. And this is the fun part: The explosion took place during a time of persecution, when all the western missionaries had been kicked out by the last emperor and then kept out by the communists. Eshete describes the current pentecostal church as

“largely an independent initiative pioneered by young Ethiopians, whose followers came mainly from an Ethiopian Orthodox background, and has sustained itself because of its indigenous roots, voluntaristic nature, and enthusiastic embarkation on evangelization programs of national import.”

-Tibebe Eshete, The evangelical movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and resilience, p.12

The author himself is an insider to what went on. He grew up Orthodox, then got excited about communism and helped organize socialist rallies while he was a university student in the 1970s. After the communists took over and crushed everyone, he was very disillusioned. Through the witness of a friend he ended up becoming a Baptist and has been very active in the church there ever since.

So here again we have Christianity thriving without clergy – driven by locals. Theologians often freak out about how this inevitably means that folk religion is absorbed into the faith. Well, yes, but I think that is going to happen regardless. New churches aren’t doctrinally mature. If they were, Paul would not have bothered to write most of his epistles. I think it is better to rejoice that they worship Jesus and assume that the leftover paganism (or secularism, etc.) will be reformed out during the coming century or two.

Philip Jenkins opens his book The Next Christendom by providing some intriguing examples of the nearsightedness of Americans and Europeans. This goes both for the general public and for scholars who should know better.

When the popular evangelical magazine Christian History listed the “hundred most important events in Church history,” the only mention of Africa, Asia, or Latin America occurred in reference to the British abolition of the slave trade. Missing from this top hundred was church growth in modern Africa, where the number of Christians increased, staggeringly, from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million by 2000. If that growth does not represent the largest quantitative change in the whole of religious history, I am at a loss to think of a rival.

-Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, p.4

A growth of 350 million Christians in one century? Holy smokes. And it’s almost completely outside of our consciousness. I had barely ever heard of this. I remember, as a young man in 1997, all the publicity and hubbub surrounding the “Stand in the Gap” gathering where evangelical leaders worked very hard to get 1 million Christian men to show up at a rally in Washington D.C. They were able to pull it off, effectively bankrupting the Promise Keepers organization in the process. I had attended a conference of theirs in Boise the year before with my father. (I really enjoyed it.) I don’t think deriving value from numbers is a wise game to play, but this ought to make us take a bit of notice. 1 million! Go us! We’re so awesome! We’re the main event when it comes to the work of God on earth! Once again, it’s eye-opening to zoom out and look at the big picture (350,000,000 growth across the pond.)

He gives another example that I’ve also experienced first-hand on many occasions.

When I was working on the first edition of this book, I described its general theme to friends and colleagues, many of whom are well education and widely traveled. When I said, though, that my theme was “the future of Christianity”, a common follow-up question was, in effect “So, how long do you think it will last?” or specifically, “How long can the Catholic Church survive?” In their own way, secular, liberal Americans have a distinctly apocalyptic view of the future, with a millenarian expectation of the uprooting of organized religion. A the least, there is a widespread conviction that Christianity cannot survive in anything like its present form.


In most academic circles, Christianity is laughed off as a bad joke from the past. But again, zoom out, and you’ll find that liberal secularism is quickly becoming yesterday’s bad joke. They still have enough money and political clout to insulate them from noticing. Give it a few more generations and things could look pretty different. I think we, as Christians, make a mistake when we buy into their own picture of the world. We spend hundreds of hours of sweat to combat atheism and win one convert. We spend that time and money again getting the city council to implement a particular shade of moralism. Perhaps, if we were to glance at Africa for a model, we could spend less on toys and use that time and money to have a few more babies! Just sayin’.