I recently finished reading Robert Louis Wilken’s rich overview of church history. It’s was well written and packed with much core information – very little fluff and very few rabbit trails. Ultimately though, as is the case with most histories, especially ancient ones, it focused a bit too much on kings, emperors, and popes. I’d love to read something that took a closer look at life on the ground level for the average Joe, if such a thing exists or is even possible.
Of the thirty plus chapters, only three dealt with topics that I was familiar enough with personally to be aware of what was cut out for brevity. (Those would be the chapters on Celtic Christianity, Ethiopia, and the development of the Apostles Creed.) Assuming that just as much was abridged from the other chapters (and this was not a short book), it serves to make one aware of how much more there must have been going on behind the scenes.
The following are assorted passage I found of interest while reading.
On the origin of Christian art and how it is nearly always story-telling.
In constructing a catacomb with chapels and altars as well as tombs Christian leaders had more in mind than a place of burial. The dead created for the first time a Christian space that bound the community together over time, knitting the tremulous present to the grander past and forging solid and stable feelings through collective memory. And it is in this setting, where the irresistible ravages of time and mortality were most palpable, where hope was joined to memory, that the first Christian art is found. “Dead,” as Wallace Stevens wrote, “is the mother of beauty.”
Christian art tends toward narrative, the telling of a story, the depiction of events from biblical history. Even if the artist pictured only a single event, such as the denial of Peter, the event was understood as part of a larger story. On occasion Christian artists used symbols, for example, a lamb or a cross, but these are exceptions, and as we shall see later in discussing the controversy over icons, there came a time when symbols were discouraged, even prohibited. Further, unlike later Islamic art with its love of calligraphy, Christian art seldom includes scriptural texts. Though the Scriptures include the poetry of the Psalms, the moral precepts of the Proverbs and Sirach, and the letters of Saint Paul, the Bible is first and foremost a book of history, the history of the people of Israel and of Jesus Christ and the first Christian communities. So it was to this history, and the persons and events who appear in the biblical stories, that Christians turned when they wished to decorate their churches.
Some “Christian bakeries” (as some journalists phrased it) were in the news recently for refusing to bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples. More accurately, these were retail bakeries that happened to be owned and operated by Christians. But it turns out that the church has a long history owning and operating bakeries, to provide food to the poor.
Papyri from Egypt give tangible evidence of the administrative structures that had been set up to distribute aid to the needy. In the city of Oxyrhynchus, twenty-five miles south of present-day Cairo, four memos were issued on one day ordering that the widows of three churches were to receive one diploun (three to four liters) of wine, and widows of another church were to receive five diploun. On another day the “holy church” of Oxyrhynchus instructed Peter, the steward of the church, to provide a widow named Sophia with a coat. Churches kept lists of widows who needed assistance. These provisions were not random acts of charity; they were part of an organized and regular system for providing food and clothing. In these cities the responsibility for overseeing the care of widows was taken over by a group of laywomen known as the “women of the widows”. Significantly, the most common commercial property owned by churches was a bakery.
The most impressive evidence of the presence of Christianity in ancient China is a large stone monument discovered in the seventeenth century on the precints of a temple in Sian-fu, not too far from Xi’an. The monument of black limestone is ten feet high and three and a half feed wide, with seventeen hundred Chinese characters, interspersed with Syriac words and Syriac names with Chinese characters indicating how they are to be pronounced. It was erected in 781 on the site of a monastery of the Church of the East.
Besides this… a cache of Christian documents was found in a walled-up chapel in Tunhuang early in the nineteenth century. These include writings in Chinese by Christian monks, some translated from the Syria, others original contributions. There is a hymn in adoration of the “Transfiguration of our Lord”, a work entitled Jesus Messiah Sutra that outlines the fundamental teachings of Christianity, a Discourse on the Oneness of the Ruler of the Universe, and another on almsgiving. According to those who have studied them, these writings are difficult to understand because they were written by someone who did not know Chinese well. Nevertheless, they show that Christian monks were consciously attempting to present Christianity in a way that would be intelligible to Chinese. For example, they emphasize virtues such as ancestor worship, filial piety, even veneration of the emperor. Other documents written 150 years later display a surer knowledge of the Chinese language, a more accomplished literary style, and skillful presentation of Christian beliefs.
I love that we have records of some early missionary trying to hack his way through learning a foreign language. If you were trying to learn Chinese from scratch with no reference materials, of course you would suck! But these monks kept trying and it paid off. They got better over time. It’s also interesting that in their early attempts to communicate the gospel, local beliefs and ideas (or at the very least vocabulary) was mixed in to try and get the point across. This resulted in syncretism of course, but a temporary and fading syncretism – the best kind! It’s unfortunate that this strain of Christianity was wiped out in a later century.
A keen early observation regarding Islam:
The earliest recorded comment of a Christan reaction to Muhammad dates from ounly a couple of years after the Prophet’s death. When tales of a prophet amont the Arabs reached Christian Syria, someoe asked an old man, “What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens?” The old man groaned deeply and said, “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.”
[Alcuin’s] most enduring achievement [around 800 AD] was the introduction of a new and more uniform script, what is known as the Carolingian or Caroline minuscule. In the ancient world, Latin manuscripts had been written soley in capital letters, without punctuation or divisions between words and sentences. To read aloud publicly required great skill and preparation. The new script used small letters, called minuscules, as well as capital letters, majuscules, to mark the beginning of a sentence or a new train of thought. Clearer and more legible, simpler to write, friendly to the reader, it quickly became the standard for the copying of books. Punctuation was added, including commas and periods, and the question mark appears for the first time. Manuscripts from this time begin to resemble the printed page of a modern book.
I guess if you have studied printing at all you know all about the monk Alcuin, but this was new to me. The idea that centuries of early writing happened without spaces between sentences or words is kind of mind-blowing.
A funny anecdote about Christianity’s inherent friendliness to drinking:
An account of Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity is told in a colorful story in The Russian Primary Chronicle, a work made of different sources from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. According to the chronicle, Vladimir received visits from representatives of the several religions practice by neighboring peoples. First came a group of Muslims from the Bulgars. When Vladimir asked them to explain their faith to him they said they believed in God, practiced circumcision, ate no pork, and drank no wine. When he hears what they had to say, the told them that circumcision and abstinence from pork were disagreeable to him. As for drinking, that “is the joy of the Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure.”
On the broad cultural expressions of Christianity – only the core of it is monolithic:
The global outreach of Christianity in the early centuries is a testimony to its cultural adaptability and diversity. Christianity as practiced among the Armenians differed from the ways of the Greeks or Ethiopians. Of course, the Armenians, Greeks, and Ethiopians had much in common: they were governed by bishops; they fostered monastic life; they baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit; they confessed the Creed of Nicaea. But the difference in language, customs, liturgical practices, architecture, and art gave birth to distinctive spiritual and cultural forms of life across the Christian world. When the Crusaders arrive in the East to free their fellow Christians from the yoke of Islam, they had great difficulty recognizing and understanding the way Easter Christians lived and prayed.
Textbook accounts of Christianity preset its history as a tale of continuous growth and expansion. By a selective choice of periods, events, and geographical regions the conventional account (seen from the perspective of Europe and North America) gives the impression that Christianity is always moving forward. Seen in global perspective that picture is illusory. If on injects in this sanguine narrative the spread of Islam, things take on a different coloring. Set against the success of Islam and its staying power, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and attrition as it is by growth and triumph.
At one point ~50% of Christians lands had been conquered by Islam, but then it bounced back. We should not be dismayed if we have to live through some kind of decline. The acceptance of Christ as Lord among the nations has always been in a combination of small growth, lurches, and occasional setbacks.
Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity. Leitourgia was a “public work,” a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis. As such it was distinct from the economic activity or the private and more material concern of making a living and managing the productive enterprises of the “household.”
This is interesting as in the USA, the “religious nonsense” that one does inside the walls of a church are largely lumped in with all things “private” – along with what happens in your kitchen or bedroom. But historically, it’s more clearly delineated as public. Worshipping in public is a public act, but some economic acts that we now would call “public” were considered essentially private – with the end being ones own household. It is curious how some of this has been flipped on it’s head in the modern world.
We must be on our guard against a kind of blind and immature zeal – the zeal of the enthusiast or of the zealot – which represents precisely a frantic compensation for the deeply personal qualities which are lacking to us. The zealot is the man who “loses himself” in his cause in such a way that he can no longer “find himself” at all. Yet paradoxically this “loss” of himself is not the salutary self-forgetfullness commanded by Christ. It is rather an immersion in his own willfulness conceived as the will of an abstract, non-personal force: the force of a project or a program. He is, in other words, alienated by the violence of his own enthusiasm: and by that very violence he tends to produce the same kind of alienation in others. This type of zeal does great harm.
Benedict warns against the same sort of thing in his Rule though Merton is clearer here. To restate, there is a “losing oneself in a cause” that is actually just a selfish magnification of oneself. This must be guarded against when you are a leader or some of your closest and most enthusiastic followers will prove to be rotten eggs in the long run.
Here, Merton does a good job of describing time in a way that turns it from a claustrophobic constraint to an artistic one. Good stuff with a lot of potentially positive implications.
Time for the Christian is then the sphere of his spontaneity, a sacramental gift in which he can allow his freedom to deploy itself in joy, in the creative virtuosity of choice that is always blessed with the full consciousness that God wants His sons to be free, that He is glorified by their freedom. For God takes pleasure not in dictating predetermined solution to providential riddles, but in giving man the opportunity to choose and create for himself solutions that are glorious in their very contingency.
The universe which came into being will some day grow cold, perhaps, and die. What will remain? Such is the view of life and time implied by the Hellenistic mystery religions, with their ontological foundations in Platonism. Time, the realm of matter and of “becoming” is the prison of eternal and divine spirits who have been punished by their descent into bodies, and seek desperately some way to return to the pure spiritual realm which is their “home.” This climate of dualism and myth has, in effect, influence much Christian thought, though it is not found in the Bible.
It’s pretty easy to turn “gnosticism” (the scare quotes are intentional in this case) into the bogeyman in nearly any theological debate today. Nevertheless, the underlying spirit/body divide is a big deal and really has been terribly influential in Christian thought. So much so that one has to consciously examine an idea with it in mind to detect it’s presence since it’s so often assumed in casual discourse.
The Narnian is a recent biography of C.S. Lewis that I found to be quite interesting. I wrote about Lewis’s dissonant legacy among evangelicals here. These here are just the rest of the excepts I copied down while I was reading along. A few comments are included. Like all “misc notes” posts, it’s not at all comprehensive and some of the best parts were likely forgotten due to my notebook or computer being far away when I encountered them.
Here, Chesterton defends crappy fiction. Hopefully this would extend to kids who grew up reading Transformers fan fic instead of Proust.
Chesterton is half-puzzzled and half-offended by the alarm [about ‘penny dreadfuls’ pulp fiction]. He has no wish to defend the “dreadfuls” as literature, but he does want to defend them as “the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.” To Chesterton, “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and other than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.” In fact, he continues, “literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” That is, while we can live without Balzac, brilliant though he may be the, the penny dreadful are truly vital to human well-being.
A marvelous passage from Surprised by Joy about the call of God:
The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at the; but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.
In his poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien says that trees are not “trees” until named and seen. But where does the name come from? I’ve dealt with this before here and also here. Here, Tolkien likens naming to “divination” – a sensing of God’s creative Word (capital W) behind the created thing.
The argument here is that when imagined unfallen beings – Tolkien does not speak directly of Adam, that was not his way – first named the things of this world, they did so by means of an instinctive insight into (a “divination,” a “deep monition” of) their natures. And the natures of things are primarily defined, always by their having been created, made by the commanding Word of God. (Likewise, in his Confessions Saint Augustine looks are the world and asks what it can tell hi about God, and everything “shouts aloud, ‘He made us!'”)
Fabulous quote from Owen Barfield here – this should be required contemplation for anyone who as ever used the phrase “the wrong side of history” unironically.
“You must find out why [a belief held commonly in the past] went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”
His students would invariables say that [Lewis] never made any attempts to impose or even “push” his Christian beliefs in lectures or tutorials, but it could not have escaped Lewis’s notice – or that of the more attentive students – that in laying the groundwork for an appreciation of medieval and Renaissance literature, he was also silently removing some of the impediments to an appreciation of the religion of those eras – which happened to be Christianity.
Laying this groundwork is super important and fairy stories help that happen. It matters little how refined our preaching is if the seed falls on hard ground, and heavier doses of theology will not till the soil further.
Several money quotes from the Abolition of Man:
St. Augustin defines virtue as the ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that he aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.
What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.
I loved this anecdote on Lewis not being an ascetic.
When the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph did a story on [Lewis] in 1944, the writer referred to him at one point as “ascetic Mr. Lewis,” a description that made Tolkien splutter with incredulity and indignation. He wrote to his son, “‘Ascetic Mr. Lewis’ –!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’ To any who might might criticize such gusto as unseemly for a Christian, Lewis could reply, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life in us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”
When it is necessary to approach difficult questions, one must, Lewis believes, stick as closely as possibly to “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This is especially important when such questions are raised in the presence of unbelievers, that is, in public: “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring outsiders into the Christian fold… Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.” This is a very strict rule! Never discuss those divisions in public? But Christians’ failure to obey it seems to have done Christianity little good and much harm.
THIS right here. I’d read the quoted passage before, but hadn’t realized what Lewis was saying until Jacobs drew such attention to it. Christians should NOT discuss inside baseball where pagans can see us bickering with each other. It destroys our witness. We should present a unified front of the foundations. This is probably a key aspect of successful ecumenical movements. The deep desire of some denominational leaders and theologians (past and present) to score points for their team in public is only every destructive.
In this passage from the Screwtape letters, the demons to minimize our awareness of the worldwide church throughout history and to just focus on problems within our local expressions. Satan hates wide reading and diversity of friends.
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as a army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.
An “easy conscience” is precisely the problem, Lewis felt, with the “liberal and ‘broad-minded'” Christians of his or any other time: their self-satisfaction, their inability to sense that they need to be “obedient” to ANY particular teach of set of beliefs. Feeling no need to obey, they never discover that they CANNOT obey, and therefore never discover the need for repentance, conversion, transformation – the kind of transformation that would make them fit participants in the great assembly of the redeemed that John envisioned in his Revelation.
This gets to the heart of the problem with liberal theology quicker than just about anything I have ever read. When there is nothing to obey, you do not sufficiently discover that you CANNOT obey and your faith in man’s strength and cleverness and progress remains naively uncontested.
More on how “showing” morals is generally more powerful than teaching them explicitly.
What do children want? What do children need? It is better not to ask the questions at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.
A timeless and widely applicable quote from George Orwell:
“There is no argument by which one can defend a poem” – and by poem he meant any work of literary art. “It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”
Circling back around to the first passage about Chesterton and the pulp fiction, here Lewis asserts that children reading adventure stories are probably where the real action and learning (good or ill) is happening.
“Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bedclothes by the light of an electric torch.”
p.295 (from an Experiment in Criticism)
At the recommendation of several acquaintances, I recently read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. It starts out well. He has a sound critique of how most of our western institutions (church, university, etc.) prop up the youthful ambition of the “first half of life” but are lost at sea for what to do with those past mid-life and especially the elderly. Some of his anecdotes and ideas effectively push back against performance-driven culture and works-based religion in the same way that Robert Capon used to and that my Lutheran friends at Mockingbird continue to do. There were a few eyebrow-raising nods to Islamic and Buddhist mystics here and there, but I can appreciate this kind of eclecticism to a point. At least it’s not boring.
But it soon become boring. Rohr’s introduction is like a smattering of ideas at turns brilliant and ridiculous. The writing is like Philip Yancy on a bad day – a whiplash of barely connected thoughts changing every paragraph instead of every page or chapter. He promises early on to provide a guide through the “second half of life” in the forthcoming chapters, but all one really finds is just more introductory appetite-whetting material. Rohr loads up his shotgun shells with quotes from the early church fathers, Carl Jung, Julian of Norwich, the Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton, Sigmund Freud, Ghandi, and occasionally St. Paul. He then blasts them at the reader with the rhythm of a gamer fraggin’ demons in Doom as if it were 1993 even though the book was published in 2011.
His writing is dressed up like it’s going to a Halloween party. How you say? Scare quotes. Scare quotes on all. the. things. I’ve never seen so many congregating in one place before. I counted only one place where the word “sin” occurred without scare quotes. The same goes for the word “salvation” though ideas imported from modern psychology and eastern religion apparently don’t require them:
If you get mirrored well early in life, you do not have to spend the rest of your life looking in Narcissus’s mirror or begging for the attention of others. You have already been “attended to,” and now feel basically good – and always will. This Hindus call this exciting mutual beholding darshan. Once you have your narcissistic fix, you have no real need to protect you identity, defend it, prove it, or assert it. It just is and is more than enough. This is what we actually mean by “salvation”. (p.5)
Actually, I don’t think that’s what ANYONE on earth means or has ever meant by the word “salvation”, even those on the fringe of Christianity.
In Rohr’s writing, there is no train of thought or sustained argument. It’s like a music video where the camera cuts every two seconds between a tranquil forest scene, a church full of chanting monks, a bevy of Buddhist break-dancers, and a time-lapse shot of bustling downtown Manhattan.
Falling Upward was like the B-side of a Sufjan Stevens record with a sublime melodic air interrupted by atonal electronic beeps every 30 seconds. If what Rohr is playing is Christianity, it’s been run through every stomp box that The Edge owns, all at the same time.
And you know what? That’s fine. All of that’s fine. If Rohr wants to make his way as a spiritual writer and self-help speaker like Deepak Chopra, I don’t have any problem with that. It doesn’t mean he can’t be or hasn’t been helpful to lots of people who have listened to him, read his works, or attended his retreats. Some of my own favorite authors and thinkers are very much not Christian at all. My only real issue is with the name he trades under. He is quick to present himself (in the first paragraph of his bio on the dust jacked) as a legitimate friar of the Order of St. Francis – a bonafide ordained Roman Catholic priest in good standing. How it is that he hasn’t been defrocked is beyond my understanding – likely due to some deeply rooted dysfunction within the RC. An Episcopal friend of mine informs me that the Franciscan order, despite it’s virtues, has long been a haven for all kinds of fringe elements and that if folks like him had been in the Benedictine order, they likely would have been kicked out ages ago. Maybe that’s it. I’m not familiar enough with the internals to know.
It is clear that Rohr’s philosophy and theology is very broad from the beginning. It has to be large enough to include Sufi Islam, Buddhism, some forms of Hindu, and even some primitive paganism inside it’s tent. In the middle of the book he recounts how elated he was when he discovered in college that the story of Abraham was actually just a myth and not real history. If only the rest of us could be so enlightened. Jesus pops up here and there in Rohr’s understanding of the universe, but at no time is the incarnation ever really necessary. Human beings have no need for a savior because the only thing we really need saved from is our own wrong thinking. He mocks “substitutionary atonement theory” (using scare quotes of course), but doesn’t invoke Christus Victor either. The reason is, Christ doesn’t apparently need to be victorious over anything. The Trinity (without scare quotes for some reason, probably a mistake) is described not as reality, but as just a helpful way Christians developed to talk about God. Rohr is a theist, but a highly univerasalist one. Not a Christian universalist like (maybe) Robert Capon was, with Jesus always at the center, but an explicitly pluralistic one.
And again, I’m fine with him being that. My chief annoyance ends up being his fluffy writing style, and his appeal to formal church authority in his credentials while abhorring dogmatic authority in all other places. He should keep the blurb from Dr. Oz on the back of his books, but bury the lead about him being a legit priest for a historically orthodox institution. I believe it to be in bad faith.
Is this blog post not a rather sloppy shotgun blast of metaphors, half-formed arguments and even silly pictures? I’m afraid it is! It’s akin to the terrible Mandarin accent I pick up after speaking with local Chinese students. Time to go try reading something else!
I often find introductions to be the home of the very best writing and ideas in many large works. This was most definitely the case in Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years:
“What power preserves what once was, if memory does not last?” – Czeslaw Milosz
The past doesn’t vanish at once; it dies slowly. But if remembered, the dead maintain their ground and live among us. Historical memory, like all memory, is selective, and there are many claimants to the telling of Christianity’s early history. The Christian Church has a long and crowded past, and whether by design, forgetfulness, or ignorance, its history will be remembered in different ways. Our knowledge of the past is not objective but personal and participatory. (p.1)
In the file marked “Things I Got in Trouble for as a Kid”, is an incident that occurred in the sixth grade when my teacher asked us to keep a literary journal or book of days. As I’d already read the assigned book (The Hobbit) a few years prior, I took a class period to analyze the lyrics of Beck’s hit song “Loser”, which had just dropped onto the 1994 waves of Top 40 radio.
Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Banned all the music with a phony gas chamber
Cause one’s got a weasel and the others got a flag
One’s got on the pole shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nose job
The daytime crap with the folksinger slop
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey neck and it’s hangin’ on a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax fallin’ on a termite
Who’s chokin’ on the splinters
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me?
(Get crazy with the Cheeze Whiz)
Who can make heads or tails out of that, eh? Especially when you’re a preteen and you have at least a third a the lyrics wrong since the internet didn’t exist yet aid to scrutinizing the urtext. But I took a stab at it, and somehow a few weeks later, my mom found it while reading through my school things. “What is this terrible stuff!?” she asked. “Did you write this? Did someone teach you this at school?” (We weren’t homeschooled yet.)
“No mom. It’s just this stupid song on the radio. It’s kind of funny. Um. Well, at the end after the loser stuff, the guy says, ‘I’m a driver, I’m a winner. Things are gonna change, I can feel it!’, so like, I don’t think he’s serious. I think it’s kind of a joke or something.”
Actually, that’s not what I said. I didn’t have the capacity to comprehend the heaps of postmodern irony in Beck’s songcraft at the time. I had nothing to do except apologize for copying Bad Things from the radio to my notebook and to promise to make more of an effort to imbibe “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report”. “If there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8). And that is, in fact, very excellent advice.
But sometimes, when the world is a storm of curveballs and nonsense hitting you in the face, whether it be at home, at work, on the news, on Facebook or what have you, a holy reverie can seem a thousand miles away. But making fun of it all can be a healthy response too. When you’ve truly wanted to burn down the trailer park (from verse one, not included in the above excerpt) or had a job that really did make you feel like a termite choking on the splinters, then this stupid song is finally revealed for what it actually is: A silly piece like you might hear on Sesame Street, only geared for adults. Both can help make you happy if the timing is right.
This is a bit of follow-up to my earlier post, Is missionary work really harder now than it was in the middle ages? I could use a variety of examples from history, both ancient and even some relatively recent revivals or foreign mission success stories. However, for the sake of convenience, I’ll use the conversion of the fierce Picts in Scotland to Christianity by St. Columcille’s monks in the sixth century versus attempts to plant churches or strengthen Christian cultural institutions in the present-day secular modern United States.
Each of of the questions I’m going to ask can be viewed as having two variables. One could draw a 2×2 grid of four possible logical answers to the question and then evaluate each one. Along the way, I think we’ll find that some options can be eliminated easily, while others are cause for rigorous debate.
1. Were the pagan Picts much more set in their sinful ways or is it our modern culture that is particularly hostile?
A. The Picts were really hard nuts to crack and so are the secularists in our culture today.
B. The Picts were really hard nuts to crack but our current secularists are actually a lot less resistant than they were. People now are much more open.
C. The Picts were actually surprisingly receptive pagans, unlike our extremely cynical and self-confident secularists today.
D. The Picts were actually pretty receptive pagans, and our current crop of pagans are not much different. We’re just whiners.
It’s a toss up as to rather I hear option B or C articulated by Christian leaders most of the time.
2. The conversion of Ireland and Scotland was dramatically successful. Were the old pagans really receptive to the light of Christ, or were the old saints particularly special and amazing in their holiness and methods?
A. The old pagans were especially receptive and the Celtic saints weren’t anything special. Accounts of both are overblown.
B. The old pagans were really, really bad, but the Celtic saints were freakin’ amazing!
C. The old pagans were really, really bad, and the Celtic saints were kind of lame, but the Holy Spirit caused widespread miracles to happen regardless.
D. The old pagans were especially receptive, and the Celtic saints were really great too.
It’s hip and cynical to vote for option A on this one, but I still hear option B from people that like to hype things up.
3. We seem to be having a lot of trouble spreading the gospel. Is it because we suck, or have we just been given an especially difficult task?
A. We suck at perpetuating the gospel, and our culture is really especially resistant to it. Bummer.
B. We do a decent job of communicating the gospel, but the culture is really especially resistant to it. It’s mostly their fault.
C. We suck at communicating the gospel, and the culture is about as receptive or not as any people group has ever been. It’s mostly our fault.
D. We are really good at communicating the gospel, and some in the culture are actually receiving it. It just LOOKS like they aren’t because current elites hate on Christianity in a very public way. That is, we are mistaken in our evaluation of the situation.
The Reformed typically tell a story that sounds like option B (our preaching kicks ass but they aren’t listening), and the Anabaptists and some left-leaning folks talk like option C is what is going on (we’re asleep at the wheel so we can’t blame them too much). Folks like Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and some Chinese folks talk like option D is what is going on as soon as you step out of USA/Europe. I’d really like to believe them, but I’m still not sure at this point.
4. Are we anything like the old saints?
A. The old Celtic saints were surely amazing, and actually, we are really spiritual and clever and hard-working too.
B. The old Celtic saints were amazing, but we’re a bunch of losers who play with our smart phones all day and wonder why nothing happens.
C. The old Celtic saints were nothing special, and actually we’ve come a long way since then. We’re way smarter and more theologically orthodox too.
D. The old Celtic saints were not that great, and neither are we. We both suck. Their success was kind of a fluke based on the weird circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Roman Empire.
As a young man, I heard a LOT of option B. I know a lot of my Reformed friends have too. Jim Elliot bios, Charismatic hagiographies of folks like Smith Wigglesworth, “Don’t Waste Your Life”, “Do Hard Things”, etc. I occasionally hear option C suggested, though it’s rarely put front and center.
And one more, getting as close to the bone as possible.
5. How was the Holy Spirit at work in the past and today?
A. The Holy Spirit was doing stuff back then, but not now. Maybe he’s gearing up to burn the world with fire!
B. The Holy Spirit wasn’t really moving back then, but he is now. What happened back then was syncretistic nominalistic crap, but now we’re part of the new Remnant awesome!
C. The Holy Spirit wasn’t really moving back then, and he’s not now either. We’re just tossed on the waves by (probably meaningless) forces we can never understand.
D. The Holy Spirit was doing stuff back then, and he is now too. The wind swirls but has never stopped. We are not alone – not even a little bit.
I’ve heard A and B spoken of by quite a variety of figures. It’s really kind of funny how either of these can be worked into widely disparate theological frameworks. Option C is the default for secular nihilists. I’m for option D.
I just finished reading Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s a popular history book, that is it’s fun and easy to read rather than serious and scholarly. I really enjoyed it, but at the same time, feel that I must be bit skeptical about the optimistic nature of the story it tells. Despite the modern lingo and distance, it still strikes me as a hagiography. Yes, without the miracles found in the Voyage of Brendan the Navigator, and with more grounded references to the rest of Europe during the middle ages, but still a story camping out on all the good and especially cool things about the main characters. St. Patrick and St. Columcille’s faults are mentioned in passing and brushed aside while their accomplishments are amplified and celebrated.
I got the same feeling as I do reading Philip Jenkin’s history books. It’s all Christians doing awesome stuff all over the world that we forgot (or forget) about. The obvious next question is of course, how can WE Christians find such fabulous success in our own ministerial endeavors in the hostile modern West? All we can see are hurdles, road-blocks, and enemies on our way to accomplishing anything that looks even remotely like the spread of Celtic monasticism or the evangelism of the fierce Picts. And yet, fierce they were. Were they a tougher nut to crack than our own mixed neighboring cultures? Those early Scots that the monks at Iona reached out to where men who stripped off all their clothes, painted their bodies and ran screaming into battle, then went home and participated in orgies and human sacrifice. And here we are trying to preach to folks who cover their bodies with tattoos, work in the tech industry and then come home, order food in, and watch pornography. We both speak of Jesus. The former group listened intently, the latter will have none of it. Or so it seems. I ask again, is our missionary task now in the 21st century really harder than theirs was in the 6th century?
This is not a rhetorical question. I’m really asking. When you read traditionalists decry the creep of modernism, it seems like maybe things really are worse off for us – it really does. But I am skeptical of this complaint too. Is the literacy of pagans really so bad? What if the problem is with us. What if we have simply become too worldly and are of little interest to those we are trying to convert? The monks at Iona were not exactly trying to blend in, and people flocked to them in droves. It’s almost like we are hoping for a too-integrated society of – one where new converts drop their twenty-something sins in the trash and transform overnight into denim-skirt wearing homeschoolers with twelve children singing hymns around the dinner table. That stuff takes time – LOTS of time. Why do we get so frustrated when their steps toward Christ are slow or partial? Patrick, in preaching the gospel and establishing many churches, was apparently successful in eliminating human sacrifice and much petty local war, but not sexual promiscuity. Does that mean he was a failure? It would seem so by our current measures.
I think it’s possible that all of this puzzlement with history can be chalked up to the compression of time in our observation. We look at our own life in chunks of just a few years, but when studying the past, we will frequently make a strong narrative connection between people and events that are suddenly a century apart but on neighboring sentences on the printed page. How are things in our age? Someone studying us centuries from now will be able to write a saner story than we can. We are too excited about our brief triumphs and far to disillusioned and depressed about our setbacks. The government tightens the screw on us in some oppressive way and we are downtrodden and about ready to throw in the towel. But viewed from afar, that event may not even be worth mentioning in an account. Whole chapters would instead be devoted to the heroes in our midst, whom we likely don’t even recognize.
The above is largely speculation. I’m just trying to process it all. “Yes what happened back then was maybe cool, but now everything sucks and the Devil is #winning!!!” is not a convincing summary of our age (or any age) to me. I seek a better explanation – one that shows throughout how Jesus is King.
Bill Cosby (decades before he became anathema this past year), in one of his most excellent reflections on childhood, described how he and his friends used to play in a vacant lot filled with rocks and broken glass. Nobody ever got hurt until the adults turned it into a playground and in the first week three kids had broken their arms on the monkey bars and several others had delayed their entrance into puberty by being crunched on the seesaw. Before, imagination reigned with unpredictable danger. After, prescribed exercise and predictable injury.
The new play structure in the park across the street from my house takes this ethos one step further. Instead of dirt or bark, it’s on a deep cement slab, which was then covered by recycled rubber padding so children would presumably not be able to hurt themselves. Consistency is king. I feel blessed to have a 100-year-old willow tree in my back yard that is ripe for climbing and falling out of.
The world is becoming disenchanted around me. Down in the local coffee shop there used to be a pipe-smoking room where one could go and pretend to be a young C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Sometimes (whether you smoked or not) it made doing homework just romantic enough to be tolerable. It’s no longer there – shut down a few years ago by the government’s right hand while it’s left hand simultaneously legalized the sale of weed. The spicy old wood and tobacco of our forebears? Out. “Premium bud” in blisterpacks? In.
Gone is the dicey used book store down the street that used to house the local Wiccan coven. It’s a geological survey office now. They’re still tramping through the forest, but far fewer are pretending to be druids. The Turkish hookah lounge is now home to a real estate agent. The infamous “Rat Haus” bar is an antique shop where even things that were brand new for my grandparents are fair game. All three fountains on the college campus have been replaced with flower beds to reduce cleaning costs and the century old carillon bells in the clock tower are now handled by a loudspeaker hooked up to an MP3 player on a timer.
Because we’re evangelical protestants, worship was and still is held in in a gymnasium or a warehouse with carpet. Stained glass? A baptismal font that doesn’t double as a cattle watering trough? Even a steeple? All apparently extravagant non-essentials from a per-industrial dark age. Who needs cathedrals when you have a reverb stomp box for your guitar?
Even as recently as 20 years back, I remember reading Michael Crichton’s novel Congo (itself a homage to King Solomon’s Mines) and being enchanted by its unmapped reaches of central Africa. Now it’s all on Google Earth – in 3D. I’m not the first or likely even the hundredth person to lament this loss, or rather the side-effect of this gain. In most accounts, satellite imagery features prominently as the bitterest pill. Is there anything mysterious left in the world?
Yes. TONS. And it’s because man and science doesn’t have everything so tidy as we presume. Talk is cheap, but being there on the ground is something else entirely. A brutal storm on the ocean is only barely less scary today than it was for Magellan. We think we’ve got the world all figured out now. Buzzzzz. Wrong. We don’t have a clue. The unknown abounds behind every bush, in every bush, munching on the berries. Kids keep asking these questions. So should we, even if it seems like all the answers are at our fingertips on Wikipedia. They’re not. Not even close. Wake up this morning. Expect to have your mind blown.