Evolving our language carefully

When members of a faith are unable to express their ideas except in a language that is primarily associated with a rival religious system—can use only the words and intellectual categories of another creed—that minority religion is en route to oblivion.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.222

There is a tricky push-pull with how much we as Christians should use the old rich language of our faith and scripture, and the modern secularist language of science and political correctness. If we withdraw from the public discourse, then we isolate ourselves from our neighbors. That is not taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Preaching on the street corner in Ye Olde King James English or even contemporary Christian idioms (“God laid it on my heart”) is going to be just noise to the passerby. On the other hand, if we rephrase our doctrine in terms of secular psychology and “ethics”, it’s very easy to shoot ourselves in the foot. To use another foot metaphor – preaching (or even just talking about) the gospel in terms of the latest Malcolm Gladwell book, the season finale of Lost, and Twitter might get our foot in the door, but then we may find that our luggage on wheels is permanently trapped in the hallway.

Language is always evolving. Conquest can make it change quickly. In a way, that’s almost easier. The slow movement will keep you on your toes. The Word is timeless, but we are in the timeline right now and must proclaim the Word (Jesus Christ, and him crucified and alive). We have the creative energy to do this, if we will lift a finger.

Mix and match religions

Religions, to stick, need to be established at the lowest level – with all the plain folk and and in all strata of culture. To do this though, they inevitably absorb and assimilate some of the local folk beliefs.

Buddhism in south east Asia is full of superstition, evil spirits, amulets, etc., even though these things don’t really have anything to do with Buddhism. They are leftover from the earlier paganism. It’s much more intellectual in northern China or Japan.

Islam looks really different in poor countries like Yemen or the tribal areas of Pakistan. In contrast, in the rich oil countries with decent cars, television, apartments buildings and restaurants, young men are much more likely to form a rock band than a terrorist cell.

Protestants are often highly annoyed by the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary, but part of this is due to the absolutely over-the-top treatment Mary receives in some parts of the world where the Marion cult has absorbed leftover idolatrous rituals. The official catechism in this area is more toned down than some realize.

American Christianity isn’t any different. Only here, in our highly individualistic and capitalistic environment could the “God wants to make you rich” notions of the prosperity gospel take hold, let alone thrive.

I was reminded of this while reading Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity. He provides an excerpt from an account of religion in Syria in 1912 written by archeologist Frederick Jones Bliss (p.205):

Christian, Moslems, Jews and Nuseiriyeh [Alawites] visit each others’ shrines. The Moslems take their insane, or “possessed” to get rid of their evil spirits in the cave of Saint Anthony, belonging to the aronite convent of Qozhayya in the Lebanon. Christians go on a similar errand to the well at the shrine of Sheikh Hassan er Rai (the Shepherd) near Damascus… During the procession on Good Friday, barren Moslem women pass under the cloth on which is stamped the figure of Christ in hopes that they may bear children. Christian women in Hums consult Dervish diviners. The Nuseiriyeh observe Christmas, though they subordinate Jesus to Ali…Instances of Moslems seeking baptism for their children as a sort of charm have been reported from all parts of Syria and Palestine.

I thought I would take a stab at rewriting this account a little closer to home:

Christians, Mormons, and Secularists visit each others’ shrines. Most classical music performances are held in churches and everyone shops at Whole Foods. The Christians take their psychologically troubled to receive the laying on of hands during worship services, but make sure to stop by Walgreens on the way home to refill their Cymbalta prescription. Mormon students show up at Campus Crusade for Christ events. During the procession of wealth in the parking lot at the office, men of all faiths try to one-up each other with various models of Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes. Barren Mormon women desperately shell out the bucks for fertility drugs in hopes that they may bear children. The atheist ACLU attorney has a Tarot deck in her desk drawer. The secularists observe Christmas, though they subordinate it to Hanukkah, despite the fact that they don’t know any Jews. Lapsed Catholics still have their children baptized and lapsed Baptists drop their kids off at Sunday school. Instances of secularists buying religious books on Amazon are reported from all states.

What fun!

The language of Christian ideas

This is spot on, as is.

Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations. Although a comparable linguistic gulf does not separate modern Western churches from the secular world, Christians still face the dilemma of speaking the languages of power, of presenting their ideas in the conceptual framework of modern physics and biology, of social and behavioral science. To take one example, when churches view sin as dysfunction, an issue for therapy rather than prayer, Christians are indeed able to participate in national discourse, but they do not necessarily have anything to offer that is distinctive. Nor is there any obvious reason why believers should retain their attachment to a religious body that in its language and thought differs not at all from the secular mainstream. Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.245

Upcoming travel to Ethiopia

Sometime in late spring, my wife and I will by traveling to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. There at an orphanage, we will be adopting a young girl who will become our fourth child. I’m very excited about the trip!

In reading about Ethiopia, I discovered that the capital is nearly 8000 feet in elevation. That will probably be high enough that the air will seem thin to us. Why is it so high I wondered? Just yesterday I discovered the answer in my reading on church history:

In Africa, low-lying Christian Nubia succumbed to Muslim assaults [in the 1300s)]. Ethiopia survived, but only after relocating its capital and main territories into its mountainous heartland.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.238

Head for the hills! In the 14th century, Muslims conquered much of the Christian world, including all of northern Africa. Ethiopia is the one exception. In fact, it’s been more or less continuously Christian longer than anywhere else on earth.

Ethiopia was a potent ally for Egypt’s Christians, when they fell under Muslim rule: as late as the fourteenth century, Ethiopia tried to prevent the ongoing persecution in Egypt by threatening to dam the Nile.


Dam the Nile. That would throw a monkey wrench in somebody’s day for sure.

What enables the church to survive tough times? (hint: it’s not money)

I just finished reading what is, admittedly, my first proper history book. It is The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins. Lest you see the title and immediately assume it has something to do with the fruity gnostic gospels that have been all the rage this past decade, the subtitle of the book should clarify things: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How It Died.

So to condense the whole book into just a sentence or two: The Roman Catholic church has never been the only game in town. Large prominent networks of Christian churches existed in the middle east, northern Africa, and in India from very early on (200 A.D.). They even still flourished after the rise of Islam. But then, in the 1300’s…. POOF! Now, we in the west barely even remember they ever existed.

In the final chapter he draws some conclusions. In some places, the church dissolved amazingly fast when persecuted. In other places, it holds on even today. What was the difference?

The difference was how grass-roots the Jesus movement became. In old Morocco and Algeria, cathedrals were built and the church had lots of real estate, political influence, and upper-class followers in the cities. If you read Augustine’s letters, you can see that he was very focused on his one metropolitan center. Christianity never penetrated the many outlying villages and folk cultures. The bible stayed in Latin and was not translated into the vernacular. When the Muslims invaded and the government changed hands, the Christians vanished. Everyone who was left found it easy to convert to Islam since their Christian roots did not go deep.

In neighboring Egypt however, the scriptures were translated into the local language (what we call Coptic) very early on. The whole culture, from the learned to the peasant was steeped in Christianity for hundreds of years. The church was not near as dependent on the hierarchy of bishops. When the ecclesiastic framework collapsed under Muslim oppression, the people remained Christian, even influencing their captor’s own religion in turn.

In the sixth century, some five hundred bishops operated in this region; by the eighth century, it is hard to find any. Ironically, one of the paladins of North African Christianity in the third century had been the prophetic church father Tertullian, who wrote the famous line about the blood of martyrs being the seed of te church; yet some centuries later, this very church all but vanished before the Muslim invaders. In this case, seemingly, the seed had falled on stony ground.

In Egypt, by contrast, which has been under Muslim rule since 640, not only does native Christianity survive to this day, but the Coptic Church has often exercised social and political infulence. Even in the twentieth century, it probably still retained the loyalty of 10 percent of Egyptians.

The key difference making for survival is rather how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed. While the Egyptians put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinay people, from city dewellers through peasants, the Africans concentrated only on certain categories, certain races. Egyptian Christianity became native,; its African counterpart was colonial.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.34,35

Jenkin’s does a very good job of playing neutral in his conclusions, but it’s impossible for him to not take a jab at the prosperity gospel. Tying our faith to worldly success and wealth is, historically speaking, a sure-fire way to lose all your converts as soon as times get tough. If material wealth and political power are preached as a sign of favor with God, then when the economy tanks or war comes (and it will!) then many will lose faith, or switch faith.

He sees the protestant reformation, with it’s printing press and the placing of Bibles in every hand as a huge step toward making Christianity ultimately conquest-proof, despite the internal strife and factions that it created, and still feeds today.

The cold makes everyone really grumpy, homicidal even.

The phrase “Climate Change” is nearly always used as a code-word for global-warming politics, but the phrase CAN be used (after the fact, if honest) more literally to describe long-term weather patterns. The “little ice-age”, Jenkin’s argues, was a critical ingredient in the downfall of Christianity in the near east.

Around the world, in fact, the years around 1300 produced an appalling trend toward religious and ethnic intolerance, a movement that must be explained in terms of global factors, rather than merely local. The aftereffects of the Mongol invasions certainly played their part, by terrifying Muslims and others with the prospect of a direct threat to their social and religious power. Climatic factors were also critical, as the world entered a period of rapid cooling, precipitating bad harvests and shrinking trade routes: a frightened and impoverished world looks for scapegoats. For whatever reasons, Muslim regimes and mobs now delivered near-fatal blows to weakened Christian churches. Even today, jihadi extremists look back to the hard-line Muslim scholars of this very era as their role models in challenging the infidel world.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.33

Around 1300, the world was changing, and definitely for the worse.

If we seek a common factor that might explain this simultaneous scapegoating of vulnerable minorities, by far the best candidate is climate change, which was responsible for many economic changes in these years, and which increased poverty and desperation across the globe. Populations had swelled during the warming period between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. Europe’s population more than doubled during these prosperous times, forcing settlers to swarm onto marginal lands. In the late thirteenth century, however, Europe and the Middle Easter entered what was described as the Little Ice Age, as pack ice grew in the oceans, and trade routes became more difficult both by land and sea. Summers became cooler and wetter, and as harvests deteriorated, people starved.


Desert also reclaimed much farm-land in the middle-east. The fact that irrigation infrastructure had recently been trashed by the Mongols didn’t help anything either.

Against this social background, states foundered, kings were murdered, and popular revolts and uprisings became commonplace. (This age of crisis is the backdrop to the Scottish national revolution portrayed in the film Braveheart.) Whatever the religious coloring of particular societies, this was a world that directly attributed changes in weather or harvest to the divine will, and it seemed natural to blame catastrophes on the misdeeds of deviant minorities who angered God. Bitter experience taught governments of all faiths not to try to stem the rage of mobs against hated minority grounds. The anti-Christian persecution in Egypt in 1354 followed shortly after the visitation of the Black Death, which killed a third of the residents of Cairo.


Even when the Muslim’s conquered much of the middle east and north Africa in the 7th century, they largely let the Christian communities survive. There was some oppression, but not genocide. Large portions of the population was still Christian. This went on for hundreds of years, but it all changed dramatically in the 1300s. This is an excellent example of what Girard calls “the escalation to extremes” and the confusion of acts of God with acts of man. The classic time for a minority to be oppressed or expelled from society is in the wake of a plague (like the Black Death) or a natural disaster such as a devastating earthquake or famine. The society is unified against the innocent victim.

With Satan working behind the scenes in every man’s heart, it is astonishing how EASY it is for people to blame _______ (fill in the blank with minority group of your choice) for all the terrible things happening and rise up in murderous wrath against them. Once the scapegoat has been expelled (or killed) and the people have “let off steam”, then things return to normal, for a while at least. Probably for that generation.

The advance of the gospel, as well as the advance of science has made this sort of scapegoating and hatred ridiculously obvious to us. But we can fall back into it at a moments notice if we’re not careful.

Our lost connection to the first church

Everyone and their dog wants to emulate the “New Testament Church”. Many movements in fact claim to be doing just that, especially ones on the communal living side of things. We have church planting networks named things like “Acts 29” to invoke the same ideas. As I’ve mentioned before though, despite many whole books be written on the subject, the fact is we really don’t know much about what the early church looked like, not enough to even begin to emulate it or to decide what about it was worth emulating. Jenkin’s here mentions how the annihilation of the near eastern church is Syria cut off what was our last legitimate link to the very first Christians.

Throughout the history of the faith, Christians have used the primitive church as an idealized standard by which to judge their own days, and have tried as far as possible to construct their own faith and practice according to the tenets of New Testament Christianity. Yet the better we understand the authentic worlds of the Christian East, the harder it becomes to contemplate any such vision of a “return to basics.” Timothy [Bishop Timothy of the Eastern Church, 780 A.D.] and his contemporaries genuinely did live in a world that had a recognizable continuity from the earliest church, a pattern of organic development in terms of social and economic arrangements, of language, culture, and geography. We can debate how far that world represented authentic primitive Christianity, but it is quite certain that no later ages could possibly replicate the apostolic world anything like as faithfully. The loss of continuity – the loss of the core – makes moot later efforts to enforce culture-specific regulations of the earliest Christian communities.

-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity, p.26