Some Things Do Change

Pelikan BookI’m teaching Church History again this year, and alongside my work in the course I’ve decided to read through Jaroslav Pelikan‘s five-volume The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  As I write this morning, I’ve only just begun.

In the initial book of the series, Pelikan discusses early Christianity through the first six centuries AD.  While he does so, he addresses the culture within which much of the young religion arose: the late classical world.  To this end he writes the following:

The victory of orthodox Christian doctrine over classical thought was to some extent a Pyrrhic victory, for the theology that triumphed over Greek philosophy has continued to be shaped ever since by the language and the thought of classical metaphysics (44).

Christian theology as we know it, in other words, was profoundly touched and affected by outside forces fairly early on.  Such a statement might elicit a number of responses.  Some might deny that it is true, assuming that every bit of the Church’s teaching is exactly how the Apostles framed it.  Others, taking a typically modern perspective, might decry such additions and seek to purify the faith by removing them.  Postmoderns by contrast may simply yawn, asserting that since there is no such thing as “true” Christianity and hinton st marythat the faith has always been first defined through the lens of cultural metanarratives, there is no point in trying to discover what the earliest Christians believed.

As a Christian historian, I find myself in the midst of these questions when I consider the early Church.  It would be nice to assert, as per the first position, that Christian theology has always been understood by the Church in the same way.  While I would assert that one can trace a stream of orthodoxy through the centuries, even the most basic read of history reveals that the way the Church has reflected upon the “deposit of faith” has changed over time.

What of the second position?  Well, I am an historian.  I am interested in digging into the past.  The lure of understanding what the earliest believers understood about their faith is there.  I am reading the first volume of Pelikan’s work, after all.  But even so, I’m not ready to jettison all the nuance time and space have given to Christian doctrine and the language we have used to describe it in favor of some nascent and (likely) historically irretrievable arh430-530earlychristianartgenesis.  If it is possible to understand Christian theology completely untouched by the Roman world, we will still be understanding it from only one point of view and–unless new sources are available–likely incomplete and in need of further explication.  Besides, in the process of understanding it from our perspective, we might very well be doing the same kind of culturally-conditioned doctrinal alterations that proponents of this position would decry in the first place.

All of this points towards those holding the third, more relativist position.  Clearly this has its appeal.  Christianity is and has always been shaped by its historical and cultural location: first in the Jewish world, then in the Greco-Roman world, and on and on.  This to me is a largely agreeable line of thought.  But then there’s more.  With so many kinds of Christianities–both in Antiquity and today–it is easy to give in to the belief that it is all subjective.  There is an almost nihilism in the furthest extremes of this position.  If none of it matters ultimately, why does any of it matter?  Is heresy really heresy or just another “version?”  As an orthodox Christian historian, I have a difficult time with some of this thinking.

History as a discipline, aware as it is of the many narratives in which we are involved, still carries with it a certain connection to objectivity.  I often feel this pull as I engage in my work.  There is an actual historical record with which we have to deal, and the investigation of said record reveals both details and insight even as it bounds us.  It Archbishop's_Chapel,_Ravennatells us, I believe, that there are some basic things about Christianity that have persisted from the earliest days. It also reveals how doctrine has developed and changed over time.  To admit what Pelikan does in the quotation above is simply to state a fact.  How we interact with such facts vis-a-vis the three positions I’ve laid out is up to us.

Christianity has been influenced by the world(s) in which it has lived.  That’s a fact.  But it is Christianity that has been influenced.  The Church’s lively debates, factions, reforms, and reframing over time have always been with reference to the core ideas–and Person–around which it is based.  Though articulated very differently, I believe these can still be discernibly Christian.

To Be Continued.


Review: “Chasing Francis”

chasing-francis-ian-morgan-cronA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to read the book Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron.  It relates the (fictional) tale of a contemporary evangelical pastor whose crisis of faith leads him on an Italian sabbatical to reflect on the life and principles of St. Francis of Assisi.  By the time he returns to the United States, the 39-year-old pastor has a new perspective on church and ministry summed up in five words: “transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning” (196).

As a Church historian who teaches ministry courses–and who spent a day and night in Assisi this past summer–I had a great deal of interest as I approached in this book.  At least part of this excitement continued throughout my reading of it. The central narrative was compelling, and it was interesting to see and experience how the story of Pastor Chase Falson unfolded.  The descriptions of Italy and Assisi brought back fond memories, and Cron’s writing helped deepen some reflections I had about St. Francis during my “pilgrimage” there this July.31709486_la-mattonata_bedbreakfast_assisi

And yet: there were aspects of the story that I didn’t enjoy.  For inasmuch as the central narrative was engaging, aspects of the text were problematic.  Falson’s home church, for instance, seemed chock full of attacks on (perceived) evangelicalism ,including a rather dim portrayal of an ambitious, deceptive, and less-than-bright youth pastor.  Conversely, the Franciscans the pastor meets in Italy were inspiring but perhaps too perfectly idealized.  Lastly, Falson himself–though certainly a developed character–can come off as a somewhat unattractive protagonist.  A bit too wide-eyed at times and sarcastic at others, he leaves Italy ostensibly humbled even while the book seemingly posits a sense of superiority towards others who haven’t taken his journey of enlightenment.

Do my critiques read too much into the text?  Perhaps.  Do I feel that its central task could have been accomplished more helpfully? Yes.  Trust me, I’m not against being inspired by the saints of the past to think about reforming the Church of today.  I’m an ordained minister and PhD-holding Church historian, for Heaven’s sake.

20061005-franc15s1But then perhaps that’s why I offer this critique.  I know how easy it is to look to the idealized past and/or lofty theology and be dissatisfied with the present.  I understand that everything isn’t as it should be.  Even so, I think that’s no reason to simply adopt a “I know better than you poor ignorant evangelicals” approach to ministry.  That’s at least some of book’s implicit message, and insofar as it is ungracious towards that end, I reject its approach.  After reflecting on the life and character of the man of Assisi, I suspect he might too.

I did find aspects of the book helpful for considering today’s church, and certainly think that the historical/spiritual approach wedded to contemporary narrative was a powerful method.  My critiques are born, rather, from one who has sat with some of this material for many years and is concerned that the author isn’t being thoughtful enough about the entirety of the picture.  And yet–considering my earlier critique–it simply wouldn’t be proper for st-francis-san-damianome to dismiss newcomers to this subject matter because they haven’t had the opportunity I have had to consider all of the related issues.  Such a thing would be dismissive at best and elitism at worst.

The main concern I’d have for evangelicals who approach this book is that it would leave them disgusted with their congregations to the point of rejection.  While to be sure there are many issues at work in churches of all different shapes and sizes (and theological traditions), the potential with Chasing Francis is to leave readers so dissatisfied with their Christian community and so impatient for change that they will simply leave to find a greener church pasture.  Contemporary evangelicalism has its issues, but I would submit that it is not as universally compromised as this book can imply.  Loving Christ means loving Christ’s Church…and if we indeed are called like Francis to rebuild he Body of Christ we must take that into consideration.

“Augustine of Hippo”: Some Thoughts

augustine-of-hippo-reviewMy last bit of summer reading involved a book I should have tackled years ago, but which somehow slipped through the cracks of my doctoral studies.  Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography is a classic source for studying one of the leading theologians in the history of the Church.  It was high time I read it.

Now over 45 years since it was first published, the monograph still packs a punch and clearly represents both dedicated research and reflection.  I feel–as I should–that I now understand and appreciate St. Augustine (354-430) in a new way.  Amongst some of the things I learned are:

  • Augustine in his earlier years lived in a more Christian environment–familial and otherwise–than I had realized.  Because his conversion as an adult had come to occupy such an important place in my mind, I think I denigrated the ways in which his life had been connected to the Faith beforehand.
  • The central place in Augustine’s earlier life of the Late Antique model of philosopher and rhetorician.  I suppose I should have expected at least some of this, but to read it as Brown describes truly helped round out a picture of the man who would become on one of the most influential theologians of all time.peter brown
  • The role of friendship in Augustine’s life.  As Brown writes, “Augustine needed the constant response and reassurance of a circle of friends; both to know that he was loved, and to know that there was someone worth loving” (195).
  • While I had previously been acquainted with Augustine the major figure in Christian history via his influence over all of the Western Church, Brown’s work helped me appreciate more about the locality of his ministry–both when it came to the larger issues of North African Christianity and the pastoral work in which he engaged at his post in Hippo Regius.

Brown’s work, while an important one, would nevertheless be a moderately challenging read for those without some background of Church history.  It is therefore not recommended as a first plunge into the story of Augustine for the uninitiated.  At times it feels that too much may be assumed and which unfamiliar readers will need to be prepared before approaching the work.

As Brown covers the life and especially the thought of Augustine, he tends not to do as much with the cultural/social/political background of the times as I would like.  While these things (especially intellectual culture) are not absent from the text, I felt that Brown could have moved slower through his work to help us live in Saint-Augustine-of-HippoAugustine’s own historical space/context for more time.  So too the story of Augustine’s life could be filled out, as there seemed to be lacunae of sorts in Brown’s descriptions. Though I suspect this is because of the paucity of information available on all aspects of the bishop’s life, it nevertheless begs (in my mind) more comment and perhaps educated narrative conjecture.

It may be, of course, that I’m simply asking too much of Brown. I’d be wise to remember that the interests of 21st century historiography were likely not those of the mid-1960s, and that the scholarly consensus of Brown as a top scholar is not one that should easily be questioned.  Thanks to him I now know more about Augustine than I ever have, and in that partial knowledge he has encouraged me to go beyond his work and learn more.  That alone shows the value of the book for this historian and inheritor of Augustine’s teaching.

Soul Meets Body

priscilla-catacombs3Each year our school runs its own “Faith in Humanities” conference in which students and faculty members present and discuss topics related to the integration of faith and various academic disciplines.  Recently I was asked if I would consider sharing something that I’m currently working on or thinking about, and after reflection I have decided I will.  It will be just a short 10-minute talk, with time for one or two questions afterwards.

I’m still pondering the mechanics of it all, but am planning on sharing some thoughts I’ve been having in my new course “The Church in Contemporary Society.”  Recently a question came up about how we might anchor our discussion of the Christian’s role in our society.  In response my mind went (not surprisingly) to the history of Christianity.  Specifically, a 2nd or 3rd century text called The Epistle to Diognetus.

Written at a time when Christianity was a minority faith in a pagan Roman world, the document contains some passages that helpfully frame the issue.  In some ways this is best represented by the following quotation:agapefeast05ql3

What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.

I’ve tried this quotation out in two different forums.  Some feedback has been positive, while others have been a little concerned that the model as laid out draws too sharp a distinction been soul and body.  Dualism and the utter denigration of the flesh has, after all, often been a temptation in Christianity.

While I accept this criticism and have been thinking a bit about the implications, I also know that I like the picture being painted by this ancient text.  Plus, I think that what I mean has more to do with the fact that just like the soul belongs in the body and has a vital function it, so to the Church’s role in society is meant to be a positive and constitutive one.  I like 44363bfc6318d003490f6a7067008fafthinking about the role of Christians in the world not as one of domination or control, but rather witness and conscience.  All of this, of course, not of ourselves but from God.

As Christians we live in and throughout the world and yet look elsewhere for our final home.  We have a different horizon, even while looking from the same vantage point.  Our operating principles are different. We are called to speak to truth, love, and justice despite what prevailing wisdom may say.  And, as Jesus tells us in Matthew, we exist as light and seasoning in a world that needs it.  Even when it doesn’t want it.

If we can, as the Epistle suggests, consider our interactions with civil society in these ways and stop selling ourselves short by wholesale alignment with political projects (liberal and conservative) not of our own design, I think we can then speak with more authority and authenticity. I think it is then we can begin to be the “soul” we are called to be.

Review: “To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity”

9780195386424_p0_v2_s260x420Allan Anderson currently serves as Professor of Mission and Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK).  His new monograph To the Ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the Transformation of World Christianity is but the latest in a series of books and articles marking him as one of the world’s foremost Pentecostal scholars.  Anderson’s previous work An Introduction to Pentecostalism (soon to be in its second edition) is one of the standard texts in the field.  With this new volume, he further explicates the movement to which he has devoted his life’s scholarly energies.

I should note here that Professor Anderson also served as a reader on my dissertation committee.  In that role he provided important insight into my project and was a valued voice in that process.

The goal of To the Ends of the Earth is rather simple: in Anderson’s words, to take “the fact of Pentecostalism’s growth as its starting point and…[give] an explanation for it.”   The dynamics and popularity of the movement are described as follows:

The emphasis on the Spirit, the “born-again” experience, incessant evangelism, healing and deliverance, cultural flexibility, a place-to-feel-at-home, religious continuity, an egalitarian community, meeting “felt needs”; all these features combine to provide an overarching explanation for the appeal of Pentecostalism and the transformation of Christianity in the majority world.

Arranged in a broadly topical fashion, To The Ends of the Earth looks at the attraction of world Pentecostalism from a variety of perspectives.  Notable chapters include: “Women and Family” (giving attention to both the overt and sometimes silent ways that Pentecostalism empowers women), “Bible and Community” (helpfully describing the movement’s deep and dynamic relationship with the Scriptures), and “Transformation and Independence” (dealing with the ways in which the movement has been and continues to be uniquely indigenous the world over).Global-ReOrient

As Anderson further goes about his task, he spends time walking through areas of Pentecostal history familiar to many students of the movement.  At the same time he does not limit himself to the tale as traditionally told.  Because of his commitment to analyzing Pentecostalism as the world movement it is today, he is also able to unveil the ways in which it is a  translocal and diverse phenomenon.  The global approach is helpful here and is accomplished with more skill and readability than I have ever seen.  Despite the fact that he is dealing with diverse forms over multiple continents, Anderson’s skills are such that the whole story holds together in a compelling fashion.

Notwithstanding the insight he provides, I do wonder about Anderson’s tendencies in his particular discussion of Pentecostal origins.  As this is a study on world Christianity, his focus on elements around the globe makes sense.  Further, because he (and others) are concerned with a previous overemphasis on American primacy in much of the early scholarly literature on the movement (even though he admits that Azusa has “merit”), relevant alternatives are rightly considered.  In his words, “the macro-context must not be lost.”  To this end the evidence he marshals is powerful.

But claiming that “Pentecostalism is neither a movement with distinct beginnings in the United States or anywhere else” may end up obscuring certain realities even as it seeks to reveal others.  The United States did have a vital role–one could argue the vital role–in Pentecostalism’s genesis.  While nuance is important here, I do wonder whether the current focus on the independence and uniqueness of Majority World religion therefore affects this discussion more than it should.   Make no mistake: contemporary Pentecostalism is deeply indigenized and diverse.  It is not the particular province of America, but a thing unto itself.  I understand Anderson’s concerns here.  But even if it was historically proven that every single Pentecostal group around the world traced their origins to Azusa (and certainly they do not), this would do nothing to detract from the uniquely powerful forms and shapes they take today.

icon-pentecost1Despite these potential historiographical quibbles, To the Ends of the Earth is a marvelous work.  It reminds me of a comment I once heard at a panel discussion of Heaven Below, Grant Wacker’s study of early American Pentecostals.  One of the reviewers said something to the effect that what Wacker had done “sounded like the Pentecostals they knew.”  From a certain perspective, no higher praise can be given.  In the same way, then, I would say that what Anderson has accomplished here also “sounds like” the Pentecostalism in which I belong and to which I have devoted my academic efforts.

Ultimately, To the Ends of the Earth performs a valuable scholarly service, is written in a compelling manner, and is representative and holistic in its approach.  I highly recommend the book for all those interested in the contemporary beliefs and practice of a growing number of world Christians.  Scholars will be blessed with the work as a ready resource in this expanding area of research.  As for me, I plan on assigning the book as a supplementary text in my Church History II class next semester.  Both my students and I will richly benefit from the experience.

Charismatics and Race

charisma One of my main areas of academic research has been the Charismatic Movement (CM).  According to the strictest definition, the CM was a revival movement in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.  During that era and after, Christians who beforehand had historically very little connection with the Pentecostal way of faith came to desire the fire their Spirit-filled brothers and sisters had.  Many embraced these experiences, and in the process this “fresh fire” spread throughout Christendom.

What marks the Charismatic Movement off from traditional or classical Pentecostalism is that charismatics, rather than departing their parent denomination for groups like the Assemblies of God or Church of God (Cleveland, TN), would instead remain within their original ecclesiastical setting.  They would embrace a Pentecostal way of thinking about the Holy Spirit and the experience of God working in their lives, but all the same would not stop being Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian.  The movement represented a sea change for the way that traditional Pentecostals and outsiders alike understood the work of the Holy Spirit, and was to have important repercussions within Christianity.

One of the things that has been fairly absent in my research is evidence of any significant Neher_CCHARISCharismatic Movement inside the African-American religious community.  Though America’s largest Pentecostal denomination (the Church of God in Christ) is African-American and is counted by one list as the third largest denomination in America, blacks in this country hardly garner a mention in the historical record of the CM.  At least as usually retold, then, the story of the Charismatic Movement in the United States is a largely white tale.  I’ve considered at least three possibilities for this:  1) the historical record is racially tilted, i.e. what took place was not considered important enough to be recorded by the white hegemony, 2) I’ve missed some big things in my research and more work needs to be done, and/or 3) the general tendencies and approach of African-American Christianity was and is already Pentecostal-esque and experiential enough that whatever the Charismatic Movement offered to staid white folk had no real attraction for them.

As I consider these three answers, I am more convinced the further down the list we go.  The first, while possible, doesn’t make as much sense as it might sound.  We are, after all, not dealing here with the dim recesses of history, but a time period of only 40-50 years ago.  Modern records and the pervasive prCharismatic-Christiansesence of media even then means that the possibility of completely missing a Charismatic Movement in the black churches is unlikely.  I suppose it could have been ignored in favor of covering the civil rights movement, but this is still a somewhat hard sell.  While more research needs to be done, I suspect we’ll find at the end of the day that the CM was still a very “white” affair.

The second possibility demands some humility on may part, and I fully admit that I may have missed some important things thus far in my research.  It wouldn’t be the first time I or another historian has overlooked some key facts.  In recent weeks, for instance, I have read about the presence of the Charismatic Movement in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.  I’m interested in researching this further, even while admitting there are no doubt more stories like this that I’ll need to consider.  Yet even then they seem few and far between compared to the extensive source material documenting the CM in the white churches.

The third option is, simply, that African-Americans had little need for the Charismatic Movement.  They already had just about everything it offered.  This is the solution that I consider most appealing (please note that I borrow it from a scholar I read long ago, although I don’t remember who it was).  If we understand the historic African-American religious worldview through works like The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois or Slave Religion by Al Raboteau–not to mention Pentecostal scholar William Hollenweger‘s claim that one of the cornerstones of Pentecostalism itself was the “Black Oral Root”–this should come as no surprise.  African-American Christianity has often carried with it a deep pathos and sense of emotion, influenced powerfully by native African religious practices and the experiences of their lives in bondage, freedom, and struggle.  African-negro-spirituals-gospelconnoisseurAmerican Christianity has almost by default a deep respect for encounters with the Divine that transcend the bounded lines of dry academic theology.

Call and response, the Negro spiritual, black preaching–all are hallmarks of a tradition far different from anything in Western Christianity except Pentecostalism and its immediate antecedents.  While it is true that there are probably many black churches where traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic practices like speaking in tongues are not welcome, many of the other aspects of the revivalistic movement and its emphasis on the work of the Spirit are present.  If this is true, then truly what need would most African-American Christians feel they had for the Charismatic Movement?  In many ways, it was simply an embracing of aspects of faith that the black churches had long-held and valued.

They were there first, we might say.

The Coming Pentecostal Establishment

ImageOne of the interesting things about Pentecostalism is that it is so new.  The movement has grown from basically zero about 125 years ago to one of the largest Christian groups in the world today.  A recent study by the Pew Forum, for instance, has determined that there are an estimated 584 million Pentecostals and Charismatics (we might lump them together under the term “renewal movements”) across the globe.

In addition to representing around 8% of the entire population of the world, Renewalists now constitute over 26% of Christianity.  This means that 1 in 4 Christians living right now could be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic.

While the numbers are often debated and figuring out exactly who belongs in which categories can be controversial, it is clear that Renewalism has grown to be a large and influential movement that is coming to define the Christian faith of the 21st century.

We’ve reached that point in my Church History course this semester where we are talking about Roman emperorconstantine Constantine.  His conversion to Christianity in the 4th century augured great changes for Christianity, which within one generation went from being actively persecuted by the Empire to being not only tolerated but actively favored by those in power.

This move from humility to power was a major turning point in the development of the Church.  Some have seen it through a triumphal lens.  Others have seen it as the death knell for “real” Christianity.  In any case, it was the end of an era.  Now moving into an influential position, the Church had new demands placed upon it from both within and without.

I wonder, as I consider Pentecostalism and related movements, if similar dynamics are not at work today.  Though the geopolitical and global religious climate is much different from Late Antiquity, in just a few generations the world has seen a small movement despised and rPentecostalism in Latin Americaejected by the religious elites become one of the most numerically dominant forms of religion in the world.  As there has been a growing awareness of this in the larger world, forces similar to those that attempted to direct/guide/influence the newly powerful early Church may similarly be at work.

Already in much of the literature and scholarly debate around Renewalism we see a lot of ink being spilled on defining the “meaning,” “ethos,” and “legacy” of Pentecostalism and its co-religionists.  Is it a protest movement?  A movement of the people?  Is it conservative or progressive?  How much of it is otherworldly and how much is concerned with today’s pressing social issues?  The list continues.  Descriptions and prescriptions for the movement abound, and I suspect will continue to do so as Renewalism navigates its newfound influence.  Whether this will be ultimately helpful or not is an open question…though I will say that influence, power, and money have not always been handled well by religious faiths the world over.