Martin-Luther-Updates-His-BlogOn this Reformation Day, we remember that episode–now nearly five hundred years ago–when Martin Luther formulated and posted a list of disputations against some of the practices of the Church.  Though what eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation has a number of contributing factors, the life and actions of Luther (including this somewhat inauguratory one) are certainly among the most important.

Now nearly half a millennia from that moment, the legacy of the Reformation is all around us.  The Protestant Church is a well-established aspect of world Christianity. And, in the intervening centuries, the Roman Catholic Church itself has changed from the form it took during the days of Luther.  For all the bumps along the road–and the problematic features of Luther and other reformers–persistent alterations have resulted with regard to how Christians live their faith, understand God, and read the Bible.a0a59bf23908fdab7a893f9b595d8b10

The Reformation of the 1500s is over, of course.  It has been for a long time.  The circumstances of that era no long stand and we practice our faith in a new day.  Yet even as we live in the 21st century the Reformation poses an open question.

It goes without saying that we are not perfect.  The Church must face its inner problems as it looks to the Scripture and asks itself whether or not it truly embraces the Word of God or not.  Christianity, after all, is made up of fallible and sinful human beings.  It stands to reason that we will mess things up, given enough time.  Structures, habits, programs, and practices may end up obscuring the gospel today just as they did in Luther’s time.

Marking a Reformation Day, then, should never be a moment of simple backward gaze or a only the rehearsing of timeworn sola‘s.  It needs to mean something more.  It needs to stand as a reminder that we humans tend towards chaos.  That there is work to do as we seek to be people of the Word and live that Word in the world.  That there are ways in which we may have not been faithful and in which we may need to change.

120a12b703bcdd69ecd86e5e755552f4On this day of Reformation the Church needs to ask itself if it has let tradition, custom, and even doctrinal systems guide it in ways that Christ has not.  There should be questions about whether our theology and its implications are biblical or not.  We need to ask ourselves whether the ways in which we are interacting with others is truly Christian or something else entirely.  And then, of course, there needs to be the courage to actually change.  This isn’t just a task for 2014; it is the call to Christians of all eras.

My Reformed friends have a saying that I like: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda.  In English this means “the Church always reformed, always reforming.”  Our sinful tendency, given enough time and independence, is to not be conformed to Christ.  The meaning of the Reformation is that we must be.  Always.


The Footsteps of Doom

indexStudying history is a unique experience.  While sometimes it is an exercise in discovery and exploration, at other moments it is more akin to reading a Shakespearean tragedy or watching a slow motion car crash.

You know what’s coming even when the people you are studying have absolutely no idea.

Investigating the background to the First World War as Europe blindly stumbles towards a bloodbath.  Reading a four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, all the while knowing he would leave the Presidency destroyed by the effects of Vietnam.  Understanding that Constantinople will fall in 1453 and that there is nothing you can do about it.  That’s what being an historian is like some days.

As someone who focuses most of his historical attention on the United States, there is little that has this sense of impending doom like the NollCivil War.  Slavery exists early in European colonization of the New World.  Every time it is mentioned, we know what’s going to happen.  The rhetoric of freedom in the Revolution highlights the inequities inherent in the system, even as Jefferson continues to own slaves.  Gradual abolition in the North gives hope every time you read about it.  Until, that is, the South begins to conservative and clamp down around its “peculiar institution.”

As the nation expanded westward–a process that happens every time I read about, without fail–the question of slave states versus free states continued to perplex.  Compromise after compromise was reached, but only papered over the growing differences between societies North and South.  Religiously they shared common belief and read a common Bible, but the situation on the ground led them to express and live that faith in increasingly different ways.  As denominations begin to shatter North and South starting around 1840, they were but a harbinger of the breaking of America that could no longer be averted by 1860-1.

conf0206-1-smallNothing, it seemed, could hold the nation together.  Not even the vaunted and optimistic claims of the dominant evangelicalism of the 19th century.  The United States’ lack of unity and inability to end the crime of slavery without war (like Britain) constitutes–together with the existence of slavery in the first place–a foundational tragedy at the center of the American story.  It is a drama written by no one person, but rather one with numerous actors continually impelled towards the bloody conclusion of places like Bull Run, Gettysburg, Antietam, and Ford’s Theater.

As we reflect on this story again and again, may we seek to realize in our own day what the actors could not in theirs.  May we see the inner meaning of the tragedy to which they inadvertently pointed and, in so doing, gain more insight into the directions of our own contemporary story.  In the wreck of their blindness and failures of faith and deed, may we learn.

Citizen Soul

MV5BMTQ2Mjc1MDQwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUyOTUyMg@@._V1._SY317_CR0,0,214,317_This morning I was asked to speak to a select group of students for a breakfast session on the topic of “the Christian as citizen.”  I’m just coming back from that meeting now, and hope that my thoughts were helpful for them.

In brief, I walked through two initial options for citizenry in the Christian sphere: 1) full-fledged Constantinian direct political action, engagement, and politicking (with all the messy confusions, compromises, and conflations involved), and 2) a retreat from the world as represented by early monasticism.  Though both images are overdrawn, I used them to represent the false dichotomy presented to many evangelicals today:Battling-Demon-Rum-Pegram-Thomas-R-9781566632096 super-political involvement or disgusted and pietistic withdrawal.

I encouraged them to think about a third way of deep involvement for reform and service within the spheres of our own influence, and played with the idea of 19th century evangelicalism as a possible model.  I also provided them some thoughts about Christian living from blogger Rachel Held Evans and a fascinating recent article from Christianity Today about the possibilities of working for the “common good.”

Can we be Christian in the public sphere without being unChristian?  Can we be political without being “political?”  I left them with these and other thoughts at the end of our brief breakfast meeting.  I concluded with an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, a 2nd century Christian apologetic text:

“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world…the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.  Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together.”The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17