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: “Living the Christian Year”

81l3Hxdln7LThere’s an old joke that all Church historians want to become Catholic sooner or later.  And believe me, the lure of tradition and our shared Christian past (and present) can be very attractive indeed.

While–despite Pope Francis’ current visit–I don’t think I’ll be bending the knee to Rome any time soon, I nevertheless benefited recently from reading Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross.  Within, the author details both the layout of the traditional Church calendar–a season stretching from Advent to Christmas, Lent through Easter, and the many weeks of “Ordinary Time”–as well as how contemporary believers can devotionally approach this cycle.  Practiced by more liturgically-minded churches including but not limited to Roman Catholicism, the calendar is commended by Gross as a way of inhabiting “the still-unfolding story of God and have it inhabit and change us” (16).

I like that this is quite intentionally a handbook for spiritual devotion.  For each season of the year, Gross walks through its heart and talks about it as a tradition in Church/culture.  He also reminds readers that the Church calendar remains linked to story of calendar yearChrist and calls us the inhabit that story in spiritual/practical fashion.  These discussions are followed by weekly devotional guides to assist believers in working through the important biblical and theological themes inherent in the Church year.

I was first prompted to read this book by my pastor, who is interested in thinking about the connections between the seasons of the Church calendar and the ways in which they can be connected to contemporary practice.  Ours is a denominational family that doesn’t tend to give such traditions much import.  As a result we may be missing some helpful tools with which to engage our faith.

Personally, I was blessed to have read and reflected upon this focused discussion of the Christian year.  While as an historian I’d been aware of some of the shape of it, my personal church background has not really favored thinking about the seasons of faith in this way.  As such this book is a Godsend.  By being descriptive, analytical, and devotional all at once, it has helped inform me and clarified the place these seasons can have in the lives of believers and, consequently, my faith as well.

pentecostYou can tell I’m a big fan of this book.  Though as an historian I may have wished it to go deeper in its discussion of tradition, as a pastor and person of faith I was enthused by its approach.  I plan on engaging with its devotional guide beginning with this Advent season, and look forward to seeing how such themes might connect with my local church.  Living the Christian Year is recommended to pastors and parishioners who desire to (re)connect with the traditions of the Christian past and present, who are open to considering a new devotional journey, and who most importantly desire to “inhabit the story of God.”

Matthew 15

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?'”

Matthew 15:1-2a

The reality of Jesus’ time is that, objectively speaking, the Pharisees weren’t such bad guys.  There were devoted to following the Scripture.  They were teachers.  They were true believers.  Funny, isn’t it, how they get the brunt of Jesus’ approbation?  Their closeness to the Truth yet inability to accept it was their undoing, and perhaps the very reason the Lord gave them such a hard time.jesus-authority

The Pharisees were religious authorities.  They were dedicated.  They were a part of the system.  They had their ideas and traditions.  And when the God they worshiped appeared to them in the flesh?  Well, they weren’t too happy about that.  Jesus didn’t fit their model.

Picking on Pharisees is the often the Christian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.  I mean, seriously: if Jesus gives them a hard time, surely we should too, right?  And they are pretty grumpy and picayune about having things their way. They come off as rigid and stultified compared to the miraculous and life-giving presence of Jesus.

pass5+copy2There’s one problem, though.  Those same Pharisees that Jesus encounters, so beholden to their traditions and systems?  I and those like me (ministers, theologians, long-time Christians, etc.) have the potential to be a lot closer to them than we are to Jesus.  We are a part of the system.  We know how everything works.  Disruptions are not welcome, thank you very much.

I wonder sometimes: if Christ showed up and started messing with my world as he did with those long-lost Pharisees, would I respond the same way as they did?

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.

Come On, Get Happy

MoneyI recently came across a 2014 article that discussed the relationship between money and happiness.  Specifically, it related the findings of a study claiming that money has an effect on day-to-day personal happiness/emotional well-being, but only up to a certain income level.  Related to cost of living, this upper limit averages around $75,000 for a household.  Hawaii has the highest threshold for maximum happiness-by-money ($122,175) while Mississippi comes in lowest ($65,850).

I was immediately interested in thinking about this topic, finding it a surprising and fascinating look at something that can be an “open and shut case” in some forms of conventional Christianity.  Now, to be sure, the article does notably confirm a position the Church has long held: that money is not the ultimate guarantor of our contentment.  If there is no appreciable difference in emotional well-being between the household of $75,000 and $1,000,000 per year, then clearly money is limited in its ability to make us finally and utterly happy.

And yet: the article’s content also questions an easily repeated claim Christians can make (I’ve made it myself) that money cannot make you happy.  If there really is an appreciable difference between subsistence living and $75k per year, then despite some sermonic protestations to the contrary, money must have some meliorative effect upon us.  It is indeed true that, of the many factors in our lives that contribute to our happiness, not having to worry every day about housing, food, healthcare, utilities, and other basic matters does bring with it a certain piece of mind.  Managed well, at a certain level of money can make these concerns all but disappear.  At certain low levels of income, no amount of clever budgeting can make these pressing problems go away.

2014_HappinessAnnualIncomeMAP2

Most people look, I think, for at least a basic level of financial peace of mind to help in the establishment of happiness.  Or, at least, the absence of unhappiness.  One difference between persons of faith and the non-religious on this topic may simply be from where they see financial security deriving….and from where, in the end, they perceive their ultimate hope to come.  As a Christian, my desire is to consistently take the position that it is God who provides all things–as Jesus reminds his hearers in Matthew 6, flowers, birds, and indeed all things made by God (including us) are cared for by God.  And despite the situation in which I might find myself, I hope like Paul I too can learn to be “content whatever the circumstances.”

But still: on behalf of our fellow human beings around the world who suffer and have so little, I feel compelled to assert that money does meanhappiness something.  If what a person has matters not at all, why are we instructed by God to care for and provide for those in need?  The poor, the downtrodden, those who are so much more than unhappy for so many reasons (one of them being their lack of even a subsistence level of funding in a world that runs on money)?  It is fine and good in the midst of my middle-class Christianity to claim that money brings no satisfaction while I snack and watch the latest Netflix offering.  But it has clearly bought me a level of comfort and relief from the sometimes destitute suffering experienced by those without such means.

True, money does not create happiness on its own.  It can, however, help relieve some of the worst of human suffering.  Money’s effect on one’s well-being may be limited, but it still has an effect.  We should well remember, then, that with what a person is blessed–whether directly from the hand of God or mediated through the hands of God’s servant people can and does help.

Well, at least until you get to $75,000.  Because there is more to life than money.  And on that, it seems, but Church and world agree.

Mockingjay Song

**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Mockingjay, Part I.**

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Mockingjay, Part I premieres tomorrow in theaters around the country.  As it does, I aim to continue a set of posts that I’ve written with the release of each of the films.  (Only one entry this year, however.)

The popularity and themes of the Hunger Games series have made it a particularly useful conversation piece.  Over the past two years I’ve taken the opportunity to use the films/books to write about theology, adolescent culture, and youth ministry.

As the story of Katniss and her struggles begins to wind to a close with this film, many of the motifs of the first two installments continue: the co-option of her agency by a dysfunctional adult world, a world structure built mostly upon violence, the use of artifice and/or deception as a means to survival, etc.  As I’ve argued before, Katniss’ story mirrors the perceived journey of many adolescents.  While our students are not forced to fight to the death against their will in a vicious set of games, their lives can feel that way sometimes.MockingjayCover

There are no games in Mockingjay, however.  Now things have become real.  At the end of Catching Fire Katniss is whisked away from the playing arena and enters into a larger struggle.  Her adolescence, we might say, is over.  The adult world now beckons.  Heady stuff for a young person looking forward to putting the nonsense of youth behind her.

And yet, the more time she spends in District 13, the more she realizes that the broken system that led to the Hunger Games and the societal mechanism’s that co-opted her youth persist.  As the symbolic leader of the rebellion against the Capitol she is forced to become “The Mockingjay.”  She has little choice in the matter.  Her young adulthood, therefore, is just as trapped in this broken place as was her adolescence.

Being forced to play a role in a world that seems to know only one way forward is not unique to Katniss Everdeen, however.  It is a reality felt by many young people as they strain at the B0t35sTIUAMBW3G.jpg largetension between their dreams and hopes and the strictures placed upon them by outside forces.  It can be a difficult place to live.

And yet: as much as the Hunger Games saga is about the ways in which young people are forced to fight for a broken system, it is also about how that system can be changed or subverted.

Katniss Everdeen is never just a passive participant in the brokenness around her.  Rather, she is always thinking about how her actions in the midst of it might work to change things for the better.  These efforts at subversion and resistance to the prevailing status quo are tested in Mockingjay, and I look forward to seeing how the two films based upon the book will address these issues.