All posts from "December 2008"December 30, 2008
Is an Armenian Church in Tbilisi the victim of "Georgianization"?
In late summer 2008, Russian and Georgian forces fought for control of a disputed region, South Ossetia. Among the complicating factors in that conflict were ethnic versus political boundaries, the possible return of Cold War tensions, and debate over which side fired the first shots. In this final week of the year, a different battle in Georgia has made the news, one pitting Georgians against Armenians for control of a disputed church.
As reported by Nina Akhmeteli of AFP, in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, two centuries-old stone churches share a courtyard. Jvaris Mama, a Georgian Orthodox church noted by the Lonely Planet guide for its "exquisitely pious and calm atmosphere," opens its doors to an active congregation. Its neighbor, Norashen Holy Mother of God Armenian Church, is locked, its walls and grounds marked by recent additions. The Georgian priest says the Norashen Church is undergoing renovations. Armenians complain that the church is the victim of "Georgianization," a systematic campaign to obscure Armenian heritage and rewrite the church's--and the country's--history.
Ethnicity and political control factor into this fight as in the August conflict with Russia. An ancient theological dispute remains relevant as well.
In the early fourth century, Armenia's King Tiridates III converted to Christianity, making Armenia possibly the world's oldest Christian society. (The dating of the king's conversion and the meaning of "Christian society" are subjects of vigorous discussion.) In the middle of the fifth century, though, the Armenian Apostolic Church found itself on the losing side of a Christological debate. The place was Chalcedon, today a district encompassed by Istanbul, and the topic was the relationship between Christ's human and divine natures.
The Council of Nicea in 325 had settled the matter of Christ's divinity by declaring him "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God," "begotten, not made," and "from the substance of the Father." (If you sang all of the verses of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" this Christmas season, you recently reaffirmed these declarations.) But this left the puzzle of how Christ managed to be human and divine at the same time. Was he so divine that, as Ted pointed out in his Christmas carol rant, no crying he made in the manger? Was he so human that, as countless liberal theologians of the past century claimed, he would have been dismayed by his followers' assertions of his divinity? If the truth lay somewhere between those extremes, exactly where was it?
In a carefully woven tissue of Greek philosophical terms, the 451 Council of Chalcedon stated that Christ combined two natures in one person, "without confusion, change, division, or separation." His divinity persisted as one substance with the Father, while, during his life on earth, his humanity partook of our substance, in all particulars except sin. Seems clear enough, until you ask the investigative journalist's question, "What did he know, and when did he know it?" How did the fully divine Jesus grow "in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52)? Perplexing. But that wasn't the initial problem.
The initial problem was the rejection by several Eastern churches of the council's formulation. These churches became known as non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox, and the Armenian Apostolic Church numbers among them. Relations between these churches and the churches of Eastern Orthodoxy have warmed of late, but, as the Tbilisi conflict demonstrates, members of the two bodies still sometimes treat each other coldly.
Of course, the fight over the Norashen Church is not primarily a rehashing of Chalcedon. Soviet-era abuses and the constant political pressures on Armenians--who have been subjects of some 30 empires over the centuries--provide more immediate context. Nonetheless, one fundamental challenge runs through the whole history: how to make of pieces one whole.
Public domain photo of central Tbilisi (2005) courtesy of Dmitri Gerasimov via Wikimedia Commons.
Reading Philip Jenkins's history of Eastern Christianity yields some interesting insights.
In a couple of weeks, we'll publish a full review of Philip Jenkins's The Lost History of Christianity on the Christian History website. The book is a wide-ranging study of how religions cope with pressures from changing political fortunes and competing religions - and of how religions fail in the face of such pressures. The author's main case study is that family of Eastern Christian churches known as Monophysite, Jacobite, Nestorian, or non-Chalcedonian, once a powerful religion from Syria to India and an influence for a while on China. But those churches have been brought to greatly reduced circumstances and in some places extinguished. Jenkins asks why and draws lessons for dealing with contemporary threats to Christianity.
I'll leave the evaluation of the book to our reviewer, David Koyzis of Redeemer College. For the moment, I'd like to whet your appetite with two tidbits gleaned from my reading of the book.
Constructing Islam on Christian Foundations
First tidbit: Jenkins stresses how much Islam, Christianity's main competitor in the lands where Nestorians once dominated, borrowed from Christian sources. Much about Islam seems strange to Western observers. But to Syriac and Mesopotamian Christians in Islam's early years, much would have seemed very familiar - familiar to the point that Islam's closest Christian critic, John of Damascus, treated it as a Christian heresy rather than as a distinct religion.
Mosques look as they do because their appearance derives from that of Eastern Christian churches in the early days of Islam. Likewise, most of the religious practices of the believers within those mosques stem from the example of Eastern Christians, including the prostrations that appear so alien to modern Westerners. The severe self-denial of Ramadan was originally based on the Eastern practice of Lent. The Quran itself often shows startling parallels with Eastern Christian scriptures, devotional texts, and hymns.
As to those Christian sources for Quranic materials, later in the book Jenkins writes that "most of the Quranic stories about Mary and Jesus find their parallels not in the canonical four Gospels but in apocryphal texts that circulated widely in the East. ... The Quran also presents the death of Jesus in exactly the language of those heretical Eastern Christians known as Docetists, who saw the event as an illusion rather than a concrete reality."
No wonder early observers thought of it as a heresy rather than a different religion. And no wonder it was able to ease the transition of early adherents.
Where the Church Lives Despite Persecution
Second tidbit: Jenkins poses the question as to why Christianity survived in some places where Islam became dominant and almost completely disappeared in others. He chooses as his case studies the Coptic Christians in Egypt (successful survival) and the church in the North African territories around Tunis and Carthage (total eradication of the Christian population).
Both Christian civilizations were overrun by Muslim forces. But the Copts survived and today they continue to thrive spiritually in spite of repressive political and cultural forces. But the North African churches where Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine had ministered simply disappeared.
What was the difference? The culture of the church at Carthage was Latin, and, Jenkins writes, "where the [North] African church failed was in not carrying Christianity beyond the Romanized inhabitants of the cities and the great estates, and not sinking roots into the world of the native peoples." St. Augustine "by far the best known of African bishops ... expressed no interest in the rural areas or peoples of his diocese."
The Copts of Egypt present a great contrast. Although theologians like Athanasius wrote and spoke Greek, the philosophical lingua franca of their times, the Coptic church was anchored in popular movements and the language of indigenous people. Its monastic movement was a key factor. St. Anthony, the desert monk who pioneered monasticism, spoke the people's Coptic and no Greek, and he drew his fierce spiritual warriors from among the common people. The Coptic Church had sophisticated theological and spiritual literature in the people's native tongue from early days. By the time the Muslims arrived in the seventh century, the church had long been thoroughly indigenized.
In urban cultures, a hostile religious or political force can banish church leaders and severely restrict the activities of believers. But as a general rule, in the countryside and in the villages, such tight control is very difficult. Thus churches that thoroughly indigenize have a greater chance of surviving hostile turns of history.
Jenkins's book is full of information about the Church of the East and insights about what factors contribute to the survival or extinction of religions. There's much here worth pondering. Watch for the full review in January.
How to be a loudmouth know-it-all at your carol sing.
I love Christmas music. Not as much as the blogosphere's Ernie (Not Bert), Andy Cirzan, or some of the Christmas music nuts I've met. But still, 10,000 Christmas songs on my hard drive probably qualifies me as a fanatic.
There are ample songs that grate (if you think the Chipmunks are bad, try the Chippers, Woody the Chipmunk, or any of the Chipmunk ripoff albums that came after "Christmas Don't Be Late" hit it big in 1958). But there are other songs that are just plain wrong - and many of them are among the most popular of the season. Here, for your interrupting pleasure during your family singing, your Christmas Eve neighborhood caroling, or similar opportunities, are the best songs to cluck at.
8. I Saw Three Ships
An easy one just to start the list. Bethlehem is landlocked, so it is historically improbable that our savior Christ and his lady came sailing in on Christmas day in the morning. But that's not all that's problematic about the song. Where's Joseph? If it's just Jesus and Mary, why do they need three ships? Surely Mary didn't just arrive in Bethlehem the morning of the birth?
The history of the song is unclear, but several of the more reputable books on Christmas carol history suggest that its origins may have had something to do with a story of three ships carrying relics of the Magi to Cologne, Germany, in 1162.
The song as it is sung today first appeared in William B. Sandys's wonderful 1833 volume, Christmastide: Its History, Festivities And Carols. No surprise there: Christmastide also marked the first publication of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, The First Nowell, and other great carols. Sandys was interested in "the curious fancy" of three ships bearing the Madonna and Child, and noted that the carol is only one of several to take a maritime theme. He quotes an "ancient Dutch Carol" that began:
There comes a vessel laden,
And on its highest gunwale,
Mary holds the rudder,
The angel steers it on. ?
In one unbroken course
There comes that ship to land,
It brings to us rich gifts,
Forgiveness is sent to us.
Sandys quotes from Joseph Ritson's earlier collection of songs, which offered a similar Scottish song:
There comes a ship far sailing then,
Saint Michael was the stieres-man;
Saint John sate in the horn:
Our Lord harped, our Lady sang,
And all the bells of heaven they rang,
On Christ's sonday at morn,
An interesting history. But still: No ships in Bethlehem. Which led John Camden Hotten to note in his 1905 Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern that the carol "has always been a great favorite with the illiterate, and from its quaintness will be found not displeasing to the more refined."
7. The First Nowell
As long as we're in Sandys's volume, we might as well turn to his section on The First Nowell. Today we sing that the Noel was sung "to certain poor shepherds." Sandys's version had "three poor shepherds." In a note, Sandys explains:
According to some legends, the number [of shepherds] was four, called Misael, Achael, Cyriacus, and Stephanus, and these, with the names of the three Kings, were used as a charm to cure the biting of serpents, and other venomous reptiles and beasts. In the seventh of the Chester Mysteries, the Shepherds, who there are but three, have the more homely names of Harvey, Tudd, and Trowle, and are Cheshire or Lancashire boors by birth and habits. Trowle's gift to our Saviour is "a pair of his wife's old hose."
Fortunately, we don't have any popular carols about Trowle's hose. Joshua Sylvestre, in his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (published a few decades after Sandy's volume), complains about "two additional, but very foolish verses" in the song that seem unbiblical:
Between an ox stall and an ass,
This Child truly there born he was;
For want of clothing they did him lay
All in a manger, among the hay.
If we in our time shall do well
We shall be free from death and Hell
For God hath prepared for us all
A resting place in general.
But the verses we still sing are plenty ahistorical as well. Most of us know already that Christmas almost certainly did not come "on a cold winter's night" ? the shepherds would not have been out in the fields in December. Also, it seems from Matthew's Gospel account that no one had paid much attention to the Star of Bethlehem other than the Magi. There's certainly no biblical account that the shepherds "looked up and saw a star shining in the East, beyond them far."
6. The Last Month of the Year
Vera Hall's song, recorded by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and made popular by the Kingston Trio on its 1960 album of the same name, is wonderful. (My favorite version is on the Blind Boys of Alabama's 2003 album, Go Tell It On the Mountain.)
Unfortunately, the lyrics serves only one purpose: To inform people that Jesus was born in December.
5. We Three Kings
You can't blame John Henry Hopkins Jr. for making everyone think that there were only three Magi and that they were royalty. By the time the church music instructor at New York's General Theological Seminary published the song in 1863, those legends were well established. (See the reference to the relics, above.)
William Sandys, writing a decade before Hopkins penned his song, wrote, "There are numerous histories of the magi or kings themselves, all agreeing as to their number having been three, but some of them differing entirely in name," he wrote. Like Hopkins, Sandys considered the names Melchior, Jasper, and Balthasar" to be genuine. But he couldn't resist offering a historical alternative that was less "euphonious": Galagalath, Magalath, and Tharath.
Less euphonious, maybe, but the names rhyme! That's just begging for a Christmas carol.
4. Away in a Manger
Let's get rid of the fake Reformation history first: This was not written by Martin Luther. As the incredible website The Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, "Verses 1 and 2 appeared anonymously in Little Children's Book for Schools and Families, by J. C. File, Philadelphia, 1885, and verse 3 is by John Thomas McFarland (1851-1913)."
As for the theological history, several scholars have noted a bit of heresy in the line, "no crying he makes." The argument is that such a line denies Jesus' humanity. More recently, N.T. Wright has criticized the hymn for emphasizing heaven rather than the New Earth. ("Fit us for heaven to live with thee there.")
3. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
If Wright was miffed about "Away in a Manger," he has been on a warpath on this one. Here's an excerpt from his 2006 Christmas Eve sermon:
"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" ? catches the meaning of Luke 2 better than most of the much-loved but essentially escapist carols. All except, that is, for the last verse. Look at it and feel free to correct it in your copy! 'For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet-bards foretold . . .' and then, leaving behind the Christian hope and opting for an ancient pagan superstition, it says 'when, with the ever-circling years, comes round the age of gold'. Well, if you think the ages go round in circles and every so often you get a Golden Age when everything is peaceful and happy, think again; if that were the case, why should we work for it? Why not just shrug your shoulders and wait? That's Qu? Ser? Ser? theology - whatever will be, will be. That wasn't good enough for William Wilberforce; it wasn't good enough for God, and Christmas proves it. Something needs to be done.
2. Silent Night
You know that story about the Christmas Eve service where the organ didn't work and Franz Gruber had to pen the tune on the spot for guitar?
Yeah. Lies. All lies.
1. Do They Know It's Christmas
Here's the chorus:
There won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmastime at all?
There is in fact quite a bit of snow in Africa, where many things grow because of heavy rainfall and rivers. But more appropriate to church history, it was in fact Africans who first celebrated Christmas.
Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote, "From the birth of Christ, therefore, to the death of Commodus are, in all, a hundred and ninety-four years, one month, thirteen days. And there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord's birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and in the twenty-fifth day of Pachon."
That was 1800 years ago. These days, '80s British rockstars may sleep easily know that Africans do in fact know that it is Christmastime.
This blog has several purposes. One is to keep Christian History readers up to date on books and other resources. In my capacity with Christian History, Christianity Today, and Books & Culture, I am deluged with review copies. Not every worthwhile church history book can get a full-blown review in these pages, so I plan to post brief notes (well short of a review) about some interesting books that come our way.
Let's start with two highly visual books: Rosa Giorgi's The History of the Church in Art (Getty) and Timothy Brittain-Catlin's Churches (Collins UK/Trafalgar Square).
Rosa Giorgi's book was first published in Italian in 2004 and is just now making its English language debut. (The official publication date is January 5, but both Amazon.com and Christianbook.com say the book is in stock and can be shipped right away.)
The book features 400 color illustrations spread across 384 pages. It is a real treat for browsers. Start anywhere, and learn something on every page. In a three-page entry on the office of deacon, for example, Giorgio reproduces Vittore Carpaccio's 1514 painting of St. Stephen, one of the first deacons, preaching just before his martyrdom. Among St. Stephen's listeners are pilgrims to Jerusalem, whose walking sticks have a curious hook-shaped top. Why? To carry a gourd for drinking water - the 16th-century equivalent of a Nalgene water bottle. The notes also explain the various pieces of the deacon's ceremonial vestments Stephen is wearing. (I'm giddy from having learned so much from the notes to just one painting.)
The book illustrates church furnishings, vestments, ceremonies, events, historical movements, and famous people.
The art of the Protestant Reformation often veered into propaganda. (Propaganda, by the way, can be true. What makes it propaganda is its purpose: to propagate a message.) Giorgio reproduces Lucas Cranach the Elder's 1545 The Contrast Between Catholics and Protestants. On the left we see an attentive congregation listening to Martin Luther preach with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovering over his head. On the right we see a fat friar (Is that Tetzel?) preaching, while an imp blows devilish ideas into his ears with a bellows and the congregation watches a procession. Then there's the Roman friar whose hood sports ass's ears. Up in the heavens, both St. Francis (Luther was a Franciscan monk) and God "appear visibly scandalized by what is going on in the church in Rome."
Catholic readers get their turn a few pages later with paintings that celebrate the counter-Reformation.
An Anglophile's Feast
The history of the English church is tightly bound up with its civic, political, and cultural history. English village life, for example, often centered on the church, which was often at the literal center of the village. The parson (the person in charge) collaborated with the squire in the administration of family and property law, and the seasons of village life were propelled by the twin engines of agriculture and liturgy. So to walk into an English village church is to be exposed to a condensed version of local history. Memorial gifts and plaques, burial markers, stained-glass windows - all these things have connections to the history of a place.
This volume helps you "read" a church - from simple parish churches to grand cathedrals - by looking at the church's architectural details (which will tell you when it was built) and the many furnishings that worshipers, families, and powerful political and business figures have donated across the years.
While Church of England churches are central to this volume, but it includes pictures and references to Roman Catholic and Protestant nonconformist churches as well.
If you are planning a trip to England, reading this volume is essential preparation for touring its churches and cathedrals.
It's that season again. No, I'm not talking about Christmas. I'm talking about the incessant television ads that bombard you with reminders of the movies that open on Christmas. And nothing says Christmas like Tom Cruise dressed as a German officer from the Nazi era. In the movie Valkyrie, the megastar plays Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, a leading figure in the failed plot to kill Hitler with a bomb on July 20, 1944. Hitler's narrow escape from the assassination attempt has inspired countless "what if" scenarios in the years since Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered in 1945. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was connected with the Valkyrie plotters, almost certainly would have evaded martyrdom, for example.
The lure of box office riches keeps filmmakers returning again and again to this era. A little more than a year ago, Ken Burns released his latest acclaimed documentary, titled simply "The War." The title needed no adjective, because everyone knows the reference. At one point, this simple title might have belonged to the Civil War or maybe World War I. But today, World War II is the war that helps us forget all other wars, especially those shrouded in controversy - namely Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq.
So what is it about World War II that sustains our interest?
Some answers are obvious. No other war can compare with the sheer scale of this global conflict, contested in the deserts of Africa, the mountains of Italy, the oceans linking West to East, and countless places in between. Then there's the unique role played by America. Most citizens of the United States originally opposed involvement in another European conflict. But Pearl Harbor girded them for war, and the determined pursuit of victory on two fronts eventually turned the 20th century into the American Century. While the rest of the world rebuilt, America prospered, with enough spare change to reconstruct Western Europe as a bulwark against its next great enemy and one-time ally, the Soviet Union.
I would suggest another reason, more basic but perhaps less obvious, for our continued interest in World War II. The Valkyrie trailers tease the movie as a classic good vs. evil struggle. And that's how most Americans remember the war. The United States was "suddenly and deliberately attacked" by Japan, ally to Germany, which declared war on America. There were no messy authorization votes, no Tonkin Gulf resolutions in this war.
But that's just the Western front. What are we to make of the apocalyptic evil vs. evil matchup between Hitler and Stalin on the Eastern front? You don't hear much about that part of the war in American history books. Surely Cold War politics shaped our memory of World War II. It's hard to see how the United States could have intervened to help Great Britain without the war in Russia to distract Hitler. Nevertheless, Americans see themselves as good guys who selflessly step in and save the day.
By and large, this self-perception endured in America until recently, surviving even the protracted and costly Vietnam War. The latest Iraq War seems to have damaged this view, perhaps permanently. What would it take for America to deploy its military might overseas in a new conflict? Another terrorist attack? Genocide? Defense of an ally such as Israel? May we never need to answer this question again in our lifetimes.
Read about the life of theologian and Valkyrie conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Christian History Issue 32.
Valyrie production photo courtesy of United Artists.
This headline seems to fall in the "man bites dog" category. From a professor (also dean and VP) of Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, we expect precise articulations of Reformed doctrine. Defenses of biblical inerrancy. Disquisitions on the priority of theology over experience.
We don't expect a spirited exhortation to read thousand-year-old mystical texts.
But that's just what we get in Carl Trueman's article Why Should Thoughtful Evangelicals Read the Medieval Mystics. And it's worth reading - whether you share Trueman's Reformed stance or not. In a nutshell, after acknowledging difficulties, he enumerates four reasons we should read such luminaries of the Middle Ages as Bonaventure, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. For those wanting to cut to the chase, here's my brief commentary on Trueman's article.
Medieval mysticism? Surely not!
On the "con" side of the ledger, Trueman diagnoses the fact that many unchurched folks and many ill-informed Christians eat up paperback editions of the mystics because they are seeking an antidote to what they see as the excessively propositional faith of conservative churches. Living in a world in which "experience is the hallmark of authenticity," such readers take the mystics' experience to be "separable from or prior to religious belief," and this attracts and comforts them.
Trueman likens this doctrine-allergic view of religious experience to such deceptive, escapist indulgences as "the increasingly fabulous special effects of movies" or "the intricate, kaleidoscopic plots of fantasy novels." The mystics' "highly symbolic and visionary manner of expression appeals to a world tired of propositions." A superficial reading of the mystics allows such readers to dabble in the transcendent without submitting themselves to the rigors of biblical faith.
I'll go at least partway with Trueman on this. An intellectually incoherent Christian religious experience is an experience that frankly is not very deep - it is not grounded in the truth of the gospel! I don't believe you have to be an intellectual to be a faithful Christian (a belief that has often seemed to hover around the Reformed intellectuals I have met, akin to the kind of charismatic elitism that says you have to speak in tongues to be a faithful Christian). But you do, at least to reach the maturity that eats meat rather than sucking on a bottle of spiritual milk, have to have a firm grasp on the shape and content of the gospel testimony.
Other readers, adds Trueman, want to hold up the mystics as precedents and paragons for the enterprises of environmental theology and feminist theology. His antipathy to these enterprises goes well beyond mine (I'd say these are important theological conversations that can and must address some of the unpaid bills of Western theology), but it's an interesting point.
Yes, Virginia, there are theologically grounded mystics
Despite these problems with how many folks read the mystics, Trueman believes the pros outweigh the cons: "I think the medieval mystics should form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians," he says. Why?
First, Trueman says that Christians today "live in a casual age when we stroll flippantly in and out of God's presence." We should read the mystics as a pointer toward our lost "sense of God's holiness and transcendence." I'm partially with him here: I once attended the service of a charismatic church in Massachusetts in which the communion elements were placed on a chair at the front of the gymnasium-cum-sanctuary, and while a song played, people came up to partake as and when they felt like it. All very well, but some of the children seemed to think the bread, wadded up, made neat projectiles, and the juice was good enough to merit coming back for seconds and thirds. No parent or other adult seem to feel it was important to intervene and correct these childlike impressions. This level of informality bespoke, to me, the kind of flippancy Trueman is addressing here.
However, although I've often seen Trueman's Reformed compatriots issue blanket condemnations of charismatic churches for treating God as a buddy, singing about self rather than God, failing to revere God's holiness, and so forth, my experience in such churches has usually been the opposite. That is, expressions of worship which may seem flippant or content-less to the "cultured despisers" - perhaps because expressive churches are often unschooled in the niceties of doctrine - have in fact been deeply God-centered. They have impressed on me thoughts of God's transcendence that are both sublime and reverent. And interestingly, this seems to be something like what Trueman is saying: mystical modes of experience can indeed lead us into a deeper sense of God's holiness and transcendence, and reading the medieval mystics can be one route to that deepening (as charismatic worship can be another such route).
Second, Trueman points out that Christian mysticism has not historically meant chucking robust theological understanding or doctrinal fidelity out the window. His Exhibit A is Thomas Aquinas, but you can go to the writings of almost any medieval mystic and see that for them, experience "is ineradicably doctrinal and connected to distinct beliefs." Of course, as he notes, some of those beliefs would not be shared by Reformed evangelicals. But the point is that their experiences were tied to and structured around their theological understandings of the biblical witness. Truth first, experience after. I am less insistent on this priority than Trueman and others who share his Reformed convictions. But I agree that the mystics' experiences and their devotional writings are thoroughly grounded in doctrine and Scripture.
Third, medieval mystics often practiced apophatic or "negative" theology, which turns some evangelicals off: We want to emphasize the "positive" statements about God found in Scripture - specific revelations about his character, his relationship with humanity, and the nature of his economic Trinity as he sets about repairing that relationship. Nonetheless, when it comes to the mysteries of the immanent Trinity, we share the mystics' apophatic bent, whether we know it or not. Words we use about God's essential nature, which we think fall into the category of positive, concrete statements about God, turn out to be negations: "Infinite means without limits. Impassible and immutable mean without suffering or change," and so forth.
And, I would add, beyond this apophatic bent of our own theological language, most modern evangelicals have a common-sense understanding of the "fragility and inadequacy of language" to address "the transcendent mystery of God." This is not a problem for us, and it should not put us off of reading the mystics that they sometimes press this claim of ineffability when talking about their experiences. As Trueman puts it, "medieval mysticism is sometimes closer to our theology than we realize."
Reading the mystics as preparation for evangelism
Fourth and finally, Trueman finds a most compelling reason for us to read the mystics in the very fact that many unchurched and anti-church folk are reading them. These are books, as he points out, available in popular Penguin editions at any major bookstore. You don't have to look to "specialist presses that serve the narrow evangelical community" to find these mystics.
Returning to his opening remarks, Trueman concludes that "in an age that craves transcendence and mystery to lift it above the banality of a bankrupt consumerism, these authors seem to have struck a chord." Those who are reading them are probably not "reading them aright." But don't let that stop you from looking at the books read by the disaffected and the anti-church - books that "shape their spiritual aspirations" and feed their "critique of contemporary church life." In the end, "an acquaintance with the medieval mystics will not just enhance your knowledge of the Middle Ages; it may also equip you better to reach out to the lost souls of the current generation."
Now the question is, to which modern evangelical specialists in medieval Christianity can we turn for interpretive assistance as we read the mystics?
That's easy, we'll read Doctor . . .
Umm, we'll go to Professor . . .
Hmm. Tom Oden, Christopher Hall, D. H. Williams,. . . It seems that these and most other scholars who agree with Bob Webber that "the path to the church's future runs through our past" are convinced that all the good stuff is to be found in the first six centuries of the church. The unspoken, but nonetheless potent assumption seems to be that after, say, Gregory the Great, the church becomes so hopelessly corrupt as to be more toxic than nourishing as a resource for modern Christians.
But if Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary says that not all the good stuff is to be found in the church's first few centuries, then I won't disagree!
So who do we turn to for guidance in this area?
There are a few evangelical scholars specializing in medieval Christianity, but books on this period from evangelical presses are still thin on the ground.
Likewise, a few evangelical seminaries offer courses on the medieval church as a discrete topic, and not just as fly-over country hurried through by the professor in the midst of the church history survey course. But in our seminaries these voices are all but drowned out by the chorus of Reformation and early church history courses, which in turn are drowned out by the deafening roar of biblical studies courses.
In other words, evangelicals seem very little attuned to the medieval period, apart from a small minority of scholars and a small but growing interest in medieval spirituality, led by such authors as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard.
So what do you think? Is Trueman right? Should the medieval mystics "form a staple of the literary diet of all thoughtful Christians"? I'd love to hear from you on this.
Christian History and Biography explored the Middle Ages in 10 of its 99 issues. Explore those issues here.
At Christian History,we enjoy putting together fresh material for you every week: articles, interviews, book reviews, excerpts from classic texts, quizzes—we’re constantly thinking of fresh ways to dig into the church’s history to increase our understanding and deepen our devotion.
However, a lot of things catch our attention that we’d like to tell you about, but that we can’t devote a full feature to. That’s one of the great things about blogging—it can be a way to call your attention to something interesting in a timely fashion but without having to commission and edit an article.
Here are some of the stories I would have shared with you if the Christian History Blog had existed last week:
I would have told you how workers who were converting a disused South Philadelphia church into a home discovered the long-lost burial place of a former slave, abolitionist, and architect of the Underground Railroad. They found the body of Stephen Gloucester, one of the first African Americans ordained as a Presbyterian minister. He has since been reburied at Philadelphia’s Old Pine Street Church cemetery.
I would also have told you about historian Peter Brown’s good fortune. He was selected to share the $1 million Kluge Prize for Lifetime Study of Humanity. And for those of you who don’t know Peter Brown, I would have shared a bit about his wonderful work on Augustine of Hippo, on the early church’s theological understanding of the body, and on the origins of the cult of the saints.
But that was last week’s news. This week, we welcome our first blog contribution from Bethel University historian and former Christian History and Biography managing editor Chris Armstrong. In coming weeks, you will hear from other Christian History bloggers, all of them CH&B editorial alums: Elesha Coffman, Collin Hansen, and Ted Olsen. Check out their pictures and biographical sketches on the left side of the blog’s main page.
So welcome to our blog. We’ll do our best to keep you up to date on interesting facets and new facts of Christian history.