All posts from "May 2009"May 27, 2009
Newspaper clippings document teetotalers’ dedication, even in driving rain.
Memorial Day weekend seemed like a grand time for camping with friends in North Carolina, and it was, right up until a downpour began Sunday night.
According to plastic cups left out on the picnic tables - the storm hit after dark, leaving precious little time for securing items beneath tent canopies - a good two inches of rain fell in about as many hours, and additional sprinkles every half hour or so ensured that nothing had a chance to dry out. Two tents in our group were flooded out, though luckily not ours. My 3-year-old daughter managed to sleep through the whole thing.
Church historian that I am, as I lay awake, listening to heavy drops pelt the rain fly, I thought, This must have happened a lot at 19th-century camp meetings. I wonder how they handled it?
Upon returning to the electrified world, I ran some Web searches to find out.
Organizers at Cane Ridge in Kentucky, site of an iconic 1801 revival that ignited the Second Great Awakening in the heartland, dodged bad weather by erecting a shed "sufficiently large to protect 5,000 people from wind and rain, [covered] with boards or shingles." (That description appears in the autobiography of Peter Cartwright, camp meeting preacher extraordinaire, who was himself converted at Cane Ridge.) Organizers of a Prohibitionist rally in New York in the 1880s, though, were not so fortunate.
An unnamed reporter for The New York Times had great fun writing dispatches from a waterlogged teetotalers' rally at Sing Sing in August 1887. "However much the prohibitionist may delight in water," began the August 23 report, "there was nobody present at the Sing Sing camp meeting yesterday who would not admit that it was possible to have too much of a good thing."
Prohibitionists, of course, advocated water as a beverage, not as precipitation. They were able to promote water as a healthy alternative to liquor thanks to advances in sanitation. Until the latter half of the 19th century, it simply was not safe to drink water in much of Europe and North America (nor aboard ships - the Mayflower landed where it did because the Puritans had run out of beer). Filtration, sewer systems, and other developments finally made it possible to eschew fermentation.
The 1887 rally aimed to generate support for both Prohibition legislation and the Prohibition Party, which had been founded in 1869. Rain diminished the crowd to 300 or 400, but, the paper reported, "what the meeting lacked in numbers they made up in enthusiasm." Sheltered by a tabernacle, attendees heard speeches from such celebrities as Presbyterian theologian Dr. Herrick Johnson, formerly of Auburn Theological Seminary but by that time teaching in Chicago; Rev. E.J. Hill (famous on Google for being a Son of the American Revolution and for discovering Hill's Pondweed); Dr. Howard Crosby, pastor of Fourth Avenue (now Broadway) Presbyterian Church and Chancellor of New York University; and the Hon. John P. St. John, former governor of Kansas. The Times called the array of speakers "prodigal in quantity and quality." Given the nature of their cause, one assumes the speakers were anything but prodigal in their personal habits.
One of the addresses received particular attention in the news report. In a "long and elaborate speech," Dr. Johnson took on ten fallacies about the Prohibition Party, the first being that prohibition presented "an unwarrantable invasion of natural rights beyond the proper domain of legislation." Johnson granted that personal liberty was wonderful, unless the exercise of this liberty hurt someone else.The paper cited as one of Johnson's examples, "A man exercising his personal liberty by taking a hen off a roost would not be doing wrong unless he took some other person's hen." (Why anyone would be tempted to saunter up and remove a hen from a roost is beyond me.)
In an eerie continuation of this logic, Johnson again made news in 1894 when he told reporters, in reference to the Pullman Strike, "There is but one way to deal with these troubles now and that is by violence. â€¦ There must be some shooting, men must be killed, and then there will be an end to this defiance of law and destruction of property." Both unlimited exercise of personal liberty and the abrogation of liberty can be dangerous things.
The second fallacy Johnson addressed was more explicitly theological: the objection that, because Jesus drank wine, Prohibition reflected badly on him. Johnson's example again revealed his historical moment. He argued that frame buildings had been constructed since the Savior's day, but in some cases, frame buildings posed a public hazard. To outlaw frame buildings, then, was just sound policy, not an aspersion cast on the blessed carpenter. For one thing, Johnson's knowledge of ancient architecture seems a bit shaky. Any child brought up with modern Bible picture books knows that Bethlehem did not have wooden row houses. For another thing, the outlawing of frame houses stemmed from 19th-century fears of urban fires, such as the one that gutted Chicago in 1871. Today's public safety concerns are rather more complicated.
It was difficult to tell how the Times reporter evaluated these goings-on. He (or she) made plenty of little jokes about the soggy water-drinkers, but he also sat through many speeches and seemed to have represented both their content and their passion faithfully. In the end, he at least admired the activists' dedication. A follow-up report dated August 25 began,
Any assemblage other than the enthusiastic Prohibitionists now holding a camp meeting at Sing Sing would have become discouraged yesterday with the reverses they have had in the way of weather. Yesterday again leaden skies and a cold and exceedingly wet rain compelled the retirement of the hammock and the substitution of rubbers for tennis shoes and red worsted slippers. But the cold-water army did not droop. Some of them even found comfort in the reflection that the liquor dealers on parade in this city would have to put up with a copious dosing of the element they have tried to make unpopular as a beverage. "The rain falls alike upon the just and the unjust" was, in their opinion, proved yesterday, and they were not the unjust either.
Misguided though they might have been, those dogged Prohibitionists deserve a measure of respect.
Image: Allegorical cartoon from 1874: Women's Holy War: Grand Charge on the Enemy's Works, courtesy Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.
Some items on my summer reading list.
One of the benefits about writing on a topic like the spirituality of travel or relics is that long after the article appears people keep sending you material. Fortunately, I'm still very interested in the subject matter. (I'm sad to say that's not always true of subjects I've written about. After finishing my book on Christianity and the Celts I took a long break from reading anything even slightly related to Celtic Christianity. I'm over it now and even read Jon Sweeney's edited version of J.B. Bury's Patrick biography.)
So now I have three new books at the top of my summer reading pile.
The first is Tamara Park's Sacred Encounters, which came out in January from InterVarsity Press. Her travelogue from Rome to Jerusalem is the latest of several evangelical pilgrimage books. I must confess I don't yet know much more about it than that, but I'm glad to see Christian publishers continue to move into this area.
The second is Rag and Bone, Peter Manseau's more journalistic pilgrimage to holy relics from various religions. The excerpts I've read are fascinating. I'm not very interested in multifaith books that seek to derive meaning by looking for what Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Sikhs all do similarly (my "spirituality and travel" bookshelf has far too many of such titles), but I've enjoyed Manseau's writing elsewhere.
The third is more specific and (ahem) less serious. In An Irreverent Curiosity, David Farley goes in search one particular relic. The strangest relic of all, perhaps: Jesus' foreskin. Based on a snickering 2006 preview of sorts he wrote for Slate, I don't think this is a book Christianity Today will be recommending highly, even though Protestants have been very negative on relics in general and on Jesus-related relics in particular.
But since my last blog post on relics, the most interesting related item I've read was a report in Archeology. UCLA anthropologist Charles Stanish, who is director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, argued that eBay is hurting antiquities looters and saving real antiquities. (The piece originally appeared in the Cotsen Institute's Backdirt.)
"Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting," he wrote. Instead:
many of the primary "producers" of the objects have shifted from looting sites to faking antiquities. â€¦ We can only hope, but it is just conceivable that online commerce will actually put a lot of antiquities looters and traffickers out of business by the sheer volume of sales and quality of products that fool even the experts. â€¦ . I suppose if people stopped believing that they can buy a pill that will help them lose weight without dieting or exercise, then it is possible that people will stop buying fakes online, and we will return to old-fashioned looting. We just have to wait and see what surprises the Internet brings us in the future.
I don't know if the same economics would hold true for Christian relics, of which eBay has many for sale (much to the consternation of many believers and others). Looting of relics might have been common a millennium ago, but seems pretty rare today.
But as Farley's foreskin book illustrates, it still happens on occasion. And those of us who remember the James ossuary controversy (there's a new book on that, too, which I'll be skipping) might be interested to note that the forgery trial has been at a standstill since late March. I wonder: Is it worse if the James ossuary is a fake, or if it is real, looted, and irrevocably removed from its original location?
Image: Public domain via Wikimedia commons: Circoncision sur le retable des Douze ApÃ´tres de Friedrich Herlin de NÃ¶rdlingen, 1466.Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Church largely greets latest Dan Brown thriller with shrug.
Compared to The Da Vinci Code hype in 2006, Angels & Demons has barely registered a blip on the pop culture radar. With the new Dan Brown adaptation opening in theaters May 15, director Ron Howard attempted to stir up controversy when he accused the Roman Catholic Church of obstructing his filming. The usual suspects have obliged movie publicists with anti-Brown polemics. But so far the Vatican has resisted the urge to join the fray. The semi-official Vatican weekly L'Osservatore Romano declined to cite the movie's many historical inaccuracies. Instead, a reviewer described it as a basic big-budget action flick with stereotypical characters. At least this time the church sides with Brown's good guys, namely Robert Langdon, played once again by Tom Hanks.
Strategically, it's hard to argue with the Vatican's approach. Vocal Christian opposition to The Da Vinci Code largely served to stoke reader and moviegoer interest. Much the same happened, of course, when the Anti-Defamation League, The New York Times, and others faulted Mel Gibson for The Passion of Jesus Christ. By contrast, agnosticism breeds apathy. A little culture-war controversy might have bolstered the bottom line for The Nativity Story. America magazine blogger Michael Sean Winters captured this mood when he urged Catholics not to expect historical accuracy from Angels & Demons.
"So, go to the movie or don’t go to the movie," Winters wrote. "Your soul, and the soul of our culture, is not at stake here."
Mark Moring echoed a similar sentiment for the Christianity Today Movies blog.
"Nobody's forcing anybody to watch the movie, or even believe anything that's being portrayed," Moring wrote. "If it's not your thing, skip it. If it is, then enjoy it for what the Vatican's newspaper is calling it: 'harmless entertainment.'"
The staff of Christian History magazine wrestled with these same issues in 2003 when considering response to The Da Vinci Code novel. We ultimately decided to capitalize on the opportunity to teach readers about church history. We explored what happened at the Council of Nicea and how the New Testament documents were compiled. Intense reader interest made this little primer the site's most-read article between November 2003 and the movie's release in 2006. I received hundreds of e-mail messages commending and condemning the article. Some scoffed at me for treating a thriller novel seriously. Others thanked me for helping them learn about Arius, Gnosticism, Constantine, and other key figures and issues from the early church.
But many, if not most, accused me of participating in the church cover-up Brown has exposed in his novels. Brown has a brilliant talent for mixing fact and fiction in a compelling narrative format. Those who dismiss him as a mere novelist underestimate the medium and misunderstand his stated, explicit intent. In an interview about Angels & Demons posted on his website, Brown repeatedly appealed to "many modern historians," "many historians," and "most academics" to bolster his arguments. "It is historical fact that the Illuminati vowed vengeance against the Vatican in the 1600's," Brown claimed. He explained that he got the idea for the book when touring secret tunnels in Vatican City.
"According to the scholar giving the tour, one of the Vatican's most feared ancient enemies was a secret brotherhood known as the Illuminati--the 'enlightened ones'--a cult of early scientists who had vowed revenge against the Vatican for crimes against scientists like Galileo and Copernicus," Brown recalled. "I was fascinated by images of this cloaked, anti-religious brotherhood lurking in the catacombs of Rome. Then, when the scholar added that many modern historians believe the Illuminati is still active today and is one of most powerful unseen forces in global politics, I knew I was hooked...I had to write an Illuminati thriller."
Before the book had circulated widely, readers began writing Brown in shock as they learned the supposed facts behind his fiction. Brown himself encourages this pursuit. "My goal is always to make the character's [sic] and plot be so engaging that readers don't realize how much they are learning along the way," Brown wrote.
To be sure, not many moviegoers want or expect to learn from a summer action flick. Angels & Demons certainly isn't worthy of the church's ire. If anything, discerning Christians might take the opportunity to explore the complex history of the relationship between faith and science. They might wisely choose to ignore Brown altogether. But they should not misunderstand his motives or the powerful effects of popular media on an uninformed audience.
Angels and Demons production photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.
If we move beyond a piecemeal approach to medieval Christianity, we can mine the rich vein of its spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources.
This weekend I am attending the 44th International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. This is the largest and most prestigious international gathering for medievalist scholars, convening over 3,000 scholars in over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances.
Frankly, though I am no medievalist, just thinking about being there is making me drool.
What's an American church history geek doing attending a meeting that will feature hundreds of highly technical papers in a field I hardly know, based on texts in languages I've never learned - Latin, Old English, Old Norse?
Maybe it's the new monastics' fault.
For several years, I've been a sympathetic follower-from-afar of this movement.* I have to say that the new monastics sometimes seem curiously oblivious to those values that animated the original monastics. However, they have cautiously reached out to the "old monastics" in venues such as the annual Monastic Institute held at St. John's Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. This has led to some interesting meditations on the value for today's Christians of monastic disciplines such as obedience, stability of life, and the like. For a fascinating glimpse of this engagement, see Inhabiting the Church, co-authored by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Tim Otto, and Jon Stock.
Another thing that has spurred me to engage medieval history is . . . well . . . this will raise eyebrows, but I'll say it: I am a long-time fan of fantasy literature, and a one-time enthusiastic player of Dungeons and Dragons. Both that genre and that game (with all of its countless spinoffs) were inspired by the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. And if the number of sessions at the Medieval Congress dedicated to Tolkien is any indication, there are plenty of folks doing medieval studies today who love Tolkien - including, I don't doubt, many who got into the field of medieval studies through reading Tolkien.
The potential lesson here for evangelicals goes beyond The Lord of the Rings. Some of modern evangelicals' favorite writers are scholars of the medieval period: along with Tolkien we can list C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, and Dorothy L. Sayers. Surely we should stop cherry-picking these authors, concentrating on the "mere Christianity" that they defended so eloquently and imaginatively, and ignoring their strong sense that the medieval world has something to show and tell us today.
One more thing that has spurred me to dig into the Middle Ages has been the trend among younger evangelicals toward returning to "tradition" as a resource for tomorrow's church. Though the main energies of this movement are still focused on the early church, younger Christians in particular are going on retreats at monasteries, practicing the Lectio Divina, and walking labyrinths.
Surely evangelicals who are sampling these medieval wares would benefit by moving beyond a piecemeal, "consumer" approach to medieval Christianity into a more systematic, in-depth study. Beneath the surface of now-trendy medieval practices, and amidst that era's wrong turnings and corruptions, lies a rich vein of spiritual, intellectual, and practical resources. I can think of at least nine facets of medieval faith and life that we can stand to learn from today:
- their willingness to engage in spiritual disciplines,
- their theologically grounded devotional and even "mystical" practices,
- their high valuation of tradition handed down in texts,
- their passionate search for theological knowledge (fides quaerens intellectum--"faith seeking understanding"),
- their moral seriousness, expressed for example in the lists of "deadly sins" and "cardinal virtues,"
- their adaptation of classical learning to Christian theology (which paved the way for the birth of modern science and continues to provide a model for Christ-culture engagement today),
- their deep affection for the doctrines of creation and incarnation, issuing (for example) in many profoundly spiritual treasures of Western art and literature,
- their high valuation on eternity over temporal life, and the "art of dying well" (ars moriendi) that developed from this commitment, and
- their insistence on works of charity (fides caritate formata--"faith formed by love").
Well, these sorts of thoughts have spurred me to start reading seriously in the area of medieval studies (still as an amateur, rather than as a scholar), seeking a "usable past." At the outset, I focused on three figures: Gregory the Great ("father of medieval spirituality" and "Doctor of Desire"), Dante Alighieri (author of the Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso), and Margery Kempe (a charismatic and odd laywoman from late-medieval England who has recently been enjoying a resurgence of interest among modern readers - see for example "Mapping Margery Kempe."). Each of these has become a chapter in my forthcoming IVP book Patron Saints for Postmoderns.
A couple of years ago, given some gracious funding from the Alumni Association at Bethel, I was able to spend a week at Wheaton College's Marion Wade Center, pulling medieval strings leading from Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, and Sayers, to see where they would lead. I was also able to purchase a small starter library of primary and secondary sources in medieval studies. This work morphed into a course at Bethel Seminary, "Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry." (And will soon, I hope, become a book.)
And so tonight at 9 pm, after teaching an internet-based class session from my St. Paul office, I will get into my car, plug in cassette #1 of the BBC's dramatization of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, and strike out for Kalamazoo. Perhaps by next month's blog entry, I will have processed that conference's rich smorgasbord of scholarly medievalism enough to report a few highlights.
Until then, peace - and may the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Gregory, Dante, Margery, and all the saints be with you.
* What are the "new monastics?" In his influential 1981 book After Virtue, Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre compared the state of the West to the decadence of the late Roman Empire and called for "another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict." Then in 1998, in a little book called Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, Protestant theologian Jonathan R. Wilson transformed McIntyre's call into a plea for a Protestant "new monasticism." Since then, Wilson's own son-in-law Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and such other self-identified "new monastics" as Shane Claiborne have "joined up," forging a new communal lifestyle in urban "abandoned places of empire," lived out in solidarity with the poor.
Image: Medieval writing desk via Wikimedia Commons from the G. F. Rodwell's "South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe" (1877)