All posts from "February 2010"February 23, 2010
All sides of a recent textbook battle are right, and wrong, about religion in American history.
I think five different people mentioned the same article to me earlier this month: “How Christian Were the Founders?” from The New York Times Magazine. Russell Shorto’s long and generally balanced piece examines how one institution, the Texas State Board of Education, exerts tremendous power over the interpretation of such contentious issues as creation/evolution and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. It is a story full of ironies, not unlike American history itself.
Texas is a big state, and it orders a lot of textbooks. Textbook publishers cannot afford to tailor their products to every potential audience, so they often aim at the large target under the Lone Star. As a result, 15 people in Texas help determine the curriculum for much of the country. Who knew that an elected body including high school teachers, administrators, real estate agents, lawyers, and a dentist has more direct influence over public schools in this country than do the presidents of Ivy League universities?
Reality as the opposite of what you would expect is one kind of irony. Irony as unintended consequences, and irony as the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, are also on display in Shorto’s piece. Both appear in his discussion of the fabled wall of separation between church and state.
First, the unintended consequences. In 1801, a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to newly elected President Thomas Jefferson for some help on a church-state matter. Jefferson was no orthodox Christian—he famously excised everything he didn’t like from his Bible—but all the Danbury Baptists cared about was that he was no friend of the established (state-supported) Congregationalist churches in New England. What the letter-writers wanted was the protection of the state from other Christians. This Jefferson assured them, based on his reading of the First Amendment, in which he saw provision for “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Short-term, the Baptists got what they wanted. The wall would become less comforting, though, as Baptists grew in number and stature over the next two centuries.
For the juxtaposition of contradictory impulses, I refer to some of the quotations Shorto gathered from people who write on American religious history. According to David Barton, the leader of the WallBuilders ministry who was called in by the Texas board as a consultant, “ ‘Separation of church and state’ currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant.” He’s right. The First Amendment has two clauses related to religious freedom, the establishment clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”) and the free exercise clause (“… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). As both the Danbury Baptists and Jefferson understood, the two clauses aimed primarily at allowing Americans to pursue their religion without interference. People were afraid of too much control over religion. Now, many Americans fear that religious forces are too strong, so it’s the state’s job to protect a neutral public sphere from being overrun by the faithful. Agree or disagree with either fear, they are decidedly different.
In opposition, Barnard College historian Randall Balmer dismissed the idea “that the founders intended America to be a Christian nation.” He’s right, too. A nation where the free exercise of religion is protected is not necessarily a “Christian nation,” even if the religion being practiced is overwhelmingly some form of Christianity, as it was in the early American republic. The framers emphatically did not want to copy the “Christian nations” of Western Europe, with their numerous formal connections between political and ecclesial authority. On the other hand, the framers approached Christianity with reverential deference in comparison to French revolutionaries, who waged all-out war on the church. So the framers did not intend America to be a Christian nation, as they understood that category, but they didn’t intend it to be an un-Christian nation, either. Probably, the latter notion would have horrified and baffled more of them than the former would have.
Finally, a quote from University of Chicago historian emeritus Martin Marty: “I think ‘wall’ is too heavy a metaphor. There’s a trend now away from it. … In textbooks, we’re moving away from an unthinking secularity.” Note that—textbooks are already moving, even without the firm guiding hands of the Texas State Board of Education. As an example, the U.S. History survey text I use, published by W.W. Norton, just added more religion coverage in the eighth edition. A collegiate text, it is not subject to the state-level adoption process. Instead, this update reflects shifts in the discipline of history, where religious history recently overtook cultural history as scholars’ top specialty. And so the battle of religious activists versus the godless educational establishment turns out to be deeply complicated. No wonder Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 masterpiece The Irony of American History remains a classic.
The headscratching headlines about the restoration of the world's oldest monastery.
"Egypt: Ancient Monastery Called a Sign of Coexistence" read the New York Times headline on an Associated Press story. The Daily Star of Lebanon, on its headline for the same story was even more direct: "Ascetic saint becomes a symbol of tolerance."
To be clear, it's the renovation, unveiled last week, of Antony's 1700-year-old monastery that's the symbol of tolerance, not Antony himself.
“I believe today is important because it can answer all the questions of the people all over the world and it can show how the Muslims can stay here eight years restoring and making impressive work,” Zahi Hawass told the Associated Press and other journalists.
As for Antony, he wasn't quite the symbol of interfaith tolerance. Here's the opening of Mark Galli's profile in Christian History's issue 64, on Antony and the other desert fathers:
Crossing the dry Egyptian desert, a band of philosophers finally arrived at the "inner mountain," the monastic abode of a Christian named Antony. The skeptical scholars asked the illiterate old man to explain the inconsistencies of Christianity, and after they got started, they ridiculed some of its teachings—especially that God's Son would die on a cross.
Antony, who spoke only Coptic (not Greek, the international language of the day), answered through an interpreter. He began by asking, "Which is better—to confess a cross, or to attribute acts of adultery and pederasty to those whom you call gods?" After questioning further the reasonableness of paganism, he moved to the central issue.
"And you, by your syllogisms and sophisms," he continued, "do not convert people from Christianity to Hellenism, but we, by teaching faith in Christ, strip you of superstition. … By your beautiful language, you do not impede the teaching of Christ, but we, calling on the name of Christ crucified, chase away the demons you fear as gods."
Elsewhere in the same issue, Kenneth Calvert notes that Antony was very involved in fighting heresy. While arch heresy battler Athanasius--who wrote the "best selling" Life of St. Antony--was probably keenly eager to note the ascetic's kinship on fighting Arianism and other flawed theologies, Athanasius's testimony is worth noting:
[Antony] was altogether wonderful in faith and religious, for he never held communion with the Meletian schismatics, knowing their wickedness and apostacy from the beginning; nor had he friendly dealings with the Manichaeans or any other heretics; or, if he had, only as far as advice that they should change to piety. For he thought and asserted that intercourse with these was harmful and destructive to the soul. In the same manner also he loathed the heresy of the Arians, and exhorted all neither to approach them nor to bold their erroneous belief. And once when certain Arian madmen came to him, when he had questioned them and learned their impiety, he drove them from the mountain, saying that their words were worse than the poison of serpents.
And once also the Arians having lyingly asserted that Antony's opinions were the same as theirs, he was displeased and wroth against them. Then being summoned by the bishops and all the brethren, he descended from the mountain, and having entered Alexandria, he denounced the Arians, saying that their heresy was the last of all and a forerunner of Antichrist.
Yes, quite the symbol of religious tolerance.
Before there was Christian History, there was Christian History.
Thomas Prince Sr. may have worried that the Great Awakening was fading when he and his son started the first evangelical magazine in 1743. But he wanted to publish a journal that would document the revival that had been spreading through the American colonies. Future generations could turn to the Christian History magazine and remember God’s faithfulness. He also hoped the periodical would keep the awakened community from fracturing, encourage recent converts, and perhaps even prompt a few new ones. Whether or not the Boston pastor succeeded in all his aims, we are indebted this progenitor of evangelical publishing, who inspired generations of journalist/historians to support the church by documenting the gospel’s progress.
“Where there had been no specifically evangelical periodical publication in the first forty years of the [eighteenth] century,” Susan [Durden] O’Brien observes, “by the last forty years such literature had become a normal means of communication and propagation for several denominations.”
Writing in the first issue, published on March 5, 1743, editor Thomas Prince Jr. told readers what they could expect. New England ministers would submit authentic, trustworthy accounts of the contemporary revival. He planned to publish extracts from the “most remarkable” revival stories in history. He solicited revival narratives from ministers in England and Scotland. And he excerpted letters between pastors from various locales, anywhere from Scotland to Georgia. This correspondence provided readers with the most reliable, recent news from the awakening’s front lines.
The first seven issues of the weekly magazine shared news from the contemporary Kilsyth revival in Scotland. “As cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country: So Solomon observed in his day; and so we find it in ours,” Prince wrote in his editor’s preface. Indeed, revival leaders thrived on exchanging mutually encouraging reports across the Atlantic. They also exchanged strategies for defending the awakening. Like his allies in America, Scottish minister James Robe attacked the revival’s critics head-on. It’s not clear how many critics read this pro-revival magazine, but Robe gave them something to chew on. Critics regarded the crowds as deluded by the Devil, so Robe asked how ministers should respond. The crowds were approaching ministers confessing their immoral behavior and asking, “What must I do to be saved?” Should they turn the crowds away, telling them the Devil makes them see their sin as offensive to God? Or should they explain that Satan leads them to inquire about the state of their souls and seek relief from Christ? Of course, such a response would be cruel and ridiculous, Robe implied.
Prince ceased publication in 1745. But the legacy of the Christian History endures in name and also in the spirit of bringing evangelicals together to testify about what the Lord has done.
“Journals like Prince’s brought international evangelicalism to an important new stage,” Mark Noll writes in The Rise of Evangelicalism. “Revivalistic Calvinism was becoming a public matter, and in so doing was beginning to blur its boundaries with others in the English-speaking world who were uncertain about Calvinism abut nonetheless dedicated to revival. Evangelical self-consciousness increased measurably as articles from magazines were circulated, read publicly and reprinted in other papers.”
Dorothy Sayers rediscovered the gripping drama of Christian doctrine.
We live once again, as did early 20th-century mystery writer and lay theologian Dorothy L. Sayers, in a world that could care less about the doctrines of the Christian church. And once again, many of those who care least are self-identified Christians and faithful churchgoers.
Before we lose all grip on the intellectual content of our faith, it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with Sayers. In a recent Glimpses bulletin insert, I sketched her twin passions for swashbuckling drama and intellectual order, and suggested how these suited her to the great task of modern apologetics—a task probably still as urgent for Christian as for non-Christian audiences:
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893–1957) was a prolific scholar, novelist, essayist, playwright and translator. Those who know about her today have usually met her through her detective stories and their memorable hero, Lord Peter Wimsey. But there is much more to her story. In a time of spiritual confusion, she emerged, almost despite herself, as an unlikely voice of clarity and a compelling lay “preacher” of the gospel.
Sayers, a clergyman’s daughter, was born into a late-Victorian Oxford, England that had ceased to be a sleepy medieval town: automobile factories now encroached on its narrow streets and dreamlike spires. Worse, the Christian tradition that had birthed Oxford University was now in full retreat throughout Europe. Anyone truly “modern” believed that humans, like everything else, are just aggregations of atoms, and matters of morality and spirit thus mere illusions.
Even the Church of England was giving in, so that by the turn of the century, bishops who doubted Christ’s resurrection were called “courageous.” And though many ministers and laypeople still held on to Christian faith, it was increasingly a sentimentalized, moralistic version.
In late girlhood and adolescence, Sayers was bright enough to observe and dislike the stuffed-shirt piety of the modernizing Church of England. She remarked that, like sex, such mysteries of the faith as the sacraments and God himself seemed to be considered “exceedingly sacred and beautiful,” yet also “indelicate, and only to be mentioned in whispers.” As she would later say about this sort of overdone churchiness: “At the name of Jesus, every voice goes plummy.”
She was saved from outright rebellion against her father’s faith by reading the Roman Catholic journalist-apologist G. K. Chesterton—especially his Orthodoxy. “It was stimulating to be told,” she wrote, “that Christianity was not a dull thing but a gay thing; not a stick-in-the-mud thing but an adventurous thing; not an unintelligent thing but a wise thing, indeed a shrewd thing.”
Pressing in to find the truth, she discovered a God who is “a fact, a thing like a tiger, a reason for changing one’s conduct.” A fan of Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, she had swooped about her girlhood home in the costume of D’Artagnan. Now she began to see just how dramatic and compelling is the gospel story.
After an Oxford education in medieval languages (she was in the first class of women to receive their B.A. and M.A.), Sayers worked first as a copy editor, then an advertising writer. Then she began writing a well-crafted series of mystery novels featuring the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey.
In the late 1930s and the 1940s, however, her life changed direction when she was invited to write a series of plays for performance in the Canterbury Cathedral. Here was an opportunity to reconnect with all the drama and pageantry she had loved as a girl in The Three Musketeers. Her plays made Christian themes vivid and launched her into a new career as a lay theologian, as newspapers and institutions began clamoring for her thoughts on the faith.
She threw herself into that role in a way that was both swashbuckling and intellectually rigorous. During the season of Lent in 1938, Sayers wrote an article for the London Times in Chestertonian mode: “Official Christianity . . . has been having what is known as a bad press. We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine. . . . The fact is the precise opposite. . . . The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . and the dogma is the drama.”
She followed with “What Do We Believe?” “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” “The Triumph of Easter,” and many other essays. She wanted to awaken a sleeping church and insist that it reclaim the doctrines of the historic creeds—powerful realities that had been lost under layer upon layer of well-meaning but stuffy “clergy jargon.”
In 1940, as her reputation as a public apologist grew, she was asked by the BBC to write a serialized play on the life of Jesus. At the time (and up until 1968), it was illegal in England to portray Jesus on stage, and it required a special church dispensation even to allow this radio play. She wrote, “I feel very strongly that the prohibition against representing Our Lord directly on the stage or in films . . . tends to produce a sense of unreality which is very damaging to the ordinary man’s conception of Christianity. . . . ‘Bible characters’ are felt to be quite different from ordinary human beings.”
Her way of breaking through this sense of unreality was to write a new translation from the Greek that avoided the churchy verbiage of the good old “Authorized Version” (KJV). She directed her actors to speak with accents appropriate to the working-class status of the disciples. When the public heard The Man Born to Be King, “rapturous letters poured in from listeners of all ages.” People were grateful that Sayers had presented the story of Jesus in a realer and more powerful way than they had ever heard. C. S. Lewis was among those who loved the play: for the rest of his life, he read it each year during Holy Week.
Sayers’s final and arguably greatest work began when she was 51, huddled in a bomb shelter, reading her grandmother’s copy of Dante’s Inferno. For the rest of her life, she labored to make Dante’s epic poem of Christian theology, spirituality, and morality live again for a new generation.
On December 17, 1957, Dorothy L. Sayers died of heart failure. She was sixty-four years old.
Bishops, dignitaries and many friends attended the memorial service. There, a eulogy by C. S. Lewis was read and leather-bound copies of her essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged” were handed out to all. Then as now, Dorothy L. Sayers was recognized as one of England’s most remarkable voices for the truth of faith.
“The Dogma is the Drama,” Dorothy L. Sayers—excerpts
It is . . . startling to discover how many people . . . heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting and so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church.
Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore—and this in the Name of One Who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through the world like a flame.
It is the dogma that is the drama--not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death--but the terrifying assertion that the same God Who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realise that here is something that a man might be glad to believe.
The January 1934 edition of Mystery featured a short story by Dorothy Sayers titled "Impossible Alibi." Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.