A few weeks back, I wrapped up a class about hymns at the church. We looked back at how music was used in worship throughout the ages and looked at some particularly famous hymns along the way. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, we used the book Then Sings My Soul: Book 3 by Thomas Nelson, which is not only approachable and concise, but does a nice job of blending history and music.
There’s one hymn that really stuck with me from that class: “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” by Martin Luther (sheet music and full copy of the lyrics here). I have no idea how common this hymn is among Lutherans. For all I know, they sing it every week. Goodness knows Methodists know more than their fair share of Charles Wesley hymns. However common it might be in other traditions, it was totally foreign to me, which means I could appreciate just how weird (and wonderful) it was. Here’s a great rendition by Concordia Publishing House:
First off, it’s an Easter song in A minor. Who writes an Easter song in a minor key? Easter is a celebration! It’s glorious! I don’t expect sad music! But here’s Death’s Strong Bands, full of melancholy, proudly announcing Easter. It’s a mix of joy and sorrow that I didn’t expect on Easter.
The lyrics have that same tension. Just look at verse 1:
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands for our offenses given; but now at God’s right hand he stands and brings us life from heaven. Therefore let us joyful be and sing to God right thankfully loud songs of alleluia! Alleluia!
The first two lines are intensely melancholy, so much so that I’m surprised by the heavenly triumph that follows! And before you say, “Hold on, Vincent! What if Martin Luther was only saying something like ‘Christ died for us,’ in the first verse? That could certainly be considered joyful,” hear me out. The whole hymn vacillates between triumph and sorrow:
Verse two is about how all of humanity was enslaved to sin and death (mournful)
Verse three is about Jesus destroying death and taking its crown (triumphal)
Verse four is about the “strange and dreadful strife” when good and evil fought and good won (triumphal, but with mournful undertones)
Verse five compares Jesus to the paschal lamb that died so his blood could save others (could be played either way; suffering love is a complex theme)
Verse six and seven switch into high celebration, explicitly saying that it’s Easter and we should remember it with food, drink, and celebrations (highly triumphal)
When I talked to the class about this particular hymn, it turned out to be a lot less popular than I expected. The most popular complaint was that it was just too gloomy to sing on Easter and too perky to sing on Good Friday. Maybe it could fit in on a Palm/Passion service? But even then you’d have to cut out the verse that explicitly says it’s Easter. It came off like a hymn with some problems that would need solved before it saw it’s day in Sunday worship.
Apparently the people who compiled the United Methodist Hymnal felt the same way. They cut verses two, three, and five, removing the themes of death, sin, and atonement (the stuff we usually associate with Good Friday). What’s left is significantly more triumphal. Given that verse six and seven are the only two “very triumphal” verses, the percent of the hymn dedicated purely to celebration rockets up from 28% pre-edit to 50% post-edit. This is a common edit of the hymn shared by most mainline denominations and a few evangelical ones.
I can’t help but feel we’re losing something with edits like this. The tension between joy and sorrow and the battle between good and evil are what made the song interesting to begin with! If we ditch that, what are we left with? A weird, subpar Easter hymn that’s arbitrarily in a minor key. Gross. But I get what they were trying to do! They wanted to tip the balance between joy and sorrow in favor of joy! They wanted to resolve the tension and make it a little more Eastery! But resolving that tension made it boring and odd.
If were going to give it some tweaks to help it find a place in worship, a better solution (in my mind) is showcased by efforts like the band Koine. Rather than remove the tension between the celebratory stuff and the mournful stuff, they leaned into that tension. They removed verses 6 and 7 (the explicit references to Easter) and basically turned it into a Good Friday hymn:
Now that’s worth singing! The minor key makes sense. I get it. The sweetness of salvation and the bitterness of Christ’s death are properly intermingled. It feels a lot more loyal to Luther’s original intent as well. I can’t fathom someone asking him if they could ditch the stuff about Christ’s death and sin and him saying, “Oh, for sure! Now that I think about it, it was a little gloomy.” Not a chance.
I do have to admit that the original draft is definitely an odd hymn and a tough sell for Easter. I almost wonder if you could split the verses and make two versions: the Good Friday edit would have verses 1 through 5, and the Easter Sunday edit would have verses 1, 6 and 7. If you sang those different versions on their appropriate days during Holy Week, it might give a sense of continuing work that works really well. But maybe I’m working too hard to make an odd hymn work. Or maybe I’m not properly appreciating what Martin did in the first place! Either way, this hymn’s mix of joy and sorrow hit me just right. I’ll keep pondering this hymn for weeks to come.
I preached my first Easter sermon this past Sunday, which was delightful. I hadn’t had the privilege of preaching on a holiday before (at least, not one of the big ones). Now that it’s over, I’m reflecting on the occasion. There are so many guests at churches on Easter. A lot of them have pretty minimal relationships with the Church. What do we show them to impress the importance of God on their hearts? How do we evangelize on big occasions like Easter?
Luckily for me, I stumbled across this reading from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England while auditing one of Matthew Hoskin’s classes at Davenant Institute (his blog is here and is brilliant, by the way).
Augustine of Canterbury (who is not the same person as Augustine of Hippo) was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to share the Gospel with the people in Kent (modern England). They set up a meeting with the king in the hopes of getting permission to evangelize throughout his territory. I can only imagine a meeting like that would be infinitely more stressful than giving an Easter sermon to a visitor-heavy crowd today. He needed translators! He needed to adhere to local sensibilities and codes of respect! If things went wrong, the King might not only decide to kick them out; he might decide to kill these obnoxious missionaries that were meddling where they ought not meddle. So what did he bring? What did he show the king of Kent to impress upon him the seriousness of this Christian faith?
They came… bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Savior painted on a board; and chanting litanies, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom and for whom they had come. When they had sat down, in obedience to the king’s commands, [they] preached to him, and his attendants there present the Word of life.
The Venerable Bede, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England, Ch. XXV
Can you imagine the spectacle of that procession? An envoy from Rome arrives complete with silver cross and marching chanters and all the (figurative) bells and whistles. It’d have been a breathtaking sight! More than that, Augustine is unapologetically offering up things that are otherworldly. He isn’t offering trade deals. There’s no promise of improved relationships with other kingdoms. He isn’t even explaining how fun the children’s ministry will be for the kingdom’s kids! All of the pageantry and splendor serve to create this little window into a world beyond our own. And it works! The king gives his approval for their activity in his realm.
I’m well aware that some of that procession is normative for the time and culture. I’m also sure that the average Easter visitor won’t have the same response to a crowd of monks chanting for their salvation that King Ethelbert did. As I continue to unpack my first Easter at the helm, I have to keep asking, how do we create a window into Heaven? How can we evangelize like Augustine of Canterbury and present the truth in a way that makes people stop and marvel?
While poking around some different articles on the treatment of women in Leviticus, I stumbled across some wacky interpretations of what Jesus wrote in the sand in John 8:1-11. Let me refresh your memory on that passage (with a verse from chapter 7 to make sure we don’t start in the middle of a sentence):
7 53 Then they all went home,
8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.Now what do you say?”6 They were using this question as a trap,in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stoneat her.”8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,”Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What did Jesus write? It’s important enough that it’s referenced twice at crucial story moments, but apparently not important enough to tell us anything about it. I’ve heard people say he was writing a passage from Leviticus 20 indicating that BOTH people were supposed to be stoned, revealing that they would be breaking the law if they stoned her because they failed to produce both parties. Others have said that he was writing the names of every accuser along with the sins that they had recently committed. I’ve even heard that he drew a line in the sand for people to cross if they felt they were worthy. There are a lot of takes out there, but most of them aren’t really founded on much apart from one person’s random guesswork. What have the major theologians of the Christian tradition said about the writing in the sand?
Naturally, I started with Augustine (because you can never go too far wrong with Augustine). Luckily for me, he preached a series of sermons about the book of John and his take was customarily good. He suggested the trap the Pharisees laid was in making Jesus choose between gentleness and justice. If Jesus approved of the women’s death, he’d be the guy that condemned peasant women and his popularity would suffer. If he didn’t approve of her death, he was speaking against God’s justice and was officially a transgressor of the law! Jesus navigates the dilemma with his typical craftiness by taking neither option. But what about the finger writing?
You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit. You have heard then, Let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Hence, either let this woman go, or together with her receive ye the penalty of the law… [H]aving struck them through with that dart of justice, [Jesus] deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, “again He wrote with His finger on the ground.”
Augustine, Sermon on John Chapter VII. 40–53; VIII. 1–11
Brilliant! Rather than focus on non-existent content, he’s looking at the symbolism of the act itself. Why would Jesus write on the ground? Because God wrote the law on stone the first time, and now he’s writing on the ground. This is the same dust that people were created from. Were they fertile enough to bear fruit after all these years? Or were their hearts still hard as the rocks that the commandments were once written on? He even returns to his idea of gentleness by indicating that Jesus didn’t stare them down after the incident, shaming them for their sin. He just keeps writing. Really nice work here.
Other patristic authors are less worthy of sharing. John Chrysostom has a sermon series on John that deliberately skips over this particular story and a lot of ancient theologians (especially in the East) follow suit, leading some to believe that they had copies of John that didn’t contain these verses. In Against the Pelagians, Book 2, Jerome suggests Jesus was writing out the names of the accusers to to fulfill Jeremiah 17:13 “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust,” (a passage which seems to have been intended to be more poetic than literal). By and large, Augustine’s logic seems to have been attractive. Thomas Aquinas carries it forward to the Middle Ages in his mega-commentary Catena Aurea and includes support from Venerable Bede and Alcuin of York to back him up.
In the Reformation, John Calvin comes out swinging against Augustine and approaches the story without interest in allegory:
By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said. Thus in the present day, when Satan attempts, by various methods, to draw us aside from the right way of teaching, we ought disdainfully to pass by many things which he holds out to us.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on John 13:1-11
Gone is the speculative symbolism! Instead, we have a Jesus that’s just not listening. Pharisees are coming around, asking questions that they already know the answer to, and Jesus just starts doodling in the sand. That’s how little he cares what they have to say. When he says “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone,” Calvin reads that as a deliberate reference to their own sinfulness. They know they aren’t being sincere. They’re scheming, conniving, wretched men trying to kill someone to prove their own point. It’s not that the law isn’t legitimate; it’s that they aren’t being legitimate, and they know it. Again, Calvin is sticking to the Scripture pretty thoroughly and avoiding wild speculation about the writing. Well done.
The Reformation seems to be a bit of a hinge in historical interpretation. After the Reformation, commentaries that I can find seem to take a more practical approach to the matter. The symbolic dimension is swallowed up by the practical. Some lean more heavily on WHY he wrote (to avoid meddling in politics, to calm people down, etc.) while others focus on WHAT he wrote (names, sins, passages of the law, etc.). John Wesley is one of the better big-name interpreters to marry the practical and the symbolic, but his notes are still ruthlessly pragmatic:
God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he,
1. fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and, 2. signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.
John Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, John 8:1-11
Obviously there are oodles of others well worth reading, but these were the ones that I thought were worthy of lifting up. They’re all respected enough for their words to carry weight, and each seems to represent the general stream of mainstream interpretation within their era.
Ultimately, I’m really pleased with what I found. I expected to find some really wacky stuff, but a shocking majority of commentators avoided wild speculation about the specifics of the writing and interpreted in light of the information that they had, rather than what they didn’t have. Frankly, that was my bias from the outset. If the Bible doesn’t say what Jesus wrote, it couldn’t have been all that important to the story (sorry Jerome). But really, it was phenomenal to see all the directions people went with it. I have a soft spot for that symbolic dimension. It emphasized the weight of each action within the passage in a way that was far beyond the mundane. So what did he write? Beats me. As much as I like Augustine, I’ll side with Calvin for the sheer delightful possibility of Jesus rolling his eyes and playing tic tac toe against himself in the dirt while they were trying to talk to him.
While I was doing a little more digging on Polycarp, I ran across an account of him in Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus (aka On Illustrious Men). According to Jerome, Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John, which delighted me to no end. What a neat little detail! The Biblical era is so often made it’s own little self-contained thing, so when you see those moments where apostles interacted with the generations that followed, it just makes their work seem infinitely more real. They weren’t just storybook characters; they actually lived, met people, taught them, and made leaders in the early Church. Of course, it’s not undisputed. As with all ancient history, some people think it’s true, and some people think it’s false. This particular claim has some heavy hitters weighing in behind it (Tertullian, Irenaeus, Eusebius, and Jerome) and the timelines totally line up, but ancient history is always a little sketchy. There just aren’t those ironclad sources that you have today. This meme sums it up nicely:
The sources we have in this case are a little stronger than a cousin’s friend’s dream, but you get the picture. Modernity favors exactitude, whereas ancient history is full of legends. Me? I think it’s reasonable to say that Polycarp and John met. Polycarp was a notable bishop in modern Turkey that lived through the first and second centuries. John the Apostle would have been alive and in modern Greece. It makes sense that they would have interacted. Between the timeline, the geography, and the sources, it works.
But that wasn’t the only treat in De Viris Illustribus. It had a few other treasures that are worth sharing, one which is Jerome trying to determine the authorship of various Biblical books. De Viris Illustribus is basically a who’s who of people who wrote noteworthy books for the Church. Naturally, Jerome starts with the New Testament writers, which quickly leads to conversations about who wrote what. After all, how can you bring up Paul and his writings without saying what he wrote? So did Paul actually write Hebrews? Did Peter write 2 Peter? Jerome doesn’t seem to buy either. Which is kind of nice, actually. Even though Jerome isn’t 100% sure about the authorship, he still considers the books canonical and crucial for Christians. In the modern era, questions about authorship often feels like a litmus test to see if you’re really a real Christian. It’s nice to see that things aren’t always as black and white as we think. Great saints have asked questions that we might reject offhand today. Maybe we can afford to be a little gentler when such matters come up.
I also just appreciated the nature of the book itself. Like I said, it’s a list from a big-shot theologian saying who wrote things worth your attention in the Church world. That’s something that’s shockingly rare in the modern era! If you don’t go to seminary, you may not know who is worth reading and who isn’t. I remember being a new Christian and just kind of buying Christian books at random, hoping that they were legit. A lot of what I got wasn’t worth reading. People need to know who is worth engaging with! And Jerome doesn’t pull any punches either. This isn’t a little list of authors who are comfortable and safe. There are heretics on this list! There are non-Christians! Mind you, he tells his readers why each source is worth reading and warns them about what they are, but the point stands that he’s not just filling people up with his own ideas. He’s preparing them for a greater conversation in the world at large.
Finally, I think it’s just nice to have a list of heroes. Some of the details in here are a blast! For example, he says that James the Just prayed so often that his knees “had the hardness of camel’s knees,” (Ch. 2). He says that Ignatius of Antioch’s last words before he was martyred in the arena were “I am the grain of Christ. I am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts that I may be found the bread of the world,” (Ch. 16). Polycarp is said to have met one of the first big heretics of the Church (Marcion) while they were both trying to prosthelytize in Rome and their meeting sounds like something straight out of a movie. Marcion walks up to him and asks, “Do you know us?” Polycarp responds “I know the firstborn of the devil,” (Ch. 17). Not only are these great Christians and great thinkers, but they ooze personality. Jerome even adds himself to the list as the final person of note, which is hilarious. I’d call him out for being cocky, but since his writings have survived since the fourth century, I have to admit that he wasn’t wrong.
In any case, it was a joy finding this old list of heroes worth reading. Feel free to check it out here if you demand more, or make your own list. Share it with your fellow Christians at church! Who knows how it might help someone? But a word to the wise: probably don’t add yourself as the last person on the list.
I’ve been reading a fair few cultural critiques lately (C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, Charles Taylor, Andrew Root, and Rod Dreher). Each of these authors is trying to articulate what makes faith in the modern world challenging and the cultural forces that make conversion so unlikely for the average Westerner. And honestly? It’s been kind of a bummer. To be clear, I think there’s immense value for Christians in each of these writers. To share the gospel effectively, we have to understand the people around us. What do they long for? What do they expect? What do they think is reasonable? What parts of the faith will they find to be a challenge? Given the massive cultural shift over the past 50 years, churches need to realize that the mission field has changed and they have to adapt to be effective ministers of the gospel. At the same time, reading these books repeatedly can breed a sense of desperation. It’s clear the Church no longer has the privileged status it once had.
Certain eras just had a tremendous energy around faith. For example, if you’ve ever read the diaries of old Methodist preachers from the earliest days of America, you know that their experiences are totally incomprehensible for a modern Christian. “I preached the gospel in a field today. Five-hundred were converted through the grace of God. Huzzah!” Seriously? How on Earth did you pull that off? To be fair, the diary entries tend to end in mass conversions or the preacher having tomatoes hucked at them, but still! There’s that sense that things are MOVING! Today, there’s not that same movement. Cultural critiques can help us put our finger on some of the factors that have made things harder, but they can’t make them go away. A truth that once seemed so obvious that people might convert on the spot is now so challenging for people to accept that there are active, identifiable cultural barriers preventing people from hearing that good news. It can all start to feel a little hopeless. When you put all those thinkers together, you end up with one massive decline narrative about Christianity in the West.
It’s not just reading philosophy that can lead you to feel hopeless. A lot of churches have pretty strong decline narratives themselves. Mind you, not all. There are some big churches that are doing very well for themselves! But converts to those churches are often drawn from smaller churches, rather than from the ranks of non-Christians. The shrunken churches that are left behind end up with a distinct decline narrative. “There used to be so many more people here.” “Those are the classrooms we don’t use anymore.” “What gets young people to go to church? Why aren’t they coming?” Again, some of this is good. Congregations need to look at the tough realities of their situation! But a lot of it feels hopeless. Looking at the bad is only helpful insofar as it can direct us to the good.
So where’s the hope for Christians in a post-Christian era? How can we stay excited when it feels like things are going downhill?
It can help to remember that the challenges we face aren’t anything near the persecutions that other believers have experienced. There are countries where you can get killed for being Christian. There are places where evangelizing is illegal. What we’re facing? It’s nothing compared to that. And so many of them didn’t face their harsh realities with hopelessness. They were joyful to suffer for the one they loved.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp is a beautiful second-century story of someone was joyful in the face of wild adversity. The culture that second-century Roman Christians were living in was openly hostile. If you couldn’t tell from the title, they killed Christians. In this particular account, they’re going to kill Polycarp (a Christian bishop) if he doesn’t deny his faith make a sacrifice to the emperor (spoiler: he doesn’t). Here’s a community that has EVERY REASON to be frustrated by the philosophy of their day and is facing challenges to ministry that we can’t even fathom— but they don’t express any hopelessness in the story. Just look at this excerpt:
All the martyrdoms, then, were blessed and noble which took place according to the will of God. For it becomes us who profess greater piety than others, to ascribe the authority over all things to God. And truly, who can fail to admire their nobleness of mind, and their patience, with that love towards their Lord which they displayed?— who, when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood by pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them.
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 2
They saw their bishop get stabbed to death by the authorities, and they’re praising God! Because God is in control. Even if circumstances are horrendous, they trust him. If he wants them to endure, they’ll do it with a smile. There’s not even a hint of fear. All of this is coming to pass because of God, and it will all turn out right because of God.
I’ll skip the bulk of the middle, but feel free to read it over at New Advent here if you’re curious.
After the story of Polycarp’s death, the final chapter ends with this:
We wish you, brethren, all happiness, while you walk according to the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; with whom be glory to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, for the salvation of His holy elect, after whose example the blessed Polycarp suffered, following in whose steps may we too be found in the kingdom of Jesus Christ!
Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. 22
They wish their readers happiness. Not worldly happiness, but the kind of happiness that Polycarp had. The kind of happiness is the kind Paul felt when he wrote, “Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:20-21). Real happiness isn’t rooted in culture or circumstance; it’s rooted in God.
The world is different. Converting to Christianity isn’t the obvious choice. Going to church isn’t as common. We won’t likely won’t enjoy the cultural clout and full buildings that we used to, but the happiness that we’re aiming for was never in full buildings or philosophical ease. It’s in loving Jesus and trusting him no matter what.
A while back I wrote about my visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art and my reaction to all of their Mary-oriented medieval art. Today, I want to think about the bigger journey that gallery was a part of. As I walked through the museum, it was wildly apparent that the artistic ideal of society was deteriorating as each age passed. For example, let’s look at something from the medieval exhibit:
The point of the piece is immediately apparent: this is what the world is all about. Not only does it clearly present an ideal in the person of Jesus and the event of his crucifiction, but you can tell it’s a piece that the public was intended to interact with. It belongs in a church with people worshipping nearby. This is a sign intended to draw people’s minds to the highest understanding of perfection. It’s not a particularly unique piece for the era. The medieval galleries were stuffed with reliquaries, altars, and religious paintings. I can’t help but be staggered by the sheer level of devotion towards the sacred that people were expressing.
Now let’s look at something from the modern gallery:
What’s being conveyed? Certainly nothing positive. It’s a critique. Perhaps something like “Why build fences when you could build bridges,” “America is built on keeping others out,” “we need to knock down exclusionary structures,” etc. There’s no positive statement being made. There’s no indication that there’s a sacred ideal. If anything, it’s just the opposite. The plaque that accompanies this particular piece indicates that the author intended it as a critique of the history of the United States. This is a piece specifically intended to tear down images of the sacred. It’s definitely not beautiful. There’s also no possible way that a piece like this could be identified as an artistic endeavor outside of a museum. If you popped this in a community center, people wouldn’t stop to admire it. They would assume you were doing construction and avoid that part of the building! This is a piece intended for appreciation by cultural elites, not everyday people. Again, this example is anything but unique for the modern gallery. You have your fences, you have your baby carriages full of spray-painted phalluses, conglomerations of nude body parts, etc.
All of this is what came to mind as I read through C.S. Lewis’s A Confession:
A Confession I am so coarse, the things the poets see Are obstinately invisible to me. For twenty years I’ve stared my level best To see if evening–any evening–would suggest A patient etherized upon a table; In vain. I simply wasn’t able. To me each evening looked far more Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.
Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east Never, for me, resembled in the least A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose; Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes, Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known The moon look like a hump-backed crone– Rather, a prodigy, even now Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.
Never the white sun of the wintriest day Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet. I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom Keeps him forever in the list of dunces, Compelled to live on stock responses, Making the poor best that I can Of dull things . . . peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran, Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem, The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem. (Poems, p. 3-4)
Right out of the gate, Lewis is striking out at the people who are deconstructing classic visions of beauty. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is put on blast because there’s nothing sterile or dead about the evening sky. The evening is beautiful, melancholy, and momentous, but certainly not sterile. All these other popular poetic metaphors are equally unfitting. People keep taking these visions that should be massive, beautiful, even transcendent, and warping them into things that are mundane and ugly. The leading poets seem intent to warp the things that once inspired us into things that should disgust us.
As someone particularly fond of William Blake, I couldn’t help but think of him. He was one of the great masters of subverting the sacred. Take, for example, his poem Infant Sorrow:
My mother groand! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt: Helpless, naked, piping loud; Like a fiend hid in a cloud.
Struggling in my fathers hands: Striving against my swaddling bands: Bound and weary I thought best To sulk upon my mothers breast.
This was part of a collection called Songs of Innocence and of Experience. It was a two part collection. In Songs of Innocence, he presented the beautiful ideal of something, and in his later Songs of Experience, he warped it to show how a world-weary mind mind might experience the same circumstance. In this case, we have birth. Is there a miracle of life? In one sense, sure. But in another, there is the horrible burden of life.
The longer he writes, the clearer that basic motif becomes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell blurs the lines between the sacred and the profane to suggest that both good and evil, in their own way, are sacred. Devils and angels both have wisdom that we need to learn from. He even creates his own mythology and writes grand creation stories about the history of the world. He portrays God the Father (especially as seen in the Old Testament) as hideously oppressive and in constant war against the great spirit of artistic inspiration and human freedom. What was once sacred is now profane as Blake’s spirit of freedom descends upon the world.
That’s exactly what we have in the contemporary art gallery. We have people eager to call what was once sacred profane. Any sense that something is beautiful or worthy of particular praise is dangerous. Who is one person to tell another what is beautiful? To restrict in any way is wrong. That is the great truth in our era.
It pairs perfectly with the famed sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of modern culture. Historically, a massive part of culture has been that series of restrictions placed on us (via both taboo and law) in the hopes of helping us live a good life. Do you want to be like Jesus? Then don’t sin. Do you want to honor the gods? Then don’t forget your sacrifices. By coming together around one great vision of purpose and orienting ourselves towards that vision, meaningful community is possible and visions of the sacred are kept. Modern culture, however, no longer has a meaningful vision of the sacred apart from autonomy from all external obligations. People do not long to be a grand embodiment of the good so much as they long to be free to do what they please. Under these circumstances, discussions of good or evil becomes almost laughable because so few people aspire to become more than what they already are:
Evil and immorality are disappearing… mainly because our culture is changing its definition of human perfection. No longer the Saint, but the instinctual Everyman, twisting his neck uncomfortably inside the starched collar of culture, is the communal ideal , to whom men offer tacit prayers for deliverance from their inherited renunciations.
The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 6.
What we end up with is what Rieff calls an anti-culture. It can’t bind together or orient people towards a vision of the good life. The only thing really binding us together is mutual disgust at the thought of people telling us how to live, be the source older visions of natural law, religious obligations, or something else entirely. To paraphrase another great thinker, Stanley Hauerwas, the modern story is that we have no story except the story we choose for ourselves (Community of Character, 84). We end up rudderless in a life without meaning, desperately trying to create meaning for ourselves while knowing we just made it all up.
And what of the great thinkers and artists? Historically, their efforts were part of what bound us together. Buonarroti’s Creation of Adam, the icon Christ Pantocrator, the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle and other great works served the public by bringing them together to aspire to be like God. Today’s intellectual class does not feel the same burden:
I suspect the children of Israel did not spend much time elaborating a doctrine of the golden calf; they naively danced around it, until Moses, their first intellectual, put a stop to the plain fun and insisted on civilizing them, by submerging their individualities within a communal purpose. Now, although there is some dancing again, the intellectuals mainly sit around and think in awe about the power and perversity of their instincts, disguising their rancorous worship of self in the religion of art.
The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 7.
While Rieff’s Moses seems a little elitist for my taste, I think there’s truth to what he’s trying to get at. We live in a world without a sense of the sacred with intellectuals and artists that would rather root out any remaining bits of transcendence than attempt to build anything that points to more than our own disenchantment and appetite.
That’s what I see Lewis lamenting here. The threads that have bound our culture together are unraveling. The waterfall is no longer a sign to point our eyes to God, so much as a mundane thing that might remind us of sex. The glaciers are no longer a sign that we are tiny, limited things in the world, so much as they are reminders of garbage. We have lost the sense that the world is pointing to something greater, and so historic memory of the sacred becomes bizarre. All we can do is ironically poke fun at the old world and trudge through our flattened-out world in frustration and disappointment.
But Lewis points to a solution: don’t give in. Don’t be someone who loses your sense of wonder. Be fascinated by the things that others think dull. Look at fresh cut crass and delight. Observe the miracle of honey. Taste it and be satisfied. Be astounded by the great cities of Jerusalem and Athens and the ideals they represent. Don’t lose hope, and don’t start defining yourself by opposition. Yes, he is absolutely being critical of his rivals in this poem, but the great hope he points to is not in opposition. That was Blake’s hope. “Opposition is true friendship,” he wrote (MHH20; E42) and eternal opposition seems to be the best that the modern anti-culture of self-gratification can offer. Don’t be like that. Be amazed. Rejoice in old stories about satyrs, magic, miracles, and devils. Recover the sacred, which never abandoned us even as we attempted to abandon it. Live a life defined by hope and beauty. Be the dunce in the eyes of the elites, “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” (1 Cor. 1:25).
Most of my experience with C.S. Lewis comes from those approachable classics that sit on many a Christian’s bookshelf: The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, A Grief Observed, The Great Divorce and a few others. Only recently have I started to see the more academic, professorial side of him. Books like The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval Literature are way more intense than Narnia, and frankly, they’re a bit of a slog. And now, I found out the man wrote poetry! Not just any poetry either. He wrote the nerdiest poetry you’ll ever find. These poems were not intended for general audiences. They’re just a smart guy playing with ideas in verse. If you enjoy them, great! If you don’t get ’em or don’t like ’em, I don’t think he would particularly care. My current success rate of “getting” his poetry is about 70%. Some of them are loaded with mythology and theory that I’m not familiar with (especially the Greek mythology, which he clearly loves), but the ones that I do get are brilliant. I thought I’d share a couple of them on here along with my thoughts as I work through them.
The Country of the Blind Hard light bathed them-a whole nation of eyeless men, Dark bipeds not aware how they were maimed. A long Process, clearly, a slow curse, Drained through centuries, left them thus.
At some transitional stage, then, a luckless few, No doubt, must have had eyes after the up-to-date, Normal type had achieved snug Darkness, safe from the guns of heavn;
Whose blind mouths would abuse words that belonged to their Great-grandsires, unabashed, talking of light in some Eunuch’d, etiolated, Fungoid sense, as a symbol of
Abstract thoughts. If a man, one that had eyes, a poor Misfit, spoke of the grey dawn or the stars or green- Sloped sea waves, or admired how Warm tints change in a lady’s cheek,
None complained he had used words from an alien tongue, None question’d. It was worse. All would agree ‘Of course,’ Came their answer. “We’ve all felt Just like that.” They were wrong. And he
Knew too much to be clear, could not explain. The words — Sold, raped flung to the dogs — now could avail no more; Hence silence. But the mouldwarps, With glib confidence, easily
Showed how tricks of the phrase, sheer metaphors could set Fools concocting a myth, taking the worlds for things. Do you think this a far-fetched Picture? Go then about among
Men now famous; attempt speech on the truths that once, Opaque, carved in divine forms, irremovable, Dear but dear as a mountain- Mass, stood plain to the inward eye.
This one especially has consumed me as of late. I can’t help but read it and think about Jesus’s response to the disciple’s question: why do you speak in parables?
13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. 15 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ (Matt 13:13-15)
I generally assume that Jesus wants everyone to understand what he’s saying. Sure, I might rail against visions of him that are altogether too polite and soft, but by no means do I assume he would intentionally make his points opaque to keep people from understanding them. And we could go back and forth trying to soften the impact of the verse by applying different theological methodology to it (after all, it does say that they closed their eyes first), but it seems like it would be almost impossible to erase the sense that not everyone will understand what Jesus is saying and that that is intentional (John Calvin is smiling down on this paragraph, I’m sure).
Lewis’s poem is right in this same vein. We still have people that do not see, but it’s not their own willfulness or crafty parables that are keeping them from seeing. They’ve shut their eyes for so long that their biology has shifted to accommodate their decision. Even if they wanted to see, they lack the capacity. Worse than that, they refuse to confront the reality of their own blindness. They’re happy to discuss the world with the small amount of people that can still see, but only insofar as they’re treated as complete equals. Whatever is being discussed is primarily understood as a matter of internal experience, rather than external truth. “Of course, we’ve all felt like that,” they croon, completely missing the simple fact that they haven’t. Every piece of information being shared is radically different from anything they’ve ever conceptualized, but rather than admit it, they just insist that they already know and continue on.
What a tremendous way to look at the modern shift in metaphysics. I can’t help but think of it in terms of pastoral expectations as they were laid out in Andrew Root’s, The Pastor in a Secular Age. In each era, Christians have expected different things from pastors. In the medieval era, the priest had power. Even if the whole service was in Latin and you didn’t quite understand how communion worked, the popular imagination had such a strong sense of God’s action and a dynamic range of entities beyond human senses that you knew he carried power. He was the bridge between this world and the next. In a magical world, the priest stood as an obvious and clear figure worthy of your attention. With the shift to Protestantism, there was a fundamentally new way of imagining metaphysics. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the priest that was responsible for navigating the path between this world and the next; it was the individual believer. You were responsible for what you believed! You had to devote yourself to the highest ideals of Christian life and take responsibility for your own faith if you wanted to please God. Here, we see this tremendous shift towards the pastoral ideal as a professor. People like Luther and Calvin are the obvious legendary figures in this tradition, but the example Root provides is Johnathan Edwards. According to legend, Johnathan Edwards studied and prayed for thirteen hours every day. And his congregation was happy! They wanted to understand the intricacies of the world around them and the claims that were being made in the Bible, so if the pastor preached an hour long sermon that relied on multiple commentaries and theological bigwigs? Awesome! Bring it on. These were people that strove to see. They wanted to know the nature of the universe, and no watery spirituality would be an acceptable substitute.
Root details a long history of philosophical shifts that slowly lead to modernity, but as we approach our own era, the assumptions about what a pastor does have totally shifted. A pastor does not tell objective truths. That’s what math and science are for! No, a pastor works in the realm of values. They tell you how to live a good life. They help you understand who you are. They belong in the humanities section of a university, not the sciences side. Their value comes from their ability to befriend people, reflect an identity for others to consider, and build a massive church with multiple satellites to reflect the vitality of the community. The ideal pastor is a mix between an entrepreneur and an instagram influencer, encouraging us to try on a way of living that will make us happy. We moved from a world in which the Church was expected to teach objective truths about the world around us to a world in which the church was expected to help us feel subjective somethings within ourselves.
Unfortunately for moderns, Scripture is devilishly difficult to cast as something that’s primarily concerned with subjective feelings. The whole of the book bursts with objective claims about creation! And yet, religious dialogue is often dominated by what feels right and how we can live moral, decent lives. Not that either of these are inherently bad things, of course, but when they’re uprooted from the metaphysical grounding of the objective claims that surround them, they wither and shift whatever way the wind blows. Our cultural hesitance to let the audacious claims of Scripture be what they are muddies them considerably and betrays a certain unwillingness to claim them as true knowledge. Christians and non-Christians alike are put into a position where truth is what we make of it. We fail to see the reality around us because we’re so busy constructing our own narrative that suits us.
We do not see.
Even the claims in Scripture start to look less and less like truth claims and more and more like “sheer metaphors” and “myths.” What if Jesus was not actually Jesus? What if he’s only intended to be a metaphor for humanity’s capacity for good? What if Jesus’s resurrection is no longer an actual resurrection, but a symbol intended to reflect the eternal resurrection of hope and goodness in the world? That slow erosion of the claim slowly eats away at it, giving more and more authority to us and less and less to the claim itself. Symbolic meaning can always be uncovered in an objective event, but once the event or story is stripped of objectivity, not only does it lose the core of its meaning, but the possibility for symbolism becomes infinite. Without any semblance of authority, the claim exists only to allow others an opportunity to create their own meaning. The “divine forms, irremovable” that were once so obvious and clear to every eye have become “symbols of abstract thought;” ideas to toy with and little more.
The ultimate consequence is a sort of de-evolution. Lewis never was shy about suggesting that things in the premodern world were better, and here he’s said it in an incredibly direct way. The people he’s considering aren’t portrayed as the same bipartite beings that were created in Genesis: “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” (Gen 2:7). Their descriptors lack that sense of divine spark. The language surrounding the blind creatures is primitive and earthy. They are “mouldwarps” with “fungoid” ways of describing things. They lack that spirit that separates them from the plants that preceded them.
And yet, the poem isn’t just a gripe about the good ‘ol days. At least, I don’t think it is. It’s profoundly melancholy. Some of these creatures still see. They see the grandeur of the stars, the waves, the human form, and the misty dawn. But even as they see the wonders around them, they have so few to to share it with. By the eyes they were given, they are able to see tremendous beauty, but they also become the bearers of an incredible sense of loneliness. What Christian in the postmodern era has not felt like that? Who has not lamented the inability of others to see the throngs of angels singing, the cloud of witnesses watching, the divine spark that lingers in every eye, and the glory of God in every rock? But attempts to uncover the transcendent turn shallow all too quickly. Even semi-regular churchgoers are all too often concerned with mere morality and tradition than the vibrant eternity around them, frustrating the Christian all the more. To see is to be lonely and burdened. How do you awaken others to the world?
Part of me wants to cut the intensity of the poem by suggesting that the claim isn’t quite what it is. It sounds hopelessly arrogant to claim to see when everyone else is blind. To say that you understand a reality that the rest of the world can only hopelessly grasp at until they are somehow granted sight is brash! But didn’t Jesus make those claims? Isn’t that the whole of the history of Christianity? Lewis has claimed to see, and while it would be more comfortable to mask the arrogance of claiming to know truth, it’s critically important for us to let his statement stand and consider it not as arrogance, but as humility in the face of a truth beyond himself.
In the long and decorated history of Christianity, there are a few figures that are especially well remembered: Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Luther, Cranmer, Chrysostom, etc. These are the names on the “A-tier” of history. After all, they’re founding figures of whole denominations. Calvin’s systematic theology holds up Reformed thinking. Luther’s boldness brought about the advent of Protestantism. Chrysostom’s liturgy is performed every Sunday in Eastern Orthodox churches. If you’re from the tradition that these men helped create, there’s no doubt that you’re familiar with their works.
If you dip into the B-tier, the names still hold power, but they certainly haven’t achieved that pop recognition that the A-tier people have. You have people like Cyril of Alexandria, Antony of Egypt, Origen of Alexandria, Julian of Norwich, and others like them. Were they major figures in founding a denomination? No, but they’re influential enough that someone in your congregation has heard of at least one of them. They may even get their name dropped in a sermon or two. One more tier down, we have names like Melancthon, Zwingli, and Bucer. They tend to be viewed as supporting characters in other people’s stories, but specialists and scholars will be generally familiar with their work. After all, how could they properly tell the full story of Luther without Melancthon or Calvin without Zwingli?
We could keep going for ages, dipping into increasingly obscure people in the grand tier-system of historical clout, but I have to wonder: how many tiers down is someone like Engelhard of Langheim?
There are no English copies of his works. He has no Wikipedia page. He’s from that period of history after Augustine and before Luther that most Protestants treat as a no man’s land (1200 AD). There’s a single book about him in English, and it’s pretty academic (Cistercian Stories for Nuns and Monks: The Sacramental Imagination of Engelhard of Langheim by Martha Newman). Nevertheless, I rejoice in this little taste of Engelhard and I hope others will too, because he cared as little about the tier system of history as it seems to have cared about him, and he reminds us Christians to leave no story untold.
Engelhard was a Cistercian monk in what we now know as Germany. His resume isn’t all that impressive. He didn’t travel to Rome or do a lecture circuit. His education was mediocre and based on a model that was quickly losing its legitimacy (his education was in terms of morality and grammar, rather the dialectical and philosophical focus that defined the emerging scholastic movement). He did what most monks do and lived almost his entire life on the patch of land that was his monastery. He was almost an abbot (head monk) of a monastery at one point, but the process that saw him get elected seems to have been deemed illegitimate by the Cistercian authorities, so he was deposed after a relatively short time at the helm. Engelhard wasn’t the sort of person that makes the A-tier of Christian history books, but he was a storyteller. In an era where churches were plunging into theory and beefing up their theological articulations, Engelhard kept telling stories about people that reflected God’s grace in the world. People today tend to call his stories and those like them exempla (examples), but Engelhard called them historia (histories) or miracula (miracles). Personally, I like miracula. Why shouldn’t a story about God at work be something more than just an example? Why can’t it be a miracle?
Engelhard’s miracula are incredibly rustic. He uses the first person to frame them, and when he’s picked up a story from someone else, he’s sure to say so. It’s almost as though you’re in the room with him, listening as he tells you the latest tales that have trickled down to him through letters and monastic conferences. He clearly grew up in an oral culture and is dragging it with him into the written world. He also doesn’t waste time telling stories that have already been told by others. When someone asked him about his take on a particularly well-covered story, he replied:
I do not write it lest I put my hand into another’s field. I recount stories that are untouched by others, for there are many; may they be useful!
EB c. 8, fol. 53r. as cited in Newman, Cistercian Stories, 56.
When asked to write the story of a particularly famous Cistercian (Bernard of Clairvaux), he showed no interest and protested that Bernard’s story was “already known in writing throughout the world.” (EB c. 28, fol. 70v. as cited in Newman, Cistercian Stories, 56). Old tales would not do for Engelhard. He wanted to tell stories that had yet to be told, rather than dip into the A-tier of history to rehash what had already been done. God doesn’t just work through big shots; he’s working today in people that many of us have yet to hear of.
Here’s one of Engelhard’s miracula:
A necromancer from Spain tried to speak to a fellow necromancer that had died. He used an elaborate ritual that he read directly from a book, careful not to speak a word that wasn’t printed on the page. Sure enough, his friend rose, wearing a cloak that was covered in inky words. Each of those words were the sins that he committed in life, and underneath the cloak was a fire, continually burning his flesh, and there’s nothing anyone can do to save him from his fate. A little bit of the fire leaps out of the cloak and hits the hand of the living necromancer. Terrified, the man asks his friend how he can avoid this fate. The dead man responds that people from every walk of life were down in Hell, but there seemed to be less Cistercian monks than any other group. The specter disappeared and the lone necromancer ran to a monastery to became a Cistercian.
paraphrased from Newman, Cistercian Stories for Nuns and Monks, 57.
Engelhard says he heard this story from an abbot who heard it from the necromancer himself. You might wonder why on Earth I chose to share a story that’s so dark in tone. Why not share something chipper? Who wants to hear weird stuff about necromancers and Hell? Fair point, but I love how he weaves a critique of written culture into the story. Note how the the written word is inherently tied to death. To summon a dead friend, you look in a book. When the dead man arises, he’s bound by the words that defined him in life. It’s explicitly noted that nothing can change his fate. This is a man whose story has been told. The living man is forced to flee the death of necromancy to find the living spirituality of the Cistercians, and in doing so, he abandons the static world of his books and becomes a storyteller himself. If taken too simplistically, this merely suggests that writing is bad, which would make for a bizarre theme since Engelhard wrote the thing down himself. No, I think Engelhard is critiquing the way we write more than the writing itself. All too often, the written word is impersonal, cold, and concerned with endless retreads of what is considered acceptable. It is the stuff of necromancers, dredging up old specters and refusing to reflect life as we know it. It doesn’t have to be like this. When we write, we can lower our guards. We can drop our facade of impartiality to reveal that we’re just people reaching out to other people. Similarly, we aren’t obligated to dredge up the A-listers if we want credibility. God works everywhere. We can tell the stories that we’ve heard in our own lives. They’re just as good as those that have already been written down for ages.
I still remember coming across a history book written by one of the congregations I served that was very much in the spirit of Engelhard. It had been written out on a typewriter and stapled together in days long passed, but it was just a treat to read. The writers didn’t fall into that trap that so many do when they write out congregational history, focusing on names, dates, and numbers. No, it was more of a series of miracula than anything else. There was a tale about someone in the congregation whose prayers were so powerful, they ended a drought by praying for rain and thus saved the crops of the local farmers. There was a tale about a preacher that gave sermons that were so short that he got a visit from a bishop. “I tell them everything that I know!” the poor preacher protested. The bishop responded, “Then we will have to give you more to say,” and gave him a ton of books and a plan to read them all. By the time he was done with his readings, he became one of the best preachers they’d ever had. Every story just oozed character. Nobody could read that booklet without being reminded that God’s work is not far away, locked up in history’s A-tier. It’s right here. People in the same communities that we occupy have done marvelous things, and we can too. So why not take a moment today and jot down a miracula that deserves to be remembered? Remind yourself and someone else of the God that is in our midst today. As Engelhard would say, “there are many such stories; may they be useful.”
My wife and I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art a few weeks ago. As a theology nerd, I went straight to the Christian art section hoping to have a little bit of a mini-retreat there in the gallery. Unfortunately for me, a MASSIVE portion of the art focused on Mary:
And this one that really took the cake…
It was hard to have a spiritual response when everything was so Mary-centric! When I looked up, Mary’s gaze was the first thing I encountered. Jesus wasn’t even looking at me most of the time! If he wasn’t looking off in the distance, he was looking up at Mary, drawing even more attention to her. Naturally, that led to the question, “when did Christians start venerating Mary and why did Protestants stop doing it?” Some Protestants might agree that Mary is uniquely worthy of admiration, but even the most intense Protestant admiration is a far cry from the veneration that she enjoys in Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. So what happened? Did we ditch something that was passed down from the beginning, or did we actually manage to strip away a medieval innovation that had little to do with the Christianity of the apostles?
The uncomfortable truth about Mary veneration is that the historical evidence is a lot less black or white than most parties would like it to be. The veneration of Mary started waaaaay earlier than your average Protestant would hope, but it also happened waaaay later than your average Catholic assumes. First and second century Christians would have found any prayers to Mary a totally alien practice, but in the midst of the raging battles against heresy in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, it started to develop as a way of preserving the same orthodoxy that Protestants and Catholics share today. In the centuries that followed, it continued to grow and intensify, leading to eventual skepticism from Protestants that wanted to go back to the basics. Even though our tradition ceased the practice of Marian veneration (and had a reasonable claim on recovering early orthodoxy in doing so), a study of how the practice came to be can help us appreciate how that veneration helped our theological ancestors cling to orthodoxy at a time when the nature of Jesus was under fire.
Let’s start our journey with the first century. Easy enough, since there’s no evidence for Marian veneration in this era at all. If we take the Scriptures as the clearest evidence of first-century Christian thought and practice, there’s just not much there. The gospels bring up Mary sparingly, usually during the birth narrative, and the epistles only reference her a handful of times, usually indirectly (for example, Galatians 4:4 reads “God sent forth his Son born of a woman“). If you’re going Sola Scriptura, Mary is a relatively minor Bible character that exists within the narrative as Jesus’s mom. You can definitely find some commentaries out there that try to push the mystical importance of certain passages. For example, some Catholic commentators make much about John 19:26-27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ You can read that to mean that Jesus is mystically speaking to every disciple today, encouraging them to accept Jesus as their own mother… or you can conclude that Jesus was worried about his mom and sent her off with John. The latter seems a great deal more likely than the former. Emphasizing the small passages that Mary does appear in doesn’t solve the big problem: nobody in the Scriptures is venerating Mary or explicitly telling others to do it.
There aren’t a ton of indisputably first-Century Christian documents readily available outside of the Scriptures. We could look at documents likethe Didiche (also known as The Teachings of the Apostles) and the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which tend to be considered first-century) and note that neither of them mention Mary at all. First-century Christians just don’t seem particularly concerned with the place of Mary within the order of Christianity. She was Jesus’ mom and that’s about it.
So, onwards to the second century… in which evidence is still pretty scant, all things considered. The Catacomb of Priscilla has the first recorded painting of Mary and Jesus:
There’s a few other paintings from the second century as well, all of which depict Mary as the mother of Jesus. Nothing really new here, but they do speak to the broader concern regarding Mary in this era: was Mary actually Jesus’ mom? The big heresy in the second century was docetism; the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human, so much as he was a spiritual being that looked human. Was he born? Not really. Spiritual beings can’t be born. There wasn’t a consensus among the docetists as to where Jesus did come from. Some claimed that Jesus only appeared to live among us while others suggested that Jesus was just an average man that was born by Mary and the spirit of the Christ descended upon him at his baptism. One famous heretic by the name of Marcion went so far as to totally remove all birth stories from the Scriptures, solving the problem of Jesus’ birth by just having him show up on the scene as a fully-grown man. Regardless of the specifics, the basic message of docetism was the same: Jesus Christ wasn’t really a man, but he was really God. Mary starts to garner more interest from orthodox Christians because she establishes both the human-ness and the divinity of Jesus.
The big theologians in this era reference Mary while they’re making arguments against the docetists. For example, take this passage from Tertullian’s On the Flesh of Christ:
Why is Christ man and the Son of man, if he has nothing of man, and nothing from man? Unless it be either that man is anything else than flesh, or man’s flesh comes from any other source than man, or Mary is anything else than a human being?
One popular technique used to emphasize the crucial role of Mary is recapitulation (retelling the story of humanity but with all of the bad things from the fall being fixed by similar events during salvation). For example, here’s Tertullian again: “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel,” (On the Flesh of Christ, Ch.17). And here’s a longer example from the famous second-century apologist, Justin Martyr::
[Jesus] became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, ‘Be it unto me according to your word,’ (Luke 1:38).
Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch 100
Recapitulation holds to that same anti-docetist thought pattern: if Eve sinned and humanity was doomed through the error a woman, how can humanity saved without the faithfulness of a woman? We need a Mary that genuinely participated in the story of salvation to reverse the damage that was done during the fall. Similar ideas float around in the works of other theologians in this era (Irenaeus, for example) and even start to pop up in some of the apocryphal writings. The Gospel of James, for example, is a retelling of the story of Christ’s birth which explicitly includes a (really uncomfortable) section in which a midwife inspects Mary’s hymen after the birth to make sure that she was genuinely a virgin. Jesus isn’t just a regular baby; he’s a miracle baby! He’s a man that’s also God! She’s genuinely his mother, but the birth is miraculous and mysterious.
Onward to the third century! Mary continues to increase in stature. The teacher of teachers, Origen of Alexandria is supposedly the very first person to write the word “theotokos” (mother of God) down as a title for Mary. Not only would this be remarkable because of the level of authority a title like that naturally bestows upon the listener (it’s a fair bit more impressive sounding than “disciple” or “deacon”), but because this is the exact title that will start to normalize Mary veneration in the 5th century. Tying this title to such an ancient and dignified teacher would lend an incredible amount of legitimacy to the practice! But in all of his recorded writings, Origen never used the word “theotokos.” Not even once. A 5th century author, Socrates of Constantinople, made that claim while he was attempting to dismiss the objections of someone named “Nestorius”:
Origen also, in the third volume of his Commentaries on the Apostolic Epistle to the Romans, gives an ample exposition of the sense in which the term Theotokos is used. It is therefore obvious that Nestorius had very little acquaintance with the old theologians[.]
Ecclesiastical History 7.32.17
Unfortunately for Socrates of Constantinople, we have a copy of Origen’s commentary on Romans and can clearly see that no such passage exists. Not only does it not exist, but Origen never uses the same language of high veneration that later authors will use. Despite some poor claims that continue forward into modernity, Origen’s writings don’t have any real jumping off point that naturally leads to the veneration of Mary.
I bring up this false claim because it indicates that things are really starting to get moving. The water is starting to get muddied. Even though the claims don’t have much legitimacy, the fact that someone made such a claim specifically targeting this era reflects that Mary’s status within the faith is growing. Origen may not use that particular power-phrase, but he does focus on Mary even more than most previous theologians. We start to see Mary stuff start to pop up more and more in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Somewhere in this timeframe (depending on which person is doing the dating), we even see see the Sub tuum praesidium hymn pop up for the first time:
Beneath your compassion,We take refuge, O Theotokos [God-bearer]:do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.
Sub tuum praes., earliest manuscript of which is from a Coptic fragment known as John Rylands papyrus 470
We still regularly see theologians say that Mary was sinful and there are very few clear recommendations of praying to her from leading Christian figures, but language about perpetual virginity that started popping up in the second century is carrying forward. She is not only a mother, but she is a mother that remained ever-virgin. And again, we have the odd scraps of evidence (like the Sub tuum papyrus) that seem to suggest that some communities are starting to pray to Mary and hold her in particularly high esteem. As we get more thoroughly into the fourth century, big-name theologians like Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzus start using the phrase “theotokos.” The mother of God has officially arrived.
We could spend ages looking at the slow evolution of the practice of Marian veneration, but I think I’ve already established the trend— Marian veneration slowly developed as a way of battling heresies that claimed that Jesus was not both all-man and all-God. She established both realities; her miraculous birth established Christ’s divinity, while her humanity established Christ’s humanity. But the fifth century offers one more large leap in the history of Mary veneration: the Council of Ephesus and their official endorsement of the title “theotokos.”
A fifth-century archbishop by the name of Nestorius didn’t approve of the title “theotokos” that some Christians had started using (yes, this is the same Nestorius that Socrates of Constantinople made up a fake quote to argue against). Mary couldn’t have given birth to God. God is eternal! God has neither beginning nor end! So he recommended the title “Christotokos” (mother of Christ) as a more accurate title for Mary. She gave birth to the human aspect of Jesus, but was not truly the mother of the divine trinity. The ancestors of orthodox Christianity noted that this effectively split Jesus into two parts: the human and the divine. The human part was born, but the divine part wasn’t. Mary was the mother of half of Jesus, but the other half descended after the fact. If Jesus’ divinity and humanity could be isolated and held responsible for different events, did Jesus work miracles, or was that just his divine half? Did Jesus die on the cross, or was that just his human half? A split Christ was no Christ at all. They insisted that Jesus had to be both God and man, not two separate aspects that could be split for the sake of certain events. Cyril of Alexandria, acting in accordance with both the Pope and a synod of Egyptian bishops, wrote the famous Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius, the first of which openly affirmed the language of the theotokos:
If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, The Word was made flesh] let him be anathema.
The First of Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas Against Nestorius
When Nestorius didn’t relent, the Council of Ephesus officially followed through on Cyril’s anathemas. There’s a lot of politics and lofty theological argumentation behind all of that, but note the true focus of the argument: the nature of Christ. While Mary’s title is the most obvious sticking point, in all of the official documentation surrounding this controversy, almost all of it is primarily concerned with the nature of Christ. Only the first of the twelve anathemas mentions Mary, and none of the canon judgements of the Council of Ephesus mention her at all. What we’re seeing here is that same tendency to use Mary to establish Christ’s divine and human nature, but elevated to the highest point thus far. Now Mary has been given an obligatory title, and one that carries a fair amount of prestige at that.
Now, you might say, “Wait, that just establishes that it’s legitimate to call Mary the mother of God. What about the veneration? That’s what we’re here for!” It continues to ramp up over time after this decision. We’re still a long way off from our Salve Reginas, Hail Marys, and the title “the Queen of Heaven,” all of which start popping up between the 11th and 13th century, but the Council of Ephesus really does kick off a period of renewed emphasis on Mary and the first really decisive evidence of large-scale veneration. After this event, churches started being named in honor of Mary and influential theologians like Augustine of Hippo started focusing even more time and attention on doctrines elevating the position of Mary. What was born out of a conflict regarding establishing Christ’s nature resulted in new titles, new theological lines in the sand, and new heresies defined around Mary. In the following centuries, the veneration of Mary would continue to increase. Devotional practices would be oriented towards Mary. Theologians would continue to make even bolder claims about Mary’s importance. Monasteries especially would introduce worship practices to appeal to Mary. What we’ve observed here in the fifth century is the first bud that would eventually bloom into full high Marian veneration during the Middle Ages.
Now onto the big question: why did Protestants reject Mary veneration? If it was built up over centuries specifically to avoid certain heresies, why get rid of it? Perhaps the simplest reason is that they were trying to reform the faith in the pattern of early Christianity. They thought the medieval church had strayed too far from the pattern set out by early Christianity, and so they turned to the Scriptures and tried to get back to the basics, but now they weren’t asking the same questions they were 500 years before. There was no doubt that Jesus was both God and man. Nobody wondered if he was some kind of purely spiritual being or a really nice guy who was acting in cooperation with a divine spirit. Conversations about Mary were no longer necessary to battle active heresies about Christ’s nature, and with the new radical emphasis on Scripture, a suspicion of tradition, and an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, many of the core tenants of Mariology were completely removed. Why should anyone pray to Mary? It’s not modeled in the Scriptures or in the writings of the early church fathers. Besides that, what would make her more important than anyone else? In Luther’s words:
Your prayers, O Christian, are as dear to me as hers. And why? Because if you believe that Christ lives in you as much as in her, then you can help me as much as she.
Luther’s 1522 sermon on the Feast of our Lady’s Nativity; Unfortunately, there’s no good English translation readily available, but excellent details are available through Grisar’s work on Luther: “Werke,” Weim. ed., 10, 3,p. 321 f. 499. as Cited in Hartmann Grisar, Luther, trans. E. M. Lamond (Project Gutenberg, 2015) p. 503.
There was a radical equality being emphasized in Protestantism, and the elevation of Mary did not fit. The hundreds of years of debate that crafted this practice seemed more like years of embedded pagan influence and error than compelling doctrinal formulation.
As I poured over articles to gather all of this info, I found more than a few cries from within Protestantism that Mary needs to be returned to a prominent role (if not her rightful historic role) within our theology. Perhaps… and perhaps not. There can be little doubt that there’s no harm in emphasizing the role of Jesus’ mom within the Scriptures. It is doubtless that she was a person of outstanding faith and moral character on top of being a person intimately involved in God’s work of salvation. At the same time, I don’t know that I’m eager to return to praying special prayers to the “high queen of heaven.” The major Protestant creeds all keep Christ enshrined as both 100% God and 100% man. While I readily concede that there are plenty of self-proclaimed Christians today that disagree with that basic point of orthodoxy, they’re certainly not uniquely Protestant. The early Protestants set out to turn away from medieval innovations and return to the basics Christianity while preserving Christian orthodoxy, and I think they did a reasonably good job of it in the case of Mary veneration. I think it’s lovely that the first few centuries of Christians share our view of Mary and could pray alongside us without any qualms. At the same time, I like to think we can appreciate where some of the emphasis on Mary came from in the case of our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings. Their practices were born out of a defense of the same orthodoxy that we hold dear. Even if we don’t agree with their specific expression of piety, I think we can at least appreciate where those practices came from and how they’re trying to preserve orthodox Christianity in their own way.
Mind you, I’m still probably not about to have a spiritual experience at the Cleveland Art Museum.
One of the students in my youth group sent me this TikTok and wanted to know if it was true. He always finds the best stuff to ask about. A lot of people don’t know much about Baal and Asherah, and there’s been a significant amount of theorizing done by different scholars on that point, so I thought I’d share the answer that I sent him. And before you ask, YES, I absolutely sent a teenager a giant answer to a one minute TikTok. He’s a smart guy. He can handle it.
The professor in that video represents one school of thought regarding the creation of the Bible. I would argue that it’s a very unchristian way of thinking (which is supported by the fact that the creator of this theory is a professed atheist). The core assumption here is that the Bible isn’t actually true, so much as it is an expression of exploitative power. Note how Dan said that Josiah wanted to “centralize the cult” and rewrote everything before that date to make Asherah seem evil. Before that date, “Asherah worship was 100% normative.” Right there he’s told us that he thinks that the Bible is a document that powerful people created to control others. A king wrote it to gain better control over his populace. If you read the article he’s referencing, the woman who created this theory (Francesca Stavrakopoulou) wrote that Asherah worship was banned primarily because of sexism. Men wanted to control women, and so they had to remove religious iconography that honored femininity. Both of them assume that the Bible is a tool of oppression created to control people, rather than a book of liberation that is trying to tell us the truth about existence.
Before I get into what orthodox Christians believe (orthodox meaning those Christians that believe the basic tenants of the faith that have been handed down for a few thousand years), I do want to look at the evidence Dan and Francesca provided. They gave us some dates as to when the documents were written, and they referenced some archaeological information. The dates about when the Bible was written are very disputable. I could get into the weeds about different methods of dating the Bible, but let’s keep it simple. Problem 1: paper does not preserve well. How can you know how old an idea is when the primary way of recording said information is so easily destroyed? Problem 2: how can you know the date of ideas that were passed down orally before they were written down? If I tell you a story and it’s so good that you tell it to your kids who tell it to your grandkids and then your grandkids finally write it down, how would a person that found the paper know how old the story was? They couldn’t! And that only gets more complicated when you consider that the paper might get destroyed, which would make it even harder to trace the idea. Whenever someone starts dating the different parts of the Bible and claim that certain parts are “written late,” what they’re usually trying to do is suggest that those parts are suspect. They are not authoritative. They are not true. Given that there’s no way to inerrantly trace the history of the story written on that paper, the claim that certain parts are “written late” boils down to, “I don’t believe that.” Which is fine. They’re welcome to say they disagree with what’s written in the Bible at any time. Many people do. Pretending that it’s rooted beyond reasonable doubt in the history of the document itself is just inaccurate.
As to the second piece of evidence (that archaeology proves that people worshiped God’s wife before King Josiah), they’re only half write. There have been archaeological findings that Canaanites worshiped three gods: a dad (El) a mom (Asherah) and their son (Baal). If it sounds vaguely like the trinity, it really doesn’t the more you get into it. It’s much closer to the Greek gods than anything else. They fight with each other, they go on adventures, etc.. This archeological evidence is absolutely true. The claim that the Bible is making on this point is that some Israelites were tempted to worship like the Canaanites and add a mom and a son to their worship ceremonies, casting God as the Canaanite father God, El. Was it “100% normative” for all Israelites? No! That’s the whole point of the story! A lot of Israelites were doing it, but they weren’t supposed to be doing it. That’s why it was upsetting! To say, “we have archaeological evidence that PROVES that everyone was worshiping Asherah in that era” is impossible, since no archaeological evidence can prove that literally everyone in a region was doing anything; they can only prove popular practices. The Bible agrees that worshiping Asherah and Baal were popular practices, and the archeological evidence reflects that as well. The question isn’t “was the common man worshiping Asherah?” We all agree on this point. The question is “was that whole God thing just made up after the fact because powerful people didn’t like Asherah and Baal?” Christianity says no. These professors say yes. The truth is not in the evidence; it’s in your core belief. Is God actually real and has he revealed himself to certain people throughout history? Or is the Bible a document that primarily exists only to oppress and marginalize people? At the end of the day, the real question here is much less exciting than it pretends to be: is Christianity true? And that question has been around since the dawn of Christendom.
We’ve looked at their core assumptions and we’ve evaluated their evidence, so let’s move on to the real feast: what is it that Christians actually DO believe on this particular issue? We believe that God is actually real and he’s the only god that exists. He is not the husband of Asherah and the father of Baal because those two are not actually real. He is also not a biological man. Jesus was a man in the incarnation, but the triune God in its fullness is not biologically male. Even that person of the trinity known as the Father is not male. The name “father” denotes his closeness to us and his love for us, not his biological chromosomes. Christians believe that this God that really does exists has communicated with certain people since the beginning of time. The Bible is a record of this, and it sets us free from the tyranny of this world’s power structures by pointing us towards the truth. If an orthodox Christian were to respond to these professors, I think they’d just be sad that their assumptions about the world are so different from ours. Where we assume that the Bible is setting people free, they assume it is a tool of oppression. One of us is right and one of us is wrong. I’d say that it’s a matter of faith, but that misrepresents what Christian faith is. It is not a guess that might be wrong and might be right. It is, to quote Hebrews, “assurance of what we do not see,” (Heb 11:1). I don’t think that God might exist. I know he does (though my evidence would probably look as sketchy to those professors as their evidence is to me). Rather than say that it’s a matter of faith, I’ll keep it simple and just say this: they’re wrong.