The Flight of Gregory Nazianzen and the Challenge of New Beginnings

It’s been ages since I last posted. Life has been crazy. I’ve gone from being the associate pastor at Bexley UMC to the pastor at The Plains UMC. I moved about an hour and a half south for the new position and, right now, all of my life is in boxes. Needless to say, I’ve not had a lot of spare time for reading.

Once I got a moment to myself, naturally, I wanted to find a saint who had been through the same sort of challenges and read up about how they handled their big transition. I landed on one of my favorites: Gregory of Nazianzus. This is the fourth post I’ve written about him. Previously, I’ve written about his poetry, his take on theosis, and his refreshing melancholy in the face of the modern obsession with happiness, but this is the first time I’ve ventured out of the poetry of his retirement years.

In his younger days (32), Gregory was chosen for ordination a priest. His dad (also named Gregory) was the local bishop in Nazianzus and he found his son’s help invaluable in his ministry. His son managed to help him navigate the political and doctrinal challenges of the Arian Creed of 359 (Gregory Senior signed on as a supporter of a heretical creed and made a bunch of enemies until his son convinced him to apologize and withdraw his support), and besides that, he was incredibly capable as a theologian and pastoral care provider. Unfortunately, Gregory Jr. had no interest in actually being a priest. He wanted to be a monk! His ordination moved forward anyway, which was kind of a thing at the time. Ancient theologians are always getting priest-ed without wanting it. It’s humility trope—the most suitable person to put in power was supposed to be the guy who is too humble to want it. It’s usually reasonable to assume it’s being exaggerated for the sake of a good story. In Gregory’s case, it’s safe to assume he REALLY didn’t want to be ordained. He ran away for a few months, leaving his church really peeved at him, and after he finally did return, he called his ordination a “noble tyranny” in his first sermon (Or. 1, par. 1). If he was just trying to come off as humble, he went a little too hard.

In any case, Gregory was someone who knew what it was like to have his life uprooted for the Church and learned to thrive in the midst of it. How did he do it? I picked through his first two orations. The first is the sermon he gave when he returned to Nazianzus on Easter after a few months of hiding. The second is something he wrote to explain himself when people weren’t so thrilled with him after he returned (nobody came to church for a while in protest—church politics never change). I found a few gems in each.

The first one was certainly the lesser of the two. He doesn’t dwell much on his flight and spends most of the time talking about Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he didn’t make the Easter sermon all about him. That’s a great move. At the same time, I’m here for that juicy personal drama. The fact that it’s not here limited my interest. Nevertheless, I liked his biggest reference to his flight:

A Mystery anointed me; I withdrew a little while at a Mystery, as much as was needful to examine myself; now I come in with a Mystery, bringing with me the Day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He Who to-day rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new Man, may give me to His New Creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him.

Or. 1, par. 2

How eloquent! I appreciate his willingness to name his flaws. To call yourself a weak coward is pretty intense! But he didn’t shy away. It wasn’t that the task was too great; it’s that his courage failed him and he needed to step away and reevaluate himself. God’s grace is enough to cover it.

There are also several references to mysteries. As I read it, the first mystery appears to be his ordination. He withdrew because of the weight of the sacrament bestowed on him. Now, he returns proclaiming a second mystery, which is the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus and the new life bestowed on us all. By this promise, even one who was a coward can be born into the new man that God desires.

The second oration was a little juicier. This one wasn’t a sermon and was explicitly intended as an explanation of his absence, so I got pages upon pages of him giving personal details about his challenge in facing a big transition. This is what I came here for. It starts out:

I have been defeated, and own my defeat. I subjected myself to the Lord, and prayed unto Him.

Or. 2 par 1

What a bombastic opening. He immediately reasserts the best of what he said in his sermon for those who didn’t attend worship that day. Why was I gone? Because I was at war with God. I have laid down my weapons and been defeated. I am subjecting myself to him. I’m no longer running. I’m digging in.

In the ensuing paragraphs, he discusses his respect for God’s sacred order, his meager qualifications, and his emotions through it all. The big crescendo of his argument builds as he points to the duty of a priest:

[T]he scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.

Or. 1, par. 22

He goes all out after this, going on for paragraphs about how this is, “the wish of the prophets and the law…why God was united to the flesh by means of the soul…why the new [covenant] was substituted for the old…” etc. (or 2, par 23-25). This is, in his eyes, the summation of it all. The whole of the job of a priest is to assist God in healing the core essence of a person. In light of this incredible duty, how could anyone be surprised that he balked for a moment? And yet, he ultimately accepts his new priestly responsibilities, saying, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God… now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people and praise Him in the seat of the elders,” (or 2, par. 115). What once seemed like a terrifying possibility is now a duty. The weight of the task may be heavy, and the responsibility unexpected, but he now recognizes that it has fallen to him to glorify God in this way. God put him in this place. Who is he to argue? And who is any detractor to deny him this place that God gave to him?

I don’t know that a lot of modern people can relate deeply to being stolen away from the monastery and ordained against their will, but Gregory still lays out a lot of great principles that are worth embodying. First, he’s honest! He owns his initial shortcoming and doesn’t try to cover it up. The whole thing could have been a total disaster, but he acknowledges his mistakes (something especially difficult when you’re under immense pressure) and ends up making the whole thing a moment that reflects the weightiness of God’s calling and the heights of God’s mercy. More importantly, he learns to trust God all the more after being called to something new. Big transitions are hard. It’s easy to get nervous, upset, frustrated, weirded-out, etc. But God isn’t just randomly switching things up. He’s placed us exactly where we are for the sake of our own holiness and the deification of those around us. Sometimes we might get negative. It’s certainly not ideal, but even some of the greats had their moments of despair. We need to bounce back and recognize the importance of the duties he’s given us. The heights of what God calls us to are greater than anything we could possibly imagine for ourselves.

I hope I can keep the spirit of post-flight Gregory as I adjust to my new setting down here in The Plains. I know God put me here for a reason, and I hope I can do work that brings him glory.

God is Red: Zhang Yinxian and True Discipleship

Back when I was first trying to find good books about Christianity, I went to my local library and grabbed whatever was on the shelves. One of those books happened to be Liao Yiwu’s God is Red, a series of interviews with people who endured persecution in communist China around the time of the Cultural Revolution. It made quite the impression on me. Specifically, the story of Zhang Yinxian was one that I never forgot.

Zhang was an orphan that became a nun at the cathedral of Dali in the Yunnan province. That church was MASSIVE. There were over 400 that lived in the church complex and thousands who came from throughout the province to worship. All of that changed when the communists took over. Church property was confiscated. Worshipers renounced their faith to avoid punishment from the government. Out of thousands who worshiped, only three remained faithful: Zhang, her Aunt Li, and Bishop Liu.

They were beaten. They were imprisoned. They were released as pariahs at the bottom of the social ladder with few opportunities to avoid poverty. On top of all that, they had to endure mass denunciations. They would be trotted out in front of crowds that would spit at them and scream about how narrow-minded and backwards they were and how they were leeches on society. They endured all of that for thirty-one years.

In 1983, the Communist Party changed policies. Certain religions were now acceptable. People could worship freely. Church property would gradually be returned. Zhang, Li, and Liu were given modest apartments… but that wasn’t enough for them. They went to the local statehouse and started a hunger strike until they got their church back. The people that passed by them weren’t sympathetic: “You oughta be grateful for what you got! Be more patriotic!” But they stayed and they prayed and waited. A government official spoke with them and told them that they’d get their church back but these sorts of things took time. They said, “Thank goodness, because we’re hungry and we can’t eat until we have our church back. Here’s to hoping its soon!” The official got furious and called them greedy for demanding a massive building for just three people. They just said that it wasn’t for them; it was for God. They wanted to go to his house and worship him.

After 31 years of persecution, they got their church back. Thousands once worshiped there, but after thirty-one years of persecution, only three remained. There may have been a big crowd at that sanctuary, but there were only three real disciples.

Would I have been one of those three? I hope so, but I also know that I can’t fathom how hard it would have been to endure. Only an unshakable faith can endure trials like that, and an unshakable faith doesn’t just spring up by accident. It takes deliberate training and constant nurture. How can we help make disciples like Zhong, Li, and Liu? And how can we become disciples like that? I don’t know. But that mental image of little old Aunt Li getting spat on and screamed at while she loved Jesus has certainly stuck with me. Here’s to hoping I can be as faithful as she was.

An Odd Mix of Joy and Sorrow: Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands

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.

Easter Sermons, Augustine of Canterbury, and the Procession to the King of Kent

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?

What Did Jesus Write in the Dirt in John 8:1-11? Big Name Theologians Weigh In

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):

53 Then they all went home,

but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 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. 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 stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

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.

Heroes of Old… and Me! Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus

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.

Christian Resentment and the Good News of Martyrdom

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.

Recovering the Sacred: C.S. Lewis, Philip Rieff, and the Cleveland Museum of Art

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:

Crucified Christ, late 1300s

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:

Metal Fence, Cady Noland

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).

C.S. Lewis’s Nerdy Poetry: The Country of the Blind

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.

No Story Left Untold: The Miracula of Engelhard of Langheim

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.”