Apologetics Battle: Simon Magus vs Peter the Apostle

Apologetics (the art of defending the faith) hasn’t changed nearly as much as you’d expect over the past 2000-ish years. Well… parts of it have certainly changed. After all, if you had a question about Christianity today, I assume you’d look for a pretty official looking book with basic questions and good answers in response. Makes sense. But in the third century, a perfectly legitimate option was picking up a dramatization of a fantasy debate in which the apostle Peter and the sorcerer Simon Magus wage an epic war of words about the big questions in Christianity (as based on the story in Acts 8:9-24). And it’s every bit as awesome as you could imagine.

Ok, a public debate might not sound all that exciting to everyone, but trust me, if those two legendary figures going head-to-head doesn’t get your blood pumping, the details will. Simon Magus rolls into town and becomes the leader of a local cult by explaining to them that he’s God. When the current cult leader (who also claims to be God) objects and tries to beat him with his stick, the stick magically goes through Simon’s body, which leads to the cult leader immediately stepping down from leadership and handing his position over to Simon. Simon also claims to be able to do all kinds of wacky things. He can fly! He can make children grow beards! At one point, he claims to have created a boy out of thin air and then turned him back into air again. Not only did he do this magnificent feat (supposedly), but he claims it as proof that he’s more powerful than the God of the Old Testament. That guy only created humans out of earth and everyone knows that’s way easier than making people out of air.

See? It’s the details that really bring this epic story to life.

The verbal smackdown is just as fun to read. Our debate begins with Peter offering peace to his opponent. Simon’s response?

Do not invoke peace, but rather battle, which is the mother of peace; and if you can, exterminate errors. And do not seek for friendship obtained by unfair admissions; for this I would have you know, above all, that when two fight with each other, then there will be peace when one has been defeated and has fallen. And therefore fight as best you can, and do not expect peace without war, which is impossible; or if it can be attained, show us how.

The Recognitions of Clement, 234

Simon has no chill at all.

All of this is from The Recognitions of Clement, a part of the larger body of work known as the Clementia. Basically, it’s an ancient historical fiction. The author wanted to talk about doctrine, but they spiced things up by using Bible characters. The resulting narrative is surprisingly fun. And effective! I couldn’t help but be a little moved by Peter’s response when one of his assistants asked how God could blame anyone for leaving him if the devil offered them more power:

If your son, whom you have trained and nourished with all care, and brought to man’s estate, should be ungrateful to you, and should leave you and go to another, whom perhaps he may have seen to be richer, and should show to him the honour which he owed to you, and, through hope of greater profit, should deny his birth, and refuse you your paternal rights, would this seem to you right or wicked?”

The Recognitions of Clement, 229

All of the grand spectacle aside, it’s shocking just how relevant most of the the questions that Simon Magus asks Peter are for people today. If Jesus is so great, why does he contradict himself in the Gospels? If God is so good, why did he create evil stuff? Why did God give humans free will? How could the being written about in the Old Testament truly be called a good God? I don’t want to pretend like all of the answers that Peter gives would be totally satisfying to modern ears, but they hold up pretty well on the whole.

In pop culture, there’s this strong sense that we’re so far advanced from the primitive thinkers of the past. The progress that we’ve made over the past 2000 years puts us lightyears ahead of our foolish, backwards ancestors, but when you crack open their books, you can see how ridiculous a statement like that is. We may have some new tools and some new insights into the way the world works, but we’re still fundamentally the same beings working out the same questions. Our ancestors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, mathematics, and any one of a million other disciplines are often far more advanced than we give them credit for.

As Christians, we have so much to gain from looking back at ancient apologetics. Not only are the historic responses insightful, but reading these documents reminds us that we haven’t entered into a new age in which all of our collective wisdom is outdated. We’re more equipped than we know, and the questions that people are asking aren’t as groundbreaking as we think. There’s truly nothing new under the sun.

Source: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/s/schaff/anf08/cache/anf08.pdf

Fake Quotes from Famous Saints

The other day, I got an e-mail from a higher up in the Methodist church that ended with this quote:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

-John Wesley

I closed out of that message in a tizzy because John Wesley never said that!  Honestly, John Wesley never said most of his famous quotes.  Kevin Watson did a phenomenal series about quotes that Wesley never said here.  Just about every Wesley quote that makes its way onto a key chain, wall hanging, or church bulletin isn’t actually his.  The fact that a reputable higher up in the church was misquoting him was a bummer.  Did he not care about the integrity of the quote?

But as comfortable as it is to slip into self-justifying outrage, there are a TON of quotes that famous saints “said” that they didn’t actually say, and… they’re not bad!  They’re pithy.  They’re clever.   People love them!  They get referenced in reasonably educated circles and they’re popular in churches. So what do we do with all these fake quotes?

Francis of Assisi supposedly said “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.”  Not only is it not in his writings, but it’s not even a quote that suits him.  He’s known for his preaching, and preaching was one of the core tenants of the Franciscan monks that followed in his footsteps.  Why would someone that values preaching so much speak so flippantly about it?

Theresa of Avila supposedly wrote this famous poem:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on the world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

But she didn’t.  Not only is it found nowhere in her works, but this blogger did a great deep dive on the origin of this poem and theorized that it was originally created by Methodist Minister Mark Guy Pearse, who said the second half in a sermon that he gave in 1888, and Quaker medical missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree, who added the first half of the poem after acknowledging she took the second half from him. From there, other people started adapting the poem, and it gained a life of its own. I can’t personally guarantee that they’re right, but it seems like a really decent stab at locating the history of one of those mythical quotes. It still does leave a big question: how on Earth did it get attributed to Theresa?

None of these quotes have an oral history that dates back to the time of the figure in question.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’re fake.  Are they malicious forgeries?  Who can say.  I’m going to guess no.  It’s hard to prove that sort of thing, so it mostly boils down to a guess.  I’m willing to give the parties involved the benefit of the doubt and say it was a mistake or some sort of misunderstanding.

That being said, it’d be silly to pretend that the quotes don’t benefit from their connection to famous historical figures.  It makes you sound way smarter if you say “As St. Francis of Assisi once said…” rather than, “I saw this on a keychain once…”  The quotes gain a certain amount of gravitas from their attachment to big-name historical figures.  Some very significant religious organizations have these quotes plastered on their websites, and they almost certainly wouldn’t if they were anonymous.  There’s no shortage of blog entries and news articles pointing out that these quotes are not legitimate, but there’s not enough church history nerds out there to keep them from getting through the cracks! 

So… what do we do?

I’ve seen some books take the position of claiming the quote is “attributed to” the saint in question, but probably wasn’t actually written by them.  I don’t know how much good that does, if only because it still creates a really fun backstory for the quote and then picks at it without adding a positive alternative.  We could always take the position of saying that they’re anonymous.  That would certainly detach the quote from it’s fake history, but nobody wants to engage with a quote by “anonymous,” so at that point, you may as well not use it anymore.

How much does the integrity of the quote matter?

It reminds me of a little story from The Decameron (basically the 14th c. Italian version of the Canterbury Tales).    There’s this guy named Ciappelletto, and he’s garbage.  He launders money, writes fake documents, lies, gambles, etc.  You get the picture.  One day, he gets really sick. His friends are afraid he’s going to die, but the Church won’t bury him unless he confesses his sins to a clergyman, and his sins are so horrible that no clergyman would absolve him. His friends will end up stuck with his corpse, and it’ll be a whole awkward thing. But Ciappelletto has an idea. They get this friar to come in and take his confession, and Ciappelletto just gets crazy with it.  He makes up lie after lie after lie about what a saintly life he’s led.  Sure enough, the friar absolves him and even buries Ciappelletto in his own convent later that day… but things don’t stop there. The friar is so moved by what he heard that he preaches about the virtuous life of Ciappelletto to everyone who will listen.  Before you know it, people are using items that Ciappelletto owned as relics and going on pilgrimages to his grave.   They claim that miracles are worked in his name!  Lots of people live holier, more Christlike lives because of the (fake) legend of Ciappelletto.  In the end, our narrator points to the whole affair as, “a manifest token of the superabundance of the goodness of God to us, inasmuch as He regards not our error but the sincerity of our faith,” (First Day, 090).

Does it matter that Ciappelletto was a rogue if his legend helped others grow in Christ?

Does it matter that Wesley, Francis, and Theresa never said those things if it helps people know God better?

…YES!  Faith is about truth!  The elements of our faith should be able to get by a simple Google search without being clearly and inarguably fake.  Better to build a house on the rock of truth than the sand of convenience. Fight the misquotes, dear friends. Say they’re anonymous! Say they’re misattributed! Ignore them if you want! Just don’t say they’re true.

The Decameron can be read here.

Hymns with History

In the ever-raging battle between contemporary and traditional music, traditional music usually gets credit for having ties to historic Christianity. These are traditional songs! They were passed down by generations before us! They’re the classics of worship music!

But how old is your average hymn?

In the United Methodist Hymnal (which is the one in my office), the overwhelming majority of hymns were written between 1850 and 1989. I’ll pop the book open right now and prove it! Starting at hymn 365 (the random page I opened to) and moving forward, the year of composition is 1911, 1963, 1834, 1873, 1939, 1905, and 1749. Ok, we ended on one that broke the norm a little bit, but you can see where I’m going with this. Where is a hymn from year 300? 1423? 1555? Why is the genre we call “traditional” so lacking in tradition beyond the 1800s?

The simple answer is that the first American hymnal was printed in 1831. Of course most hymns are from that year or later; that’s when their distribution really took off. Before that, hymnals were collections of lyrics that you’d put to music on your own. But just because people didn’t have hymnals didn’t mean they weren’t singing hymns. Hymns go waaaay back. Take, for example, this hymn by 4th century bishop Ambrose of Milan:

Come, Holy Ghost, who ever One
Art with the Father and the Son;
Come Holy Ghost, our souls possess
With Thy full flood of holiness.

In will and deed, by heart and tongue,
With all our powers, Thy praise be sung;
And love light up our mortal frame,
Till others catch the living flame.

Almighty Father, hear our cry
Through Jesus Christ our Lord most high,
Who with the Holy Ghost and Thee
Doth live and reign eternally.

How cool is that? Yes, this edition of it is a little older and could use some paraphrasing to modernize it, but the language is so evocative! Lots of trinitarian references, and a gorgeous example of participation in God’s action there in that middle verse. We sang this every day at Mepkin Abbey when I was staying there a few summers back. The Rule of Benedict (their monastic rule) requires you to sing Ambrosian hymns, and so we did. We protestants may not be required to sing old hymns, but are we missing out by skipping stuff like this?

Here’s another genuine oldie, this one by the 7th century Greek theologian Andrew of Crete:

Whence shall my tears begin?
What first-fruits shall I bear
Of earnest sorrow for my sin?
Or how my woes declare?
O Thou! The merciful and gracious One.
Forgive the foul transgressions I have done.

With Adam I have vied,
Yea, passed him, in my fall;
And I am naked now, by pride
And lust made bare of all;
Of Thee, O God, and that celestial band,
And all the glory of the promised land.

No earthly Eve beguiled
My body into sin:
A spiritual temptress smiled,
Concupiscence within:
Unbridled passion grasped the unhallowed sweet:
Most bitter— ever bitter— was the meat.

If Adam’s righteous doom,
Because he dared transgress
Thy one decree, lost Eden’s bloom
And Eden’s loveliness:
What recompense, O Lord, must I expect,
Who all my life Thy quickening laws neglect?

By mine own act, like Cain,
A murderer I was made:
By mine own act my soul was slain,
When Thou wast disobeyed:
And lusts each day are quickened, warring still
Against Thy grace with many a deed of ill.

This one is a little harder to imagine singing in worship, even if you modernized the language a bit. People tend not to sing about lust in churches these days. Go figure. Still, there’s a lot to love here! The story of Adam’s first sin is opened up and applied to the singer. You are like Adam. You are like Cain. You are the sinner. Genesis isn’t just the story of someone else in some other time; it’s your story. How many songs today help you live out the reality of Scripture this well?

If you’re someone looking to get a fix of some old hymns, check out the cyber hymnal. Nothing there is copyrighted! It’s prime for singing! Browse by person to find older stuff easier (spoiler: anybody named Someone of Somewhere is probably old). You can always tweak the language to make it a little more modern. Whether you want a rock guitar up front or an organ, there’s some real gems in the Christian tradition. “Traditional” hymnals be darned; this is real traditional music!

Exaggerated Exegesis (Part Two on Wacky Patristic Interpretations)

In my last post, I chatted a little about some of the wackier interpretations of Scripture that I’ve come across from the patristic era. I ended on a pretty positive note regarding it’s legitimacy: “Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open.” Despite me wrapping things up with a happy ending, it was still an open question in my head. Are these interpretations legitimate? Or are they wrong?

I remember one friend telling me, “Well, they don’t violate any of the creeds. Why can’t the Holy Spirit speak in creative, unexpected ways in the Scriptures? I think churches today have a lot to learn about exegesis from the Church Fathers!” Now, by no means do I want to “roast” his answer. In a lot of ways, I don’t think it’s far from what I suggested last week. Nonetheless, it struck me as troublesome when I heard someone else say it. There are a lot of things that the creeds don’t address at all. Should wacky Bible readings get a pass just because they don’t violate a creed? And it sounds really neat to say that we have a lot to learn from the creative interpretations of the Church Fathers, and on some level it’s certainly true, but if something they did looks a little weird, why not question it? Nobody is above critique! We aren’t obligated to repeat patristic mistakes out of a sense of duty to tradition. That’s coming from someone who identifies as a “tradition guy.” The name of the blog is “Classic Christianity,” for crying out loud! But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that we’re giving the Church Fathers a pass on some stuff that we would absolutely reject if someone tried to do today.

Imagine me going into a church and saying this during a sermon on Sunday morning:

“Your teeth are like a flock of sheep just shorn, coming up from the washing. Each has its twin; not one of them are alone.” (Song 4:2)

Does the hearer learn anything more than when he listens to the same thought expressed in the plainest language, without the help of this figure? And yet, I don’t know why, I feel greater pleasure in contemplating holy men, when I view them as the teeth of the Church, tearing men away from their errors, and bringing them into the Church’s body, with all their harshness softened down, just as if they had been torn off and masticated by the teeth. It is with the greatest pleasure, too, that I recognize them under the figure of sheep that have been shorn, laying down the burdens of the world like fleeces, and coming up from the washing, i.e., from baptism, and all bearing twins, i.e., the twin commandments of love of God and neighbor, and none among them barren in that holy fruit.

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Trans. J.F. Shaw

I legitimately don’t think I could get away with that. People in the pews would squint their eyes and say, “What? That’s not what it says at all. What’s wrong with Pastor Vincent this week? He’s going off the rails!” If I try to do that or anything like it without name dropping the quote’s originator, it looks like total nonsense. Meanwhile, if I name drop the author, “As the great Saint Augustine said…” I might get a pass based on his name value alone. If an interpretation is totally reliant on it’s famous originator to sound reasonable, is it really reasonable at all?

On some level, I guess my protestant expectation of plain sense readings is shining through. I have the voice of Luther in my ear, “Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.” Not that I hate allegory as much as he claims he did, but I do expect an attempt to interpret Scripture to seem… well… reasonable. If Scripture says that a woman had nice teeth, it seems distinctly unreasonable to say that it clearly and definitely means that the church ought to have sinless saints. But if I’m rejecting that, then I have to say what I think IS a reasonable reading of that passage. What does it mean that this man’s beloved had nice teeth? What religious truth is being conveyed by God in these words? How does that edify my soul? Apparently, Martin Luther, famed allegory hater, said that the whole of Song of Songs was actually an allegory about politics (an interpretation that doesn’t seem to have caught on). I can’t find what he said about the teeth specifically without paying a lot of money for a book that I’ll only use once for this express purpose, but I get the sense that white teeth probably had an equally weird meaning in his mind. Go figure.

NO ALLEGORY! Well… maybe just a bit….

There’s some passages that are incredibly hard to interpret. Since I’ve been doing a sermon series at church about Song of Songs, those are the ones that have been nagging at me lately, but there’s lots of similar passages throughout the Bible. Sometimes, literal readings of these passages seem so shallow that we have to turn to allegory. The Church Fathers gave us a wealth of allegorical readings to consider, but I think it’s fair to be a little critical of them. The interpretive moves that they made are often wild by our modern standards. Last time, I was enamored by their creativity. After some thinking, I still respect their writings. I’m just a little more cautious about borrowing from them without a nice, critical look at the primary text itself.

Imaginative Interpretation with the Church Patriarchs

I’m consistently shocked by the way ancient interpreters read Scripture.  They draw some pretty wacky conclusions sometimes.  Not bad conclusions, mind you.  They’re great Christian advice most of the time!  But the way they reach those conclusions feels totally removed from our modern ways of Bible reading.  For example, Venerable Bede (a big name scholar born in 673 who actually helped popularize the term “AD” for measuring years) wrote this about that awkward passage in Song of Songs, “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead,” (Song 4:1).

For if goats and the hair or skins of goats always signified the foulness of sinners and never the humility of penitents, that animal would by no means have been reckoned among the clean [animals], nor would it have been said in praise of the bride: “Your hair is like a flock of goats.”

Bede, On the Tabernacle 2.3

I’ve only heard that particular passage get brought up for two reasons: to point out that standards of beauty vary from one culture to another, or to laugh about how Song of Songs has some language that is not romantic by today’s standards (har har).  I don’t know that Bede has done anything that seems all that legitimate by modern exegetical standards, but tying the goat to an attitude of penance actually adds a dimension of spiritual edification to this passage. Is he right? I don’t know. But is it kinda cool? Yeah.

To stick to the theme of Song of Songs, here’s a bit that Origen of Alexandria (a super-influential early Christian theologian born in 183) interpreted the line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” (Song 1:1) as follows:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth”—that is to say, may pour the words of His mouth into mine, that I may hear Him speak Himself, and see Him teaching. The kisses are Christ’s, which He bestowed on His Church when at His coming, being present in the flesh, He in His own person spoke to her the words of faith and love and peace, according to the promise of Isaias who, when sent beforehand to the Bride, had said: Not a messenger, nor an angel, but the Lord Himself shall save us.

Origen’s Commentary on Song of Songs, 1:1

What?  How did he get to that point?  He jumped from a statement that almost entirely registers as a straightforward statement of passion to a longing prophecy about the incarnation of Christ!  It’s utterly baffling!  I don’t know if I could get away with making a claim like that from the pulpit… but isn’t it a little more edifying his way?  Sure, it’s creative and maybe even wrong, but it’s intriguing.

Even the great Augustine, the church patriarch of church patriarchs, the theologian of theologians, has his fair share of wacky interpretations.  Here’s one about Genesis 2 (which is apparently one of his many interpretations on Genesis, because he really liked that book).  To give you some background, he’s already stated that the Genesis story uses Adam to represent higher reasoning (the soul’s deep wisdom), Eve to represent lower reason (the ability to make rational decisions and manage Earthly resources appropriately), and the snake to represent appetite.  Now he moves on to his grand conclusion:

Now with that evident couple of the two human beings who were first created, the serpent did not eat from the forbidden tree, but only incited to eat, and the woman did not eat alone but gave some to her husband and they ate together, although she alone spoke to the serpent and she alone was led astray by it. So too… even in one man, the carnal (or if I may so put it the sensual) motion of the soul which is channeled into the senses of the body and which is common to us and the beasts, is shut off from the reasoning of wisdom. With bodily sensation, after all, bodily things are sensed; but eternal, unchangeable, and spiritual things are understood with the reasoning of wisdom. But the appetite is very close to the reasoning of knowledge, seeing that it is the function of this knowledge to reason about the bodily things that are perceived by bodily sensation.

Augustine, The Trinity, Trans Edmund Hill, Kindle Loc 9213

What a bizarre, psychological exploration of human nature, wrapped up in a Bible story!  It reminds me of Freud or William Blake’s prophesies!  In his hands, Genesis isn’t just a story about two people long ago; it’s about every person in every era, and the psychological resources that are so easily corrupted by appetite. And it’s history and a million other things. It speaks and it speaks and it has so much to offer.

I have no problem with the  “plain sense” reading of Scripture (the assumption that most of the Bible can be read in a relatively straightforward fashion and be interpreted with a good bit of common sense).  Yes, I know there is no self-interpreting book and that a knowledge of the Christian tradition is necessary to interpret well, but I do think that a story can have a meaning and the meaning is often not far from what was written on the page.  Nonetheless, Auggie, Origen, and Bede are doing some really creative, cool stuff with their Bible readings, and I can’t help but stop with a mix of awe and confusion and say, “Woah.”  Sure, maybe they’re just wrong, but maybe there’s more to Scripture than we see.  Maybe the Holy Spirit has some crazy things to show us in our Bibles if we keep our minds open. 

Creeds: Underrated, Under-loved, and Surprisingly Helpful

Sometimes, I forget the value of the creeds.  Not that I’m not a creedal guy.  The creeds are instrumental in giving us the basics of the faith!  But sometimes, I see pastors emphasizing the creeds as the sole definition of orthodoxy because they happen to have an unorthodox theological stance that the creeds don’t address. These pastors use creeds as a sort of legalistic way to sneak un-historic theology into the church, rather than as seeing them as a guiding light toward historic Christianity,  I guess that’s made me a little wary of over-relying on the creeds in recent years.

In hindsight, that kind of skepticism was probably unfounded.  As with all good things, there are people who abuse them and use them incorrectly, but the creeds possess a powerful capacity to give people the foundational pieces of Christianity.  I remember a story  about a woman who was talking about faith with her Christian friends when someone asked, “What do you believe?”  All of her friends answered the question in weird little bits and pieces, unable to systematically give an account of their beliefs, but she just spouted off the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in God the Father, creator of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who…”  What a powerful way to memorize and express the basics!  The Apostle’s Creed gives us that quick, succinct explanation for ourselves and for others!

The Nicene Creed is one that’s a little rarer, but excellent to add to your creedal arsenal.  Back when I was working on a sermon series about the Apostle’s Creed, I remember finding out that Eastern Orthodox churches don’t use it!  In their words, it was never approved at an ecumenical council, so why bother using a creed that wasn’t approved when there’s one that was?  While I don’t think we need to abandon the Apostle’s Creed, which is still a tremendous piece of Western Christian heritage, I think they make a valid point.  The Nicene Creed has enough historic relevance that it’s well worth our time, and it adds little details to the core framework of the Apostle’s Creed that make Christianity even clearer.  For example, what if someone says, “Well I don’t know that early Christians thought Jesus was God!  The Apostle’s Creed only says, ‘Jesus Christ, his Son, our Lord,’ so it seems like even they weren’t sure about it!”  Then you can hit ‘em with that good Nicene clarification:

…We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father…

-The Nicene Creed

Sure, you have to take the time to understand what “begotten” means as opposed to “made” (basically, God the Son is from the generative power of God the Father and is actually, genuinely his son, but there was never a time when he didn’t exist and he is just as fully God as God the Father.  It’s a way to avoid people saying that Jesus is somehow less than God because he was created by God, so he’s different and secondary), but that’s a level of difficulty that actually explains things out even further.  Our ancestors in the faith didn’t clarify these things so that we could tuck the creeds away in the back pages of hymn books!  They’re ways they wanted to pass on the core of the faith and help us avoid errors!

Finally, I’ll give some love to the Athanasian Creed.  This one, the Nicene Creed, and the Apostle’s Creed make up the Ecumenical Creeds.  Basically, if you’re a Christian in the West, your church came from these creeds.  These are the basic foundations that your beliefs came from! The Athanasian Creed doesn’t get read much in public worship (mostly because it’s scary) but it’s got some valuable points to it. For example, is it really crucial to a person’s salvation to believe in the Holy Spirit? Well, the Athanasian Creed says yes in its signature, super-intense way:

Whoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith.

Anyone who does not keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.

Now this is the catholic faith:

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither belnding their persons
Nor dividing their essence.
For the person of the Father is a distinct person,
the person of the Son is another,
and that of the Holy Spirit still another.
But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one,
their glory equal, their majesty coeternal…

-The Athanasian Creed

You can see why people don’t read this one as often, but it has something to say: these things matter. The trinitarian nature of God isn’t a side-truth we can add to our beliefs if we’re feeling comfortable; it’s a core piece of the faith that has been passed down through the church for generations. These creeds are what the saints of the past established as the borders of their school of thought. If we don’t fall within the borders, we’re carrying a faith that they would consider fundamentally different from their own.

I want to have the faith of the saints. I want to understand it, explore it, and know it well. I delight in knowing that great Christians of the past spoke the same creeds that I do, and that they left them for me so that we could share faith in the same God in every generation.

Can God Act? Charles Taylor and the Impact of Secularism

A few weeks back, I was chatting with my spiritual director and somehow I got on the topic of religious language.  A friend of mine uses religious language that’s really foreign to me.  For example, she might say: “I woke up this morning and was so grateful that the Lord gave me one more day, and so I thanked him with all my heart.  Later on, as I ate my cereal, I pondered, ‘Lord, what are you asking of me today?  What do you want?  Should I go to the store?’”  For some reason, her language just makes me a little uneasy. Obviously it bothered me enough that I wanted to process it with someone else! Why does she have to talk like that?

My director’s response was simple enough, “It’s very brave of her to talk like that.  She knows that most people in our world don’t sound like her, but she chooses to use that language anyway.  What makes you uncomfortable with her language?”

I threw out some bad guesses about religious background and education, but they were all nonsense.  I didn’t have a good answer.  I’ve just been sitting with that question for a few weeks, trying to ask myself why her language bothers me so much.

God must have heard me crying out, because I certainly ended up reading in the right direction; I stumbled back onto the work of Charles Taylor.  His work in A Secular Age may only be from 2007, but it’s a masterwork for religious people of all traditions.  He investigates the philosophy of secularism, how it developed, what ideas hold it in place, and what it means for religious thought today.  Admittedly, I’m not reading Taylor directly; I’m reading Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age, which builds on Taylor’s work to see how pastors understood themselves and their society historically to determine what a pastor’s challenges are today.  That being said, it’s a book in Charles Taylor’s tradition.  Root is very much building on what Taylor’s work (in a delightfully readable way).

In any case, it had an answer to my burning question: I’m a pretty secular person. It’s no wonder that language about a God that acts feels wrong.  Does God exist?  Sure!  But it’s uncomfortable to address him as a being that acts and moves and has a being.  God is, after all, in us!  He is sustaining all things!  He is creating!  At least, that’s the way we talk about him in mainline churches.  But if we’re being honest, that’s all pretty passive, impersonal stuff.   God looks suspiciously like a weird spark somewhere between personal inspiration and natural law.  It’s not the kind of God you really need to worry much about, and it’s certainly not one that you wake up every morning talking to.

Here’s two big reasons that really hit me as why mainstream Western society has a hard time talking about God in an active voice:

1. We’ve dis-embedded God from public life.

Historically, God’s will was understood to be the foundation of public life.  Just think about Joan of Arc!  Why did she fight the English?  Because God wanted France to win.  She was God’s instrument, and God’s will was made manifest through her.  Again, think about the “divine right of kings.”  Why was someone the king?  Because God wanted it like that!  There was no way to divide what was happening in the world from the active work of God.  God acted, and the world was shaped according to his authority.

The rise of democracy made God’s action in the world a little harder to understand.  Power wasn’t vested in a king; it was in the will of the people!  But if you consider the way that God’s authority was popularly interpreted in the public square, that brings a bit of a problem to seeing God’s work in the world:

[In democracy,] sovereignty comes from the people, not from the king; but the king’s sovereignty comes from above, from God; so democracy is already an implicit rejection of God.

Taylor, Dilemmas and Connection: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 228.

Ever wonder why so many American founding fathers were deists?  This is why!  When public life is a primarily a product of human will, rather than divine action, it’s harder to believe in a God that actively takes an interest in public affairs.  We moved from a system in which God was acting and the world was shifting according to his will to a system in which people were responsible for organizing themselves to manifest God’s ideal world.  God ceased to be the primary actor in public affairs and the role of the individual became far more prominent than ever before.

If you’re a citizen in a Western democracy, you’ve probably internalized this logic.  For example, what’s your first thought when a political candidate you despise wins the election?  Probably something like, “Dang, we needed to mobilize our voting base more effectively and appeal to a broader audience.” You probably don’t worry that this is a judgement from God for failing to live faithfully. When we have such power at our disposal, it’s hard to envision the results of an election, the outcome of a war, or the laws that we live by as a product of God’s action, rather than our own successes or failures in the public arena.

2. We’ve divided the natural world from divine purpose and action.

In previous eras, everything that happened was full of deep meaning.  Lightning struck near you?  Sign from God.  Good crops?  God is happy.  The sun rose?  God wanted the sun to rise.  The whole world was a theater for the divine, and God’s intimate work was everywhere.  Was it superstitious by our standards?  Oh, absolutely.  But every detail mattered intimately.  Today?  Well, today it’s hard to believe that anything is particularly meaningful.  The discovery and codification of natural laws have brought huge breakthroughs to the understanding of science and medicine, but (when they’re coupled with the elements of our secular philosophy) they’ve also closed off our understanding of the universe.  Whereas before the universe was open to God’s action, constantly being affected by the divine will (or the will of other, less pleasant entities), now the system is largely seen as self-governing and closed off to any outside parties.  For example:

When the fifty-five-year-old woman asks her pastor about her cancer, we’re quick to claim that its cause is impersonal. It’s just the odds, bad luck, the randomness of an impersonal order, or childhood exposure to some toxin or chemical. Yet if this is so—and it might be—then it becomes much harder for her to trust that a personal God can act to heal her. It is less frightening to assume that it is just the odds or bad luck that makes her sick—it’s nothing personal. She did nothing wrong, nor is some malevolent personal force after her. Yet, while this is less frightening, without a personal cause it is much harder to imagine (and explain) the intervention of a personal God in a presumed impersonal universe. And maybe more importantly, it becomes a challenge to provide meaning to her illness and death. She is stuck with a meaninglessness to her disease because, though deeply personal to her, her disease is only a fading echo in a dark, cold, impersonal universe where everything dies, swallowed in the tsunami of massive, impersonal time and space. If the cancer is caused by no personal force, how can a personal God affect her, other than by providing some banal comfort or cold indifference?

Root, Andrew. The Pastor in a Secular Age (Ministry in a Secular Age Book #2) (p. 56). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Where we previously saw God reaching into our world and acting, now we only see the cold logic of natural law. It’s harder to blame God, but it’s also harder to expect anything from him.

Hopefully none of this feels like a glorification of the past and an utter rejection of our present world.  Not at all!  After all, I live here and there’s some pretty cool stuff to enjoy!  It’s just a way of trying to explore why previous generations could easily see God acting in the world around them, and why we find it so hard.  Their philosophy naturally emphasized the role of the divine, whereas ours emphasizes human action and natural law to a far greater degree.  No wonder my friend’s language made me so nervous!  God is doing things?  Talking to people?  Planning stuff?  Eew.  Gross.  Please use more passive language for your God.  It sounds ridiculous when you act like he exists. 

What would it mean to imagine that God can talk over a bowl of cereal?  That he wants something and that we’re capable of hearing it?  More than that, that other people are capable of hearing God too, and he is acting in the world to make his will manifest?

The Father of Monks

The Torment of St. Anthony by Michaelangelo

Anthony of Egypt is one of the most meaningful Christian mentors I’ve ever had, and he lived over a thousand years ago as a poor, solitary monk in the Egyptian desert.  All I have from him is a biography that someone else wrote (I mean, the famous bishop Athanasius wrote it, so, to be fair, it’s pretty good), a few letters of questionable authorship (they use some pretty technical terminology for a poor, uneducated monk), and some wise quotes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a collection of wise quotes from 4th century monks in the Egyptian desert).  Even though he doesn’t have the same body of work as someone like Augustine or Calvin, Anthony is so much more than his writings.  He’s the holy man that drew a generation of Christians out to the desert.  He’s the father of monks.  He’s the originator of monastic wisdom.  He’s a legend.

I love Anthony.  And since January 17th was his official memorial/feast day/commemoration/whatever other name for celebrating a saint the different denominations can come up with, I wanted to take a minute and appreciate him.

Anthony, or Abba (father) Anthony, as the desert monks would have known him, offers a spirituality that’s untethered by the quest for hedonistic pleasure and self-fulfillment that modern spirituality is so often tied to.  He didn’t pray because he needed a divine favor or because he was hoping that he’d get some sense of euphoria from the experience.  No, this is someone who gave everything for God.  He bled for God.  He hungered for God. He had an uncomfortable, no holds barred spirituality that commanded that he give over everything and spend every second in service to properly live the Christian life.

If all of that suffering makes it sound like he had some weird system of works righteousness or was a wild masochist, I assure you that isn’t at all what he was like.  He just loved God.  He would do anything that God asked of him, regardless of the physical toll it would take. Take, for example, his reaction to the classic verse Matthew 19:21:

[Anthony] entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man Matthew 19:21, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers

(Life of St. Anthony, 2)

Who actually does that?  It takes an iron will to legitimately actually do what Jesus said to do in that instance.  We usually spiritualize it away or say that it really only applied to the specific person that Jesus was talking to in the story, but Anthony?  He just… gave away everything.  He didn’t even take a week to think about it!  He knew what God wanted, and so he did it, regardless of the cost.

That leads to an intense war with devils and demons in the early part of his biography.  The devil comes in and reminds him of his past wealth, or tries to distract him with his own lust or boredom, and Anthony responds with prayer, conquering the Devil’s temptations through the power of God.  These scenes are often wildly dramatic.  My favorite is when he travels into a tomb filled with demons to pray and demons show up and beat him all night.  The villagers find him and take him back to town and try to heal him, but when he regains his consciousness, what does he do?  Asks to be carried back to the tomb, where he screams to the horde of demons:

Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more. Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ! (Rom 8:35)

(Life of St. Anthony, 9)

and then he starts singing some of his favorite hymns until the demons show up again in the forms of animals to resume their attack.  Now, is this a literal story?  Probably not.  I don’t think that demons can just physically show up in the form of animals and start pummeling you (at least, it hasn’t happened to me just yet), and I can’t imagine a village of people finding you half dead in a demon tomb and then throwing you back in the next day, even if you begged them.  But it’s a really neat way of expressing the spiritual journey that Anthony went on to die to this world, the temptations that he wrestled with with along the way, and how his efforts to live a holy life weren’t something that gave him any degree of physical comfort.  He didn’t do it to feel good.  He did it because he loved God and wanted to be closer to him.  He emerges from the tomb with an ultradramatic ray of light from heaven coming down on him, showing that Anthony’s love and obedience have made him holy.

The biography might be ultra-cheesy, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in there.  And his wisdom sayings are even more approachable, as found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.  My personal favorite is:

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.”  The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4)

Some of the other quotes are more comforting than that one, but to me, this captures the rigorous spirituality of Anthony’s life.  You want to grow holy?  Stop talking about it and do it.  You don’t need a new book on your shelf.  You don’t need the right person to pray.  You don’t need some fancy new technique.  You need to get up, stop making excuses, and do it.  As John Chrysostom said so eloquently, “human effort is profitless without help from above; but no one receives such help unless they themselves choose to make an effort,” (Philokalia, Loc. 13,333).  Anthony’s little warning to pray for yourself is one that I come back to a lot.  When my spiritual life is bad and I’m frustrated, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in time and effort?  Or am I just expecting God to work magic on me while I go about my life as I choose to live it.  It’s a call to repent and live life intentionally, and if there’s any lesson I hear from the father of monks, it’s that the Christian life takes effort and intention.

Here’s the prayer from the Catholic breviary (Christian Prayer, 1064) for January 17th.  Whether you feel comfortable praying it or not is up to you, but I’d like to close with it either way:

Father,
You called Saint Anthony
to renounce the world
and serve you in the solitude of the desert.
By his prayers and example,
may we learn to deny ourselves
and to love you above all things.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
Amen

Christianity-and-Water with C.S. Lewis

Life hack: Taco Bell napkins make great bookmarks.

Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week.  Lewis is so easy to read.  When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much.  Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion.  When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing.  You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times!  But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good.  Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.

In any case, this quote particularly struck me: 

I will tell you another view that is also too simple.  It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption.  Both of these are boys’ philosophies.  It is no good asking for a simple religion.  After all, real things are not simple.

Mere Christianity, 40

It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today.  After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness?  It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952.  That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy.  Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out.  The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia.  It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything.  A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us!  As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).

On one hand, it was self-justifying.  I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?”  I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’  The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.”  What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting.  That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.

But don’t’ worry.  That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.

I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.).  It’s been a delightful adventure so far.  A challenging one too!  I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top.  And geeze!  It’s convicting! 

Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel.  I have to ask myself, do I do them?  Do I actually use the name Jesus?  The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it?  Not really.  I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable.  It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity.  And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church?   The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always.  Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well.  But is that what the apostles did?  Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort?  I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible.  I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.

Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world.  And not always in a way that won him admiration!  Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135).  He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey.  On one hand, he gives a word that comforts.  On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.

Church Growth with Charles Finney

Doesn’t he look fun?

Today’s entry is about a 19th century revivalist’s impact on the church.  Admittedly, the 19th century is a little recent for my tastes, but I’ve been mulling over what the Church is, what its primary tasks are, and what it’s corporate existence ought to look like, and Finney seemed like someone worth engaging with.

Finney was trained as a lawyer, and after a conversion experience, decided to become a pastor.  Legend has it that he showed up at a meeting with his legal client the next morning and told them, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 67)   He’s certainly got some good quotes!  He lived during the Second Great Awakening and worked in the “burned-over district” in New York, which was the cradle for all kinds of unorthodox and distinctly American religious traditions like Mormonism, spiritualism, and the Shaker community.  In all of this excitement, Finney rose up as an incredibly popular revivalist preacher, partially because of his emphasis on choice.  Americans were settling in to their new democracy and the power of personal choice was increasingly apparent.  Finney acknowledged that power and urged them to make the choice to accept Jesus as their savior.  Huge masses of people did just that at his urging.

One piece of his that has made its way through history are his “Lectures on the Revival of Religion.”  It’s a series to to help other preachers adopt his revival techniques.  A lot of it reads like any book on church growth today might, but what seems normal today was a landmark in it’s own time.  Books about how to preach, set up churches, and perform worship in a way that will numerically grow your church weren’t common until around this time.  This series represents a cultural watershed for the belief that pastors and churches ought to hold themselves accountable for proven practices that produce higher number of converts in their pews.

Here’s an excerpt that particularly interested me:

Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so many that cry “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” that the Church cannot maintain her ground without sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear. (Measures to Promote Revivals, 2.5)

He’s all for change! Innovate as necessary to reach more people with the Gospel. “Novelty” is your most valuable tool. So much of the modern church growth movement seems to take this kind of stance.  The form of worship isn’t relevant.  Adopt whatever form increases your numbers!  The desirable end result is that people walk away claiming to have a relationship with God, not having followed some formula of when to sit, stand, and say the right thing.  Why not have church in a pub, a coffee shop, a hiking trail, or wherever else people might show up?  But I’m more than a little skeptical of Finney and his spiritual successors.  Is this really the end game of the Church?  And where is the fine line between reaching someone through familiar means and pandering to people?

At it’s worst, the logic reminds me a little of Odysseus and the Cyclops.  You remember that story from grade school! When Odysseus and his crew were imprisoned in a cave by a Cyclops that planned on eating them, how did they escape?  By blinding the Cyclops in the night, then tying themselves under his sheep.  When the Cyclops let out his sheep to graze, he felt each sheep to make sure that no men were sneaking out.  Sly ol’ Odysseus and his men escaped because they was hiding under the fuzz of the sheep!  Are we Christians doing the same thing? Hiding Jesus under the comfortable wool of pop-culture, hoping that the general public is blind enough that they’ll let him sneak into the gates of their hearts?

When did Jesus ever try to be cool?  I suppose this is where there’s some room for interpretation.  You could argue that Jesus wasn’t trying to be “cool,” but he was never restricted to the traditional worship settings of his day.  He reached out to people in new ways.  For every Bible story set in a temple, there’s several set out in the world with random people. This approach is what the pub churches, hiking churches, and other innovators are trying to emulate.  They want to reach out in new ways, just like Jesus did.  I think they’ve got a point.  If Jesus was following the strict religious orthodoxy of his day and emphasizing it above all else, one might expect more stories set in formal settings and more detail about official religious practice in the gospels.

Even so, I find that the Scriptures have a shocking amount laid out for what worship ought to look like, and that’s not even touching on the massive amount of stuff passed down through Church history.  If we pay it any heed, it really hinders our attempts to make church cooler.  For example, I’m not really one for singing.  I don’t enjoy it all that much, I’m not very good at it, and a lot of times I think that the words are pretty lame.  There was a period in my life where my ideal church didn’t have any singing at all because the REAL point of worship (in my mind) was being taught about the faith and responding with holy lives.  Singing was just a goofy removable element. 

And I was wrong.  2 Chronicles 29 shows a temple service in which song is a distinct, ordered part of worship.  The psalms are a whole collection of worship songs, many of which repeatedly urge people to make music because God likes it.  Colossians and Ephesians both urge people in churches to sing spiritual songs and psalms.  You get the picture.  Each of these instances are not only represented in Scripture; they were taken on by the people after them

Not to suggest that Finney hadn’t read all the same stuff.  Heck, he probably knew it better than I do.  And I’m well aware that every piece of tradition starts somewhere, and not all of it sticks around forever. Thank goodness, right? We’ve all suffered through some clumsy attempt of a pastor to make a new, awesome thing that just didn’t work, and we all rejoiced quietly when it died. Not everything is timeless tradition, that’s for sure. I guess it comes down to that question I’ve been mulling over, “what is Church?”  If church is primarily about passing on and popularizing certain ideas or spiritual beliefs, there can be little doubt that Finney had it right.  Cut out the older parts that don’t work anymore and add some new pieces that produce the desired results.  I think I’m too much of a traditionalist for all that.  Church isn’t just about making a decision for Christ; it’s transforming the self in light of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.  We are the end-result of God working through centuries of people.  Worship forms us as much as we form it. How could we just ditch certain elements and feel like we’ve not lost something?

That being said, I’m well aware that Finney has a point.  Sometimes we’re so addicted to the form of a thing, that we don’t honor the spirit of it.  He’s not wrong about novelty either!  When you mix things up, people pay attention!  In a religious landscape with Christianity distinctly on the wane, something that gets new eyes sounds great! But how do we mix things up, rather than water them down?  How do we innovate traditionally? How to we reform with the spirit of Christians in every era, rather than pander to our personal preferences?

If you want to give Finney a read, head on over to his lectures on the revival of religion on ccel.org (Christian Classic Ethereal Library) where they have all kinds of good stuff.