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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

There was once a time when the ministers of the church were free to be almost anything they liked as long as they took a reasonable stab at preaching the Word of God and administering the Sacraments. Bishops dabbled in politics, priests wrote endless volumes of theology, and English country parsons sought renown for compiling concordances or growing the largest vegetable marrows in the county. But with the advent of the business-corporation model of the church, such liberty became a thing of the past. Thenceforth they would be employees whose roles were defined not by God or their own human interests but by the passing whims of the corporation. Parish administration became a required subject in the seminaries, right up there with all its adjunct activities—like counseling (in spite of the fact that a great many ministers, like a great many non-ministers, can’t counsel their way out of a broom closet); money-raising (though the reason given for raising the money is usually the support of the corporate budget, not the liberation of the faithful from the religion of money); and a host of other fringe competencies such as running computers, fax machines, copiers, youth programs, board meetings, Sunday schools, and parish fairs.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart

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But as the “product-to-consumer” model of the secular corporations became normative, the now corporate church followed suit—with a wrenching twist: It went from selling salvation to the heathen to selling religion to its own clientele. That this was a step onto a slippery slope should be obvious. Given the time it would take for the mid-twentieth century to arrive, “the church” (the markeetor) would be redefined as “the clergy,” and “the consumers” (the marketees) would go from being the “lost” out there to the “found” in the pews. The church, having once been an obligational society (however imperfectly defined), would now degenerate into a consumer-driven marketing operation dedicated to the servicing of existing accounts.

This downhill slide had relatively little effect on the national denominational churches because they were already so committed to the corporation model that they were far down the slope of corporate futility. But what it did to the local units of those churches was devastating. Under the medieval version of the Christendom model, a parish church in a given place was simply the church of all the citizens in that place, just as the church at large was the church of all the citizens of Europe. And it was “catholic,” at least in one sense, because everybody available (provided you didn’t count too carefully) was in it. If the local churches of the Middle Ages fell somewhat short of the best definition of catholicity, they were still such random grab-bags of high and low, rich and poor, wise and foolish that they looked like a fair approximation of universality. And for a while, the state churches of the Reformation managed to keep up that same, everybody-belongs appearance. But as the splintering of the church progressed—and, in particular, as it progressed to the New World—the pretense of catholicity became harder and harder to maintain. The churches were by then competing versions of the Christian religion: a given town could have several such churches; a given city, dozens.

However, as the nineteenth century wore on into the twentieth (and the corporate model became increasingly consumer-driven), the local churches became little more than franchises of brand-name businesses vying for market share. Membership statistics and financial viability were made the measure of every unit’s success or failure. And when you add to that the tendency of American demographics to change more and more with each passing year, you get the whole passel of undesirable results in which we now find ourselves. For one thing, denominational “brand loyalty” has given way to church-shopping. Born-and-bred Methodists who move to Phoenix, for example, may try a Methodist church there; but if they take exception to the cut of the minister’s jib, or the quality of the choir, or the dowdiness of their child’s Sunday School teacher, they may hie themselves to the Episcopal church—until, of course, they move to Tulsa, where the search for the right religious shop begins all over again.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Astonished Heart

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Jemar Tisby in an interview about his new book The Color of Compromise:

Christianity has the doctrine called original sin. We recognize that every part of ourselves and anything we touch as human beings is subject to corruption of sin. Christians, of all people, should be able to look in the mirror and say, “I’m guilty. I have been part of systems that have oppressed and marginalized other people.” That’s the thrust of the book. I think one of the big criticisms people will eventually come out with is that the book is not balanced. That’s for two reasons. First, the history itself is not balanced. The story of race in the church involves recognizing that there were people who were actively racist or complicit with racism. That group outnumbered the people who actively fought against racism. The analogy I use is of a football game. The referee isn’t fair if he or she calls an equal amount of penalties on both teams. The referee is responsible for calling the penalties against the team that deserved them, even if one team has many more penalties than another.

The other reason why the book may seem imbalanced is because we’ve told and celebrated the story of Christians fighting racism. We’ve done this to a detrimental degree because we take the exception—the minority of racism-conscious people—and we claim them as our own without recognizing the church’s broad complicity in racism. I wanted to make sure that we took a long, hard look at the way a majority of the American church for the majority of American history has helped to propagate and perpetuate a racial caste system.

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Technical failures contribute to postmodern unmasking. Early in the nineteenth century, Germany undertook one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects ever attempted in central Europe—the “rectification” of the Rhine River in an effort to prevent flooding along the Rhine Valley and “to create a faster, deeper, shorter river whose formerly marshy plain could be turned over to agriculture.” This was only one of many water management projects that played a role in the creation of modern Germany—draining the floodplains of the Oder River, redirecting the Upper Rhine, monumental dam projects. It is an archetypal modern plan involving the management of the one of the most unmanageable of natural substances, water. It was a massive project to shepherd the wind and sculpt the mist. Despite many successes, floods continue to occur, though recent floods along the Oder have devastated portions of Poland and the Czech Republic rather than Germany—perhaps that was the plan all along.

The German water management project stands as a parable of modernity, and of postmodern disillusionment with modernity’s efforts to control the world. Moderns tried to instill shock and awe through smoke, pumping pistons, a loud voice; postmoderns pull back the curtain to find a little old man running the show, and not all that effectively. Postmodernism arises in part from the recognition that technology has never achieved the control it promised and claimed, that science—marked as it is by debate, uncertainty, contested evidence—has never been as unified and stable as the textbooks make it appear.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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A meta-subject

I regard history as the single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future. I call it an idea rather than a subject because every subject has a history, and its history is an integral part of the subject. History, we might say, is a meta-subject. No one can claim adequate knowledge of a subject unless one knows how such knowledge came to be. I would, of course, favor “history” courses (let us say, in American history), although I have always thought such courses ought to be called “histories” so that our youth would understand that what once happened has been seen from different points of view, by different people, each with a different story to tell.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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The authors of the New Testament texts, most evangelicals believe, laid down all that Christians needed to know as a theological starting point and sent subsequent generations of believers forward with that knowledge and direction. They also modeled the substantial beginnings of believers working out what the gospel means in a particular sociohistorical context. All of that is absolutely crucial. But it is not the same as their having understood and worked out all the long-term implications of the gospel for theological knowledge, human life, and society. That they began. But their work was continued and developed in new ways by generations of Christians after the New Testament era, up until today.

What do I mean by this? For one thing, the authors of the New Testament did not fully work out precisely articulated doctrines of God and Christ. In fact, it took more than three hundred and fifty years after the death of the apostles to work out orthodox, catholic, christological, and trinitarian doctrines, which most evangelicals still affirm as theologically nonnegotiable today. That was done primarily at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (AD 325), Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431), and Chalcedon (AD 451)—and, of course, in the theological wrangling that happened between those councils. The truths of the orthodox and catholic doctrines expressed in the decrees and creeds that resulted from those councils were located in the writings of the Bible. Scripture was a primary reference of the bishops and theologians who conducted the councils.

But—in the context of threatening misunderstandings and heresies in the early church—those biblical truths needed to be drawn out and very carefully formulated in doctrinal statements. What was embryonic in scripture needed to develop and grow into a more mature theological expression of what was there all along.

Take another example of the historical unfolding of the full meaning of the gospel for social relations: the authors of the New Testament did not understand and work out the clear moral implications of the gospel for the moral issue of slavery. They were, like all humans, limited in time, place, and range of vision. So for them, slavery was an unalterable fact of life and the gospel meant primarily that slaves should submit to their masters and masters should treat their slaves well (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:20–22; Eph. 6:5–9; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; Titus 2:9–10; 1 Pet. 2:18–19). At the same time, even during the apostolic era the gospel began to plant seeds of eventual emancipation, in the form of the then-radical idea that slaves and masters were equals and brothers in Christ (e.g., 1 Cor. 12:12–13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Philem. 1:15–17), and indirectly through the theological equation of slavery with sin (e.g., John 8:34; Rom. 6:6; 7:14; 8:15; Gal. 4:3; 5:1).

But for those seeds to germinate and grow—that is, for believers to realize that the gospel, when elaborated, actually means the end of slavery—took a long time and a lot of struggle.

— Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible

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In the following months my father discovered that his reputation had been made by this therapeutic triumph. The word was out, all over town, that that new doctor, Thomas, had gifts beyond his own knowledge—this last because of my father’s outraged protests that his Blaud’s pills could have had nothing whatever to do with recovery from bloody urine. The man had probably passed a silent kidney stone and that was all there was to it, said my father. But he had already gained the reputation of a healer, and it grew through all the years of his practice, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Even now, twenty—five years after his death, I meet people from time to time who lived once in Flushing, or whose parents lived there, and I hear the same anecdotes about his abilities: children with meningitis or rheumatic fever whose lives had been saved by him, patients with pneumonia who had recovered under his care, even people with incurable endocarditis, overwhelming typhoid fever, peritonitis, what-all.

But the same stories are told about any good, hardworking general practitioner of that day. Patients do get better, some of them anyway, from even the worst diseases; there are very few illnesses, like rabies, that kill all comers. Most of them tend to kill some patients and spare others, and if you are one of the lucky ones and have also had at hand a steady, knowledgeable doctor, you become convinced that the doctor saved you. My father’s early instructions to me, sitting in the front of his car on his rounds, were that I should be careful not to believe this of myself if I became a doctor.

— Lewis Thomas, The Youngest Science

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