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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Christian World : A Global History by Martin Marty

I was pretty excited to see this book come out. It's hardly a newsflash that Martin Marty, an institution at University of Chicago and longtime author of books about religion in American life and Church history, would write a global history of the Christian faith. But typically books on this topic are quite long and very dense and if anyone can pull this topic off with brevity it is Dr. Marty. And so in 200 pages he takes us from the Jewish origins of Christianity in Israel to its present day explosion in China and Africa. What I appreciate about Marty's book and others of its ken is that Church history has for too long only been covered only from the Western perspective. In other words, it is as if Christ sent his apostles out after His ascension and the only place Christianity took root was Europe and North America and the only real highlight was the Protestant Reformation with all previous Catholic expressions of faith portrayed as spiritual darkness. The fact is that Christianity is an Asian religion (Israel representing the far west of the East) that has had deep roots in Africa, India, Persia, and China long before Martin Luther, the Puritans, and modern-day revivalism. Marty doesn't deconstruct or denigrate the Western story of Christianity either. But rather he gives it a broader context and shows its interactions with Christians and peoples of other faiths around the world. This books is a great primer to a huge and largely neglected topic.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Charlemagne by Derek Wilson

I have a theory that a large part of book-reading depends on the nexus of your mood and interest level. A book may be incredibly interesting in its content but your mental state of mind may be in a place where you just can't engage. Wilson's Charlemagne was like that for me. I started it last fall and was bored to tears before I was done with the introduction. Last week I thought I would give it another try and I simply couldn't put it down. Both mood and book seriously connected. So what was interesting about the book? Most people with a cursory knowledge of Western Civilization know that Charles the Great or Charlemagne is a pivotal figure ruling and bringing together the Germanic and Frankish tribes into a single kingdom and uniting that kingdom with the papacy which in turn would give Europe a Christian identity known as Christendom. Wilson does nothing to deconstruct this idea but demonstrates quite well that much of the Christianizing impetus of the Frankish kingdom originated in Aachen rather than Rome. Charlemagne took his role as the "Holy Roman Emperor" very seriously and was not only a ruler very much engaged in personal piety but also in the expansion and standardization of the Church. Wilson also shows in the book that the greater spiritual influences in Charlemagne's life came from Celtic monks dedicated to missionizing the continent rather than the papacy. These were men of scholarship, purity, and passion for God and these had Charlemagne's attention, respect, and patronage. The Carolingian renaissance is also reviewed (as it rightly should be) and it is interesting to see how different its results were from the Florentine version. The same texts of the ancient world were studied and copied but they were used to support a Christian civilization and apologetic rather than a return to a golden age of Romantic paganism. Perhaps this is part explained by the Fall of Rome being a more recent event and also that, unlike the Florentines, the Greco-Roman cultural patrimony was not their own. Of equal interest is how Charlemagne became greater in legend than he was in life. Virtually all of the subsequent French emperors, Napoleon, and even Hitler all tapped into the Charlemagne story in some way to connect with his greatness in the European memory. The book is a great read and makes you realize Charlemagne is a far greater star in the firmament of Western history.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate by Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson

In recent years there has been a spate of books which would lead some to believe that the Catholic-Protestant divide is almost negligible. Indeed, books like Mark A. Noll's Is the Reformation Over? and the Evangelicals and Catholics Together series rightly portray that relations have very much improved and that on some essential doctrines of the Christian faith there are points of agreement that are worth celebrating. But that said, while Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate is certainly civil in tone and respectfully argued by both sides, it serves to highlight a huge difference that remains namely the place of Mary the mother of Jesus Christ in the Christian faith. Dwight Longenecker is a former fundamentalist evangelical who over a period of years eventually converted to the Roman Catholic Church. He does a good job of explaining Catholic dogmas concerning Mary in terms we would understand but basically confirms to the evangelical reader that Marian devotion is thinly scriptural and largely traditional. David Gustafson is also a former fundamentalist who finds himself today in a conservative liturgical Episcopal Church. He does a good job of rattling the doors on arguments about Mary's perpetual virginity, Marian apparitions, veneration, and her role as co-redemptrix. He asks some good questions and at times is ready to concede that on some points evangelicals have reacted against Mary largely because of the Protestant-Catholic divide but not because of any scriptural warrant. Ultimately, like so many other Christian polemics between the branches of the faith, it comes down to how much weight you give the authority of scripture and the historic traditions of the faith. Neither Evangelicals or Catholics are disconnected from the Holy Scripture or Tradition but it is clear in this book that when it comes to Marian theology, the weights are far from evenly distributed. While I certainly love the mother of my Lord and Christ, and I consider Catholics fellow Christians, I must confess my concern that some Marian doctrines seem more based on fancy than God's revelation.

The Quest for the True Cross by Carsten Thiede and Matthew d'Ancona

Like their previous book The Jesus Papyrus, The Quest for the True Cross is a well reasoned investigation of the relics of the crucifixion ensconced in the chapel of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme Church of Rome. Having personally visited this Church and looked at the collection of relics there, the only one that seems very compelling is the Titulus Crucis which is the placard one sees depicted in scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus that typically reads “INRI”. The other relics such as the two thorns from the crown of thorns, the nail, the cross of the good thief, and two pieces from the cross of Christ could be the genuine articles, but they could also be pieces of someone else’s cross or simply pious frauds for the purpose of catechizing the faithful. In the book, Thiede recreates the story of Saint Helena and the plausibility of her actually finding the relics of the crucifixion in Jerusalem. He points out that historically, it is known that the Emperor Hadrian had a pagan temple built on Golgotha at the end of the 2nd Jewish War as a means of defiling this Christian site and preventing Christians from going there to worship. The unintended result was that the sight caused pain to the Christian community there, but on the other hand it marked its exact location. Led by a vision and the Christian community, Helena had the temple torn down and beneath the rubble it was built on were found three crosses and the Titulus Crucis. This placard came to Rome with Helena who made her home there in the Sessorian Palace which later became the Church of San Croce. When the Church was being restored in 1492, some newly removed stucco revealed a brick marked Titulus Crucis. Behind the brick was a lead box containing this relic and others related to the crucifixion. For the next 500 years these relics are displayed in Rome in the Church. In 1998 a study was done on the plaque that revealed that its makeup, style, paint fragments, and visible words make it very consistent with 1st Century Roman practices of crucifixion. Also the words appear in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic which is also consistent with the Gospels. Is this an actual relic from Jesus’ crucifixion so long ago? Of course there is no way to know with absolute certainty, but Thiede and d’Ancona present a plausible and reasonable case that shouldn’t be immediately dismissed.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

On St. Sebastian

Saint Sebastian (martyred c. 288 ad) is the patron saint of archers and protector against plagues which seems a bit absurd to me as archery was the method of the first attempt on his life. Failing to die being shot full of arrows, Diocletian ordered him to be clubbed to death. By that same logic, Sebastian should also be the patron saint of people who join clubs, go “clubbing”, or hunt baby white seals in the arctic! Actually St. Sebastian has a long history of being a beloved martyr of the Christian Church because of what he did with his life more than for his heroic death. Sebastian became a Christian in Rome during a terrible time of persecution. Rather than keep a low profile he did what some would call ‘hiding out in the open’ and joined the Praetorian guard. A skilled soldier, Sebastian was well-liked by his fellow soldiers and even the emperor. By being on the inside, Sebastian frequently dealt with Christians who were taken into custody and would encourage them to remain steadfast. In other situations he was able to relieve their suffering and give them humane treatment without drawing undue attention to himself. Eventually Sebastian was found out and was subjected to death by being shot through with arrows. When some of his fellow Christians came to bury him, they found him clinging to life and took him home and nursed him to health. Now out in the open with his faith and strong enough to walk around, Sebastian paid a surprise visit to Diocletian and denounced his cruel treatment and persecution of the Church. This criticism was met with a couple of Roman soldiers who were ordered to bludgeon him to death outside of Rome on the Appian Way. Of course Sebastian’s bravery in standing up for his fellow Christians is an example we all need in this era where the politically correct thing to do is marginalize people of faith or ignore those persecuted (as in Sudan, Iraq, Iran, and China). But I believe the greater example from Sebastian is that he made it his mission in life to encourage and strengthen those who were in a fiery trial of their faith. Never underestimate the power of encouragement. Sebastian lived out Hebrews 10:24-25 which enjoins Christians to consider how they may stimulate one another to love and good deeds and encourage each other as the day of the Lord draws near. May we all have a heart like St. Sebastian!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Bunch More Nukes!

I just finished William Tucker's article The Case for Terrestrial (a.k.a. Nuclear) Energy in the Hillsdale College newsletter Imprimus. Tucker makes a great case that if we as a nation are really serious about our environment, greenhouse gases, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil (which at this time is presently decimating the American economy), then its time to rethink nuclear power. According to Tucker we have largely been sold a bill of goods about nuclear energy that is mostly emotional and barely factual. What happened at Three Mile Island was inconsequential but unfortunately it happened at the same time that the movie The China Syndrome was released and Hollywood obscured reality in the end. Nuclear power is safe, requires little land and resources, is insanely efficient, and almost obscenely profitable as a source of power generation. Currently much of America's electricity is generated by the burning of coal which is very cheap and plentiful but has tons of emissions which foul our air and warm our planet. The point Tucker makes that really resonates with me is that cheap, plentiful, and cleaner electricity can be the basis for a large and widespread switch to the electric car or electric hybrid. Because nuclear energy is something we don't need to import, over time and with national resolve, we could safely and peacefully end our need for foreign oil. I've lived long enough to know that nothing ever changes unless it absolutely needs to, but if gasoline prices at stratospheric levels and no end in sight and a billion dollar a day war to fight terrorists largely funded by oil wealth doesn't put us in the "need-to-change" position, nothing ever will. Perhaps its time for our politicians to stop talking about a national health care plan and start working on a national nuclear energy plan.