Context is Everything: The Early Church in the 21st Century

      Ever since the time the “Early Church” was no longer the early church, people have sought to return to the practice of the early church.  Confused yet?  No wonder.  People have spent nearly two millenia trying to identify what the early church thought and how it practiced.  Even more fundamentally, people have wrestled with the question of what exactly the “early church” was and whether it is even useful to speak of the early church as a single body.  While this last question is well beyond our purview here, all of these questions point to a larger question: why do we care?  Even within the greater Protestant tradition, there have been movements to return to the ancient Christian church and its practices for centuries.  What drives these movements?  Is it an idealized nostalgia for times gone by, an appeal to times before formal theology grew out of “authentic” (a word so ubiquitous in modern Christian circles that it has lost all of its rhetorical force) Christian worship?  Is it a belief that because the early church worshiped and lived closer to the time of Jesus it must have embodied more proper orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) than we can centuries later?  Is it merely antiquarian curiosity run amok?
      My friend, Trent, asked me some months ago to do a piece for his blog on the views of the early church on violence and warfare, a particular interest of mine.  After several false starts, it occurred to me that I had to deal with the “so what” question first.  Again, why do we care?  I’m not really here to answer that question but only to identify it so that you, the reader, can decide why you really care.  Assuming we can reasonably discern what the early church both thought and did, do we take its experience as the gospel (no pun intended) and graft it whole cloth into our own experience?  If not, how do we distinguish the wheat from the chaff, deciding what to appropriate from the early church and what to discard as belonging to another time and place?  In an important book on early Christians and military service, the authors caution that it is a “false methodological assumption that the teaching and practice of the Bible and early church, without analysis of sociological and historical context, and without the application of a balanced hermeneutic is literally normative for contemporary teaching and practice.”  In other words, context is everything–always–no less in looking to the ancient church for modern-day guidance.  And even once we consider context, we evangelicals, biblicists that we are, must measure what the early church did and thought against the witness of scripture (and just how we decide do that is yet another gargantuan task).  Appropriation across millenia is not, therefore, as simple a process as we’d sometimes like to think.  These are just some thoughts to keep in mind as we delve into what the early church thought about certain things.
      By way of disclaimer, I am something of an armchair historian.  I hold a masters degree in church history with a concentration in early Christianity  What that means is that I know just enough to be dangerous and am frequently humbled by those, regardless of education or degree, who know much more than I.  That said, my studies tend to focus primarily in the fourth century and shifts in both the rhetoric of Christian self-identification and in the relationships between the church and the state.  In other words, how did Christians talk about themselves and how was that influenced by changing social and geopolitical realities in the fourth century?  Next time, we’ll get into what the early church or, more specifically, the church until AD 306, thought about violence and warfare.  Bonus points if you can tell me why AD 306 is significant.  Until then, grace and peace.

Dropbox: Strengthening Relationships Since 2008

Ever so often, I’ll hear a news story about how increasingly mobile our society is becoming, how children grow up and leave the cities of their youth, how, under pressures of scarce employment and growing obligations,
otherwise intact families live with one parent or spouse away.  This summer, we became one of those families,
however temporarily.  My children and I live in North Carolina while my wife remains in Illinois, working out an employment obligation.  My wife will join us, God willing, in September, so we already see a light at the end of the tunnel.  Nevertheless, this experience (and one other, similar, occurrence several years ago) has given us at least some insight into what it means for loving, intact families to live apart.  It is hard. Frankly, it sucks.

I am an admitted “gadget guy.”  I love the newest, best technologies, not necessarily for their usefulness, but rather for their cool factor.  Of course, I’m also broke, so for now I can only read about the newest gadgets and tools on the market.  Despite my gadget obsession, however, I’ve never particularly held them in high regard.
Like many people my age and older, I long for a simpler time when our attentions weren’t divided between the laptop, the iPad, the Blackberry (or Android or iPhone), Twitter and Facebook. I’ve never seen technology as a savior.  I still don’t, but I think my critical attitude is beginning to soften.

During the time we’ve been apart, my wife and I have used a variety of technologies to keep in touch.
Our favorite is an unnamed video chatting app developed by a rather fruity company.  There is something that
is both exceedingly cool and comforting about seeing the person to whom you are talking on the small screen of your cell phone (“cell” phone? Do those still exist?).  Of course, use of such a tool is intentional and planned.  We use it for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.  Despite having such devices at our disposal, what I really enjoy are those unexpected moments of connectedness with my wife, those times when I feel just a bit closer to her without even trying.

It was a relatively low-tech program running in the background on my desktop computer that gave me just such an experience yesterday.  I was sitting at my desk when a small pop-up appeared in the lower right hand corner of my computer’s desktop.  The text read something like this, “Amy Resume SRMC PICU.docx added to Dropbox.”  For those of you who don’t know, Dropbox is an application that automatically syncs documents among multiple devices.  You can create or edit a document on one device, save it to a Dropbox folder on that device and it will automatically save the new or edited document on all other devices on the same account.  Pretty cool (note to Dropbox developers: shoot me an email and I’ll tell you where to send the check for the
endorsement).  Whenever we know what a loved one who happens to be far away is doing at a specific time, we somehow feel a little closer to him or her, as if distance were no barrier to participation in that person’s life.  I
saw that small balloon pop up and for just a moment I felt just a little closer to my wife.  I knew that at that moment, she was editing her resume and that something she had just touched (so to speak) had made the 700 mile trip to nest on my computer.  I knew what she was doing and I had a little memento of her day.

OK, OK, I know this is teetering on the nauseating and overtly geeky.  To that I can only say, oh well.  Whenever my family is together again maybe I can write something that isn’t a jumbled mix of sentimentality and nerdy fascination.  For now, we are counting the days until my wife is reunited with us.  Until then, we will hold on to and appreciate those little moments that close the 700 mile gap between us.  Thank you, Dropbox, for making me feel closer to my wife.

Heirs of the Early Church

OK, so I’m doing something out of character for me.  I’m posting a first draft.  Actually, I need help.  I’m writing a paper that explores the changes in the early church brought about by the conversion of Constantine and his ascendancy to the throne of the Roman Empire.  The basic storyline is that the pre-Constantinian church was less materially motivated, more independent, and less violent than the post-Constantinian church.  Yeah, I know. DUH!  The paper goes into more detail arguing that a politicized Christianity looks very different from the early church.  I use that idea to spring onto something of a soapbox in my conclusion.  It’s not very academic sounding, so I may not keep the conclusion as written.  Nevertheless, I need all my editors to read it and give me some feedback.  Please.  Oh, and be critical, but kind.  It’s only a first draft.  THANKS!

Nearly 2000 years have passed since the church entered the world of secular politics.  During that time it has vacillated from complete withdrawal from secular affairs to outright theocracy and made stops at every point in between.  In the modern United States, the church lives a confused existence.  On the one hand, it preaches being “in” but not “of” the world, yet it flies its national banner beside the pulpit as if to equate its faith with its political allegiances.  It preaches peace on Earth every December yet sees providential endorsement of every military operation undertaken by its nation.  It embraces its earliest roots in defending the lives of the unborn against the spectre of abortion yet can abide seeing “a man put to death, even justly” when the outrage of the citizenry demands it.  It confesses “one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible” yet fractures over issues of money, power, prestige, and politics.

           It is a unique occurrence when something happens for the first time.  “Firsts” always shape history.  Yuri Gagarin showed the world that existence is not necessarily tied to this celestial ball – that there is indeed a great big universe out there.  The Enola Gay’s payload showed the world that we hold the power of self-annihilation.  Some firsts are good.  Others are not.  The church during the reign of Constantine was a first.  It was the first instance in which affairs of the Christian faith and of the secular state became mutually and voluntarily intertwined.  Was this first experience a good one or a bad one?  If we believe that we in the United States are somehow heirs of the fourth century church, the answer could go either way.  Certainly, much of our accepted doctrine owes its acceptance to the work of those resilient, pious, and faithful fathers of the early church whose work would likely not have been possible without the patronage of the state.  Looking at what the Roman empire became and what the church has today become, though, one wonders if we have not lost something in the trade.

The Sometimes Silent World of Autism

Many of you know that I have a son.  Perhaps fewer of you, including some who may have met him, know that he is autistic.  To be sure, he is definitely on the milder side of the autism spectrum and has made tremendous progress due to very early intervention and the help of numerous family, friends, teachers and therapists.  He’s actually quite interactive, will make eye contact, and on occasion will talk you into a coma — not exactly either of the Hollywood autism stereotypes; he’s neither a “Rain Man” savant nor a completely withdrawn, non-reponsive shell.

That’s the problem with stereotypes.  They are, in truth, bad caricatures.  Good caricatures reflect some kernel of the person they intent to portray.  Bad caricatures seek solely to elicit the audience response intended by the artist at the expense of the model.  It’s not my intent here to offer anyone an extensive education on autism.  I thought it would be nice, though, to let you meet one autistic young woman.  Her name is Sarah Stup.  She is unable to speak, but she definitely has something to say.  It would be wrong to say that hers is a “representative” story because, like all of us “typical” people, each person with autism is unique.  I don’t want to say more.  I haven’t walked the road that earns me that right.  Watch the following video.  I suggest you watch it when everything around you is quiet.

One Evangelical’s Response to Pat Robertson’s Remarks on Haiti

Jeff Foxworthy said that “Southerners are among the smartest people on Earth.  Our problem is that we just can’t keep the most ignorant amongst us off the television.”  We Christians have the same problem.  There are a lot of thoughtful intelligent Christians.  We just can’t keep the most ignorant amongst us off the television.  Here’s an example.

An absolutely horrible earthquake rocked Haiti today.  Preliminary reports indicate that the death toll may be in the hundreds of thousands.  For those who don’t know, a well-known, though embarassing, voice of evangelical Christianity chimed in on the disaster.  Pat Roberston explained, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.  They were under the heel of the French … and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’  True story. And so the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal…’  Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another…”  The legend of which Robertson speaks dates back to the 18th century and is of very dubious origin.  Even assuming its truth, however, what view of God countenances his raining disaster on hundreds of thousands of people who not only are not parties to such a “pact” but who are even unaware of such a legend?  I am offended that Robertson who, in theory, flies the same religious banner I do would hide his apparent personal disdain for those not like him behind the faith that I so cherish.  It’s ignorant, it’s offensive and it’s an affront to everything that Christ came to do.

Earlier in the day, I read a thread in which someone compared Robertson with Fred Phelps (the pastor behind godhatesfags.com).  I responded that, in some way, Robertson is worse.  Phelps simply spouts personal vitriol and bad theology to a limited audience whose size is determined by how slow a news day happens to be.  Robertson spouts ignorance in many disciplines — history, theology, sociology, etc. — and is much better funded.  What a dangerous combination.

I struggled over whether to write this post.  I don’t like making personal attacks on anyone — at least anyone who is identifiable.  But what should a thoughtful Christian do?  We cannot let something like this simply pass in silence.  It’s an offense to the Gospel and yet another pretty good reason for the world, who judges Christianity by the conduct of Christians, not to take Christ’s message seriously. 

I’m at a loss for further words…

Praying for Haiti,

Mark

Things (and People) That Tick Me Off

Have you ever had an inexplicably bad day?  I’m talking about a day when nothing goes particularly wrong, but when you are simply inundated with things and people that rub you the wrong way.  I had one of those days recently.  You see, like most people, I have pet peeves.  Unlike most people, I have A LOT of pet peeves.  Thank goodness they don’t eat a lot.  Besides, I’m not sure where to buy peeve food.  But then there are the shots, the worms, the fleas, the vet visits… Arrggh!  Sorry.  Small digression…

Anyway, in my immense frustration I have decided to share with you, my friends, a list of the top five things (and people) that tick me off so that you will know how to avoid annoying me.  Yeah, I know this is a little self-indulgent but it is cathartic for me.  Read it.  Consider it.  Comment and let me know if you share my aversion to any of these little vexations of life. Continue reading “Things (and People) That Tick Me Off”

Five Books That Have Rocked My World (Or At Least My Boat)

I love to read, but it hasn’t always been like that.  Growing up, I preferred to spend my time outside with some kind of ball, throwing, kicking, hitting, or shooting it.  It has only been in the last five or so years that reading has become a near obsession.  Now, I won’t go so far as to say that books have changed my life (well, maybe some have) but they definitely have prompted me to think in new and interesting ways.  Believing, of course, that everyone should enjoy reading as much as I do, I wanted to share with you five books that have rocked my world or, as the title of this post says, at least rocked my boat (by the way, I completely ripped off the title of this post from an article my pastor once wrote — sorry, Aaron).  These aren’t necessarily my five favorite or even most influential books, but each has played a significant role in my life.  So, in no particular order… Continue reading “Five Books That Have Rocked My World (Or At Least My Boat)”