Making history

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote an interesting article in The Christian Century about teaching Introduction to World Religions to college students.

Taylor wrote that an odd thing was happening with her students. Her Christian students were able to talk about religions other than their own. When it came to Christianity, they failed:

They never thought about what happened during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. In their minds, they fell in line behind the disciples, picking up the proclamation of the gospel where those simple fishermen left off.

It is a weak spot in church leadership as well. We often “begin at the beginning,” (as Karl Barth encourages us to do), or we strive to be like the first apostles. I often hear pleas that we should be like the 1st Century Church or people claim that they are creating church anew, reinventing it for the first time.

But is that what we ought to be doing? I mean, first of all, it’s not possible. It’s like the mainliners longing to go back to the 1950s.

Plus, there have been some good times happening as we’ve evolved these two thousand years. We’ve had some smart people, we’ve learned a lot about prayer and theology, and we’ve done some amazing social justice work.

Not only that, but we ought to acknowledge the bad stuff as well. We all know how weird people get when they cannot claim their own histories. When they are ashamed of who they once were, or they repress the parts that were too painful to face. Good therapy often works to reconcile their past with the present.

We also know what happens with churches that do not acknowledge the pain or the celebrations in their histories. They develop unhealthy scar tissue in their systems. And often they are not able to digest well, and they don’t even know why.

Our histories, good and bad, are a part of us. And I’m not sure that ignoring the last 2,000 years is a healthy trend.

What do you think?

The photo is of John Calvin’s church in Geneva. It’s by howieluvsus.

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13 thoughts on “Making history

  1. Amen to that. As someone who writes and teaches about Reformation history for a living, I continually encounter both of the attitudes you describe: those who fervently desire to return to some imagined golden age in church history, be it the first or sixteenth century, and those who have convinced themselves they’re advocating something entirely new, blithely ignoring 2000 years’ worth of precedents in Christian history. Both of these are grounded in ignorance, which Reformed Christianity has traditionally sought to combat (Calvin was trained as a scholar, after all).

    If you suggest to some folks that orthodoxy (and its evil twin, heresy) are constructs that have evolved over time, they feel very threatened. And if you point out to other folks that their ostensibly new ideas and experiments have been tried before, they dismiss you as hidebound.

    And don’t even get me started on the overuse and abuse of facile historical analogies. If I read one more time about a particular group within the church is just like the Nazis….

  2. Carol, perhaps one of the problems with the PCUSA is not that we are longing to go back to the 1950’s, but that many of our churches, especially smaller membership churches, continue to live, at least as a congregation, as if it is the 1950’s!

    Christine, thank you for your last paragraph. My sentiments, too!

  3. I’m a big history geek. Also I love having a sociological context, especially when it comes to the Gospels, and there is too much to be ignored. I think we need to pay attention to (among other things) how the European Entry into North America was driven by visions of purity and millennialism and how those visions are still at play in our culture today. What does it mean to be the city shining on the hill?

    The absence of historical understanding of our own culture leads to our devaluing other cultures which contain pieces of our own missing history – and leads to little things like not preventing the looting of museums in Iraq immediately post-invasion.

    I think the reformation’s emphasis on reading the Bible for ourselves does leave the reader open to absorbing harmful interpretations that derive from not understanding the cultural setting at the time of writing. We’ve been working on that issue around the role of Women in families, society, and the church for centuries and still Paul’s words will remain to be flung into our faces as a slap down w/o the deeper context of 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Just one example. So many more.

    One more thing – I think there has always been a bit of amnesia when it comes to church history. Much of European Classical art places biblical stories and people within a then contemporary context of location and dress. The cultural understandings of 1st Century Palestine didn’t move forward because, well, (among other things like invasions by various goths) who knew what us 21st century folks were/are (verb tense problem here) going to get obsessed over? I mean various transcribers were merrily making “corrections” to their texts for goodness sake – just as one example of the challenge.

    Yet the Gospel message of love and liberation keeps coming back no matter how many times various cultural impulses have tried to drown it in the bathtub. This remains one of the Signs of God’s ongoing transforming movement toward wholeness for this creation and thus one of the sources of hope and faith for me. It appears that we can tie up the Gospel with all kinds of ropes and stones and weights an toss it over the side of a boat into the middle of the ocean and still it will pop up to the surface and refuse to be lost.

  4. Such a good question and such thoughtful responses!
    When I visited Israel, one of the things I kept smacking up against was the crusades. They left those carved crosses everywhere! And yet we have failed to learn the lessons of that time period. Do any of you smart people have any particularly good books to share on this subject of church history in general, crusades in particular?

  5. I think the biggest problem we have is that our churches in the reformed tradition don’t do a good job of teaching church history to our parrishoners. We don’t give them the big picture view of the Church and how it has carried on the Gospel throughout the centuries. We try so hard to preach and teach scripture by connecting it to where people are right here and now. That’s how we end up with the people who think they can jump from the 12 disciples to now.

    I am currently an associate pastor, but looking for a pastorate (I’m Cooperative Baptist). I have all kinds of ideas about the ways I want to structure my preaching and bible studies to include church history. We really need to work harder to include the the stories of the church from the 100s until now. It’s an overwhelming task! So many things are distracting us from just getting people to the basics of the Bible.

    To Ruth: Karen Armstrong has written several excellent books about the evolution of the understanding of God in the Big Three religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I recommend “A History of God,” “The Battle for God,” and “Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World.” I have all three on my bookshelf. I readily admit that I have not finished them – they are meaty! I have used them as regular references though.

  6. Ruth: I forgot to list this in the last post. Hands down, the best reference for general church history is “The Story of Christianity” by Justo Gonzalez. It’s two volumes and pretty easy to read to boot.

  7. In terms of looking at how Christian theologies have shaped the American self-view: Mission and Menace: Four Centuries of American Religious Zeal by Robert Jewett.

  8. Thanks for the titles! The only one I’ve read is Gonzales (which I referred to just yesterday when discussing Origen with my father, of all things!) so I now have a list.

  9. Anitra said, “I think we need to pay attention to (among other things) how the European Entry into North America was driven by visions of purity and millennialism and how those visions are still at play in our culture today. What does it mean to be the city shining on the hill?”

    One of the most illuminating things that I ever saw was an exhibit at the NY Public Library on Utopias. Here’s the book on it. It was fascinating. It made me understand our country in an entirely new way.

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