Happy Columbus Day?

The wonderful thing about studying historical theology is that we can sometimes lose ourselves in the past and forget about the constant stream of superficial tripe that dominates the media. But, we often find the past impinges on the present in countless ways. Today marks “Columbus Day,” and I have no desire to delve into the political furor that surrounds it. I’d rather just quote a contemporary source. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) labored as a pastor in Strasbourg, trying to “reform,” or re-shape, the church according to his understanding of what the Bible taught.

Bucer

Bucer, like most of the other Protestant reformers, had a deep appreciation for church history and the church fathers, and so he also found inspiration for his activism through his encounter with the past. Bucer also labored strenuously to bring factions within the Christian world together. He wrote Concerning the True Care of Souls (Von der waren Seelsorge) in 1538, to encourage the city authorities in Strasbourg to take seriously their role in promoting moral purity and holiness in their churches, and in their city.

Part of Bucer’s agenda, of course, was to demonstrate the short-comings of the Roman church, which had previously held sway in Strasbourg and throughout medieval Europe. Seeing God at work in historical events was part of the sixteenth-century mindset, on all sides. Harsh criticism across religious lines was also the norm (the relative constancy of human nature is another fact we learn from the study of history!). So, Bucer routinely condemns the Roman church for their lack of true spiritual concern and for their preoccupation with worldly wealth and political power. We do not have to completely agree with Bucer’s diagnosis in order to appreciate his point of view. On this “Columbus Day,” his critique of colonial conquest (by countries which were still faithful to Roman church–primarily Spain) are particularly interesting. Bucer writes:

“The severe wrath of God is also to be found in the discovery and conquest of new lands and islands, which people exult over so much, as if by this means Christendom was being greatly increased; in fact all that happens is that the poor people are deprived first of body and possessions, and then of soul through the false superstition which they are taught by the mendicant monks” (87-88). Of course, Bucer’s anti-Roman polemical intent is obvious, but he continues to sharply criticize the colonial project itself:

“I have heard Jean Glapion, His Imperial Majesty’s confessor complain in front of important people that the Spaniards in the newly discovered lands so forced and tortured the poor people to make them work to find gold and other things for them, that they could not bear the work and torture and took their own lives. Secondly, what is achieved as far as our own people are concerned? How many fine people are lost on the voyages, and when it is said that much has been achieved, all they can offer is the occasions and allurements of terrible wars, splendour and arrogance, and the oppression of the poor ordinary people; for through all this trade and conquest just a few get hold of all the world’s goods and possessions and then use it to impose all sorts of mischief and power on the rest, many of whom can scarcely earn a dry crust by their hard and bitter labours. And then they call this the increase of Christendom. The Lord grant our princes and rulers the understanding and will to increase and improve Christendom in the right way” (88).

Bucer’s criticism of the oppression and subjugation of the indigenous populations stands in stark contrast to many conservatives and Christians, who extol the European conquest as either the judgment of God against the “pagan” native Americans, or who focus on Columbus’s “Christian” and missionary ideals, while down-playing the violence and tragedy which marked the arrival of Europeans in the New World. This short post can’t begin to sort out the complexities involved here, but this short foray into an obscure text and a little known early modern pastor hopefully shows us that not all Christians applauded the European colonization of the Americas.

For further reading, consult Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (1984.) [Disclaimer: I haven’t finished this book, and I don’t like to recommend a book prematurely. However, Todorov treats the encounter (clash!) of European and Native cultures philosophically and theologically. Todorov is well-aware of the classical background and Christian understanding of Columbus and other European colonists, but he also sympathetically helps us enter into the worldview of the Aztecs and other native peoples. He does not downplay the violence on either side of the clash of cultures.]

I must also admit that this is not my area of expertise. What resources would you recommend?

 

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“Greek Life” @ Cary Christian School – Training the Next Generation of Reformers

[Some All Saints Day (and late “Reformation Day”) musings, tying together my dual roles as a high school Biblical Greek teacher and a student of church history.]

Martin Luther did not mean to start the Reformation. In 1517, Luther, a teacher of theology in Germany, posted some items for an academic discussion on the church door in Wittenberg (really a community bulletin board back then).  At this point in his career, he had no intention to break away from the Roman Catholic church—as a “doctor” of theology Luther had the right, and the obligation, to express concerns about the church. Luther was attacking the practices of some extreme “indulgence preachers” who were basically selling get-out-of-Purgatory-free cards (indulgences). Luther had no idea how far up the chain of authority this corruption went. In fact, Pope Leo X gave his official blessing to this indulgence fund-raiser in order to finance his massive building project at St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom. Continue reading

“The Cross & the Prodigal”

 

cross and prodigal

At Cary Christian School, I occasionally try to summarize the findings of New Testament scholars in a way that shows the relevance for studying Biblical Greek.  Kenneth Bailey has done ground-breaking work in what he calls “Middle Eastern” Biblical interpretation. He argues that we need to read the Bible through Middle Eastern eyes if we are to truly understand it. His reading of the familiar story of the “Prodigal Son” in Luke 15 is especially helpful as we discuss the Bible with our Muslim friends.

Here’s the power-point presentation.  But, don’t stop there–get the book for yourself!

“Christian Men Who Hate Women”

Christian Men Who Hate Women: Healing Hurting RelationshipsChristian Men Who Hate Women: Healing Hurting Relationships by Margaret J. Rinck

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This needs to read and understood in the circles I tend to run in. We rightly stress the need for husbands and fathers to be strong leaders, but this can create situations where abuse and co-dependent relationships thrive. We need to talk about this in our churches, so that we can create cultures where these types of sins are recognized, repented of, and where true healing can occur.

I know this book has a provocative title.  Here’s a summary of the book for those who are curious.

View all my reviews

David Cook on Jihad

I’m really enjoying Professor David Cook’s (Rice University) book, Understanding Jihad. Prof. Cook is clearly knowledgeable, objective, and seems quite fair in his treatment. Nevertheless, he criticizes others for not being as honest or fair with the source material of Islam.  Cook presents extensive proof that militant jihad has been part of Islamic teaching and practice since the beginning.

“In conclusion, several important points need to be made about the ‘greater jihad’ [spiritual struggle]. The spiritual, internal jihad is the derivative form, and not the contrary.  This is clear from the absence of any mention of the ‘greater jihad’ in the earliest hadith books on the subject of jihad (it is entirely absent from the canonical collections and appears only in the genre of zuhd, asceticism, and then in comparatively later collections).  Nor does the ‘greater jihad’ find any mention in the later literature on jihad, except occasionally in the most perfunctory form.  It is also apparent that anyone who studies the subject of jihad has to wonder about the focus placed upon the spiritual warfare among contemporary Muslim apologists. Continue reading “David Cook on Jihad”

Muslim and Christian Scholarship

In Muslim vs. Christian arguments, I’ve heard it said that Muslim societies were much more advanced than medieval Western cultures.  Also, it’s claimed that we should thank Muslim scholars for preserving the classics of Greece for us.  Philip Jenkins has a different view.  In The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins reminds of the history we never knew.  In particular, he writes:

“It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim.  It was Christians–Nestorian, Jacobite, Orthodox, and others–who preserved and translated the cultural inheritance of the ancient world–the science, philosophy, and medicine–and who transmitted it to centers like Baghdad and Damascus.  Much of what we call Arab scholarship was in reality Syriac, Persian, and Coptic, and it was not necessarily Muslim.  Syriac-speaking Christian scholars brought the works of Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph.  Syriac Christians even make the first reference to the efficient Indian numbering system that we know today as ‘Arabic,’ and long before this technique gained currency among Muslim thinkers,” (The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, 18).

“The Lost History of Christianity” – Philip Jenkins

I’m enjoying (and learning!) from almost every page of Philip Jenkins’ outstanding book, The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died.  Here’s a paragraph which summarizes the thrust of the book:

ancient eastern tower

“For most nonexperts, Christian history after the earliest centuries usually conjures images of Europe.  We think of the world of Charlemagne and the Venerable Bede, of Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi, a landscape of Gothic cathedrals and romantic abbeys.  We think of a church thoroughly complicit in state power–popes excommunicating emperors, and inspiring Crusades.  Of course, such a picture neglects the ancient Christianity of the Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, but it also ignores the critical story of the religion beyond the old Roman borders, in Africa and Asia.  We suffer perhaps from using unfamiliar terms like Nestorian, so that the Eastern religious story seems to involve some obscure sect or alien religion rather than an extraordinarily vigorous branch of the Christian tradition.  Only by stressing the fully Christian credentials of these Asian-based movements can we appreciate the abundant fullness and diversity of the global church during the millennium after the Council of Nicea–and the depth of the catastrophe when those movements fell into ruin.  Anyone who knows the Christian story only as it developed in Europe has little inkling of the acute impoverishment the religion suffered when it lost these thriving, long-established communities.”