Good Morning Class- A brief history of the world, what it means, and why it matters

As expected, an engaging volley of comments can be found under my last post regarding Christianity and Islam. There were some suggestions that perhaps I have some “blind spots” related to Christian history and practice. Also, that I might have mischaracterized Islam. In order to check my vision I dusted off our Quran, grabbed my computer and, along with my well-worn trusty to-go Bible, made my way to Starbucks. I got plenty of curious glances on that visit, especially from some North African men waiting for their beverages.

As stated in my previous post, I am not an expert on Islam. Actually, I’m not an expert on anything, except for being expert at not being an expert.

So while I buried my nose in the Quran, one thing I had to give props for, is that book is ordered topically, with sections on Women, Pilgrimage, Jesus, Mary, etc. I appreciate such organization and it really makes it a bit more accessible than the Bible is to the newer reader.

So speaking of that.

Louise, a new commenter and a Muslim, posited that “many Christians do not accept all of the Bible whereas most Muslims accept all of the Qur’an.” Ya know, I get why she has come to that conclusion.  After all, Christians do wear clothes that mix linen and wool, right?  Not to mention those polyester leisure suits that I spend my Saturdays in.  As someone who does accept all of the Bible, I thought it might be helpful to give you a Cliff Note version of the Bible and church history overview, and what it means for Christians today. Doesn’t that sound like a thrilling way to spend the next 10 min? Don’t I know it!  Okie-dokie class, here we go:

The Old Testament tells the history of the world, and specifically God’s involvement with mankind. It begins with creation, early civilization, and then shows the origins of God’s relationship with his chosen nation, Israel. It tells that His people were to be set apart from the surrounding nations that, fueled by sexual immorality, child sacrifice and other detestable things, were doing the whole idol worship thing. The 10 commandments, and the 603 additional laws which functioned as a subset of those commandments, were to make the Hebrews distinct from the surrounding nations in morality, appearance and ceremony. (Like garments that didn’t mix fibers.) Within the pages of the Old Testament we are treated to both the successes and epic failures of the “heroes” (Abraham, David, Solomon, etc.) of the Bible. (An aside, pay attention, this is an indicator that we are talking about real history. Myth sanitizes heroes, history is history. For better or worse.) From their failures, we are to see that God is the only real Hero of the Old Testament. Religion and State were one in Israel. The presence of the Lord dwelled in Jerusalem’s Temple, and the priesthood ushered Jews into Yahweh’s presence. They were to be “a light to the gentiles” and a “city on a hill” (that was not a Reagan original) pointing all the nations of the earth to God. To be Jewish was to acknowledge Yahweh as Ruler, to associate with His people and to live in His land. The Jews were to have God as their king and God’s law as their law. It was a true theocracy.

In short. The Old Testament is about God establishing the physical and political kingdom of Israel and revealing man’s need for a Savior.

In the New Testament the prophesied Messiah, Jesus the Son of God, walks among Israel and reveals that God’s plan is the same as it ever was- for His children to be a light to the nations pointing all people to God. But Jesus ushers in the new rules (actually He fulfills the old rules which has new grand implications.) It’s not just about one ethnicity now, or one narrow stretch of land. God extends His invitation of salvation to all, but now He does so through the lives of all who bend the knee to their Lord in whatever nation in which they live. The presence of the Lord dwells in the hearts of His followers and these mobile temples serve as a royal priesthood in cafes in the Khartoum, parks in Pakistan, and schools in Seattle. The heroes of the Christian faith are still marked by epic successes and failures, because, as in the Old Testament, God is the only true Hero. Make no mistake, just because there is no physical kingdom, Jesus is still King. The King of kings to be precise. But not the kind of king that Pilate the Politician needed concern himself with. He is the kind of King that Pilate the Man needed to concern himself with. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but when it is fully revealed it will include citizens of every political nation, culture, and language on this plot of earth.

Love diversity? Go to heaven.

In short. The New Testament is about God establishing a spiritual kingdom under their Savior.

In the early centuries of Christianity we see the organic growth of “home churches” and people so captivated by their risen Savior that they were willing to die for their beliefs. Parents of Christian children would keep them inside because they were willing martyrs for the Kingdom of God. Children, such as Perpetua. Despite the very real threat of death for converting, Christianity expanded because believers demonstrated this new way of living by fishing unwanted children out of rivers. By showing mercy to their enemies. By protecting widows and orphans. Christianity elevated the status of women and a culture of compassion and mercy began to creep into the hedonistic Roman world.

For reasons which historians continue to debate, Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 and in 380 it became the official Roman religion. Now it was politically advantageous to be a follower of Jesus, and the “in name only” Christian was born. It was Augustine’s City of God in the early fifth century which first laid the foundations of the marriage between the Church and State. The Roman Church grew in power and within a few centuries the Holy See and civil government was enmeshed, albeit with an ongoing power struggle between Emperor and Pope.

It is here where we see the most famous abuses of Church/State power, the Crusades being Exhibit A. Now, I’m not saying that it’s wrong to defend your turf or people when a marauding army of Muslims is completely wiping out Christian-and-whoever-else-is-around communities in Arabia, the Holy Land, North Africa, and Europe. Perhaps you weren’t aware that the Muslim Conquest was the impetus for the Christian “holy war”? Huh. Well at least you have the good sense to be here anyway. I digress. The problem is that the relationship of the Church and State at that time manipulated their followers into joining the Crusades by telling them that absolution of their sins was conditioned on their participation in the campaign.  That, and apparently neither the Crusaders nor the Muslim fighters were familiar with the Geneva Convention.

The Roman “Church” wrongly slipped back into the mindset that Christianity encompassed the establishment of a geo-political kingdom. The result was a gross abuse of power. Luther and Calvin made steps to reform the Church, but the Roman Way of big State Church was still in effect. St. Patrick was the exception to the “Westernize and convert by coercion” mindset which dominated Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the establishment of the “Free” churches and the founding of the New World where we see a nation that was founded on principles of Christianity without the forced submission to a State Church. And now, the next great movement, I believe, will be churches returning to the home community model more reflective of the first few centuries of Christianity.

Bam. A history of the world in roughly 1000 words.

Why it matters:

I know that I am teetering on the edge of doing a great disservice by simplifying our human existence in such claustrophobic prose, but an overview such as this gives us context to answer todays questions.  Here are a few as it relates to the discussion on my previous post and this blog in general.

We need to have good answers for people like Louise, and other intelligent skeptics, who have questions about the Bible and how the law relates to today.  An exceptional article on this subject can be found here.  Also, regarding whether or not we take the Bible literally, this post gives some helpful tools for interpretation.

I don’t think I have the bandwidth to host a discussion about Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology or Kingdom Theology. All of those theological systems have some good ideas but I don’t think that any of them hits the eschatological nail on the head. (Oh I am pulling out the expensive words now.) What is clear from scripture is that the church is not Israel’s replacement. Therefore, Christians should not be seeking to make this nation, or any nation for that matter, a theocracy under Jesus. It’s ok to, no… it’s right to, recognize that the church has done it wrong in the past.  Especially when the state was used as the arm of punishment for religious transgressions, as seen in the Inquisition. Separation of church and state is a good thing. 

Should Christians then only be concerned with spiritual matters and get out of politics altogether? God forbid a thousand times. Barth writes that it is the task of Christians “to seek the best for the city, to honor the divine decree and appointment of the state by voting and striving, to the best of their knowledge, not for the false state, but for the good state, a state that will not dishonor the fact that it has power ‘from above.’” How to do that during the Chinese Cultural Revolution or in WWII Germany? I do not know. But here, in this rare and exceptionally designed, though ailing, republic of ours, active participation in our physical kingdom is a secondary function of our spiritual citizenship. In addition to the responsibility to our spouses, children, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the “least of these,” we have a responsibility to be good citizens.

In my opinion, this also means that we should not use the Bible to argue for public policy.  As Christians, we live under the authority of scripture- all of scripture.  But not everyone does.  In this country our common authority is the Constitution so our arguments should appeal to that standard.  For an example on how that looks related to the gay marriage debate, I suggest this page.

You may have some quality time to spend with Google now. New vocabulary words and historical knowledge is always such a thrill. So go to it.

Class dismissed.


16 thoughts on “Good Morning Class- A brief history of the world, what it means, and why it matters

    • Really… most all of my comment disappeared!!!! Arghhh! Okay, when I get away from a mobile device I’ll try again. Argh!

      • Any who, the response was supposed to acknowledge me as the dummy appreciative of your lesson, and to agree with Louise… we don’t pretend to duplicate following every instruction from the Bile, but to gather principles and then apply them. Such as rather than washing feet, we wash a windshield… or something of that nature.

        We agree with Louise that we do not see the Bible as a documented list of instructions for living, but instead a document that shares with us the means of life abundant. Blessings.

        • Thanks friend. It has been an educational week. My man gave me several sections of several books to read on the relationship of church and state. And on the structure of the church. He is doing a doctorate on missional home communities so we are really into the authentic life-on-life relationships that mark the growing church. Throw in a little church history and that makes for a mentally full pastor-s wife. 😉

  1. I listened through three very long podcast series on the Roman Empire, the Normans, and the Byzantine Empire. These were done by secular podcasters, yet they were willing to admit that things got more civil with the rise of Christianity, that the Christians had been horribly persecuted at various times and places, that the Crusades were mostly a geo-political struggle wrapped in religious overtones (and that the Christians didn’t jump into them until very late in the game), and that there were a lot of non-Christians and nominals who were opportunists in these wars.

    • Katy has correctly distinguished politics from religion- don’t try to have cake and eat it too because that would undo the historical accuracy of her analysis. Romans could be as brutal as anyone else; The Catholic Kings weren’t known for their ‘soft touch’- and I say that as a descendant of people who fought in the crusades and as a relative of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba.

      • Just making observations. Popular history has a way of painting “Christianity” in the worst possible light, sometimes at the expense of the full story or of those persons and events that don’t fit the narrative.

        I agree with Katy’s view on the separation of church and state. In fact, all Christians I know do as well (and I work in an evangelical hive). The “theocracy” fear is a bogeyman. In America, we don’t want anything more than the Founders wanted. The problem is, this has played out more as the separation of the church *from* the (secular) state in the current era.

        I think that Christianity was more authentic/pure before it was legal (not that I really want to return there). When you had nothing to gain from it, and much to lose, you didn’t get many nominals in the church. After it became state sponsored, then people looking for power and prestige (who weren’t born to it) had church leadership as one of their few options. Another thing I learned from my study is how many people managed to cajole their way (or just get arbitrarily appointed) to leadership without being elevated from within the church. Additionally, I think there was a lack of access to good theology and Scripture (many reformers were persecuted trying to correct both). As I understand, even many in the clergy had little more knowledge than how to conduct the sacraments.

        It’s unfair to paint Christianity writ large with the deeds of the opportunists and the ignorant. It should be judged by it’s actual teachings and those acting most consistently with them. We are at an advantage in that we have some standard of measuring such things. Something like atheism, however, has no such standard by which to assess whether a secular tyrant is acting like a “proper” atheist or not.

        • Haha. Evangelical hive. That’s good imagery.

          I agree, that with the demise of “Christendom” in this country we will see the church becoming what it should have been all along. Zealous, clearly compassionate, marked by mercy rather than moral policing, better able to give an apologetic defense, and willing to do costly things for the sake of the gospel. I already see so much of that taking place. One of these days, I need to write about our imperfect and completely amazing church. Truly the closest thing I have seen to the first century precept of “everyone gave something and no one lacked anything.” And we are like that because seriously, it’s just a pretty hostile culture around here sometimes. That and because “the Bible tells us so.”

          • We should strive to have our critics say such things as the pagan satirist Lucian wrote:

            “The earnestness with which the people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end. Their first lawgiver put it into their heads that they were all brethren.”

            And the last pagan emperor, Julian:

            “Atheism (Christianity) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not one single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

            Fair historians like Rodney Stark and Will Durant acknowledge the positive influence of Christianity. Durant wrote the following:

            “But never had the world seen such a dispensation of alms as was now organized by the Church . . . . She helped widows, orphans, the sick or infirm, prisoners, victims of natural catastrophes; and she frequently intervened to protected the lower orders from unusual exploitation or excessive taxation. In many cases, priests, on attaining the episcopacy, gave all their property to the poor. Christian women like Fabiola, Paula, and Melania devoted fortunes to charitable work.”

  2. You put me in the strangest positions… 😛
    So do you think the crusades were all bad? Did you read about the monstrous story from India today? Christianity may have a number of problems, but the ‘civilization’ of certain groups wasn’t one of them.
    In a related note- would Iraq be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power? However misguided or faulty the lead-up was, doesn’t make his overthrow any less right.

    • I spent my last morning of all my kids in school *sniff* reading about the Muslim Conquests and the Crusades. Pruett is right. By the time of the first papal appeal to reclaim the holy land, Christianity had been fighting a defensive war with Islam for 450 years. Europe became the Christian center by default because all the Christians (and Jews and everyone else) in North Africa and Arabia and the East had been brutally conquered by Islam. Looking at council attendance, the number of Christian bishops from Persia, Syria, Arabia and Turkey, declined from 338 in 754 to 110 in 896. I am amazed that our Western reflection doesn’t acknowledge the utter destruction and brutality of those centuries. I nearly choked on my oatmeal when I read about the atrocities Christian pilgrim suffered (seized, sold into slavery, tortured for entertainment). “It amused them to kill Christians by opening up their bellies and drawing out the end of their intestines, which they then tied to a stake, then flogged their victims and made them walk around… until their intestines had spilled out and they fell dead on the ground.” And then reading about the brutality of Baybars and Saladin- I had never heard of these sultans/rulers before- which we do not acknowledge but whose cruelty it lauded within Islamic lore.

      Interestingly, 30 years before Pope Urban made his successful appeal for the recapturing of the Holy Land, there was an appeal to help re-take fertile, right-next-door Spain. But no takers. So the idea that the Crusades was all about money and greed is erroneous.

      So was there justification for driving the Muslims back? What do nations do but act in their own self-interest? What do you do when Syria gasses it’s own people? When Pearl Harbor is bombed? When Russia invades Ukraine? Depending on what you feel is in the best interest of your country- or maybe of another people group- you may go to war. It was a brutal world all around. The knights who comprised the front-lines of the Cursades were in need of much absolution even prior to the Crusades for there were hardly any who did not have blood on their hands. And it was this that the church exploited. The Christians perceived need to be absolved for wrong doings and the false promise of finding it through crusading. The crusaders held to the standards (none) for warfare at the time.

      Bloody and complicated. But not the one-sided, Catholic-church-colonialism which it is often made out to be.

      • I’m always happy when people are interested in the complexity of history. The crusades may have been brutal, but as you say, those were brutal times all around. Have you heard of the Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba? It’s an interesting illustration of the period:
        A church that became a mosque, that became a church, and then a cathedral. As for crusaders themselves, there was a bit of everything. Some were in it for power or influence, others were believers.

      • I find when looking at history that the heroes are often less heroic than we had imagined. When they are Christian heroes that is particularly disappointing. But given that modern Christians are imperfect as well, and human imperfection is a central Christian dogma, it should be no surprise to find Christians being imperfect in ways common to their own times.

        What I also find sometimes is that those once thought to be Christian heroes (or villains) were only “Christian” as a matter of convenience or political expedience. The Norman rulers seem to be a good example (perhaps not all, though, and, btw, Normans were heavily involved in the fight against Muslims both in Sicily and the “Crusades”), and I am none too sure about Constantine.

        It’s unfortunate that the Christian leadership even had to be involved in these wars. Such is the result of giving state power to “the Church.” One historical commentator said that if Christianity had not become the dominant religion we wouldn’t be talking about the Crusades, we’d be talking about the “Muslim Wars” or “Arab-European Wars” or something like that. It is incredible to me that the armies did not march before they did given the Islamic advances over the years. Perhaps it was Christian patience or perhaps just the disunity in the old empire. I wonder if it was Christianity itself within the fabric of these diverse groups that provided the leverage for any broad unity in marshaling a force against the invaders.

  3. “In my opinion, this also means that we should not use the Bible to argue for public policy”

    Now that’s a really fascinating debate I’ll have to give some more thought to. What always strikes me as ironic is that it is Christian values, Christian biblical teachings, that gave us the US Constitution, the same document that makes it possible for atheists to speak their minds here, for Muslims to worship as they chose.

    People always want to talk about how oppressive Christianity is but the truth is, Christianity is responsible for numerous social changes that some would refer to as progress, like free speech, freedom of religion, peace and prosperity, democracy. For those who disagree, try exercising any of those “progressive ideals” in a non Christian country like say, Iran.

    • I know this is totally not PC, but I once heard Dennis Prager speak about American exceptionalism. Not that Americans are exceptional, but that the values of our country and the ideas which make it flourish are exceptional. And rare. When else has there been a founding document committed to limiting it’s own power? And the freedoms. The freedoms because of these religious men who did not mean to force everyone to be religious. America is exceptional.

  4. Myth sanitizes heroes? Really?

    The greatest of the Greek heroes, Heracles, murdered his children in a jealous rage. Jason was a thief (his great quest was to steal the Golden Fleece for his own personal advancement) and when it suited his purposes he ditched his wife, the mother of his children, for some young cutie. Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, and when he found out the truth about what he did, gouged his eyes out.

    Achilles, the hero of The Iliad, the greatest of warriors, jeopardized the lives of his comrades over an ego-battle with the Great King Agamemnon. Later he desecrated the body of his slain enemy Hector by dragging it from the back of his chariot.

    If I worked at it, I could give countless other examples, not only from the Greek tradition but from others. Do you think what I have presented are examples of myth sanitizing heroes, or do you think stores about such figures should be considered something other than myth?

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