Sunday, December 27, 2009

Stark, Statistics, and the Early Church

In Cities of God (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), popular sociologist Rodney Stark attempts to bring quantitative, statistical analysis to bear on the study of the history of early Christian expansion. The description of the 'triumph' of Christianity, Stark argues, is incomplete, indeed unscientific, without the utilization of quantitative methods. "A major purpose of this book," writes Stark, "is to demonstrate that quantitative methods can help to resolve many debates about early church history" (22). He explains the book attempts "to identify adequate, quantifiable indicators of key concepts and then to properly test important hypotheses" (22, emphasis original). In so doing, the chapters of the book "will attempt to place the rise of Christianity within the appropriate social and cultural contexts, but they will do so in a more fully social scientific way than as ever been attempted" (22). Although the book is a provocative protreptic exercise, the book ultimately fails to convince because the author has not understood the pitfalls of the field he attempts to address.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Define Irony

iro-ny... 3 a (1): incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2): an event or result marked by such incongruity.

So as I was walking from the bookstore to class, I saw a man at the end of the courtyard giving out books. Since I am a sucker for free books, I decided to walk in that direction. As I was approaching the vicinity of the gentleman I thought to myself, "Well, if it's another Bible, I'll pass--I've got plenty of those as it is!" As I drew nearer, the man thrust a handsome paperback my way and said "Origin of Species. One hundred fiftieth anniversary." "Well," said I, "I've already got one, but why not?" The evolutionists are handing out their Bibles now, I thought. As I walked away with my new copy of Darwin's classic I noticed something unusual, however, about this copy. "Introduction by Ray Comfort." Ray Comfort, Ray Comfort. I'm sure I know that name from somewhere. That right! He's the guy who wrote the very popular book on evangelism, Hell's Best Kept Secret. WHAAA? He wrote an introduction for Darwin's Origin of Species, and is encouraging people to hand out the book to college kids? Define irony.

So I opened the book to the epigraphs, all of them about free enquiry and education. Alongside quotes by Darwin, Scopes, and W. R. Thompson, is this representative nugget from some survey (which we are told was agreed upon by 84% of college graduates): "Teachers and students should have the academic freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of evolution as a scientific theory." Ok. So this is about not censoring Darwin. But wait, from a Christian evangelist?

So I opened the book further to the introduction and began reading. After a brief outline of Darwin's life and the very basic contours of the argument of the book, Comfort gradually offers a series of critiques of Darwin's work. He begins with soft criticism based on DNA mapping, which Darwin could not have possibly known about. The criticism raises in pitch with the discussion of transitional forms and the so-called missing link between humans and chimpanzees. Swiftly the discussion moves toward advocating for (you might have guessed by now) an Intelligent Designer. The slippery slope gets even more slippery when Comfort starts "revealing" the racism and sexism of social Darwinism, and reaches a climax with Adolf Hitler's affinity for Darwin (the heading for that section: "His Famous Student"). Comfort scales the rhetoric back a bit and comforts his audience by reminding them that Darwin was not, after all, an atheist (implied: so you shouldn't be, either). He empathizes: "So if I was [sic] an atheist, I would see that I have an intellectual dilemma." It's ok. You're a poor, misguided atheist. Let me explain something that makes more logical sense. Naturally, he then proceeds to outline an evangelical message, topping it all of with an altar-call: "To receive the gift of eternal life, you must repent of your sins (turn from them), and put on the Lord Jesus Christ as you would put on a parachute--trusting in Him alone for your salvation. ...Do it right now because you don't know when you will take that leap through the door of death. Confess your sins to God, put your trust in Jesus to save you, and you will pass from death to life. You have God's promise on it."

Now, I think all of this is basically correct. But I seriously doubt this amounts to a more logical frame of mind. How do you define irony? Well, expecting to receive a Bible, but then actually receiving (what is often considered) an atheist's bible--and that book actually ends up quoting the Bible. Yeah. I'd say that pretty well covers it.

So if you haven't read Darwin yet, keep your eyes out for people giving away free books. It might not be what you expect, but irony is meant to be enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Imperial Christianity?

I just looked back at my earlier post about "Constantinian" Christianity. In my comment to a reader, I lamented the construction of a sort of edifice of "anti-imperial" Christianity (popular in post-Evangelical and emerging circles). The important part of that comment is the parenthetical remark that wonders what that means in our current context.

So, here's a question. How do we live a kind of Christianity that is subversive of Empire if there is no emperor? I mean, an Empire is a political system ostensibly directed and in some ways constituted by the necessary component of the emperor. Without an emperor what do we have? Either anarchy (which is certainly not the case currently--indeed, even the early church couldn't countenance anarchy [I shouldn't have to mention the authority of the apostles in the early church]), or some other form of government--oligarchy, democracy, etc. Now, we Americans live in a democratic republic of sorts, not an actual empire. So, it seems, the language of Empire is extended to the so-called 1st-world West--the colonial powers. But the late-capitalist system (that a great many of us agree is a problem) has grown beyond such powers and has taken on a trans-national character. In other words, if it is an empire, it is an empire without a (visible) emperor. Indeed, it seems to be anarchy--or perhaps better, feudalism between competing corporations. So what are we to do? We cannot assassinate the emperor. I'm wondering if a better solution would be to use the political system against the (currently) unjust economic order. Instead of conflating the two in America, I think Christians might do well to recognize that the political sphere is still malleable (as I think, ironically, the Tea Party has shown), and this is a remarkably fertile place to stage resistance to this faceless "empire." I'm not saying it would be easy. I'm saying it might be more responsible. "Shoplifters of the world, unite and take over."

Monday, November 16, 2009

What's all the fuss about?

So, about a week ago the Vatican released the official Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. The annoucement of this AC caused a great deal of consternation and much ire all over the blogosphere. I'm not entirely sure why. Now, Hans Kueng has offered what I think is probably the best critical comments, but even his take is only one side of the story. Reading the actual text, I find very little to be critical of. As a previous blogger (sorry, lost the link) continues to remind people--the Pope is (Roman) Catholic. We should not be surprised if he does things or says things that generally are in accord with Roman doctrine. Sure, he doesn't have the same finesse as JPII, but B16 is not the devil, or even an evil man, so far as I can tell. He's the shepherd of the largest Christian communion, and in accord with Roman doctrine he also sees himself as the vicar of Christ, the shepherd of the world. Not saying he's correct to think so, but I am saying we probably shouldn't be surprised if he acts on that notion.

All (constructive) thoughts welcome.

DeConick vs. National Geographic: Round 2?

This post is very good. April DeConick famously protested against the characterization, translation, and publicization of the Gospel of Judas a couple of years back. Now she's concerned about their take on the Apocalypse of Gabriel.

I'll try to add background links when I have some more time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Musings on 'Constantinianism'

A few days ago I was reading Shane Claiborne's inspiring book, The Irresistible Revolution. I love Shane. He's a great guy doing really good things in the world and for the church. But as a historian of early Christianity and as a theologian, I had to sit up in my Amtrak coach seat a bit when I read this footnote on page 106:
For many, the fourth-century reign of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, marks a significant point in church history. With the messy marriage of imperial power and the Christian cross, the Jesus movement shifted from persecuted to persecutor. Constantine flung open the door of the church to the rich and powerful, but it was at a great cost. Repentance, rebirth, and conversion were exchanged for cheap grace, and the very identity of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus was lost. People joined the church in droves, but Christian disciples were hard to come by.
This is a sentiment common to many young theologians, especially students. But it is marvelously simplistic. That should not need saying, and yet it does. Certainly the Edict of Toleration, and the later complete approbation of Christianity by Constantine is one of the most (if not the most) pivotal time in the history of Christianity in the world. Just as certainly 'the marriage of imperial power and the Christian cross' was 'messy'. Can we be so certain that cheap grace abounded, or that 'true' disciples of Jesus were in short supply? Can we be so sure that Eusebius' assessment of the triumph of Christianity is not just as accurate? Without Constantine would Christianity have gone the way of our Eastern (monophysite) brothers and sisters (for which, see Philip Jenkins wonderful new book, The Lost History of Christianity)? Would we have Bibles to lead us into the simple Way?

All of this ignores one simple fact: the churchis not ever and always bound to one form, not even the forms of the earliest communities. We have enough information about the misunderstandings of the original Twelve in the gospels, and the infelicities of certain Christians (even Peter and the agents of James) from Paul's letters, to know that the earliest communities were not perfect in the way, either, and that there was plenty of power-grabbing even then (in Corinth, for instance). Neither did it shy away from imperial language (kyrios, basileia, oikonomia) to describe its purposes and goals. This was not anti-imperial rhetoric, but counter-imperial rhetoric. Constantine was merely fulfilling the language used by the earliest communities by attempting to realize that kindgom on earth. Although that was perhaps a foolishly conceited move, 'constantinianism' was not an Antichristic act of evil, so much as a (perhaps ill-devised, ill-advised) radical gesture of faith. Talk about sinning boldly!

More importantly still, we should not forget that although it looks significantly different both from the Gospel-Acts portrait of the earliest communities and from the communities of ordinary radicals today, Jesus still showed up, and the people in the churches were still Christians--ugly, sinful, redeemed, beautiful Christians. Repentance, rebirth, and conversion were actually replaced with repentance, responsibility, and confession. Who are we to judge so quickly the unusual decisions of Christians from uncommon and unfamiliar times?

Why is this at all important? We American Christians (along with all 'first-world' Christians) live in Constantinian times, whether we like it or not, and we have inherited the same responsibilities with which they were saddled. We have political, economic, and social power. We must decide what to do with it. Will we bury it, hide it in a hole in the ground like the unwise servant (Matt 25.24-29), or will we sin boldly, learning from the mistakes of our Byzantine Roman forbears? Their problems are our problems (complacency, the reconciliation of power and love, the threats of social collapse and its implications for the faith). We need to acknowledge the Constantinian church because we cannot go back to Acts, but we must not repeat the sins of Constantinian church. If we fear and ignore the Constantinian church by our maledictions upon her, it may indeed be our fate to become her, with all of her many sins.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Moving...and then?

Alright, so working often, planning a wedding, and not having home internet for most of that time makes for bad blogging. I recognize that. But I hope to be back up and blogging soon, since my beautiful bride and I are moving to Virginia, where I will begin my doctoral studies in the Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity program.

After six (yes, six!) years of applications, I am so excited to be doing what I love, with the woman that I love, and a place that is definitely lovable.

More reports to come.

I hope.