The Making of Christianity in the West — A Conversation with Peter Brown

Here is a very interesting interview of Peter Brown, famed biographer of St. Augustine, and Al Mohler. Augustine is one of those figures who is so enormous that he must constantly be revisited. As new documents are discovered, particularly Augustine’s sermons, deepening insights are shaped that bring new understandings to the development of western Christianity.

By the way, many western Christians would do well to understand more of the shaping of eastern Christianity, the Greek speaking church. There is a richness there that informs the more legal and intellectual forms of Christianity in the west.

Reviewing “What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense”

I have just finished reading this book that argues that equality does not require changing the definition of marriage. It is a Natural Law defense of the traditional configuration of marriage. In other words, there is not appeal to religious authority or an inspired book. Reason itself can establish that marriage is a “real thing” that is not capable of redefinition based on cultural fads or personal preferences.

Most people, I believe, are of the persuasion that all social realities are simply human constructs that change over time. Therefore, marriage is what we want it to be at any given point. Since those who define marriage are the ensconced powerful, changing the definition of marriage must appeal to the courts on the basis of justice. The preferences of the majority are irrelevant, every bit as much as they were relative to slavery, Jim Crow, or miscegenation laws.

The authors of the book – Sharif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, Robert George – are not arguing the good or otherwise of homosexuality. The book focuses on the definition of marriage. There are two definitions at play:

The conjugal view of marriage has long informed the law—along with the literature, art, philosophy, religion, and social practice—of our civilization (see chapter 3). It is a vision of marriage as a bodily as well as an emotional and spiritual bond, distinguished thus by its comprehensiveness, which is, like all love, effusive: flowing out into the wide sharing of family life and ahead to lifelong fidelity. In marriage, so understood, the world rests its hope and finds ultimate renewal.

A second, revisionist view is a vision of marriage as, in essence, a loving emotional bond, one distinguished by its intensity—a bond that needn’t point beyond the partners, in which fidelity is ultimately subject to one’s own desires. In marriage, so understood, partners seek emotional fulfillment, and remain as long as they find it.

There is nothing specifically homosexual about the revisionist view of marriage. It informs many male-female relationships. But it brooks no real difference between these and same-sex relationships: both involve intense emotional union, so both can make a marriage. Comprehensive union, by contrast, is something only a man and woman can form. Enacting same-sex civil marriage would therefore not be an expansion of the institution of marriage, but a redefinition.

I intend to blog through some of the arguments Girgis, Anderson and George bring to the table. They, in fact, are joined by significant voices in the gay community that understand the revisionist view of marriage doesn’t redefine it. It destroys it.

While most believe that moral positions demand religion to ground them, Natural Law theorists beg to disagree. The assert that the rational human who reasons from a position of disinterestedness can rise to relative certainty that a moral position can be grounded through careful thought that is not subject to cultural tidal waves. In other words, marriage is real, a substance if you will, that can be discerned through enlightened thoughtfulness. I agree.

More later.

Finally! A Complete Bible – or “A New New Testament”

A new “Bible” has just been published. Your problem is that you thought you had a complete one – the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 of the New Testament. The problem is that those pesky patriarchal early church fathers excised some of the books that should rightfully be included in Scriptures. You were left short changed with an incomplete canon.

We all know, and the Davinci Code made clear, that the authoritative books of the New Testament were determined by men who had something to lose if certain writings were included in the authoritative list of books of the church – you know, those books that made a larger place for women and made Jesus more human than the letters of the Apostle Paul seemed to do. The early church leaders wanted a more mystical Jesus. The more mystical he was the more the church would need leaders to represent him. If he was only a man who simply died and passed into history, that just wouldn’t do. The Apostles needed status, and they needed Scriptures that gave it to them.

And they needed Scriptures that kept women out of leadership. It would not do to have a democratic Jesus where all were equal. Slavery needed to be validated and women should be kept in check. Once again, the Apostle Paul would do the trick.

This narrative has power for those who are convinced that the Church is merely human and a play at power control. This narrative also has power for those who are uneasy with the Bible as we have it on such issues as homosexuality, same sex marriage, gender issues, capitalism, ecology, etc. By “finding” other excluded books of the Bible there is support for another version of early Christianity, which means that Christianity is more elastic and less absolute than its current popular version.

Walla!!! Let there be another Bible!!! And behold, there is!!! Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has just released a new testament that includes some of the discarded books. It is titled, A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts. The publisher comments:

It is time for a new New Testament.

Over the past century, numerous lost scriptures have been discovered, authenticated, translated, debated, celebrated. Many of these documents were as important to shaping early-Christian communities and beliefs as what we have come to call the New Testament; these were not the work of shunned sects or rebel apostles, not alternative histories or doctrines, but part of the vibrant conversations that sparked the rise of Christianity. Yet these scriptures are rarely read in contemporary churches; they are discussed nearly only by scholars or within a context only of gnostic gospels. Why should these books be set aside? Why should they continue to be lost to most of us? And don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?

To create this New New Testament, Hal Taussig called together a council of scholars and spiritual leaders to discuss and reconsider which books belong in the New Testament. They talked about these recently found documents, the lessons therein, and how they inform the previously bound books. They voted on which should be added, choosing ten new books to include in A New New Testament. Reading the traditional scriptures alongside these new texts—the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Mary, Paul’s letters with The Letter of Peter to Philip, The Revelation to John with The Secret Revelation to John—offers the exciting possibility of understanding both the new and the old better. This new reading, and the accompanying commentary in this volume, promises to reinvigorate a centuries-old conversation and to bring new relevance to a dynamic tradition.

“Numerous lost scriptures”? This assumes what remains to be proved, that these writings were of the status of Scripture, a more technical designation of books believed to be inspired by God and therefore authoritative for the church. These newly included books were not nearly so influential as the publisher and the author claim in the underlying assumption that there were many kinds of Christianities alive in the early church, all in dynamic tension with one another with no single version trumping the rest.

The reality is much different than this imagined scenario. The scarcity of these texts is not the result of exclusion but the result of no longer being read and therefore no longer worthy of the effort of copying and preserving. The reality is that the early church was mostly comfortable with including as Scripture those books authored by Apostles or those immediately associated with them. They are first century writings written within the lifetime of Apostles. None of the other “new new testament books” were earlier than the second century and many were later.

The author comments

A New New Testament opens the door to a wider set of expressions, practices, stories, and teachings than they have previously known. 

This is exactly what modern humankind needs, isn’t it? A wider set of expressions and practices. Nothing authoritative here folks. Just move on. Just move on.

The book’s author asserts that Martin Luther removed from the Bible some books of the Old Testament, supposedly demonstrating that the Bible is a fluid thing, subject to historical forces and cultural biases. Did Luther remove books from the Bible. Nooooooooooooooo!!!!!!! Luther was merely repeating the practice of many before him of not including the Apocryphal books that were part of the Septuagint version, a Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Bible, along with the inclusion of some works that were not in the Hebrew Bible. These works might have been in Hebrew. They might never have been in Hebrew. We just do not know. But no one disputes the reality that the Bible Jesus knew and used was the Hebrew Bible with its (in English) 39 books. Some church fathers believed these deuterocanonical books (as the Roman Catholic Church calls them) should be authoritative for New Testament believers, some did not. In no case was it believed that these books were authoritative for Palestinian Jews of Jesus times. Jesus quotes from all sections of the Hebrew Bible but never from the Apocrypha.

As you can imagine, this discussion could, and does, go on and on. What is clear is that A New New Testament is not a product of neutral scholarship but an expression of the belief that there is no authoritative tradition that derives from an inspired canon but only creative versions of Christianities that in the author’s opinion would make the church more vibrant. And if there is any opinion in the book that is mere opinion, this is the one.

Stations of the Cross During Holy Week

I commend to you the practice of meditation upon the 14 Stations of the Cross that depict the last 18 hours of Christ’s life and death. Many Anglican and all Roman Catholic churches have them within the sanctuary. RC churches are open all day so you can slip in on your own and walk from station to station, there to meditate on each phase of Christ’s sin bearing. Stand, don’t sit. Christ must stand for the 18 hours of sin bearing. You stand, too. No bodily comfort here. Let the standing in its small way remind you of the strain of our Lord. He even “stood” on the cross, held up by nails.

Here is a well done video to encourage you.

An Interview with Lucinda Williams

I love the music Williams brings to the table. Aside from the alternative country sound, which is a genre I find myself naturally moving toward, the lyrics are earthy, honest and true to the human condition. In the broader listening audience she is best know for a cover Mary Chapin Carpenter did, Passionate Kisses. But it is Williams’ own voice that gives her music not so much beauty as resonance. She is not your classic blond babe that record labels love to market, but she is a woman with an independent voice who stands on her own and is to be listened to.

A few of my favorite pieces are: Are You Alright?; Learning How to Live(sound could be better but you’ll get the idea); Changed the Locks; Born to Be Loved; Over Time; Words Fell; American Dream.

Here is an interview with Lucinda I enjoyed. Select Show #380: 03.08.13