faith


FIRST REFORMED, Ethan Hawke, 2017. ©A24/ Everett Collection.

I recently saw the movie First Reformed on DVD (having missed the theatrical run last year). The film is writer-director Paul Schrader’s most significant work in years, and Ethan Hawke has been widely praised for his portrayal of Reverend Ernst Toller, the troubled pastor at a historic church in upstate New York. The church has only a handful of members and is being kept alive through the efforts of Abundant Life, a local megachurch whose theology and approach to ministry are far removed from First Reformed’s Calvinism (Schrader does know Calvinism, having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church, a North American bastion of Calvinist beliefs. I’m from the same tradition, and in fact attended the same church-related high school and college as Schrader did).

Most of the plot has to do with Toller’s efforts to help Mary, a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried), and her husband Michael, a radical environmentalist who despairs for the planet and is opposed to bringing a child into it. Toller tries to foster hope in Michael, using arguments like the following:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

If you don’t find that a stirring call to a meaningful life, well, I don’t either. The problem may be that Toller is himself forlorn. He is a former military chaplain who encouraged his son to enlist. When his son was subsequently killed, his wife left him. He tells Michael,

“I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.”

Much of what we learn about Toller’s interior life comes in the form of voice-overs from the journal he resolves to keep for a year. His intent is:

“To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.”

He quickly displays such mercilessness towards himself:

“I look at the last lines I wrote with disdain.”

A few days afterwards, he’s again faulting his efforts:

“When I read these words I see not truth but pride.”

He’s even critical of his criticism:

“I wish I had not used the word ‘pride’ but I cannot cross it out.”

Give it a rest, dude! Your self-loathing is getting in your way.

Toller describes his journal as a means of communication, “a form of prayer,” though he later laments that he is unable to pray. Apparently, talking to himself in his journal is an attempt to obliquely talk to God. It isn’t quite true that he can’t pray–when Mary asks him to pray for her, he does so without hesitation. He just can’t take himself before God. This is despair of the Kierkegaardian sort, not over God or the state of the world but over having to be oneself.

Toller is what the 19th century philosopher and psychologist William James called a “sick soul,” a person whose view of everything is “based on the persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence.” Even if the sick soul believes that evil will eventually be overcome by a greater good (as Toller apparently does, since he leads the congregation in the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which points to Christ as savior), evil is not easily dismissed. By contrast, Reverend Jeffries, the pastor of Abundant Life, exemplifies James’ contrasting “healthy-minded” religious type, the optimist who is taken by the goodness of life and dismisses the seriousness of evil. Jeffries tries to be pastoral towards Toller, but there’s no crossing the gulf between them.

A while later, there’s another revealing voice-over from the journal:

“Some are called for their gregariousness. Some are called for their suffering. Others are called for their loneliness. They are called by God because through the vessel of communication, they can reach out and hold beating hearts in their hands. They are called because of their all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things that can only be filled by the presence of our Savior.”

Toller is such a lonely, desolate disciple, responding to the call but in travail. Though he states that Christ’s presence can fill his emptiness, that’s not what he’s experiencing. In his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola describes the contrasting states of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation as follows:

“I call it consolation when some interior movement is caused in the soul, through which the soul comes to be inflamed with love of its Creator and Lord…. I call consolation every increase of hope, faith, and charity, and all interior joy that calls and attracts to heavenly things and to the salvation of one’s soul, quieting it and giving it peace in its Savior and Lord.” From the Third Rule

“I call desolation all the contrary of the third rule, such as darkness of soul, disturbance in it, movement to low and earthly things, disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” From the Fourth Rule

Per Ignatius, believers typically alternate between consolation and desolation. Except possibly at the very end of the movie, Toller receives no consolation, only desolation. Perhaps his compunction and self-reproach dam the flow of God’s mercy. I am, like Toller, more inclined to be sick-souled than healthy-minded. I am grateful that, unlike him, my spirit receives much more consolation than desolation.

When true consolation is absent, it’s tempting to seek ersatz consolations. Perhaps Toller’s growing fanaticism over environmental activism serves that purpose. He spends considerable time on Michael’s computer viewing sites that document  environmental degradation. He eventually has to choose between committing a violent act that would garner attention for the environmentalist cause and protecting the well-being of someone he cares for–you’ll have to see the movie to find out what he does. In the end, he may be heading toward recovery, but he’s still an ailing soul. It’s an unflinching portrayal of what might happen to any of us if we go too long without God’s consolations.

I recently read As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon by historian Daniel T. Rodgers. The book is a history of John Winthrop’s address (it doesn’t actually fit the conventions of a sermon) to the Puritans who immigrated to New England in 1630, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Winthrop’s manuscript is titled “A Model of Christian Charity,” and he worked on it not just on the boat to America but for some time before that. It is often cited as one of the founding texts of the American national enterprise. However, as Rodgers explains in some detail, Winthrop’s document was not consulted by the nation’s founders or anyone else, since it quickly sank into obscurity. It only gained some recognition in 1930, with the 300th anniversary of the Winthrop expedition’s arrival in Boston, and subsequently in the work of historian Perry Miller. Even then, it would have remained unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans had not a politician who was later to become president found a passage from the “Model” and incorporated it in many of his speeches.

The politician, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the two sentences he fixed on read as follows:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

It’s interesting that Reagan used this passage in two distinctly different ways. From the late 1960s through the 70s, governor and then presidential candidate Reagan used the second sentence to warn that the country could fall into barbarism and anarchy if current cultural trends weren’t reversed. As president in the 1980s, he emphasized instead the first sentence, talking reassuringly of the city on the hill as something already accomplished, a reality that offers hope to the world. I was struck by his vision of the city on a hill, offered in his farewell address to the nation:

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.” Quoted in AACOAH, p. 245

The contrast with more recent political discourse about walls is notable.

Neither of Reagan’s readings of the city on the hill was all that close to Winthrop’s original meaning. Winthrop was writing not of America but of a specifically Christian settlement, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It wasn’t the eyes of the whole world that the Puritans were concerned with; the eyes that mattered were those of England, and the hope was that the colony would provide their home country an example of how a Christian society should operate. Being on a hill was not an occasion for pride but for anxiety, since visibility would expose the colonists’ failures to their critics and to God, whom they feared they would disappoint.

Similarly, the other modern political appropriations of Winthrop’s city on a hill haven’t used that image in a way similar to what it would have meant to the Puritans. Rodgers suggests that the closest usage has been that of American evangelicals, who like the Puritans believe that they have a special place in God’s providence and who, also like the Puritans, see themselves as misfits in a culture that is going astray. Though I don’t identify as an evangelical, their take on Winthrop’s message resonates more with me than do either of Reagan’s uses or subsequent appropriations of the image to support American Exceptionalism.

Rodgers points out that the city on the hill comes only in the last section of Winthrop’s manuscript. The previous three sections have been neglected by modern audiences, but they were Winthrop’s main concern. Those sections detail what he hoped the colony would be an exemplar of, namely charity as it ought to be practiced by Christians. He began by noting that there would always be inequality between rich and poor. Rather than lamenting such imbalances, he pointed out several advantages, especially that through charity both rich and poor “might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” He distinguished between two divinely established laws–laws of justice and of mercy. Mercy–and, with it, charity–is not optional, but is an obligation that Winthrop traced through both the Old and the New Testament. It is founded in love, which is the primary obligation of all followers of Christ. And Winthrop carried this emphasis on love and charity over to his conception of how business should be done and markets operate. Rodgers notes:

“To the extent that the Model stands at one of the foundation points of the American story, Winthrop’s concern to establish the proper place of markets within the moral imperatives of charity must be recognized to stand there, just as prominently, too.” AACOAH p. 97-8

Would that America embrace Winthrop’s concern for mercy as integral not just to religious settings but to the world of commerce as well! Then, in the place of capitalism little influenced by moral constraints, we would have markets in which the flourishing of all members of society are as much a goal as is earning a profit. Modern-day Americans can most profitably look to “A Model of Christian Charity” not as a foundational text for the nation but as encouragement to display love and charity in every realm of life.

I am a coordinator for a group studying Live Justly, a ten-session curriculum designed to help followers of Christ to pursue justice in every aspect of their lives. There would be no need for such a pursuit if our world was already a mostly fair and equitable place, so the study has pointed out various ways in which injustice pervades the world in which we live.

The most recent session was titled “Justice and Prayer.” It included a short essay describing how believers in Africa and North America responded to the plight of 160 women and children who had been displaced by the outbreak of civil war in South Sudan. The author, Kristen deRoo VanderBerg, described an outpouring of prayer for those who had fled the violence and ended up in an abandoned UN camp. VanderBerg reports, “God not only heard their prayers, and our prayers, but worked in us to make clear what we could offer to bring his kingdom in that place.” That meant mobilizing aid–food, plastic sheets, blankets, mosquito nets, laundry soap, cooking pots, and more. As a result, “The semblance of normal life returned to those families in need.”

The essay was written sometime in 2014, less than a year after the outbreak of violence. I recalled later reports of continuing armed conflict, so I did an online search to find out what’s happened over the last four years. There’s an extensive Wikipedia page describing the war and its effects on the population. After the initial fighting, there were a number of cease fires, with each typically violated within days by whoever thought they could gain an advantage by doing so. The rebels split into competing factions, as did the majority Dinka tribe, and no peace deal (including the one that some parties are now following) was comprehensive enough to end all violent conflict. There has been ethnic cleansing, sexual violence, famine, and attacks on civilians and aid workers. Over four million people have been displaced either internally or to surrounding countries. A study in early 2018 estimated that at least 383,000 people have died as a result of the war. I looked specifically for news about Yei, the city to which VandenBerg’s initial 160 women and children fled, and found that the population of refugees there has grown substantially. In July of this year the UN refugee agency was planning to distribute “plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets, buckets, jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping mats and soap” there. The need for such items seems to be never-ending!

South Sudanese refugees arriving in Uganda, 2017. Image from http://www.worldvision.org.

It was disheartening to find out how much worse things got after VandenBerg’s optimistic report of a successful relief effort. As she notes, by praying for peace we become more aware of how we may be peacemakers, and that’s a good thing. But subsequent events in South Sudan also show us that it is tremendously difficult (sometimes impossible) to make peace no matter how much we pray and work. Why is that so? Why doesn’t God intervene? What’s the point of either prayer or relief efforts in a situation like that?

The persistence of evil and suffering has caused many to lose their faith. We often don’t notice that not only faith but the other two theological virtues are impacted as well. Many lose hope–not necessarily for the blessings of an afterlife, but for “the goodness of the Lord/ in the land of the living,” as the psalmist (Ps. 27) put it. Others lose charity, not only in that they no longer try to alleviate human misery but also that they uncharitably accuse sufferers of being responsible for their hardships. So as not to blame God, they blame the victims instead.

I don’t blame God for what’s happened: He gave humans free will, never intending that they use it to slaughter their enemies or innocent bystanders. Neither do I blame those who have lost their livelihoods, their communities, their innocence, or their lives. For a few days after reading about the war, I was preoccupied with and saddened by the enormity of the suffering that it brought. I was sensitized to news reports of other conflicts, especially the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Unlike South Sudan, my country is implicated in perpetuating that conflict.

My morose state of mind was mild, though, and I knew that it would pass. To some extent it already has. While in the midst of my preoccupation, I happened upon a TIME magazine cover story on parents who have had a child die in a school shooting. They never recover fully from their sorrow, not even after decades. One couple, the Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, sold almost everything they owned, moved into a mobile home, and devoted themselves full-time to helping survivors of gun violence. What would it be like if all of us were similarly touched by the world’s pain, giving our lives to help those who are suffering?

That thought brought me back to God. He is not a distant deity who watches us from on high, tossing down an occasional thunderbolt when things get out of hand. He’s not like me, saddened by what he sees but not doing much in response. He’s like the Phillips’, who changed their lives totally in response to human need. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, after all. God gave up the glories of heaven to be born as one of us, surrendering everything for the sake of the suffering world. “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”  wrote Isaiah (53:4). I take that to mean that he suffers with the victims of every war that has ever been fought. And one day, when God’s kingdom comes fully, war will be no more. For now, when I struggle to hold on to my faith–and also my hope and charity–I look to his example to get the strength to go on.

 

 

Entrance to auditorium, Ephesus. Cross on lintel shows it was converted into a church.

Following a trip earlier this year to archaeological sites in Turkey, I’ve been writing about the cultural setting in which the apostle Paul and other evangelists preached the good news of Christianity. I’ve looked at Roman architecture, religion, and politics, noting the forces arrayed in defense of the existing order. So why did what started out as a marginal movement located far from centers of power succeed at upending that order? Why, a little over three centuries after the first missionaries set out, was a majority of the populace Christian, while paganism was in decline?

We Christians are likely to respond that God was in it. Sure, but what means did he use? In The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996: Princeton University Press), Rodney Stark tries to answer that question. Trevor Wax has provided a helpful summary of Stark’s main points here.

The numerical growth of Christianity of course depended on a lot of people converting, and Stark offers some interesting observations on what prompts conversions. In particular, he notes the following:

  • Converts are typically those who have strong relationships with members of the movement to which they convert–“conversion tends to proceed along social networks formed by interpersonal attachments.” (p. 18)
  • Converts typically don’t have pre-existing religious commitments that would interfere; they tend to be “the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.” (p. 19)
  • Converts to new religions are similar to early adopters of other sorts of cultural innovations. They tend to be “well among average in terms of income and education.” p. 38
  • It is only when such more privileged members of society are discontented with the conventional religious options available to them that there is an opening for a new religion to flourish.

In line with these general principles, Stark suggests the following about Christian conversion:

  • Paul’s missionary efforts were most successful among the middle and upper classes, so the early church was largely a movement of the more privileged members of society.
  • The Christian message was particularly appealing to the Hellenized Jews of the diaspora. They were socially marginal, and thus were not likely to obtain the rewards available to those more integrated in the culture. At the same time, corresponding to the second point above, they were “relatively worldly, accommodated, and secular.” (p. 60) They were also likely to have interpersonal attachments to Jews who were already Christians.
  • The social and religious structures were periodically overwhelmed by epidemics. “The epidemics swamped the explanatory and comforting capacities of paganism and of Hellenistic philosophies.” (p. 74) Whereas pagans tended to abandon those of their number that were ill, Christians cared for their sick and also for some of the non-Christians who were ill. Thus, a higher percentage of Christians survived. Non-Christians who survived often lost many of the attachments that kept them from converting and were attracted by the Christian ethic of caring for those in need.
  • Women enjoyed much higher status in the Christian subculture than they did in the society at large. Infanticide of girl babies led to a shortage of females in the broader society but not in the church, where girls were raised to maturity. There was a low fertility rate in the society as a whole, but not among Christians. Women converts often brought their husbands with them into the church (secondary conversion); intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men probably also led to conversions.
  • The cities of the Roman empire were places of intense human misery. They were extremely overcrowded, much more so than even the densest cities today. Most people lived in tiny tenements lacking furnaces, fireplaces, clean water, or efficient sewers. Besides the periodic epidemics, “illness and physical affliction were probably the dominant features of daily life in this era.” (p. 154) Mortality rates were high, necessitating a constant stream of newcomers, resulting in deficient attachments and clashes among diverse ethnic groups. The typical city was vulnerable to “attacks, fires, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and devastating riots.” (p. 159) All of this misery may have led residents to desire something better.

The desire for an improved lot may be most acute when a society is in chaos, but it is something common to humans of every era and social situation. What did Christians offer that was better? Stark makes a couple observations about Christian belief that probably were radically new. Christians maintain that God loves humankind and shows mercy to us even when we don’t deserve it. In contrast, Greek and Roman gods were mostly capricious or selfish, not loving. In fact, the ancient world thought mercy and pity were weaknesses, qualities to be avoided. Christians also linked a social ethical code with religion–believers were to love others and act out that love in their social interactions. Pagans did have their own ethical obligations; for example they were to worship the gods by offering sacrifices. This was mainly a form of social exchange, though, and one’s faith didn’t create much obligation to treat others well. Christianity introduced ethical obligations to everyone, ethical obligations that were to be followed whether or not there was an expectation of immediate earthly rewards.

Of course such ethical standards were a matter of imitating God himself, who sent his son to care even for those in rebellion against Him. God is love. Love him and each other. That’s still the core of the Christian faith. The world needed that message in the first century. The world needs that message today.

Christian symbol etched into pavement of a synagogue in Sardis, Turkey

 

 

Denarius

This morning we had an interesting discussion at the Men’s Bible Study I attend. The passage we looked at was Mark 12, which includes an attempt by Jesus’ opponents to trap him by asking a politically charged question about whether it was permissible to pay taxes to Rome. Jesus first asks his questioner to bring him a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. The passage continues:

They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (NIV)

Our pastor suggested that Jesus was implicitly comparing the image on the coin–Caesar’s–to the image on the hearts of his hearers–God’s. In other words, Jesus was alluding to the account of creation in Genesis 1:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

A member of the group questioned whether we make too much of the image of God, thus neglecting that a couple of chapters later Genesis describes the Fall, an event in which humans lost a substantial part of what it means to be like God. This resulted in a lengthy discussion. My contribution was that we can mistakenly focus too much either on the ways we humans fall short of the image of God or on the ways we continue to display that image. Each is monumental in scope, and to lose sight of either is to have an erroneous view of what it means to be human. When we focus too much on how much humans fail to display godlike characteristics, we are tempted to dehumanize them. When we focus too much on the ways in which humans still have godlike features, we are tempted to idealize–and often idolize–them.

Thinking about this further after the meeting, it seemed to me that the major philosophical streams in Western society that inform everyone’s sense of self–enlightenment rationalism and romanticism–are both prone to these sorts of errors. To oversimplify here, the enlightenment rationalist may idolize humans who exhibit our capacity for godlike qualities such as reason, objectivity, and commitment to truth, while dehumanizing those they consider still trapped in superstitions like religion or respect for tradition. The romanticist is prone to idolize humans who take the inner journey to discover something true about their nature, but dehumanize critics who question the verities that inner journey supposedly reveal.

As I thought of the errors we make when we have either too high or too low a view of God’s image, I thought also of the political controversy of the moment in the U.S., i.e. the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Christine Blasey Ford presented riveting testimony of her memories of attempted rape. As a therapist who has had many conversations with trauma victims, I found her account convincing. To my mind, she showed in her brief time on the public stage a desire to tell the truth, a radical openness about a terribly painful experience, and a willingness to sacrifice her own well-being for the good of society. In all these things, I think she showed something of what God intended all of us to be. But couldn’t she be mistaken as to the identity of her assaulter? I tend to think her memory was accurate, but it might not be. She’s only human, after all. Those who think she couldn’t possibly be incorrect are overestimating human capability. Our memories aren’t godlike, after all.

So some are overestimating the image of God in her, seeing her as incapable of error. Others are making the opposite mistake, dehumanizing her so as to discredit her testimony. President Trump may unfortunately be among those losing sight of her humanity: at a rally last night, he took a mocking tone in describing her testimony, then added, “They [apparently meaning Dr. Ford and other accusers of sexual assault, though the reference isn’t clear] want to destroy people. These are really evil people.” So she’s not merely wrong, she’s one of those others, the evil ones, who are in some sense less than the rest of us good folks.

How about Judge Kavanaugh? I only heard about 20 minutes of his testimony, then saw clips from the rest of it. In the part I heard, he seemed arrogant, defensive, and entitled. His tone has generally been described as angry. It’s easier for me to come up with reasons he might deny a sexual assault that he actually remembers than to imagine Dr. Ford making up such allegations.

Yet I remember that he, too, bears God’s image. As such, there may be more truth in his denials than I am inclined to believe. I think his anger has resonated with conservatives, many of whom have had their motives impuged in a way similar to what they see in the commentary about Kavanaugh.  David French wrote of this in support of Judge Kavanaugh the day after the hearing:

“[I]t is a simple fact that time and again good conservative men and women have been subjected to horrific smears for the sin of disagreement, for in good faith believing in different policies, or in good faith holding different religious beliefs. They (we) have been called bigots, racists, and — yes — evil.”

In other words, they have been dehumanized for their political views. They’ve been judged not just as mistaken but as having evil intentions, as being somehow less than the enlightened ones on the Left. There have been plenty examples of this in responses to the Kavanaugh hearing. For example, Jeff Flake, who as much as any other Senator seems to be trying to hold in mind the humanity of both Ford and Kavanaugh, has for his troubles been labeled a “rape apologist” by the Woman’s March.

Ford, Kavanaugh, Flake, Trump, me–all of these bear the image of God. In all of them the image of God is distorted, shadowed by human corruption. To find my way through these troubled times I need to continually remind myself of these truths.

 

 

I have been writing about a trip I took in February to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The first-century religious structures that we visited were not Christian churches but pagan temples, since Christianity had not yet achieved the societal status that would make dedicated Christian worship spaces feasible. I wrote earlier about pagan temples, where the gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt were worshiped. Worshiping the Roman gods was considered a civic duty and necessary to maintaining good order. It was also a way to try to get the blessing of the god being worshiped. Many gods specialized in a particular type of blessing, and thus were sought out for that purpose. Most notably, one god was thought to provide insight into the future, and a related one was associated with healing.

Apollo was who you consulted if you wanted guidance concerning future plans–should you marry, take a journey, make an investment, or whatever. Our tour guide said that, besides the oracle at Delphi, there were three other main oracles in the ancient world, including the one we visited at Didyma. Here’s an article on the history of that site. The final temple to Apollo there (the Didymaion) was begun soon after a visit by Alexander the Great in 313 BC and was never completed, though work continued for hundreds of years.

The Didymaion

A Sacred Road led from Miletus, about ten miles away, to Apollo’s temple. Pilgrims coming to the Didymaion would offer a sacrifice at the altar at the foot of the temple steps. Then they waited until an opportunity was provided to ask a question to the oracle–or rather, ask a priest, since pilgrims weren’t allowed access to the adyton, or inner sanctuary. The Didymaion was unique among ancient temples in that the adyton was open to the sky and contained a sacred spring that was thought to be the source of the oracle’s power.

The Adyton

The pilgrim’s question was written down and carried to the oracle–one of several women who gave answers. It’s believed that the oracle would inhale fumes or chew some substance, inducing a trance that would facilitate communication from the spiritual realm. Whatever answer was given was then taken back to the pilgrim. The answers were sometimes subject to multiple interpretations and thus did not always provide clear guidance. I don’t know of any list of pronouncements by the oracle at Didyma, but here is a compilation from Delphi.

Healing was also associated with Apollo, but was even more associated with one of his children, Asclepius. Asclepius was said to be a demigod, having a divine father and a human mother. While he was in utero, an unfortunate love triangle developed, which Apollo resolved by killing his human lover and removing the baby from her womb, the first Caesarian section. As the myth goes, baby Asclepius was then raised by the centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. He became a great physician–too good, in fact, for his ability to raise humans from the dead (with the aid of Medusa’s blood) evoked Zeus’ ire. Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt, but he subsequently became a god. Asclepions–places of healing–were established in several cities, and pilgrims came to these to be cured. The most prominent Asclepion was at Epidaurus in Greece, but there was also a major center in Pergamum, in Asia Minor. It was begun in the 4th century BC and reached its height in the 2nd century AD, when Galen was the chief physician there.

The Sacred Way to the Asclepion at Pergamum, looking back towards the Acropolis.

Pilgrims came to the Asclepion in Pergamum along the Sacred Way, a colonnaded street leading from the acropolis to the healing complex. They arrived at a courtyard containing an altar to Asclepius, where they made offerings to the god. They would stay for weeks or months awaiting healing. A library and theater were located in the complex.

From the top of the theater at the Asclepion, looking over the healing complex.

Our guide indicated that the books in the library and the performances at the theater were all designed to create an attitude conducive to healing. There were pools for bathing and for mud bath treatments. There was also a sacred spring, whose water was thought to have curative effects. Nearby there were sleeping rooms, where the pilgrims slept in expectation that Asclepius would appear in their dreams. Such a nocturnal visit would sometimes result in immediate healing, but in other cases the dreamed-about healer would prescribe some sort of treatment–baths, exercises, mud baths, massages, ointments, and the like. In the treatment center, there were tubes through the ceiling down to where the pilgrims sat or slept. Speaking into these, the priests offered words of encouragement, such as “Asclepius has heard your prayers.”

In the treatment center.

Ancient pagans believed that, by means of the oracles of Apollo and the priests of Asclepius, prominent gods concerned themselves with the affairs of humans. They did so in a way that wasn’t malicious or cruel, unlike the purported behavior of many other Olympian deities. (Not that Apollo always treated humans well; just ask Cassandra). This is not the same as having deities that actually care about the welfare of humans, though. Apollo and Asclepius both got something for their beneficent acts–the sacrifices made by those who came to them. Thus, it was an exchange relationship, not one based on affection or compassion. That’s one of the ways in which the Christian God and the pagan deities differed. And, as I’ll suggest in my next post, such differences in the nature of divine favor may have been a major advantage for Christianity.

In February I traveled to Turkey to visit the sites of several early Christian churches. I’ve been posting since then about those churches and their cultural context. Most recently, I wrote about the ways in which the churches to whom the book of Revelation is addressed were pressured to compromise with the surrounding culture. This post will look at how other first century churches responded to societal pressures. In Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses, Bruce W. Winter reviews the challenges and the church’s response in several local situations, as revealed in the New Testament and in contemporaneous historical sources. I’ll briefly describe three such situations.

When the apostle Paul first visited Corinth, the Jewish leaders opposed him and tried to bring a criminal case against him before Galio, the procounsul of the province of Achaea. However, as described in Acts 18:12-17, Galio indicated that this was an internal Jewish matter. That response meant that the Christian assembly in Corinth was considered a Jewish gathering. That matters because those who lived in the area were expected to participate in the cult of emperor worship. Jews were exempted from participation in veneration of the emperor, and Galio’s ruling extended that exemption to Christians. Still, some Corinthian Christians apparently participated in feasts at the imperial temple; this seems to be what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 8. They were tempted both to enhance their social standing and to eat well:

“It is understandable, given the prestige and the sheer extravagance of such celebrations, that some Christians whose social status entitled them to participate rationalized their participation…” Winter, p.225

Compromise isn’t always due to persecution; carrots as well as sticks can motivate it.

Winter also describes the situation in Galatia, a region of Asia Minor visited by Paul during his first missionary journey. He later wrote a letter to the Galatians to challenge a group within the church–the Judaizers–who were trying to convince Gentile converts that they needed to be circumcised and follow ceremonial aspects of the Torah. The dispute between legalism and faith was a theological one but also had practical implications for living in the local setting. Whereas in Achaea Christians were considered to be Jews and thereby were granted an exemption from the requirement that they perform ritual sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor, the status of Christians was more ambiguous in other provinces, and thus there was more risk of persecution. This seems to be what Paul was referring to when he wrote in Gal. 6:12 about the motivation of the Judaizers:

” As many as are wanting to make a good showing in the flesh, these are attempting to compel* you to be circumcised, only so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.” (LEB)

Winter suggests that circumcision would make a “good showing in the flesh” in that those circumcised would be seen by society as having become Jewish–after all, they had acquired the fleshly mark that distinguished Jewish males. And if all the male Gentile converts underwent circumcision, the church as a whole would be insulated from legal sanctions:

“The results of this masterful solution proposed and so strongly promoted by some Galatian Christians, if accepted, meant that all Christians in Galatia had a legal status in the eyes of their fellow citizens. They would be considered Jewish either by birth or by proselytisation. They would be exempt from having to give divine honours to the Caesars and participation in other events that Rome had so skilfully linked into cultural events.” . Winter, p. 248

The problem was that this strategy for avoiding persecution was in effect a denial of a core component of the gospel message–that salvation doesn’t come through obedience to the law but by God’s grace extended to those who put their trust in Christ. It must have taken considerable courage to reject the false teaching of the Judiazers when doing so made one vulnerable to being prosecuted by the Roman authorities.

Agora in Perga, a city Paul visited after founding churches in Galatia

The book of Hebrews also alludes to ways that the surrounding culture created hardship for Christians. Again, the issue is that, by not expressing veneration for the gods and the emperor, the Christians aroused suspicion that they were subversive. David deSilva explains the public’s view as follows:

“Worship of the deities was something of a symbol for one’s dedication to the relationships that kept society stable and prosperous. By abstaining from the former, Christians (like the Jews) were regarded with suspicion as potential violators of the laws and subversive elements within the empire.” (Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews,” p. 12)

In the past, this attitude toward Christian converts had resulted in harsh measures being directed against them. The sufferings they had endured are catalogued in Heb. 10:32-34:

“Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”

Winter indicates that the public insult the author refers to typically occurred at the local theatre. The person or persons to be so exposed would be put on stage and subjected to degrading comments from the audience. The purpose would be to shame the victims into complying with societal expectations. Such episodes also provided entertainment for the crowd. The “persecution” here could well have been public floggings. For some, humiliation was followed by imprisonment. Roman prisons didn’t provide the inmates with any sort of provision, so the situation of an incarcerated Christian was dire unless their faith community came to their aid. Finally, their property could be seized by the authorities. Roman law stated that “the property of those who ought to be accused, or have been caught committing a crime, or who have killed themselves should be confiscated.” (quote from Winter, p. 274)

Christians could be charged with the crime of not participating in ritual worship of the emperor. They could also be charged with meeting together regularly. Legislation under Augustus had forbidden all associations from meeting more than weekly. Jews were granted exemptions from both these laws, but it was under the discretion of the local governor as to whether Christians were considered Jews. The prohibition against frequent meetings puts the author’s admonition that they not neglect to meet together (10:24) in a rather ominous light!

So the consequences that the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced as a result of their faith were worse than those faced by the Corinthian Christians, and probably also than those faced by the Galatians. Still, there hadn’t been any martyrs yet in among the recipients (12:4). They endured their initial persecution. Would they continue to endure the hardships that come with being members of a reviled minority, though? Winter thinks that another, even more shameful and disruptive threat may have awaited some of them–exile. That might be the meaning of the suggestion that the hearers go to Jesus “outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.” (13:13) Persevere, says the writer of the letter, and you will receive your reward. That is a message that heartened the followers of Christ throughout the ages. It’s by God’s grace that enough managed to persevere despite the terrible cost they bore.

 

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