Christianity and the Transformation of the Book

From my position on the outside of academia, the digital humanities seem to be important, though not so much at Geneva. In a senior state-of-the-field class, we devoted a class session and readings to the topic, and I must admit that I found it a little silly. Are we to assume that because of technical innovation that our whole method of thinking about history and society needs to change? More than anything else, I got ticked because I couldn’t see how it fit in with everything else that we were studying – deep, complicated theory questions. From this we turn to a discussion of Youtube.

In Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, Grafton and Williams make a convincing argument about something very similar that happened in late antiquity. They argue that Origen, Eusebius and other Christian scholars sparked a tremendous advance in the material production of scholarship – in Origen’s Hexapla (a massive OT is parallel columns of Hebrew, LXX, and several other translations), Eusebius’ Chronicle and the massive scale of book production in Caesarea at that time.  They argue that these kinds of technical advances gave them unmatched scholarly resources and helped shape the discourse of historians and exegetes for the “millennial project of Christian scholarship.”

And what is more, as far as I can tell, they outline some of Origen and Eusebius’ advances well and tie them in very interestingly to a history of late antiquity. In fact, they force me to do a little reconsidering of my earlier discounting of the digital humanities concept. The fact is, simply, that someone with the internet available and a modicum of common sense has access to an immense amount of data and ways to index and search it. There are significant limitations to the reliability of these sources, but it gives us a huge advantage over these ancient scholars.

Even discounting the internet, the cheap availability of books would be amazing to these scholars, as would be the ease of use that printing allows. Honestly, the Gutenberg revolution seems to guide my personal reading habits just as much as the digital age does. Still, the searching and indexing functions of computers are invaluable in attempting to find resources (even at your friendly local library). I’m still a little confused about the precise innovation of the digital humanities but after reading the work of Grafton and Williams I can acknowledge that the technical innovation that it provides is definitely worth discussion, even in a theory-focused class.

(a sidenote: Just as interesting as I find the technical aspects of Grafton and Williams’ work, I also am fascinated by their sense of the long tradition of Christian scholars. This might just be my reading into the text my own sense of lineage with the Christian tradition, but I do wonder if Grafton and Williams see themselves as continuing in this line. I am curious if they see their faith tradition as similarly like that of Origen and Eusebius. I know that reading about the faithful scholarly work of these men is inspiring to me as I consider a career spent in very different modern academia.)

The Christian Tradition

As promised, now I get to discuss Pelikan’s Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Rereading this, I realize how critical I am, and I certainly didn’t intend to be quite this nasty. That being said, it seems to me that this book has serious problems.

When I say this book bored me, please understand that I am very easily entertained. At times, I’ve even been known to read an academic monograph for fun, and Mr. Bean continues to crack me up. There are probably several reasons why I found this book frightfully dull, but I’ll only address a couple here.

First, I have no idea who the audience for this book is supposed to be. It goes into too much detail to be assigned as a textbook for undergraduates, and yet not nearly enough detail for experts in the field or even for a good graduate class. The whole text (all of his The Christian Tradition) weighs in at ~1500 pages, which is a mammoth achievement, but hardly enough to do justice to the entire sweep of church history. Why does this matter? I’m not sure he knew his audience, which shows a dreadful lack of attention to some basic rhetorical rules (thanks Dr. Haas!) If he isn’t awake enough to make that kind of judgment, why should I be awake enough to read him?

Second, Pelikan, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a thesis for the whole text. Each individual chapter has one (and usually argues well: chapters 2 and 3, in particular, rehash much of Turner’s argument in Without God, Without Creed), but the work as a whole just meanders along, telling history in the form of “X happened, and then Q happened.” I would chalk this up to my general lack of knowledge, and inability to read a complicated academic text, but he doesn’t provide an epilogue and his forward singularly fails to orient the reader. Also, one of the main goals of my college education was to enable me to read and understand complicated texts. To fail this blatantly to recognize a thesis at least shows Pelikan’s inability to signpost well.

The strongest thing I can say about the unity of this text is that it all relates (as he promised in the introduction) to specifically church dogmatics. He doesn’t go off into trails on particular theologians, much, but tries to sum up traditions and how these traditions reacted and reflected the changes of modernity. And that is a tremendously valuable task. The church as a whole is at least as important and as worthy of study as individual theologians such as Barth or Kierkegaard.

Another point in Pelikan’s favor is his willingness to take on a project of this depth and complexity. He wrote a history of the church’s theology from the apostolic age to Vatican II. That is a tremendous achievement, requiring a huge amount of learning and skill. He planned and wrote the text over the course of some forty years, and the work he put into it shows. I just wish that it was presented a little more cohesively, with a tighter focus on making an argument. Then this could have not merely been a chronicle, but an actual history.

Walk in the Light

One of the most difficult aspects of doing this reading log is avoiding pretension. It will be far too easy, it seems, to merely write about books that I read that are worthwhile and not just write about everything. For example – the first post was written because I read Iron Council, by China Miéville. But, I didn’t feel the need to tell you this, because I really wanted to write on church membership. Admitting my love for a trotskyist fantasy writer might have diminished that a little.

So, in the interest of not being an insufferable snob, I’m going to let you know that Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (vol 5 – the modern one) nearly did me in. Why is a subject for another post. But, I do have to thank him, because he drove me into the arms of fiction again: Tolstoy’s short stories (Walk in the Light and twenty three tales, to be exact). Now, don’t be too impressed by the Tolstoy name, this is merely a collection of moralistic fables and reflections on how men ought to act.

And as moralistic fables these stories were, not surprisingly, very good. Tolstoy uses detail to bring his stories to life, keeps them short, and usually provides a good take-away moral. Essentially, he wants to teach us, we ought to love Christ, and because of that we ought to love others. Everything else will just take care of itself. He layers on a thick helping of romanticism about physical labor and a peasant’s lifestyle.

Though he does, naturally, write well, these stories suffer the same downfall as all moralistic stories – they give a suffocating burden of guilt to people who actually try to hear them. We cannot do good all by ourselves, and if we try (and trust me, I’ve tried) we simply fall deeper and deeper into a slough of despond. The only one who can rescue us from this is God. Put simply, we don’t have to work feverishly, attempting by some heroic act of will to improve our lot and save ourselves from our miserable condition. Jesus already did that for us.

Tolstoy doesn’t necessarily falls into the trap of saying we earn our own salvation (though he comes close at times). He avoids it merely to say that we would be so much happier if we followed the precepts of Christ with regard to love of God and neighbor. This is undoubtedly true, but a common misreading would seem to let us slip back into the old folly of attempting to resurrect ourselves.

Also, seriously, what is the glory of manual labor? I’ve done a share in my life, and while it does have significant benefits, Tolstoy doesn’t help his case by romanticizing it as much as he does in these stories. As it is, they read like the stories of a member of the nobility writing on the noble savage who happens to work for him. Not the most convincing case.

All that being said, I do wish I had his beard:

Life Together

Looking back, I realize that the 500+ word essay really isn’t very suited for a blog. Still, I am merely attempting to provide some vague external compulsion to keep my original commitment, nothing more. So, hypothetical reader, no offense, but you aren’t important.

I just finished Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which might just end up being the “rule” of any commune if I should found one. He goes, very well, through public and private practices of worship, laying out a suggested format but also addressing the spiritual elements of fellowship, confession and liturgy.

Reading this, I can see some of why people have difficulty placing Bonhoeffer in neat American theological categories. On one level, he reads as an entirely typical evangelical – he is both centered on Christ and the Bible. Still, we need to be careful not to read him as a mirror of American Evangelicalism – both for the reasons that Williams reminds us of of the past being a foreign country, and also because several of his emphases are missing in American evangelicalism. Anything like what Bonhoeffer calls fellowship, an intentional community, is very rare in evangelicalism until about thirty years ago, in one particular branch of the neo-evangelical movement. Except for family worship (which is a significant aspect of Bonhoeffer’s advice), the advice on living in community would hit many as being good advice, if slightly irrelevant. We also can see some of this in his advice on confession, a practice that I find difficult to imagine happening in a typical evangelical church.

Like I said, I found this text to be fascinating both practically and theoretically. Still, in some cases Bonhoeffer seems to get ridiculously off track. One of these places is when he is very careful to encourage singing in unison as opposed to “destroyers of unison singing” of which he is careful to tell us that “there is no place in worship where vanity and bad taste can so intrude as in the singing” (60). Now, clearly there are places and cases where his advice is perfectly correct – the music is to serve the words, particularly when we sing scripture (as is the practice of my church in using the psalter exclusively). This is important, and we need to devote ourselves to doing it correctly. That being said, it seems obvious that when part singing is done correctly, it mirrors the kind of fellowship that Bonhoeffer would like to see. Not everyone in the church serves the same purpose, or has the same gift to contribute. Still, if harmony is done correctly, then the parts work together, making together something that cannot be made separately and cannot be made by only one individual. How is this not a good demonstration of the proper unity of the church?

Ahem. Sorry. I can get carried away. But, with the exception of caveats such as that, this text is invaluable as a practical guide for serving God more closely and with greater diligence. He gives lessons that I would be wise to learn from, and gives a good manual of spiritual health.

Rise of Western Christendom

At Geneva, we talk constantly of changing the culture to better conform to the will of God. As we do this, it would behoove us to study a little more deeply cases in which people actually attempted to do this and the level of success (or failure) that they had. By looking at the examples of the puritans, the anabapists, and the early church we can better plan out an assault on the kingdom of this world and ways to avoid the pitfalls which they fell into.

           Having just finished The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown (yes, it’s a back breaker – I was merely late in posting the last paper, my apologies), some of these questions come into deeper focus. The story of the early church, as our non-Christian friends are quick to remind us, is far from pretty. The church has a long history of aligning itself with the power structure and using the hegemonic power of the state and educational establishment to further an agenda of squelching alternative cultures. Brown’s narrative, starting as it does with the conversion of Constantine, brings this into focus well. This isn’t a gorgeous picture in front of us. And we ought to recognize that when Geneva speaks of creating an explicitly Christian culture, this is what a member of a secular intelligentsia would think of – a tyrannical Christian state using religion as a means of buttressing its own power.

That being said, Brown doesn’t view the objects of his study with disdain, as I just did. Instead, he views their task as being fundamentally one of slow, gradual cultural change. Reading this book as a Christian, I see it as the story of faithful men and women who sought, with varying degrees of faithfulness and success, to conform their society and their lives better to the way that God would want them to live. Often, I think they did this wrong, or took a route of compromise with their surrounding culture rather than fierce confrontation of it. We can see some of this in the penitentials of Irish Christendom, the relation of almsgiving to forgiveness, and cult of saints that arose as a means of Christianizing the sacral dimensions of everyday life in semi-pagan Europe. But, I must be careful not to condemn too strongly – not fall into the trap that Williams warns against in Why Study History? of judging historical figures against modern times.

The main means by which Christendom arose, according to Brown, is merely by declaring that it had already won. After the elites were won, then any pagans that remained were obviously merely the relics of an older, less intelligent age. The problem then wasn’t conversion as much as it was merely education and raising the general population up to a broader standard of learning and piety. This seems to parallel exactly with what happened (in reverse) in the Western world through the course of the 20th century. A secular elite arose and decided that it alone held the key for progress. Other groups were merely backward and needed to be educated with varying degrees of state coercion. This thesis on the development of Christendom feeds in interesting ways into Turner’s argument in How to Change the World, that social structures and the elites that inhabit them are vital if we want a modern re-Christianization of western society.

Brown isn’t making an argument for modern forms of cultural change, merely making a historical argument on how change actually happened in Europe of this time. As such, his book is encyclopedic without being boring – quite an accomplishment. As I said above, these examples can give us insight into how to actually make real, lasting change. It isn’t quick, and it isn’t easy, but cultures do change as the result of sustained engagement.

Why Study the Past?

I suppose I should have started with this, but here is a brief discussion of why I write, and exactly what I’m doing here. I recently graduated from Geneva College, and as part of a continuous self-improvement plan (which sounds really pretentious, my apologies. Read that as merely something scribbled on a napkin somewhere), decided that I would attempt to keep both reading and writing in a semi-serious vein outside of the academic world.

So, my goal is to write at least 500 words for each book that I finish. So far, in Beaver Falls after visiting with my parents, I have only read two books, hence the first post on church membership and this one. The book that I read this time was Rowan Williams’ “Why Study the Past?” As Dan, my roommate, put it: “Now that you’re graduated with a history degree, and applying for jobs, you’re trying to assure yourself that it really was worth it.”

A fairly short series of lectures, Why Study the Past? reads mainly as an apologia for a certain kind of Anglicanism (which makes sense, considering the author). It is very much written in light of current church debates and the common appeal to the historical church and historical church practice. That being said, Archbishop Williams makes some excellent points for us to consider when reading history, whether church history or merely generic intellectual history.

Williams points out, as we have all heard before, that “the past is a foreign country.” One of the great pitfalls of doing historical theology is reading the past in such a way as to support what you want it to say. Modern evangelicalism can be very guilty of this when we read the church fathers as being older versions of what we ourselves are, with the same conversion mentality and mission-minded worldview. Even people intending to show the historic nature of the church’s care for the poor can over read into the past the narrative of the church taking care of the poorer brethren while ignoring the church’s concurrent role as the author of oppression. People in the past don’t think like we do, and Williams does an excellect job reminding us of this.

This point leads, naturally, to one of his other great points, that although Christians in the past are in a foreign country, there is still a great similarity between us because both us and them worship the same out-of-time God. We share a common language of liturgy and praise. Like when we visit a foreign country and worship in a language that we do not understand, we know that there is a deep identity between us and the inasmuch as we both relate in some sense to the deeper reality of God and his plan (cf Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – he would say that this is, in fact, the only true kind of spiritual fellowship).

We need to bear both of these things in mind as we look to the past to help us construct a common sense of identity, to figure out what the church is and what it ought to be in the context of a rapidly changing world. Because of the book’s basis as lectures, this does seem very much like an introductory lecture on church history, given to a intelligent audience seeking to understand better how to relate to the past in a faithful way.

Church Membership

Last Sunday I joined a local church: College Hill RPC. I’ve been going there throughout my time at Geneva, and the session accepted me into the church, but this public taking of vows officially sealed the deal. This is insanely important – in fact, it was probably one of the most important things I have done this year. It has real spiritual effects, as well as more mundane ones, like getting me a place to eat Sunday lunches for the next month or so.

My parents talk a lot about church-based community development, as opposed to community development built around a generic (or even an explicitly Christian) NGO. Going through the process of joining CHRP, I’ve been thinking a more concretely about why this is and why it is so important.

On a secular level, churches, at least in America and Africa, are always there. No matter how depressed an area is, there is invariably a church. There might not be a library, nor a grocery store, nor much of anything else. But there is a church. And in this church, there are people who can lead – if only so much as to organize a service and get people to come. They have leadership experience, which can often be very difficult to find in the kind of places that my parents work and which if vital for serious locally focused development work to be done.

The only other comparably ubiquitous social structure is the school, which is only almost as common. In schools, however, we get government involvement of the level that makes it difficult to break people of an instinctive dependence on government – a natural lean toward the outside expert rather than the local who knows the community and its resources.

So, there is a secular reason, but there is also a spiritual one which is even more potent. The church is how God usually choses to act in the world. God can act outside the church, don’t mistake me, but he usually operates inside it. He didn’t merely, after the resurrection, call all people to himself with the power of the Holy Spirit, though he indisputably could have. Rather, he worked through his church, as we can see in Acts, to evangelize the world, and to perform acts of mercy and service to each other. They did this in the power of the Holy Spirit, but they did do it.

The church is even called Christ’s body. It has a tremendous power: when Christ tells his disciples in the context of Church discipline “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 18:18) he gives that power also, by extension, to the heirs of the disciples, to us. We are empowered by Christ to do great things through his church.

Now, I am far from Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (outside of the church, no salvation, if my schoolboy Latin holds). God is powerful enough to work even outside the church. He can, indeed, save Christians as individuals rather than as a church, and he does work in organizations to do specific things that the church is either too disorganized and too weak to do or legally prohibited from doing. Still, in the ordinary course of events, God acts through his church. And that is one reason why I am so excited to be a part of CHRP, and why my parents spend so much time and energy working with and supporting the local churches.