Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Reformation Day

October 31, 2017

If I am obliged to talk about the Reformation on it’s 500th anniversary, at least I can do it from a somewhat different angle.  Unfortunately, it’s an angle I don’t really care for – beer.  Still, it’s good to remember how impactful Luther was on so many different aspects of our culture today.


Book Review – The Blue Coat

October 29, 2017

The Blue Coat by Margie Brown.  Private printing.

The members of my congregation are by and large post-retirement age.  They are a delightful group of people with an amazing diversity of backgrounds and experiences.  But being of that age, there are several who lived through The War (World War II).  Several who lived through it in Germany or escaping from Germany.  Margie is one of those.  She was nine as the war was raging and bombs were falling on her hometown.  Nine years old as her father was fighting on the front lines in Russia, as her mother was sick and sometimes bed-ridden, and as her younger siblings were lost and rediscovered in the mad shuffle to try and keep people safe.

Margie suffered with nightmares for years, and when she married her husband suggested to her that she write down some of her war experiences.  The result is The Blue Coat, a short and simple telling of some of the key events of her life as a nine-year old in the midst of war.  Although she was encouraged to write more of her story during those years, she opted to keep it brief and focused.  Her nightmares went away.  And her family and a few privileged friends now have the opportunity to peek into a nine-year old’s view of the war.

Not surprisingly it is not about ideologies or political agendas.  It is simply about a girl trying to keep her family together – a task sometimes made harder by well-intentioned strangers.  A girl following instructions in order to remain safe from bombs and hunger.

It’s shocking, to think that a nine-year old could endure such things, but of course there are plenty of nine-year olds around the world today (or younger) who endure similar or worse, and for longer periods of time.  I grew up in a peculiar bubble, culturally and historically.  I didn’t need to fight in a war.  I haven’t had to worry about my house being bombed.  My family tucks one another into bed at night in peace and security.  The fact that people can survive and eventually thrive under opposite circumstances is incredible.

I wish more people were required to talk to and read the notes of those who have lived through terrible events, as a means of sharing perspective.  Our rights of free speech are being openly abridged and stripped away because of concerns that what is said might hurt someone else’s feelings, someone who won’t be able to cope knowing that someone, somewhere nearby, is saying something they disagree with.  It’s a big world out there, full of people who disagree with you.  Sometimes they drop bombs on your houses, and sometimes they don’t.  But knowing that you might be called upon to recover your siblings from homes they’ve been farmed out to might be a good way of reminding people that we need to be more resilient than we apparently are, more able to cope with pressure.  You can’t prepare for these things adequately, of course.  But you can certainly do better than refusing to deal with an offensive world.

ANF – The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus

March 27, 2017

After considerable delay, here is another document in ancient Christian literature and the second document included in the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

The there is no authorial identification or designation, so we don’t know who wrote it.  The traditional title is The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, however mathetes simply means disciple in Greek.   The manuscript for some time was attributed to Justin Martyr, although stylistic differences have resulted in most scholars today dismissing that attribution.  Nor do we have any clear idea of the identity of Diognetus, although some propose that it is the teacher of Marcus Aurelius who we know had the same name.  Although convenient, it is at best a stretch to insist on this connection.  The date of the writing ranges from early second century (perhaps 130 AD) to sometime in the late second century, and is likely the earliest surviving example of Christian apologetics.

The letter purports to explain to Diognetus more about the Christian faith and how it differs from both Jewish belief and pagan religions.  The letter cites Christianity as a new kind of practice, arguing for a very early dating for the document.  The author also claims to be a disciple of the Apostles, which many argue means a very early dating but which could also be a description applied to Christians today.  Many scholars dismiss the last two sections as later additions.  Only one copy of this document is known to have existed, and it was destroyed in 1870.  It was first translated and published in 1592.

The author first demonstrates the futility of worshiping physical idols.  Then he moves on to dismissing Jewish religion as equally misguided.  The pagans are foolish in that they offer material things to carved images.  The Jews are silly in that they propose to offer material things to an immaterial God who has no need of them and who is indeed the source and creator of them.  The author then moves on to explain basic Christian theology, emphasizing the Gospel or the sweet exchange in which we who are dead in our sins are credited with the righteousness of the Son of the living God.

It’s a great, brief contrast of the Christian faith to other religions, emphasizing our need for and God’s provision of a Savior.

History Still in the Making

March 7, 2017

Every now and then this local web site posts interesting historical tidbits drawn from newspapers a century or so ago.  This one was interesting because it pictures the first worship space our congregation built a century ago.  Time flies, faces change, but the Word of God continues to go out in our community!

The Common Cup

February 22, 2017

Does your church use the common cup (chalice) or individual cups for the wine at Holy Communion?  How much do you think about how it’s done?

The common cup/chalice is the ancient practice of the church, stemming from Jesus’ words and practice at the Last Supper where it seems very clear that the disciples are drinking from a single cup that Jesus passes to them.  But around the turn of the 20th century, that began to change for many congregations.  For a tongue-in-cheek history, you could read this essay.

One of the major concerns appears to have been hygiene – how safe can it be to all drink from the same cup now that we know about germs and bacteria and the like?  Well, it appears to be a lot safer than we thought it was, or than we think it is now.  For a more official treatment of the topic, you could reference this LA Times article from a few years ago.   The fact that most Communion chalices were/are made from silver or gold means that they don’t host bacteria and other nasties on their own.  Combine this with the (slight) alcohol content of the wine, and the use of a clean purificator utilized in an appropriate way, and you have a very sanitary ritual.

In fact, the cleanliness traditionally began before the chalice ever touched anyone’s lips.  The Roman Catholic mass includes the lavabo, the washing of the celebrant’s hands.  In the ancient Eastern church, this rite took place just before the celebrant would put on the special vestments for Holy Communion (the chasuble).  The chasuble helps to draw greater attention to the high point of Christian worship – as we receive the body and blood of Jesus the Christ in with and under the bread and the wine.  In our Lutheran circles there are still some churches and pastors that utilize a chasuble, but it has fallen out of fashion with the majority of them.  In the Western church, the lavabo rite was performed also just before actually administering the elements, rather than prior to vesting.  The name of the rite comes from Psalm 25:6, which was read (through verse 12) as part of the rite.

So, in other words, in the oldest practices of the Church, the common cup/chalice has been a safe means of sharing in Holy Communion – certainly far safer than other traditions such as the passing of the peace or the traditional time of fellowship after worship.  I’ve just reinstated the use of the common cup/chalice in our congregation, offering it as an option for those who request it.  Most don’t, but more and more are beginning to.  And if they so choose, hopefully they’ll realize that it is relatively safe to do so!

Deceptive Smugness

February 9, 2017

History has always fascinated me.  While that makes me marginally useful in trivia battles, it also (hopefully) provides me with valuable perspectives on life today and how we see ourselves.  The habit of looking at people in the past ought to condition how we look at ourselves.

As such,  I found this essay from Scientific American interesting initially because of the historical trivia.  But what I found ultimately more interesting is his philosophical application of the trivia.  He mocks doctors from 140 years ago for rejecting a new scientific idea circulating at the time which attributed infections to bacteria in the air and elsewhere which could only be seen under a microscope.  Of course today, when this has been well-proven it is easy to laugh at someone 140 years ago who doubted the novel assertion.

Germ theory is generally claimed to have emerged in the 1860’s or later. One of the doctors being mocked in the essay, Frank Hastings, graduated from medical school in 1835. The other, Alfred Loomis, graduated in 1852.  They can reasonably be excused for being suspicious of a new theory of infections.  But the author of the essay uses their initial disregard of germ theory as an example of how we shouldn’t miss opportunities to become smarter.  He then applies this to current politics and observes that “we insist on staying stupid when becoming smarter is an option.”

I don’t know many people who willfully remain stupid.  I know a lot of people who, like Loomis and Hastings, are skeptical about wholeheartedly endorsing whatever the latest scientific fashion or hypothesis is, particularly when we live in an age of information overload and so much of what we are told one day is seemingly reversed and contradicted the next.  Depending on who funds the study and what their perceived bias’ might be. Historically speaking, becoming smarter is a decidedly difficult thing to do properly.

Our country continues in the throes of violent (physically as well as verbally) disagreement over the trajectory of our nation’s policies.  The status quo – tacitly agreed to by both political parties – has been thrown off course somewhat by an unexpected President who  holds little regard for either political party and is attempting to implement some rather massive changes to the political system.  He doesn’t appear to have any major reason not to push for changes he actually thinks would be helpful.  He’s quite successful personally and isn’t reliant on political connections to further himself personally now or after his term ends.  He appoints outsiders and people who haven’t been part of the system to head major agencies.

This infuriates those who disagree with him, who are unable to understand how and why anyone without relevant experience in a given area, or with experience that is deemed undesirable in an area should be placed in charge of a government agency.  They seem convinced that the system is just fine.  In need of some tweaks and fine tuning, perhaps, but essentially functioning properly.  In the case of education, this means decrying the appointment of someone from outside of the teacher’s unions and without relevant bureaucratic experience as Education Secretary.  Despite the fact that a long string of far more qualified people have failed to improve substantively the quality of public education as a whole.

We could be in the middle of a difficult and surprising transition, an opportunity to become smarter despite the prevailing wisdom which is grounded in ideas and policies of the past.  How shocked many people would be to look back in five or ten or twenty years and recognize that the major changes suggested by an unpopular and inexperienced administration could actually be smarter than the advocacy of staying the course or doing things the way they’ve been done for years!  I imagine that critics today, confronted with their obstinance at some point in the future, would defend themselves by saying that there was no way that anyone could have known that such changes were actually smarter than prevailing wisdom, just as Loomis and Hastings undoubtedly would say in their own defense today.

A familiarity with history should ultimately lead us towards humility, rather than smugness.  One constant of history is that people have been surprised by major shifts in nearly every aspect of life.  It hasn’t been a steady progression of getting smarter, but often the raucous in-breaking of an outsider’s ideas that have made all the difference.  We’re grateful for their contributions in hindsight, but at the time they were nuisances or written off as charlatans, persecuted and mocked.

In the sciences as well as in every field, we need to train our young people to retain a bit of humility regardless of how  advanced their studies, how many degrees they accumulate, or how many articles they publish.  They may be critical of new ideas and have many good supporting reasons, but they should also be open to the possibility that they’re wrong.  That they’re only human and therefore blind to an opportunity to become smarter.  Not because they’re bad people, but just because they are limited in what they can know. The bleeding edge of becoming smarter is a pretty exciting place to imagine yourself, but odds are that a lot fewer of us are actually on that edge than imagine ourselves to be.

ANF -The First Epistle of Clement

February 1, 2017

One of my goals for many years has been to familiarize myself with the Church Fathers.  Though defined in different ways, I define it as those earliest Christians who left us manuscripts after the Apostles.  Thanks to a generous and very kind gift from Lois, I’m able to begin work on this goal at long last.  Yes, I know there are online resources for many of these things, but I’m old fashioned and like the idea of having a physical book to mark-up and refer to as necessary.

While many folks talk about the Church Fathers, I was never introduced to them properly in Seminary so I assume I will display gross ignorance on a regular basis as I comment on these writings.

Lots of interesting things to note.  Firstly, the Church Fathers don’t generate a lot of interest these days, as the last major translation work was done over 100 years ago (at least in treating of all of the writings and Fathers as a whole).  Scholarship is likely to have improved at least in some respects for some of these writings, but I’ll figure that out down the road, maybe.

The first writing in the compendium is the First Epistle of Clement.  Clement is traditionally held to be the one mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3, which means Clement is a contemporary of Paul and knew him personally – something I didn’t know – and which merits him priority as the first of the Church(post-apostolic) Fathers.   This letter is written from Clement, presumably at Rome, to the church in Corinth – the same church that St. Paul founded in Acts 18 and wrote two letters to that are included in the New Testament canon.  This Epistle is the only writing that is known (at least through tradition) to come from Clement’s hand, although other various writings are less reliably attributed to him.  Roman Catholics refer to him as Pope Clement I.  He is presumed to have been ordained by St. Peter prior to Peter’s martyrdom.  Little is known about his life and death (anything claiming to be authoritative or specific dates from 300 years after his life and death), but he is referenced as early as 199 AD by Tertullian.

The letter itself is a call for peace and reconciliation in the church at Corinth, which was apparently experiencing an even greater division and lack of unity than when St. Paul wrote his 1 Corinthians.  The issue appears to be a group of people in that church who wished to be treated with special honor and prestige, and were causing division in the congregation, to such an extent that word has come to Clement in Rome as well as to other Christian communities.  Clement calls the Corinthians to humility, repentance, and reconciliation.

To do this, he quotes a rather stunning number of Old Testament precedents while also making reference to Paul and the apostles.  Reconciliation is the duty of Christian community, and those guilty of causing discord should be willing not just to repent, but to even bear suffering or eviction from the community if those are the only means by which unity can be restored.  Clement concludes his letter trusting that such measures are unnecessary and looking forward to further reports that his admonitions have been heeded.

It’s not a particularly fascinating read, and is markedly different from the apostolic writings of the New Testament.  The Apostles write with authority – quoting Scripture on occasion or frequently, but for the most part simply saying what needs to be said.  Clement relies far more on Scripture quotations than he does on his own words for at least 3/4 of the letter, becoming more direct and authoritative towards the end.  Clearly he wants to demonstrate that the Corinthians should listen in accordance to the word of God and not just his own word, but even still – it’s a lot of regurgitation on a scale far exceeding the New Testament.


January 23, 2017

I have never subscribed to a YouTube channel.  I likely never will.  But were I going to, this might be the one.

I really enjoy this guy’s musings on weaponry, particularly the medieval stuff.  I have no idea if he actually knows what he’s talking about or not, but he makes sense.  I haven’t been able to find any hard information about him or about his background, even on his web site.

Until shown why I shouldn’t, I shall continue to find him mildly amusing and potentially enlightening!

Disputed Proof

December 8, 2016

A great little article detailing a scholar’s assertions that the scrawls on an ancient stone found in Egypt are actually Hebrew alphabet characters that peg a Hebrew presence in Egypt to the rough timeframe described in the Bible.  Scholars have grown fond of arguing that the Hebrews couldn’t possibly have been in and left Egypt as early as the Bible states (roughly 1800 BC to 1400 BC), but this scholar’s work challenges their assumptions.  It’s a fascinating counter-argument to the oft-voiced academic idea that the Bible is not a reliable historical document!



Belatedly, Halloween

November 29, 2016

A short article with some good links debunking the wildly popular notion that most holidays are somehow ancient pagan celebrations that Western Christianity has plastered itself over.  I was taught these myths as I studied history and read lots of books in my younger years, but scholarship is examining more closely the claims that Christianity is just ripping off older rituals.

I just saw a post on Facebook the other day mocking Christians for celebrating events like Halloween using ancient pagan rituals that were intended as worship for other gods.  It’s good to remember that many of these claims are patently false, and actual historical scholarship rather than Internet memes should be the basis for demonstrating that.