Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Two-Week Break from Blogging

(Painting: "Resting Beside a River," by David Bates, 1840-1921)

I'm taking a couple weeks off from the blog. This week will largely be devoted to planning my church's 175th Anniversary Celebration events, and the following week I'll be on vacation. Posts will resume the week of October 1.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

God, of your goodness, give me yourself; for you are sufficient for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want. In you alone do I have all.

- Julian of Norwich

Friday, September 15, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 10: Chicken

(Full links to the Theological Bestiary series can be found by clicking the "Ornitheology" option in the Full Series list on the blog's sidebar)

The chicken is perhaps the most widely known bird on the planet, because it is almost universally domesticated for meat and eggs. It also happens to hold a prominent place in the biblical narrative, and to be a potent symbol in later Christian art. But before we get to that, here's a few things you may not have known about the common barnyard chicken:

- Every domesticated variety of this bird (which can vary widely in size, plumage, and behavior) are derived from a single species: the red junglefowl (with some possible contribution from the closely related grey junglefowl). This species, Gallus gallus, is a common wild bird native to Southeast Asia. In fact, so striking is the clear similarity between the wild bird and its domesticated progeny that one could easily mistake a red junglefowl for a barnyard chicken. From the beginning, it appears to have been domesticated for its fighting abilities (cockfighting became popular throughout the ancient world in the two millennia before Christ), as well as for its meat and eggs. The red junglefowl is uniquely suited to egg-laying, because its reproductive cycles are significantly exaggerated in frequency: in its natural habitat, this was an adaptation that enabled junglefowl to take advantage of the copious fruiting cycles of native trees and bamboo, and as a domesticated bird, this frequency of egg-laying naturally translated to benefits for its human masters. From its center in Southeast Asia, the junglefowl was domesticated (perhaps around 8000 BC) and became common in southern and eastern Asia; it was introduced to the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin by at least 2000 BC, to Egypt before 1000 BC, and to sub-Saharan Africa before 1000 AD. As such, the common chicken colonized the world well before the political forces of global colonial empires did; in fact, there's even a theory that chickens may have been introduced to the Americas from Polynesia well before Columbus' arrival in the New World.

- Chickens have a widespread reputation for not being particularly bright; but, like most birds, they tend to have a good awareness of their surroundings and are well-adapted to finding means of survival in many different conditions. As a child in Texas, I often marveled at how ingenious the chickens could be in finding ways to knock down the birdseed intended for cardinals and pyrrhuloxias (usually by smashing their heads against the bird feeder): a technique that must have taken some significant problem-solving skills, as I've observed that it seems to be beyond the pigeons who currently try to raid my feeders. (I actually grew so attached to chickens that, for several years thereafter, I refused to eat any chicken meat at all.)

- Another common misconception is that roosters only crow at sunrise. Anyone who has been around roosters, however--say, trying to sleep in a tent in an African village, with roosters close at hand--will attest to the fact that roosters crow whenever they feel like it, day or night, but especially when you would like to keep sleeping.

- Every single year, in the US alone, we kill more chickens for meat (8 billion) than there are people in the world.

-  Back in 1945, there was a famous chicken that was apparently able to live without its head. This chicken, Mike, had had its head chopped off as part of the regular slaughter to harvest meat at a Colorado farm. But this particular chicken kept kicking and running around, far longer than is normal for a beheaded chicken (and a little bit of headless running is not abnormal). It ultimately lived for eighteen months without a head, and its owners gained some significant fame and a bit of pocket change by taking it on the sideshow circuit. Apparently enough of its brainstem had been kept in place to enable its survival (though naturally without its higher brain functions), and its owners kept it alive by giving it food and water through a dropper.

- Because it was so often bred for cockfighting, the chicken became known throughout the Mediterranean world for its fearless valor. It was highly regarded both for its selflessness (a rooster is often said to call his hens to eat first if he finds some good food) and for its bravery (the Greeks held that even lions were afraid of roosters). It often appeared as a symbolic animal for mythological figures renowned for their courage, like Ares and Heracles. We even have an English word for a preening sort of brash self-confidence, derived from the rooster: "cocksure." In the Roman Empire, chickens were often used as oracles, used to interpret the "auspices" for answers as to whether any given decision was good or bad.

In the Christian tradition, too, chickens played an important symbolic role. They appear prominently in two places in the Gospel narrative. First, Jesus refers to the motherly instinct of a hen trying to protect her chicks when he looks out over the city of Jerusalem--he, like a mother hen, had often wanted to gather his people up and protect them from the dangers that were to come (Matt. 23:27). The second instance, recorded in all four Gospels, is the famous scene in which Jesus predicts that Peter will betray him three times before the cock crows, which Peter indeed does. 

Because of this famous story, the rooster became a symbol both of repentance and of Peter himself. It came to stand also for vigilance and watchfulness. In Maronite Christian art in particular (that is, one of the ancient churches of Lebanon), the rooster was used as a symbol of the soul's quickening in response to God's grace. A little bit later on in church history, Pope Gregory the Great ordained the rooster as a primary symbol of the entire Christian church. (Note that in this picture, a print in the Vatican from around Gregory's time, the rooster is endowed with a halo.)

So, when next you see (or eat) a chicken, remember the repentance of Peter, and the sins that we have committed, but that we do not have to bear because of the great sacrifice of our Lord. May we, too, like the rooster, be fearless in our pursuit of God, always ready to sound the call to spiritual wakefulness, and eminently useful to the service of our Master.

Just for fun, here's a bit of classical music from a wonderful 17th-century violin composer, Heinrich Ignatz Frans von Biber, whose Sonata Representiva makes his instrument imitate a hen (as well as a cuckoo, frog, cat, and several others). 
 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Fulfillment of Islam: The Messiah and the Muslim World

 (Image: from the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem; photo by Andrew Shiva, shared under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Note: This piece is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Christian revival in the Muslim world. While somewhat speculative, it does present a serious scholarly possibility regarding the early history of Islam and its possible connections to Christianity.

In our Western world, and particularly in America, where most of our interaction with Islam is on the level of news bulletins about terrorism, it's important to understand that there are other dimensions of Islam out there. There are even elements of Islam which some former Muslims now view as something God used to prepare them for their experience of Christ. I wanted to put forward this perspective on Islam, which may sound foreign to many of us Western Christians, but which is gaining some adherence in the Muslim world. In short: there is a range of interpretation among Muslim-background believers (now Christians) about what to do with their Islamic heritage. Some see their old faith as an anti-Christian set of falsehoods to be left in the trash-bin of history. But there are also many others who see Islam as a preparatory stage in their spiritual development, which God has now fulfilled and built upon with their new faith in Christ. This essay explores that intriguing theological suggestion.

When I served as a volunteer for a mission group in North Africa, I had the privilege of befriending a handful of former Muslims who had converted to the Christian faith. While some of them regarded their previous life in Islam as an ungodly, benighted, "works-righteousness" sort of religion that constituted a closed chapter in their lives, I was surprised to find several who regarded their Muslim years as a season of spiritual preparation which had now found its fulfillment in Christ. One of them, Mahmoud (name changed to protect his identity), was a philosophical middle-aged fellow, who liked to discuss theology and comparative religious studies, in between trying to convince me to choose one of his daughters as a wife. He told me that he saw the person of Jesus Christ as the true light of God, shining down on us, and that, because of this, Christianity is the only true religion. But he also said that the light of Christ, of God's divine logos, had shone on all cultures (Jn. 1:1-5), striking them like light hitting a crystal prism. And humanity's innate love for God, its yearning for redemption, present in that light of Christ, had shone down on the prism of human culture and fractured into countless beams and colors, of which Islam--the Arab longing to find and follow the righteousness of the one true God--had been one such example. He explained to me that his life in Islam--its prayers, its worship extolling the majesty and compassion of the Creator-God, and its care for the poor--had set the foundation for him to encounter the true source and motivation of all those things, Jesus Christ. "Jesus the Messiah," he told me, "is the fulfillment of Islam."

While even Mahmoud would say that there are certainly elements in Islam that have twisted the truth about God and distracted Muslims from recognizing and following the way of Christ, he is a representative of a growing wave in the Muslim world that sees Islam not as something foreign to Christian belief, but as a stepping-stone from which a sincere seeker of God might be made better ready to receive the truth of Christ. Now, to be clear, there are elements of Muslim belief that obviously do not fit with Christian orthodoxy; indeed, which are antithetical to it. I'm thinking here not only of those passages which encourage Muslims to use violent action against unbelievers, but also the very clear teaching of Islam that Jesus is not the Son of God, that Christians have perverted the true message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the Trinity is a blasphemous idea (although it ought to be noted that Islamic theology, rooted in the Qur'an, makes several clear evidentiary mistakes about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, apparently believing it to be a union of God the Father, Jesus, and Mary, and that the Incarnation was achieved by a physical act of procreation).

But there are other, rather surprising elements of Islam which dovetail with Christianity in some remarkable ways. Although the Qur'an clearly holds a heretical view of Jesus' claims to divinity, it nevertheless does refer to Jesus as being endowed with the Holy Spirit (2:87, 2:252, 5:110), performing miraculous signs (2:87, 2:252, 43:63), born of a virgin (3:47, 19:21-22, 21:92, 66:12), the Messiah (3:45, 5:75, 9:31), the Word of God (3:45), the bearer of "Good News"/Gospel (5:46, 5:111, 57:27), dying and rising again (19:32; though this is often reinterpreted in Islam as referring to something other than the Passion narrative as recorded in the Gospels), a sign to all mankind (23:50), and coming again at the Last Day (43:62) to defeat the Antichrist (al-Masih ad-Dajjal). Some Muslim tradition also holds that he was without sin. If one reads the Qur'an from cover to cover, one is struck by just how rooted it is in the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition. It disputes some elements of that tradition, reinterprets others, and adds in some additional accounts from apocryphal sources, but on the whole, it's dealing with the same subject matter that Judaism and Christianity are: the nature of the historic revelations of the Creator God, who entered into relationship with Adam, Abraham, and the prophets. 

One of the most intriguing things about the historical period of Islam's rise is that, by and large, it was not considered a new religion by outside observers. Not for several hundred years was it thought to be a separate religion. So what was it? In the eyes of its earliest observers (such as the last of the great church fathers, John of Damascus, who served as a palace official in one of the first Islamic dynasties), it was a Christian heresy. Let me say that again: Islam, in its earliest form, was perceived as being a branch of the Christian religion. Not a true, orthodox part of the Christian family, but a doctrinally-deficient derivative, just like any of the old heresies: Arianism, Marcionism, or the Ebionites. This is why, in those early centuries, Christians generally referred to it not as Islam, but as "Mohammedanism," since using the founder's name was the normal way of naming heretical varieties of Christian doctrine. 

In fact, there are a number of academic historians and linguists, specialists in the field of Islam's origins, who posit a major heretical-Christian influence on the rise of Islam. Arabia was an area which was known to be fertile ground for Christian heresies during that period, since many of the heretics had been pushed out from the Christian Byzantine Empire, and Arabia was a common destination for these exiles. As noted above, the doctrine of Jesus Christ is clearly one of the main concerns of the Qur'an, and at many points it does read like a heretical Christian polemic against orthodox Christianity, rather like what the doctrines of the Ebionite sect were purported to be. The Qur'an actually quotes stories about Jesus' boyhood life which we know for a fact came from fringe pseudo-Christian texts (such as a tale about the boy Jesus making a clay bird and then bringing it to life, derived from the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas"). Muslim doctrine about Jesus does indeed appear to follow the same contours as established heretical Christian groups: in that region of Syriac-speaking Christians, there tended to be a stronger emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, and in a few fringe groups this emphasis came at the detriment of the doctrine of his divinity. The Qur'an appears to echo the beliefs and concerns of those fringe groups almost verbatim. Interestingly, there are old accounts of Muhammad's close interaction with some Arabian Christians in the historical record (including one Christian hermit who is said to have predicted his rise as a prophet of God). A good deal of Muslim devotional practices (such as their manner of prayer) appear to have been derived from Syriac Christian practice. There are other clues as well--some scholars have noticed that there appears to be a possible Syriac lectionary text underlying some portions the current text of the Arabic Qur'an--indeed, that the word "Qur'an" itself might be directly derived from the Syrian word for a lectionary service-book (though these propositions are still much debated). Even the name "Muhammad" was not actually a personal name until the rise of Islam; it was an Arabic title (likely meaning "the praised one") which appears to have been attributed to Jesus by Arabian Christians before it was ever applied to Muhammad. 

One of the wildest (but oddly compelling) academic suggestions on this point is that the inscription on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which is just about the earliest major piece of original Islamic text available to us, refers to Jesus as "Muhammad." If you read the inscriptions (available here), you'll notice that in the preamble it does mention Muhammad as "the servant of God and his messenger." Keep in mind for a moment that Muhammad is an Arabic word that was a title, not necessarily a personal name at this point in Muslim history. Now note that the entirety of the rest of the inscription is about Jesus, pretty much from beginning to end. If we dug up this inscription on a papyrus, without reference to a Muslim context, we would immediately look at it and say, "This is the creed of an early Christian heresy." In the inscription, Jesus is clearly referred to as "the servant of God" and God's "messenger" multiple times--the same exact offices listed for "Muhammad" at the beginning of the inscription. Given the fact that the inscription appears to be entirely about Christological doctrine, with no other obvious reference to the historical personage of Muhammad, the Arab prophet, some scholars have suggested that "Muhammad" in this passage is actually a reference to Jesus as "the praised one." If you read the inscription by saying "the praised one" instead of "Muhammad," you'll notice that it sounds like it's all referring to Jesus. This is a much-disputed interpretation, but, I'm sure you'll agree, a fascinating one. And even if "Muhammad" in the inscription really means Muhammad, it's instructive that this early Islamic creed is still almost entirely concerned with the theology of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, even some of the more moderate scholars of early Islamic history (such as Fred Donner) are suggesting that Muhammad's intent was not to found a new religious community, but rather to spark a monotheistic reform movement within the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, distinct only for its Arabic cultural basis. It might be the case that the transformation of Islam into a wholly separate religion was, in part, a piece of statecraft by the Abbasid caliphate some two centuries after Muhammad. All of these historical arguments remain somewhat speculative, and much debated in those historical circles brave enough to venture upon the issue, but they do serve to indicate that Islam's origins may have been far closer to the family of Christian belief than we tend to assume; rather more like Mormonism's relationship to orthodox Christianity than Buddhism's or Hinduism's. 

In my study of world religions, I've found that, for the most part, they don't seem to be of clearly demonic origin (as some Christians suspect). Rather, along with C. S. Lewis, I tend to view them as expressions of the innate human moral nature, given to us by God. And, in the absence of the true light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our "image of God" nature leads people and cultures to create systems of morality and doctrine that they believe will lead them to the intimacy with God's divine nature for which they were created, and for which we all innately long. These religious systems, apart from the revelation of Christian truth, will of course be riddled with error; but they will also often possess a great wealth of moral wisdom and insight. They are cultural vehicles which both God and the enemies of God can use, either to direct people's gazes toward the truth of Christ, or to blind them to that truth. It's clear that in Islam's case, doctrinal errors have unfortunately been used to blind many Muslims' eyes to the truth of Christ. But we're now finding that that's not the only dynamic at work--God is also using the heritage of Islam, those pieces that do reflect and hint at true Christian doctrine--to open people's eyes to Jesus. And there are many aspects of Islam that God is able to use--their devoted lives of prayer and fasting, their generosity to the poor, their reverence for the prophetic tradition of the Scriptures, and their desire to walk according to a code of righteousness. "Islam" itself is a word that means "submission" to God. There are also hints and foreshadowings in the Islamic historical tradition that God can use to ready hearts and minds for the true doctrine of Jesus Christ: the passion narrative of Husayn (a key figure in Shia Islam) shares many of the themes of Christ's own passion, and the Shia longing for the end-of-time return of the Twelfth Imam, the Mahdi--usually conceived as being contemporary with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ--opens the door for the startling message that Jesus himself is the true object of their longing.

As I said at the beginning of the post, many former Muslims see Islam as riddled with too many errors to make it worthwhile holding onto. But there is a growing community of other Muslim-background-believer Christians (MBBs) who are worshiping Jesus from within the context of their Islamic faith. Some of the new converts to belief in Jesus continue to worship God in the mosque every Friday, just as first-century Jewish Christians continued to worship in the synagogues and in the Temple in addition to their Sunday Christian observance. As one might expect, the Christian message in Arabic/Islamic cultural contextualization is proving far more attractive to Muslim converts than our Western-stylized ways of doing church.

All of this makes me think that my old friend Mahmoud was not far off. Jesus is the fulfillment of Islam. If indeed it did start as a sort of Christian heresy, then its roots and its destiny are in the family of Christ, and I believe that God will bring them back around to a full understanding of the One that they believe is the Messiah, the Word, the bearer of God's Good News, born of a Virgin, and coming again in glory. Let's pray for the day when the "submission" of Islam becomes a submission to their Lord Jesus Christ, "the praised one." 

"The desert and the parched land will be glad!...They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God... Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped... Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert... Those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads."  (from Isaiah 35:1-10)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Evangeliad (2:23-28)

 
Section 2:23-28 (corresponding to Luke 2:15-20)

After the angels had all gone away,
The shepherds cried out, "Let's go find this place:
A stable in Bethlehem, where in the hay
Lies the one coming to love and to save!"

And into the night they ran in their haste,
In from the meadows and hillsides they raced.
A stable they found, and in it were three:
Joseph and Mary, and the baby asleep.

In wonder they watched the miracle there,
Then went forth again, the story to share.
Many would marvel at hearing their words,
This strange testimony from simple shepherds.

And Mary, she listened, right from the start,
And stored up all this inside of her heart.
The shepherds returned to their fields with praise,
Exulting in God and all of his ways.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Photo of the Week

When through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur, and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

- Verse 2 of the hymn How Great Thou Art, by Stuart K. Hine

Monday, September 11, 2017

Quote of the Week



"The languages of architecture, music, and poetry work mightily on us when we are not aware of it, slip past our everyday defenses and so convey the unspeakable grandeur of God to us better than any other means."

- Peter Hitchens, British journalist and Christian brother of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens

(Painting: "Trinity Church, Boston," by John LaFarge, 1835-1910)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sunday Scripture - James 2:20-26


James 2:20-26 

2:20-26 – In this section, James gives some concrete examples of the kind of works that real faith will produce. James consistently uses “faith” in a slightly different way than Paul does. James uses it to refer to the act of believing doctrine, much as it was used in the Jewish milieu of James’ day (and often is still used that way today, despite the way the rest of the NT treats the term). Paul, however, speaks of “faith” as a full-orbed, whole-self commitment of loyalty and trust to Christ, which will necessarily bear the fruit of good works as part of its own nature. But it is not the works that save us, it is the grace of God poured out with regard to our transformational trust in Christ’s faithfulness. So although James and Paul use the term “faith” differently, they’re actually making the same point: real faith includes concrete actions, not just intellectual knowledge or an internal spiritual act. The evidence James gives of this is twofold. First, he uses the example of Abraham, citing two different passages. The first one he quotes, that of Abraham being willing to obey God and sacrifice Isaac, uses the terminology of “faith and actions working together” and of “faith made complete” by actions. Again, this underscores James’ sense that a merely intellectual, internalized faith is clearly lacking something. True faith will be manifest in obedience to God. If we really believed that God is who he says he is—the sovereign of the whole universe, who loves us and has given us commands in order that we may grow to be what we were truly meant to be—then we will necessarily want to obey his commands, out of holy duty and love. But if the desire to obey his commands is not present in your life, then you don’t actually believe in a God that is sovereign and loving; your faith is a fantasy, ungrounded in the reality of God. James also cites the story of Abraham’s act of faith in response to God's promise of descendants: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”—the same passage that Paul also uses to prove his own point about faith and works. By including both passages--about Abraham's belief and his act of obedience--James wants to ensure that this part of Abraham’s story is not misunderstood. God’s justification of Abraham, counting him as righteous, was not simply the result of Abraham’s intellectual act; the rest of Abraham’s story shows that that intellectual act was part of a whole-life commitment to God. He notes that this kind of true faith is described as being “a friend of God”: faith is not just assenting to a doctrine, it is a life-altering relationship of love and trust with the God of the universe, a relationship that will necessarily be evidenced by the way we live. The second Old Testament story that James uses is that of Rahab, who offered shelter to two Israelite spies in Jericho, and then helped them escape. In that story, Rahab acknowledges her belief in the God if Israel. But imagine if she stopped there, and made no attempt to help the followers of Israel's God, instead supposing that her mere act of belief would be enough to save her from the destruction that was coming to Jericho. The way the story progresses in Joshua makes it very clear that, had she done things that way, she would have died along with everyone else in the city. It is her act of assisting the Israelites that demonstrates her real faith in the God of Israel. It is that whole-orbed faith, of belief and works together, that leads to her salvation—an act of grace whereby her house is spared, since it is marked with a telltale red rope (a foreshadowing of the saving effects of the blood of Christ). Finally, James gives us one more analogy: in the same way that we, as persons, are only whole because we have both body and spirit, so too faith is only truly itself when belief is partnered with actions. Otherwise, your “faith” is nothing but a corpse.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, whose ways are all mercy and truth, carry on your gracious work, and bestow, by your benefits, what human frailty cannot attain; that they who attend upon the heavenly mysteries may be grounded in perfect faith, and shine forth conspicuous by the purity of their souls; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

- The Leonine Sacramentary

Friday, September 08, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 9: Owl

(Full links to the Theological Bestiary series can be found by clicking the "Ornitheology" option in the Full Series list on the blog's sidebar)

Owls have fascinated people for millennia. Their nocturnal habits, their bright eyes and round faces, and the air of awareness they bear in their demeanor: all these things have entranced, frightened, and compelled people throughout the ages. The enigmatic owl's unique habits and aspect make it notable among birds, and it has long been held as a Christian symbol (as well as a common symbol for many other cultures and religious traditions). But before we get to that, here's a few facts about owls you might not know:

- Owls' heads can rotate 180 degrees (and in some species, nearly 270), meaning that they can stare straight behind them (and further if necessary) without turning their bodies at all. Their eyes are also uniquely powerful, especially for seeing in the dark--their vision exceeds that of humans by several orders of magnitude. 

- Further, many owls have extraordinary senses of hearing, This is one of the reasons why owls' faces are shaped the way they are: the contour feathers on their faces are arranged in a disc in order to funnel sound toward their ears. Further, their ear canals are arranged asymmetrically, allowing them to hear in 3D--rather than simply hearing noises the way that you or I do, owls can hear an entire soundscape, pinpointed to specific locations around them. This is a great advantage in hunting. Northerly species can accurately attack prey that is burrowing down, completely out of sight, under a layer of snow. And Barn Owls can capture their prey in complete darkness if necessary, using their hearing alone to pinpoint the location of their prey.

- Owls are just about the quietest fliers in the world. Whereas any other species of bird, especially in the act of taking off, often makes a terrible racket of wing-flaps, owls' feathers are designed in such a way that they can take off, with vigorous flapping of their wings, all without making a sound.  

- Although owls are usually thought to give a stereotypical vocalization of "hoo, hoo, hoo" (or, in England, "to-whit to-whoo"), they actually make a broad range of calls, most of which sound alarmingly strange. Among North American owls, we have one or two that sound like conventional owls (such as the Great Horned Owl), but the others speak in whinnies, screeches, and screams (Barn Owls, Screech Owls), or like cats under duress (Short-Eared Owl, Long-Eared Owl), or like saw-blades being sharpened (Saw-whet Owl), or like construction equipment backing up (Saw-whet Owl again, Northern Pygmy Owl).

- A group of owls is called a "parliament."

- In ancient Egypt and Rome, owls were a symbol of death, whereas in ancient Greece, they were a symbol of wisdom (and thus often accompanied the goddess Athena). 

Owls are mentioned frequently in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament books of wisdom and prophecy. In almost every occurrence in those books, they appear as a symbol of desolation and mourning. They are pictured as haunting the ruined and abandoned places deep in the desert. In this, they symbolize the condition of the people of Israel as they suffer the consequences of their sin. 

In much of the art of later Christian civilization, however, the owl's symbolism borrows more from the Greek association with wisdom than from the biblical allusions to mourning and desolation. This wisdom-connection was more often a symbol of popular culture and folklore than it was of theological art, but it persisted nonetheless, and owls would later appear as symbols of wisdom and careful deliberation in explicitly Christian works, like C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. 

Noted Bible teacher John Stott also uses owls to make a comparison to the Christian life. Just as owls are able to rotate their heads so they can easily see forward or backward, so too Christians are called to be people who face both ways: "All the time we should be looking back to the past with gratitude and on to the future with expectation." Our perspective is rooted to what Christ has done for us in the past (the cross and empty tomb, and the miracle of our salvation), but at the same time stretches out toward the future (the certain hope of Christ's full and final victory, and the completion of our journey of faith in eternal union with God).

The mysterious, enigmatic owl: in its mystery, it is a fitting symbol for the paradoxes of Christian belief--of mourning and desolation, which in some mysterious way connects us to the salvific, conquering desolations of Christ's passion; of the holy wisdom of God, the divine, eternal counsel of the Maker of all, in which we frail mortals are enabled to walk; and of the already-but-not-yet character of our journey of faith, anchored in both the past and the future. Let the wise old owl be your teacher, pointing you toward thanksgiving for the manifold wisdom of God.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

God and the Good Republic Come Riding Back in Arms: The Surprising Persistance of Christian Faith in the Secularizing West

Science announced nonentity and art admired decay;
The world was old and ended: but you and I were gay;
Round us in antic order their crippled vices came--
Lust that had lost its laughter, fear that had lost its shame...
They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
Men were ashamed of honor; but we were not ashamed...
But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms,
God and the good Republic come riding back in arms.

- G. K. Chesterton, from his poem "To Edmund Clerihew Bentley"

 It is becoming standard to refer to the civilizations of Europe and (to a degree) North America as "post-Christian." Whereas just a few generations ago Christianity was the common cornerstone of the whole edifice of Western civilization, we now live in a society where those very Christian roots are rarely acknowledged without sparking a controversy, where "science" is presumed to be waging a winning war against the old superstitions of faith, and where the "nones" are the fastest-growing religious group. One gets the sense that society is picking up a fatal momentum away from the Christian faith.

It may come as some surprise, then, to realize that these impressions are not entirely true (if they were ever true at all). Let's start with the US--even though many recent surveys have revealed the beginnings of a stark drop in religiosity, coupled with a rise in "nones" (those who ascribed to no religious position or affiliation), evangelical Christianity, the core of American Protestantism, has shown no similar decline at all. It has been remarkably stable (though it is now dealing with some negative associations with political views that make it unappealing to millennials, a trend that may require careful attention). It's not just evangelicalism that is proving surprisingly strong in the US. Other groups, too, are throwing a monkey wrench into the orderly picture of religious decline that sociologists used to hold: the "secularization thesis," which postulated that as secular education became more widely available, religiousness decreased. This assumption, to the surprise of many academics, is proving unfounded. Here's an extract from a recent NPR report"Highly educated [Christian] adherents are just as religious, in some cases more religious, than their fellow members who have less education," [Pew researcher Gregory] Smith said. Among mainline Protestants, for example, college graduates were actually found to be more likely than noncollege graduates to report weekly church attendance." Further, even among the rising group of "nones," it's interesting to note that these people are not pure scientific materialists, as one might expect: rather, they are increasingly expressing a deep and abiding interest in spirituality.

That's not to say that there aren't worrying signs on the horizon. Americans are drifting away from church at an ever greater pace. Some of it has to do with the way Christianity is becoming stigmatized in our ever more politically-interpreted and media-drenched society. Some of it has to do with the withering away of a serious social concern about personal character, replaced by a distraction-filled, entertainment-centric experience of life. But even these signs, though worrying in one sense, are really not worrying in another: Christians believe in a God who reigns sovereign over all things, and there's no amount of backsliding by faithless generations that can overcome his ever-present power at work in the church. It may be that America is facing a new "Dark Ages," this time of faithlessness coupled with intellectual languor, but that won't be the end of the story. God has waves of missionaries from Africa and China ready to go, bringing back the faith to Western shores again. We now face a world that is rather more like the situation of the early church, in a hostile and sex-saturated society; but the marvelous part of that difficult reality is that the church has shown, time and time again, the ability to quietly rise to its greatest heights in just such a time as that.

Now let's take a look at Europe, which has long been seen as a generation or two further down on the slope of secularization than the US: church attendance has fallen off precipitously in many places, and it is widely common for most people, even if officially baptized into a church tradition, to ascribe to no religious affiliation at all. But we've already noted in this series of articles how the immigration of Muslims into Europe, large numbers of whom are converting to Christianity, is beginning to turn back that tide. And there are other indications emerging to show that perhaps the secularization of Europe was not as permanent a shift as we had imagined. The British journalist Peter Hitchens (the Christian brother of the widely-known atheist writer Christopher Hitchens) wrote down his observations on church attendance, and noted that it may simply be a generational gap that is now starting to close: "When I am in church in England now, I notice that it is people of around my age who are mostly absent. There are plenty who are older than seventy or younger than forty, but very few in between." (He then goes on to say that he suspects the current American generation might be following a similar track; but if he's right, it might very well be that the next generation of Americans will swing the pendulum of faith back the other way again.) Indeed, in the months that I lived in England during my college years, I found that the churches there, though not bursting at the seams with overflowing attendance, were nevertheless strong, mature, and confident centers of a faith that continued to inspire and enliven many members of that society.

Now consider Eastern Europe--those countries that were locked behind the Iron Curtain for most of the later 20th century, ruled by communist governments that insisted upon atheism. Amazingly, the atheism of those years, though widely embraced at the time, has begun to vanish like a morning mist. The trend is clear and startling: eastern Europe is turning back to the church, and mighty moves of God are breaking out. Most of the population has returned to the ancestral religious traditions that gave their lives order and meaning: the Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformed churches. In a massive study conducted by Pew research in 18 eastern European countries, it discovered that professing atheists had dwindled to a mere 14%, while 75% of those populations now identify as Orthodox or Catholic Christians. Only in two countries, the Czech Republic and Estonia, did religiously unaffiliated groups continue their dominance. (You can read about this Pew survey in Christianity Today's article, "Here's How Badly Soviet Atheism Failed in Europe"). Similarly, the very heart of Soviet atheism, Russia itself, has seen a massive swing back to its traditional Orthodox Christian roots. Now, it should be noted that there are problems associated with these trends--many people are practicing a merely nominal form of Christianity, and in some cases the dominant Christian identity is unhealthily fused to political nationalism--but it nevertheless suggests that the secularization thesis, positing the irreversible swing of society into unbelief, has always been mere rubbish.

A Roma house church in Ukraine
Three years ago, I was privileged to visit Eastern Europe myself, and was struck by what God was doing there. In Hungary, the formerly Communist government has actually invited the Baptists and other church groups to come back in and take over the administration of its public, government-funded schools, including giving permission for official Bible classes as part of the curriculum--something that would be unthinkable in the presumably-more-Christian USA! (In fact, when I told the school teachers there that Christianity was not allowed to be taught in American public schools, these former atheists were shocked. "But Christian values are so important for teaching children good civic virtue!" they protested. I find that I rather agree with them.) I attended a Christian children's concert, organized by the local public school itself, that was overflowing--it seemed as if the entire town had come out to watch their children go up on stage and sing about the love of God. A bit further to the east, I got to visit several churches of the Roma people (previously called Gypsies), who have often been, and still are, discriminated against and ostracized by their societies. Until recently, they have proven remarkably resistant to the Gospel, despite having lived in the midst of Christian civilization for hundreds of years. But now there is a Christian revival sweeping through the Roma of Eastern Europe, and vibrant new house churches are being planted in every little village. 

So even in places where it looked like the Christian faith had long since passed away, it is making a remarkable comeback today. And here in America, where many worry that there is a similar season of unfaith ahead of us, we are continuing to see surprising signs of the resiliency of the church of the living God. As the old theologian Theodore Beza once noted, "The church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers."