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Contemporary Lessons from the Early Church (pt.1)...

A couple of weeks ago I started teaching a class at my church, during our Christian education hour before the service, with the title of "Contemporary Lessons from the Early Church." Essentially, it is a class on early church history. But the focus of the class relates to my thesis that the cultural context of the early church bears many similarities to our own cultural context, what is often known as "postmodernism." Many Christians often bemoan the tough circumstances the church is in because it has to attempt to survive in our cultural climate. Yet the early church, in a cultural climate much like our own (if my thesis is correct, which it is), not only survived but it thrived and grew and made a tremendous, positive, transformative impact on its world. Thus, my goal in the class is to help folks in our contemporary church learn from the early church. What can we learn from our fathers and mothers in the early church--in their successes and their mistakes--that will help us make a tremendous, positive, transformative impact on our world? I suppose that's the guiding question for the class.

For a while I've intended to post summaries of each class after they happen. I'm not really sure how my presentations will translate to this blog format. For one thing, the class is intended to be discussion driven. So, it is my expectation in preparing for each class that both time and content will be contributed by those attending. For another thing, even what I present is intended for a spoken presentation, which doesn't always transfer well to a written presentation. I'm going to try to present the basic flow of thought that I had in mind for each class. And I'll include most of the quotes or graphics from other resources that are included in my PowerPoint presentations.

In each class I'll open with a prayer from someone in the early church. I stole this idea from Dr. Calhoun's church history classes at Covenant Seminary (and I'll probably steal a lot of ideas from him throughout the course). Anyway, the prayer for this course is from Clement, who was a bishop in Rome at the end of the first century. Actually, it's not really a prayer. It's from a letter he wrote to the church in Corinth that was trying to help them recover from some divisions in their church. But I think it is a beautifully expressed praise and hope in God to which we can give our "Amen."
"How blessed and marvelous are the gifts of God, dear friends! Life in immortality, splendor in righteousness, truth with boldness, faith with confidence, self-control with holiness! And all these things fall within our comprehension. What, then, are the things being prepared for those who patiently wait for him? The Creator and Father of the ages, the all-holy One himself, knows their number and their beauty. Let us therefore make every effort to be found in the number of those who patiently wait for him, so that we may share in his promised gifts. But how shall this be, dear friends? If our mind is fixed on God through faith." (1 Clement [of Rome, to the Corinthians], 95/96)

Okay, I opened the class with some discussion about the value or use of studying church history. I invited folks to share some of their thought on why we should study history in general, or church history specifically. Several people suggested many good responses. Mostly, everyone gave the kinds of responses I was "looking for." Such ideas were things like: if we don't learn from the past, we are more liable to make the same mistakes as those before us; it help us know our own story, where we came from; we can learn of and praise God for His providence; it is interesting; "there is nothing new under the sun"; it helps us step out of the constraints and assumptions of our own time. I had a few quotes ready as people mentioned as people mentioned a few ideas that I wanted to highlight. The first was from Ecclesiastes 1:9-11,
“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”

Another quote I had was from C.S. Lewis, and it was related to the idea that considering history can help us step out of the intellectual box created for us by our own time and cultural restraints. For the same reason that it is helpful to learn from the perspectives of people from other cultures, it is helpful to learn from teh perspectives of other times. The Enlightenment idea that history is a never-ending upward movement to progress is false. Lewis points this out by describing a condition that can be as harmful as it is dangerous called "chronological snobbery," which is:
“…the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)

Then, after stressing the two points related to those quotes, I also emphasized my overarching thesis, which I described above, that there were factors present in the cultural setting of the early church that are similar to factors present in our own cultural setting. Most of the rest of the class focused on that point.

Before moving on to that, however, I gave a brief overview of the time period that the class was going to cover, and a little idea of how I was going to structure/present things. Here's a link to a timeline that I showed to give some idea of what we would be covering. While I would quibble with a few of the dates and some of the brief captions are a little simplistic/misleading, it's a really good, well-presented, thoughtfully structured timeline. I suggest taking a look at it sometime. There are no solid dates that everyone agrees on for the boundaries of "the early church." Basically, my class will consider the time from the end of the first century to the middle of the fifth century. So, this covers the period from the generation after the apostles, to the beginning of the papacy of Leo the Great. For most of the second and third centuries (100's and 200's) the church fluctuated between being warily tolerated, persecuted unofficially, or persectued offically. In 312, the Roman emperor Constantine declared that Christianity could be legally believed and practiced in the empire. In my view, that marked the beginning of the end of the early church period. In 391, the Roman emperor Theodosius declared that Christianity was the official religion of the empire. In my view, that guaranteed that the church as it had been known in its "early" period would soon change drastically. In 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, which led to the imminent end of many of the cultural factors of the early days of the church. In 440, Leo the Great became bishop of Rome, the first really "Great" pope, who held exercised both religious and political power. In my view, his ascension to the papacy is as good a time as any to mark the end of the "early church" and the beginning of the medieval period.

I also showed a map that you can access through the link there, which showed the areas to which Christianity had expanded by the end of the third century (200's). In Acts 2, the description of Pentacost, we are told that people were present from all over the Mediterranean world: the Mideast, Asia, Europe (Greece & Rome), Africa (Egypt). So it is no surprise that afterwards, when those people went back to their homes and homelands, the message of the gospel was soon heard in many places outside of Jerusalem. But it's pretty remarkable when you look at the map and see how far Christianity gained significant influence within 200 years of the apostles. Basically, most of the eastern end of the Roman empire, most of southern Europe across the length of the Mediterranean, much of northern Africa across the length of the Mediterranean, and a significant portion up into central Europe had been Christianized.

Okay, my plan for the class is to spend the first three weeks on overview issues. I want to consider my idea of cultural similarities between the world of the early church and our own. And I want to think in big-picture terms of the kinds of ways the church responded to its culture in its early days and how we can learn from our fathers and mothers of that period. Obviously, the culture did not remain static for 3 1/2 centuries, but there were factors that remained constant and influential. After the three weeks of overview, I'll start to delve into covering particular persons, issuesl, and events.

Now, before considering what the cultural context of the early church was, I want us to have a grasp or at least a common conception of our own postmodern culture. First of all, what is "postmodernism"? Well, in ultra-simplistic terms, the "post" in postmodernism indicates to us that it is a response or rejection of modernism. That begs the question of what "modernism" is. Well--again in ultra-simplistic terms--we might describe modernism as a worldview that values rationality, objectivity, and progress. Modernism is basically the inheritance from the Enlightenment of the idea that humanity has unlimited potential which can/will ultimately be achieved by scientific advancement. Postmodernism is a worldview that doubts those values and beliefs. From the Wikipedia article on postmodernism, I lifted a few (possibly) helpful descriptions/definitions of postmodernism:

  • “Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives.” Jean-Francois Lyotard

  • “Postmodernist fiction is defined by its temporal disorder, its disregard of linear narrative, its mingling of fictional forms and its experiments with language.” - Barry Lewis, Kazuo Ishiguro

  • “It’s the combination of narcissism and nihilism that really defines postmodernism,” Al Gore

  • “Weird for the sake of [being] weird.” - Moe Szyslak

The first quote by Lyotard is kind of regarded as the classical, simplistic, technical definition of postmodernism. If you ask a philosopher about postmodernism, that would probably where she would start. I like the second quote, because it gets more at description than definition. I always say that Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction is the quintessential postmodern movie--nonlinear storytelling, several stories going on at once that sometimes do and sometimes don't have connection, but even the connections are without purpose. Gore's definition is helpful in his (correct I think) observation of the strange juxtaposition of values that can be common among postmoderns. And, my favorite definition is from the great philospher Moe Szyslak.

For the purposes of this class, however, I'm not all that interested in these technical or philosophical definitions of postmodernism (although I think they give us a good framework, which is why I bother with the at all). I want to work with a common understanding of what our cultural context is. Thus, I asked the class to simply give me descriptions or illustrations of what they see our culture valuing. I'll list some of them below, but before I do I want to note one interesting thing about the responses. Most of the responses from people in the class described things that were generally negative, at least from a Christian point of view. I had to prod them a little to get some suggestions for "good" factors or values we see in our culture. I don't know what that means, it was just interesting. Anyway, I can't really remember which of these were my descriptions of factors from our culture and which were given by people in the class. But, I think we agreed on things like: moral relativism, religious pluralism/syncretism, globalization, consumerism, image-consciousness, valuing cultural diversity, emphasis on personal experience, valuing group participation/belonging, multiculturalism. There were probably others. Some of those values are ones that a Christian worldview can agree with, some are ones it would reject, and some are ambivalent, they just depend on how they are used.

Well, with that description of some major factors of our cultural setting in mind, I moved on to help the class consider the cultural setting of the early church. I presented a quote from the book by James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era.
“If you suddenly found yourself in first-century Jerusalem, in the home of a member of the Jewish ruling class, you might be surprised by what you discover. You would soon learn that your host speaks Greek and some Latin as well as Aramaic. He dresses in Hellenistic clothing, possesses Roman citizenship and claims to worship the God of the Jews, but he does not follow Jewish dietary regulations very closely. …The gleam of silver is everywhere, fine wine flows freely, and slaves bustle around you, each with his or her unique task.
His home is decorated with art from around the Mediterranean, and his library contains the works of a number of pagan authors. When he talks politics, he talks about the influence of the Jewish Sanhedrin, but also about the looming threat of Roman power.
[H]is life [is]…an amazing patchwork quilt of cultural and political influences.”

One of the fun things about history is that things aren't always (actually quite rarely) spelled out for you. You have to piece things together and make connections and inferences. Assuming that Jeffers is accurate in his description, what clues do we get about the cultural setting and values of this first century resident of Jerusalem? The man is a member of the Jewish ruling class, but he is also proud of his Roman citizenship. That indicates a value of belonging to a group, and maybe a sense of image-consciousness. He speaks different languages--that shows cultural diversity is at least acceptable, if not valued. He has art from different cultures and literature from different cultures, which is further evidence of valuing cultural diversity. It also gives a sense of globalization, albeit not on the scale of our day. But the world, as many people knew it, was connected by the Roman empire in the early centuries of the church. He is Jewish, but doesn't follow the food laws strictly, which hints at religious syncretism, or at least a high degree of tolerance of religious pluralism. He has silver decorations, plenty of wine, and slaves, which smacks of consumerism/materialism. You probably see other things there that I haven't mentioned yet. But you get the point. Many of the things that were named to describe our own culture were again evident in this description of the ancient church's cultural setting.

So, how should Christians respond to our cultural context? How did the early Christians respond? In order to give a sense of that, I offered another quote from an early text. Much of the writing from the first 100 years after the New Testament was concerned with defending the Christian faith and lifestyle. It was known as the period of the "apologists." These were people who offered either specific or defenses/explanations of what Christians believed. Part of one such "apology" contains the following explanation of how Christians viewed their role in the world:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. …But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are ‘in the flesh,’ but they do not live ‘according to the flesh.’ They live on the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.
…In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but is not of the body; likewise Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world.” (Letter to Diognetus, [150-225])

In summary, this Christian identified with his heavenly citizenship before his earthly citizenship. They wanted to both exemplify holiness and counter the sinfulness of the world. What I want to focus on is the last paragraph, in which the author likens Christians to the "soul" of the world. I'm not interested in whether his understanding of the soul in the body is correct. I'm interested in what his metaphor is getting at. I would say that this metaphor is the language of mission. As the soul serves a good purpose being part of the body, so Christians must recognize their calling to be part of their world. These early Christians did not retreat or shrink from their culture. They didn't withdraw and close off their communities from outsiders. They didn't create a parallel, competing culture, with a Christian music industry, Christian art scene, Christian publishing industry, Christian educational system, etc. Instead they lived out their callings within the culture. They engaged their culture and brought to it the message of the gospel which they had received. What I pray that we would learn from these early fathers and mothers in the faith is that we have a calling, a mission. We have a mission to be the soul in the world, to be the the Lord's tools to transform it. Let's not withdraw from the problems and difficulties that we may face, but rather let's take the the solution of the gospel with us as we engage the culture.

Wow! That turned out to be a lot longer than I expected. I wanted to post both weeks' classes that I have led so far. But I need to get some sleep. Hopefully, in the next few days, I'll get the other one posted. Then, hopefully I'll be able to keep up as the class continues and post each week. Take care; I hope this was useful.

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G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."