The Martyr Complex of Early (and contemporary) Christianity

I saw a review on Salon of Candida Moss’s new book, “The Myth of Persecution.” I had one immediate reaction, “She’s got a great publicist.” I’d never heard of her before, which isn’t surprising since she received her PhD only in 2008 and her first book came out in 2011, after I left the ivied halls of academe.

What drew my attention is that this is a case of someone popularizing what has been basic historical consensus for decades, if not longer. When I was a grad student (now 30 years ago), the myth of widespread Roman persecution of early Christians had already been debunked. Christians were not thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, and there were in fact very few periods when there was a systematic attempt to suppress Christianity by the emperors.

So why all the attention to this book? Well, because Moss is making a connection with the persecution complex of contemporary Christianity. Miller’s review in Salon begins with another debunking, that of the story of Cassie Bernall, one of the Columbine victims, who quickly became famous as a Christian martyr. Moss is interested in the persistence of martyrdom and persecution as themes in Christianity. That’s an important topic, in part because the idea that one might have to suffer for one’s faith is so powerful, even attractive. In early Christianity, there were many examples of Christians who sought out martyrdom, and the same is true throughout history.

And she’s also right that the notion of martyrdom can raise conflict, whether among different Christian groups, or between Christians and an unsympathetic culture, to apocalyptic fervor. If you take an unpopular position and rouse the ire of opponents, that’s a certain sign that you are being faithful to Jesus Christ.

An interview with the author.

It’s true that those who were killed for the faith in the centuries before the toleration of Christianity were smaller in number than imagined by most contemporary Christians. Similar debunking has been done for Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and “Bloody Mary” in sixteenth-century England and also for Anabaptists on the continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Martyrdom cut in different directions, too. If you were unable to make the ultimate sacrifice for your faith, if you recanted, there were potential problems. If you survived, your community wasn’t always quite sure what to do with you. Had you sinned, or did you simply lack the charism of martyrdom? At the same time, there’s probably some truth in Tertullian’s statement from the early second century, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Even in the sixteenth century, rulers worried whether public execution of Anabaptist martyrs might draw spectators to that movement because of the inspirational witness of those who were willing to die for their faith.

In some respects, a worldview that sees inherent conflict between us and them, the forces of good and evil, of light and darkness, of Christ and Satan, is both comforting and safe. Much harder is to live in a world where there are shades of gray and disagreement is not a matter of life and death, and being faithful means negotiating among several possible options.

The Abdication of Pope Benedict XVI

It’s remarkable, of course, completely unexpected and one has to look into the distant past for historical precedent. Though as George Weigel points out, we might have seen it coming:

Pope Benedict XVI has said on numerous public occasions including his most recent interview book that were he to come to the judgment that he did not have the physical stamina left to give the church the leadership it deserved, that he would abdicate.

Although many cite 1415 and Gregory XII as the most recent example. His resignation was forced by the Council of Constance in an attempt to overcome the Great Schism that had given rise to first two, then three, claimants to the office.

Celestine V was 79 years old when he was elected pope in the midst of a bitter conclave and deep divisions within the church. A hermit famous for his ascetical life, he was ill-suited to the office and stepped down after five months. He was succeeded by Boniface VIII who eventually imprisoned him. Celestine died after 10 months in prison.

Celestine became a figure of fascination in religion and popular culture. In a time of deep divisions within Christianity and among the European monarchies, his abdication and death became a matter of speculation. Did Boniface have him killed? Franciscans who had resisted that order’s accommodation with papal authority and church hierarchy saw in him a kindred spirit and some “spirituals” as they were called, regarded him the “Angelic Pope.” There were those who regarded his papacy as the last chance that institution had to be a spiritual, rather than a political and economic power.

Many see in lines in Dante’s Inferno III, 59-60, a reference to Celestine’s abdication, which Dante may have regarded as cowardice. Of course, while traveling through hell, Dante encounters a place already prepared for Boniface VIII, who was still alive.

Boniface was embroiled in conflict with King Philip IV of France that ended with his humiliation, a beating, and finally death.

When we contemplate the conflict within Christianity in the twenty-first century, it’s useful to remember that it’s hardly a new phenomenon.

The 125th Anniversary of the Vilas Window

When precisely Grace Church’s oldest stained glass window, the “Resurrection” Window, was dedicated, is unclear. Various historical accounts claim it was on Holy Innocents’ Day, December 27, 1887. Then as now, however, Holy Innocents was observed on December 28. My guess is given that it was in memory of Esther Vilas’s husband and five of her children, the connection with Holy Innocents is correct and an error down the line turned the 28th into the 27th.

The Vilas family was among the most important families in Madison in the second half of the nineteenth century. Mrs. Vilas’ husband, Levi, served as Madison’s mayor and their son William was a US Senator, Postmaster General, and Secretary of the Interior under President Grover Cleveland. William’s daughter Cornelia is memorialized in Grace’s Vilas Guild Hall and his son Henry by the Henry Vilas Zoo.

The window was made by Cox and Sons of London, England. The window’s colors are rich and deep and it is especially beautiful when it refracts the afternoon and early evening sun. Commonly called the “Resurrection” window, the window depicts three stories from the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. The large central image shows the women at the tomb hearing the angel say, “He is not here, he is risen.” The two images to the left and right are of Jesus on the road to Emmaus and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ in the garden. The window was restored in 2005 as a memorial to Mrs. Betty Kurtenacker with funds raised by the Episcopal Church Women.

Some photos of the window are here:

Random links on the Bible–the past and future of the text

We just ended 2011, the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (officially the Authorized Version) and there continues to be reflection on the translation and on its significance for the English language and on English-speaking Christianity.

An article from The Chronicle offers insight into the translation process and on the translation itself. The great Robert Alter is quoted:

Alter describes the King James Bible as a masterpiece, but a flawed one. “It is not as seamlessly eloquent as everybody remembers it is,” he says. “There are beautiful lines of poetry, and then lines which are clunky, lines which run on to a multiplicity of words and syllables, which is not only unlike the original but pretty much lacking in poetic rhythm. I don’t think they paid much attention to the sound.”

A review in the Washington Post of books by Harold Bloom and David Jeffrey on the text and its significance.

Alan Jacobs writes a provocative essay on the relationship of technology and scripture, from scroll, codex, and printing press, to the use of electronic media. Of the latter he has to say:

Thus the primary way many millions of Christians today encounter Scripture: seated a hundred feet or more from a screen on which they see displayed fifty or so foot-high letters. (Yes, these Christians know that they’re supposed to have their own personal Bibles and study them diligently when at home alone, during their “quiet time.” But how many do so?) When you consider how thoroughly such a presentation decontextualizes whatever part of the Bible it is interested in — how completely it severs its chosen verse or two from its textual surroundings — how radically it occludes any sense of sequence within the whole of the Bible — it becomes, I think, difficult to worry about the pernicious effects of iPads and Kindles. And impossible to see all screens as having the same effects.


And he concludes:

It is the book, largely as it emerged from the early Christian Church’s understanding of its own Scriptures, that has enabled much of the best that has been thought and said in the past fifteen hundred years. And its key virtues can be preserved, and perhaps even extended, in forms other than the paper codex. By contrast, screens that allow only minuscule chunks of text to be displayed at any one time — and that effectively remove from perceptual awareness context, sequence, and narrative — do violence to the book qua book. If Christians forget, or forget more completely than they already have, the integrity and necessary sequentiality of their holy Book, and of the story it tells, that would be a catastrophe for Christianity.

As much as I want to agree with him, my own experience is that I rarely access the text of scripture except in electronic form. He’s right that doing so decontextualizes it, but the ease of access, and of reading is so much better. And that’s not the case only for study or sermon-prep. I also do the daily office primarily on line.

For an example of violence done to the text, see John Shelby Spong’s recent piece.


How should we commemorate Reformation Day?

Well, we’re Anglican, so it’s “politically incorrect” to do so (“Protestant” was removed from the official name of the Episcopal Church some time ago). But there was a time when I was a scholar of the History of Christianity in Early Modern Europe, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it still. Franklin Wilson from Luther Memorial Church will be preaching at Grace tomorrow and we’ll sing “Ein feste Burg.”

I’ve come across several pieces on the web probing the commemorations. Lutherans have mixed feelings. Craig Schnekloth wants to bury it; Scott Allan disagrees.

Diana Butler Bass urges Protestants to recover the heart of Protestantism, which she defines as:

The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually.  The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.

That’s a bit too rosy a picture of the Protestant legacy. Whatever protest was at the heart of the early Reformation movements (and remember, they weren’t called Protestants until 1529, twelve years after Luther posted the theses) was theological, not political. Protestants cozied up to power very quickly everywhere; the only exceptions were the Anabaptists, but most scholars agree that their conversion to pacifism was a survival strategy, not inherent in the movement from the beginning. The historical examples of Protestants actually leading protest movements, movements for justice and peace, are relatively rare in the 500-year history of Protestantism–abolition, temperance, civil rights. Much more common has been and continues to be Protestantism supporting the political and economic status quo, sometimes with horrific consequences (the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525; Southern American Christians’ defense of slavery, apartheid, the Nazi rise to power).

It’s fashionable for Anglicans to discount our Protestant heritage, but we should acknowledge the crucial Protestantism had; both in the early years of the English Reformation and in shaping the Anglican ethos in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

If all that is too confusing as you plan your Reformation Day party, Killing the Buddha offers creative tips on how to commemorate the day.

Treasures of Heaven

Eamon Duffy on relics, occasioned by an exhibition at the British Museum.

some of the central themes of the British Museum‘s magnificent new exhibition. St Hugh’s startling behaviour reflected these themes: the universal medieval belief that relics, the fragmented bodies of the saints, were charged with holiness and power, worth journeying great distances to see; the prestige which ownership of such relics brought (the Burgundian abbey of Vézelay was a rival claimant to Mary Magdalene’s relics); ambiguity over whether the power of the relic could be tapped through its appearance – concealed in this instance by its silken cover – or by brute physical contact with its sanctified matter; the comparison between the holiness of the relics of the saints, and the holiness of the body and blood of Christ in the Mass; and finally the lengths to which some would go to secure even tiny fragments of the relic for their own church or community.

Telling War Stories: The Civil War and the Meaning of Life

Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University and eminent Civil War historian, has written a profound essay reflecting on our continuing fascination with the Civil War. She begins with the centennial commemoration, juxtaposing a reenactment of the First Battle of the Bull Run with MLK’s March on Washington, then she briefly outlines the intervening 50 years of historical reinterpretation of the war. But her real interest is with humanity’s fascination with war in general:

How is it that the human has become so entangled with the inhumane, and humanity’s highest creative aspirations of literature and imagination have been all but inseparable from its most terrible invention—the scourge of war? Most other creatures engage in violence, and some insects and animals with elaborate social structures reflect those systems in their modes of association and aggression. But humans are unique in their creation of an institution of war that is designed to organize violence, define its purposes, declare its onset, ratify its conclusion, and establish its rules. War, like literature, is a distinctively human product.

Among her conjectures:

The seductiveness of war derives in part from its location on this boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman. It requires us to confront the relationship among the noble, the horrible, and the infinite; the animal, the spiritual, and the divine. Its fascination lies in its ability at once to allure and to repel, in the paradox that thrives at its heart.

She discusses the “impossibility and necessity” of communicating war’s truths, for foot soldiers writing letters home, as well as for historians or novelists. Most importantly, she links war and narrative: “To rename violence as war is to give it teleology,” using the example of the invasion of Iraq to prove her point. The “war on terror” implies that “terrorism could be defeated, eliminated, that it need not be a permanent condition of modern life. We expect wars to come with endings.”

It’s well worth reading and pondering.

On the 150th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Civil War

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the persistence of the myth that Blacks fought in the Confederate Army. Robert Krick has studied the records of 150,000 Confederate soldiers and has identified 12 as African-American.

A CNN poll that shows 1 in 4 Americans sympathize with the Confederate cause.

Ed Ball, author of the amazing Slaves in the Attic, reflecting on Civil War reenactors converging on Charleston and the lingering racism and white supremacy that he sees as legacies of the war: An American Tragedy.

As I’ve mentioned before The New York Times “Disunion” is a remarkable resource with careful history and insightful commentary.

Historian Adam Goodheart on NPR’s “Fresh Air:”

“I think the South is changing a lot today, even from where it was just a few years ago. Some of the deep genesis of my interest in this subject came about 10 years ago when I traveled through the Deep South, visiting plantations and plantations that had become historic sites. And I found there was this great collective amnesia going on. I visited one plantation in Natchez, Miss., where the slave cabins had been turned into guest rooms at a bed and breakfast, and there were Jacuzzi bathtubs in these places, and it was this incredible example of redecorating the past away. But I think even 10 years later, when you travel through the South and you visit these historic sites, there’s an increasing willingness to engage with the slave past.”

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

I was intrigued last fall when I read the NY Times review of this film by Margarethe von Trotta so we went as soon as we found out it was playing in Madison. Hildegard is a fascinating character–a Benedictine abbess who had visions, wrote music, visionary works, as well as books on healing and nature. The film is by one of Germany’s most important directors. It’s not a great film, by any means, but for the most part it comes across as a fairly decent historical depiction of Hildegard. The film does a good job of showing the interplay of religion, politics, and family ties, and also highlights the patriarchy of the Middle Ages and of the medieval Church. At times, it seems to be something of a catalog of Hildegard’s activities, moving from scenes showing her instructing her nuns on the healing powers of herbs, to composing music, to writing. The visions are a constant and von Trotta also subtly raises questions about the relationship between Hildegard’s physical ailments and her religious experiences. She also hints that Hildegard may have used faked illness to get her way.

It’s definitely worth seeing if you are interested in medieval history or German cinema, but if you’re looking for action and excitement, the most you’ll get are a few scenes of monks and nuns flagellating themselves, a practice Hildegard criticized.