Wednesday, February 03, 2010


After Gaithering my thoughts ...

(A snippet of my thoughts, from an online discussion for History of Christianity II):

Andrew F. Walls' phrasing on p. 7 of "The Missionary Movement in Christian History," when discussing what continuities the time-traveling observer would see in various historical expressions of Christianity, "continuity of thought about the final significance of Jesus," almost made me want to shout -- in fact, I'm sure I probably did holler, "Yes!" since I talk out loud to my readings sometimes.

It made me think of Bill and Gloria Gaither's hymn/worship song, "There's Just Something About That Name." There have been times, and surely will be again, when the sum total of my personal theology and notions of christology have boiled down to simply this: "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name." And that's enough, I think.

But the handful of other continuities are real, too, I think: "consciousness of history ... in use of the Scriptures, of bread and wine, and water." I'd add music, to some degree, especially where the Western church has left its tracks.

A nephew was in the Air Force in Korea, and one lonesome night heard a familiar tune; he followed the sound; it was a church; he couldn't speak Korean and they couldn't speak English, but he found himself in fellowship, just when he needed it, amid the continuity of "use of Scriptures, of bread and wine, and water."


Yes. A car is fundamentally an engine, wheels, some kind of steering function, and a place to sit.

Now what.
Sorry, I had to leave for work. What I mean to say is that bread, wine, water, etc., are constituents not continuities. People do not have an "experience"
of bread, wine, water, etc. anymore than people have an "experience" of an engine, drive shaft, wheels, brakes, etc.

To my mind, the continuities of the human side of driving are the experiences of acceleration, braking, turning, passing, mobility that has been the driving experience from the very first. The kind of engine, the quality of wheels, are consituents that contribute but are transcended by the holistic experience of driving.

So, the constituents of liturgical history provide the material for the continueties of the "experience" of worhsipping God. This is much more difficult to get at over millenia. But how bread, wine, water, go into a felt acclerating, decelarating, turning, braking sense of worshipping God in community would be the appropriate analagous question.

Bread, wine, water is meaningless; and never more meaningless than when reduced to symbols. Bad medieval sholastic eucharistic theology got off the rails of experience and separated symbols from meaning and sacramental experience into idolatry. And, in the midst of the loss, protestantism decided to cut the tie altogether, thereby relagating the symbols to the surface of experience, thereby eliminating the place of the incarnation from Christian experience, leaving only the abstraction of language. So, to replace the sacramental loss, Western Christianity spanned out into felt, though non-incarnated accessories, in order to get that new car smell back.
Reading Delumeau's history of the idea of gin, guilt, and the uses of fear, the imagery of death and the macabre, has made me far more aware of how little we really have a sense of what "historical Christian theology" really means. Spreading from the monastic disciplines, the various threads of contempt for the world, meditation upon one's death (including a fascinating preoccupation with the details of decomposition), and other strands weave a picture of popular (Catholic) theology that is so foreign to this particular contemporary Protestant, that I wonder how it relates to anything we can name as "Christian".

Even the liturgy - the water, the bread, the wine - are only tenuous links to our past, because they only exist within a context and nexus of meanings that are always changing. Were we to find ourselves in a 12th century cathedral on any given Sunday, quite apart from the multiple language barriers, the Mass would be as foreign to us as the words of the priest.

In other words, for better or for worse, the invocation of "Jesus" hardly counts as a continuity. Indeed, the invocation of all sorts of words that seem to have crossed the millennia really becomes meaningless when we attempt to understand them as they were once used in this or that given era of the Church's existence.

Just a thought or two.
GKS, I think those things you mention are exactly why the author can, ultimately, point to so few continuities: the meaning of the bread and wine and water have changed, but there still are bread and wine and water. And he doesn't say invoking "Jesus" is the thing; he says that "continuity of thought about the final significance of Jesus" is the thing. The thought about Jesus changes; the thought continues; and the perceived final significance of Jesus changes; yet the assertion that Jesus, finally, is finally significant ... continues ...
Oh, and I'd read a history of gin! ;-)
OK, ER - I'll grant that "thought that Jesus is significant" might well be a constant (although I might also disagree, too).

So what?

In what way was Jesus significant for, say, an 11th-Century Provencal peasant, a fifteenth century Milanese cloth merchant, or an eighth century Irish monk? Indeed, what does the word "significant" even mean, when asking these questions? We tend to privilege our own questions when looking back to the past (nothing wrong with that at all, nor surprising), without perhaps first taking a moment to ask a prior question - how would our question be understood by those in the time and place at which we are looking?

The Egyptian hermit-monks lived in a universe inhabited by demons and evil spirits of all kinds (as did, one should add, Martin Luther; if you don't believe me, as Heiko Obermann in his biography of Luther). A bit further on down the time line, we have not only demons and their hangers-on, but the saints, a kind of gaggle of celestial lawyers, with Mary as chief legal adviser, pleading the cause of this or that individual, group, profession, city. There were the souls of those in purgatory and hell, who more than occasionally visited the anointed to plea for mercy or warn of an on-coming similar fate (I have to wonder why more space wasn't reserved for the occasional drop-in from Paradise).

These were not metaphors, or symbols, but very real beings inhabiting the world as it was understood, and worked out in Christian theology. Far more time was spent figuring out how to get this or that saint, or the Blessed Virgin, to intercede for this or that relative trapped on a particular level of purgatory, rather than asking "What is significant about Jesus?"

We may pride ourselves by noting that our approach to the faith is "more correct", or "more Biblical", but that is just a pat on the back, really. Is it, in fact, more correct? How does one judge that? More Biblical? Again, based on what criteria?

I'm not saying anyone has to agree with me. I'm just saying that "continuity", even continuity about the "significance" of "Jesus" is so loaded with assumptions in need of serious historical and theological unpacking, I'm not sure where to look for meaning here, beyond the acceptance that, in our time and place, our thoughts about Jesus satisfy our spiritual needs.
If media, including film, are what historians in a four hundred years investigate to understand our time, no period in human history will appear more obsessed with sin, guilt, violence, death, demons, angels, Satanic influences, bodily possession, and the cosmic war between good and evil... than our own.

But do we really think of ourselves that way?

What is the function of our horror/evil narratives?, Delumeau forgets to ask.

"Even the liturgy - the water, the bread, the wine - are only tenuous links to our past, because they only exist within a context and nexus of meanings that are always changing. Were we to find ourselves in a 12th century cathedral on any given Sunday, quite apart from the multiple language barriers, the Mass would be as foreign to us as the words of the priest."

What the hell can this possibly mean from someone who goes every Sunday presumably to hear a sermon based on texts three to five times more distant than the 12th century?

If the 12th century is foreign, then St. Paul should be buried and forgotten.

I think the anti-theorist has lost himself in raw, unbaked theory.

I'm not sure that how, or why, other people in other places and times, thought Jesus of chief singnificance is important to the author, or to us -- "chief," in my mind, being a better word that Walls' word, "final." Which is probably why I always think of that Gaither hymn, there's "Something" about that name. Not the name, but the person behind it, which is what I think the Gaithers meant. In other words, through some 2,000 years, the IDEA of Jesus as a bridge-conduit-connection to God -- has been sustained. Hasn't it? I don't think I could strip it down to anything less. But, I don't think much more has to be added to meant the author's, and my own, notion of why any of us bother to call ourselves "Christians."
ER, the Incarnation is myth for you, right? This is just an issue of checking, nothing more.
I believe that God entered Creation through Jesus of Nazareth. I do not know how. I do not value "myth" any more or less than I do "physical 'reality.'" I do think that words fail me. And I honestly do not know how better to answer that question.
Actually, Feodor, he expressly defines the role of the contemptus mundi, the contemplation of death, meditation on physical decomposition as part and parcel, first of all, of monastic discipline. It spread out from there, first, to a largely clerical audience, thence to the lay clergy and the laity.

So, yeah, he not only asks the question you claim he doesn't, he answers it quite explicitly.

As for the question of the role of the horrific in our contemporary life, I would say both yes and no. Yes it is indeed obsessed in a way. On the other hand, it has been detached from any relationship to anything other than entertainment. While I suppose it is possible to understand some things like The Exorcist and The Omen as part and parcel of larger social and cultural forces and trends - and even the original Friday the 13th at least offered up the object lesson of "teens shouldn't have sex in a secluded space", beyond that, they really aren't anything more than gore-porn.
A history of dissemination is not an analysis of function. So, did Delumeau ask the question of narrative function?
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