church history

On the separation of church and history

On the night he was betrayed, the rabbi from Nazareth gave blunt, by mysterious, instructions about the rite that would forever be at the center of Christian life. The Gospel of St. Luke reports: "He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."

These images mystified the faith's Roman critics. In his multi-media project "Church History Made Easy," Baptist scholar Timothy Paul Jones noted that one ancient pagan wrote this vivid speculation about Christian worship: "An infant is covered with dough, to deceive the innocent. The infant is placed before the person who is to be stained with their rites. The young pupil slays the infant. Thirstily, they lick up the blood! Eagerly they tear apart its limbs."

How can anyone learn these kinds of human details, asked Jones, and come away thinking that history is boring? The stories and lessons of church history are especially important, he said, for millions of evangelical Protestants who attend the many modern megachurches -- flocks with few, if any, denomination ties that bind -- that have helped reshape the landscape of American religious life.

"Taking church history seriously helps us sink our roots into something deeper than the present," said Jones, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "One of the dangers of this whole post-denominational world we live in is that people can lose their rootedness and lose a sense that generations of Christians have passed the faith on to us."

This is especially important in the age of "The Da Vinci Code" and other works of popular culture that can leave people thinking that "there is no heresy and that there is no orthodoxy," he said, in a telephone interview. "What you're left with is a lot of competing voices and the sense that everything is up for grabs."

This is tricky territory for Protestants in churches born through the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther and other reformers who -- to varying degrees -- questioned the authority of ancient traditions preserved in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. It's even harder to stress church history, said Jones, in today's rapidly changing independent churches that embrace modern media and other marketplace trends.

In these flocks, "tradition" is often measured in months or years, not centuries.

Thus, Jones opened the "Church History Made Easy" book with a reference, not to St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Calvin, Luther or even Billy Graham, but to a classic "Peanuts" strip by the late Charles Schultz. In it, Sally Brown is writing a paper on "church history." To address this subject, she writes, "We have to go back to the very beginning. Our pastor was born in 1930."

Digging into ancient church history can leave some Protestants -- both liberals and conservatives -- facing questions about which traditions to embrace, which to adapt and which to avoid. Take, for example, the penitential season of Lent that leads to Easter.

One Baptist progressive, Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly T. Marshall, recently noted that "since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation in the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting the Sundays.) After the legalization of Christianity in CE 313, Lent developed patterns that continue, at least in the West."

In recent years, she added, something unusual has happened: "Many Baptists are learning the significance of paying attention to Lent."

Some Baptists will welcome that kind of connection to church history, noted Jones, while others will not. His own congregation recently observed Ash Wednesday, "ashes and all," leading some Southern Baptists to think "we've gone Catholic," he said.

The goal is not to uncritically accept symbols, rites and experiences merely because they are ancient, he said. For evangelicals, the goal is find what they believe is the doctrinal core that they share with Catholics, the Orthodox and other believers through the ages.

"There is what C.S. Lewis called a 'mere Christianity,' a core of Christian tradition that can serve as our touchstone," he said. "There was an orthodoxy -- with a little 'o' -- a tradition you can trace back to the apostles. That's why church history matters."

Pope Benedict XVI exits, on his own terms

In the spring of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in Aquila, Italy, to pray at the shrine of St. Celestine V. The pope left his pallium -- a wool garment that resembles a yoke, symbolizing bonds between a shepherd and his flock — on this medieval pope’s tomb, noted theologian Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville. Then, 15 months later, he visited a cathedral outside Rome to pray before the relics, once again, of St. Celestine V.

Few noticed Benedict’s actions at the time, wrote Hahn, on his Facebook page. So who was this saint? He was the elderly priest who, “somewhat against his will,” was elected pope in 1294. Before long, Pope Celestine V issued a decree allowing occupants of St. Peter’s throne to step down -- a step he then proceeded to take.

Looking back, it appears Benedict’s visit to shrines honoring this particular pope were “probably more than pious acts,” argued Hahn. “More likely, they were profound and symbolic gestures of a very personal nature, which conveyed a message that a pope can hardly deliver any other way."

This was a message consistent with the 86-year-old pope's stunning announcement this week -- days before the start of Lent -- that he would end his eight-year papacy on Feb. 28. Although it has been seven centuries since the voluntary resignation of a pope, this option remains in canon law and was affirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and the Blessed John Paul II in 1996.

Benedict said he was thinking about the future of the papacy, not the past: "In today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

The Vatican Press Office noted these words were consistent with his thoughts in the 2010 book, "Light of the World." While it would be wrong to flee in times of trouble, Benedict said: "When a Pope realizes clearly that he is no longer physically, mentally, and spiritually capable of carrying out his role, then there is legally the possibility, and also the obligation, to resign."

Vatican leaders are planning for the election of a pope by Easter, thus creating a whirlwind of activity. Reactions, so far, have included:

* Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert -- an active Catholic -- quipped that "popes don't quit. God has a way of telling popes when it's time to retire. It's called death." Father James Martin, a Jesuit known as The Colbert Report chaplain, later tweeted that he should have told the comedian, "Pope Benedict XVI is raising the bar when it comes to giving things up for Lent."

* On the far doctrinal left, Catholics United noted: "The Catholic church hierarchy has been seen as an institution overly focused on issues of human sexuality, such as opposition to access to birth control and marriage equality. ... The next pope has a unique opportunity to radically shift the agenda of the church."

* Among journalists, "The Fix" blogger Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post tweeted: "Pope Benedict, following Sarah Palin's lead, resigns."

* This pope's departure drew several tributes from Protestant conservatives. Benedict reminded the world that humans are not mere machines, "collections of nerve endings, that spark with sensation when rubbed together," noted theologian Russell Moore of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The pope defended Down syndrome babies and Alzheimer's patients, as well as those "society wants to dehumanize with language: 'embryo,' 'fetus,' 'anchor baby,' 'illegal alien,' 'collateral damage,' and so on."

* Strategically, the key is that Benedict's "out of the blue" decision will do much to prevent the months or even years of political maneuvering that precede papal elections, wrote Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers. It also helps that Benedict did not act in response to calls for his retirement, such as the campaign aimed at John Paul II.

At the same time, he noted, "advancing medical technology means increasingly long life spans with a longer period of frail health. ... Unless we get really wizard regenerative medical technology really soon, we're likely to have more popes in that kind of situation, and thus there are likely to be more resignations in the future."

That Salvation Army brand

'Tis the season for Salvation Army bells, which means that Major George Hood's telephone has started ringing and it isn't going to stop until Christmas.

People want to know how many dollars are coming in and where they are going and why. Hood is the man with the numbers, since he is the Salvation Army's community relations officer. In the past year, about 3.5 million Army volunteers and about 70,000 employees have helped more than 34 million needy people.

"If you look at those numbers, we're in good shape and it certainly seems like we're going to keep getting stronger," said Hood, hours before being buried in kick-off events for the 2005 red-kettle campaign. "We're thankful for that."

But there is another side of the equation, admitted Hood. As a charity, the Salvation Army is rolling with the punches -- political, cultural and, in recent years, meteorological. But as a church, and as an evangelistic movement, the recent numbers are sobering.

The Army has about 3,500 ordained officers and 113,000 soldiers who have signed the statement of faith called "A Soldier's Covenant," with roughly 35,000 of those being "junior soldiers" under the age of 14.

On a typical Sunday, about 130,000 people attend services in 1316 corps community centers. Three decades ago the Army's four seminaries were full. Today, there are active attempts to find more adults who are willing to serve and the average age of officers -- old and new -- is rising.

"Those numbers have been flat for a number of years and, frankly, that has people talking about our future," said Hood. "Of course, it's still a mystery to a lot of people that we are a church, so we have to keep reminding people of that. People say, 'I had no idea that you're a church, too.' ...

"Are we a church or are we a charity? People have been asking that for ages. The answer, of course, is that we're both."

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army's status as a church has been linked to some nasty headlines in recent years. According to the conservative National Clergy Council, a boycott of the red kettles by gay-rights groups may have contributed to the decision by Target executives to enforce their ban on solicitations outside their stores. Army leaders have insisted that, as a church, they have a right to let their traditional Christian doctrines on sex and marriage shape some employee policies and benefits.

Of course, it's also newsworthy that those bell-ringing volunteers keep greeting shoppers with the controversial words, "Merry Christmas!"

This year, stressed Hood, the Salvation Army has worked out a compromise with Target in which online customers can make some holiday purchases for the needy. However, a few conservative religious groups are targeting Target by reminding their members that the red kettles are alive and well at many other stores.

Hood confirmed that the two-year controversy has not hurt donations. The kettles took in $93 million in 2003, including $9 million at Target stores. After the 2004 Target ban, the kettles took in $103 million, including $17 million at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club locations.

It does appear, said Hood, that the Salvation Army is maintaining its niche in the American imagination. The public has responded well to its pledge to keep "doing the most good to the most people in the most need." The question is whether people understand why the Salvation Army is doing the work that it does. After all, the word "salvation" is still in the brand name.

Army officers are trying new things. Some are working with Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs to reach out to bikers. Some corps centers are starting "church on wheels" programs with buses that take worship services directly to needy neighborhoods. Others are trying to make Sunday services "more charismatic and more contemporary."

Can the Salvation Army replace brass bands with rock bands?

"People admire what we do, but they would prefer to worship at a Baptist church or a Presbyterian church or that megachurch that's in their neighborhood," said Hood. "They'll donate money to us and volunteer to help, but they don't want to worship with us on Sunday mornings. ...

"We still have people who think that all of our soldiers are off living in a barracks somewhere. People don't understand who we are."