Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A few bits of church history

I heard an old college professor, Jerry Sittser, give some talks about church history this past weekend. Even though it happened in Vancouver, Washington (really, things happen there?), hearing Jerry lecture is usually a good idea, and it was a very worthwhile event. He talked about things from the first to the eighteenth century; here are a few things that stuck out to me:

-The early church catechumenate. Way back in the day, when the church was relatively just getting started, people didn't just start attending services. There was a long, involved training process for newbies where they were taught and discipled, tested for genuineness and eventually baptized and given the Eucharist. The whole thing sounds rather foreign--I mean, who gets "trained" when they become a Christian these days? But, really, we could do a better job in giving direction to new believers, and even not-so-new but immature ones.

-The church in the Middle Ages. Medieval Europe was basically a mess, literacy was low, and Bibles were scarce. This led to three things (yes, only three (just kidding)).

*First, the church developed a number of material, especially visual, aspects to faith. Go look up Gothic cathedral architecture sometime; the shape of the buildings, high ceilings, gargoyles, window placements, stained-glass salvation stories, it all had meaning and was meant to benefit the believer. And that's to say nothing of the images, songs, and other non-written features that the church employed. With the appreciation for (obsession with) various media (say, the internet) that our society has, sometimes I wonder if the church is really botching something important here. Obviously things have changed since Medieval times, and there is just a lot more media out there in general, and I'm not saying that we should move away from literacy, but it is an interesting topic to think about.

*Because of the illiteracy, etc., laypeople depended heavily on the monks and clergy, who prayed for them, sang for them, basically did everything for them. Granted, that probably wasn't an ideal situation, but what caught my attention was Jerry's empathy for those people. Jerry once dealt with the sudden deaths of his mother, wife, and daughter in a single car accident, an experience that was of course highly traumatic. In the aftermath, he says, he felt unable to pray or sing or do anything faith-related other than take communion. It's not that he stopped believing; he was just too tired, so he suspended belief, and the church carried him along, temporarily singing, praying, and believing for him. "And that," he says, "is when I understood the Medieval church for the first time." I don't know how that all works out theologically, but I think Jerry is on to something, and it's a good thought for those who might tend to expect too much from themselves.

*The vanguard of Medieval Christendom was the monastery. There are lots of things to say about the monks, but what caught my attention recently is that they 1) scheduled regular prayer into their days, and 2) did regular things in the context of their faith. I could be wrong, but it seems like a lot of people try to do more Christian things, when what they really need is to do things more Christianly. I was reminded of Brother Lawrence, a monk who talked about doing things like washing dishes as acts of worship. You don't have to be a monk to do that.

-In the revival that John and Charles Wesley were involved in, they had small groups. They were called "holy clubs." Just thought I would mention that.

-Also, I heard that Luther's Large Catechism is good reading. I haven't read it yet, but it might be worth checking out.

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