Christian Historians when Those Two Conflict

Marc Bloch, a twentieth-century Jewish historian of medieval France, once wrote, “Christianity is a religion of historians.”  He meant not only that Christian scripture and liturgy recount and commemorate historical events, but also that according to Christianity the fate of humanity played out (and continues to play out) within historical time.  While it is not true that all Christians are historians, I find as a professional historian that my understanding of the past greatly enriches and deepens my faith.  But as a professional, I have been trained to think in certain ways about the past, and sometimes those ways of thought seem to conflict with my faith.  What is a Christian historian to do in such cases?



Is Anything Miraculous?

Much of Euro-American culture, and especially its educated elite, has adopted two contradictory and equally useless attitudes toward miracles.  The first, starting in mid-1700s, was a full-scale assault on the notion that miracles can happen.  The second is a sentimental and vapid dilution of the term to mean anything really good or life-changingly beneficial.  I’m not sure when this second attitude developed, but I’d be inclined to date it to the late 1800s as a defensive, and wrong-headed, rearguard action to preserve the language of miracle while emptying it of all meaning.  In other words, having conceded the idea that genuine miracles are impossible, some Western Christians domesticated the notion of the miraculous in order to retain the language without its threatening implications.  I think this is the wrong approach, and this post will critique the denialist approach, and propose a different definition of “miracle” which I think is more in keeping with its etymology, and with its pre-modern Christian usage. (more…)

Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end. (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)