May 23, 2009

What Does Christianity Look Like?

I am in the middle of reading From the Holy Mountain, by Scottish born author William Dalrymple.  At the end of the 20th century, Dalrymple (in much the same fashion as Bruce Feiler did in his book, Walking the Bible) revisits the now-faint trail which was taken by the sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wandered the world of Eastern Byzantium, visiting the scattered Christian monasteries and hermitages and recording the rituals he saw and the preaching he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow.  Dalrymple's observations on Islam and Christianity have challenged my thinking.

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity.  Only when you travel in Christianity's Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked.  For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation.  When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies, they assumed that Islam was merely a heretical form of Christianity, and inAleppo_Syria many ways they were not so far wrong:  Islam accepts much of the Old and the New Testaments, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets.

Certainly if John Moschos were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical.  Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is.  Moreover the modern demonization of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West's repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), have led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam.

It is this as much as anything else that has made the delicate position of the contemporary Eastern Christians - awkwardly caught between their co-religionists in the West and their strong cultural links with their Muslim compatriots - increasingly untenable in recent years.  Hence the vital importance of the syncretism which still exists at shrines like that of Nebi Uri [Northwest Syria].  Such popular syncretism - Christians worshipping at Muslim shrines and vice versa - was once much more general across the Middle East, but now survives only in a few oases of relative religious tolerance.  The practice emphasizes an important truth about the close affinity of the two great religions easily forgotten as the Eastern Christians - the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity - emigrate in reaction to the increasing hostility of the Islamic establishment.

In an interview with Radio National (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network) in April of 1999, Dalrymple summarizes much of the book and has some sobering predictions of how the Middle East would change in 10-50 years.  Keep in mind that this interview was before 9/11.

May 22, 2009

Holy Things

  • A crayon drawing from 1st grade.  Your favorite teacher thought it was the best one in the class.  You still hang on to it.  It's just a piece of paper.

  • A photograph of your children when they were preschoolers.  It captures their innocence and joy even though the subjects aren't "framed" correctly and there is even a bit of blurring.  It's your favorite photo, and you smile each time you pass by it.

  • A dresser scarf that was hand embroidered by your mother years ago.  No one uses dresser scarves anymore, but it doesn't matter.  It gracefully adorns your table and gives you great comfort.

  • Boy scout badges earned on campouts when you were growing up.  They are only little fabric circles with crude symbols embroidered on them.  One glance, however, and you are right back in that camp, learning how to build a fire and seeing the pride on the face of your instructor as you completed the task.  You can still smell the campfire and hear the pine trees around you.

Growing up in Bible churches for much of my life, there didn't seem to be much of a sense of the holiness of objects in our church services.  Everything - from the pews (if there were any), the hymnals, the table for communion, the podium, the cross in the sanctuary - were all viewed as material objects and nothing else.  They could be used for a variety of purposes and services.  There was a big emphasis on practicality and utility.  Indeed, communion was viewed merely as a "memorial" to Christ's death on the cross.  There was nothing special about the bread or the wine/grape juice.  Indeed, some even reported seeing children in the kitchen after the service eating the extra communion bread as if it was an added snack for the Sunday School kids.  What does this communicate to the children?

Why such an aversion to imparting value and sacredness to an object?  We do it all the time in the rest of our lives.  But when it comes to faith and worship, many Evangelicals have a knee-jerk reaction to "setting apart" things in the church for one and only one purpose. The Old Testament is full of places, events, and objects that were set apart for specific purposes and to help the people in their worship and reverence of God.  Why did we think that all that changed when Christ came?

I can't help but think that such lack of respect for those things which should hold great meaning in our spiritual lives will ultimately do damage to the soul in the long run.

May 21, 2009

Call Upon the Saints

We are not alone in our journey through this life on earth.  Thousands upon thousands have gone before us, tried and tested and proven faithful.  Let us learn from their lives and ask for their prayers in our struggles during this time.
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.  Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

From the words of St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908):

At the end of your morning and evening prayers in your home, call upon the saints: patriarchs, prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, confessors, Holy Fathers, the ascetics, the unmercenary, so that seeing in them the realization of every virtue, you may yourself become the imitator of every virtue. Learn from the patriarchs childlike faith and obedIoann_of_Kronstadtience to the Lord; from the prophets and apostles, the zeal for God' s glory and for the salvation of the souls of men; from the hierarchs, zeal to preach God's word, and in general to assist through the Scriptures, to the possible glorification of God's name, to the strengthening 'of faith, hope, and love amongst Christians; from the martyrs and confessors, firmness for the faith and piety before unbelieving and godless people; from the ascetics, to crucify your own flesh, with its passions and desires, to pray and think piously; and from the unmercenary, not to love gain, and to give gratuitous help to the needy. - My Life in Christ