History of Me, Part 5: Printing and Protestantism

In this edition of History of Me, we look at how both the printing press and the Protestant Reformation radically changed European society. Sound interesting? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

First, a little context…

Before we dive in, I wanted to give some background, especially for some of the particular Church doctrines and practices that feature in this post. So, here are some useful facts and terms to know:

  • Purgatory: Also known as limbo. Believed (and taught by the Church) to be where souls would go after they died to spend time doing penance for their un-atoned-for sins, until they achieved sufficient holiness and were allowed into heaven.
  • Indulgences: Pieces of paper granting the bearer exemption from a certain amount of time spent doing penance in Purgatory. They could be earned (eg by visiting a holy site) or purchased (eg by making a donation to build a new cathedral), and were a quick and effective way to raise money for the Church.
  • The Pope: Seen as not only the infallible representative of God on earth and leader of the Church, but also as a political figure to which even royalty had to give respect if not outright obedience. Popes often used their religious authority over people’s souls to leverage their way into more secular matters. (Though at this point, European society was Christian at its core, so “secular” is kind of a misnomer. Not that there weren’t atheists or people of other religions, but for the vast majority of Europeans the Church was such an intrinsic part of society and their daily existence that the way we think of separation of Church and State now basically didn’t exist at this time.)
  • Heresy / Heretic: As the head of the Church and infallible representative of God on Earth, the Pope (and, by extension, other church officials insofar as they were supported by the Pope) had the authority to declare certain beliefs “wrong” — heresy. Because of the importance placed on salvation, being declared a heretic was dangerous — you were seen as not only personally damned, but liable to lead others astray, and thus were likely to be sentenced to execution if you refused to recant or repeal your statements.
  • Excommunication: If a person (or group, or city, or a whole country) did something the Pope (and other church authorities) didn’t like, they could declare them to be excommunicated — that is, outside the salvation of the Church. While excommunicated, a person could not attend church, receive communion, receive their last rites, etc, which meant they were basically outside of society.

Okay, I think that’s a good start… now, on to the main event.

The printing revolution

Our first book dives right into the religious tension simmering just below the surface at this time in history. Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie follows the invention of the printing press and the printing of the Gutenberg Bible(s) in Mainz, Germany in 1450 through the perspective of Peter Shoeffer, a trained scribe and actual person.

At the start of the book, the city of Mainz is under a blanket excommunication and embargo imposed by the local archbishop as punishment for the city council’s defiance:

There’d be no sacraments until the upstart council had backed down. The archbishop’s word was law: none of his priests would say a mass or take confession, the newly born were unbaptized and the dying were deprived of their last rites, consigned forever to the agony of limbo. (p.15)

Withholding religious rituals from people meant if they died they wouldn’t go to heaven, so the burden of excommunication on the populace was a heavy one. The fact that the archbishop is willing to let common people suffer this way in order to gain a leg up on the city council illustrates that blurred line between religious and political authority that church officials crossed regularly.

The book also does a great job of illustrating the politics specifically surrounding the creation of books and the invention of the printing press. At this time, most books were religious (with the exception of some classical texts used for teaching and philosophy). The writing of religious texts in particular, done mainly in scriptoria (writing rooms) by monks, was seen as a religious act and was highly regulated by the church to ensure uniformity and orthodoxy. In the book, Peter and co initially plan to print a shorter religious book, so they can finish and get paid sooner. But that gets nixed by church officials, so they decide to print Bibles because no one can argue with a Bible!

From there, the book really delved into the craft and mechanics of the printing process, which I found fascinating. I had never thought about ALL the steps needed:

  • Hand-write their own font
  • Hand-create molds to cast each letter
  • Invent a metal alloy that could withstand the impact of being pressed over and over
  • Cast thousands of tiny letters and ensure they were all the exact same height so the page would print evenly
  • Mix ink that would be thin enough to not get tacky but thick enough to not melt all over or get watered down
  • Select appropriate paper and vellum (calf-skin), and ensure they were all the same size
  • Collate and bind all the books by hand

It’s not that surprising, then, that it took five years to print around 150 Latin Bibles, one page (x150) at a time. Each one sold for the equivalent of 3 years’ wages for an average clerk.

…Which you might think is expensive. And it is. But a single Bible copied by hand could take a scribe a whole year to write. So even though 5 years for 150 Bibles sounds super slow, it’s a lot faster than 5 years for 5 Bibles!

The printing press greatly reduced and cost, time, and effort required to create books — but arguably its most immediate impact was felt in its ability to quickly replicate shorter items, such as pamphlets and indulgences, which allowed information to be spread and money to be raised very rapidly. In fact, a big reason for the printing press crew’s secrecy throughout the book (other than the obvious “don’t want anyone to steal my invention”) is because Peter, who feels printing a Bible is a spiritual act, doesn’t want the press to be used to print indulgences — and (spoiler) at the end of the book, that’s exactly what happens.

The Protestant Reformation

Speaking of pamphlets and indulgences, let’s talk about the Protestant Reformation!

The quick story (which I heard often as a kid growing up Lutheran) is that the Church was selling lots of indulgences and doing other unbiblical things, so Martin Luther wrote down 95 theses, or arguments, and nailed them to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. (Since religious folks were often also scholarly folks, this was basically the equivalent of posting a list of arguments in a forum on the internet — and in fact, it was quickly converted into a pamphlet and “went viral” throughout Europe.) Then the Church got mad, excommunicated Luther, and tried to kill him, but lots of people followed what he said and that’s why we have Lutherans (and all you other Protestants, too!) today. The end.

Obviously that’s simplistic. But actually, in some ways this is how the story feels to me, since learning it as a child made it feel almost mythological. So I really enjoyed having an opportunity to revisit this important time in history in its proper context, as a part of the story of my family and my peoples. (Especially since this reading accidentally coincided with the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses!)

As I read through chapter 3 of A Mighty Fortress, what stood out most to me was how much Luther and the Reformation were not just focused on theology, but also politics, economics, national identity, and social class. There was just SO much going on at this time in Europe and particularly Germany that it’s hard to digest it all at once! I’ve pulled out a few big themes below. (I swear I’ve tried to edit this down twice… sorry!)

Significant challenge to centralized Roman Church

The most obvious (at least to me) dimension of the Reformation is, of course, the religious angle. And it’s significant to note that this was a major, major upheaval for all of Christian society. Recent in everyone’s memory would have been the sacking of Constantinople (1453 – just 60 years earlier, during Gutenberg’s printing efforts) and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, the greatest eastern church, into a mosque. This left Rome as the sole center of Christendom, and to some it probably felt like the sky was falling to now see papal authority challenged from withinAnd remember — the big concern at this time, with excommunication and indulgences and all, was “Are you going to heaven?” So having suddenly two disagreeing camps would have been shocking and stressful for many.

Culturally speaking, I found it interesting to think about the big-picture cultural shifts in theology and faith practice. Medieval Catholicism emphasized the pilgrimage as a metaphor of life’s journey of judgment, penance, and grace with priests as guides and mediators. Protestantism emphasized the ability of all to access God and focused on each person as “righteous and sinful simultaneously” (AMF p. 85). Protestants also placed more emphasis on secular civic life (eg public schools, state welfare, de-sacramentizing marriage, etc).

Seeds of deep religious division

I knew going into this that much conflict in medieval/modern Europe has been about Protestants and Catholics, so it’s interesting (and sad) to see those seeds planted:

Over the centuries the pervasiveness of Lutheran and Catholic theology in gymnasiums [schools] and universities infused German public education with religious knowledge, which in turn exacerbated confessional divisions. Yet that same knowledge also made the Germans Europe’s most theologically literate people and facilitated both confessions’ cooperation with the state. (p.90, emphasis added)

In my experience, both parts of this quote are still true today: education (religious and otherwise) still has high importance in the German Lutheran church I was raised in, and even still today there is plenty of segregation and division between Catholics and Protestants. (Just go ask a Euro-American grandparent – I guarantee they’ll have a story for you, no matter which side of the tracks they grew up on.)

The rise of cities

Around the same time, the rise of cities and the merchant middle class  meant more desire for self-differentiation and openness to anti-Roman sentiment:

Local grievances against the Roman Church and a desire for communal sovereignty attracted urban populations to Protestant reforms. Viewing themselves as oases of republican government within a desert of autocratic rule, self-governing townspeople believed themselves to be morally superior to the landed nobility and royalty. They had gotten where they were not by birth, fortune, or military force, but by native ingenuity and the skills they acquired through productive work. (p.66-67, emphasis added)

(To me, this quote also explains exactly where the famous “Protestant work ethic” comes from!)

A major political statement

Back in 1356 (so 150 years before the Reformation), then-Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV granted German princes “semiregal rights within their respective lands” (AMF p.65). This led to the establishment of 7 princes (3 of whom were “ecclesiastical princes”, aka bishops!) as the “electors” of the next Holy Roman Emperor — which they did without the involvement of the Pope. This was a big win for regionalism and the beginning of a drift away from Roman influence.

The electors were still around at the time of the Reformation. And in fact, one called Frederick the Elector, a Saxon prince, had a huge collection of relics for which visiting pilgrims could gain “1,902,202 years of absolution for unrepented sins” (p.71). According to Ozment,

Luther hated the great relic collection and the even greater indulgence it promised. He waited to post his famous Ninety-five Theses until Frederick had departed Wittenberg for the 1517 autumn hunt…. When however, the crafty indulgence peddler John Tetzel, on the instructions of the archbishop of Mainz, began selling the famous indulgence for the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s in Rome on the borders of electoral Saxony, Frederick was as offended as Luther — albeit over the political intrusion rather than any religious impropriety. (p.71, emphasis added)

This turned out to be the first of many times Frederick interceded on Luther’s behalf — and it’s impossible to separate the religious and political motivations: “When, in April 1521, Luther, a condemned heretic, was summoned to the Diet of Worms [a church trial at Worms, Germany] to answer for his teachings, the elector of Saxony attended that meeting also, as a guardian angel. … At the conclusion of the Diet, the vast majority of German lands and cities joined electoral Saxony in refusing to sign off on its proceedings…” (p.74).

Not only did Germans refuse to condemn Luther, but before they even knew the verdict they had already brought their political and religious grievances:

The two movements, the new religious and the older political, spoke with one voice at the Diet of Worms in April 1521. There, the German estates, none of which was yet Protestant, presented [Holy Roman] Emperor Charles V with 102 “oppressive burdens and abuses imposed upon, and committed against, the German empire by the Holy See of Rome” — a national laundry list of political, economic ecclesiastical, and spiritual complaints, echoing many of Luther’s. (p. 78-79, emphasis added)

Rise of independent German identity

So far we’ve looked at how the Reformation was religious and political — but it also intermingled with a strong German nationalist impulse.

Ozment notes that “during his formative years, from 1518 to 1528, Luther was as devoted to German nationalism and civic reform as he was to the restoration of biblical Christianity” (p.77). In addition to writing about the abuses of the church, Luther discovered, edited, and published “A German Theology” as proof of “German sovereignty and cultural equality [with Rome]” (p.80). Ozment notes that “this pamphlet was another native root for Germans to cling to and a reminder of a still unhealed, historically wounded German pride” (p.80) — an attempt to raise themselves up from the memory of being the Romans’ “barbarian” neighbors.

This desire for a strong and unified German identity also found a linguistic expression — as Luther is also largely responsible for the advent of the modern German language. At this time, different dialects were spoken around Germany, but Luther spoke and wrote “an early form of the pan-German language we know today as High German, evolved from composite East Middle and Low German dialects” (p.88-9). 

A note about Luther…

The Reformation was a HUGE moment in history — I can see where so much of what we now think of as German began with the Reformation. And Luther should get credit for his part in it.

But I think it’s also important to be honest about his shortcomings, because those contributed to what we now think of as German, too. I’ll touch on two of those briefly.

First, Luther betrayed his fellow peasants. In short, the much-downtrodden peasant class took hold of the egalitarian spirit of Luther’s writings and began an uprising. Luther initially supported the movement, “calling the revolt and its anarchy a just divine punishment for their [rulers’] tyranny” (p.76), but when it came to a choice between the new Reformation being embraced by elites or dragged down by peasant rebellion, “Luther the cleric and the miner’s son called for the ‘merciless punishment’ of the peasants” (p.76). Like so many Germans before him, he chose empire over neighbor.

Second, Luther wrote awful things about the Jews. All you need to hear is that he actually wrote a book called On the Jews and Their Lies, and you know it’s going to be bad. In fact, Luther’s later anti-Semitic writings were a major influence for the Nazis. I won’t go into a ton of detail (here’s a link with more if you want) — but I never knew about this as a kid, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that Luther was a person who did some great things and some awful things.

The Reformation and Regular People

Mighty Fortress gave so much amazing background about the Reformation as a movement — but one of the things I most want to learn through this project is what effect all these big-picture movements had on everyday people. So I read Eamon Duffy’s Voices of Morebath, which follows a single rural English village based on the financial account book of its priest, Sir Christopher, over the course of the English Reformation.

(Note: Morebath was Catholic, so obviously it would have been different for Protestant villages. But since at this time rulers could choose the religion of their country/province, I think this is still a valuable examination of how common folk were affected by courtly politics re: religion.)

The English Reformation provides a condensed idea of how the Reformation affected other nations, in part because the very rapid change in Tudor monarchs meant many forced religious changes for the people. During Sir Christopher’s record-keeping:

  • 1521 – Henry VIII writes pamphlet denouncing Luther; declared “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope
  • 1534 – Henry VIII makes self head of Church of England; is excommunicated; dissolves monasteries; forbids Catholicism
  • 1538 – Henry VIII starts to roll back some reforms, but then dies…
  • 1547 – Edward VI, radical Protestant, burned Catholic “heretics”
  • 1553 – Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), radical Catholic, burned Protestant “heretics”
  • 1558 – Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism and burned a few Catholic “heretics” but then kinda settled down

Folks, that is all in just 37 years. Poor English people.

In the financial record of the village of Morebath, Sir Christopher records that each time the rules changed, the church had to purchase a new Bible and a new (approved) prayer book. Remember how expensive books were, even with the printing press? (3 years’ salary for a Bible.) For a small village parish like Morebath, forced liturgical change meant massive financial burden.

Another major impact was the outlawing (and re-allowing) of the veneration of the saints. In Morebath, parishioners took part in “interest groups” named after different saints, such as a group for young men named for St. George or a group of young maidens named for St. Sidwell (a local saint at Morebath). These groups helped people at different stages of life to have an engaged role in church life. Members also worked together to fundraise, and then donated the monies to the church to honor their saint in some way — such as the maidens financing a new coat of paint for St. Sidwell’s statue.

The saints were also deeply personal and entrenched in community life — often a woman would bequeath her rosary (a very intimate and important possession for a medieval woman) to be draped on St. Sidwell after her death, and parishioners would be able to be present with the saints and the objects that connected them with their absent loved ones.

With the outlawing of saints, these groups were dissolved, and the icons and decorations of the saints were no longer permitted in the church. Even in a financial record book, it’s clear that the loss of the saints hit parishioners hard. The residents of Morebath are recorded as keeping and hiding some of their saints and altar cloths. In fact, when a Catholic peasant rebellion rose up, Sir Christopher very sneakily records that the church sent several young men to support the rebels. So this was important enough to risk treason standing up for what they believed in.

In the end Protestantism won out, and Duffy notes that “with the extinguishing of the [saints’ altar] lights and the abandonment of the patronage of the saints… a dimension of warmth and humanity evident in the [financial] accounts [of Morebath] up to that point fades a little.”

Here we see how, as with the original conversion of Europe to Christianity, religious change at this time often came from the top down. Essentially, over the life of this parish priest, “twenty years of pious investment and communal effort” toward beautifying the church out of personal and communal devotion was in an instant “expressly declared unchristian” with the passage of these laws enforcing Protestant practice. It reminded me again how painful forcible conversion is, whether from religion to religion or even from one cultural practice to another. 

At the end of the book, Duffy notes that Sir Christopher, who became a priest as a Catholic, in the end had to shape his priesthood into the mold of Protestantism. He could have refused to change, or left the priesthood, but “the unthinkable alternative to conformity was to leave his vicarage and the people he had baptized, married, and buried for 40 years.” Duffy writes that “his [Sir Christopher’s] religion in the end was the religion of Morebath” — local, place-based, intertwined with those specific families and people. And I found that really beautiful to think about.

Conclusion

As I said, there’s just SO much here to take in. Printing presses accelerating the speed of public discourse. Resistance against Roman authority. Struggle to form a new faith. Coercion and conflict and loss and adaptation.

I feel like as we approach the “modern” era, I’m starting to see some of the themes that emerged early in the project — like “we’re not as cool as Rome” or forcible religious conversion or the disconnect between the powers and the rural folks —  resurface in deeper and more complex ways. 

I almost feel like Germany is starting to have kind of a personality to me, so that’s kind of cool. But also, people have baggage, and I already know where Germany’s particular baggage will get us… but it’s also fascinating to see where the roots of German nationalism began. And how, underneath it all, the Morebaths of the world try to put the pieces together and live life.

I’m still processing. But I’m really grateful for this journey.

Tune in next time for a dive into the Thirty Years War and the ins and outs of daily life in a typical German village.

Oh, and, bonus — enjoy Daniel’s cut-to-the-chase summary of my post. 🙂

SO… YOU’RE SAYING THAT LUTHER WANTED LIBERTY BOTH THEOLOGICALLY AND POLITICALLY FROM ROME, AND HE WAS PRETTY MUCH AMAZING AT LEADING THEOLOGICAL AND POLITICAL MOVEMENTS TO ACCOMPLISH JUST THAT, BUT NOT WITHOUT ACCIDENTALLY SCREWING THE POOR AND KINDLING THE 3RD REICH. OH… AND… PRINTING PRESSES.

 

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History of Me, Part 3: Beliefs and Betrayal

In this episode of History of Me, a look at how Christianity became the dominant religion in Europe. (Hint: It’s super complicated.) Intrigued? Let’s dive in!

NOTE: I am looking into German/Germanic/European history as a function of my own familial cultural roots, and am attempting to do so in an anti-racist, anti-imperial way. For my full reading list and a further note about whiteness, see this post.

The Barbarian Conversion

Two looooong books this time. The first was non-fiction: The Barbarian Conversion by Richard Fletcher. If you are interested in an in-depth look into this topic, I recommend reading this because there is LOADS of detail. Here are some of the big ideas that stuck out to me:

  • When Constantine converted, Christianity became the religion of Roman favor. As Fletcher takes pains to clarify, “Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, though this is often said of him. What he did was to make the Christian church the most-favored recipient of the near-limitless resources of imperial favor.” This caused a conflation of “Christianness” with “Romanness” in the eyes of many in the empire, and set the stage for…
  • When Rome collapsed, Christianity stepped into the void as a kind of Roman surrogate. Because Christianity had become entangled with Romanness,  bishops and dioceses were set up in the same regional manner as Roman governmental officials and provinces. Thus, when the empire collapsed, it was an easy step for the religious structure to take over and grow on the “trellis” of what had been the imperial apparatus.
  • From there, conversion usually proceeded from the top. Once Christianity took hold among Roman elites, leaders of other cultural groups began to opt in. Since bishops were also often seats of power, church officials often came from noble families and were thus well-placed to convert their relatives and former peers. Thus, “Christianity became an inseparable component of the aristocratic identity” (Fletcher p. 192). Conversion also happened first at the city centers, and took much longer to spread to rural areas. (As Fletcher puts it, “fuzziness is an essential and important part of the process of barbarian conversion” [p.132].)
  • Early Christianity was not monolithic, but became so over time. Despite how clear theological matters may seem today, early Christianity was rife with disagreements that were later labeled as “heresies” by the winners. For example, check out Arianism or Donatism. This is interesting because  by the time “Christian” missionaries arrived some places, some people had already embraced “heretical” strains of Christianity — which was cause not for celebration, but for re-conversion! I can see this laying the groundwork for later intra-religious conflict…

This gives you the basic big-picture outline of how Christianity was spread. Constantine, to bishops, to nobles, to their vassals and (eventually) to rural country folk.

However, another huge piece that first occurred in Europe was forcible conversion, and for this we turn to Charlemagne. By the 700s AD, the Frankish kingdom in northwest Germany / northeast France was established and Christian, and ruled by the Carolingians. (I’ll read more about this kingdom / time period next time, but for this post we’re jumping a little ahead.) Charlemagne’s predecessor launched a campaign against their Saxon neighbors to the east, but it wasn’t just about a land grab:

By the end of the campaign, the Saxons were cowed and ‘sought peace and the sacraments.’ The stage was set for the bloody Saxon wars and forcible conversions of the reign of Charlemagne. (p.210) … [In 30 years] not much headway had been made with the conversion of the Saxons. Were these stubborn people never going to submit? In the [end] they did. The harsher measures… bore fruit, in the short term. In 782 [Charlemagne] massacred 4,500 prisoners. More fortunate ones were enslaved or deported. In 784 he led his army to the banks of the River Elbe: no Frankish ruler had ever before campaigned and laid waste as far to the east as this. In 785 [the eastern ruler] submitted and was baptized. (p. 215) … The Saxon Capitulary [when they finally surrendered] stands as a blueprint for the comprehensive and ruthless Christianization of a conquered society. (p.216, emphasis added)

So basically, Charlemagne and the Franks were the first to forcibly require conversion to Christianity of their defeated foes, on pain of death. Not only that, but like many who experience trauma the Saxons then turned around and when they had the power they reenacted that trauma on others: the Saxons conquered and forcibly converted the Slavic Wends (aka future Slovakians) and Pomerania, a late pagan holdout (where my dad’s German side is from), was subjugated by Poland in 1120.

I’m guessing you can see some parallels to some other colonial forcible conversion and assimilation; I could. Here’s what Fletcher has to say about it:

Christianization in these lands of the northern Slavs meant ‘Germanization’: a colonial church, a church of the German ascendancy, was imposed upon them. Cherished patterns of cultural identity were broken up: immemorial ways of doing things… Little that was positive was proffered in exchange. No native Wendish clergy was encouraged; no Christian literature in Old Pomeranian was developed. The converts were cowed and resentful. (p.450, emphasis added)

Basically Charlemagne took the imperialist impulses that had been first propagated by the Romans, mixed in the Christianity that had become the new elite religion, and began a chain reaction of violent colonial conversion that has continued for centuries. As Fletcher notes, “The spiritual conquest of [eastern Europe] points ahead to that of Mexico and Peru” (p.491).

So when we white folks look at the trauma that Europeans have done to others in the name of God, we can also look at ourselves and know, we were “better” at colonialism and violence by the time we got to other continents, but we practiced on our neighbors first. To me, this is significant not as a way to equalize everyone’s trauma and make it all go away, but as a way to understand that long ago, some of my ancestors chose to prioritize power over neighbor, at the cost of their humanity and many people’s lives. And that choice kept being remade and remade. And it’s still being remade today.

Mists of Avalon

It was interesting to re-read this book. (Also, fair warning, I will discuss major spoilers for this book as well as mentions of abuse, so proceed with caution.)

The first time I read it, I mostly noticed the subtextual and at times very overt theological conflict, because those concepts were really new to me. And those pieces are still there — I noticed lots of themes and plot points that reaffirmed the history I read in Barbarian Conversion including some nobles that were Romanized, the slow “fuzzy” permeation of Christianity into the elite, the even slower trickle-down of Christianity to the peasants, and the gradual radicalization of the Christian missionaries. All line up with what Fletcher describes based on the historical evidence we have.

HOWEVER. That was not what stood out most to me on this read-through. What was painfully, in-your-face obvious to me in this book was the incredible amount of relational brokenness, pain, and loss.

Part of this comes from the structure of the story — it’s a retelling of King Arthur, which requires infidelity, incest, and mass death just to fulfill its core plot points.

Another big part is due to the fact that this go-round, I read as one aware of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s history of abuse, as told by her daughter. (There were parts of the book that, knowing this information, read wayyyy too creepily. NOT okay.)

Those things aside (and I recognize that for some, those things are too big to put aside, but I’m going to discuss the book anyway) — to me, this book is about the story of patriarchal/imperial Christianity and how matriarchal beliefs struggled to survive. It’s a really complex story with a lot of characters, but I’ll pull out a few points:

  • Women vs. the patriarchy. From page one, this is a book primarily about women, and our protagonist, Morgaine, introduces herself as “sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen.” Throughout the book we see how the constricting roles allowed to women by patriarchal Romanized Christianity harm all the women. We see this in how many of the Romanized/Christianized men treat women, and especially how men’s treatment of women finds a focused voice in the internalized oppression evident in King Arthur’s shrinking bride, Gwenhwyfar, who is constantly saying things like “It is unseemly for a woman to raise her voice before the Lord…” (p.288).
  • Women can be part of the patriarchy, too. Although the main theme of this book is about patriarchal/Western/Christian oppression, a lot of the pain in this story also comes from the damage that women in this book inflict on each other in a quest for Avalon to survive. For example, Morgaine’s aunt, who is the high priestess, basically tricks Morgaine into sleeping with her little brother (Arthur), and Morgaine feels so betrayed that she flees Avalon and almost never returns. So painful. Although I understood that the priestess (and eventually Morgaine as well) use people horribly to try to secure the survival of Avalon, that noble goal doesn’t make me feel any better when it ends with everyone Morgaine loves dead and her alone among the ruins of Avalon. They weren’t the cause — they were pushed out by patriarchal Christianity — but I found myself wishing they could at least have loved each other and enjoyed what time they had rather than betraying each other and dehumanizing each other in the face of violence.
  • Earth/Goddess vs. imperial Christianity. In this book, we can see played out in the Arthurian legend the elements of conversion. At first both the druids and the first Christian missionaries to Britain coexist, but as the priests become more closed, rigid, and exacting and begin to call the Goddess rites satanic and evil, the priestesses of Avalon have to fight to keep their way of life alive. The priests demand orthodoxy, and the people are forced to give up the stories and rituals of their land to what (especially for women) is a restrictive, negative system of harsh rules that literally teaches them they are the gateway of sin. (It’s said by a character in the book, but it’s a real teaching of the church at that time.) Even though the priestesses of Avalon have their own issues, it’s sad to watch as the juggernaut of Roman Christianity squelches the old ways and comes down hard on women.

Interestingly, though, the book ends on a somewhat hopeful note amidst all the death and destruction. Despite the demise of Avalon and the cult of the Goddess as Morgaine knows it, she finds a similar group of young women venerating the Virgin Mary and Saint Brigid at a convent on the island of Avalon.

But Brigid is not a Christian saint, she thought, even if [the priest] thinks so. That is the Goddess as she is worshiped in Ireland. And I know it, and even if they think otherwise, these women know the power of the Immortal. Exile her as they may, she will prevail. The Goddess will never withdraw herself from mankind. (p.875)

For Morgaine, the fact that the Goddess has found her way into the canon of Christianity means she will live on in some form. For me, I’m not sure I find this ending satisfactory. It took a lot of pain, loss, death, and betrayal to get there. But I do appreciate the idea that the deep spiritual ideas of the land and our ancestors stay with us in some form, in our bodies even, even if they take different forms.

Conclusion

To me, this reading section — like the last section — really helps me to understand how far back some of the toxic strands of empire go. As I said above, some of my ancestors have been choosing power over people for a looooong time. And I understand that some of those times may have felt like survival choices — just like the priestesses of Avalon did horrible things to try to survive — but just because something helps you survive doesn’t mean it’s good for you in the long run.

I’m reminded of the book The Body Keeps the Score (which I HIGHLY recommend), which talks about the impact of trauma in our lives and over generations. When we experience trauma, our brains enact coping mechanisms to help us survive — but we can get stuck with those mechanisms “on” and that’s when we start to have PTSD.

We’re all walking around traumatized to varying degrees, and grasping onto what power we have in order to try to ensure our survival. The sad part of this trend is that people in power (in our country, mainly white people) keep choosing to maintain and consolidate their power. The hopeful part is, that if all this structural inequality and pain is the result of my ancestors choosing power over people, then perhaps if I make a different choice I can begin to unravel what they wove over centuries.

May it be so!

Tune in next time as we jump forward into the early Middle Ages with Ch. 2 of Mighty Fortress and several books by Nobel-winning author Sigrid Undset!

Some ways that evangelical Christianity seems to me more Qur’anic than Biblical

1. Emphasis on eternal hell.

Generally the Bible dichotomizes Eternal Life as opposed to Destruction/Perishing, and only rarely as opposed to Eternal Punishment. And I don’t think there’s ever clarity that the individual is eternally present & conscious amidst torture. The worm does not die, the fire is not quenched… but worms and fires eat and burn up people, and then the people are gone. REFERENCES?

Hell as a place for punishing an individual eternally seems to be a much more prominent feature of the Qur’an (at least in the first surah or two that I’m reading… obviously not a scholar on the topic!)

However, the latter view is (in my subjective experience) generally the main / orthodox view amongst conservative / evangelical Christianity.

2. Emphasis on the ENTIRE scripture as straight from God’s mouth and utterly authoritative.

The entire Qur’an (I think) claims spoken from God’s perspective, to Muhammad, for immediate/direct line-by-line application to every area of life. Given pristinely, 100% authoritative / true.

Whereas in the Bible you’ve got swaths of history with varying appearance of historicity / symbolism, referenced and emphasized in alternatingly high and low emphasis by Jesus (never quoting Joshua, for example), authors appearing to debate each other within both NT (law/gospel) and also OT (good happens to the good / bad happens to the good), sexy love poems that never mention God, etc. Jesus actively transgressing on previously declared law codes, etc.

Again, it seems to me that evangelicalism/orthodoxy sees the Bible more like the Qur’an sees itself than like the Bible sees itself.

Something the New Testament and the Qur’an actually do share outright: Respect & homage for previous tradition.

I had heard that the Qur’an had some validations for Christianity and Judaism, but I didn’t imagine they’d be so densely packed within the text! The Qur’an affirms that Christianity’s and Judaism’s God is THE God just about as thoroughly as the N.T. affirms that Judaism’s and Christianity’s God is THE God. (A lot!)

 

(DISCLAIMER: I’ve read through the whole Bible but once, and largely when sleepy. I’ve read about 1 Surah (//book) of the Qur’an so far. Count me as authoritative AT YOUR OWN PERIL.)

In which I brag on my high school girls…

Today when I met with the group of 10th grade girls I mentor we talked about our goals and plans for the year. As a part of planning some of our discussions, I had each of them brainstorm quietly on a piece of paper a few topics they’d like us to address. When I brought them home and started to read them, I was BLOWN AWAY by not only the depth of their thoughts but the breadth! I love to brag on these wonderful ladies, so I thought I’d share my compiled outline of their thoughts. I’ve reworded and done a tad of fleshing out (like on “sin”) to make it be a proper outline, but all the ideas are theirs — there is not a topic here that doesn’t come from what they wrote down!

Suggested Discussion Topics for 2013-2014

1. Who Is God?

  • Character & attributes

2. How do we experience God?

  • Do you have a personal relationship with God?
  • Do you ever think God’s not listening or you don’t see him in your daily life?
  • Talking to God (Prayer)
    • What is prayer?
    • Why should we pray?
    • How should / do we pray?
    • What experiences do we have with prayer? (Is God answering your prayers?)

3. Why does God matter to us?

  • Sin.
    • What is sin?
    • What does God think about sin? / How does sin affect our relationship with God?
  • Salvation.
    • How does God “fix” sin?
    • Repentance, Forgiveness, & Reconciliation.
      • What does it mean to “repent”?
      • What is forgiveness?
  • Predestination vs. Free Will

4. What does it mean to be a Christian? / How do we respond to God?

  • What is a Christian?
  • Church history / denominational family tree
  • What does the Bible say Christians should do / be like?

Love God

  • What is worship?
  • How can we love God (more) ?
  • How do I be more Christ-like / How do I live out my faith?

Love Others

  • What does it mean to love my neighbor? / Who is my neighbor?
  • Loving my enemies
  • The body of Christ: Community, Encouragement, etc.

General

  • What is the Bible? How should / do I read it?
  • How to be an example / mentor
  • Dealing with tough stuff (e.g. death, depression, loneliness, etc.)
  • The female body: body image, modesty, etc.
  • School: Managing time wisely
  • How to be a light at a Christian school (dealing with disagreement / hypocrisy)
  • Revenge
  • Witnessing: Being a light / telling others about Christ
  • What does the Bible say about how to be a righteous woman?
  • Being a Christian even in the midst of “coolness” / Dealing with peer pressure
  • Healthy relationships
    • Family
    • Romantic
    • Friends
    • Dealing with conflict
    • Gossip / accountability

Ok, folks — there is PREDESTINATION on there! I am so impressed. (Not to mention my other mentee / friend, who just started her own blog with the question “What is sin?” I mean really — how do I get to be friends with all these fantabulous humans???)

Projecting my high or low view of myself onto God…

So stuck.

Again.
Nothing new to see here. move along, folks.
I read the old testament, and I’m like, “this is a story, told and written, by people, about people and God”.
Reading the Bible has done anything but create revival in me.
Perhaps I “should” be going to something like BSF? Where you go through the Bible and perky people say exciting words about it?
I think my view / approach to Christianity is that it’s the worst worldview / religion except for all the other ones.
Or, perhaps, it’s the worst one for me except for all the other ones.
In other words, there is a God I know is real, and only via Christian imagery / views / language / worldview can I relate to this God.
Or perhaps, there is a God, and my choice is either to make up my own image of who that is from scratch, or sketch my imagery for God around the scaffolding of a religion of which God can be purported to be the purposeful and unique founder.
Every time I come back to journal it’s more depressed, more grim, more flat and aimless and purposeless.
And so I call / mentally yank at the invisible intangible rope descending down out of a cloud of uncertainty, which I trust is tied to God, who I trust underlies all things, and I say God please do what you would do, what you must do, and also what I want you to do — to … to what? To alleviate the pain of uncertainty? Pobre mi. To make me not be so confused? I weary of pleading for that. I and thousands of others… always pleading… sometimes receiving? Never receiving? I pray saying that I assent, consent, and yearn for your utter and total intervention as well as enlightenment or even indoctrination of my mind and soul.
Oh, for those (arrogant, dysfunctional) exuberant days wherein I walked alongside my (selective, convenient) bastions of certainty, knowing my place in the universe, knowing my role as merely stirring my own little swirls in the already sufficiently radiant and glorious pools of color and majesty with which God has already filled the sky. Tangibly confident both in God’s already-victory in the universe, and in my contributive role.
I actually don’t believe any thing fundamentally different from those notions to this day; it’s just my aspect, my countenance, my pace and breath and gait and feelings and outlook that are changed. I sluggishly raise my hand and mutter “aye”, assenting to the same truth-claim, the same picture of the universe, where God wins and I can choose to be involved, but I thrill not at my involvement, nor even at the victory. Why? Because I don’t feel like I’m awesome. Funny, how arrogance can breed so profusely the experience of humble and adoring worship.
Why? It’s fairly simple; when I feel awesome, powerful, successful, and glorious, but my theology tells me that arrogance is wrong, then I merely continue to be awesome by projecting all my exultation and exuberance onto God. My future looks promising; I’m excited; I feel awesome about myself… but I know better than to attribute that awesomeness to myself, so I affirm in soaring poetry that all this glory and awesomeness is God’s, and I am merely a tiny pawn basking in it.

Nice.
I mean, it’s probably the right thing to do if you’re saturated with exuberance — put it onto God… But the question is where is the exuberance coming from in the first place. It’s a bit phony, struth, to project vainglory-derived exultation onto God, in the same way that I now project self-deprecatory depression onto God, or perhaps onto “worldview” / “reality” / etc.
Cool. Nifty. I can sit here for 30 minutes and problematize how whether I’m excited or depressed, it starts out with how I feel about myself, and then I project it onto Life, the Universe, God, and Everything.
I can sit and problematize myself.
I suppose then I should prescribe an alternative, yes?
But before I so constructively proceed to do so, I must air the chip on my shoulder about my long wounding over having so many times “figured out the better way”, the “right” alternative, and henceforth been powerless to enact it.
I look at the vanglorious Daniel of 2009 and spit psalms of imprecation against him; how the wicked exult, how they rejoice, while the (righteous?) rest of us lament. Yet my lamenting self is no more righteous than the offender of 2009; we both paint the world and God in exactly the colors we see when we look at ourselves; either in swirling beautiful vibrancy, or in flat gray muddled mess.
God, I’m quite sorry for painting you the way I see me.
Here’s an interesting question; do I do the same to Rebekah? Sometimes yes, sometimes the opposite… too many factors… moving on…
The solution is both clear and rather difficult/impossible.  It’s the deeply Zen / Christian (/ etc.?) thing: stop thinking about yourself. Boast in my weakness, delight in God’s fullness. Move past the ego, move into recognizing togetherness with all…
I experienced something like that on a retreat recently; a group of us were supposed to ask helpful questions to a certain person, and in that space I transitioned from resenting my weaknesses and others’ strengths in question-asking to rejoicing in both, in that my weakness left a space for their strength, and vice versa, and we could each move deeper into our own area of strength because none of us were trying to be everybody/everything.
It was real for that hour. It was real for a week after that.
Everything fades.
God, I’m going to continue about my day now, and I’m asking that you help me see and appreciate you as you are, rather than as a receptacle for my overflow of low or high self-esteem.

E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come

Today I was listening to my “audio cathedral” playlist on iTunes (yes, I’m a total church choir nerd!) and was struck yet again by the simple beauty of the Paul Manz song, “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come”.

If you have never heard this song before, I suggest you listen to it right now — or at least read the words below.

(I prefer the men’s choir TTBB arrangement, but the SATB version is pretty too!)


Peace be to you and grace from Him Who freed us from our sin
Who loved us all, and shed his blood , that we might saved be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord , the Lord almighty God
Who was and is, and is to come, sing holy, holy Lord.
Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein! Rejoice on earth, ye saints below,
For Christ is coming, is coming soon, for Christ is coming soon.
E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more.
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun, for Christ will be their All!

Hauntingly beautiful.

Anyway. It’s written by Paul Manz, who is sort of like THE Lutheran organist. (True story: I grew up listening to Paul Manz hymn festivals and organ pieces on roadtrips.)

I found out that “E’en So” was my mom’s favorite choir piece when I started looking at colleges because apparently it’s the signature piece of the Concordia Choir (St. Paul). Once the band (which she was in) went on tour with the choir and I think they got to sing the final piece together, which is pretty cool. So I’d heard a lot about it, but I’d never heard the song performed until the Cantus concert we attended right after we got married in 2011. They sang the men’s chorus arrangement, and it felt like a full minute before anyone dared clap afterward. I was hooked.

Listening to the words today —  “Lord Jesus, quickly come”, longing for the perfection of heaven — it struck me how perfectly this song represents the core of Lutheran theology. To me, having been raised up in both the music and theology of the LCMS, “E’en So” encapsulates the Christ-focused, crucifixion-based, heavenward-bound spirit of the Lutheran Church. The hopeful-yet-minor melodics, the yearning simplicity, the open fifths at the end that sound heavenly but not too “major”… to me, “E’en So” captures both the depth and the transparency, the grit and the release, the Good Friday and the light of Easter morning that appears in the Gospels.

And, while there are some things I disagree with about the LCMS, to me “E’en So” and the messages it represents will always remind me of my Lutheran roots.

So I’m curious — what other hymns or choral songs do you think would be the “anthem” for other denominations? (I would take a stab, but I don’t feel like I know other denominations well enough just yet!) I want to know what you think!

 

Are Suburban Churches Triumphalistic?

Hello, world!

So we’ve been out of the loop here on the blog for a little bit, mainly because we drove to Philadelphia for The Justice Conference at the end of February, and then we had to RECOVER from driving all the way to Philly and back! (That’s a 38-hour round trip, by the way. Yeah.)

Anyway, today I wanted to muse a little about one of the significant principles that was added to my think-tank at the conference.

One of the workshops I attended was a fascinating one about the importance of lament in the church (given by Soong-Chan Rah, who is AWESOME). During this workshop, which I originally thought was going to be about Lent, Soong-Chan Rah talked about how the absence or presence of lament is part of the divide between wealthy congregations and congregations who deal with poverty. Predominantly white, upper-middle-class, often suburban congregations often focus on God’s blessings and God’s goodness and how they are “blessed to be a blessing” — aka they are supposed to give money to poor people. (I literally just heard a sermon on this this morning.) Rah calls this a “triumphalistic” theology — one that focuses on victory and good things and success (some even going so far as to claim that believing in God will actually bring you more wealth).

The problem with a triumphalistic, God-blessed-me-with-this-wealth mindset is that if God is responsible for making me wealthy, I’m inversely saying that God is also responsible for making others poor.

What, then, are poorer churches to think when they find themselves in dire straits and tough financial circumstances? If God “blesses” rich people with more money than they need, does that mean that God DOESN’T bless poor people? If rich Christians are “blessed (given money) in order to be a blessing (give the extra to poor people)”, then are the poor simply receptacles for the second-hand blessings of the rich? (The answer is NO, in case you were wondering.)

Viewing Christianity through a triumphalistic lens like this (and taking it across to its logical conclusions about poor people), it becomes clear why economic integration is difficult in the body of Christ: the rich and the poor view Christianity, their lives, and even God from totally different perspectives. How could poor Christians ever believe that God created them to be perpetual recipients of someone else’s kindness? And how can rich Christians step outside their victorious lives to understand what following Christ looks like from a position of hardship and lament?

It seems that God looks a lot different when life is hard than when life is easier. And, seeing as how I’m not an expert on life being hard, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut on that topic until I can do some more research rather than speculate on what God and Christianity are like from a perspective of lamentation rather than triumphalism.

But in the meantime, I’m thinking long and hard about what I believe about God and what God tells me I should do in relation to the poor.

What do you think? Is there really a theological line between rich Christians and poor Christians about God’s relationship to our circumstances? I’m just digging into this, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts!