Wednesday, June 17, 2009

God in the silence: the lost history of Christianity part 2

Where is God when bad things happen to good people? How, if God is sovereign, could God let over 1,000 years of Christian life disappear in Asia and Middle East? If God loves us and has a purpose, then why do churches die? What does this do for Christian faith in God’s love and companionship? The last 2 chapters of The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died addresses these questions:

1- Be honest:

“Historically, all major religions have produced multiple instances of intolerance and persecution, and the scriptures of Islam include considerably fewer calls to blood-curdling violence than do their Christian and Jewish counterparts: witness Joshua’s conquest of the land of Canaan, or the ethnic purges associated with Ezra and Nehemiah … At various times, some Muslim regimes have been inconceivably brutal, others mild and accommodating. That diversity suggests that episodes of persecution and violence derive not from anything inherent in the faith of Islam, but from circumstances in particular times and places.” (242)

2 – Be Strategic:
Churches are better positioned to survive tough times if they diversify, accepting that times are always transient and thus being willing to adapt, both politically, economically, sociologically, ethnically. “Churches also survive best when they diversify in global terms, so that they are not dependent on just one region of the world, however significant that region might appear at a given time.” (244). A look at history shows that “Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance.” (245).

3 – Take the long way home:
As we consider, for example, that Christianity has appeared in China four times over the last 2000 years, we should be weary of too quickly declaring something dead. In other words, “forever can be a risky term to apply to human affairs, and so can extinction.” (256).

4- Easter benchmarks:
Our criteria for influence are too easily secular, too easily tied to power and politics. In reality the Christian understanding of Easter offers a totally different paradigm by which we should view life: that of suffering and surprising life. “The more we study the catastrophes and endings that befell individual churches in particular eras, the better we appreciate the surprising new births that Christianity achieves in these very years, in odd and surprising contexts.” (261) Jenkins ends with a great quote from the title by a Charles Olson poem: the chain of memory is resurrection.

5 – Silence is simply our shame:
Jenkins is a historian and so he can’t resist waving a flag for his discipline and having a dig at our contemporary culture of amnesia. He notes that yes, silence can be due to nobody speaking. Yet silence can also be because nobody is bothering to listen. If Christians do believe God speaks through history, then why are we not better studiers of history? And make that all history, not just the successes, but the failures too? “Losing the ancient churches is one thing, but losing their memory and experience so utterly is a disaster scarely less damaging.” (262).

In that sense The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died does us a great service. And leaves us with a great question: how are we going, attempting to listen to history? What ways have you find helpful to educate, and be educated about, the times before you became the centre of your theological world?

(This is a 2nd post. Part 1, including debunking of some myths about Christianity, is here)

Posted by steve at 04:14 PM

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