Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Resilient Church: the glory, the shame, & the hope for tomorrow

By Mike Aquilina

Mike Aquilina counters the common feminist and liberal stereotypes of Christian history being a story of misogyny and power-lust. He does so in a gentle, patient, and factual manner that does not whitewash negative episodes.

He shows the positive balance of Christianity to world history, most boldly and helpfully to women:

“The way Christians esteemed virgins was revolutionary in its time, and it spoke volumes about the greater rights women would win through Christianity's triumph. The Church viewed these women as prophets, teachers, role models, and leaders. In the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote, in his letter of praise for the Roman virgin Asella, that priests and bishops 'should look up to her.' In the liturgy in the third century, consecrated virgins were given a place of honor, receiving Communion before the rest of the laity.”

Aquilina's depiction of the crusades is balanced, as he outlines the warriors' mixed bag of virtues: Their spiritual passion tempered by ignorance of what they were really getting themselves into; their love for Christ contradicted by their hatred of the Muslims; the terrible Muslim treatment of Christians in the Holy Land paralleled by the brutality of the red cross knights whenever they took a city, especially Jerusalem.

“It's impossible to describe the emotional effect on the crusaders at the sight of Jerusalem. All the events of Christ's passion came vividly to their minds. Yet here were the historic churches, desecrated and turned into mosques. They were outraged.”

The author has the courage to offer a counter-cultural rendering of Christian history that, unafraid to admit past sins and failures, nonetheless looks to the Christian and prophetic values even in controversial scenarios: “By the middle 1100s, the crusader states had turned into something unique in the world. The Franks were still just as passionately attached to the Latin Church, but they nevertheless allowed Muslims and Eastern Christians complete equality. They had learned the lesson the rest of the world is still struggling with today: how to practice tolerance and be friendly with other faiths without lapsing into indifference.”

The Resilient Church also details the Reformation with a fair amount of punch. Rather than succumbing to the nice guy treatment of Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII, and others, he instead highlights the violence of the era, due to every side, and to the faulty doctrines or divisiveness of the non-Catholic personalities. Refreshingly, he portrays Luther less as a great theologian than as an ill-tempered, perpetually-protesting figure who became increasingly intolerant of all sorts of people, from the pope to the German peasants.

This viewpoint is important if we are ever to graduate from shallow ecumenism, where we avoid expressing our true feelings and gloss over our very real differences. The following encapsulates Aquilina's nerve: “By the 1600s, the Protestants were putting as much effort into condemning each other as they were into condemning Rome.” This kind of pro-Catholic truth-telling can only strengthen ecumenism because rather than being triumphalistic, it is plain-spoken and forceful.

The weakness of a short beginner book on church history such as this is that it breezes through the centuries and skips over many important events and figures. The Resilient Church aims to educate those with a basic knowledge of church history and theology and who want to tie some things together—that St. Thomas Aquinas came after Saint Francis of Assisi, and just who Pope Gregory the Great was, and the like. Knowledgeable students of history will need something more detailed or specialized.

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