Saturday, April 30, 2011

Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor

By Paul Stephenson, 358 pages, Overlook Press.

Emperor Constantine (272-337) harnessed the energy of Christianity's exploding growth. The Edict of Milan in 313 gave Christians the right to freedom of conscience, but older religions lived on. The emperor himself during the years leading up to his own deathbed baptism never formally rejected the old beliefs.

Rather, author Paul Stephenson clearly shows that Constantine followed the tendency of the times, and fused the old religious ways with the new. His vision of Christ before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when he defeated the other emperor and became sole ruler of the entire empire, was more an image of the old warrior god Apollo - Sol Invictus.

The new religion fit onto the template of the old. This was no mere superstition for Constantine, the author shows. The military would only fight and support the generals and emperor if the soldiers could be certain that the greatest god was on their side. Thus state and military religion was a matter of worshipping the highest god in the pantheon.

If Christ would be considered a state God, he would have to prove his military worth. The fighting men and generals would have to gain confidence in Christ as the highest God, able to grant them military victory. Constantine's conversion was thus risky to his survival in this century of nonstop civil wars and military uprisings.

Constantine thus changed the nature of Christianity, militarizing it as much as he Christianized the army ranks. If the army was to replace their mystery religions with Christian belief, Christ would have to become the God of warriors. Thus the need for a vision such as before the victory at Milvian Bridge.

While the emperor embraced Christianity, especially as time wore on, and meddled in the disputes of Christian bishops, he stiffly opposed Christian heretics, exiling false believers and even contemplating persecution against them, which is ironic given his status as the great freedom- granter.

Yet this demand for unity was consistent with the emperor's desire for a stable, sure military God who would protect him and the army. A fractured Christian community could not provide him or his army the kind of divine protection that was needed. Readers get a good sense of the interplay between culture, politics, religion, and the military. Stephenson shows that Constantine's Christian beliefs, as well as those of the army, were not about pure, innocent piety. These warriors were looking for a useful God.

His reign saw the continued expansion and improvement of the material and cultural status of Christians within the empire, as in 321, when Christians were permitted to leave estates to the Church, which became a common practice.

When Constantine made Byzantium into the imperial city Constantinople, he allowed for the construction of many pagan temples and statues, and wasn't particularly interested in building churches. The author notes that Constantinople was not necessarily a Christian city. This is consistent with Stephenson's observation that Constantine did not legislate Christianity as the state religion; the Edict of Milan legislated religious toleration, though towards the end of his reign the emperor clearly favored Christianity, such as by allowing soldiers time off on Sundays to attend church.

Despite the equivocations of the emperor, by the time he received his baptism, medieval Christendom and the Byzantine Empire had taken their first steps.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend

By Ravi Zacharias, Thomas Nelson Publisher, 360 pages.

The various evangelical Protestant authors of Beyond Opinion demonstrate their deep commitment to converting the secular culture that surrounds them. They boldly wade into the most contentious issues facing all of society, including pornography, loneliness, and lack of community.

Common to all writers is the commitment to respecting the person, atheist or Muslim, Buddhist or secularist, with whom they discuss the gospel. Rather than winning intellectual arguments, winning a soul for Christ is the primary task.

As Zacharias and other writers note, apologists must challenge faulty worldviews. Often behind a question, such as why a good God permits evil and suffering, is a deeper assumption about life. Zacharias notes that Jesus' technique when being challenged by doubters was to "question the questioner." In other words, speak to the underlying assumptions, rather than to the first question.

Beyond Opinion is refreshing because the writers do not fear secularists or ornery atheists. They demonstrate how their own arguments have advanced beyond the childishly simplistic reasoning of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and others who angrily denounce religion and believers. Examining the underlying issues, they wonder: if God does not exist, why are atheists so angry at Him?

Christian apologists must keep fixed on the real goals of their ministry: "The apologetic task is first and foremost a spiritual conflict that sometimes shows itself through competing worldviews that seek to undermine faith in Jesus Christ." This demands knowing the errors of secular or atheistic thinking, and responding with clarity, with the simple truth of the Nicene Creed.

One major spiritual struggle is with modern society's loss of the sense of sin. Salvation cannot be offered to people who don't think they need to be saved. Perhaps a chapter on how Christians can encourage a sense of sin without overemphasizing guilt would have rounded out the argument.

Repeatedly, Beyond Opinion reveals the wealth of experience from countless dinner-time arguments with aggressive anti-Christians. On one occasion, in a formerly-communist Eastern European country, after hours of fruitless argument, the Christians offered to pray with the nonbelievers, who hesitantly accepted. The prayer changed the mood deeply. The atheists were affected, and stayed up until morning arguing amongst themselves about God. One gave his life to Jesus that night.

Avoiding complication, some apologetic techniques are simplistic but effective. Just as God's existence cannot be proved, neither can His non-existence. Atheists and agnostics are only fooling themselves if they think they have found some truth. They too have a faith - in their atheism or agnosticism.

Thus Richard Dawkins' claim that belief in God is similar to belief in the Easter Bunny fails to stand to scrutiny. No one comes to belief in the Easter Bunny in their adulthood, but countless people come to Christ in these years. Dawkins' faith in his atheism is immature and incomplete, in contrast to the faith held by the Christian.

The authors' reverence for the Bible is also refreshing for readers who have become used to deep disrespect of the sacred. Beyond Opinion offers an antidote to the troubled, rude secularism of our age.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Benedict XVI: Essays and Reflections on His Papacy

Edited by Mary Ann Walsh, 224 pages, Rowman Littlefield.

This collection of short essays on the character, teaching, and work of Pope Benedict XVI by American Catholics gives readers an excellent sense of the close relationship between the pontiff and the United States.

Much to the surprise of many, especially the secular, liberal media, Benedict has left a profound, lasting impression on American life. The oldline media, such as Time Magazine, continually claimed (and still does) that he was out of touch with people, Americans in particular, and would fail to capture the public's imagination. Nothing could be further from this, it turns out.

Rather than cold and indoctrinating, he has come off as a fatherly, caring, wise pastor. His trip to the US, at a low time in the sex-abuse scandal, brought about great healing and testified to his deep care for people.

Rather than foremost a scholar pope, people have begun to regard him as a pastor pope. Many writers in the book testify to his brilliant preaching on the love of God, and what it means to them not only intellectually, but spiritually.

Yet rather than sentimental, Benedict proclaims a God who reaches out through history in the person of Jesus Christ. One writer notes that for the pope charity without truth is "mere sentimentalism." In other words, the pastor-pope does also demand the traditional Catholic practice of intellectual engagement.

His own brilliance has been a great gift to the worldwide Church. "People came to see Pope John Paul II. People come to hear Benedict," one contributor notes. The pontiff's profoundly deep, multifaceted theological writings, so at odds with the superficial gimmickry of much of mainstream pop culture and Church life, can be read again and again.

Many reflections in this book point out the importance of liturgy to the pope. Rather than sentimentality, Benedict regards the liturgy as theological proclamation. He invites people to understand and engage more deeply with the liturgy. Benedict sees the world's true destiny and fulfillment, one writer notes, achieved one day through worship and adoration.

Readers can see glimpses of the multi-faceted nature of Benedict's theology. His opposition to some strains of liberation theology is grounded in his own appreciation of the liturgy and the simple proclamation of Jesus Christ as Savior. We are called to have the same faith that Mary has, which is one dimension of his own devotion to the Blessed Mary Virgin.

Such devotion for the pontiff does not get lost in emotion or piety, but is expressed in the clear theology for which he is renowned.

Completing this picture of the scholarly, pastor pope is a teacher of tradition, which includes the age-old religious practices of his native Bavaria. This has given him an intense appreciation of the understanding of tradition as the deposit of the faith.

One selection thus notes that his papal coat of arms combines papal tradition with Augustinian theology and "papal lore."

God has thus offered a powerful antidote to the world's secularism: a pope who is pastor, scholar, and traditionalist.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Johan Sebastian Bach

Rick Marschall offers readers a glimpse of the society and heritage of Johan Sebastian Bach. The composer came from a long line of musicians, and his sons followed in his footsteps. His whole life was dedicated to music. In fact, one could say that, according to the author, his whole life was dedicated to God through his music.

Lutheran German culture of Bach's day - he died in 1750 - was highly musical and literate. Again and again the author weaves this culture into the storyline, showing how Bach was the crowning achievement, even the personification, of this wonderful culture.

While non-musical readers will not get lost, at times the book can be challenging, with musical terms that classical music lovers will know, and the rest won't. Yet Marschall is careful not to drown us in such technicalities - too much.

Bach was a musical virtuoso, which means that he was a technical virtuoso. With these musical terms, we have glimpse of the challenges, such as with polyphony and counterpoint.

Even readers familiar with Bach might enjoy the discussion that Bach was a real theologian. With an impressive theological library, he had a deep understanding of Luther and Lutheranism. He preached the gospel, through the Lutheran tradition, with his music.

Marschall's book is a success because, after reading it, one wants to dig a bit deeper into Bach and his culture.

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography

By Irina Yazykova, Translated by Paul Grenier, 191 pages, Paraclete Press.

Icons offer Christians a vision of God's grace, much like the gospels themselves do. Part theology, part art, they depict the saint in his timeless, grace-filled state. Physically-correct depictions are not important, as icons (again, like the gospels) are not biography.

Throughout Eastern Christian history, icons have offered beauty to a world that seems ugly and intent on creating violence. Grace leads to beauty. Even during the lowest periods of human history, the icon must be present to the world, ready to appeal to a deep part of the human heart that hungers for more than this world.

"Whatever the age, the senselessness and ugliness that so often scars this world encounters a bulwark of resistance to the icon - in the radiant face of divine wisdom," the author notes.

Yazykova's discussion on the theological meaning of beauty, and on the special work of icons in the proclamation of the gospel, fits well with Catholics. Beauty is part of the proclamation of the gospel. Much of today's kitsch-culture rises from the fact that we have lost our way spiritually. God is not the muse of artists that He once was.

Artists have become intent on shocking and destroying, ready to disrespect religion, especially Catholicism.

The practice of painting and using icons in worship is as far removed from this ugliness as is possible. Because of the almost-unchanging nature of icon production and use in prayer and the liturgy, icons lack the childish sentimentality of much of current spirituality.

Icons help us grow spiritually because they point to the unchanging truth. Yazykova writes of the great respect shown the icons by the Russian people. Until this century, the artist did not sign the work, because the icon was more important than the artist. Iconographers were a kind of priest, whose individuality didn't matter. They served the Church and God. Their artistic career and renown were not important.

Iconography was influenced by Russia's turn to the West in the eighteenth-century. In the nineteenth, a kind of fusion of Western and Eastern art occurred, much to the detriment of the practice and understanding of iconography.

Readers get a sense of the violent troubles of the Soviet period, particularly bad up to the Second World War, when Stalin relented on persecution of the Church because of the war effort. The bare essentials, sometimes an individual or group's bare faith, remained.

The Soviet ransacking and neglect of Russia's Orthodox heritage was a boon, ironically, to the iconographers of the post-communist period. Perhaps too much of a boon - the quality of workmanship on icons has decreased because of the shortage of iconographers.

No matter, things will eventually sort themselves out because of the nature of Orthodox spirituality. Rather than a revolutionary movement, the Russian Church advocates a return to tradition, of which it is the guardian. Discouraging innovation, Russian spirituality relies on the truths of the past. This will serve icons well in the future, and offer the true revolution of the heart.