Melania the Younger
(c. 383-439 AD)
Some stories need to be told because they reveal the good that Christianity has done in the world. I am especially sensitive to this since, in the academic world, Christianity often serves as the antagonist in scholarly narratives. One of these stories comes from Melania the Younger’s biographic vignette in Palladius’ The Lausiac History.
In the early 400s AD, Melania freed 8000 slaves as a part of her transition to what she felt was a more faithful Christian life. An heiress in an exceptionally wealthy family, Melania had been married off by her family at the age of thirteen. However, she desired to seek God by pursuing the monastic life. She begged her husband to allow their marriage to be chaste, and then at the age of 20 began liquidating her estate. Palladius tells us:
Her own faith led her to set free eight thousand slaves who desired freedom. The rest of the slaves did not want this, however, choosing rather to serve her brother, to whom she sold them for three pieces of money. She sold off everything she had in Spain, Aquitania, Taraconia, and Gaul, keeping for endowment of the monasteries only her holdings in Sicily, Campania, and Africa.
Stories like this are not isolated within the first five hundred years of Christianity. Interested? Take some time to read Patristic biographies and monastic documents. You might find some other wonderful surprises.
 The Church and/or particular Christians often deserve to serve as the “bad guys.” I don’t contest this. However, I do think there is often a significant vacuum of positive portrayals of the Church and particular Christians in scholarship and the general public, despite many wonderful examples throughout history.
 Trans. R. Meyer (1965).
Cyprian of Carthage
(c. 200-258 AD)
The early Church had different questions that it brought to the table than we do today. Since the Reformation most of the questions brought by Western Christians tend to focus on the “how’s” of salvation. Thus, Patristic texts can often seem odd to us since the finer aspects of salvation are not as carefully parsed as we are accustomed to seeing. I have included one example below that gives Cyprian of Carthage’s view about when Christian’s receive the Holy Spirit, which he seems not to differentiate from salvation.
Some brief context on Cyprian and early Christian baptism will help. Cyprian (c. 200-258), who served as bishop of Carthage, was an extremely important figure in North African Christianity. Over a century later, in the time of Augustine, his life and martyrdom were still honored by Christians throughout the region. It would be difficult to overstate his influence over the North African Christian imagination.
Because of our often myopic concern with salvation, baptism in Cyprian’s time is also often difficult to understand. Whereas today Western Christians often think of baptism as a public proclamation of one’s internal salvation that has taken place beforehand, a ritual after entering Christianity, early Christians often viewed this process differently. A person interested in Christianity would often receive months or years of training about what it meant to be a Christian before they were officially allowed entrance into the community. In this way, baptism was the doorway to Christianity. It was often followed by the new Christian’s first communion, shared with the broader community. Baptism was often done in groups, and there are many witnesses to the idea that people would wait to be baptized on special days (most often on Easter). Continue reading »
Reading Dante, Don is at it again. Why is my first instinct to wonder why?
[Spoiler Alert: This post discusses this week's season premiere of Mad Men. Read at your own risk.]
Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, is forcing us to face our contemporary ethical dilemma through our infatuation with Don Draper. I have vaguely felt this for a while, but last night my moment of clarity finally came. In the aftermath of the premiere’s denouement, while washing my bourbon glass and still in shock over Don’s affair with the surgeon’s wife, my wife and I began to verbally process what we had just seen. My reaction involved a lot of intellectual acrobatics in an attempt to find a good reason for Don’s most recent affair. The reasons began to pour out of me like an ever-flowing stream: Don has a need for adventure; Megan has regressed towards childhood in the same way that Betty did; Don is struggling with his own mortality or with the unsatisfying nature of the American dream; and on and on. My wife’s reaction was simple – Don was doing something wrong. There was no sufficient explanation. And that was my moment of zen.
Continue reading »
Basil, as depicted in the Church of the Theotokos Peribleptos in Ohrid, Macedonia
In his Longer Rules 6, written back to those he had left at the monastery on his family’s property when he left to become a bishop, Basil makes an interesting insight about the danger of comparison to others in the life of the monk. Comparison, for Basil, makes one less aware of one’s own sin as one becomes inflamed with pride at the sight of those who are worse than oneself. It is an interesting insight into Basil’s view of the spiritual life. Basil writes:
And in addition to all the other obstacles, which are many, the soul in looking at the crowd of other offenders does not, in the first place, have time to become aware of its own sins and to afflict itself by penance for its errors; on the contrary, by comparison with those who are worse, it takes on, besides, a certain deceptive appearance of righteousness. Secondly, through the disturbances and occupations which life in society naturally engenders, the soul, being drawn away from the more worthy remembrance of God, pays the penalty of finding neither joy nor gladness in God and of not relishing the delights of the Lord or tasting the sweetness of His words, so as to be able to say: ‘I remembered God and was delighted,” and ‘How sweet are thy words to my palate! more than honey to my mouth.” Worse still, it becomes habituated to a disregard and a complete forgetfulness of His judgments, than which no more fatal misfortune could befall it. (trans. M. Wagner, FC, 1950)
[Author's Note: Just a quick reflection this morning]
Is the Academy the safe haven
for contemporary Gnosticism?
(Pictured: Nassau Hall, Princeton University)
Gnosticism and the Academy seem to share a common theme. Gnosticism in the ancient world, while varied in its particular expressions, almost always affirmed that there was a secret knowledge that a blessed few could attain. Today, academia seems to hold a similar position in the Western imagination. I have had multiple friends rush off to seminary or grad school with the hopes that they would finally achieve the highest level of their existence through a knowledge (usually of theory) that they could gain in exchange for a few thousand dollars. None of my friends found what they were initially looking for, but some came away with what they believed to be secret knowledge. For my friends and colleagues, this knowledge is usually an understanding of theory that explains particulars in a segment of the world to them. Continue reading »
Everyone opposing this position is not a bigot.
[NB: Awhile back I wrote an article about how I believe that all Christians can come out in support of legalizing gay marriage (click here if you would like to read it). The position is simple: God, not the government, defines marriage. Thus, fights about the definition of marriage should take place in Christ’s Church. Regardless of what it is called, the government institution of marriage is something different. This is my position, so today I am writing on behalf of those who vote against me.]
I am going to make a simple argument in the midst of what I find to be some quite thoughtless name-calling (explicit and implicit) against the backdrop of the current Supreme Court hearing: Many Christians who oppose gay marriage are not bigots.
This misrepresentation has been caused by our culture’s contemporary view of truth as it relates to religion. Our culture, for the most part, only allows for religious people to have values. This is difficult, because a religion such as Christianity claims not values, but truth that exists outside of the individual agent. God communicated some of this truth that exists, to which humans can either bend their own will or ignore. But from the Christian position, one cannot simply call truth a value and relativize it. From this position, the questions of the homosexual act of sex and the genders of those who marry were decided from eternity. They did not choose their position. It was chosen for them.
Continue reading »
How deep does a graduate school language learner need to go?
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was to figure out who I am as a scholar. This directly affected my approach to learning languages because what I wanted to do directly affected the level to which I would study ancient and modern research languages.
It is a slippery statement to say that one “knows” a language. I remember filling out PhD applications and wondering whether or not I should say that I had a language and, if so, what level I was with the language. From the other side of that process, I think that I can see a paradigm-shift that may help aspiring scholars who find themselves in a similar dilemma: Know where you are headed. Continue reading »
Sometimes manuscript traditions can be fun (I know, I know). Especially when they involve one of the greatest curmudgeons of the Early Church – Jerome. Known for his skill with both Greek and Latin, Jerome plays a large part in many textual discussions of the Patristics era.
Today I discovered a fun note involving Jerome in the text tradition of Didymus the Blind’s De Spiritu Sancto. Although Didymus wrote in Greek, our oldest manuscript is in Latin. Why?
In the late 4th c., Ambrose of Milan wrote his own De Spiritu Sancto at the request of Gratian. Jerome came across a copy of this and felt that Ambrose had plagiarized Didymus’ work…poorly. Jerome states in his introduction:
“Not long ago I read a certain man’s little books on the Holy Spirit and I saw that what the Comic said was true: good Latin does not come from good Greek. The work was utterly devoid of logical structure, completely lacking the force and rigor that would draw the reader even unwillingly to agreement. Rather, everything was languid, weak, elegant, and refined, and adorned here and there with artificial colors.
But my dear Didymus…gazed even higher and restored for us the ancient custom of calling a Prophet a ‘seer.’ Whoever reads this will certainly recognize how the Latins have robbed him and will scorn the trickling stream once he begins to drink from the gushing spring.” Continue reading »
A quick thought for today:
Evangelicals seem to sit on the opposite end of a good deal of online anger (rather than fill this post up with examples I encourage you to use the power of Google to find some for yourself. Go ahead. Any number of search terms should bring up at least six good examples on the very first page of results). Sometimes evangelicals deserve it, sometimes they don’t. Most of the time no one knows what the term means, or how broadly to apply it. I don’t either, so we won’t solve that today.
I’m not concerned here with ascribing guilt. Rather, I’m curious why this group receives so much scrutiny from both within and without. The census and politics are certainly two reasons. If evangelicals numbered less than one million people and had no publicly expressed political interests they certainly would not receive as much attention as they have (For example, I don’t ever see people writing that they are upset with the Quakers).
However, I would like to offer a third explanation in addition to numbers and politics: Since evangelicalism is one of the most evangelism-driven wings of the worldwide Christian Church, it receives a greater deal of criticism because it is in contact with more people outside of the Christianity than other wings of the Church. Put differently, it is logical to think that if a greater number of outsiders come into contact with a branch of the Church, a greater number of people will be dissatisfied with that branch. Continue reading »