(Mis)Appropriations of History

When I decided nearly ten years ago to go to graduate school, my primary goal was to learn something about Christianity from outside the church. I can’t remember what prompted that notion in the first place. I guess I knew that any institution is biased toward presenting its own history in the best light. In my church life—and for most other Evangelical churches—the focus of Christianity was Jesus and the Holy Spirit, figures that transcended time and space to be of help to us in the present. We used the Bible but were less concerned with its context or the two millennia from when it was written the present. (We were also very concerned with the end times, but that’s another story.) I had a good sense of my personal relationship with a divine power, but little knowledge of how that had come to be. I wanted to know how a man and twelve disciples began a worldwide religion.

This is not to say I never learned about Christian history. One of the best tactics to legitimize current Christian practice is to draw connections with the early Church. In the late 1990s, we became involved in the cell church movement, where small groups of Christians met in homes outside of the church. We emulated the movement for a couple reasons. First, it was the latest and greatest thing, and it had some success, primarily in Latin and South America. Second and more importantly, according to the Biblical book of Acts, house churches were the way the early Christians met. The reasons they met in house churches were likely either because they hadn’t built a suitable building or out of fear of suppression; we did it because they did it. There are some benefits to meeting in smaller groups, especially in megachurches where the individual can get lost in the crowd. Our church used it plug-and-play style, thinking that if we imitated the method, then God would bring people in and expand the congregation. All that to say that the early Church is often used as a stamp of authenticity. “The early Church did it, so it must be effective.” It was also a way to sidestep the intervening years, as if we could just ignore everything that happened in between, especially the unsavory parts.

Suffice it to say that I knew little of the chronology of Christianity. Going to a state institution allowed me to learn some Christian history from a largely non-sectarian perspective. There were several things that troubled me and invited other questions. One was the nature of the Bible’s creation. Though I didn’t consciously recognize it this way, I thought about the Bible like a nonfiction book authored by God instead of a compilation of sometimes complimentary, often contradictory narratives, poems, and letters written over several hundred years in multiple languages and published in its entirety two hundred years after that. It was a sort of relief to realize that the books were never intended to harmonize. The two different Genesis accounts, the growth of Israel from a henotheistic to monotheistic tradition, the transformation of Jesus from a cranky miracle worker in Mark to a divinity in John, to name just a few examples, are the products of a diverse number of writers in different circumstances and geographical areas. The chronology, in short, is messy.

A messy chronology is common to religious traditions. I was discussing with a friend yesterday the criticism that new religious movements often undergo because their histories are recent enough to be contested. Scientology and Mormonism, to name two home-grown examples, are routinely criticized because their claims can be disputed with modern historical and scientific method. Yet, the content of these traditions in and of themselves are no less credible than Christianity. One of the reasons (among others) that the Roman government once legislated against Christianity was its recent origin. Age meant respectability, tradition, honor. Even Judaism was given begrudging respect because of its age. Once Christianity began to be recognized as something separate from its Jewish lineage, though, it lost its protection and became just another new (and therefore unfounded) innovation. New religions never get any love.

The many contradictions in the Biblical text are a common point of attack by outsiders, not because they hate Jesus, but because there are many contradictions. Reactions to these, ranging from an insistence on literal interpretations of portions of the Bible to saying the contradictions are on the unimportant stuff are reflective of a justified fear of uncertainty, but the text cannot support the weight that is placed on it. My intention is not to engage in a point-by-point excursus of the Bible, which would be irrelevant. Rather, it is to suggest that knowledge of the history of Christianity is helpful for defusing common hierarchies of religious traditions based upon the superiority of one’s own.

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