Book Review of Vincent J. Donovan’s “Christianity Rediscovered”

There are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel.

For discussion this week our theology class read through the book Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent J. Donovan. Donovan was a Catholic priest sent on missionary work to Tanzania in the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Christianity Rediscovered was published in 1978 to explain his methods as a Catholic missionary and he hoped it would affect the Roman Catholic Church in its post-Vatican II transitionary period.

Donovan’s missionary method explicitly left behind the work of the Roman Catholic Church up to his day. Rome had dedicated centuries to living among the peoples of Africa and had come to the point in the early 1950s where they were running hospitals and schools to show they cared for Africans in hopes that they could compassionately draw people into Christian faith. Donovan critiques the Roman methods because they had stopped overtly teaching the gospel to those outside the proximity of the mission complex. He decided he would go the Masai tribes with a convert to reach the tribes far from the mission hub. This book is Donovan’s memoirs concerning his time dedicated to this missionary work.

There are a couple of positive ruminations by Donovan that should be appreciated. For being a man who had little education in moving cross culturally his struggles from naïveté to hard experiences are valuable to witness in his beautiful narratives of life among the Masai people. The best of Donovan comes out in his critical thoughts on the place of the priest. He comes to the more organic and communal (similar to the Eastern Orthodox) perspective that the priest is a physical and visible manifestation of the unity of the community in relation to God and God’s presence with his people among the community as it worships in the liturgy, particularly in the Eucharist. The priest is not primarily a theologian, or preacher, or healer, or social worker, instead he is the expression of the community of faith and the Spirit in that local place. Connected to this priestly conversation he questions the place of the missionary. Interestingly, Donovan doesn’t believe a missionary can ever really be the priest of the people they are trying to reach, and that is because the missionary is not an organic manifestation of the community in that place.

A major conclusion to these definitions for priests and missionaries is that neither can be dedicated to allowing the gospel to be devolved or used for social activism in a culture or politics of a nation. Donovan sees a weakness in the dedication of the social gospel of the early twentieth century. The weakness is it hasn’t really changed the African peoples the work is serving. The social gospel was to bring the gospel through work but very few were excepting the gospel! There is a profound critique by Dononvan here on the contemporary practices of many churches who are trying to use social justice work as an implicit way to woo non-Christians into the faith.

There a number of issues I had with Donovan’s thesis, but I will limit myself to expounding here on only two of them. The first issue was his belief that the gospel is something that can be stripped of any cultural or historical meaning and presented to a new culture in a “pure”, un-interpreted way. Or as he says, he wants to elicit a “cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel.”[1] I don’t think this is possible. There are too many facets of study that teach us there is no way to separate anything we do or say from our enculturated, historical existence as humans. Whether it is philosophy’s explanation that in language a word only makes sense in relation to other words in a sentence. Or social theory’s identity development analysis that shows how individuals only gain a sense of self by relation to others.

More importantly, to understand the gospel there are elements of Jewish historical understanding that must be retained in our presentation to make sense of this good news. I encourage all pastors to read Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel. Dr. McKnight shows how the gospel must be the culmination of the story of Israel in the story of Jesus as the long-awaited Davidic king sent by God. God has sent Jesus to forgive and purify the people in order to be faithful to the covenant promises made long before. This gospel is always rooted in the history of Israel as it culminates in the first century. If we teach the theological implications of the gospel or the benefits of salvation as the gospel we are forfeiting talking about the gospel itself, the person of King Jesus. The gospel is not a pristine jewel sullied by the cultural trappings of Jewish first century practices and beliefs. Instead, it is the very historical basis of King Jesus’ life that overturns and expands so many of those Jewish beliefs which reveals what the gospel means. Only by watching the continuity and disruption of the Jewish culture around the person of King Jesus can we understand the implications for his actions and teachings. And only after understanding this thoroughly Jewish gospel of King Jesus as a cultural reality can we witness how it is able to enter into another culture and let that receiving culture experience continuity with the gospel or find disruption by it.

Second, Donavan’s idea that the gospel proclaimed will simply, almost naturally begin to reform the culture and rework from the inside out. There is too much of participatory, faithful obedience as a part of Christian life in my understanding of Christianity to except this passive belief in salvation. We are to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling”.[2] We are to work to not give our bodies over to sexual immorality and other vices of sin.[3] We are to strive for the goal set before us in King Jesus then work is a part salvation’s empowerment.[4] In fact, we are given the empowerment of grace (the gift of participation in King Jesus’ resurrection and ascension) to live in the good works of King Jesus’ life revealed in him beforehand.[5] There can be no assumption in Christian communal life that simply talking about the historical and cultural King Jesus story will transform us. Transformation occurs by inviting the Spirit to reshape our life together into the shape of King Jesus life.[6] That historical and cultural story of King Jesus is relived in the body of his people,[7] the bodies of his followers,[8] and we truly become the body of Christ.[9] Christian life, then, is the (cultural and historical) gospel life story of King Jesus relived in our bodies in our context, allowing him by the Spirit to purify or disrupt our cultural place and historical time through us.

God has begun this work, we join him in it, but that does not mean we aren’t called to intentionally address our issues, both individually and as a community. But there is a strange line that appears when addressing the issues of sin in the surrounding culture. Donovan says it is not the job of those who preach the gospel to try to change the culture and Paul agrees to this.[10] But again, Christians cannot hear this as an encouragement to speak ambiguously about the transformation that is a part of joining the community of faith. The expectation of all Christians in every church is that the community is together conforming to the image of King Jesus.[11] We must let the gospel retain its contextual elements in the life of King Jesus and also submit to his teaching that those who would become his disciple’s must count the cost because he asks us to give up a lot to follow him.

there are things we have learned from our culture’s place in history that will be disrupted, dismantled, even condemned by the gospel and we must actively submit to giving those things up. Other parts of our culture and history will be purified and refined, and in these things we will realize God was always leading us to King Jesus even though we couldn’t have known it before the gospel. Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered is like all cultures who experience the coming of the gospel. It is a book with beauty which will stand the test of time, but other parts must be left behind since we have continued to learn a better way in the story of King Jesus.

 


[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered, 25th anniversary ed (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2003), 24.

[2] Phil. 2:12

[3] Rom. 6:5-14

[4] Heb. 12:1-2

[5] Eph. 2:8-10

[6] Phil. 2:1-13

[7] 1Pt. 2:21

[8] Gal. 3:20

[9] Eph. 1:19-23

[10] 1Cor. 5:12

[11] Rom. 8:28-30

Valentine’s Day Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?”

I must admit, Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays. To me, it is only fitting that Christians both celebrate the beginning of Lent, the intentional time of embodied reflection leading to the last week of Jesus’ life, and the life culminating in martyrdom of our brother Saint Valentine. While there is a lot of speculation around the story of Valentinus, the core of the story is that a priest, likely in Rome, continued to marry Christians even against the edict of the Emperor to halt all weddings. When arrested for his crimes against the empire Valentinus was visited by Christians to care for him, many of them those whom he had wed, thereby encouraging him in the Christian faith that love conquerors the powers of this world until his execution. In the face of such persecution why would anyone choose to become a Christian?

Today’s celebration is a good bridge for me to review a book I recently read called Why Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? by Larry Hurtado. This book is similar to his larger one called Destroyer of the Gods that I reviewed a few weeks ago. While Destroyer focused on what made Christians distinctive from Greco-Roman and Jewish society, this monograph focuses on what people thought they were gaining by joining the Christian communities of faith. I call it a monograph because it is a small bound book with barely more than one hundred pages. In fact, it is a printed version of his Père Marquette Lecture in Theology at Marquette University in 2016.

Hurtado begins by showing Christianity as a social group that grew at exponential rates over a long period of time. He uses the research of Rodney Stark and other historians of religious social development to show how this is a nearly impossible venture for new religious movements. He even goes so far as to say, “Indeed, although historians are often loathe to use the term, we probably have to say it was unique. For there simply is no new religious group of the time that had the same growth sustained over such a long time. And, as specialists in the new religious movements have noted, it is the rare religious group that becomes trans-local, and even fewer that sustain their growth beyond the first few years or decades.”[1]

This rapid growth, which is so evident for us nearly some two millennia later, was clearly noticed as it created socio-religious waves in the Roman world. From the small riots against Paul, to the Expulsion of the Jews in A.D. 49 over the “Chrestos” controversy, to the effect on temple tourism in Ephesus mentioned by Pliny the Younger around A.D. 112 it is clear that Greco-Roman society saw Christians as a problem to be dealt with, and harshly. This decisive, but usually local pressure on Christians, continued on with martyrdoms of bishops and apologists for centuries. Hurtado lays out the evidence that early Christians lived in a world where judicial and political action could easily be turned against them. More than that, the constant social ostracism Christians brought on themselves by their distinctive rejection of the gods, and lack of participation in common social behaviors linked to the gods, left Christians in a constant position to be harassed socially and politically if the population of an area turned against them.

So what could possibly have been the draw to this religion which cost so much socially and could produce so much suffering at the hands of the empire? Hurtado begins by showing what were not likely reasons people would have joined a Christian community but are often touted as reasons why Christianity succeeded in the face of such pressures.[2] First, people did not join the Christian faith because it had access to a more powerful or effective wonder-working source. Hurtado points out there were plenty of options available to people of the first few centuries that offered magical results for just about anything and everything, and it would not cost them their property or life before the magistrates or risk familial or communal ostracism being leveled against them. Second, people likely didn’t join because of a sense of familial bond between members. Hurtado speaks of how familial language was used by a number of voluntary associations for deeper, more meaningful interpersonal relationships. Third, people did not join the Christian communities to forward any cause of social justice. Again, there are examples of other social groups being able to provide mutual benefits to members without the high costs demanded of Christians, and more so the types of social justice behaviors done by Christians would not have been seen as justice or in a positive light by society. Lastly, people did not join Christianity to gain power. The higher the standing of the individual in Roman society the more there was to lose in being associated with Christians, and if one wanted to climb the social latter it would be best to keep one’s name from being marred by the moniker “Christian”. Without a doubt all of these elements were a part of Christian communal life, and it is possible that Christians worked harder than other groups at providing these social benefits precisely on account of community members being ostracized from other parts of society. But alone, these are not strong enough reasons to make sense of the exponential growth of Christianity in the face of the persecutions found in the first three centuries.

Hurtado ends his book ruminating on what could have been the actual benefits in the Christian faith that would draw so many to be faithful despite the high cost politically and socially. Turning to Paul’s words in Philippians and Galatians, Hurtado points out Paul’s concession to the cost of giving up his former status for what he considers the benefits of interacting with God in Jesus. This is a heavily experiential reasoning in the present leading to a future hope of further interaction with God based on Jesus’ resurrection being extended to Christians. Hurtado then looks at Justin Martyr’s reasoning that the Christian communities’ life together and philosophical coherence led him to accept the faith, [3] and he comes to the conclusion that “what most readily distinguished early Christianity were certain beliefs or teachings.”[4] It was not simply the beliefs or the practices of Christians that seems to have drawn so many in the first few centuries to the Christian faith despite the political or social costs. Instead, it was the Christians’ blend of particular beliefs being the distinctive reasoning for pursuing certain practices in particular ways that set these communities in continuity with their Jewish roots, but at the same time gave them a distinct identity separate from both Jewish and Greco-Roman communities.

Lastly, Hurtado looks at two particular teachings of the early Christians that would have possibly been seen as alluring enough to risk the costs of joining this new, burgeoning faith. First, Hurtado posits that the idea of a loving transcendent God was something that was wholly unintelligible to Greco-Roman society. By teaching the loving and faithful character of God in continuity with the teachings of the Creational God of Israel, Christians emphasized the inclusive posture of this all-powerful God as revealed and acted out in the person of King Jesus. And second, the idea of eternal embodied life offered to anyone who would give their allegiance to King Jesus. The resurrection was a novel idea in the era and something hard for Greco-Romans to accept from an intellectual perspective. “Certainly, the Christian belief in the resurrection was in that period ‘the most spectacular religious doctrine regarding the body,’ and among Greeks and Romans ‘this was an unthinkable idea.’”[5] Hurtado explains that eternal life does not seem to be something the general population really look for and was more of a philosopher’s inquiry. But Christian teaching on the resurrection likely generated a desire to participate in the eternal life of this loving God.

On a beautifully merged day of celebrating Saint Valentinus’ faithfulness and somber enactment of Ash Wednesday’s reflection on faithfulness for Lent, Larry Hurtado’s book Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? is a stimulating and devotional read. Why would anyone then, when martyrdom was so public, the political response unstable and harsh, and the social costs so high, choose to associate with this faith? Why would anyone now give allegiance to the Christian faith when so much of contemporary culture will ostracize Christians for living the faith, and when the person must give up so many pleasures or modern rights to obey King Jesus? Hurtado answers that “early Christian allegiance was not solely acceptance of a set of beliefs intellectually considered, but involved also the affective and inter-personal impact of those beliefs.” And I would mimic such a truth for our contemporary world as well. Christianity is a set of beliefs that must be communally embodied and experienced for our allegiance to King Jesus to become complete in the Christian. And only this embodiment by the power of the Spirit will sustain us to suffer in this increasingly hostile environment toward the resurrection which is the hope of the Christian faith. May we reflect on those who have gone before us on this Valentine’s and Ash Wednesday as we ask ourselves, “Why on earth are we Christians in the 21st century?”

 


[1] Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology 2016 (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2016), 45.

[2] Hurtado, 110–14.

[3] Hurtado, 115–20.

[4] Hurtado, 122.

[5] Hurtado, 128.

The Links in Theology

This month, as classes started back up after the Christmas Break, my first class meeting was sabotaged by sickness. In lieu of our class we were sent a number of links to watch through in order and then to give our particular responses to them in an online forum. As a way of processing these pieces for consideration I am going to provide them here for anyone to watch through and read, and then I will provide my responses.

The links we were to process through:

  1. An article about the threat of Christian nationalism as represented by the construction of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.
  2. A video assessing anti-intellectualism in the USA as anti-higher education or anti-seminary education in churches.
  3. The video of Oprah’s Golden Globes award.
  4. Not one, but two editorial responses to Oprah from the New York Times.
  5. An article about living a Christian life that is intentionally reflective on the Trinitarian life.
  6. A post on Dr. McKnight’s blog about a preacher confronted with his deep dislike of those who would be considered Republican-Conservative-Evangelical-Fundamentalist-etc.

My responses will be a bit more edited, polished, restated as it were. Since the forum is a much “closer” space with other students I trust to divulge a bit more personal information. Here, I just want to reproduce my more general points to the questions (which were reorganized by a fellow student for clarity).

 

Respond to the good and bad “soteriology” running through these pieces. 

I could respond to these pieces in nodding approval, as many undoubtedly will, but my agreement to slight portions in them gives them no moral merit to me. I come from the land of those who love the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible (heck, our church paid for tickets for people go to both exhibitions when they came only an hour away!). Movies and Hollywood mean nothing. Most towns don’t have a theater, and those few theaters only play the most entertaining movies in order to bring in as many people as possible, but people frequent a movie theater rarely. As an example, my hometown had a theater and a Drive-in. In fact, I lived only half a block away from it for a few years, but still our family only ever went to the movies maybe half-a-dozen times when I was growing up. The point being Hollywood, both the people and productions, are held to be of no significance to life. The meaninglessness of opinions or speeches from those connected to the entertainment industry cannot be overstated.

As my ten year reunion approaches this summer I have been reflecting on the life of many my age from the Ozarks. Of those who I grew up with only a few have left our hometown, and even fewer have left the region. Marriage is clearly a life flavor preference, but having children outside of it is much less. While there are a considerable number of single moms they are rarely outside of some relationship spurred on by their loneliness and allure of someone soothing their insecurities. Single mothers are never considered weak. In the ethos of the Ozarks they are strong, overcoming all odds to have a relatively good life. Everyone is just struggling to survive, to live. Life is the struggle to find meaning in some desired pleasure called “happiness”. So often this happiness, this necessity for life, is found in playing video games, smoking pot, getting drunk, sex, and creating fake family-units with live-in “partners” and “step” kids.

There is a deep contempt for those who would tell them how they ought to live or seem to know better since this message could challenge their life (pleasure) choices. The two structures that offer such advice in the Ozarks are churches and the welfare system, both frequently used for various reasons to make life palatable whether in dealing with suffering or poverty. As these structures seek to guide people they are hated for any demands. I point out this way of life because I believe it shows that the rural lands do not have an upper hand on offering salvation to society. But this doesn’t mean progressives in Hollywood or elsewhere are in a superior position to offer salvation to America either.

These pieces only reveal a growing religious fervor of moralism in those outside the rural lands who say in a faraway voice, “Isn’t it sad how stupid they are?” or “Surely Hollywood has said something of substance!” or “If you only understood more you would know God isn’t on your side.” If this is how I heard it (and I was always seen as a too educated liberal) then how meaningless are these ideas outside their circle of agreement in the cities or on the coasts? The anti-intellectualism of many in America is rooted, not in a dislike for education, but in the rejection of those who believe themselves educated. The self-deemed educated have allowed their own character to become so tarnished they’re unable to give honor and dignity to those they so easily deem uneducated.

Too many Christians in America continue to use churches as places to escape the reality of suffering and hardship through existential “Spirit” encounters or as echo chambers for political banter. The churches, on both sides of nearly any issue, see themselves as bastions of morality in an ocean of societal evil. These pieces do not speak of a positive moral or religious “awaking” in America because Hollywood/intellectuals/elite/liberals/progressives/etc. are all just playing into the same religio-political game that has ravaged the Right in America for decades—the delusion that those who seem more moral are the true Christians. My horrified awakening is that both sides believe good citizenship, nationalism on one side and codified/government-enforced societal acceptance on the other, is the ultimate expression of Christian faith in the American context. While I understand, and feel, the abhorrence to the claim that God is working through nationalism as displayed in the Museum of the Bible, I feel the same abhorrence to seeing spiritual significance given to a Hollywood award show for public displays of progressive Pharisee-ism.

By and large the idea of salvation as transformative and participatory does not exist for Christians in American, whether they are educated or not. Since both sides have accepted the premise that God unquestioningly accepts the person claiming to be a Christian and truly wants the person’s pleasure in life, transformation is reserved for others. Transformation is for someone else because God accepts me and desires what I believe is good. God will eventually transform them to become like me. The only salvation offered by American Christians is approval by my chosen religio-political group by believing and acting in society in certain ways because this group of opinionated religious people fighting in society is where God’s blessing rests. Truly, we are on right side of (eschatological) history.

How does this discussion challenge your own language for salvation/atonement?

There is no question in my mind and heart that the form of what people on both sides of the divide are saying is true; a person must choose to live within a socio-political reality that manifests the life of God. I do believe there is a correct “side” of eschatological history in which salvation has and is breaking into human perception. But when I talk about salvation manifesting in history it is only appropriated to the individual through the community of faith by discipleship. If creation, and its history, has been shaped by, in, and through the person of King Jesus then reality is fully embedded in the presence of the Spirit as manifested within and through his body. By King Jesus’ “body” I mean his historical incarnation and his continued presence as enfleshed by his kingdom in the Spirit. Christian life becomes an embodiment of the atonement found in King Jesus because Christians are formed to re-live his life of sacrificial love and obedience in our context, and in this a person actually participates in the very life of God.

How do our approaches to evangelism (and the underlying atonement theories) invite people ‘home’ to life with God, and his people in Christ?

I think the only way to “gospel” (evangelize) someone is to allow the Spirit to work through our bodies to comfort and serve others, especially in their sufferings. If King Jesus by the Spirit is truly embodied in the people of God as they go to the nations then humanity is interacting with God through Christians. Therefore, Christians are able to bring the presence of God into moments of desolation and offer light and hope in the darkness of daily life. As we prepare people for sufferings through teachings and relationships, when those sufferings appear we are able to redeem them as participation within King Jesus’ cross bringing about new life where death appears.

Those struggling and suffering in this life deeply fixate on pleasure because they believe it invests their life with meaning and purpose, at least subjectively. If they look too far outside their self-focused reasoning they feel and recognize the torrential chaos beyond their subjectivity, this is what most of humanity recoils. Christianity recognizes this fear as the fear of death. Christians, by being conduits of the life of God into Creation, are able to offer meaning and purpose to life without the need to dodge or deny suffering or death. Instead, Christians are able to disciple the nations to redeem Creation even by means of suffering and death, and in this the atonement of King Jesus lives on continually to redeem all things through his people.

How does the language you use to describe the ‘on-ramp’ to the Way shape how people view that Way…and him who is that Way, Truth, and Life?

Our language of salvation should be honest and clear that a person must give themselves wholly and continually to the process of transformation. This self-giving is not an isolated act but is done through a dedicated, faithful, and obedient life lived with the community. Our families, finances, behaviors, and beliefs must be shaped by the redemptive working of the Spirit through the community into the image of King Jesus. Salvation cannot be grasped by those content with the options the world offers and it requires daily dying to all commitments, identity, and relationships founded or based on concepts found in the world.

In such a salvation Jesus is cast as a King who has saved his kingdom from the death and sin of the world. He is eternally with his people by his empowering Spirit, transforming Christians and calling them to participate in his purification of all Creation. The way of Christian life is the manifesting of the atonement in the community of faith. The cross, therefore, becomes the way of life for Christians and in it Christians find that Jesus himself, as King leading his kingdom, is himself the life of God itself in us.