Cathedrals, Christianity, and the Survivability of the Church

Yesterday my wife and daughter and I visited Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris. The Cathedral is perhaps the world’s greatest surviving example of medieval Gothic architecture, primarily because it remains much the way it was in the 13th century, including having the original stained glass windows, which are nothing short of stunning![1]

chartres_2

These amazing works of art (and indeed, the Cathedral itself is a masterpiece), incredibly survived not only the French Revolution but WWII as well, despite all odds. The story of how the Cathedral survived WWII is especially fascinating.

When Allied Forces decided to bomb the cathedral on the suspicion that it might be occupied by German troops, an American colonel by the name of Welborn Griffith challenged the order, and volunteered instead to cross the front lines and investigate to see if Germans were actually holed up in the church. His request was approved, and after making his way to the cathedral, he discovered indeed that there were no Germans. As a result, Chartres Cathedral was saved from total destruction. Unfortunately, Griffith was killed a few days later in the fighting to liberate the town of Chartres.[2]

chartres_

Commonly, parallels are drawn between the great churches of Europe and the decline of Christianity there, and the general tendency is to criticize Catholicism for having built enduring buildings but no lasting churches.

Our trip to Chartres though had a different effect on me. Instead, what I saw in this magnificent Cathedral is rather a symbol of the survivability of the Church. God, working through frail and imperfect human agents, like Colonel Griffith, will ensure the survival of His Church. After all, He promised as much when He said the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

And so as we walked around Chartres, taking in its incredible beauty and history, I found myself reminded that the Church will survive the moral decline of western cultures and the propensity of men for war. It will survive terrorism and it will survive revolutions. And most incredibly, it will even survive the theological differences among its members.

[1] See for example http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral.

[2] Story here: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/266849/colonel-chartres-jay-nordlinger.

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Book Review: Global Evangelicalism

global evangelicalismLewis, Donald M. and Richard V. Pierard, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History, and Culture in Regional Perspective. Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2014. Reviewed by Jerry M. Ireland.

Its rare to read an edited volume and find very little to criticize. This, though, is precisely the case with Global Evangelicalism. This text quite simply is an excellent introduction to the varied and complex nature of modern evangelicalism. In fact, I’m somewhat hesitant to label it an introductory work, because most introductory works tend to oversimplify. This work does not. Instead, it underscores the complex issues involved in formulating an evangelical identity, historically, theologically, and culturally. In doing so, it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and offers ample fodder for scholarly and practical reflection on the future of evangelicalism.

Rather than summarize each of the chapters, I shall instead focus my review on what are the important strengths and weaknesses of the work. And I will do this in light of the author’s stated goals of helping both insiders and outsiders better understand the global and diverse nature of evangelicalism.

Perhaps the best part of this work is the broad sweep it offers of the global evangelical movement. The editors have rightly chosen to extend their gaze beyond the shores of the United States and Great Britain, and included essays by some of the leading scholars of evangelicalism from across the globe, including preeminent scholars such as René Padilla and Ogbu Kalu. One might think, though, that such a broad sweep would lack in depth and detail, but that is not the case. Yes, the authors tend to present the usual suspects on evangelical definitions, theology, and history (for example, Bebbington’s quadrilateral), but they also offer some insightful and less well-known critiques, such as Kalu’s observation regarding the way in which evangelical shortcomings in West Africa contributed to the spread of Islam in that area (chapter 5).

I also found Donald M. Lewis’s chapter on “Globalization, Religion, and Evangelicalism” (chapter 3) especially insightful. His discussion of “glocalization” and the closely associated concept of “globalization from below” help show Christianity’s adaptability, its cross-cultural power, and ability to influence society at every level, and to do so not by destroying the receptor culture, but building on them and adorning them, as Lewis points out regarding the Karen people of Burma who value Christianity’s culture preserving ability. Also, Lewis highlights that some of the very things that make evangelicalism difficult to define, such as the lack of a single holy language or precise holy place, make evangelicalism highly adaptable, allowing for constant growth and expansion. In addition, missions leaders will find this chapter enlightening as it underscores the need for both urban evangelistic strategies and social activism, in light of the reality of increasingly “global cities.”

If there is a weakness to this work, it would be that I found myself wanting more, especially in regards to part III, “Issues in Evangelical Encounters With Culture.” The issue of evangelicalism and culture is, in my view, the arena for which the future is most uncertain, and so it would have been nice to have more than the two excellent chapters in this section on ecumenism and gender. For example, given that marriage equality and LGBT issues are among the thorniest issues facing evangelicals not only in the west but also in Africa and other parts of the world as well, an article on this topic would have greatly added to the volume. Also, though several chapters reference evangelicalism’s response to the poor and the need of social concern, an in-depth discussion of the prioritism-holism debate would have helped the unaware reader better understand one of the more divisive issues among evangelicals.

But these are very minor critiques, and without a doubt, the authors could not have addressed everything. Overall, this text makes an excellent resource on the global nature, unity, diversity, history, and potential of evangelicalism. For the uninitiated, it provides insightful scholarly reflection from some of the most knowledgeable scholars on this topic. For those who have studied evangelicalism in some depth already, this text too will prove valuable as it implicitly hints at numerous avenues for further scholarly study. For example, when Padilla warns of the dangers inherent in rapid numerical expansion in Latin America, and of growth apart from a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God and the mission of God, I find myself compelled to consider this statement in the African context and in reference to the often lauded growth of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity there.

In sum, I highly recommend this text to academics, missionaries, and to non-Christians who desire a more accurate and robust understanding of evangelicalism around the world. And, I would hope that many of evangelicalism’s critics would also read this work, as it would surely temper some of the more unbalanced and ahistorical accusations leveled against it.

Disclosure: Thanks to Alisse Wissman at IVP Academic for providing a review copy of this text. However, the opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

 

The Manner of Christians: A Second Century Look at the Nature of the Church

The Letter to Diognetus provides a potent description of early Christianity. This letter, sometimes known as the Epistle of Mathetes and written by an unknown author, represents what may be the earliest apologetic defense of Christianity (Schaff, loc. 1557). It is usually dated to around the mid to late second century; Justo Gonzales classifies the letter with the second-century Greek apologists (see Gonzales, 116). The author simply identifies himself as a “disciple” (Gr. mathētes). Schaff believes the author to have been either a disciple or associate of the apostle Paul, and since the writer speaks of Christianity as a recent development, it seems reasonable to place it in the second century (Schaff, loc. 1568). Schaff also believes that the recipient, Diognetus was the tutor of Marcus Aurelius. The text though offers a beautiful description of Christianity in its formative years. You see here a Christianity that is markedly different from the surrounding culture–and thus a potent message for today’s church, which too often looks exactly like the surrounding culture! Below is the text of chapter five from The Letter to Diognetus:

The Letter to Diognetus: Chapter V – The Manner of Christians

They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

Sources

Gonzales, Justo. A History of Christian Thought Vol. 1: From the Beginning to the Council of Chalcedon. 1970. Reprint, Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.

Schaff, Philip. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. 1885. Reprint. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition, 2012.

Reflecting on the Massai Creed

The Massai Creed is a great example of why the western Church needs to listen to the churches of the global south. As Pentecostals especially we tend to aspire to “creedless Christianity,” as is evident in the AG’s Statement of Fundamental Truths. But, as the AG would learn shortly after its founding, doctrinal, creedal statements serve a vital function in the Church, especially when it comes to heterodox teachings.

Beyond that though, our creedal statements also have a lot to say about our cultural setting. All theology is a matter of interpreting the content of Christianity within a cultural framework. The Massai Creed is a great way to understand this. After recently stumbling across the Massai Creed in Jaraslov Pelikan’s excellent Credo, I find myself fascinated by the differences in this creed and most doctrinal statements produced in the west. I’ve put in bold lettering those parts that I think are particularly interesting and telling regarding how other cultures see the content of Christianity. The Massai, more than the churches of the west, emphasize God’s love, the importance of community, the poverty of Christ, and the missionary nature of Christ’s redemptive work.

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptised in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

What else do you see in this creed that seems especially non-western?