On this Good Friday, I’m staring at a book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, that arrived a couple of weeks ago.
It was written by a prominent English historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford. He is also an Anglican deacon.
Counting notes and index, the book is 1,161 pages and must weigh a couple of pounds. I’ve toyed around with reading it, well, starting it, but have not been willing to make the commitment so far.
I’ve read a few 700- and 800-page books, but the 1,000-page mark is kind of scary.
Still, I just read a review of the book that will run Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It was written by Jon Meacham (also an Episcopalian), editor of (the recently refurbished) Newsweek and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”
Meacham describes himself as a serious Christian and an ongoing critic of Christianity. From his description, MacCulloch is at least the latter.
Meacham, noting a kinship with MacCulloch, describes the book as “sprawling, sensible and illuminating.”
The sprawling part, I could have guessed.
The story of how the faith came to be is a vast and complex tale of classical philosophy and Jewish tradition, of fantastical visions and cold calculations, of loving sacrifices and imperial ambitions. It was, as Wellington said of Waterloo, a close-run thing: a world religion founded on the brief public ministry, trial and execution of a single Jew in a remote corner of the Roman Empire. In my view, an unexamined faith is not worth having, for fundamentalism and uncritical certitude entail the rejection of one of the great human gifts: that of free will, of the liberty to make up our own minds based on evidence and tradition and reason. John’s Gospel says that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Perhaps; I do not know. (No one does; as Paul said, we can only see through a glass, darkly.) But I do know this: Short of the end of all things, it is the knowledge of the history of the faith that can make us free from literalism and fundamentalism.
It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive and surprisingly accessible volume on the subject than MacCulloch’s.
I don’t know. I may have to haul the great volume home one of these days.
Additionally, I will share part of an email blast I got yesterday from the Rev. Joe Agne, pastor of Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains.
Agne is soon retiring and moving out west, so this is his last Easter season with his flock.
His note includes this:
This is quite a week, in the life of Jesus, and in our life as followers in the Way of Jesus. Last Sunday we arrived to find the sanctuary barred from us as Caesar was inside in an imperial procession (Just like in Jerusalem a couple of millenia ago). We learned some music from Jayson, talked about our predicament and decided to go into the sanctuary following Jesus in a peasant procession. It was joyous with palms, musical instruments, Jayson’s Djembe and lots of songs. We declared we are people of the Way. Last Tuesday Jesus confronted those who would get rich by taxing our religious observances and he upended their business tables. Tonight we will gather with Jesus for our last meal with him, a simple meal of bread and wine. All of us will wonder if we are the betrayers. Later one of our leaders, and one of Jesus’ closest friends, will deny Jesus three times and we know, given the opportunity,) that we could do the same thing. He will ask us to stay awake for him and we will go to sleep. He will be arrested, never found guilty and still sentenced. Tomorrow the Roman authorities will execute him. They are hoping that we will all be afraid and never try to get the peasant procession of Jesus going again. They want us to be afraid to live in the Way that Jesus has taught us. They don’t want us to have an option other than the imperial procession.
And then — on Sunday, some of our friends will go to the tomb and it will be empty. The authorities will have failed to keep Jesus and the Way locked up in a tomb. The peasant procession of Jesus continues on and again, we have a choice — Which procession will we join? If we stay afraid we will stay in the imperial procession. If we can live without fear we can once again choose the Way of Jesus. That’s what I want to do. I hope you do too. We can do it — together.