Who Am I?

The Great Emergence

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I love listening to Phyllis Tickle. I’ve listened to her speak a number of times over the years (via mp3) and have loved every instance. I believe The Great Emergence is the first book by her I’ve read, though I do have The Words of Jesus waiting on my shelf. I also realize that everyone under the sun has already read and reviewed this book. I’m a latecomer. It took me a while to buy it and then with this minor matter of a celiac diagnosis, my reading has fallen behind the curve lately. 😉

With this particular book, I find myself in the odd position of wanting to like the book more than I actually did. Instead I found it something of a mixed bag. I do think she accurately captures the spirit of the present age and the tension within which we all live in the West and particularly in the US. Those are the parts of the book I found myself almost cheering along with. On the other hand, I found the historical perspective a bit light and the whole 500 year cycle somewhat contrived. Those were probably my least favorite parts of the book.

The section of the book that tried to tie together a whole host of disparate historical events while leaving out many significant realities of the era in order to create a “crisis” around 500-600 CE similar to that which occurred in the Great Schism and the Reformation was the least compelling. I have the disadvantage, I think, of a lot of familiarity with both the imperial (and contra-imperial) history and the Christian history of that era. I just don’t see the same sort of either societal or Christian crisis at that point in time, certainly not working in conjunction. Yes, the West did have some pretty serious societal issues at that time and ongoing. But that was not mirrored in the Christian schism. At that point in time, the See of Rome, largely consumed by those other societal issues, pretty much acted in conjunction with the great Sees of what is known now as Orthodoxy. The schism had as much to do with the politics of the Roman Empire, in its capitol of Constantinople, and with misunderstandings over the actual Greek meanings of the words used. The Armenian state, for example, was caught in a war against Persia at the time and the bishops of its church were unable to attend the council. When they received the council’s results in writing later, they interpreted it as a resurgence of Nestorianism and rejected it accordingly. The monophysite heresy did largely die out over time and never took permanent hold in either the Chalcedonian or non-Chalcedonian churches. The Oriental Orthodox church is not monophysite, nor are they continuing something older or even different than Orthodoxy. Rather their theology is best understood as miaphysite, which is theologically consistent with Chalcedon though it uses different language.

I think there is a deeper misunderstanding of the first thousand years of Christianity embedded within these issues. Toward the end of the book, Phyllis Tickle writes of the impact of Constantine in a way that simply does not fit the historical realities of the time. Further, she seems to attribute the renewed rise of gnosticism, the incorporation of Greek philosophical ideas, the rise of the image of an angry God, and the loss of a Jewish character to Christianity to Constantine rather than to the era of the Great Schism, which is when it actually happened in the West. I don’t disagree with the charges she raises, but they are largely exactly the same charges the Eastern Church has raised against the Western Church when it has been able to interact and speak at all between Islamic and Communist oppression, not something that entered the Church when Constantine made Christianity a legal religion.

With that said, I think her analysis of the Western Church over the last thousand years is pretty accurate for the brief space in which she has to write in this book. Her analysis of the way the postmodern mind deconstructs the structure established in the Reformation (attempting to base authority on a text) is, as they say, spot on. And we are certainly in the middle of both a societal upheaval and an upheaval in our understanding of religion today in the US – beyond a shadow of a doubt.

So I guess I give this book one thumb up. It’s worth reading and it’s a quick read. But read it with a grain of salt, especially when it’s discussing the first thousand years of Christianity.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 6

Posted: May 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post in the series should wrap up the meandering thread I’ve been tracing through the story of my life. For no discussion of encounters with fasting communities could ever be complete without discussing Orthodoxy. Somehow, in all my wide-ranging study, modern Orthodoxy still managed to catch me off-guard. Like many, at least in the US, I thought of them as an Eastern or even a Greek sort of Catholic (as defined by my encounters with Roman Catholicism) rather than as another Tradition of the faith. And as such, I never really spent any time looking at the thread of the Orthodox Church following the Great Schism of 1054.

Oddly, it was a distinctly Protestant book, Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, that abruptly shook me from that complacent (mis)understanding. That book explores the tradition of set prayer within the church and includes a chapter on the manner in which it is practiced within Orthodoxy. If you recall from earlier in this series, I mentioned my love for Brother Lawrence and his The Practice of the Presence of God. One of the disciplines in that book is the discipline of breath prayers, short prayers that you can say, almost with the rhythm of your breath, as you work or engage in other activities. I’m not particularly skilled or disciplined in any of the Christian spiritual practices, but I had been using breath prayers for some years by that point in time. I had several that I found particular helpful and even compelling. These were the prayers to which I kept returning. When I read the chapter in the book above, I was shocked to discover that the breath prayer which I most used, the short prayer I had thought I had found on my own, was in fact a common variation of the Jesus Prayer, one of the oldest prayer traditions of the Church!

With that, I began to truly explore Orthodoxy to better understand it. You can’t do that for very long at all without running into their ascetical practice of communal fasting. It’s deep and rich. I would say that even after several years I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the subject. The typical Orthodox fasting regimen is a fast from meat, fish with a backbone, dairy, oil, and wine. It’s very similar to what we would call a vegan diet. There are various periods of fasting in preparation for feasts. And they fast most weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday. Perhaps you recall the excerpt from the Didache I posted earlier in this series? The Didache was one of the earliest rules of fasting within our faith. It had seemed to me that the practice of a weekly, communal fast had vanished from the modern landscape, but it hadn’t. I found that a very encouraging sign of continuity within our faith.

But I’m not Orthodox and I did not fast. I was intrigued, but still reluctant to jump in. I also did not live at that time with even a rudimentary rule of prayer. And I knew that a rule of fasting without a rule of prayer would be very dangerous indeed. Fasting, whether an ascetical fast or a total fast, still seemed strange to me. I did what I typically do when I’m unsure how to proceed and there is no urgent reason for action. I read and listened and waited while changing little in my daily practice.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 4

Posted: May 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

So, picking up in the 1990s, I want to focus on one event that sticks out prominently in my mind. At some point, I forget exactly what year, but I believe it was one of the championship years, I remember watching the Houston Rockets at a point in time when the NBA season overlapped the Islamic month of Ramadan. Hakeem Olajuwon, one of my favorite players ever (remember Phi Slamma Jamma in his college days?), is also a practicing Muslim. I remember that on day games on the weekends, he would play without eating or drinking anything to abide by the fast of Ramadan. By the end of those games, he would be hanging on the basket exhausted even with efforts to manage his playing time.

I was impressed by that degree of communal faith participation. I was still exploring Christian history trying to understand when and how its original strong, communal practice of fasting had all but vanished. Islam had never particularly interested me in my spiritual journeys, so while I had a pretty good perspective on its historical activities, particularly in the rise and fall of empires, I did not know all that much about the faith itself. Intrigued by the example of Hakeem Olajuwon, I began exploring as I had explored many faiths in the past. I learned the five pillars and the way they were interwoven in the life and practice of every Muslim. I read parts of the Qur’an. I gained some insight into sharia. I read some of the other writings from within Islam. I learned about their own major schism following the death of the Prophet. I found a faith that is richer and more complex than is generally given credence in the West.

I did not ultimately find it personally compelling. I had become far too focused upon and captivated by this strange Jesus of Nazareth, the center of all Christian faith. And even in my more widely ranging spiritual days, Islam would not have been the sort of spiritual practice that attracted me. But I did gain a deep appreciation for the communal nature of the practice of the Islamic faith.

This same sort of communal life had once been at the core of the Christian faith. That faith grew out of Judaism as changed by the revelation of God made known to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Where had those practices gone? What happened to them? I still didn’t know the answers to those questions. Nor did I change anything in my own practice of the faith at that time. I knew what Christians had once done. But they had done it together. My spiritual journey had been broad enough that I had learned the danger of an individualistic approach to spiritual practices, especially those that directly engage the body. You do not always know what you are engaging when you open yourself up or act to change your spirit. And without some community to guide you, things can go easily awry.

Yes, this meandering journey will, I think, eventually reveal the reason for my confession that I might never have chosen a fast. In the next in the series, I’ll continue my journey as I dove ever deeper into Christianity.