I have a suspicion that my quest is quixotic. I’m tilting at windmills thinking I can reach some sort of comforting conclusion. But that’s been the problem all along hasn’t it? Human beings see a mystery they don’t understand and create a theological narrative to help them tame their wild wonderings. I suspect that the whole thing is just a mess. I’m convinced the sorting and selective editing we do distorts rather than clarifies. I’m going to tell three stories to explain why stories are dangerous. One is historical, another is current, and the last is from a movie.
I have been reading a book about Christian history called, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacColloch. If you have any interest in Christian history but are not an academic, this is the book for you. His approach to Christian history is both open to the modern historical tropes that emphasize the influence of politics, power, and sex as well as the possibility that spirituality actually plays a role. How nice! Since I mean to be honest, I will confess that I have tried to read this book many times. Even now, I’m not really reading it. That is, I’m working through a single period of Christian history in the book, namely the Reformation.
Unsurprisingly, the Reformation did not appear out of a vacuum when Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door in Wittenberg. There were grumblings and failed attempts at reform for decades and even centuries beforehand. Furthermore, the influence of the Renaissance and humanism were essential predevelopments. The stories we like to tell often romanticize one moment or figure that stoked a fire that had already long been smouldering. Not only that, we often forget what else is going on. Consider that the Spanish Inquisition took place in the 3 decades leading up to Luther’s stand. One of the Royal decrees by the Spanish crown expelling Jews and Muslims from parts of Spain occurred in 1492. You know what else happened in 1492? You know it! Columbus sailed the ocean blue. You know who employed Columbus? The Spanish Crown did. So much is happening around this time that it is impossible to separate the Reformation itself from the messy historical context within which it rests. Oh and MacColloch also manages to include the possible influence of the onset of a syphilis epidemic!
It was a mess. The reformation took place while the world was being opened up to Europeans both in the sense of physical exploration and in the intellectual and artistic sense. Europe was a creative mess.
I am writing in a time of pandemic and mass protest. Shit is getting real and it is a total mess. COVID-19 has spread from China to the rest of the world with alarming speed. As a result, we’ve been ordered to maintain social distance around the world. The US, in particular, is reeling with the poor leadership in response to the pandemic. In the middle of this unprecedented moment in modern history a black man was horrifically murdered by several police officers in Minneapolis. His name was George Floyd. The video recording of the crime was so brutal (almost nine minutes of a man being choked pleading for his life) that mass protests erupted defying the pandemic lockdown and spurring more violence and shock from around the world. These protests are occurring while I am writing and COVID 19 continues to spread throughout the US. Protest and pandemic in an unresolvable conflict. We can’t tell them to stop because they’re cause is righteous but whatever positive results ensue, the historical footnote of the impact of contamination will forever be included.
It’s messy. But there is real hope that systemic change is afoot.
If you can handle the gore, watch the climax from Gangs of New York. The whole movie is leading up to this final confrontation between the Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon and Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The scene opens with a bloody battle to match the brutality of the whole film. I can’t even rewatch it to confirm my memories because it turns my stomach! You’ll have to tell me if I got it wrong. The story’s dramatic arc unfolds into a final confrontation between villain and protagonist as expected. That is, until something truly unexpected interrupts the sanguinary spectacle. At the exact moment of the gang brawl, Civil War draft riots break out and the Union Army soldiers come in guns blazing. While the main characters finally meet, the grand narrative of history breaks through their personal vendetta being fought out.
It’s a mess. The importance of main story melts with the greater historical significance of the mass slaughter called the American Civil War.
I’ve managed to make a mess this spiritual blog. Can I find my way back to some semblance of a narrative? Nothing happens in a vacuum. Every event that we decide is historically significant is set within a context that is rich and complex. But it’s also hard to get our heads around the whole context. So we create more palatable narratives so as to be able to work with them. But the stories we end up telling always have important details left on the cutting room floor. A syphilis epidemic may be scintillating but including it would disrupt the sexy hagiographies we create for our spiritual heroes. Unfortunately, too many historians would rather reduce all spiritual history to power and sex. Neither approach is complete.
The history of faith is a history of power and sex. But it is also a history of faith. It’s a mess. But to clean it up for a PG rating distorts reality for a comforting story and to reduce it to a modern hermeneutical historical perspective is just as naive. If God is and God does act in the world, it’s going to be as messy as everything else in the world God created. Perhaps from the panoramic perspective of the heavens it looks neater on a macroscopic scale.
I can’t see it.