Book Review: A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Goddard)

A History of Christian-Muslim Relations (Goddard)Islam and its relationship with Christianity remains a subject very much on the minds of many in today’s world. Indeed, for much of the past fifteen years the Western world and its media has routinely faced the question, “What is Islam and how does it affect us?” What few people seem to understand, however, is that Christian interactions with Islam are far from a new phenomenon. Indeed, almost as far back as the beginnings of Islam itself (or, before Muhammad’s revelations, if you believe the legends), Christians have been wrestling with the claims—and often armies—of Islam. Therefore, many people need an introduction to this long and often forgotten history of Muslim-Christian interactions, an introduction that Hugh Goddard offers in A History of Muslim Christian Relations (Chicago: New Amsterdam Books, 2000). Although now fifteen years old, Goddard’s monograph has much to offer for those seeking to understand the shared influences and historical interactions between the world’s two largest religions. Continue reading

Book Review: Fields of Blood (Armstrong)

Fields of BloodFor many people living in the West, an assumption exists that religion is inherently violent. After all, they say, just look at the evidence: religion has caused wars, the Crusades, terrorism, religion has made people hate and kill others for nothing more than the ideas that were in their heads. According to this view, religions are not only necessarily violent, but they are responsible for much (if not all) of the violence in recorded human history. However, an explanation of the history of violence is not so simple, argues Karen Armstrong in her latest book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 512 pages). According to Armstrong, though violence is an unfortunate reality of human history, evil and warfare are not necessarily religious in nature nor does violence always arise from religion. In the impressive and exhaustive tome that is Fields of Blood, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and the history of violence, arguing that “We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in world.” Continue reading

Church Search: Greek Orthodox Church

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information on our search and the churches we have visited already, please click here. During the “First Exposure” phase of our search, we are visiting different churches to gain a basic understanding of their doctrines and practices. Following these visits, we will post some of the basic doctrinal and practical considerations of the church we visited, as well as some thoughts on our experiences.

Basic History

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Long Beach

Much like our previous post on the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church claims a history as long as the history of the Christian Church itself. Thus, we again note that this brief summary of Church History is something of an injustice. The Orthodox Church has long claimed and studied the earliest writings of the Christian faith, most often termed the “Church Fathers.” Of great importance in the earlier Church were the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils (from the fourth through eighth centuries), all of which took place in the Eastern Roman Empire. The growing divide between Eastern and Western Empire played a role in dividing the Byzantine bishops from the West, as did Western claims to papal supremacy (more on that below), the filioque clause, and the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE. The Orthodox Church remained the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire (often called the Byzantine Empire) until the Fall of Constantinople until its fall in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. Orthodoxy remained alive and well, however, in eastern Europe, especially in Moscow, where Russian Orthodoxy remained a strong presence until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. However, Orthodoxy remained throughout Greece and much of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and with the fall of the USSR has continued to grow abroad. There are between 225 and 300 million Orthodox today belonging to 14 autocephelous (administered separately but in communion with each other) churches around the world.

Doctrinal Considerations

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Winston-Salem

Orthodox Christians practice what they understand to be the faith handed down from the Apostles, which “has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”, though not without unaltering development of doctrine and cooperation with local traditions compatible with the faith. Of central importance for Eastern Orthodox faith is the Holy Trinity,  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three-persons, co-eternal, and whom Christians are brought into union. Additionally, of great importance are the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (as originally written, that is, without the filioque clause), the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Holy Scriptures (Septuagint and New Testament), the writings of the Church Fathers, and the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion (which is believed to be the real presence of Christ, but often differentiated from Roman Catholic transubstantiation, and is in reality closer to the Lutheran teaching on consubstantiation, though not expressed in those exact terms). Perhaps the first thing that one notices upon entering an Orthodox Church is their use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes, the history of the Church, and the lives of the Saints. Orthodox also affirm that church leadership should include bishops, and though they affirm that the bishop of Rome (the Pope) should be viewed as “first among equals,” they do not affirm his premiership and infallibility. Since Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are not currently in communion (which may change by 2025), the Orthodox look to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew) as the head of Orthodox conciliar leadership.

Local Church Experience

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Interior

This past Sunday we visited The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Winston-Salem, which is an absolutely beautiful house of worship. Some might find icons distracting, but we found them to increase our sense of awe and assist greatly in approaching God in worship. If the first thing one noticed upon entering were the icons (and the iconostasis), the second was the language being spoken. Or rather, the languages  being spoken, namely Greek and English. Even as someone trained in Koine Greek, it took some time for me to adjust to the service (and poor Hayley was lost much of the time). We followed the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as well as a separate memorial liturgy for a member of the congregation who had passed away. Apart from the repetition of these liturgies (we often would say something in Greek and then again in English, the scripture readings, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, for example), the most notable thing was the lack of a sermon as part of the liturgy, with a homily only coming at the end of the service. One thing I wasn’t entirely satisfied with was the level of congregational involvement in the service, as all the music was sung by the choirs/priests, and there were not even many opportunities for liturgical responses from the actual laos (people). Of final note were (again, like our visit to the Catholic Church) the number of children, teens, and young families present, which was very encouraging. Overall, despite the new-ness of this church experience, we greatly enjoyed our visit to the Greek Orthodox Church and look forward to returning.

This visit marks the scheduled end of the “First Phase” of this church search. Over the next few weeks we will be beginning the “Second Phase,” and we invite you to follow along with us. Thanks for reading!

Book Review: A People’s History of Christianity, One Volume Student Edition (Ed. Janz)

A People's History of Christianity, Janz

A People’s History of Christianity, Janz

While much of the field of the History of Christianity (and indeed, history in general) focuses on the great people and ideas of the tradition or period being studied, the genre of “people’s history” seeks to raise awareness of the ways in which ordinary people have lived throughout time and space. Admirable as this project sounds, it is not without its problems. In my experience, many “people’s histories” tend to make significant assumptions concerning the materials they are handling, most notably that the great persons/doctrines of a tradition represent the elite (in this case, the upper class and/or clergy) and these persons and practices were neither accepted nor practiced by the everyday Christians. Such accounts thus tend to draw strong distinctions between the received history of doctrine and practice and “the way things really were,” claims which often seem based upon conjecture rather than historical evidence. This is in contrast to a more balanced view which, while admitting that differing people often have distinct nuances to their faith and practice, nonetheless concludes that the great people and doctrines of the Christian Church are indeed great because they were affirmed by the community of the faithful comprising the Christian Church.

With this paradigm in mind, I must admit that I began reading A People’s History of Christianity: One Volume Student Edition (Denis R. Janz, Editor. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2014) with some skepticism. Upon engaging this volume, I found that despite its occasional slips into the rhetoric of “elite clergy versus everyone else,” the contributors nevertheless do an admirable job of offering balanced insights into the lives of everyday Christians throughout the history of the Church that shows their connections with the received Christian tradition. Whereas “standard Church history” will introduce students to the theology and writings of Augustine, a “people’s history” remains more interested in what parishioners listening to Augustine preach in Hippo would have actually believed and how they lived out their Christian faiths. This Student Edition offers selections from the seven-volume Fortress People’s History of Christianity that provide accessible and useful material for engaging a side of Christian faith that is often overlooked. Covering everything from the earliest Jesus Movement to the Twenty-First Century, Ancient Judea and Rome to Latin America and Africa, and topics ranging from baptism to power, this volume encompasses a plethora of materials worthy of study and reflection. Continue reading