In the sixth chapter of his The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie reflects on the influence of eschatology, compunction (penthos), asceticism, and the struggle against evil on the shape of the scriptural interpretation of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers). Highlighting monastic awareness of coming death and judgment (182-3), compunction and the power of scripture (187-91), and the dual (internal and external) nature of struggling against evil (192-5), Burton-Christie outlines the desert reading of the scriptures, remarking on the centrality of allegorical interpretation (196), the recapitulation of Jesus’ time in the desert (198), the power of the words of scripture (199), vigilance and guarding the heart (203-5), and the lack of relations (207). In light of a course devoted to the study of wilderness traditions, while Burton-Christie’s work remains intriguing, this treatment against raises questions about why early Christian monastics did not draw upon and/or develop further Israelite wilderness traditions. To my mind, the Father who asked, “Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?” could easily have turned to Israel’s wilderness testing for some type of answer. Instead, figures such as Abraham, David, and Jesus were regularly utilized, at least according to Burton-Christie’s presentation. Although the Fathers were clearly aware of Moses—and, it seems, the language of the Pentateuch, at least exhortations to “watch yourself” (Gen. 24.6; Ex. 23.21)—these narratives were not meaningfully employed in the monastic resistance of evil. Could it be that Israel’s time in the desert was viewed more as a model of what not to do in order to avoid temptation? Perhaps. But Burton-Christie’s reflection on desert interpretations of scripture doesn’t address possible wilderness interpretations of Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading
For 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
You occasionally hear it from the talking heads or on the History Channel. Maybe you notice an article about it on your newsfeed. Or catch the random title while browsing Amazon or Barnes and Nobles. Pagan Christianity: What you do on Sundays is really from Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, or Royal Greece and certainly is not real Christian worship.
Maybe you listen for a few seconds, start to read that article, or read the back cover of that book. “Most of what present day Christians do in church each Sunday is rooted, not in the New Testament, but in pagan culture and rituals developed long after the death of the apostles.”  “How Mistakes and Changes Shaped the Bible We Read Today.”  Is walking down the aisle really derived from the Roman Imperial procession? Are Christian priests just pagan priests in disguise? Is there really any truth to these claims? Continue reading