Why Augustine’s “City of God” is still relevant today

How can a book written by a North African bishop nearly 1,600 years ago possibly have any relevance today? As Jason Goroncy points out, that’s precisely the question that ABC’s Encounter program sought to answer as it brought in a panel of experts to discuss the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s City of God.

The ABC’s  recently aired a worthwhile discussion about the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s The program, titled ‘Grace and the City’ can be read here, listened to via a stream here, or downloaded here.

The guests on the program include Charles Mathewes (Associate Professor in Religious Studies, University of Virginia), John von Heyking (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Alberta), Lawrence Cross (Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), John Milbank (Professor in Religion, Politics and Ethics, The University of Nottingham) and Thomas Smith (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Villanova University).

 

Flotsam and jetsam (1/19)

I’ve noticed in the last few years a real bandwagon of anti-leadership sentiment in some circles. I think it started as a push-back to the “CEO” model/mentality in some, and as such, I’m sympathetic. But from there, it has progressed to where we now have many arguing that any concept of leadership in the church should be avoided.

I’ve noticed that people who do not read the original languages of the Bible sometimes think of those languages as somehow magical, as the key that can open any mystery and answer any question about the Bible. While reading the original languages is tremendously important and helpful and useful, such a reading by itself does not always magically result in clear and simple answers to controversial religious questions. There are limitations inherent in an appeal to an original language for determining the meaning of a text.

As the article indicates, countless PhD students spend years dedicated towards research that will perhaps never posit an actual job in their field. Supply is greater than demand as the article suggets. The future seems depressingly bleak then for doctoral students: They are treated as indentured servants by their superiors. They spend meaningful years that could have been put towards savings, retirement, and even more important—nurturing families.

  • Roger Olson and Michael Horton have had an interesting exchange on the nature of Arminianism (read the comments). In the process, Olson made a very good comment about fairly representing other perspectives:

I urge you, and all non-Arminians who describe our theology, to describe it as we describe it and then go on to explain why you disagree….Fairness is the issue here.

Was Bonhoeffer an evangelical? – or, Why you need multiple perspectives when reading history

Eric Metaxas‘ well-known biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer has received quite a number of very positive reviews from prominent evangelicals. By all accounts, it’s well written, accessible, engaging, and presents Bonhoeffer as someone evangelicals can identify with and learn from. (In the interests of full disclosure, though I’ve read several reviews, I have not yet read the book itself.)

The problem is that the book has received significant criticism from a number of Bonhoeffer experts. As Clifford Green states in probably the most widely-read critique of Metaxas’ work, “Hijacking Bonhoeffer,”

I will not linger over the numerous factual errors, including problems with the German words sprinkled throughout the text….I will not fret about the problems infecting the copious endnotes, especially the missing, incomplete and garbled sources. I will not dwell on the fact that a critical assessment of sources is absent…..

And, he then launches into all of those problems that he will discuss – overly simplistic argumentation, lack of scholarly research, dismissal of aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theology that don’t fit neatly into Metaxas’ presentation, and more. Green’s general conclusion, echoed by others, is that Metaxas has tamed Bonhoeffer in order to present him as someone palatable to contemporary evangelicals.

As Tim Challies, who has written a very positive review of the book, commented earlier today:

I did not want to believe what those authors (and authors) are saying about Metaxas and his biography. But I am inclined to believe them as they bring the weight of scholarship and experience. They may well be right in suggesting that…the true Bonhoeffer was simply too unorthodox to appeal to the likes of me—the kind of person who read, enjoyed and enthusiastically recommended the book.

Now, I’m not actually commenting on this to engage Bonhoeffer himself or even Metaxas’ biography. I’m a baby when it comes to Bonhoeffer and I am far from qualified to address the particulars of these critiques. I’m sure this is a discussion that is just getting going and it will be interesting to see how Metaxas (and maybe others) respond to these arguments.

My real point was to comment on the need to be careful with biographies. Biographical writing, like all historical writing, is a necessarily limited and subjective exercise. Each historian uses the subject matter to tell a particular story – leaving out some details and highlighting others. Thus, every biography shapes the subject according to the interests of the historian. That is unavoidable. The solution is not to avoid biographies (or history in general), but to recognize the subtle shaping  that accompanies  any particular “telling” of history and make sure that you engage the subject matter from multiple perspectives. Of course, even if you do this well, you won’t necessarily end up with “the whole story” either. You are also a part of the shaping process, molding the subject matter to fit your own subjective interests. But, it does mean that you’re more likely to develop a more adequate understanding of the whole than otherwise.

All this to say, if you really want to understand a historical figure, you can’t read just one biography. Come at the person from several directions and see how they look from different vantage points. When you’re done, you’ll find that you think some of those perspectives were more faithful representations of the person than others, but you’ll have learned from them all.

Charting church history from a baptist perspective

Yesterday I commented on a couple of church history charts posted by Jim and Ari. But, since both of those charts were obviously flawed in how they presented the story of God’s faithful remnant through history, I thought I should provide a more accurate chart. Let me know what you think.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/18)

David was a man after God’s own heart because he hated sin but loved to forgive it. What better example of God could there be?

  • A recent BBC article asks, Does more information mean we know less? Along the way, it presents an interesting comparison between our modern compulsion to stay “current” with the religious impulse to reflect deeply on the past. (HT)

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than St Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

One of the silly characteristics of our age is the credulous and naive veneration of science. It has led to the emergence of what we call scientism–faith in science as the ultimate source of truth and wisdom.

  • And, a in Orange County, a cat has been ordered to report for jury duty. Of course, this rather odd situation was partially caused by someone who saw the cat as such a part of the family that she listed it on the family’s census form. Why would you do that?

In memoriam – St. Antony

According to tradition, St. Atony died on January 17, 356. Although he was not the first Christian monk, he is usually considered the founder of Christian monasticism as his life and teachings were so influential in establishing the monastic patterns of those who came after him.

Athanasius’ Life of Antony is an important source of information about the great Christian and went a long way toward establishing his reputation in later Christianity. Here is how Athanasius explains his reasons for writing his biography of St. Antony.

Now since you asked me to give you an account of the blessed Antony’s way of life, and are wishful to learn how he began the discipline, who and what manner of man he was previous to this, how he closed his life, and whether the things told of him are true, that you also may bring yourselves to imitate him, I very readily accepted your behest, for to me also the bare recollection of Antony is a great accession of help. And I know that you, when you have heard, apart from your admiration of the man, will be wishful to emulate his determination; seeing that for monks the life of Antony is a sufficient pattern of discipline. Wherefore do not refuse credence to what you have heard from those who brought tidings of him; but think rather that they have told you only a few things, for at all events they scarcely can have given circumstances of so great import in any detail. And because I at your request have called to mind a few circumstances about him, and shall send as much as I can tell in a letter, do not neglect to question those who sail from here: for possibly when all have told their tale, the account will hardly be in proportion to his merits.

How’s your knowledge of world religions? A quiz.

HuffPo has an interesting quiz testing your knowledge of the major world religions. (Unfortunately, it does require a free registration with HuffPo.) It was pretty easy at the beginning, but the questions definitely got harder as the quiz moved beyond Judaism and Christianity. I missed 3, but that’s partly because I got lucky my breadth of knowledge prevailed one or two others.

So, if you want to test your knowledge of the world’s religions, give it a whirl.

Writing tip of the day: guard your writing time

Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have “essential” and “long overdue” meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.

………………………………..J.K. Rowling

HT

Charting church history

It’s amazing what a difference a few lines can make when you’re trying to chart church history. Jim West started things off today by offering the following chart as a nice representation of where various Christian groups came from:

click to embiggen

It’s got an interesting layout, and I love the fact that Willow Creek gets its own box.

Ari has taken exception to Jim’s chart and offers the following in its place:

click to embiggen

Do you see the difference? Isn’t it fascinating how a few lines can can change the way that you tell the story?

Personally, I think that Baptists should be at the top. Everyone knows they came first, but the groups that came along later were so jealous that they persecuted them into hiding until after the Reformation.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/17)

But appearances can be deceiving. In fact, as I read the situation, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of Facebook. These aren’t the symptoms of a company that is winning, but one that is cashing out.

Our self-conception is in fact based on a three-fold myth of American religious freedom that distorts the current debate about religion in public life.

I noted above that in Judges and Exodus the command is expressed in terms of avoiding treaties and driving the Canaanites out. In Joshua and Deuteronomy the command is expressed in the language of “utterly destroying them”. The conclusion we have reached is that the latter is figurative language and the former is literal. If this is the case then the command was to drive them out and it was not to literally exterminate them.

Stories are powerful. And they are nowhere put to such compelling use as they are in religious ceremonies of remembrance.

  • And, Flavorwire shows off the libraries of the rich and famous. (Somebody needs to tell them that if your books are arranged by color, no one is going to believe that you actually read them.) And, if that doesn’t give you enough of a fix for your bibliophile tendencies, here’s a site devoted to Bookshelf Porn (i.e. photos of amazing personal libraries.