The Love of the Spirit in an Age of Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter Black Friday

Greetings, everyone and apologies to my readers for the lengthy gap between posts. I was working on a chapter for my dissertation over the last few months. Usually this blog focuses on figures from church history. We have examined men and women from throughout church history, from the beginnings of Christianity up through to very recent examples. Today’s post, however will look at two very recent, very polarizing events in the United States: the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I want to frame a discussion of these events in light of the popular Bible passage on the “fruits of the Spirit.”

This past Sunday at my church, the pastors began a new series on the fruits of the Spirit. If you are unfamiliar, these are found in Galatians 5.22-23. This passage notes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV). The pastors at my church are going to take a week-by-week look at each “fruit,” and this past Sunday’s focus was on love. The sermon covered a lot of elements of love and community, especially examining Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches (John 15.5-12). I really enjoyed the pastor’s linking to Jesus’ picture of love: between Jesus and God and between fellow humans. However, I found myself wondering what Galatians means when talking about love.

As the pastor was giving context for the passage of the “fruit of the Spirit,” I was looking for passages nearby that include the word “love” (in the NIV at least, which I had open at the time). I found 5.13-14 to be helpful. It says, “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Okay, so humility is important. Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is important (this one is pretty well-known). These didn’t really blow the roof of my doors, so I turned to chapter six hoping for something more. Galatians 6.2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV).

Now we’re talking.

This passage set my mind spinning in a number of different directions. Full disclosure: I am a white male. I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life living in Ohio, the last 6 of which were spent in a town that was about 10,000 people and probably 95% white. My high school (in the suburbs of Cincinnati) was mostly white. I went to Ohio State, which was a pretty diverse place, especially compared to the two aforementioned towns. I now live in a very diverse city (Los Angeles), and have for about 5 years now. However, I might be as confused as ever about the plight of African Americans in this country.

Back to Sunday. After I read Gal. 6.2 I began to get really frustrated, even angry. I spent a little bit of time last week dialoguing on social media about the two murders of black men by police officers. However, sitting in church and reading a passage that said I am supposed to show love by “bearing the burdens” of my black brothers and sisters caused me a great deal of consternation. How on earth can I bear that burden? How can I, as a white male living in a world of white privilege bear the burden of others in this country when I don’t have to deal with the same fears and realities that they do? This past week we saw a black man who was selling CDs wrestled to the ground by two cops, get shot several times, and killed. Then just a day or so later, a woman live-streamed a video on Facebook after her boyfriend had been shot four times by a cop (who was still pointing the gun at the victim) as the victim was reaching for the requested license, proof of insurance, etc. The ensuing outrage of the country was provoked, and several protests arranged (one ending in a horrible circumstance in Dallas after a lone gunman ambushed police). The Black Lives Matter movement organized, and continues to organize, protests. Some of these protests have resulted in viral videos of camaraderie between police and protesters, between white and black individuals. While this is a good thing, it has yet to solve the problem.

This brings me back to my questions from Sunday. How can I as a white man in a world of white privilege bear the burdens of my black brothers and sisters? Is it possible? I have never left my house fearing that I might later that day be killed. I have been stopped by police before (for speeding, at random sobriety check-points, and even after I swerved across a lane line on a freeway because I was getting drowsy). In each and every one of those interactions with police, I have never for even half of a second worried that one of those cops would pull a gun and shoot me several times. This is sadly not the same reality for black Americans. Black lives don’t matter enough in this country, and that’s a major problem. That is something that needs to change, but how? What’s the answer?

I have been wondering this week what I can do to bear their burdens. Do I need to protest at Black Lives Matter rallies? Do I need to support legislation and/ or call my senator? Do I need to “just pray?” None of those seem like enough. I would love some of my African American readers to provide insight on how white people in this country can help, because we have to. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article addressed this very topic. All I know is that we can’t keep responding with statements of “Hold on, let’s wait and find out all the details before we charge the cops with murder.” That allows the problem to continue. That shows just how systemically racist this country still is.

I want to close with a quick account from later in my church service on Sunday. Our church sang the song “You’re a good, good, Father” at the close of service. I found myself wondering if songs like that in a time like this would cause pain among African American Christians. I also found myself starting to think, “Yes, God you are good, but please help this country.” I found myself pondering Psalm 13.1-2: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Again, I am a white male, and I find myself greatly outraged. How do my black brothers and sisters read this Psalm?

So I end by saying, I don’t actually know what to do. I don’t know how the “love fruit” of the Spirit can be evident in my life when I live in a world of hatred. I pray for change in this country. I pray for justice, for mercy, for peace. Most of all, I pray for African Americans to finally be treated equally with white Americans.

I welcome your thoughts on this with the goal of having a discourse.

The Hesitant Missionary: Ida Scudder’s Profound Impact on India

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Last week, we continued our series on the History of Missions by examining the ministry and life of Temple Gairdner and his heart for Muslims. This week, we once again find ourselves in India in order to examine the missionary work of Dr. Ida Scudder. Her story is one that fascinates and thoroughly impresses me. She is renowned for her impact on medicine and education, particularly among women, in India in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ida Scudder (1870-1960) was born in India into a missionary family. The Scudder family could boast an amazing statistic regarding their devotion to missions. As Tucker notes, “In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary service” (Tucker, 368). These numbers shocked me, especially the thousand years of combined service. To say that this family has had an impact on overseas missions would be quite an understatement. Ida’s role in the family’s legacy had somewhat of an auspicious beginning. Having grown up on the mission field, she actually did not want missions work for her career.

As Tucker observes, Ida ended up back in India shortly after her high school graduation to care for her mother who had fallen ill. As a result, Ida ended up in charge of a school for girls with sixty-eight girls (Tucker, 368). While she was there, she felt called to minister to young women, particularly young pregnant women. Tucker relates how there was a night with three men seeking help for difficult childbirths, but customs would not allow Ida’s father to help, so the women all died. It was at that point that Ida saw the need and felt her calling (Tucker 368-69). She went back to America to go to medical school, and attended Cornell in 1898 because they began allowing women students (Tucker, 369). She brought a check from a wealthy woman donor in order to start a hospital, but soon saw the need to educate women as well. She had to raise a great deal of money to support both avenues. “While home on furlough, she captivated her largely female audiences by her stories of the hopeless plight of the Indian women, and every meeting brought more money for the project” (Tucker, 370).

Things really took off for Scudder, as she served as a doctor, teacher, and operated an orphanage for homeless children (Tucker, 370). Unfortunately, despite her successes, she struggled with government bureaucracy, with a requirement in 1937 that all medical schools had to be affiliated with the state-run medical school (Tucker, 370). The difficult decision was made that her school, Vellore Medical College, should be the first co-ed medical school in India. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a scandal, since many of her donors had given to the cause of female education and training (Tucker, 371). These issues aside, Ida Scudder was really quite successful, both as a doctor and as an organizer. She helped start a medical school which trained numerous women and provided them with education which they might not otherwise have been able to access.

Tucker relays a couple of interesting anecdotes regarding Ida Scudder that I wanted to highlight as well. The first speaks to her fame. Tucker notes that someone actually sent a letter simply addressed “Dr. Ida, India,” and it was taken directly to her (Tucker, 371). The second story is that Scudder defeated a teenager (in two sets, winning every game) in a tennis tournament when Scudder was 65 after the teenager complained of “having to play a granny” (Tucker, 371). I wonder what the teenager said after losing to Ida so resoundingly.

Overall, Ida Scudder had a monumental impact upon the country of India. Her family already had quite the legacy, but Ida stands out for her work as a medical doctor, teacher, and innovator of women’s education and women’s health. Her work from 1898 to 1946 in India left quite a mark on the nation. If her tennis game is any indication, I am sure she was someone you would not want to cross. Her medical school was the first college of nursing in India and today “serves over two million patients and trains thousands of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals each year” (https://www.vellorecmc.org/who-we-are/history/).

I think that one of the most intriguing parts of Ida Scudder’s story is her initial desire to not continue the family tradition. She wanted something else for her life, but God had bigger plans for her. Her work obviously impacted people’s daily lives in numerous ways. If one ponders how Ida might not have even become a missionary at all had her mother not fallen ill, it seems like the illness was quite the fortuitous, if not providential, circumstance. Women’s education and health in India owe a great deal to Ida’s willingness to serve God’s calling on her life.

Bonus Blog: Trump and Constantine: Can Religion be a Political Tool?

Well, I wanted to start off this blog with a disclaimer noting that I am a historian, not a political scientist. I have noticed many different opinions on the social, cultural, and media phenomenon that is Donald Trump’s rise to the forefront of the Republican Primary discussions. Trump has taken numerous victories around the country, including a thorough domination in the states in the Deep South. Since today has numerous high-profile primaries and one caucus, I wanted to blog about Donald Trump, Emperor Constantine, and the ability of religion to be used as a political tool.

There has been no shortage of blog posts, articles, and probably even forthcoming books detailing Donald Trump’s ascendancy in polls and in voter turnouts. There have been those who have shared memes joking about his unorthodox campaign, those who have questioned his true loyalties, and even a trending hashtag of #NeverTrump. Others have called into question whether or not he is a real Christian, as he claims to be. There was even a mini-controversy over him saying “Two Corinthians” in quoting a Bible verse (many people did not realize it, but many Christians refer to 2nd Corinthians this way). I wanted to delve into the theory that Trump has used Christianity as a tool to gain the support of much of the Religious Right. Such a theory reminds me of some interpretations of Emperor Constantine.

Constantine (272-337 CE) was the first true Christian emperor. He converted to Christianity after seeing a vision of the cross before riding into battle. He parlayed its image onto his shields and eventually was victorious at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. The Edict of Toleration was issued in 311, which ended the persecution of Christianity, and the Edict of Milan in 313 legalized Christianity as a religion in the Roman Empire. Constantine was only baptized on his deathbed, leading to many scholars over the years to question the authenticity of his conversion. Some have argued that Christianity was a political tool to unify the empire under Constantine’s rule, firming up his status as the sole ruler of the Roman world.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Ecclesiastical History and a Life of Constantine, the latter of which was a glowing, hagiographical work which praised Constantine’s virtues and cast him in the role of a saint. For Eusebius, Constantine was completely sincere in his faith, and even ushered in the millennial kingdom on earth. For some modern scholars, Constantine was a shrewd politician who used Christianity. Which is it?

The current consensus is that Constantine definitely made a political move in making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. However, most scholars now either believe he might have been sincere, or at least that he could have been sincere but there is just no way to truly know. Unfortunately, we simply have to study Constantine’s actions from the perspective that he might have been a genuine Christian or that he might have just used Christianity’s popularity to his advantage. Either way, the effect was that Rome was Christianized and Constantine was a main cause of it.

This brings us back to Trump. Is he a true Christian? Is he using Christianity to manipulate voters into thinking he’s their Religious Right champion? Maybe Donald Trump is actually a Christian who is using Christianity to his political advantage. He would hardly be the first politician, or potential president, to do so. Unlike Constantine, however, Trump is alive and we can scrutinize his actions and decisions and speeches to determine to what extent he is using Christianity as a political tool.

Where does this leave us? Should we give Constantine the benefit of the doubt? How about Trump? I think that both can teach us that religion can be a political tool. It has been in the past and most likely will continue to be into the future. Voters need to realize this and make informed, intelligent decisions on whom to vote for. What do you think? Do you agree? Should we allow for the possibility that religion is just a tool for politicians sometimes? Does that make them less of a Christian (or other religious follower)?

Faithfully Sitting on a Pole: Saint Daniel the Stylite and Early Christian Asceticism

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Greetings to my readers! I hope all of you are doing well and had a wonderful holiday season. As evidenced by the previous sentence, it has been a minute since I have posted a blog. For this, I apologize. I found it tricky to pick the blog back up in January, and watched January turn into the end of February. Next week, however, I hope to begin a new series on the history of missions through which we will explore movements and missionaries around the world throughout history. I am very much looking forward to it. As for today, I ran across a passage in my reading that I wanted to post about, so today’s post will not figure in with our new series.

The main source for this post is Claudia Rapp’s book, Holy Bishops in Late Antiquity: The Nature of Christian Leadership in an Age of Transition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. It is, so far, a very interesting read about authority in regard to the bishops of late antiquity. Rapp has a brief section in the beginning of her work (pp. 3-5) in which she discusses Daniel the Stylite, a fifth-century ascetic.

St. Daniel the Stylite first became a popular figure in a suburb around Constantinople (Rapp, 2005, 3). The archbishop of Constantinople even gave Daniel’s ministry his seal of approval. Rapp notes that he became “a personal saint for Emperor Leo I (457-474) and for his successor, Zeno (474-491), who depended on Daniel to soothe restless crowds on the verge of rebellion… Leo rewarded Daniel’s cooperation with public gestures of recognition, especially by donating a large pillar, topped by an enclosed platform on which Daniel would live” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

In my experience, many Protestant students of church history usually begin to scoff when they read sentences like the previous quotation. Often, you will hear something like, “Wow he can really do a lot of good ministry from up on a post;” or maybe something like, “This is just extremism or fame-mongering.” Unfortunately, such flippant dismissals of ancient holy men and women can overlook some of the more intriguing elements of church history. Many Protestant denominations today do not know enough of their own faith heritage. It is often as if they think the Apostles all died out and then the Reformation popped up, with a whole bunch of “Catholic happenings” in the interim.

Now, I am fully aware that as one who is writing a dissertation on the early church, such a statement might seem self-serving. But I do also think that there is validity to the ministries and actions of even the early ascetics. In the case of St. Daniel the Stylite, you have a man who lived on top of a pillar. Now it might seem odd, but he was actually ordained to the priesthood while he was on top of the pillar, with the “laying on of hands” being affected by God “from above” (Rapp, 2005, 4). Rapp further notes that “Daniel’s ordination had no effect on his way of life or daily routine, since he never exercised any priestly duties. His ordination to the priesthood served the exclusive purpose of recognizing, confirming, and enhancing Daniel’s position as a holy man” (Rapp, 2005, 4).

So what is the point of him being ordained if he never descends from his pillar? Well, Rapp does describe a time when he climbs down from his pillar in order to mediate a crisis between the Archbishop of Constantinople and a rebel emperor over orthodoxy. Rapp even notes that in the Life of Daniel the Stylite, the two individuals fall at Daniel’s feet which are “crippled and worn down to the bone—a tangible token of his ascetic achievement” (Rapp, 2005, 5).

The man on a pillar shows that he was not above (pun intended) the crises of the city to which he ministered. He willingly climbed down to intercede, a task that no doubt caused him excruciating pain. Daniel is one of many “holy men” from the early church who practiced extreme asceticism. John Chrysostom, the bishop on whom I am focusing in my dissertation, spent a couple of years of his early ecclesiastical career in a cave in Syria where he didn’t really sleep or sit down for about 2 years. Such a practice left permanent damage upon his body.

Many readers today will see these types of stories as extreme actions embarked upon to gain a following. However, Christians need to embrace the fact that these individuals are a part of their own faith heritage. These holy men and women were a product of their era, exhibiting devotion and commitment to the Christian faith. It is easy to say that they could have been more effective ministers if they had lived among the people, but that is to sell their asceticism short. Eschewing the comforts of the world, including a comfortable place to sit or sleep, was done in order to show their devotion to a faith which set them apart from the masses. They were admired for their piety and dedication to Christianity. I, for one, have to admit that I admire their courage to fully live out their faith in such a way. I have to also admit that I think they probably experienced their faith on a deeper level than I ever have. I would urge you, if you haven’t before, to study the ancient holy men like St. Daniel the Stylite.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you agree? Is there validity to this type of asceticism? Should these men and women be viewed with or even overtly given ecclesiastical authority?

Midweek Augustine Blog: Is There Time for God?

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Well, I thought about doing a bonus blog last week, but it never happened. I could blame my daughter for taking up all my time and attention, but the reality is I just didn’t feel like it. Oh well. Onward! This week’s blog in our series on Augustine examines my favorite “book” of the Confessions, Book XI. Augustine opens Book XI with a question: “O Lord, since you are outside time in eternity, are you unaware of the things that I tell you? Or do you see in time the things that occur in it?” (XI.1). Augustine poses a tough question that is not easily answered. He proceeds to discuss this issue throughout Book XI, and since trying to elaborate on it would fill up pages and pages of a blog, I will seek instead to hone in on a couple of key passages. I invite and recommend all of you to read Confessions in general, and particularly Book XI.

Section 13 of Book XI contains a couple of poignant statements to which I want to devote space here. Augustine notes, “It is not in time that you precede [time]. If this were so, you would not be before all time. It is in eternity, which is supreme over time because it is a never-ending present, that you are at once before all past time and after all future time. For what is now the future, once it comes, will become the past, whereas you are unchanging, your years can never fail. Your years neither go nor come, but our years pass and others come after them” (XI.13).

Trying to grasp just how God’s place in eternity lies outside of time is a heavy concept. The idea that God exists in a “never-ending present” is helpful but also difficult. For example, God is not affected by time, does not grow old, etc. However, does this mean that God is somehow limited? Think of what we know as “present.” It means that we know what is past, and do not know the future (no matter what doomsday prophets will tell you). Does God’s “never-ending present” also mean that God does not know the future. Augustine would certainly disagree with such a conclusion. In the above quotation he notes that God is “before all past time and after all future time.” Does that mean that God is simply outside of time? It would seem to suggest that. But what about Jesus (God in human flesh), who enters into time? He was born and He died. He also rose from the dead. Did Jesus know everything that was to happen? Was Jesus surprised by events in His lifetime, even if He knew His ultimate fate?

As you can see, such a discourse can open up a whole can of worms. Augustine further elaborates on God’s place in eternity: “Your years are one day, yet your day does not come daily but is always today, because your today does not give place to any tomorrow nor does it take the place of any yesterday. Your today is eternity. And this is how the Son, to whom you said, ‘I have begotten you this day,’ was begotten co-eternal with yourself. You made all time; you are before all time; and the ‘time,’ if such we may call it, when there was no time was not time at all” (XI.13).

This is one of my favorite passages of the entire Confessions. I love how succinctly Augustine phrases such a difficult concept. He clearly uses “time” language to show just how God is eternal. Augustine demonstrates how we as humans strain to comprehend God’s existence. Since we think in terms of time, we ought to use time language in order to show just how God is greater than us. We have to think of God in an eternal present, an eternal today. In addition to that, God is the creator of time and is before and after all time. What causes us trouble is the idea of eternity. It is easy to flippantly say, “Oh God is outside of time, so God is not surprised by the future.” Well, what about when someone presses you on the matter. For example, can God truly hear our prayers (especially those that are time-sensitive, like healing or job opportunities) if God is outside of time?

This gets back to Augustine’s opening question, how can human prayer requests bridge the gap between the temporal and the eternal realms? Well I would argue that Jesus’s entering into the temporal realm facilitates that, as does the gifted Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians. Is such an argument helpful though? What about skeptics? Does this help us answer their tough questions about God’s nature and God’s seeming detachment from our world?

I want to bring this blog to a “timely” close before it gets too long-winded. A Bible study I was once a part of took on some of these topics. It was a great experience digging into passages and commentaries and often getting really confused. At the end of it, however, we did come to some conclusions. A question that was posed went something like this: if God is eternal and outside of time, does God know if I will go to the gym two weeks from today? Now, you might think this a rather mundane detail for God to be concerned with, but I assure you it caused a furious debate. The point was if God knows for sure (or even predestines it, which was the purpose of the question), then how does free will work? The conclusion was that we do have free will, God can just see both outcomes of whether or not we decide to go to the gym two Thursdays from now.

And this is one of the problems with calling God’s place in the universe a “never-ending present.” It makes God seem limited or restricted in some way. If we think of God as outside of time, God sees the past, present, and future all at once. God sees all possibilities of actions (and their consequences) at once. This is so much greater and more profound than an eternal present. Time is too small of a construct to contain God.

A Godly Gladiator: The Martyrdom of Polycarp as a Fragrant Offering

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I want to continue my series on the Apostolic Fathers this week with a foray into the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is an intriguing tale of the arrest, trial, death, and aftermath of Polycarp’s martyrdom. Martyr tales are very interesting works, especially from the early church: see my post about Perpetua and Felicity. Often there are hagiographical elements within them, and the Martyrdom of Polycarp is no exception, as we will see below. I wanted to focus on this text because of some of the statements Polycarp makes prior to being executed. I have titled this post “A Godly Gladiator” because Polycarp’s martyrdom occurred in the arena, as did many Christian martyrdoms in the early Church. The text is probably from 155-160 AD (Holmes, 301), therefore it is a relatively early martyrdom account.

One part that I truly love about this text occurs in chapter 9 (as before, I am using the Holmes translation here). In Martyrdom 9.3, a dialogue is preserved: “When the magistrate persisted and said, ‘Swear an oath, and I will release you; revile Christ,’ Polycarp replied, ‘For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?'”

Polycarp shows great courage and faithfulness in the face of adversity, and likely impending death. Also the sheer fact that he has served Christ for 86 years baffles me. I am about 17 years into my life as a Christian and that makes me roughly 70 years short of Polycarp. SEVENTY years! Amazing and humbling to say the least. I can only imagine the wisdom, and faithfulness Polycarp would have exuded to all who encountered him with such a long faith journey. We see an instance of such faithfulness in another passage below:

“So the proconsul said, ‘I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, unless you change your mind.’ But he [Polycarp] said: ‘Call for them! For the repentance from better to worse is a change impossible for us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is evil to righteousness.’ Then he said to him again: ‘I will have you consumed by fire, since you despise the wild beasts, unless you change your mind.’ But Polycarp said: ‘You threaten with a fire that burns only briefly and after just a little while is extinguished, for you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you wish'” (Martyrdom, 11:1-2).

Now, I ask that you let me be a bit honest and graphic for a minute. There are two ways of dying (drowning be the third) that I would basically choose to avoid if I had my say: those are being burned alive and being ripped apart by hungry wild animals. So many times we read in these martyrdom accounts that Christians were faithful in the face of such threats, even going into battle with wild beasts (see my post on Perpetua and Felicity linked above for another instance of this). I think when we read these accounts we are often focusing on the literary devices and the grand statements of faithfulness by these martyrs (as well we should), but I also sometimes think we miss just how scary and awful the situations were in which they found themselves. The wild beasts and the pyre are two very real, very present threats for these martyrs, and yet they not only go willingly to their deaths, but these punishments don’t always work the way they are supposed to.

I want to close by examining one last aspect from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. It comes from two passages which I will link below:

The author of the text (presumably one of Polycarp’s associates since there is a great amount of detail about what happens after Polycarp’s death) describes Polycarp as “a splendid ram chosen from a great flock for a sacrifice, a burnt offering prepared and acceptable to God” (14:1); and notes that “the fire, taking the shape of an arch, like the sail of ship filled by the wind, completely surrounded the body of the martyr; and it was there in the middle, not like flesh burning but like bread baking or like gold and silver being refined in a furnace. For we also perceived a very fragrant aroma, as if it were the scent of incense or some other precious spice” (15:2).

Clearly this is a comment on the acceptability of Polycarp’s willing sacrifice for his faith. He chose to stay true to God, and God accepted this fragrant offering so much so that the people present observed a pleasing aroma. Now, one can say that this is simply an editorial on the part of the author in an effort to praise Polycarp and contribute to his legacy. Further evidence of this occurs in Chapter 16 when one of the guards had to stab Polycarp (since the fire wasn’t working) and a dove flew out of his chest as well as enough blood to extinguish the fire (16:1). Clearly the latter is an example of hagiographical writing. While some might believe that a literal dove flew out of his chest, most will attribute this to the author trying to show how peacefully Polycarp’s willing sacrifice was.

I want to close this blog by noting how this text has two impactful aspects to me, despite the debatable historical details. The first is that Polycarp is a very old man that likely had not long to live, yet he willingly endured tortures and execution for his faith. He did not hide or run away from the authorities (7:1). One final element of interest from the text occurs in chapter 16 as the author notes that Polycarp’s death shows the difference between the unbelievers and the elect (16:1). Such a statement implies that one can only see whether or not someone is elect after their death. Throughout all of Polycarp’s faithful statements and actions in the Martyrdom, the author only makes the claim that “this man was certainly one of the elect” (16:2) after he died.

How do you read martyrdom accounts like this? Are they historical? Fictional? Somewhere in between? What about theological statements such as that noted above concerning “the elect?” Should we put stock in such theology even if it’s attached to a text that has questionable historical details?

Origen: The Angel on the Right Shoulder and the Devil on the Left

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After reaching the end of my Medieval blog series, I wanted to shift gears a bit. I have always enjoyed reading and studying about Origen of Alexandria (185-253 CE). He is one of the more intriguing of the church fathers. One could study any number of Origen’s writings and teachings (many of which are not part of what we would consider “mainstream” Christianity). Today I want to focus on a passage from his Homilies on Luke.

Origen writes in Homily 12, “To every [one] there are two attending angels, the one of justice and the other of wickedness. If there be good thoughts in our heart, and if righteousness be welling up in our soul, it can scarcely be doubted that an angel of the Lord is speaking to us. If, however, the thoughts of our heart be turned to evil, an angel of the devil is speaking to us.” (from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens, 201).

While I hardly think Origen’s words are truly represented by the picture above, there are some parallels. Who has not seen an image like the one above depicted in TV, movies, comic books, etc? The idea that we have a good and a wicked conscience each vying for control over our actions is something with which many of us are familiar. Origen attributes righteousness in one’s character to an angel of the Lord working in our lives, while noting that if our thoughts are evil, the devil is winning out. Origen might be on to something…

Picture this: You are sitting at home on the couch, not really doing anything at all. Maybe you’re flipping through the channels on TV and all of a sudden something reminds you of something you did earlier that day. Maybe it was an example of road rage (sorry, I live in Los Angeles and road rage is a way of life here) or an instance where you didn’t respond how you would have liked. Suddenly you feel shame for those actions and deeply remorseful. You may even pray to God for forgiveness in that moment. Should we give credit to a specific angel whispering in our ear? Or is it simply God’s spirit working in our lives? Does it matter as long as we attribute such repentance and life change to God?

What about the opposite? What about when someone irks you and you allow it to fester and maybe you even do something about it. Perhaps you tell someone how awful that first person was to you (and maybe exaggerate the truth a bit). Perhaps you sabotage that person’s promotion at work in order to get revenge? Are such actions the work of the devil on our shoulder? Is it original sin rearing its ugly head in our lives? Is it human nature to want to get revenge?

While the Homer Simpson cartoon above is obviously a reference to a pop-culture phenomenon more than an apt illustration of Origen’s theology, it still illustrates the good/ evil pull in the lives of people. Origen sees either the Lord or the devil working in our lives and in our hearts in many circumstances. In the 21st century, we might back away from such a spiritualization of daily life, but maybe we should adopt a more cosmic worldview. What do you think? Is Origen on to something? Do we close ourselves off in today’s world to such a way of thinking because we truly believe that God isn’t concerned with the mundane elements in our lives?