Monday, June 25, 2007

Pop Culture and the Arrangement of History

Much of the confusion that ensues from the study of history is due to the fact that we take it upon ourselves to arrange the subject into those supremely annoying quantities called "centuries." As a matter of mathematical convenience, I've got nothing against centuries, though I may have a number of things against math. But as a strictly practical contrivance, the century is not without its benefits, and Gregory, Julius or whoever it was that suggested the device in the first place undoubtedly merits a slightly higher position amid the Nine Circles for having done so. At first glance, the century charms us with its neatness. Any division of time is a supreme artifice by its very nature, and the partition of epochs into quantities of a hundred is one sufficiently fascile to appease both the lazy and the choleric minded among us, which two categories probably account for the greater majority of contemporary historians.

A more attentive inspection, however, proves that history ought not be divided up into anything as neat, moderate and dismissive of events as the century; and this because history is neither neat nor moderate, and if she is dismissive, it is only of practitioners of the second quality. History is naturally imbalanced, discordant and messy. The century fails to take these marks into its accounting of her.

Consider, for example, the Gothic Era; the Fall of the Western Empire, Odoacer, the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, etc., at 476 A.D. The end of that same period, say, at the Battle of Tours, the inauguration of the Carolingian Rennaisance, 732 A.D. No clean division of centuries here, but historians nonetheless feel it devolves upon them to mark each century with a characteristic of its own, like a group of fastidious authors that pay too much attention to minor characters; the twentieth century becomes the century of spiritual ennui (a quality equally prevalent in the nineteenth) and aesthetically the era of theoretical decenteredness (appicable also to the eighty year period in English letters between Mallory and Shakespeare). The measurment of history in terms of defining events is also a pebble in the shoe of any advocate of The Century; properly speaking, the twentieth century begins in 1900, but in actuality, 1914 is a more acceptable date, as is September 11th, 2001, rather than January 1st, 2000, for the date of its expiration. Almost every preceeding "century" is beset with the same inconvenience; the 19th century, as it turns out, was actually 125 years long (1789-1914) and the century prior to that even more difficult to estimate; it begins with the end of the Thirty Years' War, and ends with the French Revolution, making it 141 years in length. The Thirty Years' War, in turn, was merely the final evolution in the religious wars which, along with uglier churches and abominable fashion developments in Puritan circles, had been the primary product of the Reformation, which all testifies to the fact that the Thirty Years War was a more truly a part of the Sixteenth Century than to the following one, ergo the century that followed didn't actually happen.

It's really quite simple if you think it over for a minute.


Jeff Moss said...

Good observations, but why should periods of history be defined only by military and political events?

I agree with Peter Leithart's claim that "the church is the historical entity at the center of global history." If this is true, we might (for instance) date the beginning of the Medieval period at the conversion and baptism of Augustine (386/387), and its end at Luther's posting of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517). The twentieth "century" might be considered to begin in 1910 with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. I don't know if we can yet clearly recognize an ending point for this century, in terms of church history. However, the consecration of V. Gene Robinson in 2004 as the first practicing homosexual bishop in one of the largest worldwide Christian communions (Anglican) may yet have such far-reaching effects that it would be a good candidate for this "honor."

Thomas Banks said...

Jeff- That's an interesting point. Having not explored Leithart's position in any depth, I can't offer much in the way of either agreement or criticism, other than to ask what one does with the first two millenia of history in which neither the church nor the Church exist?

And don't take anything I said in this post too seriously. I wanted it to sound funnier than the end result may indicate, and if I failed, it's only because I wrote it in ten minutes.

Chalk it up to me amusing myself by acting like a sophist.



Jeff Moss said...

Tom, maybe I just take things too seriously, but I thought your post made a few really cool points. Yeah, you had some pretty funny lines, like the first sentence, and the one about Gregory or Julius or whoever getting a slightly higher place in the Nine Circles for inventing the century.

So what, according to you, is the difference between "the church" and "the Church"? I could take a guess, but I'd like to know what distinction you make--and find out which one gets the capital C!

to ask what one does with the first two millenia of history in which neither the church nor the Church you mean from Adam to Abram, assuming that the C/church starts with the call of Abram in Gen. 12?

I don't think it would be a stretch to say that world history "really" centered around the Chosen Line (i.e. proto-Church) during that period too. Thus the importance of the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies in the Bible. I think Leithart's claim about the church being at the center of global history could be restated as "the Chosen Line/Chosen Race is at the center of global history." That way, you get a continuous stream from Seth to Noah to Abraham to Jacob/Israel, focusing in on Judah, David, and finally Messiah. Messiah is the culmination of the Chosen Line and the personification of the Chosen Race. During the whole A.D. period, to be in Him is to be in the Chosen Race is to be at the center of history...and thus "the church is the historical entity at the center of global history."

And this was a very serious answer for a self-confessedly sophistic and humorous post. :-)

Thomas Banks said...

That explanation was certainly helpful, but it leads to another question- what does Pentacost mean, given the Church=Chosen Line caveat?

And to answer your previous query, I'd propose that the undercase "church" is a historical and sociopolitical entity, whereas the "Church" is the collective body of the truly redeemed.



Jeff Moss said...

Whatever Pentecost means, it's not the origin of the C/church. According to Stephen, Moses led "the church in the wilderness" (Acts 7:38, see KJV), and the congregation of Israel is similarly called "the church" (Greek ekklesia) dozens of times in the Greek OT. Some good examples are Deut. 23:2-9; Judges 21:5; 1 Kings 8:14; 1 Chron. 28:8; Ezra 2:64; Psalm 22:22; Micah 2:5; etc.

The Holy Spirit came on Pentecost to give power to the church, so that they could testify about Jesus not only among the Jews but to all nations, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Where does the Bible talk about the Church as a "collective body of the truly redeemed" which is not "a historical and sociopolitical entity"?

Thanks for the interaction--
Jeff :-)

Thomas Banks said...


Sorry for the delay, hadn't noticed your latest comment. To answer the last question first, let me pose another question: If Christ's Kingdom is "Not of this world," then whence any sort of political mantle? Sorry to be an annoying Anabaptist on this one, but that strikes me as the most direct and natural explanation.

Secondly, I may be out of my depth here, as my study of Greek has only covered two semesters thus far, but "Ekklesia," at least in the Attic usage, usually means simply "Assembly" rather than the more specific "Church," which meaning it adopted in the hands of the 1st century patriarchs, being to them the available term closest to the desired meaning. In the OT references to which you allude, could this earlier employment of the word not be the case?



Jeff Moss said...

Tom, I agree with you about ekklesia ("church"), with one important tweak. Yes, the word means "an assembly" when it's used outside the Bible, and that's basically what it means throughout the Bible too. A church is an assembly.

Here's the "tweak": You said that ekklesia picked up the specific meaning "church" in the 1st century, but again I'd have to say that happened in the 2nd century BC when the OT was translated into Greek (the LXX). Two centuries later, Greek-speaking Jews were already used to talking about themselves as "the Lord's assembly/church" (i.e. ekklesia Kyriou) and they had an expectation of the Christos to come. Those who became believers in Jesus still thought of themselves as "the Lord's church"--just as they always had--but they worshiped Christos who had already come and called Him the Lord. Same church, but with new glory.

The Apostle Paul makes the same point in Romans 11:13-31 when he describes the church as a tree. He doesn't say that the Jews belonged to one tree and the Christians to another. In fact, he says that some Jews who were already on the tree were broken off when they refused to believe in Christ, and Gentile Christians were grafted onto that same tree in their place.

Anyway, this sort of conversation would probably work better in person. I'll be away for a couple of weeks visiting family in West Virginia, but I hope to see you again when I get back.

Jeff Moss said...

And to get back to your original post, the 1st century A.D. at least has a very definite and appropriate starting point.

Too bad Dionysius Exiguus was a few years off in his calculations, though...