“Is Christianity Good for the World?” Thus asks a new book co-authored by Christian philosopher and pastor, Douglas Wilson, and media maven and everyone’s favorite curmudgeonly atheist Christopher Hitchens. What started as an email exchange was picked up by Christianity Today and later by Canon Press. Finally, the whole thing was turned into a documentary that is strangely incendiary and cordial at the same time.
Rob Bell has certainly ratcheted up the question of eternity in Christian and secular discussion with his book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived . Many know that when I was younger I was an atheist and came to faith once I realized that Jesus was an actual historical person, He was physically raised from the dead and the Bible is fundamentally true. As I viewed his interview with Martin Bashir: I was struck Rob Bell’s assortment of non-answers. Does it matter how we live? Perhaps. Is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone? We aren’t sure. Rob Bell wonders about those who haven’t heard. His claim is that doctrine we have about salvation is “all speculation.” In other places he has said that he believes Christ is the only means by which we are saved but we may call on Him without knowing it. Does that mean we can reach Him by calling on Buddha? Bell, like any good politician, doesn’t commit himself one way of the other. Continue reading …
“Everybody Loves a Lover,” sang Doris Day. Perhaps this explains why the medieval romance carried on by correspondence between a monk and a nun nearly nine centuries ago continues to cast its hypnotic spell on artists and audiences across the ages of pages in the dust-settled tomes of love lore. Before Cyrano de Bergerac (the fictional one, not the real one) pined for Roxanne, before John Alden stole the heart of Priscilla Mullins from Miles Standish, before Romeo gasped, “But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?” at the sight of Juliet, before Petrarch’s jaw dropped at the sight of Laura attending Good Friday mass, and before Beatrice inspired Dante to write La Vita Nuova—before any of those rank amateurs came along, there was Abélard and Héloïse.
Their love has been celebrated in painting and architecture. Poetry has been versed, songs have been stanzaed, plays have been staged, and movies have been celluloided, all in their honor. The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope sought to capture Héloïse’s regretful passion in his poem “Eloisa to Abelard.” The couple was the subject of the less-than-successful 1988 film Stealing Heaven, directed by Clive Donner and starring Derek de Lint as Abélard and Kim Thomson as Héloïse. In 1935 Cole Porter introduced them to Broadway audiences when he wrote:
As Abelard said to Eloise
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
…It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings
One of those bells that now and then rings
Just one of those things
More recently, Howard Brenton’s play, In Extremis: The Story of Abelard and Heloise, opened at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London in 2006.
In spite of all this, and even being mentioned in what has become a jazz standard, you might say that Abélard and Héloïse are the most famous lovers that most people today have never heard of, at least outside of their native France. One might conclude from these playful lines that Porter was at least aware of the letters they exchanged long after their passionate romance came to a tragic end.
As it turns out, those letters are far more interesting than the artistic representations of the ill-fated couple. Continue reading …
It was the high noon of the Middle Ages, the 11th century (ad 1001 to 1100). Although closer to completion than ever, the project of establishing a “Christian Europe” was still a work in progress.
Like it or not, the middle 1,000 years or so of church history—from about 500 to 1500, the period we call the Middle Ages, or medieval period—are inextricably bound to the history of Europe. Up until then, Christianity was a thoroughly multi-continental movement, primarily because most Christians lived in the Roman Empire, which extended into Europe, Africa, and Asia. We know that the Gospel penetrated beyond the reach of Rome’s iron grip, since the book of Acts records the evangelism of people from what is now Iran (Acts 2:9) and Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40), and that Nestorian Christians (who objected to Mary being called Θεοτόκος [theotokos], i.e., “God-Bearer,” or “Mother of God”) reached China in ad 635, and in one sense or another it would always continue to transcend its Mediterranean beginnings. But after the fall of Rome it was primarily in Europe that God chose to preserve His word and protect His people during a time when everything that “civilized” people had been depending upon to make sense of the world fell apart, and there was nothing to fall back on but God—or, as some less pious might prefer, God and a good sword.
Today people speak of “post-Christian Europe,” and we tend to think of “Christian Europe” as extending from the time of Constantine to perhaps the beginning of the 20th century. But for centuries after Constantine, a large portion of the continent remained pre-Christian, until it finally gave way to the tireless work of missionaries. Continue reading …
Back in the 19th century, in London’s Central Criminal Court (also known as the Old Bailey), a witness might be asked the question, “What kind of night was it?” And it was considered neither odd nor impertinent for the response to come back, “It was a dark night.” [e.g., Henry Buckler, Criminal Central Court. Minutes of Evidence, Taken in Shorthand, Vol. 8, (London, UK: George Herbert, Cheapside, 1838), 202.] This kind of exchange probably also occurred many times in other courts, in other countries, and in other languages. The way our sprawling urban nights today are so brightly lit as to render most of the stars and the entire Milky Way galaxy invisible, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time, when weather was not a factor, there were only two kinds of nights: bright, clear nights that were lit up by the moon, and dark nights that were not.
It’s also easy to forget that, considering the span of recorded history, those days were really not that long ago. Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical incandescent light in 1879, but it would be decades before all the major cities of North America and Europe would have electrical outlets to plug them into. The generation that grew up prior to urban electrification may be all but gone, but the one that grew up prior to the U.S. Rural Electrification Act of 1936 only started hitting retirement age in the last decade or so. Many of those people remember very dark nights, indeed.
But there is a darkness that no one alive today remembers. There was a time in European history when the light of ancient learning and culture from the glory days of Greece and Rome seemed all but extinguished. It seemed to be, as William Manchester (1922-2004) put it in the title of his bestselling book, A World Lit Only By Fire. Continue reading …
I like things to be simple. I like them to be clear. What can I say? I’m a simple guy.
I prefer bullet points to paragraphs, illustrations to explanations, and maps to directions. I prefer monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon words (like “ask,” “come,” and “dog”) to polysyllabic Latin-based words (like “inquire,” “arrive,” and “canine”). Among my favorite expressions are “bottom line,” “cut to the chase,” “it all boils down to,” “the whole thing in a nutshell is,” and “KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid).”
I get irritated when people make things more complicated than they need to be. I become especially annoyed when Christians hide the light of the Gospel under the bushel of sophisticated theological jargon. When I was a new believer such people made me feel what I think Woody Allen might have been trying to express when he said, “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.” They use big words to feed their own egos at the expense of the spiritual growth of others. Continue reading …
I was in second grade at St. Christopher’s School in Midlothian, Illinois. The ink was still drying on the documents of the Second Vatican Council in Rome and I was preparing for my First Holy Communion in the Catholic church with about 30 to 40 other children (those were the days of big class sizes) who were often giddy with excitement at the thought of the parties and presents that followed this rite of passage. I was hoping for my first wristwatch. Continue reading …