Tag Archives: history

Last month’s visit to Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, included a walk through an early Christian basilica

An early Christian basilica at Ostia, the ancient harbor city of Rome.

An early Christian basilica at Ostia, the ancient harbor city of Rome.

The sign with the info.

A walk through the early Christian basilica in Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome.

Ostia, Italy

I’m guessing this was the altar area.

To the left and behind the altar-looking area.

Early Christian basilica in Ostia, the ancient harbor city of Rome.

Looking back toward the entrance from the space in the previous photo.

Looking down the main aisle, back toward the entrance.

At the “front” of the basilica.


What stories they could tell.

CNN International: ‘Skeletons found “holding hands” after 700 years’

Living well is not a gift from God (but the ability to live well is): Seneca on God & wisdom

I should start with three quick notes on Seneca’s relevance in Christian history because some background will give reasons for considering his writings as relevant to thinking about God.

First, a general assessment of Seneca’s point of view in relation to Christianity:

His [Seneca’s] writings represent Stoicism at its best and have been much studied by Christian apologists for the similarities as well as the contrasts of their moral teaching with the Gospel ethic.  — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

Second, John Calvin’s interest in Seneca:

In 1532 he [John Calvin] issued a Latin commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia’. — The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church

And third, a translator’s note on Seneca’s importance to four Christian thinkers:

While scholars and schoolmasters in the century following continued to condemn Seneca, early Christians were taking to this kindred spirit among pagan writers, so many of who ideas and attitudes they felt able to adopt and share. Anthologies were made of him and he was frequently quoted by such writers as Jerome, Lactantius and Augustine. Tertullian called him saepe noster, ‘often one of us’.  — Robin Campbell, in the introduction to his translation of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic

Furthermore, as Campbell also notes, Dante frequently quotes Seneca.

So, as I was recently reading Seneca’s Letter XC, I came across something that helped me think about what God does and what God doesn’t do for humans.

In a way, the following passage sounds like an overview of the biblical book of Proverbs.

From Seneca’s Letter XC, as translated by Campbell:

“Who can doubt, my dear Lucilius, that life is the gift of the immortal gods, but that living well is the gift of philosophy? A corollary of this would be the certain conclusion that our debt to philosophy is greater than the debt we owe to the gods (by just so much as a good life is more of a blessing than, simply, life) had it not been for the fact that philosophy itself was something borrowed by the gods. They have given no one the present of a knowledge of philosophy, but everyone the means of acquiring it. For if they had made philosophy a blessing, given to all and sundry, if we were born in a state of moral enlightenment, wisdom would have been deprived of the best thing about her — that she isn’t one of the things which fortune either gives us or doesn’t. As things are, there is about wisdom a nobility and magnificence in the fact that she doesn’t just fall to a person’s lot, that each man owes her to his own efforts, that one doesn’t go to anyone other than oneself to find her. What would have have worth looking up to in philosophy if she were handed out free?

“Philosophy has the single task of discovering the truth about the divine and human worlds. The religious conscience, the sense of duty, justice and all the rest of the close-knit, interdependent ‘company of virtues’, never leave her side. Philosophy has taught men to worship what is divine, to love what is human, telling us that with the gods belong authority, and among human beings fellowship.”

My takeaway:

Life is a gift from God. Living well is a gift of philosophy. Philosophy is also a gift from God, and philosophy has taught us to worship “what is divine.” But living well is not a gift from God. We must engage philosophy to learn how to live well.

The Penguin Classics edition of Letters from a Stoic, selected, introduced, and translated by Robin Campbell

“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell

Five things you didn’t know about Jesus

Colin Foote Burch:

“In the end, as theologians like to say, Jesus is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be pondered,” writes Rev. James Martin. That reminds me of a Gabriel Marcel quote. (Also interesting in this short piece: The literary evidence of Jesus growing in wisdom, in a natural, normal sense, rather than just knowing all from the beginning.)

Originally posted on CNN Belief Blog:

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin , special to CNN

(CNN) — With Easter approaching, and the movie “Son of God” playing in wide release, you’re going to hear a lot about Jesus these days.

You may hear revelations from new books that purport to tell the “real story” about Jesus, opinions from friends who have discovered a “secret” on the Web about the son of God, and airtight arguments from co-workers who can prove he never existed.

Beware of most of these revelations; many are based on pure speculation and wishful thinking. Much of what we know about Jesus has been known for the last 2,000 years.

Still, even for devout Christian there are surprises to be found hidden within the Gospels, and thanks to advances in historical research and archaeological discoveries, more is known about his life and times.

With that in mind, here are five things you…

View original 727 more words

‘From Martin Luther To Mark Driscoll: A Literary Version Of The Telephone Game’

Unfortunately for Christianity and for book publishing and for aspirations of beginning an academic seminary, a recent post by Warren Throckmorton demonstrates once again the shoddy research and poor attribution ethic of Pastor Mark Driscoll. The pastor is involved with the founding of a seminary. For that to be successful and reliable in any sense, it will need a scholar of some gravitas to offset Driscoll’s involvement.

Please read “From Martin Luther To Mark Driscoll: A Literary Version Of The Telephone Game” by Throckmorton.

On Soren Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday, a few quotations from his works

Soren Kierkegaard studying“If you wish to be and remain enthusiastic, then draw the silk curtains of facetiousness, and so hide your enthusiasm.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed…. That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.” — Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author

“The reason I far prefer the autumn to the spring is because in the autumn one looks up to heaven — in spring at the earth.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“Most men think, talk, and write as they sleep, eat, and drink, without ever raising the question of their relation to the idea; this only happens among the very few and then that decisive moment has in the very highest degree either the power to compel (genius), or it paralyzes the individual with anxiety (irony).” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“Mysticism has not the patience to wait for God’s revelation.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“Socrates proved the immortality of the soul from the fact that sickness of the soul (which may be called sin) does not consume the soul, as sickness of the body consumes the body.” — Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

“There are, as is known, insects that die in the moment of fertilization. So it is with all joy: life’s highest, most splendid moment of enjoyment is accompanied by death.” — Soren Kierkegaard, Either / Or

“People hardly ever make use of the freedom they have, that is, freedom of thought, and instead demand free speech as a compensation.” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“Luther, you have a huge responsibility, for when I look more closely, I see more and more clearly that you toppled the Pope only to enthrone ‘the public.’” — Soren Kierkegaard, in his journals

“Other people may complain that the present age is wicked. I complain that it is wretched, because it lacks passion. People’s souls are thin and flimsy like lace; and they are spiritual lacemakers. The thoughts of their hearts are too paltry to be regarded as sinful. A worm might be looked upon as sinful to think in such a way; but for people made in the image of God, ‘sinful’ is too big a word. Their desires are drab and sluggish, their passion lethargic. They are like shopkeepers, doing their duty, but clipping little pieces of gold from the coins they take. They think that, even if the Lord is careful in keeping his accounts, they can cheat him a little. Away with them! This is why my soul constantly turns back to the Old Testament and to Shakespeare. The characters are real human beings: they hate and love, they murder their enemies, they curse their descendants, they sin.” – Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Learn more about Soren Kierkegaard at the late D. Anthony Storm’s thorough commentary site.

Related articles

Ancient imagination: The Lion of Knidos

Sadie & me in front of the Lion of Knidos, inside the British Museum, Dec. 30, 2009

Sadie & me in front of the Lion of Knidos, inside the British Museum, Dec. 30, 2009



Ancient imagination: bronze dragon

Photos taken at the British Museum on Dec. 30, 2009.

Photos taken at the British Museum on Dec. 30, 2009.

Bronze Dragon1-IMG_9503


Ancient imagination: Griffin armlet from 5th century BC Persia

Ancient imagination: Griffin armlet from 5th century BC Persia

Griffin armlet photographed at the British Museum on Jan. 8, 2010. The gold armlet dates 5th-4th century BC.


Marcus Aurelius on ancient Roman coins

Marcus Aurelius on ancient Roman coins

Photographed at the Museum of London on January 4, 2011. (c) 2011 Colin Foote Burch

I always thought Meister Eckhart was a heretic

But apparently, he wasn’t.

The Eckhart Society has posted a page which tells the story of his relationship to the doctrinal authorities of the Roman Catholic Church, from his times to our times. Recent attempts to rehabilitate Eckhart have been considered unnecessary because only a small part of Eckhart’s writings were officially censured. Catholic authorities never ruled Eckhart to be a heretic.

Here’s a interesting quotation from Eckhart, which is posted on a page of the man’s quotations:

“Do not imagine that your reason can grow to the knowledge of God.”

The historical use of the Apocrypha and Protestant dissent

“As part of the Septuagint ‘canon,’ the Apocrypha became and still are part of the Christian Bible in both the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches. They continued to hold this position, though without definitive and formal church legislation according it to them, until the Reformation churches assigned them (at best) second-class status, on the grounds that they were books which ‘the church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet both is not apply them to establish any doctrine.’ For most of Christendom during most of Christian history, however, they were and still are simply part of the Bible. Although all the books of the Apocrypha are Jewish in origin, they have in fact played a far more important role in Christian history than in Jewish history.” — Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Yale historian of Christianity, in his book Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures


Travel photos of Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary

This gallery contains 18 photos.

We visited the Matthias Church, on the Buda side of Budapest, on Jan. 4. Click a photo to begin a slideshow:


A travel photo gallery of Bratislava, Slovakia

This gallery contains 29 photos.

We visited Bratislava, Slovakia, on Jan. 3. Click an image to start a slide show.

Our stories, ourselves

Updated May 21, 2012

As part of his final exam assignment, a student reflected on something I had said in a creative writing class earlier this semester.

I had said, “We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

I hadn’t spent much time elaborating, but I said it during an introduction to fiction. I said it as a way to get the class to think about the characters they create for their short stories. Where do the characters think they’ve been, where do they think they are now, and where are they going? Like real life, the facts themselves are only part of the picture. How we think about the facts matters just as much — interpretation and contextualization are subjective, individual, internal acts performed by everyone, often with little conscious awareness of the process.

In his final exam essay, the student seemed to misunderstand the context for what I had said, which led me to realize I hadn’t elaborated enough. He seemed to be saying — with handwriting that wasn’t the easiest to read — that “we are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves” was a kind of self-deception or maybe an intentional social strategy or some kind of looney self-help slogan. But I meant it as something more basic and fundamental to our human nature, as I described above.

He was a friendly student and a good conversationalist, so I wrote him an email to clarify what I meant. I also thanked him for helping me realize I hadn’t been clear or specific enough.

The following is loosely based on the email I sent to that student, with some additions and revisions.

First, I should immediately point out (as I forgot to tell my student) that the sentence is not original. I don’t remember where I heard it first. However, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz defined culture as “stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

Whenever and wherever I first had heard that phrase, I had appropriated that clause in a personal, subjective sense.

I certainly don’t think my classroom comment means that we should attempt to deceive ourselves. I did not mean that we pretend to be someone we’re not. I did not mean that we construct artifices for others’ perceptions. I did not mean that we say, “I’m Superman — if I think it, I will become it.” No, no, not at all.

What I meant was this: each person has assumptions about who he is and where he’s going. When I was a college kid, I was a depressed, guilt-ridden cloud, but I also felt pretty righteous about myself, like there were certain things I would never, ever think about doing — I had assumptions about who I was. Also as a college kid, I had certain beliefs about what the future held for me — I had assumptions about where I was going. In many cases, I’ve been proven wrong.

However, accuracy is not the point here. Humans think of their lives as stories. Each real, living person has a past he comes from (remembered in particular and subjective ways, not necessarily remembered objectively), a place we hold now (with a subjective mental and emotional context attached to that place), and a combination of beliefs and intentions directed toward our futures (a subjectively constructed set of expectations that are somewhat unique to the individual).

These individual stories have varying degrees of accuracy, but the interesting thing is that we have them, and this has utility for fiction writing.

The above view dovetails with two important factors in characterization: characters have influences and desires, or pasts and futures.

But those influences and desires, for persons real and imagined, are subjectively constructed and appropriated in memory, imagination, and expectation. Rightly or wrongly, we interpret past events and we interpret our present — and many times, we apply those interpretations to the future.

Interpretation is usually a subjective act, at least on some level. Billions of people know the World Trade Center towers came down. I interpret that as horrible. In some parts of the world, people interpret that as a good thing and a long-time-coming.

So a well-rounded character indeed is the story he tells himself about himself — and every real person also is the story he tells himself about himself. These stories aren’t so much conscious movements along an intentional plot line. Instead, they are assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that may not even be consciously acknowledged.

In this sense, a person’s narrative view of his own life is not a self-help slogan and is not a social strategy but rather something more basic, more of a default mode, like sensory perception or simply memory.

Chances are, if I told you what your future was going to be like, and my narrative of your life greatly differed from your narrative of your life, you’d get angry or annoyed — or just think I’m crazy. You’d be well within your rights to feel any number of things, even insulted!

However, sometimes, a traumatic event, a book, a counselor, or a close friend will alter some of those subjective constructions, thus opening the individual’s life to a kind of mental-and-emotion rewrite of the story — seeing the past differently, reassessing future expectations — and perhaps opening new path.

In my current Strange Days column, I write about the large number of stories in the United States right now, and how they seem to be fragmenting social and cultural cohesion.

Here’s a relevant quotation I just found (several days after I posted this entry):

“Memoir must be written because each of us must have a created version of the past. Created: that is, real, tangbile, made of the stuff of a life in place and in history. And the down side of any created thing as well: we must live with a version that attaches us to our limitations, to the inevitable subjectivity, of our points of view. We must acquiesce to our experience and our gift to transform experience into meaning and value. You tell me your story, I’ll tell you my story.” — Patricia Hampl, in her essay “Memory and Imagination”

Memories make us human, memories good and bad and neutral

When someone tells you not to be influenced by The Past, agree with him and then ask him to tell you about a formative relationship in his childhood. After he answers, ask him why he allows himself to be influenced by The Past. Who can really function without memory? The mind has to constantly reference memories, even when its attention is focused in the present moment. It can do no other. It has to learn and make adjustments in behavior based on what it has learned. Without remembered names, humans don’t know anything — as Dana Gioia said in his poem “Words,” “To name is to know and remember.” Isn’t it true that when a man loses his memory, he loses himself? His self?



Bible study in light of textual criticism

I thoroughly enjoyed this dialogue between “conservative” New Testament text critic Dr. Dan Wallace and a “liberal” counterpart, Dr. Bart Ehrman. The dialogue was organized by The Ehrman Project, where I found the video.

I was surprised to hear how much agreement exists between Wallace and Ehrman.

Once you really, actually watch the video of the dialogue, consider the following:

1. I think Wallace makes a reasonable case for the reliability of the New Testament, but not in the same sense that a Bible study group might count on its realiability. The reliability of available New Testament documents — as discussed by Wallace and Ehrman — seems better applied to broad, thematic (and at times allegorical) views of the Bible. While many of the likely 400,000 discrepencies among available New Testament documents might be minor spelling and grammatical issues, those very discrepencies would seem to be grounds for a reasonable “epistemological humility,” to quote Ehrman.

2. Based on what I’ve said above, Bible studies that are more or less inductive don’t seem like a good idea. Some Bible studies are explicitly inductive, like ones that use the Serendipity inductive study Bibles. Others are implicitly inductive, meaning that they look at specific passages, sentences, phrases, and words in Scripture and try to draw conclusions from those instances within the Biblical texts. On a verse-by-verse basis, however, the available New Testament documents don’t seem reliable enough to bank-on in a rigorous sense. As a whole, the New Testament seems reliable enough to justify, say, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed. In the video, note how Ehrman and Wallace agree that 2 Corinthians was likely stitched together from more than one letter, unlike 1 Corinthians, making an “original” 2 Corinthians difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, a reasonable person might ask, “Why is a collection of two or more letters representing itself to us as a single book?” Such a misrepresentation might be insignificant, but we’re talking about The Word of God doing the misrepresenting here. (Furthermore, in Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, which I’m reading when I have time, Ehrman claims that liberal and conservative scholars agree that about half of the books attributed to Paul were not actually written by Paul.)

3. Consider, too, how some “conservative” pastors and ministers and public speakers address Christianity. Typically, their approach to the Bible is somewhat literary, meaning they seek evidence of certain themes among the Scriptural texts. Also, typically, their approach to the Bible is somewhat historical-grammatical, meaning that each Biblical narrative (with the usual exception of the parables of Jesus) is considered perfectly historical, and that the true meaning of the text can be found through grammatical scrutiny. Furthermore, typically, their approach to Christian apologetics is somewhat abstract, relying on mental reasoning rather than evidence. What Wallace and Ehrman are dealing with is totally different. Text criticism and historical research are more concrete endeavors than literary analysis and abstract arguments. That’s not to say that literary analysis and abstract arguments are of a lesser order — I actually enjoy both and depend upon them to make a living — but instead it’s just to say that those modes are limited compared to the more concrete matters of dating manuscripts and examining changes in various texts throughout history.

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscrip...

46 is the earliest (nearly) complete manuscript of the Epistles written by Paul in the new testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A rebuttal to Hank Hanegraaff’s claims about brainwashing in China in his defense of Teen Mania

In my previous examination of Hank Hanegraaff’s defense of Teen Mania, I noted that Hanegraaff writes the following:

Equally significant is the fact that cult mind control as a sociological model has been utterly discredited.

If brainwashing techniques did not work in the 20th century reeducation camps of communist China, it is sophistry to suppose it to be effectively employed in the ESOAL (Emotionally Stretching Opportunity of A Lifetime) weekend retreat of TMM’s Honor Academy.

How interesting it was, then, to find the following book through my university’s library: Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control by Kathleen Taylor, published in August 2006 by Oxford University Press.

I want to quote a significant passage that rebuts Hanegraaff, but first, let’s unpack the significance of the book itself.

1. It was published recently. This is not Robert Jay Lifton’s work from decades ago. I don’t mean to suggest Lifton’s work is irrelevant, only that time has not left the topic of brainwashing behind.

2. It was published by a reputable press. Oxford University Press is about as reputable as publishers can get.

3. It was written by Kathleen Taylor, who, according to the book, is “a research scientist in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics at the University of Oxford.”

4. Better yet, “Brainwashing, her first book, was short-listed for the 2005 MIND Book of the Year Award and long-listed for the 2005 Aventis Science Book Prize.”

Now, the last nail in the coffin holding the remains of Hanegraaff’s irresponsible, shoddy research:

Taylor, referring to the United Nations’ efforts to defend South Korea during the Korean War, writes, “The United States, the major participant in this joint effort, soon noticed that something strange was happening to US troops taken captive by the enemy. Some emerged from prisoner of war camps as, apparently, converted Communists, ready to denounce their country of birth and sing the praises of the Maoist way of life. Of course, the phenomenon of prisoners forced to laud their captors was not a new one. But some of these soldiers continued their bizarre — and passionate — disloyalty even after they were free of the Communists’ grip. Unnerved by their behavior, and concerned about potential effects on morale, the US began to investigate what their CIA operative Edward Hunter had in 1950 publicly christened ‘brainwashing’. Hunter himself expresses his negative reactions very clearly in describing a victim of the strange new phenomenon.”

Taylor continues with an excerpt from Hunter’s book, also entitled Brainwashing. In that excerpt, Hunter describes the experience of interviewing someone who came out of a Maoist prisoner of war camp. After noting the “unnatural” way the former POW replied to the questions (distinguishing the replies from shell-shock or PTSD), Hunter notes, “This was Party discipline extended to the mind; a trance element was in it. It gave me a creepy feeling.”

Hanegraaff, if he has any intellectual honesty, must publicly recant the falsehoods in his defense of Teen Mania.