Religion Today

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Technology and Christianity

What technological innovation has had the greatest impact? How about an advance in transportation, such as the automobile, the railroad, the airplane? Or, would you point to a communication device, such as the radio, television, or telephone? How about an improvement in modern medicine? There are too many possibilities to choose.

So let’s narrow the question. What technological innovation has had the greatest impact on Christianity? Perhaps the invention that changed Christianity most is one invented in the fifteenth century, namely, the printing press. Printing not only made books affordable for many people, especially the Bible, but it helped spread reading throughout the populace by giving them something to read.

Picture the situation in Medieval Europe, before Gutenberg invented the printing press. Books were copied by hand. Making just one copy of Genesis took a monk two months at the pace of a chapter a day. Few copies of books existed, therefore. They were valuable and kept in churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. To gain access, a person usually had to pass through many gates and doors to the library, often deep within the complex. Books were read there, in the religious setting, and could not be taken away for study. Such limitations did not really matter; most people who could read were priests or monks. Only a few, usually rich, lay people could read.

The printing press changed all that. Copies of books could be printed in the hundreds or thousands. This made them more affordable. Churches saw opportunity in the increased availability of books, especially the Bible and other religious works. They expanded education outside the bounds of the monasteries into schools more accessible to the general public. In England, the oldest schools accessible to its citizens are those sponsored by the Anglican Church. In France, the Catholic Church was running schools even in rural areas during the seventeenth century—a time when anti-church, enlightenment thinkers pooh-poohed the notion of general literacy.

The alliance of religion, literacy, and printing led to increased religious knowledge and understanding among church-goers. Early Protestant churches saw this as a boon. To make Scripture even more accessible, they translated it out of Latin into vernacular languages. Martin Luther composed a German translation in the 1500s, while John Wycliffe had produced an English translation in the 1300s, even before the advent of print!

Martin Luther’s dictum “Scripture alone” emphasized the notion that the Bible was the sole source of truth. The desire of Protestants to know this truth firsthand encouraged increasing numbers to read. In colonial and post-colonial America, even communities on the frontier formed “Sunday” schools to teach children how to read so that they could read the Bible.

So, the printing press gave the general populace physical access to the Bible, improvements in literacy gave people access to its contents. But what did the Bible mean? What meaning did Jacob’s and Solomon’s many wives hold for French citizens? How did David’s divinely established monarchy relate to the increasing power of the English Parliament? What did Jesus’ command, “Give unto Caesar, that which is Caesar’s” say about the government’s taxation policies? If everyone could now read the Bible, could not everyone interpret it as they saw fit?

Potentially yes, but in reality most readers were guided by their teachers. In medieval Catholicism, the Church was a powerful guide. Even after the dawn of printing, the Catholic church taught reading within the context of its own theology. Although early Protestant churches opposed that theology, they created appealing theologies to put in its place. Indeed, it was often persuasive theological preaching drawn from the biblical text itself that attracted followers to Protestantism and led to their desire to read the Bible for themselves. Preachers attracted followers, and those who attracted enough created new churches: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Methodists, to name just a few.

The theologies of churches such as these continue to guide the interpretation of most people reading the Bible even today. Yet the protestant impulse to interpret for oneself remains strong. Individual Christians often debate biblical meaning among themselves and with their priests, pastors, and religious leaders. Some people are so sure they have a new, correct interpretation that they form new churches. The United States has over 300 official denominations and thousands of independent churches. All of this derives from the printing press, which made the Bible accessible to all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Which is worse: no eschaton or the wrong one?

What do you think? As humanity moves forward through time, are things getting better or getting worse? Think back over your own lifetime and those of your parents and grandparents, and take everything into account: ethics, disease and health care, education, jobs and wealth, technology, suffering, oppression, war and the general burdens and joys of life. Do you think conditions are generally improving, despite occasional downturns, or do you think that they are deteriorating, even though there are the occasional bright spots?

Most evangelical American Christians during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which means most American Christians, thought that matters were gradually improving. God was helping Americans bring the gospel to people from the east coast to the western frontier, as well as to the deepest dark of Africa and the exotic reaches of Asia. These efforts were assisted by advances in education, health care and technology; indeed, Christians saw the invention of the steamship and the railroad as tools for helping spread the gospel faster. Soon, they believed, “all the world” would know the joy of Christianity.

When the William Miller and his followers took the opposite approach in the 1840s, they predicted that matters were deteriorating. They believed things were getting so bad that the eschaton, the literal end of the world, was almost upon them and that Jesus would “take them home” to heaven on October 22, 1844 before it arrived. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands sold their worldly possessions and gathered on tops of mountains and hills to be raised up. Well, it did not happen. Miller was discredited, most of his followers returned their towns to try to pick up their previous lives and beliefs, although some became the foundation of the Adventist church.

Religions other than Christianity have also considered the direction of the world’s progress. Jews for centuries had no doubt that life was bad and that they were oppressed. This was particularly true in medieval Europe where Jews had no rights, were often herded into ghettos or other restricted living areas, forbidden to own land, and subjected to frequent attacks by their Christian neighbors. These attacks were known as pogroms; they were most common in the Easter season, but could happen at any time, with the result of injury, rape, destruction of homes and businesses, even death of numerous Jews. True, matters improved significantly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with Jews becoming citizens and gaining many rights, but this was destroyed by the Holocaust during World War II.

Like the Millerites, Jews expected God to relieve their suffering, and as the centuries rolled by, they came to believe this would happen at the eschaton, the end of the world when God would right all its wrongs. Jews lacked the fervor and excitement of the Millerites, but every year at Passover they would pray “next year in Jerusalem.” This short phrase encapsulated the larger belief that God would take them, the Chosen People, out of exile and return them to the Promised Land of Israel. This would restore the promise God made to Abraham and to Moses about the proper place of Jews in His world.

As the nineteenth century passed into the twentieth, a split developed among the Jews. While Orthodox Jews continued to pray “next year in Jerusalem,” Zionist Jews decided to make that prayer a reality. Mostly younger and secular, these Jews thought they knew better than their elders. In the early decades of the last century, tens of thousands flocked to Palestine to establish a Jewish homeland. Following WWII, these Jews created a Jewish nation called Israel, which they established following extensive fighting against Arab armies. Holocaust survivors and Jews from around the world migrated there to join in the new state. More and more Jews could actually celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.

For many Orthodox Jews, especially the Ultra-Orthodox, this success was seen as failure. The Zionists were mostly secular Jews, having rebelled against their Orthodox parents or grandparents. The Zionist movement was secular and led by human beings rather than God. The “ingathering” was accomplished without a messiah, without prayers. It created a secular, in many ways socialist, society, not a religious community guided by a divine blueprint. Jewish life improved, oppression was overcome, but without God’s hand being visible.

Sixty years later, many of the Ultra-Orthodox still consider the state of Israel to be illegitimate. It is a continuing reminder not of the failure of divine deliverance from a deteriorating world, but of a deliverance that was not divine.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Bible Battles: King James vs. the Puritans

King James VI of Scotland was raised as a Presbyterian. Even though his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a Catholic, he was baptized by a Calvinist figure no less prominent than John Knox, sent by John Calvin to Scotland. You would think that when James ascended to the English throne in 1603 that he would have been sympathetic to the English Puritans, for their beliefs also derived from Calvin and his teachings. Instead, within a year of becoming King James I of England, he initiated a project which would attack the Puritans. This project was a new Bible translation; he called it the Authorized Version, but in America it became known as the King James Version.

Why would a Bible translation have this effect? The answer lies in the character of the national English Church, the Anglicans, which derived from two important events in the 1530s.

First, John Calvin began preaching in Geneva. His increasingly popular ideas argued that all aspects of the Catholic Church had misled Christianity. From its theology and Bible to its hierarchy, ritual and pageantry, the Church needed to be reformed. He left the Catholic Church to form a new one following his teachings.

Second, King Henry VIII of England also broke with the Catholic Church in the 1530s. He was not interested in reform or even in theology; he just wanted a divorce. Since the Pope would not give him one, Henry declared that the English church would become independent, with himself as the Church’s head.

It was not until Queen Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter who ruled from 1558 to 1603, that the Anglican Church underwent reform. Elizabeth set a tone of compromise early in her reign. The English would adopt some of Calvin’s theological positions, but they would keep the hierarchy and much of the ritual. The end result was a church with both Protestant and Catholic characteristics.

While many liked this compromise, there was a growing number who did not. These people became known as the Puritans. They did not like the compromise but wished instead to follow Calvin’s lead in banishing all Catholic elements from the church. They wished to “purify” Anglicanism.

The Puritans had their own Bible translation, the Geneva Bible. Not only was it small, and therefore inexpensive, but it also had extensive notes that explained biblical passages using Puritan theology. Since this Bible was the only book many people owned or read, it was effective in winning people over to Puritan theological beliefs and keeping them there.

Although most of the notes were innocuous or “merely” radical Calvinist theology, other notes argued against current political and religious structures. In particular, Calvinism believed in neither the divine right of kings to rule, a belief strongly promoted by James, nor that the church should be governed by bishops, but rather by presbyters elected by congregations. The former angered the king, while the latter incensed the Anglican hierarchy.

To combat this subversive Bible, James and the bishops decided to create a new Bible translation. James authorized the new translation with a decree that included several guidelines for the translators. The most significant of these was the command to have no notes in the text (apart from short remarks about translation from Hebrew or Greek). This stricture prevented remarks linking the biblical text to unwanted theological perspectives and political positions.

After the King James Version was published in 1611, the Geneva Bible was banned in England. Indeed, James made ownership of it a felony. The King James Bible became the pulpit Bible for Anglicans and inexpensive copies were published for sale to the masses. At first, it was not very popular; several of its early publishers went broke from poor sales.

The King James Version began to gain popularity only when different publishers began to add explanatory notes to the text, in direct opposition to James’ expressed wishes. Indeed, the KJV became the most popular Bible version in twentieth-century America when a set of notes written by Cyrus I. Scofield was added in 1909 and then revised into the Scofield Reference Bible in 1917. These notes promote the theology of dispensationalism, based in part on Calvinist theology that James rejected, and have helped promote that theology’s popularity, just as the Geneva Bible promoted Puritan theology.