Monday, March 3, 2014

Contextualizing the Message

This is a very round about book review of James C. Russell's The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. (Oxford University Press, 1996. 272 pages. Find it used for more like $23 instead of the list price of $60).

I'm not the first to surmise that Protestantism took hold in Northern Europe in part for social, cultural, and political reasons and that post-Reformation Roman Catholicism is very Mediterranean in outlook. It's the Ice People versus the Sun People. Pickled herring and dark winters versus olives, red wine, and the sunshine that grows them.

For example, consider the issue of whether or not we ought to pray to saints and angels.

The Protestant, thinking of heaven like a Prussian barracks, finds this absurd, nonsensical. God is the Commander in Chief of the Heavenly Host and the Church Triumphant. He tells one "Go" and he goes. Why on earth would I ask St. Michael to guard me in my travels when I can ask God to give His angels charge of me? If I were the administrator of a hospital and wanted a few soldiers to stop by for the Toys for Tots program next Christmas, I would never stop one of these soldiers on the street and ask him to come by. Indeed, I would expect him to tell me I was nuts were I to try: "That's above my pay grade, Sir. Talk to my commanding officer." As that most Protestant of Protestants, Jack Chick, said: praying to Mary makes Mary cry.

But for the Roman Catholic heaven is not a Prussian barracks but an extended Italian family or a Spanish political party. You don't have to go to the head of the family for every little thing.  Indeed, if you did, it would be less than ideal since the point of a family is to have relationships with everyone in the family. Each member of the family has a unique role to play, an area of responsibility given by the paterfamilias, who neither needs nor wants to micromanage. If you wanted Aunt Aurelia to watch the kids (or if you wish to consider that kind of Italian family: Cousin Vinny to break somebody's legs) and you asked the paterfamilias to order Aurelia (or Vinny) to do so, he would say something like, "Well, I can ask her. But why don't you ask her yourself? You should get to know her: she's your aunt after all."

So to this day, though most nobody in Europe believes much of anything anymore, the Northern lands maintain their (secularized) Protestant state churches and the Mediterranean peoples remain (superstitiously) Roman Catholic.

We can all share these little insights about national character, and have a good chuckle about them as well - you've heard the one about the difference between heaven and hell, right? (In heaven the British run the police and the Germans run the trains and the French run the cooking....but in hell the British cook, the Germans are cops, and the French are in charge of the railway tables). But in regard to religion is there any substance here, or is this just ex post facto rationalization and material for laughing at ourselves and others? In a work of great scholarly care and deep insight James C. Russell argues that Medieval Christianity really was changed from the inside out by the Germanic conversion. Indeed, he argues that the mass conversion of a nation to Christianity, as happened in Medieval Europe, simply could not have been a one way street. Not only were the Germans Christianized, but Christianity was Germanized.

Besides every historian's desire to provide an explanation for the world as we find it, Russell is also explicitly concerned with informing the work of contemporary missionaries. His story is a warning for the modern day advocates of "contextualizing" the articulation of the Faith in and for a given society, nation, people group, tribe, neighborhood, etc. There's nothing new under the sun - and the missionaries of the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries found out that contextualizing the articulation of the Faith inevitably led to a change in the Faith. The Spanish missionaries who oversaw history's last mass conversions of whole people groups in His Catholic Eminence's possessions in the New World encountered the same facts.

The student of the liturgy will also find fresh grist for his mill as Russell argues that the Roman Canon is not Roman at all, but Germanic in origin, not only in its texts but in its outlook. I'll let you puzzle out what that means for my claim above that the Reformation was a Germanic thing. After reading Russell's book my own suspicion is that it's as mixed up as the Holy Roman Empire, which was infamously neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire: so also Luther's Germanic Reformation was the work of a Biblical worldview having its way in the brains of obedient Germans who were finally really Christianized after a few centuries, at last revolting against old Germanic ideas that had been transferred to Rome.

Or something. Like I said: much grist for the mill.



  1. It will take a lot of convincing for me to believe, or even comprehend, this:

    "as Russell argues that the Roman Canon is not Roman at all, but Germanic in origin, not only in its texts but in its outlook."

    But, then, I'll look forward to your further thoughts after you've read Willis's "A History of Early Roman Liturgy."

  2. "[Russell] argues that the mass conversion of a nation to Christianity, as happened in Medieval Europe, simply could not have been a one way street. Not only were the Germans Christianized, but Christianity was Germanized." -- Fr. Heath Curtis, in the familiar role of Book Expounder

    "It will take a lot of convincing for me to believe..." Dr. WilliamTighe, in the unfamiliar role of Doubting Didymus

    Well, the general thesis merits at least an airing in our circles. If not a Canon, then the polity of American Lutheranism was likely influenced by the Paine-ful notions of the inviolate Rights of Man, and the sacredness of the town hall exchanges. After all, it's a New World ... not exactly the New Testament one of bishop, presbyter and deacon.

    And then there's those liturgical mishaps of the WELS' Christian Worship ... which, for example, blithely goes about confusing that rich and mystical "Invocation" with a warm and cheery "Greeting" (in its "Word and Sacrament" service option, p. 27); amputates the Lord's Prayer from the Eucharist celebration(something also effected in its "Common (!) Service"), and drops the historic "Gloria" with its emphasis on Christ taking away the sins of the world, to prefer a more parochial (and ambiguous) removal of "our" sin. So is the intended antecedent of "our" the singing congregation's, or rather all of humankind? At this point, should we poll the nave's priesthood of all believers? One feels like slapping one's forehead and perplexedly intoning "O Lord, our Lord" ... which come to think about it, is the very title of the piece (p.28).

    This lamentable state of affairs certainly reflects less the impact of an 8th century Teutonic penchant for oakish-adorations, or the enthusiastic heart-rendings of the ancient Aztecs, than a not-so-subtle accommodation to the prevailing and overwhelmingly protestant chirpings amidst the contemporary us. "Invocation" is so curmudgeonly catholic, cowled St. Jerome. "Greeting" is so cuddly reformed, cardiganed Mr. Rogers. In a Sesame Street and social-media crazed world/neighborhood, which is going to be thought of as being more appealing and giving the customers precisely what they want, setting aside theology, Baptism, the Presence and all that hoary stuff?

    So two-way street, indeed. The mother that furnishes the milk can certainly influence the child, but any object-relations therapist will tell you that the child can make the mother dance to her squalling tune, in turn. Furthermore, in contextualizing the message delivered to the unhappy infant, we assert that the unsure, stressed-out, overwhelmed and distracted mom will deliver some pretty sour nourishment.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor


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