Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Root of it All: How Christianity was "Touched" by Rome

The history of the Catholic Church is a weird and wild one. It's not something to be proud of when you look at it as a whole. From Constantine to the modern child-sex scandals, there are a lot of things to be ashamed of. But when you pick it apart, you can find the good strewn about with monks and saints and good people who did good things in the name of Christ. But that over-arching corruption and violence is probably why most churches today don't really bother teaching its congregations how things got started. Oh, sure we know about Jesus gathering up some fishermen, Paul and his miraculous turnaround (and later uptight letters), and Augustine and his prayer journals where he sweat over his insatiable sex-drive. But as I was reading the last couple of days, I was struck by an idea that Piers Paul Read brought up in his book The Templars. The idea of Roman Catholicism is taken for granted, but what we history students have to realize is that though this is the oldest form of organized Christianity, there existed Christ's message before it was integrated into Roman culture. What did that look like? How Roman did those early Christians make the religion?

When Christianity was born, it was within the Roman Empire. As it grew and blossomed, it took the shape of the well organized and disciplined bureaucracy upon which the Roman world was built. Jesus didn't say anything about bishops or popes or monasteries. But as the religion bumped into the culture, the Catholic Church began to take shape. And then came the fall. It wasn't sudden of course, but a gradual process of immigrants settling on the borders and barbarians looting the cities. Eventually the political government of Rome fell apart (if only to be transplanted in Constantinople), and it left a vacuum. Part of the lure for the barbaric tribes was the structure and organization of the empire. If someone didn't step up, chaos would reign and everyone would be in for it!

And just like that, there was the changing of the guard. Emperors like Constantine had offered gifts of land to the Church, making it extremely wealthy. So when the government dissipated, the clergy stepped in its place. Bishops took the place of senators. It was a nearly flawless exchange. The people needed order and the church had it ready. And suddenly the terms Roman and Christian were interchangeable. Thus rose the Roman Catholic Church, not as the religion but as the powerful, governing body. It is my belief that the motives were pure. People were in need. The Church was able to meet those needs. Once it discovered the power it held, thereafter came the corruption and disasters that we identify with that Medieval Christianity.

And before we close, we hear at History Books want to give a big ol' thank you to Benedict of Nursia.
Thanks, Benny!

It was Benedict who, in his Rule for monastic life, decided each monastery would be equipped with pen and parchment, and that it was their duty to not only copy the Bible but all the old Classics. The father of western monk-life gave us all the gift of ancient literature. Just think of all we could have potentially lost if Benedict didn't think conserving literature wasn't important.

Here's hoping we find our way out of the church and into the battle field soon!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Biggest Beefsteak Of My Life: Where's the Context, Dude?

First of all, History Fans, let me apologize for the overly religious posts. But as many of you know, when you start digging far enough, you can't meet history without the taint of religion. For better or for worse, and I'm leaning towards the worse, the skills we take for granted like reading and writing were at one time almost solely channeled through the Christian Church. And church is where we must start.

When I was a child, one of my biggest gripes was waking up and going to church on Sunday morning. Church wasn't so bad, but waking up on a weekend was, to me, an atrocity. As I grew older and became more aware of the teachings of the church, my list of gripes grew much longer. But one thing has bothered me from both a student of history and a student of literature: the lack of historical context in the Bible.

Now, I know this is a slippery slope. I'm guessing the narrators and writers of all those books took for granted that we would be familiar with the Philistines and the land of Canaan. From the other side, imagine how many less people would go to church if the pastor had maps and genealogical time lines on his power point instead of bettering life lessons. Some publishing companies have tried to patch up the problem by providing a study bible that has maps and little tidbits of historical information, like what types of food the Israelites would eat.

As I was reading today, something came to light that I've probably always known but had never really grasped. There was, in fact, a world full of people outside of the accounts we have in the Old Testament. Growing up in the church, there didn't seem to be any need to know where in the history of the world these stories fell. But as an adolescent and now an adult, it becomes appallingly clear that no context of any sort was ever taught or provided by the institution of the church. My Christian university DID provide me with an Old Testament class my freshman year. But I was a freshman and it was at 8:00 in the morning so I mostly slept. Give me a break!

Anyway, my goal is not to throw a fit and wail about how poorly the Church is run (I've already been up and down that road). I just wanted to impress upon these readers how strange it is to read from an objective and scholarly point of view the things that were occurring in the bible within the scope of the wider world. In this case, I have been reading a little bit on the Templars. Now before you discard me as a Dan Brown conspiracy-theory-loving fool, at least take in the first few chapters that set up the history of the Templars before you write off it all of as embellished history.

The first thing that stood out was an outsider's perspective on why initially people had a problem with Jews. It wasn't an ethnic thing at all. It was a an exclusive group of people who saw themselves as not only set apart and superior but they were God's chosen people! No wonder people got frustrated with them! Now that's not an excuse for the tragedies that have befallen them over the thousands of years they've been persecuted, not to mention that whopper that popped up in the 20th century. But I think it's a fair assessment of why people took offense to the Jews. They set themselves apart and that drove people crazy.

But it wasn't just their exclusive religion that seemed like an invitation for hatred. They sat and continue to sit in a geographical hotbed of controversy. God promised Abraham some land, so they wandered on up and took some land. After some famines, they went to Egypt where they were subsequently enslaved. Moses got them out of that mess and took them back to the promised land. . .where people were living. So they conquered their one-time homeland and brought back their nation. Again, that's history. I don't feel any more sympathy towards the original Britons who got run over by the Anglos and Saxons than I do towards the Canaanites or whoever was living in Palestine at the time. It's their bizarre inner squabbles that lead right up to the time of Christ that are unbearable. During that time they were conquered by many different nations and every time they fought back and got their land back. Until the dreaded Roman Empire.

The Jewish relationship with the Roman Empire was extremely interesting and just as fragile. After a couple of rebellions and probably a whole lot of whining, Jews were giving some type of autonomy. While they were still under Roman rule, they could still operate relatively freely within the confines of their own boundaries and religion. But there were many who were dissatisfied with this relationship. Understandable. The story with every empire is unhappy countries and states who want their freedom. But I'm not sure there has been a ruling entity in history who tried to accommodate as much as the Roman Empire tried with the Jewish nation.

The emperor sent a handful of people over to Judea to try and watch over these unruly people. And let me clarify that by no means am I slamming the Jewish people or calling them names. But there were many factions within the Jewish faith that either could not get along or refused point blank to be ruled by a pagan leader. We might call them feisty and congratulate them for standing up for themselves. But the reality is that they knew they were God's chosen people and they'd rather fight and die than be ruled by pagans. This disposition would have disastrous consequences in the years to come. But for the meantime, the empire sent the wonderfully entertaining King Herod.

Herod, who was of Jewish faith but not nationality, was first governor of Galilee and later King of Judea (under the Roman thumb). At first, he was the most successful at hushing up the cranky Pharisees and other angry Jewish factions. He rebuilt Solomon's temple, which was one of the most incredible architectural achievements at the time. But Herod grew paranoid. And with good reason. His father and brother were both killed. He began suspecting everyone of conspiracies, from the Caesar down to his own sons. He killed his wife and a son in a bizarre maniac plot, and from there went down a violent road that led to his being remembered not as the peaceful architect but as complete maniac, which is what the Bible suggests.

After Herod's death, his heirs found that they did not have quite the strength or shrewdness that Herod possessed and therefore could not quell the rebellion that had been boiling underneath his reign. The Jews refused to pledge allegiance to the pagan Roman Empire and took to arms, taking a few strongholds that Herod himself had built. Emperor Nero had had enough. Without a middle man like Herod to soften the imperial blows, the Jews were left exposed. They fought fiercely when Titus showed up to take back Jerusalem and the surrounding cities that had rebelled. Every stronghold was taken except the magnificent temple. It held so well that eventually Titus set the temple on fire and burned every man, woman, and child who was left inside.

The burning of the temple happened decades before the rise of Jesus, and I'm just now learning about this. Maybe it was in the Bible and I just missed it. Or maybe I cheated in my Read-The-Bible-In-One-Year challenge and totally skipped whatever book talked about this particular atrocity. Why does this crime against the Jews interest me so much? Because I feel like it really sets the stage for the story of Jesus. The relationship between Rome and Israel was strained at best. After the burning of the temple, both sides resented the other even more, though the Jews probably had more of a reason to be angry. When you take into account what the Jewish nation went through, especially during that last rebellion, the promise of a king and deliverer could not be more enticing. The Romans had really done it this time. And as soon as their king and savior was born, they would throw off the the shackles of Roman oppression and finally live at peace. Rome, on the other hand, was fed up with all this squabbling down in Israel. From then on, they were going to treat these religious outbursts with indifference or with extreme brutality. Both reactions were important to the foundation of Jesus of Nazareth's new religion, but it was the latter that allowed Christianity to take hold.

When Jesus finally poked his head out in public and announced that he was the promised Messiah, you can imagine how disappointed the Jews were. "Really?" they must have thought. "We wanted a strong warrior who would fight our way out of the Empire and all we got was this pacifist lunatic." Or something close to that. Of course this wasn't the Messiah we were all looking for. Therefore he is a heretic and should be put to death. When brought up to Pontius Pilate, a governor for Rome, he famously said, "I wash my hands of this." I've heard a lot of condemnation of Pilate for his non-action. But I believe that those events that ended in the burning of the temple was the final straw for the Jews as well as for Rome. I really think their reaction, no matter how honorable the governor could have been, would be the same: figure it out for yourself.

 We all know the rest of the story. Jesus was crucified, came back to life, a new religion was born. But I thought the author's description of how Christianity was initially received was eerily perfect. Just as the outside word was annoyed with the Jewish faith for setting themselves apart, they were even more frustrated with the Christian faith. At least with the Jews, they only caused problems in their homeland. After Paul of Tarsus decided that anyone could be a Christian, people all over the map were causing problems and ready to be martyred for their beliefs. I just think it's very interesting that Christianity would start as a thorn in people's side, the same was Judaism began. And I think this is the beginning of Christians refusing to look into history and learn one god-damn thing.


Boy, I whiffed on this one! The temple did not burn until 70 AD, decades AFTER Jesus Christ was crucified, which pretty much botches my theory above. However! I think you can make the same case with the two incidents swapped. Jesus arrives on scene, starts show-boating around, walking on water, throwing fits in the temple, and just being an all around menace. The Jews cause yet another uproar, appealing to Rome to condemn him. And Pilate washes his hands and says "Figure it out, you whiny diaper babies!" And so Jesus is crucified. And after all the squabbles over the years, and after The King of the Jews is put down, the Jewish zealots really cross the line and take the strong-holds. This time it is a military move. This time, it is personal. Rome throws the hammer down, burns down the temple, and decides that from now on, we're going to keep a closer eye on these religious nuts. And as Christianity rises, the empire tries to smother it because they are really sick of the Jewish people bothering them, and this new passion seems even worse.
Maybe? I'm probably just trying to save face after I got my events in the wrong order.
Shame on me, History Fans. I'm going to bury my nose in a book and try to learn a couple god-damn things!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Convenience of Going Christian (Unless You're a Woman)

Let's talk about religion! Let's talk about the benefits of Christianity!

Of course no one really wants to talk about those things, but in the Medieval world, Christianity was not only a new and thrilling concept, it was rapidly changing Europe from the chaotic and bloody world of barbarians and pirates to the organized and bloody world of knights and lords.

Now, in the Viking world, folks worshiped Thor and Odin, Frey and Freya, but almost in a situational and opportunistic way, not unlike the Vikings themselves. When a battle was to be fought, a sacrifice was given to Thor. Each spring in Sweden a barbaric human and animal sacrifice took place that soaked the earth in blood as a gift to Freya, goddess of fertility. But it wasn't suffocating the way that Christianity was presented. So many rules. Plus, you have to give up having a good time! Thieving, murdering, and drinking was the Viking way of life. But as Christianity persisted and these things ebbed away, one can understand, at least partially, why the Viking Age came to an end.

When you think of medieval Christianity, you think of the powerful institutions. It was the monasteries and the cathedrals that were centers of learning. Christianity was progressive, providing the opportunity to read and write (kinda the opposite of today, AMIRIGHT!?!). But books held little sway over the jarls and kings of Scandinavia. And they had runes enough to get by. What did Christ possess that Thor and Odin could not provide? The Vikings found their answers in the beautiful and wondrous world of Byzantium.

Lying just out of reach of the Roman Empire, Scandinavia never got to experience the organization, the power, the wealth that a government of that magnitude could provide. They saw a small glimmer in the wealthy monasteries that dotted the British coastline. They caught wind of it in Charlemagne's empire until his descendants took a big ol' Frankish shit on it and practically threw away its riches. But it was nothing compared to glory of Constantinople. And from countless raids and stints in the Varangian Guard, the Vikings learned that his Christ could provide two things that Scandinavians sought: wealth and stability.

Of course, there were many who liked the old gods and were forced to convert at sword-point. Harald Bluetooth was one such divine victim. After losing a battle to the German emperor Otto, Harald was baptized and thereafter pushed the Christian religion on Denmark. People were not too keen on this, but it was his taxes that drove people mad. In order to avenge his loss to Otto, King Harald began taxing the people heavily to create militias. This (as well as a lack of land) is what made Iceland attractive to many people.

Now, Christianity and Iceland go together, as I've mentioned before in other posts. Without its conversion, the Icelanders, who had nothing better to do, would not have written down the wonderful oral histories, sagas, and poems that provide us with the rich Scandinavian background we know today. But the conversion itself was more logic than it was passion or bloodshed. When the chieftains were split, half heathen and half Christian, they brought the problem before the law-speaker. At this time in Iceland's history, there was no government, no king, no governing body. There was the law, and everybody was to hold each other accountable. If a law was broken, the offender was brought before the national assembly where they were judged accordingly. So the law-speaker was the most powerful person in the country. He had the final say on punishments or arguments. He was more of a wise man than a king. So the law-speaker, Thorgeir, who was himself a devout pagan, decided the only way to amend the split of religions was to choose one. His fear was that two religions would require two separate sets of laws, and that was a recipe for unrest. To save Iceland and keep the peace, Thorgeir chose Christianity over his own heathen religion.

He could see that the Christians would not be deterred. And perhaps he was wise enough to see what Christians were capable of if they thought their religion was threatened. So he outlawed the public practices of the old religion. Throgeir's shrewd move kept the pagan religion alive, albeit behind doors. This move became incredibly important for the years to come, when writers like Snorri Sturluson would write down the histories and the mythology of the gods and heroes with reverence. Thorgeir was not the only one who took a calculated look at Christianity. Queen Sigrid of Sweden was not approached with a sword but rather a hand of marriage. And her response was just as thought out and as different as the law-speaker's.

Sigrid was a coveted widow. She ruled in Uppsala, a holy and ancient kingdom settled in the isolated lands of Sweden. Many suitors had called on her, but no one was of yet a match for this Viking Queen. She needed a king, not just any man! And someone who match her fiery passion. Finally a suitable match was proposed by Olaf Tryggvsson. He was the king in Norway, and what a power the combined kingdoms would be! His one stipulation: convert to Christianity. Sigrid was a reasonable woman and had nothing against the religion. She kindly passed and said by all means the religion will be allowed in her lands. But she was staying with the old gods. This sent Olaf into such a fury that he slapped Sigrid, a move that would later cost him his life. But Sigrid was no simple-minded woman. She had a very good reason for sticking with Odin. In the old Scandinavian traditions, women have just about as many rights as men. Her property is her own. In the sagas and poems, women are a bit conniving and deceitful, egging men to kill or steal or avenge. One might say they are painted in a bad light. Another might say that a woman held heavy influence over a man.

Had Sigrid married Olaf and converted to Christianity, she would no longer be queen of anything. She would be a king's husband. A docile and powerless common slave. Not to mention that in the old pagan religion, divorce was not only acceptable but fairly easy to attain. Sigrid was not about to let herself get into a situation she couldn't get out of. Perhaps her reasons were more selfish than Throgeir's, but they were no less thought through. The Norway-Sweden combo would be an enormous advantage (one that Canute achieved if only for a handful of months). But the price was too steep. Girl power!

And finally we come to Vladamir. Ruler of the Rus, Swedish Vikings who sailed east into Russia, Vladamir actually went religion shopping. He sent envoys out of Kiev to speak with Muslims, Jews, Roman Christians and Eastern Orthodox. He, like many of us, was looking for a religion that would allow him to continue on his hedonistic escapades. Old Vladdy loved his drink. But he LOVED his women. He immediately said no to Judaism. He had to have his pork. The Roman Christians were alright with his drinking, but he had to let go of his hundreds of concubines. That much sex was surely sinful. So Vlad showed them out. He really liked Islam, thought. The Muslims told him that heaven was filled with sex. You had your pick from a whole horde of virgins! The only downside is that the Koran said no to drinking and thus Vladamir said no to Islam. Finally he took a look at Eastern Orthodox. Something about the priest he met with convinced him. The priest said he would have to zip it up AND cut out the drink. But Vladamir, the sex hound Viking prince, had found his place in the world. He then converted Kiev and the rest of the Russian kingdoms to the Eastern Orthodox, which they still hold to today.

Could this have been then end of innocence for Christianity? Since the time of Christ's death, the religion had been mostly persecuted. Sure Rome had embraced it, but it had only a couple hundred years to ruin everything Jesus had preached before its fall. Was there some good done in the last half of the millennium in Christ's name? As Europe turned the corner, the religion also turned brutal. The fiefdoms, the Crusades, the corrupt popes. Terrors probably existed with the Christian stamp of approval before the year 1000 AD, but it really seems like the love that was preached was snuffed out at the turn of the century. I hope someone can argue, attest, dispute, agree. As the European rulers sized up this powerful religion that was spreading rapidly, were the fruits that Christianity promoted spoiled forever, or had they been already been corrupted long before the fall of Rome?

Place your faith carefully, History Fans. Until next time!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

History Meets James Freed: Taken With a Grain of Salt

Happy New Year, history fans. I'm not one to make resolutions, but I have been meaning to return here to History Books. So after many journeys to Hogwarts, Westoros, and partially through the Wheel of Time, I am back. Thank you for believing!

Let's go back to 2006. This is around the time, during my reign at Indiana Wesleyan University, that I had the distinct pleasure of meeting James R. Freed. He was unlike anyone I'd ever met before. An identical twin, his brother had the social graces and friendliness that James often lacked. A politician from his handshake to his sweater vests, James would intertwine fact and fiction with the same breath. Talking to him was like a game. I had to try to decipher all the truths from the half-truths. It was something my peers found very annoying but that I found absolutely fascinating.

I found myself thinking of James while reading through The Last Apocalypse, a book by James Reston, Jr., that follows the earth-altering events around the year 1,000 AD that ushered in the dominance of Christianity in Europe. Reston begins, of course, with the Vikings. So why would events that happened over a thousand years ago make me think of James Freed?

To answer this question, I must dive into the controversial introduction to Reston's book where he boldly proclaims that he will use and cite oral history as fact. Why not? Most written histories began as an oral tradition, at least in the ancient and medieval worlds, right? He warns that this particular history book will be deprived of foot notes.

How dare he!

After reading many accounts of the Vikings, especially Adam of Bremen's, I had grown accustomed to, even relied upon, the fine print at the bottom of the page that set records straight and squelched exaggerations. For Adam, bless his heart, was quick to canonize any old priest that walked through Bremen, praising his unmatched deeds and glorifying how many thousands of barbarians he converted. And every hero in the sagas and in poems was a massive man, brave, and unbeatable in battle. I, as many students of history, have come to rely on the authors and editors to lay out in the introduction or whisper in the footnotes, "Don't take this all at face value."

So how do we judge Reston? He is presenting history in its truest form: flawed and skewed. Every written history leans this way or that. To the victors! But for cultures like the Vikings who didn't or couldn't write down any narratives, history is unclear, littered with myth, and altogether a chore to pick through--not unlike talking with James Freed. He's doing what we all do at times: sprucing up the truth. Dressing it up to make it more interesting. There were times during our conversations where I would laugh at the ludicrous things he would say only to discover later that it was partly true. It gave me a new respect for him, for being a good story teller and a speaker. That's what it comes down to: oral history was not just about keeping a legend alive. It was entertaining. So what if Olaf didn't sail to England with 90 ships and 9,000 men! Doesn't it make a better story?

And thus we get caught in that old web of how history is shaped and understood. Reston takes a ballsy approach. But is it the right one? The goal of modern history is to uncover facts, and, even more so, to discover more interesting truths within the facts. I like the way Reston writes. It is simple. It's cohesive and fluent, unlike a lot of academic writing that is choppy and impossible to follow. But I find myself reading a passage with scrutiny, looking down the page for guidance only to find a blank space below the text. Maybe it works. Maybe I am just trapped in our modern view of historiography. But I don't think so. You can only take so many grains of salt before you find yourself with high cholesterol. . .due to your high sodium intake. . .damn it, I thought I had an awesome analogy there.