The so-called Renaissance

Clearly no one living in the Middle Ages thought of their time as being the Middle Ages. Like people today, the people of medieval Europe saw themselves as the latest thing, living on the edge of the future. Probably some of them were convinced that “they’ve gone about as far as they can go” in historic progress and/or in wickedness and corruption. Many Christians living in those centuries were prepared for the End of the World and the New Creation, because the times seemed troubled, just as the Bible describes the Last Days.

Likewise, no one living in the Renaissance called their time the Renaissance. The label was attached centuries later by historians determined to teach that Europe experienced Dark Ages that lasted for centuries before reemerging into the light of civilization. “Renaissance” means “rebirth,” and those later historians interpreted certain events and trends to mark a rebirth of the glory of ancient Greece and Rome, overcoming the darkness brought on by acceptance of the Christian faith, invasion of Germanic and Asian tribes, and other supposedly bad things that happened in Europe between the years 500 and 1500 AD.

Getting historians to agree on a time span for the Renaissance indicates how illusionary the label truly is. The widest possible range would stretch from the beginning of revival after the worst of the Black Death—around 1350 AD—to the end of religious wars triggered by the Reformation—around 1650 AD. This three-hundred-year Renaissance swallows the Late Middle Ages, the time of European Exploration, and the entire Reformation era. But when one starts trimming away the events and trends of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation era, very little history is left to apply to the Renaissance label.

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks might be a fitting end to the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance, since the Byzantine Empire represents continuity from the Roman Republic and Empire. Distinguishing the Renaissance from the Reformation—which traditionally begins in 1517—we are left with a sixty-four-year Renaissance in Italy and the rest of western Europe. Even then, many of the events and trends assigned to the Renaissance belong to the Late Middle Ages. Trying to dial back the Renaissance to 1400 or 1350 clouds the issue. Some historians split the Renaissance into two pieces—one for Italy, which had an earlier and longer Renaissance, and one for the rest of western Europe, which joined late and had a shorter Renaissance culminating in the Reformation.

Historical progress and set-backs, bright ages and dark ages, are largely illusions. Many gains are accompanied by losses. Resistance to change often outshouts new ideas for a while; as a consequence, when historians seek the beginning of new ideas, they find their origins happened earlier than most people realized. The Scientific Revolution, for example, was well-supported by Middle Age philosopher/theologians including William of Ockham, Nicholas of Cusa, and Roger Bacon. Nicolaus
Copernicus lived from 1473 to 1543, but his revolutionary suggestion that the Earth and other planets circle the sun was already suggested as an alternate model of the universe in Ptolemy’s famous work from the second century (and earlier Greek scientist/philosophers had made similar proposals).

Aside from allegedly rediscovering the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome, what made the Renaissance different from earlier times, particularly the High and Late Middle Ages? Renaissance artists strove to imitate the world as they saw it rather than using the visual arts to reinforce religious teachings. As a result, Renaissance artists developed new techniques to make their paintings and statues more photographically accurate. Famous artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (yes, and Raphael and Donatello—they were all Renaissance artists in Italy before they became mutant ninja turtles), are famous for the realism of their artwork. Previous artists could have achieved similar work; they chose not to because the purpose of their art differed from that of the Renaissance artists.

That observation signals a second difference: Renaissance artists and thinkers valued the individual more highly than medieval artists and thinkers. Research must be done to uncover the names of those who built and decorated the medieval cathedrals. Their work was a gift to God, and they celebrated their anonymity. The heroic stature of Leonardo and Michelangelo reflects a philosophy of humanism, one which includes among its values the preeminent significance of the individual.

Renaissance humanism was not like modern secular humanism; sometimes it is called Christian humanism. While humanists asserted that “man is the measure of all things,” they did not deny the existence of God or his importance in creation and in salvation. Many of the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo depict Biblical persons and events. Still, these artists—along with philosophers and writers and historians of the Renaissance—emphasized the humanity of their subjects and the humanity of their audiences. (This trend also can be traced back to medieval thinkers such as Peter Abelard and Dante.)

Politics and economics are said to have changed significantly during the Renaissance, beginning in Italy. The shift from feudalism to capitalism can already be perceived in the guilds of the Middle Ages and in the development of banking, which did not appear out of nowhere in fifteenth-century Italy. Economic shifts happened in Europe because of the population decline due to the Black Death and to population growth after the plague diminished. At the same time, new wealth poured into western Europe from the explorers—first the Portuguese on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then the Spanish entering the New World, then the English and French and others also entering the Americas. These all contributed to the political and economic changes that were reshaping Europe at the very same time that the Reformation of the Church developed.

Which, of course, leads to several more historic posts in the coming days…. J.

Camel versus needle

              Some preachers say that the city of Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle. Other gates were high and wide, but this gate was low and narrow. People could pass through the gate and enter the city if they went single-file and crossed through the gate one at a time. But for a camel, the gate was almost impossible to navigate. To get a camel through the Eye of the Needle, one first had to remove all the packs from the camel’s back. Then the camel had to be forced down to its knees. On its knees, without any baggage, the camel could pass through the Eye of the Needle and enter the city of Jerusalem.

              Now that I have painted this picture in your minds, I have to work to erase it again. Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of the Needle. Even if it had such a gate, no sensible person would have tried to get a camel into the city that way. There were plenty of other gates one could use to enter Jerusalem without forcing a camel to its knees. I can see why a preacher might think that Jesus was pointing to a gate called the Eye of the Needle when telling his disciples how hard it is to get a rich person into the kingdom of heaven. But the preachers who make a metaphor about removing the baggage from a camel and forcing the camel to its knees are preachers who do not understand Jesus and the message he was sharing.

              Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of a Needle. If Jesus had been pointing to such a gate as a metaphor, his conversation with the disciples would have been very different. If the disciples had seen a camel removed of its baggage and forced to its knees, they would not have asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Nor would Jesus have answered their question with the words, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

              Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible. Rescuing a sinner from evil in this world is also impossible. Our possessions, our burdens, our attachments to worldly things all make it hard for us to find our way into the kingdom of heaven. Like camels, we simply cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Any effort of preachers and teachers to change the message of Jesus, to make the impossible merely difficult, misses the point. We cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life. We cannot defeat our enemies—the sins we have committed, the sinful world around us, and the devil who masterminds the evil that exists in God’s creation. All things are possible for God; but I am not God, and you are not God. We cannot do the things God does. Things that are possible for God remain impossible for you and for me.

              We know that good deeds cannot earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven. From childhood we have been told that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Some people who were wealthy might give away all their possessions. Others might use those possessions to do great things for the poor in this world and for the work of the Church. Some people commit their lives to work in the Church; other people have different callings, but they give their spare time to serve the Church. Some sinners have turned away from their sinful ways and are trying their best to imitate Jesus. We salute their good works and rejoice in the good things they are accomplishing. But we remind them—and ourselves—that those good works are not good enough to earn God’s love and approval. Like the rest of us, they are forgiven by God and granted eternal life as a gift. Heaven is not a reward for their goodness; heaven is a benefit they receive because of the good things Jesus did for them.

              While we know that we cannot earn a place in heaven, many Christians still confuse their good works with the gift of forgiveness. After all, they want to be certain of their salvation. How do you know that you have enough faith to be saved? How can you be sure that the promises of God are true for you? Some preachers fall into the trap of saying that, when you come to faith, your life is changed. You turn away from sin; you become better at imitating Jesus. They tell Christians to look at the good things they are doing and to be confident of their salvation because they have been changed, because they are acting like Christians and no longer acting like sinners.

              Jesus never said that. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles never said that. They said that our good deeds would be signs to other people, but they did not tell us to measure our good deeds. We teach other people about Jesus by trying to imitate Jesus, but we cannot prove to ourselves that we are Christians. The more we measure ourselves, the more we realize that we still fall short of the kingdom of heaven. We still sin every day and need a Savior every day. Our lives as Christians are a paradox: at the same time, we are saints and sinners. We belong to God, and we know that he has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. But none of us has arrived yet at perfection. No matter how hard we try, we still are not pure and righteous. Measuring our good deeds honestly shows us that we still are not good enough for God and for the kingdom of heaven. Left to our good deeds as proof of our salvation, we must despair. We still fall short of saintly lives. We are still stained by the sin and evil of this wicked world.

              We can be saved from our sins and from the evil in this world only by God’s gift of grace. This gift enters our lives through faith. Many Christians are confused about faith. They treat faith as a work, as something we do for God. They measure faith the way they measure works: do I have enough faith? Is my faith strong enough to save me? When we think of faith as something we do for God, then we are certain to conclude that we do not have enough faith, or that our faith is not strong enough to save us. We know that we must believe. But when we treat that requirement as a burden placed upon us, we are forgetting God’s grace. God’s grace rescues us from sin and evil; God’s grace also gives us the faith we need to be saved. We come to Jesus, not by our own reason and strength, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us, purifies us, and keeps us in the true Christian faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and even the faith that saves us is God’s work in our lives, not our work for God.

              “But we have to repent,” someone might say. “We have to say we are sorry, or God won’t forgive us.” Even when we understand that grace and faith come from God, we still think of repentance as our responsibility, something we do for God. After all, the sinner who refuses to repent is a sinner who cannot be forgiven. The sinner who loves sin more than he or she loves the Savior cannot be brought into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we are back to the camel that must get rid of its baggage and drop to its knees before it can enter the gate. We are creating that false picture of a camel at the imaginary gate to Jerusalem whenever we say that something must be done on our end before the gift of salvation and eternal life can belong to us.

              If we had to do anything to enter the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom would be a reward and not a gift. We must repent and believe the Gospel. But repenting, as well as believing, is work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. God’s Word changes us; it gives us the ability to do what was impossible for us before God spoke. Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand and walk, to carry his stretcher home. That man stood and walked and carried his stretcher. The Word of Jesus made him able to do what he could not do earlier. Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus could not have left the grave without that Word of Jesus. Lazarus was dead, and dead people do not move. But when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus was no longer dead. He was alive, able to obey the command of his Lord. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to repent and to believe, we can repent, and we can believe. His Word changes us, making us capable of doing what once was impossible for us because we were sinners trapped in a sinful world.

              With God all things are possible. When Jesus acts, we are no longer sinners trapped in a sinful world. Jesus enters this world as one of us to do the things we have not done. He obeys the commandments of God and earns his rewards; then he passes those rewards on to us as a gift. In exchange, he takes on himself the burden of our sins. He pays our full debt on the cross. He battles our enemies and defeats them, and he shares with us his victory. The only-begotten Son of God pays to adopt us into his family so that we also are children of God. His kingdom is our home, not because of anything we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

              With God all things are possible. Jesus dies and is buried, but he returns to life and leaves the grave. He also promises us a resurrection like his. Even if we die, we will not remain dead forever. Jesus will appear in glory and will call us out of our graves as he called Lazarus from his grave. We too will answer his call and will rise, healed and able to live forever in the kingdom of God. Because we belong to his kingdom, we possess eternal life. We will be with Jesus and with all his saints forever in a world without sin or evil or death.

              That guarantee belongs to us today, even though we remain sinners living in a sinful world. We are not trapped; we are already free because of what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us faith; he also gathers us into the Holy Christian Church. His gifts are found in the Church, because his gifts create the Church. We gather in the name of Jesus—we gather around that Word that causes us to repent and believe, to be his people and to have life in his name. The work that Jesus did for us, dying for us and rising again for us, is transferred into our lives through Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ and are buried with Christ; in Baptism, we rise with Christ. We leave behind our old sinful lives, and we rejoice in our new holy and purified lives. Jesus feeds us at his Table. He shares with us his body and his blood, welcoming us into his kingdom and guaranteeing us forgiveness and eternal life with him and with all his saints.

              Because we are given power to repent and to believe, we also are transformed. We can imitate Jesus now, because he has changed us. We are not perfect yet, but other people can see our good works and know that God is shaping our lives. Peter could boast of all the worldly things he had left behind to follow Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter (and the rest of us) of the things we gain by God’s grace through faith. While we measure the burdens we have left, we are not yet focused on the kingdom of God. When we measure the blessings we receive by grace, we no longer care about the burdens we have lost. Belonging to God matters more to us than any worldly riches and wealth. We can be poor in spirit, using what we have today to serve God. We can be good stewards of our worldly blessings while we focus our attention on the heavenly riches that we possess. Those heavenly treasures are not earned by works we do in this world. The heavenly treasures are gifts. But their existence changes how we see the things that God has given us for this lifetime in this temporary world.

              With Jesus, everything turns upside down. In this world, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; but in eternity, the wealth we have today is nothing compared to the treasure already stored up for us in heaven. In this world, the past shapes our present and the present shapes our future. In eternity, our past is erased and has no effect on our present, and our guaranteed future shapes the lives we live today. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of God, makes himself last, suffering and dying on the cross for our redemption. He moves us to the head of the line where we are given as a gift the rewards Jesus earned. J.

Are you paranoid?

The following quiz will help to determine whether you are paranoid, and to what extent.

  • When you cannot find your phone, you ask: A—”Where did I leave my phone?”; or B—“Who stole my phone?”
  • When a law is passed which does not meet with your approval, you wonder: A—“Why are they trying to fix what isn’t broken?”; or B—“Why are they trying to destroy the country?”
  • When you cannot find the ice cream scoop in the kitchen, you ponder: A—“Did my spouse/partner/housemate get absentminded and put it in some unusual place?”; or B—“Is my spouse/partner/housemate trying to annoy me by hiding it from me?”
  • When a news show hosts a discussion about an issue, and the proponent of your side seems annoyingly loud and poorly informed, but the proponent of the other side seems calm, cool, and rational, you consider: A—“Why couldn’t they have found someone better able to defend my position—me, for example?” or B—“Isn’t it obvious that they are trying to shape public opinion by making my position look bad?”
  • When a worker at the store seems cold toward you and unwilling to help you (and that worker has a different color skin, either darker or lighter than yours), your reaction is: A—“This worker must be having a bad day and must be tired after hours of waiting on customers”; or B—“This worker is obviously racist and is prejudiced against me and people who look like me.”
  • The author of this post is: A—“Examining society in general and drawing material from his own life and experiences”; or B—“Picking on me and subjecting me to mockery and scorn, just as everyone else in the world keeps doing.”

A little paranoia can be healthy. Approaching a stranger in a secluded area, a person should consider the possibility that the stranger might be dangerous, that it might be necessary to fight or to flee. Safe drivers remain vigilant for other drivers who will do unexpected and dangerous things in traffic. Citizens should always be wary that government, big business, and the communications/entertainment industry will use their power for their own purposes and not for the good of all the people. But too much paranoia is unhealthy. Trusting no one, feeling constantly under attack, looking under every bed and behind every couch for enemies leads to unnecessary fear, stress, and anger.

Paranoia is often a symptom of other unhealthy conditions. Paranoia often accompanies dementia in people suffering brain damage due to physical trauma, degenerative disease, or chronic substance abuse. Paranoia can be a signal that something is wrong; but the signal is often missed by doctors. After all, who is going to confess paranoia to a doctor? The doctor is most likely part of the plot, part of the danger, part of the reason that one has become paranoid in the first place. Perhaps They are trying to make us paranoid so they have a reason to lock us up and take away our freedom.

Studies show that childhood experiences can cause or worsen paranoia. Someone who was abused at home or bullied at school may have been conditioned to distrust people and to assume the worst of others. When I told my mother that other children were picking on me at school, she told me, “They’re just trying to get a reaction from you. Don’t show them that it bothers you, and they’ll leave you alone.” Years later, my counselor wondered why I didn’t speak with my neighbors about their habits that bothered me—using loud tools for lawn maintenance early on summer mornings, for example. But my thought remained stuck in my mother’s advice: if I let them know that it bothers me, they’ll keep doing it, and they’ll look for ways to be even more annoying, just to make me miserable.

We learn to suffer in silence. Along the way, we forget that the things that bother us usually are unintentional. Other drivers didn’t install bright headlights on their cars just to bother our eyes. Those two drivers who block the street to have a conversation from the front seats of their respective cars—they are unwise and inconsiderate, but they are not purposely creating an obstacle for others. And that man who put his shopping cart right in front of the next item you wanted to put in your cart—he didn’t know what you were planning to buy. If he stands there, reading the label on something he might or might not buy, he is not purposely wasting your time. He probably thinks he was doing you a favor, getting his cart out of your way.

When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love our neighbors as we love ourselves. When we let paranoia govern our outlook, we cannot love and trust God above all things. If God is in control, then They cannot defeat us. We rest in his arms. We trust his victory. We allow his perfect love to drive out fear.

It would help if those of us who are paranoid could band together and support one another. Of course, we first would have to learn how to trust each other. For years, people have tried to organize Procrastination Societies. They had good intentions, but they never got around to holding their first meeting. Likewise, we who are paranoid remain isolated because we do not recognize each other. We need some sort of secret greeting, some way to recognize one another. Perhaps, when we meet a new person, the first step should be to say the word, “Noid.” If that person responds by also saying, “Noid,” then we know that the two of us are a paranoids, and we can work together to help each other as we face the rest of this world, all those people out there who are out to get us. J.

The Columbian Exchange

Travel between the Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and the New World (North and South America and the Caribbean islands) was ignited by the journey of Christopher Columbus and his three ships in 1492. Contemporary historians have come to describe the results of those journeys as the Columbian Exchange. Plants and animals and people were relocated; ideas and diseases also crossed the ocean. All five continents were changed by the new things that arrived as a result of this European Age of Exploration.

As Europeans colonized the New World, they brought many of their old plants and animals with them. The traditional barnyard of North America contains creatures familiar from European farms: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and even honeybees were brought to North America. About the only North American animal to be raised in Europe in large numbers was the turkey. Colonists also brought apples, wheat, oats, rice, and assorted garden vegetables and herbs; further south they established sugarcane, bananas, oranges, lemons, and coffee. But New World plants also had a significant impact upon the Old World, with the introduction of maize (which North Americans call corn), potatoes, sugar maples, rubber, tobacco, vanilla, and cocoa. At first the tomato was thought to be a poisonous berry—parts of the plant are poisonous, and some people are allergic to tomatoes. But some brave person found that tomatoes are good to eat; this North American plant met the Chinese invention called pasta in southern Europe, and “traditional” Italian food such as spaghetti and lasagna was born.

People also crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Some were European conquerors seeking wealth; others were European laborers seeking work and new opportunities. Among the later group were peons, workers who went into debt to make the voyage, then spent their earnings to pay off their debt. When lenders increased the debt (charging for food, lodging, clothing, tools and medical care) faster than the peons could earn money to pay the debt, they were stuck in virtual slavery. Most slaves in the New World, though, were imported from Africa. Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans entered the Americas than Europeans. Twelve million Africans were sold into slavery on the Atlantic coast of Africa, usually by their fellow Africans. Nine million Africans survived the trip and were sold again in the Americas. Shippers treated the horrific loss of human life during the voyage as an acceptable business loss.

As diseases had traveled along the Silk Roads, so they also crossed the ocean. Smallpox, measles, and other sicknesses known in the eastern hemisphere met a population without resistance, and millions of native Americans died. Entire civilizations that met one group of Europeans disappeared before a second European group visited their homes decades later. Disease traveled so rapidly that smallpox had reached the Inca Empire of Pacific South America before the first European ships arrived there. Although sexually transmitted diseases had been known in the Old World since ancient times, a more virulent form of syphilis appeared almost immediately after the first European travelers returned to their homes after their voyages.

Europeans brought to the New World a concept of private property that was foreign to many native Americans. Tribal groups did not comprehend the meaning of some of the treaties they signed with the new settlers. Europeans also brought Christianity to the Americas. In some areas, missionaries worked patiently with the native population, seeking to convert people through preaching of the Word. In other areas, conversion was more violent. Spanish overlords forced the Aztecs and other native tribes to tear apart the pagan temples in their cities and to build Roman Catholic cathedrals. The overlords and priests were pleased to see the local population bowing in respect to the altar and to the statues of Jesus and Mary; the Spanish did not know that the builders had smuggled images of their pagan gods into the churches and altars, but the local population knew. In other parts of the New World, pagan religions and Christian faith combined into new religions such as Voodoo and Santeria.

Five hundred years ago, globalization took the form of the Columbian Exchange. Interactions between and among cultures continues into the present, with many European, Asian, and African influences at work in the Americas and many American influences at work in the rest of the world. J.

The Age of Exploration, part two

Christopher Columbus knew that the world is round. So did all the other educated Europeans of his time. More than a thousand years earlier, Greek mathematicians in the Roman Empire had demonstrated the shape of the world and had also measured its size quite accurately by comparing the length of shadows in different cities at high noon. Sailors five hundred years ago knew that the world is round. They did not fear falling off the edge of the world; they feared a journey that would take them so far from land that they would run out of drinkable water and edible food. A ship had only so much room for basic supplies; they had to stop and renew food and water regularly to keep the sailors alive. Traveling from Europe to Asia across the ocean, given the knowledge and abilities they had then, meant death from dehydration and starvation.

But Columbus thought the trip was manageable. He thought that Asia was bigger than it is. He also thought that the world is not round like a sphere (as it is), he suggested that it is round like an egg, bigger from top to bottom than from side to side. For one thing, Columbus argued, God the Creator would not have wasted so much of the earth’s surface on empty ocean.

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain funded Columbus’ search for a shortcut to Asia. Columbus, of course, happened upon islands in the Caribbean Sea. Based on his calculations, he figured that he had missed Japan and China and reached the islands between China and India, those that today make up the country called Indonesia. Therefore, he called the Taino residents of the Caribbean islands “Indians,” and the name stuck. Other mapmakers distinguished the Asian islands from the Caribbean islands by calling them, respectively, the East Indes and West Indes.

Columbus never admitted, in writing, that he had made a mistake and discovered lands previously unknown to Europeans. He made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, insisting that he was visiting
Asia each time. Other Europeans quickly realized what Columbus had found. In 1494, two years after Columbus’ initial voyage, the governments of Spain and Portugal signed a treaty drawing a line between the land Spain could explore and colonize and the land Portugal could explore and colonize. The line was later extended across the Pacific to circle the Earth. In theory, the Treaty of Tordesillas gave Spain the right to claim the New World, or western hemisphere, while Portugal had similar rights in Asia and the south Pacific. But, because the terms of the treaty were not carefully researched, Portugal ended up getting a part of South America, and Spain ended up getting Pacific islands near Europe. This is why Brazilians speak Portuguese and Filipinos speak Spanish.

Only Spain and Portugal signed the treaty. They both financed further voyages of discovery, but England and France and the Netherlands also sent out explorers, claiming parts of North America and the Caribbean, as well as lands in Asia and the Pacific. Sometimes, the “colonies” were mere trading posts, places where merchants interacted with the local inhabitants. Sometimes they were full-out invasions, taking over land from earlier inhabitants. Attitudes toward the original dwellers of the New World varied wildly—some treating them as animals to be exploited, while others considered them equal beings with full human rights. The former attitude is mentioned more often today and is rightly condemned. But many of the explorers, colonists, and missionaries who traveled to these distant lands valued the inhabitants of those lands as fellow human beings who deserved respect, consideration, and any benefits that European civilization could offer.

European exploration increased the development of what recently has been labeled “Globalization.” Already, the Silk Roads linked multiple nations and cultures in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Similar trade patterns linked many cultures in the western hemisphere. Even in the Pacific, occasional voyages connected people of southern Asia, the Indonesian islands, Australia, and New Zealand with further distant cultures from Hawaii to Easter Island—possibly even to the western shores of South America. New connections made the exchange of salable products—and of people, ideas, and diseases—more prevalent, as the many nations of the world grew closer and more dependent upon one another. J.

The Age of Exploration, part one

Between 1405 and 1433, seven naval expeditions left China to explore the world. These fleets, authorized and funded by the Ming government of China, consisted of sixty to two hundred fifty large ships, ranging from 200 feet to 450 feet long. (By comparison, the Santa Maria—Columbus’ largest ship—was about seventy feet long.) The ships carried Chinese treasures to show to the world, as well as armed warriors and sailors; they brought back government officials from several nations to pay their respects to China’s emperor. These fleets visited southeast Asia, India, and Arabia, and some of them also explored the eastern coast of Africa. After 1433, the government of China decided that the rest of the world had nothing of interest for China. Exploration was suspended. Had the voyages continued, Chinese explorers would have entered the Atlantic Ocean before European exploration of that ocean and its surrounding lands was underway. From that point to the present, world history would be entirely different.

Travel is consistent throughout human history. “America” was first discovered by Asians who crossed from Siberia to Alaska. Over many generations, their descendants populated every ecological niche of the western hemisphere. Bantu people first lived north of the equator but south of the Sahara Desert. Over many generations, they explored and populated the rest of central and southern Africa, becoming the predominant culture of the continent. Indo-Europeans began on the grassy plains were Europe and Asia meet, but they traveled south to India and west to Europe. Xiongnu (also called Huns) began in central Asia but traveled to India and to Europe. Magyars and Turks and Mongols also came out of central Asia into Europe and western Asia. European tribes including Goths and Vandals came from the north into the Roman Empire. One thousand years ago, Vikings crossed the north Atlantic, settling in Iceland and Greenland and the Canadian island of Newfoundland. They may have traveled as far south as New England, since they reported seeing grapevines. Vikings also visited (and sometimes colonized) the coastal regions of France and the British Isles. They entered the Mediterranean Sea, and they traveled up the Dneiper River to found the city of Kiev, the first capitol of Russia.

Around the peak of the Late Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the leaders of Portugal resolved to attempt new means of travel. Situated at the far western end of the Silk Roads, the found foreign merchandise to be expensive, having passed through the hands of many merchants and having been taxed by many governments. Even gold from central Africa was inflated by too many stops in the middle of its journey. The government of Portugal therefore recruited, trained, and equipped sailors to help circumvent some of those middle profiteers in the interest of saving money.

The technology that enabled this Portuguese adventure came from Asia. The compass, which reliably points north and south, was invented in China. The astrolabe, which offers even more information about one’s location on the earth, was an Arab invention. Arab and Indian merchants had been traveling by water between Africa and southern Asia for some time, using these inventions to follow the monsoon trade winds and currents. Now Portuguese ships set out to conquer the western ocean, the Atlantic. They made their first stops along the African coast, where their journeys opened new opportunities for trade and commerce.

Not only did the Portuguese encounter more affordable gold and ivory; they also found African slaves for sale. When African tribes fought one another in battle, the losers were enslaved by the winners. Victorious African tribes were eager to sell their prisoners to merchants who would take them out of the area, reducing the chance of an uprising that would overturn the victory. At the same time the Portuguese found the African slave markets, they also discovered unpopulated islands off the coast of Africa. These islands were perfect for raising the most popular foreign spice of the European markets. That spice was not pepper or cinnamon or cloves; it was sugar.

Cane sugar is native to the Indonesian islands. Its use spread to India and Arabia. European Crusaders learned of sugar when they established kingdoms in west Asia. Italian investors tried to grow sugarcane on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was unsuitable. Now the little nation of Portugal found the perfect land for growing sugar as well as a source of workers for that land. Later generations of Europeans would expand sugar production and the importation of African slaves into the western hemisphere. Eventually, those slaves would also be tending and harvesting cotton, tobacco, rubber, coffee, and cocoa, as well as sugar.

Meanwhile, Portuguese expeditions traveled further south along the coast of Asia. They learned to sail into the Atlantic Ocean, then use the prevailing winds to return further east and south. Eventually, they found their way around the southern tip of Africa, opening the way to trade with east Africa, Arabia, India, and points further east.

While these historic journeys were being made, an explorer from Genoa, a city in Italy, came to Portugal with the suggestion that he could lead them across the ocean to reach China and India from a different direction. The leaders of Portugal were not interested in his ideas, but the leaders of Spain thought they might be willing to take a chance…. J.

The Late Middle Ages

Efforts to distinguish the High Middle Ages of Europe, the Late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are as arbitrary and capricious as are efforts to distinguish the several generations of recent American history. A steady process of development and growth marks European culture throughout this time span. Historians traditionally try to place any good developments of medieval times into the High Middle Ages, treating the Late Middle Ages as an era of trouble and collapse, thus introducing a splendid and sparkling Renaissance or rebirth in Europe. But the good and the bad are intertwined, as they always are in human history, and the Renaissance is more a continuation of medieval progress than it is any rediscovery or rebirth of ancient culture and virtue.

One key development in world history overlaps the High Middle Ages of Europe: the sudden appearance of the Mongol Empire in Asia. Genghis Khan (born Temujin) assembled in his lifetime the largest landmass under one government in all human history. (Wikipedia quibbles regarding this achievement, suggesting that some World War II developments achieved greater control over the Earth, but the Mongol Empire remains the largest by any reasonable definition of “empire.”) The land ruled by the Khan included China (formerly under the Chinese Song Empire), other central Asian states, Persia, western Asia almost to Egypt, and northeastern Europe covering most of modern Russia as well as parts of Poland and other east European lands. Under his successors, the Mongol Empire would divide into four cooperating governments; Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, would attempt to add Japan to his Japanese holdings; his failure, largely due to adverse weather, is as important to Japanese history as the Persian invasion is to Greek history and the Spanish Armada to British history. The greatest impact upon medieval Europe from the Mongols was indirect; controlling much of the Silk Roads network, they facilitated the import of Asian products into Europe, enriching the economy and creating a greater demand for Asian products in Europe.

Commodities traveled along the Silk Roads. So did ideas. So did disease. Bubonic plague had been known in the Mediterranean world long before the time of the Mongol Empire, but a new virulent strain of the disease traveled along the Silk Roads west into Europe and east into coastal China, leading to outbreaks of sickness and death commonly called the Black Death. This plague killed at least a quarter and perhaps more than a third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Periodic outbreaks of the plague continued in later centuries. No one was immune—rich or poor, noble class or peasant, church worker or casual worshiper or secret unbeliever. Some members of the European communities turned to the Christian faith hoping for supernatural protection from the disease; others rejected religion and followed the motto, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.” The population decline across Europe added value to the remaining lives, especially in the working class. Peasants demanded more from the noble and the wealthy in exchange for their work; when the noble and wealthy refused, wars of rebellion broke out on occasion. This class warfare set the stage for greater change in Europe during the coming centuries.

Another important event of the Late Middle Ages was the death of Charles IV of France, last of the Capetian line of kings. He had no sons or brothers to inherit the throne; his nearest male relative was Edward, the nephew of Charles, who was King of England. French officials refused to acknowledge Edward as King of France; instead they crowned a cousin of King Charles, beginning the line of France’s Valois kings. Edward did not take this insult sitting down. He brought the English army into France, seeking to claim the throne that he considered his. Instead, he began the Hundred Years War between England and France.

The Hundred Years War actually lasted 116 years, but those years included two lengthy peace treaties between the French and English governments. English fighters had superior training and weaponry with their longbows, but they were unable to defeat the French in any conclusive manner. Instead, in the last years of the war, the French forces were rallied by a teenage girl named Jeanne Darc (Joan of Ark in English), who heard voices that told her what the English were planning and how they could be defeated. Eventually Jeanne was captured in battle, tried for witchcraft, condemned, and executed. But the Hundred Years War ended with the French government taking control even of lands that had belonged to the English crown, while the English government disintegrated into a civil war known as the War of the Roses.

Other unpleasantness at the same time as all these events was the highly unexpected Spanish Inquisition. Several governments in Europe had inquisitions—judicial tribunals of the Church that identified heretics, traitors, and other undesirable members of the citizenry and handed them over to the civil government for punishment. The atrocities of the Inquisition have been exaggerated by many writers, but the work of the Inquisition was far from modern judicial systems that respect the rights of the accused and grant them a hearing before a jury of their peers.

In spite of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Inquisition, European culture continued its progress during these years. Philosophers such as Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, and William of Ockham (famous for his principle of Ockham’s Razor) helped to invent the scientific method of observation, prediction, and experimentation. Great literature was being written by Dante and Petrarch, by Chaucer, and by numerous poets who built the romantic legends of King Arthur and his knights. Meanwhile, a mystic tradition of Christian devotion was growing, a tradition that helped to prepare the Church for its Reformation and for its existence and growth in the Early Modern world. J.

A message to Garcia

In the course of my normal work this week, I came across a pamphlet called A Message to Garcia. The pamphlet, contained two parts, both written by Elbert Hubbard. In the first part, he describes how an essay he had written as filler for his magazine The Philistine had, to borrow a contemporary expression, gone viral. The second half contained the essay itself, reprinted once again nearly twenty years after its initial startling success.

At the core of the story is a soldier named Andrew S. Rowan. During the build-up of the American war with Spain, President McKinley needed to communicate with a Cuban rebel leader named Calixto Garcia. (After all, the independence of Cuba from Spain was one of the reasons the United States went to war, although the sinking of the Maine in the Havana harbor would also provide a rallying cry for the war effort.) At great personal difficulty, but without complaint, Rowan took the message from the President, traveled to Cuba, sought and found General Garcia, and delivered the President’s message. In his original untitled magazine article, Hubbard lauded the “can-do” spirit of Lieutenant Rowan and compared his diligence to the laziness of the typical American worker. In nearly every team of workers, Hubbard claimed, the majority would be incapable and unwilling to carry a message to Garcia. They would hunt for excuses, look for someone else to complete the task, and do their best to shirk responsibility. Only a few exceptional workers would follow orders and would get the job done. What our country needs is more Lieutenant Rowans, more men (and women) capable of following orders, of doing what needs to be done, of getting a message to Garcia.

In his introduction to the essay (which happens to be as long as the original essay), Hubbard describes how popular his brief, throw-away scrap of writing had become. Reprints were circulated among business leaders and were copied to be passed out to the workers. The Boy Scouts of America republished “A Message to Garcia” for all of its scouts and leaders. A Russian visitor, visiting the United States to learn how to run a successful railroad, was given a copy of the essay. He had it translated into Russian and distributed to all Russian railroad workers. Some of them carried copies with them when they fought a war with Japan; copies taken from prisoners of war were translated into Japanese and then circulated among government employees in that land. As of 1916, Hubbard estimated that forty million copies of his humble essay had been printed and distributed.

Things have not changed much in a century. My children have had jobs in fast food, in health care, in engineering, and in other fields, and they have encountered the same laziness that bothered Elbert Hubbard. Most workers, it seems, prefer to do the minimum work required to take home a paycheck; any special project meets resistance, with employees going out of their way to do anything extra for the business or for the customer. One characteristic of the Salvageable family is that we get the job done, we go beyond the minimum expectations of our managers, and we take pride in our work. We do our best for our employers and their customers. We can be counted to get the message to Garcia.

Sadly, the entire story of the Message to Garcia is a string of lies. Lieutenant Rowan had no message from the President for General Garcia; he was sent by military intelligence to assess the strength and reliability of Garcia’s forces in Cuba. Essentially, he was a spy. But, as soon as he met Garcia, he admitted that he wanted to return home, and Garcia sent him on his way. Rowan was not just a spy; he was a failed spy who did not get his job done. What was worse, on his way to Cuba he had spoken with reporters, and his secret mission was described in the papers before he even met Garcia.

Likewise, Hubbard’s assessment of his “viral” essay was greatly exaggerated. Probably fewer than four million copies of his essay were printed and shared, not the forty million he claimed. The Russian official’s visit to the United States took place two years before Hubbard’s essay was written. No Russian or Japanese copies of his work were printed or distributed in those countries. In fact, most railroad workers in Russia at the time were illiterate.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of getting a message to Garcia was a commonly understood metaphor. Americans knew that getting a message to Garcia meant getting the job done, overcoming obstacles, and refusing to offer excuses. In spite of the lies and deliberate misrepresentations associated with the original event, we clearly need today a lot more faithful workers, men and women who care about the job and not just the paycheck, men and women who can and who will get the message to Garcia. J.

The High Middle Ages

Historians like me discuss the medieval papacy, the Investiture Controversy, and the Crusades without saying much about Jesus Christ and his mission for the Church—a mission to bring forgiveness to sinners, to rescue victims of evil, and to heal the hurting in this world. Had the entire Church on earth fallen into apostacy during these centuries? Some writers claim that it had fallen, but the real Church still existed on earth, just as Jesus always promised the Church would continue. Individuals, families, congregations, and communities preserved the pure Gospel, even while the few popes and kings and crusaders went their own direction. The Church does not consist of Popes and Archbishops and Crusaders, any more than it consists of boards and committees and officers. The Church is found wherever people gather in the name of Jesus—that is, wherever his Word is preached correctly, wherever people are baptized in his name, and wherever people eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, remembering him.

As the Cluny Reform helped to counter abuses in the monasteries during the tenth century, so many movements among European Christians in later centuries helped to reform the Church—a body of sinner saints that always needs reformation. A preacher named Peter Waldo spoke against the church officials and their faulty behavior; although he and his followers were attacked by Church officials as heretics, they are often remembered today as genuine Christians and forerunners of the Protestants to come. Another group clearly fell into heresy. Called the Albigensians because of a region in France where many of them lived, they were also known as the Cathars or Cathari—the pure ones. They believed that they could stop sinning and could please God by their lives. They also revived some of the misunderstandings about God and Christ that had already been rejected by the Church. Warfare against the Albigensians was called a Crusade; killing an Albigensian in France was seen as equivalent to killing a Muslim in Jerusalem.

But a man from Spain named Dominic suggested a different approach. He said that if Christians knew the faith and proclaimed the faith, heretics and unbelievers—even Muslims and Jews—could be converted to the true faith. Dominic started a “back to the Bible” movement that stressed Biblical knowledge among Christians (especially preachers) and promoted sharing the faith in preference to fighting Crusades. While Peter Waldo’s movement was rejected by the Church leaders, Dominic’s approach was approved. He began a new order of Church workers who were called the Dominicans.

Around the same time, a man from Italy named Francis also tried a different approach. After a profound religious experience, he felt moved to obey literally Christ’s command to abandon all wealth and property and to dedicate his life to Christ. Feeling called by Christ to rebuild the Church, Francis began by repairing ruined church buildings around his home city of Assisi. Later, he came to believe that he could rebuild the Church by his example of faith and voluntary poverty. Francis’ approach was also approved by the Pope, and those who lived by his rules were called Franciscans.

The rules Francis made for himself proved impractical for some of his followers, and he was forced to soften his requirements. Discouraged, Francis looked for new ways to serve the Lord. He joined a group of Crusaders, traveled with them to Egypt, crossed enemy lines, and sought to preach Christianity to the Sultan. Although the Sultan was not converted, he admired the zeal of Francis and sent him back across the battlefield safely. Francis later received wounds in his hands and feet and side that resembled the wounds Christ received on the cross. Among western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, Saint Francis is probably the most popular of all the post-Biblical saints.

Another order, based on the rules written by Augustine of Hippo, was also established at the same time as the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Many Christians joined these orders. Chapters were established for women as well as for men. Separate chapters were made for people who wanted to imitate the work of the orders part-time without abandoning families and careers. Wealthy people gave generous gifts to the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Because all three orders were trying to live in poverty and simplicity, receiving gifts was an embarrassment to them. But they put the wealth to work, establishing and maintaining hospitals and schools. In fact, the idea of the university came from these Church orders, and the great philosophers and scientists and other thinkers of medieval Europe were gathered into these universities. They had not yet invented football or basketball, but the universities competed in debate. A thinker at one school would publish a document of sentences, or theses, to be discussed at his school, and often these were shared among schools and promoted discussion between faculties. The system of thought used in these discussions is called “scholasticism.” Sometimes scholasticism is represented as covering trivial issues—a common example is the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Such discussions do not happen today—some Christians do not believe in angels, others do not believe in dancing, and a few don’t even believe in pins.) But major issues also were open for debate. Some of the great scholastic scholars still read today include Peter Abelard, Anselm, Albert Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. And an Augustinian monk was still following the same procedure of posting theses for debate when the Protestant Reformation began in Wittenberg in 1517.

Along with theology, music and communication and history and science were also studied in these universities. Although alchemists still believed that matter consists of only four elements, they performed chemical experiments that ultimately would lead to modern chemistry. Although astronomers still believed that the Earth rests unmoving at the center of the universe, they knew that the Earth is round, knew about how large it is, and measured the motion of the other planets with increasing precision—measurements that would result in more accurate perceptions of the solar system. Mathematics and medicine were also studied, including information imported from the Muslim world. And during these years—the centuries called the High Middle Ages—the grand cathedrals of Europe were designed and built. Later generations would dismiss these buildings as “Gothic”—suggesting that they were barbarian and uncivilized—but today they are recognized as magnificent achievements in art and design, as well as eloquent expressions of the Christian faith belonging to those who designed and built them. J.

The Crusades

When the armies of Islam established an empire that stretched from Spain to India, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople managed to hold on to Anatolia (that piece of land in western Asia that is today the country called Turkey) and the Balkans (southeastern Europe). Roman civilization and Christian teachings remained vibrant among the Byzantines while they also continued under different forms in western Europe. Three hundred years later, the Muslim empire was strengthened by an incursion of Turks from central Asia. (The Turks have not always lived in Turkey.) The Turks left the Abassid emperor on the throne but came to control the bureaucracy of the government and the army. They converted to Islam, adopted aspects of Persian culture, and sought to reclaim north African lands that had been lost to Abassid control, and also to conquer new lands for Islam.

The Byzantine Christians, now called Orthodox, had recently been declared outside the Church by the Pope and western Christians, now called Catholic. In spite of that division, Byzantine Emperor Alexius begged for reinforcements from western Europe to protect his land from the Muslim Turks. Pope Gregory, although willing to help, was distracted by the politics of the Investiture Controversy and his showdown with Holy Roman Emperor Henry. Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban, was even more willing to help. He declared a Crusade—an army of Christian soldiers who would wear the cross on their armor and would fight to defend the Christian faith against “infidels,” people unfaithful to Jesus Christ. (Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but deny that he is the Son of God or is anyone’s Savior.)

Preachers declared the glory of fighting for Jesus Christ in the Holy Land and overthrowing nonChristian governments. Many Christians answered the call. The first to arrive in Constantinople were peasants seeking glory, untrained and unequipped for war. The Byzantine Emperor was not impressed, but he sent them to the front lines, where they were quickly overwhelmed by the Turks. Then, in 1095, the First Crusade arrived. The Emperor was still unimpressed, but he prepared to send these European knights to the front as well. To his surprise, they refused his command. They said that they had not come to defend Anatolia, but to capture Jerusalem and make it a Christian city. The Emperor had them sign an agreement that any land they captured from the Muslims would be part of the Byzantine Empire. They signed the agreement, but they did not keep it. Instead, they defeated the Muslims along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and established western-style kingdoms in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.

The Abassids and Turks were also not impressed by the Crusaders. They were willing to cede these lands to Europeans if the Europeans would help them fight the Muslims in Egypt. Not to be outdone, the Egyptian Muslims offered to recognize the Crusader kingdoms if they helped to fight the Abassids and Turks. The Crusaders signed agreements with neither Muslim government. They clung to their conquests and ruled them for fifty to two hundred years (Edessa being the first to fall and Jerusalem the last).

When it became clear that the Crusaders were not strong enough to hold their kingdoms, European leaders called for additional crusades. The Second Crusade was sent in 1146, but did little to help the Crusader kingdoms survive. The Third Crusade, which began in 1201, was the Crusade of legendary proportions. The Muslim leader was Kurdish general al-Malik al-Nasir Salah el-Din Yusuf, known in Europe as Saladin. European leaders included Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. Each of these primas donnas expected full command of the Crusade and resented the presence of the others. Frederick died on his way to the Holy Land. According to legend, while wearing full armor he fell off his horse into a river and drowned, pulled to the bottom by all that metal. Phillip and Richard both made it to Jerusalem, but quarreled incessantly over leadership of the Crusading soldiers. Eventually Phillip took his French knights and went home. Richard finally also had to withdraw. Traveling through the Holy Roman Empire to avoid entering France (where he expected trouble from Phillip), Richard was captured and held for ransom. His mother was able to raise the money to set him free, even when his brother John and King Phillip of France offered a bribe to the Germans to keep Richard in prison.

The Fourth Crusade set out for Jerusalem but never arrived. Stopping in Venice, they were promised transportation to the Holy Land if they would first attack Constantinople. (Venice and the Byzantines were competing for trade along the Silk Roads, especially in the Mediterranean Sea.) The Crusaders agreed, attacked Constantinople, and set up a western-style kingdom that lasted more than fifty years until their capital was retaken by the Byzantine army. The Fifth Crusade was no more successful in preserving the Crusader kingdoms in western Asia.

King Louis IX of France, the famous Saint Louis, attempted two crusades that would surprise the Muslims by landing in Egypt and working their way along the coast. Both attempts failed. In 1212, a rumor spread through Europe that the failure of the Crusaders was due to their sinful nature, being adult men, but that younger innocent boys could defeat the Muslims. Many boys left their homes and families to march to the Holy Land. Most became tired and turned back. A few were captured in port cities and sold elsewhere as slaves. None of them made it to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, some Christians in Europe asked why they had to travel a thousand miles to fight the infidel when enemies of the Church could be found closer to home. The reconquest of Spain and Portugal was described as a Crusade. Battles against groups of Christian heretics (including the Albigensians) were called Crusades. Persecution of the Jewish communities in Europe grew more intense at this time; these attacks were also called Crusades. Even in 1518, the Holy Roman Emperor was hoping to form a Crusade to drive the Turks away from Vienna and to reclaim parts of southeastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire. This potential Crusade collapsed under distractions from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

For centuries, Muslim historians treated the Crusades as little more than a minor inconvenience. Only in the twentieth century, after the Ottoman Empire fell and Britain and France gained control in western Asia, did Muslims begin to list the Crusades among events when European Christians had been enemies to Islam. As the Muslim lands gained independence after the Second World War (but had to accept the existence of Israel among them), memories of the Crusades grew in significance for Muslim leaders. Christians today might be scolded about the evils of the Crusades, but while they were happening they were scarcely even noticed in the Muslim world. J.