Books, books, books

This afternoon I have updated two pages on this blog. I have completely redone the “Books by Salvageable” page, removing the images of book covers and listing titles alphabetically (separated into non-fiction and fiction), each with a link to the book listing on amazon.com. I have linked to the text versions of the book, but the Kindle versions should be easily available from that page.

Also, I have added my latest book, Advent Thoughts and Christmas Musings. Long-time readers of this blog have seen the earlier drafts of the devotions in this book; current users can find those drafts for free by hunting back into the distant past. Otherwise, the book is for sale, edited and updated, for six dollars in standard book form or three dollars on Kindle. It consists of twenty-four devotional readings for the first twenty-four days of December. After an introduction that explains the historic significance of the time of Advent (a calm within the storm of Christmas preparations), these devotions lead the reader through the Old Testament promises and pictures of the coming Savior whose birth we celebrate each Christmas. Also included are twelve devotions for the twelve days of Christmas. These focus on some of the traditional festivals of the Christmas season, such as St. Stephen’s Day (December 26) and The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus (January 1).

I have also changed the Novella page to include only an excerpt of my novella, “To Tell the Truth (A Love Story).” A link to amazon.com is included for anyone who wants to purchase the entire novella in print or in Kindle form (six dollars paperback or four dollars Kindle).

Meanwhile, I have other books struggling to make their way forward. The next one to be published will be “Witnesses to the Passion of our Lord,” a collection of first-person accounts of what happened to Jesus on and around Good Friday, as related by such persons as Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, and the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus’ cross. Some of these accounts go back thirty years in preparation, but I am finally ready to assemble them as a book. I would like to bring together some of my recent posts about politics and economics into a manifesto, probably focused on the problems inherent in socialism, but with other reflections as well. I may try to assemble some of my most recent posts into a book on the history of western civilization. I want to start writing a book about love (from a Biblical and Christian perspective, covering not only romance and marriage but also family, friendships, love for our neighbors, and love for God). Finally, I have wanted for years to assemble some sort of approach to Christian philosophy (if there is such a thing).

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). J.

Reformation, part three

My last post described the political and economic factors that led to the Reformation of the Church, as sparked by Martin Luther. I did not mention Jesus Christ or redemption; I described the Church only as a political entity, not as the Bride of Christ and the mission agency established to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world. Martin Luther was aware of the political implications of the Reformation, but those implications did not change his thoughts, his words, or his behavior. He was deeply committed to Jesus Christ. He cared more about redemption than about all the kingdoms of the world. He saw the Church as Christ’s own people, not as the possession of any pope or archbishop or emperor.

The young Luther is often pictured as a troubled man, deeply aware of his sin and his guilt, desperately seeking a way to be reconciled to God. Genuine Christianity, it often is implied, had disappeared from the world until Luther rediscovered the true faith. Luther did want to know God and to be right with God. He was, for a time, drawn to seek God through his own penance, his own good works, and his own efforts to love God and serve God. But the true Christian faith had not vanished. In many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, men and women and children were still calling on the name of the Lord, seeking redemption in Jesus Christ. The movements of John Hus and Peter Waldo had brought many Europeans to a proper knowledge of Christ. Even within the accepted movements of the Church in western Europe, many Church leaders knew and shared the Gospel. Luther had a mentor named John Staupitz who encouraged Luther to read the Bible and to believe the promises it contains. Staupitz even assigned Luther Bible classes to teach, hoping that teaching others would make Luther aware of the Bible’s message of the grace of God, of salvation by that grace through faith, and of the love of God who wants to be reconciled to sinners. On the cross, Jesus paid the debt of sinners; he gave his life to reconcile sinners to his Father and to claim those sinners for his kingdom. The Bible clearly teaches this promise, and Luther came to believe this promise.

Therefore, Martin Luther challenged the faulty theology used to sell indulgences and to acquire money for the Church through that marketing. He posted 95 theses to be debated in the seminaries—that is what seminaries did back then; instead of playing football and basketball, they debated theology. In the 95 theses, Luther wrote that repentance is not an occasional act of penance or a one-time act, but is an on-going reality in the life of a Christian. He said that, if Church leaders want to release sinners from purgatory, they should do so out of love and not for money. Luther did not want to split the Church or start a new movement in the Church—he was calling all Christians to understand and believe what the Bible says about redemption and forgiveness, about repentance and faith.

The more Luther defended these ideas, the more he studied the Bible and the early leaders and thinkers of the Church. The more he studied, the more firmly he believed that redemption and repentance and faith were being taught wrongly by many in the Church, all for the sake of money and of political power. By the time he was called to answer for his words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was firm in his faith. He demanded that his accusers show him from the Bible where he was wrong. He would not accept the statements of popes and councils, because they contradict one another and are sometimes wrong. “Here I stand,” he reportedly said, “I can do no other.”

Pope Leo had already declared Luther a heretic and had excommunicated Luther, claiming that Luther was not part of the true Christian Church. Now Emperor Charles also called Luther an outlaw, saying that anyone who killed Luther would be doing a favor for the Empire and for the Church. Luther was kidnapped on his way from Worms back to Wittenberg. He was taken, not by enemies, but by friends, by servants of Elector Frederick. For about a year, Luther was hidden in a castle called the Wartburg. He was disguised as a knight, Sir George (not to be confused with Boy George!).

While at the Wartburg, Luther continued studying and continued writing. He began translating the Bible into German. After that year, he returned to Wittenberg. He continued teaching at the University of Wittenberg and preaching in the Church. He redesigned the traditional Christian worship service, removing elements that supported false beliefs and emphasizing the true promises of redemption and forgiveness, with traditional and with new material. He wrote catechisms—books of instruction to instruct children and adults the basic teachings of the Bible and the Church. He wrote several hymns. He lived two dozen more years in Wittenberg, remaining condemned by Church and Empire. He married a former nun, and together they were the parents of six children.

Eight years after Luther left the Wartburg, another Diet was held at Augsburg. Charles had concluded his war with France and needed to discuss three issues with the kings and dukes and princes and margraves and archbishops of his Empire. He needed to discuss the economy. He needed to discuss defense against the Ottoman Empire. And he needed to discuss division among Christians in the Empire. Luther’s supporters used the occasion to present the Emperor with a document stating their beliefs. Longer and more detailed than any creed, the Augsburg Confession explained what Lutherans believe and teach, showing that Lutheran beliefs and confessions match the teachings of the Bible and the early Church. Along with the ancient creeds of the Church and the Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Augsburg Confession remains a document that describes Lutheran beliefs—church workers among Lutherans pledge to follow the teachings of the Confession, not in place of the Bible, but because it correctly summarizes the Bible’s teachings. Luther did not write the Augsburg Confession; it was written by a fellow professor from the University of Wittenberg, a man named Phillip Melanchthon. But Melanchthon’s writing summarized Luther’s own thoughts; Luther himself said that Melanchthon was more tactful than Luther could be, but that he was correct in what he had written.

Lutherans—and other Protestants—celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, the anniversary of the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession and the Catechisms of Martin Luther are far more important than his 95 Theses. And there are many other results and ramifications of this Reformation that must still be addressed in future posts…. J.

Reformation, part two

Albert of Brandenburg was born June 28, 1490, in what is now part of the city of Berlin. His father, John, was Elector of Brandenburg. This position gave John political authority over a region in the Holy Roman Empire which, around that time, consisted of roughly 10,000 square miles and contained about 400,000 people. More importantly, the Elector of Brandenburg was one of seven Electors in the Empire. When an Emperor died, the seven Electors (three archbishops, one king, one duke, one count, and one margrave) would meet, discuss, and vote to choose a new Emperor. Albert had an older brother, Joachim, who was destined to inherit the political office from his father. Therefore, Albert went into church work, ambitious to become as important a man as his father.

Albert studied at the University of Frankfort. In 1513, the Archbishop of Magdeburg died (reportedly of syphilis), and Albert was named new Archbishop, even though Albert was only twenty-three years old. (According to Church Law, an Archbishop needed to be at least thirty years old. However, the pope could make exceptions to that rule.) The next year, the Archbishop of Mainz died, also under unusual circumstances. (It is said that he had a fight with his cellarmaster over missing wine; some historians claim that the Archbishop murdered the cellarmaster and then fled the country, with the cellarmaster buried in the Archbishop’s tomb.) Albert wanted this job, since the Archbishop of Mainz was, like the Margrave of Brandenburg, one of the seven Electors. But Albert was still not yet thirty, and Church Law also prohibited any person from being Archbishop in two places at the same time.

The Pope at this time was Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, a wealthy and powerful leader in the Italian city of Florence. All the Medicis were wise in the ways of the world concerning political power, money, and Renaissance art and culture. Leo, seeking funds for the beautification on Rome, was willing to appoint Albert as Archbishop of Mainz, for a price. Albert borrowed money from the Fuggers, a wealthy German banking family, and he was granted the job he sought.

Now Albert was deeply in debt to the Fuggers. He appealed to Pope Leo for help, and Leo knew how to help. He proposed that indulgences be sold in Mainz and the surrounding area. Half the money would go to Archbishop Albert to repay the Fuggers. The other half would go to Pope Leo to pay the expenses of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Michelangelo was one of several architects employed to build this basilica, and one of his most famous sculptures is contained therein.) Among the church workers brought to Mainz to sell indulgences for Albert and Leo was a Dominican friar, John Tetzel. Tetzel’s extravagant claims about the power of his indulgences prompted an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, to post ninety-five ideas, or theses, regarding penance and forgiveness. Luther, a Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, was deeply concerned about penance and forgiveness. Luther also believed that Albert and Leo would renounce the salesmanship of Tetzel and would approve of Luther’s attempts to explain God’s forgiveness to the Christians living in Europe at that time. Luther even sent copies of his ninety-five theses and explanations of their meaning to the Pope and the Archbishop, expecting a favorable response from these Church leaders.

Albert and Leo were not pleased. But they could not respond to Luther as quickly and emphatically as they would have liked. The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian Hapsburg, was in ill health and would soon die. An election would be held to replace him. Archbishop Albert and his brother Joachim were two of the Electors, but a third Elector was the Duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick had established the University of Wittenberg. Technically, Doctor Luther worked for Frederick. This was not a time to have Frederick become angry with Albert and with Leo.

Maximilian died in 1519. One of the candidates to replace him was his grandson, Charles, who inherited power over the kingdom of Austria at Maximilian’s death. Charles had already inherited the kingdom of Spain from his other grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. This made him ruler, not only over Spain, but also over Belgium and the Netherlands, and over most of the western hemisphere recently claimed by Spain. That was a lot of power for one man to hold. Pope Leo was not comfortable with the prospect.

Another candidate for Emperor was Francis I, King of France. Combining France with the Holy Roman Empire would also create an overwhelming European power that might threaten the rest of the continent. Leo preferred a compromise candidate. While Charles and Francis campaigned, making generous gifts to the seven Electors, Pope Leo sought a compromise candidate. His first choice was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and founder of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught.

Frederick declined the honor. When the seven votes were cast and counted, Charles was declared the winner. Now Pope Leo felt free to publicly condemn Luther and his ideas, which he did. But by this time, Luther had gained a large audience. Many of the rulers in the Empire agreed with Luther, some for purely religious reasons, and others for political reasons. Frederick wanted Luther to have a fair hearing, which he knew would not happen if Luther met the Pope in Rome. As a result, Luther was instead invited to a Diet (a meeting of leaders in the Holy Roman Empire) scheduled to be held in the city of Worms in 1521. Luther was not the only item on the agenda; members of the Diet would consider many topics, including the military threat of the Ottoman Turks. (Ironically, Charles would spend more energy at war with Francis than with the Turks.) But the famous Diet of Worms—not a weight-loss program, but an important political gathering—would make Martin Luther famous and would solidify the progress of the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

Albert Pike

One of the dangers of historical research—especially biographical research—is the unexpected house guest, not seated at the dinner table or sleeping in a bed, but constantly present in one’s mind. I would hate to spend a year or more writing a detailed biography of one person; I know that, long before the research and writing and editing was completed, I would know that person better than I know myself. This fall, I agreed to do a lecture series of eight weeks—eight forty-five-minute talks, covering eight people who have contributed to the history of Arkansas. I chose some people about whom I have written before, figuring it would be easy to restate what I have already learned. I also included on the list a few people I have not studied before, just because I thought it would be interesting to learn more about them. By far the most interesting subject I have covered—and the most vivid and persistent guest—has been a man named Albert Pike.

Albert Pike was born in Massachusetts December 29, 1809. From his youth, he was a genius. He had an unusually high aptitude for languages, including ancient languages and Indian languages. He also had the ability to gather information quickly, retain it accurately, and interpret it thoroughly, combining resources from assorted sources to build greater knowledge. Early in his teen years, he borrowed a thirteen-volume history from one of his older cousins. When he returned the books a few days later, the cousin suggested they had been too challenging for Albert. No, he said, he had read all thirteen and understood them thoroughly. He invited the cousin to quiz him on the content of the books, and he passed the examination easily.

When he was sixteen years old, Albert Pike applied to study at Harvard University. He had no trouble passing the entrance exam, but he could not afford the first year’s tuition. Undaunted, Albert took a job teaching school and applied his spare time to studying the subjects covered in the freshman and sophomore years at Harvard. Returning a year later, having saved his money to cover junior year tuition, Albert easily passed through the tests for Harvard’s first two years; only then was he informed that he must still pay tuition for those two years to receive credit for the courses and move into his junior year. Furious and feeling cheated, Albert Pike left the Harvard campus. His feelings were understandably mixed when he was offered an honorary Master’s degree from Harvard some thirty years later.

With two friends, Pike left Massachusetts to explore the United States. They traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. Arriving in Tennessee, Pike found nothing to capture his attention, so he and his friends proceeded west to Saint Louis. One turned back, but the other friend stuck with Pike as they joined a party heading into Texas. They went prospecting for gold and silver around Santa Fe and Taos with little success. The other friend returned east, but Pike and his new companions continued exploring, meeting scattered settlers, various Indian tribes, and all kinds of bad weather. Finally tiring of the Old West, Pike headed east, aiming for New Orleans. Taking a wrong turn, he found himself at Fort Smith in Arkansas Territory. Penniless, he took a job teaching school, gathering twenty students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. Also becoming acquainted with some of the politicians of the territory, Pike saved his money until he could move to the new capitol city called Little Rock. There he became involved in politics, first as a journalist for the local Whig newspaper, and then as an attorney. He studied to pass the bar but was granted his license to practice with little objection. “At least practicing law you won’t kill anyone,” the examiner quipped.

Pike got married and built a grand house in Little Rock, one that is still standing today. He profited from his law practice and built an enormous personal library. When war broke out with Mexico, Pike became an officer leading Arkansas troops into battle. Later, when he spoke disparagingly of a fellow officer from Arkansas, the two arranged a duel. Standing on a sand bar west of Fort Smith in Indian Territory (because dueling was illegal in the state of Arkansas), the men exchanged shots, but no one was injured. A Cherokee observer sneeringly commented that he could have hit a squirrel at a much greater distance with the pistols held by the duelists. But Pike and his opponent declared that honor had been satisfied and celebrated together with a grand dinner to which they invited all their friends.

Albert Pike was a large man, six-foot-two-inches tall, 275 pounds in prime health (expanding to 300 pounds in his later years, before disease robbed him of his weight). He loomed large in the social life of Little Rock as well. In 1850 he was invited to join the Masonic Lodge. He moved rapidly through the degrees of membership, becoming a Lodge leader; he then spent much of the rest of his life rewriting the Scottish Rite of Masonic membership and researching other aspects of Masonic belief and practices.

Pike said that slavery was terrible, an enormous injustice; then he also said that trapping workers into factory labor at substandard wages was equally evil. He owned four slaves himself, and he supported the right of southern states to continue to practice slavery. He warned readers in the northern states that freeing the southern slaves would not be a favor unless they were also granted educations and means to make a living; otherwise, their lives would remain miserable. When secession occurred, Pike reluctantly took his position with the Confederate government. Made a brigadier general, he was sent into Indian Territory to negotiate with the tribal groups living there—ideally, to raise troops to help the Confederacy; and, at the very least, to guarantee the neutrality of tribes that would not actively support the Confederacy. Many tribal leaders were open to service to the Confederacy under Pike’s leadership. He brought some of them as soldiers to fight at Pea Ridge in Arkansas. Communication between Pike and the other generals was minimal, Confederate forces came out losers in the fight, and false rumors were spread that Pike’s Indian troops had acted like savages, scalping Union soldiers and forsaking military discipline on the battlefield.

Pike resigned his commission and disappeared into a cabin in rural Arkansas. There he continued work on his Masonic studies. When the war ended, he faced enemies from both sides and even retreated briefly into Canada. He eventually received a pardon from President Andrew Jackson, although his life savings were consumed by legal fees and he barely managed to recover his Little Rock house (which had been used as headquarters by Union General Frederick Steele from 1863 to 1865). Pike’s wife returned to the house and spent her last years there, while Pike lived in Washington DC, lodging with the Masonic leadership there and using their library for his work. After the death of his wife, the house was used for several years as a girls’ college, then was bought by a businessman, John G. Fletcher, who would be elected mayor of Little Rock. Mayor Fletcher’s son, John Gould Fletcher, grew up in that mansion; he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet and author. The mayor’s daughter married a lawyer, David Terry, who became owner of the mansion when his wife’s parents died; he was elected to represent Arkansas in the United States House of Representatives.

Many of Albert Pike’s writings were published, and some are still in print. Others remain within the Masonic libraries in Washington DC and in Little Rock. Fantastic stories have been built around Pike, often from modern conspiracy theorists. Allegedly, Pike wrote a letter in 1871 in which he predicted three World Wars—the first fought between Britain and Germany, which would lead to a Communist government in Russia; the second, also fought in Europe, which would bring about a Jewish homeland; and a third, to be fought by Muslims against Christians and Jews, finally bringing about a discrediting of all three religions and a one-world government. I have read quotes from this alleged letter, which some say was on exhibit in a London museum until 1977. The museum now claims no knowledge of the letter and says that, if it ever existed, they never had it. Moreover, the quotes I have read are far different from the writings of Albert Pike that I have studied this year, both in style and in content.

Other researchers accuse Albert Pike of being a Satan worshiper. In my mind’s ear, I can hear a hearty belly-laugh from Pike over this misunderstanding. A Hebrew word meaning “light-bearer” was translated into Latin as “Lucifer.” Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel address human kings (of Babylon and Tyre, respectively) with that title, and both addresses have been seen by Christians as references to the devil. I agree with that interpretation. The two prophets describe one who was blessed by the Lord with glory and honor, but who became proud and rebelled against the Lord, thereby earning God’s rejection and punishment. Because of these two prophecies, many Christians consider Lucifer to be a name of the devil, along with Satan and other titles. But the word was frequently used to describe the planet Venus, especially as it appears in the morning sky. Venus reflects the light of the sun and can be seen as a sign that sunrise is not far away. The label is assigned to the devilish kings by Isaiah and Ezekiel, but the same title also belongs to Jesus, the Son of God, who is called the bright morning star in Revelation 22:16. When Pike wrote glowingly (pun intended) of Lucifer, he was referring to the Christ-like image of the morning star, not of the devil.

Anyhow, I spent several days with Albert Pike living in my head—for all practical purposes, living in my house as well. My talk on Pike was given last Thursday. I hope that soon he will go away… and I hope that my next subject, Sam Walton, will not become such a persistent guest. J.

Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

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.