Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

Review: Wicked

SPOILER ALERT: This review contains information about the plot of the musical Wicked. If you have not seen this musical and are hoping to see it in the future, read no further. This is your only warning.

Earlier this week I promised a review of Wicked, the very successful musical that opened on Broadway in October 2003 and now has a traveling company that performed downtown for two-and-a-half weeks this month. The story, based on a book, gives an alternate view of The Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 and made into a popular movie in 1939. Wicked focuses on the witches of the land of Oz: Elphaba, her sister Nessarose, and Galinda (Glinda), who are to become, respectively, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wicked Witch of the East, and the Good Witch of the South. Beginning with the celebration after Dorothy has melted Elphaba, the musical looks back to the conception and birth of Elphaba, her college days (in which she meets Galinda), and her subsequent career.

The traveling production that I saw was impressive. The performers were all talented actors, singers, and dancers. The sets, costumes, and props were superb. The musicians did a fine job, and the production was well-received by the audience. From a technical viewpoint, the show was a rousing success, and if that were the purpose of this review, I would give Wicked the highest marks.

On the other hand, the script and story of Wicked are heavy-handed and disappointing. In fact, I have not been so repelled by a reboot of a familiar story since Star Trek came out in 2009. In both cases, the writers and directors did a fantastic job of conveying details from the original tale but failed to create a likeable story in their re-creation. The songs in Wicked are not memorable, and the story told by the production is disappointingly preachy.

To begin, Elphaba is green. Much of the story concerns diversity and self-acceptance, as Elphaba’s father and classmates are largely opposed to Elphaba because of the color of her skin. Her mother eats white berries during her second pregnancy to prevent a second green child; as a result, the mother is poisoned and dies in childbirth, and the daughter (Nessarose) is born with damaged legs. Elphaba blames herself for the tragedy. When the two sisters leave for college, they meet Galinda, who is portrayed as a dumb blonde, Homecoming Queen, feeling entitled to every privilege in the book. Galinda gives Elphaba the trademark black hat as a joke, but later befriends Elphaba as she learns to have compassion for those who are different.

Two love triangles develop at the college, involving the three future witches and male students Fiyero and Boq. Meanwhile, an unnecessary subplot is added as some malevolent power seeks to deny the animals in Oz the privilege of speech. (Once again, diversity and acceptance are hammered home as the themes of the musical.) Elphaba is excited to meet the Wizard of Oz, assuming that in the Emerald City she will finally be accepted, since everything there is green. But the Wizard is revealed to be the power depriving animals of speech, and so Elphaba becomes his enemy.

Elphaba’s magic is responsible for the winged monkeys, as she tried a levitating spell on one of them but somehow got the spell wrong. She and Fiyero free a lion cub that was being held at the school; somehow, in the second act, the lion has become an adult (the Cowardly Lion). Magic spells likewise turn Boq into the Tinman and Fiyero into the Scarecrow. Boq blames Elphaba for the transformation and is her outspoken opponent, but Fiyero remains faithful to Elphaba. Meanwhile, the Wizard campaigns against Elphaba, labeling her as wicked, and forcing her into hiding. Madame Morrible, once a teacher at the college the witches attended and now the Wizard’s press agent, summons the tornado that drops Dorothy’s house on Nessarose, attempting to draw Elphaba out of hiding. Here the witch’s shoes are explained: they were silver when her father gave them as a gift to Nessarose, but they turned to ruby slippers when Elphaba enchanted them, giving her sister the ability to walk. Elphaba is furious when Glinda gives the shoes to Dorothy, but (in one of the better lines of the play), Glinda tells Elphaba to “get over it; they’re just shoes.”

The idea that Elphaba could be melted with water is originally a joke started by her intolerant enemies. Near the end of the musical, Dorothy indeed throws a bucket of water on Elphaba, who appears to melt and disappear. But this is revealed to be a trick, allowing Elphaba to end her ordeal of being hunted by the Wizard and his minions. Fiyero (now the Scarecrow), is part of the trick; he and Elphaba escape together. Finally, it is revealed that the Wizard was actually Elphaba’s biological father, which explains her green skin and her magical powers.

I found the retelling of the Wizard of Oz to be sadly lacking in quality for several reasons. First, the appearance of the three friends to help Dorothy was totally undermined by their backstories as presented in Wicked. Second, changing the Wizard from a well-meaning humbug into a scheming evil dictator also disappoints. Galinda as a dumb blonde who learns acceptance of others is overplayed. And the attempts to change the Wicked Witch of the West into a likable character, although an interesting idea, is spoiled by heavy-handedness.

That said, if you want to see a powerful performance with superb effects (including an astounding animatronic dragon who hovers above the stage but has no connection to the plot) and join the many others who have viewed this spectacle, be sure to buy a ticket when Wicked comes to your area. If you are fond of the Baum book and of the Judy Garland movie, though, stay away from Wicked. J.