Thursday, March 25, 2010

Benefactors of humanity

More than once in the past I have said that Roger Pearse is a benefactor of humanity. It still seems to be true. Why is he our benefactor? He has taken it upon himself translate or commission translations of a great many early Christian works which have until now been available only to people who could read the original languages. Some people think that's fine -- if you don't know ancient Greek you would not understand these sources anyway -- but that's not my attitude, nor is it Roger's. As someone who has studied late antiquity and read a lot of obscure Christian literature from that era, I am in awe of Roger's generosity. The translations that he posts and otherwise gives away are not a complete substitute for the originals, but they make available part of the cultural and religious legacy of early Christianity to many new people.

I was inspired to say something about Roger by a blog post he published today, just one of the interesting posts of his that I've read since I discovered he had a blog. the Post announces a new translation of Hippolytus's Chronicon, one of the very first world chronicles written by Christian, in this case a third century Roman clergyman who eventually was martyred. (He is sometimes considered the first antipope.) In an earlier incarnation I had to know something about Hippolytus; it would have been nice to have this translation then.

But one of the interesting things about this new translation is that it is not, as far as I can tell, one of Roger's projects! There is another benefactor of humanity out there and this person is named T. C. Schmidt. Thank you very much, T.C.!

Image: Hippolytus being martyred, dragged behind a horse, from the Wikipedia entry on him.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Matthew Paris really did not like the papal court

The great English chronicler and illustrator Matthew Paris is famous for his dislike of foreigners. Among the worst of foreigners were the Romans, the term he used primarily to mean members of the papal court, who used their positions to enrich themselves. In the 1250s, King Henry III of England and the Pope made an agreement which obliged Henry to conquer the kingdom of Sicily at his own expense; which would eliminate the Pope's most dangerous enemies. No one in England thought this was a good idea, except perhaps the King and the son that he was going to put on the Sicilian throne. Matthew Paris's reaction is a great example of his scathing anti-foreigner rhetoric.

In consequence of this [agreement], the Pope's messengers vied with one another, as it were, in coming to England to the king, for the purpose of carrying off his rich presents; for they smelled the sweet savor of his money from afar.

A few pages later, Paris illustrates "Roman" greed:
Master Berard de Nympha, native of the suburbs of Rome, died suddenly about the same time. He was a crafty and wealthy man, had been a clerk of Richard Earl of Cornwall, and had extorted money from the Crusaders on various specious pretexts. Amongst his goods was found in a coffer choose one of blank sheets sealed with the bull [the most important papal seal], which might be filled up at pleasure and applied to any misuse, such as fraudulently extorting money from the poor as if by authority of the Pope.

At first, Matthew's Chronicle struck me as pretty tedious, but it got better as it went along. There's a rhythm to these things, and it eventually caught me. Peres could write almost as well as he could draw.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Some of Matthew Paris's favorite words

Extortions, oppressions, legate.

There's always a bad papal legate practicing extortions and oppressions.

Image: A legate at work, drawn by Matthew Paris.

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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Visualize this

In 1215, the church council known as the Fourth Lateran Council required all Christians to support the upcoming (5th) Crusade either by going in person or by supporting others to go in their stead. Pope Innocent III threatened those who did neither thus:

If any shall be found so ungrateful to the Lord as to refuse, we warn them that they must answer for it to us before the terrible judge on the last day. Let all such consider with what conscience and what security they will be able to make their confession before the only begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, into whose hands the Father has given all things, if, in this matter which so peculiarly concerns them, they refuse to obey him who was crucified for sinners, by whose favor and goodness they live and are sustained, nay, more, by whose blood they are redeemed.

After you've read enough medieval ecclesiastical documents, it is easy enough to see this statement as formulaic. Stop for a moment and take it literally -- or try to. What did Innocent think would happen, really?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Jonathan Riley-Smith on the 11th c. reformation

The prominent Crusade historian in a 1993 interview at the Christianity Today Library:

In Europe today, if you drive five miles along any road, you will probably find two churches. Nearly all of those churches are built on eleventh- and twelfth-century foundations. Previously, there might have been one church every twenty miles, from which priests would go out to serve the sacraments. Eleventh-century reformers believed religion should be taken into the villages, and this evangelizing drive resulted in a great building program. This burst of construction ranks with anything the Roman Empire did. Someone in 1032 said, “France is becoming white with churches.”

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The not-so-good-old days

Medievalists are are constantly being put in the position of responding to the modern connotations of the word "medieval." For many modern people the Middle Ages acts as a dumping ground for every nightmare that can be attributed to humanity. The great witchhunt of European history took place after the Middle Ages; the purges and holocausts of the 20th century put most medieval slaughters, ruthless and cruel as they may have been, in the shade. We often find ourselves pointing out such things to people who carelessly use "medieval" to mean "bad." (Indeed, my dictation software heard that last usage of medieval as "and evil" so we are seemingly in the position of fighting the machines, too.)

But we must face the fact that most of history, including the Middle Ages, were not exactly the good old days. Some scholarly blogging posts of the last week or so underline this.

Jonathan Jarrett, I believe, started the ball rolling with a post on Sex slaves in the early Middle Ages: what’s the evidence? over at his blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. his point was that he didn't know what the evidence for sex slavery might be and he hoped someone would enlighten him. Soon after, he found himself shocked by reflecting on well-known evidence about the prominent monastery of Cluny in eastern France. As he put it, "slaves are all through the material from Cluny [in the tenth century]." that reflection, and chance meeting with another medievalist blogger, Magistra et Mater, went into this post on trading "ancillae [slave women]."

At the same time Magistra et Mater has been writing about some subjects that might excite prurient interest, but deserve serious thought, too. For instance, how exactly were disobedient monks flogged in the time of the Carolingian kings? And somewhat less grim, were families about the same time somewhat reluctant to write off their daughters as ruined if they indulged in a little premarital sexual activity? Maybe for good practical reasons the Carolingian Franks were a little less likely to condemn such girls than some other cultures. These are all isolated points perhaps, but important for visualizing how things actually worked for individual people, like a monk about to be flogged, or the teenager worried about how dad is going to react to her little adventure.

Finally, the subject of slavery (mostly later than medieval) is discussed by Phil Paine in this post, inspired by a book on 18th century Moroccan slavery (item 16305). Conclusion: there is no "nice slavery," ancient, medieval, early modern, or current

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Memories of Cornwall

For those Canadians who think "President's Choice foods" when you hear the phrase "memories
of..." associated with a place name, yes, my memories of my first trip to Cornwall, now two weeks in the past, includes important food and drink elements. Cornish pasties made in Cornwall by people who care and don't want to disgrace themselves in front of their neighbors -- such Cornish pasties are extremely good. Food in restaurants and pubs was generally very good. I drank Zennor Mermaid Ale and the first mild ale that I've had in decades. Cider on tap in a place where they care about cider was excellent.

And unspeakably beyond excellent was the first "cream tea" of my life, in a farmhouse tea shop somewhere near Land's End. There may be better cream teas somewhere, but I cannot imagine them.

But my actual memories of the trip are dominated by a big surprise, which ambushed me despite the fact I had looked at pictures and maps and read about Cornwall in preparation for the trip. The landscape by turns green and rocky and never flat, especially the seascape where we were walking on the coastal path around the entire Duchy, is impossible to catch at second hand. Go ahead, use Google Image search: you will find many fine photographs of dramatic views, but if you've never been to Cornwall I will bet the reality will surprise you as much as it did me. Despite the fact that you can describe the Cornish coast very simply, as a series of coves and headlands and cliffs plunging into the sea, not one of those coves or headlands looks like any other. The colors, too, were constantly shifting and always new.

Walking the coast of Cornwall is something a lot of people do. Indeed, I ran into a fellow medievalist at Kalamazoo in May who has done the entire trip, which takes about seven weeks. But it is not for the faint of heart. Fit-looking pensioners and little kids with their parents tread the path without noticeable unease. Here in North America, there would probably be barriers to keep people away from the cliffs, for fear of lawsuits. In Cornwall, the only dangers marked off and walled or fenced off were old mine shafts; if you fall off a cliff, presumably you knew what you were getting into. The one time I saw a rope barrier by the side of the path, it was to keep people from treading on rare plants. Only at Tintagel, where busloads of people are brought in from all over Europe, were there a couple of signs that said "Danger -- Cliffs." That was our last day of cliff-walking and the sign inspired hilarity. We'd been past a hundred more perilous places by that time.

Did I mention that I'm afraid of heights? Fortunately not terrified of heights, but scared enough that there was an additional psychological challenge on top of a very real physical one. Because of my late illness I am still easily tired, and one 6-mile day's walk rated "severe" was pretty taxing, to the point that I walked a lot less the next two days.

It was however worth it and I hope someday to take a similar walk, just one with fewer precipices. A river walk?

I expect to Cornwall feel different from England, and it did. I could mention many things but as a medievalist and historian the odd names of villages and the saints who founded them, saints unknown outside of Cornwall and known mainly for their names inside it, struck my eye. St. Senara, for instance, founded the fishing/farming village now called "Zennor," which has a famous legend about a mermaid; thus the ale named after said mermaid. The parish associated with Tintagel is dedicated to St. Materiana. These are not big-name international saints, these are Irish immigrants of the dark age who converted the Cornish.

The most famous at the moment, perhaps, is St. Piran whose flag (above) is just about everywhere. To the outsider, St. Piran is a vaguely comical early saint with an odd legend: an Irish king him into the sea with a millstone around his neck, to end his pesky preaching of the Gospel. By a miracle, Piran floated on that millstone all the way to Cornwall, where he found a more receptive audience. We had to wonder, however, whether he brought the snakes from Ireland with him. Anyway his unrecognized-in-the-Union-Jack flag makes him a symbol of Cornish national feeling. (See this article from last year's Guardian.) The Cornish language, effectively dead from about the 18th century, is making a bit of a comeback. We were entertained in one restaurant by musicians who had translated Beatles songs into Cornish. This may seem less peculiar when I say that the translator was young enough that independent Cornwall and Beatlemania were equally part of the distant past.

One of the most impressive things I saw on the trip however besides the millions of flowers was the remains on Cornish tin mining. I think I will reserve that for another post.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Holy Lance Church in Armenia

Many people know that the discovery of the Holy Lance in Antioch saved the First Crusade. Today English Russia posted several pictures of an alternate site for the Holy Lance, at a church in Armenia. I've also heard the Lance was at Constantinople (which led some churchmen at Antioch during the crusade to doubt the reality of the just-discovered one).

This rather odd art looks strangely familiar to me. What am I thinking of? Readers?

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mass Arrest of Templars Day

Yes, indeed, this is the 700th anniversary of the mass arrest of the Knights Templar in the Kingdom of France.

Image: A modern rendition of the execution of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, for recanting the lurid accusations he'd originally admitted to.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Meditations on democracy and its cultural roots

Phil Paine's Third Meditation on Democracy is on his website blog (under August 18). If you missed the first and second, they are available here.

In the third meditation, Phil talks about the relationship between culture and democracy, specifically the idea that Christianity or the European Enlightenment were necessary precursors for the ideas behind modern democracy. Phil has always rejected this, and in the third meditation says:

The connection between articles of religious faith, especially in the form of abstract theological precepts, and what people do in practical situations, has never been obvious. Pacifism, for instance, is a pretty straightforward tenet of Christianity, recognized by most Christians as central to the teaching of Christ. Yet how much pacifist behaviour has Christianity generated? Only a handful of microscopic sects have practiced it, and they have generally suffered persecution in the “Christian” world. How many Buddhists actually make any effort to follow the Fourfold Path? Even if a particular religion can be shown to have some abstract principle that supports democratic theory, it does not follow that the people of that faith are bound to act democratically. Democracy is something that people do. It’s a practical approach to solving concrete problems.

That's a part of what Phil has to say here, but hardly all. Phil has some interesting things to say about the evolution of European culture and the cosmopolitan roots of what some of us most value in it. Read the meditation.

Just as Phil was publishing the third meditation, another interesting essay on the Enlightenment and the history of religion appeared in the New York Times, Mark Lilla published in the New York Times Magazine a long article, the Politics of God, on the relationship between Enlightenment thought and religion in modern times. His major point, in my view, is that the relationship hasn't been a simple one. His discussion of "liberal" theology in pre-World War I Germany told me things I did not know, but should have, given my scholarly interests:

By the turn of the 20th century, the liberal house was tottering, and after the First World War it collapsed. It was not just the barbarity of trench warfare, the senseless slaughter, the sight of burned-out towns and maimed soldiers that made a theology extolling “modern civilization” contemptible. It was that so many liberal theologians had hastened the insane rush to war, confident that God’s hand was guiding history. In August 1914, Adolf von Harnack, the most respected liberal Protestant scholar of the age, helped Kaiser Wilhelm II draft an address to the nation laying out German military aims. Others signed an infamous pro-war petition defending the sacredness of German militarism. Astonishingly, even Hermann Cohen joined the chorus, writing an open letter to American Jews asking for support, on the grounds that “next to his fatherland, every Western Jew must recognize, revere and love Germany as the motherland of his modern religiosity.” Young Protestant and Jewish thinkers were outraged when they saw what their revered teachers had done, and they began to look elsewhere.
I highly recommend this article, but it will go into subscriber-only status by the end of the week. Don't wait if you think you might be interested.

Image: Meditations Mist by Robert Masla.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Today's religious issues

On Tuesday the pope issued a statement confirming that in his view, the Roman Catholic Church is the true church of Christ, while the Orthodox churches are defective for not recognizing papal authority, and the Protestant churches are a step down from that, lacking as they do a sacramental clergy.

As Atrios at Eschaton remarked, it's not exactly astonishing that the man in charge of this vast, prestigious and traditional institution would have this opinion. Otherwise, he'd be unlikely to be a member. Chester Scoville at The Vanity Press opines that ecumenism, along with other nostalgic efforts at a vaguely defined "unity," is overrated, even if the past efforts to reduce active hostility have been worthwhile.

Reading about this papal statement, which doesn't exactly impress me as very significant, made me think about how the religious issues of any given time are not handled very well in journalistic and even scholarly discussions.

For instance, a historically Christian intellectual culture tends to emphasize theological doctrines (teachings about God, and his relationship to the universe and humanity) as expressing the essential nature of any religion or religious faction. But how much do people really care about the essential teachings of their own faith? Some ideas really are fundamental. I can't see why anyone who doesn't believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world would even want to be called a Christian. But what about the Procession of the Holy Spirit? It's in some of the earliest "creeds" or statements of faith. Do you know anyone who understands what this means, much less why it is as important to believe as, say, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment? Why should different ideas about this Procession have separated Rome and the Orthodox churches for over a thousand years?

I think the big issues of religion today, or at least Christianity (but maybe not just Christianity) are things hardly discussed by the gospels or the creed writers from 325 AD on. Here they are:
  • Marriage, who's allowed to have it and under what conditions
  • Birth control and abortion
  • The status of gays in a Christian community: lepers or leaders?
These issues are the ones that are tearing apart traditional alignments. For instance, the world-wide Anglican communion is on the rocks on the issue of whether same sex unions can be blessed and whether gays can be bishops. The protagonists are the national Anglican churches in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads a national church where most members never go to services, tries to keep things together. It looks to me, though, that there isn't much middle ground between Anglicans who want to return to a traditional disapproval of sexual diversity, and those who want the approval of God's church -- the one they belong to -- for their family life, even if Moses condemned it in the laws of Leviticus.

And the Anglican church is hardly the only one in this position.

The religious landscape is always a complicated one with lots of inconsistencies and apparent paradoxes. One Japanese Buddhist leader long ago taught that true Buddhism meant that everyone should be married and no one should be a monk (!). Just looking at the labels or even at the official teachings of the labeled groups doesn't help understanding very much.

Remember when, in North America, getting a divorce was a lifelong disgrace? No? Gather round, children, and I'll tell you a story...

PS: You will note that I didn't list under religious issues people care about the Evolution/Creation as in Genesis debate. Certainly many people do care, but how many of them live outside the United States? Honest question.

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Translating Eusebius' Chronicle

Roger Pearse, the public benefactor behind the online source collection (far more than just Tertullian), is challenging the Republic of Letters to pitch in and just for the fun of it, translate the Chronicle of Eusebius into English.

Eusebius was bishop of Caesarea in Palestine at the time of the Great Persecution and the miraculous-seeming turnabout when Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor. Eusebius was an important advisor to the new convert and wrote some important works, including the first detailed history of the church and a detailed universal chronology (his Chronicle) that showed how biblical history fit in with pagan chronologies and, by implication, how Christian history contained and superceded pagan history.

Eusebius's Chronicle was a complicated graph-like work for much of its extent, in a way that seems, perhaps mistakenly, modern to us. Or it might: it doesn't survive in its original Greek form, but only in ancient Latin and Armenian translations. But the Latin one by Jerome at least is taken as a pretty accurate reflection of Eusebius' work. It's an interesting document of how 4th century Christians understood historical time, and is our main link between ancient chronology and our own.

Would you like to play with this text, and help make it more widely available? Here's Roger Pearse's invitation:

The chronicle of Eusebius has never been translated into English. But we
have a simple Latin version, and also a German one. Much of it is in
short sentences or phrases, so even a novice at Latin would probably find
something they could do.

I've now put online the entries for the second chunk, starting with more
material from Alexander Polyhistor using Berossus.

I've made it editable so that anyone can enter stuff. Each sentence is separately editable. There's no passwords or logons involved. Anyone can edit anything by just pressing the edit button.

If you know any Latin at all, or German, why not buzz over to this page and contribute a sentence or two?

The intention is that the whole translation should be in the public domain and be put online for everyone.

I'll add some stuff in, but by all means feel free to add notes to each bit you do if something is uncertain and see if someone else can find the answer!

It's a bit of fun, not something serious - if you know amo amas amat, I think you could probably do a sentence or two!

All the best,

Roger Pearse

Image: A late medieval Spanish copy of Jerome's translation of Eusebius.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Living in the future (?)-- battling Apocalypses

Brad DeLong says it best in his post Battling Apocalypses, where he cites other linked material. The story, briefly, is that the location of Jesus' appearance on the Last Day has become a minor (we can hope) issue in the American presidential campaign. And as Brad points out, there are international implications...

This reminds me that Robert Heinlein's pioneering science fiction series "Future History" featured a theocratic dictatorship in the USA.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

One small incident in the conversion of Europe

From the blog English Russia, a piece of early history: the pagan Horse Stone on Horse Island, the site of horse sacrifices, turned into a Christian church. More detail at English Russia -- one of the best of blogs.

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Ramsay MacMullen, Voting About God in Early Church Councils

In an earlier post I promised to talk about the content of this book.

Dr. MacMullen is interested in two phenomena that he seems to find underappreciated by writers on the later Roman Empire.

First is the huge amount of activity that took place under the rubric of "early church councils." It's easy to push this activity to one side because you are not particularly interested in the development of Christian doctrine; on the other hand, you might be primarily interested in doctrine and not all that concerned with the social or political context. One of the first things that Dr. MacMullen points out to his Martian visitor is that there was a tremendous amount of such activity from the third to the sixth century AD. He comes up with some speculative but not unreasonable numbers for meetings and attendees; he talks about how bishops, their retainers, their messengers and their letters and supporting dossiers of documents crossed the Roman world, at great trouble and to some extent on the basis of imperial subsidies (the Roman post service which expedited not just mail delivery but the travel of officials, which was notoriously expensive). The business of church councils, which it should be noted was not always on matters of correct belief and teaching (doctrine), was a significant dimension of the business of government.

The Martian visitor is impressed.

Second, this network of relationships had a dimension that MacMullen calls "democratic." Not because there was a government based on elections (though bishops were elected) and not because anyone believed the empire was or should be based on democratic principles (it was in theory an absolute, divinely ordained monarchy), but because the people, or large organized groups of people, usually gathered together in towns and cities, especially imperial capitals or large regional centers like Alexandria or Ephesus, exerted pressure on bishops, governors and emperors, and sometimes got their way. The people (the mass of them) had power.

Dr. MacMullen discusses two aspects of this "people power." The first is well known to anyone who knows late Roman history at all -- the factional assemblies that took place in streets, plazas, and the circus (the chariot-racing track) and demonstrated for or against doctrinal positions, local governors, or even the emperors themselves. The competition between Greens and Blues in 5th and 6th century Constantinople is particularly famous -- they were in theory fan clubs organized to support chariot teams, but though they were intensely interested in that subject, their activities went well beyond it. (See my short discussion here.) MacMullen reminds us that the most famous demonstrations and riots were not the sum-total of this "democratic" aspect of late Roman civic and imperial life.

The second "democratic" manifestation analyzed in this book is the conduct of councils themselves -- which conduct was modeled on that of the Roman senate, the imperial consistory, and town councils. Some attention has been directed this way in the past because we have the minutes of such bodies, but usually the councils have been seen as a degenerate form of institutions that were freer and worked better in the republican past. The feature particularly noted has been the chanting of attendees -- chanting that began with long passages of praise for the divine emperor, continued with praises for his wise policies, and then, kinda sneaked in there, complaints and petitions and even denunciations of officials. All these chants were written down and the number of repetitions of each carefully noted.

This seems like a slavish way to run a consultative or legislative body, and maybe it is so. However, MacMullen invites us to imagine how such demonstrations were organized, how they looked to those present (especially when one considers that chants could turn to violence, and that chants might threaten violence to people on the wrong side), how chanting defined parties, how chanting was used to manifest the power of the majority. MacMullen grants as he clearly must that his church councils were easily manipulated by the presiding officers and senior bishops (kind of like the US Senate today), but he argues that people power -- the power of a passionate mass -- sometimes won the day.

Thinking about this material can result in seeing the later Roman empire in a whole new way.

But is this democracy? Or is it mob rule, sometimes or maybe more often than not manipulated by managers behind the scene, a la the Chinese Cultural Revolution? I have my problems with the notion of mob rule, but I have to say that the democracy of the streets and the revolutionary assemblies of the early Christian empire has its resemblances to the democracy of the streets and assemblies of the French Revolution. (Modernity, where are you?) Yes, the revolutionary demonstrations were loud and violent and intolerant in both settings, and led to mass slaughter -- I'll take Canadian democracy, thanks -- but they did respond to the dissatisfactions of large, determined groups of people. Absolute power, accepted out loud by all, again is shown as fragile and chimerical and in need at times of (let's say) mob power.

This book has given me a lot to think about.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Modern conceits, man from Mars, baby in the well

I have just finished reading Ramsay MacMullen's Voting about God in Early Church Councils and I haven't entirely made up my mind about it. I will say that I'm grateful to the book vendor at Kalamazoo who had it on display!

MacMullen's books are not your usual academic tome. Voting like others of his works is based on vast scholarship, but the presentation of his ideas has been boiled down to a mere 118 pages (notes not included). This is thanks to a concise, allusive prose that occasionally takes some work to figure out. But there is no bafflegab or shilly-shallying here. Did MacMullen ever study the Roman historian Tacitus? This is an opinionated work and MacMullen has no time -- being nearly 80 -- to appease unsympathetic critics.

MacMullen appears a classicist through and through but there are some touches that really mae the book seem alive and dust-free.

First let's look at the opening lines:
Before getting very far into a subject so familiar as the formation of Christian creeds, it may help to think of it for a moment in a detached way. If the distance between it and ourselves can be brought out--if we can try to see the scene and its actors afresh and in all their strangeness -- we may bring a more curious eye to our observation, we may really look, taking nothing for granted.

Suppose for a moment that a visitor from Mars asked about the setting for this essay--and no one more detached can be imagined--might he not need to be told the most obvious things?
Well, no classicist or church historian that I'm aware of has begun an essay like that! The funny thing, though, I've been using the conceit of a visiting or observing Martian for decades for similar purposes, imitating the one person I know who's been doing it longer, my friend and sometime collaborator Phil Paine. He uses it a little differently, to force himself and his listener to take the Yakuts and the Patagonians and the Mordovians to be roughly as worthy of attention as the Swiss, the Swedes and the Californians if you are generalizing about humanity as a whole. Recently I've breezed past blog entries where the visiting Martian has made a brief appearance lending perspective, and I have to wonder, is this becoming more common? If so, if people take the exercise in perspective seriously, good!

Another passage of MacMullen's leaves me with mixed feelings. Talking about the widespread interest in doctrinal disputes during the later Roman empire, he says (p.35-36):
Our sense of how absolutely wonderful we ourselves are in our modern world may lead us to discount the capacity of the capacity of the ancient: for example, the capacity to disseminate ideas so as to engage popular interest...Their understanding of such major realities...beyond their own back-door, or realities that counted -- was not like the modern sort confined to meretricious photo ops, celebrities, or babies stuck in wells. Hence my supposing more consequential communication in this period of the empire than generally in our own world today.
Oh, Tacitus redivivus, you burst the balloon of our self-regard!

But when I get beyond my admiration for this passage, I wonder about it. I understand MacMullen's disgust for what passes for "media coverage;" in an era where the US constitution is being gutted and the treasury plundered (with inevitable consequences for the non-American world), the coverage all too often goes to (in a current phrase) Missing White Women. But is the comparison valid? Maybe Dr. MacMullen should look past cable news to the places where people who are interested in consequential matters meet and discuss more easily than ever before.

Also, I find this passage a bit odd in that I think Dr. MacMullen's personal opinion of church controversies is not really all that high. But more on the content of the book later.

Finally, the remark about the baby in the well made me wonder, what about that baby in the well? My younger readers may never have heard of that baby (Midland, Texas, 1987) but she was real and she was rescued, and if this website is accurate, she's a healthy adult today.

Image: Marvin the Martian, one of those hostile, all-too-engaged-in-Earthly-affairs Martians.

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