The Transformation of JJ the Bully: An Addendum

So my mom fact-checked my story about JJ the bully. And rather than just editing a few places in the article for historical accuracy, I thought I’d write a separate post about the differences between my memory and my mom’s in order to explore the nature of memory and memoir a bit, as well as to include an ending to the story that I had forgotten about, but which even further emphasizes the effect that unexpected kindness had on him.

First, my mom informed me that the details of the second scene of my story weren’t quite right. This was the part where I wrote that she took us to 7-Eleven in order to buy a slurpee for JJ, and that we had chosen to buy him a blueberry one. In fact, she told me that we first drove to JJ’s house, where my mom told him that we were going to Rita’s Water Ice, and asked him if he’d like to come along. Rita’s is a warm-weather staple of the area northeast of Philadelphia, now branded Rita’s Italian Ice, but back then in the regional dialect it was known as Rita’s Wooder Ice. Italian ice is sort of like a snow cone, but with much finer ice, and it has a denser consistency than a smoothie or slurpee. However, JJ couldn’t come with us, so we asked him what flavor we could bring back for him. He chose lemon.

Rita’s, and not 7-Eleven. Lemon, and not blueberry. An initial visit to his house and return, rather than one surprising visit. Assuming that mom’s recollections are the correct ones – which is a good assumption since she was thirty seven and I was seven – it’s worth asking how and why my mind remembered things the way that it did.

I only remembered standing at JJ’s door once, and not the initial time that we had stopped by. Why might that be? Well, our brains do tend to remember situations in piecemeal fashion, “deleting” the vast majority of our memories that don’t seem significant, while holding onto the parts that had some kind of emotional significance. Fear, for example, is one of the strongest “cementers” of memory. If you have ever been unexpectedly put on the spot by a teacher, and that situation made your nervous system kick into high gear, then you will likely remember that scene for the rest of your life. Therefore, it’s likely that my mind deleted the first visit, categorizing it as not that significant, whereas it remembered the second time we were at JJ’s door. Why? Because of the emotion on JJ’s face. Human minds mirror one another’s emotions, so when I saw JJ’s expression I also felt his emotion. And this was significant enough that it was categorized under scenes to be archived for future reflection.

Why then did my mind swap 7-Eleven for Rita’s, and blueberry for lemon? Here we probably have a case of the mind naturally filling in the gaps in a memory from other similar memories of that same season (Perhaps I chose blueberry for myself at Rita’s that day). This freedom the mind feels to cut and paste certain details of stories, to mix memories together, and to remember things that didn’t really happen is what makes an individual’s memory alone less than rock-solid evidence of the actual history.

While there is always a certain kind of validity to the details of one’s memories – your mind remembers things in a certain way for a reason, meaning there is a true story being told about you even in memories that are not quite factual – human memory is not exactly a copy/paste of the historical situation. This is why having multiple witnesses is so important for a legal case. It’s also why it can be so helpful to compare our memories with others who were there. Even in situations where everyone recalls things accurately (as with the supernaturally-enabled writers of the gospels), each human brain involved is remembering only partial details of that scene, meaning that the combination of true stories leads to a fuller story overall. Alas, only the mind of God is perfectly and comprehensively aligned with the historical record for any given event.

All this means we should read or write memoir with a grain of salt, knowing that even the recollections of an honest author will come with some inevitable gaps, additions, or personal interpretations mixed in. But the fact that all natural memoir is like this means that once this is understood as a given, then we can engage in the genre with freedom, enjoyment, and humility. We try our best, and neither author nor reader need get bent out of shape when it comes out that certain details were a little off. It’s simply the nature of the genre, the nature of memory. As with biblical hermeneutics, knowing what genre we are in is key for proper interpretation and response, even for proper enjoyment. Memoir is the genre of significant true experiences that are remembered by the brain in a mostly-true, limited-perspective kind of way. And these very limitations of memoir are what make it so much fun.

No matter how good the story, the reader knows that there’s always more detail that might be unveiled, things that even the author missed. Sometimes the discovery of an omission makes the story even better. All of our favorite true stories conceal fascinating details that we have yet to learn – even the biblical ones. I would not be surprised if significant time is spent in eternity filling in these gaps. “Okay, Matthew, I invited you over for chai because I’ve simply got to know a little bit more about those dead saints who got out of their graves and wandered around Jerusalem after the crucifixion. What exactly was going on there?”

When I talked to my mom this week, she told me that I had ended the story of JJ the bully prematurely. As it went down, sometime later my mom was jogging in their neighborhood when she came across JJ again. She asked him if he had enjoyed his lemon water ice. JJ’s response?

“I didn’t drink it. I put it in my freezer because I wanted to keep it… I’ve never had anyone do something that nice for me before.”

Maybe someday I’ll meet JJ again. Because now I want to know – Did he ever drink it? How long did it stay in the freezer? Did his mom eventually throw it away? Does he still have it in his freezer? How does it end?!

At this point, only God knows, the author of all authors, storyteller of all storytellers. Good thing we’ll get to spend eternity with him. I can’t wait to hear more of his stories.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Golden Chains Gladly Accepted

In 312, after his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine I (ruled 312 – 337) declared himself a Christian; in the following year he proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom. Since the emperor pronounced the Christian god as his god, this god was elevated, eo ipso, to the god of the empire. With Emperor Theodosius I (ruled 379-395), the process of the Christianization of the Roman state, begun with Emperor Constantine, led to a nationalization of the Church when, in 381, he forbade the conversion from Christianity to another religion and then, ten years later, put an end to all pagan worship within the empire and had the pagan temples destroyed or turned into churches. However, Constantine’s successors had already banned pagan sacrifices in 341, and in 346 had decreed the closing of pagan temples, although in 361 Emperor Julian the Apostate (ruled 361 – 363) undertook the last, unsuccessful, attempt to create a Christian-pagan synthesis and had the closed temples reopened.

It is hardly surprising that the Christian Church first expressed thanks for its sudden recognition as the state religion with a certain submissiveness and gladly accepted ‘golden chains’ in the form of financial support from the state.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 38

Notice how after only a few short decades of religious freedom, the Church in the Roman empire found itself no longer in the frying pan of persecution, but now in the fire of being the official religion of state power – and financially-dependent on that state.

Photo by Chris Czermak on Unsplash

Did the Jews Really Borrow Certain Doctrines From the Zoroastrians?

“You know the Jews only got their belief in a fiery hell from the Zoroastrians in Babylon, right?”

This argument from my atheistic aunt was a new one for me. We had traveled to the Philly area to celebrate my engagement, when one morning my aunt opened up an apologetics conversation by asking me if I believed there would be free will in heaven. Somehow the conversation had veered into the territory of Zoroastrianism, which my aunt was putting forward as a point to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. After all, if central ideas like the nature of life after death had been borrowed from other religions, this would cast serious doubt on the Bible’s authority as God’s true revelation.

I chewed on her claim and considered how to respond.

“Well, I don’t know a lot about Zoroastrianism. But I don’t think you should say that there was no concept of a fiery judgment until after the exile. The ending of Isaiah (66:24) speaks of the wicked being judged by a fire that will never be quenched. And he predated the exile by a generation or so.”

That conversation may have been the first time I heard the argument that Judaism (and Christianity through it) borrowed heavily from Zoroastrianism. But it certainly wasn’t the last. This position is held as fact by many scholars, and even shows up in some pretty good Christian textbooks and resources. In addition, Zoroastrianism is enjoying a quiet revival in Central Asia and also has some good PR in the West with claims of being “The first monotheistic religion” and the first to teach a final judgment and resurrection.

So, how should Christians respond to the claim that much of our doctrine has been borrowed from the teachings of Zarathustra/Zoroaster, the ancient prophet who founded Zoroastrianism?

First, it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of this religion. Because that story alone leaves a lot to be desired in terms of statements of historical certainty. As best we can tell, Zarathustra was an influential religious teacher sometime around 1,200 BC to 500 BC who sought to reform the polytheism of ancient Persia into something approaching monotheism. But even here, we should be cautious calling calling it monotheism, since early Zoroastrianism teaches a temporary dualism, where even though there was only one God (Ahura Mazda), now there is a second, his evil enemy (Angra Mainyu), who is a god that must be battled both in creation and in the souls of humans. But later, when Zoroastrianism was codified and organized under the Sassanians in the AD 200s, its sacred text, the Avesta, presents an eternal dualism, or even an eternal tri-theism. Even Mithra, the God of war from the Persian pantheon who became so popular among the Roman legions, is thrown into the mix. The goal of the religion remains the same, to help Ahura Mazda, the god of light, overcome the darkness through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. But the nature of Ahura Mazda as the one true God is not even settled within the history and texts of Zoroastrianism itself. And even if it were, Moses predates Zarathustra by 400 years, at least. So, the claim that Jewish monotheism was borrowed from Zoroastrianism? It doesn’t hold water.

How about the claims that the concepts of a fiery hell and resurrection were borrowed? Here there a couple of big problems, as I see it. First, the later possible dates for Zarathustra’s life could place him as a contemporary of Daniel, Ezekiel, and the other writers of the exile period. A number of scholars maintain that Zarathustra was active during the lifetime of Cyrus the great. So, when the concept of resurrection shows up in Ezekiel and Daniel (Ez 37, Dan 12), why should the assumption be that they borrowed from the Zoroastrians they encountered in Babylon and Susa, when it’s just as likely that Zarathustra borrowed from them? Don’t forget what an influential figure Daniel was for decades in both the Babylonian and the Persian empires. He was not only prime minister, political second-in-command, but also head of the wise men of Babylon – essentially the priestly class. It’s not an unreasonable theory to propose that it is Daniel who is influencing the religion of the Persian empire, and not the other way around.

Further, how do you establish what Zoroastrianism was actually teaching during the time of the exile when its sacred texts were not collected and compiled until 700 years later, during the first generation of the Sassanian empire in the 200s? This is the seriousness of the problem if Zarathustra was a contemporary of Daniel. But if he lived much earlier, say around 1,200 BC, then that makes for a period of 1,400 years between the life of Zarathustra and the compilation of his book of teachings, the Avesta. That would be like the Qur’an only being compiled today, when Muhammad lived and taught in the 600s. Given these huge periods of time, it seems like quite the stretch to read things in the Avesta and to say with confidence that these were indeed the teachings of Zarathustra, therefore they predate the biblical authors, therefore they must be the source for Jewish doctrine. Given this murkiness of the history of Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism, it seems that scholars are not really holding this ancient Persian religion to the same level of skepticism and criticism which they apply to Judaism and Christianity.

Ah, but you can’t find resurrection anywhere earlier than Ezekiel and Daniel, can you? Well, Jesus did, in the Torah, in Exodus 3:6. “And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31–33). And if we turn to Isaiah, once again we see this supposedly borrowed concept being taught a generation before the exile, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead” (Isaiah 26:19). For more evidence of resurrection in the Old Testament, check out this great article by Mitch Chase.

Over the years, I have heard these claims of borrowing from Zoroastrianism coming from my relatives, from Christian scholars, from online documentaries, and from Central Asian Zoroastrians trying to return to their roots. But when I dig around in the actual history of Zoroastrianism, of its founder and its beliefs, it doesn’t seem like these claims are coming from an examination of Zoroastrianism itself. Rather, it feels like some scholar made these claims once, everyone believed him, and now it’s just a big echo chamber where all accept these ideas as fact without knowing where they came from and if they were indeed sound in the first place.

Keep an eye out for Zoroastrianism in your evangelistic or apologetic conversations, and even in your resources. It tends to show up more than you might expect, claiming some pretty big things without the historical warrant to do so. A basic understanding of the story of Zoroastrianism – and how much really is debatable – can help provide a surprising answer, and get the conversation back on more profitable ground.

Photo by Shino on Unsplash

The White Martyrdom

…by century’s end Isidore was building a real library in Seville, which consisted of about fifteen presses (or book cabinets), containing perhaps some four hundred bound codices, an amazing number for the time. The only other continental library known to us in this period was in Calabria [S. Italy] and the fate of this library is lost in the blood and smoke of the sixth century. Gregory of Tours wrote this sad epitaph on sixth-century literacy: “In these times when the practice of letters declines, no, rather perishes in the cities of Gaul, there has been found no scholar trained in ordered composition to present in prose or verse a picture of the things which have befallen.”

Ireland, at peace and furiously copying, thus stood in the position of becoming Europe’s publisher. But the pagan Saxon settlements of southern England had cut Ireland off from easy commerce with the continent. While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.

Columcille provided that step. By stepping into the coracle that bore him beyond the horizon, he entered the Irish pantheon of heroes who had done immortal deeds against impossible odds. As he sailed off that morning, he was doing the hardest thing an Irishman could do, a much harder than than giving up his life: he was leaving Ireland. If the Green Martyrdom had failed, here was a martyrdom that was surely the equal of the Red; and henceforth, all who followed Columcille’s lead were called to the White Martyrdom, they who sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.

In this way, the Irish monastic tradition began to spread beyond Ireland.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 183-184

When the civilizations which Christians have made their homes begin to collapse, look to the fringes. God is often at work there, and just may use the most unexpected peoples and places to restore the light to lands once bright, now overrun by darkness.

Photo by Jay Tran on Unsplash

A Poem Laughing at Satan and Death Arguing

Ephrem the Syrian writes this poem as a fictional argument between Satan and Death, where each bicker about who is strongest. Ephrem, like many in church history, advocates laughing at our spiritual enemies as one important piece of spiritual warfare. Martin Luther agrees, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” This poem is a call to confidently laugh today at evil, thereby echoing the victorious laughter of the coming resurrection.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 52

I heard Satan and death loudly disputing
which was the strongest of the two amongst men. 

Refrain: Praise to You, Son of the Shepherd of all, who has saved his flock
                from the hidden wolves, the Evil One and Death, who had swallowed it up. 

Death has shown his power in that he conquers all men,  
Satan has shown his guile in that he makes all men sin. 

Death: Only those who want to, O Evil One, listen to you,
             but to me they come, whether they will it or not. 

Satan: You just employ brute force, O Death,
            whereas I use traps and cunning snares. 

Death: Listen, Evil One, a cunning man can break your yoke,
             but there is none who can escape from mine.   

Satan: You, Death, exercise your strength on the sick,
            but I am the stronger with those who are well. 

Death: The Evil One has no control over the person who reviles him,
             but all who have cursed me, in the past or now, still come to me. 

Satan: You, Death, received your power from God,
            but when I make men sin I do it without any outside help. 

Death: You, Evil One, lay snares like a coward,
             but I use my power like a king. 

Satan: You are too stupid, Death, to recognize how great I am,
            seeing that I can capture free will.

Death: You, Evil One, go around like a hooligan,
             whereas I am like a lion, fearlessly crushing my prey. 

Satan: You have no one who serves or worships you, O Death, 
            but me, kings honor with sacrifices, like a god. 

Death: But many address Death as a benefactor, 
             whereas no one ever has or shall call on you as such, O Evil One. 

Satan: Do you not realize, Death, how many 
            call on me in one way or another, and offer me libations? 

Death: Your name is hated, Satan, you cannot remedy it;
             everyone curses your name. Hide your shame. 

Satan: Your ear is dull, Death, for you fail to hear
            how everyone howls out against you. Go, hide yourself. 

Death: I go open-faced among creation, and do not use deceit like you:
            you do not pass a single night without some kind of deceit. 

Satan: You have not found a better lot for all your truth:
            men hate you just as much as they do me. 

Death: Everyone fears me as a master, 
             but you they hate as the evil one. 

Satan: People hate your name and your deeds, O Death;
            my name may be hated, but my pleasures are loved. 

Death: Your sweet taste ends in setting the teeth on edge:
             remorse always accompanies those pleasures of yours. 

Satan: Sheol is hated for there is no chance of remorse there:
            it is a pit which swallows up and suppresses every impulse. 

Death: Sheol is a whirlpool, and everyone who falls in it is resurrected,
             but sin is hated because it cuts off a man's hope. 

Satan: Although it grieves me, I allow for repentance;
            You cut off a sinner's hopes if he dies in his sins. 

Death: With you his hope was cut off long ago; 
             if you had never made him sin, he would have made a good end. 

Chorus: Blessed is he who set the accursed slaves against each other
              so that we can laugh at them just as they laughed at us. 

Our laughing at them now, my brethren, is a pledge 
that we will again be able to laugh, at the resurrection. 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, p. 104-107

Photo by Godfrey Nyangechi on Unsplash

The Unexpected Beauty of Babel

The events which took place at Babel most definitely fall into the category of judgment. Genesis eleven describes how the early peoples of the earth all shared one language. And contrary to God’s desires, they did not spread out and fill the earth, but decided they would band together, build a city in the land of Shinar, and construct a tower to challenge the heavens. In this way, they would “make a name” for themselves. You don’t have to be from an honor-shame culture to understand that making a name for yourself essentially means working to build up your own honor and reputation. It was pride, pure human pride – and that accelerated because everyone knew the same words, the same language.

God, not in the least threatened by this little rebellion, comes down to see what the residents of this city of Babel are up to. There’s some rich irony in the text here – the tower builders are not nearly as high up as they think they are. After seeing how the linguistic unity is enabling their prideful building campaign, God decides to instantly scramble their languages by means of a miraculous act of judgment. Once this has been accomplished, everything falls apart. Faced with mass communication confusion, the building of the city stops and the peoples end up spreading out over the face of the earth after all. Their dispersion is largely involuntary, a forced obedience of sorts thrust upon them by their dysfunctional language situation. Babel was judgment. Judgment for human pride. Judgment for neglecting the creation mandate to go forth, multiply, and fill the earth.

Yet Babel was not only an act of judgment. It was also an act of creation. Creation through judgment. Apparently, when God acted, dozens of languages burst into existence instantly and then began to live and move and have stories and descendants of their own. These languages would be the first ancestors of the language families in our world today, with language families meaning simply groups of related languages. For example, English, Latin, Farsi, and Hindi all come from the Indo-European family of languages. While Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic come from a different family, the Semitic. However, while languages within a given family are clearly related to one another, separate language families don’t seem to share any common descent. Historical linguists can try to reconstruct ancient languages like Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic, but they can’t seem to find any links suggesting these early languages emerged from a common ancestor. Similar to the problem facing speciation in Darwinian evolution, what seems to emerge from the data is not one connected tree from which all the descendants are traced back to a single ancestor, but rather a forest of trees that seem to have been there at the beginning. Like subspecies, languages branch back toward these early independent trunks, but not further, posing a great mystery for historical linguists. Christians of course have a good answer. We believe in a humanity created in the image of a speaking God, and in Babel, the source of this world’s incredible language diversity.

It’s curious to note that the result of this judgment – a world of linguistic diversity – is never promised to disappear. The restoration of all things does not seem to include a future where we are restored to being a monolingual species. Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 instead suggest that noticeable language differences are actually preserved in eternity. John can tell that the great multitude before the throne is made up of those from every tongue. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!'” (Revelation 7:9, 10). Our unique languages don’t seem to melt away into some heavenly tongue, like cast off vestiges of a divided past. Rather, God’s plan from the beginning seems to be the redemption of humanity’s diverse languages, a restoration where they are finally free to perfectly glorify God in a great multilingual choir of the saints.

We see hints of this plan in God’s choice to reveal the Scriptures in multiple languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. At various points in history, these multiple fallen languages are given the honor of being the vehicle by which God reveals his eternal word. Even Persian gets a bunch of loan words in the Bible. Then, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, what does he choose to do? To empower the apostles to preach and worship in the foreign languages of pilgrims who had come to the feast from dozens of far-flung lands. Put together with the visions of Revelation, the picture we get is that both at the birth and at the final destination of the Church, the many languages of the world do not fade away to be replaced by some heavenly tongue, or some chosen earthly tongue like Hebrew. No, instead we see the languages of the nations transformed, employed in the praise of God.

It seems as if, as he so often does, God has chosen to bring beauty through judgment, a greater grace and glory than would have existed had the judgment never taken place. After all, this is the logic of the cross and salvation history. Yes, judgment falls. Yet amazingly God’s grace shines even brighter for it. Should we be surprised that God delights to also do this with the arc of language history? It reminds me of how God gave a king to Israel in 1st Samuel chapter eight. Being granted a monarch was a judgment, a consequence of Israel wanting to be like all the other nations, and their rejection of God as king. And yet we know that God’s plan was, through this rebellion, to raise up David – and eventually the eternal son of David. God’s forever king for his people was the plan from the beginning. And yet an initial hint of this mystery’s unveiling was a story of human failure, and divine judgment.

What might God be up to in his plan to redeem the languages of Babel and their many descendants? Here I’m helped to remember the limitations of a single language. Languages are good, wonderful even, but they are limited. Everyone who has learned another language has experienced the frustration of a perfectly descriptive term existing in one tongue, but not in another. In my home we have terms from Melanesia as well as from Central Asia that have made their way into our daily household English. This is because English lacks a word for those particular situations or feelings. If languages are thus limited to describe everyday realities, then how much more limited are they to describe eternal realities? To describe the Godhead?

In Greek, and my adopted Central Asian language, God can be called Lord Heart-Knower (Acts 1:24), and yet this title simply doesn’t work in my mother tongue, English. On the other hand, English has so many wonderfully-succinct terms for God’s attributes like omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent that require multiple words – or even a whole sentence – to communicate in many other languages. Alas, as with the sons of Adam, so every language has also fallen short of the glory of God. No, when it comes to the task of glorifying the Trinity for all eternity, a single language was apparently not enough. Rather, God seems to have desired thousands of them, all working together to leverage their unique strengths and beauty for his eternal praise – and the enjoyment of his people.

For surely languages will also be redeemed and preserved for the sake of our enjoyment. While polyglots delight in the freedom that comes from being able to speak and think in a dozen different ways, even my four-year-old cracks up when a good pun is made (and scripture is full of witty puns and wordplay). Language was created for our enjoyment, and even in this broken age we get small tastes of the fun that is coming to us beyond the resurrection. Perhaps in eternity the Spirit will give us a supernatural ability to speak and understand all languages, in a sort of permanent Pentecost. Or, perhaps we will use the time provided by eternity (plus a resurrected mind) to learn all of the many tongues spoken by our brothers and sisters. We simply don’t know yet. I tend to hope we’ll get to learn them the old-fashioned way, maybe a little easier, but still getting to make funny mistakes.

What we do know is that God wanted a universe with thousands of unique languages. And so, even though Babel is a reminder of human pride and God’s just judgment, it is also the start of something which will ultimately become an amazing tapestry reflecting God’s glory. There are eternal upsides to the shattering of humanity’s united language. In Babel there is beauty, unexpected, but even more wonderful for it.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Murdered in His Own Baptistery

Since Christianity was, by 381/392 at the latest, the state religion of the Roman Empire, conciliar [council] decisions served as civil laws, as soon as the emperor ratified them. Local bishops were the first to perceive this, as they were obligated to uphold the opinions declared orthodox by the councils. Opposition to conciliar pronouncements led to civil sanctions; dissenting bishops were sent into exile and replaced with orthodox ones. However, since the bishops often had at their disposal a strong following, dismissal by force could not be carried out immediately, for the threat of revolt was too great. This was all the truer when, in the traditional hotbeds of unrest in the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, anti-Byzantine nationalistic reflex arose. During the tumult of that time there were many casualties, and in the case of the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria, Proterios, even murder: an angry mob killed the unfortunate patriarch in 457 in the baptistery of his cathedral. Other prominent victims were Flavian, the deposed archbishop of Constantinople, who was so badly injured by monks and soldiers at the so-called ‘Robber Synod’ of 449 that he died of his wounds three days later; and Bishop Severian of Scythopolis, who was murdered in 451 on the return from Chalcedon. For these reasons, in the large cities communities often remained divided, each with their own clergy and their own churches. Although a canon law assigned only one bishop per city, for a time Antioch had four vying for power! It was in this patriarchate that the battles between Miaphysites, Dyophysites and Melkites loyal to the emperor raged most fiercely.

However, the intensity of these theological disputes – unimaginable to us in the twenty-first century – cannot be explained just on the basis of political circumstances. As W. Klein has aptly stated, at that time ‘dogma was not yet the specialized science of a few theologians, but rather the stuff of everyday conversation, and it resembled modern disputes over party politics.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 37-38

Notice the knock-on effects of an earlier period of Christian nationalism. Local bishops forced to uphold the official state doctrine, or risk civil sanction or exile. Backing for other rival doctrines fueled by anti-nationalist sentiments. The physical assault and murder of church leaders, whose pronouncements were now just as political as they were spiritual.

Those now calling for a return to Christian nationalism would do well to chew on the times in the past where it has indeed been tried, and so often led to the corruption of the church and the loss of its spiritual power. There is a better option, what Baptists have called the spirituality of the kingdom of God.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Justifications of Polygamists

“Now that I have have this comprehensive power of attorney for you, I can legally get you a second wife – even without you knowing. Better watch out, when you come back from out of the country you may have a second wife, ha!”

Mr. Talent* conveniently dropped this news after several of us on the team had finished the POA process with him, meaning that he could now hold this over each of our heads. Thankfully, being a believer, Mr. Talent understands now that polygamy is a sin, despite his joking. Even before coming to faith, his first marriage had been difficult and had fallen apart, and he is also of the local demographic that would resonate with the ancestral proverb that “a man with two wives has a liver full of holes,” i.e. become a polygamist and embrace a life of pain.

And yet polygamy continues in our corner of Central Asia as a relatively normal thing among a sizeable minority of the population. Why does it still happen when polygamy is technically illegal in our area and when the culture itself has proverbs that speak to its danger? For something that is so foreign to us in the West (at least for now), it’s helpful to understand the justifications used by other societies for polygamy so that we can more skillfully oppose it with biblical truth.

The overwhelming majority of locals in our area are Muslims, and this means that a religious motivation is ready at hand for anyone who desires to marry an additional wife – even if this religious reason serves as a thin veneer for the true motivation. After all, the founding figure of Islam, Muhammad, had around twelve wives (there’s some disagreement about the actual number, and our local imams say thirteen). Being the supposed prophet and founder, Muhammad is held up as the ideal Muslim. So if a Muslim man wants to live like the prophet, and thereby be blessed, he will traditionally consider polygamy as a logical way to do this. However, only the prophet is allowed a dozen wives. Normal Muslims are limited to four.

Justifications in Islam for this polygamy in Muhammad’s life vary, but the most common one that I’ve heard is that it was an act of social justice, since so many wives had become widows in the holy wars that led to Islam’s founding. This doesn’t explain why Muhammad married seven-year-old Aisha, his favorite wife. Nor does it explain why he took his adopted son’s wife to be his own, conveniently receiving a divine revelation declaring adoption an un-Islamic concept in order to make it seem like he was not actually marrying his son’s wife (thereby making adoption among most Muslims a shameful thing to this day). But I digress, the logic for this first reason for polygamy among Muslims skirts these issues and simply maintains that Allah has blessed polygamy in the life of the prophet, and thereby in the life of faithful Muslims who commit to caring for each wife equally.

This Islamic sanctioning of polygamy means it often takes place in spite of the laws of the country where the couple resides – laws often viewed as Western and infidel-influenced. Polygamy is illegal only in the region of the country where we’ve been residing, but it is legal in other regions. So, local men who desire an additional wife will travel down south and work things out there, often with a wink from their local Islamic authorities, who are supposed to be abiding by the law and not encouraging polygamy at all. This dynamic is also present among some Islamic refugees in the West, where a man might fill out his paperwork as having one wife and one “sister” in order to bring both his wives with him to the West. He’ll set up two households in his new country, and live as a polygamist under the radar.

Another very common reason for polygamy among the Muslims in our area is infertility. Similar to stories of the Old Testament patriarchs, a man will often take a second wife if his first wife has proven unable to conceive after a given length of time. This is because children, and male heirs specifically, are so highly prized in the culture. We knew a village family in this situation, where a new wife had recently been acquired because the first wife seemed to be infertile. Again, similar to the stories of Rachel or Hannah, the public shame the first wife experiences in this kind of situation is almost unbearable. The presence of the second wife would serve as an excruciating daily reminder of her shame and and failure. If the medical issue resides with the man, he may keep taking on new wives, blaming each one in turn for what is actually his biological problem. Thankfully, modern medicine is making this kind of situation less common, as long as the man isn’t too proud to accept what the doctors are saying.

Surprisingly, it can sometimes be the first wife who pushes for the husband to take a second. This is because the first wife is often given a promotion of sorts when a second wife is taken on. The veteran wife will often get to hand off the more difficult housework and cooking to the second wife. Or the first and second wives give the hard labor to the third, etc. This could be viewed as compensation of sorts for the embarrassment of the husband taking on another wife, but can also be pursued in a sadly practical way for a marriage that’s unhealthy anyway. If the relationship is already cold and practical, why not get some help around the house? Similarly, one of my wife’s close friends desires her husband to take on a second wife primarily so that she can be free of his sexual demands. Having an additional wife might even provide some relational connection for a lonely wife who is disliked by her husband and his extended family. Just as the wives of a polygamist can often be bitter rivals, they can also become friends who support one another when both are stuck in the same situation, married to a bad man.

Polygamy can also be pursued by extended families in order to increase the standing of each. A poorer family might want one of their daughters to marry a wealthy or powerful patron. The patron’s standing as a holy, powerful, and apparently desirable man is thus increased, and the family of the girl gets a boost in honor and the brideprice money, which would be considerably more in this situation than if she were the sole wife of a man with less status. For example, one aged mullah in our country recently took on a third wife who is thirty-four years his junior. This kind of family status arrangement is likely what is going on here.

A final category of justification for polygamy is often simply the whims and desires of the man. If he is unhappy with how things are going sexually, or in terms of the cooking, or even if he just wants to flaunt his power as the domestic strongman, he might take on another wife. The first wife (or wives) cannot stop him from doing this, though in their own ways they can make him pay for it, hence the proverb about having a liver full of holes. Sadly, much polygamy takes place for no other reason than an already-married man takes a liking to another woman he has seen and decides that he simply must have her. I had to cut off contact with one village friend because he kept calling me, insisting that I translate for him as he flirted with a migrant worker, trying make her his second wife without the knowledge of the rest of his family.

The Bible is not silent on polygamy, though the case made against it is an indirect one. The first polygamist we see in Genesis is Lamech, a domineering and violent man. Then, in the stories of the patriarchs, both Abraham and Jacob become polygamists because of sin – Abraham’s doubting God’s promise and Laban’s deception of the inebriated Jacob. What ensues is a terrific mess, with rival wives, warring children, and men who must repeatedly eat the bitter fruit of their polygamous households. The kings of Israel are then expressly forbidden from taking on many wives in the style of the harems of the other nations, and we see the destruction of polygamy in both David’s and Solomon’s stories, even turning their hearts away from God. As the Old Testament period winds on, it becomes clear that God shows grace to polygamous households in spite of the institution, not because of it. The narratives of scripture are all consistent in their painting polygamy in a negative, worldly light.

At last, in the New Testament, Jesus calls the religious leaders back to God’s creation pattern for marriage – a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Two become one, just like Adam and Eve in the beginning. In this passage as well as Paul’s insistence upon leaders being one-women men, monogamy is clearly assumed and polygamy thereby understood to be out of bounds. It may have been tolerated under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant has come, where Christ has one holy bride, not multiple. And this relationship now serves as the pattern for all Christian marriages.

Whatever the justifications of polygamists, God’s word has come to silence them with its indirect yet forceful case. To have multiple wives is to lie about the nature of God’s covenant-keeping love, to lie about the nature of God himself. Believers in Christ are to live in such a way that their marriages are imperfect yet genuine metaphors of Christ and the Church – and as in the recent Western order, to influence society such that the injustice of polygamy is no longer tolerated.

For polygamy is unjust, both to the women whose dignity and agency are violated in polygamous marriage, as well as to poorer and younger and even average men, for whom marriage in a polygamous society becomes less and less attainable. A case could even be made that polygamous societies lead to greater violent conflict, as there is a clear connection in history between nations with a shortage of brides and nations that try to conquer their neighbors. And polygamous societies will always lead to many more available single men than available single women. How can it be otherwise when having multiple wives becomes a status symbol of the religious, the wealthy, and the powerful?

The justifications of polygamists are mixed. Some are good desires, such as the desire to have children, or to get some relief from the never-ending household labor. Christians can recognize the good in these desires and point toward better ways to pursue these goals and to respond when they are denied. Other, selfish, desires that lead to polygamy are to be rejected outright. Hence, knowing what the underlying motivation is for taking on another wife will be key to responding both biblically and skillfully. Why skillfully? Because in polygamous societies, you are the crazy one who thinks that monogamy is the only way to go. For them, polygamy is simply normal, perhaps even good, the way the world is. Helping locals to turn against their own polygamous heritage will be no easy task, but speaking to their underlying motivations will only help in this effort. I’ve laid out here the main motivations for polygamy in our context, but other polygamous contexts will bring with them their own unique justifications that will require understanding and appropriate response.

Polygamy has been around an awfully long time, and no doubt it will continue to pop up various human societies into the future. As it decreases in Central Asia, it may stage a comeback in the post-Christian West. The Church will need to confront it wherever it finds polygamy, lovingly but boldly calling men and women to a faithful monogamy that points back to Eden, and forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb.

*Names changed for security

Photo by zelle duda on Unsplash

Find at Home, Or Seek in Vain

To the Irish, the pope, the bishop of Rome who was successor to Saint Peter, was a kind of high king of the church, but like the high king a distant figure whose wishes were little known and less considered. Rome was surely the ultimate pilgrim’s destination – especially because there were so many books there that could be brought back and copied! But if your motive was holiness:

To go to Rome

Is little profit, endless pain;

The Master that you seek in Rome,

You find at home, or seek in vain.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 181

There’s some New Covenant common sense in this ancient Irish verse. Worshiping in spirit and in truth means there are no longer some mountains holier than others – nor cities. The presence of the Spirit in all of God’s people means physical pilgrimage is no longer necessary. The presence of God is just as near in Ireland as in Rome, in Melanasia as in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, having lived in frontier places without ready access to good Christian books, I fully understand a willingness to go to such tremendous lengths to acquire them.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

A Hymn Sung by Death Defeated

This is one of my favorites pieces so far by Ephrem the Syrian, Christian poet from the 300s. Ephrem writes this hymn largely from the perspective of death, bracketed and interspersed with some narration. Death begins its discourse in verse two, beginning confidently, then shifting to a tone of alarm as Christ enters Sheol and robs it of a “tithe” of its captives, and ending ultimately in a posture of submission, promising to deliver up all its captives in the future resurrection. It is a long poem, but well worth the read for rich biblical allusion and parallelism that Ephrem uses – as well as the enjoyment to be had as Ephrem uses his sanctified imagination to portray death panicking as he realizes just who Jesus is and what he is doing to his domain.

If any singer-songwriters ever read this post, consider this a request for an adapted version of this song by Ephrem. Such a song could be very powerful for the contemporary Church, just as it would have been for the believers in frontier Nisibis 1,700 years ago.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 36

Our Lord subjected His might, and they seized him,
so that through His living death He might give life to Adam.
He gave His hands to be pierced by nails 
to make up for the hand which plucked the fruit; He was struck on His cheek in the judgment room
to make up for the mouth that ate in Eden; and while Adam's foot was free
His feet were pierced; our Lord was stripped that we might be clothed;
with gall and vinegar He sweetened 
the poison of the serpent which had bitten man. 

Refrain: Blessed is He who has conquered me, and brought life to the dead, to His own glory! 

Death: "If you are God, show your might,
and if you are man, make trial of our might!
Or if it is Adam you are wanting, be off:
he is imprisoned here because of his debts; neither cherubim nor seraphim are able 
to secure his release: they have no mortal amongst themselves
to give himself up for him. Who can open the mouth of Sheol, 
dive down and bring him up from thence, 
seeing that Sheol has swallowed him up and holds him tight forever? 

"It was I who conquered all the sages; 
I have got them heaped up in the corners of Sheol.
Come and enter, son of Joseph, and look at the horrors:
the limbs of the giants, Samson's huge corpse,
the skeleton of the cruel Goliath; there is Og, the son of the giants, too,
who made a bed of iron, where he reclined: 
I cast him off it and threw him down,
I levelled that cedar at Sheol's gate.

"I alone have conquered many, 
and now the Only-Begotten seeks to conquer me!
I have led off prophets, priests and heroes,
I have conquered kings with their array, the giants with their hunts,
the just with their fine deeds - rivers full of corpses
I cast into Sheol, who remains thirsty forever however many I pour in! 
Whether a man is near or afar off, 
the final end brings him to Sheol's gate.

"I have spurned silver in the case of the rich
and their presents have failed to bribe me;
owners of slaves have never enticed me
to take a slave in place of his owner, or a poor man in place of a rich,
or an old in place of a child. Sages may be able to win over  
wild animals, but their winning words do not enter my ears.
Everyone may call me 'hater of requests', 
but I simply perform what I am bidden.

"Who is this? Whose son? 
And of what family is this man who has conquered me? 
The book with the genealogies is here with me - 
I have begun and taken the trouble to read all the names from Adam onwards,
and none of the dead escape me; tribe by tribe they are all written down
on my limbs. It is for your sake, Jesus, 
that I have undertaken this reckoning, 
in order to show you that no one escapes my hands.

"There are two men - I must not deceive - 
whose names are missing for me in Sheol:
Enoch and Elijah did not come to me;
I looked for them in the whole of creation, I even went down 
to the place where Jonah went, and groped around, but they were not there; and when I thought
they might have entered Paradise and escaped, there was the fearful cherub guarding it.
Jacob saw a ladder:
perhaps it was by this that they got up to heaven.

"Who has measured out the sea-sand
and only missed two grains? 
As for this harvest, with which illnesses like harvesters
are daily busied, I alone carry
the sheaves and bind them up. Sheaf-binders in their haste
leave sheaves, and grape-pickers forget whole clusters, 
but only two small bunches have escaped me
in the great harvest that I have been gathering in by myself.

"It is I", says Death, "who have made 
all kinds of catches on sea and land: 
the eagles in the sky come to me, 
so do the dragons of the deep, creeping things, birds and beasts,
old, young and babes; all these should persuade you,
Son of Mary, that my dominion reigns over all.
How can your cross conquer me,
seeing that it was through the wood that I was victorious and conquered at the beginning? 

"I should like to say much more 
- for I do not have any lack of words! - 
but there is no need for words, for deeds
cry out close by; I do not, like you, promise
hidden things to the simple, saying that there will be a resurrection;
when, I ask, when? If you are so very strong, 
then give a pledge on the spot
so that your distant promise may be believed." 

Death finished his taunting speech 
and our Lord's voice rang out thunderously in Sheol,
tearing open each grave one by one.
Terrible pangs seized hold of Death in Sheol; where light
had never been seen, rays shone out from the angels who had entered to bring out
the dead to meet the Dead One who has given life to all.
The dead went forth, and shame covered the living 
who had hoped they had conquered Him who gives life to all.

"Would I were back in Moses' time", 
says Death, "he made me a feast day:
for that lamb in Egypt gave me 
the first-fruits from every house; heaps upon heaps of first-born
were piled up for me at Sheol's gate. But this festival Lamb
has plundered Sheol, taken his tithe of the dead and led them off from me. 
That lamb filled the graves for me, 
this one empties the graves that had been full. 

"Jesus' death is a torment to me,
I wish I had chosen to let him live: it would have been better for me than his death.
Here is a dead man whose death I find hateful;
at everyone else's death I rejoice, but at his death I am anxious, 
and I expect he will return to life: during his lifetime he revived and brought back to life
three dead people. Now through his death 
the dead who have come to life again trample me at Sheol's gates
when I go to hold them in. 

"I will run and close the gates of Sheol
before that Dead One whose death has plundered me.
He who hears of it will wonder at my humiliation, 
because I have been defeated by a Dead man outside: all the dead want to go outside,
and he is pressing to enter. The medicine of life has entered Sheol
and brought its dead back to life. Who is it who has introduced for me and hidden
the living fire in which the cold and dark 
wombs of Sheol melt?" 

Death saw angels in Sheol, 
immortal beings instead of mortal,
and he said: "Trouble has entered our abode.
On two accounts I am tormented: the dead have left Sheol, 
and the angels, who do not die, have entered it - one has entered and sat at the head
of his grave, another, his companion, at his feet. 
I will ask and request him  
to take his hostage and go off to his kingdom. 

"Do not reckon against me, good Jesus, 
the words I have spoken, or my pride before you.
Who, on seeing your cross, could doubt 
that you are truly man? Who, when he sees your power, 
will fail to believe that you are also God? By these two indications 
I have learnt to confess you both Man and God. 
Since the dead cannot repent in Sheol,
rise up among the living, Lord, and proclaim repentance. 

"Jesus king, receive my request,
and with my request, take your hostage, 
carry off, as your great hostage, Adam 
in whom all the dead are hidden - 
just as, when I received him, in him all the living were concealed. 
As first hostage I give you
Adam's body. Ascend now and reign over all,
and when I hear your trumpet call, 
with my own hands will I bring forth the dead at your coming." 

Our living King has arisen and is exalted, 
like a victor, from Sheol. 
Woe is doubled for the party of the left, 
dismay for evil spirits and demons, suffering for Satan and Death, 
lamentation for Sin and Sheol, but rejoicing for the party of the right
has come today! On this great day, then, 
let us give great praise to Him
who died and came to life again, so that He might give life and resurrection to all!

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 58-65

Photo from Wikimedia Commons