From Egypt to Ireland

Not only are the Roman provinces gone, the whole subtle substructure of Roman political organization and Roman communication had vanished. In its place have grown the sturdy little principalities of the Middle Ages, Gothic illiterates ruling over Gothic illiterates, pagan or occasionally Arian – that is, following a debased, simpleminded form of Christianity in which Jesus was given a status similar to that of Mohammad in Islam.

The Irish did not especially mean to be deviant, but their world hardly abounded in models of Christian orthodoxy. After Patrick, they experienced an influx of anchorites and monks fleeing before the barbarian hordes, and these no doubt provided them with some finer points on eremitical and conventual life. “All the learned men on this side of the sea,” claims a note in a Leyden mansuscript of this time, “took flight for transmarine places like Ireland, bringing about a great increase of learning” – and, doubtlessly, a spectacular increase in the number of books – “to the inhabitants of those regions.” But not a few of these men were bone-thin ascetics from such Roman hinterlands as Armenia, Syria, and the Egyptian desert. The Ulster monastery of Bangor, for instance, claimed in its litany to be “ex Aegypto transducta” (“translated from Egypt”); and the convention of using red dots to adorn manuscript initials, a convention that soon became a mark of Irish manuscripts, had first been glimpsed by the Irish in books that the fleeing Copts brought with them.

How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 180

Photo by Nejc Soklič on Unsplash

The Barista of Chalcedon

Several years ago we found ourselves on vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I have always loved Istanbul, the city that spans two continents and is overflowing with history, culture, kabab, and – crucially – very good coffee. Very few places in the world feel so Western and so Eastern at the same time, depending on which direction you are coming from.

For some reason I was on my own that sunny spring morning walking through the hip neighborhood of Kadiköy, a colorful part of Istanbul full of little cafes, restaurants, and shops. I was on the hunt for a coffee shop that had come highly recommended from a friend who knew way more about coffee than I did. I followed google maps to the small intersection where the coffee shop was supposed to be. The square was paved with grey flagstones, with a small metal statue of a crocodile in the center. Most of the traffic through it was shoppers on foot, with the occasional cart or miniature van.

I didn’t see the coffee shop, so I double-checked the map. I was in the right spot. Maybe it had closed? Eventually I glanced up and realized that the coffee shop was a second floor establishment, perched above a cell phone accessories store, with a balcony that looked down on the square. I ambled over to the cell phone store and found the narrow staircase tucked beside it that led up to the cafe.

Once there, I was convinced by the kind barista to try a Japanese cold brew. It was the first time I had ever had one of these beverages. During hot summer visits to Istanbul I had already come to appreciate Istanbul baristas and their cold brew skills. I was on vacation, after all. Why not try a Japanese cold brew while in Turkey, made with beans from Ethiopia? I knew that once we returned to our region of Central Asia, I’d be back to only being able to get coffee that sometimes tastes of moldy dirt and often hits the palate like a bitter slap to the face.

As it would take a few minutes to brew, the barista encouraged me to go and find a spot on the sunny balcony. I sat down at the counter seating right on the edge of the balcony, got out my Bible and journal, and observed the square down below. I noticed a strip of white-grey marble running down the center of the street and found myself reading a curious name carved into it, Khalkedon. The name seemed familiar to me, bearing a striking resemblance to what I knew as Chalcedon, the location of the great church council of 451, where the ancient church hammered out how to articulate the nature of Christ. Surely, this wasn’t where that took place, was it? My tourist mobile data was acting up, but once I got it working again I looked it up. Sure enough, Chalcedon used to be a village outside of Constantinople, now Istanbul, and was eventually absorbed by the city, now forming a part of the Kadiköy neighborhood. This was indeed the location of one of the most important councils in Christian history.

I scanned the square for any kind of historical marker or monument that might alert passersby to this hugely significant history. I didn’t see anything. The crocodile statue, while a decent piece of artwork, did not seem to have any connection to christology or creeds. The businesses around the square and the people shopping there didn’t seem to show any awareness of this history either. This made sense, since Istanbul is an overwhelmingly Islamic city now. But still, surely they must know something about it. I decided to put the barista to the test. After all, he did work in Chalcedon.

The square of Khalkedon, ancient Chalcedon

My cold brew was ready, so I went back inside the cafe to pick it up.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked as I held the cold brew up to my nose, enjoying the sharp rich aroma as I swished it around.

“Sure,” he answered, smiling.

“How long have you worked here?”

“Several years.”

“Do you know about the history of this place, Khalkedon?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, right here, right in this neighborhood, one of the most important meetings in the history of Christianity took place, about 1,500 years ago.”

The barista gave me an inquisitive look.

“At that council they debated how Jesus could be both fully man and fully God!” I continued.

The barista continued to stare at me.

“Have you ever heard this before?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Well, when you get home, look up the council of Khalkedon, or Chalcedon. If you work here, you’ve gotta know the amazing history of this place. It’s really significant.”

“Thanks… I will,” he responded. Then, seeming a little perplexed, he turned to work on someone else’s drink.

I went back out to the balcony and enjoyed the cold brew and some Bible reading, imagining what Khalkedon must have looked like back in the year 451, when the emperor Marcian and 520 leaders of the ancient church gathered to debate the oneness and the twoness of Christ, and how in human language we might best summarize what the Bible has revealed of this great mystery. It’s from this council’s creed that we have received the orthodox formulation of the nature of Christ as one person, two natures. This council rejected the teachings on the one hand that Christ had only one nature (Monophysitism), and on the other hand that he had two persons (Nestorianism). Christ was one united person in two natures, fully human, fully divine. Sadly, Chalcedon was the theological occasion for the eventual break between the churches of the East – those outside the Roman empire – and those in the West. These churches had already been significantly divided by language, political borders, and culture. But the controversy over Chalcedon made the split official, one that has lasted to this day.

Istanbul is not the only place to have a hidden historical witness to Christian faith. Many parts of the 10/40 window used to have a significant presence of Christians in antiquity or in the middle ages. Just forty five minutes outside of our Central Asian city is a ruined monastery-citadel complex from the 400 or 500s. Locals know nothing about it, and it took tracking down an archeologist in Texas to get confirmation that this is indeed an ancient Christian site. Since then we’ve been able to take groups of local believers out to the site so that they might marvel at the evidence that their own ancestors may have had access to the gospel 1,500 years ago. Of course, this is a tremendous encouragement to them.

All over what is now the Muslim world, there are mosques that have been built on the foundations of ancient churches, abandoned chapels and monastaries in remote areas, tombstones, and even carpet patterns that reflect this lost history. There is a sadness to these silent witnesses. Persecution has often meant that Christianity has been almost or entirely snuffed out in regions where it was once strong. And like the Chalcedonian barista, the locals have no idea of the significance of what they are walking past every day. How did this happen? How could God have allowed the Church to lose areas that used to be strong enough to be sending bases of ancient missionaries?

Yet there is also encouragement to be found in the presence of these ancient stones. They are silent witnesses – but only until a believer comes along who is able to interpret for them. When this happens they begin to cry out. God has been active in the history of this people and this place. Your ancestors have not been left without a witness. Christianity is no Western religion foreign to your soil – it was here long before Europe was Christianized. To follow Jesus is for some an opportunity to return to the faith of their fathers before they succumbed to the sword and choking caste system of Islam. Like the tide, the gospel may recede for a season, but it will be back – unstoppably so. As Zane Pratt famously said at the tomb of Tamerlane, the Mongol Muslim ruler most responsible for the extermination of Central Asian Christianity: “We’re back… and you’re dead.”

If the West becomes even more post-Christian, we will undoubtedly have more of these silent witnesses ourselves, flagstones, monuments, and ruins that speak of our decline. We must remember that they also point forward to our return. And that no matter how dark it gets, God will somehow preserve a witness. Someday, a Central Asian Christian may just find himself pointing a Western pagan barista to the Christian truth present in the very stones around him.

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

The Chalcedonian Creed, Chalcedon, Asia Minor, AD 451

First photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Introducing the Poet of the Ancient Church

Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373) was a deacon in the Roman border cities of Nisibis and Edessa in the 300s. Though not widely known, he is perhaps the most important poet of the early church. The reason he is not well-known is because he wrote not in Greek or Latin, but in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic that served as the main language for Christians in the far east of the Roman empire and those who lived across the border in the Parthian, later Sassanian, empire. These eastern cities where Ephrem lived (now in SE Turkey – Nusaybin and Sanilurfa) were extremely diverse religiously during his lifetime. Different sects of Christians mixed in the marketplace with Arians, Jews, polytheists, and Manicheans. Ehphrem wrote theological poetry, composing many hymns which would serve both discipleship as well as evangelistic purposes. Ever since I read that Ephrem would lead evangelistic choirs of women into the marketplace to contend for the truth of the gospel, I have wanted to more about this overlooked ancient poet. Our focus people group, and so many others in the Middle East and Central Asia, continue to be deeply poetic and musical. The idea of doing theology and evangelism via poetry and song, employed by Ephrem so long ago, might still prove to be a very powerful thing in this region.

I’ve finally gotten my hands on a book of Ephrem’s poems and will periodically post some on this blog, as a window into the Christian faith of this ancient Syriac poet and the churches he sought to strengthen. The poem below is about a communion service, and Ephrem calls for the Church to praise its savior, drawing connections to the wedding at Cana in John 2, doing a bit of comparison between Israel’s failure and the Church, and ending by delighting in the nature of Jesus.

Hymns on Faith, no. 14

I have invited You, Lord, to a wedding feast of song, 
but the wine - the utterance of praise - at our feast has failed.
You are the guest who filled the jars with good wine,
fill my mouth with Your praise. 

Refrain: Praise to You from all who perceive your truth.

The wine that was in the jars was akin and related to
this eloquent wine that gives birth to praise,
seeing that that wine too gave birth to praise
from those who drank it and beheld the wonder.

You who are so just, if at a wedding-feast not Your own
You filled six jars with good wine,
do You, at this wedding-feast, fill, not the jars,
but the ten thousand ears with its sweetness.

Jesus, You were invited to the wedding-feast of others, 
here is Your own pure and fair wedding-feast: gladden Your rejuvenated people,
for Your guests too, O Lord, need 
Your songs; let Your harp utter!  

The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber, 
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts. 
And if a single body is a wedding feast for you,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!  

The holy Moses took the Synagogue up on Sinai:
he made her body shine with garments of white, but her heart was dark;
she played the harlot with the calf, she despised the Exalted One, 
and so he broke the tablets, the book of her covenant.

Who has ever seen the turmoil and insult 
of a bride who played false in her own bridal chamber, raising her voice? 
When she dwelt in Egypt she learnt it from 
the mistress of Joseph, who cried out and played false. 

The light of the pillar of fire and of the cloud 
drew into itself its rays
like the sun that was eclipsed 
on the day she cried out, demanding the King, a further crime.

How can my harp, O Lord, ever rest from Your praise? 
How could I ever teach my tongue infidelity? 
Your love has given confidence to my shamefacedness,
-yet my will is ungrateful.

It is right that man should acknowledge Your divinity,  
it is right for heavenly beings to worship Your humanity;
the heavenly beings were amazed to see how small You became, 
and earthly ones to see how exalted! 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 24-26

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

A Rather Inflammatory Sermon

Despite this renewed condemnation of Arianism, it had adherents in the Eastern Roman Empire until the fifth century. It was for Nestorius, of all people, that this state of affairs had particularly bitter consequences. In his sermon on the occasion of his consecration as patriarch of Constantinople on 10 April 428, he threw down the gauntlet before the Arians by addressing Emperor Theodosius II with these words: ‘Emperor, give me your kingdom purified of the [Arian] heretics, and I will give you in return the Kingdom of Heaven.’ The Arian partisans, thus provoked, preferred to burn down their own church rather than had it over to the new patriarch. The fire spread to neighboring houses, and an entire quarter of Constantinople went up in flames, leading to great unrest. Nestorius’s inaugural sermon literally turned into an inflammatory oration. The situation was that much more explosive because all the Gothic soldiers stationed in Constantinople were Arian. Although the soldiers remained in their barracks, Nestorius had on his very first day in office incurred the anger of the Byzantine military leadership and a segment of their nobility.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 33

Whatever you make of the theological arguments surrounding what would later become known as Nestorianism, Nestorius himself is a historical object lesson in how to rashly make enemies and immediately burn bridges. It’s not without reason that Titus 1:7 calls for church leaders to “not be arrogant or quick-tempered.”

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

Fickle Gods and the Wondrous Clarity of the Law

It’s the time of year again when countless Bible readers are about to get bogged down in Leviticus. It’s easy to quickly skim through these sections of the Pentateuch that deal with Israel’s laws, our brains struggling to stay focused and longing to get back to some narrative passages. We read the minute detail of Israel’s purity requirements and wonder if the ancient audience was just as bored as we are. Could there have been a time and a place where hearing Leviticus read actually held the hearers in rapt attention?

Apparently so, even centuries after the fact. No reading of the Psalms can avoid the evidence that the writers of that anthology – and faithful Israel through them – not only found God’s Law interesting, but even delightful. Why did ancient Israel love God’s law so dearly? It was in Tremper Longman III’s How to Read the Psalms where I first came across one of the powerful answers to this question, an answer that continues to serve me today as I try to read and put myself in the shoes of those during that period of redemptive history. In short, they loved the Law so intensely because of its clarity.

To understand this, we need to step back into the religious worldview of the ancient near east. All of the peoples surrounding Israel would have believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Think Dagon, Baal, Ashtoreth (Ishtar), Chemosh, Ra, etc. These so-called gods and goddesses were not necessarily moral, nor were they necessarily loving and committed to the good of their people. They were deeply flawed like humans, except immensely more powerful. And they needed to be constantly appeased in order to guarantee a good harvest, fertility in marriage, or safety from enemy armies.

To top it off, these gods were fickle and hard to predict. Their will could change on a whim. Elaborate divination ceremonies were needed to discern their wills and to (hopefully) avoid outbursts of their wrath. These divination attempts included things like reading the livers of animals, interpreting dreams, and slapping kings until they cried to see if they still enjoyed the gods’ favor. Ancient Arabs, for example, threw a handful of arrows on the ground in hopes of finding meaning in the unique design thereby created.

Remember, life and death and eternity depended on these shifting signs and their subjective interpretations. This meant that the inhabitants of the ancient world lived in a kind of hell of relativity. Their religious systems taught them that your crop’s failure or your wife’s death in childbirth was due to your failure to rightly appease the gods – whose requirements were always opaque and were always shifting, always arbitrary. How could this not foster fanaticism, resignation, or even madness? There was precious little that was solid and unchanging that you could hold onto. You might do everything right according to the oracles, only to find out after the fact that the gods had mysteriously changed the requirements without telling you. How easy it would have been for the priestly class to abuse this system for its own benefit, while the commoners and kings either gave up or gave themselves over to a life of endless striving and fear.

Into this kind of context came the Law of Moses, not only revealed, but even written in language that could be understood by the people. Written down so that it could be regularly accessible for the entire people group and for each new generation. And it was marvelously clear, on points major as well as minor. Don’t make any idols, take the seventh day off and rest, don’t drink blood, treat the foreigners in your midst well, make sure you rinse that pot when you find a dead lizard in it.

We tend to chafe at the sheer number of laws given to the people of Israel, viewing things primary through our new covenant perspective where so many of these laws have now been fulfilled in Christ. And yet a primary response of the ancient Israelites to these laws would not have been a sense of burden. It would have been a sense of tearful relief, even rest. They did not have to live at the fickle mercy of cruel gods. They had one true and unchanging God, who rescued them because of his steadfast love and who now called them to a life conformed to his clear will – his will that would not change or shift. It was solid, dependable, steadfast, not going to cut their knees out from under them when least expected out of some kind of twisted divine freedom. No wonder they loved the law.

Our own age of diversity echoes the fickle relativity of the ancient gods. Within our own cultures, the changing pace of public morality is increasingly hard to keep up with. Lives are destroyed as one slip of the tongue or keyboard violates the shifting sands of what phrases are now safe (clean) and what is bigoted (unclean). The man on the street must live at the whim of the “priestly class” of academics, politicians, celebrities, and journalists who somehow have the inside scoop on what is newly demanded in order to be a virtuous person.

The interconnectedness of the world also brings with it an invitation to fall into relativity. As diverse cultures increasingly interact, the morality of one is seen to be vastly different from the morality of another. For many, this casts doubt on the existence of a universal morality at all. Then languages interact with other languages, highlighting the limitations, weaknesses, and localized viewpoints of each. This casts doubt on any ability to access universal truth through such an imperfect medium as human language. Similarly, the more exposure you have to other cultures and languages, the greater the sense that it’s foolishness to think that you just happened to grow up with the true answers. Yet just like those in the ancient near east, all must be risked upon our attempts to get it right, to rightly discern “the will of the gods.” It’s not surprising then if some of us also turn to fanaticism, resignation, or even madness in response to this uncertainty.

However, just like ancient Israel, believers now don’t have to live at the mercy of the fickle gods. We have God’s Law and his gospel, wondrously clear and accessible. It proved to be a solid rock in the churning sea of ancient polytheism. It is just as stable of a rock in the contemporary sea of progressive culture and globalization.

In a world with nothing to hold onto, we should conduct ourselves with a certain knowing confidence, always ready to invite those weary of the world’s arbitrary demands to something eternally steadfast. “Don’t you want something solid and truly good to hang onto?” “In all the noise, don’t you long for something that is clear and always true?” “Don’t you want access to an eternal definition of love?” We need to keep our eyes peeled for the castaways around us who already know from awful experience how the gods of this age turn on those who were desperately trying to keep up and get it right. They are in need of rescue and rest. We can offer it to them.

The shifting will of the culture, the contradictory decrees of different global cultures, these are not a problem for us as believers. They are echoes of humanity’s desperate need for something solid, universal, and unchanging. And like a weary ancient near east worshiper hearing Leviticus for the first time, we have God’s word. And it is wondrously clear. So clear, it’s worthy of delight.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Table Grace of Brigid

I should like a great lake of finest ale
For the King of kings. 
I should like a table of the choicest food
For the family of heaven. 
Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith, 
And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast, 
For they are God's children. 
I should welcome the sick to my feast, 
For they are God's joy. 
Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place, 
And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor, 
God bless the sick, 
And bless our human race. 
God bless our food, 
God bless our drink, 
All homes, O God, embrace. 

-Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 174-175

This is a prayer associated with Brigid, the abbess of an Irish monastery in the early 500s famous for its hospitality. This prayer reminds me of Lawrence of Rome, who, when asked in the persecution of 258 to surrender the riches of the church to the emperor Valerian, presented the poor, the crippled, and the widows, inviting the emperor to “Come out and see the wondrous riches of God.”

This kind of ancient Christian delight in the poor and the sick strikes me as very different from what I am used to hearing emphasized in my circles. And that makes me curious. Why might that be? What would it look like for us to not just teach a theology of suffering, but to have a culture and language that better reflects the “great reversal” that the New Testament so often speaks of?

In this new year, may our poor also sit with Jesus at the highest place, and our sick also dance with the angels.

Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

When the City of Man Creaks

Eating out just hasn’t felt worth it these past couple months that we’ve been back in the US. While restaurants in the states are open again, most are understaffed and alarmingly expensive. The lack of staff usually means pretty poor service, and even the quality of food usually strikes us as not what it used to be. Hearing others in the US voice similar sentiments means it’s not just those of us who have been living overseas who notice these differences. The food service industry is creaking, trying to lurch back to what it was before the pandemic. There is this sense that – convenience though it is – we can’t count it like we used to.

Food service is not the only system struggling to regain its pre-pandemic efficiency. International air travel has still not recovered either. We’ve never had the kind of travel difficulties that we’ve experienced over this past year. Even business behemoths like Amazon seem past their, ahem, prime. More seriously, crime has also skyrocketed in many American cities, with the understanding in some places that if you are the victim of certain crimes, you are on your own.

The strange thing about all this for highly-educated millennials like us is that we’ve hardly ever known the systems around us to get worse, perhaps with the exception of our elected government. By and large, we’ve only known the infrastructure and services offered in the West to (eventually) get faster, more efficient, and more user-friendly. This was also the worldview of our parents’ generation. Progress in the systems we rely on for life necessities or conveniences has been assumed. The pandemic and its aftermath have challenged this assumption and, whether temporary or long-term, the systems around us are showing their weakness.

Systems don’t last forever. The prophecy of the twelve eagles was right – Rome would fall. The Roman legions would leave places like Britain in 409 and never come back. Which meant the structures of empire that the Romanized residents of Londinium (London) relied upon would have slowly but surely broken down. A thousand years later the Portuguese would successfully sail to India – thereby causing the economic collapse of the Central Asian silk road. Trade routes that were kept safe by the wealth and power of regional regimes would become frequented by violent robbers and be slowly abandoned by the caravans. Empires rise. Empires decline. At some point a certain generation realizes that things are breaking faster than they can be repaired, and life is likely going to get a lot worse before it someday gets better.

As the systems of West have begun to creak, we’ve had an opportunity to get a glimpse of what it might be like to live in a declining empire, what it’s like to have things regress, as it were. We’re nowhere near what someone like Augustine would have experienced as the Vandals laid siege to his city during the last year of his life. Bad food service, late packages, and lost luggage are not nearly the same thing as barbarians at the gate. But if we stop and pay attention, we might be able to identify just a little more with all those communities throughout history that have known what it’s like to have their faith in their systems shaken. This is not all bad.

Who among us in the West has not at times believed the myth of our society’s unceasing progress and influence? It’s only human to believe that the way things are is the way they are going to be – certainly for our lifetimes, if not for much longer. But a shockwave through society’s systems can function much like a personal health scare. It can awaken us to our own transience. Our lives are like a vapor (James 4:14). So are our civilizations. Like Ozymandius, all the great boasts of this world will one day end up the equivalent of a monument buried in sand, abandoned and forgotten. Remembering our transience fosters humility. And our God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

Creaking systems can also foster a hunger for better ones, those that cannot be shaken (Heb 12:27). It’s no mistake that Augustine writes The City of God in the twilight of the Roman Empire, and in light of the first sack of Rome. When the temporary systems (the City of Man) that we live in get shaken, believers are forced to cling to our true home, our eternal one (the city of God). Just as all the transitions of a refugee’s or a TCK’s upbringing can cause him to hope more tangibly in an eternal home, so the church collectively can come to believe more deeply in the steadfast kingdom of God when their own societies of sojourn are coming undone.

Shall we grieve for our Babylons when their time has come? Yes. The losses are real, if indeed we sought the good of the city where we sojourned. And yet there is also hope and a renewed clarity that must intermingle with the grieving. We knew all along our common grace systems were eventually going to fail. But we also knew that their creaking and their failure would also (ultimately) serve as the prelude to the eternal story of the New Jerusalem.

Finally, these things also help us identify with the Church global and historical. When we ourselves wrestle in faith to trust God in the breakdown of our systems, we learn better how to pray for Christians who live in failed states or economies, for those whose societies experience a great deal more instability and turmoil than ours have. We are reminded that we should have been primarily identifying with them all along, rather than with our temporary fellow citizens and partisans.

When the city of man begins to creak and groan we may naturally feel a good deal of fear or disorientation. I don’t think there’s any way around this. But this creaking is also an opportunity for humility, for renewed faith in the New Jerusalem, and for identification with the historical and global Church. In this way, no matter if the cracks get worse or if they get patched, we will be able to maintain hope, to serve our brothers and sisters and even the perishing, and to point to what is coming.

For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.

-Hebrews 13:14

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Translating Romans Into Persian in Ancient India

…More reliable is the reference by the Metropolitan of Merv, Ishodad, that in 425 a priest from India named David translated the Letter to the Romans into Persian.

A century later an Egyptian sailor, writing under the pseudonym Cosmas Indicopleustes, published an anti-Ptolemaic polemic entitled “Topographia christiana’, which described the world not as a sphere but as a disk. The value of the book, addressed to the Nestorian patriarch Mar Aba, lies in its description of the Christian communities he encountered during his voyage of 522/525 to Ethiopia, India, and Sri Lanka. ‘Even in Taprobane [Sri Lanka] there is a church of Christians, with clergy and believers.’ He added later, ‘The island has a church of Persian Christians and a priest who is appointed by Persia.’ Regarding India, we learn that there were also Christians in the region of Malé [Malabar], where pepper grows.’ And in ‘in Calliana [the city of Quilon] there is moreover a bishop, who is appointed from Persia; likewise on the island of the Dioscorides [Socotra] in the Indian Ocean’. There ‘the inhabitants speak Greek; there are clergy who receive their ordination in Persia and are sent to the island, and a multitude of Christians.’

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 28-29

Could this early translation of Romans – likely from Aramaic into Persian – represent the first time it was put into this important Central Asian language? That would mean it was finally passing out of the official language of the Church of the East (Syriac/Aramaic) and into the language of the more eastern marketplaces. Interesting that it may have been the far-flung communities of Persian-speakers in places like India and Sri Lanka that finally brought this about. David the Priest, like many Bible translators throughout history, may have found himself frustrated that God’s word in the “Christian” language was proving inaccessible to the Persian merchants and traders he was ministering to.

Notice also how Christian communities were present in the 500s even in now-unreached places like the island of Socotra, home of the Dragon Blood tree. Islam and Hinduism may have dominated communities around the Indian Ocean, like Socotra, for the last millennium, but some of these same places were outposts of ancient Christianity. Like those in our corner of Central Asia, the locals likely have no idea about this ancient Christian past. Sharing this kind of history with local first-generation believers can be a deep encouragement to their faith. God had not left their ancestors without a witness, and now the gospel has made its unstoppable return.

Photo by Andrew Svk on Unsplash

The Origin of the Shape of Books

Codex was used originally to distinguish a book, as we know it today, from its ancestor, the scroll. By Patrick’s time the codex had almost universally displaced the scroll, because a codex was so much easier to dip into and peruse than a cumbersome scroll, which had the distinct disadvantage of snapping back into a roll the moment one became too absorbed absorbed in the text. The pages of most books were of mottled parchment, that is, dried sheepskin, which was universally available – and nowhere more abundant than in Ireland, whose bright green fields still host each April and explosion of new white lambs. Vellum, or calfskin, which was more uniformly white when dried, was used more sparingly for the most honored texts… It is interesting to consider that the shape of the modern book, taller than wide, was determined by the dimensions of a sheepskin, which could most economically be cut into double pages that yield our modern book shape when folded.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 168

Photo by Sam Carter on Unsplash

On Spiritual Dreams

Today I met up with my dear friend, Reza*, a believer from an unengaged people group who came to faith as a refugee in the US. He shared with me a part of his story that I had never heard before.

“I was recently reading in the Old Testament,” he told me as we sat at a sunny table in a local Louisville coffeeshop. The Black Lives Matter and rainbow pride flag stickers were visible on the glass door just over his shoulder.

“And I read the part about the lion and the lamb and the leopard and the goat lying down together.”

“And a little child shall lead them…” I added. “That’s Isaiah.”

“That’s right, yes, it was Isaiah. I hadn’t read this part of the Bible before, but it helped me make sense of the dream I had right around when I believed.”

“How so?”

“Well, a part of my dream had to do with all these kinds of animals being at peace with one another, like leopards and goats, just like Isaiah describes. In my dream I was telling people about how good this was, but until recently I didn’t know this was an image from the Bible.”

I smiled as Reza described this discovery to me, then told him what I was smiling about.

“I’ve had a good number of friends tell me just what you are telling me now. That imagery or language in a dream they had from around the time they believed later proved to be from the Bible. None of them had read that part of the Bible before they had the dream.”

“Really?”

“My friend Adam* dreamed about Jesus giving him a white stone with something written on it. He hadn’t read Revelation 2 yet, where Jesus says that to the one who conquers he’ll give a white stone, with a new name written on it.

“Then there’s Henry*,” I continued, who had Jesus speak to him in his mother tongue and call him, ‘My son,’ before telling him, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal things.’ This is a sentence from Proverbs 25, which Henry had never read. It blew his mind when we showed him the verse, word for word what he had heard in his dream.

“Or my friend Hama*, who leaned over to me the first time we took communion and told me that he’d done this before. I told him that no, this was definitely his first time. ‘No,’ he pushed back, ‘I did this with Jesus, in a dream, the night you told me you thought I was already a believer in Jesus. He gave me some bread to eat and something red to drink.'”

Including Reza, these four close friends of mine, all believers still persevering in their faith, had independently experienced a very similar thing. As new or almost-believers they’d had dreams in which they saw or heard specific language and imagery – only to later have the hair on the back of their neck stand up as they realized it was a clear quote or allusion to a passage of scripture as yet unknown to them. The effect, of course, was a sober excitement that God really was at work in their lives – and a deepened amazement at God’s word.

“You know, it’s a little weird to talk about this stuff with believers here,” Reza admitted. “It freaks some people out.”

I nodded, “Yeah, a lot of our Western churches either say things like this don’t really happen, or they make it the center of everything and get obsessed with it.”

“And then people feel pressure to fake it,” said Reza, shaking his head.

One of the baristas with bright blue hair and piercings cleaned the glass door behind Reza as we squinted in the bright afternoon sunshine. An American guy was sitting at a table close behind me. I hoped he was listening in on our conversation, since he would easily be able to hear Reza’s confident, accented voice. Reza always manages to leave secular Westerners a little confused and tongue-tied as he winsomely and boldly shares his faith in Christ. Iranian refugees who choose to follow Jesus and become faithful Baptists don’t exactly fit the cultural narrative.

After a short pause, I continued,

“One of the things I appreciate about Middle Eastern and Central Asian churches is that things like dreams are neither ignored nor obsessed over. They are common enough in the testimonies of solid believers to be held in a more balanced way. It’s interesting, actually. Western Christians, even evangelicals, used to have spiritual dreams and write about them. A little-known fact is that the history of the Southern Baptist Convention is itself connected to a dream about Jesus. A pastor named Shubal Stearns moved from the north to South Carolina to plant churches, specifically because he had a dream where he claimed Jesus told him to. His work led to the formation of the Sandy Creek Association, which is kind of where it all began for the history of the SBC.”

Reza and I continued to talk for a good while longer, ranging over topics that the progressive coffee-sipping patrons around us likely found bizarre, and hopefully interesting. It’s hard for me in some ways, being back in the states for this season. But I love spending time face-to-face again with this brother.

Reza is a member of a SBC church, though one of the minority of churches in that denomination which happen to be continuationist in theology. Yet even then he finds it hard to be open with American Christians about some of his experiences. Most SBC churches would be cessationist, and leaders such as Al Mohler (SBC) and John Macarthur (Nondenominational Baptist) have publicly said they don’t believe God uses dreams in a supernatural or revelatory way. Personally, I would very much like to get these men in the room with the many (often Reformed) Baptist missionaries working with Muslims overseas who come across credible accounts of spiritual dreams on a regular basis. It is one thing to dismiss third or fourth-hand accounts. It is quite another to see your close friend who has been an enemy of Christ shaking in front of you because you are showing him a Bible verse for the first time, one which Jesus quoted to him in a dream. Or to grapple with the accounts of your very own church’s missionary, whom you have affirmed and sent out and you implicitly trust. Better yet, let’s get leaders like these to take a missions sabbatical, where they can be six months on the ground in places like Central Asia and hearing and seeing things first-hand.

Experience does not dictate theology. But experience can reveal blindspots in our theology, places where our categories have been off, or places where we have been unknowingly operating out of tradition, cultural assumptions, or our own experience or lack thereof. Consider a Christian who dismisses the reality of depression as an unbiblical category and the kind of change in his theological lenses that takes place when his own wife descends into a long and dark postpartum depression. Or how simplistic theologies of suffering undergo trial by fire when we ourselves face the deepest kinds of pain. Young singles’ theologies of marriage and parenting often begin with great gusto, only to be torn down and rebuilt as the years pass and their families grow. Many a missionary has quietly dismissed the demonic and spiritual warfare only to find their theologies in these areas in need of some renovation when they move overseas.

I think this is what is going on with Western conservative evangelicals trying to make sense out of Muslims or former Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about God’s word. Because of our own psychologized environment and very modern non-dreaming experience in the West (for comparison, read about Patrick or Caedmon), we begin as skeptics and struggle to have a category for spiritual dreams – unless we are forced to work through the issue because our own Muslim neighbors are coming to faith and having spiritual dreams and literally risking their necks to follow Jesus. At this point we find ourselves in a comparable position to the man born blind in John 9, putting the theological pieces together as we try to make sense of something very surprising and supernatural which we have just experienced, but which the leaders in our community say isn’t really happening or isn’t really something from God.

This blog post is not the place to spell out a robust theology of dreams, even if I were able to do so this evening (which I am not, though if anyone needs a PhD thesis, I think a serious Reformed attempt at making sense of dreams in church history and the global church is needed). But in summary, the canon of Scripture is closed. God does not reveal to nor inspire believers in this age as he did for the apostles and prophets of old (Heb 1:1-2, Rev 22:18). Instead, we have the inerrant and sufficient apex of God’s revelation in the Bible itself (2 Pet 1:19). The Holy Spirit illuminates God’s written revelation for us to understand it and grants us wisdom to faithfully apply it to the questions and experiences of our age (John 16:13-14, Eph 1:17). Yet he also actively leads and encourages us in ways that always uphold the unique place of God’s inspired word – and bring it to bear on our unique life situations (Rom 8:14, Gal 5:25). It is in the Holy Spirit’s ministry of the personal piercing of our hearts with God’s word and wisdom that I would place contemporary spiritual dreams (John 16:7-10).

Believers do not feel that the sufficiency of God’s word is threatened when they are in their waking minds and biblical language or imagery arrests them and stirs their affections anew, providing specific encouragement or guidance. Why would we be so afraid or surprised that this might occasionally happen in our sleeping minds, or in the sleeping minds of those the Spirit is in the process of calling to salvation? Why have we roped off the dreaming neurons and synapses of the brain as qualitatively different (i.e. miraculous and revelatory in an inspired sense) in the way that we have when we at the same time claim that the waking brain is a natural and providential process? It seems our categories might need some tweaking, if only for the sake of consistency. Is the Spirit not indwelling and working in the mind asleep as he is in the mind awake?

All throughout scripture we see that God uses dreams in the lives of his people (Gen 31:11, 1 Kings 3:5, Matt 2:19). Dreams of encouragement and guidance are one category of spiritual dream that are clearly happening in the life of Paul, for example (Acts 16:9, Acts 18:9). Peter tells us that these are the last days, when it is promised that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved – and that some men will dream dreams (Acts 2:17). Dreams, however, are not to be relied upon, but tested (Jude 8, 1 John 4:1, 1 Thes 5:21). If in line with the truth, they are to be accepted as spiritual and good, as just another part of the Spirit’s active ministry in the lives God’s people. We need a nuanced approach to this topic that threads the needle right, recognizing that dreams can be abused and that they can also be spiritual and helpful.

While I am a qualified continuationist*, I’m not altogether sure that Muslims having dreams about Jesus or about biblical language or imagery need be a Shibboleth between cessationists and continuationists. In fact, on the mission field the acceptance of legitimate spiritual dreams by missionaries in both camps already exists, not unlike the agreement in both camps that God still supernaturally heals sometimes when we pray for the sick. It is in what we could call the supernaturalist overlap between cessationists and continuationists that I would place the reality of these dreams. Further, I would argue that both camps already hold to a greater ongoing revelatory miracle happening daily – the new birth (2 Cor 4:6). The new birth is a greater revelatory miracle which in no way threatens a closed canon. If then the Spirit works in this greater supernatural way on a daily basis, why not in the lesser way of giving occasional spiritual dreams?

I always appreciate the chance to wrestle with areas where the historical or global church help us to see our particular blindspots and cultural/generational assumptions, places where we find ourselves strangely out of step with those who have gone before us or with our evangelical brothers and sisters around the world. Spiritual dreams are one of these places. I for one believe we need some more conversation regarding these dreams in order to account for the disparity that is currently there between the regular spiritual experience of those from a Muslim background and their brothers and sisters in the West.

At the very least, we need to listen to our fellow believers, like Reza, and try not to get freaked out by their testimonies if they include a dream about Jesus.

*By qualified continuationist, I mean that I am a continuationist by conviction, but that I find in the scriptures, in church history, and in my own experience that seasons of the more miraculous gifts and miracles ebb and flow inconsistently according to God’s sovereign and mysterious plan. There are periods like those of Moses and Elijah/Elisha and the generation of the apostles when they seem to come in downpours, then long periods, not unlike a cloudless Middle Eastern summer, where the showers stop and the ordinary means of grace are all that is provided by the Spirit. Because he is the sovereign Spirit and free to give or not give at his good pleasure, I don’t resonate with the pressure some continuationists put on themselves for these things to function weekly in every era, nor the critique by some cessationists that the gifts among contemporary reformed continuationists seem too quiet, small, and ordinary to be legitimate. I’m not sure exactly what to call this position, but perhaps something like punctuated continuationism would be getting close to the mark.

*names changed for security

Photo from Wikimedia Commons