Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Measure of Our Minds

Last week I reviewed Cross Examined, Bob Seidensticker’s novel of ideas purporting to challenge popular intellectual arguments for Christianity.

In general, I like “novels of ideas,” and am all for examination of what we believe, and why.

Codex Schoyen 2650 Matthew's gospel
Unfortunately, as I wrote last week, I found the plot of Cross Examined thin, and the intellectual discussion even thinner. So much so, I find myself returning to some of the arguments, amazed at the superficial treatment presented as unassailable wisdom.

One parlor trick in particular both amused and annoyed me.

Reclusive atheist Jim proposes an experiment to see if the oral tradition of the gospels can be considered reliable.

He asserts that the time between Christ’s crucifixion and the writing of the first gospel is twenty or thirty years, and suggests that he’ll tell his sometime adversary, sometime protégé Paul a story, and see how well it’s remembered a few minutes later.

The story he tells is a rough summary of the tale of Circe from the Odyssey. He offers a page or so of detail, discusses some other issues, then asks Paul to retell the story as precisely as he can.

Ah, scientific reason at its finest. Paul omits details, confuses parts of the story, and voila, as we knew, oral tradition is discredited. What a surprise.

These are fictional characters, so any semblance of science is fictional, at best.

But how many contemporary critics discredit oral tradition because they measure the possibility against their own modern minds, with comparisons as flimsy as Paul’s retelling of the Circe story?

I didn’t grow up in an oral culture, yet my own experience of memorization points to the absurdity of Seidensticker’s supposed experiment.

The mind is a muscle, able to do what it’s trained to do, and our current forms of education barely scratch the surface of the mind’s retentive power. Paul, the lab rat of the imagined experiment, was no scholar, had no real interest in the story, heard it roughly summarized exactly once.

Even as a kid, I could have pointed out the flaws in logic.

When I was nine or ten, I found myself drawn to poetry, and began memorizing poems for the sheer joy of the language.

I started small: 
“I’m nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too?” 
Soon, though, I had moved on to Longfellow: "The Wreck of the Hesperus", "The Village Blacksmith", "Paul Revere’s Ride". I started on "Hiawatha," then shifted to Poe. "The Raven" was my last thousand word poem.

My method was simple: tape the next stanza to the mirror in my bedroom and read it over while brushing my hair, or review it on my way down the hall to brush my teeth before bed.

Scripture caught my attention as well: in the few years of my memorization craze, I stashed away numerous psalms, chunks of James, my favorite chapters of John.

Then I started middle school, took up sports, joined some clubs, and my memorization abilities faded.

Now, decades later, I find it hard to keep even a few verses in my head.

What I know about memorization:
It’s easier to commit long things to memory after hearing them repeated.
It’s easier to memorize things you’ve chosen yourself, or things you care about.
The more one memorizes, the easier it gets.
How much can the human mind hold?

Here’s a recent post I stumbled on:   
In honor of the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Chabad-Lubavitch students across the globe studied an entire tractate of the Talmud and memorized its text.
The tractate, Bava Basra, which is currently being taught in Chabadyeshivas, consists of 352 pages.
Yehoshua Heshel Mishulovin, a student in Montreal, Canada, and the son of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Los Angeles, Calif., took on the additional challenge of memorizing the tractate's super-commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot.
So - 352 pages for an average student. Quite a bit more for one who excelled.
Nooma 008: Dust

Rob Bell has an interesting short video that talks about the rabbinic practice of memorization. As he points out, at the time of Christ, all Jewish boys from six to ten were expected to attend Bet Sefer (literally “house of the book”), where they would learn the Torah. As in  - memorize the Torah. That’s the first five books of Hebrew Scripture - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  79,847 Hebrew words (The words were counted, and numnber recorded, each time the text was copied, as one method of maintaining accuracy).

From ten to early adolescence, boys who showed promise would attend Bet Talmud (“house of learning”) where they would attempt to memorize the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures all the way to Malachi.

I remember as a teen reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and The Promise, and the sense of awe I felt when I realized that, even in the twentieth century, Hasidic boys studying to become rabbis were expected to memorize not only the entirety of what I knew as the Old Testament, but also the rabbinic discussion about large portions of text.

The men who followed Jesus, while none were training to become rabbis, had been trained in memorization in ways we can’t begin to understand, and were part of a faith tradition that took words seriously.

As observant Jews, they would have said the Shema twice a day, morning and evening, from the time they were small. They would have been taught to remember words, to teach them to their children, to bind them to themselves. To write them on their homes.

According to the “form criticism” of the late 19th and early 20th century, the oral traditions of the early Christian church were not historically reliable, for the following reasons (repeated in part by Seidensticker in his novel):

  1. The early Christian movement was entirely illiterate and writing played no “regulative role” in the transmission of oral material about Jesus.
  2. Oral traditions aren’t capable of passing on extended narratives with any level of exactitude.
  3. Orally dominated communities have little interest in historical precision.
  4. Communities, not individuals, pass on oral traditions, without reference to individual eyewitnesses who could serve as safeguards of the accuracy.
I'll be honest: I find form criticism either deliberately deceptive or stunningly, frighteningly clueless. It's hard to read far in either New or Old Testament without encountering a fierce commitment to the value of words, deep loyalty to historical event, sharp warnings against falsifying the record.

Whatever the motivation for learning Torah and Talmud, the first Christians' motivation for remembering the stories of Jesus would have been greater: they’d seen something so life changing, so earth shattering, so completely new, they were willing to leave the comfort and safety of their homes, the familiar networks, the known world, to share the story they carried with them.

For every scholar who discounts the accuracy of those follower's stories, or the reliability of the form in which they were passed on, there are others who consider the New Testament writings as the most reliably transmitted of ancient texts.

Sir William Ramsey, Scottish archaeologist who began with a strong anti-Bible bias, spent fifteen years trying to discount the gospel of Luke, and concluded: "Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."

Much more recently, St. Andrew's scholar Richard Bauckman noted,

"Most history rests mostly on testimony. In other words, it entails believing what witnesses say. We can assess whether we think witnesses are trustworthy, and we may be able to check parts of what they say by other evidence. But in the end we have to trust them. . .
Now in the case of the Gospels, I think we have exactly the kind of testimony historians in the ancient world valued: the eyewitness testimony of inolved participants who could speak of the meaning of events they had experienced from the inside." 
Clark Pinnock, McMaster University, considering the reliability of historic sources, concluded:
"There exists no document from the ancient world, witnessed by so excellent a set of textual and historical teestimonies ... Skepticism regarding the historical credentials of Christianity is based upon an irrational bias." (Set Forth Your Case, 58).
Yes, we all have biases. Some irrational. Some more considered.

We have assumptions and experiences of our own that shape our understanding of the past, our assessment of the present, our hopes for the future. Some scholars choose to doubt the holocaust. Some think slavery was a good thing for the slaves. We'll be debating global warming until every polar bear is gone and the arctic circle is an open ocean.

We have our own grids to test what's true - and our own ideas about how to decide what's possible.

As for me, I find the gospel narratives compelling.

I find the evidence for their veracity convincing.

I know no story of pre-modern time that has come to us with more force, or more authenticating detail.

Belief is still a matter of faith, a decision about whose testimony to trust.
But so is disbelief a matter of faith: faith in the smallness of our minds, the weakness of our memories, the narrowness of possibility.

I know which faith I choose.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cross Examined: A Speakeasy Review

How do you know what you know?

What would it take to change your mind?

What if what you believe turns out to be wrong?

Those questions surfaced with last week’s Synchroblog topic, exploring some "what ifs" about Christianity and scripture.

It emerged again in a novel I signed on to review for an on-line book review community called Speakeasy.

The book, Cross Examined, by Bob Seidensticker, is descrbed as “an unconventional spiritual journey,” one which “challenges the popular intellectual arguments for Christianity and invites the reader to shore them up . . . or discard them.”

The phrase “popular intellectual arguments for Christianity” suggests an intriguing oxymoron, which may be why I signed on to receive and review the book. I’ve read, taught, discussed arguments for Christianity, but never found them "popular". Individuals complacent in their faith are generally bored, annoyed, or offended by forays into apologetics, while those shaken by doubt are rarely comforted or persuaded by intellectual argument.

From what I’ve seen, doubt is rarely the result of deep intellectual inquiry. More often, it’s the byproduct of tragedy, loss, abandonment, betrayal.

The characters of Cross Examined are no different in that respect. The story begins in 1906 with a prophecy of the coming San Francisco earthquake, and follows two young adults through the aftermath of that tragedy.

The plot is structured around two formal debates, the first between Reverend Samuel Hargrove, formidable pastor of The First Church of God in L.A., and bookish, forgettable, Professor Putnam. The second debate, late in the book, is between Reverend Hargrove and his protégé, Paul Winston, the central character of the book.

Between those debates, the novel follows Paul Winston’s encounter and growing friendship with a reclusive atheist, Jim. Jim’s chessboard serves as a central image in the novel: an ongoing contest between Jim and an unseen, unidentified adversary, with directives arriving from afar, and chess pieces moving slowly across a span of seasons.

There’s also a fiancé, Athena, thought dead in the earthquake and subsequent fires, nursed back from a badly broken leg in a distant Buddhist monastery.

The narrative offers conventions of plot: a half-hearted love story, uncertain identity, mounting tension between rival mentors, a young man facing traumatic past and uncertain future.

Yet the plot, and the characters themselves, are little more than a framework for the interplay of ideas. Between the opening and closing debate, Jim shuttles between pastor and recluse, rebutting arguments from one, gathering ammunition from the other, an almost featureless pawn in the battle of belief.

The story suffers, but the ideas suffer as well. Arguments, both for and against belief, are flattened, misrepresented, treated as little more than markers in a competitive game that resembles poker more than chess: “I’ll meet your ontological arguments and raise you one Pascal’s wager.”

Comparative religion, arguments of design, anthropological understanding of oral tradition, all appear in a distorted, simplified format. As Reverend Hargrove becomes more and more visibly a bombastic bully, his arguments are more easily dismissed. As Jim takes on the role of benefactor and confidant, Paul aligns himself with the new arguments Jim offers, as simplified as those he abandons.

Jim, portrayed as the constant voice of reason, at one point suggests, “Rationalization starts with God’s existence: given Christianity, how can I square it with the facts? Reason starts with the facts and follows them where they lead.”

To comment well on those two sentences alone would take chapters, maybe volumes. What is reason? Where does it come from? What is its basis? Why should we trust it?

And who decides the “facts”? Don’t we all start from our own points of understanding, and rationalize “facts” to fit the framework of our assumptions?

Don’t we all, atheists and believers alike, see and interpret “facts” from our own small windows on the world around us?

Yes, there are arguments for and against the existence of God, the truth of scripture, the possibility of miracles. There are different ideas about how to weigh the validity of historic texts, about how to date ancient documents, about how to interpret manuscripts from cultures distant from our own.

Cross Examined introduces some of those complexities, but in a way that seems heavily weighted toward the author's own assumptions.  The novel does little to acknowledge the rich history of philosophical inquiry surrounding the questions raised, and, set as it is in 1906, it ignores the past century of careful research on matters like reliability of manuscripts, strength of oral tradition, archaeological evidence for scriptural accounts.

Jim tells Paul “faith is immune to facts. . . And that’s the biggest clue that Christianity is false: it’s built on faith. Believing something because it’s reasonable and rational requires no faith at all.” In the intellectual chess game Seidensticker has constructed, facts and logic are the highest values, sweeping all opposition from their path.  

At the same time, there’s an odd undercurrent to the novel’s slight narrative.

Jim, reclusive atheist, lives in such a place of distrust he is unable to leave his home, and has, by his own testimony, been trapped in one place since he left the church two decades before. As he invites Paul deeper into his logical agnosticism, he also invites Paul into a place of isolation and paralysis.

In the end, Paul seems required to choose between reasoned loneliness or an irrational acceptance of a  more productive and emotionally healthy community. 

Despite the hundreds of pages of formal and informal debate between the main characters of the novel, two side characters seem to offer the final word.

One, Virgil, friend from Paul’s old life on the seamier side of town, urges Paul to continue on with the church: “seems to me that using logic to take care of your spiritual needs is like slicing bread with a hammer.”

Compassionate widow Mrs. O’Brien offers similar advice: “the church is much more than arguments and debate – it’s community and heaven and forgiveness. All these years of Samuel’s debates have changed my mind not a jot either way. Even if I were to accept all those fancy arguments against religion, my faith would remain. That’s why it’s called ‘faith’.”

The unsatisfying, unexpected conclusion does little to explain any of the characters’ motivations, just as the flurry of arguments back and forth does little to build a deeper understanding of the interaction between faith and reason.

As I set the book down, I find myself thankful for writers and thinkers whose books have illuminated key questions in deep and satisfying ways.

And I find my distaste for apologetics as intellectual contest has deepened.

I’m reminded that humility is an important basis for real wisdom and understanding.

And I’m convinced, yet again, that when intellectual discourse is approached as a game of chess, everybody loses.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What If Newness Was the Norm?

The Synchroblog theme for April is “What If . . .

Waiting for Godot, Roger Commiskey,
2005, Dublin
The invitation is to “try to imagine that some or all of the Bible narrative is not necessarily true history, but is myth of one sort or another.  What sort of effect would that knowledge have on your faith?  What effect might it have on the larger church?  How would it change you?  Would it change you and how you view the world?”

Maybe I’ve spent too many years in the Episcopal Church, or too many years working with youth and young adults, or maybe it was my years of graduate study at an Ivy League university, but I find the “what if” of “maybe this is myth” a dreary, far too predictable dead end. 

I’ve seen how it affects the church to casually discount large swaths of scripture as myth, and I’ve seen, up close and personal, the shaken commitment when each of us becomes arbiter of what is, and isn’t, true.

I’m willing to talk that through with someone I care about, over a good latte, if occasion demands it. But heading down that rabbit hole reminds me of an endless “Waiting for Godot” performance I attended years ago. Interesting to visit, but I wouldn’t go for fun.

Puzzling about the “what ifs” that energize and engage me, I came across a recent post by Byron Borger at Hearts and Minds booknotes. I’ve been blogging about newness – and this post, “Resurrectionary Reading,” seemed to pick up just where I left off.  I wrote last week about the way the newness of the gospel undermined the Roman empire, helped bring the downfall of Communism. Borger’s piece picks up the story, and digs further into this question:

What if our understanding of Christ’s resurrection has been too narrow, too personal? 
What if that newness was meant to bubble up in every arena of human endeavor?
What if newness was meant to be the norm for the daily Christian life?

I agree so strongly with Borger’s post I’m quoting it at length, and yes, even borrowing some of its graphics.

Protests in the streets of Poland, 1989
Poland, 1984. ‘Christ is risen!’ As the cry went out, the crowd of mostly Catholic trade unionists shouted back with confidence ‘He is risen indeed!’ Not unusual for a resurrection service, the cadence of the call and response echoing centuries of proclamation and hope. Yet, as this crowd understood, such public proclamation was pregnant with possibility -- revolutionary, even.  Soon, the dictatorial regime of communist Poland fell to non-violent protestors, Solidarity workers, alternative civic organizations, all swarming the streets inspired by the hope of the gospel, the truth of Christ's goodness unleashed in the world. Many of those history-makers understood the vast implications of Christ's bursting forth from the empty tomb.  We might borrow an image from musician Bruce Cockburn's Santiago Dawn, which tells of the Christian hope that drove peaceful protestors to resist the junta in 1980's Chile, the people ‘rising like grass through cement.’  Indeed, in every hemisphere and continent the good news of Christ's resurrection has supplied courage for those resisting injustice.

For many the resurrection is a vindication of the belief that through Christ and his cross, God forgives our sins and we are reconciled with Him. This is gloriously true!  Yet, we might ponder these brave revolutionaries resisting totalitarianism, inspired by Easter; why did their belief in Christ's resurrection cause them to take on dictators?

The answer is endlessly provocative: they realized that Christ's resurrection is more than a final touch on the process that assures us of salvation but also a socio-political event. The Roman regime had locked Christ in his tomb, secured with a draconian royal seal and armed guards.  Easter's uprising broke the Imperial seal and in doing so broke the power of all repressive forces.

This aspect of the Easter morning narrative includes vivid anti-empire imagery, suggesting that Christ's sacrificial death accomplished more than the forgiveness of solitary sins.  The gospel's implications are broader: Christ does more than show mercy, but also transforms all of life. His resurrection revokes the power of personal sin and systemic evil, inner disorder and corporate dysfunction. Christ is victorious over death as it is writ large over a cursed creation.  Colossians 2:15 exclaims that Christ has disarmed even the "principalities and powers" by triumphing over them. Romans 8 reminds us that the entire creation has been groaning, oppressed. The visionary of Revelation promises "all things new" (the "all things" an echo of the early praise chorus of Colossians 1.)  A core New Testament conviction concerning the meaning of Christ's bodily resurrection is that Christ rules over this material world, across all aspects of life, in every sphere of culture, and that His new regime is coming ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven.’

The resurrection is the central reality of human history, the truest truth that upsets idols and ugliness, defeats disorder and disaster. This means that in the living Christ there can be a restoration of order, rightness, shalom.  God's Kingdom is best understood as a renewal of the good but fallen creation.  Christ is King of His creation, and those united in His death, resurrection and reign are called to live into this shalom. The distorted ways of the broken culture are replaced, as we - like grass through cement - bring forth healing examples of new life. From sustainable economics to meaningful aesthetics, from dignified labor to trusting families, we imagine and then work to create hospitable neighborhoods, holistic health care systems, wise schools, responsible engineering; we explore all the implications of the resurrected life in a creation that is being restored.  The deathly Imperial seal lays broken, hurt is healed, God's life-giving Spirit is loose in the world, ambassadors of His holy rescue plan scattered like salt, like leaven, like light.

Ahh, but here is the rub.  To announce socially-constructive, culturally-relevant, Biblically-directed new life, we must necessarily ask what it looks like to embody this great good news.  Christ's victory extends "far as the curse is found" (as we sang in promissory hope during Christmastide) but what in the world do we do about it?

One of the answers--besides gathering regularly to announce through Word and sacrament the truth of Death's defeat in Christ's resurrection--is to read, and to read seriously.

If we are to do more than be "hearers" of the resurrection news, but are to embody it as good citizens of God's movement, we must unlearn a lot of the old ways and relearn even more.  Our way of life in the world is informed considerably by the ideas that we hold, which is why the Bible calls for the "renewal of our minds."  We are formed as new creatures by Word and worship, but also by study.  If Christ is bringing newness to all of life, then we must study all of life.  Christian people, God's vanguard of newness, must think well about "every square inch" of our lives, and should read and learn and talk about it all.  Where should we shop? What parenting styles might we embrace? What do we think about gender assumptions, how has racism distorted our attitudes and relationships, can we possibly have Christ-like holiness amidst sexualized media? What sort of entertainments are most renewing?  How do we fruitfully embrace technology, with whom should we live, for whom should we vote, how do we think about are careers and callings?

If Christ is risen and brings renewal to all of life, and we are to be agents of reconciliation in all of life - well, we've got work to do. . .

Those of us who are swept up into Christ's agenda of bringing newness might do well to step back from public proposals and pontificating, instead committing ourselves to a season of what might be called resurrectionary research. Given that Christ is risen, what should we think about the nature of our culture (its worst idols and greatest dysfunctions; its best graces and most normative strengths?) What are the most pressing problems in our world, and what insights might come from the creation-regained worldview brought by Jesus the risen King?  Our habits of heart and the subsequent social architecture of our land must be transformed - what might the resurrection mean for that? All of this will demand considerable and concentrated thought. And we will have to be intentionally standing on the shoulders - by that, I mean reading the books of - those who have come before. Can we be agents of reformation by thinking deeply, offering well-informed glimpses of resurrection life? . . .

If we do not ground our Christian proposals in studied conversation, shaped by habits of reading widely and deeply, we will not have substantive contributions to make, our ideas will be thin, our proposals less than adequately wise or fruitful. For the full force of resurrection power to shake the world we will need to do more than shout out the truth of the victory.  We will have to think through its implications, reading widely and deeply, unlearning and learning much, praying and working for the mind of Christ, so that we offer truly good news of healing and hope to the watching world.”

Hearts and Minds booknotes and online bookstore offer great resources for the ongoing work of renewed minds, reclaimed culture, resurrection newness.

What if that newness bubbled up in our public discourse? In our economic systems? In our approaches to food and farming?

In federal budgets, immigration policy, urban schools, corporate goals?

What if newness was the norm, in every corner of a groaning creation?

That’s the “what if” that energizes and intrigues me, keeps me reading, thinking, writing, and sets the agenda for my day.

Other posts on newness and resurrection:
Newness Beyond Our Achieving, April 7, 2013
Where is Newness Needed? March 31, 2013
 Risen Indeed? The Hermaneutic Community  April 8, 2012
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People  April 15, 2012
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  April 22, 2012
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep  April 29, 2012
Resurrection Laughter  May 6, 2012
Resurrection Women – Happy Mother’s Day May 12, 2012
Words Half Heard: Reconciling Righteousness  May 20, 2012
Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost  May 27, 2012
 If Only   Apr 10, 2011
 Resurrection  Apr 25, 2011
Thank you for the cross  Apr 17, 2011

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Newness Beyond Our Achieving

Yours is the kingdom….not the kingdom of death,
Ancient cross of India
Yours is the power….not the glory of death.
     Yours….You….and we give thanks
             For the newness beyond our achieving.
                           (Walter Brueggeman)

“Newness beyond our achieving.”

That little phrase, at the close of the resurrection prayer by Walter Bruggeman I quoted in my last post, has been traveling with me.

Isn’t that the ongoing evidence of Christ’s resurrection, the “newness beyond our achieving”?

The newness in the world around me, trout lilies in bloom, forsythia budding, reminds me how dependent we are on power beyond ourselves – the movement of the planets, the shifting of clouds and wind.

But beyond weather, seasons, discernable cycles, Christ’s resurrection promises newness unexpected, uncharted, astonishing.

The early church shaped itself around that astonishment.

No one inventing a religion would sign on Peter as patriarch. Self-absorbed lout of a fisherman, he had trouble thinking before he spoke, and understood almost nothing Jesus told him. As Jesus described the challenges ahead, Peter put himself center stage once again, interrupting: “I’ll never betray you! You can count on me!” And denied Jesus three times before the next sunrise.

Yet, following the resurrection and his experience of the promised Holy Spirit, he was a new person, with a newness beyond his own achieving or imagining. Willing to invite a lame man to stand and walk. Able to explain the sweep of Jewish history in a way that made God’s purpose clear. Courageous in the face of the same religious leaders who planned Christ’s crucifixion. Joyful in prison after a brutal beating.

Luke noted, in Acts 4, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

Peter and John weren’t the only ones.

“Doubting Thomas,” once his doubts were dispelled, carried the good news of the resurrection across the landmass of Iran and Iraq and through much of India, where the Thomas Christian community still carries his name.

Matthew, Philip, James and John, all the disciples but Judas Iscariot, carried their amazement and joy to the farthest reaches of the known world, planting churches, all but John losing their lives in service to the story of resurrection newness.

Forty Martyrs of Sebaste
First century Christians, in places like Antioch and Alexandria, Cypress and Seville, even as far north as Gaul and as far east as Madras, captured attention for their openness to outsiders, their care for those more often marginalized, their commitment to peace, their inexplicable joy and courage. Accounts of those early believers provides a catalog of some of humanity’s most creative, capricious acts of cruelty, yet the resounding testimony of those within the church, as well as those opposed, was that the mark of the Christians was peace and courage in the face of persecution, gentle response to violent attack.

According to the unknown author of the historic “letter to Diognetes,” (ca AD 130): 
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. . . Inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined . . .they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
 . . .They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. . . They are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.”
 In North Africa, Tertullian (AD 160-225) echoed the same themes: 
We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope. . .
 Though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in the prisons . . . See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.
Athenagoras of Athens, writing to “the Emperors Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Lucius Aurelius Commodus," explained:
Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth.
 They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.
Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150, called attention to the same new priorities and changed behavior: 
We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions now bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need.
 We who hated and destroyed one another and because of their different customs would not live with men of a different tribe, now—since the coming of Christ—live familiarly with them, pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ.
Was the Roman empire undermined by its dissolute, demented leaders, or swept away by the tide of newness welling up from the spread of Christian conscience and courage?

Historians have been arguing that for centuries. A similar discussion will someday focus on the fall of the Communist era. Laszlo Tokes, the Hungarian pastor who helped lead the Romanian resistance, has said “Eastern Europe is not just a political revolution but a religious renaissance.”

Hill of crosses in Lithuania
In East Germany, resistance to communism sprang up from teaching about the sermon on the mount at Gethsemane Church. Christian Fuhrer, the pastor who eventually led over thousands of Germans in peaceful protest through the streets of Liepzig, described his experience of God’s power at work through prayer: 
People accepted Jesus’ message, especially the message of the Sermon on the Mount. We experienced in a very special way that everything that is written here is true. . . . “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” “He pulls the powerful from their throne and lifts up the poor.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We experienced it just like that—the church as a refuge and a place for change, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, no mention of paradise and redemption, but the daily bread in the reality of political hopelessness.
The special experience that we had during the years of peace prayers and then with this massive number of non-Christians in the church, which was exceptional, was that they accepted the message of Jesus. They grew up in two consecutive atheist dictatorships. They grew up with the Nazis who were preaching racism, the master race, prepared for war, and replaced God with Providence, as Hitler liked to say. They also grew up with the Socialists preaching class struggle and vilified the church by saying Jesus never existed, that’s all nonsense and fairy tales, legends, and your talk about nonviolence is dangerous idealism; what counts is politics, money, the army, the economy, the media. Everything else is nonsense. And the people who were brainwashed like this for years and grew up with that.
The fact that they accepted Jesus’ message of the Sermon on the Mount, that they summarized it in two words—no violence—and the fact that they did not only think and say it, but also practiced it consistently in the street was an incredible development, an unprecedented development in German history. If any event ever merited the description of “miracle” that was it . . . A peaceful revolution, a revolution that came out of the church. It is astonishing that God let us succeed with this revolution. After all the violence that Germany brought to the world in the two wars during the last century, especially the violence against the people from whom Jesus was born, a horrible violence, and now this wonderful result, a unique, positive development in German history. That is why we are so happy that the church was able to play this role and enabled this peaceful revolution.
The most important thing for us was the power of prayer, which is still true today. We are not praying to the air or to the wall, but to a living God.
The astonishing power of prayer that eventually tore down the Berlin Wall is the same power that dissolved the Roman Empire, that brought apartheid to a close, that ended slavery in England, that bubbles up in newness wherever God’s people grasp the astonishing truth Jesus preached, then demonstrated in his death and resurrection: Love is stronger than hate. Peace is more powerful than war. The darkness of death dissolves in the light of resurrection.
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:17-23)

Other posts on resurrection:
Where is Newness Needed? March 31, 2013
Risen Indeed? The Hermaneutic Community  April 8, 2012
The Great Reversal: A Resurrection People  April 15, 2012
Earth Day Shalom: Ripples of Resurrection  April 22, 2012
Resurrection Challenge: Feed My Sheep  April 29, 2012
Resurrection Laughter  May 6, 2012
Resurrection Women – Happy Mother’s Day May 12, 2012
Words Half Heard: Reconciling Righteousness  May 20, 2012
Resurrection Power: A Prayer for Pentecost  May 27, 2012
 If Only   Apr 10, 2011
 Resurrection  Apr 25, 2011
Thank you for the cross  Apr 17, 2011