Eschatology and the American Lawn: A Parallel History, Part II

james

Part I Part II Part III Part IV (Coming Soon)

Maple-seed

SEEDS

You can own, love, and take care of a lawn without knowing all the historical and cultural circumstances which contributed to your desire to own, love and take care of a lawn.  Many of the under-pinning desires of our consumer choices are left unexamined.  Similarly, you can believe in something without knowing all its historical and cultural circumstances, precedents, antecedents, dependencies, and implications.  Many times its easier that way.   As Ecclesiastes tells us, with great knowledge comes great sorrow.  As another author puts it, “Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most must morn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of Life.”  Many times we avoid knowledge that we intuitively know will cause us pain.  On the other hand, being the conflicted and paradoxical beings that we are, all of us humans to some degree have a drive to get to the bottom of things, to look for the truth, to expose the lies that we are fed, and (less often to be sure) to expose the lies we feed ourselves.

Growing up I never questioned the legitimacy of grass as a landscaping feature.  I never wondered why everyone either had grass or wanted to have grass in their yard.  I would have been an unusual child indeed if I had gone around questioning the reasons behind cultural norms, but I think that as a young adult questioning cultural norms I am engaging in an activity very common among people of my age group.  20-somethings always question things, it’s what we do, especially since the fall of modernism as a way of seeing the world.

The flaw of conservative evangelicalism is that it denies the cultural and historical foundations for its theology and claims Scripture as its only basis.  This is a comforting idea, one that causes very little internal pain, but it also an idea that possibly more than any other has driven more young people away.  I’m sorry but peer pressure and pot are not the reasons why 50% of those who grow up in conservative evangelical churches lose their faith in college; it is (at least in part) their awakening to the cultural and historical currents which have shaped conservative evangelical theology.  This necessarily undermines the authority of a hermeneutic which makes the foundational claim of independence from the shifting sands of culture and history.

 

 

Beatus Commentary on Revelation from the Morgan Library, NYC

Beatus Commentary on Revelation from the Morgan Library, NYC

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

A theology of End Things, or more accurately a theology of Christian Hope for the Future has always been with the Church.  Since an examination of early church eschatology is not the main focus of these posts, but rather background, I will briefly outline three hallmarks of Early Church Eschatology, understanding that despite a hegemony of belief even within “orthodox” teaching on the End Times, there were several points of remarkable agreement.  In what follows I am, of course (it almost goes without saying), seriously indebted to NT Wright’s sizable corpus of work on this subject. [1]

First, the focus of early church eschatology was on the Resurrection.  In a sense it was a very simple Eschatology: Christ is resurrected, therefore we too with be resurrected.  Christ’s body is absent from the tomb, therefore, so will our bodies one day rise from the grave.

Second, heaven was not thought of as the final destination, but an intermediary step.  Jesus told the thief on the cross that they would see each other in Paradise, but this is certainly not where Christ stayed, and neither is it where early Christians believed they would stay after their Resurrection.  They thought of it rather as a place of rest (whether literally or metaphorically), a holding area where one’s spirit awaits the Resurrection, and the eternal life to come.

Third, they believed that the hope of the Resurrection was not passive but active.  In the words of Wright: “Because the early Christians believed that resurrection had begun with Jesus and would be completed in the great final resurrection on the last day, they believed that God had called them to work with him, in the power of the Spirit, to implement the achievement of Jesus and thereby to anticipate the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness.  It was not merely that God had inaugurated the ‘end’; if Jesus, the Messiah, was the End in person, God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him and were empowered by his Spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.”

And then Constantine happened.  Starting in the mid-4th century, the Church found itself with considerable political and cultural power.  This changed its eschatology.  No longer was the Church looking for the final judgment where Christ would return to set everything straight, but rather the Imperial Church saw itself as presiding over the Millennial Reign; the Kingdom of God was the Roman Empire.   After the slow decline of that empire, the kingdom of God became, in the eyes of the theologians,  the “Christendom” of western Europe.  There was no need for Future Hope, because the between the Church and the emperors, and later between the popes and the kings, everything was under control.  So it was that in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, the Eschatology of the church was impacted by the cultural and political events of its day.   And it was this Imperial Eschatology that made possible on the intellectual level the first Church sanctioned murder, and subsequently the travesties that were the Crusades, the inquisitions, et al.

Beatus Commentary on Revelation from the Morgan Library, NYC

Beatus Commentary on Revelation from the Morgan Library, NYC

It should be noted that there were other strains of eschatological belief at work during the Medieval period.  Many popular eschatologies (then as it is now) devolved into nothing but base superstition.  Y1K, for instance, was every bit as dramatic and trauma-filled as Y2k.  extant commentaries on Revelation were filled with Jack VanImpe style doom-and-gloom-messages concerning plagues and wars and predictions about which angels were blowing what trumpets when.[2]  There was also a lot of sane eschatology that more or less continued the emphases of the early church (the Resurrection, etc), which were strong especially in the monastic reforms in places like England and Ireland.  The point I am making, however, is that the official eschatology was an Imperial one; the Church saw itself as the eschatologically proper political ruler of the world; the pope was Christ’s stand-in for the millennial reign (seen,even then, not as a literal 1000 year period, but a more or less eternal period of time); the emperor was Christ’s vicegerent; the hand of God whose job it was to subjugate the heathens and bring about God’s Kingdom with whatever force and violence necessary.  The church’s mission of working toward the Kingdom of God with love, compassion and justice was twisted into a mission of bringing about the kingdom of God through war, extortion, and torture.  Political power and material greed warped the eschatology of the Church. 

tournament 1

In was also during this time (the early Medieval period) that the lawn was born.  The first lawns were created by noblemen and kings as places to hold tournaments and fairs.  The lawn became a symbol of nobility and of the monumentally asinine pissing contests that made up much of western European sport during the middle ages.  When one thinks about, then, it is really not surprising that the common ancestor of both lawns and football fields is the mock battlefield of the tournament.

Go to Part III

————————–

1.For a more cogent and detailed explanation of all of this and more besides, see Wright’s Surprised by Hope pp. 31-51; in the endnotes he gives references to even more detailed and academic discussions of these points in his tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God.

2. This is not to say that all the crazy stuff Jack VanImpe believes was invented in the Middle Ages, only that there were people running around commenting on the events of the day and trying to predict when Christ would return, etc.  Rather than go into details now, I intend to devote a post to the book of Revelation and the history of its interpretation.  But if the gentle reader is curious, she or he should look into the Beatus Commentary on the Apocalypse illustrations of which I have included in this post; fascinating stuff.

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. “I would have been an unusual child indeed if I had gone around questioning the reasons behind cultural norms, but I think that as a young adult questioning cultural norms I am engaging in an activity very common among people of my age group.”

    Is this supposed to somehow prove that you, in fact, were not an unusual child? :0)

    What I find humorous about your post, is that my lawn functions precisely as a tournament field for my boys. They even compete in many of the same events, without even knowing the origin of their sporting. I guess I am going to have to get another Boxer-dog, so that we can have a joust and round out the event lineup.

    Shawn

    Reply

  2. Reed,

    I see your point. I think we would agree that ultimately a focus on the bodily Resurrection and a Restoration of Creation on the Last Day provides more real and concrete comfort for those who believe. But the process of getting people to change their belief away from the standard “we all go to heaven and float around in the sky and become angels, etc, etc, business would create a lot of anxiety and discomfort for sure.

    On the other hand, in personal experience at least, all this Tim LaHaye End Times crap breeds fear and existential discomfort, and while most people who believe that stuff wouldn’t admit it, I think they’d be relieved not to have to believe it anymore. Teaching 9th graders, I don’t know if there was a single kid that was taught conservative evangelical eschatology who didn’t dread Jesus coming back, who didn’t look at the news in fear, who wasn’t worried in the back of their mind that they weren’t going to make it in the rapture (who among us hasn’t had the O CRAP, I’ve been left behind moment?). There’s a lot of fear and guilt and self-loathing associated with conservative evangelical eschatology, and I think a lot of people are going to find themselves relieved as that mode of thinking continues to dissipate from today’s Church.

    Reply

  3. More good stuff. I look forward to a thorough lambasting of the eschatology which combines random and haphazard verses from Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel (especially), the Letters to the Thesselonians, the Gospels, and Revelation (to name a few books).

    Seriously, I don’t know when people started combining random individual verses from these texts but one has to wonder if they ever thought they were full of shit. Moreover, it is interpretations like that which I protest against when I say that “the Bible is not one big book.”

    Reply

  4. “There’s a lot of fear and guilt and self-loathing associated with conservative evangelical eschatology, and I think a lot of people are going to find themselves relieved as that mode of thinking continues to dissipate from today’s Church”

    This is precisely what caused a crisis in faith for me about four years ago. It took me some serious introspection and prayer, but I was finally able to dig up the root cause as my eschatology. The day I started to weed out this kind of eschatology, I also immediately began to experience spiritual healing. I didn’t finally “get over it” until celebrating the Eucharist on Ash Wednesday of last year.

    Shawn

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s