Category Archives: Religion

Speaking of Vikings…

Sorry about not posting yesterday. It was a day like no other, remarkable in its occurrences. There was no time, or energy, for blogging.

I don’t think I mentioned it before, because the event was a closed one, but I was invited to speak – twice – at a retreat for the pastors of my church body. They wanted me to first do an afternoon presentation on the Vikings, and then give a sermon to the pastors at the evening banquet.

Even I thought this rash, and probably ill-advised.

But I prepared my talks, and I was on the spot at the appointed hour. First I spoke about the conversion of Norway in the Viking Age, rehashing Fridtjof Birkeli’s revisionist arguments that the whole business was more peaceful than the saga writers suggest, and that Haakon the Good has been unjustly underrated by historians. I wondered whether any of the pastors would care about this, but in fact it turned out to be the first standing room only crowd I’ve ever addressed. The question and answer session afterwards was thoughtful and fun, and it ran overtime.

In the evening I gave a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, where St. Paul describes the church as being like a body, in which every member has a function to carry out. I related this to our church body’s history, and to its emphasis on lay participation back in the days when it was still a debatable question whether a layman would be allowed to lead a prayer in the pastor’s absence. I stressed the risks involved in this way of doing church, and urged them to become risk-takers. (Easy for me to say; I’m not a pastor.) It went over very well, and the response was positive.

Oh yes, the food was delicious, too. We bachelors don’t get that many really good meals that we can afford to overlook them.

Then I drove home (depending on my GPS to get me around a bridge under repair), a shell of my former self, because that was about all the human contact I could handle in one day.

‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

The Conversion of Scandinavia

It’s a little disappointing, after my glowing review of Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings (reviewed a few inches south of here), to deliver a less than enthusiastic review of his earlier work, The Conversion of Scandinavia. Of course it’s ridiculous for me, an amateur historian and fantasy novelist, to challenge a scholar of Winroth’s stature. But this is my area of interest, blast it, and I’m going to defend it with whatever flimsy weapons I’ve got.

The thesis of The Conversion of Scandinavia is fairly easily stated. In Winroth’s view, the conversion essentially never happened – not in the way we’ve been taught. All those cultural clashes and crusader atrocities are just the fancies of Icelandic storytellers. What actually happened (in this view) is that various chieftains and kings realized that Christianity offered both prestige and (in the Church) a bureaucratic model that could be expanded and adapted to solidify their own power. The kings were baptized, and their kingdoms declared officially Christian. Other than that, the changes were few, but the people gradually adapted to the new religious order.

One thing that immediately struck me was that Winroth completely bypasses the institution of the Things, the Viking democratic assemblies that balanced and limited royal power. He writes of the Scandinavian kings as if they were autocrats, ruling by decree. Although he doesn’t explain this omission, I imagine he considers the idea of the Thing another invention of Icelandic saga writers – and in his view (apparently) the very fact that a saga writer says it is conclusive proof of falsehood. He does not recognize the recent work of scholars in the field of folklore studies, who argue that useful information can be preserved in pre-literate societies for three centuries or more through traditional mnemonic devices, before being written down. Continue reading ‘The Conversion of Scandinavia,’ by Anders Winroth

Anders Winroth on the conversion of Scandinavia

Here’s a ten minute video of Anders Winroth, whose book The Age of the Vikings I reviewed a few inches south of this post. In this interview he discusses his previous book, The Conversion of Scandinavia. I have purchased that book and will report when I get it finished.

I generally agree with his view that conversion had prestige value in the Viking Age. I’m interested to see if he cites Fridtjof Birkeli’s untranslated book, Tolv Aar Hadde Kristendommen Vaert i Norge (Twelve Years Had Christianity Been in Norway). Birkeli argues that, in Norway, Haakon the Good’s peaceful approach to missionary work was just as (or more) effective over the long run than the better-publicized bloody crusades of the two Olafs.

Is Wolf Time coming?

Wolf Time

I’m very gratified that the good folks over at Grim’s Hall, one of my favorite blogs, have decided to host a multi-part discussion of my novel Wolf Time. It’s been a long time since I wrote that book, but there are some who think it holds up, and even has things to say today. Parts of it, I like to think, are prescient.

Here’s the first post in the discussion.

And here’s the second.

And here’s video of Sen. Bernie Sanders essentially arguing for at least a part of the Definition of Religion Act, a major plot element in Wolf Time.

The glass is a quarter full

Things that occur to you while you’re preparing a devotional (things which are probably tediously familiar to pastors and teachers already)…

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:3-9, ESV)

What occurred to me while reading this was, first of all (I’ve written about this here before), three-quarters of the seed is lost. Out of four kinds of soil where the seed falls, only one of them is actually arable and productive.

But the yield of the productive soil is 100, sixty, or thirty times the investment. The crop that does grow is worth the loss.

But something else occurred to me too. We’re accustomed to dividing people into “glass half full” and “glass half empty” groups. Optimists and pessimists.

God seems to think that a quarter full is just great.

Here endeth the lesson.

‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

The Benedict Option

“When a man first comes to the monastery, the first thing he notices is everybody else’s quirks—that is, what’s wrong with everybody else,” said Father Martin. “But the longer you’re here, the more you begin to think: what’s wrong with me? You go deeper into yourself to learn your own strengths and weaknesses. And that leads you to acceptance of others.”

OK, this time it is a review. I read The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher.

I won’t lie to you–I didn’t want to. I had a pretty good idea what this book would be—a depressingly realistic appraisal of the current, radically changed situation in which orthodox Christians find themselves. Plus a series of suggestions for dealing with the new normal—all of them uncomfortable.

I was correct.

Dreher describes how the situation of the (small “o”) orthodox church in America (and in the west as a whole) has changed, suddenly and (apparently) for the foreseeable future. Thanks to the cultural earthquake that the Gay Movement brought forth, Christians who had been ensconced, relatively comfortably, within our culture just a decade ago are now an isolated, and increasingly threatened, minority.

Dreher sees no chance of altering that situation through politics or public relations. All we can do, he believes, is what Saint Benedict of Nursia did in the 6th Century, after the fall of Rome. Benedict founded western monasticism, creating communities of committed believers who cared for one another, cared for their neighbors, and preserved the wisdom of the Classical age for the future. Little Noah’s Arks in a sea of barbarism. Continue reading ‘The Benedict Option,’ by Rod Dreher

New Ideas About Christ Are Fairly Old

It is difficult to think of a modern “radical” theory about Christian origins that was not pretty standard and mainstream in the decades before the First World War. So, (we heard way back then) Jesus was a New Age teacher; Jesus drew on Buddhist thought; Jesus was an Essene mystic; Mary Magdalene and other women disciples were crucial transmitters of his inner truths; the Gnostics represented alternative feminist and psychological-oriented traditions in early Christianity . . .

Philip Jenkins says it’s natural for writers wanting to be published to present their conclusions as earth-shattering when truthfully the same ideas have been written about–the same “discoveries” made, the same arguments about conspiratorial cover-ups put forward–for decades. We want to been seen as smarter than our predecessors, so look what we’ve rehashed today.

‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Islam is not just a set of religious beliefs. It is an all-encompassing identity. It is inconceivable to change that identity, even for those who barely practice their Islamic faith. To do so is like suicide. It kills the identity of the convert and leaves the rest of the family in a state of shameful mourning.

Nabeel Qureshi has given us, I think, not only an outstanding memoir of conversion to Christianity from the Islamic faith, but a formidable work of apologetics, in his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. It makes an excellent companion work to Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (indeed, Strobel provides the introduction to this expanded edition).

If you’re expecting a story of a man who longed for freedom from Islamic bondage and found it at last, you will be disappointed here. Nabeel Qureshi is more like C.S. Lewis, “dragged kicking and screaming” into Christianity, a “most reluctant convert.”

Nabeel was raised in a loving, even somewhat indulgent home of Muslims of the Ahmadi sect. He adored his parents, loved his mosque, and was proud of his Islamic community. His family was Muslim-American, his father a Navy officer. Nabeel spent much of his childhood in Scotland, where his father served at a naval base, before relocating to the US. Like most Muslims, he believed Muhammad self-evidently superior to the Prophet Issa (Jesus, whom he nevertheless revered), and the Quran (preserved without error) much nobler than the corrupted Christian Bible. Islamic culture, of course, was obviously the most perfect in the world. Continue reading ‘Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus,’ by Nabeel Qureshi

Non-review: Talking about ‘The Benedict Option’

The Benedict Option

This is not a review. I haven’t read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, because I’m depressed enough as it is.

However, I’ve heard the book discussed a lot recently. Today Michael Medved interviewed him on his program, and I got a little better picture of Dreher’s argument. It was different from what I assumed.

When I first heard that Dreher was urging today’s Christians to adopt the tactics of Saint Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Benedictine Order, my thought was, “That’s not realistic. Our situation is nothing like Benedict’s.”

Benedict responded to the decline of civilization by creating communities where the old truths – as well as the old civilizational treasures – could be preserved.

It seemed to me that that model wouldn’t work today. Although Benedict lived in hard times, his culture had not turned its back on Christianity as such. He was able to carry on his educational program without officious bureaucrats coming in and shutting him down for crimes against diversity.

In the near future, it seems to me, we won’t be allowed to run schools. Not only will we be unable to start institutions, the institutions we have will likely be shut down or repurposed.

But in today’s interview, Dreher was clearly aware of those problems. He’s talking about acting in secret, underground ways, and building our faith communities on smaller, more intimate models. Things like house churches.

That, it seems to me, is probably how it will have to be.

I have no fear that the Church as such will die. It’s Christ’s church, and he will keep it until He returns.

I do wonder whether the Church in the west will die. The Book of Revelation warns sharply that Christ will “take away the lamps” of churches that do not hold out to the end. I fear our lazy, selfish, lukewarm churches may have exhausted His patience.

Obviously the words of a humanitarian…

Here’s a little dose of massive cognitive dissonance for you, courtesy of Richard Weikart’s Hitler’s Religion, which I reviewed yesterday:

…Like many atheists and freethinkers, [Hitler] often associated Christian churches with the Inquisition and witch hunts. According to August Kubizek, Hitler got riled up even as a youth by reading books about witch trials and the Inquisition. In 1927, Hitler corresponded with a Catholic priest who had previously supported Nazism but by this time had some misgivings. Hitler contradicted the priest’s claim that Christianity had brought an end to Roman barbarism. Instead, Hitler insisted that Christianity was even more barbaric than the Romans had been, killing hundreds of thousands for their heretical beliefs. He then rattled off a list of Christian atrocities: killing the Aztecs and Incas, slave hunts during medieval times, and enslaving millions of black Africans. Otto Wagener reported that Hitler made similar comments several years later. Hitler attacked those in the churches who opposed his regime, indignantly claiming that their resistance was “nothing more than the continuation of the crime of the Inquisition and burning of witches, by which the Jewish-Roman world exterminated whatever offered resistance to that shameful parasitism…. Hitler wondered why the thumbscrews of the Inquisition were necessary if the Christian faith was based on knowledge.

If only he’d been born later in time, Hitler would probably have qualified to teach liberal arts at an American university.

Luther’s “Utterly Improbable” Career Shown in New Biography

Lyndal Roper has a new scholarly biography on Martin Luther’s “utterly improbable” life.

Roper took ten years to write this book, which the NY Times calls, ” a fresh and deeply illuminating study of the man who somewhat reluctantly divided a continent.”

Roper is especially good on Luther’s unusual upbringing as the son of a mining family. It was a hard life, full of risk; they lived well, but always one bad business decision away from disaster. Young Martin knew that the price of his education was an investment in the family’s future, and how much his decision to abandon his legal studies in favor of a church career would disrupt his father’s plans.

But reviewer Melanie Gilbert suggests Roper crops out the full picture. “When read for its smaller insights – his prolific letter writing, for instance – this book offers a rewarding look at a specific time and place in history. But in a story where the Gutenberg printing press isn’t even mentioned, and the English Reformation gets only a one-page mention, the larger importance of Luther’s life is lost in translation.” (via Prufrock News)

A meditation

For Good Friday (via Dave Lull) a meditation from National Review on Holy Week by the late D. Keith Mano:

Again, I think not. God prefers, when He can, to conserve terrestrial order. He has a dramatic instinct. And His own peculiar unities. The Passion is as naturalistic as frail wrist tissue shredded by a spike. Jesus could ferment water. He could infinitely divide the loaf and the fish. But here He had need of a furnished apartment. His colt might have come about providentially, as Abraham’s ram came about, caught in some thicket. But God wanted a known colt: one that had memorable references in Jerusalem. It was His purpose to leave a clear and historical track behind — evidence that might stand up in court. The presence of transcendent power among modest instruments is more persuasive than any bullying miracle could be.

He is risen!

What Did Judas Actually Do?

Judas throws the money back at the chief priests.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd. (Luke 22:3-6 ESV)

Judas gave his name to the world as the greatest traitor to ever live. And for what? For pointing Jesus out when he was relatively isolated. Jesus even points this out when the gang came to get him at night, “Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me” (Matt. 26:55 ESV). The temple rulers feared the crowds, so they didn’t try to seize him in the middle of the day, but they didn’t have anyone follow him either. Without Judas, they appear to have been stymied.

But that doesn’t change the fact that what Judas did was almost nothing. He said, “I’ll show you who Jesus is. This is him right here.” If anyone had walked into the garden that night, even a Roman soldier, and asked if the Master was present, which of the disciples would have asked, “Who wants to know?” Any of them probably would have pointed him out himself.

Great evil is often committed with the most boring actions. Apathy is the frontrunner. Laziness, sloppy work, deliberate ignorance, truthful gossip, all have their place in the hallway of boring evil.

Even Judas was horrified by the results of his decision. I can’t imagine what he thought would happen or even his motive, except that asks this of the chief priests when he first goes to them: “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matt. 26:15 ESV).

Your favorite Bible teacher John Calvin writes:

It is particularly worthy of notice, that the cause and source of so great blindness in Judas was avarice, which makes it evident that it is justly denominated by Paul the root of all evils, (1 Timothy 6:10.) To inquire here whether or not Satan entered into Judas bodily is an idle speculation. We ought rather to consider how fearfully monstrous it is, that men formed after the image of God, and appointed to be temples for the Holy Spirit, should not only be turned into filthy stables or sinks, but should become the wretched abodes of Satan.

Why Not Ask the Black Church?

“The Benedict Option fails to ask how black believers have survived racial, economic, and social marginalization with their faith intact.” Jemar Tisby offers an important perspective to Rod Dreher’s new book, a book he has mulled over for at least ten years. When considering options for the persecuted church in America, it seems natural to look to those portions of the church that have lived through persecution, but as Tisby writes, this is a continuing blind spot for many white people.

The reality for many white believers is that Christians of color may provide inspiring stories of resistance and are certainly nice to have on display in the congregation, but they are not a true source of wisdom for the white church. To some white Christians, the faith traditions of racial minorities may offer great aesthetics like preaching or musical style, but they don’t have the legitimacy to lead the way into the future. The constant refusal to learn from the black church can only be termed ecclesiastical arrogance.

The Real Reason the Benedict Option Leaves Out the Black Church

Dreher did start a conversation about the black church four years ago, asking why it hadn’t influenced communities more. That doesn’t answer Tisby’s critique, but it does offer a bit of context.

O’Connor: Life Is Violence

Life is suffering and it is violent, so overwhelming is it that we cope by voluntarily consenting to spiritual deafness,” Michael Rennier observes. “The reality of sin must be forced home to us by an act of divine violence so that our pretensions can once and for all be torn away.”

This is what he draws from Flannery O’Connor’s life, which is being featured on PBS in a new documentary, Uncommon Grace. Director Bridget Kurt agrees. “She wasn’t using violence to glorify it; she was showing how extreme moments in our lives are spiritual wake-up calls.”

Like the time when an escaped convict points a gun at a grandmother’s head. In that moment, all of her religiosity melted out of her, leaving her nothing but Jesus. She could have been a good woman had someone been there to threaten her everyday. That would have been respectable. But she didn’t need to be a good woman. She needed Jesus.

Perhaps O’Connor is just too Christian for secular schools. Kurt , a transplant from Northern Wisconsin, found less help than she expected when looking for material on O’Connor’s life.

“Even at her alma mater, GSCU in Milledgeville, very few students that we ran into on campus knew who O’Connor was,” Kurt told Milwaukee Magazine. “In Wisconsin, most of us know that Frank Lloyd Wright was a Wisconsin native because we are taught about famous Wisconsinites and we name libraries and schools after them. I’m not sure how much Flannery O’Connor is taught in Georgia schools.” (Via Prufrock News)