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These are not your average beach books


Alex Proimos | CC

Russell E. Saltzman - published on 07/02/17

A little heavier than the usual summer fare, these are perfect if you seek some mind-tickles in the shade.

These are not the books coming with me to the beach this summer. I’d prefer to read these under a fig tree (sorta like Nathaniel when he met Jesus), if I had a fig tree. Point is while summer reading should be a little lighter than usual, it should not be without some mind-tickling intellectual challenge, read on a fair day in a fair place where the shade refuses to budge.

These three are perfect. They were written by two scholars and concern themselves with the Roman Catholic Church. The publication dates span the years from 1959 to 2012. More famously, perhaps, they were written by two prominent Lutheran pastors, Robert Louis Wilken, now a a Roman Catholic layman, and Jaroslav Pelikan (d. 2006), who became Orthodox.

Wilken, professor of history at the University of Virginia, became Roman Catholic in 1999. Pelikan was a Yale professor of ecclesiastical history who, in 1996, became Orthodox.

I discovered Pelikan’s,The Riddle of Roman Catholicism: Its History, Its Beliefs, Its Future, (1959) as a tattered paperback on a neglected library shelf in a Detroit Lutheran church. I cannot say what it was doing there. That was in 1978 and I was on parish internship from seminary. The book came out the same year Pope John XXIII called the Vatican council to Rome, which opened in 1962. The Riddle in some ways is a peek at the state of pre-Vatican Catholicism. But largely, almost exclusively, it was written for Protestants by a friendly non-Catholic voice to explain for Protestants what was and in many ways remains a riddle, the Catholic Church itself.

Pelikan’s book anticipated the council and even generally predicted some outcomes. One measure of a book is what it does for the reader. I had one more academic year of seminary after internship. Reading Pelikan, I decided to do some course work at the nearby Pontifical College Josephinum. I took the hardest classes a Lutheran could find: Sacramentology and Marian studies. But where Pelikan really caught me was on the future of Christian unity: “… [W]hen we measure the unity we have, we also begin to discern the dimensions of the unity we seek.”

Pelikan, I noted, converted to Orthodoxy. He remarked he had peeled away the layers of both Protestant and Catholic and discovered underneath he had always been Orthodox. In my case, thanks in part to his book, I peeled away layers of Lutheran and found I was Catholic.

The next two books belong to Wilken. I have known of Wilken for many years and though we shared a mutual friend in Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, we have never met. Neuhaus became Catholic in 1990, Wilken in 1999. But long before becoming Catholic, Wilken was writing about Catholics.

In The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, (1984) Wilken explores the philosophical thought of Galen, Celsus, Porphry, and Julian, the 4th-century apostate emperor, in their substantial criticisms of Christianity. It is a glimpse into the encounter between pagans and Christians, and the details aren’t pleasant. It wasn’t a philosophical seminar over tea; these arguments went on as Christian blood was spilled in the arena.

Every criticism about Christians, about Jesus, about the Church and her doctrine you have ever heard (and possibly some you have not heard), turns out, are only repetitions of what was said against Christianity in the earliest centuries. It is still a wonder, genuinely, that paganism collapsed ― not all at once and not everywhere ― in the confrontation with Christianity. It may not have collapsed at all without Constantine’s patronage; the Christian population of the early 4th-century empire is estimated at only about 25 percent. Paganism was the go-to religion with a thousand-year history of temples and sacrifices, devotion to the gods, and it had the weight of the Roman Empire behind it. It wasn’t the case that Christians fractured a hollowed out shell of pretense and mechanical devotion to the gods. The Romans did not pretend to religious piety toward the gods, they were pious and they thought of themselves as a pious people, hard core. Romans believed theirs was a characteristic that set them apart, compared to other peoples and cultures. The conflict was existential: the Roman soul was a stake.

What Roman philosophical opposition did was sharpen Christian apologists in defending their faith, philosophically. Christ wasn’t foolishness; he was the future. They took the term piety (not an original Christian word) for their own, stealing it from the Romans, and “breathed new life into the spiritual and intellectual traditions of the ancient world.”

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, (2012) is the best sort of historical survey you can read: relatively brief (359 pages of text covering a thousand years), with maps, chronology, containing sketches of controversies and personalities. It begins with Jesus in and around Jerusalem and from there Christianity expanded and adapted to linguistic, liturgical, cultural conditions because everywhere it had the same structure: a bishop. Wilken flatly says, “There is no evidence for enduring Christian communities without the office of the bishop.” He says a lot more too, but at this point you find your own fig tree.

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