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Archive for June 2nd, 2010

Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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