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Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

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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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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