My church is still going through its twelve-session Bible study on the Book of Romans. We’re using Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, with Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung. Last night, we did session 10. I have three items.
1. The DVD that we watched opened by saying that the Roman government regarded Christians as dangerous. This was interesting to me, since I’ve been reading some about Notre Dame Professor Candida Moss’ recent book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. See here, here, here, and here for more information about this book. The book intrigued me because I wondered if it responded to an argument that I’ve long heard from Christian apologists: that Jesus must have risen from the dead, because why else would the early Christians have been willing to die for him? The question that usually floated around in my mind when I heard that argument was, “Well, how do we even know that some of Jesus’ disciples were martyred for their faith?”
Is Professor Moss’ book relevant to this Christian apologetic argument? I’ve not read Professor Moss’ book yet, so I can only speculate on the basis of what I’ve read about her book. She does seem to contend that Christian narratives about the martyrs were rather late and served an ideological purpose (i.e., to inspire Christians in their commitment to the faith, etc.), and she doubts that they are historically-accurate. At the same time, she does not appear to dismiss that Christians were put to death in the days of the Roman empire. But she does not think that the Romans were obsessed with the Christians and were specifically singling them out for persecution, or that the time of Christians’ martyrdom lasted all that long. And yet, she does seem to acknowledge that the Christians were somewhat of an annoyance to the Romans, since the Christians were believed to hold subversive ideas.
I should probably read the book before I comment more. I’d love to use this book to knock Christian apologists off of their arrogant high horse, but I can easily picture them coming back with, “But she doesn’t deny that Christians were martyred, right?”
2. As I watched the DVD last night, I had to appreciate the contribution that Christianity made to the Roman empire. The DVD was depicting Roman society as bloodthirsty and as cold, even if it upheld certain virtues. Christianity, according to the DVD, was revolutionary because it claimed that God cared about each human being. Moreover, Christianity was counter-cultural in that it emphasized love, peace, joy, and self-sacrifice, in a world of selfishness, greed, and power.
On my blog, I’ve questioned whether Christianity actually was a step up from paganism. There are people who argue that there were progressive strains on gender and slavery within paganism, disagreeing with the notion that the Bible is superior (see here and here). They’re probably on to something there, on some level. And yet, I do believe that Christianity was a step up, in certain respects. Christianity, for example, opposed infanticide. Perhaps the DVD that we watched last night is on to something when it contends that Christianity emphasized love above and beyond what paganism did.
And yet, even if Christianity made positive contributions, it also (in my opinion) left some negative effects. The rivalry between Christians and Jews since the first century led to medieval anti-Judaism, which set the stage for the Holocaust. Blaming Eve for the problems of the world contributed to misogyny. The Bible’s tolerance of slavery was used to justify slavery in the American South. Biblical teachings about homosexual conduct have set the stage for homophobia, which psychologically (and often physically) damages people with a homosexual orientation.
3. The DVD and the curriculum were saying (a la Romans 12:2) that we should not be conformed to this world, with its selfishness, greed, and desire for power, but we should be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We should see people as Jesus saw them, with love. I heartily agree with this. Can one do this without being a Christian? Maybe. I know of loving non-Christians. But I’ve often wondered if Christianity, or at least some belief in the supernatural, can give one that extra boost to do good, since it holds that those who do good will be rewarded because a good God is in charge of the universe.
Someone in the group, whom I will call Jeff, was saying that there are churches that compromise with the world, and he noted his own denomination’s acceptance of gay marriage and promotion of the Palestinian cause. I replied, “Yeah, and I think that many evangelicals are wrong to assume that Israel is always right because it’s ‘God’s country’, and so we shouldn’t care about the Palestinians.” I’m not sure if my comment got internalized by others, though, for people there may have wondered what exactly I was blabbering about. I was nodding my head when people in the group were talking about their own denomination’s struggle with the gay marriage issue, but that was because I was trying to be understanding, not because I agreed with their stance against it. It takes a lot of courage to go against the grain. A Christian jerk could say to me, “Well, that’s because deep-down you know that conservative Christians are right. If you believed in the truth, you’d be unashamed to speak it! But you’re ashamed to speak your liberal convictions because you know they are wrong.” Not necessarily. Going against the grain is difficult, whatever one’s stance is.
I liked the curriculum’s focus on how we should be loving in a world that has selfishness, greed, and a lust for power—-not because I’ve mastered love by any stretch of the imagination, but because I think that love is important. I have a hard time equating sympathy for the plight of homosexuals or Palestinians with worldliness, for I see that as compassion. Jeff was saying that there are denominations that don’t take what’s in the Bible seriously. Well, I believe that there are evangelicals who don’t take people’s plight seriously, but rather seek to dismiss it with a couple of proof-texts! On compromising with the world, heck, I’d say that Christians who assume that God is a right-wing Republican who backs the free market system are themselves compromising with the world! Should I have said that? I fantasize about saying that in the group! But perhaps an “us vs. them” approach is not an appropriate way for me to get my message across.
I will say this, though: I do feel accepted in the group, even though I have expressed my ideological differences. That contrasts with some of the previous religious settings I’ve been in, where people assume that shoving a particular belief down my throat makes me want to accept it.