The Spirituality of Reading

Imagine if we had happened to have been the friends and disciples of St. Paul, or St. Basil, St. Ephrem, or St. John Chrysostom.  How would we have turned out?  What would we have been like?  Maybe we would have become poets like St. Ephrem, or we would have been great and effective sermon-givers like St. John Chrysostom whose sermons are pure works of art.  Not only did these latter two produce works of art, but that art was the vehicle of carrying the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ.

These are nice thoughts, aren’t they?  But it is simply something that may have been, not something that could be.  Or could it?

Actually, it is not something that could have been, but something that can be, and will be, only if you read what they wrote.

What will happen if you read what they wrote?  The answer is too many things, but here are three important things that will happen.

1. Spiritual Transformation (The saints of the past will become your friends)

Jim Rohn said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with.”

How does this apply to reading though?

The YouTube channel Improvement Pill had a video where they connected this statement with reading, and it is beneficial to apply their ideas here.

In the video, the speaker says, “A book is literally the words, the ideas, the mindsets, the advice and even the experience of another person wrapped into a convenient, portable, always available collection of papers.  It’s almost equivalent to having that person there speaking to you.”

The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Image from Pixabay

That applies to every single person of whom we have a written record all the way from our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Apostles, to the Fathers.  When we read the Bible and the Fathers frequently and widely, it will be as if these people are becoming our circle of friends.  We will become the average of these saints as we become the average of the people we spend our time with now.  Their mindsets will become our mindsets, their ideas will become our ideas, and their talents and skills will become our talents and skills, but only if we let them.

To connect to the Scriptures, in the Book of Proverbs, King Solomon says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” (Proverbs 13:20 NRSV), and if we make reading a regular habit of ours, then it will be as if we are regularly conversing with the Fathers and we will become wise as they were wise.

Toward the end of the video by Improvement Pill, the speaker also points out that 75% of self-made millionaires report reading at least two books a month.

Now if books can lead to success in money (into the millions), then how much more can they lead to our spiritual success?  But we have to read the right books, not just any book that claims to help spiritual growth.  The Fathers have been tested through the ages, and they can help us grow in Christ.

The Spirit of God intentionally inspired the writers of the Bible to write their works and not simply leave it to oral tradition because it was His work that has been preserved in these writings.  Also, the Spirit moved the ancient Christians to write as well so that the gifts he gave to the pastors of the past would continue to benefit those who lived long after them.

So reading then becomes an act of worship because it is the individual seeking out the work of the Holy Spirit in other lives and other times, and the same Spirit is the Spirit who works in us now.  It is He who moves us and urges us to read as we grow in Him because He is pointing us to all the other work He has done which can also happen with us all the while reminding us that we are of one Body with all those who have followed Christ including those who lived in the past.

2. Good Judgment and Decision Making

A lot of the problems in society from the most fundamental relationship of marriage, to child-rearing, to working honestly, to serving in church, and to dealing with our fellow man are results of poor judgment because of a lack of foundational information on which to base those judgments.

These judgments usually deal in three areas of life:

  1. How to deal with people
  2. How to deal with money
  3. How to deal with ourselves.

When it comes to dealing with people, the Fathers have written so many beneficial things.  But one work stands out.  If you are entering into the priesthood or even youth service like Sunday School or youth groups, St. John Chrysostom provides the most penetrating and piercing glance into issues of the ministry.  His book On the Priesthood is indispensable for anyone involved in service in any way, shape, or form.  The observations he makes are as if he was living in our day and age to the point that if you gave someone who was unfamiliar excerpts from this book, then they would think it was written recently.  If you work in fields like teaching, social services, or with children, this book can have a very big impact on how well you do your work.  Such is the applicability of what he has written, but it is especially true for priests.  You can click here to purchase this indispensable book.

A Dialogue on the Saints: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Our conversation on the martyrs has really forced me to view them differently now.  You made things so clear to me, and I now see them for the living examples of following Christ and not just as a group of people.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am glad that is so.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: But, you Orthodox Christians don’t only look to the martyrs but you look to all these other saints.  Why is it you all hold the saints so close.  Do you not know that you have the Scriptures, faith, and the Holy Spirit?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I know that we have the Scriptures, faith, and the Holy Spirit, and it is because of these that I hold the saints so close to me in my journey following Christ.  You see our Lord Jesus is our Teacher (that is what rabbi means in Hebrew).  He has taught us how to live and the Scriptures preserve His teachings.  We are His disciples (disciple is the Latin word for student).

In order to understand the saints, I want you to imagine a classroom since that is the imagery our Teacher and His disciples give us.  The Teacher truly teaches us, but the students also have an effect on how we learn.  If we have good students with us (in behavior and in learning), then that makes our learning even better.  In addition, if you don’t see other students succeeding, then it will be difficult for any student to believe that he or she can really succeed.

Image of Sainte-Chapelle from Pexels

Think of a school like Oxford.  Not only do the Teachers attract others to the university, but also the students who have been educated by the teachers.  They become the living examples of the power of that school to change and deepen lives.  C.S. Lewis came out of Oxford.  J.R.R. Tolkien came out of Oxford.  Metropolitan Kallistos Ware came out of Oxford.

The first reason we hold the saints so close is because they are the students who went through the school which is Christianity, and showed us how the Teacher’s teachings do indeed transform lives, as a result we are strengthened in our faith to follow Christ.  This is a type of preaching, but it is a preaching by living.  We read and listen to the sermons of past Christians, but the saints’ lives are sermons too.  The saints are the living examples of Christ’s teaching; they are students with us in the school of Christ, and they show us that we can be successful in following and growing in Christ.

If all we know are the people around us now in the 21st century, then we will not grow in Christ as best as we can.  We must look to the whole body of believers including those past Christians that came before us.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: But that means you do not have a strong enough faith to follow Christ if you need the saints.  Why would you need the saints if you had that faith?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: For the same reason you need preachers to bring you the faith.  Preachers speak about the works of God and praise Him, and the works of God are so powerfully evident in the lives of the saints.

In the early Church, Christians used a translation of the Bible called the Septuagint and often abbreviated today as LXX.  In this version, which was translated from a much older Hebrew version of the text than you have today, Psalm 150:1 read, “Praise God in His saints” meaning it is through them and their lives that we learn how to praise God.

To not bring to remembrance the lives of the saints is to ignore the work of the Holy Spirit.  You may think you are glorifying God, but in reality you are ignoring Him.  It is just like having a Bible and placing it over your fireplace for all to see but never actually opening it up to read it, or only reading one book from it at all.  Even so, it is the same if you give lip service to God but never consider the work He specifically did in each saint’s life.

A Dialogue on the Martyrs: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

MODERN CHRISTIAN: You know, martyrdom is getting really intense in the world.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: What do you mean?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Do you see the news about the recent martyrdoms of Christians like Father Samaan Shehata of Egypt in October 2017 and the Egyptian and the Ethiopian Martyrs of Libya back in early 2015.

Image from Pixabay

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You think this is something new?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: No, but it is increasing as of recently.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: No, it is not.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Are you not aware of the news?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am, but you are relying on the news, the news which is publicized.  Seek out other information, and there is available, and you will find that the reality is that there has never been a generation without Christian martyrs.  Martyrs are the sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church that there are true believers, and they are also the sign of a world that has detached itself from God.  They bear witness to God’s work in their lives to transform them to the point that they do not even fear death because they worship the God who is Himself Life and who conquered death by His Resurrection.  They bear witness against the world that a world without God is a world that goes out of its way to kill and bring death.  Indeed, the word martyr comes from a Greek word meaning “witness.”

You know, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has an article collecting research that points out that there have been more than 70,000,000 martyrs throughout the course of Christian history.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: What?!  Are you serious?!

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am dead serious.  Just in the last century alone from the years 1914-1922 in a narrow region of the world in the Middle East, 1,500,000 Armenians were killed because they were Christians, 750,000 Pontic Greeks because they were Christians, and more than 250,000 Assyrians because they were Christians.  That’s 2,500,000 million Christians in an 8 year period in only a small region of the world.  That averages about 312,500 Christian shedding their blood for Christ a year in that time period and region alone.  Last year, in 2016, according to a report in your news, more than 90,000 Christians died because of their faith, as martyrs.  The year before had 105,000 martyrs.  Martyrdom is not getting really intense in the world, but it has been intense since the very beginning of Christianity.

Do you ever mention the martyrs in your modern, Protestant, Christian churches?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Sure.  We talk about the martyrs and how they lived for Christ.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Their life stories must edify you then.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Uh, sure.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Who have you spoken about in your churches?

MODERN CHRISTIAN William Tyndale, Jan Hus, um….

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Yes, who else?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I don’t know anyone else.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You only know two martyrs?!

MODERN CHRISTIAN Well, by name.

What Makes Reading the Bible Difficult?

How many times have you asked a loved one read the Bible and they tried, and they found it too difficult, and they could not understand what they read?  How many times has this caused you frustration?  Were you able to help them overcome the difficulties?

Most of us would answer no to the third question because we do not have the abilities to help our loved ones overcome the difficulties associated with reading the Bible.  Below are three solutions to help you solve this problem, but in order to solve the problem, we need to understand why the problem is there, and the reason for it being there may surprise you.

Image by Pixabay

Why is Reading the Bible Difficult?

The average American adult’s reading level is at 7th or 8th grade.  The average American schoolchild’s is lower. This has implications for reading and understanding the Bible.

When it comes to the research on reading, there are four categories of readers.  Below, these categories are listed in order from lowest to highest skilled:

  1. Below Basic (14% of American adults are in this category)
  2. Basic (29% of American adults)
  3. Intermediate (44% of American adults)
  4. Proficient (13% of American adults)

In what category does the average American adult’s reading level fall then?  It falls mostly within the Intermediate category.  This category has indicator skills to explain what a reader who reads at this level should be able to do.  They should be able to:

  1. Understand moderately dense texts
  2. Summarize
  3. Make simple inferences
  4. Determine cause and effect
  5. Recognize the author’s purpose

One of the biggest signs of our problem is that four out of the five most popular English translations of the Bible (New International Version, King James Version, New King James Version, and English Standard Version) are translated to read in the Intermediate and Proficient ranges meaning they are beyond the grasp of the majority of the American adult population, and even more so for American children.  To understand the problem better, let’s understand how reading level works.

Problem # 1: Reading Level

A person’s reading level is the level at which they understand 95% or more of the words they are reading.  If that percentage falls below 88%, then according to the research it becomes impossible to comprehend a text.  In addition, reading level has indicator skills like those described above.  However, the indicators for the Proficient Level (where two out of the five most popular English translations are) require the following skills:

  1. Reading lengthy, complex, and abstract prose texts.
  2. Synthesizing information (connecting multiple texts together)
  3. Making complex inferences
  4. Integrating multiple pieces of information located in complex documents (such as applying what we learn from our reading to our lives)

The qualitative measures for the proficient category to which only 13% of the population belongs are exactly the types of skills that ideal Bible reading requires which is for us to synthesize information across many books of the Bible (like understanding how the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ and the church and applying the words of the Gospel and Epistles to our lives so that we may be transformed in Christ).

Solutions

So, what is a solution to this problem?  Well, for those who are still students, request to know your reading levels from your English teachers if they have not already made that available to you.  Then, if it is two or more years below grade level, request to be put into an intensive intervention class.  This will help you speed up your growth with your reading levels; you cannot afford to fall behind any further, both spiritually and academically.

Another solution to this first problem is if you are an adult and have struggles reading, you need to go to church.  If you have a good priest who is able to communicate the faith in the sermons and other various meetings, you will learn the faith.  This is how the earliest Christians lived a life following Christ.  90-95% of the population did not have the ability to read.

Also, churches should invest in those who have been trained as reading teachers and create ministries directed at improving reading among congregants, and they should teach them how to read using the Bible and teach them how to understand the Bible.  Churches since the very beginning have invested in social ministries, and believe me, there is none more important than reading.  This is not only important for understanding the Bible, but in our country it is necessary to read well in order to do our jobs well and move up in our occupations, even those that do not require a college education.  What social ministry could be more important than teaching our congregations how to read well?

The Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart: A Review

We have heard many wrong things in our history classes.  We have heard things like the Church taught the earth was flat until the Scientific Revolution, feared education and learning (and our teachers told us that for this reason the church burned books) and was violent throughout the course of its history.  We have been taught that these repulsive policies were generally the rule with Christianity and not the exception.

The reality is these teachings are lies invented by modern atheists.  The bulk of the evidence in fact supports the opposite: that the church supported the growth of science, promoted education and learning, and pushed for peace throughout its history.  Yet, the atheists especially the New Atheists, still continue with these lies, these delusions.

A person is deluded when one chooses to hold a belief or opinion even though the evidence is largely against it.  The book The Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox Christian philosopher and theologian, examines and dismantles multiple delusions that the New Atheists hold and absolutely destroys them.  What is left for the reader then to ponder is that the New Atheists do not have much support using history to support their views and that, on the other hand, Christians have a very strong support in the records of the past for how their faith created a revolution in humanity ranging from morality, to society, to personhood, to education, to science, and to philosophy, and even to our understanding of who God is.

Background

I first came across this book in 2010 when I was in college and an atheist professor was posing serious challenges to the Bible, the Church, and faith during every single class period in a World History class that did not even explore Christianity until the second half of the course.  He was a true atheist preacher trying to spread his religion.  It was so bad that I had an agnostic classmate who got offended.  Can you imagine?

I read through about half the book and it was enough to change my level of thinking and the way I approach history (now as a way to edify my faith) in order to bring an end to the challenges, and in the end I began challenging atheists using the arguments in this book.

The Moral Revolution

Hart, who is a brilliant stylist (yet occasionally uses large and uncommonly used words), begins exploring the past by examining the claim that paganism was more tolerant than Christianity.  In a brilliant stylistic turn, he says that paganism was tolerant of disease, famine, war, exposed babies, violence, poverty, and a multitude of other things.  He provides quite a bit of evidence.  Paganism was morally decadent.  Yet, secularists are mystified by paganism and believe it was morally strong.

Then, he examines Christianity and how it really invented the modern conception of the hospital and other charitable organizations to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor.  Christians also brought social justice for women and slaves, and material help for the most needy in society.  For example, he cites how the Christian emperors changed the laws of Rome to offer more protections for and more importantly to recognize the rights of previously overlooked groups such as women, little girls, and slaves (pgs. 161-162).

Then, he examines what he says has no precedent in Western history, which is the first abolitionist writer, St. Gregory of Nyssa, an early church father of the 4th century, who was the first to call for the abolition of all slaves in Western history, and he did so based on his understanding of Christ’s coming and Resurrection and what it meant for Christians.

Although Hart does not go further in the history of slavery, slavery eventually did come to an end in the West organically because at its depths it was not compatible with Christianity to the point that it was practically forgotten by the time Europeans learned it again when they encountered it in Africa among the native Congolese Kingdoms in the 1400s, and it was almost a new concept to them.

The Development of Science in the West

To better appreciate the Christian impact on the development of science, let’s begin the discussion by looking at when people thought the earth was flat (although Hart does not use this example in his book).  For starters, most of the early Church Fathers believed the earth was round, yes round.  Why?  The science of the day suggested that that was case.  Aristotle had shown empirically the earth was round in the 4th century B.C., yes, 4th century B.C., and virtually all Western Christians accepted it as perfectly reasonable science.  That is why Christopher Columbus had even conceived of sailing west to go to India.

Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy: A Review

Imagine you have been unjustly arrested and then put under house arrest.  Now imagine you have been told that you will be executed within the year.  Then, imagine you are able to write your deepest reflections about the world and life in this year.  What would you write?

We have such a writing; it is called The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (written around 523 AD), and it one of the deepest, most reflective works ever written, and at the same time it is very easy to understand.  These two elements have caused this work to become one of the most influential works in Western civilization.

C.S. Lewis, in his final book, The Discarded Image, which is a masterful introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature, describes this book as “one of the most influential books ever written in Latin” (75).  Then he says, “Until about two hundred years ago [from 1962], I think, it would have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.”

 

What is the literary style of this book?

The book is set up as a dialogue with philosophy personified as Lady Philosophy.  This is why the book is called The Consolation of Philosophy because Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius about his current circumstances.

In addition the most interesting stylistic feature of the book is that it is written in prosimetrum meaning the book switches from prose into poetry and back and forth until the end.  Bear in mind, whoever reads this book in English is reading in translation from its original Latin, so it will not resemble English poetry but it is poetic nonetheless.  (I read the translation by David Slavitt, which I highly recommend, and he does a masterful job of retaining the spirit of the poetry in the poetic sections of the book).  The alternating poetry and prose and the dialogue makes this book extremely fresh and engaging to read.

Since I read the book, it has come up in many of my discussions with my friends.  I was speaking to a friend (and I recommended that he read the book), and as I was describing it, he said it seems similar to Ecclesiastes in its themes, and as I read further in the book, I agree with that judgment.  However, there is an exception because The Consolation of Philosophy takes a more positive tone than Ecclesiastes does (indeed, Ecclesiastes is unique in its outlook in the Scriptures because of its pessimistic outlook on things: “All is vanity.”).  But what is interesting in that comparison is that Ecclesiastes is also written prosimetrically with some parts in poetry (Hebrew style) and other parts in prose; [to understand what Hebrew Poetry is like you can read my article on the Psalms here; the same rules apply to Ecclesiastes].

Its Influence

Many kings of the past thought it worth their time to not only read this book but to translate it themselves so their people could read it too, and to have it in their languages for future generations.  Examples include King Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I.  C.S. Lewis, in The Discarded Image, says that this book through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and French.  In English, it was translated more than three times: Into Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English.  King Alfred the Great translated it into Old English in the 10th century.  Geoffrey Chaucer (the author of The Canterbury Tales) translated into Middle English in the 14th century, and Queen Elizabeth I translated it into early modern English in the late 16th century.  In addition, there were others who re-translated it into early modern English.  That is only by the Renaissance!  Can you imagine the influence and impact of this book that it moved such people across many different countries to translate it?!

As I read it, its influence was clear; I saw stylistic elements that I had earlier seen in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings: the frequent switch from prose into poetry, a clear sign of its influence, and a feature that has made those books immensely beautiful.  I also saw elements of it in Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy [which does not mean comedy in the way we understand it today] like the person of Beatrice (a woman) who guides him through his journey like Lady Philosophy.  I also saw thematic elements of it that occur in C.S. Lewis’s fiction and nonfiction.  I saw themes and the ways that they were expressed that I have seen all over the cinema, television, and modern literature.  No doubt, its influence has been large.  But other than those influential stylistic elements, what about the content?  In other words, why should we read this book?

There are three reasons.

1. Boethius has insightful reflections on:

Fortune (luck)

Wealth,

Fame,

Ambition,

The nature of goodness and the virtuous person,

Happiness.

 

Then it asks questions like:

  1. Whether (not why) bad things happen to good people
  2. Are we predestined or do we have freewill and how does this work with the omniscience of God?

To get a better understanding of the book (without giving too much of it away) and how it approaches the points listed above, I will apply his line of reasoning to our modern life.

Boethius talks about ambition, and we see that today.  For example, the ambitious pursue careers in medicine, law, or business.  Others simply go to college with hopes of having a good paying (although not like the above three) jobs.  The focus on going to school is really on building wealth and not on education and self-development.  I have met very few people who have gone into medicine, law, or business who really went into it because of deep interest and because they really wanted to help other people.  More often than not, these people have been pushed by their parents, community, or friends to go into these fields in order to gain wealth, prestige (a type of fame), and ultimately to achieve happiness.

Even those who pursue other professions pursue them for similar reasons. Yet, the ironic thing is that almost all the time everything except happiness (and wealth and fame) is achieved.  The amount of debt is skyrocketing, the amount of time for personal interests non-existent, the amount of time for family not there, and the health conditions that develop are debilitating.  Where exactly is the happiness?  Most people I know hate their jobs, and those that don’t are at best indifferent.  Only a few truly love their jobs.  Where is the happiness that everyone was pursuing?  It seems to have run away from them, and it continues running, and they never catch it by the prescribed ways they were taught by their parents, communities, and friends.

Boethius asks the same questions when he wonders about wealth, fame, ambition, and whether they lead to happiness in the first three chapters of this book, and for the most part, he concludes that they do not, at least not in the manner most pursue them.  He provides brilliant reasons to show us why, and that is one of the main reasons you should read this book.  In this sense the book has a very similar tone to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.  Again, I do not want to give away too much of what he says because that is where the richness of this book is, and why it is worthy to be read.

A Dialogue on Mary, the Mother of Jesus Part III: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

If you did not read Part I, or Part II.  Click here to begin.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: But you guys bless her too much.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That was prophesied when the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and Mary in Luke 2.  “All generations will call me blessed,” (Luke 1:48) and it began to be fulfilled with that generation when the woman in Luke 11:27-28, said, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” Then it has continued ever since then as the Spirit prophesied through her.

Madonna with Child and Angels

Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 1674

MODERN CHRISTIAN: But you guys use phrases like Mother of God.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Elizabeth, when she was filled with the Spirit and spoke by Him, said to Mary, “The mother of My Lord” (Luke 1:43).  That is Biblical.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: She said “the mother of My Lord,” but you say “The Mother of God.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Isn’t Jesus God?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yes, but still….

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Oh, I see how it’s going to be.  You are arguing about specific wording, huh?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Yeah….

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Anyway, let me make things a bit clear.  We actually referred to her as Theotokos in the early church which properly means, “The one who has given birth to God,” and it was not to simply glorify her, but to point out that the one who was conceived in her womb was God, and the one she bore was God; our Lord Jesus is not only a man, but He is both fully God and fully Man.  Humanity and divinity are united in Him without separation, without mingling, without alteration, and without confusion.  The word Theotokos became a lot more common in its usage when heresies arose that denied the divinity of the Son or separated our Lord Jesus’s humanity from His divinity.  The reason this term became so widespread in the early church was to further point out that our Lord’s humanity and divinity were united, and from the moment of conception at that.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I see.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Again, it is in the same meaning as the Bible.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Ok.  I’ve got nothing more to say about that.  Your point is solid.  But I will say this, you guys forget that this is all the grace of God, and He chose her, so what she did is for the glory of God.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Nobody is arguing with you there; her glorifying God mightily in her life is the reason she is the greatest saint.  You see, the word grace means “gift,” and unless one accepts the gift, then the grace will not transform that person’s life and bring glory to God.  She accepted the gift, the grace.  The Archangel Gabriel even pointed this out from the beginning when the very first words he said to her (as correctly translated from the original Greek) were, “Rejoice (hail), O one full of grace” (Luke 1:28).

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Did you guys call her the Ark, the Queen, the Throne of God, and the Ladder?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Yes.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Well, isn’t that taking things a bit too far.  Isn’t that making her co-redeemer and born without sin?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Not at all!

MODERN CHRISTIAN: How so?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: For a couple of reasons at least.  One, that these are drawn out from the Scriptures, and two, that saying these things never caused us in the ancient church to think that she is co-redeemer or born without sin.

First, calling her the Ark is heavily warranted based on Luke’s language in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I have never heard or read that.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That’s because you did not read carefully enough.  If you go back to 2 Samuel 6 and compare the wording between the Ark and Saint Mary; it is the same.  It is pretty clear Luke did this intentionally, and he wants the reader to infer that she is the Ark of the New Covenant.

To begin with, the Archangel Gabriel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).  The word for overshadow here in the original Greek is episkiasei, which was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which the Apostles used and quoted in the New Testament) in the Book of Exodus 40:35 (40:29 LXX) to refer to the cloud which guided the children of Israel and which hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle.  This cloud further symbolized the Spirit as Paul the Apostle explains in 1 Corinthians 10:2, “All were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” and Baptism is described in three contexts in the New Testament: into Jesus, the water, and the Spirit.  The cloud symbolizes the Holy Spirit, therefore this same imagery of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Saint Mary appears in the Old Testament in the cloud overshadowing the Ark of the Covenant.

Further, the Ark had three objects in it: the Ten Commandments (that is the Old Covenant), a pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod.  All three are types of the reality of our Lord.  The Old Covenant foreshadows the New Covenant.  The pot of manna foreshadows our Lord Jesus as the Bread of Life, which He clearly explained in John 6, and Aaron’s rod, which by definition is dead yet it budded, so this is a type of the Resurrection, which our Lord Jesus is (John 11:25).  Saint Mary carried our Lord in her womb who is the realization of what these objects in the Ark foreshadowed.  So, she is an Ark as well.

A Dialogue on Mary, the Mother of Jesus Part II: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

If you did not read Part I of this Dialogue, click here to read it.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Wait.  There are many parts of the Scriptures that show that at best Jesus had an ambivalent attitude toward Mary at best.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Like where?

Close up of a stained glass window portraying the baby Jesus and Saint Mary

MODERN CHRISTIAN: In Luke 11:27-28, it says, “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’  But He said, ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (NKJV)

See, he corrects the woman saying that those who are really blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it, not His mother.  You see, he said, “More than that.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: That’s strange.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: It’s not really strange when you think about it.   Just because she is a parent does not mean that she should get all this blessedness conferred on her….

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: No, that’s not what’s strange.  Your translation said, “More than that.”

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Oh yes.  Actually, that is a generous translation.  Other translations have “On the contrary,” or “Rather.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: None of those are correct; they do not capture the meaning of the word our Lord used here.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: What is that word?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: In Greek it is menounge.  It is used three other times in the New Testament, and each time it is translated “indeed,” and even an emphatic, “Yes indeed!”  The word amplifies what someone just said with a further explanation.  This means that that word shows full agreement with what a person has just said but further clarifies why what they said is true.

A Dialogue on Mary, the Mother of Jesus: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Well, it’s been a while since our last discussion, but I have been thinking about many things since we last spoke.  I am wondering about what the early Christians thought about Mary.  I see so many things that I can’t accept with Catholics and even Orthodox Christians.  The Catholics elevate Mary to a point where she is really a co-redeemer with Christ; it makes me uncomfortable.  Then, the Orthodox raise her to the level of the highest saint, but she did not do anything that important not like the Apostles or the earliest preachers.  Why is there such an emphasis on her like that today?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You have a lot of questions in there, so I will address them one by one.

Photo of Stain Glass by elizaraxi

First of all, Christ is the only Redeemer.  There is no other with him.  If the Catholics of today do indeed see her as a co-redeemer, then I will be uncomfortable too.  That is simply too much to claim of anyone beside our Lord.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I am glad you agree.  There’s a bit more than that too.  They have this doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Of course, our Lord Jesus Christ was conceived immaculately.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: No, no.  It is not referring to Jesus here, but to Mary.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: What?  What do you mean?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: The Catholics say that Mary was conceived immaculately when her parents conceived her.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: But that means she was born without ancestral sin.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: That is what they claim.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I cannot accept that either; that was not taught in the early church.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).  This is why there is a Redeemer, our Lord.  If the Immaculate Conception is the case, why did our Lord Jesus become Man to save us?  God simply could have willed that all are to be born without ancestral sin and then start over instead of sending our Lord to redeem us and wipe out the sin that our parents Adam and Eve had committed.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: See, I am glad you agree with me.  I knew they could not be right.  Further, it gets worse than that.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: How so?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: They have prayers to Mary.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You mean they ask Mary to pray for us?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: No.  They pray to her.  They say things like “I consecrate myself to you, O Mary.”

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Oh no, that draws the line there!  How can we consecrate ourselves to someone who has consecrated herself to God?  That defeats the point.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: See, then, this whole business of making Mary the highest saint crumbles down.  I mean what did she do that was so special?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Wait a second.  Now, you yourself have leapt a bit too far.  You have fallen into the opposite extreme.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: How so?  With all these things shown to be wrong, she cannot be considered the highest saint.  I mean, what did she do that was so important and special?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Even without all those teachings, she is still the greatest saint.  I do not accept those teachings, and neither did the Christians of my day, but we still held her to be the highest saint.  It is because of what she teaches us by her life when it comes to our relationship with God.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken: A Review

My degree is in history.  I enjoy studying history, and when I hear people complain that history is boring, it bothers me a little.  Notice, I said “a little.”  Why?  Because they actually have a legitimate complaint.  Their complaint is not due to the nature of history itself, but it is due to the dry and unengaging way history books are written including those books that aren’t textbooks.  Forget the teachers that teach history as facts, dates, and maps.  That is not history either.  Luckily, I had teachers who made history interesting, showed me its connections to present day life, and showed me its depths and how we can apply our understanding of it to make better sense of the world and make better decisions.

What is the nature of history then?  History is a representation (and at times a re-creation) of how the past was in a certain time period.  When studied correctly, it should let you see how people thought and lived, what they worried about, what brought them joy, and how they approached and dealt with life.  It is deeply enriching.  It can be like you going to a foreign country as a tourist or even like time travel.

Now back to what people are taught is history, it would certainly help the field if historians wrote history in ways that were intelligible, relevant, and connected to a lay audience.  History’s power is in knowing it, and if only a select chosen few know it, then there is no benefit whatsoever.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them is not like those dry history books at all.  It is extremely engaging, clear, and illuminating.  It is straight to the point and expresses much in the relatively short length it has; it is 238 pages long.  That is shorter than most popular novels.

Who is the author?

Before reading any book, it is always good to know about the author and the background especially when it comes to fields like Christian history.  Robert Louis Wilken is a retired professor of early Christian history.  He is Catholic and deeply grounded in the Church Fathers, not only the Latin Fathers but also the Greek Fathers.  He is currently on the board of the great magazine First Things, which seeks to comment on all aspects of culture and ideas from a Christian point of view.  He also writes for this magazine.  He has published several books on Christian history and thought.