Tag Archives: Time

Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

Recently, Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman opened a blog which provides a forum for further assessing the cultural landscape of the Church of the Brethren. As a historian, Bowman rightly champions both the documents of our past and the changes which come with time. As a social historian however, Bowman is equally clear that the narrative be based upon a preponderance of evidence. Thus, his work is not a story of great individuals nor the development of ideas. Rather, his narrative is one which attempts to describe the beliefs and practices of a people.

Before venturing much further, its necessary to say that Bowman is in good company. His style of research and narrative aspirations are shared by many a scholar who have appropriated anthropological methods for the study of the past. Any critique, then, must take his methodological assumptions as appropriate and necessary tools for historiography. Yet, all historians are subject to the same criticism when change is the operative assumption. Every student of the past must acknowledge change; practices shift, ideas evolve, and people inherit and adapt both. The past, then, is always somewhat alien to every observer whether they live in the archives or in cultural artifacts. The daunting task, then, is to take the unknown and make it known, making the alien recognizable. This requires equal attention to what has also remained the same. Such an awareness is essential in the sub-field of Church History when continuity is equally as important as change.

Attending to continuity and change is a delicate balance, and as such requires that the researcher draw lines. Some of these are lines of connection and some of these are lines in the sand. No matter the type, these lines mark out an understandable starting point. For Bowman’s monograph, Brethren Society, this foundation is Brethren of the 19th century. His unabashed starting point is evident in a recent series of exchanges on his blog.

While discussing church statements an inevitable reference to the Brethren dictum “no force in religion” surfaced in the comments. The historian of the 19th century soon reminded all the readers that such a doctrine was the work of modern thinkers and “was not the tradition of 18th and 19th century Brethren.” As a good historian, Bowman marked out the line in the sand which defined the changes which naturally occur over time.

The conversation soon focused on further demarcations. Can we consider lines of continuity between the ideas of early Radical Pietists who had influenced the first Brethren, the likes of which include Gottfried Arnold and Hochman von Hochenau? Or, is Brethren tradition necessarily limited to those who have claimed a spiritual home among the Schwarzenau Neu Taufer? How one answers such questions is dependent on those lines of separation and connection, that is in how the student of the past accounts for continuities and change.

Here again, Bowman drew the line of distinction clearly between historiography and theologizing: “Let’s just keep the difference between theology and history, and between Hochmann and what the Brethren embraced, clear.” Scott Holland, one of the conversation partners, quickly queried: “So, are you still, in the 21st century, identifying authentic Brethrenism as something either Old Order or something necessarily locked into an 18th century historical moment?”

Here is where I could no longer observe, and joined the conversation. Though my reply may appear as a critique of Bowman the historian, the scope of my response should be understood to include the theologian Holland. In sum, I responded to say that “both History and Theology are narrative arts in that they are constructed for the present.” In other words, theology makes claims about history and tradition just as history makes claims about the present. Holland’s responses championed an understanding of the past which drew lines of connection to the present while Bowman asserted lines in the sand defining the difference between then and now.

However, both claims are theological. More precisely they are both ethical in that they make claims about what ought to be. Here in lies the methodological shadow which most modern scholars avoid at all costs: the appearance of subjectivity. It also is the ground on which most of the humanities are based. Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored. For Holland, there are thinkers within the corpus of historical sources which ought to reshape our thinking now.

Whether by drawing lines in the sand showing in and out, then and now, or lines of connection showing influence and continuity, the contemporary thinker makes theological and ethical claims about what ought to be. When we deal with the practical matters of life as the Church, it is best to identify those assumptions about what ought to be. Otherwise, scholarly speech is but rhetoric designed to shape the outcome for a desired end. Ought we not then lay our cards on the table and name our desired outcome before we employ and invoke days long past?

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Keeping Time

This message was shared with the Church of the Brethren Office community September 29th 2010.

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:46-47

There is a story, of which I can’t speak to its accuracy or veracity, about two neighbor boys. One winter day they began to talk about snow and the coming holidays. In the process they soon realized they were talking about two different “holy days”. When the one talked about 8 days of gifts the other perked up: “What do you mean eight days?! Don’t you mean one?” From then on this Jewish and Christian pair entered into the world of comparative religion. That spring, the Christian boy attended his first Sedar and experienced the whole exodus narrative in one multi-sensory night. The trade off came finally on Easter morning when the two attended the celebration of the resurrection. When it came time for the sermon, the pastor took off his watch and laid it onto the pulpit. The Jewish boy, accustomed to the question and answer of the Sedar ritual turned to his friend: “What does that mean?” Having experienced the fullness of the Hebrew symbols, the Christian boy rolled his and sighed: “Nothing.”

Keeping time must be a multi-million dollar industry. Not accounting for the changes in smart phones, we are at a fever pitch about time. Calendars to keep events, watches to tell us time, alarms to make sure we get there on time, and probably timers on our computers to tell us when its time to leave. So its no wonder the boy was dismayed when the watch came off, it meant that time had no hold on that Easter service. No matter how long the roast had been in the oven, the preacher would go on and on….and on….and…

Really time is precious. The idioms of our culture make it clear to us: Time is of the essence, Time is fleeting. Time is money. It’s difficult to say which came first, the nice capitalist awareness that time is money or the ability to count milliseconds. No matter the correlation we can easily say we have an unhealthy sense of time. We turn on lights so we can work into the night and we light up the desert so we can play into the morning.

So its no wonder that worship attendance in any christian community is waning and its no surprise that any activity during the week barely draws a tenth of the congregation. “We just don’t have time!” I call BS on that. I mean with all that money being spent on making the most of our time, on keeping track of time, of managing our time how is it possible that we can have no time? If we gaged minutes by dollars spent, our clocks should be turning backwards!

The answer is simple: we’ve missed the point. Once we exit the baptismal waters, our relation to time completely changes. No longer are we defined by a need to cram everything into the few seconds of a lifetime, but are in fact managed by Everlasting to Everlasting. Its no wonder that Jesus’ words in Revelation hold together past present and future- I am the Alpha and the Omega (22:13). In one sentence, the beginning, present and end are one. Our time is defined by our living in Christ, living in the past, present and future. In essence time stands still before Christ and, by our adoption into Christ, before us.

That must have been something understood by the first Christians Luke tells us about in Acts. From our capitalist, time is money obsession, those disciples didn’t have a clue: They spent their day singing, eating and listening to sermons. I mean really, what got done! Didn’t they have missions to enact, congregations to support, pensions to maintain. Hell, didn’t they have a budget to balance? …Wait, that’s us.

Well, in a short and simple answer, no. No they didn’t have to work and produce like their lives or their church depended on it. Their daily rhythm was defined by other things: It was defined by Christ, crucified, buried, and risen. Each day was a microcosm of all history: its beginning and its end. What mattered most, what mattered first of all, was being present to the great I am.

So we read of things which sound strange to us today such as the practice of gathering at the church house to pray into the sunset while lighting the vigil candle as if Christ was buried each night. And we read of how, before dawn, these same followers of Christ would return as if Christ was rising again each new day. We read later of monks who maintained such practices by not only praying at night and morning, but at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours to remember daily the significant moments of the crucifixion.We read of the early preachers calling Sunday, not the Sabbath but the eighth day, when creation was begun again in the rising of Christ. We read in the Didache that Christians were to fast on Tuesday and Thursday so as to mark their weeks by the resurrection of Christ. ALL of time, not just hours of work and leisure, were defined by the resurrection of Jesus. The calendar was not set by imperial decree, but coincided with the coming of the Messiah. The only thing we have left to remind of this is the antiquated marker of the age as Anno Domini.

So then, friends, what measures our day? Prayer with the living Christ, or an arbitrary system of seconds and minutes? I wish I could say that taking off my watch was a way of living into Christ, but really, it means nothing. I am still tied to a means of production, I am still tied to an alarm, and I am still keeping time by whatever means helps me produce. This does not mean that time isn’t precious, but simply to say that are there not better, more faithful ways of living each day than by production? Might not we be better off as the Church to organize ourselves around practices of what Benedictines call prayerful work, of labora et ora?

Brother’s and sisters, may our ancestors in Christ remind us that there is nothing better than to eat, sing, and pray together in Christ.

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