My wife likes to watch old episodes of the TV show “Fantasy Island,” courtesy of Comcast Cable’s “On Demand” feature. A recent episode involved a couple who wanted to escape all of the ills and rudeness of contemporary society and go back to the “good old days.” They felt that things in the past had to be better than things right now. Mr. Roarke, in his seemingly infinite wisdom, decided to place them in colonial Salem. What these people found was a society overburdened by rules and harsh punishments, all seemingly at the whim of the leader of the town. The climax of the story, of course, was when the island guests were to be burned at the stake. The lesson learned was that things were not always better yesterday and that things are not as bad today as we think they are.
We live in a hedonistic culture. We look around and are surprised by what we see on television. We look at society as getting more and more morally corrupt and wonder how to fix it. We assume that things must be getting worse, but can be reminded otherwise by looking at the moral perversions in Greek or Roman culture. Even the Bible contains surprising details of moral failure. If you do not believe me ask Lot’s house guests when you get to the other side of this life. My point is that there are conservatives in every culture that believe that the moral decay that is happening in their culture is the worst that has ever occurred, even though it has been bad in the past too.
When I watch MTV to keep up on where contemporary culture is heading, it is only a matter of time before I cannot take it anymore and my stomach begins to churn. It is this same feeling that Calvin no doubt had concerning Geneva. The city was a party city in moral decay. When Calvin was given the authority to do so, he attempted to rid the city of this decay by instituting rules for his church members that prevented the things that caused moral issues in Calvin’s mind. Things like drinking and dancing were outlawed and a curfew was placed upon the city by the city’s council. The punishment for breaking Calvin’s rules was disfellowship from the church community. We can imagine how the party people must have felt by simply imagining how the party people of today would feel – Calvin was run out of the town! Today, people like Christopher Hitchens attack people like Jerry Falwell for having morals and speaking up about them. Keep in mind that this is for only talking about morals. Imagine if they actually made their own laws! We see a glimpse of what today’s reaction would be through following the hatred toward groups like Focus on the Family’s political arm that attempts to influence (not create like Calvin) legislation.
Calvin was eventually asked back and instituted the same rules he had in place previously, but this time he eventually gained the support of the people when Servetus was executed and the ideas of his followers were defeated.
This church-influenced style of government made its way into other geopolitical locations including the American colonies as experienced by the fictional “Fantasy Island” guests above. Could a government like this last a long time? Definitely, and it could be even stricter! Think about religions other than Christianity!
After Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, many of the later Roman emperors, including Constantine, saw Christianity as an ally instead of an enemy. In 313, when the only other emperor was Licinius, Constantine arranged an agreement between the two of them so that Christianity was no longer an illegal religion. This was known as the Edict of Milan. Later, in 323 when Constantine defeated Licinius to become the sole emperor, he made Christianity the preferred religion (which means he still allowed other religions, including emperor worship).
Constantine was not a theologically strong Christian, even waiting to be baptized on his deathbed with the belief that more sins would be covered, but he still had a large impact on the Christian movement. In the short term, the initial permissiveness toward the movement under cooperation with Licinius and the later preference allowed Christians to more openly profess their faith without fears of persecution. Chrisitianity was formerly in the public square in the form of executions, but now it was in the public square in the form of legal discourse.
In the long term, the effects were not so good. Constantine not only allowed Christianity, but he also wanted to govern it and proclaimed himself the bishop of bishops. This led to many decisions regarding the direction Christianity was to legally move in being made by someone who did not know much about Christianity. As an example, in the debate between Arius and Athanasius, Constantine changed his mind multiple times, always siding for the person he felt would bring the most peace among the people. He did not care about orthodox theology as much as he cared about politics and securing his own power. The good part of this incident, though, were the decisions that came out of the Council of Nicea which Constantine organized, regarding the divinity of Christ.
Although there was a bishop in Rome, where Constantine first lived, the idea that someone in Rome was to control the church was born with Constantine’s rule as head bishop. The bishop of Rome, though, was the bishop that was the most geographically close to Constantine so his opinion became elevated amongst the bishops due to this influence upon the emperor. The bishop’s influence became so elevated that when Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Constantinople, the Roman bishop was in the position to assume control over all of the other bishops. As the lectures indicate, there were many other factors that led to this and the eventual creation of the papacy, but this one cannot be forgotten.
As human beings, we all have our own thoughts, desires, and feelings. These are things inside of our existence that are private to us, but some of these internal items can be betrayed by our facial expressions or any number of other physiological characteristics. If I were to look across the room at you and you were sad I might see a painful expression carved into your brow or I might even see tears streaming down the sides of your cheeks, but these outer expressions can be deceptive – we can find many people gifted in the art of manipulating their outward appearance simply by turning on the television. We can also spot the people in the same medium that are not as talented. We are able to judge the accuracy of an actor’s portrayal of a certain emotion by our own experiences that can either be the emotions we have personally felt or the emotions we have watched in others. However we have developed this skill it is unquestionable that it exists. If it did not, then our televisions would be empty caverns filled with the echoes of emotionless monotony. On the bright side, though, we would probably have a lot more time on our hands.
Just as I can look at you in an attempt to figure out if the feelings you are expressing are genuine, I can also look at my environment and attempt to know things about it too. Trying to understand our environment – the room we are both in as I watch you experience your emotions – is actually easier than trying to interpret your inner thoughts, desires, or feelings because our environment is external to all of us; it’s not something hidden within us.
Our environment is the common area where we share our existence. If you had just experienced a death in your immediate family and I were to ask you how you were doing and you said that you were doing fine, I might question it since that is not how most people would react in a similar situation, but I would not have any way of knowing with absolute certainly the veracity of your statement. If you were to tell me that the chair I am sitting in as I write this was brown, however, I would immediately know that something was afoul. It could be your senses failing you due to either a physiological condition or perhaps even improper lighting. It could be that you were taught colors incorrectly when you were a child. It may even be that you are being dishonest with me because I know that the chair is black. How can I be so sure of my own faculties in determining the color, you might ask? First I am as certain about the color of the chair as I’ve been about anything because I have extreme confidence with my ability to identify the color black. When I have identified the color in the past, not one person has ever disagreed with me. Second, I am the one who purchased the chair and removed it from its box which said something along the lines of “Contents: one black chair.”
Our external world is something we learn as we experience it, but many others are going through the same process of experiencing the world simultaneous with our exploration. People are doing things everywhere all the time and people have been doing things everywhere for a long time. Since we cannot ever experience every single event in our external world we must learn to trust others. If we did not we would die. Think about all of the warning labels we see every day. If we had to figure all these warnings on our own I probably would not have lived long enough to write this and you probably would not have been around to read it. An example that is better still might be that of doctors. Imagine how long we all would have lived had it not been for modern medicine.
We have learned ways to trust the experiences of others in order to help guide ourselves through our own existences and to live longer, more meaningful lives. We do not simply trust others blindly, but critically, and all of us apply differing levels of criticality to differing aspects of our shared existence. Since there is so much in the world to experience we also all tend to focus on certain parts of it. Some people focus so sharply in a specific subject that they become experts. They are the doctors, the scientists, and the historians. Doctors have a specific purpose – to save lives and cure disease – and have come up with specific, effective, and appropriate ways of accomplishing this task. Scientists are responsible for determining how our world works. Historians keep track of the progress of both of these other fields and the rest of human existence. There is a “history of doctors,” a “history of science,” and a “history of [fill-in-the-blank].”
Historians are charged with figuring out where we have been and recording where we are by interpreting and keeping logs of our shared existence. All events occur in a moment in time and then are over. As we get older our memories may fail us and we surely die. Historical events would die with the last person who experienced the event if the discipline of history did not exist.
Even though I was not there to experience it, I know that Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States. I know a lot of things outside of my personal existence through reading history. History is important to us in that we can positively stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before us to continue their life’s work as not to have to relearn something that was already learned by someone else and to negatively keep from making the same mistakes again that others have made before us.
But how do we know who’s history is the right history? How can we trust what we have read or know if a historical account is accurate? After all, cannot one construct a misrepresentative historical account just as one can fabricate the external signs of internal feelings that do not exist? Yes they can, but fortunately for us the discipline of history has determined methods for diagnosing whether or not a specific account is deceptive.
While reading non-Biblical ancient Near Eastern documents I could not help but to notice the apparent lack of multiple manuscript support as evidenced by the numerous gaps in the narrative accounts. These stories were not well preserved. A guess as to why might be that these stories were not accurate portrayals of history so they were not treated as history. The Old Testament, however, has at least enough copies in existence to show us the full story. I do not know how many copies that we have for each ancient Near Eastern text nor do I know how many copies we have of the Old Testament, but this argument does not depend on specific numbers. It depends on motivation. The Old Testament was preserved because it is true. The ancient Near Eastern documents were partially lost because they were not. I still have copies of important books I read many years ago because they are important to me in some way and helped to shape my life, but I couldn’t begin to tell you where my childhood copy of The Cat in the Hat is.
When God created us we were perfect. Then sin entered our lives through our own fault. This caused our nature and the nature of the world to become a perversion of the original perfection. What was once good was good no longer. Evil came to exist as good gone wrong; perfection twisted.
I can remember my pre-salvation days where I did a lot of things that I regret today. These were things that the culture said were okay. Nothing I did was either culturally or socially unacceptable. But they were all perversions of things God intended to be for good. I didn’t want God’s good, but my own. Most culturally-accepted perversions of God’s perfection are this way. Take sexual relations between a husband and wife as an example – one only need to turn on the television to see how culture has perverted this. Like premarital sex is a perversion of God’s intention, these stories from the ancient Near East are perversions of biblical history.
Many of the stories have surface similarities to the biblical accounts, but when examined further the major differences can be easily seen. In the stories there is not one God, but many Gods. Man did not rebel morally to cause a punishment flood, but made too much noise. The stories do not glorify God, but human kings. Some truth is there (superhuman creation of the world and humanity, a flood, etc.), but this truth has been twisted, much like culture has twisted so many other God-determined purposes, morals, or history.
When confronted by cultural differences with the biblical narratives or morals, the Christian can look back at these stories and know that their situation is not the first time in history when culture has twisted the words of God. This has been going on for a long time. Satan is the “god of this world” and this world creates culture. It should not be surprising, but assuring, that these documents exist which seem to so closely match, but really so much corrupt the truth of what really occurred. Through their differences with the Bible, they point out what is the most important in the Bible.