Essay / Theology

While It Is Called Today

So far in 2009, I’ve been publishing one post each day on an event from the history of the church. Every day is the anniversary of something, and even when the events aren’t exactly worth celebrating for their own sakes, all I’m looking for is an excuse to get some of this great tradition back into the minds of the kind of people who read our work here at Scriptorium. Several people have written to me with questions about what I’m doing with these posts, so I thought I’d answer the most frequently asked questions here:

1. How do you find these anniversaries? I look them up in other peoples’ lists of dates. My favorite is William D. Blake’s Almanac of the Christian Church, a 1987 Bethany House publication that I got for fifty cents on the sale table at a mall bookstore years ago. 4 out of 5 times, Blake’s quirky compendium lists something I’m interested in for any given day. He lists too many hymn-related things, and he includes quotations from dated journals (“on this day, David Brainerd wrote these words in his journal…”), but you can tell Blake dug in and ransacked a shelf of books to put together this resource. Another good one-stop shop is The Christian Almanac by George Grant and Gregory Wilbur, a jumbo collection that provides a full-page feature story for each day, along with a list of shorter notices. I also consult Robert Chambers’ Book of Days, which is only occasionally on topic, but is just big fun from the 1860s.

There are also some good sites that take a particular angle on history: Howard Culbertson’s remarkable listing of dates from the history of missions, the very well developed calendar maintained by this Lutheran site, and the (considerably less helpful) Episcopal History site.

The team at Glimpses of Christian History has done a much more professional job of this kind of thing for three years. I try to avoid using their stuff, because, well, it’s already good. People should just read that, not me paraphrasing it.

2. From all the options, how do you choose an event for the day? I just go with what I’m personally interested in. Usually that’s something I already know a little bit about, but sometimes I can’t resist the urge to learn about something new to me, like the conversion of Lithuania. Also, I’m writing as an evangelical, and I’m intentionally over-representing that family tradition. My selections will tend to cluster into the most recent quarter of church history, because I love the evangelical Protestant expression of the great tradition best. But I try not to ignore the other 1500 years.

3. Where do you get the further information about the events and people? Mostly from my own study notes from previous research projects.

4. Why not use the traditional church calendar of feasts and saints’ days? Sometimes I do, especially when the saint of the day is commemorated on the day of his or her death and we have decent evidence that the date is historically knowable. But there are two reasons I don’t just work through a church calendar with daily saints: 1. I get the feeling it’s been done, and that I’d be competing with church newsletter editors all over the world, and 2. I don’t want to focus on saints exclusively, especially not saints in the sense of formally canonized ones. There’s a lot of other interesting and edifying stuff out there to learn or remember.

5. Why are you so nice to some of these people? I’m trying to find something worth learning from any event or figure that I write about. I might occasionally bring out somebody who is nothing but trouble, and I won’t feel compelled to play devil’s advocate in those cases. But mostly I’m going to be spending time with people who have something to say that is worth hearing, however messed up they might have been in other ways.

Karl Barth once wrote a breathtakingly good book on the liberal theology of the nineteenth century, the very theology that he dedicated his whole theological life to refuting and overcoming. In his essays on the various theologians in that book, he entered into their thought-systems with great sympathy and understanding. His generous treatment of all these dead, liberal theologians, he wrote, was based not only on the commandment “honor thy father and mother,” which he believed applied also to theologians, but on his commitment to enter into real dialogue with them. Dialogue with the dead is difficult: they don’t talk back. As a result, the living have to exercise special care in letting them have their say in the words they have already written. And when it comes to dead Christians, Barth reminds us, they all live to God, and thus even if they do not communicate with us in new ways, they do not belong to the past but to the living God.

That, by the way, is why I’m giving every post a title that starts with the word “Today.” Today is a space opened up by the word of God, who calls to us with a consistency that spans these centuries. The book of Hebrews tells believers to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

6. You haven’t exactly blogged every single day, have you? Well, no, but this isn’t exactly a blog, is it? It’s some kind of “new media” magazine with no direct commenting option. I have missed a couple of days, and I hope they were just enough days to drive out the unclean spirit of perfectionism. The past few days in particular are a blank to me because of a truly impressive flu bug, and I missed a day or two in February. But I’ve never passed up a day for lack of finding something of interest to learn about and share. I haven’t found a day with nothing interesting in it. There’s no such thing. Not while it is called today.

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