A Revolution in Christian Teaching and Life

Here is a quote from B.B. Warfield, from his essay “Augustine”, which can be found in the book, Calvin and Augustine. It is a beautiful declaration of God’s grace. To Warfield, Augustine’s big contribution to the church is the recovery of the doctrine of God’s grace.

It would be altogether a mistake to suppose that Augustine consciously discriminated between the theology of grace, which was his personal contribution to Christian thought, and the traditional Catholicism, which he gave his life to defend and propagate. In his own consciousness, the two were one: in his theology of grace he was in his own apprehension only giving voice to the Catholic faith in its purity. Nevertheless, however unconsciously, he worked with it a revolution both in Christian teaching and in Christian life, second in its depth and its far-reaching results to no revolution which has been wrought in Christian feeling and thought in the whole course of its history. A new Christian piety dates from him, in which, in place of the alternations of hope and fear which vex the lives of those who, in whatever degree, hang their hopes on their own merits, a mood of assured trust in the mercy of a gracious God is substituted as the spring of Christian life. And a new theology corresponding to this new type of piety dates from him; a theology which, recalling man from all dependence on his own powers or merits, casts him decisively on the grace of God alone for his salvation. Of course, this doctrine was not new in the sense that it was Augustine’s invention; it was the doctrine of Paul, for example, before it was the doctrine of Augustine, and was only recovered for the Church by Augustine.


The Sins of Memory

I wrote last week about my incorrect memory about some car repair work I thought I had had done, which was disproved by a check of the actual invoices. I wondered what else I was wrong about. It isn’t just me, nor just that time. I am not alone in this forgetting, or misremembering. I just caught it. 

In February 2015, Brian Williams, news anchor for MSNBC, was suspended over “lies” he had told concerning his time in Iraq in 2003. He claimed to have been in a helicopter with troops when it was shot down with an RPG in Iraq. He was actually in a helicopter about a half hour behind the helicopter that did indeed get shot down. Did he lie, perhaps in order to embellish his image? Or was he mistaken in his memory? We can’t say for sure, of course, but many who study memory suspect that he was not lying, but really believed he remembered the story as he was telling it. As evidence they point to how Williams’ telling of the story changed over time. Closer to the event he told it much closer to the verified facts. The story only grew over time into the version that got him in trouble[1].

It turns out this is what memory does. Our memories are not recordings; they are quite changeable. Many studies have been published over recent years that demonstrate this. Some even show that it is possible to implant memories in people’s minds. In one study researchers were able to shape someone’s recollection of an accident simply depending on the words they used to describe it to them.[2 ]

Dale Allison, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, summarizes the matter, “Because human memory ‘leaks and dissociates,’ all of us are, to one degree or another, fabulists, even when we try not to be.”[3]

In his book he summarizes what are called “The Sins of Memory”, the ways that our memories betray us and behave in unexpected ways:

– Our memories are reconstructions and not simply recordings. They do not function like a video recorder, but rather, our memories rework and alter specific memories imaginatively.

In what ways do we change and rebuild our memories?

1) We add information to our memories after the fact. If we learn more about the event from another source, or others tell us what they remember, we rework our own memories to incorporate that information. In this way we can even come to “remember” things that we never experienced. Think about how you remember the events of 9/11. Our memory of an event so widely experienced and talked about has probably changed over time, especially as we heard those close to us share their memories.

2) We project our current opinions, ideas, and morals onto our memories. We change them according to what we think we should have done or thought, or how it ought to have happened, or what I should have been thinking when the memory happened.

3) Memories dim over time, becoming less distinct and less emotionally intense. 

4) Time is relative in memories. The order of memories in time can shift dramatically.

5) We change our memories in ways that support who we think we are and what we are about. We alter our memories to justify or explain ourselves, or to fit in with a group.

6) The memories we tell tend to be the ones we, or our group or community, approve of. We are more likely to forget those memories of which we are ashamed of or disapprove of in some way. Groups do this too, collectively forgetting inconvenient memories.

7) Since we often share memories as stories, we reshape the memory as a story, giving it a clear beginning and end, casting people in the story more as characters in a story. This reshaping can actually change the memory; the recreation becomes the original.

8) And, finally, vivid, compelling memories are no more secure from alteration than others.[4]

I first heard of these “sins” last Fall when I took a course with Dr. Allison on the Historical Jesus. In his book, Constructing Jesus, he considers the Gospel accounts of Jesus from the perspective of recent memory study. How did these strange behaviors of memory affect the writing of the Gospels? While these behaviors of memory do, as Dr. Allison summarized (if I remember correctly!), cast doubt on any one particular story or teaching recorded in the Gospels, they also support the fact that patterns of memory must be based on truth. Just as witnesses of a car accident may tell very different accounts of what exactly happened, yet they is agree that an accident happened, so also, the fact that there are so many stories of Jesus healing, casting out demons, and teaching certain things, must mean that Jesus did really heal, exorcise, and teach such things. Memory study shows that patterns of our memory are reliable, if not the specifics of each memory. For a professor that once was part of the Jesus Seminar, this is a big change of opinion.

I ran into an interesting way that memory works in these ways in churches a few years ago. Over the course of several months I dug out all the historical documents of the church, even going downtown to the Presbyterian Historical Society where are archives are located. I read everything I could find. Annual reports. Meeting minutes. Directories. Then we held a board retreat where I shared with the elders a lot of what I had learned. As part of that retreat we also told stories about the church. It was fascinating what memories came out easy, and which ones what been suppressed over the years. I’ll give you two examples.

First, the recent memory of the tragic death of a pastor from cancer was in the process of being forgotten. The pastor prior to me had, after only a short time in the church, been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He underwent treatment for some time, finally having to go out on disability. He did not recover and died six months before I started at the church. Now, this board retreat was held about 8 years or so after he died so you think the memory would be still fairly fresh. Actually it was already receding. We realize during our discussions that newer members, some of whom were on the board, had no idea such a thing had ever happened. The pastor’s name, even, was unknown to them. Here is a case of a group forgetting a difficult memory; the event was disappearing from our history.

The second example was even more fully lost. Back in the 1950’s there was a tremendously awkward conflict between the session (that is the board in Presbyterian churches) and the current pastor. It involved his wife and some women in the church as well as the elders and pastor. In my years at the church up to that point I never heard this story, nor had I even heard the pastor’s name mentioned. Yet, when I told this story to the elders, and later to some of the long-time members of the church, a few of them nodded their heads, remembering the events. Yet no one ever spoke of them and most people had no idea of the events.

Through re-remembering these stories at the retreat we were able to see some patterns in our life together as a church. We were also able to learn how we tended to handle conflict and difficult situations. Yet, forgetting these events had prevented us from learning these lessons.

Memory is a tricky thing. It’s “sins”, it’s ways of working, can make getting to what really happened quite difficult. But this also points out the importance of sharing our memories, telling our stories and listening to others. The truth is best discerned in the company of one another. 
[1]: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/was-brian-williams-a-victim-of-false-memory/

[2]: http://www.newsweek.com/brian-williams-bald-lies-or-false-memories-307167

[3]: Dale C. Allison, Jr. Constructing Jesus: memory, imagination, and history. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2010, p. 2.

[4]: Constructing Jesus, pp.2-8.

Freeze Frame, in Marble

A bit more on the Revolutionary War Battle of Princeton. A few pictures of the giant, and busy monument to the battle near the center of Princeton. The Monument sits directly astride what was once the main road in Princeton, that went right past Morven, the historic home of the governors of New Jersey till a few decades ago. It’s hard to make out the details of the monument, even standing right in front of it, but there’s George and his horse, huddled in the cold. The battle did take place on January 3, 1777. It was cold.

On Princeton Battlefield

Here are some pictures from the Princeton Batttlefield. While not a large battle, it was a pivotal one of the Revolutionary War. It was the first time the Americans beat the Bristish in a full on, face-to-face battle. This and the battle of Trenton is said to have convinced the Americans that they could actually win, even though they were both small battles.

Washington looms large in the battle. The troops were already engaged, yet faltering when Washington arrived and he gallantly rallied the troops and renewed the attack leading them to within 30 yards of the British. This was the moment that sculptor Clark Mills captured in his statue of George Washington and his horse in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1860.
The arch in the pictures above leads to the marker indicating that soldiers who fought the battle are buried nearby. The arch was originally part of a house in Philadelphia, built by the same architect who built the U.S. Capitol building. The arch was moved to Princeton and was part of a mansion on the east side of the battlefield. When that burned down in the 1950’s the arch was moved to this spot.

 Above is the Stony Brook Meetinghouse, built in 1724. It is just on the edge of the battlefield. During the war it was used as an infirmary for both sides.

Finally, this is the Thomas Clarke house, built by Thomas in 1772. It was used as a hospital during and after the battle. General Hugh Mercer died here.

What C.S. Lewis Can Teach Us About Historical Thinking

I have, in the last few weeks, come to doubt my memory. It is not that I am losing anything. It is that I am not sure I ever had it. Most of the time I carry on as though what I remember is actually real. But I have come to suspect such certainty.

A few weeks ago I took my car into the shop to get inspected. While it was there I asked my mechanic to check the spark plug wires and to see if he could figure out why I have to get them replaced every time I bring the car in. I had, six months earlier, replaced them myself when the car was running terribly and it cleared right up, just as in the past when my mechanic had replaced the wires. So why did this keep happening? Except that it wasn’t, and hadn’t happened. He said he never replaced the spark plug wires on this car. I said he had indeed. Then he pulls up on the computer all the invoices going back to when I had purchased the car from him. Nope. No spark plug wires. Now I keep my own records too, so I quickly looked in them, which I had on my phone in Evernote. Nope. No spark plug wires. I have such a clear and distinct memory of him changing the wires several times. Enough so that I came to the conclusion six months before that that was the way to fix the rough running of the engine.

This shook me, honestly. If I could be so spectacularly wrong about something so clear in my mind, what else was I plain wrong about.

So reading this article here about memory and history, and grief, sure strikes a nerve.

the way of improvement leads home

LewisOver at his thoughtful blog Faith and History, Tracy McKenzie of Wheaton College offers some insight into the nature of historical thinking from the writings of C.S. Lewis.

Here is a taste of his post:

It’s been a while since I’ve shared anything from my commonplace book, so I thought I’d pass along a couple of passages from Lewis that I copied just this morning.  They come from his short book A Grief Observed, a set of reflections that Lewis recorded as he was dealing with the death of his wife Helen…

…hidden early in Lewis’s “map of sorrow” are ruminations that spoke to me as a historian, for they wonderfully capture a challenge that I face every day.  When I ask students what causes them to admire a particular history book or history teacher, what I hear most commonly is that the book or teacher in question makes the…

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Great lesson drawn from the true history of the Pilgrims and quite relevant for us today. Read the whole series at the author’s blog.

Faith and History

Only ONE more day until Thanksgiving. As an alternative to the ubiquitous countdown to Black Friday, each weekday this month I have been posting brief essays on the history of the First Thanksgiving and its place in American memory.  My goal this week is to point out positive lessons we might learn from a more accurate encounter with the Pilgrims’ story.  Today I tackle the question of why the Pilgrims really came to America and what we might learn from their experience.  


Before we rush off to the mall tomorrow, the more traditional among us will honor the day by reminding our families of the story of the Pilgrims. And in keeping with tradition, we’ll get quite a bit of the story wrong. Most of the inaccuracies will be trivial. In our mind’s eye, we’ll remember the Pilgrims decked out in black suits and enormous silver buckles, seated at…

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Further Out or Further In?


Imagine you are climbing a tree. (Not my thing, but in the imagination one can do all kinds of things.) You go some way up and then decide to go out on a limb, as the saying goes. You make your way, shimmying out from the trunk of the tree, choosing your direction as smaller branches divide. The limb grows thinner and thinner. At some point the limb begins to bow under your weight, but you keep going. Finally you hear the dreaded sound, a small, yet sharp “crack”…  Now, choose your own adventure. Do you go further out, or further in? Do you keep going out on that limb, or do you backtrack and draw nearer to the trunk?

This little thought experiment captures where I am these days concerning the future of the Church and, especially, of my denomination, and my own future in it.

I have begun a new sermon series on the book of Daniel. The inspiration for delving into this challenging book struck me during worship the Sunday after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in the nation. We were worshiping at Manteo Baptist Church, in Manteo, NC, a warm and welcoming congregation. During the service the pastor shared a story. He related how he had been headed to the hospital to visit a congregant when, while sitting at a stoplight which had just turned green, the car behind him honked impatiently. Suddenly he was lost. He still knew where he was, but he forgot where he was going, and momentarily didn’t know whether to turn or go straight. Everything was the same, yet it was all suddenly unfamiliar. He said that was how he was feeling in light of the Supreme Court decision. And that is how I am feeling as well. He put it perfectly.

I guess what troubles me is the sense of a shift in the place of the church in our society. Earlier this year, the much discussed Pew study pointed to an increase in those who say they have no religious preference and a corresponding decrease in the number of people identifying as Christians. The legal struggles over same-sex marriage have often been portrayed, no doubt simplistically, as a battle against Christian bigotry. While pinning down national morals is a tricky business, we seem to have passed a tipping point in the acceptance of the moral authority of the Bible and the Christian Church, both outside of and within the Church. In my denomination, we have not rejected the authority of the Bible, but we have steadily broadened the range of acceptable interpretations and likewise permitted more and more in our life together.

The question is, though, when has a church so broadened the range of acceptable interpretations of Scripture and practice that there is no longer anything meaningfully binding the church together? To put it a different way, how many parts of the car do you need to replace until it is no longer the same car, but rather a new one?

One way of responding to the broadening is to reject it. We can refuse to accept other interpretations as heretical and seek to push out those who ascribe to such teachings. Lacking ability to do that, we can break off and join a different denomination or form our own. In my denomination many have done the latter, the former not being possible.

But there is another way. Instead of going further out, we can move further in. To leave the denomination or to form a new one, all in the cause of doctrinal or moral purity, is moving further out on that cracking limb, adding one more branch, a smaller and smaller one, to the tree of the Christian Church. How long before the limb simply cracks off and tumbles to the ground? Instead of dividing, we need to move back toward the trunk, back toward the main stream of the Christian Tradition. We need to be willing to stand less on our doctrinal and ecclesiastical distinctives and more on the central truths of our faith, a faith we share with over two billion people around the world.

I am not advocating leaving my denomination, but rather, while remaining in the branch of the Faith I am in, paying more mind to the main sweep of the Christian Faith, not being so focused on what makes my branch different than everyone else’s, but on what unites the whole tree.

This is not how I was raised or schooled. I was brought up in my church, seminary, and peer group to be a good Protestant, the word “protest” being operative. I am suggesting we become more “catholic”, noting the small “c”, in our work and ministry as the Church, noting the big “C”.

I am still thinking all this through. One thing I know for sure. What we as the Church have been doing needs to change. And the answer doesn’t lie in doing some new thing, but in returning to a different past.

Love, The Real Marriage Revolution

It was a pretty game. Saturday a week ago pitcher Cole Hamels no-hit the Chicago Cubs in his last game as a Phillie. It was great. Embarrassing, perhaps, for the Cubs, especially when, in the top of the eighth, two runs scored on a throwing error following a deflected pop-up. But that didn’t matter. The Phillies won the game with Ryan Howard’s 3-run home run in the third inning.

Many see the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage as a home run, winning the game for gay rights in America. In truth, it’s just the double that adds on a few more runs to a game already won. The victory for same-sex marriage was won a long time ago, 200 years or so, when the real revolution, the idea that marriage should be based on love, gained a foothold and made the legalization and embrace of same-sex marriage inevitable.

I recently finished reading Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. Her main idea is that marriage has undergone a profound shift, not so much in these last several years, but in the last two centuries. (Coontz’ wrote the book in 2005, when only Massachusetts permitted same-sex marriage, but she is responding to much of the debate going on at that time about the importance of marriage and the government’s role in upholding the institution.) The shift has been from marriage based on practical and economic factors to marriage based on love.

For most of human history you married because you needed to. There was simply no way to survive as a single person.  You needed the help of another person and the work of the children the marriage produced. Marriage was also an important way of strengthening and protecting communities. Families were allied through marriage, gaining each other’s support and assistance for living. Whole communities were united, even nations when royal families intermarried to establish bonds of peace. Marriage was especially crucial for women, who had no means of self-support or even safety without it. It was far too important a business to leave to the vagaries of love so marriages were usually arranged. If the couple did love one another that was an added bonus to be envied. But if not, perhaps they would learn to love one another.

All this began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, as economic conditions shifted to allow couples to live more on their own, without the need of extended kin. With industrialization, and with new opportunities for women to earn money on their own, without a husband, marriage became much less necessary for survival. Legal rights of women and of children also altered the landscape of marriage and family. And so the idea of marrying for love became a much more achievable goal, and eventually was seen as really the only good reason to marry.

Today, when many delay marriage, or simply don’t marry, is a new and unique moment in human history. We have an unprecedented ability to live alone. We can control the size and timing of our families as never before. A single man does not need to cook to survive. A father does not need to know how to build a house. Sexuality can more safely be expressed outside of a marriage commitment because of birth control. And even if a child is born out-of-wedlock, that child no longer lacks the full legal rights of any other citizen; the different legal status of children once called “bastards” is a thing of the (not so remote) past.

In this brave new world of marriage, I did not need to get married because I had to. I got married because I fell in love.

Coontz says that this new love-based marriage explains the divorce “epidemic”. It is easy to equate being in love with the feeling of being of love, and if the feeling passes I may conclude that I should not stay married. In fact, it could seem almost wrong to do so. At the same time, although love-based marriages are inherently weak, being based on what we often regard as no more than a feeling, we also derive more pleasure and joy from our modern, love-based marriages than our ancestors could have imagined possible.

Finally, if marriage is now about love, and not about economics, or family connection, or even all about having biological children, then how can we deny the right to marry to two people who romantically love each other? On the logic that we have adopted over the last two centuries, we really can’t.

Those of us who do not support same-sex marriage and believe instead that marriage is for one man and one woman have entered the debate too late, and on the wrong basis. If we want to stand for truly “traditional” marriage, which is not marriage as practiced in the 1950’s but that which the world knew before the 1700’s, then we need to oppose the love-based marriage. It is that shift to love being the main thing in marriage that has led to the prevalence of divorce, and to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. If we want to “save” marriage we need to turn away from the ideal of romantic love.

And yet, who really wants to do that? We have fully adjusted to the real revolution in marriage and expect people who marry to love each other. Love has indeed won.

The 1997 movie Titanic exposes the shift in marriage quite well. The dilemma that threads through the movie is whether Rose, the scion of an upper-crust family down on its luck, should go ahead and marry her fiancé, the much richer and classy Caledon Hockley, so her family might regain its stature, or whether she should follow her heart and marry young peasant, Jack Dawson, with whom she has fallen in love. It’s a no-brainer at any time. Prior to the 20th century, the majority of people would say she needs to marry the better man, Cal. How can she put her own ephemeral happiness above the well-being of her family and future? But today, we root for Jack, the poor urchin, telling Rose to follow her heart, family be damned. Love must win.

The Supreme Court did not redefine marriage with their ruling. Marriage was redefined many years ago, as a relationship based on love. That’s the real revolution.