28 July 2016

Lost History: The Tales of the Phonograph and The Didache

The Phonograph

Once upon a time in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It was the first machine that could reproduce and project recorded sounds like voices or music. It's pretty astounding to think that we have mp3 players and digital music that we can listen to on headphones or in our cars 138 years later because of Edison's invention. But another thing about it is also interesting. We don't use phonographs anymore. Unless you're a nostalgic collector of old musical instruments or a student of history, you may not have even heard of a phonograph. You don't have to know the history of everything to appreciate what you have because of that history. But something good happens when you begin to put historical pieces together to find out what happened in between the time something was first created and the time when you are receiving the benefit of the improvements other people made on that initial discovery.

If you have grown up in any kind of church, you are probably used to doing the weekly church thing; you have heard a pastor give a sermon and you have watched or participated in a congregation singing songs together, and possibly praying together. The church takes communion together. There are special seasons of remembrance at times like Easter and Christmas. All of these things are carried on by tradition, and can be traced to the earliest practices of the church. But depending on what tradition you are in, there are other practices you may or may not participate in. You might fast on certain days of every week, read Scripture aloud together from a common liturgy that other churches are also using all around the world, remember a saint of the past on a particular day.

Then there are the ways we perform practices with specific expectations from leaders or the rest of the church. Maybe you all pray with your eyes closed and heads bowed, or you kneel when you pray. You may think that you need to have running water like a river or the ocean to baptize people, or you sprinkle it a few times on someone's head. None of these practices came out of nowhere. The reasons for, and reactions against them are always connected to how, when, where, and why they were developed. We do many of these things now in very intentional ways, but often without knowing why we are doing them in those ways.

The Didache

In 1883, A few years after the invention of the phonograph, an amazing document from church history was discovered. It's not often that we find documents that have been lost for over 1,000 years, so this was a particularly exciting find for historians. Old forgotten things have the potential to change the way we see a lot of the present. This kind of thing has happened at many pivotal points in history; just think of the moment when you learned the earth was round and not flat, and then when you learned that for much of history other people all agreed that the earth was flat, until they discovered that the earth was actually round, and a lot of people started fighting about it. Now, no one questions the earth being round.

First of all you may wonder, if something was so prevalent and so important to Christianity at the time it was made and used, why didn't it last? Let's start by thinking a little bit about our own personal histories. There are many things that meant a lot to me when I was young that helped shape me and lead me to where I am today. It doesn't mean that I go on using that same thing repeatedly, or that I even have a need to keep it or remember it that often. I happen to be a sentimental kind of guy though, so I end up hanging onto things much longer than necessary. There are other things I wish I still possessed, but they were lost, broken, stolen, or given away to make room for newer more important things.

The early Church constantly shared stories within their local communities and shared those same stories as they traveled. As the churches grew and admitted more members the need to ensure that new believers believed consistent things also increased. We have the same issues in our churches today. Churches and denominations come up with creeds, "statements of faith", and visions and values to help new people understand the history and expectations of what they are choosing to join. Much of this happens relationally and very informally. New visitors meet with a pastor or other church leader over coffee or a meal, and that leader shares stories over time. But it can also happen in formal, systematic ways to ensure consistency and clear understanding. If you're interested, I highly recommend you take some time to read The Didache for yourself to see what much of the early church believed should be consistently taught to people who were committing to follow Jesus and join the community of those already on the Way.

It's particularly fascinating to me to find consistencies with things that churches continue to do consistent with the past, and to be reminded of things that were lost or forgotten. There can be great benefits in recovering the past, or even in considering how and why things have changed.

Print version:

Kindle version:

The aspiring scholars among you may want to check out the Kindle version with the accompanying Greek text:

22 July 2016

I'm Learning

I'm learning...

to read and write all over again.

I'm learning...

to listen and love without judgment or the need to justify myself.

I'm learning...

to carve out sacred time and space in the morning, in the quiet.

I'm learning...

that it is always better to be humble and

...continue learning.

18 September 2015

What Good is History to the Present?

You are reading this now. I am writing it now. But the "now" when I am writing it, is the past for you as you read it. This is our constant conversation between the past and the present. All of what we know and build upon comes from the past, and we should never lose sight of that fact. When we do, we begin to imagine that we are the best thing the world has ever seen, and that we've done it all on our own. But your ability to read, to think about the things you're reading here, and to interact with ideas, all come from skills you've learned (or haven't learned) in the past. If you prefer to deny it, or imagine yourself to be much better than all who came before you, then your future self and anyone else who looks back on you, will call you the greatest fool. And they will be right.

I've heard a lot of rhetoric in recent years that intends to shut down discussion and debate by accusing someone of being "on the wrong side of history". All that really means is that you don't agree with the majority. And since when did the majority ever become right, simply by being the majority. Another way to shut someone down and attack their character is to say, "I want to move forward, and you want to stay in the past", as though all forward movement is somehow synonymous with progress. It is easy to move ahead in a wrong direction and imagine you are making progress. History is full of many examples if you want to take a look. But that is a discussion for another time.

Why do so many assume that the past itself, and the things we thought and did (or things others thought and did) should all be considered archaic and not worth doing anymore? I'm oversimplifying. Not everyone thinks this way. We would struggle to find anyone who thinks this way if they were pushed to be intellectually honest and reflect on their own argument. But the past is mostly forgotten, or pushed aside to make room for the present and its glory.

Then again, this is all one man's rant from the past that is long gone by the time you read it. And we know the past holds nothing of value. Feel free to ignore it if you want. You will return to it for help someday, even if you don't realize you are doing it. You might even remember this little exercise.