Restoring the Great Tradition

I just started reading The Soul of Christianity, Restoring the Great Tradition by Huston Smith.  The author was  born to Methodist missionaries in China, and went on to become internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions.  I’m not very far into the book yet, but I have found it very interesting so far.

In the Preface, Mr. Smith states that he feels like a voice crying in the wilderness, the wilderness of secular modernity.  He goes on to say “And yet a voice that can pull us out of the wilderness is on our very doorstep.  That voice is the voice of first-millenium Christianity, the Great Tradition, which all Christians can accept because it is the solid trunk of the tree from which its branches have sprung.  It is the voice of peace, justice, and beauty that emanates from the Christian soul …”

Later, in the Introduction section, he states that “today religion is hamstrung between liberals and conservatives who cancel each other out.  Conservative Christians, commonly tagged as fundamentalists, incline toward a biblical literalism that is unworkable because it ignores the contexts that give words their meaning … and they are in constant danger of slipping into disastrous political agendas.”  On the other side, he says “Liberal churches, for their part, are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically  theistic worldview to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good.”

There are two main sections to the book:  The Christian Worldview, and The Christian Story.  I have read just far enough to discern a main thread.  The author maintains that God is coming back into the picture in our cultures because we now understand where secularism has gone wrong.  Secularism has equated two things, absence-of-evidence and evidence-of-absence.  However, it is clear that these are really two very different concepts.   I think that Mr. Smith is on to something pretty profound here.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this book to see how this thread is developed.  I am also anxious to see how Mr. Smith believes we should navigate the middle ground of Christianity between the flawed approaches of those who are too liberal and those who are too conservative.  I’ll be sure to share my findings with you.

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A Sect of the Jews

My sister-in-law recently posted the initial words of the Jewish Shema prayer on Facebook:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

She stated that she has always loved these verses, and commented:  “If we all just tried to live by this ONE command, our ‘immediate’ worlds would be a better place.”  I did a “LIKE” on her post.

This reminded me of how strongly Christianity is rooted in Judaism.  In fact, the earliest followers of Christ regarded themselves as Jews.  They were centered in Jerusalem and observed the Jewish law.  They held the Jewish scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) as the Word of God.  They worshiped in the synagogues.  The first bishops were all circumcised Jews.  Christianity may have remained a sect of the Jews if it had not been for the later, overwhelming influence of Paul and his ministry to the gentiles.

The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles is one of the earliest Christian writings, dating to the latter part of the first century.  The first line of this treatise is “Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles (or Nations) by the Twelve Apostles”.

The text, parts of which constitute the oldest surviving written catechism, has three main sections dealing with Christian ethics, rituals such as baptism and Eucharist, and Church organization.  The contents and structure are from a decidedly Jewish perspective. The Didache was considered by some of the Church Fathers as part of the New Testament but it ultimately was not accepted into the New Testament canon.  The entire text can be reviewed at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

It seems that Christians over the centuries have been somewhat confused about our Jewish roots.  For example, the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) are considered to be the Word of God, but yet not directly applicable to us in the new Christian “age of grace”.   And Christians have been inconsistent in their view of Jews.  In the past, Christians have at times vilified the Jews as “Christ killers”, and at other times have stood strong with them as God’s chosen people.  I need to put some further study into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, especially as it impacted the earliest Church.

In some ways the terms “Jewish Christian” or “Messianic Jew” may seem like oxymorons.  But on further thought, they may represent the truest examples of the original Christians.

Music in the Church

Music in the church has been discussed and debated a great deal lately, especially with regard to musical styles and tastes.  However, I am not aware of any ongoing debate about whether music and singing should be an integral element of corporate worship.  Virtually every Christian community sings together.

I gained a fresh perspective on this as I was reading a book about the New Testament church.   The writer pointed out that “Christianity is the only great movement among men to give great and lasting prominence to singing.  In no other society is there a comparable practice. … It is not by accident that singing occupies so large a place in Christian worship.  Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, and James 5:13 enjoin the practice.  The rendering, ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ suggests a wide variety of choice in selecting the songs to be used.”

I had not really thought much about the importance of music, especially singing together, to Christian worship.  And I had not actually noticed that Christianity is unique among world religions in this regard. But this is remarkable.  Throughout all the centuries, across [almost] all of the denominations, and around the world, Christians join their spirits in praise, worship and fellowship by singing together.  This is obviously a key unifying practice of our faith.

This morning I had the pleasure of being with a group of long-time Christian friends.  We met together for a time of devotion and sharing, but the first thing we did was sing!

I know that some of you readers are strongly connected with the music ministries in your churches.  I look forward to your comments on this subject.

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The quotation is from Robert C. Shannon, The New Testament Church.  See Bibliography.