I appreciate old churches, particularly old Catholic churches with stained glassed windows and sacred art. My senior year in college I spent a lot of time at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, first because it’s free, second, because it’s inspiring. My favorite part of the museum is their massive collection of Byzantium and the West. In their collection are beautiful pieces of sacred art from Bible’s themselves to the history of Christendom. As our church has been spending time looking at the Story of Scripture and the Old Testament, I’m struck by how connected later writers in Scripture refer to past events i.e. the Exodus. The Exodus is not told as something that happened a long time ago to someone else, but something that happened or even happens to us. It’s not just any story, it was their story, which makes it our story.
History seems so disconnected from us I think, because of the invention of text books. You read about history. You read the facts. You read the dates. You memorize it for the test and then you forget about it. This person lived from 1772-1818, big deal. In ancient days, history was told as story. Everyone was an excellent storyteller; actual facts and figures came second to the power of the narrative in someone’s life. When they read accounts of the Exodus they would say, “remember when we were being pursued by Pharaoh’s army…” That’s powerful. Even in recent (by comparison) American history, which I love, I don’t recall text books referring to Colonial American’s as “we, or us”, but “they and them”. There is a disconnect between history, and our story.
In my reading of Karl Barth for the week I reflected on this challenge that he gives for modern-day theologians to be connected with theologians of the past. He writes:
“In order to serve the community of today, theology itself must be rooted in the community of yesterday. It’s the testimony to the Word and the profession of its faith must originate, like the community itself from the community of past times. Theology must originate from the older and the more recent tradition which determines the present form of its witness.” – Karl Barth Evangelical Theology, p. 42.
I thought immediately about church history which is interesting. Long? yes. Messy? yes. Perfect? no. What I appreciate about studying church history is changing how we read it. Not limiting church history to stained glass windows or lifeless icons which can be like staring at a text book, but to read it as if it tells a story. Not just any story, but our story… the story of the community of God. The rich history of the community of God (the church) reveals an active and not obsolete discussion about our understanding of God. The confessions and creeds of the past invite us to the very tables in which these discussions took place. Karl Barth says, “Theology says credo, I believe, along with the present-day community and its fathers. But it says credo ut intelligam, ‘I believe in order to understand.'” p. 43.
What would change if we felt a deep connection with the struggles of Augustine and the heart of Luther? Would it change our view of how we view church art, architecture and liturgy? Would it lead us to a place of appreciation and invitation to dialogue with our disagreements? Would it lead to a deep connection within a long, rich lineage rather than empty traditions?
On my graduation day from seminary we conducted our service in the chapel of an old Catholic seminary, St. Patrick’s. As I was receiving my hood I looked at the art that surrounded me, but specifically at the piece of art above the arches of the door leading out into the world which I interpret as Jesus blessing a kneeling priest as a benediction before he heads out into the world as a representation of ordination and the good and faithful transmission of the gospel. I had a brief moment to reflect on how many pastors, priests and lay-ministers have been commenced to go out and live missional lives for the kingdom of God throughout church history. In that moment, it wasn’t just a piece of art about how to properly graduate seminarians, but a visceral connection to a rich history of those ministers who have come before and paved the way.