Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

The Art of Saving Souls

Posted in On This Day on May 24th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Today–May 24th– Orthodox Christians honor the Saints Cyril and Methodius.  Roman Catholics would try to be politely indifferent to the hallowed pair, masking a genuine annoyance.  Ecumenicalism has its limits, after all.  Coke does not honor Pepsi. 

In the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, there was a competition between Rome and Constantinople to see who would convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity. The vying missionaries couldn’t always produce miracles on schedule to win converts, so they often used means that we might find nauseatingly familiar.

The Byzantines tried advertising. However, going door-to-door, they noticed that no one would read their Greek Orthodox religious tracts. The Slavs were illiterate and, even if they weren’t, it is not likely that they would want to read a foreign language. A pair of Byzantine marketing wizards, Cyril and Methodius, made their ad campaign more intelligible by modifying the Greek alphabet to the Slavic tongues. (Cyril and Methodius received sainthoods but Cyril got the glory; the Cyrillic Alphabet is named for him.)

Both Rome and Constantinople sought celebrity endorsements. Their respective salesmen appealed to the local kinglets and chieftains, who would then coerce their respective tribes to salvation. In wooing the petty royalty, the Byzantines had the advantage when it came to bribes: silks and crafted goblets, craftsmanship beyond the ability of those benighted western Europeans. To many a Slavic chieftain, the Byzantine luxuries were unearthly delights and easily seemed proof of Constantinople’s superior faith. That approach sold Russia.

Of course, Rome’s missionaries had their unique offers as well. They often could point to an army of Catholic Franks or Germans just across the border, and who were more than eager to proselytize in their own way. That proved very convincing as well, perhaps even more than silverware and a designer wardrobe.

How the Irish Created Catholicism

Posted in General, On This Day on August 5th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

August 5, 641: A sainthood is always a nice consolation gift

On this day in 641, King Oswald of Northumbria became a martyr. He died attacking another English kinglet–Penda of Mercia—who evidently could defend himself. Since Penda was a pagan, that qualified Oswald for a sainthood. If Penda had also been Christian, then the slaughter would only have been intramural–and Oswald’s death would not have scored a halo.

But Penda’s victory was really the last Valhalliday for British pagans. The Angle-Saxon kingdoms were succumbing to the power and organization of an indominable Church: the Church of Ireland. Yes, at the time when the Pope was a threadbare Byzantine flunky–with the social standing of an assistant postmaster in Macedonia–the autonomous Church of Ireland was thriving, sending out its missionaries throughout the British Isles and onto the European continental. Britain, the Low Countries and Germany were being converted to the brogue.

By contrast, Rome’s organization in western Europe was a tenuous and nepotic network of patricians who served as bishops to protect themselves and their estates from barbarian encroachments. (The barbarians showed a superstitious deference to the Church; that was one way you could tell that they were barbarians.) This Church was hostage to the moods of barbarian princes as well as Byzantine magistrates. (Popes had been hauled off in chains to Constantinople.) So any claim to Rome’s primacy would have been a joke.

Yet, Rome persistently made that claim. Of course, it would have been effortless to ignore the pretensions of a figurehead of a theoretical church. But the Church of Ireland did not. By the mid-seventh century, it had grown and now was adminstering the ecclesiastical policies of all Britain. Yet a number of its prelates felt their British Church should abandon its autonomy and become subordinate to Rome. They were willing to cede their power and independence for the sake of a spiritual idea. Perhaps that was Christianity in action. The Celtic/British Church convened at a council in Whitby in 661 and, in effect, voted itself out of existence. The most organized and dynamic ecclesiastical system in Western Europe had submitted itself to a powerless, precariously balanced bishop in Rome.

And with that recognition, the Roman Church had become Catholic.

Where There is Smoke….

Posted in General, On This Day on July 18th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – 5 Comments

On this day in A.D. 64, Rome would have made a great music video for “Light My Fire.” This is not to compare Nero with James Morrison, although I am not sure who would suffer more by the comparison. If you believe “Quo Vadis”, then Nero started the fire if only to give himself a topic for an epic poem. But then you would also have to believe that Deborah Kerr would really prefer a frigid corpse like Robert Taylor to the adorable Peter Ustinov.

Historians believe that the Great Fire was just a natural calamity, the unfortunate flammable nature of Rome’s crowded wooden tenements. Yet, the Imperial government found a scapegoat for the conflagration: a small cult of Jewish schismatics. The cult’s numbers would not have totalled enough for an interesting persecution, and the group was so obscure that it should have escaped notice. Only the other Jews were somewhat familiar with it, and they didn’t like it much. However, the Romans barely tolerated any Jews. Nero took a particular pleasure in baiting them, sending increasingly more rapacious and cruel governors to ravage Judea. (The province finally revolted in 66.) So, given their general unpopularity in the Hellenized world, Jews would have made a much easier scapegoat for the Great Fire.

Why did the Imperial government overlook the easier target, and sift through all the Jewish sects to persecute one particular group? As we know from this cult’s earliest writings, the group was apocalyptic and awaiting the imminent end of the world. Its Rome congregation, witnessing the imperial city in flames, must have seen this as proof of the end times. With that impression, they would have celebrated the conflagration as their theological fulfillment. So, although they had not started the Great Fire, they were probably cheering it on; and their pagan neighbors would have resented that. The subsequent complaints led to the cult’s arrest and prosecution. The Roman government really thought that these pyrophiles were guilty, in thought if not deed.

As it turned out, the world did not end. Neither did that cult; it simply rescheduled its promised Apocalypse to an unspecified time.