Sunday, December 2, 2007

Christian culture reborn

There's so much in Robert Wilken's "Amo, Amas, Amat: Christianity and Culture," that I hardly know where to begin. In her post, Sharon repeated Wilken's call for a rebirth of Christian culture.
It would be worth it to unpack the historical development of Christian culture as Wilken traces it.

The starting point is the way that Christ came into the world: «But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form the community’s life takes is Christ within society.»

This society, the Church, started by embracing the good around them, and by discovering a new significance in the symbols already in use around them.
«In buying and displaying objects such as lamps or ring or seals Christians created the first Christian art (of which we have knowledge), but what the symbols represented lay in the eyes of the beholder, not in the object. As far as Roman society was concerned Christianity was invisible.»

My mother gave me a metal decor cross to me for my birthday. This cross was bought and sold as an object with no memory of its significance except as a conventional form. But my mother recognized it for what it means and gave it to me. A similar example would be to listen to the human cry of pop songs with the ear of Christ.

Then Christians begin something new. They bury their dead in catacombs, hallowing out a place of memory that is out of the way and yet public.
«Significantly Christian culture first takes material shape in connection with caring for and remembering the dead. Memory, especially of the faithful departed, is a defining mark of Christian identity.»

Memory is the key word here, but it is not only the memory of the dead, of the saints that we remain in communion with - it is above all the memory of Christ's presence, his crucifixion and resurrection. The memory of the saints is the experience of Christ's resurrection in His people. Christ present keeps the saints present with us.

In time, the universal (catholic, ecumenical) dimension of the Christian proposal becomes evident. Christendom becomes the expression of a society transformed by the leaven of the Christian people.
«It is shallow and petulant to rail against the political aspects of Constantinianism while ignoring the efforts of Christians of ancient times to stamp the face of Christ on the mores of society, in the ordering of time, in architecture, and law (e.g. prohibition of the exposure of infants, an ancient form of birth control).»

Christ has conquered the whole world, and so it is no wonder that Christians will propose the boldest changes to society at the broadest levels. Our goal, however, is not to run the world, to fix all the world's problems, to impose (like others) a final utopia. It is to accompany the world and to foster true freedom by having the courage to show another way of living.


clairity said...

This seemed a very important article, and I'm so glad you elaborated on it. I appreciate even more the simple cultural gestures we are invited to in the movement, e.g. the Way of the Cross on Good Friday, the Advent Retreat (which we had today), the pilgrimage.

Freder1ck said...

Paragraph 6 of Spe Salvi offers a beautiful complement to this article:

«6. The sarcophagi of the early Christian era illustrate this concept visually—in the context of death, in the face of which the question concerning life's meaning becomes unavoidable. The figure of Christ is interpreted on ancient sarcophagi principally by two images: the philosopher and the shepherd. Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying. To be sure, it had long since been realized that many of the people who went around pretending to be philosophers, teachers of life, were just charlatans who made money through their words, while having nothing to say about real life. All the more, then, the true philosopher who really did know how to point out the path of life was highly sought after. Towards the end of the third century, on the sarcophagus of a child in Rome, we find for the first time, in the context of the resurrection of Lazarus, the figure of Christ as the true philosopher, holding the Gospel in one hand and the philosopher's travelling staff in the other. With his staff, he conquers death; the Gospel brings the truth that itinerant philosophers had searched for in vain. In this image, which then became a common feature of sarcophagus art for a long time, we see clearly what both educated and simple people found in Christ: he tells us who man truly is and what a man must do in order to be truly human. He shows us the way, and this way is the truth. He himself is both the way and the truth, and therefore he is also the life which all of us are seeking. He also shows us the way beyond death; only someone able to do this is a true teacher of life. The same thing becomes visible in the image of the shepherd. As in the representation of the philosopher, so too through the figure of the shepherd the early Church could identify with existing models of Roman art. There the shepherd was generally an expression of the dream of a tranquil and simple life, for which the people, amid the confusion of the big cities, felt a certain longing. Now the image was read as part of a new scenario which gave it a deeper content: “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want ... Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, because you are with me ...” (Ps 23 [22]:1, 4). The true shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death; one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: he himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through. The realization that there is One who even in death accompanies me, and with his “rod and his staff comforts me”, so that “I fear no evil” (cf. Ps 23 [22]:4)—this was the new “hope” that arose over the life of believers.»