About Corazon

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Noah Matters

On March 28th, movie (and I suppose Bible) fans across the world will get their first glimpse at Darren Aronofsky's Noah, starring Russel Crow, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson.  According to the film's website, Noah is the "epic story of courage, sacrifice and hope" and this film "brings to light an untold story" (I'm assuming the cast has uncovered new ancient documents about the Noah flood because I was under the impression that this story was quite familiar to almost everyone) of the Noah that nobody has seen before (you gotta love that Russell Crowe guy. Noah was in desperate need of a makeover!).

To be honest, I am actually pretty excited to see this movie, even if it ends up being historically and/or theologically bogus.  The story of Noah has always been one of my favorites of the Old Testament.  Besides, the preview looks pretty good.  See for yourself:

 

The story of Noah, as found in the Book of Genesis, is arguably the most controversial tale of the entire Bible. The notion that a global flood, just a few thousand years ago, killed every living thing with the exception of the animals and people Noah brought with him on his magical Ark, has spawned debate for centuries. Scientists, historians, geologists, physicists, etc. have (at least in my book) closed the case when it comes to Noah being a literal and absolutely factual history.  It is not.

Despite this fact (and yes, it is a FACT), the story of Noah is not without merit, and that merit goes far beyond a simple bedtime tale or a cool Hollywood movie. The Noah story matters. It has deep theological and moral value that should be recognized, regardless of whether you esteem it as infallible history or a cool ancient myth.

To understand why the Noah story matters, we must first take a brief look (and I do emphasize brief) at how this story came to be.  Most people with even a relatively limited understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) recognize that the Noah story has its origins in even older tales outside of the Hebrew tradition. Whether it be the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim or the Hindu tale of Manu and Matsya, deluge myths are common motifs of the ancient world.  The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but as Yale University Professor of Religion Christine Hayes points out:
The ancients placed creation within the primordial soup of water. In the Babylonian creation myth, it is the blood of the slain Tiamat that sprays forth from the firmament as rain and from the earth as lakes and oceans. Water is the breeding ground for the gods who use this soup to give life to the earth, the plants, the animals and finally to mankind himself. But water is also what takes life away, allowing the gods to start anew their creative process. 
Keeping this idea of water as the primordial soup of creation and destruction, we can better understand the significance of certain verses of scripture found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:
2.) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit (translated as "wind") of God moved upon the face of the waters.
6.) And God said, Let the there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let ut divide the waters from the waters (a verse obviously influenced from the Babylonian epic of Marduk and Tiamat).
7.) And God made the firmament, and divided the waters (much as Marduk spliced open Tiamat) which were under the firmament from the waters which wee above the firmament: and it was so.
8.) And God called the firmament Heaven.
9.) And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10.) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good (just as Marduk called one half of Tiamat the heavens and the other half the earth).
It is through the vehicle of water that the Hebrew God (not to mention the Babylonian and even earlier Sumerian God) is able to bring about creation.  Ironically enough, evolutionists would agree (in a roundabout way) with this claim, since they too maintain that much of life came from the primordial soup that is earth's oceans.

As for the Noah story, the flood becomes more than just a destructive force.  It is the life-giving "soup" that brings about a new beginning.  As a result, the Noah flood saga is less about a vindictive god bent on destroying man and more about a loving creator trying to breathe new life into a corrupt and dying world. The Noah story is a shared motif that early Hebrews borrowed from their neighbors and not a unique creation they came up with on their own. As historians Victor Matthews and James Moyer point out in their book, The Old Testament: Text and Context:
The Israelites shared much of the worldview of ancient Mesopitamia. As a result, a great deal of the material contained in the primeval epics in Genesis is borrowed and adapted from the ancient cultures of that region. This is what makes the study of nonbiblical epics so valuable. By making comparisons and by seeing the general religious and literary environment of the ancient Near East, it is possible to understand more fully how the Israelites perceived their world and their place in it.
Regardless of its origins, Noah presents to both the ancient and modern reader a lesson on how important and precious life really is. The primordial waters that give life can also take it away, but from terrible destruction and devastation comes new life. As Utnapishtim (Noah) teaches the great hero Gilgamesh (ancient Sumeria's version of George Washington):
"Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
From Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh learns the important lesson that life should be cherished because it is not going to last forever.  For the Biblical Noah, mankind's ultimate zoologist, sailor and colonizer, the importance of cherishing life...all forms of life...is a lesson he knew all too well.  Caring for plants, animals and humans became the central purpose of Noah's existence, and is the principal lesson he teaches us today. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, responsible for how we treat not only our fellow humans, but how we treat the earth and its abundant plant and animal life. Yes, we need to devour plant and animal life in order to sustain our own, but this is an intimate relationship that binds all life as opposed to dividing it.  Noah honors his sacrifice of a "clean beast" and a "clean fowl" upon his altar, and God accepts it with a "sweet savor" (Gen. 8:20-21). God honors the sacrifice of all His creations. After all, His covenant isn't just made with man.  As we learn from Genesis chapter 9, verses 5, 12 and 13:
5.) And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of EVERY BEAST WILL I REQUIRE IT, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
12.) And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you AND EVERY LIVING CREATURE that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13.) I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me AND THE EARTH. 
In short, God's love for His creations includes far more than just us. It is human arrogance that we think God cares only for the Homo Sapiens.  Just as God saved the male and female Adam and Eve from the mistakes made in the Garden of Eden, so did God save the male and female versions of all animal life from the corruption of a degraded world.  The ark was meant for the lion, tiger, bear and rabbit every bit as much as it was meant for man.  

Noah's legacy is far more than just a tale of a great shipbuilder or divinely inspired zookeeper. It is a lesson on how to appreciate life on all levels. Tragedies of all kinds (floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, etc.) will always abound.  Such is the state of our existence in mortality. Whether you believe that God caused/causes these tragedies is irrelevant. Death and destruction is here to stay. Our job is simply to enjoy the ride on our own arks of life, regardless of whether the waves take us out or not. We, like the animals or Noah himself, enter our arks, side-by-side with those who are embarking with us on the journey of life.  As Morgan Freeman put it in the film Evan Almighty:


For me, the story of Noah is not one in which death and destruction come from an evil and sadistic god who could care less about giving humanity a second chance.  Instead, it is the story of how God helps man deal with the inevitable tragedies of mortality. From death and destruction comes new life and happiness. Our job is to recognize the rainbow in the tempest by changing our attitude. In so doing, perhaps we too will be able to sing with Gilgamesh the song of joy in the face of tragedy:
"The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow. But from death comes new life, but its days are numbered, whatever he might do, it is but a wind."

The Truth About the So-Called "Dark Ages"

Like so many eras of history, the period known by most as the "Dark Ages" is one of the most (if not THE most) misunderstood moments in the annals of humanity. The simple fact that we label these years (roughly 400-800 A.D.) with the idiotic label of "Dark Ages" shows just how little most of us know about a period of time that is shrouded with more legend and lore than actual fact.

For whatever reason(s), the "Dark Ages" have come to symbolize a terrible time in the history of mankind, in which savagery, brutality, ignorance and religious intolerance were the name of the game.  We clothe the "Dark Ages" with the robes of wicked men, hell-bent on world domination and the subjugation of all within their realm, having their hands and garments drenched in the blood of those who stand in their way.

And while it is true that the "Dark Ages" had their fair share of evil doers and tough life circumstances, the reality is the years between 400-800 were quite liberating, enlightening and peaceful when compared to other eras of human history.  Contrary to the generally accepted stereotypes, the "Dark Ages" were a time of human progress and improvement in which its citizens experienced more "light" than they did "dark."

It was the Italian scholar and philosopher Petrarch who first coined the term "The Dark Ages" in the early part of the 14th century.  He did so because of his erroneous belief that these years were marked by the illiteracy and ignorance of the masses who roamed the earth aimlessly in the wake of the "fall" of the Roman Empire.  Later, Protestant reformers, who were more than happy to label any and all things with a Catholic bend as being "heresy," embraced the term "Dark Ages" as the perfect moniker for a world that was almost entirely Catholic.  The derogatory term "Dark Ages" came to signify the epitome of Catholic ignorance, human depravity, intellectual idiocy and dictatorial brutality.  But as is often the case, those who levy unjust accusations are usually the ones who deserve to be accused, and those who jumped on the early "Dark Ages" bandwagon did so at the cost of their own ignorance.

In reality, the "Dark Ages" (hereafter referred to as the Early Middle Ages) were a period of remarkable progress and light.  As Historian Jamie Frater has pointed out, the Early Middle Ages are marked by some remarkable advances in human society.  For example, the Early Middle Ages witnessed the dawn of the university.  It was within these early universities that the foundations for science were laid. Contrary to popular belief, the Church did NOT censor science during this period.  As Historian Ronald Numbers states, the battle between religion and science was an invention of the later Middle Ages.  The "Dark Ages" were actually okay with the idea of science and religion existing together.  In addition, these universities became the incubators for the birth of fields like Algebra, architecture and art, which became the foundations of the later Renaissance and Enlightenment eras.

The Early Middle Ages also saw the dawn of new literary styles.  Contrary to what Petrarch believed, the "Dark Ages" witnessed at least two literary periods that could and should be called a "Renaissance" of their own.  The "Carolingian Renaissance" and "Byzantine Golden Age," both of which came to fruition during those dreadful "Dark Ages," were defined by their advancements in literature, writing, arts, the development of laws, and perhaps most important, dramatic developments in theology and scriptural study. Men like St. Augustine and Pelagius gave the world profound insights into Christian theology, most of which remain with us today.  In the East, men like Justinian were laying the foundations of jurisprudence and other legal protections that provided for many people a world that was relatively free and safe (at least more so than it had been or would be in the centuries to come).  The implementation of new laws eliminated (for the most part) slavery and gave even common citizens more rights than many even experienced during the heydays of the Roman Republic/Empire.


The Early Middle Ages also enjoyed the fruits of a better climate and advancements in agriculture. Contrary to what most probably think, the "Dark Ages" were not dark, cold and empty of food. Quite the opposite is the case. The Early Middle Ages actually enjoyed a climate that was extremely friendly to agriculture.  The warming of the North Atlantic region is what allowed "barbarian" nations to thrive.  The ability of the Vikings to prosper in Greenland and sail into the Atlantic with such ease is a perfect illustration of this warming trend. Increased food production meant that humanity was able to flourish and spread into the frontiers of Europe, and this is precisely what took place during the "Dark Ages."

As you can plainly see, the "Dark Ages" were anything but "dark."  The Early Middle Ages were a period of tremendous prosperity, growth and innovation that set the stage for many of the advances of later movements like the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and even the Scientific Revolution.  Can we now PLEASE do away with the archaic nonsense that continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding the "Dark Ages?"  It's time to get rid of this History Channel-type crap once and for all.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

President Monson Accused of Fraud

This week, news that Mormon President Thomas S. Monson has been accused by an English court of fraud went public.  News outlets of all kinds have been reporting the story since it broke a couple of days ago, each providing its own spin on how these charges will (or won't) play out, along with the impact they will have on the Mormon church.

The criminal complaint that levies these charges against President Monson (and Mormonism in general) are the workings of one Tom Phillips, a former member of the Mormon faith who had served the church in a number of positions, including Stake President and Area Executive Secretary.  Long story short, Mr. Phillips withdrew from the church, due to what he calls "the lack of historical evidence, of any kind" to support the church's claims.

Since his departure from the Church, Mr. Phillips has made no qualms about his disdain for Mormonism.  As the managing editor of the Mormonthink website, Mr. Phillips has attempted to bring to light many of the issues that have troubled him (and many other Mormons) and eventually led to his departure from the faith. Mr. Phillips is also a regular commentator on the ExMormon website, where he posts under the name "anointedone."  The clever moniker is the result of his having gone public about receiving the "Second Anointing" within the walls of the London Temple some years ago (you can listen to his very detailed interview with John Dehlin about this experience by clicking here).

The complaint that Mr. Phillips has levied essentially states that since serving as church president, Thomas S. Monson has acted "dishonestly" and has intended to "make gain for himself" by defrauding one Christopher Denis Ralph, who was "misled" and "induced" to pay tithing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Below is a copy of the actual court document:


The allegations of fraud center on the claims that President Monson knowingly teaches that which he believes to be false (i.e. that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are fraudulent documents).

Of course, how one chooses to view these accusations depends greatly on how one chooses to view Mormonism.  For the critic, the accusations probably make sense.  After all, the Book of Abraham, which has been hailed by Egyptologists as an outright fraud since the 19th century, is a difficult hurdle to jump for even the most devout Mormons. For faithful Mormons, however, these allegations only serve as further evidence that adversity will always come knocking at the doors of the righteous.

Whatever your personal views may be, the fact of the matter is that this case will be judged based on the rules of law.  Does Tom Phillips have a case?  Has Thomas S. Monson actually committed fraud against Mr. Ralph, thereby enriching himself and the church?

In my opinion, the answer to these questions is a resounding HELL NO!!!

First off the accusations of fraud brought by Mr. Phillips are dependent upon the British Fraud Act of 2006, which "prohibits false representations made to secure a profit or to cause someone to lose money."  Based on this law, Mr. Phillips must convince the British court of two things:
1.) President Monson KNOWINGLY made false representations of Mormon beliefs (i.e. he stated that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are "true" while knowing they were not).
2.) President Monson made these representations in order to profit from others.  
The first point is virtually impossible to prove.  To ascertain whether or not somebody believes in his/her religious convictions or is simply giving them lip service is completely speculative and hardly a matter for any legitimate court to determine.  And even if President Monson were to say that he didn't believe in the tenants of his faith, it is still virtually impossible to prove fraud. Simply put, Mr. Phillips' accusations are more bark than bite.  In the words of another English citizen, they are "Much Ado About Nothing."

And I am far from being along in that sentiment. Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on British religious freedom, responded to this criminal complaint against President Monson by saying:
I'm sitting here with an open mouth.  I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I'm frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it. 
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, is also stunned by the summons, calling it "bizzare," and adding: "I can't imagine how it got through the court process.  It would be set aside within 10 seconds in my opinion." I couldn't agree more.  Regardless of how one feels about Mormonism, the right to religious freedom is a fundamental principle that should not be toyed with.

In reality, Tom Phillips' quest to "expose" the "myth" behind Mormonism will probably do more to bolster the faith of Mormons than anything else.  It's hard to see how this accusation could be motivated by anything other than resentment for the faith he has left behind...but can't seem to leave well enough alone.  In my opinion, this accusation will be dead on arrival.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review of the Mitt Romney Netflix Documentary

Last night I finally had the opportunity to take advantage of some of the insomnia that I've been experiencing as of late by watching the Netflix original documentary, "Mitt," which highlights the ups and downs of the Mitt Romney presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012.

The documentary, which chronicles the personal moments of the Romney circle, attempts to provide audiences with a "rare intimate look" into how Romney and his family balanced their political aspirations with their personal convictions.  We see Mitt and family kneeling together in prayer, thanking God for the blessings they have been given.  We see Mitt and family huddled together in various hotel rooms, critiquing speeches and preparing for debates.  We see Mitt and family dealing with the realities of lost campaigns.  In short, we see Mitt and family face the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

But the main point is this: we see MITT AND FAMILY!

If one thing is clear from this documentary, it is the fact that Mitt Romney is a family man.  For good or for bad, Mitt placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on what his family thought and felt about his running for president, along with their advise during the campaign.  There is a very real and genuine bond between family members that doesn't feel forced or simply for show.  The genuine love and devotion of the Romney family is, without question, the most striking aspect (at least for me) of this documentary.

Second only to his devotion to family, it is the authenticity of Mitt Romney the man that comes across most in this film.  The public image that is Mitt Romney is replete with examples of him as a "flip-flopper" and a "detached white man" who doesn't understand the needs of the masses. Whether or not you believe these stereotypes is irrelevant because what this documentary enforces is the fact that Mitt Romney really is who he says he is.  I was struck by the fact that Mitt's public character was, in many respects, identical to his private persona.  Love him or hate him, Mitt Romney seems to genuinely believe what he said during his campaigns.  To some, this will serve as proof that Romney is a man of good character; for others it is another reason to be glad he lost the election.

And though Mitt Romney seems to genuinely believe and stand by his moral and political opinions, he doesn't do so without a sense of reservation.  The documentary presents a number of occasions in which Mitt and family doubt their chances of winning, and even seem happy at the prospect of returning to "normal life."  On at least two occasions in the film, Mitt refers to himself as a "flawed candidate" who "cannot win."  In addition, Mitt and family seem to lack the killer mentality that is so necessary in a national campaign.  They do not support the "win at all costs" mentality and even seem mortified when they discover the back door dealings of other candidates (when former Florida Governor Charlie Crist breaks his word and endorses John McCain you see the Romney family's collective stomach begin to churn at the alleged betrayal).

The film also highlights the fact that Mitt Romney and family were both impressed and intimidated of Senator/President Barack Obama.  Time and time again, Romney comments on how Obama had "changed the game" and that he was "clearly a step ahead of everyone else."  When John McCain insists that the strategy to beating Obama would be to highlight his inexperience with foreign policy, Romney accurately decried such a strategy as a surefire way to lose.  During the 2012 campaign, Romney and family seem awestruck at the prospect of sharing the debate stage with the President, even though they sincerely believed that Obama's policies were bad for America.  

Through all of the campaigning, speeches, debates, etc., Mitt reveals a man who is torn between two worlds: his desire to serve his country in its highest office v. his desire to serve his family and his God. This introspective tug-o-war creates both confidence and hesitance for the Romney campaign. They detest Obama's politics but cannot help but admire and even be intimidated of the President. They see the problems within the GOP but cannot break free of them.  As a result, Mitt Romney finds himself in the middle of a war he cannot win.

The film concludes with the Romney family, huddled together in a hotel room, once again facing the realities of another lost campaign.  They do so with remarkable poise and even gratitude.  One can only wonder if a part of them was glad they had lost the election.  Mitt and Ann Romney then return home, together, refusing the aid of Secret Service agents.  The final scene also feels as though Mitt and Ann had never campaigned in the first place, as they sit next to one another in their living room, reflecting on what had transpired and on the uncertainty that lies ahead.

In short, the Netflix documentary, Mitt is unlikely to change anyone's opinion of the man.  If you loved him before, you will love him even more.  If you disliked Mitt during the campaign, you will probably find more reasons to continue disliking him.  But what the film does do is prove once and for all that Mitt Romney really is who he says he is.  Love him or hate him, Mitt Romney is not a pretender.  He's a genuine family man who loves his God, his country, his heritage and his posterity.  Mitt Romney was probably right when he called himself a "flawed candidate" but I believe he is also an honorable man, and this is coming from somebody who wasn't a fan of the "flawed candidate."

My final grade for Netflix's Mitt: B+.  It is worth the time to watch it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Roger Williams Survives the Cold

It has been a cold couple of months for virtually everyone in the United States (with the obvious exception for those in Florida, California, etc.). In some places, the cold is breaking records with temperatures that have not been touched in a century. And as the thermometer continues to plummet in various parts of the eastern states, it's no wonder why so many are growing concerned for those who either cannot afford heat or don't have a warm place to rest their heads.

In the great state of Massachusetts, frigid winter temperatures are a perennial norm. A cold New England weather is what gives character to that part of the country. But for one native New Englander, the cold January weather became a matter of life and death.

After months of hearings regarding matters of theology, Massachusetts Bay officials finally elected to banish Roger Williams, a former Puritan preacher who taught a number of controversial religious beliefs that flew in the face of "traditional" Puritan theology.  Williams, who was granted the courtesy of remaining in the colony until Spring, was eventually forced to flee from the colony, due to his continued efforts at preaching what many saw as heresy.  As Dan Hinchen, a blogger with the Massachusetts Historical Society, explains:
As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days. 
Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. "He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows.
"But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford."ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
It is remarkable that Williams was able to survive at all in such conditions.  It is a testament to both his resolve and his ability to negotiate with the native people of the area.

What I admire so much about Roger Williams is the fact that he maintained such incredible resolve in the face of constant difficulty. Not only was Williams undeterred by the fact that Puritan officials were extremely intolerant of anyone preaching anything different from their own interpretation of Christianity (wait, I thought the Puritans came to America to establish "religious freedom"?) but he also remained resolute when faced with expulsion from the colony.  Williams could have remained in Massachusetts until the Spring, but he chose to preach instead, thereby accelerating the need for his rapid departure.

Such devotion based almost exclusively on personal conviction is a rare thing in the world. Maybe that is why I like Roger Williams so much.

[Hat tip: John Fea]

Unigenitus Dei filius

Medieval popes were some of the most influential people of that era. As the walking, talking vicars of Jesus Christ on earth, the authority of Medieval popes was virtually unquestioned. Their will became the will of the church, the will of the people, the will of God.

One of the most influential popes (though also one of the most overlooked) of the Medieval era was Pope Clement VI. Clement is most notable for being the Pope who reigned during the worst years of the Black Death. As a result, Clement was forced to reconcile the horrors of arguably the greatest challenge the Medieval world ever faced with the heavenly will of God. Was the Black Death a divine punishment for sin? Was is God's wrath being poured out upon a wicked and sinful people? For a world that revolved almost completely on the axis of Catholic primacy, the answers to these and other questions couldn't wait, and Clement was the man who had to stand and deliver.

As one of his first official acts as Pope, Clement issued the now infamous Papal Bull, Unigenitus Dei filius.  The Bull was meant as an official declaration to justify the church's use of indulgences as a godly function of the faith.

Indulgences were nothing new to the Catholic world.  The first recorded record of indulgences date back all the way to the 5th century, in which the practice was used to justify and absolve small matters like farming rights, etc. Most indulgences insisted upon a period of fasting, prayer and alms as a way to seek forgiveness for various sins. Indulgences took off in the 11th century, in the wake of the Crusades. Crusaders were regularly granted a remission of sin by faithfully fulfilling their role in a given crusade to recapture the Holy Land.

For Clement VI, this Bull was simply a way to "canonize" the already common practice of indulgences. For the Medieval world, however, it was seen, at least by an emerging minority, as a possible cause for the Black Death. Christian reformers of the 14th century, though still relatively small and intentionally obscure in their outward criticism of the Catholic church, were beginning to question some of the decisions made by church leaders. They were also growing tired of what they saw as hypocritical and sinful behavior on the part of the clergy, which was being swept under the rug by the practice of indulgences.

These early reformers, who essentially served as the "grandfathers" of men like Martin Luther, laid the initial groundwork that would later catapult the Protestant Reformation into existence.  We can therefore conclude that the Papal Bull Unigenitus Dei filius was a tremendous success...though not for the Catholic church.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Joseph Fielding Smith and the True Nature of Prophets

Whoever thinks a faultless piece to see.
Thinks what ne'er was, nor is, nor e'er shall be
In every work regard the writer's end,
Since none can compass more than they intend,
And if the means be just, the conduct true,
Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due. 
-Alexander Pope

This year brings with it another lesson manual in the "Teachings of the Presidents of the Church" series. Joseph Fielding Smith, the 10th President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be our guide for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons every 2nd and 3rd Sunday of the month through 2014.  This is the 12th manual in this series dating back to its conception in 1998.

If I am being perfectly honest, I am not particularly excited for this year's manual.  Not only have I grown somewhat tired of the "Teachings of the Presidents" manuals (which, in reality, are all the same basic lessons, sprinkled with quotations from the church president who graces the cover of that year's respective manual), but I am not a fan of President Joseph Fielding Smith.  Yes, I realize that this probably isn't the most popular thing to say, and many Mormons will tuck tail and run as far away from this blog post as possible at my saying so, but these are my honest feelings and I don't shy away from them.

I'm not trying to come across as cynical or "anti-Mormon" here.  I have, after all, praised the manual of my favorite church president in a previous blog post. Nor am I suggesting that President Joseph Fielding Smith was a bad man. In reality, I believe that President J.F. Smith was a very good, kind and caring person who left behind a legacy of love, especially for those who knew him best. With that being said, I still have my issues with President J.F. Smith, particularly with regards to some of the wild and crazy things he said and passed off as being Mormon "doctrine."  For example:
"Not only was Cain called to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race. A curse was placed upon him and that curse has been continued through his lineage and must do so while time endures.  Millions of souls have come into this world cursed with a black skin and have been denied the privilege of the priesthood and the fullness of the blessings of the Gospel. These are the descendants of Cain. Moreover, they have been made to feel their inferiority and have been separated from the rest of mankind from the beginning. Enoch saw the people of Canaan, descendants of Cain, and he says, 'and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.'" -Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, Pp. 101-102.
"There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantages. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I, Pp. 61.
"I would not want you to believe that we bear any animosity toward the negro. Darkies are wonderful people and they have their place in our church." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Look Magazine, Oct. 22, 1963, Pp. 79.
"Creation did not take millions of years. We can hardly be justified in trying to harmonize the days of creation with the extended periods of millions of years according to the reckoning of the so-called scientists." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. I.
"It has been truthfully said that organic evolution is Satan's chief weapon in this dispensation in his attempt to destroy the divine mission of Jesus Christ." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Man: His Origin and Destiny, Pp. 184.
"You cannot believe both gospel and evolution.  I say most emphatically, you cannot believe in this theory of the origin of man, and at the same time accept the plan of salvation as set forth by the Lord our God. You must choose the one and reject the other, for they are in direct conflict and there is a gulf separating them which is so great that it cannot be bridged, no matter how much one may try to do so.
If you believe in the doctrine of the evolutionist, then you must accept the view that man has evolved through countless ages from the very lowest forms of life up through various stages of animal life, finally into the human form. The first man, according to this hypothesis known as the "cave man" was a creature absolutely ignorant and devoid of any marked intelligence over the beasts of the field." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II.
"Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body, neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed.  I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called Christian world expects us all to be -- neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings having received the resurrection." -Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. II, Pp. 287-288.
"We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books this will never happen." -Joseph Fielding Smith, May 14, 1961, address given at Honolulu Stake Conference.
Some may wonder why I have elected to share these unpleasant quotes (and there are many more) if I profess to be a believing and practicing Mormon. After all, what possible good could come from pointing out the negative comments that were made by a church leader from the past? In addition, aren't we as Mormons counseled to avoid speaking ill of church leaders?

My answer to this questions is: yes and no.

Yes, it is true that sometimes the ugly facts of history don't always need to be brought to light, and yes, it is not right to speak ill of church leaders.  This simply is not my intent. You may find that hard to believe after my pronouncement that J.F. Smith is not my favorite guy, accompanied with my brief list of some of Smith's less-than-pleasant quotations, but I'm serious. It is not my intent to defame President J.F. Smith or any other church leader.  My intent is simply this: to use the example of President Smith (along with the examples of other church leaders and apostles) to prove a very basic point: church leaders are NOT what we have come to believe they are.

One of the major problems that exists within Mormonism today is the struggle between church DOCTRINE and church CULTURE (I have expressed my feelings about this phenomenon in the past here, here, and here).  Oftentimes, we as members of the church will come to embrace an ideal that is based entirely on our PERCEPTION of how things should be as opposed to the way things ACTUALLY are.  A good example of this would be the fact that many Mormons today, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, believe that evolution is a fraud and that a belief in said scientific theory is sinful.

Another example (the one I want to focus on in this post) is how many members erroneously bestow church leaders, particularly members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with demigod status. For many Mormons, these leaders are seen as larger than life figures, endowed with a greater measure of intellect, understanding and foresight than the average person. And though as a practicing Mormon I too believe that church leaders are afforded moments of heavenly clarity to help address a given problem (revelation), I also believe that we Mormons do ourselves (and our leaders) a terrible disservice by assuming too much in respect to their abilities, understanding and even character.

Sure, most Mormons accept the obvious fact that church leaders (past and present) are imperfect human beings that are simply trying to do their level best, but we usually only recognize these deficiencies in a very loose and unassuming manner.  Brigham Young may have been a bit rough around the edges and Ezra Taft Benson may have been a little too politically polarizing but that is usually the extent to which we will accept prophetic error.  After all, church leaders will never lead us astray!  

But when we speak of some of the serious human frailties that beset our leaders, most Mormons will run for the hills.  If, for example, I call Joseph Fielding Smith a racist (and yes, I believe he was very much a racist), or accuse him of being scientifically illiterate (as I believe he was), many a Mormon may sound the trump of blasphemy, assuming that such accusations are unfit for a Prophet, Seer and Revelator.  This is simply not the case.  Pointing out the sometimes painful realities of the past, along with the implications they bring in tow, does not mock our leaders, but rather liberates them.  For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, insisted that he was a deeply flawed individual who was not to be held up as a standard for moral decency:
"I love that man better who swears a stream as long as my arm, and administering to the poor and dividing his substance, than the long smooth faced hypocrites. I do now want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not. God judges men according to the use they make of the light which He gives them." -Joseph Smith, Words of Joseph Smith, Pp.204. May 18, 1843.  
Perhaps we really should take the Lord at his word when he tells us, time and time again, that he chooses the "weak things of the Earth" to complete His will (Doctrine and Covenants 124: 1).

So why then are we as a church so reluctant to admit when church leaders go wrong?  We shouldn't be.  As President Dieter F. Uchtdorf reminded us in the most recent church conference:
"There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us -- His imperfect children -- and imperfect people make mistakes.
President Uchtdorf is spot on!  Again, this doesn't simply suggest that church leaders will make the trivial mistakes of day-to-day life, but that they, like us, will make serious blunders that are "not in harmony with our values principles and doctrine."

Of course, this doesn't mean that we have the right to accuse church leaders of wrongdoing in a reckless or wanton manner. We should use sound judgement and even caution and restraint in our critiques.  Blanket accusations driven by misguided intentions usually reveal the character of the accuser more than they do the accused.  So when I make my assertion that Joseph Fielding Smith was a racist, or that he was scientifically illiterate, I do so not out of animosity for the man, but rather to point out the painful but important FACT that many of our church leaders (even those of the recent past) failed our brothers and sisters of color, and distorted the realities of provable and observable science, thereby misleading and confusing many in the church.  These weren't just trivial mistakes but were, in fact, substantial errors of judgement.

So what are we then to conclude from such mistakes?  For many members, these (and many other) errors on the part of church leaders suggests to their conscience that the church is not what it says it is. The sins and mistakes of those endowed with the prophetic mantle become the catalyst for the decay of faith.  Many may proclaim, "How would God allow a prophet to say such racist things?" or "Polygamy is just so obviously wrong that I cannot believe God would command it."  These and many other justifiable concerns have been the understandable grievances of many a church skeptic. On the other hand, such skeletons in the proverbial Mormon closet have been a source of embarrassment to many devout Mormons who either prefer to turn a blind eye to such facts (see no evil, hear no evil), decry such truths as heresy ("It's just anti-Mormon propaganda"), or justify prophetic blunders as "the will of God."

All of this, I believe, serves to illustrate the validity of my original claim that church culture has distorted the reality of what a prophet actually is.  Prophets are not Herculean figures of absolute and infallible character but rather imperfect (and dare I say even sometimes weak) human specimens called to a unique and sometimes confusing position.  Case in point: Christ's original Twelve Apostles.

It has always puzzled me why so many members of the Mormon church know so much about the prophets of Mormonism (we study their lives, teachings, etc. with great interest), while knowing relatively little about the original apostles of old (can you name all 12 of the original apostles?).  In my opinion, their lives, their calling and their respective ministries provide the blueprint of what a prophet ultimately is and is not.

Christ's original Twelve Apostles did not represent the best and the brightest that ancient Judea had to offer, but rather they were a hodge-podge rabble of men from diverse backgrounds.  At least four were fishermen (a common trade of a layperson in that era), while one (Matthew) was a tax collector and another (Bartholomew) was a nobleman of royal blood.  The Twelve had diverse opinions on the topics of religion and politics, not to mention dramatic differences with regards to upbringing, socio-economic status, etc. Some of the Twelve were extremely charismatic (Peter and John), while others were more reserved (Phillip and Andrew). Some were militant absolutists in their understanding of theology (Simon the Zealot), while others were more skeptical by nature (Thomas).  Despite their differences, we can say that Christ's original Twelve shared at least two things in common: (1) they were products of their time and (2) they were flawed human beings.  

As products of their time, Christ's original apostles understood their world through the very narrow prism of ancient Judea.  As opposed to seeing themselves as "Christians" (that term didn't even exist, let alone what such a term might actually mean), these men were Jews living under the yoke of Roman rule.  The political rhetoric of their day suggested that not only was the arrival of the anticipated Jewish Messiah close at hand, but a showdown with "Gentile" forces was brewing. When Jesus came on the scene, they were oftentimes confused by his message. Christ's doctrine of forgiveness and his apparent willingness to submit to the legal authority of his day didn't always jive with the apostles' preconceived notions of what a Messiah would be. Jesus' insistence that he had "not come to destroy the law" but rather to "fulfill" it (Matthew 5:17) must have been a hard pill for a bunch of Jewish men, indoctrinated with the Law of Moses, to accept. Even after Jesus had been resurrected, these same men struggled to understand what Jesus meant by "feed my sheep" and to teach the gentiles.  As Elder Holland aptly points out:



No matter how hard they tried, these men could not fully understand everything Jesus was telling them.  Some struggled more than others; some made greater mistakes than others.  Peter denied Christ three times, while Judas completely betrayed him.  Fairly egregious mistakes for an Apostle of Jesus Christ, wouldn't you say!?!

So why then do we understand how Peter, Judas, etc. could screw things up in such spectacular fashion and be apostles, but not extrapolate this concept to men like Joseph Fielding Smith?  Sure, J.F. Smith is not guilty of denying Jesus, but he is certainly guilty of not accepting an entire race of people. Would Jesus have approved?

And such is the case with many prophets of old.  Instead of being the great men we want them to be, they are oftentimes deeply flawed individuals who made serious mistakes.  For example:

- Abraham was a serious coward who didn't stick up for his wife: Genesis 20.
-Jacob and Rebekah deceived their husband and father, the Prophet Isaac, and thereby stole Esau's blessing: Genesis 27.
- Moses killed an Egyptian and hid him: Exodus 2:12
- Joshua could not detect the deception of the Gibeonites and was forced to make a deal with them: Joshua 9.
- David had sex with Bathsheba and then sent her husband to die in battle to hide the affair: 2 Samuel 11.
- Jonah hated the people in Nineveh and wanted to see them destroyed (or be but to death himself) rather than be sent to preach to them: Jonah 4.

Those are just a few of the many blunders made by prophets of old.  Why then are those today somehow different?  Why do we speak of the serious errors in judgement made by David, Jonah, Peter, Judas, etc. but not of the serious blunders made by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Joseph Fielding Smith, etc.?  Do we feel the need to "white wash" our history because it doesn't agree with our incredibly over-sensitive spiritual palate? Are we seriously THAT insecure?!?

Prophets are going to make mistakes.  There is no avoiding it.  Sometimes those mistakes are going to be downright severe.  Sometimes they are going to misjudge things due to their own biases, shortcomings and prejudices.  As Paul reminds us, "For now we see through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Or as the Lord reminded Joseph Smith:
"Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and are given unto my servants IN THEIR WEAKNESS, after the MANNER OF THEIR LANGUAGE, that they might COME TO UNDERSTAND" (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24) My emphasis.
Nowhere does it say that God will give the perfect, infallible and unfiltered truth in a way that transcends all of the social, cultural and linguistic issues of the time in which a given prophet might find himself. In reality, God tells us the exact opposite.  As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminds us:
So be kind regarding human frailty -- your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a church led by volunteer, mortal men and women.  Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but he deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of this work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil's fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can't quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
So yes, it's true, Joseph Fielding Smith said some wild and crazy things.  He isn't my favorite church president.  I'm not completely thrilled that we are studying him this year.  But with all of that being said, this year is a WONDERFUL opportunity for us all to remember that being a prophet is not about being prophetically perfect.  It's about helping those under your charge to do the very best they can in order to become better human beings and sons and daughters of God, and in this respect, Joseph Fielding Smith, like many other prophets, was a resounding success.  As President Smith taught:
"Look for the good in men, and where they fail to posses it, try to build it up in them; try to increase the good in them; look for the good; build up the good; sustain the good; and speak as little about the evil as you possibly can."  
Words that were spot on for his time and unsullied for the ages.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Glenn Beck Check, Part X: "The Constitution is Based on the 10 Commandments"

It has been a while since I checked in with America's favorite conspiracy theorist/doomsday prognosticator.  To be honest, I've grown tired of listening to this clown, as have most Americans. Glenn Beck's audience numbers (for radio, Internet and books) have been dwindling for quite some time now, as most people with a functioning brain have grown wise to his antics.  For the most part, Beck is left with just the extremists on the right, who gobble up his ilk like candy. If Beck were to say that the Founding Fathers were the Vulcan offspring of Spock they would probably all rush out to buy pointed ears! But since I am looking for a quick blog post to do this morning, debunking Glenn Beck (a relatively simple task) will have to do.

Last week, on his radio program, Glenn Beck was discussing the proposed Satan monument that has been suggested as a compliment for the 10 Commandments monument already standing outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol.  The monument is the brainchild of a small New York-based religious group called The Satanic Temple.

To be honest, I'm in 100% agreement with Beck when he rips into this stupid and insignificant organization that is simply looking to stir the pot and gain attention in the process.  Their movement is bogus and their proposed monument is a mockery.  Pure and simple.

But Beck didn't leave the issue on those terms.  Instead, Beck decided to go on a tirade in which he proclaims that the United States was founded as a "Judeo-Christian nation" and that the 10 Commandments "is a monument of where we got our laws."  See for yourself in the following clip:



Again, I agree with Beck when he essentially argues that our society is not as moral as we could/should be. That's probably a true statement, even though one could argue that today's society is more moral than ever (we've abolished slavery, given women equal rights, etc.).

It is with Beck's assertion that the United States was founded as a "Christian nation" that his argument derails. This argument, which is getting REALLY old as well, simply baffles me.  The notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation is not only bad for America, but it's bad for Christianity.  The separation of church and state is a good thing, folks...for everyone!  And it's not anti-American or anti-Christian to point out the FACT that the United States was NOT founded as a Christian nation.  But don't listen to me; listen to what these folks said on the matter:
1.) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." -1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (my abbreviation).
2.) "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded upon the Christian religion." -John Adams, Treaty of Tripoli, 1797 (my emphasis).
3.) "We may safely affirm that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." -Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Feb. 10, 1814. 
4.) Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions more than our opinions of physics or geometry." -Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1777. 
Those are just four out of literally hundreds of examples of our Founding Fathers explaining (in the plainest of terms) that the United States is NOT a Christian nation. Unfortunately for Beck, who regularly cherry-picks his history, these FACTS do not fit with his political agenda.

The second part of the Beck clip has him ranting through his microphone that, "the 10 commandments" is "where we get our law...We get our law from the laws of Moses."

It completely baffles me how anyone who HONESTLY thinks about what Glenn Beck said could actually believe it.  Sure, it sounds good to our Christian and patriotic instincts to say that the 10 Commandments serve as a foundation for our Constitution but reality is this couldn't be further from the truth, and either Glenn Beck is too stupid to recognize this or he just doesn't care.  To prove my point, let's look at each of the 10 Commandments and see just how constitutional they really are:

1.) "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."  This one should be obvious to everyone.  To force anyone to believe in any god is a clear violation of the 1st Amendment. In the good ol' U.S. of A., everyone is free to believe in whatever god they want, as many gods as they want, or to believe in no god(s) at all.  Clearly the 1st Commandment has nothing to do with where we get our laws.

2.) "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image." Again, this one is blatantly obvious. Any American is free to have as many graven images as they see fit. There is no law prohibiting it. The 2nd Commandment is out as well.

3.) "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Another obvious one here as well, folks. Yes, it's crass when people swear and use the name of God to do so, but it isn't a crime.  No way, no how.  The 3rd Commandment is out.

4.) "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." Heh, if this one isn't obvious then maybe you should just ask the NFL, NASCAR, shopping malls, public parks, etc. if they face any legal repercussions for the various activities they carry out on every Sunday across the nation.  The 4th Commandment is out.

5.) "Honor thy father and thy mother." This is some great advice, and I would hope/encourage anyone I know to abide by this counsel, but is it in our Constitution? The 5th Commandment is out.

6.) "Thou shalt not kill." Winner, winner, chicken dinner!  We have one!  Yes, the laws of our land do not allow you to kill others.  Glenn Beck finally has one in his column.  The 6th Commandment is in.

7.) "Thou shalt not commit adultery." Again, this is some really good advice, and I believe anyone with half of a brain would agree, but it is NOT protected by law. It used to be in some colonies/states, but case law has shown this to be unconstitutional.  The 7th Commandment is out.

8.) "Thou shalt not steal." Here's another one for Beck's column.  The laws of the land do not allow you to steal.  This is considered a crime.  As a result, the 8th Commandment is IN!

9.) "Thou shalt not bear false witness." This is a tricky one. I'm going to go ahead and give this one to Beck (and I'm being VERY generous here) because it is a crime to lie in court and in a few other settings. It's called perjury.  So the 9th Commandment is in...but BARELY!

10.) "Thou shalt not covet." Nope, in America you are free to covet to your heart's content.  Heck, in some respects it is even encouraged.  The 10th Commandment is out.

So, in the end, we have 3 Commandments (and barely 3) that fit with what Glenn Beck is saying, while 7 are clearly out.  Again, this impulse to say that the United States is a "Christian" nation and that the 10 Commandments played a role in the establishment of our laws sounds good and may make us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it simply isn't based on reality...and we should be glad for this. The separation of church and state is as beneficial for religion as it is for government.

Sorry, Beck, but once again you have revealed to the world just how little you know about history, constitutional law, etc.  Go back to telling everyone to prepare for the apocalypse by stocking up on their supply of pointed Vulcan ears!

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Medieval Evolution of the Cross

The world that was Medieval Europe was, by and large, governed by the Catholic Church. Everything from a person's daily diet to the treatment of various diseases were influenced by how the church interpreted the will of God in relation to these seemingly mundane daily activities.  In short, the ritual that is life had to be put in harmony with the ritual that was devotion to Jesus the Christ.

And as the Medieval world evolved over the centuries, the understanding and implementation of these various Christian rituals evolved as well. Church and secular leaders, spread throughout the continent, worked tirelessly to enact laws, publish decrees, enforce standards of conduct, and, in short, do all that was deemed necessary to ensure that those under their charge were living a life of pious devotion.

And though these laws did much to help shape the character that was the typical Medieval peasant disciple, it only had a superficial effect.  Medieval peasantry, though certainly influenced by the laws and decrees of their respective lands, were still free to believe whatever they ultimately felt in their heart.  And since things like reading scripture and other holy writ were forbidden (not to mention the fact that most peasants were illiterate), Medieval peasants were forced to find spiritual stimulation in other ways.  Certainly the liturgy of the Mass was quite influential, as were the various feast days, saints, etc.  But since reading was out of the question, this meant that the VISUAL religious experience took precedent in shaping how Medieval peasants understood their faith.

In his article, "From Triumphant to Suffering Jesus: Visual and Literary Depictions of the Crucifixion, 300-1200" historian Michael Stewart explores how the depictions of Christ's crucifixion evolved over a millenia, ultimately culminating with the Renaissance. These crucifixion scenes started with dark, abstract depictions, but eventually evolved to reveal a very human Jesus of deep suffering and agony.  As a result, many of these later Renaissance crucifixion motifs contributed to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the twelfth century.

One does not need to be an expert in Medieval history or the history of art to see the obvious changes in crucifixion art that took place over the course of the 900 years that Michael Stewart discusses in his article.  Take, for example, a few basic images:

This image, for example, is from approximately 850 in Spain and reveals what Steward calls "the triumphant Christ."

According to Steward, the earliest depictions of Christ on the cross portrayed a living Jesus.  The early Medieval world actually abhorred depictions of a lifeless, suffering Christ on the cross, which they saw as meaningless.  Instead, early Medieval crucifixion scenes were often like the one above.

In addition, Stewart provides an additional reason for why these early Christians avoided creating death scenes for Christ when he writes: 
The Roman Empire had long admired martial virtues as the primary components of an ideal Roman male's identity, which helps explain the lack of interest in Christ's suffering for a religion that was focusing on converting a population that venerated the deeds of military men.
As a result, it is far more common for us to find the following depictions of Christ from early Medieval Christians:

Mosaic of Christ as Roman Emperor, found in Ravenna, Italy. 

This image of Christ reveals a triumphant, heroic savior of mankind, dressed in traditional Roman clothing, which was precisely the image that early Christians wanted to revere.

For many early Christians, the manner in which Christ died was seen as "unmanly" and certainly not worthy of a great leader (crucifixion was seen as a humiliating way to kill enemies of the State). Is it any surprise that these early Christians would either avoid the crucifixion scene entirely or depict in in a non-degrading manner?

But as Western Europe continued to evolve, the manner in which Christ was depicted evolved as well.  During the 9th and 10th centuries, Western European Christianity became far less individualistic.  As Stewart points out, "One no longer made a deliberate choice to become a Christian." Christianity was, for the most part, now a requirement.  In addition, an increase in the emphasis on Old Testament teachings (Medieval peasants were finding less in common with the now "ancient" Roman world but greater interest in the idea of ancient Israel) brought with it an increased desire to see Christ as the typical "Christian soldier" of the Crusades.  For example:

 This fresco, found in the "Visoci Decani" in modern day Kosovo, came with the accompanying verse from Matt. 10:34 which states, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword."

Again, a triumphant, quasi-militant Christ was the desired imagery for a people who were more than familiar with violence in the name of religion.

With the dawn of the Reformation and Renaissance, however, the Medieval world experienced a shift in how Christ was portrayed.  As Stewart states:
By the 10th century, we begin to see the first examples of a new type of crucifix which emphasized Christ's anguish. The movement gained momentum in the eleventh and twelfth centuries...This period of consolidation and change, created the need for reformers to protect themselves against both clerical and lay opponents.  Jesus presented a focal point around which the reformers could rely, in doing, the reformers emphasized Christ's humanity, which increasingly became an object of devotion and imitation.
The poignant example of Christ being preferred for his humanity and suffering can be found in the poem by Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century nun and writer, who wrote:

Now, we call on you, our husband and comforter,
Who redeemed us on the cross.
We are bound to you through your blood,
as the pledge of betrothal.
We have renounced early men,
And chosen you the Son of God.
O most beautiful form.
O sweetest fragrance of desirable delights.
We sigh for you always in our sorrowful banishment!
When may we see you and remain with you?
But we dwell in the world,
And you dwell in our mind.
We embrace you in our heart as if you were here with us.

The imagery created in this poem is not of a warrior Christ or an impersonal emperor of both heaven and earth, but rather of a personal, even intimate Jesus who suffered with his people.  Is it any wonder why the crucifixion art of this time would take on a human, intimate and suffering tone:


   

The suffering Christ, surrounded by devastated loved ones, reflect the changes that were flooding into Western Europe.  The Renaissance and Reformation brought with them a greater emphasis on individuality, humanity, and promoted the personal, intimate Christ over the warrior Christ.  There can be little doubt that such depictions of the centerpiece of Christianity had a very real and very profound impact on Medieval peasants, who were, for the first time, beginning to see themselves in a very different light.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Billy Yank v. Johnny Reb

Juxtaposing the Leadership Qualities 
of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis

Throughout the brief history of the United States, there is perhaps no greater story than that of the Civil War. Out of all of the wars fought under the banner of the red, white, and blue, this was the most gruesome. Never had the nation seen so much destruction or bloodshed before or since. The Civil War became, in many respects, the ultimate divide in how the American experiment was to be played out.  Did freedom apply to "all men" as the Declaration of Independence suggested? And how were the roles of local, state and federal powers to play out in this grand American republic?

Emerging from the smoke of warfare were two unique men, whose differing viewpoints were but a representation of the opinions and beliefs of the masses they led. President Abraham Lincoln of the United States and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States, took center stage in this epic conflict that forever changed the course of history. While both Lincoln and Davis shared many attributes that made them powerful leaders, they also had obvious differences when it came to their "style" of governing.  Lincoln was a negotiator and a delegator, while Davis was an uncompromising micro-manager.  Regardless of their differences, both men saw themselves as the embodiment of what the United States was ultimately destined to become.

At the onset of succession, both Lincoln and Davis jockeyed for position in their respective nations. Jefferson Davis conducted himself as the true leader of a new nation. As Historian William Cooper points out in his fantastic biography, Jefferson Davis: American, Davis hosted an open house at the Confederate White House, and was inaugurated as President of the newly founded Confederate States of America on the grounds of the Virginia capital. This ceremony gave a sense of legitimacy and prestige to the new nation. To add to the luster of the occasion, Davis was inaugurated on the birthday of George Washington, and underneath a giant statue of that very man who embodied the revolutionary ideas that the Confederacy deeply embraced. During his inaugural address, Davis made numerous remarks that personified the South’s revolutionary ideals. “We hope to perpetuate the viewpoints of our revolutionary fathers,” Davis continued by stating, “To show ourselves worthy of the inheritance bequeathed to us by the Patriots of the revolution, we must emulate the heroic devotion which made reverse to them by the crucible in which their patriotism was defined” (Cooper 401). Davis worked hard to ensure that the Generals under his command, and the public at large understood that the crisis at hand was much more than a simple civil war, but that it was in reality a war of independence. Davis reiterated the comments of his inaugural address on numerous occasions throughout his time in office.

To undermine the Union’s efforts, Davis also embarked on a crusade to expose what he believed was a tyrannical government. Davis said, “Humanity shudders at the appalling atrocities which are being daily multiplied under the sanction of those who have obtained temporary possession of power in the United States” (Cooper 438). President Davis also labored unceasingly in labeling the Union leaders and soldiers as men without a conscious, that enjoyed plundering, murdering, and defiling the Southern way of life. This would prove effective in swaying the public’s opinion of the Union soldiers. Jefferson Davis also employed this argument in defending slavery. He argued many times that the Union was determined to enslave the Confederacy, and eliminate the institution that the South greatly depended on. Davis stated, “Fellow citizens, no alternative is left you but victory or subjugation, slavery and the utter ruin of yourselves, your families and your country” (Cooper 481). Even when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Davis attacked it head on by claiming, “Cannot we, who have been raised with our Negroes and know how to command them, make them more efficient than the Yankees can?” (Cooper 555).

Perhaps the most important and effective thing President Davis did to boost morale and public opinion was the fact that he was visible to the soldiers and to the general public. Davis embarked on several train trips throughout the infant nation, and he gave countless speeches at virtually every stop. As simple an act as this was, it greatly motivated and rejuvenated the public’s view of their cause. Davis understood the importance of portraying confidence and determination to the public he led. At every stop, Davis worked tirelessly as he encouraged his Generals, motivated troops, and called for new volunteers. Up until the end of the war, Jefferson Davis was greeted at nearly every stop with enthusiastic cheers and applause. It was not until the end of the war when Davis was received with a lethargic salute from an exhausted and demoralized army, and was asked to leave by the general public, so that they would not appear loyal to their leader when the Union Army arrived.

To the North, Abraham Lincoln labored equally as hard to persuade the public he lead. Before his inauguration, Lincoln took advantage of the long train ride from Springfield to Washington. At virtually every city along the path, Lincoln’s train would make a stop so the people would be able too see and hear the awkwardly looking man they elected president. Lincoln would give brief speeches to the masses from the back of the train and then continue on the journey to the capital. By doing this, Lincoln was able to personally spread his message to the massive crowds that would gather to hear him.

After he took office in the early part of 1861, Lincoln was bombarded with vital decisions that required immediate action. State after state had left from the Union, and war was on the horizon. People began to look to their new leader in hopes that he would be able to avert the oncoming crisis. Lincoln knew that the public was not fully prepared to go to war with the South. Over the years the Southerners had threatened succession many times. Many in the public believed this was just another one of the many Southern threats, and that the states would eventually return on their own. The morning after his inauguration however, Lincoln faced a truly difficult dilemma with Fort Sumter. The soldiers, stationed at the fort, were in desperate need of supplies and additional troops. Lincoln knew that if he sent more soldiers that the South would view his action as hostile. After debating with his cabinet, Lincoln decided to send a ship carrying provisions only to aid the fort. The South still viewed this action as hostile, and immediately seized the fort. The war had begun. The attack of Fort Sumter proved very beneficial because the public saw this as an unprovoked and deliberate attack on the Union. Lincoln now had the backing of the masses that he needed to wage a war.

At the beginning of the war, most saw it as a simple conflict that would be resolved in a matter of weeks. As the war waged on, many viewed Lincoln as incompetent. Most of the Border States wanted nothing to do with the Lincoln administration, and often accused him of being a tyrant. As Historian David Donald points out in his fantastic biography, Lincolnthe President tried desperately to convince the people that this war was not a war for Southern independence, but that it was “an insurrection of combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings” (Donald 302). Lincoln never recognized the Southern States as a Confederacy. He viewed them as simply a rebellion, and made sure he convinced others of that fact as well.

The issue of slavery also crept its way into the public arena. Debates were constant on the issue. In this area, Lincoln was a master at understanding the public’s readiness for emancipation. Lincoln knew that he had vowed to fight slavery in both his presidential campaigns and inaugural address. The public expected their president to act. Many of his closest allies urged him to act quickly in freeing the slaves. Lincoln however, understood that it would require baby steps to correctly emancipate the slaves. At first, Lincoln recommended colonizing slaves, and even offered compensation for slave holders. Many hailed this proposal “as a master-piece of practical wisdom and sound policy” (Donald 347). In reality, this proposal did little to actually free slaves. It was not until January 1, 1863 when slavery was finally delivered a fatal blow. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made all slaves throughout the entire nation forever free. Newspaper writers declared it “the greatest proclamation ever issued by man” (Donald 377). Lincoln’s proclamation was hailed by most Northerners as truly magnificent. Lincoln eventually declared it the crowning achievement of his administration.

With emancipation official, Lincoln worked hard to sway public opinion in his favor. He set out on a mission to write numerous public letters to persuade the public to elect him for a second term. Due to the fact that Lincoln had delivered on his promise of emancipation, and that the war had taken a turn for the better, Lincoln was easily re-elected to a second term in 1864. He would spend the next year preparing the nation for eventual reconstruction, and bringing about a quick end to the bloody conflict.

When it came to political leadership, Davis and Lincoln could not be more opposite. While Abraham Lincoln was more delegating, Jefferson Davis was more micro-managing. He constantly wanted to be informed about everything occurring on the battlefields, as well as everything happening in political, and social arenas. Even though Davis made the majority of the decisions, he did not decide on them quickly. He was the type of person who consulted with everyone at his disposal before he chose a course of action, which meant that quick decisions were highly unlikely. Many of the Generals in the field seemed to have a problem with Davis’s style of management. General Joseph Johnston would intentionally leave President Davis and his advisers in the dark when it came to Johnston’s military plans. This of course made a control-driven person like Davis upset.

Along with the Generals, many cabinet members within the Davis Administration disliked the President’s management style. One of those members was Secretary Randolph of the War Department, who found Davis to be somewhat of a control freak. When Randolph attempted to send orders to General Holmes in Arkansas to cross the Mississippi river, Davis rebuked him stating that any movement of significance or any decision of importance had to go directly through him. As a result, Secretary Randolph resigned from his position stating, “Conceiving that I can no longer be useful in the War Department, I hereby resign my commission as Secretary of War” (Cooper 446). Davis tended to justify his need for constant control by claiming that he wanted those under him to give input on a particular discussion, but that he needed to be the decision maker.

The only exception in Davis’ mind was Robert E. Lee, in whom the President had invested complete and total trust. Lee did not receive the same amount of coaching and criticism that others leaders had received. This was most likely due to the fact that both Lee and Davis shared the same motivations and viewpoints in terms of military strategy. In the President’s mind, General Lee had done more than enough to win everlasting trust from his administration. Even after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, the President supported his General by stating, “To ask me to substitute you by some one in my judgment more fit to command…is to demand an impossibility” (Cooper 487). There is little doubt that the President viewed Lee in a different light than he viewed others. Davis felt as though he had struck gold with Lee, while he found nothing but apathy and discontent from many of his other leaders.

Another part of Davis’s political agenda was addressing the issue of conscription. The Davis Administration faced the complex task of keeping armies supplied with soldiers, so that they could keep up with the Union’s massive numbers. Original enlistments had only been for one year, and that time would not be enough. To remedy the problem, Davis ordered conscriptions of all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35. Those already enlisted would have their terms extended to three years. Eventually, many soldiers began complaining that they were needed back home to take care of their plantations and slaves. Davis’s answer to this was to create the “Twenty Negro Law,” which stated that if a soldier had twenty or more slaves, they were exempt from service. Many argued that this action turned the war into a poor man’s war, since only a rich person could have twenty or more slaves. Davis however held to his guns, praising the men who were defending the noble cause of independence.

In contrast, President Lincoln was much more patient and delegating of a leader. From the start of his first term, President Lincoln strived to diversify his cabinet, which consisted of just as many democrats as republicans. Lincoln tried very hard to find specific individuals that he felt would be best suited for the department they were assigned. Constructing his cabinet in this fashion brought on a lot of disputation, and argument among the cabinet members, but it also helped to bring all issues to the table. President Lincoln needed the diversity if he was to succeed as president, and he did everything he could to win support on both sides of the political spectrum.

For the most part, Lincoln was a very forgiving and accepting leader. Many times he would be ridiculed by a General or cabinet member, but would not retaliate in any way. Lincoln also allowed those under him to make decisions they felt best. In contrast to Jefferson Davis, Lincoln was good at delegating tasks, and then letting those he trusted do their assigned jobs. This was especially true with his Secretary of State William Seward, and with many of his Generals. Lincoln fully trusted Seward with the administration’s foreign policy. When it came to his Generals, Lincoln would show as much support as he could, and would try not to mix military and politics. There were many instances when the military would view Lincoln as incompetent. Among the biggest Lincoln haters was General George McCellan. McCellan’s view of the President was very harsh at times. He felt that Lincoln was asking for the impossible. He often stated, “The President is an idiot” and “Isn’t he a rare bird” (Donald 319). To this Lincoln would show continued support for the men he had chosen.

Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus is another important example of his political leadership abilities. At the beginning of the war, Lincoln took the initiative by arresting anyone who appeared to have ties with the Confederacy. While many ridiculed the President for acting unconstitutionally, Lincoln held his ground and argued that it was within his power to suspend Habeas Corpus. In the first nine months of the war, Lincoln arrested 864 people who were believed to be a threat to the Union. While many opponents viewed this act as unnecessary, Lincoln believed that he was acting prudently, and that it was absolutely necessary at that time.

Despite their different management styles, both Lincoln and Davis exhibited incredible leadership qualities that earned them the respect of their nations. While both of them suffered as a result of their imperfections, they were able to both overcome the unique obstacles that stood in their way. As a result, they accomplished a great deal. Lincoln’s ability to be trusting, and Davis’s ability to weigh all options, made each of them unique and charismatic leaders of their respective nations.

Foreign policy was a surprisingly important issue to both presidents. Both Lincoln and Davis worked very hard to push their agendas and beliefs to the other nations that had American interests. Jefferson Davis viewed his foreign agenda as one that tried to win the support of both Britain and France. Davis sent ambassadors to both nations, hoping that they could persuade both nations to offer military aid in their cause. Davis knew that his bargaining chip would be the cotton that the South produced. Both Great Britain and France depended greatly on the product, and did not want to loose the commodity. Davis also believed that the presence of the Union naval blockade would convince both nations that the only way to secure cotton was to join in the fight.

Unfortunately for Davis, both Great Britain and France would not support their war efforts. The fact that the Confederacy was a nation that protected slavery greatly hindered their efforts. Great Britain and France simply could not ally themselves with a country that claimed to be fighting for its independence, but oppressed an entire race of people. After exhausting all avenues, Davis eventually abandoned any and all hopes of receiving foreign aid. It was not until 1864 that Davis, seeing his nation and cause in grave danger, decided to sacrifice the institution of slavery in hopes that Europe would finally help. Regrettably for Davis it would be too little too late.

As for Lincoln, he too faced many problems in terms of foreign relations. For the most part, Lincoln would defer all foreign matters to his Secretary of State William Seward, who seemed to do a great job. There were however, a few situations that required Lincoln’s intervention. Among these was the Trent Affair, when two ambassadors of the Confederacy were seized by a Union blockade. Both ambassadors happened to be on a British ship when seized, and when news of this reached England they became enraged. The British government argued that the capture of Confederate ambassadors onboard a British vessel was a direct violation of international law. In response, Great Britain threatened to resort to war if both Confederate ambassadors were not released and permitted to travel to England. Upon hearing this, the Lincoln Administration began shifting into damage control mode. Secretary Seward recognized the gravity of the situation, and immediately recommended releasing the ambassadors at once. While this was a hard pill to swallow, Seward’s idea proved to be the right one. The proposition of fighting the British and the rebel Southerner’s at the same time was a virtual impossibility for the North.

The problems between Great Britain and France would continue for Lincoln. The Union blockade of Confederate exports was a source of great agitation for the European powers, which depended greatly on the Confederate cotton. Lincoln however would not budge. He also maintained his policy of deferring to Seward on foreign affairs. Seward’s ability to negotiate with other nations kept most of the major problems from escalating. The big break for the Lincoln Administration came when the Russian Czar offered assistance by sending numerous fleets to support the Union. The Russian’s presence served as a large deterrent to both France and Britain.

It is clear that both Lincoln and Davis faced difficulties in persuading other nations to come to their aid. While Davis battled to gain British and French support, Lincoln was trying to keep them away. In the end, slavery seems to have been the main deterrent. Both Britain and France simply could not give aid to a country that supported slavery. This obvious factor was greatly magnified when Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which virtually guaranteed that the Confederates would receive no foreign aid.

Presidents Lincoln and Davis will forever be remembered for different reasons. Lincoln has become immortalized as the man who preserved the Union and freed the slaves, while Davis is viewed as the rebel leader of a lost cause. These stereotypes may offer a generalization of both men, but they do not tell the whole truth. The fact remains that both Lincoln and Davis were very effective leaders. Both men gained their public’s support, they both struggled through war difficulties with stubborn Generals, and both dealt with tragedy and defeat. Lincoln’s ability to defer major decisions to his subordinates exhibits his trusting character that made him a great leader. Davis’s personality as a micro-manager may have angered some under his authority, but allowed him the luxury to analyze all major decisions. Both men struggled when it came to foreign relations and economics, but eventually it would be Lincoln who would emerge victorious in both arenas. Lincoln and Davis also exhibited a deep interest in the men they had in the field, and did everything they could to assist in their efforts. In reality, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis have each left a legacy, whether good or bad, that will forever endure as part of our heritage as a nation.