Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Changing Shape of Church History (Notes on Intro)

Several years ago I read a little book by Justo Gonzalez that felt like a real conversation changer for me. It was called The Changing Shape of Church History. Conversation changers are what I call those books that shape my thinking enough that I begin to talk about things differently than I used to. This book has not just changed the way I've thought about church history, and the church in the world today, but how I've taught it.

I have gone back to parts of this book so many times that I've decided to re-read it, but this time through I want to take notes. Yesterday I dove back into the introduction, so thought I would post my notes on that today. I'm summarizing, but also adding some of my own thoughts and glosses as I go.

  • In the introduction, Gonzalez makes the claim that "the entire field of church history is changing" (2) and then says, someone is bound to ask, "how is it possible for the past to change?" (2)
  • He makes the obvious but important (and I think often overlooked) point that "history is not the same as the past. The past is never directly accessible to us. The past comes to us through the mediation of interpretation. And that interpreted past is history." (2)
  • He provides the useful image of a dialogue. When we speak with another person, that person is not directly accessible to us. We have their "words, gestures, and tones" (2) and we receive those things and interpret what they are attempting to communicate. When we are in an authentic dialogue, we do our best to respect the "givenness" of the other person's words. But we also have no choice but to "hear and interpret those words" from our own perspective, which is shaped and colored by our own unique experiences. Dialogue is really impossible, he points out, and yet we engage in it all the time -- and it forms the basis of our social life. (Just think about the last time you tried to have a meaningful "conversation" on Facebook, minus all the visual and body language clues he just referenced, and think about how hard real dialogue can be!)
  • Now that you have the image of a dialogue firmly in mind, "think about history as a dialogue. It is a dialogue in which it is not only the past that addresses us, but also we who address the past." (2) In other words, we're not passive observers -- we speak with the past, we ask it questions. And the answers we get from it depend in large part on what we're asking. 
  • So it makes sense to realize that church history changes, as the church itself changes.
  • History is pertinent "not that it is what happened in the past, but rather that it is what happened in the past as seen from our present and toward the future we imagine." (3) (Keep that one in mind -- and think how, as the people of God, we're called to live faithfully in the present, inspired and encouraged and deeply connected to the past, as we walk boldly into the future that God has not only imagined for us, but the future he can actually bring to pass.)
  • So why is the history of the church changing? You might think it's just because "scholars have new sources" (3) but there's more to it than that. It's because "the church and the world are changing. And these are changes that we can only begin to understand as we look at them in historical perspective." (3)
  • He goes on to highlight changes seen in the world around the time of 9/11 (which happened a few months before he penned this intro...the book was published in 2002). 9/11 reminded us the map of the world was changing. 9/11 revealed to us the shared vulnerability of humankind, even in places/centers of power which we might have thought were invulnerable. As we reflected on what happened, we also became aware "that the world is not really as secular as Western modernity had thought, that many nations are no longer culturally or religiously homogeneous, that events in the past that many of us did not consider important still have great power to shape the future" (4).
  • And changes in the way world history is perceived and written about will also have an impact on how we think and write about the history of the church. 
More notes to come.

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