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This Editorial was published in the Fourth R, Westar's bi-monthly Magazine. First published in 1987, The Fourth R shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience.

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The Lens of History

From The Fourth R Volume 34, Issue 3 May – June 2021

For the last nine months, I’ve been looking at things. Really looking at them—without prescription glasses. Not since grammar school have I been able to say that I can read signs at a distance without squinting. Perhaps most spectacular of all is the sheer white luster of light filtering into my mornings.

Yes, cataract surgery. Everything I had feared dissolved even as I opened my eyes to the laser pulse. New lenses allowed me to realize that I had missed much. I reflected on the fact that a hundred years ago nothing like this would have been possible. I thought also of John Milton sightless, finishing Paradise Lost. The steady hands of Dr. Jaweed and the enormous advances in optical surgery enabled me to regain my glimpse of paradise.

I meditated on this transformative experience as I considered Westar’s embarking on the second phase of the Christianity Seminar. What became quite clear in the first phase of the Seminar was that a critical investigation of the early development of what later would be called Christianity brought a resounding insight: the traditional narrative of the development of Christianity does not fit the evidence. Rather, the fragments of what remains suggest that a triumphal progression from Jerusalem to Rome was very much the construct of the writer of Acts. Moreover, there was no simple narrative for what we were unpacking. Even the term Christian was not widely deployed until sometime in the second century. We began to see that texts resisted the conventional understanding. Women began acting in very unusual ways, taking on leadership roles, while men experimented in behavior that did not follow the patriarchal protocols of the Roman Empire. All this and more will be found in the soon-to-be-published report of the first phase of the Christianity Seminar: After Jesus before Christianity. This volume will confound the reader who expects quick and settled answers to what was going on in the first two centuries after the death of Jesus, while it will encourage those wondering how this multi-pronged movement continued to recombine in new and surprising ways.

In fact, the first session of the second phase of the Christianity Seminar last spring strategically began with a rereading of Eusebius, the fourth-century writer whose story of how the Jesus movement became a powerful religion of the Roman Empire served as the template narrative through which all subsequent centuries of Christians understood their origins. Our discussion underscored a telling point. When reading such material, one cannot adopt the notion that this document presents us simply with the facts. The work of modern historians is not a science but an art. We quickly became aware that Eusebius has crafted his telling of events along certain conceptual and metaphorical lines. His narrative replicates the triumphal narrative that was awash in imperial times. This was a painting, not a photograph. One can tease out facts but only indirectly and in concert with other shreds of evidence.

This spring carried the needed sense of artistry forward. Our entire session was devoted to exploring the paintings, murals, and mosaics that are usually consigned to the fringes of historical investigation. Such a diminishment of the artistic and material evidence produces a great injustice and delivers a skewed historical view. Instead, we took these materials seriously, for they well express what written texts (the products of elite hands) never touch on. We began to see that images conflict with what magisterial texts would proclaim. We recognized that human hope and desire mixed with mortar and paint. As we contemplated the various pieces, lines from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” echoed in my mind:

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said,  “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls”

And whispered in the sound of silence…

We began to give these images a voice. And, in so doing, we see that the task in which we are involved brings us to the edge of speech. In order to give voice to those who have been overlooked and reduced to silence, we have had to reconstruct the ways in which we approach and understand history. We have begun to see that we are engaged in finding the conceptual tools and working metaphors that can throw light on what we are glimpsing. Our sustained mutual conversation over this evidence will refine the investigation. And we shall see that our task entails not simple delivery of the facts, but radical recombination of historical concepts. Our task is nothing less than to work on new lenses in order to see how and where Christianity has tossed and turned, stumbled, and wobbled into the future.

Are you enjoying this article? The Fourth R magazine shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience (6 issues annually).

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years. Did you enjoy the article? Consider ordering this issue of The Fourth R.