Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Studying History Gets Messy

And maybe that's all right.  The problem is that we need to keep digging into our own pasts--individual and collective--to (re)discover the foundations of the self and community...and how those stand themselves atop other foundations, things we did not see at the time.

For example, growing up in small Midwestern towns meant enduring poppy Rod Stewart songs like this:


Ah yes, the hair, the overproduction, the same time that produced Starship's "We Built This City," arguably the worst pop song ever.  Downtown Train captures that same time; saccharine tunes song by aging rock stars.  This is why we listened to Def Leppard and Motley Crue.

Then lo, while digging around Bruce Springsteen songs I discovered.... "Downtown Train" by its original creator, gravel-voiced Tom Waits.  Listen and prepare to be shocked.


Those who listened to music like Waits', of course, already knew this...but that's not the point.  They're not "right" so much as the neatly-packaged Stewart remake aptly suited the slick, overproduced 80s decade in which it appeared.  Waits' original harkens to an earlier, edgier time, and certainly a rougher experience of urban America.  Waits fans will probably balk at that, wanting some thing deeper, but that's enough...at least for now.

There are other examples that could be discussed here, but the point is that studying history, even when it's the history of Christianity, can lead to similar discoveries of the rougher, edgier Church.  One course this semester is doing just that and is just now running aground of the great Christological debates from Nicea to Chalcedon as well as the great martyrologies prior to Constantine's conversion.  For unreflective undergraduates or naively devout evangelical Protestants this history--rooted as it is in real places and real people--presents some messy, unavoidable realities. The slick, easy, saccharine story they've been fed previously about Jesus, Christianity, and the Church simply does not hold up to the historical record. I know about this because, as blogged here over the past four years, I went through roughly the same experience.  So hopefully they will enjoy a resurrection of sorts in the semester, witnessing how the Gospel spread throughout the world, formulating the foundations of Christian belief as it went.

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