History, Eschatology and Hermeneutics: the Church in a Post-Christendom World

I led the service and gave the sermon at my church last Sunday (July 17, 2022) and it seemed like something that would be useful to have saved somewhere other than Google Docs. So I decided to post it here so I could link to it and reference it in the future.

Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate inside the palace in Jerusalem.  Bloodied and bruised, a crown of thorns forced on his head and purple cloth draped on his shoulders. Soldiers are slapping and mocking him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

The religious leaders have stirred up the crowd but Pilate doesn’t see Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary. He goes to speak to them about letting him go. But they are defiant: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

Pilate brings Jesus out to them and sits down on the judge’s seat: “Here is your king.” Their reply? “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate asks “Shall I crucify your king?” The answer: “We have no king but Caesar,”

The scene, full of tension, drama and ambiguity, closes: “Finally Pilate handed him over to be crucified.”

If at that moment you were forced to choose a side in the power struggle between Pilate, as representative of Rome and Caesar, and Jesus, a Jewish messianic prophet, you could hardly be faulted for choosing Rome.

Of course, we know the story doesn’t end there. We know Easter follows Good Friday. But I want to focus for the moment, not on the theological repercussions of the resurrection, but the historical events that followed in its wake.

First, zealots picked a fight with Rome and it went catastrophically bad. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 A.D. Historians at the time describe the violence and bloodshed as unprecedented. As with the crucifixion, the gods of Rome would seem to have the upper hand against the God of Israel.

But fast forward 300 years: the Roman Emperor Constantine converts to Christianity, and 80 years after that, the Christian faith becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Rome, the enemy of God’s people, executioner of Jesus, destroyer of the temple, the power that martyred the apostles, the empire of Nero who burned Christians to light his garden parties, the figure of the beast in the Book of Revelation. This Rome, this empire, proclaimed the Nicene Creed:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God…”

Why bring up this seemingly obscure history? Because I think it highlights a potential weakness in our approach to scripture and our identity as the people of God.  And because the world this process birthed, Western Christendom, is coming to an end and we need to wrestle with what that means.

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If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir by Nicholas Montemarano

I wanted to post a quick review of If There Are Any Heavens: A Memoir by Nicholas Montemarano since it was published today.

What can you say about a book like this? The publisher’s description really captures it:

If There Are Any HeavensWritten with visceral urgency in the earliest days of grief, If There Are Any Heavens resists categorization: it is a memoir, a poem, a mournful but loving song … It is an almost real-time account of the anxiety, uncertainty, and sorrow brought on by this pandemic. It is also, finally, a devastating homage to a family’s love in a time of great loss.

I grabbed my review copy and started reading it at the end of April and read it straight through. It is spare and yet emotional, immediate and yet ethereal, mundane and yet profound. Its power comes from capturing the powerful emotions and yet surrealism of the pandemic, the question “Is this really happening?” echoes throughout. It contrasts the helpless feeling of losing a loved one with the anger and denial of others but not in a heavy handed way.

This is an important work for those who did not lose a loved one or experience that aspect of the pandemic to read, to get a glimpse into that world and hopefully gain understanding and empathy.

Truly a literary wrestling with historic and yet deeply personal events.

Kirkus: “A poignant elegy for a beloved mother.”

Library Journal: “Montemarano’s unique literary memoir offers an absorbing, visceral experience of the pandemic and should easily find a dedicated audience.”

Shelf Awareness: “Though his story is specific–a description of only one death among more than a million–his eloquence transports it to the realm of the universal.”

The Finalists by David Bell

I have been reading some intellectually challenging non-fiction of late and so needed fiction that wasn’t to demanding but yet entertaining.  Enter David Bell’s new novel, The Finalist, thanks to my friends over at NetGalley.

Since I received a review copy, I felt like I should post a review (despite not having posted for some time).

Publisher Setup:

On a beautiful spring day, six college students with nothing in common besides a desperate inability to pay for school gather to compete for the prestigious Hyde Fellowship.

Milo–The front-runner.
Natalia–The brain.
James–The rule follower.
Sydney–The athlete.
Duffy–The cowboy.
Emily–The social justice warrior.

The six of them must surrender their devices when they enter Hyde House, an aging Victorian structure that sits in a secluded part of campus.

Once inside, the doors lock behind them. The students are not allowed to leave until they spend eight hours with a college administrator who will do almost anything to keep the school afloat and Nicholas Hyde, the privileged and notoriously irresponsible heir to the Hyde family fortune. If the students leave before time is up, they’ll be immediately disqualified.

But when one of the six finalists drops dead, the other students fear they’re being picked off one by one. With a violent protest raging outside and no way to escape, the survivors viciously turn on each other.

While this felt a little over the top at times (more in terms of the character’s personality and interaction than plot), it kept me interested and wanting to find out what happened (which is the point of a book like this, no?).

Plus, to be fair, much of our world, particularly the world of higher education, seems over the top. And who is to say if you got a group of desperate, highly competitive college students locked in a house with a chance to win a lot of money, it wouldn’t get ugly.

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Unlike Anything that Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

Unlike Anything that Ever Floated by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes is an excellent look at a pivotal naval battle during the Civil War.  The ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and C.S.S. Virginia (and other similar ironclads) were the precursors of modern steel naval ships. The book is part of Savas Beatie’s Emerging Civil War Series (simple overviews of the Civil War’s important battles and issues).

Hughes thoroughly chronicles the development of ironclads in the United States and Confederate navies. As a part of the chronology of events surrounding the two ships, Hughes incorporates the development of both ships. He delves into not only the armor, but the armaments and propulsion systems. Many people would find these discussions quiet drab, but Hughes brings a refreshing approach by describing the various personalities involved in the construction of both ships.

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The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac by Adolfo Ovies

The Boy GeneralsThe story of the Army of the Potomac’s Union cavalry in the Civil War is fascinating. It began the war as a poorly led force that was frequently bested by their Southern counterparts in the Army of Northern Virginia. However, that changed as the war progressed and better leadership rose to the top of the command chain. Adolfo Ovies in The Boy Generals: George Custer, Wesley Merritt, and the Cavalry of the Army of the Potomac chronicles this transition. This book is the first in a three book series on Custer and Merritt.

Ovies does not describe every Union cavalry action, but focuses on the ones that Custer and Merritt were involved in. Ovies succinctly describes the conflicting thoughts of those in the cavalry on its use, including Custer and Merritt. Some believed in the saber and shock charges (Custer), but others believed more in the dragoon concept, fighting dismounted (Merritt). Ovies chronicles how the differences in philosophy between Custer and Merritt slowly turned the men from acquaintance to bitter rivals.

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