On the night he was betrayed, the rabbi from Nazareth gave blunt, but mysterious, instructions about the rite that would forever be at the center of Christian life.
The Gospel of St. Luke reports: "He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you."
These images mystified the faith's Roman critics. In his multimedia project "Church History Made Easy," Baptist scholar Timothy Paul Jones noted that one ancient pagan wrote this vivid speculation about Christian worship: "An infant is covered with dough, to deceive the innocent. The infant is placed before the person who is to be stained with their rites. The young pupil slays the infant. Thirstily, they lick up the blood! Eagerly they tear apart its limbs."
How can anyone learn these kinds of human details, asked Jones, and come away thinking that history is boring? The stories and lessons of church history are especially important, he said, for millions of evangelical Protestants who attend the many modern megachurches -- flocks with few, if any, denominational ties that bind -- that have helped reshape the landscape of American religious life.
"Taking church history seriously helps us sink our roots into something deeper than the present," said Jones, who teaches at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "One of the dangers of this whole post-denominational world we live in is that people can lose their rootedness and lose a sense that generations of Christians have passed the faith on to us."
This is especially important in the age of "The Da Vinci Code" and other works of popular culture that can leave people thinking that "there is no heresy and that there is no orthodoxy," he said in a telephone interview. "What you're left with is a lot of competing voices and the sense that everything is up for grabs."
This is tricky territory for Protestants in churches born through the work of John Calvin, Martin Luther and other reformers who -- to varying degrees -- questioned the authority of ancient traditions preserved in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. It's even harder to stress church history, said Jones, in today's rapidly changing independent churches that embrace modern media and other marketplace trends.
In these flocks, "tradition" is often measured in months or years, not centuries.
Thus, Jones opened the "Church History Made Easy" book with a reference not to St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Calvin, Luther or even Billy Graham, but to a classic "Peanuts" strip by the late Charles Schulz. In it, Sally Brown is writing a paper on "church history." To address this subject, she writes, "We have to go back to the very beginning. Our pastor was born in 1930."
Digging into ancient church history can leave some Protestants -- both liberals and conservatives -- facing questions about which traditions to embrace, which to adapt and which to avoid. Take, for example, the penitential season of Lent that leads to Easter.
One Baptist progressive, Central Baptist Theological Seminary President Molly T. Marshall, recently noted that "since the earliest times of the Church, there is evidence of some kind of Lenten preparation in the 40 days leading up to Easter (not counting the Sundays.) After the legalization of Christianity in CE 313, Lent developed patterns that continue, at least in the West."
In recent years, she added, something unusual has happened: "Many Baptists are learning the significance of paying attention to Lent."
Some Baptists will welcome that kind of connection to church history, noted Jones, while others will not. His own congregation recently observed Ash Wednesday, "ashes and all," leading some Southern Baptists to think "we've gone Catholic," he said.
The goal is not to uncritically accept symbols, rites and experiences merely because they are ancient, he said. For evangelicals, the goal is find what they believe is the doctrinal core that they share with Catholics, the Orthodox and other believers through the ages.
"There is what C.S. Lewis called a 'mere Christianity,' a core of Christian tradition that can serve as our touchstone," he said. "There was an orthodoxy -- with a little 'o' -- a tradition you can trace back to the apostles. That's why church history matters."
(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)
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