By Derrick Peterson.
“Awake O’Sleeper” (Eph.5:14), “Come and See” (John 1:39). These two themes encapsulate our new “Come and See” blog series. New Wine, New Wineskins as an academic institute geared to making academic theology accessible to churches, is so multifaceted, dealing with so many topics and people groups, it is nearly impossible to describe in a succinct way. To call the church to be awake to the theological realities of society all around it, we cannot provide a summary. To those who ask “what is New Wine, New Wineskins, and how can I be a part of it,” we can only reply: “Come and see.”
On Not Being Caught Asleep
Rip van Winkle is a tale that hardly needs introduction. One crisp day Winkle finds himself in the Catskill mountains. Stumbling across a troop of silent men playing nine-pins (a forerunner of bowling) in the Autumn-stained hills, Winkle warms his belly by accepting a drink of moon-shine. As the tale goes, it was quite the drink: when his eyes opened from beneath the shade of the tree against which he slept, he sees a long white beard now running down past his chest and to his legs. His fine musket now but a bare skeleton of rust. Of his trusty dog Wolf, there is not even a trace. Twenty years have passed, and Winkle—having slept through the Revolutionary War—finds his world has completely changed.
Falling asleep through revolutions is not a theme alien to the Bible. In Matthew 25, the famous Parable of the Ten Virgins records just such a thing: told to keep watch for the coming bridegroom, five were faithful, and five fell asleep. Though it was not for twenty years like Rip, the five sleepers had lamps with no oil, and so when they awoke and frantically went to purchase some, the bridegroom arrived without them. The door closes, and the way is shut. The five sleepers are disowned. As Matthew 25:13 concludes: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” It seems the Disciples did not quite take the parable to heart. Just a single chapter later, in the Garden of Gethsemane as Christ prays, the disciples themselves fall asleep. “Could you not keep watch with me even for an hour?” Christ asks.
“Could you not keep watch with me?”: few phrases capture a description of what theology of culture is about better than this. That is why we have entitled this particular blog series, “Come and See.” Not just from Jesus’ rebuke, but because it also reflects his initial invitation to the disciples (John 1:39). The invitation is about achieving theological discernment, but also about solidarity with Christ and one another. Christ’s rebuke is about companionship and solace, as much as it is being awake and alert.
While in our day and age many—even Christians—are at pains to see how theology is “relevant” for day-to-day life, the truth is that we are all theologians, and theology is itself everywhere. It is not something that needs to be “added” to life, for theology always-already outflanks flesh and steel. Put otherwise: life is theological. As St. Augustine put it: we are what we love. Our world which often seems so solid and material, is shot through with this ideal of love, with the gods and ghosts of our heart: with thoughts and dreams and values and ambitions.
The glass and stonework of a high-rise building are not “materialism” at work, but the utopian idealism of architects like Le Corbusier. Lovers locking eyes in the café, or tearfully breaking-off an engagement in bitter disappointment—this is not “just life” or “just biology,” for how many times do our relationships mimic ideals in movies, in advertisements, in novels and poetry, or—falling short of these—are broken off to seek another who might provide better housing for these ghostly dreams of ours to haunt?
Asleep on a Flat Earth
Christ’s rebuke in the garden is, therefore, not just for his disciples then, but for us now. “Could you not keep watch?” Many of us are asleep to ideas and images that shape our decisions: theological, social, sexual, racial, economic, or historical prejudices so frequent we don’t even notice they have sunk deep into our bones.
For this first post, take the common idea of Christians, historically, believing in a flat earth. Just as Rip awoke to a world changed, so the tale goes: humanity has awoken from its dogmatic slumbers to find a world no longer flat, but quite happily round. This image of the flat earth—like many similar scenes from history, say Galileo, or, more recently, the Scopes Monkey Trial—are held up in the same manner that the Eastern Orthodox use icons: as picturesque summaries of a canonical narrative. In this instance, however, the Flat Earth is indeed a myth, but not in the way we would quite expect.
For it turns out no educated person in the last two-thousand years ever believed the earth was flat. Well, this is a slight exaggeration: we have record of five authors in that period of time who were flat-earthers, but no one listened to them. Lactantius was dismissed for other oddities in his theology in the late third century, while another, Cosmas Indicopleustas, was completely unknown until his works were rediscovered in 1706. Strangely, though no Middle Age writer knew of him, after his works were found Cosmas somehow became a “flat-earth authority” representing an entire (and entirely “backward”) epoch.
But if we recited a “who’s-who” of thinkers, everyone to the man (or woman) would believe in the round earth: Plato, Aristotle, Hypatia, Augustine, Bede, Dante, Aquinas. And they had quite clever ways to figure this out. Eratosthenes, writing toward the end of the third century, B.C., heard a report that in the town of Syene, Egypt, 500 miles away from his own city of Alexandria, the sun stood directly overhead at a certain time of the day. Vertical objects thus cast no shadow, and in the roots of Syene’s deepest well, observers could see the sun reflecting (meaning, again, that the sun was directly overhead). In Alexandria, at that same moment, Eratosthenes noted that vertical objects for him were casting shadows, and thus the sun was not, for him, directly overhead. From the tilt of shadows and their angle, as compared to the lack of shadow five-hundred miles away, Eratosthenes determined there was about 1/50th of a sphere in distance, or about 7.2 degrees. Knowing five-hundred miles therefore constituted 7.2 degrees, from there Eratosthenes not only figured the earth round, but calculated the earth was about 24,400 miles in circumference. He was off by about 400 miles, but did pretty good for a guy staring into a well.
But if this is true, and no one of note believed in a flat earth: where did the myth of the myth of the flat earth start? Back to Rip Van Winkle: the author of this story, Washington Irving, was in fact also the author of another work, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in which the flat earth myth makes it presence known. When Irving cites his source for painting Columbus as a defender of the round earth against his accusers—those ignorant priests—his footnote, in total, reads: “Mss. Bibliot. Roi. Fr.” Though this is academic shorthand, it may as well have been a sorcerer’s incantation for all the good it did. Literally, it says: “manuscripts in the French Royal Library.” Which is to say, at this point, Irving is having a laugh by backing his claim with “somewhere in the French royal library, there are unnamed documents which totally support my story.”
That such an illusion was going on in the pages of a supposed book of history went unnoticed, however, and spread far and wide as the standard tale. In particular, the image of the flat earth found its way into two works—by Andrew Dixon White, and John William Draper—who were the two most influential individuals promoting the idea of a perpetual war between science and religion. The flat earth as an image, became their weapon. And now, today, the “flat earth” is invoked as shorthand for Christian ignorance and repression of scientific learning. Christians, so it goes, are the old men in the Rip van Winkle story who gave him a drink and put him to sleep through a revolution. Drink the Kool Aid (or, in Rip’s case, the moonshine), miss the revolution.
“Come and See”
Which is not to say Christians have never done anything wrong, or believed anything (that later turned out to be) weird. There is more than enough of both badness and weirdness in our history to go around. It is to say, however, that these easy pictures—of Christians as backward, science-denying, flat-earthers—are the opiates for the modern masses. They lull us into a sleep-walk, into an unthinking routine. And like any well-worn generalization, the image, rather than being the summary of investigation, or charitable scrutiny, replaces thought with its own sort of slumber.
But in truth it must be just the opposite: as Christians how we view the world is not to be seen in the flatness of a mere idea, but the round fullness of flesh and lived existence. To call people away from easy narratives attacking Christianity is not to win a war, but to pull down one of many dividing walls stopping fellowship, engagement, and mutual understanding even amidst disagreement.
As such the “Come and See” series here at New Wine Tastings is meant to marshal many thoughtful voices, all seeking to invite each one of us to “come and see” what we did not before. We at New Wine, New Wineskins are committed to being a resource—an interface—bringing academic theology of culture and translating it for the church; or, taking the thoughtful and engaging projects already underway at many churches, and giving them a platform to speak, so that others may hear and join in. All of us need to be awakened in one way or another, which is why this is an effort of many communities, and not merely academic “experts” speaking pronouncements from on high. “Awake O’Sleeper,” (Eph. 5:14), “Come and see” (John 1:39) is our common mantra as we strive forward, together.