When Kingdoms Collide: the martyrdom of Polycarp

Along the western seacoast of Turkey there is a beautiful coastal town known as Izmir. Tucked amidst the high-rises and minarets is a Roman Catholic church built in the 17th century and dedicated to an early Christian many of us no longer remember from a time when Izmir was known as Smyrna.

There, nearly 1900 years ago, lived an early Christian named Polycarp, a convert during the ministry of the apostle John. Serving the Lord over the course of his life and well-respected in the church, Polycarp was wholly committed to the Lord Jesus at a time of great persecution for the church. The influence of the Roman Emperor appeared unlimited, and the basic declaration of allegiance to the Emperor was: “Caesar is Lord.” For the early Christians, the basic declaration of faith also reflected their allegiance: “Jesus is Lord.”

When Polycarp was dragged before the Roman Proconsul Statius Quadratus on trumped up charges, Polycarp was thoroughly interrogated and asked to swear allegiance to Caesar. “Swear, and I release you; curse Christ,” said the Proconsul.

To which Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and he has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Again, the Proconsul said, “Swear by the genius of Caesar.” To which Polycarp responded once more, “If you vainly imagine that I would ‘swear by the genius of Caesar’, as you may say, pretending that you are ignorant who I am , hear plainly that I am a Christian.”[1]

It is this bold statement that eventually led to Polycarp’s execution by burning in public in AD 156. Polycarp’s situation sets in bold relief one of the greatest challenges of any discussion of the kingdom of God. We live as citizens of earthly kingdoms by birth or by decision, even while we live as citizens of the heavenly kingdom through faith in Christ.


[1] The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom is found in many places but I relied on James W. Skillen’s telling from The Good of Politics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 47-48.

The Weekend Wanderer: 19 September 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


JI Packer politics“J.I. Packer: The Bible’s Guide for Christian Activism” – When Jim Packer passed away last month, we lost one of our greatest voices in world evangelicalism. Thankfully, Packer wrote so widely that we can still learn from his insights. Christianity Today unearthed a jewel of an essay by Packer from 1985 on how Christian faith relates to the public sphere. His words feel just as relevant today as ever.


Jamal- Dominique Hopkins“Preach What You Practice” – Here in an ongoing series called “Race Set Before Us,” Jamal-Dominique Hopkins reflects on the life and legacy of Paul King Jewett as an example of Christian leadership during this divided time. “Jewett, a renowned moral theologian, possessed a passion for promoting racial solidarity. He attended a predominantly black church, mentored black students at Fuller, became the first white board member of the National Negro Evangelical Association (currently known as the National Black Evangelical Association). He also attended the March on Washington in 1963 and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.”


Winding river“What Kind of Turning Point?: History is an unpredictable thing. Respect it.” – I first encountered the work of Mark Noll while I was an undergraduate student at Wheaton College and he had just published his important book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll, a wise historian of Christianity and more particularly an expert on the history of evangelicalism, has a thing or two to say about making predictions about what lies ahead of us. Drawing on the work of Bruce Hindmarsh and James Davison Hunter, Noll’s wise words in Comment are well worth reading.


Barna Race Today“White Christians Have Become Even Less Motivated to Address Racial Injustice” – From Barna: “As of the July 2020 survey, practicing Christians—self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month—are no more likely to acknowledge racial injustice (43% ‘definitely’) than they were the previous summer. There is actually a significant increase in the percentage of practicing Christians who say race is ‘not at all’ a problem in the U.S. (19%, up from 11% in 2019). Among self-identified Christians alone, a similar significant increase occurs (10% in 2019, 16% in 2020).”


20200828T0945-SYRIA-TURKEY-WATER-1004324-690x450“Christians, others warn Turkey is ‘weaponizing water’ in northeast Syria” – From Crux: “Parts of Syria’s north where Kurds, Christians and Yazidis have practiced religious freedom in recent years are reportedly again under attack by mainly Turkish military and their allied Syrian Islamist fighters. The Syrian Democratic Council, which oversees the autonomous northeast of Syria, condemned Turkey’s cutting off the water supply to the area’s main city, Hassakeh, for nearly four straight weeks. Humanitarian groups have repeatedly accused Turkey of ‘weaponizing water’ since its military takeover of the region in October 2019.”


Battle of Adwa“To understand African Christianity, remember the Battle of Adwa” – Here is Philip Jenkins in The Christian Century reflecting on a key moment in Ethiopia that had great import for modern African Christianity. “The historic relationship between Christianity and imperialism naturally causes grave dilemmas for modern believers. But on at least one celebrated occasion, it was actually a great Christian army that decisively triumphed over empire—and resisted conquest for a generation. Anyone interested in the story of modern African Christianity needs to know about the Battle of Adwa.”


Bible and Rosary“Evangelicals Becoming Catholics: Former CT Editor Mark Galli” – Last week I shared about former Christianity Today editor Mark Galli converting to Catholicism. Ed Stetzer gathers together a series of reflections by various theologians, writers, and thinkers on why evangelicals might make such a move in general, including various authors such as Scott Hahn, Francis Beckwith, Douglas Beaumont, Scot McKnight. Stetzer concludes with his own reflections on Galli’s decision, both in relation to his personal friendship with Galli and as a Baptist who sees both the strengths and weaknesses of evangelicalism.


Music: Yo-Yo Ma, “Bach: Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, Prélude.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 29 August 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Kenosha prayer“‘We’re trying to fix it’: People in Kenosha turn to faith, art to start healing from violent, destructive week” – It’s not often that southeastern Wisconsin grips international news, and usually if it does it’s related to the city of Milwaukee. Not so this past week when the Kenosha, Wisconsin, took center stage as the setting for the latest shooting of a black man by police. There have been protests and riots that continue to highlight the racial tensions that are boiling over in our nation. A follow-up shooting by a young white man killed two others and left a third person injured. The Milwaukee Bucks, favorites for the NBA playoffs, chose not to play their playoff game on Wednesday  night, which brought a cascading cancellation of all the NBA finals gamesas well as matches in MLB, WNBA, and MLS. There is much happening here and we could certainly use your prayers in southeastern Wisconsin, even as we lament over the great grief and pain gripping our nation right now.


Becoming Brave“What a Leading Racial Reconciliation Advocate Learned from Her Critics” – “In her anticipated new release, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, Brenda Salter McNeil invites readers not only to learn from her as a teacher and a guide but to gird up the courage to join her in the fight against racism and systemic injustice. In a book that is both necessary and prophetic—composed of equal parts history, biblical commentary, and personal narrative—Salter McNeil offers a distinctly pastoral approach. Her book is an exhortation to storm the gates, an admonition beyond heart and into the realm of action.”


school“11 Back-to-School Prayers” – From David Taylor at Christianity Today: “The following is a collection of prayers related to the start of school. As both a professor of worship and a parent of two school-age children, I tried to imagine the sorts of things that parents and kids, teachers, school administrators, and community leaders might be feeling in light of the unpredictable realities that face them this fall.


Karen“America’s Summer of Viral Meltdowns” – A word about viral outrage from Kaitlyn Tiffany in The Atlantic: “Social media treats everything as equally shareable, and part of the same broad, never-ending story about the terribleness of people. ‘Viral videos beget more viral videos,’ Katherine Cross, a doctoral student studying online toxicity at the University of Washington, told me. ‘They’ve become part of the culture.’ This vortex of outrage isn’t entirely organic: Once uploaded, these interactions quickly get reposted by enormous meme accounts, amplified by algorithms, and monetized by sites that specialize in spreading them. The videos have become so popular and ubiquitous that this is how the physical world appears to so many of us now: an astonishing array of potential viral interactions. Anywhere you turn, you might see something stupid, cruel, or worse—and the immediate impulse is to take out your camera and film it.”


Church of St. Savior“Turkey Turns Another Historic Church into a Mosque” – “The Turkish government formally converted a former Byzantine church into a mosque Friday, a move that came a month after it drew praise from the faithful and international opposition for similarly turning Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia into a Muslim house of prayer. A decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published in the country’s Official Gazette, said Istanbul’s Church of St. Saviour in Chora, known as Kariye in Turkish, was handed to Turkey’s religious authority, which would open up the structure for Muslim prayers.”


Jerry Falwell, Jr.“The fall of Falwell: A timeline of the ups, downs and scandals of his Liberty University presidency” – Jerry Falwell, Jr., resigned from Liberty University this past week after a series of scandals that put him at odds with the university’s Board of Trustees. Falwell has been one of the most public faces of a wing of evangelicalism allied with the Republican party, perhaps even more than with Christ. What happened? Emily McFarlan Miller and Jack Jenkins offer this timeline of Falwell’s presidency of Liberty since he took the position in 2007 to his resignation this past week.


Music: Peter Gabriel (featuring Kate Bush), “Don’t Give Up,” from So.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 4 July 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Regnerus marriage“Can the Church Save Marriage?” – The cover story in the most recent issues of Christianity Today is an attention getter. Her is Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-founder of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture: “According to a Census Bureau survey taken in 2018, only 35 percent of 25- to 34-year-old men were married, a precipitous and rapid plunge from 50 percent in 2005. These numbers point toward a clear and frightening trajectory: Marriage is getting rarer. Fast. Getting married is something humans have done for millennia out of economic practicality, if not out of love. Some challenges in tying the knot are old and mathematical—for example, more women are interested in matrimony than men. Others are recent and ideological, including the new norm of short-term relationships and the penchant for ‘keeping your options open.'”


Screen Shot 2020-07-02 at 10.07.19 AM“Evangelical leaders are speaking up about race — but will this new focus last?” – Adelle M. Banks at RNS: “Many prominent white evangelicals have made statements about Black lives in the weeks since the May 25 death of George Floyd, but is this new focus among white conservatives — and white Christians in general — momentary or lasting? Researchers working at the crossroads of religion and race say it’s too soon to say. But highlights of a forthcoming study, which looks at racism, biblical interpretation and church cultures, may indicate a long struggle ahead. Michael Emerson, co-author of the 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, said 2019 findings indicate “zero evidence” of a closing of the long-standing gap between how white evangelicals and Black Christians view racial inequality.


merlin_173727378_812b7d4e-3b86-4952-8daf-dc0aa7cd78e9-superJumbo“America Is Facing 5 Epic Crises All at Once” – David Brooks offers his take on five epic crises that are hitting our nation all at once related to COVID-19, race, politics, social justice, and economics. The result? “These five changes, each reflecting a huge crisis and hitting all at once, have created a moral, spiritual and emotional disaster. Americans are now less happy than at any time since they started measuring happiness nearly 50 years ago. Americans now express less pride in their nation than at any time since Gallup started measuring it 20 years ago.” What does Brooks suggest? You’ll have to read his article.


Supreme Court“Supreme Court opens door to state funding for religious schools” – From CNN: “In a ruling that will open the door to more public funding for religious education, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of parents in Montana seeking to use a state scholarship program to send their children to religious schools. The court said that a Montana tax credit program that directed money to private schools could not exclude religious schools. The 5-4 ruling was penned by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the court’s four conservative justices. ‘A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious,’ Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.”


Hagia Sophia“Hagia Sophia: Turkey delays decision on turning site into mosque” – Turkey is debating whether to turn the architectural wonder, Hagia Sophia, which is currently a museum, back into a mosque. The structure was built in the 6th century as the seat of the Orthodox patriarchate in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Later, when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. After World War I, the modern Turkish secular state was formed and Hagia Sophia was dedicated as a museum opened to the public in 1935.  Things have been changing in Turkey and this historic site is at the center of the latest controversy, which some see as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempt to erase Turkey’s Christian past.


Jimmy Dunn“Rest in Peace, Jimmy” – This is probably a scholarly footnote for many people, but renowned New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn passed away last week. Dunn is best known for his work on the Apostle Paul, ranging from outstanding commentaries to groundbreaking theological work related to Paul’s theology. Dunn’s work was pivotal in what has come to be known as the “New Perspective” on Paul. On that theme, you might enjoy this ten-minute introduction to the New Perspective on Paul by Dunn and N. T. Wright from over ten years ago. This remembrance by Scot McKnight, one of Dunn’s students and a highly-regarded New Testament scholar himself, is well worth the read.


Iowa landscape“When Dvořák Went to Iowa to Meet God: Music that gives voice to the longing for home” – I grew up in the Mississippi River Valley of Illinois, just across the river from Iowa. While everyone who lived in Illinois knew for sure that Iowa was not “heaven,” there is still something special about the wide open spaces of the Midwestern prairies. I did not know that the famed Czech composer Antonín Dvořák spent a transformative time in Iowa “When Dvořák looked over the grassland vastness of Iowa, he felt that very strange and contrary coupling of hopeful contentment and melancholy we sometimes feel on summer evenings, as the stars and cicadas both come up and the grass lets off a damp, fresh smell.”


Music: Gustavo Dudamel with Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, “Dvorak – Symphony no. 9 – 4th movement – Allegro con fuoco,” recorded at a celebration for Pope Benedict XVI.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 6 June 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Esau McCaulley“A Nation on Fire Needs the Flames of the Spirit” – One of the voices I would encourage you to listen to very closely in this moment is that of Dr. Esau McCaulley, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. Here is a recent sermon he delivered on Pentecost that ties together the fires of the Holy Spirit and the fires of the current protests. You may also enjoy Ed Stetzer’s 4-part interview with him here:


vidar-nordli-mathisen“5 Ways Your Predominantly White Church Can Work for Racial Justice and Reconciliation” – From Pastor Rich Villodas of New Life Fellowship in New York City: “As a pastor of color who leads a very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church, I often get asked by other pastors and leaders around the country how white, homogeneous churches can embody the gospel’s claim that a new communal identity is possible in a setting not given to reconciliation. I want to suggest that while not every church is going to reflect multi-ethnicity, predominantly white churches in predominantly white neighborhoods can still do their part in connecting the gospel to race.”


Chotiner-FrustrationBehindProtests“Bryan Stevenson on the Frustration Behind the George Floyd Protests” – Some of you may be familiar with the book or movie Just Mercy, featuring the work of Bryan Stevenson, a civil-rights lawyer and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.  Here is an interview with him by Isaac Chotiner helping explain what is going on underneath the protests happening around our cities and nation. He says: “We need to reckon with our history of racial injustice. I think everything we are seeing is a symptom of a larger disease.”


LCMS Black Clergy Caucus“Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod Black Clergy Caucus Statement on George Floyd” – My maternal grandmother always prayed that I would become a minister in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. She would often mention to me as I was in training for ministry, “The Lutheran Church could use some nice young ministers.” Because of that, I’ve always had a fondness for the LCMS which fits quite well with being here in Milwaukee where I currently serve in a non-denominational church (sorry, grandmother!). I must confess I did not know there was a black clergy caucus for the LCMS rooted in the south. This statement by that group in relation to the killing of George Floyd captured my attention.


Armenian_woman_kneeling_beside_dead_child_in_field“What Turkey Did to Its Christians” – Gabriel Said Reynolds at Commonweal: “A traveler in Ottoman Turkey in the mid-nineteenth century would have discovered a robust and diverse Christian presence of different denominations and ethnicities, including Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. There were between 3 and 4 million Christians in what is now Turkey—around 20 percent of the total population. They were spread throughout the area, from Thrace in the northwest to the far-eastern regions of Anatolia beyond Lake Van, where Armenians likely outnumbered Turks. By 1924, through three successive waves of massacre, deportation, abduction, and forced conversion, Christians had been reduced to 2 percent of Turkey, and almost all who remained would depart in the following decades.”


President Trump Bible“American Bible Society leader: Don’t use the Bible as a political ‘prop'” – The Bible has served as an important symbol in many contexts beyond the church from swearing oaths in court to public readings of Scripture at ceremonies. This is because the Bible holds words that are powerful for our souls and meaningful in the public consciousness. This last week President Trump received a lot of attention for using the Bible in a photo shoot at St. John’s Church near the White House. Here are a few other reactions at various points along the opinion spectrum from evangelist Franklin Graham,  presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry, and Kate Shellnutt’s reporting on the range of Christian responses to the event. Regardless of your opinion, this is probably the top news story featuring the Bible in the past week, and also raises significant questions about the interface of faith and the public square.


family“Facing A Crisis Of Family Formation” – From Yuval Levin, author of The Fractured Republic and A Time to Build: “The idea that the family is an institution at all is hard to deny and yet difficult to comprehend. This is in part because the family occupies a distinct space between two meanings of the term “institution.” It is not an organization exactly, but neither is it quite a practice or a set of rules or norms. In a sense, the family is a collection of several institutions understood in this latter way—like the institution of marriage and the institution of parenthood. The family arranges these institutions into a coherent and durable structure that is almost a formal organization. It resists easy categorization because it is primeval. The family has a legal existence, but it is decidedly pre-legal. It has a political significance, but it is pre-political too. It is pre-everything.


Greek Orthodox“Greek Orthodox Church rules yoga is ‘incompatible’ with Christianity” – In other news, here is this from another part of the world. From time to time, I am asked interesting questions as a pastor about what I think about certain issues, popular practices, or cultural phenomena. These issues can be tricky to speak to because of the nuances of applying Scripture to contemporary issues. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. This one caught my eye as the Greek Orthodox Church reacted to yoga during the pandemic.


 

Music: Common Hymnal (featuring Dee Wilson),Rose Petals,” from Common Hymnal

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]