Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Praising Mary's Honor - How can you know scripture if you can't read?

There's a lot of complex theological truth contained in the Akathist hymn and other kontakion like it. How could the people hearing the hymn be expected to remember it all? Especially considering the fact that many of them were uneducated and illiterate.

Romanos' own knowledge of Scripture was extraordinary. In another kontakion he wrote, The Victory of the Cross, there is a dialogue between Hades and Belial that recalls an impressive range of biblical incidents in which wood was used for deliverance. From Jael's tent-peg (as an aside, I love the name Jael) to Haman's gallows to the stick Elisha threw in the Jordan to make a lost axe-head float. In today's world we could use software to look up all these incidents and more. As far as anyone knows, Romanos didn't even have a concordance. He simply knew the Scriptures.

These hymns were written for the people - they were aimed at the congregations level of knowledge and understanding. If Romanos included all these references, he expected his audience to understand exactly what he was referring to and follow him as he connected these events, perhaps in ways they had not considered before.

All of this becomes even more impressive when you remember that at the time, and for most of Christian history, the Bible was not readily available to people as a physical item they could own. The only time they got Biblical information was when they heard it. Most of us can't recall things that we hear five minutes after we hear them. We have to make an effort to learn things in that fashion. That's because our society has shifted gears, we're no longer a verbal culture, but a literate one. Our learning comes through reading.

"The dependence on oral transmission of faith explains why public preaching was so important. St. Paul exhorts the Romans: 'How are [people] to believe in [Christ] of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can they preach if they are not sent?' He concludes by citing the prophet Isaiah's words: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!'

"You'll note there is nothing there about reading the Good News. Oral transmission of Christianity has a class-transcending effect: an informed faith is not only for the educated. Any peasant could gain a good grasp of Christian teachings, just by attending worship. By listening to hymns like this one, by listening to the chanted Scripture readings and by studying the icons (a kind of picture Bible) covering a church's interior, any milkmaid could learn enough to tell the real Trinity from a shabby substitute.

"And that common worship experience forged a common faith. Christians acknowledge Scripture as our highest authority, but that's shorthand for the faith that Scripture preserves. When the book is exploited apart from this faith, it malfunctions: a splinter group runs off a scary isolated verse, or a preacher ruminates endlessly on 'Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man.' This Scriptural faith is not discovered by pitting one bright interpreter against another; that just provokes argument. Instead it is found, fresh and living, in the collective memory of the worshiping body of Christ.

"When worship doesn't change, the faith doesn't change. Even today, someone who wants to find out what Eastern Christians believe about, say, the Ascension of Christ is not sent to a catechism or a tome of systematic theology. Instead, they're invited to look at how Eastern Christians approach this topic when they worship. What hymns do they sing when this feast rolls around? What clues can be picked up from the icon that depicts the Ascension?

"To worshipers, the beliefs they honor in such forms feel organically their own. These points of faith haven't been imposed by a bossy outsider, and they aren't subject to unexpected 'updatings' that immediately feel dated. Instead, these beliefs come up from the believers' own roots, and as a result they will defend them with their lives. It's estimated that more Christians were martyred under Communism than in the whole preceding history of the faith.

"When the Church was still young, an attentive, informed laity was able to resist strange moral and theological ideas, even when these were propounded by clergy. St. Basil the Great describes fourth-century worshipers who met 'in the open air, in heavy rain, in the snow,...and under the blazing heat of the sun' rather than enter churches held by priests who were followers of Arius."


  1. This was very interesting. I love the examples of wood in the Bible and also the mentioning of oral tradition vs. reading societies. I'd never really thought of it like that. Thanks for sharing!

  2. *waves hands in Jedi manner* You will eventually admit that I am always right....

    It's all a part of my master plan!


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