Wednesday, January 21, 2009

From the trenches of study: The Bronze Age Collapse

I'm sure I studied about it in seminary, but it was likely from the tangential perspective of establishing the reasonableness of the exodus. Never did I consider it from the perspective of the interconnected cultures of the Ancient World. I'm talking about the biggest historical sea change that you've never heard of: The Bronze Age Collapse.

Of course we're familiar with the disintegration of the Roman Empire (though James O'Donnell's latest book The Ruin of the Roman Empire presents the case that popular understanding about said disintegration is seriously flawed -- more on that book in another post). The Reformation radically transformed Europe, and thus the Americas. The Industrial Revolution plundered the countryside for laborers to move to cities, and certainly we're living through the turmoil and abundance brought on by the electronic information age. But the Bronze Age Collapse seems to overshadow them all.

The scenario was this: for about a millenium, villages had been coalescing into city/states and then into proto-empires. We see the rise of the great Sumerian City States, the Hittites (in modern day Turkey), the Myceneans in Greece, and of course, the granddaddy of them all -- the Egyptian Empire. By around 1500 bc, we see great powers jousting on the global scene and engaging in international trade and diplomacy. Civilization and culture were on the advance. This would be the backdrop for the Biblical Patriarchs.

And then starting in 1200, there's a collapse all around the Mediterranean. For the next 200 years we have evidence of destruction of cities from Troy (Northern Turkey) all the way down to Gaza. Egypt retreats it's armies from Syria and the Levant and Nubia. Society crumbles in Greece and Asia Minor to the point that literacy seems to have been lost for 200 years. The Mesopotamian kingdoms retreat their forces. The sparse records we do find from Egypt and Mesopotamia talk about "sea peoples" in the Mediterranean and "Arameans" in the east. We can imagine other people groups taking advantage of the chaos to plunder and claim other peoples property for their own.

This era makes the dark ages look like a twilight game of capture the flag.

And it is the historic backdrop to the Illiad and Odyssey and the books of Exodus and Joshua and Judges. Truly it could be said that this was a time when there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

Historians debate the causes behind said collapse: a natural disaster, a migration of peoples, an exhaustion of the potentcies of empire? Yet on the other side of it, new stronger political forms arose. And on the other side, we also see the establishment of the united kingdom of Israel.

Looking back we can see the hand of Providence turning the collapse of human empire into the seed bed out of which the state of Israel would arise. And perhaps in that knowledge we can find comfort for our own tumultuous times: that indeed all the nations of the earth are like a drop in a bucket; they are but dust on the scales of God. But as nations rise and fall, the word of the Lord endures forever.


Monday, January 19, 2009

New Species found -- the heavens and earth resound

I see, from time to time, news stories about the discovery of heretofore unknown creatures in remote places. Whether they are cave dwelling critters hidden away for centuries or bizzare entities living in the deep sea, they all capture my interest. That's why this article on today's Yahoo News caught my eye: yet another discovery of heretofore unknown creatures, this time in a deep Australian reef.

I find these discoveries encouraging for several reasons. First, from my theological perspective, God created all things as instruments of His praise and glory. No matter what your perspectives on the process that God used to create, it still holds that in His Providence, He establishes these creatures that have existed for thousands of years outside the knowledge of mankind. And what have they been doing all that time? In their own humble way, they have been living as unique distinctive expressions of God's glory, creativity, power, and goodness. In their own little ways, these creatures have been living Hallelujahs tucked away in the remote corners of creation.

Second, such discoveries never fail to stir a sense of wonder and humility in the hearts of even the most hardened skeptic. As humans we seem to have in inborn sense of awe before the unknown. Such discoveries continue to remind us that this universe is far vaster and more astonishing than we heretofore grasped. Such wonder should serve to expand our understanding of God. God is indeed far bigger and far more grand than we like to admit.... yet His attention to such small details as these creatures shows forth his affection and delight in creation (I'm mindful of the creation story as told in Proverbs 8 -- wisdom alongside God as God forges all of creation -- and doing so in rejoicing and delight in all that is made).

Let us rejoice and be glad that the Creator continues to hold surprises for us in this universe ... and that we may delight in them.

Previous posts of interest on this topic:
Biodiversity to the praise of God
The Instinct to Care for Animals

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will the real John Calvin stand up please?

John Calvin has taken on an odd kind of personality disorder. If you follow the popular renderings of Calvin, you get the impression that he was a very brilliant and very angry man. William Manchester plays into this stereotype in A World Lit Only By Fire. And as I talk with people about Calvin, I hear this kind of impression: "Calvin's Geneva was a dark place." or "Calvin burned Servetus" or "Calvin was a wrathful pessimist who taught that all people are evil."

Contra that are the hagiographies: Calvin was the greatest theologian since Augustine. Not only was he brilliant, but he was an excellent stylist. He was a humble man who always fought against having authority thrust on him.

I suggest that both portraits are vastly skewed. As we enter into the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, we have an opportunity to re-assess his heritage and legacy. Calvin was a man, a human subject to frailty, foibles, and folly. He would likely be the first to admit that. Calvin would have us look first and foremost to the sovereign God and his majesty. However Calvin was also blessed with great talents and giftedness ... and he would likely rejoice if in our celebration of those talents, we gave thanks to God for the witness of a saint who has gone before.

Volume 5 of BB Warfield's collected works focuses on that great scholar's writings on Calvin and Calvinism. In his biographical sketch of Calvin, he demonstrates that Calvin's early training as a humanist scholar played out in his later works. Calvin, like Erasmus and other minds of the day, marinated their minds in the classic works of Greece and Rome, and this affected his work. He saw himself first and foremost as a "man of letters" - a writer and commentator on the great issues of the day. Hence his voluminous literary output. Whether we look at the Institutes of Christian Religion (Calvin's great systematic theology, which is still highly readable today -- and which focuses on the practicality of a living faith, rather than a purely cerebral faith) or his large corpus of letters, we find Calvin to be a man using his pen and rhetorical gifts to persuade, encourage, challenge, and confront. Warfield demonstrates Calvin's deft use of satire as a rhetorical tool.... showing Calvin to be a man with more humor than is popularly thought.
What we see in Calvin's Institutes is a "positive programme" for Protestantism. The Protestant cause began in criticism, and might have remained there but for Calvin. However in his Institutes, Calvin presents a vision of faith that is illuminated by a supremely majestic God who lays claim to all of creation. Calvin presents all of life as the sphere of service to God. His comprehensive understanding of Christianity as a whole life endeavor was his great contribution to the Protestant cause. The critics focus on the frailty of the man without recognizing the positive life affirming vision for Christian life that he presented.
I hope this year we'll all give Calvin a closer look .... and perhaps take up the task of reading some of his work. The Institutes are a great place to start.... well worth reading and profiting from the insights of this great teacher.
Soli Deo Gloria