We made it out of the Dark Ages. I can breathe again. For a year and a half, the gloom of the Middle Ages hung over our history readings like low gray clouds. The loss of life, culture, intellect. I am astonished anew as I teach my girls about the printing press. I break away from our texts, moved, emphatically explaining this shift in world history. The goldsmith’s miracle of tin, lead and antimony molded into letters then into pages, slick with oily ink, fitted into an old wine-press. The magnitude of mass production and translation. Books no longer chained to pulpits or kept on the high shelves of the wealthy, privileged few. The holiness of literacy.
This rebirth of Europe unfolds before us: the revival of Greek and Latin works from antiquity; the Age of Exploration; the development of the scientific method; the flourishing of art, literature and philosophy. It is a privilege to exist at a time when we can look back on these centuries of new discoveries in our world and rediscoveries of our humanity.
This week we are focusing on Martin Luther, a tenacious reformer who went viral, quite unintentionally, after posting his 95 Theses. It is easy to be drawn into the passionate saga of the Reformation, to feel a certain reverence for the birth pangs of religious freedom. In contrast, it is just as easy to feel disturbed when considering the popular rhetoric regarding religious freedom in contemporary Christianity. Most of the cries and protests have nothing to do with religion and nothing to do with freedom, quite the opposite in fact.
The vernacular of this growing movement is melodramatic at best. It teeters on blasphemous. Claims of persecution and war on the church (sorry, not in America). Claims that, coincidentally, center around ideas and behaviors fervently hated by those who are supposedly puritanical. Medieval, prejudiced attitudes are not only hailed as traditional– they’re wrongly linked to Biblical evidence. Do we really think the sins we project on others are any more destructive than the pet sins we harbor in our own hearts?
The boycotting and the legislative battles and the debates play out like playground battles. Name calling, bullying, mobbing. Bad manners and bad science. Seriously, contraceptives, wedding cakes and Charles Darwin are not threats to the American family. The Bible is not intended for use as an object of blunt force against others. It is not a substitute for science or the Constitution or common sense– but it works quite well with all three when we stop trying to legislate morality and start living it. The only war to wage is the one inside our own hearts.
God tells us to love others, to lay down our lives. It is a call to evangelism not Evangelicalism. He never asked us to identify enemies of tradition and patriotism. Far too many Christians are aligning themselves with a frightening trend of ostracism (described in terms of “defense” and “definition” in Evangelical parlance). Exercising “religious freedom” at the expense of another person’s freedom is a perverse act. Language used to justify treating other human beings as second class is wicked semantics. There is a fine line between liberty and signs in shop windows. Where does a conscience clause end and segregation begin?
When fundamentalists get fired up enough, book burning is an inevitable machination. Book burnings are the antithesis of freedom; a violent, zealous incineration of intellect. Though not a religious man, upon hearing the news his books had been burned by Nazis in Germany, Sigmund Freud stated, “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.” His portentous words are as disturbing as those invoked by the Nazi officer presiding over the book burning, who cried, “Against the soul-destroying glorification of the instinctual life, for the nobility of the human soul! I consign (these books) to the flames.”