Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Didache Community - Then and Now

... a meditation on Chapter 3, "The Didache Community—Then and Now", of The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community by Tony Jones...
(which you can, of course, buy here and here.)

First off, the Didache is really worth a read on its own before you read anything I have to say about it. It's short, and you can read Tony's translation of it here (scroll down through the stuff about the blog tour and you'll see it). Try reading it slowly. It helps.

When I first read through the Didache, I was put off by it in much the same way as I've been put off by reading the Deutero-Canonical books (the Apocrypha to all you Protestants out there). It seemed like someone had taken a pair of scissors to the Gospel of Matthew and then re-pasted the interesting parts in an order that pleased them, chucking in some of their own deep thoughts on the same themes so it didn't read like straight up plagiarism. I'm aware that what we consider plagiarism wasn't an offense in the days of the early church and isn't an offense in many cultures now --instead being seen as a way of honoring the teachings of a respected elder-- but why should I want to read *this* when I have the Gospels?

But then I read it again. And again. And again and again and again. And I started to get it, and Chapter 3 of Tony's book helped me understand why.

Chapter 3 starts with a picture of the circumstances under which Christians, then a sect of Judaism, were operating in 70-110AD, the broad time span during which the Didache is thought to be written. Infighting between the Nazarenes (as the Jewish Christians were often called) and other Jewish sects had led to the expulsion of all Jews from Rome in AD 49. The Christians that remained in (or returned to) Rome in AD 64 were persecuted by Emperor Nero, blamed for a fire that had destroyed much of Rome. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, and around this time, Christians had been made exempt from taxes levied upon other Jews, which removed them from the protections offered to Jews in the Roman Empire. In other words, times were --and had been-- tough, and there was a lot of uncertainty around what it meant to be a Christian. One thing that was certain is that it still meant being a Jew, but what kind of Jew?

Sitting with this part of the chapter and thinking on how contested Christian identity was in the first centuries after Christ was actually very unsettling for me. I've studied early Christian history, and I know that things have changed a lot, but reading about the Christians who would have been familar with the Didache brings it home to me that their faith may well have been NOTHING like mine, not just in practice, but in substance as well. The truth is that while my reaction to the Didache is that it feels like a knock-off of the Gospels, it actually pre-dates the Bible I have. Tony points out that the authors of the Didache seem to have no knowledge of the letters and theology of the Apostle Paul, and that the text was written well before the Gospel of John. How much of my theology --that which I believe and that which I wrestle with and reject-- is formed by the Pauline letters and John's presentation of Christ? I'm well familiar with the fact that the Bible as I have it now is the product of a lot of political back-and-forth between powerful bishops a few hundred years after Christ, but that doesn't change how I feel about the Bible or about the beliefs I have held on to (and those I've rejected) that have been informed by that Bible.

Knowing that Christians were Christians before the New Testament as a fact and believing it are two different things. If I internalize the reality that the Christianity and the scriptures that I have are dramatically different than those of the early Christians, then I am put in a place of much deeper dependence on simple faith and God's guidance through the Holy Spirit. I could take refuge in an argument about God's sovereignty and how all of Christian history has been guided by His Will and we are exactly where He wants us to be --current scriptures and theological beliefs and all-- but I don't totally buy that. The intersection between God's omnipotence and man's free will is a fairly mysterious thing and I tend to think we've mucked things up rather a lot.

Which brings me to the second part of chapter 3, where Tony introduces us to the Cymbrogi (named after an ancient Celtic word meaning "Companions of the Heart"), a group of 10 or so folks in rural Missouri who have grown disenchanted with the institutional churches from which they've come. Not all of them have chosen to leave those churches, but they have chosen to meet and to attempt to practice a Christianity that more closely resembles that of the early church, before church hierarchy and the Bible as we know it. They decided some time ago to study the Didache and to try to put it into practice within their community, and have testified that it has changed their lives, making them more honest with one another, more connected. Tony talks about the reaction of Trucker John, a member of the Cymbrogi, to the Didache in this passage on pages 42-43:

As the church grew in the first centuries, the emphasis became more and more on what you believe, which creed you recite, which doctrine you believe. But the Didache, John says, preserves a Christianity that emphasizes how you live. According to Trucker John, this seems more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus than the later controversies over doctrine ever did.

After reading it through a few times, it was clear that this is the appeal of the Didache to me, too. Its teachings are very simple, yet deep, much like the Sermon on the Mount. Love God, really, with everything you have. Don't be selfish. Put others first. Always give when there's a need, and don't take when you have plenty. Don't engage in behaviors that will start you on a slippery slope to really destructive patterns. Don't do all of these things because God doesn't want you to, and God knows the correct way for you to live... because He's God and He loves you.

Reading the directives of the Didache, once I got over my initial criticisms, was soothing and comforting, like being a child receiving the instruction of a trusted parent. I found myself reading it and feeling like "oh, ok". I don't feel like that very often, and I can see how reading this in community and trying to live by it would simplify things a lot, and would bring a kind of peace and order. My usual alarm bells about legalism do go off when I contemplate a list of "to-dos" of the spiritual life, but that's not what the Didache is. I really do welcome the clarity and simplicity of the teachings (they clear my head, so to speak) and they are rooted in common-sense principles, not just a list of mindless actions that you have to perform in order to make God happy.

Trucker John, as it so happens, is the ex-brother-in-law of Trucker Frank, a theologian/trucker who reminds me quite a lot of my Dad (formerly Trucker Mike, now in seminary at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry). Tony has an ongoing conversation with Frank throughout this book, and each chapter ends with an observation from him. Chapter 3 ends with

"What we [the Cymbrogi] share is a deep, soulful commitment to each other and to a fellowship beyond the walls of institutional church structures,” Frank says. “We are sometimes viewed with suspicion by others because we refuse to stay within the boundaries of a particular church hierarchy. We are, in that sense, an organic structure somewhere between the local church and the Church Universal.”

As I've expressed on this blog before, I am indebted to institutional expressions of the Christian faith and I question folks who want to believe that the Church Universal just needs to shed those institutions in order to be in the Will of God. I really resonate with Trucker Frank's statement, though, and find that it is in this in-between space where I am most comfortable, as well. It's in the smaller faith community centered mostly around trying to have a common life centered in Christ where I find I'm able to breathe. Anywhere else I go I find that I'm tempted to care too much what others around me think, because I can pretty much lay money down on the fact that they will not like what, or how, I think (IF I ever tell them what I think, which I'm not likely to do). When I'm in a small community like Common Table that is not defined by denominational lines, I feel like I can bring what I have and folks will either accept or reject it without necessarily accepting or rejecting me.

As this post is only about Chapter 3, I won't go on to talk further about the book, but it is well-written, substantive without being too heady, and a STEAL on Amazon for only $10.11! Pick up a copy. It'll be worth it... and stay tuned to the blog tour... a complete list of bloggers can be found here.

1 comment:

carlos luna said...

Thanks for the reading, I love it!