137 – Preaching in the Dark Ages

Today we’re going to cover the crazy environment that early Christian converts found themselves in during the Dark Ages, and some of the bizarre notions they might have gotten regarding their religion thanks to poor access, education, and stubborn attachment to old pagan traditions.

Also: we learn why mothers don’t stuff their feverish daughters into ovens anymore. Seriously, that’s something they used to do.

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  1. While it may be true that many people of this era were confused about the finer points of Christianity, as long as they learned that God demanded compassion they had enough to be going on with. This was a huge contrast to the attitudes of Christianity’s pagan predecessors, and one that modern people seem to have completely forgotten.

    1. Actually, when looking at the recorded statements regarding conversion and evangelism among the Anglo Saxons (as well as the actions of the converted Anglo Saxon kingdoms) I don’t see evidence that the message of compassion was widely spread or discussed. Further, to say that compassion was a contrast to paganism is a huge sweeping statement that ignores a vast multitude of beliefs that paganism encompasses.

      If my response seems rather strong, it’s because it is disturbingly common for people to act like compassion and Christianity are synonymous. And that ignores that there are some pretty wicked things done in the name of Christ, not only that but there are plenty of non-Christians that live very compassionate lives.

  2. Frigga was considered to be a figure of compassion, yes. But there is a huge difference between a single figure in a group otherwise hardly noted for kindness, aristocrats all, and one god, whose essence is declared to be love, his manifestation of this being his appearance here as a peasant, to endure the worst the place could hand out to him.

    The claim that god had taken this form has been called the most subversive in human history.

    1. I agree that there are elements of Christianity that were quite subversive for the time (and the image of a crucified god was downright baffling to many early potential converts). However, your responses seem to contain a bit of misrepresentation regarding the themes of paganism and Christianity and I’d like to address that, since Christianity (like paganism and virtually every other religion in human history) is complex and filled with a variety of different messages.

      So to start with, the religions covered by the umbrella term of “paganism” are large and varied and have many aspects, and many that include compassionate virtues.

      But the main point I want to make is that if you believe the Bible has a single theme (even one of compassion), I would encourage you to re-read it. Frankly, the theme is all over the place. Yahweh is largely disinterested with compassion, being more focused upon obedience or (as is the case in the Book of Job) really sadistic gambling schemes. And even the New Testament isn’t uniform. Jesus caused quite the ruckus at the Temple, in the Garden he encouraged the apostles to exchange their cloaks for swords, and he was famously quoted by Matthew as saying “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

      Now you’re likely to respond with some quotes from the gospels connected to Paul (Saul). And it’s true that Paul (someone who never met him in life) described Christ as more compassionate and interested in the Gentiles. But I think it’s rather striking that the books that were named after individuals who actually knew him in life tended to have a more militant view of Christ and showed a man who was focused upon the Jewish community, with little interest in the Gentiles.

      Those are two radically different views of the same individual contained within the same book. And both of those views are radically different from Yahweh of the O.T.

      The point I’m driving at here is that your monolithic description of Christianity as being only compassionate doesn’t really work unless you ignore the Old Testament and also large portions of the New Testament.

      Christianity, like most religions, is complex and filled with many different messages. And so are most pagan religions… and just like Christianity, many of them also include compassion among their themes.

      1. Also, even if you take as a given that the central theme of Christianity is compassion, the point being raised in the podcast (at least as I understood it) is that this was not necessarily clear to the newly converted Anglo-saxons who for the most part just carried on going about their businesses; even going so far as to worship in the same places as their pagan ancestors had.

      2. Of course the bible has many themes, and parts of it are “rebarbative”, as Karen Armstrong puts it. And other religions treat compassion as the paramount virtue it is. The Golden Rule was first recorded in the sayings of Confucius. But anyone can see that there are key differences in emphasis between religions. Otherwise how would they be different?

        Christianity’s key difference was best summarized for me by my friend Hanna. He was born a Christian in a Palestinian village, and ended up a PhD from Harvard. He said that Christianity was the only religion in the world that worships a loser.

        We live in an era where the winners are once more taking all, leaving the 99 percent of us with huge anxieties. Christianity arose in a similar time. The losers managed to improve the situation greatly, and without resorting to violence. This has never happened before or since.

  3. I think those two quotes where Jesus mentioned a sword should be taken within the context that he was well aware of the fact that his message would bring division and bloodshed–in fact, that was already underway, as his own crucifixion was fast approaching. He wasn’t promoting the idea that men should be aggressive with swords, he just knew it would happen. As for the apostles, I don’t think he was telling them to don literal swords…I’m not really familiar with that quote, but I’d think he would have been advising them to put on the “sword of the spirit” or some such thing, or maybe he was simply telling them what was coming in a hyperbolic and colorful way. Whatever the case, he was not seriously telling them to exchange their cloaks for swords. Don’t forget that he also told Peter, in the garden, to put away his sword after Peter had cut off a soldier’s ear, saying, “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” I don’t think there is any scriptural evidence that Jesus was militant in any earthly sense. Yes, he drove the moneychangers out of the temple rather aggressively–but I would bet that no blood was spilled. The Bible does not say one way or the other, but the message Jesus sought to bring to mankind was overwhelmingly one of peace, mercy, and yes…compassion.

  4. I really love your podcast, by the way! Your passion for the subject is evident in each and every episode, and I enjoy them immensely! I guess I’m one of the “scrappy” few who like to really get into the history of the “Dark Age” period. I’m commenting below this episode from almost two years ago, because I’m determined to listen to every episode until I’m caught up, and this is where I’m at today. Looking forward to when you eventually get to the 11th century and the period just prior to the Norman Conquest.

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