The Beijing Olympics filled late summer with an amazing array of images, none more compelling than Michael Phelps’s winning lunge for the wall in the 100-meter butterfly. His decision to lunge, while Serbia’s Milorad Cavic chose to glide home, made the difference between silver and gold, by 1/100th of a second. Exquisite timekeeping systems and freeze-frame photographs verified a victory so narrow that no one watching could see it.
Being able to actually see what was compressed into less than a second was a wonderful gift in this instance, yet our global preoccupation with the ever-faster has its downsides. Our inboxes groan with too many messages. We are bombarded with media messages. And we’re obsessed with shaving off nanoseconds to increase our productivity. Our global society wants news all the time, any time, and in the smallest and easiest to digest of bites. But more than a few wonder if a diet of instant and constant electronic pabulum will nurture us for the long term. In the past months, as mortgage lenders and high-flying financiers pressed to find the quickest return on their investments, their short-term thinking brought the global economy—and millions of home owners and small investors—to the brink of disaster. It seemed that no one was taking the long view, until the bubble burst.
For many thousands of our local churches and synagogues, and for more than a few of our national denominations, the past several decades have conspired to foster this same kind of short-term thinking. Financial pressures, personnel shortages, declining memberships, demographic shifts, and many other of organized religion’s litany of woes, do not create an environment that encourages the longer view. This week’s sermon, next week’s committee meeting, this month of appointments, and the current fiscal year have become the limiting horizons.
And yet there is a bigger story. To give just one example from my own faith tradition, Martin E. Marty’s The Christian World: A Global History (New York: A Modern Library Chronicles Book, 2007) tells the story of a 2,000-year-old faith tradition that now embraces two billion people and is developing a global self-consciousness. Thirty years ago, Marty was my principal teacher during my graduate school days at the University of Chicago and he remains a cherished mentor and friend. So it was not too difficult for me to imagine the challenges he faced as he covered continents in chapters, centuries in paragraphs, and complex theological and ecclesiological developments in single sentences. As he compressed a lifetime of historical study into 262 pages, he had to give every significant figure in the Christian story short shrift. But as he carefully pruned and selected, he also provided something that is lacking for most of those who live in the Christian world: a long view of the faith they cherish. (Authors from other traditions, like Judaism or Islam, have offered similar gifts.)
Few American pew sitters know of the many church councils, heretical and reform movements, saints, emperors, mystics, and missionaries that make up the global story of Christianity. Their versions of the Christian story usually start off with the narratives about Jesus (some may pause for a moment or two of European Catholicism or Protestant Reform) and then they fast-forward to the current scene. They live with a few thin slices of a story that is much bigger, much richer, and much more powerful than they know. It is also a story that challenges us with its contradictions and pain. Most are unaware of the countless sets of shoulders they stand upon—of their debts to the Monicas, Augustines, Constantines, Teresas of Avila, Bonhoeffers, Tutus, and countless others—or of the great pain and suffering that the tradition they cherish has abetted in the world. A long view like the one Marty offers reminds us of Christianity’s terrible track record with Jews, Africans, Native Americans, women, and many others—a needed check on routine assumptions of moral superiority.
Those who lead our congregations where the pew sitters gather may know a few more of the names, dates, and places in the longer story (or they may not), but in the day-to-day blur of “to do” lists and interruptions, they may lose sight of what all they are part of and where their communities of faith are going. Relocating themselves within the thicker story reminds them of what is at stake in all the short-term stuff. More than once, Marty returned to Diettrich Bonhoeffer’s question, “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” as the ongoing thread in the great global story.
Reading the 2,000-year-old story
in the wired world and trying to answer Bonhoeffer’s question faithfully is the global challenge for Christianity. To do so in a way that truly learns from the church’s global experience, with all of its achievements and failures, is the special burden within that daunting challenge.
In his final chapter, Marty gives us one word of hope. As he completes his narrative, he asserts that the tradition he writes about is “irrepressible.” At the heart of the Christian story, in the midst of all its cultural and historical ebbs and flows, its virtual disappearance from entire continents for centuries, its incredible failings, the struggle to answer that core question continues and grows. Marty reminds those of us who are trying to keep fragile communities of faith going for just a few more years that the larger story we participate in is one that keeps coming back to life.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute