Wednesday, February 25, 2015

St. Agnes of Rome (292-304 AD) : A Model of Sacrificial Purity by Chris White

St. Agnes "Pure"

Piazza Navona in Rome Italy
In present day Rome is a site popular with tourists called the Piazza Navona.  It has three fountains that are considered Baroque masterpieces and adding to its charm are many sidewalk café’s, gelato stands, street musicians, artists, and entertainers.  On a beautiful summer night, this is truly one of the more magical spots in all of Italy. 

On the western side of the oblong piazza stands a church.  It too is a masterpiece of the Baroque although some have criticized the façade of the Church as being poorly designed.  Not being qualified to evaluate such things, I simply accept St. Agnese in Agone Church as it is and enjoy the lovely art treasures inside caring little about building symmetry and the like.

St. Agnese en Agone Church

But behind the beautiful art and all the activities and entertainments of the piazza is a story of Christian heroism that is quite important .  At the end of the first century, the Emperor Domitian built a stadium with seating for 30,000 people on that very site.  It was a popular place for horse racing and gladiatorial games and was in use until the 5th century when it was abandoned and its materials were repurposed in many other buildings and homes around Rome.  It was here that a young Christian girl known to us as Agnes was martyred for her Christian faith at the tender age of 13.  Her story has continued to inspire Christians and people of all persuasions ever since. 
Artistic Model of Domitian Stadium

Piazza footprint of Domitian Stadium

In March of 303 AD, faced with all sorts of internal and external pressures, the emperor of the Roman Empire named Diocletian launched an all-out assault on the Christian church.  Typical with despotic rulers, if things aren’t going well, scapegoating a segment of the population is a good way to divert unwanted attention on your own leadership failures.  The reasoning goes like this: (1) things used to be great in the Roman Empire (at least for the elite classes); (2) Rome was founded on loyalty to the ancient  gods; (3) This one group does not respect or sacrifice to our gods; (4) therefore, destroy this one group and all problems will dissipate and our normal good fortunes will return.

In the case of the Diocletian persecution, the picture is not wholly unlike what happened to the Jews in Hitler’s Germany in the 20th century except that the Christians as a whole were a much larger segment of the populace.  Diocletian started with the prohibition of Christian meetings and then moved to the razing of any church buildings, imprisonment of church leaders, destruction of the Scriptures, and finally a mandatory requirement that anyone accused of being a Christian was required to make a sacrifice to the pagan gods of Rome upon pain of death.  In some parts of the Roman Empire, Christians were sent to “work camps” where they were essentially executed by being underfed and worked to death.  Eusebius, the early Christian historian, who was contemporaneous with these events, said in some locales, the jails were so full of Christians there was no room for criminals anymore.  Although this persecution slackened a bit with the unprecedented retirement of Diocletian in 305, it was continued in his successors until 313 when the Edict of Milan effectively brought freedom of religion to all people within the Roman world under Constantine.

There are several traditions regarding St. Agnes which seem to emphasize different facets of her story.  Rather than present them separately, I am going to synthesize them into a single narrative leaving it to the reader to do further research if they are inclined to know the other alternatives.

Agnes was born in 292 to an upper class Roman family.  It is believed the entire family was practicing Christians although the current times required them to keep a low profile about their faith.  The Prefect of Rome (a mayor with power) at the time was named Sempronius.  He knew Agnes and her family and really wanted her to marry his son Procop.  She was apparently quite a beautiful person both in appearance and personality and therefore quite a “catch” for any young man.  Agnes was approached with a marriage proposal a couple of times which she refused on the basis that she had consecrated her life to Jesus Christ and intended on living as a virgin. 
English version of Agnes

 In today’s sexual economy this may sound absurd, but it has a long tradition in the Christian church and is found in the Scriptures in 1 Corinthians chapter 7.  The purpose of such a consecration had nothing to do with the idea that sex and marriage were inherently evil, something the Bible does not teach, but rather this mode of life was a means of diverting all of your energy and attention on the pursuit of God.  The phrase often used by those in that station in life was “my spouse is Jesus Christ and my heart belongs totally to Him.”  Agnes couldn’t have made such vow without her parent’s consent at her age and so the refusal of marriage proposals was also with their permission.

Whether it was boldness, impetuosity, or simply the knowledge that her tender age exempted her from criminal punishment under Roman law, Agnes spoke quite freely about her consecration to Jesus Christ and that she was unavailable for a marriage contract.  After her second refusal of marriage to his son and the spurning of the offer of many gifts if she would change her mind, Sempronius went to the local courts to report Agnes as a Christian.

There might have been some politics involved in Agnes’s case that went beyond just her youth because when she appeared before the court, the governor made her lavish promises if she would publicly renounce her faith and then treated her with extreme harshness when she wouldn’t comply.  On either side of the equation, Agnes was a high profile example and useful to the Roman government for propaganda purposes.  To renounce her faith would provide a powerful testimony to the community that nothing is worth dying for especially your religion, to cling to her faith would give opportunity for the government to show just how cruel they can be in punishing those who do not comply with their policies.

When Agnes explained that she was virgin consecrated to Jesus Christ alone, the governor set about to torment her before having her executed.  Agnes was condemned to die and it is said she faced this prospect with the joy of a woman on her wedding day.  But the governor hoped that the miseries he had planned for her might cause her to reconsider her manner of life.

First, Agnes was sentenced to live in a well-known brothel next to the stadium of Domitian where the prostitutes serviced those attending the games and races there.  In Rome, a young virgin girl could not be given a death sentence, but if the girl was living as a prostitute, then the situation changes.  When game-day arrived,  Agnes was stripped naked along with the other prostitutes, and brought into the stadium much like a half-time commercial on a ball game today.  A different product to be sure, but the marketing strategy was still same.

Agnes covered by hair

There are a couple of traditions at this point in the story that may or may not be true but certainly add to the story.  The first one is that when Agnes was stripped naked and brought before the crowd, which would have been utter humiliation for a chaste young girl of her character,  God caused the hair on her head to suddenly and spontaneously grow to cover her private parts.  The second story is that a man at the arena who wanted to purchase her services.  When he came down and tried to touch her, he died suddenly.  Agnes told the guard detail that was leading her around that an angel unseen to them but visible to her was protecting her.  To prove this she prayed and the man was brought to life.  Did this actually happen?  We don’t know.  Could it actually happen?  I think the same God who says not hair on your head or a sparrow in the air falls to the ground without his knowledge and permission
 ( Lk.21:18, Mt. 10:29) is more than capable of helping a person in this manner.

When this was reported to the governor, he ordered that Agnes be taken to be burned alive as a pagan sacrifice.  Since she wanted to be a holy virgin to God, she was to be made an offering by fire to Minerva.  When the fire was lit beneath her rather than consume her, it continually went out.  The Lord was not going to allow her to become a sacrifice to anyone but Himself.

Finally it was decided to put Agnes to the sword. The Roman guard who was dispatched to decapitate her, cut her throat instead causing her to die quickly and mercifully.  For this reason iconography depicts her with a lamb (because lambs have their throats cut before they are used as a sacrifice) to symbolize her as a pure sacrifice before God.  This happened in a support room at the stadium of Domitian.

At the time of this incident, the harsh treatment and execution of Agnes was a shock and scandal to the citizens of Rome and brought pressure to bear on the government to bring an end to persecution of Christian citizens.  Not only was Agnes admired as an example of steadfast faith as she innocently endured evil, but was held forth as a model of purity and chastity for both women and men.  The name Agnes actually means “pure and chaste.”
Agnes as sacrificial lamb at sword

It is important to remember Agnes’ steadfast devotion was not the result of her great efforts or maturity, but really was made possible by the support of God given to her in her time of trial.  Agnes’ story was immortalized in her own generation when Constantine the Great built a church in her honor at the urging of his daughter Constanzia who visited her memorial shrine in Rome and claimed she had been healed of a disease.

January 21st is her memorial day on the calendars of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches.  Since medieval times there has been a curious custom related to her feast.  If an unmarried woman skips her supper on the eve of the feast of St. Agnes, that night she will see her future husband in her dreams.  Of course, that being a true thing would be a terrific comfort to some women and to others, perhaps warning enough to pursue the path of St. Agnes herself and becoming the spouse of Jesus alone.

Reliquary with Agnes' Skull

“Agnes, Saint”  Saints and Angels Catholic Online. 20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes, Saint”  Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2005. 20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes, Saint and Martyr”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 1  McClintock and Strong eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books, 1981)

“Saint Agnes of Rome”  20 Feb. 2015

“Agnes”  Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity Vol. 1.  Angelo Di Berardino Gen. Ed.  (Downers Grove : Intervarsity Press, 2014)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through The Centuries.  (Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1981)

Chidester, David  Christianity : A Global History.  (San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, 2000)

Guy, Laurie  Introducing Early Christianity: A Topical Survey of Its Life, Beliefs & Practices  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004)

Kirsch, Johann Peter  “Saint Agnes of Rome”  The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 1  (New York : Robert Appleton Company, 1907)  20 Feb. 2015

Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons, and Feasts  Edited and Revised by Leonard Foley O.F.M. and Pat McCloskey O.F.M. (Cincinnati : St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001)

Todescato, Gianni  A Brief Guide to St. Agnese in Agone.  (Rome : LazziRoma, 2009)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Francis Schaeffer : A 20th Century Prophet by Chris White

Have you ever noticed that God fits men (and women) to a ministry suitable to their times and place?  As a student of history I have often imagined what it would be like to have been a minister (or even a monk) in an epoch different from my own, but I don't operate under any illusion that the times were simpler or that people were more godly than they are now.  Every era has its challenges and blessings and the voice of Providence says to each of us what Mordecai said to Queen Esther: you have been raised up for such a time as this (Esther 4:14).  We are given our day and our challenge is to serve the Lord in the times in which we live.  The 20th Century was a time of great spiritual darkness all over the world, and one of the voices God raised up to challenge the darkness was that of Francis A. Schaeffer. 

Newsweek magazine called Schaeffer a “guru to fundamentalism” and this was entirely appropriate.  By the mid-twentieth century, young university age people in the West were disenchanted with the structures and institutions of their society (including the church and their families) and were seeking the meaning of life in alternative ways and communities.  Like a mystic of the East, Schaeffer and his wife Edith lived in a mountain village in Switzerland and the young looking for wisdom and direction came and lived with them in a small community.

That said, Francis Schaeffer didn't look like your typical guru.  In fact his appearance was more than a bit eccentric with his long white hair and goatee (long before this was common) and his trademark knickerbocker pants with knee high socks no matter what the occasion.  It makes sense if you live in the Swiss Alps, but I fear that if Schaeffer ever went to Hawaii on vacation (I don't know if he did or didn't) that you'd find him on the beach with the same outfit.  He also had a higher pitched voice (not the first choice of great orators) and as Time magazine noted “he was sad-faced.”

Chuck Colson explores the legacy of Francis Schaeffer here 

Although his teaching was thoroughly Christian, Schaeffer rarely quoted from the Bible and was just as comfortable using the secular as he was the sacred to make his point.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of history that allowed him to connect important events together and show how the present course is the result of a long flow of human history.  Francis Schaeffer was a prolific reader, writer, and teacher.  Although he was to later engage in political activism, his core belief was that “ideas are totally a matter of life and death” and thus his life work was mostly about shaping the thoughts of a new generation of Christians.

Francis Schaeffer’s ministry can easily be divided up into three phases.  First he was a pastor, later he moved into being an apologist for the faith, and finally in the last part of his life he was more a prophet.

The Pastoral Phase:

Schaeffer was born in 1912 and grew up in a working class home and community in Eastern Pennsylvania.  His upbringing ignored the intellect and nurtured the technical and practical arts.  Francis spent much of his childhood working side by side with his father learning home repair and construction and seemed destined to a life of working with his hands.  When he was in grade school his parents received a letter from his teacher telling them that Francis seemed to have real intellectual promise.  Rather than build on this, they concealed it from him for fear he might join the ranks of the ivory tower elite which they thought to be of no value.  Instead, his parents constantly steered him towards a technical education and career.

Although the Schaeffer family were not what anyone would categorize as deeply religious, Francis and his family attended a very liberal Presbyterian Church on a weekly basis.  When Francis was a teenager he was asked by the church to tutor a Russian count in English.  Francis went to a bookshop to get an English book to use and quite mistakenly the bookseller gave him a book on Greek philosophy.  In the process of tutoring, Schaeffer read this book and was captivated by its approach to answering the big questions in life.

For a time, Schaeffer looked only to philosophy for answers but in time felt that before he gave up on Christianity, he would read the Bible from cover-to-cover to see what it really was about.  What he found was that the Bible was filled with answers to life’s deepest questions and began to trust that the Bible was truly the truth mankind needed.

With his home and church background, Francis, then 17, thought he was completely alone in his belief that the Bible was the Word of God.  It was by chance that he passed by a revival tent one night and over heard the preacher saying things that he believed as well.  He was overjoyed to find that there were Christians who believed as he did.

As Francis grew in his faith he felt a strong call to ministry, but his parents strongly objected and wanted him to become an electrical engineer.  When Francis wanted to leave his technical school for a Christian college there was a great confrontation between he and his father.  Before he decided to disobey his father, Francis went into the basement and put what once would call a fleece before the Lord (Judges 6:36).  Schaeffer flipped a coin three times changing it from heads to tails and back to heads on whether he should go and prepare for ministry.  Each time, the Lord’s cause won and Francis stood in real confidence that despite his parents objections, he was to become a minister of the Gospel.

By 1935 Schaeffer had graduated college and entered Westminster Theological Seminary to begin ministerial studies.  This was a very turbulent period in the Presbyterian Church as they were dividing along the lines of Modernism and its attendant questioning of the Bible, and Evangelicalism and its strong confidence in the Bible.  Fortunately (at least in my opinion), Francis held a firm belief in the Scriptures and remained within the Evangelical camp of his Church.

During his first ten years of pastoral work, Francis and his wife Edith, worked among working class congregations in Pennsylvania and Missouri.  It is telling that although Francis was by most human measures a brilliant thinker, when he ministered and called upon the members of his Churches, he was frequently working on projects or home repairs with them.  He saw both humble people and humble work as sacred and never felt it was beneath his dignity as a clergyman.

Francis and his wife were also very talented children’s and youth ministers.  When you read his weighty books or see his films, its hard to imagine him doing flannel-graphs and teen barbecues. But  he did this both in the United States and then as a missionary working in Europe after World War 2.  In fact, his work grew into an international ministry called Children for Christ.  And really his being able to relate to the younger generation was an integral part of his work with the L’Abri community and the college age generation of the 1960’s.

In 1948 Francis Schaeffer and his entire family moved to Switzerland to serve with the efforts of  Children for Christ and also to work on the formation of the International Council of Christian Churches.

Like most Christians of strong conviction, Francis Schaeffer had his own ‘dark night of the soul’ in 1951.  During this time there was deep division within his denomination and the way people were talking and acting really caused him to question the reality of Christianity.  He had also been working very hard and was experiencing burnout which robbed him of a lot of joy and well-being. For several months he went through a deep crisis where he reevaluated everything he believed, reading the Bible and praying and walking for hours.  In the end he concluded that what the Bible teaches is true, but that men were emphasizing the things we believe for salvation to the exclusion of our need to live in holiness.  This crisis led him to eventually sever some of his denominational ties but also led him to a foundational belief that true spirituality is marked by belief and behavior.

The Apologetic Phase:
For several years the Schaeffers had been seeking God for new avenues of ministry in Switzerland.  In 1955 a whole new phase of his ministry was inaugurated when his eldest daughter brought some friends home from college who were struggling with some big questions about life.  Francis was able to share in a way that really made sense to the younger generation that historic Christianity had the answers to life’s biggest questions.  Before long, more college students started coming for the weekend and the long discussions held around the table evolved into a ministry known as L’Abri which is French for shelter.

Schaeffer said later that it was never intended to be an evangelistic ministry to the young, to intellectuals, or to drug users.  It was simply a commitment to their prayers that God would somehow use them to demonstrate his reality in their generation.  By 1957, L’Abri was filled with 25 guests each weekend.  They developed a pattern of meals, walks, discussions and Sunday Church services that created a conducive atmosphere for philosophical and religious ideas to be shared.

Download Teachings from Francis Schaeffer from the L'Abri Website 

Francis would read and teach classes throughout Italy and Switzerland during the weekdays.  Many of his students were Europeans who were very much aware of the post-Christian existential philosophies floating around at this time.  In a way, these students served as tutors to Schaeffer as he would see the consequences of existential thought being lived out in their lives. 

By 1960, the work of L’Abri had expanded so much that the sheer numbers required the informal weekends to be replaced with a full-time study program.  L’Abri actually caught the attention of Time magazine who called it a mission to intellectuals.  With the steady stream of visitors to their home in Switzerland, Francis read and prepared and became fueled with a passion to take his messages to a wider audience.  He felt he had the answers for a generation that was rapidly becoming lost but his wife Edith really put the brakes on any sort of speaking tours that would take him away from home.   This caused a real strain in their marriage at one point, but eventually Edith relented and eventually Schaeffer embarked on another phase of ministry which found him lecturing at some of the leading universities of the Western world.
Francis and Edith Schaeffer

The Prophetic Phase:

By the 1970s, the Schaeffers were well-known throughout the world in evangelical circles.  They were quite different because rather than encourage disengagement from the culture as was the standard practice in the day, they encouraged an engagement which would challenge cultural presuppositions.

Surprisingly, the Schaeffers were even involved with politicians in Washington DC seeking to influence the government for Christ.   Then President Gerald Ford invited them to the White House for dinner as their oldest son Michael had been a L’Abri student.   By the late 70’s Schaeffer had begun to focus much of his efforts on fighting abortion.  He joined C. Everett Koop who would later become the Surgeon General under Ronald Reagan and started a series of seminars and films which challenged the ideas of abortion and euthanasia based on the premise that all life has dignity because it originates with God.

One of his greatest projects was making How Should We Then Live?   This was a 10 part film series and book he wrote in the mid 70’s which crystallized his thoughts on the decline of Western Culture.  The film series and book were intended to be a Christian rebuttal to another popular film series produced by historian Kenneth Clark called Civilization.  Although the film series was very well received in the United States, it proved quite divisive in the L’Abri community.  The community had always prayed together over big decisions before they were made, and in this case the decision was made quite unilaterally by Francis and Edith.  They also broke with their longstanding tradition of no direct solicitation, and solicited funds from their large mailing list of supporters for the film project.  The film series is guilty of being almost too sweeping in its summary of history, but it has made a complex subject accessible to many and though now over 30 years old, it is more relevant today than it was when it was produced.

Watch How Should We Then Live on Youtube here 

In 1981 Schaeffer wrote his book “A Christian Manifesto” which called Christians to civil disobedience, and even resisting the government by force if need be especially over the issue of abortion.  This book along with ‘The Great Evangelical Disaster” written in 1984 which sharply criticized many evangelical leaders for being so accommodating to American culture had many critics.  Many felt he had become uncharitable and had become too involved in politics.  In reality, the things he criticized and saw ahead for the Church did come to pass.  Prophets are frequently without honor in their own day.
Schaeffer was diagnosed with cancer in 1978 and after a 6 year battle with it died in his home in Minnesota.

The Legacy:

The L’Abri community today has an outpost in the United States and sites in 6 other countries.  Each community is engaged in reaching their culture through various projects but also runs a 2-3 month study program for visiting students.  All of Schaeffer’s daughters and their husbands are involved in the work.

Schaeffer’s influence has extended to many ministries and careers such as Chuck Colson, Randall Terry of Operation Rescue, Social commentator Cal Thomas, and Jerry Falwell

How Shall We Then Live?  Although it was criticized for its simplicity the film series is credited with moving many evangelicals in the 1970’s to become politically active.

One of the greatest of Schaeffer’s legacies is his writings.  His first couple of books Escape from Reason and  The God Who is There actually put the publisher Intervarsity Press on the map in the Christian publishing world.  Schaeffer wrote many books and pamphlets, however he was not the traditional writer who sits pen in hand.  Many of his books were from lectures that were taped, transcribed, and then edited for print.  Many of the ideas were not his alone, but rather came from long discussions with his circle of friends at L’Abri.

The big thing that make his books important is that he explains some of the most difficult theological and philosophical issues of the 20th century in a way that is very non-technical and is accessible to the everyday Christian.  Vernon Grounds, a fellow classmate of Schaeffer and a leading evangelical teacher in his own right, wrote this about the life of Francis Schaeffer:

“It is difficult for a contemporary to pronounce definitive judgement on the achievement of his peers.  Time performs a winnowing process in which once-towering heroes sink into oblivion, and those who were little applauded while living gain stature and significance.  My own surmise, however, is that, while many evangelical luminaries will fade into obscure references in church history, Francis Schaeffer, will be recognized as a key figure in 20th Century Evangelicalism.”

View more pictures and a timeline of Schaeffer's life here