The Reformation was a Tragedy

“Martin Luther in the Circle of Reformers” by the German School, circa 1625-50

We haven’t hit the month of October yet, and already I have read so much about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that I would just assume be done with it. Actually, that’s a lie. I could probably read articles about the Reformation until kingdom come. I am what is popularly called a history geek. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that this year has been so full of solas, beer steins, and papal anathemas that I hesitated to add to the deluge unless I had something to say that was rather different from what had already been said.

Well, here’s something you may not have heard from many Protestants this year: the Reformation was a tragedy. Yes, you read that correctly. In the midst of all this celebrating, I think we ought to take some time to mourn what we have lost. Great damage has been done to the cause of Christian unity, and 500 years later we have yet to recover.

“Hold on a minute!” you might be thinking. “Are you suggesting that the Protestants were wrong to break away from Rome? Do you really believe we should ignore major doctrinal errors in order to maintain a superficial unity?” No, that is not what I am saying at all. There are certainly aspects of the Reformation that we should be celebrating. The recovery of the doctrines known as the Five Solas (scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone) was an absolutely essential development in the history of Christianity. Many of today’s doctrinal errors occur when we fail to cling to those biblical principles. Even so, I think we must celebrate with a twinge of sadness. Continue reading

What is my Novel About? Here’s the Answer.

Image of Empress Matilda (far right) from a 12th century manuscript

These days, I tend to get the same question time after time. “What is your novel about?” People ask this question after they learn that I have written a novel. If they were to ask it before receiving that piece of information, I would consider them rather odd…or maybe psychic. In any case, it’s a natural sort of inquiry. They no doubt wish to know if I am the sort of person that writes Stephen King-esque horror novels (in which case they should avoid me), or one who writes teenage chick lit (in which case they should also avoid me), or even one that writes science fiction epics (which in my husband’s case would make me his ideal woman).

Alas, I write none of these things, and thank God for that! The only one I might attempt some day is the sci fi epic, and then only because my husband is already begging me. No, my domain is that of historical fiction, if indeed I can refer to it as “my domain”. It must be noted that it was never my life ambition to write novels, and I did not receive the level of academic and/or professional training that is common among many of those hoping to break into that industry. I am simply a person who wrote essays and academic papers, only to one day be seized by a particular story…and then wait a few years before doing anything about it.

Some people know they want to write a novel, so they go searching for a story to tell or create one on their own. That was not my experience. It all started back around the time I graduated from college (the first time). I developed an interest in family history and decided that I would attempt to trace my bloodline back as far as I could in any and all directions. I was rather fortunate in this enterprise, for a few relatives had made a start at gathering records in years past. This allowed me to quickly discover some of my heritage, though in the cases where I had less information at the start, the task was that much more difficult. Nevertheless I progressed to the point where I was able to identify approximately 2,000 of my ancestors.

Early on I realized that a few of these lines were particularly interesting. When you reach a certain point in history, the record keeping is just not as good. Births, marriages, and deaths were somewhat forgotten unless the people in question were very rich. For this reason, I have had difficulty tracing many lines back past the 16th century. Lucky for me, some of my ancestors were rather important people, and as a result, I was able to follow the line not 100 years, nor even 500 years, but well over 1,000 years into the past.

One day, I was sitting in my dorm room in London (for I was a student at King’s College at that time) and came across a rather interesting name: Empress Matilda. She was clearly a member of the English royal line, but I was quite confused as to why she should be called “empress”, as that is not a normal title for British monarchs. (Technically, Queen Victoria did have herself styled Empress of India.) I quickly went to that source of all questionable wisdom – Wikipedia – and what I read there ended up changing my life. Continue reading

The Speeding up of History

Woodcut of a printing press operation by Jost Amman, circa 1568

I can’t help observing that things seem to be moving a good deal faster today than they ever did in previous eras. My grandmother was born in 1932. Her childhood home had no flushable toilets, no heating or air conditioning, no car, no television, no radio, and certainly no computer. I scarcely need to mention that at the time she was born penicillin had yet to be discovered, “the pill” had not been legalized, the idea of sending a man into space was ridiculous, atomic science was in its infancy, there was no social safety net in the U.S., and the populations of such countries as China and India were only 1/3 of what they are now.

Universities were mostly for the rich or abnormal. In contrast, it wasn’t at all strange for people to drop out of school well before the age of eighteen. The Catholic Church still forbade saying Mass in anything but Latin, and Islam had barely touched the West. The entire continent of Africa was under the control of more powerful European nations. In the U.S., African-Americans were treated as slightly less than human and Japanese-Americans were being placed in internment camps. This is to say nothing of the enormous upheavals in the global economy and popular culture. The world, in short, was a vastly different place in 1932. Continue reading

No Thank You, Aquinas: Women Are Not Misbegotten

Depiction of Thomas Aquinas by Gentile da Fabriano, circa 1400

Thomas Aquinas was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. His Summa Theologica is quite possibly the most influential theological tome of all time. Christians of all stripes certainly have much to gain from reading the works of Aquinas.

However, my opinion of Aquinas is decidedly mixed. He introduced some great ideas into Christianity, but also some unfortunate errors that have resounded down to the present day. One such concept is the notion of “redemptive suffering”, which I have recently been studying. Aquinas was not the first person to teach this idea, but he certainly helped to lay the groundwork for a theology in which human suffering could itself hold salvific power.

Another place where Aquinas introduced erroneous thinking into Christianity is naturally rather important to me: his beliefs regarding women. The problematic section comes in Part One, Question 92 of the Summa. The first article he considers is, “Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?” Continue reading

Bhagat Singh Thind Had His Citizenship Revoked…in 1923

The “Asiatic Barred Zone” instituted by a 1917 act of Congress

The current debate over immigration that is taking place in the United States is certainly nothing new. Much as Americans like to pride themselves on being a “nation of immigrants”, this has never been a particularly easy place to come as a foreigner and start a new life. With each new ethnic and religious group that has landed on these shores, there has been a certain amount of suspicion. I am not saying this to demonize anyone who wants to place any kind of restriction on immigration, but as a way of framing the issue I intend to address.

Way back in 1790, restrictions were put in place that limited just who could become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America (as opposed to those who became citizens by virtue of being born within our borders). The specific groups that caused concern changed over the years. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was mainly Asians who worried Americans. Congress passed a law that restricted many types of immigrants, including “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons…” One wonders what kind of test they employed to measure what constituted an “idiot”, as a good number of persons living in any country on earth at any point in history have surely deserved this label. Yet, the law was more specific in excluding,

…persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia, situate south of the twentieth parallel latitude north, west of the one hundred and sixtieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the tenth parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situate on the Continent of Asia west of the one hundred and tenth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and east of the fiftieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the fiftieth parallel of latitude north, except that portion of said territory situate between the fiftieth and the sixty-fourth meridians of longitude east from Greenwich and the twenty-fourth and thirty-eighth parallels of latitude north…

Immigration Act of 1917

If you found that confusing – and you undoubtedly did – then let me put it in plain terms for you. This law barred immigrants from any part of Asia except for the Russian Empire, Japan, Korea, and eastern China. This was understandably a problem for many people of Asian descent who were planning on immigrating to the U.S. Continue reading

B.B. Warfield in Dayton

B.B. Warfield photographed during his later years as principal of Princeton Theological Seminary.

When it comes to the history of Dayton, Ohio, my home for the past three years, there is pretty much one name that you need to know: Wright, as in the Wright Brothers, creators of the world’s first practical airplane. The successful test flight famously took place on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but all of the grunt work was done here in Dayton, where Wilbur and Orville Wright applied their bicycle-making expertise to a loftier venture. The town is full of things named after them, most particularly Wright State University and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

True to this heritage, Dayton is known to this day for its association with all things aviation. My husband often jokes that, “There are three things to do in Dayton. There’s the Air Force Museum…and I’m still trying to figure out the other two.” That is surely an exaggeration: we also host the first four games of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament each year, a nearby village has one of the world’s biggest Christmas light displays, and if none of that strikes your fancy, Cincinnati is just an hour down the road.

What Dayton is not particularly known for is its religious heritage. We do have a major Catholic university in town – the University of Dayton – and for those of a more evangelical fervor, there’s Cedarville University out in the neighboring cornfield. But upon the streets of Dayton, you will find neither megachurches nor world-renowned seminaries. As much of Ohio was settled by German immigrants, we are also a bit lean on what you might classify as the Reformed brand of Protestant Christianity. If you want some Reformed heritage, your best bet would be to go to downtown Cincinnati and visit the mother congregation of Reformed Judaism. Continue reading

“The Chronicle of Maud: Fracture” Awaits Your Vote On Kindle Scout

Yes, it’s true: I wrote a novel. In fact, it is the first in a series of three novels that tell the life story of Empress Maud of England, also known as Mathilda. The series title is The Chronicle of Maud and the title of the first book is Fracture. Not only was she a fascinating woman, but she was also my ancestor twenty-some generations removed. I have submitted the book to the Kindle Scout program, where users can nominate it to be published by Amazon’s own label. I invite you to head on over to the Kindle Scout page for The Chronicle of Maud: Fracture and read more about the book. If you have an account with Amazon.com, you can click the “Nominate Me” button just below the initial summary. I also encourage you to visit the official website, where you can learn all about Empress Maud’s life and times and read the first two chapters of the first book. I have been working on this project for a long time and am happy for it to finally see the light of day. Thank you to those readers who have expressed their support for this project! I am excited to bring some attention to the life of this incredible woman.

The Reformer Who Wrote Erotic Poetry

Theodore Beza, lover of fancy hats. Portrait by an unknown artist circa 1605.

History is full of odd tales, and nowhere more so than during the Protestant Reformation. We have, for example, the much beloved story of how Martin Luther’s future wife, Katharina Von Bora, escaped from her convent in a fish barrel, giving new meaning to the phrase, “That’s a pretty kettle of fish.” The relationship between the two of them and the subsequent improvements in Herr Luther’s bowel movements are rather the stuff of legend. (More about Luther, Germans, and poop can be found here.)

Then there was Wibrandis Rosenblatt, who managed to get herself married to three different Protestant Reformers – Johannes Oecolampadius (Try saying that three times fast!), Wolfgang Capito, and Martin Bucer. Now, I must stress that this dear lady was not married to them all at the same time, but rather in succession after they each went the way of all flesh. Indeed, before she was ever married to Oecolampadius, she was already the widow of one Ludwig Keller (Ancestor of Timothy Keller? Just throwing it out there…). That makes a total of four husbands for Wibrandis, which is either incredibly unlucky or incredibly suspicious.

However, for our story today I would like to take us a bit farther south to the town of Geneva, nestled on a beautiful lake at the feet of the Alps. Long before it was nagging the rest of the world about how it should behave in times of war, Geneva hosted a rather interesting religious experiment when it invited a French expat named Jean Calvin – yes, that’s John Calvin – to carry out a reformation in the city along with Guillaume Farel. This was an important development in the history of the Reformed Protestant tradition.

But I’m not going to talk about Calvin today – sorry to burst your bubble. I know Calvin is much beloved in these parts, even by those who have never bothered to read any of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his greatest lasting legacy. No, I would like to talk about one of Calvin’s close associates, Théodore de Bèze, better known in the English speaking world as Theodore Beza. His is a truly fascinating story with many twists and turns. Continue reading

The Origins of the Protestant Reformation

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Can you recall the first time you learned about the Protestant Reformation? In all likelihood, you were told a story somewhat like this. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of a church that stated his complaints with Roman Catholicism. This began the splitting of Western Christianity into two primary groups: Catholics and Protestants. Regardless of where you grew up and what form of religion your family practiced, the issue was almost certainly presented in this manner.

Most people today will never progress beyond that extremely limited and largely misleading version of events, nor will they come to realize the vast ways in which their own lives have been affected by the Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, if we are to truly understand what happened on that October day, we must go back in time and consider the events leading up to that period. Continue reading

The Traitors in my Family

Traitor's Gate at the Tower of London (Author photo)

Traitor’s Gate at the Tower of London (Author photo)

In this week just after Guy Fawkes Day, when the entirety of the American populace stands ready to go at each other with torch and pitchfork, it seems appropriate that I should make known to you the traitors among my own family. Most infamous treasons have they committed, worthy of remembrance. But if you came here for gossip regarding my next of kin, you must stand in disappointment, for I speak not of the woman who bore me thirty years ago today but those through whom I was born many centuries ago.

In researching my family history, I have found not one, not two, not even three, but six undoubted scoundrels of the highest degree executed for treason against king and country. And yes, I do mean king and country, for though my more immediate relatives have spent these past four centuries upon the shores of America – a fact that in and of itself marks them as traitors in the eyes of the British – my more distant ancestors lived in western Europe, and the greatest majority of those in what is now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They did indeed live under the rule of kings and queens: in fact, some of them were kings and queens.

Amid this long history of ancestors, I will now make known to you those unfortunate souls who were cut down in the prime of life for their real or alleged treason against the state. Thank God they passed on their DNA before they passed from this world! I will note from the outset that these are only those who were “convicted” and executed, not all those suspected of or accused of treason, nor those killed in battle: that would be a much, much longer list. Continue reading