1% Christian History

My old college roommate and I started a tradition last year. Each Christmas, we buy each other a book that we think would be beneficial reading. I didn’t know what to expect from my greasy friend but waited patiently for my gift to arrive. One day, I walked up to my porch and saw a package that looked like a wrapped encyclopedia. I wasn’t too far off; my dirtbag roommate bought me a 1000 page book on the history of Christianity – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book loomed over me all year and I kept putting off what seemed like a Sisyphean task. By the end, it took me about 50 hours spread over a month.

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Christian history is difficult because it isn’t like normal history – it is a weird dance of facts, figures, and eternity. Having eternity involved complicates everything because you either have to take the Thomas Jefferson route and get rid of all supernatural events or take the Jack Van Impe route and prepare for the apocalypse. These two extremes frame the gamut of Christian beliefs and preface why Christian history is one continuous story of division. From the moment Jesus died on the cross, his disciples went out and preached the Gospel – within a generation, groups were already disagreeing on the intricacies of theology. The Christian church as we know it today is like a box of peanut-brittle that has been shaken by a two-year-old. Originally there was one solid chunk but now there are thousands of variant morsels. This post will only focus on one tiny but very important nugget of Christian history – as the title surmises, this book could fill 99 more blogs.

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The 1% we will cover is one of the most important moments in the Christian church – the Chalcedonian Schism. The Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 9th in the year 451 AD. This Council was called by the Roman Emperor Marcian as an ecumenical meeting for all the important churches at the time – the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. At this point in history, the Christian church needed to clarify theological doctrine and adjust the power roles of western and eastern leaders. The main reason for this meeting was to clarify the true nature of Jesus.

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How could Jesus be both God and man? Before the meeting, there were groups who believed Jesus appeared on earth as a man disguised as God (Docetism) while other groups believed Jesus was, in reality, a normal man chosen by God (Adoptionism). These beliefs led to Nestorianism (which viewed Christ as having some mixture of divine and human elements) and Eutychianism (which viewed Christ’s divinity as completely consuming his humanity like a drop of vinegar in the ocean).

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The Council of Chalcedon sided with a watered down Nestorian view which became known as Dyophysitism – which states that Christ is one person in two natures – “distinctively” man and God in one. This led to the creation of Miaphysitism which held the belief that Christ is one nature and that nature has “inseparable” components of man and God. Confused yet? Again, Dyophysitism believes that Christ is one person with two separate natures while Miaphysitism believes that Christ is one nature which is both divine and human.

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This Dyophysitism decision at the council was agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Oriental Church broke off from this definition and became known as Non-Chalcedonian. The Oriental Church includes the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. This schism had drastic effects on the eastern church as a whole by shifting power to the west and decreasing overall cooperation. This separation was one variable that allowed the new religion of Islam to take over eastern strongholds of Christianity; the west would not realize their mistakes until the first crusades 600 years later.

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Our current world is shaped by the decisions at this council: The politics of countries, the religious makeup in the Middle East, and the West’s ignorance of the Oriental Church. So what can we learn from the Council of Chalcedon? One huge lesson is that Christianity can come in many different flavors, shapes, and sizes. Christians shouldn’t be divided into little pieces of peanut brittle. Christians should work together under one absolute truth – Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so we can have eternal life and spread His message of grace; in a world still divided, we need to focus on that point more than ever. Don’t get hung up on the details and throw your hands in the air thinking religion is stupid. If you focus on loving others, you will obtain the other 99%. 

 

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

The Hydrocarbon Man

Could you imagine your life without petroleum? Our daily lives from the food we eat to the cars we drive depend on the oil industry. Without oil, we would not have our comfortable life of abundance and hyper-connectivity. I always knew oil was important and that it had influenced a lot of our world politics in the last century. I never knew the full extent of how oil shaped the hydrocarbon man until I read the The Prize by Daniel Yergin. This book is 800 pages of pure geological-political-historical-orgasmical enjoyment. It won the Pulitzer Prize and encompasses the rise of the world-oil industry between 1859 to 1991. Suffice it to say there is no easy way to summarize this book. There are some very important events in world oil that everyone should know:

1859-“Colonel” Drake drills the first oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania
1870-John D. Rockefeller forms Standard Oil Company
1873-Oil fields in Russia open for development
1896-Henry Ford builds his first car
1901-Gusher at Spindletop, Texas discovered: beginning of Sun, Texaco, Gulf
1903-Wright Brothers first flight
1907-First drive-in gasoline station opens in St. Louis, MO
1908-Discovery of oil in modern day Iran
1910-Discovery of “Golden Lane” in Mexico
1911-US Supreme Court rules dissolution of Standard Oil Trust
1914-World War I sees first mechanization of battlefield and need for secure oil
1922-Discovery of oil in Venezuela
1930-Discovery of biggest oil deposit in East Texas
1936-Hitler occupies the Rhineland and ramps up synthetic fuel production
1938-Discovery of oil in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
1938-Mexico nationalizes foreign oil operations
1939-WWII begins with all countries heavily dependent on oil to mobilize soldiers and weaponry
1951-Iran nationalizes foreign oil operations
1952-First Holiday Inn opens (middle-class hitting the open road)
1955-First McDonald’s opens in suburban Chicago
1956-Discovery of oil in Nigeria and Algeria
1960-OPEC founded in Baghdad
1968-Oil discovered in Alaska
1973-Yom Kippur War: Arab Oil Embargo (price per barrel rises from to $2.90 to $11.65)
1975-Automobile Fuel Efficiency Standards introduced in America
1979-Iran overthrow of Shah and Iranian hostage crisis
1981-Panic from problems in Iran send oil from $13 to $34 dollars a barrel
1982-OPEC implements first quotas
1983-First launch of Crude Oil Futures
1989-Exxon Valdez tanker accident
1991-Gulf War motivated by large reserves of oil in Kuwait

That is a lot of dates but they are all very important to understand. In the beginning, America was the main world producer of kerosene which was used for lamps. Uses for oil started to change with advancements in the combustible engine. At the turn of the 20th century, oil was starting to be used for gasoline in automobiles and fuel oil for all types of transportation. World War I was an experimentation in technology and showed countries how crucial it was to have secure access to oil reserves. The outcome of World War II was determined by who had the most oil. Germany and Japan both exhausted their supplies and were helpless to move their war equipment in the last battles. After World War II, the Middle East came center stage in supplying industrialized countries and the US was no longer a supreme exporter of oil. The Middle East would use their oil to increase prices and control foreign policy up until the 1980’s. In the 80s, oil began being traded on the futures market and its price was no longer exclusively controlled by OPEC. Oil is everywhere and has shaped our modern day lifestyle, politics, and even geo-political borders. I highly recommend reading this book because it shines light on our interconnected world and how it was shaped by a single commodity.

 

Native Americans Conquer the English! Why History Wasn’t Reversed-Part 2

The saga continues. If you are not up to date on Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond then read last week’s post here. We now know that civilizations arose not from individual genetic differences but rather environmental conditions that encouraged agriculture: domesticable wild plants, domesticable mammals, and the orientation of a continent’s axis. Agriculture allowed groups of people to expand their social organization from nomadic bands all the way to advance states (common all over the world today). Larger populations required better communication between people-motivating the creation of the first alphabets. Two independently-derived alphabets were invented in areas of the world where agriculture had it’s longest history: the Sumerian cuneiform (Mesopotamia, 3000 B.C) and Chinese (1300 B.C)-most all other writing systems were derived from either of these. Along with the alphabet, large groups of specialized jobs, supported by a surplus of food (agriculture) allowed for a myriad of technological innovations. Technology was pushed through competition and the spread of knowledge between different societies; this spread of knowledge was faster among Eurasian societies compared to North American societies partly due to the axis orientation differences. Civilization not only promoted technology but also religion. Religion served a role in connecting large groups of people in one common higher purpose and rationalized living one’s life for the higher “state.” This is best seen in the Christian Crusades against Islam. It is important to note however that groups of people have been spiritual throughout all of history, organized religion is a whole different beast (Jesus denouncing the religious figures of His time).

As civilizations advanced, they many times spread to new areas and conquered other groups of people. Most everyone knows about the expansion of Europeans starting with Columbus’ exploratory trip in 1492. However, a much larger expansion took place several millennium before in South China. This is known as the Austronesian expansion and it was comprised of the more advanced agriculturists of South China spreading from Taiwan all the way through Polynesia and reaching as far as Madagascar off the coast of Africa. Humans first inhabited Southeast Asia and Polynesia by 33,000 B.C. Between 33,000 B.C. and 3,500 B.C. the people who inhabited these areas were mainly hunter gatherers with limited technological sophistication. However, beginning in 7500 B.C., China was growing their civilization and by the year 3,500 B.C. began migrating south. With agriculture, the Austronesians were able to spread from the Philippines to New Zealand and everywhere in between (except New Guinea and Australia); they eventually were the first people to reach the Hawaiian Islands. This mass human expansion was one of the first examples of how advanced civilizations with the aid of agriculture could take over less-advanced groups through germs and superior weaponry.

The book goes on to talk about the differences between Europeans and Chinese in respects to expansion in the last 500 years. Why didn’t China expand to the west coast of North America and colonize in similar fashion to Europeans? How did Europe pass China and the Middle East in technological advancement? These are complex questions with several possible answers but one hypothesis is that China’s united geography compared to Europe’s segmented geography created differences in competition. China had one united ruling government while Europe had several feuding states; the competition in Europe facilitated greater technological advancement and was less prone to idiosyncratic individuals. China did have times of imperialism but in 1492 the dynasty in place was not interested in expansion. On the other hand, Christoper Columbus had to ask several different European states for funding before finally catching a lucky break with Spain. As soon as Spain was raking in the cash in the New World, other autonomous European countries jumped on the bandwagon-unified China followed their emperor’s decision to stay put. This is only one part of the answer of how our modern world was shaped but it highlights geography’s role in shaping history. Understanding our past helps us understand our present. Today there are rich countries and poor countries, successful businesses and unsuccessful businesses, peaceful zealots and violent zealots. How different variables interact to mold groups of people is not only fascinating but can possibly tilt the scales for the “haves and have nots” of the future.

Our Inner Insurgent

Is there any scenario in which blowing a person’s head off is not a bad thing? Maybe if you were playing Call of Duty, but I would say that 99% of the time killing someone is not the right thing to do. What about the other 1% of the time? This sliver of justified killing occurs during war and is talked about in American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle. Chris Kyle, as most people know him, was played by Bradley Cooper in the box-office hit American Sniper-directed by Clint Eastwood. The movie was sweet and I would recommend watching it. The book, that Chris Kyle wrote, went much more in detail about his experiences in the military and the culture of the Navy Seals. In total, Chris spent 10 years in the military where he experienced several tours of duty in Iraq. During those 10 years he accumulated 11 medals and 160 confirmed sniper kills-the highest number in American history. He was a fiercely patriotic man who cared about his country more then his family; being in battle for him was the ultimate experience. Reluctantly, not wanting to give up service to his country, he left the military to take on the role of husband and father to his two children. In civilian life, he started a business that trained police and security organizations how to hone their sniper skills. In his free time Chris volunteered to help veterans with PTSD and other war related injuries. In 2013, he and his friend were killed by a former soldier who was suffering with schizophrenia and PTSD.

Chris was no angel and there has been a lot of controversy about his alleged experiences. Some of the things written have been found to be lies but these lies related more to his personal life than his service in Iraq. I believe he got a little to enamored by the spotlight and started to go overboard with his storytelling. The thing that fascinated me most about Chris was his black and white view of the world. He said in the book that he feels no guilt from killing all the people in Iraq and feels confident that he can stand before God and justify himself. He describes the Iraqi insurgents as “evil” and that they were “savages” that deserved to be killed; every shot he took was done to protect his fellow service men and his country. Were the insurgents truly evil? The insurgents were trying to defend a way of life that they believed in and eject a foreign invader-the United States. Would we classify ourselves as evil if Iraq invaded the US and we tried to defend our way of life? Is there justification to kill an “evil” person outside the realms of war? Why does a declaration of war by a country make killing acceptable? I have a ton of respect for the men and women who fought in the Middle East and they did kill a lot of people who would gladly hurt Americans. I think we need to understand that we are very similar to the insurgents. We have strong opinions, we want to protect our way of life, we believe in a cause, we would defend ourselves, and a large proportion of us would take advantage of others if allowed the opportunity. Why am I drawing these similarities? I think the more we see ourselves in our enemies the more we can understand that human nature is universal, that we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and we need to think about how war creates hate. I commend Chris because he did his job but I don’t commend the US for going to war in the first place. Sadly, for every insurgent Chris killed a new insurgent was born because hate breeds hate-perpetuating a never ending cycle of division between groups.

A Buffet of Religion

Happy Easter! Today is the day that Jesus was resurrected from the dead after being crucified for the sins of all mankind. I love learning about religions in a historical context and the differing philosophies are quite fascinating. Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are the top three religions in the world with an estimated 5 billion followers. The problem with religion is that it is easy to get wrapped up into theological nitpicking. This is why there are so many different types of denominations within a particular religion. Everybody interprets religious texts differently and touts their views as the almighty-most-correct form. This gets tricky especially when eternal life is on the line. People want to be right because they don’t want to burn in hell. The idea of an afterlife is why radical zealots exist and why there has always been wars associated with religious beliefs. If religion was solely a philosophy then no one would care about conversions and cramming their ideology down people’s throats. In particular, Christianity and Islam, requires you to believe in certain things to go to heaven. Ironically, Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe in the exact same God and share much of the same religious texts. The spread of Christianity and Islam destroyed longstanding pagan religions in the pursuit of mass conversions. In Europe, there are no remaining pagan religions that have active practitioners today. In the Middle East however, there are still many religions that never converted to Islam because they were so geographically remote it was difficult for the government to force conversions. Furthermore, these religions survived because they believed in one god which was similar to Islam and hence somewhat acceptable by certain regimes throughout history. I read about these religions in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East by Gerard Russell. These religions are disappearing because of political unrest, global displacement of followers, westernization, Islamic conversions, and difficulties adhering to beliefs. Below I will summarize some interesting things from each religion.

Mandaeans: Originally from Iraq, this group has been dispersed to several middle eastern countries because of persecution. They believe in John the Baptist and hold baptism to an extremely high regard. They believe John the Baptist did not baptize Jesus and Jesus was actually a deceiver and distrustful person. They share several religious texts with Christians but have differing views when it comes to the Holy Spirit (actually a wicked figure) and the creator of the world. Estimated 60,000-70,000 members.

Yazidis: The Yazidis are mostly Kurdish Iraqis who live in the northern mountainous province of Nineveh. They believe in one god who sent 7 angels to earth to protect it with the most powerful angel being a peacock. The peacock angel is in charge of good and evil and actually fell from god in a similar way that Christians believe Satan fell from God. This similarity has created the myth that Yazidis worship the devil and for this they have been persecuted for centuries. Estimated 860,000-1,020,000 members.

Zoroastrians: At one point in time it was the main religion of the great Persian empire. Members today now are found primarily in Iran. Zoroastrians are believed to be the first religion that believed in a Heaven and Hell, which may have influenced Judaism and Christianity beliefs. Followers believe in morality and that their acts will be judged in the afterlife. Their beliefs are very detailed but mirror the general ideas of a creator with struggles of good and evil. Estimated 2.6 million members.

Druze: The Druze are primarily found in Syria and Lebanon. They are actually very similar to Muslims but they believe in reincarnation and use a different religious text. A quirky thing about the Druze is that their religious beliefs are only known by the educated Druze leaders. This secrecy was probably first put in place because it prevented persecution. It is not uncommon for a proclaimed Druze to have no idea what they believe in. Estimated 1,500,000-2,000,000 members.

Kalasha: The Kalasha are actually polytheists who live in the remote mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They sacrifice animals and celebrate festivals annually in honor to their gods. They believe in mountain fairies and the ability to connect with the spiritual world through mediums. The Kalasha do not believe in monogamy and if a married women is caught having sex with a man other then her husband the man is fined and laughed at by the villagers. Estimated 4,100 members.

These are only 5 of the estimated 4,200 religions in the world. Is there one group that has it all right? Why do we have so many different beliefs? Who is going Heaven? Hell? In the end, I don’t have all the answers and my religious beliefs boil down to what Jesus taught; don’t judge others and just love them-no matter what they believe.