BEGINNING AT JERUSALEM
by Glenn W. Olsen
Ignatius Press, 2004 236 pages, $14.95
To order: (800) 651-1531 or http://www.ignatius.com
Pope Gregory VII is a key figure in the formation of today's Western secular society.
If you're not at all curious why this statement might be true, this book will be slow going. But if you want to know more about the investiture controversy of the 11th century and how it applies to our own crisis in the Church, as well as embark on a sweeping journey through history that could change your world view, Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections on the History of the Church is for you. It may prove to be an inconvenient read, though. I was constantly reaching for a red pen or yellow highlighter to mark passages, underline words, circle paragraphs and scribble notes in the margin. Halfway through, I just sat back to read, relax and soak in the author's cohesive and at times ingenious argument.
The book is notable for the way it was compiled. Edited versions of scholarly lectures rarely read well years after the fact, yet the five main chapters of the book are taken from Olsen's talks to audiences in New York City before the turn of the millennium.
A professor of history at the University of Utah, Olsen was asked by New York's Wethersfield Institute to provide a curriculum on Church history for lay audiences in preparation for the year 2000. The course, taught by various scholars, spanned five years; each year covered a different period, beginning from the early Church and ending with the Vatican II era. At the end of each yearly curriculum, Olsen himself traveled to New York to deliver the summary lecture for that period.
Thus the book's chapters trace a chronology: “Ancient Christianity and Us: The Once and Future Church,” “Late Ancient and Early Medieval Christianity: A World We Have Lost?”, “High Medieval Christianity: An Assessment from the Beginning of the Third Millennium,” “The Church in the World from Renaissance to Enlightenment” and “The Church at the Turn of the Third Millennium.” As the titles show, Olsen attempts to make connections to our day and projections for the future. Yet he takes history seriously, which is to say he does not try continually to force the facts into a pre-determined theory. Rather, he makes an honest effort to tease threads of meaning from a muddled lump of facts.
Olsen sets the tone of bold assertion and deep reflection from his first sentence: “The easy answer to explain the increasing unintelligibility and unfamiliarity of central Christian teachings and practices in our culture is that the age is opposed to them.” Why do so many Catholics not believe in the Real Presence, or apprehend in a meaningful way the Trinity or the two natures of Christ? Try explaining to the friendly couple at the parish picnic why contraception is seriously sinful, and you'll begin to plumb the depths of religious illiteracy among even church-going Catholics.
The answer to the problem, Olsen suggests, is not a new program for the third millennium, but the recovery of some things from the first. The early Church lived in radical communion, as surely as St. Luke describes the disciples laying all their goods at the feet of the apostles. This was possible because early Christians — indeed, much of the ancient world — found identity and meaning only in relation to a tribe or group. The concepts of Real Presence and one-flesh love in marriage are shrouded today in a radical individualism supported by runaway consumerism and decisions of the Supreme Court, among other influences.
How did this state of affairs come about? It may be an exaggeration to blame Gregory VII, but you'll have to read this fine book to find out why.
Stephen Vincent is based in Wallingford, Connecticut.