Tag Archives: Phyllis Tickle

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 1: Families, Clans and Tribes

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

For those who despise history, and I know that there are many out there, I will warn you that I am beginning a long engagement with looking back through time at the narrative of where authority has rested at various points in time.  Originally I planned to do this in one, and then a couple, then three, and well I found our as I began wrestling through this I apparently had a lot to say, so to keep it in shorter bites this may be part 1 of many so read what you want, I will try to make it worth your while.

We often think of things in terms of secular and religious authority as if they are nice and discreet things, but that is a recent phenomenon. In reality, authority has rested in a couple key places at any one time but the distinction between secular and religious authority is not as defined as we might expect from our worldview.  Although the breakdown of the time periods is guided by Phyllis Tickle’s breakout in the Great Emergence, what follows are my own thoughts and reflections upon authority at each of these epochs.

Prior to 1,000 BCE, roughly 3,000 years ago authority rested heavily on a family’s ability to influence the course of actions for the realm around them.  For the Abrahamic faiths this is the time of Judges, when the people would rally around a great leader in the time of crisis and these men and at least one woman would provide stability for the rough confederation of tribes and families that would become Israel.  It is a time where these leaders and families would set up a shrine or worship sites but there is relatively little centralized authority.  Family is the central place where authority rests and there is a struggle internally between the tribes and externally with the people of Aram, Moab, Philistia, Cannan, and Ammon for land (the primary source of wealth) and power.  Much as in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof a person’s role within the family and the practices, stories and traditions handed down from one generation to another shaped who they were and what they would become.

There was no centralized religious authority, there was no scripture, certainly there were stories but things were much more fluid than we often imagine.  Even in the remembered story of Israel we see that the memory is that of a chaotic time, even a brief survey of the book of Judges within the Bible points to this:

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten years.  So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephriam, north of Mount Gaash.  Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2.8ff(NRSV)

Someone will say, but surely there would be the first five books of the bible and Joshua as scripture, and the short answer is no.  Even if one were to believe that Moses wrote the Penteteuch by himself and handed it on to Joshua and the people of Israel (which you would be hard pressed to find any reputable scholar of the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament who does) even if that were the case, this was a time of very little literacy, very little true priestly/scribal organization, very little rule of law.  In a very real sense might did make right.  Take for example the story of Samson in Judges 13-16, one of those stories that many people have some acquaintance with, which is set within one of the times of crisis.  When I read the story Samson makes Conan the Barbarian look both ethical and smart, and yet the story tells of a person who judges Israel for 20 years, delivers them from the Philistines.  There is no centralized worship place or practice, families set up their own shrines, construct their own ‘idols’ or representations of who their god, gods, of God (depending on how one looks at it) are and if you need a good demonstration of this (this is one of many) take a look at Judges 17, the story of Micah and the Levite.

In a time of heavily decentralized authority, where family, clan and tribe hold the power and the wealth (i.e. land at this point) there is constant struggle and fighting to gain possession of more wealth, more power and to expand one’s familial authority.  The book of Judges for example does not remember this time fondly, it is a dark time where horrible things happen, where former allies are almost exterminated, where enemies are everywhere and as they looked around them and as they remembered their own story they began to see a different way.  As 1 Samuel remembers it:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” 1 Samuel 8.4f (NRSV)

And that is where we are heading next…

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

Why the sign of the rose?

The rose was a symbol of the last Great Reformation, which we most often associate with Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  In Luther’s seal the predominant image that gives form to the overall seal is that of a rose.  A rose was often worn as a mark to identify oneself as an adherent to the reformation in those early days of the conflict that would come to dominate the shape of the next 500 years of Christianity.  Protestant and Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopal, Baptist and every other heritage of the Western Church found themselves reshaping their practices and life together in the midst of the impact of the Great Reformation of the Church.

It should go without saying that the world has changed dramatically in the last 500 years, that many of the questions of the reformation are not the questions of a society that is predominantly visual and digital rather than oral, a society that went through the enlightenment, capitalism and communism, modernity and post-modernity, from a printing press to the iPad.  The world is in a state of rapid transition and along with it the lives of those who attempt to live faithfully also are in a state of upheaval.  This is not the first time this has happened, nor will it probably be the last.  Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why points to the reality that about once every 500 years society goes through a ‘rummage sale’ and re-examines what it believes and why it believes what it does.  I agree that we are in the lead up to another Great Emergence, that  who we are as people and what matters is going through a period of upheaval and re-evaluation. For me this is a place to put down some of my early reflections on what I as a reflective person of faith see, and my initial thoughts on what it means.

So why the sign of the rose?  In the first case these reflections are sub rosa (under the rose) in the sense that they are the musings of an heir of the last Great Reformation, as an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) minister I take very seriously the gift that my particular and the worldwide church has given us throughout the past 500 years, and indeed I am an heir to the church’s roughly 2,000 years of both great triumphs and colossal missteps.  This is a voice on the emergence of a new reformation coming from under the faithful services of one shaped by the history of the past reformation.  It is also sub rosa in a second sense, it is somewhat covert at this point.  In espionage there is the sense that something done sub rosa is covert, and these reflections may well be viewed by some as dangerous, unfaithful, heretical and any number of other adjectives.  But in a time of great change, there is and will be conflict over the ideas that take form and shape the world going forward.

The questions of meaning, of God, of life are not solely the property of the church, in fact I have found in recent years that some of my best conversations have been with people outside the church and people of other faiths. I have certainly seen the church and people of faith struggle to engage difficult (and sometimes even trivial questions) and I am going to tackle some foundations that may be very uncomfortable to many, but may be liberating for many others.  As a blog this is a work in evolution, it is asking the difficult questions, not attempting to provide the one unequivocal answer (as if such a thing could exist in post-modern mind).  The reality is that if you agree with everything I say, you probably are giving me too much credit. Welcome to an encounter with one person’s reflective faith and encounter with the world and with God.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com