Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rewriting church history to fit your worldview – why some books for kids annoyed me

A while back I was in a Christian bookshop and found a range of children’s books on Heroes of the Faith. Nothing new there, except these were books about the early Church Fathers, many of whom were martyred as the authorities reacted to the spread of Christianity.

What surprised me was the publisher, Banner of Truth, who are better known as a purveyor of ultra-Reformed doctrinal tomes and incredibly long Bible commentaries that torture the grammar of the Greek text until it confesses. I didn’t know they did kids’ books, or that they recognised any church existing before John Calvin published his Institutes.

Intrigued, I started reading the book about Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who was burnt to death by a mob when he refused to recant his faith. It was reasonably well-written and told the story without glorifying Polycarp’s tragic death, but highlighting his courage in the face of persecution.

There was one thing that really galled though. Good as the book was, and I really wanted to like it because church history is very interesting and I have little people in my life now who I could have bought the book for, I couldn’t get past the way the book referred to Polycarp as the ‘Minister’ of Smyrna.

This is just plain factually wrong. Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna, with authority over all the churches in the district. That was how the early Church was set up. That was his title. That was why he was seized and put to death.

I wouldn’t have minded if the book had just called him the ‘leader of the churches in Smyrna’. That would have been right, and I understand that ‘bishop’ is a weird word for kids to relate to. It’s the specific use of the word ‘Minister’ that I’m complaining about here.

To call him a Minister is to impose very narrow ecclesiology, that was developed 1,300 years later, onto the historical situation. I would guess that to the Banner of Truth ultra-evangelicals, ‘bishop’ seems a bit Roman Catholic or Anglican. I know there is a general feeling among the hardline Reformed that those institutions are theologically tainted and irredeemably iffy. But still you can’t just take the title you have chosen as the one you are going to use in your brand of churchianity and then retroactively apply that to someone who was never appointed a ‘Minister’ in the way you appoint Ministers. That just feels dishonest.

At the end of the book there’s a whole bit about how the early heroes of the faith weren’t heroes because they were Ministers but because they courageously stood up for what they believed in. While I understand the point they are trying to make, this is wrong too. The early heroes of the faith weren’t heroes because they were Ministers, simply because they weren’t Ministers

A publisher that calls itself the Banner of Truth has chosen a title to live up to. The books it publishes should be true. In this case, relabelling things to fit the terminology you have chosen to describe your world diminishes its truth and presents something that is only partly true at best. 

I'm not sure why I find this so annoying, but I do.

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