The power of a simple story

The power of a simple story

I was recently writing an academic paper on medical ethics, based on the parable of the Good Samaritan as related in Luke 10:25-37. As I researched this parable, I was amazed at its influence, and began to wonder, has any story as simple as this had the reach and power of this parable? It would have taken Jesus just a few minutes to relate, but its influence has reached the corners of the globe over the last 2000 years. Let’s look briefly at some of the ways it has become deeply embedded in our culture.

Firstly, the term ‘Good Samaritan’ is well used by law-makers. Good Samaritan laws are laws that give legal protection to those who help a stranger in need of aid in emergency situations. They prevent rescuers from being prosecuted for wrongful injury or death, and are common around the world – all because the parable teaches us to help those in need. 

The term ‘Good Samaritan’ is also widely employed in the name of many medical facilities, as a quick Google search will reveal – healthcare centres, hospitals and hospices. In fact, Gerald Arbuckle describes the parable as ‘the ultimate founding myth of healthcare’. 

There are also numerous charities that use the term – in the United Kingdom, the Samaritans is a charity dedicated to helping those struggling with emotional issues and those at risk of suicide. Samaritan’s Purse is an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization. 

Finally, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the parable as ‘one of the original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built’. We all know what being a Good Samaritan involves – a sacrificial act to help someone in need.  The lawyer in the parable wanted a precise definition of his neighbor so he knew who he should love, and who he wasn’t required to. After telling the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asks him, ‘which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?’. The answer was obvious – neither the lawyer, nor any of us need to be told. In just a few simple sentences, Jesus sums up our obligations to others in a way no-one has ever been able to improve on. 

 

An evening with Tom Holland

An evening with Tom Holland

The PA recently attended Tom Holland‘s lecture at the British Museum (13 September, 2019). Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster, and has a new book out called Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. It explores the enduring impact Christianity has had on the west, and promises to be a fascinating read. This lecture was associated with the launch of Dominion, and there was a book signing afterwards. It’s worth noting that Holland is an agnostic: he seems sympathetic to Christianity, but is not a believer.

Holland began his lecture by explaining the origin of his fascination with history: as a boy, seeing an exhibition at the British Museum called the Wealth of the Roman World, AD 300-700. He recalled being attracted by the violence and savagery of the Romans, and being resentful that Christianity had hastened the Roman Empire’s decline, which had well advanced by AD 700. This visceral thrill as a child led to his channeling his inner nasty child into first writing about Rome and Greece!

Gradually, however, Holland became unsettled by the slavery and killing, eventually finding the Romans and Greeks frightening. He began to wonder why he found them so strange, and how we were so different. The Romans were terrifyingly alien – he wondered what transformed society’s ethics?

Christianity began with the crucifixion, and Holland pointed out its horror – it was the proper fate for scum, rebels and slaves. It was extraordinary that the Roman world would come to worship someone who suffered this fate – Paul realised it was a ludicrous proposition. The crucifixion was folly to gentiles – slavery is freedom, torture is liberation and defeat is victory – the antithesis of what the Romans believed. It was also a stumbling block to monotheistic Jews who worshipped God only, and the idea of a new covenant for all mankind did not fit their exclusivity. Moreover, Christianity claimed to dissolve all differences – there was no male or female, Jew or Greek. To the Romans, the Son of God was Caesar, but Paul writes that all are children of God. It introduced the idea of conscience – we can improve, be better people.

Moving to the recent past, Holland noted that Nietzsche was horrified at the cross, at the idea that the weak and poor could have importance. The Nazis didn’t believe that all people were equal either – some races were superior. After the Second World War though, the need for Christianity declined. The horror of Nazism made it unnecessary – the world didn’t need reminding that we were all equal and that obligations were owed to those in need.

Holland described how he visited a town called Sinjar when ISIS was still active. Here the Yazidis had been targeted by ISIS: women enslaved, and men and children killed. He described the horror of standing in a town where people had just been crucified, realising that crucifixion meant nothing to ISIS other than an instrument of torture. Here, he felt closer to appreciating the scale of the transformation that Christianity has wrought.

To conclude, Holland then answered some audience questions. One person asked if he thought Christianity was irrelevant now. Holland pointed out the explosion in Christianity in Africa, noting that because the supernatural is familiar there, it is working well. But in Western society, it has worked too well and has now seceded power to the secular.

The final question was more of a statement, and one that the questioner kept repeating: Christianity’s ethical teachings were already around, and the myth of a dying god was a familiar one – Osiris for example. Holland was very clear on his reply: yes, Christianity was the fusion of several philosophies, but the fusion resulted in something radically new. Jesus the nobody, crucified as a criminal to be worshipped as God? That was revolutionary. Every human being is equal and made in the image of God? There was nothing in Greek philosophy like this.

An informative and enjoyable evening!

Hear Tom Holland with N.T. Wright on the Unbelievable? program here. And a great article by Holland on how our society is saturated with Christian concepts here

 

 

Yet Another Benedict Option Review

Yet Another Benedict Option Review

It’s amazing to see the attention Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been receiving lately. Book reviews abound, both critical and sympathetic. So the Philosophical Apologist decided to join the fray, mainly because he’s just finished reading it and wanted to clarify his thoughts – briefly.

At its heart it’s a rant against modernity and its evils. Consumerism and technology are reshaping society, mostly in negative ways. In America, Christians are losing political influence and the tide has turned against faith. Persecution is coming, and so we need to prepare for the storm.  The “Benedict Option” is Dreher’s solution – a call for Christians to separate themselves into Christian communities and rediscover deep, meaningful faith in the manner of Benedictine monks.

There’s plenty to criticize. In Dreher’s historical survey, he points to the replacement of replacement of metaphysical realism by Ockham’s nominalism as a pivotal point that removed the link between “the transcendent and the material worlds”. Frustratingly, he never clearly explains what these two positions are (see here for a good overview).

It’s also not very clear whether Dreher means Christians should cut themselves off from the world or merely be more intentional about Christian community. For example, he suggests the dramatic step of withdrawing our children from schools, both public and Christian, to establish “classical Christian schools”. What’s a classical Christian school? A school based around a Christian world-view, but with a strong emphasis on Greco-Roman literature. Bizarrely, Dreher makes little attempt to justify this approach – one which would require enormous commitment from Christian parents.

Dreher also thinks that coming persecution will drive Christians out of professions such as law and medicine, and suggests rediscovering working with one’s hands. He doesn’t suggest how his concept of a classical education will prepare young adults for working in a trade – a curious omission.

There are some useful nuggets, though. While it is probably unrealistic for most Christians to live in distinct communities, in busy times many churches have neglected the importance of intentionally building community – “thickening” our ties with each other. There’s a welcome reminder of how both liturgy and asceticism can help us focus on God. Dreher suggests a weekly Sabbath rest from technology, a helpful idea that might help us discipline our minds from the myriad distractions of the Internet.

I finished the book feeling slightly disappointed, though. Dreher writes well, but the apocalyptic tone felt overdone for a non-American Christian. Also, I couldn’t see how his touted Benedict Option differed significantly from what I’ve always thought Christianity should look like – a close-knit, loving community much like the New Testament church.