Chicago Studies Fall/Winter 2023

Page 25

Christian Evangelization in the Early Church via Social Networks: A Response to Bishop Barron By Rev. Brendan Lupton, S.T.D.

Before beginning this response, I would like to thank Bishop Barron for his brilliant lecture, for his insightful diagnosis of the current culture, and for his proposals of how the Church can engage the “nones,” especially via the way of beauty. It is my hope that my response can supplement Bishop Barron’s argument of how we might engage them. To do so, I shall focus on another challenging moment in the history of Christian evangelization, i.e., from the apostolic age until the rise of Constantine, AD 312. The purpose of examining this moment is to propose another way to evangelize the “nones.” Bishop Barron focused on the great transcendentals, which, as he notes, “call the ego out of itself.” I shall focus on another way to engage them through the lessons of the early church, summarized well in the famous Latin phrase historia est magistra vitae, history is a teacher of life. In short, the lessons of early Christian evangelization can direct our current mission to engage the disaffiliated; past is prologue. The early Christians faced very difficult circumstances, which will be summarized below, yet multitudes descended into the cold baptismal waters. In fact, historians contend that from the apostolic age until the fourth century, the number of Christians grew at the rate of 40 percent per decade. 1 This type of growth is staggering considering their overwhelming challenges. To summarize these difficulties, let us consider for a moment what the Christians faced in the year AD 200. At this time, historians conjecture there were 200,000 Christians in the Roman Empire, which was under 1 percent of the population of about sixty million. 2 Since there were so few, they had little resources. A single copy of the Septuagint would be a tremendous luxury for a small Christian community. More to it, at this time, the New Testament canon was also in flux. There were no public churches, few works of Christian art, and very few works of Christian literature. In fact, pagans had the way of beauty on their side; the white marble of pagan shrines, temples, and statuary adorned the Roman world and provided an ideal contrast with the “wine dark sea.” Not only did Christians have scant resources, but also pagans considered the Christian faith odd, strange, and bizarre. An example of their early reaction to Christianity is the graffiti “Alexamenos graffito,” discovered in some solider barracks in 1857 on the Palatine Hill in Rome. It is dated from around the early third century, perhaps AD 200. The inscription reads “Alexamenos worships his God” in rather crude Greek. It is believed that it was meant to mock Alexamenos, most likely a solider, because of his Christian faith. In fact, the raised arm was a symbol of homage or worship. This graffiti is the first “work of art” portraying the crucifixion of Jesus. 3 It captures well how some Romans reacted to “a crucified and weak God.” The crucified Jesus was the opposite of the Roman deities, who did what they pleased, were powerful, and would not succumb to the worst human punishment on earth, crucifixion. This “type of god” is more of an ass than a god. Besides this pictorial representation of some pagans’ early reactions to Christianity, the first pagan text to refer to the Christian faith is “Pliny’s Letter to Trajan,” penned in ca. AD 111. On this occasion, a local magistrate Pliny in Bithynia, modern day Turkey, wrote to the Emperor, Trajan, to find out how he should deal with a small group called the Christians. Should he hunt them out? Should he leave them alone? In this letter, Pliny refers to Christianity not as a religio,


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