Church history – what’s worth studying? How do we decide?

Sudan has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks, as the largely Christian south has voted to be independent from a more heavily Islamic North.

Christianity has a long history in Sudan, but this history was never mentioned in any of my classes – none of my professors in undergrad (where I was an African Studies major before I was a Religious Studies major) nor in seminary (where I studied Christianity for 3 years) saw fit to mention the history of Sudanese Christianity – and perhaps they themselves knew nothing of it.

I would know nothing of it myself, were it not for a major research paper in a seminary class on African Christianity, for which I could choose any topic.  I chose Sudan in part because I was ashamed that I had absolutely no perspective on the genocide that was in full swing at that time, and in part because there were lots of books on Sudan in the Divinity library that had not been checked out by any of my classmates. So in 2002, over the Thanksgiving break, I spent every free minute in my in-laws’ guest bedroom, reading hundreds of pages of Church history.  Not European or North African or Middle Eastern Church history – but Sudanese Church history.

It became clear to me rather quickly why Sudan is not studied in seminary.  On at least 2 (and maybe 3) occasions, Christianity came to Sudan, lingered for one or three or more generations, and then disappeared entirely.  The latest iteration of Christianity in Sudan is discontinuous with these earlier Christian communities.  We are generally taught about our forebears in the faith, but the early Sudanese Christians are ancestors to no modern Christians.   So how are they relevant to understanding who we are?  And besides, it is very demoralizing to consider that if Christianity were truly self-evident, such a disappearance would be impossible. Finally, it threatens our belief in the eventual triumph of Christianity, because it exposes our self-reliance – our insistence that our efforts are essential to this eventual triumph.

It is this very kind of question that demonstrates why we need to learn about, and meditate upon the history of Christianity in Sudan.  It is not the way of Christ, but the way of the world to consider only our immediate blood / intellectual forebears as relevant to understanding who we are.  If we are all one in Christ, if we truly believe in the communion of saints, then the Christians of Sudan in earlier centuries are our sisters and brothers in the faith as much as any other Christian.  The value in their faith is not in whether their grandchildren followed them in it.  Instead of asking “what did they do wrong?” (which is hard to do when there is so little record) – or worse, ignoring them altogether, we may find that we are forced to content ourselves with leaving the judgment of these Christians to Christ alone.

In their time, they prayed and sang and lived as best as they could in accordance with God’s will for them.  Dare we call them failures?  Dare we judge success on continuity?  Do we forswear ourselves when we sing of “Standing on the Promises?”  Do we (in our hubris) believe that we can earn full pews and professing grandchildren? Dare we forget that we follow Jesus, the one who asserted that God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones if need be?

Evangelism – sharing the good news with another – is not for the purpose of perpetuating a Christian America, nor to reinvigorate a dwindling denomination, nor to fill gaps in a diminished congregational budget.  There are worse fates than America not being a “Christian nation” – whatever that means.  What could be worse?  ANY person being unaware of God’s love for them in Christ.

No person is more critical than another.  Or rather, the critical person is the person or people that God has given to me (today, now) in order that we might, through our time together,  draw one another closer to God.  Evangelism should have no agenda other than this – to the best of our ability, taking the kingdom with us wherever we go, and at all times pointing not to ourselves but to the One who alone makes a future for us and for all creation.

Many thanks to Dr. Amy Laura Hall, whose reflections on Augustine’s Confessions in her Introduction to Christian Ethics class today provided the stimulus for the post above.

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