The Theology of Mixed Messages and Mediums: Euan Cameron and Christian History

This is a happy end cause’ you don’t understand everything you have done why’s everything so wrong / this is a happy end come and give me your hand I’ll take your far away. / I’m a new soul I came to this strange world hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take but since I came here felt the joy and the fear finding myself making every possible mistake.”

— Yael Naim “New Soul” Tot ou Tard, 2007.

Euan Cameron has presented a grand encyclopedic portrait of the Christian Church as it has existed, and thought of itself from the time of Christ to this postmodern age. Cameron’s widely read, yet moderately focused reading of the Church and its self-representation through the years should be admired and marveled for years to come. Of no less importance to the sometimes varied worlds of Church and Scholar is the grand thesis that unites the four diverging chapters of his work. Cameron argued that while a true Church existed and continues to exist, that essential Christianity cannot be nailed down, nor can it be explicitly seen in any era of the Church’s life. Cameron explains his thesis in terms of his own which reflect the traditional Methodist discussion of essentials, non-essentials, and other things. As the wording suggests theological and ecclesiological issues can be broken down into those dogmas which make Christian faith Christian, and those doctrines in which there is some worth but in which the indispensable character of the faith does not rest. In the words of Wesley the Christian is called to unity in what is essential, and liberty in what is not.

Built upon this thesis Cameron adds a novel and brilliant twist. Not only does each era of the church miss the Truth of what the Church is and does, but each and every age has faced more or less favorably the temptation favor some type of secondary issue over all else. Cameron puts it thusly,

“Theological analysis of the historical experience of the churches has yielded two results…. First, whatever the Christian religion may ‘essentially’ be about, it never manifest itself, within historical time, in a pure unmediated way, eternally valid form. Because human society and human culture are made up of beings that are constantly changing and diversifying, the phenomenal Christianity, the Christianity perceived by the contemporary observer or the historian, represents a mediated, composite entity…. Secondly, Christian religious history reflects a human tendency to pile development on development, to evolve florid and ultimately extreme versions of particular trends…. At the most extreme end of this process, secondary objectives can be pursued with fanaticism: by this is meant, quite specifically, that certain primary imperatives such as mutual love or the preservation of community are forgotten in the pursuit of religious poverty, the collection of relics, or the inculcation of dogmatic standards by catechesis” (229).

The four chapters of Cameron’s work act as four interconnected case studies in these two points. In the first two chapters of his work, Cameron presents an amazing tour-de-force summation of Christian history and then several prominent themes pulled from within this history. Building on this synopsis, the last two chapters presents an overview of how a fairly wide range of Christian historians and theologians have seen and described the quest to shape this Christian story.

Despite an appreciation for the superb and hard work of deconstruction that Cameron has done, the overall structure and content of the work begs some important questions. First of all despite Cameron’s repeated slams of historians who dogmatically stuck with their era’s love of annuls, one cannot help but wonder if Cameron has not been overly influenced by wikipedia-centric nature of postmodern thought. At times it seemed as if the biographic sketch and analysis of John Calvin might be readily be followed by a recipe for split-pea soup or the stats from last night’s Chicago Bulls game. While I never quite gave up hope that there was a method to the madness, one cannot express the pure ecstatic joy I experienced when on page 223, Cameron announced, “It is time to draw some conclusions and then point to some suggestions” (223). “Thank God,” I wrote in the margins. Yet even when I reached the end of the work, I found myself wondering if I was perhaps not an unwitting participant on some hidden camera show. After 250 pages all I get is an enigmatic but well-phrased one-off line about how that rabbi from Nazareth left everyone guessing. While enigma and mystery may work well for the son of God, someone like myself of arguably less intelligence and knowledge Perhaps the idea of meta-narratives are a decidedly passé and modern expectation, but for this reader any type of narrative structure which connected the first chapter, but I cannot help but agree with Grant Wacker’s plea[1] for historians to step up and give the whole general answer to the “why” and “so what” questions that dog every historian. To his credit, Cameron appears to be arguing for Christians to do such things. Over and again Cameron reminds his readers that his thesis should not lend itself to a through-going relativism for which he appears to have a great distaste. Yet the general bulwark of his thesis tends to work against him in this regard. If no one time, person, or place can be perfectly trusted, and every person, and place have conflicted relations with each other, then it is hard to see how such meta-narratives can be found and believed whole-heartedly.

After complaining about the length and breadth of Cameron’s synthesis, one would not imagine that the other complaint about Cameron’s work would be a lack of information. Yet that is the one other glaring weakness of Cameron’s work. Despite an attempt to provide both institutional and popular definitions of Christianity, the work is admittedly limited in its selections for inclusion. The persons and places described are almost all Western and Protestant, and just as entirely white and male. To a lesser extent the participants (particularly in his post nineteenth century) are as uniformly and unapologetically liberal. While they are no explicit denunciations of the conservatives of the past century, one is quietly sure that they do not fall within the scope of Cameron’s favorite people. An argument could be made that inclusion of global south, African-American, female, Pentecostal, evangelical or otherwise would weaken his argument that it is next to impossible to discern a true church. Yet one could also argue that if Cameron really was committed to the diversity of the faith, he should not be scared of presenting a more diverse work. Perhaps more diversity might cement his argument, or maybe not. It would have been nice to know, though, what Cameron would have done with the thoughts of a R.A. Torrey, Catherine of Sienna, or Martin Luther King. But short of a revised and much longer work, we will never know.

All complaints aside, Cameron’s work and thesis represent an important revisionist look at the history and historiography of the Christian church. There is much to be said for Cameron’s work. Many of us, this author included, have been needlessly quick to point to a historically defined orthodoxy without pausing to consider the contextual challenges to the faith reach back to the time of that iterant rabbi wondering the hills of Galilee. In this regard Cameron faithfully and rather forcefully calls his reader to taking more time to stop and listen and ponder on those culturally-conditioned words. The love of God and Church demand just such a high consideration.

[1] See Grant Wacker, “Understanding the Past, Using the Past: Reflections on Two Approaches to History,” in Religious Advocacy and American History, 159-178. Edited by Bruce Kuklick and D.G. Hart, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.


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