The First Rummage Sale – The Dark Ages (con’t)

In this second post about the first major reconfiguration of the Christian church I will be covering some ancillary info about just who was affected by the Dark Ages and will be talking a little about the person “saved” the church for a later resurrection.

First of all I have found that the term “Dark Ages” has many definitions and stated causes. For purposes here I will define the period as between the fifth and the tenth centuries. Many, looking at different cultural aspects, expand it to include four hundred years beyond that. Generally speaking this was a very dreary period of intellectual darkness and economic depression that occurred in Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire. “Barbarians at the gates” was a very descriptive way of saying what happened. Basically barbarians took down the mighty empire and intellectual and spiritual leaders pretty much vanished as a result.

Why did the Roman empire collapse?  Again there are many different explanations for it. Some, with very pointed agendas, say the church itself was the primary cause and particularly the papacy. I fall more in line that it was caused by an economic collapse due to spending an inordinate amount of  money required to reign in the many different populations and their lands that were taken over by the empire. Military spending gobbled up more than half of all the resources available. There was just not enough left over to maintain stability within the empire. In other words they just grew too big.

One thing worth noting about this period was the it actually only affected about 20% of the world’s population, primarily those in what we know today as mostly Western Europe. Up until this study I ignorantly presumed that it was a world wide event but in reality most of the world was unaware of the Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages was the time when the Christian church radically moved from a period of great power as an empire religion into its monastic period of hunkering down. I also believe that this mammoth change in the church allowed it to survive until a later more enlightened period known as the Renaissance. Gregory the Great was the person who primarily lead this change. He was the Pope from 590CE to 604.

Here is how Phyllis Tickle described the move from the early church into the Dark Ages:

What politically and culturally would very swiftly spiral down into the Dark Ages was already at work peeling the Christianity of the Early Church away from the laity and inserting into the resulting vacuum a kind of animistic, half-magical form of a bastardized Christianity that would characterize the laity and much of the minor clergy over the next few centuries.

It was primarily due to Gregory’s beliefs in a monastic lifestyle that really saved most of the early church documents and practices from also being bastardized. These things were held in trust in remote abbeys and nunneries waiting for a time to spring anew and that would take more than five hundred years to come about! It is only because of Gregory that we maintained most of the documents we have about the early Christian church before this time. The church might have looked very different today without them.

Rummage Sales

Before I get into the “details” I wanted to throw out another unique way of looking at church history.  Here is the way  author Phyllis Tickle describes church history in her book entitled The Great Emergence :

The only way to understand what is currently happening to us as twenty-first-century Christians in North America is first to understand that about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And, he (Rev Mark Dyer) goes on to say, we are living in and through one of those five-hundred-year sales.

Now, while the bishop may be using a bit of humor to make a point, his is nonetheless a deadly serious and exquisitely accurate point. Any usable discussion of the Great Emergence and what is happening in Christianity today must commence with yesterday and a discussion of history. Only history can expose the patterns and confluences of the past in such a way as to help us identify the patterns and flow of our own times and occupy them more faithfully. The first pattern that we must consider as relevant to the Great Emergence is Bishop Dyer’s rummage sale, which, as a pattern, is not only foundational to our understanding but also psychologically very reassuring for most of us.

That is, as Bishop Dyer observes, about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events. First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity which up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self.

While Phyllis Tickle calls the current age the Great Emergence from what I can glean it is also analogous with Harvey Cox’s the age of the spirit. The term emergence has been overused already and its meaning therefore is not yet solidified. We will get into that in future posts. I may also flesh out just what those five hundred year milestones are. A rummage sale seems to be a very effective way of describing the about-faces that the church has done throughout its history.

Until the next time I bid you peace….