Sunday, February 18, 2018

1 Peter 1:18-19

In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter encourages Christians to love their fellow believers and be involved in their lives. He didn’t want them to just sit in church once a week. He wanted them to know the people at the church. The goal was for the church to be the foundation of a genuine Christian community. His letters were the closest thing to an instruction manual for how to build one. The first generation of Christians didn’t have much else to go on. They were starting a religion from scratch.

Christianity has its roots in Judaism, but the two don’t have that much in common. You can see that in this letter, where Peter has some fighting words for his childhood faith:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.  
- 1 Peter 1:18-19 
Religious law was the foundation of the Jewish way of life. It had been given to them during their exodus out of Egypt, and they had applied and interpreted it to their lives for more than 1,000 years. The law was the covenant between them and God. He would make them His people if they followed His rules. They were supposed to faithful stewards of the promised land, and a model for the rest of the world. The Ten Commandments were just the beginning. There were a whole series of customs and traditions that covered everything they did, no matter how small. Orthodox Jews keep many to this day.

The law was the glue that held Jewish society together. Israel was never an independent kingdom for long. It was ruled at different times by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome. The Jewish people were conquered, enslaved, and exiled. They should have disappeared from history like the Canaanites, Philistines, and every other smaller tribe from that period. The law allowed them to maintain a Jewish identity regardless of who was in charge, or what country they lived in. Following so many rules kept them separate from their neighbors and prevented them from assimilating into a broader society.

The law was how they defined themselves as a people. The more a person followed the law, the more Jewish they were. Holiness became a status competition in their society. The people at the top were constantly trying to outdo each other in terms of how much they fasted and gave to charity. Everything was for show. They claimed to be doing it for God when they were really doing it for themselves. That attitude is what Jesus was talking about when he describes the right way to pray:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  
- Matthew 6:2-5 
It didn’t matter whether other people thought they were holy, and it certainly didn’t matter if other people were holier than them. The whole competition was pointless. The law was designed to compare people to a holy and perfect God, not each other. No human being could follow the law completely because no human being is perfect. Gandhi fought for segregation in South Africa. Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife. Nelson Mandela was one of the founders of a group that wrapped people in tires and burned them alive. There are no saints in this world. Put anyone on a pedestal and they will end up disappointing you.

We can’t even keep the Ten Commandments. Try to imagine a person who has never lied, lusted, or coveted after something. It’s impossible. Flawed human beings should not be a benchmark for righteousness. Who cares if you scored 10 more points than someone else on a test if they scored a 40? You still failed. Trying to follow the law should instill humility, not pride:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.’  
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.  
- Luke 18:9-14 
The Pharisees and tax collectors were on opposite ends of the social spectrum. The Pharisees were leaders of a movement devoted to a strict understanding of the law. When the Romans tried to make the Jews worship the Emperor as a god, a blatant violation of the First Commandment (Thou shall have no other gods before me), the Pharisees lead the pushback. The tax collectors worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Many of them lined their own pockets before sending the money back to Rome. They were collaborators who were selling out their neighbors to foreigners and making themselves rich in the process. The Pharisees were the best of the best, and the tax collectors were the worst of the worst. Jesus didn’t care. All he cared about was their hearts.

The biggest distinction between Christianity and Judaism is the way they view salvation. The Pharisees believed they became righteous through their deeds. Christians believe we can’t become righteous. That can only be given to us by God. Salvation can be accepted or refused by anyone, whether they are a Pharisee or a tax collector or anywhere in between. No one is so holy they don’t need it, or so evil they can’t receive it. It’s a truly radical definition of equality.

Every human being falls short in comparison to the glory of God, and there’s nothing we can do to make up the difference. The gap is too wide. Competing to be holy is pointless because we can never be God. The only thing He needs from us is to recognize that. It’s only when we accept that we need help that we can take it. God does all the work. We are just along for the ride. Trying to earn our own salvation becomes, as Peter said, “an empty way of life”.

Before I became a Christian, my view of it was similar to the premise of the TV show The Good Place. Everyone was supposed to be as good as possible, and then, at the end of our lives, all our actions would be weighed to see if we were a good or a bad person:

Jesus freed us from that burden. He lived the perfect and sinless life we never could. He never broke a commandment. He never broke even the most obscure passage from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He is the only human being worthy of being worshipped because he wasn’t just a human being. He was the son of God. Jesus truly was a good person. Everyone else is bad. We don’t have to pretend to be something we are not. That was the point of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We can fool other people, but we can’t fool God. He can see right through us, and He loved us anyway. 

Humans build societies like pyramids. There are a few people on top, and a great mass of people on the bottom trying to get there. Everything is a competition, and life is about out-competing others to advance. The Pharisees ruled a society where advancement came from being (or at least seeming) righteous, but it was not a righteous society. There were still people on bottom, and there were still people on top. Christianity is different because there’s nowhere to advance. God is on top and we are all at the same level.

Adding God to the picture is the only way to create equality between people. There will always be people who are more successful than you, who are smarter than you, richer than you, more attractive than you, and even more righteous than you. The reverse is also true. None of us are really equal by the world’s standards. We are only equal when we look at ourselves by God’s.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

1 Peter 1:22

In his first letter in the New Testament, Peter defines Christians as people who build their identity on Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice on the cross. That is only the beginning. Christianity is about more than what you believe. It’s a way of life. Peter wasn’t just converting random people he met along the road and then sending them on their way. They had to be taught, just like Jesus taught him, and they had to be plugged into a local church. Christianity is not something you can do alone. It’s a communal religion.

Building your identity on Christ changes how you relate to other people. Peter talks about it in the next section of the letter:
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.  
- 1 Peter 1:22 
It’s hard to love sincerely without a stable identity. Most Americans define ourselves through our relationships to other people, which is why we are so insecure. We are someone’s spouse, parent, child, sibling, and friend. We don’t know who we are without them. Loving someone else because of how they make you feel about yourself is one of the most selfish things you can do.

We all do it. I love my wife, and I love the way she looks. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is when I love the way she looks because of how it makes other people look at me. Instead of wanting her to be happy with who she is, I want her to look a certain way for the sake of my own ego. It’s not the basis for a healthy marriage.

In those moments, I have to remind myself where my identity comes from. It doesn’t matter how other people look at me. It doesn’t even matter how my wife does. Our relationship is not the most important thing about me. My relationship with Jesus is. I can’t love her the way she needs me to if I need her love to be happy. Both people in a relationship have to be willing to say no to the other. One of two things happen when you get your identity from your spouse: either you let them walk all over you or you try to control them. You become more worried about losing them than loving them. It’s why parents spoil their children: they want to be their friends instead of doing what’s best for them. That mentality poisons relationships.
Anyone who loves their father or more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. 
- Matthew 10:37-39
The movie I, Tonya is about a co-dependent relationship. It tells the story of the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, and the heart of that story is her relationship with her ex-husband.

The marriage was doomed from the start. Tonya needed a man to give her the affirmation she never got from her mother. Her husband needed a woman to give him the validation he never got from society. He didn’t have much else going on besides being married to an Olympic figure skater. When she tries to leave him, he threatens to kill himself. They were looking for things in each other that they could only get from Jesus.
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  
- 1 John 4:8-11 
There are two places we can look for love: from God or each other. The problem with depending on someone else for love is eventually they run out. They aren’t going to be able to fill all of our needs. They have needs of their own. We need perfection. We need God.

Knowing God changes you. You start to view other people differently. You don’t need as much from them. Their opinion becomes less important. You can love them not because of what they do for you but because they need it. You can give instead of take. Love goes from something you keep for yourself to something you give away. We are all on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean: we are dying of thirst and there is water all around us. We just need someone who can show us how to drink it.
Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life. 
- John 4:14
I didn’t really see the point of church before I became a Christian. It seemed like a boring thing people did because they felt like they had to. I preferred to watch football. Church isn’t a building, and it’s not an activity either. A church is ultimately just the people in it. You don’t go to hear a sermon. You go to experience the love of God with other people.
For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.  
- Matthew 18:20 
At our church, people get together once a week in a smaller group in someone’s home to hang out, talk about their lives, study the Bible, and worship together. We call it a lifegroup. Other churches call it community group, or home group, or home church. The name doesn’t matter. Those small gatherings are the heart of the church. It’s hard to get to know people on Sunday mornings. There are a lot of people competing for your attention, and everyone has a million things to do after the service. You can go to the same church once a week for years and not really know anyone there, or be known by someone else. There’s no real point in doing that. Doing that misses the whole point.

I will never forget the first time I went to a lifegroup. It was unlike anything I had ever been part of before. I had three takeaways:

1. It was like a party, except with no alcohol. Alcohol used to be my crutch in social situations, particularly when I didn’t know people. I drank to lower my guard. I was self-conscious without it. I couldn’t enjoy myself without worrying about what other people were thinking about me. I felt like I was performing all the time. It was exhausting.

2. No one there had an agenda. The only reason me and my friends would even go to a party was to try and hook up with a girl there. We viewed the people we met, and each other, transactionally. What was the point of hanging out with random married people? We had moves to make.

3. When everyone started singing about Jesus, and how they loved each other, all I could think was: this is a cult. Who are these people? Why are they so nice to each other? And why are they so nice to me?

The only part of the night where I felt comfortable came at the end, when we split off into pairs and prayed for each other. Talking to just one other person felt less overwhelming. I prayed with a guy named Matt. He was nice, but he wasn’t weird about it. We mostly talked about college football.

I got to know a different guy every time I came back, but it still took me awhile to feel at ease in the group setting. Lifegroup ended at 9:00 PM, and I was out the door by 9:05. Things started to change when I began focusing less on myself and more on everybody else. As I learned more about them, and their lives, and what they were going through, I started caring more about them. Spend enough time with people and they go from strangers to acquaintances to friends. I went from being nervous about lifegroup to looking forward to it. It feels good to be somewhere where everyone cares about you. Sometimes you just want to go to a place where everybody knows your name.

It's kind of telling that the song was the theme for a TV show about a bar. Americans don’t really have a place outside of work where we can be known by a community of people. The closest things we have are bars, clubs, and social media. Looking for identity in those places leads to alcoholism at best and crippling depression at worst. Probably both.
Cuz them dudes that you went to school with / will catch you while you in your new whip / and turn your brains into Cool Whip / Dudes that you running around getting ass with / ain't gonna help you do nothing but carry your casket / Got the nerve to ask Kiss why I smoke so much / And how I'm such a young dude that seem to know so much. 
- Jadakiss
College has taken the role of church in our society. That’s where we expect to meet our closest friends, our future spouses, and learn about our place in the world. The reason most people say college was the best time in their lives is because it was the last time they were in a genuine community.

The problem is that it can’t last, and it costs more than we can afford. Giving 10% to a church is nothing compared to making student loan payments. They will garnish your Social Security checks to pay your student loans. You can’t get out of paying them unless you literally die, and even then they might go after your co-signers. That’s the way the world looks at you. You want anything different and you better look somewhere else. The only thing free in this world is the grace of God.

I had a great time in college, but I would be pretty lonely if I was still depending on the friends I met there for community. They are all over the world, and they are all in different seasons of their lives. Human beings are meant to live in close-knit communities. We all need a church. Not having one is why we are so unhappy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

1 Peter 1:13

Peter starts his first letter in the New Testament by consoling his readers. Being a Christian wasn’t easy in those days. Most of the first Christians were Jews, and they had to leave behind their friends and family to practice their new religion. Many had been driven from their homes and forced into exile. It was enough to make anyone bitter. Peter encourages them not to dwell on the past, and to hold onto the promises of the gospel instead. They had to live out their faith when times were tough.

But what did that look like practically? How should their beliefs impact their daily lives? What did being a Christian really mean? Peter dives into those questions in the next section of the letter.
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.  
- 1 Peter 1:13 
We have a hard time understanding what it means to worship Jesus Christ because we think of worship as something that only happens in a church on Sunday morning. Human beings are wired to worship. We are worshipping something each and every day, and in every decision we make. It doesn’t have to be God. Worshipping is treating something like a god. You treat something like a god when you put your hope in it, when your relationship with it is the most important thing in your life, and when you build your identity on it.

Everyone puts their hope in something. Just ask yourself: what makes me a worthwhile person? Or, what has to happen for me to become a worthwhile person? What defines you as a human being? We all have an answer. We all need an identity.

Before I became a Christian, work was my god. I loved my job, and how it made me feel. People were impressed when I told them what I did. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment, like I had done something with my life. No matter what else was going on, I could fall back on my job. It gave me security. Everyone needs to make a living, but it was more than that. My job was my identity. I didn’t know what I would be without it. When you identify as something, you give it power over you. You feel like you can’t lose it. I treated work like a matter of life and death. I was constantly worrying about what I would write, whether it would be good enough, and whether people would like it. 

Anxiety comes from worrying about things we can’t control, and that’s what I spent most of my time doing. I was hardly the only one. The numbers from this New York Times article are staggering:
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase -- to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 -- of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Surveys that look at symptoms related to anxiety are also telling. In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA began asking incoming college freshman if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent. Those numbers -- combined with a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years, with the highest rates occurring soon after they returned to school each fall -- came as little surprise to high school administrators across the country, who increasingly report a glut of anxious, overwhelmed students. 
There are a million reasons for the rise of anxiety, but the underlying sources is the same. We don’t give kids stable identities. They are terrified of failure because they think failure defines who they are as people. I thought this comment from the teenager profiled in the New York Times piece was particularly revealing:
He had already spent weeks challenging his own thinking, which often persuaded him that if he failed a single quiz at school, “then I’ll get a bad grade in the class, I won’t get into the college I want, I won’t get a good job and I’ll be a total failure.” 
One of the most liberating moments in my life came a few months after I became a Christian. I was praying for someone who was struggling after breaking up with his girlfriend. I could see what was happening because it’s always easier to diagnose someone else’s problems. He had built his identity on that relationship. Dating her had given him purpose in his life. I told him he was defined by his relationship with Jesus Christ, not any human being. At that moment, I realized I saw work the way he saw his ex-girlfriend. If I got fired, I would be exactly where he was.

I had to change the way I saw myself. My life still had meaning if I got fired, and I didn’t make it as a writer. It still had meaning if I didn’t have a cool job. It had meaning if I didn’t have one at all. I wasn’t a writer who practiced Christianity. I was a Christian who happened to write. I had spent all my life pushing myself to be successful, but I didn’t have to anymore. I was free.
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. 
-- Matthew 7:24-27 
If your house is built on sand, you should be anxious. When you base your identity on how much money you have, and how far you advance in your career, you are basing your view of yourself on something that can be taken away from you at any time. You can get fired. Your job can be downsized. Your savings can be wiped out in the stock market. There are no guarantees, no matter how hard you work. The things you were counting on to get you through tough times may not be there when you need them. How could you not worry?
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  
-- Matthew 6:19-21 
There’s a big difference between deciding something with your head, and believing it with your heart. There are still days where I get my self-worth from my job, and I start comparing myself to other people. One of the most challenging things I’ve felt like I had to pray for recently is for Kevin O’Connor, one of the other basketball writers at The Ringer, to be more successful than me. I used to be really competitive with other writers. I would read their articles and look for things I could have done better instead of trying to learn from them. I didn’t want anyone else to be better than me because I got security from the idea that I was the best. When your identity is grounded in Christ, you don’t have to be better than other people to feel good about yourself. You can build people up instead of trying to tear them down.

There are so many negative habits and mindsets that I’ve had to unlearn as I’ve walked with God. That’s why praying and spending time with God every day is so important. Building a house takes time, and you have to partner with God at every step. That’s what Peter is telling his readers. Set your hope in Jesus. Define yourself by your relationship to him. Build your house on a rock.

Monday, November 27, 2017

1 Peter 1:1-11

First Peter was written on the eve of war. It had been more than 30 years since the events of the Gospels, and Christians were being hunted down left and right. The other Jews thought they were heretics, while the Romans thought they were all troublemakers. Israel was a Roman province, and revolution was in the air. The first Christians couldn’t stay, but they had nowhere to go. They had enemies behind them and enemies in front of them, and no friends on either side.

Peter writes “to the exiles scattered throughout the [Roman] provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia [modern-day Turkey]” (1 Peter 1:1). He starts by reminding them that what they lost didn’t compare to what they gained:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.  
- 1 Peter 1:3-4 

Peter is trying to separate politics and religion in the minds of his people. The deliverance they received was not what they were expecting. They grew up believing the Messiah would return Israel to the days of David and Solomon, when they were one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Middle East. The Jews were waiting for their version of Julius Caesar, and their desire for power blinded them. No political victory is ever permanent. Nations rise to the top, but they don’t stay there forever. Israel had been ruled by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians before the Romans, and they would be ruled by many others after. It didn’t matter who the king was anymore. Jesus hadn’t come to play the game of thrones. He had come to end it.

It’s a lesson Americans need to learn. Like the Israelites, we have always thought we had a special destiny. We were taught that the course of history had been building to this moment, when America spread democracy, liberty and tolerance to people in every corner of the globe. America is the new Rome. We treat the President in much the same way as the Romans treated the Emperor, and we have convinced ourselves that the fate of mankind is in the balance every four years. Our elections don’t just decide which political party controls the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C. The American people had been given a solemn responsibility to pick the leader of the free world.

The entire thing is a religious spectacle. The ballot box is the church, and the politicians are the preachers. When it is all over, the nation comes together and listens to a sermon from the new President. This is from George W. Bush’s inaugural address in 2004:
America’s vital interests and deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time. 
There was less talk of God when Barack Obama won in 2008, but the overall message remained. His speech on Election Night was a call for spiritual revival:
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world -- our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down -- we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security -- we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright -- tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope. 
I was an organizer for the Obama campaign in the summer of 2008. Before we started, we had a three-day orientation where we got a crash course in campaign strategy. The goal was to contact, either on the phone or in person, every person in every battleground state whom their database indicated was a potential voter. The only way to do that was with an army of volunteers. Our job was to find and train them. To get them to devote months of their lives for no pay, we had to offer them more than politics. We had to offer a purpose. It was a lot like being a missionary. We had to show people how we were changed by working in the campaign. We spent those three days crafting our stories. How had Barack come into our lives? How had he touched us?

A presidential campaign has to inspire voters, and turn the candidate into a symbol of something greater than themselves. Electing Obama was supposed to be the next step in America’s journey towards racial equality. Hillary Clinton’s election was sold the same way, except for women. Instead, a country raised on TV and movies found out that life doesn’t always turn out like it does on the big screen. Election Night was a profound shock to half of the country. The foundations of their belief system were challenged. How could something like this be happening in 2016? Maybe history went in more than one direction. Maybe progress wasn’t inevitable. Maybe the moral arc of the universe was even longer than we thought. Maybe it didn’t exist at all.

Multiply that despair one hundred fold. That’s how the Israelites felt when their rebellion was crushed by the Romans, a few years after Peter’s letter was written. Caligula had demanded the Jews worship him like a god, and they were certain God would destroy the Roman armies who tried to make them. Surely He would show them favor if they were fighting in His name? The war lasted for seven years, but the outcome was never really in doubt. The Romans had built the most fearsome military machine in human history. Over a million Jews were killed for a cause that was doomed from the beginning. When it was over, the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religious and political life, was razed to the ground. The Romans began ethnically cleansing Israel and re-settling the Jews throughout their Empire. They would not regain political control of the Promised Land for almost 2,000 years.

Peter didn’t want Christians putting their hope in war. None of it mattered anyway, not in the big picture:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘all people are like grass, and all the glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.’  
- 1 Peter 1:23-24 
The quote is from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. One way or another, Peter is right. Either Judgment Day is coming, humans will wipe ourselves out, or the sun will go supernova. Even if we escape to the stars, they will eventually burn out too. If this life is all there is, nothing is forever. However, if it is only a prelude to something greater, we can see it in a new light.
In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
- 1 Peter 1:6 
This is where Peter puts theory to practice. He is asking these people to rejoice after they had been exiled, their lives had been destroyed, and with the fear of persecution hanging over their head. The only way it makes sense if they really believed God became a human being, walked the Earth and died for their sins.  It was the perfect opportunity to live out the gospel. If the first Christians really had something better waiting for them on the other side, even exile wasn’t so bad. And if they were joyful and thankful in desperate circumstances, their new neighbors would notice. Their actions had to align with their words, or their words wouldn’t mean anything.
These [trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  
- 1 Peter 1:7 
You don’t need faith as much when things are going well. It becomes real when you have to depend on it. The Jews weren’t looking for the Messiah in the Golden Age of Israel, when Solomon was king. God sent Jesus when He knew people would listen. Once they heard, He gave them a push out the door. The trauma of exile and persecution, and watching their homeland be destroyed by the Romans, is what shaped Christianity into a global religion. The first Christians couldn’t put their faith in politics. They had been molded into something new.

That is where the analogy to gold comes from. Gold is not pure when it comes out of the ground. It needs to be refined. Modern jewelers use chemicals to remove the other elements that have been mixed in. In Biblical times, they held the gold over a furnace and let the flames strip the imperfections from the metal. Going through fire is what makes gold beautiful. The analogy is simple. We are the gold, the flames are our trials, and God is the craftsman. We can trust God as we go through our trials because He is using them to craft us into something beautiful. The flames are part of the process. They aren’t just happening for no reason. There’s a greater purpose behind them.

The end result is something worth far more than gold. Like everything else in this world, gold perishes. Human beings are created in the image of God, and our souls are eternal. Jesus once asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) The answer is nothing. Our souls will last a lot longer. God gets more glory from the life of one man than from the rest of His creation combined.

Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn “It Is Well” when he was traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to see his wife, who had survived a shipwreck that killed their four daughters. The lyrics came to him as he passed the spot where they died:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way /
When sorrows like sea billows roll /
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know /
It is well, it is well, with my soul. 
Spafford could hold onto three promises in the face of unimaginable tragedy: his daughters were in a better place, he would see them again, and God would use their death for good. His life is a beautiful example of how Christians can respond to loss. He was a prominent lawyer in Chicago before the tragedy. After he re-united with his wife, they devoted themselves to their faith, had three more kids and moved to Jerusalem, where they founded a ministry that helped people of all religious backgrounds. They ran soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals, and they were a critical part of relief efforts during World War I. The communal residence where they lived became a symbol of religious reconciliation. After their death, a hotel was built there, and that is where the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the PLO were first negotiated.
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  
- 1 Peter 1:8-9 
Peter is writing to the second generation of Christians, people who had not seen Jesus themselves or witnessed his miracles. They had learned their faith from people like Peter who had. He had watched Jesus turn water into wine, raise men from the dead and feed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. And yet, despite everything he saw, he still denied knowing Jesus three times before the crucifixion. Peter knew what these people were going through because he had gone through it himself.

Before he was a disciple, Peter was an uneducated fisherman. Some historians believe he didn’t actually write this letter because of how well it was written. Whoever wrote it had an excellent command of the Greek language, as well as a clear understanding of formal philosophy and logic. It’s as if a high-school dropout wrote a law review article. However, just because Peter shouldn’t have been able to write it doesn’t mean he didn’t. His lack of education was the whole point. Jesus purposely chose common men to spread his message. He didn’t want people thinking there was something special about them. It made what they did even more impressive.
When the [Jewish High Council] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took that these men had been with Jesus.  
- Acts 4:13 
Peter starts the Bible as a student and ends it as a teacher. Jesus spent most of his ministry personally teaching his 12 disciples. He knew that the spending time with someone is the best way to change their life. The idea was that the disciples would pay it forward. The power of exponential growth did the rest. Peter had disciples, and his disciples had disciples of their own, and the cycle has continued all the way to the present. Every Christian is a link in a chain that goes back 2,000 years. When I became a Christian, an older believer began a Bible study with me. The same thing happened to him, and to the guy who taught him. Faith is a torch passed down from one generation to the next.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.  
- 1 Peter 1:11 
Prophecy was a huge part of early Christianity. When Peter and the other apostles preached in the synagogues, they weren’t just asking people to take them on faith. They were citing Scripture to prove that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. God had given His people the clues to figure out whether or not Jesus was telling the truth. He wasn’t just going to send His son into the world without the context necessary for people to understand what was happening. The whole thing had to be set up. Take a look at this prophecy from Isaiah, which was written 700 hundred years before Jesus:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  
- Isaiah 53:4-6 
It’s hard for modern Americans to wrap our heads around prophecies. They seem like something out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, not real life. Jason Concepcion, my colleague at The Ringer, wrote a beautiful column about the way fantasy stories appeal to a deep need in the human heart:
Think of Harry Potter's story without magic: A child—a baby, really—loses his parents to a car accident. Scarred, physically and psychologically, he goes to live with distant relatives. Resentful of the burden his care puts on them, they bully and ignore him. He sleeps in a storage space filled with spiders under the stairs. Every day, he watches the mail carrier bring in the mail, and he imagines that one of those letters would be for him, calling him away to someplace better, and none of them ever do. Gradually, a darkness, which has always been there inside of him, which he can't express and doesn't understand, grows. And one day, he just decides to walk into the woods, intent on ending his own life. Pulls his jacket tight about him and thinks about his parents. Wonders what they would say if they were there with him now.  
Or think about Game of Thrones without the magic. A boy grows up, never knowing his mother. His father's wife hates him. Desperate for a place to call home and to make his father proud he joins the military. When he's gone, his father and half brother are murdered. An orphan, a refugee from war, on the streets in a foreign land, is sold to a stranger like a piece of furniture by her own brother. 
The Christmas story starts like a fairy tale. A child is born in a manger. His parents are too poor to afford a room at the inn. He is the son of the true king, but he is raised by a carpenter. He grows up and becomes a preacher who challenges the pretender to the throne. His disciples were expecting a triumphant ending, where the Messiah was crowned as the rightful king. Instead, the story takes an unexpected turn. Jesus is betrayed by one of his closest friends. His followers abandon him. He is publicly executed, and he becomes a laughingstock as he dies on the cross. His revolution had failed in humiliating fashion. His story should have ended right there.
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. 
- Isaiah 49:6 
When this prophecy was written, the Jews were a conquered people being sent into exile in Babylon. It’s a miracle they survived at all. The vast majority of tribes in their position didn’t. The Middle East was the crossroads of the ancient world, and the mighty empires who clashed over it didn’t leave many traces of the people they conquered. Most disappeared from the historical record. The only reason we know about the Canaanites and the Philistines is because they appear in the Bible. Their story ended long ago. There is no modern religion that worships Baal, the god of the Philistines. The Jews were told their God would spread His salvation to the ends of the Earth, and that's exactly what happened. Was that luck? Or providence?

A few years after this letter was written, Peter was killed by the Roman authorities, just like Jesus. He was writing to a few thousand people scattered throughout the Empire. They were the persecuted religious minority of a persecuted religious minority. There was nothing special about them. There was no reason to think Christianity would survive. Unlike Moses and Mohammed, Jesus didn’t die at the head of an army.  He was barely mentioned in the contemporary records. So how did a man who died penniless and alone become the most influential person in human history? And why does his life mirror so many prophecies written hundreds of years before his time? The simplest answer is that we are living inside of a fantasy story. The only thing the first Christians needed was faith. Everything else would take care of itself.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Best Of Father Brown

All detective stories work on two levels. The first is within the story itself. The detective tries to solve the crime, while the criminal tries to conceal it. The second is how the story is read. The reader is in the role of the detective, and the author is the criminal. A fine balance has to be maintained. Make the mystery too easy and it is boring. Too complex and people give up. The best authors lead the reader along by the nose. They drop just enough clues to keep the reader on the path without letting them figure out where it leads. The Best of Father Brown, like any good mystery, works on multiple levels. G.K. Chesterton isn’t just writing crime stories. He’s commenting on the way they work, and why they are so appealing to the human psyche.

Chesterton was a writer in 19th century England. Father Brown, his most famous character, stands in opposition to the other great fictional detectives of the time. He is a small and unassuming Catholic priest without the larger than life quirks of his peers. There is no larger storyline that connects his investigations. He is not engaged in an epic battle with an arch-nemesis, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. As a detective, his greatest skills are empathy and humility. In The Secret of Father Brown, which doubles as a director’s commentary from Chesterton, Brown tells an interviewer that he solves crimes by thinking like a criminal. Everyone has the capacity for evil inside of them. Even the worst criminals aren’t hard to understand. They are just like us. It doesn’t take a genius to figure them out. Just someone who knows themselves.

The other detectives in the Father Brown stories are too clever for their own good. Dr. Orion Hood, the “eminent criminologist and specialist in moral disorders” in The Absence of Mr. Glass, is a send-up of Holmes. Near the end of the story, Hood creates an elaborate explanation out of a few fragmentary clues to solve a murder that never happened. What was supposed to be the great reveal turns out to be a big joke. “You are a great poet! You have called an uncreated being out of the void,” Brown laughs as he tells Hood. “How much more godlike than if you had only ferreted out the mere facts! Indeed, the mere facts are rather commonplace and comic by comparison.” The same thing happens in The Mistake of The Machine, where Brown’s friend Flambeau, the Watson figure in many of his stories, arrests the man he thought he was the victim.

Brown lives by Occam’s Razor. He looks for the simplest explanation, not the most complicated. The first question he asks is why someone would want to kill the victim, or steal the treasure. The second is what would be the easiest way for them to do it. The trick is looking beyond the most attention grabbing clues. Brown solves the mystery of The Secret Garden by asking why someone would cut the head off his victim. The killer is not a psychopathic genius whose motivations are tied to a Freudian explanation from his childhood. He has an agenda anyone can relate too. His brutality has a purpose.

Chesterton’s genius comes in creating simple answers to complex questions.
“A crime is like any other work of art. Don’t look surprised; crimes are by no means the only works of art that come from an infernal workshop. But every work of art, divine or diabolic, has one indispensable mark — I mean, that the center of it is simple, however much the fulfillment may be complicated.” 
Most of his stories present the reader with a seemingly unsolvable paradox. A theft occurs in a building with only one way in and out, and every person inside accounted for. A woman is murdered in a closed passageway, and each of the other people in it describes the murderer as looking completely different. Someone sneaks past a building being guarded on all sides, with none of the guards the wiser. The psychological principle of inattentional blindness runs through most of Chesterton's work.

Humans can only pay attention to so many things at once. Count the number of passes the white team makes in the video and you will miss the truly bizarre thing happening. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to see what’s right in front of your eyes. The answer to a Father Brown mystery is often in the first page. Chesterton creates a mystery box and hands you the key to open it. Then he puts on a huge show to make you forget you have it.
A thing can sometimes be too close to be seen, as, for instance, a man cannot see himself. There was a man who had a fly in his eye when he looked through the telescope, and he discovered there was a most incredible dragon in the moon. And I am told that if a man hears the exact reproduction of his own voice it sounds like the voice of a stranger. In the same way, if anything is right in the foreground of our life we hardly see it, and if we did we might think it quite odd. 
The mystical is one of his favorite ways to mislead the reader. A dog that barks during a murder doesn’t have supernatural knowledge of the murderer’s identity. The fact that he was barking, though, is the clue Father Brown uses to solve the crime. A man dressed up like an Arabian sorcerer uses the appearance of the supernatural to disguise a basic theft. A curse passed down seven generations doesn’t murder the heir to an estate, but the idea of the curse leads Father Brown to the killer. Brown doesn’t believe in either mysticism or materialism. There are spiritual forces in the world, but we still have free will. A curse only has the power we give it. 

Chesterton was commenting on the times he lived in. The seemingly rational society of Victorian England, which was in the process of shedding its ancestral faith, was producing increasingly irrational people:
People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and skepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition. It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot, and a beetle is a scarab. 
Humans are a storytelling animal. We are wired to create larger explanations out of unconnected events. We are all detectives in the great mystery of life. Who are we? Where did we come from? What is the point of it all? Every human society comes up with answers to these questions. The highest value in our society is personal liberty. Everyone is free to come up with an answer that works for them, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. As Anthony Kennedy, the most influential justice in the Supreme Court, wrote in a famous case from the early 1990s: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

So how do we define our concept of existence? Science promises us answers, but all it does is create more questions. It's hard to know where the line between fact and fiction is in string theory. Many of the greatest minds of our day think we are living in a giant simulation. If we are in a simulation, who is doing the simulating? And have they left us any clues as to why? We have circled all the way back to the beginning. Maybe the answer to our questions isn’t that complicated. Maybe it was right in front of us the whole time.
For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.  
- Romans 1:20-22 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Reckoning

What’s good for General Motors is good for America. The saying summed up the 20th century when the US, and its car industry, ruled the world. The invention of the car in Detroit and the discovery of oil in Texas changed the country forever, both in terms of its culture and economy. Henry Ford created the assembly line, and the assembly line created modern America. Ford, along with GM and Chrysler, was a shared monopoly, divvying up the car industry between them. However, within the span of two generations, the Big Three went from leading the world to barely staying afloat. Detroit became a graveyard, while the American manufacturing base hollowed out. The rapid rise and even faster fall of Ford is a story worthy of Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. David Halberstam tells it in The Reckoning, a book written in 1986 that is still relevant today.

Halberstam parallels Ford’s decline with the rise of Nissan, one of the leaders of the Japanese car invasion of the 1970s. Japan and the US had been closely linked ever since American warships steamed into a Japanese harbor in 1854 and opened the islands to foreign trade. After 220 years of isolation, the Japanese had to quickly re-invent themselves to become a modern industrial power. They eventually became strong enough to challenge the US for control of the Pacific in World War II. It wasn’t a fair fight. They were a middleweight going up against a heavyweight. Once we survived their initial blow, there was only one way it could end. After the war, the Japanese were disarmed, and their islands came under the US military umbrella. We provided security and dictated how their economy would be rebuilt. The irony is the pro-corporate reforms we initiated crushed their labor movement, giving their car companies a huge advantage when competing with their American counterparts. Nissan controlled labor costs in a way Ford never could.

Japan is more hierarchical than the US. Obeying authority is the ultimate good. That’s how life works when so many people are crammed into a small land mass without many natural resources. The only advantage the Japanese have is their ability to work together. Everything is centralized. The International Bank of Japan and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry are more powerful than their equivalents in the US. Katsuji Kawamata, the head of Nissan for more than 30 years, came from the IBJ. The Japanese built their car industry almost from scratch after WWII. They learned everything they could from their conquerors. Hierarchical societies produce good students. Americans ignored in their own country, like quality control expert Edwards Deming, were revered in Japan and given free run to try their ideas.

No one in the US cared about car quality. They were making too much money to bother. The US was the only industrial power untouched by WWII, so no other country could compete economically. The war was a triumph of production and logistics. The Allies controlled 86% of the world’s oil. It was only a matter of time before the sheer number of ships, tanks and planes overwhelmed their enemies. The brains of the war effort weren’t the generals. It was the statisticians and analysts who ensured the continent-wide industrial machine ran at max efficiency. Modern analytics were born in the Pentagon. After the war, Robert McNamara and men like him brought systems analysis to the private sector. McNamara eventually became the head of Ford, before running the Vietnam War as LBJ’s Secretary of Defense.

The disputes between McNamara and the car people at Ford read like a mid-20th century version of the ones between the stat guys and scouts in Moneyball. There was an enormous class divide between the two groups. The car people were blue collar men who came up through the company. The analysts came from the best schools in the country. They didn’t have a technological background, but they didn’t need it. The numbers told them money was being left on the table. They were the first generation of consultants. They streamlined the manufacturing process and squeezed consumers for every dollar. Why build a car to last 20 years, when you could build one that broke in five and forced people to buy a new one? Why put money in research and development when people would buy whatever they put out?
So there were more people than ever from the business schools, and where they once had only slide rules for their calculations, now they had computers, which greatly increased their capacity to quantify any concept and to put those numbers to use. Computers were a powerful new weapon for the finance people. Every year now they had great access to financial detail and greater skill in using that detail within the company. With the coming of computers, the financial people were like prophets armed. 
The analysts told the owners what they wanted to hear. Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder, had taken Ford public after WWII. It made the family incredibly wealthy, but it also tied their fortunes to the stock market. The business changed. Ford went from selling cars to selling stocks. The goal was maximizing short-term revenue. They had to impress Wall Street with quarterly profit numbers. There was no pressure to innovate. The barriers for entry were too high for new domestic companies to compete. GM set the market. Ford and Chrysler followed. Follow the pecking order and they would all get rich.

The Big Three were slaves to the numbers. When the numbers didn’t correspond with reality, they questioned reality, not the numbers. Their researchers knew the tastes of their consumers were changing, but the bosses weren’t listening. They couldn’t. Their business model was built for a world where the size of your car determined your social status. That changed for the generation who grew up after the war. The first yuppies were more sophisticated than their parents. They were born with money, and they signalled status through food, lifestyle and politics, not consumption. A forward-thinking company would have tried to change, but the Big Three needed the higher profit margins that came from bigger cars. The executives had annual bonuses, and they had negotiated generously with the UAW knowing they could pass on the costs to the consumer. Their cars were getting worse and more expensive at the same time. Something had to give.

The worldwide supply of oil gave in the 1970s. The economic boom of the 20th century was built on cheap oil. Technological advancements came from the labor-saving power of machines, and the machines ran on oil. The Japanese didn’t have as much, so they used it more efficiently than the Americans. In 1973, OPEC, a cartel of the world’s biggest oil producers, created a panic when they restricted supply. With prices rising and lines stretching around the block at every gas station in the country, US consumers began focusing on mileage. Toyota and Nissan were ready to pounce. Domestic competition in Japan was much fiercer than in the States. It was natural selection 101. Companies fighting for their lives make better cars than ones protected from competition. The Japanese pushing their way into the US car market was a stark reversal of what happened in 1854. It was like introducing an invasive species to an environment where they had no natural predators. The Big Three couldn’t react fast enough to how the market was changing.

What makes the book so interesting is that it also tells the story from the perspective of the Japanese. From the American point of view in the 1980s, they appeared to be an unbeatable industrial machine. However, there was just as much infighting and dysfunction at their companies. They just did a better job of hiding it. The power struggle between Takashi Isihara and Ichiro Shioji at Nissan was almost a carbon copy of the one between Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca at Ford. Yutaka Katayama, the trailblazing executive who popularized Nissan in the US, was resented by his bosses for his success. Not even being right could save him from being marginalized. The same thing happened to Hal Sperlich, the chief architect of the Ford Mustang and Chrysler Minivan. Once an organization gets large enough, advancement and survival within it depends on playing politics. It’s Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics in action: The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The human heart is flawed. Our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses, and every revolution contains the seeds of its own destruction. That was the story in the US just as much as it was in Japan. The more successful people get, the more arrogant they become. By the end of his life, Henry Ford had nearly destroyed the company he founded. After being pushed out of Ford, Iacocca took over Chrysler and slowly turned into everything he hated about Henry Ford II, who was essentially Bruce Wayne without Batman. The second generation of Japanese factory workers, just like their US counterparts, didn’t want to follow their parents into such demanding jobs. The final few chapters of the book show Korea doing to Japan what Japan did to the US. Nothing stays on top forever. It’s worth remembering in an era where a few companies control the online economy. Apple and Google will get fat and lazy, just like Ford and Nissan. What comes up must come down.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plan and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.  
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Forge Of Christendom

No one talks about the Middle Ages. In the popular imagination, the thousand years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance were a dark period in European history, where civilization was in decline, society stagnated and people were blinded by ignorance and superstition. However, history is never as simple as it appears, and the people living through that era certainly didn’t feel like they were in uneventful times. You can draw a direct line between what happened at the turn of the first millennium and the state of the world today. Everything is connected: skip over huge portions in the history of any country and you can’t expect to have all the necessary information to understand what is going on. In The Forge of Christendom, Tom Holland does a brilliant job of making an obscure section of history come alive, making us re-assess what we think we know in the process.

The first thing he points out is that Rome never really fell, at least not in the 400s. By the time Alaric the Great sacked the actual city of Rome in 410, it was a relative backwater that didn’t even rule Italy, much less the Empire. The regional capital was in Ravenna, two hundred miles north, while the imperial capital had long since moved to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The Byzantines thought of themselves as Romans, and their capital was the biggest and most important city in the Mediterranean, if not the entire world. Their power fluctuated, but their strategic location, as well as their wealth, meant they were a major player internationally until the city finally fell in 1453. Rome and Persia had been rivals since the days of Julius Caesar, and the Crusades were just one chapter in the struggle between the two great civilizations.

Our system of dating itself comes from this time period. People started thinking about history in terms of AD and BC in the 800s, when Charlemagne popularized the Christian calendar to help unify his newly conquered realm. Charlemagne was the first medieval king worthy of the name, and the modern-day borders of France and Germany stem from how his empire was divided up between his sons after his death. After subduing most of the Western Europe, he needed to legitimize his rule, so he bartered with the Pope to crown him the Holy Roman Emperor. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: the Pope asserted his authority over the other bishops in the Western Church, and established the precedent that rulers needed his blessing.

The running theme through the book is the conflict between the church and state in the West leading up to its resolution in 1073, when Henry IV kneeled before Pope Gregory VII and asked for forgiveness. There was no such separation in the East, either in the Eastern Orthodox church or the Islamic world, where power was centralized and religious leaders served at the pleasure of the king. The difference in the West was that the Bishops of Rome used their connection to the Apostle Peter, who lead the church in Rome before he was killed in the 60s, to elevate themselves over the rest of the Catholic church and turn the city into a religious capital. However, they never had the political power to go with it. The dominant tribes - the Franks, Germans and Normans - in the West were all Northern, and they had uneasy relationships with the Papacy. A particularly strong king, or pope, might hold sway for awhile, but the two offices were never combined in the way they were out East.

The Normans (aka the Northerners) were the descendants of Vikings who settled throughout Europe. They saw how Christianity could be useful: the church’s network of bishops provided a bureaucratic framework through which they could rule, while the religion gave them a reason to pillage new lands, since they were “bringing Christ” to the natives. Norman kings had to create wealth for their followers, so there was a constant push to expand into new territory, whether it was Iceland, Greenland, England or Russia. The name Russia came from the word “Rus”, which meant “rowing” in the language of the original inhabitants, because the Normans established a foothold in Russia by rowing down the Volga and Danube Rivers. Every king wanted Norman mercenaries: they fought on both sides of most major conflicts. The Byzantine Emperor had an entire regiment of them as a Praetorian Guard.

The European world was very interconnected. The peasants might not have moved around much, but the elites thought globally. One of the most memorable characters from the book is Harald the Varangian, a Norman captain who ventured abroad to win a fortune and marry a Russian princess. He cut a swath through Constantinople, where he was a medieval version of the most interesting man in the world:
Brags about his exploits in the imperial service would end up echoing as far afield as Iceland. In Sicily, it was claimed, he had captured no fewer than eighty towns. In the Holy Land, he had bathed in the River Jordan, and conquered Jerusalem - “an easy task for Harald”. In Constantinople, he had been thrown into prison by a lovelorn empress, helped to blind an emperor and fought with a dragon. The plausible and utterly fantastical, in the rumors of Harald’s deeds, were promiscuously mixed. And to a sensational effect - for in the North he was soon a living legend. Piled up for safe keeping in an island compound outside Novgorod was a great heap of treasure, “a hoard of wealth so immense that no one had ever seen its like before”: Harald’s winnings. 
Harald used his money to become king of Denmark and Norway, and when it ran low, he looked towards England, the richest kingdom in the Western world. The relative isolation of the English allowed them to create a centralized state, as well as a defined ethnic identity, much earlier than their neighbors. And the more unified a kingdom was, the more money the king made. The king of England, Harald Hardrada, was able to beat off the invasion and kill the other Harald, but that left him open to attack from across the English Channel lead by William the Conqueror. William was a real-life King Arthur: a descendant of an English noble family exiled to France, He had been groomed since childhood, along with a tight group of relatives who became his lieutenants, to be a warrior king. The Norman conquest of 1066 was the last successful invasion of the English islands, something which had been happening every few hundreds of years since the beginning of recorded history in Europe.

The Saracens (aka the Muslims) were the Normans of the South, a small warrior elite who ruled over a huge number of conquered peoples. They viewed their military success as proof their righteousness, and they taxed conquered dhimmis (Jews and Christians) at exorbitantly high rates to fund their armies. It was a brutal time. The origin of the word “slave” comes from how often the Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe were enslaved, by Christians and Muslims. Kings won their legitimacy by beating back foreign invaders. An unorganized society without one in charge wasn’t going to last very long. 

Given the level of political turmoil, it’s no wonder people thought the end of the world was near. Humans have worried about the apocalypse since the beginning of time. Our society doesn’t believe in God anymore, but we still fear our sins will destroy the world:

Many tenth century Christians thought the millennial anniversaries of the birth and death of Jesus Christ signaled the beginning of the end times. As it turned out, though, the world kept right on spinning after they were gone. They thought they were living in the most important period of history, but by the turn of the second millennium, their descendants had written them out of the history books. People at the end of the third millennium will do the same to us. Ask the average person today about the year 3000, and they would probably question whether the world will last that long. It’s the same answer you would have gotten if you asked people a thousand years ago about the year 2000.

The most important period of history is always right now. History is the story the present tells about the past to shape the future. People remember what they want, and what actually happened quickly recedes in the sands of time. Fake news didn’t start with the internet. The medieval monk Gerbert, who became Pope Sylvester II, taught students about the Earth circling the Sun five hundreds of years before Copernicus. Things we take for granted now will be forgotten in the future, and people in the 1800s would be shocked at some of the things we don’t know. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 
- Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, 9-11