Early Christian Intellectuals Were Bored At Church Too

Bernardino Pinturicchio – Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (Public Domain)

So last week I read The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. It was definitely an interesting book, and one tangent stuck out to me in particular. Here’s author Stephen Greenblatt describing Saint Jerome’s travails with setting aside his addiction to pagan art to try and focus on scripture:

But a prestigious cultural tradition that has shaped the inner lives of the elite does not disappear easily, even in those who welcome its burial. In a letter written in 384 CE, Jerome–the scholarly saint to whom we owe the story of Lucretius’ madness and suicide–described an inner struggle. Ten years earlier, he recalled, he was on his way from Rome to Jerusalem, where he planned to withdraw from all worldly entanglements, but still he took his prized classical library with him. He was committed to disciplining his body and savings his soul, but he could not forgo the addictive pleasures of his mind: “I would fast, only to read Cicero afterwards. I would spend many nights in vigil, I would shed bitter tears called from my inmost heart by the remembrance of my past sins; and then I would take up Plautus again.” Cicero, Jerome understood, was a pagan who argued for a thoroughgoing skepticism toward all dogmatic claims, including the claims of religion, but the elegance of his prose seemed irresistible. Plautus was, if anything, worse: his comedies were populated by pimps, whores, and hangers-on, but their zany wit was delicious. Delicious but poisonous: whenever Jerome turned from these literary delights to the Scriptures, the holy texts seemed crude and uncultivated. His love for the beauty and elegance of Latin was such that when he determined to learn Hebrew, he initially found the experience almost physically repellant: “From the judicious precepts of Quintilian, the rich and fluent eloquence of Cicero, the graver style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny,” he wrote in 411, “I turned to this language of hissing and broken-winded words.”

Jerome was not unique in his travails. Greenblatt again:

For many generations, learned Christians remained steeped, as Jerome was, in a culture whose values had been shaped by the pagan classics. Platonism contributed to Christianity its model of the soul, Aristotelianism its Prime Mover; Stoicism its model of Providence. All the more reason why those Christians repeated to themselves exemplary stories of renunciation. Through the telling of these stories, they acted out, as in a dream, the abandonment of the rich cultural soil in which they, their parents, and their grandparents were nurtured, until one day they awoke to find that they actually had abandoned it.

There are lots of directions to head with these interesting observations, and one particular direction–one I’m sure neither intended by nor interesting to Greenblatt–is that these guys would have been pretty frustrated with a typical 3-hour Sunday meeting, too.

The thought of Jerome–or any erudite early Christian intellectual–struggling to get through a typical fast and testimony meeting is pretty hilarious, but I’m not being (only) flippant here.

The Church has something to offer everyone, but it also seems designed to provide at least some obstacles to everyone, too. It reminds me of the old expression–originally about newspapers–that they are to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I feel that is the proper role of the Church (meaning: the LDS Church as it exists before us today) and even the Gospel (meaning: the eternal principles). When you are broken, the Church is (or: should be) a hospital. But when you are well, the Church can (and often will) break you.

This isn’t a bug or an incidental fact. It is, I think, I feature.

14 comments for “Early Christian Intellectuals Were Bored At Church Too

  1. Interesting and insightful history. Suddenly makes Jerome come to life.
    It seems to me that you make an unsupported statement of faith when you say “The Church has something to offer everyone.” At least logically it is just as likely that the church is to comfort the afflicted. Full stop.
    (To be fair, I think there is something to be said for afflicting the comfortable. Broken hearts and contrite spirits and all that. But it is much more complicated than a one-liner bug/feature observation and I’m not settled on how it resolves.)

  2. Good post. I’m pretty much with St. Jerome when it comes to finding both “pagan texts” and other literature much more interesting and complex than most scripture. For all the fact that I love the four gospels, there’s a lot of holy writ that just seems irrelevant, even odious to me. I suppose you’re right, that the church is designed to break us somehow, both in healthy and unhealthy ways. I’ve seen that time and again and I think the institution, as currently constructed, is designed to make sure that people are “church broke” and that its members continue to be obedient, not-questioning-too-much folks who just go about doing their duties with a kind of bland benignity. I’ve often found it strange that one of the hardest things (for me) about being Mormon is the fact that the institution itself is often the greatest obstacle to Christ. I wonder if St. Jerome would agree… And I second Anon’s recommendation. I kept picturing St. Jerome getting pummeled by Dolph Lundgren.

  3. christian-

    It seems to me that you make an unsupported statement of faith when you say…

    It is unsupported here, yeah, but it’s an idea I’m pretty convinced of. I think the Church–and life in general–are designed to incorporate a certain degree of stress, tension, and even pain. And that while these factors are not calibrated to any person’s life, in the Church in particular comfort is more readily accessible to those already suffering, and stress, boredom, etc are more readily apparent to those who would otherwise be complacent.

  4. Brother Sky-

    Just for the clarity of anyone reading, your response goes quite a lot farther than what I had in mind. I find the Church can be frustrating, boring, stressful, challenging, etc. but never odious, nor do I believe that it is designed to turn anyone into the kind of unquestioning, blindly obedient automaton you suggest.

    Not actually trying to rebut your points here, simply separate the kind of affliction I’m talking about when I say the church afflicts the comfortable from the kind you’re talking about.

  5. Brother Sky, like Nathaniel I’d definitely disagree that Church is designed “to break us.” I’d be the first to say a rethink of church services is in order. But it’s a much harder problem than it appears I think – especially when using volunteers who are willing to take callings they frequently don’t have good skills for. From all I can see the Church is more than willing to investigate alternatives. When I was young Sacrament was at 6 pm and priesthood at 8 am. I’m glad we don’t do that anymore! Likewise while we can complain about our current manuals, the lessons were substantially rethought at the direction of Pres. Benson and apparently with great involvement by Pres. Hinkley. The goal was to deal with the large influx of new members from the 80’s and 90’s. Yet for those already familiar with teachings, it’s easy to find such lessons boring. Again it’s a hard balance and next year it seems like we’re getting some bigger innovations. I’m sure they’ll not be perfect and will require some revamping. But they are trying. And if they’re boring, well there’s lots of read still tied to the Church. Especially in the days when so many carry an iPad.

  6. To Nathaniel and Clark Goble. Thanks for your kind, thoughtful and charitable comments. Yes, I think my comment did go farther, just because that’s been my experience. And though I’m not young, I work with young people and for better or worse, have probably imbibed by osmosis their mistrust of any institution that claims to have my best interests at heart. Occupational hazard, I suppose. I do think the church recognizes its lapses and its leaders are trying, but I also think that there is a sense from some of our leaders (see this post on Wheat and Tares, e.g.: https://wheatandtares.org/2016/10/03/church-broke/) that they’d like us to be, if not obedient robots, than at least followers who won’t rock the boat too much. That’s perfectly understandable in one sense given that any institution runs more smoothly the less internal strife it has; it’s just that I think being broken on the wheel of church policies and culture leads to becoming a different kind of person than one who is broken on the wheel of Christ’s love, that’s all. I mean, I think I would make a distinction between those two kinds of “breaking”. And Nathaniel, please correct me if I got it wrong, but I interpreted your line about the church providing obstacles for/”breaking” its members as implying that the placing of those obstacles is well-intentioned? That the church provides obstacles that help one come closer to Christ, to be a better person, to cleave more to one’s covenants, etc.? Is that right or did I misread that?

  7. Brother Sky-

    And Nathaniel, please correct me if I got it wrong, but I interpreted your line about the church providing obstacles for/”breaking” its members as implying that the placing of those obstacles is well-intentioned? That the church provides obstacles that help one come closer to Christ, to be a better person, to cleave more to one’s covenants, etc.? Is that right or did I misread that?

    You didn’t misread it.

    I think the Church has something to attract everyone. I think the Church also has things to alienate everyone. And I think that alienation is intentional and/or unavoidable in a general sense.

    It’s unavoidable (but perhaps unintended) in the sense in which (to the extent that the Church prepares us for eternal life) it is asking us to do things that run counter to our current nature. If you want to run a marathon and you’re not in shape, the training will be uncomfortable. This isn’t because it was designed to hurt, but rather because there is no way to get from couch potato to marathon runner without change, and change is uncomfortable. Most of these have to do with the fact that the Church requires us to be in proximity to, cooperation with, and sometimes even under the direction of imperfect people. This causes friction. This friction isn’t intrinsically desireable, but the only way to get ordinary people to become Zion is to put them in the rock tumbler together for a while.

    To a less degree it’s intentional in the sense in which–like I mentioned above–there are irritants in the Church designed to discomfit the complacent. I think the Church contains caltrops to offset apparent strengths and prevent complacency. Having a high IQ is–in general–an advantage in life. Some of the apparently anti-intellectual aspects of the Church are intended (I think) to counter those advantages and level the playing field, as it were.

    As a rule, commandments are commensurate with eternal principles of happiness. If we bridle at them, it’s just because we don’t understand the principles behind them (or reject them).

    Sometimes, however, God asks us to do something just because. These can cause greater difficulty because–unlike most commandments–they are not intrinsically beneficial.

    Same basic idea here.

  8. Brother Sky, thanks for your comments and for the link to the Wheat and Tares essay, which I thought was quite good.

    While I agree with Nathaniel that the church is not DESIGNED to turn anyone into an unquestioning, blindly obedient automaton, there is little question in my mind that several church leaders over the years, both in Salt Lake and at the local level, have pursued that objective, to one degree or another, under the auspices of church authority.

    When the Lord said that it is the nature of virtually all men in positions of authority to exercise unrighteous dominion over their fellow man, he was not talking about the Caesars, Napoleons and Mussolinis of the world since that would be stating nothing more than the obvious. Rather, when that passage is read in context, it’s clear that he was talking about both the leaders and members of his church.

  9. Brother Sky, I just don’t buy the “they want blind obedience” charge at all. First off they preach regularly against such a thing. I think they think what they are saying is right and they hope knowledge by the members will entail obedience to the principle they think is correct. But that’s true of everyone who is confident in their belief. So it’s hardly unique to the Brethren.

    I just am very skeptical of your claim.

  10. Let me play Devil’s Advocate. Clark, just a month ago I heard a member declare that “when the prophet speaks the discussion is over.” I have heard variations of this theology numerous times over the years, and the end result is an insistence on strict obedience, whether you call it blind or not. One of my pet peeves of Mormon culture is the sycophancy towards LDS leadership that has been adopted as part of Church culture. Indeed, I have heard numerous times to “follow the prophet no matter what” and even to “follow the prophet even if he tells you to do something wrong.” Yep. That’s true.

    In Utah County Mormonism I have experienced an ultra-orthodoxy that is heavily literal in its mindset and holds to defacto positions of the inerrancy of scripture and the “Brethren” (despite theological claims to the contrary). I thought maybe this was a regional tendency, but having been to wards across the country I can say, nope, it’s not.

    To your point, however, the Church is different than the culture, though even here there are fine lines of distinctions. In any case, the Church is a very flawed thing because the people in it a very flawed. There is no perfect Church, only an ideal that we ascribe to. As such, aspects of it are truly boring, tedious, exhausting, and senile. And every once and a while, odious.

    And yet the Book of Mormon is a marvel. Temple theology is a thunderclap in a deaf world. And some modern revelations are truly stunning in scope and metaphysical grandeur. There is so much to wonder at in Mormondom, and that is meant in a very good way. It is human nature, however, that few ever wonder past what they are told.

  11. John, there’s no doubt people argue that. I’ve encountered it too. How widespread it is would be my caveat.

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