New Testament imitations
Jewish prophets traditionally claimed to voice the words of the Lord when prophesying, but they never claimed to be the Lord. It reasonably can be questioned whether Jesus ever claimed to be the Lord, because such a claim would have been regarded by Jesus' fellow Jews as blasphemous. But later, Paul asserted that Christ was the divine son of God, and the Hellenist world readily accepted this idea. [Recall how Sarpedon and other Trojan War heroes were sons of Zeus: Lesson 6.] Anthropomorphic images of gods were the norm in the Greco-Roman world. [Recall Homer's anthropomorphic or human-shaped gods from Lesson 3.]
In Judaism and Islam the divine spirit is present only in the words of prophets, so these religions tend to express themselves in purely verbal form, as sacred words, codes of commandments, laws and rules that tell the cult members what to think and do. In Christianity, beginning with Jesus' sermon on the mount in Matthew's gospel, there are also verbal codes, but, because of the incarnation, because of the belief that the spirit is embodied in fully human form, Christianity tends to express itself in images or models that show the cult way of life. Christian culture transmits itself less by laws than by imitation of acts. Christians copy the life of Jesus, Paul and other "followers" who previously have imitated what (it is believed) Jesus did or would do in the same circumstances. The models exist in art, beginning in the literary art of the New Testament itself, and flowering in literature and fine arts of the European Middle Ages.
The medievals copied the Bible not only in their monastic libraries, and not only in their sculpture, painting, and drama, but in their lives. The New Testament came true, as if by magic, with real life Pauls and gospel-Jesuses. These basic Christian imitations are seen in, for example, Aurelius Augustinus (354-430 AD) and John d' Bernardone (cir. 1181-1223 AD), better known as saints Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi.
Augustine and Francis not only followed the primary New Testament models but also became important secondary models in themselves, as saints and founders of monastic orders. Their life stories, along with the stories of Jesus and Paul, became part of an expanding canon that describes Christian life.
In practice, Christian imitation can be very complex, as the imitator copies imitations of imitations, layer upon layer removed from the primary models of the New Testament. So from time to time, there have been movements, like the protestant reformation, to reduce the complexity of Christian art by getting rid of all of the imitations except the New Testament itself. Indeed, there have been radical reform movements, like some forms of Puritanism, to do away with all art, and to describe the New Testament as something different than art, but this is simply not the idea in mainstream Christianity of the Middle Ages.
Augustine's case is interesting for us in this course, because he switched life models from following Socrates to following Paul. Like Socrates of the Phaedo, Augustine ultimately embraced religious faith, but the belief-content was Paul's rather than Pythagoras'. As a young Roman, he studied the Roman orator Cicero and Neoplatonist writers. [Recall Neoplatonism from Lesson 13.] From these early academic interests in sophistry and philosophy, he developed cleverness in argument and a personal mission to find happiness.
In his Confessions (written about 400 AD) Augustine tells how he found true happiness only after years of searching and disappointment. This story formula of religious conversion is a standard in autobiographies today, but there is not much like it in western literature before Augustine, except Paul [and Homer, as described in Lessson 2]. Developing Paul's terminology, Augustine described unhappiness and happiness as "sin" and "grace."
To put Augustine's thought in its simplest terms: if we are attached to things that can be lost--whether it be family, a lover, money, political power, bodily health or anything else that can't be both attained and kept permanently--then we are set up for an inevitable fall into grief. That is sin. Only immortal things will not disappoint us in the future. So, Augustine believed, we must cherish God and nothing but God. God is hidden from us in our ordinary experience of the transitory world; yet, through his grace, God may permit us to find him in our "hearts" or inward lives.
Augustine learned about sin through trial and error of personal experience, but ultimately he needed Paul's model to lead him to a new life, to put his past behind him. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, Augustine turned from unsatisfactory beliefs to Christianity in a sudden moment of spiritual awakening or "conversion." It happened to him, he said, through the magic of Paul's book.
8.12.28 ...I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears, and they gushed out of my eyes in an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And I called often unto Thee: "O Lord, how long? how long, Lord? Will Thou be angry forever? Remember not my past sins." I felt that I was imprisoned by those sins. I cried out in sorrow: "How long, how long, tomorrow, and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not end my sinfulness now?"
8.12.29 So was I crying out in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of a boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and often repeating, "Take up and read; take up and read." I tried to think whether children in any kind of play sing such words, but I could not remember ever to have heard the like. So holding back tears, I arose--interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and to read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony who, coming in during the reading of the Gospel, suddenly believed that what was being read was spoken to him personally: Go, sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me. And by that oracle Antony suddenly was converted unto Thee. Eagerly then, I returned to the place where I had been sitting earlier with Alypius, for there I had laid the volume of the Apostle [Paul]. I seized and opened the book, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in lust." No further would I read, nor did I need to read further, for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.
putting a bookmark on the page, I shut the volume, and calmly told my thought to
Alypius. He asked to see what I had read. I showed him, and he looked even
further than I had read. I knew not the words that followed in the book, but this followed:
"him that is weak in the faith, receive," which he applied to himself,
as he told me. And by this warning he was strengthened, and he made a strong resolution,
most consistent with his character, wherein he always bettered
me. Without any delay he joins me and we go inside to my mother.
We tell her; she rejoices. We relate in order how it took place; she leaps for
joy, and triumphs, and blesses Thee, Who are able to do more than we ask
or think. She saw that Thou had given her more than she had begged
by her pitiful and most sorrowful groaning for me. For Thou converted me unto
so that I sought neither wife, nor any hope of this world, standing in that rule
of faith, where Thou had showed me unto her in a vision, so many years before.
And Thou didst convert her mourning into joy, much more plentiful than she had
desired, and in a much more precious and purer way than she required before, by
having grandchildren of my body.
Augustine's "born again" conversion was the answer to the prayers of his pious Christian mother Monica, and it fulfilled a vision in which she had foreseen it years earlier. But the Roman wasn't converted by his mother (at least, as he understood his conversion consciously). He was converted by the magic instruction of the book, namely Paul's New Testament letter to the Romans (Romans 13:13-14, quoted above). It spoke directly to him, and he did what it told him to do.
Augustine's enchantment by Paul continued for the rest of his scholarly career, as he developed an elaborate Christian theology based on ideas about human nature, divine grace, original sin, predestination and other subjects sketched in Paul's New Testament letters.
The best known of Augustine's theological treatises, The City of God, again pays tribute to Paul's Romans. After Rome had been sacked by barbarians in 410 AD, pagans naturally blamed Christians for deserting the gods who had protected the city for so many centuries. Augustine answered them by arguing that trust in any worldly city, even a city as powerful and enduring as Rome, is misplaced and eventually will be disappointed. Aeneas had not escaped burning Troy to found an eternal city, after all. Augustine's Rome, like Isaiah's Jerusalem, was a fallen city that had lost divine favor and protection, stimulating a new relationship between the Lord and his believing people. Augustine's central idea that only "the City of God" (that is, the community of the faithful) is eternal was derived from Paul.
Copying documents was characteristic of literary production in the Age of Manuscripts. [Recall the Age of Manuscripts from Lesson 10.] As Augustine's conversion illustrates, people themselves could become living copies. For believing Christians, life conforming to the New Testament, and associated stories of saints, was happiness, while life in accord with other books was unhappiness.
Augustine heard Paul's Romans speaking to him personally just as Antony had heard Jesus of the gospels telling him to follow, sell everything, give to the poor, and receive treasure in heaven (Confessions 8.12.29, quoted above). Francis of Assisi was another Antony.
In Francis' imaginative life, imitation of gospel-Jesus replaced boyhood fantasies about becoming a chivalric knight at arms. The competing images of what to do with his life came to young Francis from different kinds of books, scripture and romance. [For romance, see Lesson 17.] In a moment of insight, he chose one kind of book to make real in his life, and he gave up the other kind as illusory. (Compare Augustine's choice of books between Paul's book and the philosophers' books.)
Francis apparently was not a highly trained scholar, like Augustine, but he could read and write, and he knew the gospels stories of Jesus inside-out. He gave up all of his possessions and forsook his family to become an itinerant street-preacher. He attracted disciples to join him in his life of poverty and obedience. He served the poor and sought martyrdom, which eventually--the story says-- he received in a surprisingly literal way. The stigmata, or wounds of crucified Christ, appeared in Francis' hands, feet and side, and he carried these mysterious marks in agony for about two years until his death. Once Francis had died, some of his followers claimed that he had been the messiah, the Second Coming of Christ.
Wounds and all, Francis illustrated the Jesus image so clearly that he became a favorite subject for Christian artists. It has been estimated that at least 10,000 likenesses of Francis were painted in 14th century Italy, although only a few dozen still remain today. Among the most famous of these surviving images is the cycle of narrative paintings in the style of Giotto in the church of San Francesco at Assisi, where Francis' body is buried. (See my Francis frescoes page, for details.)
Francis was so devoted to imitating Jesus that he left a set of instructions (several sets actually) about how to do it. These are rules for the Franciscan way of life. They are drawn mostly from the New Testament with little elaboration. Many of them are simply directions for living given by Gospel-Jesus. For example:
Rule and life of the brothers is this: to live in obedience, in chastity,
and without anything of their own, and to follow the teaching and the
footsteps of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who says: "If you will be perfect,
go and sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in
heaven, and come, follow me" (Matthew 19:21). And: "If
anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and
follow me" (Matthew 16:24). And likewise: "If anyone
wishes to come to me, and does not hate his father and mother and wife and
children and brothers and sisters, and his own life too, he cannot be my
disciple" (Luke 14:26). And: "Everyone who has left father
and mother, brothers and sisters, wife and children, houses and lands for my
sake, shall receive a hundred-fold and shall possess life everlasting"
(Cf. Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29-30, Luke 18:29).
The official story of Francis' life, written by Saint Bonaventure, embodies these Franciscan rules. In this story, for example, Francis gives away everything he has, even his clothes, publicly rejects his earthly father (a well-to-do cloth merchant), and acknowledges his only true father to be God in heaven. (Compare the gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism, when his father in heaven is revealed.)
Francis' two incompatible fathers, physical and spiritual, might be seen as the rulers of the two worlds of consciousness, body and soul [recall Lesson 11]. Yet Francis also found the spirit in the natural world. The father in heaven, celebrated in Francis' famous song, "The Canticle of the Creatures," is the creator god. [See Note 1 below.] In this song, which is the oldest surviving poem in Italian, all of creation is joined in brotherhood and sisterhood: sun and moon, the four classical elements (earth, air, fire, water), and even death are children or creatures of the Creator. The view is Eden-like, as if the poet were an unfallen Adam celebrating the magical creative power of God the father. [Recall the creative creatures from Lesson 1.]
Francis apparently took this idea of the family of all beings quite seriously. He is said to have preached not only to the Sultan of Egypt and to several popes, but to birds, wolves, and stones, as if their creator had endowed them with understanding souls. The sermons to beasts and things look eccentric, until we read the New Testament closely and see exactly what it tells preachers to do:
And he said unto them, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15, emphasis supplied).
Most interpreters might say that "every creature" in this passage means every human being, but Francis followed the gospel with unassuming obedience to the words of the book.
Throughout its history Christianity has promoted itself primarily through imitation, not rules of law. This is why representational art plays such a relatively large role in Christianity. All Christians face the artists' problem of imitating Jesus Christ. The old story must come back to life.
But how to do it? Is it right to imitate Jesus by imitating one of Jesus' good imitators, like Francis? If so, should Francis' every move and gesture be imitated, even to the point of sneezing when Francis sneezes (as one of Francis' simple brothers did)?
The questions that arise from imitation are endless, and various answers can be given for all of them:
These practical kinds of questions have received a variety of answers. Christians start not with one official gospel but with four--four that are far from identical--and with a set of early Christian letters that aren't entirely consistent as a group of writings, with a story about Paul's missionary life that seems to be inconsistent at points with Paul's letters, and with a vision of the Second Coming in the Book of Revelation. From there, the complexity grows with the passing generations of "followers" whose imitations vary.
Obviously, we today are no longer in the Age of Manuscripts, and the Bible does not automatically make believing Jews or Christians out of anybody who happens to "take up and read." The Bible shows the way to belief only when a sincere desire for the experience of God precedes the reading--which usually happens only to those living in a supportive cult of apparently sincere believers. [Recall self-induction of belief from Lesson 15.] Bible readers today, in multicultural society, may read to gain insight into history, to understand culture, to relax or for other perfectly good reasons.
Like philosophy and history, religion models ways of life, but unlike them religion still retains spirits, embodied or disembodied, even in our skeptical, scientific age. The faith element is not disguised in religion, as it is hidden these days in history, philosophy and other arts that pretend to be sciences. Religion candidly says that whoever follows its discipline is going to need faith. Perhaps this is better disclosure than we are given by historians or philosophers whose art may look probable or reasonable but nonetheless is only art.
So perhaps it's fitting that religion traditionally has been regarded as the queen of the arts, or the most truthful of the arts. It's certainly the most followed in that there always have been many more religious devotees than there have been historians, philosophers, painters, poets, dancers, actors or other artists. The happiness of believers is evidence of the powers of literature.
Lesson summary: Christianity is based on imitation, beginning with the prophetic figures of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament and extending through the lives of famous followers like Augustine of Hippo and Francis of Assisi.
1. Francis' Song of the Creatures, also known as the Song of Brother Sun.
2. The grammar of God. Theology means literally "words of God." However, as opposed to prophecy, which speaks for God ("thus says the Lord"), theology speaks in a detached voice about God ("Allah is great"). In this third person voice, theology often deals with problems of separation or estrangement from God. In this sense, the theologians' search for God is a grammatical problem.
Note, however, the interesting rhetorical voice in the Confessions: Augustine uses the second person voice, talking to God. ("I called often unto Thee.") Francis also uses the second person in his "Song of the Creatures." This is the grammar of prayer; it acknowledges the presence of the divine spirit and seeks communion but does not impersonate it (that is, the spirit's answer is not voiced).
3. Do you practice a religion? What acts or behaviors are most essential for that practice? How well or poorly do you think you perform?
4. Compare and contrast Francis and Jesus.
5. What are some of the impacts that religions have in the modern world? How do religions influence what happens today? Do you think that individuals are better off practicing religion or rejecting it?
6. What person or figure is best for you to imitate in your life? What parts of the imitation seem to be easy? What parts seem difficult or impossible?
Jesus' sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1) compares with Moses' presentation of the ten commandments on Mount Sinai, but this sermon is found only in Matthew's gospel (many of the sayings are from scattered episodes in Jesus' life, according to the other gospels), a gospel aimed at Jewish audiences.
Image left: players perform God and angels in a medieval mystery play in York, England. Drama in the Middle Ages presented scenes from the Bible and from lives of saints.
Image left: Augustine discovers the Apostle Paul: "take up and read"
The pagan idea that Rome had fallen because Christians had abandoned the gods was famously echoed in later secular history writing by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In Gibbon, Christians had abandoned the pagan virtues that had kept Rome strong for so many centuries. Interestingly, Gibbon owed these ideas to his Christian education. They are remakes of the old ideas of Isaiah and Jeremiah about the fall of Israel and Jerusalem.
Like Augustine, Francis learned to overcome his desires for things that are transitory and therefore disappointing. He had been born into a well-to-do business family (his father was an importer of French cloth; hence Francis' name), and as a young man, he dreamed of becoming a knight. In Francis' first and only battle, however, he was captured and held prisoner, and this experience with chivalry apparently changed his life's direction for good.