Brian Zahnd

I’m trying to listen to echoes these days — the return of earlier sounds. I need to hear the distant echoes of an earlier Christianity. I am beginning to understand how important it is to maintain an ongoing conversation with the Christians who have lived before us. We must resist the tyranny of the present. If we ignore the echoes of the past we doom ourselves to an unrecognized ignorance. It’s only because of our connection with our technological past that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every generation. Likewise, if we maintain a connection with our theological past we don’t have to reformulate the essential creeds every generation. When I encounter people obviously confused about the nature of the Trinity, I think, don’t you know we settled this in 325? Of course, they may very well not know! Or if they do know, they don’t care. They have no respect for the past. To them it’s just old — and old means obsolete. Which is, of course, a ridiculous notion peculiar to the modern era.

One of the problems with contemporary revivalism is its egocentric obsession with the present and its woeful ignorance of the past. For too much of my life my idea of church history went something like this: The church started off great with Pentecost, jumped the tracks a couple of centuries later, got back on track with the Reformation, and really took off with Azusa street. The arrogance is appalling. It’s why most modern revivalist movements seem to follow this implicit dictum: Re-found the church and prepare for Armageddon. Contemporary revivalist movements always seem convinced that they’re the first generation to recover “apostolic purity” and the last generation before the return of the Lord. They misappropriate 1 Peter 2:9 as they brashly claim “we are the chosen generation.” Without a clear memory of church history we become the Alpha and Omega in our imagined self-importance. Christian amnesiacs could benefit from some echoes — the echoes of Athanasius and Aquinas, Irenaeus and Erasmus, Clement and Kierkegaard. The Holy Spirit has never abandoned the church. Every generation had those who heard and spoke what the Spirit said to the church. We should pay attention to their echoes.

I hear the echoes of my earlier sisters and brothers as I muse upon their time-tested wisdom. In an age of pragmatism where the mystics are muted, the echoes of the ancient Christian mystics are good for my soul — mystics like Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross. John talks to me about the dark night of the soul, while Julian shares her revelations of divine love. They tell me secrets — secrets I may never have discovered on my own. John says, “it is love alone that unites the soul with God,” while Julian whispers, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” I need to hear those echoes.

I can discern the holy echoes of another time when I visit the great cathedrals and basilicas of the old world. It’s true that I often feel conflicted in these gilded sanctuaries. More than once I’ve sat in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome wondering, is this a good thing? The question is a valid one and does not yield a simple answer. But there is no mistaking that there was a time when architecture itself was an act of worship — something that is sadly foreign to most American evangelicals. Living in a nation dotted with utilitarian, non-descript, multi-use church buildings, I can celebrate the desire to create sacred space through sacred architecture. I’m glad we have these sacred echoes in our increasingly secular world.

When I have the opportunity to visit one of these cathedrals, I try to do so, not as a tourist, but as a worshiper. When I take time to pray beneath those vaulted ceilings, with their soaring arches and stained-glass windows, I can sense the echoes from worshipers of long ago. I can share the awe that filled their souls. The believers who built those cathedrals, who were baptized and received communion there, who prayed and worshiped there, are my brothers and sisters. I esteem their way of worship — even if they didn’t have a rock band, a light show, and a fog machine.

By listening to the echoes of an older Christianity we gain a better sense of our own place in the long history of the church. We are not chained to the past, we are free to innovate. We must constantly translate Christianity into contemporary culture; but we do so by maintaining a conversation with our mothers and fathers, with our older sisters and brothers. Their echoes are important, their voice needs to be respected. Christianity doesn’t belong exclusively to the living, but is the shared faith of all who have confessed Christ. This is why tradition matters. G.K. Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead.”

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. -G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I listen to the echoes. There’s wisdom in them.


(The artwork is Rouen Cathedral by Claude Monet.)