All posts by Michael Gibbons

Tormod Engelsviken, Ernst Harbakk, Rolv Olsen & Thor Strandenæs (eds.), Mission to the World; Communicating the Gospel in the 21st Century. Essays in Honour of Knud Jørgensen (Oxford: Regnum Books & Egede International, 2008)

We wish to give the benefit of the doubt to the subject, but ultimately the assumptions are not empirically accessible. The author can make brilliant logical arguments, based on a subjective line from the sacred texts. As such, theology (to the outsider) is a give and take between the rational (-logy) and the ultimately unknowable (theo-).

Christianity is suffused with these paradoxes:

  • Is the church an entity of the community or of the leadership? Catholics and Lutherans for instance will answer this question in differing degrees on this scale, but this tension exists in both churches.
  • In spreading the gospel, how do we meld the gospel with indigenous beliefs to honor our targets without compromising the religion itself? This tension goes on today in Indigenous American communities, and Jorgensen dealt with it in Ethiopian and Chinese communities.
  • In our personal faith, when we accept our vocation and participate in mission, how do we know we are serving God and not our own sense of self-importance?

Knud Jørgensen has dealt with these tensions or paradoxes throughout his life’s work. He was born in Denmark in 1942 and followed a career of study and missionary work that included education, radio, Africa, Asia, and greater Europe. In honor of his 65th birthday, and to reflect on his life’s work, Regnum commissioned a “festschrift:” Mission to the World: Communicating the Gospel in the 21st Century  (2007).

An exploration of the tension inherent in these three paradoxes forms the basis of this festschrift. The section on mission explores several aspects of this. Aano discusses the emergence of the global South as the new direction for the church – but not one that necessarily will yield to European dominance in leadership (92-102). Ho-Fai (85-91) discusses the challenges of cultural work to meet the people of China in evangelism. Lutheran scholars try to use Chinese history to be relevant to potential Chinese Christians in Hong Kong. At the same time, Buddhists are using traditional evangelical tools to reach modern Chinese. The tension here is a postmodern one where the interplay between history and modernity is complex enough that the best strategy for growth is not clear.

Kraft addresses the tension between multiple religions as a collection of forms expressed within a given culture and faith. Kraft defines faith as a “commitment to someone or something, supported by a set of deep worldview-level assumptions.” (182) The tension discussed by Kraft is one between social structure (religion) and personal devotion. The first can be a vehicle for the second, but can just as easily obfuscate or become its own goal. Holter (205-214) looks at the Bible’s adoption and use in Africa, wondering rhetorically who actually ‘owns’ the book. He notes that the first extreme was Europeans’ use of the book as justification for the colonisation and exploitation of Africa. The other extreme is represented by the translation of the bible into three hundred languages, including which vernacular polytheistic gods should represent Yahweh, and adopted by people for whom the events in the stories happened literally in their back yard.

Eskilt’s (382-390) research investigated the concept of “calling” to their mission among boomer and Xer Norwegians. She found that indeed the different generations did understand their calling somewhat differently. The older respondents saw their calling in much more clearly delineated and objective terms than the younger respondents, who were more likely to use subjective and blurry language. The boomer generation had a much stronger institutional connection than the X generation.  Mortensen (405-418) closes the book by reflecting upon the tension of teaching missiology academically within a non-religious university. In the contemporary secular university world this necessarily marginalizes missiology. She recognizes the contemporary conflict between university neutrality and religious-based studies, or even a postmodern recognition that objectivity might not even be possible. She concludes that this sometimes awkward context for missiology in the university allows for an understanding of the cultural discourse that missionary work itself must address. After all, missionary work necessarily entails addressing non-Lutheran cultural and religious contexts.

This festschrift is a complicated work, with perhaps many applications. It is very large, with around thirty contributors and stretching over four hundred pages. At the same time, most of the essays are short and very digestible, so its breadth means that there will be works that appeal to many readers. While the theological topics are certainly (and appropriately!) Lutheran, this Catholic reader found them relatable, as many similar issues are happening with the Roman church as well.


N.B. Special thanks to Joe Domko of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Boulder, Colorado for his theological assistance.

Johann P. Arnason & Kurt A. Raaflaub, The Roman Empire in Context: Historical and Comparative Perspectives (Chichester: Wiley & Sons, 2011)

The Editor argues that while much has been written about Rome, relatively less has attempted to analyze Rome comparatively. As a sociologist and not a historian, this reviewer cannot comment on this claim, but I do appreciate the comparative methodology. In fact, Arnason, the primary editor and author of the “Introduction” is a historical sociologist, who discusses the implications of Greco-Roman analyses on sociological and social theory. While the comparative perspective may be useful for drawing out separate variables between civilizations, there is the inverse danger of redefining variables broadly enough to make those comparisons – but at some cost of precision of the terms. There need to be nuances on all sides which weaken the overarching comparisons. It is essentially the qualitative problem of a small “n,” familiar to the social sciences. This methodological problem is noted several times, but does not stifle the writings.

The first section analyzes Rome’s growth through three essays. Raaflaub looks at Rome’s growth from city state to Mediterranean empire, through a thorough discussion of the particular components of the axial age in Rome. Flaig argues that the ruling elite in Rome eventually become powerful and detached enough that traditional forms of accountability and control waned, and with it their legitimacy among the ruled. The sets up the revolutionary crisis Flaig discusses in relation to other Roman scholars. Cohen and Lendon discuss the relationship of communication and authority between the center and the periphery in Rome. Their comparator is medieval kingships and the authors are seeking to understand the strength or weakness of the political structure as evidenced through these communications.

The volume then traces through the transformation and “decline” of Rome. Ziolowski’s chapter discusses the final crisis faced by Rome – the “Total Crisis.” His argument is that the crisis was more a catalyst to longer building internal problems, individually which would be mere nuisances. These internal problems fell under the rubric of an institutional trap created by the specifically Roman interpretation of ruling legitimacy. Stroumsa argues that among the cultural transformations at the end of the Roman era, the very concept of religion changed. Not simply from pagan to Christian or from poly- to monotheism, but also the rise of religious intolerance which melded violence with state power which made imperial tolerance impossible. Fowden draws an illustration of the larger world of late Rome, showing how Islam as well fits into the picture. His argument contextualizes not just the world of late Rome, but also of contemporary academic understandings of the era, not the least of which is the discussion of “transformation” versus “decline.”

The following section focuses on three of Rome’s successor civilizations. Becher discusses the Franks, Haldon the Eastern Empire, and Robinson Islam. The chapter analyzing Islam makes the argument that at least some of Rome’s developments such as urbanization, epistemologies, and philosophical reflection, were adopted by the growing Islamic civilization. An interesting comparison also exists with the role of religion and politics in the growth of civilization.

The Fourth section includes explicit comparisons with Assyria, China, and Iran. Liverani discusses the Assyrian case to contrast the relationship of the urban center to the empire. Lowe looks to China for the role of its internal administration and penal policies, with some focus on the higher prevalence of bureaucracy in the Chinese case. McDonough studies the Sassanid Empire as a comparator despite being a contemporary rival to Rome. Similarities include rule over several centuries and over a disparate variety of geographies. Fibiger-Bang makes the final comparisons to the Ottoman Empire and the Mughals seeks to discuss vast empires underneath a single ruler – but in distinct contrast to the European examples which were all much smaller states. There may have been a ruler in the European cases, but these were all much more local monarchies.

The final section discusses theoretical implications of the volume, trying to sort out the elements of state, empire, and civilization in Rome. Arnason argues that these three elements form a unique constellation in the Roman case, but the singular uniqueness of Rome is exactly what methodologically requires a comparative perspective. Without a comparative perspective, these variables are not going to be adequately isolated. The Wagner essay that closes the volume addresses the question of whether there is sufficient connection between ancient Rome and modern Europe to draw a continuous line of civilization from the former to the latter.

The appeal of the volume for this reviewer lies in the breadth of the chapters included and with the attempt to include sociologically relevant comparative methodologies. These chapters start with Rome’s transition from city state to empire and its expansion, through its decline, and into its successor regimes, with comparative and theoretical discussions finishing the volume. As a work of comparative sociology, it is interesting to see rigorous sociological methodologies applied to a historical case so easily popularized. As a work of sociology, it is refreshing to go beyond the identity politics which comprise so much of the discipline as of late. It may be the case that this comparative methodology will be less interesting to traditional historians, and it is most definitely the case that this volume is too advanced for anything like an introduction to Roman history.

Felice Vinci, The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales; The Iliad, They Odyssey, and the Migration of Myth (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006)

For a similar instance, in his linguistic argument suggesting Ogygia lies in the Faroe Islands, he points out that Hogoyggj, the name of the mountain, is very similar to Ogygia as referenced in the story. Finally, while walking through his geographic and linguistic arguments that these epics are of Baltic origin, Vinci refers to the many times the weather is cold, misty, freezing, foggy, and with deep velvet colored seas, pointing out that this bears little resemblance to our warm, sunny, and blue understandings of the Mediterranean. This is but one series of examples in a few pages, with the book explicating many more throughout its length.

I found Vinci’s arguments compelling, although scholars more familiar with the epics will want to review the evidence for themselves. As this was new information for me, it set my imagination alight, and I found myself looking into other similar scholarship. This is a burgeoning literature, including Vinci’s other writings, and stretching back to Olof Rudbeck’s discussion of Atlantis as Sweden. It is worth noting that Vinci also gives a treatment of Atlantis in this work – but the reader can find out for him or herself where Vinci stands. Vinci’s work comes across as competent, separating it from some of the pseudo-scientific work which was propagandized by the Nazis. But this is where familiar scholars will be able to more quickly separate the legitimate and paradigm-challenging work from the rest.

As a sociologist with an interest in cultures, the follow-up question is intriguing. If these epic tales took place in the Baltic region, then how did they eventually take on a Mediterranean home? By what mechanism does a piece of culture move from one corner of the globe to another, but forgetting key such key elements as Sweden = Ithaca? Vinci addresses this in the 4th part of the book, appropriately titled “The Migration of Myth.”

A key component to the migration of myth here is the role of climate. Vinci locates much of the narrative in the climactic optimum (4000-3000 BCE) when a warmer climate made regions near the arctic much more pleasant and habitable. With the ending of this warm and favorable period, at least some of the northern people migrated southward. He argues that in the mythologies of many cultures, there are remnants of climatic collapse, and provides several examples of cultures that were disrupted or dislocated by the negatively changing climate. For examples of these possible migrations he draws from several northern Europe locations for sources of Indo-European cultures. He provides numerous cultural and mythic references creating potential links. These include possible cultural origins of several peoples in the Scandinavian or Russian Arctic, Aryan migrations southward and potential northern links to Egypt and Rome. Much of this argument is built on similarities between mythologies, biblical tales, and place names.

This part of Vinci’s work is much more speculative in my opinion, and creates something of a “kitchen sink” feel by throwing in all the possible connections. In looking for the potential northern origins of mythologies and peoples, Vinci brings in enough possibilities that it feels much more exploratory than the first half of the book. In all fairness, the research may only be at the exploratory level at this point. Nevertheless it is not as convincing as the argument that the origins of the epics themselves are Nordic – regardless of how those tales ended up in the Mediterranean.

The base outline of Vinci’s argument is as follows (p 327)

  • The Iliad and the Odyssey are properly situated in northern Europe
  • The original sagas on which the epics are based on Baltic regions
  • The tales travelled from Scandinavia to Greece at the end of the climactic optimum by blond seafaring Mycenaeans
  • In rebuilding their world in the Mediterranean, familiar place names and mythological events were reused
  • Through the epics, the tales of their ancestors were preserved, although their homeland was lost

He finishes his work by suggesting several lines of archaeology to investigate this line of reasoning, and provide physical evidence reinforcing the mythological and linguistic evidence.

This work is broad in scope and presents an utterly fascinating reordering of the epic sagas of the western world. As such, the realm of possibilities for new research and analysis is deeply exciting.