Of late I’ve been working on an upcoming Cascade title, Brian Brock’s Captive to Christ, Open to the World: On Doing Christian Ethics in Public. Brock, who teaches at the University of Aberdeen, has formerly written on Christian ethics and hermeneutics, and on technology. He’s well trained and brilliant, grounded in orthodoxy and very astute on the questions presented by our modern and postmodern world. So it is that Captive to Christ is well suited to display Brock’s gifts and abilities. It’s a book of interviews, with questions ranging on subjects from doxological reading of Scripture to urban planning to disabilities to the end of the oil age and beyond. Brock responds to all questions articulately and in remarkable depth (considering the off-the-cuff nature of the discussions),
Here’s a sampler. In it Brock discusses the fallacies of thinking that historical “epochs” are entirely discrete from one another. Instead, we should understand that we often have more in common with previous historical periods than we assume. Among other things, this means we can be contemporaneous to biblical and ancient Christian communities and figures. Obviously, that makes a difference in how we read Scripture and our historical forerunners in the faith. Here’s the excerpt:
Michel Serres provides a helpful example of what I mean by this counter-intuitive understanding of contemporaneity. A late-model car is, of course, a modern object. But we have it only because ideas and practices from previous ages were drawn in and incorporated into the agglomeration we see before us. The wheel was invented in Neolithic times. I am doing something, using a wheeled object, which has been done for millennia, and in doing so I am the contemporary of the earliest humans pushing a cart. I just do it with less effort. Internal combustion was invented in the nineteenth century, and so in driving a car I am the contemporary of Henry Ford and all the owners of the Model T against all other times and places. At the furthest end of the spectrum I am not a contemporary of those who drive Lamborghinis, and I probably never will be. I’ll never join a Lamborghini owners’ club, go on a rally with them, talk their talk or be part of their “crowd”—they live in a world that is inaccessible to me. Yes, we are contemporaries as wheel users, and as internal combustion machine operators, but for them other games have been added, such as the game of race car mimicry and the game of conspicuous consumption in which we must not only buy and be seen with such objects, but must know which objects to buy and be seen with in order to be socially successful. Within one frame of reference the poor kid riding to work on a bicycle and the Lamborghini owner are contemporaries as wheel users, but in real life this contemporaneity is not the one that counts, or it only counts because the Lamborghini club members see this shared use of the wheel as proof of their superiority. Contemporaneities are therefore not about time, but about communities, and the ways in which communities organize perception and define what counts as a good action.
Bernd Wannenwetsch’s refusal of epoch-thinking, on my reading, parallels Serres’ point in being an attempt to break up our habit of separating our age as a whole from all others in preference for a vastly more differentiated view. We are always making gestures that are ancient, early modern, and cutting edge. We are therefore with some people behind the times, with others in our present time, and with a few others doing what everyone else will be doing in a few years. Epoch-thinking breaks up this diversified awareness by thinking in terms of large arcs of time in which everyone exists, only to be left behind by the birth of a new epoch. If epoch-thinking has any utility it has to show the ways in which we are still parts of epochs that are only apparently over. Why, for instance, does Augustine’s Confessions still seem so accessible to us today, so modern, at least in its biographical first half? The point of Wannenwetsch’s comment is to invite us to begin questioning our modern habit of assuming that everything from the epoch before modernity was more “primitive” than we are, that those Christians were therefore less sophisticated than us. To understand ourselves properly as moderns we have to see there are many points of unity between us and people in other ages that this undifferentiated epoch-thinking obscures. Most importantly, if we do not have the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we better not think of ourselves as “church”—because we are grafted onto that branch. If we can live the same faith as the psalmists, if we can sing their songs, we should be very pleased, not hoping to improve on them.