A Christian Defense of the Crusades

A Christian Defense of the Crusades

In a speech last week regarding the ongoing situation in the Middle East, President Obama drew a comparison between the current atrocities committed by ISIS to those of Christian Crusaders in the Middle Ages. His statement has created quite the uproar.

As a Christian, the President’s comparison is personally poignant, to say the least. Seeing reports of ISIS’ beheadings, stoning and burning of prisoners alive in the name of God is not the kind of behavior I want connected with my religious beliefs. Thus, I want to provide a thorough and complete defense of the Crusade,s one which should serve as an explanation for why the Christian Crusades were justified.

Here it is:

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Okay, let’s try this: the only Christian response to the Crusades is an apology. We’re sorry. We’re sorry for the brutality, sorry for the atrocities, sorry for the bloody stain on the gowns of Christ’s bride, the Church. We’re sorry that so many wars have been waged in the name of Christ, from Constantinople to Hitler beckoning the blessing of Gott, der Allmachtige– Almighty God- upon his troops.

That said, if we are to read Christian history as judge and jury, we’ll never see the glimmers of hope that lie within. We will overlook the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s of the faith, a man who returned to Germany at the height of Hitler’s power and preached against the Nazi regime. His commitment to the truth resulted in his execution. We’ll miss the testimony of the early Christians, a community that was known for putting down their swords, for refusing to act in violence towards anyone. In the world of Roman Imperialism, such commitment to Christian peace was viewed as treason. And Christians were slaughtered by the thousands for their refusal to kill for the emperor.

Most importantly, if we adopt a historical paradigm only capable of seeing the misdeeds of our faith, then we ignore the grace found in the person of Jesus Christ. It was Christ who told Peter to put down his sword. And it was Christ that then healed the victim of Peter’s violence. The same Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies. He did not command a passive love, but living, breathing, dedicated and real love. Ultimately Christ who showed us what that love really looks like by going to the cross.

And if we’re going to talk about the Crusades, then our discussion requires some necessary notes. Not everything we know about the Crusades is actually true. In an article for Christianity Today, historian Thomas F. Madden points out some of the tainted perspectives circulating regarding the Crusades. Madden argues how historic evidence dictates that the Crusades “were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights” as they are often depicted. Rather, these wars were a politically pertinent “response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world.” Most Crusaders were not merciless thugs- at least by nature. Rather they sincerely-and at great personal cost- believed that joining the fight was an act of “open declaration for their love for God.” Crusading, argues another historian, was considered and act of love to one’s neighbor, in this case Christians suffering under Muslim rule.

Madden concludes that:

“…it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies.”

I say this- and I hope it is clear- not as justification and certainly not in defense for actual events that really did happen. If we heard a German defending the Holocaust today, we’d find it terribly inappropriate. As Christians, attempting to justify the Crusades is just as ludicrous. Even a lenient reading of history shows blood on our hands. If a bank robber is on trial for stealing five million dollars and his lawyer proves he actually only stole three million, no judge would say: “Oh, only three? Well, okay then. No foul.”

As such, I wish that we- Christians, I’m talking about- would learn to apologize. The Crusades happened. And I wish the Church would develop a propensity for healing rather than defending. We are just as screwed up as the rest of the world. And if we accept responsibility for our sins then we are able to accept the grace of God which can cover even the most heinous and despicable acts. But when we live in denial of our own sin, we live in denial of grace.

The atrocities committed by ISIS are horrible. My heart breaks for the all those who have been subjected to their cruelty. And I know it breaks the heart of Jesus as well.

For it was Jesus and only Jesus who could pray the prayer of forgiveness on the world: “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” None of us can repeat this prayer without adapting the pronouns. For none of us are innocent, none of us are capable of asking forgiveness for the sins of others without first acknowledging the log in our own eyes.

As Christians, we should weep over the cruelty of ISIS. But as we lift our cries to heaven, let us join with the wounded, the terrorized and the innocent. Let us join together and with one voice pray:

“Forgive us Lord. For we know not what we do.”

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Dear Commenters On ALL Online Articles

Below are the rules I propose for decency and civility in online commenting. Take them or leave them, but I think the world would be about 10 billion times better if these were observed:

1) If you call someone anything under the broad label of cretin-ishness, you yourself are now a cretin.

2) The expression “lol” automatically nullifies any points you have previously made that would have otherwise been considered. More than one utilization of this expression per comment and your account shall be blocked.

3) One exclamation point accomplishes the task at hand, two or more is excessive and unnecessary.

4) Any username that includes the words “death”, “metal”, “America”, “freedom” or “Justin” and/or “Beiber” automatically ranks you high on the list of suspect/benign absurdity.

5) Proper nouns should be capitalized and punctuation marks, contrary to popular opinion, ought to utilized.

6) Everyone stopped caring after the first paragraph of your five-page response. The only person who read the entire thing was you.

7) Religion doesn’t cause all wars, all Muslims aren’t killers, some Republicans are charitable and there are a few Democrats out there who believe in and worship God. If you can’t admit to these inherent realities, then you’ve no business sharing your opinions with the rest of the universe.

8) Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to stupidity.

9) Comments aimed towards conversation are much more effective than comments aimed towards conversion to your viewpoint.

10) Did I mention punctuation? Use it. Thank you.

11) Basic, elementary-level grammar. See above.

12) Spell check. Again, see above.

13) Using the phrase “try me” in an internet comment thread should is to be regarded with in the same manner as gambling on a pee-wee football game.

14) If you can’t say anything nice, then change your shirt, get a job, eat something other than Cheetos for breakfast and stop trolling. 

15) I am not Jesus or God, but if I were, I certainly wouldn’t appreciate being dragged into these ridiculous arguments. “Leave me out of it.”- God (I suspect) regarding troll wars.

16) Scripture is only a culturally appropriate and valid response to the question: “Hey do any random Christians out there have some biblical quotations that applies to this situation they’d like to share?” Personally, I’ve never seen this request…. so quit throwing it around.

16) When in doubt, just remember:

 

The same goes for all dem bloggers, especially ones that vent their frustrations with the world through vindictive lists on their websites.

They’re the worst.

When Christian Art Is Prostitution

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At this point, everyone is pretty sick of hearing about the Left Behind movie. And I can’t really blame them; I’m tired of remembering it exists too. But before we cue the final notes on the topic, there are a few observations that Christians should be making. For, as the iceberg to the Titanic, so the Left Behind movie is merely the tip of much grandeur issues sitting just beneath the icy water of the cultural era which Christianity is currently navigating. And as it stands we’re not concerned and therefore not steering away. But we really should be, and here’s why:

Firstly, the film got canned by critics. When it was first released on Friday, the composite rating granted by critics was a whopping 3%. Since that time that number has actually dropped to 2%. There’s not much more to say about this because, frankly, it can’t get much worse.

…except that despite getting canned by critics, Left Behind still grossed over 6 million dollars on its opening weekend. While this isn’t necessarily record-shattering, the movie did out-perform some critically-acclaimed films that also opened over weekend, such as The Good Lie, a movie Rotten Tomatoes assigned an average approval rating of 84%.

So what?

The point is nothing we didn’t already know: the Left Behind saga isn’t just a book series; it’s an industry. It’s a moneymaking machine in a way that makes the success of the Twilight series look like the self-published diary of a depressed, emo prom queen. And in the same way books like Twilight are written to target specific audiences, so the Left Behind series is a paragon of marketed artwork. And what’s to be understood through acknowledging the multi-million dollar industry that has been built around this book series despite getting canned by critics at every bend and turn, is that the creators of this series aptly set their sights on a particularly lucrative market: Christians, specifically of the American Evangelical variety.

The problems with this reality are infinite.

In common vernacular, prostitution is defined as “the practice of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.” But this is really just a contemporary understanding of the word that’s been culturally nuanced and derives from a more general meaning, which is:

“The unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.”

Under the true definition of the word, then, what occurs when someone targets a specific audience and utilizes artistic talent solely to get into their target’s wallets is prostitution. And when it comes to Evangelical Christian filmmaking, we consistently witness a mode of artistic expression that is notorious for getting critically canned and yet still makes a good wad of cash in the theaters; enough, at least, to continually motivate filmmakers to produce more such films.

Which begs the question: why are producers, actors, studios, etc. willing to invest in films knowing they’ll tank among critics?

Because, regardless of the critical, artistic appraisal of the product, the money is still there. The Left Behind book series alone, without the miles of additional media contracts that followed, exceeded 63 million despite containing a writing style that one literary commentator claimed “makes Robert Ludlum look like Shakespeare.” This, once again, betrays the bitter reality: it’s not being read because it’s good, just like Twilight isn’t being read because Stephanie Meyer is the 21st century’s answer for Ayn Rand (and God help us if she actually were). Left Behind is being read because if you slap the label “Christian” on a product, you’re guaranteed to draw a crowd, and since this is America, and it is the 21st century, said crowd will have hands reaching for thick wallets.

And when Christians flock to poor products such as the Left Behind films, like they did this weekend, art gets prostituted. Plain and simple. And the blame isn’t just on the producers. Christians may not be the pimps selling girls on a street corner but we are buying the product and thus we are just as guilty if not infinitely more guilty for the problem at hand because we perpetrate the economy that provides for it’s existence.

There is an argument to be made against my accusations. The proposition could be offered that producers behind (what I am arguing is) bad but profitable Christian art such as the Left Behind film are not out for a quick buck. The argument could be made that, instead, they are out to use art as a medium for preaching the gospel and did so to the best of their abilities. And this is a fair argument.

Except that:

“Many times, that’s how people see Christian art, or Christians making art: They see the art as having an agenda. Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions.”

At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.
At 34, Lecrae is the first artist to simultaneously land an album at the top of Billboard and gospel charts.

The author of the above quote is Lecrae Moore. Known to hip-hop fans solely by his first name, Lecrae recently became the first musician in ever to land an album at the top of gospel music charts and Billboard 200. In a recent discussion with The Atlantic, Lecrae shared his objection to the notion of Christian art that attempts to sermonize.

But shouldn’t all ‘Christian’ art carry the gospel message? Well, yes, but:

“We’ve limited Christianity to salvation and sanctification. Christianity is the truth about everything. If you say you have a Christian worldview, that means you see the world through that lens—not just how people get saved and what to stay away from.”

Reading Lecrae’s words, one cannot help but think back similar sentiments from Marilynne Robinson, a Calvinist novelist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her fiction. When asked in an interview with The Paris Review if she considered herself a religious writer, Robinson responded by saying:

“As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.”

Robinson’s thoughts on the topic may appear to drift into some sort of pluralistic/relativistic take on culture and art, but not if you’ve ever read Augustine. In Chapter VII of his Confessions (and further elucidated in City of God) Augustine lays out his thesis that evil has no substance; it is merely a deprivation of good. Therefore goodness, wherever it appears, is created by and testifies to God. In other words: all good is God’s good. Or, if you’d simply like to quote the traditional doxology, God is that “from whom all blessings flow.”

Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.
Robinson, a devout Protestant, has won multiple awards for her fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize.

If that’s the case, then art does not have to scream the gospel message, it does not have to sermonize in order to be ‘Christian.’ Because all good testifies to God. Therefore art that is done well and earns the praise of its critics is more worshipful to God than art that adulterates its medium for the sake of preaching:

“God does not ask for ‘religious’ art or ‘Catholic’ art. The art he wants for himself is Art, with all its teeth”

-Jacques Maritain

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“Let choirs sing well or not at all. Otherwise we merely confirm the majority in their conviction that…this culture and religion are essentially marginal, amateurish, and rather effeminate activities.”

-C.S. Lewis

If an artist is going to pursue art whilst claiming it be for God’s glory, then the art must be done well. If it is not, then the artist ought to feel immense regret. And time and time again, critical reviews of Christian art, whether it be in film, music or literary forms, have betrayed an attitude among us that the label “Christian” covers over a multitude of sins, among them: laziness, mediocrity, and pathetic pursuit of our craft.

And yet, Left Behind grossed 6 million this weekend. And it will probably make a whole lot more.

Perhaps I’m being overtly cynical and harsh (though, in my defense, it’s been noted on more than one occasion that Nicholas Cage “whored himself” to the producers of this film due to insurmountable debt).

But the reality is that artistic expression: poetry, writing, music, films, these are the mediums by which the world will be changed in the post-postmodern age. Politics, religion, economics even education will continue to have less influence on the psychological and philosophical development of upcoming generations; the average teenager is influenced more by JK Rowling and Ke$ha than their local pastor.

And in the cultural conversation taking place, in the war for influence and voice that’s being waged on the battleground of art, Christianity is losing ground without ever noticing it. If American culture is a frat party then Christian art is a pimply teenager with an awkward stare, one who sits with his back to everyone staring into a corner, occasionally turning around to yell things like “John 3:16!” and “You’re all going to hell but Jesus can save!” I’m not saying we need to be doing keg-stands, but perhaps we could learn to dance or at least engage in a conversation.

If not, if Christians are willing to settle and pay for products like Left Behind, then we’re willing to continue to be the joke of the party. If we’re not willing to stand up and say “enough is enough”, if we’re not willing to demand that art be true to itself and worship God as such, then we might as well leave the party, we might as well cordon ourselves in a bubble of Christian bookstores and propaganda, because that’s the only influence we’ll ever have.

And if that’s what we choose, then I pity those of us who have artistic talent, who have the ability to praise God within culture and yet choose to waste medicine on the healthy. Because the end result for someone who hoards God-given abilities doesn’t look too good.

And the prostitution of our talents? Well, I’m willing to bet that won’t make our indictment any lighter:

“But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?…So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

-Matthew 25:26, 28-30

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Willen De Poorter's depiction of The Parable of the Talents.
Willen De Poorter’s depiction of The Parable of the Talents.

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