I took the following definition of “flyover country” from Wikipedia after giving a small donation to their website this morning:
“Flyover country” and “flyover states” are American phrases describing the parts of the United States between the East and the West Coasts. The terms, which are sometimes used pejoratively, but sometimes used defensively, refer to the interior regions of the country passed over during transcontinental flights, particularly flights between the nation’s two most populous urban agglomerations, the Northeastern Megalopolis and Southern California. “Flyover country” thus refers to the part of the country that some Americans only view by air and never actually see in person at ground level.
I started thinking about the 1,260 days in Revelation (11:3; 12:6) at the beginning of this quarter. It occurred to me that it should be designated as “flyover country,” historical territory seen from the air but, as Wikipedia puts it, territory we “never actually see in person at ground level.” Those who have a window seat on transcontinental flights may see things on the ground in “flyover country.” But those who have aisle seats may not even get a bird’s eye view. They embark in New York, the prophetic 538 A.D., and they disembark in Los Angeles, the prophetic 1798. What lies between the two points is unimportant no-man’s land and certainly not anything seen “in person at ground level.”
It is only fair that I get to write a thing or two about this. I am interested in geography more than the average person, and my interest in history is at least average. When I was in fourth grade in the village school in Tonstad, the name of my home village in Norway, my mother gave me the Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World (you can get a used copy for one cent on the web). We had a few books in our home, but it is hard to imagine a book I have loved more. I pored over it at all hours. Soon after getting it, I made a list of all the countries in the world, ranking them according to size. I listed the capital cities and other big cities; I listed mountains and rivers; I had pages and pages to show for my effort. And I usually won geography quizzes easily. What is the capital of Laos? Or Mongolia? Or the Ivory Coast? What is the name of the strait between Malaysia and Sumatra? You can imagine my exhilaration when, almost fifty years later, I was invited to teach a course at Avondale College in Australia. From a window seat on the plane, I saw the countries from my beloved atlas in flyover mode: Malaysia! Borneo, Sumatra, Java! I knew what they were from the air.
It has been almost the same with history. In high school, I was a bit of an impostor, prone to take shortcuts. But I had read history outside the curriculum, including a serious book about Napoleon. At my oral final examination, I remember that I described in some detail the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine de Beauharnais, his empress. It was enough to convince my examiner that I deserved a grade rarely given at that time. When I came to Andrews University to finish college, I took the U.S. History class from the late Gary Land with the American students, not the class specially adapted to the foreigners. I loved the class and had top scores. While in medical school at Loma Linda University, I took a class on the Roman Catholic Church taught by the late Paul Landa. It was a wonderful experience that introduced Serena and me to a host of must-read books. To this day, I consider Gary Land and Paul Landa two of my most outstanding teachers. They did the best a teacher can do — prepare the student for a course of lifelong self-learning.
In the following, I intend to visit prophetic “flyover country” from a window seat. It will be a roundtrip flight from A.D. 538 to 1798. On the outbound flight, I will point out people or events from each of the twelve centuries over which we shall pass. On the return flight, I will mention only stand-out people or events. At the end, I will reflect on the points of departure and arrival, 538 and 1798.
Outbound from 538
The sixth century goes to the emperor Justinian (527-565) and his wife Theodora. Justinian closed the Academy in Athens in 529 and reportedly burned the books, some of them precious volumes on science that were already at that time 1,000 years old. The Code of Justinian was mostly a compendium of prior Roman jurisprudence. By and large, the Arians had been repressed, but other “heresies” flourished, especially in Syria and Egypt. Procopius, Justinian’s chronicler, wrote in his “secret history” that “to achieve his aims he (Justinian) engineered an incalculable number of murders. His ambition being to force everybody into one form of Christian belief, he wantonly destroyed everyone who would not conform, and that while keeping up a pretense of piety. For he did not regard it as murder so long as those who died did not happen to share his belief.” The pope that closed out the century, Gregory the Great (590-604) gets high marks from historians. J. M. Roberts calls him “a statesman of great insight.” He adds that “like other bishops in the West who found themselves the surviving civilian authority, he had to feed his city and govern it. Slowly, Italians came to see the pope as successor to Rome as well as to St Peter.” It is possible that Gregory was the most learned pope until pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013).
This will be the century of the rise of Islam. Historicists in our denomination have assigned the fifth and sixth trumpet to Islam, one of them calling it “that false and fanatical faith.” Peter Brown is less harsh. “Whatever he may have thought about the Christian church, the Muslim guided his conduct by exactly the same considerations as did any Christian or Jew throughout the Fertile Crescent. He, too, was a ‘God-fearer.’ He, too, had faced the terrible choice of the Last Judgment, infallibly revealed to him in a Sacred Book. He, too, must think on it day and night.” I have written an essay on the subject in a Festschrift dedicated to Jerald Whitehouse, for many years the director of the Adventist Center for Muslim-Christian relations (“Christianity, Islam, and the Challenge of Christology”). I will send it to you if you request it from email@example.com.
Another century goes to Islam, now ruling all the territory of the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, Spain, and parts of France. Their advance was halted by Charles Martel and his large army in the Battle of Tours in 732. But Muslim rule continued in much of Spain until 1085 and in Andalusia until 1492. It was an enlightened and benign rule, much more kindly disposed toward the Jews than Christians turned out to be. The Mezquita, the great mosque in Cordoba, is in my view the most beautiful house of worship in the world (I haven’t seen all), with the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus a close second. These buildings love light, unlike Christian churches. Islamic theology does not separate the sacred from the secular realm the way Christians do. The architects of the Mezquita tried to create the illusion of palm tree alleys inside the mosque to match the alleys of palm trees leading into it. There is an analogy in Revelation (11:1-2), with help from Zechariah (2:4-5), likewise breaking down the boundary between sacred and secular space. Peter Brown, again, says that “it was not the Greek fire of the Byzantine navy outside Constantinople in 717, nor the Frankish cavalry of Charles Martel at Tours in 732, that brought the Arab war machines to a halt. It was the foundation of Baghdad.” The Abbasid Dynasty, unlike the Omayyad, turned eastward.
What a way to get started! Charlemagne (742-814) “put together a realm bigger than anything in the West since Rome” (J. M. Roberts). On Christmas Day, 800, he was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III in the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Was the coronation a bestowal, a sign that the Pope was the arbiter of power in the secular realm? Vikings now roam the seas. Although they were Norwegians and Danes, they were bad.
I could not think of anything special for this century. Wikipedia’s entry quotes Lynn White, Jr., that “to the modern eye, it is very nearly the darkest of the Dark Ages.” Another historian calls it “the nadir of the human intellect.” I wonder because my wife and I saw quite amazing things in the Museum of St. Gallen from this century. Avicenna, the great Arab scientist and physician was born in 980, and Muslim culture and education were far in advance of its European counterpart. Muslim Spain, with its center in Cordoba, was “among the most civilized places on the planet.”
In 1022, sixteen “heretics” were burned alive in Orléans in France. It was not a matter of course; it was a game-changer. “No heretic had been executed in western Europe for almost 600 years after the end of the Romans empire” (R. I. Moore, 2014). In 1054, the Great Schism occurred between the Roman Catholic West and the Orthodox tradition in the East. In 1077, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV walked to Canossa, standing barefoot in the snow, seeking pardon from pope Gregory VII. This was one of the high points in the papal monarchy: the church, not the state, would control the investiture of clergy. In 1095, the Christian Crusades were launched in France by Pope Urban II. It was a calamity for Christian-Muslim relations and for the Jews. At the same time, Anselm of Canterbury wrote Cur Deus Homo, explaining his doctrine of penal substitution, the so-called “satisfaction view” of the atonement. Anselm presented his work to pope Urban II for approval. (Not exactly “present truth,” in my view, given the state of the world at that time).
I once saw the saying, “Never kick a man when he is down. He may get up.” So it was with the Muslim rulers of the Middle East and the crusading Christian colonists from Europe. Saladin (1137-1193) was from Tikrit in Iraq, the home town of Saddam Hussein, and his century mirrors our time. Cities that became part of his conquests were Mosul, Raqqa, and Aleppo, all three now once more in ruins. It was Saladin who expelled the crusaders from most of their conquests, including Jerusalem. He almost met his match in Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199). The battles were fierce but the negotiations amicable, including an offer that Saladin’s brother would marry Richard’s sister. Unlike the crusaders, Saladin lived in the Middle East, another lesson for those tempted to military adventure in that part of the world. Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) belongs to this period, going with the army of the Fifth Crusade to Egypt, where he met the sultan. Francis is the patron saint of ecologists.
We can begin with pope Innocent III (1198-1216), quite possibly the mightiest of the monarchical popes. He had no qualms about exercising secular authority, saying that it was his right ratione peccati (“because of sin”). He launched the Albigensian crusades. In England, King John “Lackland” (1166-1215) was pushed to agree to the Magna Carta, still today a cornerstone of civil liberty. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the “Angelic Doctor,” wrote a massive work on theology, extolling the merits of natural law. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche held Saint Thomas up to scorn, wondering why one of the greatest moral theologians of all time could not do better than this:
For what is the blessedness of that Paradise? Possibly we could quickly surmise it; but it is better that it should be explicitly attested by an authority who in such matters is not to be disparaged, Thomas of Aquinas, the great teacher and saint. “Blissful, in the kingdom of heaven, they will see the sufferings of the damned so that their bliss should be more delightful to them.”
Where to begin? The stand-out event is the Black Death that hit Europe at mid-century. Between twenty-five and forty million people died from 1347-50. I have written about it in my book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day (2009) because it has a bearing on Sabbath theology. Thinking back to this point in history, Alexander Solzhenitsyn told graduating Harvard students in 1978 that “the Middle Ages came to a natural end by exhaustion, having become an intolerable, despotic repression of man’s physical nature in favor of the spiritual one.” The Renaissance is beginning, with Florentine authors Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch belonging to this century.
The pace of history quickens. Change is in the air. We have Gutenberg’s invention of printing around 1450, the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Muslims in 1453, and the reconquest of the remainder of Muslim Spain in 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella were extremely devout, determined to get the world ready for the second coming of Jesus. They emptied the Muslim library in Granada of its 80,000 volumes and burned them in the square. Jews were initially promised tolerance, but the promise was rescinded. 40,000 Jews left Spain with possessions limited to what they could carry; another 50,000 converted to stay — and to save their lives. These conversos were the primary target of the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps their conversions had been insincere? Some said they had seen them lighting candles on Friday night and abstain from pork. The Inquisition, with waterboarding as one of its methods, would help find out. It was queen Isabella who sponsored Christopher Columbus on the voyage that led to the discovery of America.
We are in the century of Erasmus and Martin Luther, the conflict between the two titans told engrossingly in Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind (2018). Luther’s will to revolution prevails over Erasmian conciliation. The Reformation in Germany exploited nationalist sentiments, but the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, the protest in Worms in 1521, and the translation of the Bible into vernacular German are every bit the historical landmarks they are made out to be. The doctrine of justification by faith alone needs some repair work, especially considering new perspectives on Paul. The Scandinavian countries become Protestant almost overnight because the Lutherans and the Catholics had agreed that the subjects would adopt the faith of their sovereign. The Protestants were persecutors, too. On a very cold day in January, 1527, the Anabaptist Felix Manz was drowned in the Limmat River in Zürich in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost for the sin of believer’s baptism. The verdict had Ulrich Zwingli’s blessing. In 1553, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva with the blessing of John Calvin — in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Luther writes the atrocious book, On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543. The mind yearns for relief from such cruelty, carried out by people who are said to have understood the meaning of grace. Let this be the relief: in 1543, Copernicus said that the sun, not the earth is the center of our solar system. In the same year, Andreas Vesalius, only twenty-six years old, published Fabrica, a masterly work on human anatomy. We cannot leave out Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) or Michelangelo (1475-1564), founding fathers of what we call Western Civilization. Let this be the relief: a turn from preoccupation with the soul and the afterlife to an interest in this world. The relief is a world that is becoming more secular.
Or is it? René Descartes (1596-1650) would say yes; he would say that empirical science posed a threat to belief. Descartes wrote partly in response to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the first to articulate a scientific method. “I think, therefore I am” (Descartes) was the new point of departure in the quest for certainty. By the evidence of the Thirty Years’ War that ended in 1648, Europe was still intensively and destructively religious. Eight million people died in military battles or from starvation. The boundary between Protestant and Catholic shifted in favor of Catholicism. And yet this century is also considered the Spanish Golden Age for its colonial exploits, the Dutch Golden Age, and the Grand Siècle in France. We can still see the legacy of Louis XIV of France (1643-1715) in the Gardens of Versailles (if you go there, don’t admire it). He took the notion of absolute monarchy by divine rights to its utmost height, is remembered as the Sun King, and for the saying, l’état, c’est moi. He was not the last narcissist in politics, but he genuinely seemed to believe that the state existed for his benefit. Lord Acton, writing in the late 19th century, gives the Sun King the following verdict:
With half the present (ca. 1880) population, he maintained an army of 450,000 men; nearly twice as large as that which the Emperor Napoleon assembled to attack Germany. Meanwhile the people starved on grass. France, said Fenelon, is one enormous hospital. French historians believe that in a single generation six million people died of want. It would be easy to find tyrants more violent, more malignant, more odious than Louis XIV, but there was not one who ever used his power to inflict greater suffering or greater wrong; and the admiration with which he inspired the most illustrious men of his time denotes the lowest depth to which the turpitude of absolutism has ever degraded the conscience of Europe.
Thus, we are still very much in a Christian century, with the King James Bible of 1611 as one of the proofs. We have Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-1674), and it is time to decide who is greater of the two: it is Milton, for Paradise Lost, and for his progressive political views. We also have Roger Williams (1603-1683), who left his greatest impact on the New World. America is now in Europe’s sight as a country of promise. The first permanent settlement was Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609, with settlers who did not have religious motives. The first shipment of slaves came in 1619. Then, in 1620, came the Mayflower, with English Pilgrims who had stayed temporarily in Leiden, Holland. They came to Plymouth, Massachusetts, spurred on by a vision to create a New Israel and a New Jerusalem on earth. For this group, their vision was the correct religion, not religious freedom. When Roger Williams spoke for the latter, he was banished and might have been killed by the Puritans if he had not escaped in the blistering winter of 1636. The pilgrims had been persecuted in the Old World, but they were quick to persecute dissidents in the New. Roger Williams said this in 1644 in a statement that in my view is more important than the Nicaean Creed.
An enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principle of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.
The compassion element that is strikingly absent in Christian history, is prominent in Williams’ thought, as in this statement:
I desire it may be seriously reviewed by himself and them (the Puritan John Cotton), and all men, whether the Lord Jesus be well pleased that one, beloved in him, for no other cause than shall presently appear, be denied the common air to breathe in, and a civil cohabitation upon the same common earth; yea, and also without mercy and compassion, be exposed to winter miseries in a howling wilderness?
The notion that America granted religious liberty is not the whole truth, then or now. If the United States is “the earth” in Revelation, the moment of rescue came very late, in the seventeenth century, at a time when the pressure of persecution was easing. We cannot leave this century without a word about Rembrandt (1606-1669), in my view the second greatest painter of all time for his exquisite use of light. He painted the crucifixion and the descent from the cross like no other, himself the man in blue in the pictures. The story of Jesus is not a past event only — it happens in the present, and we are in the story.
The journey ends here, in 1798, when Napoleon’s general Berthier took Pope Pius VI into captivity, ostensibly because the pope refused to relinquish temporal power. Pius VI died soon thereafter. Napoleon, eager to restore the church in France, arranged an ostentatious burial. Rome’s secular power was indeed diminished, but Napoleon had no plans to do away with the church as the French revolutionaries had aspired to do. He saw religion and politics in pragmatic terms. France would not be without a state religion, and it would be Roman Catholic. “It was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in Vendée, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt, by making myself an ultramontane that I turned men’s hearts toward me in Italy,” he said in 1800. “If I were to govern a nation of Jews I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon.” Pope Pius VII had no doubt hoped to be the one to crown Napoleon emperor in 1804, but Napoleon did it himself. Was this, the pope’s short captivity, the biggest event of the century? It was hardly as big as the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, or the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, or the French Revolution in 1789, or the slave trade, in 1790 estimated at 74,000 Africans taken by force every year to America to work on the plantations. Let us not forget that this is also the century of John and Charles Wesley (John’s dates are 1703-1791), the Methodist movement, and religion of the heart. France had Voltaire and revolution. England, no better for its treatment of the poor, had the Wesleys and their revival. And yet I must close with a word about the French Revolution, once more indebted to my beloved Roman Catholic historian, Lord Acton. All the factions in the revolution were called liberal, he says, “Montesquieu, because he was an intelligent Tory; Voltaire, because he attacked the clergy; Turgot, as a reformer; Rousseau, as a democrat; Diderot, as a freethinker. The one thing common to them all is the disregard for liberty.” Why did he say that?
Inbound from 1798
We are on the return flight back to 538, still in a window seat. This time, there will be only two “stops.” The first is the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. The second is the Black Death of 1348-1351. While these are stand-out events of its kind, they do not stand alone. There were many earthquakes during the 1,260-year period; there were many epidemics; there were famines, too.
The Black Death decimated one third of Europe’s population in the course of two or three years. If we were to give an equivalent in the United States today, one hundred million people would die in the same time span. Surely, it would be noticed and remembered; it would be bigger than Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined. Norman Cantor says laconically that “the bubonic plague was caused by a parasite carried by rats, but European medicine in the Middle Ages did not know that.” No, people did not know much, and conceptions of contagion and elementary hygiene had been preserved mostly among Jews. The withdrawal from the world that characterized Christian theology and communal practice in the centuries before 538 was more consequential than ecclesiastical power structures. Solzhenitsyn was on target when he said that the Middle Ages died a natural death from exhaustion; it had been a despotic suppression of the body and the earth. People responded to the plague in two predictable ways. They blamed themselves, thinking that the plague was punishment for disobedience, and they blamed the Jews, thinking that they had poisoned the wells. Savage pogroms followed with the loss of thousand of lives. But the Black Death was not the pope’s fault; the substrate of ignorance was systemic at all levels of society.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 had in its time an impact bigger than 9/11 in ours; it was in some ways the Holocaust of its era. Immanuel Kant wrote about it in far-away Königsberg. Voltaire wrote about it in France. Leibniz’ contention that God created the best of all possible worlds was held up to scorn in Voltaire’s most popular and readable book, Candide. The earthquake struck at the heart of religious life, on a Sunday, during mass. Sin and divine retribution could still be used as explanations for the calamity, but the Jews were off the hook this time.
I make these stand-out events the most important because they deal in issues that are existential, not only historical. While the Black Death brought calamity on a scale that might have been less if people at that time had not been so ignorant, knowledge is not a sure-fire barrier against epidemic disease and death. And it is no match for earthquakes. This brings the problem of theodicy into the foreground and this — more than the turf battles between Protestants and Catholics — is now the main theological challenge. It did not begin with the Black Death (people were too scared to say out loud what they were thinking), but it came into the open after the Lisbon earthquake, and the Holocaust has cemented it for centuries to come. There is little or nothing of this in the Sabbath School Quarterly. It calls the 1,260 years “the period of Satan’s persecution,” elaborating that “armies and nations were sent by Rome against God’s faithful people at during this time.” This is history in monochrome, with the pope at the center and the 1,260 years as “flyover country.”
538 and 1798 Reconsidered
By “reconsidered” I mean neither the dates nor the time period. Richard Bauckham is not a historicist, but he says of the period in general that it is “one of the deepest ironies of Christian history that, when the Roman Empire became nominally Christian under the power of the Christian emperors, Christianity came to function not so very differently from the state religion which Revelation portrays as Rome’s idolatrous self-deification.” The dates are clearer than the history; they claim significance for events that most historians regard with less reverence. Justinian’s best general, Belisarius, fought hard to retake Italy for his master, but his success was so-so. My source says that Rome fell again, in December, 546. Justinian did not give up and had by mid-century (not in 538) Rome under his political control. But he did not do it to hand Rome over to the pope. On the contrary, “he was no longer prepared to endure papal intransigence,” expecting the pope to fall in line with his wishes. “Justinian the Caesaropapist stood revealed,” says J. A. S. Evans.
At the other end, 1798, it is wrong to think that Napoleon takes the papacy to its lowest point. He restores the Roman Catholic Church in France, albeit with new strictures. Was the loss of the Papal States later a lower point? Was the Concordat with Mussolini in 1929 a sign of improved fortunes, worthy of the symbols of death and recovery in Revelation 13? Is the Roman Catholic Church now weaker than ever in formal power even in strongholds like Ireland and Poland, brought to its knees by revelations of clerical sexual abuse?
The journey ends here. Much happened in “flyover country” that still impacts the world in which we live. Considering the Holocaust and the atrocities of the twentieth century, I was about to say that we can leave the past behind — that it is acceptable to take an aisle seat in “flyover country” — that the truly important things happened after 1798. I will not say that, not with the legacy of Anselm looming too large in theology; not with lessons on Revelation teaching a theology of retribution in history; and not with an “investiture controversy” threatening to tear the church apart from within.
Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019
Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019
Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019
Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019
Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019
Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019
Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019
Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019
Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019
Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019
Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019
Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019
Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019
Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.
Photo by Douglas Williams on Unsplash
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