Ignore History at Your Own Peril
Uwe Siemon-Netto is religious-affairs editor and senior writer for United Press International. His distinguished journalism career began with covering the construction of the Berlin Wall and included war reporting in Vietnam. He will soon leave his UPI position to pursue other journalistic opportunities or a teaching position. His columns on religion routinely indicate a strong appreciation for history—an admirable characteristic absent from many religion news writers. In this interview with Christianity Today assistant editor Collin Hansen, Siemon-Netto discusses how historical awareness allows us to fulfill God's purpose for the church and discern the meaning of contemporary events.
Tell me how you came to believe that understanding history is so essential to your work as a religion writer.
I have an M.A. in theology and a Ph.D. in sociology of religion that I got very late in life. I was already half in the grave. Next year I will have been a journalist for 50 years. When I turned 50, I enrolled in the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago to do theology, and then went on to Boston University to get my Ph.D. with Peter Berger.
It became clear to me that by separating yourself from history, and especially the history of the church and Christianity, you become woefully shallow. And if you become woefully shallow, all sorts of things can happen, with the demise of the Protestant church in Germany as one example. Other examples are the "German Christian" heresy in World War II [when certain biblical critics rejected everything in Scripture they deemed too Jewish], and the incredible homosexual and feminist heresies that now abound. If you don't have something to relate things to, you are certainly at a loss.
How would the church be better off if we paid more attention to our past and our heritage?
Well, the Protestant church would be better off because it could determine its own existence better, its own calling. The Protestant church would then be able to see itself within salvation history, which I sometimes wonder whether it does. It would see its own catholicity. So the Protestant church would then be more clearly definable as Church with an uppercase "C." It would therefore be clearly one of the several different flowers within God's garden.
When people, especially in certain denominations, think they have the latest truth, then of course they betray truth. The church catholic and apostolic is the bearer of truth, and we have to make sure we see the church catholic and apostolic as a church that existed from the beginning of Christendom, and that continues to this very day.
Have you ever really struggled with a story and gone to a specific era of Christian history to help you understand and communicate to readers?
One story I struggled with, even though I didn't write too much about it, is the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I did not want to be part of the mob of journalists who turn against Christianity and use this as an excuse. On the other hand, it is such a heinous thing that has happened, so you have to address it. I looked in church history at parallels, and I looked at causes in the last century. There are parallels for all the aberrations in recent church history.
What figures or eras of history are most helpful to you?
Being a Lutheran, I think the most important and the most relevant figure in church history today would be Luther. I have Luther's complete works here both in English and in German and I consult them all the time. Luther, being a man of this world, being an earthy sort of character, puts his finger in the wounds of our society and of the church as well.
For example, if you have to deal with issues like church and society, you'll find answers in the doctrine of the two kingdoms. This doctrine has been belittled for so long because it's so badly interpreted by people who haven't studied it carefully. The kingdom of the world, the kingdom of the hidden God, which is still God's kingdom but is under sin, has to serve and protect the spiritual kingdom, the church, the kingdom of the revealed God in Christ. These things bring up a totally different interplay than the rigid separation of church and state that you experience in the United States or even more so in France.
Take, for example, the Terri Schiavo case. Nobody else has tackled this problem from the only position you can actually tackle it from, and that is natural law as the source of all good civil law. We are witnessing what became evident in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. The law that's been written upon everybody's heart suddenly became irrelevant to judges who really veered from the two-kingdoms doctrine, or from the Augustinian view of the relationship between world and church. Now you have this perversion where judges actually ordain something that to Jews and to Christians is inconceivable, namely that you withdraw food from a patient.
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