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Monday, January 8, 2018

"A History of the Church in 100 Objects" (Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina)

TITLE: A History of the Church in 100 Objects
AUTHOR: Mike Aquilina with Grace Aquilina
PUBLISHER: Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017, (424 pages).

How do we study history? For most of us, we would hit the books or listen to some historians explain the stories of the past. Others would go deeper into the science of archaeology or ancient artifacts. Modern technology gives many of us a way to search for information about the past. For author Mike Aquilina, "stuff" matters because they all tell a unique story. More specifically, the history of the Church could be traced through the examination of objects. These objects are then situated in seven eras:
  1. The First Century Church (Apostles and Martyrs)
  2. The Roman Empire (First to Third Centuries)
  3. The Dark Ages (4th to 8th Century)
  4. The Middle Ages (5th to 15th Century)
  5. The Renaissance and Reformation (16th to 17th Century)
  6. The Age of Revolutions (18th to 19th Century)
  7. The Global Village (Our Modern 21st Century World)
The key idea is that these objects tell a story. Beginning with the first century Church right through to modern era, readers get to see real stuff being used as pointers to the past. The silver star in Bethlehem's Basilica of the Nativity confirms what the ancients had seen prior to the birth of Christ. Not only does it represent eye-witness accounts, it affirms the story as depicted in the Bible. We read about paving stones, wooden posts, ancient amulet, catacombs, and many fascinating events in history. The chains of Peter show us how the apostle Peter was imprisoned, even tortured. As we move on to the Roman era, the monuments like the Colossus bring us back to the times of persecutions and political chaos prior to the Edict of Constantine. Even soil in Jerusalem's Basilica of the Holy Cross were used to remind us about the purpose why they were there in the first place.

The Dark Ages is a time of transition amid the uncertainty after the fall of Rome. With Christianity losing ground to Islam, books were preserved. Relics were kept. Icons, vessels, and coins are all symbols of the past. Even a wine vessel gives us a glimpse of a time of disappearing infrastructure, ransack by bandits; risky travel; loss of social graces; and a world in need of leaders. The coin of the Umayyad Caliphate reminds us of a time in which the Muslims dominated large parts of Europe and the Middle East at a time where the author perceives: "Christianity had spread by persuasion. Islam was spreading by force." Interestingly, objects during the Dark Ages are few when compared to the later periods. This is probably due to the disarray and confusion happening at that time with no order or infrastructure in place to maintain a library or a sense of history.

The Middle Ages is time where religious art flourished due to the monarchs becoming patrons of the arts. It was the golden years of a society defined by the marriage of religion and state. Literature were written. Written language was either invented or improved. Missionary activities increased and the Church had unprecedented growth. With it came corruption as well as the ugly crusades. Religious wars ensued and contributed to lots of disillusionment with religion playing her role in society. Then came the Renaissance (printing press, compass, science, arts) for the general public and the Reformation (symbolized by the Wittenberg door) for the Church. Both are movements that pushed back against the ills of the Middle Ages. Gradually, we move on to the objects depicting the Age of Science, Politics and Revolutions. There was the Declaration of Independence of the New World out in North America. The guillotine was an advanced form of executing criminals, also used to eradicate political opponents. The Holy Water bottles showed the continued influence of the Church in spite of the declining popularity of the religious institutions. Readers who prefer an era more relevant would be intrigued by the last section of the book, which deals with the "Global Village." Here, there are familiar things like newspaper headlines; voting ballots; fountain pen; the radio; parking passes; the abortion pill; and so on. The author tries to go global by including a Korean cathedral; a San Salvador altar of sacrifice; as well as offerings given by pilgrims from all over the world. All of these give readers a tiny glimpse of the oceans of history and events in the past from a tiny perspective through the eyes of the author. A different author might retell the story in a different way but that does not change the facts of history. So, what will we get out of reading this book? We read about a big story of human progression from the eyes of the Church.

There is a verse in the gospel of Luke where Jesus replied to the Pharisees: "I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out." It was the occasion of Jerusalem entering Jerusalem which triggered much joy for the people hoping for a new king. Many people openly expressed their excitement by laying down their cloaks on the ground; singing and shouting out their praises; and many other expressions of happiness. When asked by the Pharisees to Jesus to keep his disciplines quiet or to drown out the revelry, Jesus told them that such joy couldn't be suppressed. In the same way, the objects described in this book all have a story to tell. We could ignore them but they all contain a story of long ago, something that we could learn from. When given time and discernment, we could trace a pattern, link up isolated events, and to form a picture of the past. This is what the 100 objects had been used, to link up the major events of history from the first century to the present. Of course, one may argue about the exact number of objects. Why not 200? Why not 500? Why not 1000? Aren't there other objects yet to be discovered? It would take a lifetime or more to just tell part of the story. I gather that the ability to piece the parts together also depends on the author's personal knowledge of historical happenings and circumstances leading to the discovery of these relics. It is thus fair to see this book as a snapshot or a glimpse of the past, and to help us appreciate more of the history, the tradition, and the sacrifices made for us to keep the faith. The Christian Church has a checkered history, and the objects do not prejudge. They merely describe what happened, especially what happened to them.

Perhaps, this book and the way the stories are told could inspire us to do the same where we are. Indeed, Mike Aquilina has given us a literary time capsule!

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Ave Maria Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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