Editor: Please enjoy a guest post by one of this year’s Brazos Fellows, Savannah Anne Carman.
“What is water?” asked one of the two young fish in David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech in 2005. “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” In other words, the assumptions we imbibe from our context are often one of the greatest obstacles to clear thinking. This is the trouble Wallace’s fish runs (swims) into. How do we see what we swim in? How do we recognize our assumptions? A few weeks ago, the Brazos Fellows had a visiting instructor, Bruce Hindmarsh (professor at Regent College in Vancouver, BC) to discuss early Christian culture. Dr. Hindmarsh suggested that one way we expose our assumptions is to study the past. When we look at the Victorians, for example, we realize that they were hush-hush about sex but quick to discuss death, while our culture is the opposite. This is not to suggest that the Victorian era is an exemplar for all times, nor that sex is always and only an inappropriate topic. On the contrary, this is only to demonstrate that sometimes our sense (or lack thereof) of propriety keeps us from discussing important topics, especially death.
Death was the theme of our conversation with Dr. Hindmarsh. In our readings and his elucidation of our text from Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, we were reminded of the literal close proximity of death to early Christians. In addition to facing periodic persecution, early Christians made it their practice to meet together in catacombs. This was not just a default, as if they had no other places to meet. Rather, they gathered in the catacombs for two reasons. One, early Christians held strong convictions about the dignity of the body, to the degree that they rejected the conventional practice of cremation and instead practiced inhumation, burying the entire body. They would bury individuals outside the city and underground in material that, as Dr. Hindmarsh described it, was much like honeycomb, malleable at first but quick to solidify after exposure to the right conditions. This durability made for a reliable burial site and gathering place.