If you like travelling, you’ll probably like church history

James Morrison, Crosslands tutor and PhD student

Why do you go on holiday? Maybe it’s to relax and unwind. Perhaps it’s to mark a special occasion. It might be to spend time with family and friends.

If you think about it, these are all things that you can do at home. In theory, at least. But there’s one thing you can experience on a holiday that you can’t get at home. And that’s immersing yourself in another culture.

In 2019 my wife and I were fortunate to be able to visit a friend who was living in South Africa. Four years on, I still vividly remember the experience of our friend picking us up from the airport and driving us back to her place.

Some things were familiar. The road signs in English. The billboards displaying McDonald’s latest Happy Meal. People driving on the left hand side of the road.

But so many things were different. The heat rising from the tarmac. The people begging at every traffic light we stopped at. The pop songs streaming from the car stereo in isiZulu. The security gate in front of virtually every property. The hoardings advertising mega church services.

Some things were familiar, but many were different.

More than just dates

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

That’s how L.P. Hartley opened his novel, The Go-Between.

It’s an insightful observation. And it brilliantly summarises what engaging with church history can do in the Christian life.

Because studying history isn’t really about reading a few choice quotes from people in the past. Rather, it’s about trying to enter the world of those people as they wrote them. Getting a sense of the sights they would have seen, the sounds they would have heard and the smells that would have filled their nostrils. History is about trying to see things their way.

Too much like hard work?

There’s an obvious objection to this, though. Reaching for a copy of, say, Luther’s A Simple Way to Pray and reading a few lines is relatively easy. (You can read it for free at that link above.) But looking into what life was like for Luther in 1535, when he wrote it, takes a bit more digging. So you might be tempted to ask the same question I used to ask about my school homework: ‘Can’t I just do the minimum to get by?’

You could and, admittedly, it would still probably do you some good. Yet, taking a little time to understand what was going on when it was written will only enrich your understanding of it. And it will also enrich what it can do for your soul.

Taking a test drive

So let’s try this out. How could some information about the historical context of A Simple Way to Pray enrich our experience of reading it?

Well, imagine that you were at the hairdressers. Knowing that you’re interested in spiritual things, the person cutting your hair asks for your advice. ‘I am struggling to pray. Can you suggest something to help?’ I appreciate that this isn’t the most common question you might get asked in the hairdressers. (And certainly not not as common as whether you’ve been on holiday.) But novelty aside, what would you say?

Context, context, context

Well, that was the situation Martin Luther found himself in when he wrote A Simple Way to Pray. Luther was visiting his good friend and barber, Peter Beskendorf. Peter had a reputation for being ‘a pious, God-fearing man who gladly listened to and discussed the word of God.’ But on this particular occasion, Peter had a problem: he was struggling to pray. And so Peter sought the advice of his esteemed customer.

What was Luther’s response? It wasn’t to offer a few clichés before running out the door. Because when he got home, he started writing Peter a little book on how to pray.

Extending to just short of 20 pages, A Simple Way to Pray contains what is essentially an explanation of how Luther prayed himself. It’s not only rich, but also practical. In it, Luther provides specific instruction on when, how and what to pray.

Yet, even without considering the content of A Simple Way to Pray, it’s worth thinking about how remarkable it is that Luther wrote it at all. As Carl Trueman explains, ‘Luther was without doubt one of the busiest and most hard-pressed men in Electoral Saxony at the time, if not the whole of Europe, and he had a million and one more important duties pressing in on him from all sides.’ Nonetheless, Luther found time to write a letter of spiritual advice to his barber.

Life in technicolour

We’ve thought about only a fraction of the historical context of A Simple Way to Pray. But even the relatively small amount of background that we have mentioned adds colour to our reading of Luther’s little prayer guide.

Because, in those pages, Luther says some things that you don’t often hear people say today. For example, take one thing that Christians still struggle with: lack joy in prayer. Why is this? For Luther, it is because of the flesh and the devil. He writes:

We must be careful not to break the habit of true prayer and imagine other works to be necessary which, after all, are nothing of the kind. Thus at the end we become lax and lazy, cool and listless toward prayer. The devil who besets us is not lazy or careless, and our flesh is too ready and eager to sin and is disinclined to the spirit of prayer. 

To our 21st century ears, these words sound harsh. Maybe even a bit mean. But when we remember that they’re from a loving pastor to a good friend, it changes the way we hear them. It helps us to see them not as the words of a fiery academic who stood up to the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, but as someone who wanted to see his mate enjoy prayer again. And I suspect that this only helps you to take Luther’s words to heart too.

A tragic end

In fact, things become all the more poignant when we learn that, within months of Luther writing the prayer guide for him, Peter’s life took a tragic turn. On the day before Easter, Peter was eating at his daughter’s house. His son-in-law, Dietrich, who had been a soldier, was apparently reporting on battles he had survived and boasting of his invulnerability to death. Peter, probably under the influence of alcohol, put this to the test and stabbed his son-in-law with his own sword at the dinner table. As it turned out, Dietrich was not as immortal as he had made out.

Luther once mentioned the tragic event to friends over dinner. Who did he think was ultimately behind the awful incident? The devil.

The re-entry

On our flight back home from South Africa, I found myself thinking about all the sights, the sounds and the smells I had experienced over the previous three weeks. Thinking about what had been familiar, and all that had been different. And, as I re-entered British airspace, my mind ended up reflecting on how what I experienced in South Africa had changed me.

There’s nothing quite like spending time immersed in a foreign culture to help you reconsider your own. And the same is true for church history. It might be the impact that spiritual warfare has on our joy in prayer. It might be something else. But looking at how Christians have dealt with issues in the past helps us to look afresh at how we think about things today.

And that’s why I’m planning to do my PhD in historical theology.

Fancy having a go?

If I’ve whetted your appetite for doing a little church history, why not read A Simple Way to Pray? You could read it on your own or, even better, with someone else. And then talk about it together.

If you want to dip your toe in further, you could watch Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer. It’s a free and engaging documentary looking at the good (and not so good) bits of Luther’s life. I recently had some people from my church over for food and we watched it together.

Finally, to get an even fuller understanding of the man, you couldn’t do much better than read Roland Bainton’s classic biography Here I Stand: A life of Martin Luther. At over 70 years old, the book is fast becoming a bit of church history itself. But it’s worth its weight in gold.