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Today marks the feast day of St. Boniface, missionary to the Germans. Born in the county Devon area of England circa 680, he left his prosperous family at a young age to pursue a monastic vocation. In 716, he left to evangelize on the continent, joining St. Willibrord in Utrecht to minister to the Frisians. Later, Pope Gregory II named him the missionary bishop of Germania, where God used him mightily for His Church (we’ll talk about that later). Throughout his life, St. Boniface acted as a bridge between the Church and the Frankish court, starting with maior domo Charles Martel. He spent some years as archbishop of Maintz, baptizing many and ordering the church there in the teachings of Christ.
This pivotal relationship with the court and the pulpit gave Boniface the opportunity to reform church and society throughout the Franks’ lands, laying a stable foundation for medieval culture to flourish (here is a good yet brief Touchstone article on the subject). Not too shabby for a kid from Devonshire.
He met the end of his earthly days in Frisia, where he returned once again to convert the land’s occupants to Christ. His burden for that people never died over the years. Accompanied by a retinue of fellow workers, Boniface baptized a great many souls and summoned a confirmation meeting. However, a gang of armed assailants arrived and slew the archbishop. According to an early biography, he told his armed retinue, “Cease fighting. Lay down your arms, for we are told in Scripture not to render evil for good but to overcome evil by good.”
Nevertheless, St. Boniface’s most famous accomplishment remains the felling of Thor’s Oak in the village Geismar. Though there are many variations and legends surrounding the Anglo-Saxon saint’s encounter with the Donar Oak, all report that the saint entered the village and had the sacred tree publicly felled before the people. He had the wood from the tree employed in the construction of a church erected immediately over the tree’s spot. The Germanic people were amazed that he could do such a thing and not be struck down by the god of thunder. This not only encouraged current Christian followers in their freedom from their prior pagan rites, but also convinced myriads to convert to Christianity.
This does not mean that Boniface ran about as a beauty-sucking iconoclast. In the words of Anthony Esolen, he “took what was genuinely noble and good in those cultures and showed that that nobility was to be perfected in Christ.” When the backwater region we now know as Western Europe was threatened to be swallowed alive by the dual darkness of encroaching Islam and idolatry, a clergyman and his retinue preached the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. Thanks to the sacrificial efforts of Boniface, the Light of the World could be carried on through the generations and on into the rest of the world.
Let us now observe our own day. Numerous church leaders boast of “interfaith dialogue” and not just in public square politics. “Christian exclusivism” (Jesus is the only way to heaven and the sole bridge between man and God) is too insensitive to the needs and attitudes of a pluralistic society. Too many congregations have engaged in or ignored “hate speech” against other religious groups. Christians need to be carrying on more civil conversations that don’t step on so many toes.
Recent examples of such regrets are myriad. Somewhat recently, Claremont School of Theology declared itself an “interfaith” institution. Churches (St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle comes to mind) have decried the great sin of “Islamophobia.” Even Wycliffe Bible Translators struggles thanks to the “insider movement” in missiology. The “insider” idea is that Christians need to assume as much of the culture as possible so as to not alienate native peoples and keep new converts safe; some “insiders” even think it is acceptable for Christian converts to attend mosques while avoiding public baptism. For Wycliffe, translators worried that “Son of God” would come to mean that the Father had intimate relations with the Virgin Mary in Muslim contexts. Critics argued that ignoring the phrase attacks the dogma of the Trinity, a non-negotiable issue. After all, God doesn’t share. He has no interest in taking up merely part of the cosmic spotlight, nor will He have his nature construed to fit man’s sensibilities.
My co-worker Luke Moon recently wrote about necessary culture wars, which tend to come under fire from the likes of Rachel Held Evans. I think the nature of this conflict does indeed need to change. However, I think that surrender on various stances such as abortion and truly free economics will do great harm to the common good as well as the individual soul. I can’t help imagining what Jonathan Merritt would say if St. Boniface came back today. The patron saint of Germany exhibited tremendous political savvy in the Frankish courts while engaging in bold acts to proclaim Christ. Whatever the medieval saint might do, I’m thinking the young Rev. Merritt would rhetorically slap him on the wrist for seeking power and–worse–not playing nice in the sandbox.
In the context of interfaith, what I think we witness is a failure of virtue on both sides: prudence in not knowing the actual problems, temperance in not reacting properly, and especially courage in shrinking from duties. So, in memory of St. Boniface, when our brethren grasp for progress and polite relevance, let us gird up our theological loins. We must be all things for all men—in the service of Christ. He’s the one we’ve got to worry about. Why gain the world (and its approval) at the peril of your own soul? As IRD adjunct scholar Alan Wisdom told me this morning, “Boniface didn’t have any trouble understanding why the God of Israel got so ticked at idolatry. Jealousy. It’s not always a bad thing.”