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For all the Saints

March 15, 2010

Let’s talk about saints.  Not venerating saints, or the ability or inability of the saints to observe or alter what happens to us, but the naming of saints.  You could name saints without believing this means much of anything special for the saints now.  Saying “Saint Peter”, as many Protestants do, does not automatically imply that Peter has particular power now, merely that Peter was a model of faithfulness.

I mention this because naming saints does something particular to the community of faith.  It has a particular pedagogical value.  But let’s back up for a second.

For Protestants, the appellation “saint” generally refers to either Biblical figures, or is simply part of someone’s name.  Francis of Assisi is Saint Francis to most Protestants simply because it’s unclear how else you’d name the man.  This clears some things up semantically – Saint Francis, Saint Paul, Saint Peter, and so on are clearer than simply Francis, Paul, and Peter.  But at the same time the use of “Saint” primarily for Biblical figures simply perpetuates one of the hidden stumbling blocks of faith: Bible people.

Bible people are special people.  They don’t have reasons for the things they do.  They read Scripture and understand things magically, then quote unrelated sections, but everyone knows what they mean, anyway.  Bible people live in a special universe (the Bible) where all the rules are different.  And so you can never be a Bible person.

Obviously, this is partly a jab at bad reading.  If you understood first-century Jewish ideas about a generalized Resurrection of the Dead Jesus’ cryptic exchange with Martha in John 11 would make a lot of sense, and the strong Messianic claim inherent in “I am the Resurrection” would jump out and smack you.  Of course, a lot of people read it as nonsense.  Martha makes a thinly-veiled request.  Jesus answers in the affirmative.  Martha comments out of left field.  Jesus makes an extremely cryptic statement.  Martha realizes he’s the Christ.  Must be Bible people.

But let’s go back to saints.  Here are your saints – dead, gone, stuck in the Iron Age, in a different country, practicing professions which may not even exist in America today, and they’re all Bible people.

It’s easy to mock a saint of Internet glitches, if such a saint has yet been assigned.  But that saint is a step closer to you than the Bible.  A saint might share your profession.  A saint might be, like you, married, or, like you, single, or, like you, widowed.  A saint might have spoken your language, to people who sound like the people who live near you.  A saint is a model, a very close one, for you.  A saint isn’t a Bible person.  A saint is relatable.  Whatever you believe about the current status of saints it’s worth naming some.  It’s worth holding that level of achievement up (something else completely taboo in many Protestant circles, since we’re all horrible sinners).  If there are saints around today why aren’t you one?  Isn’t the Protestant rejection of saints really founded on the idea that we are all supposed to be saints?  If fifty years ago someone just like you was a saint it can’t be your job, your marital status, your ethnicity, your education, that keeps you from that sort of following of Christ.  It’s just you.  So work on that.

The naming of saints, even without anything else, teaches.  It teaches us what it means to “be like Jesus” when we aren’t 30, we aren’t Jewish, and we aren’t carpenter’s sons.  We’ll handle the rest some other essay, but I’m in favor of naming saints.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2010 4:53 pm

    I think we Protestants (is it nicer if I say “we”?) tend to do with sainthood what the culture at large does with specialness. For the benefit of those who have not seen The Incredibles, my favorite line is after the mother has told her son Dash that everyone is special, to which the boy replies, “That’s just another way of saying no one is.” We’re either all already saints, or none of us are. All in all, a pretty gloomy prospect (I think the thought that we’re already saints is the more depressing of the two).

    All that to say, I appreciate this post.

    • Eric permalink
      March 15, 2010 8:55 pm

      I would think that if we are all saints then we should have the power to act like saints, whereas if we aren’t saints we’re probably just screwed. That said, we should probably point out those who act like saints.

  2. E.J. permalink
    March 16, 2010 6:54 pm

    I have been looking into the idea of saints off and on since I read a book by Shane Claiborne about a year and a half or two years ago. He brought up the point that, as the Church, we have a tendency to go along with the holidays and celebrations of the culture around us (Columbus Day, President’s Day, etc.) instead of celebrating Kingdom holidays. Why don’t we celebrate the lives of saints who have gone before us and given us wisdom to hand down? They helped pave the way for us. They helped usher in the Kingdom. We should too. We should follow their example.

    I know John Piper does this and so do many of the leaders at my old church, but we should take the time and read a biography of a saint or church leader from the past. Someone who did great things for the kingdom. We should aspire to be like them as they aspire to be like Christ (Paul talks about this in Philippians). Saints are pretty cool normal people who often have really cool stories that we should want to remember.

  3. March 17, 2010 11:31 am

    the descriptor of “bible people” makes me laugh, mostly because i can relate. at times i have to remind myself that scripture is written like most any other story — the author is in control of how the story is communicated, meaning s/he determines the conversation, the level of reveal in such conversation, & the reveal of character. how often i find myself envious of those in the bible who appeared to just magically “know” when instead i spin my wheels agonizing over what God is trying to teach me through situations & conversations.

    saints are intimidating in some sense, but refreshing in another. it is intimidating to realize that my level of understanding may not be that of another. it is refreshing to consider that this saint is also one who did struggle through wonderment to understand Christ.

    i think i posted jumbled thoughts but they are thoughts nonetheless.

  4. Stewart Thomas permalink
    March 24, 2010 9:55 am

    This isn’t specifically related to sainthoodedness, but is there not something special about the role of monks/nuns? Even though they’re not from the hood (st. hood, that is), they are still normal people who are able to give up their otherwise normal lives and completely commit to serving God in some way.

    Some of the “power” or purpose of saints seems to be as a marker. (I think this was brought up at bible study recently) You can say to the culture, “Ahh, but do you see St so and so [ed: I can name none, since I am protestant. Sadly]? He lived his life as set apart and followed God. This is evidence that God works with us and is present.” A saint is someone who is like is and a clear follower of the Lord. I think monks can be used for similar reason. What sane person living in the modern era would just decide they want to give up all their luxuries, put on some scratchy garb, wake every morning at 3, and chant a lot? There is something powerful about a large group of people who choose to go this route. They serve in a small way as examples of what transformed people are like. (I.e. the sentence: “That monk just stole my wallet and punched my wife in the gut.” is quite an oddity outside of the realm of adventure games. Most people of the world have an understanding that monks do not act this way.)

    This was based on some of my thoughts after the trip to the monestary last year. I was completely lost as to what the purpose of a monk was or how they could be at all relevant in our time. However, I’m fully aware that this train of thought does nothing to distinguish a Christian monk from a Buddjist or jainist monk.

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