Rome is full of reminders both of the layers of history and of the temptation to marry Christianity with pagan religions. Sitting by the fountain with Bernini’s Four River Gods fountain in Piazza Navona—a revelation both because of the light gleaming in the sheets of water and because it has so often been blocked by scaffolding in recent years—it was easy to understand the temptation to take the best from nonChristian traditions and combine them with our own. A few blocks away, Michaelanglo’s Sistine Chapel paintings (which we saw with a few thousand of our closest friends on Friday) include both Biblical prophets and pagan ones.
If combining Christian and classical traditions is one strategy for engaging the world, a second is to destroy the competitors when Christianity is in the ascendancy. This too was attempted in Rome. The famous statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline museum survived only because it was long thought to depict the Christian empire Constantine.
A better strategy, it seems to me, is to recognize that many pagan accomplishments are dim echoes of the Christian story, and to admire the beauty in them without either seeking to destroy them or to incorporate them. One version of this strategy can be seen in the sculpture of Peter that was placed by Christian leaders atop Trajan’s column by the Forum, and the cross that rises up from the Egyptian hieroglyph in the center of the Piazza del Popolo.
But even this seems to me to reflect a desire to dominate, to show that we are the worldly winners.
I was reminded of our true Biblical calling in the sermon at Rome Baptist Church yesterday. We are called, the pastor pointed out, to be a peculiar people—to be different from the world, even if that means being viewed as unkempt or uncool. Christians have played this role at times in Rome's history too—never more so than in the early centuries of the church when Christians stayed in Rome to minister to the sick and dying during epidemics, as nearly everyone else tried to flee the city. The church was a small minority then; it was frail, peculiar and strong