T-shirts, Basilicas and the appeal of Power in Christianity

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by Neil Godfrey

Amid all the sights to attract a tourist in Singapore one that drew my attention was the t-shirt of a young Chinese girl traveling in the same train floor space on my way to their famous zoo. It was a “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us – Romans 8:37” t-shirt, with that phrase encircling the word “Conquered!” stamped over what I took to be a stylized map of Singapore. Happily the girl who wore it and her companion did not look like fearsome conquerors, and their cheerful conversation did not give any hint of either being among the humiliated conquered. It seemed almost like a unseemly invasion of their privacy for me to try to think of them communally praying for and singing of the conquering power of Christ in their lives, so I kept my thoughts at the sociological and historical level.

What I was reminded of was a discussion of the first basilicas built in the Christian world back in the fourth and fifth centuries. I have been reading a new study of the rise of Justinian’s empire and the reasons for the historic turn from ancient to medieval times found by William Rosen, “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe” (2007). It was a time when the art of conversation in respectable society required a knowledge of the nuances of theology just as in other times it has been some background in literary and musical classics or political-economic theories. And Rosen explains the no doubt well-known fact that the early church buildings in the western part of the Roman empire were built in the shape of basilicas — from stoa and basileos, meaning a king’s room (p.100).

Hence my synapses firing connections between the conquering-theme t-shirt to the early christian church buildings — their very architecture declaring the same message as proclaimed by a common piece of clothing today. Two thousand years to democratize power from those who could emulate kings houses to those who can afford a shirt on their backs. But still the same message, the same thought, the same satisfaction that comes from appreciating that one is a part of a world of Power.

And somewhere in between came along:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

and before that:

All hail the power of Jesus’ name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem,
And crown Him Lord of all.

And well before the basilicas there came the Gospel of Mark and writings of Paul with their themes of God’s power breaking through the spirit world that held humanity bound in tribulation till then.

Some years ago I read another discussion of the Power theme in Christianity that helped me enormously to come to understand where I myself had been when part of the heritage of basilicas and slogans coined by the modern skills of the advertising industry. The author had at the time been living in Australia not far from where I was based. Some extracts from pp. 59-60 of Leaving the Fold by Marlene Winell:


“Fundamentalism promises mastery in life, not just safety but dominance. In the face of external odds and internal struggles, humans are understandably attracted to power. . . .

“Power is a primary theme in the worship rituals of many churches. . . .

Victory Over Outside Threat

“In the fundamentalist view of the world, there is a tremendous and continuous battle going on between good and evil. Even though God is present and will win in the end, the forces of darkness led by Satan are formidable. They are considered stronger than ordinary human strength. Therefore the help of God is always necessary. . . .

” . . . . All humans desire and strive for a sense of mastery, competence, and control. Helplessness and hopelessness are intolerable conditions. Thus the appeal of power in religion taps a deep-seated human drive. . . .

“Ultimately, the fundamentalist faith promises power over others at the final battle of Armageddon. Rather than fostering a spirit of mutual help and cooperation, this religion seems to evoke the most basic survival instincts and aggressions. . . . This is a system of absolute black and absolute white. A spectacular military victory is promised to those on God’s side, and loyal believers are entitled to a share in the glory.

“For the person who thrives on overpowering others, the Jesus of [the Book of] Revelation offers an attractive scenario. . . .

Personal Power

“People naturally want to be happy with their personal lives and with who they are. In fundamentalism, the salvation promise includes this. You can expect to be a “new creature” in Christ, enjoy the “peace that passes understanding,” and have spiritual fruits and gifts. . . .

“This is especially attractive because, unlike religions that expect you to engage in a spiritual discipline such as meditation, you are not asked to do anything. . . . Rather than attending to the process of self-awareness and personal growth [hence, my comment here, the rejection of much of psychology and sciences that offer real understanding of what we are and how we work], you simply channel the Holy Spirit into your life. Being happy and being a good person are due to the power of God — an appealing shortcut.”

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Neil Godfrey

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