The saying goes like this: “Give me that old time religion!”
Typically, when a person says such a thing, they mean “give me the tried-and-true way of doing things, the hallowed wisdom of our forefathers.” The sentiment is a desire for truth, a longing for simplicity, and a yearning to belong to something good. The expression displays a need to connect today’s thoughts to the past–continuity and heritage.
The hymn dating back to 1873 has simple lyrics…
Today’s American and Western societies tend to mock or reject the religious ideas of days past, and rightly so, in some cases. Much of what defines old time religion makes me cringe. And yet, the phrase stirs up something good, something stable. The phrase reflects, for me, a desire to be attached to the roots of my Christian faith.
I view Christian theology as a vine. The roots are in the first and second century fathers, and the branches growing through each century. Today, Christian theology spreads wildly in the midst of our twenty first century debates. Today’s theology is like a mess of grape vines, twisted and tangled into a hopeless web. Many of us can barely see the 1,500 years of amazing Christian theology hidden behind the entanglement that has clouded our view the past 500 years.
To me, old time religion refers to the roots of Christian theology found in the first 500 years after Christ: Mathetes, Polycarp, Barnabas, Papias, and the ancient apostolic writers. Ignatius stands out among them, as a giant trunk to which we have the luxury to be grafted onto.