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Ancestors of Faith: A Series on the Roots of Christianity

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What would you do if you had to write a story of Christianity in America? Where would you start? Who would you include? What would get left out? The U.S. is home to more Christians than any other country in the world. Today, 70% of Americans identified as Christian in a Pew Research Center Survey of the American religious landscape, released in May. (Interestingly, those statistics represent a decline of nearly 8 percentage points from seven years ago; the number of Americas identifying as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu, meanwhile, has inched up slightly. You can read the fascinating report here: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. Including the latest numbers would be important part of your story, but would they give you the whole picture? You’d also want to supplement them with other, slightly more impressionistic data: interviews with faith groups at rallies outside the Supreme Court; or meetings with churches that pride themselves on their inclusive vision. You’d probably want to become an expert in popular culture, too. That way, you’d have a better sense of how individuals who identified as “Christian” lived their faith on a day-to-day basis, against the backdrop of a country experiencing a dynamic period of growth and change. In the end, of course, if you really did take into account of all these Christian beliefs, practices, and even the range of policy positions that you saw, you’d have quite a story on your hands. You’d probably succeed in leaving your readers scratching their heads! Why? The story of Christianity in America is vertiginously diverse. That diversity is all the more remarkable because of what Christians have in common: a set of sacred texts. Ancient “Scripture” may not be the first thing we think to include when we try to tell the story of Christians in America, but the stories in “The Bible”—written thousands of years ago—provide an essential foundation for almost every Christian community today, even if many groups disagree about what books to include. Thinking about the importance of “The Bible” to the Christian faith raises another important question, though—one that many people don’t usually think about when they talk about Christianity as a world religion. How do tell the story Christianity before there was a “Christian Bible”? How did followers of Jesus understand the teachings and traditions of the community to which they belonged? The stories of Jesus are world famous, obviously. But what happened before and after the “The Christian Bible” came into existence shouldn’t be treated historical fly-over country. How Christians received and inherited their traditions—in short, how they lived them as well as where they lived them—says just as much about the Christian story as the stories told to us in the world most famous “book.” Over the coming weeks, the Deily Planet will showcase six communities from history—ancient history. Your guides will be drawn from established and emerging researchers who study Judaism and early Christianity. Think of them like TV hosts, taking you to a city you’ve never been to; bringing you along to watch a ritual you’ve never seen; giving you access to the messiness that existed in people’s daily lives before and after their religious beliefs were neatly put down on in writing and bound into a collection. Sounds like a new show on CNN, right? Well, that’s what these writers are interested in doing. They just happen to have an abiding love and deep understanding of the past, the ancient Mediterranean world, the world of Caesar and Cleopatra and, yes, of Jesus, Peter and Paul. The six posts in this series are designed to make the ancient practices of Christianity and Judaism visible and accessible to you. Even though the people and places they’re going to describe existed two thousand years ago, there’s still a need to watch and listen to them. Why? Everyone learns when we try to see the experiences of faith throughout history. And that’s what Deily’s mission is: to share your faith and understanding.