Religion is a rock, but it too is subject to the powerful forces of change and history. Since he was 13-years-old, Dr. Charles Frazee, now 80, has studied the phenomenon of religion, especially the first thousand years of Christianity.
To listen to Dr. Frazee, even briefly, is enough to rock your world. His insight, intellect and intuition are spellbinding, and, perhaps befitting of someone born on the 4th of July, 1929. He has a sense of history and perspective known to few. He may no longer drive an automobile, but his mind is more active than ever, a catalog of colliding worlds that he has been able to bring sense and sensibility to through his extensive research and scholarship.
After 12 years in the seminary, he spent 15 years in the priesthood as a teacher. He may have never left the priesthood, but as a teaching priest he made life uncomfortable for the Marian College administration in Indianapolis, Ind. He had been a lightning rod galvanizing opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which attracted the attention of the FBI and local police. “I had the IRS after me, too; I only made $200 a month,” he said, chuckling.
“I was very much an activist against the war in Vietnam,” Dr. Frazee added. “The college president said that as long as you’re on the faculty, we can’t get any money.”
So, Dr. Frazee headed west to California, where he taught at Cal State Fullerton from 1970 until 1992. Then he spent a year as a visiting professor at the Air Force Academy. Despite his earlier anti-Vietnam war resume, he was in great demand. “The Balkans and east Europe were my specialties, and the war was in Bosnia,” Dr. Frazee said. “There aren’t many of us who care much about Bosnian history.”
From 1993 to 2007, Dr. Frazee taught at the Episcopal School of Theology at Claremont, the Catholic believer teaching in a school with an Episcopal tradition.
Now, he’s coming to La Verne to share what he has learned and to perhaps puncture a few long-held myths.
According to Dr. Frazee, who reads six languages and traveled the world many times over:
· Christians may have invented the first book. “It was heck of a lot easier if you’re a persecuted group to carry around a book that you can hide in your toga than a scroll that would stick out,” Dr. Frazee said.
· The oldest extant Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written in Greek, in all capital letters, with no spaces or punctuation. “There were no chapters or verses,” Dr. Frazee explained. “Chapters weren’t in the Bible until the 13th Century; versification came in the 16th.”
· The conclusion to the Lord’s Prayer, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen,” was not part of the original text, but was rather a “gloss,” or comment found in the margins that was eventually incorporated into the text. “Writing a book in the ancient world was a big production,” Dr. Frazee said. “The way it was done, they would have seven or eight people around the person who was dictating. You can imagine that by five in the afternoon, people were getting pretty tired, and their pens would scrape out. That’s why you have different variations of the New Testaments. Some text would get in there because people were tired or they had a pious thought while they were copying, and then the next guy who’s got the work finds a note along the side and doesn’t know whether it belongs in the text or not.”
· Bibles were chained to altars in the Middle Ages. “There was a good reason they were chained,” Dr. Frazee said. “People would run off with them. You could sell them.”
· In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus dies on Passover. In John, however, Jesus dies the day before Passover. “You would think,” Dr. Frazee said, “to say, ‘Well, let’s get this straight.’” Interestingly, Dr. Frazee believes it’s this lack of uniformity and consistency that lends authenticity to the Bible. “It wasn’t a council that decided on the books; it was a consensus with the various Christian communities of the Mediterranean and of Persia.”
· Christianity came into the world when the world was sinking ideologically. “People had given up on religion,” Dr. Frazee said. “Christianity came in as a kind of breath of fresh air.”
· Ten percent of the Roman Empire were Jewish, which was an alternative to Stoicism, Epicureanism, and of course, Roman emperor worship, the state religion. “Christianity gave you the Jewish ethical system without circumcision and the dietary laws,” Dr. Frazee said. “So that made Christianity a lot more attractive to an adult gentile population. All of a sudden you might say, we had a softer Judaism, which seemed attractive to people who were looking, but didn’t’ want to take on the whole Jewish baggage, if you will.”
· The Christian church changed two of the Ten Commandments. “The Church said, ‘No, we’re going to worship on Sunday, not the Sabbath,’” Dr. Frazee said. “The Sabbath is Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, but Christians are going to worship on the day of the sun, Sunday. The second one, said, ‘Honor your mother and father.’ Jesus says, ‘Forget about your father, come follow me. If you think more of your father and mother than you do of me, then you’re not worthy of me.’”
· Jesus was not a theologian. “Jesus was not a philosopher,” Dr. Frazee said. “He didn’t write a word.”
· The church in Jerusalem is still all Greek in its hierarchy. “And the people are all Arabs, who resent this, so it’s a point of friction.”
· Christians went from being persecuted to being persecutors. “Roman laws, according to Justinian, said that if you are a heretic, you are a dangerous person. You were like someone carrying HIV.”
· Egypt was the most Christian country in the world in the 4th Century. About 100 years after Mohammed’s death in 632, most Christians in Egypt and the Middle East lived under Muslim political rule. “So today all those guys out in the streets with their fists up (yelling ‘Death to America’) all had Christian parents,” Dr. Frazee said.To hear Dr. Frazee compare some of the major differences between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Christians in the western tradition is another fascinating journey worth hearing and exploring.
Dr. Frazee notes that the big division between Eastern and Western churches wasn’t over the authority of the pope, but rather over the celebration of the Eucharist.
“The Eastern churches use leavened bread while the Catholic Church in the West uses unleavened bread,” Dr. Frazee explained. “For them (the Orthodox churches), this was such an issue that in the 11th Century, they closed down the Latin churches in Constantinople and threw the Eucharist out into the streets. They said you can’t consecrate, you can’t change the bread into the body of Christ unless it’s leavened bread.”
There are dozens of differences between Eastern Orthodoxy and the Western church. Dr. Frazee notes that the Eastern Orthodoxy “doesn’t have any doctrine of original sin, and it doesn’t really have a doctrine of purgatory.”
In the East, he also points out, the Eastern clergy all wear beards. In the west, priests are both bearded and beardless. Interestingly, in early Christian art, Jesus is always pictured as a young man without a beard.
In the East, worshippers are supposed to fast about one of every three days. By contrast, in the West, there are only two fasting days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Another notable difference between Eastern and Western-style Christianity is celibacy is in the priesthood. In the West, candidates for the priesthood have to promise celibacy. In the East, it’s just the opposite. Priests have to be married. Eastern bishops, however, are celibate because they are drawn from the monastic order.
Although Dr. Frazee’s upcoming talks will center on Christianity’s first 1,000 years, he didn’t dodge any issues that LaVerneOnline.com posed about our own era, from abortion, to the adulation over pop icon Michael Jackson, to America’s involvement in the Middle East. “I voted for Obama to get Americans out of Iraq, and now we’re putting them into Afghanistan,” Dr. Frazee said. “There will never be peace as long as there is an American soldier in the Middle East. Afghanistan is not a nation state. It is a collection of princedoms with sheiks. I find it hard to think we’re threatened by Afghanistan, but maybe we are.”
He noted that religion is in decline in the United States. “Religion is losing its influence in the public square,” said Dr. Frazee. “Religious doctrine doesn’t mean as much anymore. Methodists and Presbyterians aren’t going into the streets to settle their differences.
“To be religious means to be ethical, but you don’t have to be religious to be ethical. We look to science for our knowledge; we don’t look to authority much for wisdom.”
Catholicism Past and Present
Dr. Frazee said that there are 65 million Catholics in the United States, of which he is one. If they were a voting block, they would far outnumber Evangelicals, he noted. “Catholics are all over the place, but in some ways that may be a good thing.”
Politics aside, it’s Catholicism’s social doctrine that continues to set a strong example for people to follow, including Dr. Frazee, a former Citizen of the Year in Placentia. “I’m a believing Catholic and still work for the Church and do whatever I can to foster its mission.”
Looking back on the Church’s profound early role and influence, Dr. Frazee noted it provided nearly “all the welfare that existed … and it still does.
“The Catholic Church is the largest educational institution in the world. It is the largest health provider in the world. It is a major opponent of the caste system in India, and suffers because of it. It’s trying to bring a note of civility to the Middle East, which is rejected by nearly everyone else. It has done more to provide women’s education around the world than any other institution.”
Yet this Catholic is not afraid to criticize the institution to which he has dedicated his life. “People in Rome are pretty much out of touch,” he said. “Today, there is just a disconnect between what Rome wants and where the Catholic people have to be.” At the same time, he recognizes the Church’s almost impossible task. “It’s too hard to do, to run a worldwide organization of people who are volunteers. It’s tough.”
Having dedicated his life to exploring the rich patterns and threads of history, he looks upon that time he left the priesthood 40 years ago with a certain calm resignation. “They were glad to get rid of me, and I was probably glad to get rid of them,” he said.
His separation from the priesthood opened new vistas. He married. His wife, Kathleen Frazee, is the exhibit curator and manager for Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History. Their union produced two beautiful daughters, one of whom works in conservation in South Africa, the other as middle school teacher in Pasadena. “They have a social conscience,” Dr. Frazee said proudly.
At 80, Dr. Frazee said he has more time to think, read and write (he currently has two new manuscripts with publishers), one of the advantages of being a new octogenarian. And when the writing well runs dry, he paints. He paints religious icons, churches, seascapes, people and famous structures like the Parthenon in Athens. He has another showing of his work planned. His colors are bright, vivid and vibrant. There is a playful innocence in all his subjects. There is nothing dark or too abstruse.
Dr. Frazee is very much enjoying the sunlight of his career, not watching the sunset of it. He is tickled to be invited to speak at St. John’s Episcopal Church, once again that Catholic who is also a historian and knows where that division lies. He is genuinely moved that someone thinks his views are still viable in our volatile world. “I’m honored that somebody still cares enough to ask me to come and talk to them.”
Dr. Frazee’s talks are part of St. John’s Vacation Bible School for children and adults from July 27-31. Dinner is 5 p.m., Session I 5:30 p.m., Dessert Break 6:15 p.m., Session II 6:45 p.m. Evening Prayer 7:40 p.m. Children will have a Grand Canyon experience and the adults will hear “The First Thousand Years of Christianity” presented by Dr. Charles Frazee.
St. John’s is at 4745 Wheeler Avenue, 2 blocks north of Baseline, La Verne, (909) 596.1321.