It all comes together, and more, in the historical novel THE SIGN OF THE DOLPHIN, the second book in the series that started with THE SCRIBES: A NOVEL ABOUT THE EARLY CHURCH.
Set in the year 184 A.D., this book contains a collection of 72 letters which tell the story of a journey through Gaul and Britain. Along the way you will meet fascinating characters like Irenaeus of Lyon and Diognetus and Ulpius Marcellus. You will wrestle with the question of the two versions of the Acts of the Apostles. You will discover the glories of art in Britain under Roman rule, and you will join Marcus the scribe as he seeks to manage an unruly team, deal with an independent young woman, and share the good news with people on the Roman frontier.
This book will be available the week between Palm Sunday and Easter!
The Villa of Lucius Marcus to Justin, greetings in the Lord.
Alina is a fascinating but puzzling woman. I came upon her this morning in the garden, where she was singing her Celtic hymns. When she had finished, we talked about our mission to the house of Nepos. And then I changed the subject. “Callistus has told me that you shared with him the news about the library and its treasures. I thought I had asked you not to tell anyone.”
“Libraries must not be kept a secret,” she retorted, “and in any case, as we both know, it is not your library but the king’s library, and we should have no more right to it than Callistus or anyone else. Furthermore, ownership works differently in the world of the Celts than it does among the Romans.”
I was taken aback by her response. It seemed to me that it only could have been rehearsed in advance. I replied, “At least as far as wives are concerned, for Caesar tells us that wives are shared among groups of ten or twelve men, especially between fathers, brothers and sons.”
“That’s the view of the conqueror,” Alina retorted. “They write the histories, but can they really be trusted to understand the conquered? That’s the way it is with Caesar and all the rest of the victors. They come to conquer and not to listen and learn. And they cover over our culture with their own.”
“Alina,” I responded, “I can’t solve the problem of the war of the cultures, and nor can you. We preach a gospel that affirms and judges all cultures. But I did ask you to keep a secret, and I expected that you would keep it, and you didn’t.”
“Well, I am sorry,” she said, and then began playing her kithara again, and singing the song she has been teaching us with the refrain: Love covers a multitude of sins.
As you can imagine, I am both fascinated and frustrated by Alina. I can hardly deny my growing affection for her. We seem to be at one moment of the same mind and in the next to be worlds apart. I don’t know what to make of her growing friendship with Callistus, who seems to be able to charm and delight the women without effort.
Meanwhile, I cannot allow myself to be distracted from the great work of the mission to Britain. I left Alina in the garden, and walked back to the house. Since the place seemed especially deserted, I decided to explore some of the rooms I had not seen. It seems that the tessellated pavements and painted walls are generally of a high quality, though some have been damaged or poorly repaired. Other richly decorated rooms have been relegated to storage areas or workshops. The wear and neglect have taken their toll. The whole place feels like its greatest days are past, and it is slowly sinking into the earth, which eventually swallows up all. Thank God that what is sown in corruption is raised in incorruption, and that death is swallowed up in victory.
In one of the rooms I came upon a man who was repairing a mosaic pavement. I watched him as he carefully removed the broken tesserae, and put new pieces in their place. He spent much time digging away at the damage until all the broken pieces were removed. Beneath it I saw another, earlier floor of black and white pattern. So I see that when fashion and taste change, new floors are simply laid over old ones. And what a remarkable design this new floor was, a Roman myth laid over Celtic patterns. The central roundel enclosed a head of Medusa, simply laid out in black, red and yellow, with a great mat of hair, interwoven with writhing yellow-eyed snakes. The Medusa herself was surrounded by eight octagonal panels, each enclosing a different kind of flower. I could detect the poor quality of the workmanship from the fact that one of the flowers is badly misshapen. It is true that in the myth Perseus killed Medusa, but this Medusa, this Gorgon, seemed so alive that she still had power to kill men or to turn them into stone. The border of this pavement, which also had a great profusion of design, consisted of circles and squares with tails enclosed. The whole was full of life and business, the work of a Celtic artist attempting Roman design, and laying it over an old floor of elegant patterns of the Celtic type.
I could not get out of my mind Alina’s words about cultural conquest. I stood and watched the craftsman, who did not seem to be aware that he was on show. His skill in repairing seemed an improvement on the original. Here was clearly a master at the art of laying and repairing floors. I commented that I thought the floor was remarkable, but the craftsman gave no reply and kept on working in total concentration, the way we like to do when we are copying the scriptures.
I stood and watched him work for a few more minutes, and then I walked away thinking about what I had seen and heard. One culture is always conquering another. But how should we who preach the good news of Christ respond to culture? Should we seek to destroy the old culture and cover it over with the new? Or does the preaching of the gospel salvage all it can in culture? Did not Christ come to transform the world rather than to destroy it? And did not St. Paul urge the Philippians to think on all that was true and honorable and just and pure, and lovely, and of good report? Did he not affirm anything virtuous or worthy of praise, like the skill of this workman or the haunting Celtic melodies that Alina sings? And I am sure that in village after village as we move through this land, we will need to be sensitive about what should be removed, and what should be recruited and redeemed in this culture.
Pray for us as we pray for you, and greet all the brothers and sisters in Christ in Rome.
NOTES:34. The Villa of Lucius: For Caesar on the Celts see Barry Cunliff, The Ancient Celts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, 109. Marcus cites 1 Cor 15:42, 54. For the Medusa Mosaic see Cunliffe, Fishbourne Roman Palace, 113.