“Destroyer of the gods”: The Panel Discussion
The panel discussion of my new book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, was a lively and (in my view) productive event at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (in San Antonio, Texas, 18-22 Nov). (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.) In previous postings, I’ve referred to various video and audio interviews on the book. For example, note the video interview held in our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.
One panellist wondered if my emphasis on early Christian distinctiveness was a protest against a comparison of early Christianity and other religious movements of its time. I should hope, however, that I make it sufficiently clear that I fully approve (and carry out) the “taxonomy” task as a first step in then identifying the distinguishing features of early Christianity. And, contrary to his suggestion that I seem to focus on anomalies, I countered that my focus is on what I would call particularities, i.e., features that allow us to distinguish and identify this or that phenomenon from other members of its type.
Another panellist, Kyle Harper (a classicist with award-winning books of his own on early Christianity; see here) was most encouraging in his appraisal of my book. (Indeed, the most positive appraisals thus far have been from classicists and ancient historians, in comparison with colleagues in biblical studies. Interesting.) He suggested an interesting line of further investigation and reflection: What larger changes might have been taking place in the first couple of centuries that might have helped to prompt and shape developments in early Christianity?
The third panellist, however, gave what I am bound to judge a very misleading account of my book. He described it as portraying a uniformity of Christian belief and practice with regard to the larger religious setting, accused me of making “an inane contrast” between early Christianity and “everything else,” and insinuated that the book was some kind of covert triumphalist and apologetic tactic. In my response to the panellists, I had to note how puzzeling his presentation was, observing that the book he condemned wasn’t the book I had written! I then had to set the record straight over against his misleading characterization of it.
As I clearly state early on in the book, it is intended as a case-study in making the larger point that the category of “religion(s)” comprises some movements that vary considerably from one another. I know early Christianity best, so that’s what I choose to discuss. “Distinctive” doesn’t necessarily mean “valid.” What you make of early Christianity as to the validity of its teachings and practices is a matter of individual judgement. The point I make rather clearly and repeatedly in the book is that, whatever your own stance with regard to early Christianity, it has helped to shape your world, especially some commonplace assumptions about “religion.”
So, a lively, frank exchange at some points, but, in the end, a discussion that I hope will have clarified some matters for all those who attended. Christmas is drawing near, so pick up copies of the book for all your relatives 🙂