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For whom is “Destroyer of the gods”?

March 18, 2017

In all the various interviews about my recent book, Destroyer of the gods, the question  up early:  Who is this book for, and what can people today take from it?  So, I’ll summarize here what my answers are.

The book is intended for a wide swathe of readers, really, anyone interested in exploring how Christianity began and what it looked like in its earliest phases.  I’d hope that many Christians would be curious about their religious forebears, and would be interested to see what it was like being a Christian before Christendom.  It was a time when, in the words of the Australian ancient historian Eric Osborne, Christians had to reason for their lives.  A bit dramatic, perhaps, for not every Christian was under threat of death, to be sure.  But Christianity was simply one sect among  others, and, indeed, was seen widely in a rather negative light.

So, becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage that I can see in the first centuries before Constantine changed things.  Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass.  My book focuses on several features of early Christianity that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of the time.

In the “post-Christendom” setting of the modern Western world, Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was.  Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others.  So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.  Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, etc., these all wrote in situations where their dialogue partners were other Christians.  But people such as Justin Martyr, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, and others of those early centuries were seeking to articulate and defend Christian faith to outsiders and critics in a situation in which Christians had to do so.  Their efforts at articulating their faith and living it out in as winsome a manner as they could will, I think, be more relevant now than at any time in the preceding 1000 years of Western history.

But I also have aimed the book at a wider public who don’t identify themselves as Christians, but will be interested to see what this thing called Christianity was like in its earliest setting.  These folk (or some)  may presume that all religion is simply the refuge of mentally less competent, socially dysfunctional souls, and/or the tool of those seeking to exploit credulity for economic and political gains.  It will come as a surprise, I suspect, to see who early Christians were, and that they included people of all social ranks and a decent number of clear educational and intellectual abilities.  And, as I’ve stated, for these early Christians their Christian allegiance had scant chance of offering any economic, social or political advantage (prior to Constantine’s adoption of Christianity).

To cite again the comment from Wayne Meeks that opens my book:

“Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people . . . Yet something more that mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history.  Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings.” (The Origins of Christian Morality:  The First Two Centuries, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 1).



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  1. Eric Bess permalink

    I have read what I suspect is the mini-version of this book, your ‘Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?’

    There you write: ‘My additional point, however, is that it is difficult to grasp quite what the attraction of Christian faith was for people in light of such prospects being touted and feared’ (61). You later admit you haven’t really answered the question which is the subject of your book (129-33). But you still offer several considerations (108-29). You cites Paul’s (Php 3.4-16) ‘personal relationship’ with ‘Christ’ (114-19) and Justin Martyr’s intellectual wants (119f.) as factors influencing conversion. Ultimately, while you accepts there were many factors, you place the emphasis on special Christian beliefs like the ‘love’ of ‘God’ and the successful marketing of the concept of eternal life (122-9).

    I have some questions here:

    1) Why do you (as implied in the quote above) consider these factors to be inadequate to answer the central question?

    2) Do you truly think it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is that attracted people to Christianity? Is there anything that you *suspect* might have been Christianity’s main appeal, or do you even believe there was a ‘main appeal’?

    3) Does your larger book try to lay out more specific answers, or does it exhibit the same ambiguity?

    • Eric: First, the book you ask about isn’t a digest version of my book, Destroyer of the gods. They tackle two distinguishable, but related, matters. Destroyer focuses on several factors that made early Christianity distinctive in the Roman world. The Marquette Lecture focuses on the question of why people became Christians and remained Christians, given the costs involved. Now to your questions.
      –I don’t know that we know readily the reasons that people became Christians in the first three centuries, because we don’t have a lot of testimony from people of that period. But the Marquette Lecture book urges that the question is important, not typically framed in the way I do, and so justifies further research and reflection.
      –I have offered a few things that either are mentioned or that seem to me possible factors. But I emphasize that there were likely different factors (or combinations thereof) for different people.
      –The Marquette Lecture book doesn’t exhibit “ambiguity” at all! I pose the question and press it as important. The larger book, as I say, tackles another matter. Oh, and it isn’t ambiguous either!

  2. j kinlaw permalink

    I’m an admirer of your work. A question hovering over it is Why did so many pay such a high price to become Jesus followers? I wonder if a mysterious-yet-appealing *liturgy fits in somehow. I understand the constraints of this volume, but a further question would be whether an Orthodox or RC scholar is more likely to entertain such a question…(I’m assuming you are Protestant.)

    • Well, I engage such questions as a historian, not as a Protestant or Catholic. And experts in history of liturgy agree that we have no standardized liturgy much before the 3rd century at the earliest.

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