Book Review of Larry Hurtado’s “Destroyer of the gods”

The week before classes I chose to read through a book on my shelf I’ve been waiting to have time for just to get the academic juices pumping again before the semester began. The book was Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness by Larry Hurtado. It has been a number of years since I had read Hurtado’s book How on earth did Jesus become a god? back in undergrad, but the enjoyment of that book prompted my excitement for this one. Destroyer of the gods did not disappoint me. The clear prose of the sections, the lack of literary or academic fluff, the rigorous notes for further readings, and the quality of the summaries on ancient social or religious practices were phenomenal.

The premise of the books lies in the reality that non-Christians, both Jews and “pagans”, deemed Christian belief and practice as dubious as best and societally dangerous at worst. Hurtado gives a number of examples of how Christianity was not something that was seen as a religion in the ancient context. These were beliefs that overrode ethnic ties to gods, nations or citizenships, and even common behavioral norms. The intent of Christians was to include people, any and all people, into a community of beliefs and practices that placed demands on those newly converted that would reshape what it meant for them to exist in ancient society.

Hurtado’s examples of this intentionally crafted counter-cultural behavior begins with the Christian emphasis on translocal, transethnic inclusivity as a part of what it means to be religiously affiliated with Christianity. Hurtado posits that there was no such idea as voluntary religious identity. A person’s religious identity was subsumed within their ethnic identity and more personally, the family ancestors. Beyond the expectation that a person worship their ancestral spirits or ethnic gods, there were expectations that a person would worship the gods of the locality in which they resided. Polytheism did not demand any form of exclusivity. Even Jews were caught in this perspective since it was their ethnicity that gave them the pass of being strangely against worshiping other gods than their own. Christians took their Jewish heritage and expanded it to into radical new territory, inviting any ethnicity to join but demanding they reject participation in any other form of religious practice or event. In such a way Christian created the distinctive idea of religious identity separate from ethnic or social identity.

The next major focus of Hurtado is on the bookish nature of Christianity. The early Christians were prolific compared the ancient people around them. Their works of literature and their religious letters were far larger than anything except the most celebrated ancient texts. Christians were dedicated to teaching one another through the written word as read in the communal meetings. Christians didn’t just distinguish themselves from groups in the ancient world by their content alone, they also separated themselves from the surrounding cultural and society by the form of their bookishness. They began to use the codex bookform in much higher frequency, in fact seeming to prefer this looked-down-upon bookform almost exclusively for the Scripture readings in the churches. As they focused on codex technology they also developed liturgical reading styles that were evident in the reading of the texts, such as abbreviations and emphases.

The last area of Christian distinctiveness Hurtado focuses on is the social behaviors of Christians. Christian groups put considerable effort into creating language and concepts that reshaped the behavioral life of the new convert. The particular areas of this is seen in the honor and dignity given to infants and children, a rejection of violence as entertainment, and strict sexual behavior, specifically expected of males. Pagan religion did not concern itself with the person’s ethical life but was focused on the rituals and practices expected to be adhered to because of traditions, ethnicity, and locality. Christian obsession with the lives of their participants was distinct and unusual.

My personal take away from this book is the unbelievable willingness for early Christians to purposefully craft a way of communal life that stood in direct opposition to the prevailing culture of the Greco-Roman world. They were radically inclusive in their invitation to any and all peoples, but at the same time this radical inclusivity was meant with a radically exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves from Jews who did not follow King Jesus and pagans. How might Christians in this contemporary period learn from the first few centuries how to be as clear about the boundaries of Christian identity, yet still lovingly offer to never withhold entrance into that communal identity?

I think particularly of the sexual issues plaguing American Christianity in the twenty-first century. Might Christians learn against to make unbelievably strict, and even “immoral” to the American society, demands on the sexual behavior of those who desire to participate in our communities of faith? Christians must again begin to craft purposefully insider language that will seem strange and distinct from those outside of the Christianity. The culture of America must become unpalatable for Christian identity to reside within, though we may live beside it in a way that condemns it by our own loving and holy behavior.

I easily recommend reading Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods for the education of the early churches found in it, but I highly encourage reading this for the conviction it brings about in the Christian reader. May we honor this tradition of inclusive exclusivity as essential to Christian identity. Even more than honor, may we begin to live it again.

Book Review of Stuart Murray Williams’ “Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World”

In our class, Mission-Shaped Church with Dr. Fitch, the first book we read was Post-Christendom: Church in Mission in a Strange New World by Stuart Murray (Williams). Since our class focuses on culture, church practice, and mission this was a good first resource for many to begin to understand the conversation. Murray writes in an extremely accessible way, providing a good amount of information while not bogging the reader down with too much academic conversation.

Murray is surely at his best when he explains contemporary cultural trends he is experiencing in the cities of Britain. Americans tend to view Europe as ahead of the curve on issues of religious degradation and so treat such statements as near fortune telling about the coming American context. I tend to think this a perspective that should not be taken, but I can see the appeal of Murray to this mind set.

Related to his cultural exegesis is Murray’s questions and statements about what church life should be like within such a post-Christendom culture. Here is the fruit of Murray’s book. He believes churches must become more intentional in all parts of church life and practice. Particularly the areas of relationship between politics, money, other religions, care for the poor, and attempts at creating space for those who have been rejected by the majority of society and live as the marginalized in our Western contexts. Murray is spot on when it comes to the issues that must be addressed, but this less innovation and more identifying the same issues King Jesus addressed (which I think Murray would happily agree with).

Yet, most of what Murray writes in Post-Christendom is presented as a history lesson. The book becomes an evaluation of the changes that occurred in the Church when Constantine stopped the Great Persecution, funded the Council of Nicene, and the empire became Christianized. The development of Catholicism in relation to the empire is seen as highly scandalous to Murray and he seeks to show how there was always some true Christians who fought the system.

But it is precisely here in the arena of history that Murray goes astray so often. Murray presents a highly bias approach to historical events. While this is understandable to a certain degree, often his account of historical situations reaches into the intentions of the people rather than what can actually be known. I will give just two quick examples. The first example is Murray’s conversation about infant baptism.[1] Here he essentially devalues the theological conversation that took Augustine decades to work through to a simple rationalization for churches to provide a citizen ritual for the empire.

Augustine’s conclusions about infant baptism was born out of deep philosophical, exegetical, and pastoral work that convinced him that humans were passive recipients of both sin from parents and then saving grace from God. It was this passive human nature in relation to spiritual reality which led him to teach that infants could receive the sacrament of baptism because grace is never bargained for it is always received gratuitously. I have not been able to find any indication that Augustine was concerned about imperial citizen practices in this conversation, and there was no obvious collusion between Constantine’s desire for a unified Christian empire with Augustine’s theology of grace and baptism one hundred years later.

The second example is Murray’s praise of the Donatists as faithful Christians who didn’t want to collude with the empire and their new imperial civil religion (Catholicism).[2] But this was not the real issue at all with the Donatists. During the Great Persecution under Diocletian there were some bishops who denied the faith. There began to be an argument, particularly in Africa, that the sacraments became invalid if the bishop who presided over them denied the faith later. So then people would have to become re-baptized or re-married or confess sins again because their bishop left the faith. The majority of the bishops around the Roman world came to the conclusion that the sacraments are promises of King Jesus and are valid no matter the personal situation of the person presiding over them. They also forgave some of the bishops who had denied the faith and allowed them to teach again. This is when the Donatists left the majority of the church and claimed the Catholic church was wrong and sacraments had to be done by the right people.

The Donatist controversy is important because it helped us understand the objective reality of the sacraments as promises from God through King Jesus. They are not defendant on the purity or integrity of church leaders because King Jesus promises to be near to those seeking his presence. Being with God through the church is based on the purity and promises of King Jesus. This is important theological truth and the heart of the issue when remembering the Donatists.

Over a hundred years after the controversy began, Augustine forced the Donatists to return to the Catholic church by using force to shut down their churches. Yes, the Donatists didn’t like the empire because the historical issues were rooted in the Great Persecution, but the foundational opposition of the Donatists was not as an anti-empire movement. Rather the Donatists were a church division based on wrong theology of the sacraments and church authority. They should not be used to prove the point Murray is trying to make, in this case “anti-imperialism” by faithful protest movement, because the Donatists were most basically religious legalists. They were willing to separate from empire mainly because the empire wasn’t on their side of the theological and authoritarian argument.

My take away is that Murray brings up interesting points about contemporary culture and possible practices in local churches. The book felt over ten years old when I read it. There have been a lot of changes in European and American contexts since 2004 because of the Great Recession and the resurgence of nationalism throughout the West. Applying Post-Christendom to the American context is also problematic in that America is so large. There are many, many places were Christendom has not fallen and other places where the idea of post-Christendom is being rejected and a different form of progressive Christendom is being created. While not a bad read for those interested in the subject of post-Christendom mission, there are likely newer texts that evaluate our current cultural situation and how the church’s mission should address it.

[1] pp. 88-89, 91.

[2] pp. 97-99