A Feature Review of
Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church
Stefana Dan Laing
Reviewed by Garet D. Robinson
One of the greatest tragedies in history are the forgotten stories, people, and events which have shaped our world. Over time, it seems history books fade almost as fast as memories. Whether this is from the erasure of the so-called victors, or disappearance from steady rushing waters of time, events and stories can be forgotten. When Stefana Dan Laing looks at the history of Christianity, she shares the concern that its formative thinkers and writers are being lost. In Retrieving History: Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church, Stefana Dan Laing sets out recover these forgotten for patristic texts and remind evangelical Christians of their importance. Holding a PhD from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and currently serving as assistant librarian at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston campus, Laing is well positioned to lead this inquiry. Retrieving History is a short text, coming in at just under 200 pages, and is published by Baker Academic and is a volume in its Evangelical Ressourcement series that seeks to draw present day wisdom from church history.
The structure of Retrieving History is straightforward. Following a brief preface to the series, Laing adds her own preface that makes the case recovering the lost ancient voices. Following this, there are some abbreviations, a map, and a short timeline. The first chapter deals with setting the case for studying history. Writing from within her evangelical tradition as a Southern Baptist, Laing notes several contemporary events in her denomination which serve as formative for her text. Laing then develops more her approach for the remainder of the text. Retrieving History will be oriented around presenting four ancient Christian historiographical forms, by this she means literary types, and showing how evangelicals can learn from works in each form.
Chapter Two begins her move into the purposes for the text with a discussion about the nature of ancient writing. Following this second introductory layer, Chapter Three discusses early Christian apologetic writing. Here, Laing displays her erudition as she engages with several apologetic works from across several centuries. She notes that apologetics in this era dealt with challenges from outside Christianity as much as it dealt with challenges from within.
Laing tackles the stories of martyrs in the Christian tradition in Chapter Four by evaluating recorded acts of martyrdom, or acta, through features of narrative, remembrance, mimesis, and causation. She engages with some prominent stories including Perpetua and Felicitus, Polycarp, and the Martyrs of Lyon. The next chapter, the fifth, is linked to the fourth, though it deals with a different category of ancient literature, hagiography, or holy biographies. As Laing notes, these are the vitae of martyrological literature. Here the stories of Saints Antony, Macrina, and Melania are used. Differentiating between the acta and the vitae of martyrdom is important across chapters four and five, the former being physical deaths and the latter being dying to self, or ascetic practices.
Chapter Six discusses the early historians of Christianity, ecclesiastical histories. Laing leans heavily on Eusebius but also incorporates several other early Christian historians. Noteworthy in her method is how Laing situates the way these historians wrote about Christianity alongside their ancient contemporaries. This allows the reader to see how works which might be initially confusing to them in the present day make sense in their ancient times. The seventh and final chapter, is a brief five-page conclusion where Laing offers summary points and a few application notes.
After the main section of the text, there is a bibliography of sources and a good index. Merciful footnotes aid the reader looking deeper and benefit the book. Laing opts to provide transliterated words from their original forms as well as using English titles for the ancient works she is considering. By doing so, she allows the text to be more accessible to non-technicians. This accessibility is at the heart of Laing’s approach. She aims to provide a text that, while assuming some familiarity with the writers and history of this period, is not so scholarly that it is unreachable by the average person in the pew. Her text accomplishes this and provides something is often missing in historical discussions: something that is a step beyond the simple but not stuck aloft in a tower of scholarly engagement.
There are many benefits in this text. Her prose is fluid and simple. The reader is not left seeing points recapitulated but is moved through the text at a healthy pace. Part of Laing’s method is that her primary focus is on dealing with and describing the texts at hand. She does not engage in much critical interaction with the scholarly discussions about the works or authors in question. To this end, her approach speaks to each text appreciably seeking out their benefits over their questions. For some, this will limit her accessibility, though for the audience Laing has in mind in the book, it is a method that helps introduce and engage with the works themselves.
Perhaps her strongest point in the text is how she works through and illuminates the stories of female patristic figures; these are often neglected individuals in Christian history. Laing’s work in retelling the stories of Perpetua and Felicitas, Saint Macrina, and Saint Melania is some of the best work she does in the book. Alongside this is the able engagement with her subject matter. She deals with patristic literature across a broad range and keeps in view the examples of Scripture while working through her points. Laing’s text benefits from her own deep memory of the ways, many long forgotten, that formed much of what we know as Christianity in the present. For example, how Christians can take the examples of ancient ascetics takes the proper tone between advocating for such practices and while also minding that they are not normative for all.
One concern is Laing’s method appreciable inquiry that seems to neglect noting substantive issues. For example, in dealing with Tertullian and his writings, Laing does not delve into his problematic conversion to Montanism. At another point, in discussing the martyrdom stories, Laing engages with critical scholars, such as Candida Moss, at a superficial level. There are important questions about the validity and truthfulness of these accounts which critical scholars bring into the conversation. Neglecting a serious engagement here, even in the footnotes, limits the effectiveness of this text.
In the end, Stefana Dan Laing develops a fine text that is suitable for someone looking to engage the deep memory of Christianity’s great lives and writers. She is to be commended for her work here in drawing from the deep wells of ancient Christianity vibrant stories that can freshen and enliven the present day. Through this work, readers will find hope and encouragement in the stories and lives of those embedded deep in the memory and identity of Christianity. Perhaps the best commendation of her work is summed up in the simple exhortation for us: tolle lege.
Garet D. Robinson serves as the Adult Pastor at University Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. Connect with him on Twitter: @garetrobinson