How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected
Paperback: Orbis, 2016.
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Reviewed by Alden Bass
In his 1988 Louis H. Jordan Lectures, later published as Drudgery Divine, Jonathan Z. Smith argued that studies of early Christianity were hopelessly mired in confessional apologetics. Narrowing in on the study of Hellenistic Mystery Religions, he observed that Protestants were eager to critique the pagan rites, believing the “pure” religion of Paul to have been corrupted by Romish pomp and ritual. Likewise, Unitarian and Rationalist scholars, in an attempt to get at the Protestants, fingered Paul for introducing “Hellenism” into the rustic parables of Jesus. The Catholics defended all of it.
To Smith’s account we could add “radical” Christian treatments of early Christianity which have multiplied in recent years. Alistair Sykes, Andy Alexis-Baker, Alan Kreider, Everett Ferguson (to name a few) have described an early Christianity which looks an awfully lot like ana/baptist communities: nonviolent ethic, gathered-church ecclesiology, believers’ baptism, and (for Ferguson) acapella congregational singing. These scholars are not inventing things, but they are calling attention to areas neglected by earlier scholars, in the process revising the story of the earliest Christians to embrace their own traditions.
Wes Howard-Brook continues this practice of alternative storytelling. His previous work, “Come Out, My People!” is a reading of the entire biblical narrative from a liberationist perspective. He draws on historical-critical and narrative methods to re-interpret scripture in light of two basic universal religious orientations which he calls “the religion of creation” and “the religion of empire.” The exemplar of imperial religion is the Babylonian Enuma Elish, to which Genesis 1 functions as an emancipatory counternarrative. Israel itself eventually becomes an “empire” in the time of Solomon, dominating weaker peoples as Egypt had once dominated Israel. Jesus comes to call humanity back to the religion of creation, identified as the kingdom of God. Howard-Brook’s aim is to defend Jesus’s religion against those who would later act in an imperial manner (violent, acquisitive, authoritarian, and so forth) and call it Christianity. The work is brilliant, and has given new life to a story which for some had come to seem irrelevant, at least politically.
He continues this narrative in Empire Baptized. Having explicated the “radical Good News” of Jesus, Howard-Brook confronts the difficult task of explaining how modern American “Christianity” has deviated so drastically from the simple Galilean gospel. The question is addressed with a historiography of decline. The story of the Church’s “fall” into empire, violence, and (ultimately) moribund Catholicism is nothing new in ana/baptist circles; versions have been common among radicals for centuries. Generally, Constantine is the so-called-Christian villain blamed with compromising the faith and opening the gates for the type of imperial Christianity characteristic of medieval Europe and the modern United States.
The story is short and sad. For Howard-Brook, Jesus’s message did not survive passage out of Palestine. Beginning with the earliest non-New Testament Christian witnesses, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian, Howard-Brook attempts to demonstrate early Christian leaders’ complicity with the Dominant Powers. He tells of their unwillingness to defend the poor, their vain speculative theology, and their heresy hunting. The book’s subtitle reveals the unsubtle thesis: “how the church embraced what Jesus rejected, 2nd-5th centuries.”
There is much to be admired in Howard-Brook’s work. He concentrates his analysis on two cities: Alexandria and Carthage, both centers of Christian intellectual activity in the first few centuries, one Greek and the other Latin. The regional emphasis allows him to examine these expressions of Christianity with their specific social, political, and economic contexts; such material contexts are essential, he avers, because religion is not merely an intellectual pursuit. Though not a specialist in the field (Howard-Brook is a biblical scholar and lawyer by training), he marshals an impressive body of evidence to support his claims. The first chapter, which covers the socio-political background of early Christianity, is a particularly well-organized and uncontroversial introduction to first century Roman imperialism. The rest of the book is more problematic.
Howard-Brook spends the next six chapters damning the church fathers of Egypt and North Africa with quote after quote outlining their misogyny, their chauvinism, and their intellectual narrowness. He evaluates each figure using the religion of empire/religion of creation schematic developed for “Come Out, My People!” The two religious orientations are compared using a few basic categories, such as the purpose of human life, social and economic structures, relationship with “others” (Jews, heretics, and women), relation to the environment, and ethics of war and violence. This schema works well for interpreting the biblical narrative, which was composed in the same general region (Greater Syria) by writers drawing on a common cultural stock of symbols and types. “Egypt,” for instance, is code for “evil empire” anywhere it comes up in the Bible; urban metropolises are associated with wickedness from Cain to John’s Revelation. Regrettably, this dualistic literary interpretation which was so helpful in “Come Out, My People!” doesn’t hold up when applied to the linguistically and culturally diverse post-New Testament writers. At the very least, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Howard-Brook’s hermeneutic of suspicion is an important corrective to those who would valorize the early Christian writers. They were only men after all (yes, pretty much all men). And much of what Howard-Brook writes about them is correct. Tertullian did seem to care more about heresy than hospitality. Clement defended the rich. Athanasius was a rebarbative guy. Yet Howard-Brook’s real target is not Athanasius or Tertullian or Clement. It’s the contemporary Catholic bishops and conservative Evangelicals condemned for their allegiance to the American Empire. Though amply quoted, the figures attacked by Howard-Brook are not allowed to speak for themselves. He doesn’t investigate what sorts of questions they are interested in, choosing instead to judge them by the categories he has devised. He doesn’t seem to hear their pastoral concerns. It would be interesting for an Origen or a Cyprian to formulate their own checklist of true religion and false in order to see how well contemporary theologians fit the bill.
The question is not whether the Church Fathers should be judged by our standards or by the standards of their own culture (though this is a valid critique which he dismisses). It’s a question of hearing them as brothers and sisters in the faith. Suspicion must be balanced by generosity. Why do people still read these men after nearly two millennia? Perhaps because they have something to say that remains relevant. Howard-Brook confesses in his conclusion that he avoided reading the fathers for twenty years because he assumed they would be “dull and dreary”, devoid of the exciting, radical, dangerous life of discipleship. Really?
What of Cyprian’s doomed efforts to keep the church together in a time of plague and schism? Or the Council Fathers who appeared in Nicaea in 325 missing eyes and limbs, bearing the scars of persecution? What of Origen’s brilliant commentary on Joshua, which articulates the nonviolence of God? Or Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical treatise The Life of Moses, which challenges every theological conception and pushes us into the dark cloud of unknowing? The same Ps-Dionysus who provides one of the strongest defenses of hierarchy in church history also lays the groundwork for an apophatic theology which informs Howard-Brook’s own hermeneutic of suspicion. The same Augustine who justifies the persecution of religious minorities develops a theology of love unrivaled in intellectual history, Christian or otherwise.
Howard-Brooks applies just such a critical, yet generous hermeneutic in his study of scripture. The writings of Paul could easily be condemned (and have been many times) on the criteria given. Why not extend the same courtesy to the early Christians, as Ferguson, Sykes, Kreider and others have? Toward the end of the work, Howard-Brook himself shows this to be possible. In the last chapter of the book (“ ‘Christianity’ Embraces Empire”) he turns to Augustine, a man frequently found at the top of the Most Wanted list of early Christian offenders. Augustine is the first to explicitly justify state-sponsored violence. His views on the body are considered retrograde. He definitely moved Christianity in the direction of platonic spirituality and introduced the idea of original sin. Yet Howard-Brook comes to his defense. He admits that he long believed Augustine to be a guilty-as-charged “extremist,” but after reflecting on his writings more deeply, he came to see the African bishop as a “thoughtful man who seriously sought, within the limits of his cultural context, to find and express what he understood to be God’s truth” (265). Augustine was, “at least as much if not more than anyone we’ve explored,” a man of his time and place. Could we not say the same about the other Fathers? Could we not say the same about ourselves?