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Nijay Gupta – Strange Religion [Feature Review]

Strange ReligionAn Exploration of the Early Church Environment

A Feature Review of

Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling
Nijay K. Gupta

Paperback: Brazos Press, 2024
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Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn

Nijay Gupta has emerged as a leading New Testament scholar who specializes in both thorough exegetical studies as well as shining light on marginalized topics of Christian theology and practice. As with his book Tell Her Story, which focuses on the important role numerous women played in the early development of the church, Gupta again pulls back the curtain on a topic that is often undervalued—the social location of early Christianity. Gupta calls this “weird,” drawing on his own social location of the Pacific Northwest (which I deeply appreciate having attended seminary in Austin, Texas, another self-professed “weird” city). In doing so, he intends to discuss how compelling and dangerous early Christianity really was.

Gupta’s discussion is divided into four major categories. The first unit focuses on conversion, or how one becomes a Christian. Chapter 1 discusses how the practice of religion was understood in the ancient Roman world, something called pax deorum, “peace with the gods” (15). In the ancient world, right relationship with Zeus and his entourage was seen in offering sacrifice in order to appease the gods or, at the very least, hope that the gods would ignore them. Chapter 2 discusses the concept of “belief,” something that was new to the conversation. The ancients believed in their gods, however they did not believe that their gods cared about them. Christianity taught that their God was not only worthy of being believed in but also that this God cared deeply about humanity. Chapter 3 discusses the intersection of these two religious systems and why Christianity was deemed, ironically, a superstition. Greco-Roman religion had its practices, however they were about maintaining this uneasy alliance with the heavens. Christianity, on the other hand, talked about spiritual growth, missionary service and things beyond the immediately temporal—topics that were eventually deemed weird at best and dangerous at worst. 

The second unit focuses on belief—specifically, those emerging doctrines that defined what Christians believed and how they practiced those beliefs. Chapter 4 discusses the most unbelievable aspect of Christian doctrine—believing that a man who was executed like a common criminal was raised from the dead and continues to live alongside God. Chapter 5 discusses the peculiarity of Christian worship, which focused on communal meals and pedagogical dialogue and lacks the blood and ash of every other form of worship. Chapter 6 discusses the belief in the Holy Spirit that dwells in disciples and chapter 7 discusses the developing idea of eschatology. 

The third unit focuses on worship—specifically the social location of early Christianity (chapter 8) and the shared authority of the house-church movement (chapter 9). The final unit focuses on how Christians lived—specifically in relation to discipleship (chapter 10), ethnic and gender equality (chapter 11), and the progressive nature of faith development (chapter 12). The book ends with an epilogue that provides a summation of all that has preceded it.

 

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Overall, this is an excellent book in every way. It stands in the tradition of classic works from scholars of a generation ago, namely The First Urban Christians by Wayne Meeks (1983) and Early Christians Speak (1981), and provides an overarching insight into the cultural context in which Christianity was birthed. The value of Ferguson’s book is that it provides primary source materials from post-apostolic authors about different theological topics such as the divinity of Jesus, the practice of baptism and views on eschatology, and then provides a summation of these positions for contemporary comprehension. Its purpose is to articulate the theological and practical evolution of the Christian faith as it moved through the early centuries and progressed across the globe during its early centuries. It is more historical than sociological, whereas Meeks’s book is more sociological than historical (although it is thoroughly historical). The value of Meeks’s book is that it provides a significant sociological exploration of the cultural milieu of the early centuries of the church’s development, focusing on the urban environment, social location and ritual development of the early church. Its purpose is to demonstrate the environment in which Christianity developed. It should be noted here that neither of these works make any correlation or connection to contemporary Christian faith and practice. They do not offer critique of the contemporary situation, only an analysis of the historical situation and context.

Gupta’s book works along the same lines. The value of this book is that Gupta brings primary Greco-Roman sources into conversation with the Christian witness found in the New Testament. He does this in order to articulate how Christian views of conversion, doctrine, worship and discipleship compared and contrasted with those of their Greco-Roman neighbors. It is sociological; however there is a hint of historical study—if only to avoid the undertones of critiquing the contemporary church (both rightly and wrongly). Yet, in doing so, it is difficult to not “read between the lines” and hear a note of contemporary critique here and there or how to engage these ancient views and practices today—especially in the sections that focus on politics, family life and gender equality. I will admit however, that this could be my own interpretation, as Gupta expressly strives to avoid contemporary critique or to offer a handbook “on how to create a ‘weird’ church” ( xi). My only critique is that, while Gupta deftly demonstrates how the early Christians were weird and dangerous, the compelling aspect of early Christianity is harder to find—save the closing epilogue. That being said, if you are looking for a study of the cultural context in which Christianity emerged, Gupta provides an excellent resource that is absolutely worth the read.

Rob O'Lynn

Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.

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