Of Lennon, religion, and (re)viewing with less obstruction

I recently subscribed to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.  This is not a “classical music” enterprise but is rather a sort of clearinghouse for academic research and reviews of recent works about aspects of the first Classical Period (i.e., the one associated with Ancient Greece).  Big mistake, though, to sign up for this thing.  I am feeling really stupid now, plus, I feel the need to buy another book or seven.  Below are a couple titles that caught my eye.  These are available for review, but I am NOT applying for that job (!) as I am completely unqualified.

Bakker, Egbert (ed.). Authorship and Greek Song:  Authority, Authenticity, and Performance.  Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, 3.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2017. x, 295 p. $132.00. ISBN 9789004339699.

Baron, Carlin A. and Daniel Boyarin.  Imagine No Religion:  How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities.  New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. 325 p. $35.00. ISBN 9780823271207.

The first title interests me on the Greek language, general literary, and music fronts, but I’m not about to pay $132 for it.  Apparently there are two earlier volumes in this series, but the audience for this kind of thing is surely relatively small.

The second title, referring as it does to the now-famous John Lennon song, says a lot in and of itself.  I immediately resort to my melancholy inner world, thinking if only people could differentiate between realities of the biblical cultures and times on the one hand and modern constructs and human superimpositions on the other!  I’m no disciple of Lennon, but “religion” chafes me, too, and I so wish that it hadn’t gotten in the way.  People might otherwise be able to see Jesus and His way, unobstructed; and not as many people would have drifted from some essential truths they learned early in life.

Echoing the Lennon lyric, I too imagine no religion, and it’s not so easy, no matter how hard I try.  Often I think thoughts like if only. . . .  Moving toward deeper, more visible substance, I appeal to a subsequent entry from the same journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.05.02, which reviews Larry Hurtado’s Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.  Since one of Hurtado’s chief areas for exploration is Roman-era adherence to cults, his take on the existence and nature of “religion” in the ancient world is of great interest.

Hurtado stresses that Christianity did not fit “what ‘religion’ was for people then,” and was accordingly dismissed as a superstitio (p. 2).  It was the distinctive features of Christianity that account for its successes and not Constantine’s embrace.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

The technical Latin “superstitio” does not hide the essence above.  (It’s usually all about context.)  The terms “religion” and “religious” can be used with various shades of meaning, for different purposes.  Personally, I rarely use either term positively, but I recognize that “religious” can be somewhat positive or neutral in the hands of others.  Above, in a scholarly context, the inquiry is valid, regardless of the terminology.  We basically know what is being discussed when “religion” is the topic, whether the period in question is antiquity or the present.

Based on the reviewer’s assessment, it appears that Hurtado, when speaking of the early centuries after Jesus Christ, differentiates between “religion” on the one hand and superstitions that did not have the hallmarks of established religion on the other.  It further appears the author’s use of “religion” in this context is neutral or negative, that is, that he is asserting a distinctive place for Christianity precisely because it did not look like “religion”—and because it had uniquely compelling aspects that drew new adherents.  Hurtado himself, I might add, has taken some exception (here) to the reviewer’s characterization of his major thrusts.  I found the objection a bit overwrought, perhaps owing to how each scholar sees the single word “burden.”  Kloppenborg had commented, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” and Hurtado demurred, “I state no such intention in the book.”  For my part, I suspect Kloppenborg wasn’t speaking of intent at all; a “burden” would be a theme that a book “carries,” regardless of any explicit purpose or stated intention, wouldn’t it?  At any rate, Hurtado clearly bristled a bit, but he did appreciate the tone of the review.

One of Hurtado’s motifs (note that I call these neither “burdens” nor “intents,” and I’m not even specifically referring to the one book here!) is the “bookishness” of early Christianity:  there is more evidence of writing and documentation than with other groups of the same era.  (I assume this is the case regardless of whether a group was more a “religion” or a “superstitio.”)  Kloppenborg finds that Hurtado  describes “Christ groups” as “adopting reading practices and embedding quotations of other literature in their works, making appeals to literate media recursively present.”  This is truly an important feature of Christianity . . . and, I might add, it goes to my aversion to the “Christian” (please read the adjective advisedly there) religion of Medieval times.  When believers are, by and large, neither readers nor writers, they are sorely limited in their “religion.”  It is with good reason that Medieval times were known for a long while as the Dark Ages.  Sight was limited by lack of literature and literacy.

So what is “religion,” really, and isn’t it a good thing in the Bible?  There is that verse in James that says “pure and undefiled religion is to to take care of widows and orphans,” right?  Well, yes and no.  Certainly it is true that taking care of widows and orphans is a good thing and is presented positively by James, echoing a Hebrew prophecy or two . . . but the use of the English word “religion” is a now mixed bag with a whole lot of rot in it.  Without further comment, I will close with a meaty paragraph that gets into this area.

A second methodological issue lurking in the book concerns the tendency to treat emergent Christianity as distinctive in contrast to polis religion. On this showing, Christianity was distinctive and indeed unique in its creation of a transethnic, translocal, elective “religion,” not controlled by or aligned with the interests of the propertied class. This binary, however, neglects the many instances of what might be termed elective cults that were variously related to the civic center and which in varying degrees were curious (but harmless), exotic, transgressive, or horrific. Some reverenced deities not part of the civic pantheon but, like the cult of Silvanus or Mithras, were scarcely treated as deviant.7  Others—Isis at certain periods, for example—were treated as deviant and suppressed. Participation in many such cults crossed ethnic, gender, and social class boundaries and some, Mithraism for example, imposed strict ethical requirements and produced a transformation in one’s lifestyle that was, in Roger Beck’s estimation, a “conversion.” 8  To acknowledge such a shift from cults predominantly of the polis-type to the development of elective cults in the late Hellenistic and early Imperial periods complicates Hurtado’s narrative of Christianity as the major innovation in the “religious” landscape of antiquity.

– Reviewer John S. Kloppenborg

7.   John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, ed. Judith M Lieu, et al. (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; Greg Woolf, “Isis and the Evolution of Religions,” in Power, Politics, and the Cults of Isis, ed. Laurent Bricault and Miguel J. Versluys (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014), 62–92.
8.   Roger Beck, “On Becoming a Mithraist: New Evidence for the Propagation of the Mysteries,” in Religious Rivalries in the Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, ed. Leif E. Vaage, Studies in Christianity and Judaism 18 (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfird Laurier University Press, 2006), 175–94.