Book Review: Violence in Ancient Christianity

violenceinancientchristianityTitle: Violence in Ancient Christianity: Victims and Perpetrators

Series: Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae

Editors: Albert C. Geljon and Riemer Roukema

Bibliographic info: 214 pp. + 37 pp. of indices

Publisher: Brill, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy.

While Jesus may have been a guy who taught such things as loving one’s enemies and to not resist an evil person, his followers over the centuries have had variegated ways of interpreting such ideas. This volume consists of ten studies that explore how violence played a role in early Christianity, both in how early Christians were its victims and its perpetrators.

The first chapter in this volume looks at religious violence amongst Greeks, Romans, Christians, and Jews. The author, Jan Bremmer, contends  that “religious violence” is not an accurate phrase to describe the relationship between religion and violence in Late Antiquity. A particularly interesting facet of this study is how Bremmer scrutinizes the oft-repeated claim that polytheistic religions are less nonviolent than monotheistic religions. In this regard, Bremmer interacts with the work of Jan Assmann who has connected violence and monotheistic religions. Bremmer argues that not only is this theory not supported by the data, but that it was actually Roman polytheistic religion that was the “inventor of the phenomenon of systematic religious persecution.” An example of pagan persecution against Christians that is discussed is Emperor Decius’ edict in 249 for all the inhabitants of the Empire to offer to the gods. The prosecution practices of the first Christian emperors are also discussed, which Bremmer says was “directed at practices like magic and divination rather than against pagan of Jewish beliefs” (29). Bremmer concludes that “the pagans certainly were less bloodthirsty than our modern movies and novels suggest.”

Next up is the study from Danny Praet. Here he employs the definition of direct and cultural violence developed by Johan Galtung to discuss the extent to which violence was perpetrated by Christians and against Christians in the first three centuries. This is followed by Fred Ledegang’s study on Eusebius and his view on Constantine’s religious policies. For anyone familiar with early church history, you will probably know that Eusebius has a favorable view of Constantine and his attempts to unify the church throughout the empire. However, Ledegang rightly argues (in my opinion) that Eusebius’ attitude towards Constantine and his Christian conversion is a bit too naive for various reasons, amongst which is the religious violence that was carried out under Constantine. One thing that struck me in this study was how enamored Eusebius was with Constantine, which Ledegang says goes so far that one can say that Eusebius sees Constantine as a “new Augustus” and a “second Moses, who even surpassed the first one.”

Hans Teitler then provides a study on violence against Christians during the reign of Emperor Julian (the Apostate) in 361-363. Teitler argues that while the pagans of the Empire may have dished out violence towards Christians during Julian’s reign, the Emperor himself did not actually condone such actions. Teitler then goes on to examine two specific instances where it is usually said that Julian ordered violence against Christians in Ancyra and Caesarea. By examining the sources for these persecutions in light of contemperaneous authors who detested the Emperor’s policies, Teitler concludes that Julian did in fact not lapse into violence against Christians in these cases.

Next up is F.J. Elizabeth Boddens Hosang’s contribution which examines the relations between Jews and Christians in the early church, specifically by looking at church council texts and pieces of Roman legislation from the fourth to sixth centuries. One of the conclusions reached is that, “The negative view of Jews and Judaism in church father writings resulted in a rise in hostilities and attacks: not on fictive, but on genuine Jews. Jews suffered as a result of the theology developed in this formative period and increasing violence and distance between the religious groups was the result” (106).

Hans van Loon then looks at Cyril of Alexandria’ episcopate in the period of 412-444. He investigates Cyril’s role in the violence that occurred towards Jews during this period, specifically taking a look at the murder of Hypatia (a philosopher), concluding that Cyril was not responsible for this murder except insofar as he cultivated an atmosphere of hostility. Then Joop van Waarden investigates the torture and decapitation of Bishop Priscillian of Avila in the fourth century. This is followed by Paul van Geest’s study on Augustine’s views on the relationship between church and state, specifically on the role he played in the approval of violence towards groups such as the Donatists. The penultimate study in this volume is from Gerard Bartelink and is on the language of rejection and suppression that rivals used to designate deviant religious groups in Late Antiquity. The final study is Riemer Roukema’s examination of how the early church (in the first five centuries) received and interpreted Jesus’ teaching of loving one’s enemies.

I find the topic of religion and violence to be a fascinating one. After all, most religions seem to have a core that somehow revolves around love and peace toward people, yet adherents to religions have managed to craftily manoeuvre and corrupt such teachings so as to justify violence. The fact that this happens should not be hidden nor minimized. This volume contributes to bringing to light the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of the one who was crucified by the political, religious, and moral authorities of the world. Judging from what I have read in this volume, my overall impression of early Christians relationship with violence can best be summed up in the word ambivalence.

Quick Book Review: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker

bonhoefferyouthworkerTitle: Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together

Author: Andrew Root

Bibliographic info: 222 pp.

Publisher: Baker Academic, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

The author of this short volume, Andrew Root, is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary.

The topic being explored in this short volume is Bonhoeffer’s ministry with children and young adults, with a focus on what Bonhoeffer’s theological vision can offer for contemporary youth ministry. The book is divided into two main sections. The first section is a theological biography in which the author discusses Bonhoeffer’s life and times, acknowledging figures and ideas that influenced him, as well as his early experiences in youth ministry. Then in the second section the author unpacks the implications of Bonhoeffer’s thought in regards to contemporary youth workers. The overall thrust of this book is that for those involved in youth ministry, Bonhoeffer is “the first theological youth worker”, and is the “forefather” of the “theological turn in youth ministry.”

The final two chapters is where the author discusses the thought in Bonhoeffer’s two most popular works: Life Together and Discipleship. This is a practical commentary on these works, discussing the realist understanding of community in Life Together and the difference between cheap and costly grace in Discipleship. Root reads Bonhoeffer as showing that youth ministry isn’t about cramming kids full of theological trivia and Bible verses, or even about making them good young Christian boys and girls, but is about ministry that “seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God.”

Bonhoeffer is one of the most hijacked theologians I have come across. By this I mean that everybody tries to claim him as their own, for whatever theological or ideological purpose they desire. I think the author is cognizant of this phenomenon and is only trying to honor the legacy of Bonhoeffer by highlighting the impact that his ministry has for youth. In fact, in reading this book I was surprised at how little I really knew about his involvement with youth. I would recommend this (inexpensive) book for anyone interested in Bonhoeffer studies or in youth ministry.

Left Behind

leftbehindI watched the latest version of Left Behind yesterday. You remember the original one starring Kirk Cameron? Well this one is a step up, for it has…. Nicolas Cage! But, of course, even the crazy antics of Cage wasn’t able to save this movie from sucking big time. At least the investigative journalist Buck Williams isn’t being played by Kirk Cameron in this iteration. So that’s a step up as well (I guess).

The movie is based on the idea of the pre-tribulational rapture. This is the notion that at any second Jesus is going to take all the true Christians (and infants and children of course!) up to heaven, while the rest of the world is left behind to suffer through a seven-year period of hell which would commence soon thereafter. This “theology” is rubbish and doesn’t have a biblical backbone or historical pedigree in Christian theology  (which I’ve briefly written about here). This pre-trib rapture idea was the premise for the best-selling Left Behind series of novels, a few of which were turned into movies during 2000-2005.

In this remake of Left Behind, the dialogue, characters, acting, and special effects were not good, but I wasn’t expecting otherwise (well, I was expecting good special effects, but there were very few of them and they were quite pitiful). An upside was that the script was better than that of the original movie (but that isn’t saying much). It was wisely decided to make the journalist a minor character and instead focus on the relationship between the pilot and his family.

The oddest thing I found about this movie is that neither “Jesus” nor “Christ” was uttered once in this movie (and I’m pretty certain about that). In a way I am thankful for this because it is embarrassing to associate the name of Christ with this trash, but there were plenty of references to the nebulous concepts of “God”, “belief”, and how the Bible predicted that millions of people would just suddenly vanish, so that association is still there unfortunately.

One last thought: what movie would be complete without the humor aspect coming from midget jokes and a confused old lady with Alzheimer’s. At least the sole Muslim character wasn’t portrayed in such a bad fashion as the one in the God’s Not Dead movie: at one point he was shown comforting the lady with Alzheimer’s (but then at the end of the movie he was shown kicking the little person off the plane). The thing that I thought was the funniest aspect was that the co-pilot being raptured up out of the plane. Why? Because now Nicolas Cage really can say that God is his co-pilot.

Quick Book Review: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 (DBW 14)

bonhoefferTitle: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937

Series: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14

Author: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Editors: H. Gaylon Barker and Mark Brocker

Bibliographic info: 1258 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy.

This volume is part of the wonderful English translation of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works collection (originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke). This collection is the definitive point of reference for all things Bonhoeffer.

This volume is number 14 in the DBW set (out of 17 volumes total) and it covers the time Bonhoeffer spent teaching and training others at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde for the Confessing Church during the years 1935-37 (it was closed by the Gestapo after two years due to it being an illegal one). These two years at Finkenwalde was also the same period during which Bonhoeffer produced Discipleship and Life Together (both also available in the DBW series).

Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937 is divided into three sections containing correspondence, lectures, essays, sermons, and meditations from Bonhoeffer. Part 1 contains 154 letters and documents containing letters to and from Bonhoeffer, Part 2 contains Bonhoeffer’s lectures and essays, and Part 3 contains his sermons and meditations written during the 1935-37 time period. There is also a useful introduction to this volume which situates Bonhoeffer and Finkenwalde in the appropriate context, cutting through some of the chaff one finds in the hagiography that has built up around him.

From what I have read of this volume so far, there is a lot of insight to be found here into how Bonhoeffer thought theology can be applied in the church under difficult political and social situations. Bonhoeffer’s pastoral-theological emphasis in Finkenwalde is interesting, particularly his understanding of sermons and their purpose. Other issues that Bonhoeffer discusses are church discipline, confirmation, theological education, and pastoral care.

At one point Bonhoeffer says that “the best sign of a good pastor is that the congregation reads the Bible.” And from the letters and sermons I’ve read in this volume, I’m sure he had no problem in getting people interested in reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament. In fact, something quite characteristic to Bonhoeffer’s teaching at Finkenwalde is his constant exegesis of the New Testament.

Some of the lectures are accompanied (in the footnotes) with the notes of some students who heard the lectures, with student Eberhard Bethge (unsurprisingly) contributing the majority of them. And as with every other volume I have read in the DBW series (so far I have 8 of the 17 volumes on my Kindle), there are a ton of footnotes that cross-reference the text with other writings by Bonhoeffer, thus providing some excellent insights into Bonhoeffer’s thoughts.

A Christmas-esque Meditation

The kingdom of peace comes through a child, and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless

More Thoughts on Reviewing Books

Since I began blogging in late 2009 I have reviewed at least 150 books (probably over 200) that I have received gratis from over 30 publishers (though I have unfortunately lost my blog archives from 2009-2010, so the reviews I wrote during that period are gone).

Most book publishers I’ve contacted have been happy to provide free copies of books to review. It’s actually pretty easy. Simply contact the publisher by shooting an email to the publicity department, let them know some stuff about yourself (e.g. you are a student at the University of Awesome studying theology), your website, your audience, and your postal address. You’ll be surprised at how willingly publishers will send out free books. If you don’t get a response to your inquiry, don’t fret! The majority of publishers who do send me books don’t ever bother replying to my emails. The way I usually find out that I’m getting the book is when it shows up at the door.

Some publishers may not send you books at first, but if they see that you have reviewed books for other publishers, and that you have done so in a timely manner, they may eventually come around. For instance, Brill wouldn’t send me any books to review for a year after I had started this website, but now they fulfill almost all of my review requests.

From my experience, there is only really one consistent desire that publishers have when sending you a book, namely, to review the book and to do so in a timely manner. I think a few months is probably the most appropriate time frame to review a book. I think I usually review the books I receive within six months, but a few of the larger tomes I’ve received have taken longer. I think that if it has been longer than a year after receiving a book and you haven’t reviewed it yet, isn’t that being quite discourteous to the publisher? And if you have no real intention of ever reviewing the book, then isn’t that effectively the same as stealing (or at least reneging on a deal)? I know of a blog that has a multitude of books to review (from months if not years back), yet still requests a never-ending stream of books.

When it comes to the actual reviews, I’ve found that some publishers seemingly don’t care what you write, even if it is a glorified blurb. This kind of review is basically the same thing as the blurbs you read on the back of the book, e.g., “With this book John Doe has decisively dismantled 2,000 years of X and clearly demonstrated that Y is the biblical perspective on the issue of Z. It is a well-crafted book… devastating… witty… breathtaking!” If that is what they’re after, then that is their prerogative. And let’s face it, publishers are in the business to make money and positive short reviews are no doubt an effective marketing strategy. If their book is getting online exposure with glorified blurbs, then I’m sure they’re happy. But what can you really say about a book in one short paragraph? Not much more useful than a blurb (and I find blurbs to be utterly useless and don’t give them any credence when deciding upon whether to purchase a book).

One last thought: I originally started this website so I could receive free books to review, but I have found that just being a part of the biblioblogging and theoblogging communities has been a great end to itself. I’ve learned a lot about theology and biblical studies from reading other blogs and participating in the discussions.



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