Saturday, August 2, 2014

A Paranoid Delight in Persecution

(Another post from the Drafts folder.)

It just occurred to me that, thanks to xkcd, I've used more expletives than usual in the past two posts, possibly more than I've used in the past run of this blog put together.  That trend will continue in this one.  Onward!

I learned here about Candida Moss's 2013 book The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom, so I went to the library, found a copy on the shelf, and read it within a day.  It's fascinating, and persuasive on the whole.  Moss is a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame University, and she isn't arguing that early Christians were never persecuted: she's arguing that when it did happen, persecution was sporadic and usually local, and that most of the time Christians flourished in the Roman Empire in the days before Christianity became the official Imperial brand.  The "myth" she's talking about is that of ongoing, universal official persecution of Christians throughout the first four Christian centuries.  (Compare Robert Wilken's The Myth of Christian Beginnings, which acknowledges that Christianity had a beginning but criticizes the official story about that beginning.)  She supports her claims by analysis of early stories of Christian martyrdom, which she shows to be flawed as historical accounts.

One of the most interesting points she makes, to my mind, is that the archetypal stories of martyrdom, laden with gory details and sexual overtones, were mostly written (and especially popular) after Constantine established official toleration of Christianity and what persecution there was, had ended.  Moss compares the popularity of these stories to that of modern slasher films.  They were often completely invented, and some were borrowed from other religious or cultural traditions.  This was established not by Moss but by a centuries-long research project on the lives of the saints initiated in the 1600s by a Dutch Jesuit named Heribert Rosweyde, and taken up after his death by Father Jean Bolland, under whose name the work continued into the 1800s.  It was the Bollandists who found how inaccurate the martyrologies often were, and how many of the saints had never existed.  This wasn't, apparently, their original intention but a conclusion that emerged as their study proceeded.

A better analogy than slasher films might be certain contemporary urban legends.  A good many people clearly want to believe that thousands of children are abducted in shopping malls to be sold into sexual slavery; that thousands of women are killed in front of cameras to make snuff films, which are available under-the-counter at your family video store; and so on.   In the same way, many Christians like to believe that -- in a country which not only has Constitutionally-mandated freedom of religion, but in which they are the overwhelming majority of citizens -- they are persecuted, fearful of confessing their faith in public, hiding in the catacombs from gay secularists who hate God.  Being called a bigot, or even a Bible-thumper, is exactly like being thrown to the lions.  There are other parallels, such as the many people who believe (without very good evidence) that America's schools in general are failing, though they think their local public schools are doing a fine job.  Or the way that even right-wing jingoist Americans romanticize the American Indian and like memes that depict Columbus, the Pilgrims, George Armstrong Custer, or other European invaders as illegal immigrants: it's safe to do that now that the Indians are no longer raiding our settlements.  In a familiar pattern, the great Christian mystic St. Teresa de Ávila wrote in her autobiography that as a child, she and her brother were "seized by a passionate desire for martyrdom, and they planned to run away to North Africa, preach the Gospel, and be beheaded by the Muslims – but their parents would not allow it."   Held back from their holy vocation by these enemies of Christ, "we decided to become hermits; and we used to try very hard to build hermits' cells in an orchard belonging to the house".  Centuries later, after the danger is past, children play Cowboys and Indians.

Huh.  How about that?  I didn't use any expletives in this post after all.  The Xkcd Effect must have worn off.