Remember back when you had that hip, young college professor who sought to reinvent teaching by questioning the establishment, assigning only "with it" books, and holding classes outside? Well, he would love the new book by Keith Hopkins, "A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity." It is noteworthy that Hopkins, a professor of ancient history at King's College, Cambridge, and a leading scholar of the Greco-Roman world, is so frustrated with how history books are traditionally written.
Hopkins is a post-Christian atheist who thinks we under-appreciatehow strange it was that Christianity became the dominant religion of the RomanEmpire. All his students and most readers are too familiar with the story of thebirth of Christianity--they can't see the real, strange, and unlikely story. SoHopkins takes his audience outside the strictures of academe and tries to open our minds. "A World Full of Gods" is no boring academic monograph; it is a thematic compendium of time-travel stories, first-century TV documentaries, and fictional dialogues between different religious adherents.
Hopkins wants to shake up his readers. He does not want to lay out some grand, new explanatory scheme for the first four centuries of the church. Rather, he wants us to attend to the historical details. And this is what makes himpost-Christian. Most religious writers who want to shake up the establishment doso because they are rebelling against the orthodox faith. Their main concern is whether or not you believe. They seem to relish the idea of church-goers questioning their core beliefs (a great example would be Beliefnet columnist John Shelby Spong). While Hopkins by no means hides his skepticism, he does not seem interested in creating apostates like himself. He is not so obsessed with whether or not people have faith. Instead, he is genuinely interested in howChristianity became our dominant religion, and he wants you to be interested, too.
We begin by digesting the travelogues of James and Martha, Hopkins' fictionalvolunteers who agree to go back in time and report on the religious dynamics of the various cultures they visit. They begin in Pompeii. We read his advertisement for volunteers, his instructions to his time-traveling duo, we learn what Martha thinks of James, which temperature of water she likes to bathe in at the Roman bathhouse, and James' experience in the public restrooms.
But mostly we witness how pervasive religion invaded public life (even in therestroom). From Martha: "There were temples and Gods, and humans praying to them, all over the place; ... [T]here were altars at crossroads, Gods in niches as you went along." And from James: "Religion in the Roman world, as we saw it, was largely a matter of performance. Romans joined in rituals ... as participants or spectators." This was in contrast to Christianity, which is "an insider religion; ceremonies are, or used to be, strictly for believers. "First-century Roman life was a lot like Jane Austen's England, where the gentry participated in endless parties, dinners, dances, and recitals; only in Rome all these were done in a religious context."
The second chapter sends a modern TV crew back to Rome circa A.D. 71 to interview Isaac, a former Essene leader who was kicked out of the order for a minor infraction just before the Qumran community was annihilated and who moves to Rome with his nephew Hillary. During the "60 Minutes" type interview, the producers fix it (with payola) to have Isaac interact with a Christian leader named Justin. Watch out Jerry Springer! Justin gets in some anti-Semitic licks while Isaac keeps preaching the austere words of the Teacher of Righteousness. Then we hear the producers debate what would make for the best TV. In rebuttal to a criticism that Justin Martyr lived several decades after the alleged debate, Ben, the director, responds: "That's half the fun with mixed-time TV-you can mix times." Hopkins's point? "The method is designed to underline the impossibility and undesirability of writing an objective history of a religious movement."
The best chapter is the most straightforward: "The Christian Revolution"--nogimmicks, just provocative scholarship. Hopkins argues that Christianity really was a revolution. "Christianity was a missionary religion aimed at winning new converts. ... The very existence ... of brief statements of Christian beliefs set Christianity apart from Judaism and paganism. Put crudely, the contrast is that Christianity became a religion of belief, whereas Judaism and paganism were religions predominantly of traditional practice, with settled adherents. ... For the first time in Mediterranean history, religion had become a matter of choice, not of birth."