2017-07-12
James and Martha are into extreme travel. With only a few modern necessities stowed away (such as tampons), they immerse themselves in a primitive culture without any electronic appliances, phones, or vendors who take credit cards. They are volunteers on a scientific experiment, investigating the religious customs of an ancient pagan society. We read their travelogues as they encounter temples and weddings and even purchase slaves. Their destination is Italy, Pompeii to be exact, before Mt. Vesuvius blew it off the map.

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-appreciate how strange it was that Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. All his students and most readers are too familiar with the story of the birth of Christianity--they can't see the real, strange, and unlikely story. So Hopkins 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 him post-Christian. Most religious writers who want to shake up the establishment do so 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 how Christianity became our dominant religion, and he wants you to be interested, too.

We begin by digesting the travelogues of James and Martha, Hopkins' fictional volunteers 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 the restroom). 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"--no gimmicks, 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."

Then more time travel, a fictional apocryphal gospel, a made-up lost Christian epistle, and so on. His game is to do whatever it takes to keep it interesting. While we get many fascinating details about Christianity and first-century life, Hopkins never really offers a grand explanation of how Christianity triumphed, only an appreciation for its strangeness.

"A World Full of Gods" is not always successful, but it is certainly more fun to read than most historical surveys. And while Hopkins is a skeptical atheist, his very emphasis on the unlikeliness and strangeness of the rise of Christianity gives a backhanded apologetic for believing God had something to do with it. If you are truly interested in New Testament history, I would stick with the best of the traditional historians--such as N.T. Wright and John Maier. But if you have to take New Testament 101, then thank whoever your God is that your cool-looking prof assigned you "A World Full of Gods."



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