My Favorite Books

The Walking Drum
Ender's Game
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Curse of Chalion
The Name of the Wind
Chronicles of the Black Company
The Faded Sun Trilogy
The Tar-Aiym Krang

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Review: Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling

Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling by Nijay K. Gupta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Today it can be difficult to understand how disruptive and transformative Christianity was when it first made the scene, given ubiquitous it is in western society today. To truly get of good feel for this, you need to know the context from which Christianity emerged. Dr Gupta helps to provide a general treatment of that context in Strange Religion, highlighting both the common perception of how religion was supposed to work then as well as providing the striking contrasts of christian worship that made adherents to that way “weird.” The book is divided into four (4) parts that logically progress from what the ancients expected from their religion and how they practiced it, to what they believed and how they behaved and lived … and where each of these were different for Christians AND why that difference might be considered dangerous. There are a few quotes from scripture to help illustrate a particular point, but IMHO it stops short of actually using prooftexting (the quotes are part of the support and not the foundation). If anything, I thought in many cases the author didn’t delve deeply enough to provide any surprising incites, but provides an excellent introduction that should prove helpful to anyone interesting in interpreting christian scripture … especially the epistles of St Paul.

The chapters and sections in this work are:


Part 1 Becoming Christian
1. Roman Religion and the Pax Deorum: Keeping Peace with the Gods
2. “Believers”: The First Christians and the Transformation of Religion
3. A Dangerous and Strange Religion: Christianity as a Superstition

Part 2 What the First Christian Believed
4. Believing the Unbelievable
5. Cult without Smoke and Blood: Strange Worship
6. Possessed by the Spirit of God
7. Beginning at the End of All Things: A Strange Reckoning of Time

Part 3 How the First Christians Worshiped
8. A House of Faith: The Family Practices of the Early Christians
9. A Priest-God and a Priestly People: Church as a Liturgical Community

Part 4 How the First Christians Lived
10. Dangerous Contact: Becoming Godlike
11. To Treat Allas Equal
12. The Christians Were Not Perfect

Strange Religion: Putting It All Together

Some of the other points that really got my attention are:
Ancient worshipers were generally not looking for nirvana or inner peace. They weren’t obsessed with heaven or the afterlife. They believed that the welfare of persons, families, and civilizations depended on the goodwill and favor of Mount Olympus. Humans offered the gods their sacrifices, prayers, respect, and devotion, and the gods graced them with health, safety, and sometimes wealth. This became a circle of benefaction.
In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, he comments that four specialists were assigned to provide triple-check accuracy when it came to religious rituals. One person would read the ritual formula out loud, another would perform the ritual, a third would be an observer to ensure perfect execution, and a fourth would be present to enforce silence.
About four hundred years earlier, Socrates was put on trial in the very same city, Athens, under the accusation that he corrupted the city’s youth with his teaching, was impious toward the protective deities of the city, and taught about new and strange gods.
A foreign cult coming into Roman territory could help prove itself as beneficial to the pax deorum if it was ancient and storied, supported by a long history of divine-human cooperation.
In 81 BCE, the Romans sought to punish purveyors of magical rites with the most severe repercussions. The Cornelian Law of Assassins (and Poisoners) explicitly condemned sorcerers and magicians to death by crucifixion or by being thrown to wild beasts. Any spell books had to be burned and the owners either exiled (if they were noblemen) or executed (if they were commoners).
Now, Christians were like Jews in the sense that they emerged out of Jewish religious concepts and practices. But one of the unique dynamics of early Christianity was that this group of people was not an identifiable ethnic group. Jews had a common heritage, land, and national history.
When the Romans were about to besiege a foreign city, they would perform a ritual known as evocatio (“calling forth”). Here, the Roman leader would stand at a distance from the city and invite the local patron deity to transfer their allegiance from the city to Rome. 
Worship (homage, prostration) is about power. It is about recognizing and reinforcing a hierarchy in the world. Let’s briefly look at the key Greek words that we can translate as “worship.” Proskuneō: to revere (most common) Latreuō: to worship (assuming a cultic context, service toward a god) Sebomai: to revere (popular in pagan literature) Douleuō: to submit to, serve a master. 
Roman religion was not about being “formed,” molded in the moral likeness of the gods. Roman religion was primarily about benefiting from what the gods could offer while at the same time avoiding any offense against them. 
But one scholar, Greg Beale, argues that this might be a kind of both/and wordplay. While the Israelites were at the bottom of the mountain worshiping a golden calf, with horns, Moses was in the presence of God, absorbing his divine radiance. Moses was becoming like God, shining with divine glory, while the people were becoming primitive like their idol. 
For example, Greek travel writer Pausanias recounts the story of a famous Greek athlete named Theagenes. After this hero died, his family had a bronze statue made to honor his life. Theagenes had a particular enemy who wanted to get back at him and did so by beating the statue. According to Pausanias, the statue fought back and killed the man. (Wait, it gets weirder.) The children of the murdered man took the statue to court. The court found it guilty and mandated a punishment of exile. 
The Holy Spirit gives for the good. Another clear distinctive of the Holy Spirit’s work is that it is all for the good. While most people at the time believed that the cosmos was populated by all manner of spirits, powers, ghosts, and phantasms, good and evil, vying for power, Christians believed that this one great Spirit of spirits is gracious and gives only to bless and build up. The Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated or channeled to harm. 
On average, Romans observed about four festivals a month. This is ironic because they often accused Jews of being lazy for taking a day off per week for their Sabbath observance while they themselves took off almost the same number of days per year. 
If religion was everything, then everything would be shaped by the will and the ways of the gods. If the gods didn’t care about mortals, then that would reflect on the value of humanity. And we have also seen that worshipers naturally emulate their gods (and, ironically, they end up creating gods in their own image). The bottom line is this: the behavior of the gods becomes the behavior of the humans; they are teachers and “lifestyle influencers,” whether they want to be or not.
I was given this free advance reader copy (ARC) ebook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

#StrangeReligion #NetGalley

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My Ratings Explained ...

  • [ ***** ] Amazing Read - Perfect story, exciting, engrossing, well developed complex characters, solid plot with few to no holes, descriptive environments and place settings, great mystery elements, realistic dialogue, believable reactions and behaviors; a favorite that I can re-read many times.
  • [ **** ] Great Read - Highly entertaining and enjoyable, exciting storyline, well developed characters and settings, a few discrepancies but nothing that can’t be overlooked. Some aspect of the story was new/refreshing to me and/or intriguing. Recommended for everyone.
  • [ *** ] Good Read - Solid story with a 'good' ending, or has some other redeeming feature. Limited character development and/or over reliance on tropes. Noticeable discrepancies in world building and/or dialog/behavior that were distracting. I connected enough with the characters/world to read the entire series. Most of the books I read for fun are here. Recommended for fans of the genre.
  • [ ** ] Okay Read - Suitable for a brief, afternoon escape … flat or shallow characters with little to no development. Over the top character dialog and/or behavior. Poor world building with significant issues and/or mistakes indicating poor research. Excessive use of trivial detail, info dumps and/or pontification. Any issues with the story/characters are offset by some other aspect that I enjoyed. Not very memorable. May only appeal to a niche group of readers. Recommended for some (YMMV).
  • [ * ] Bad Read - Awkward and/or confusing writing style. Poor world building and/or unbelievable (or unlikeable) characters. Victimization, gaslighting, blatant abuse, unnecessary violence, child endangerment, or any other highly objectionable behaviors by Main characters. I didn't connect with the story at all; significant aspects of this story irritated me enough that I struggled to finished it. Series was abandoned. Not recommended.