Monday, July 19, 2010

Book Review: Laura Salah Nasrallah, Christian Response to Roman Art and Architecture. The Second Century Church Amid the Space of Empire

Yes, another book review. Summer is very much my time for reading, even this year where I'm so busy with a temporary job this month. I came upon the book I'm reviewing in this entry, Laura Salah Nasrallah's Christian Response to Roman Art and Architecture. The Second Century Church Amid the Space of Empire, quite by accident. I was doing a search on Greek theatres and found this in my list of hits. Goodness only knows how. Besides the general link to art and architecture, there is really very little about the ancient theatre in this book. So, chalk it up to the vagaries of library database searches or to chance for a lucky find.

Nasrallah's book fascinated me when I found it because of the promise of linking patristics, classics and art/archaeology- my three main intellectual interests. What is more, Nasrallah attempts to use these three unusually distinct disciplines to get a more complete picture of what it meant to be an Christian intellectual in the 2nd century. Central to Nasrallah's project are two major insights: first, that Christian writers of any age should not be removed from their intellectual environments and, second, that they were certainly not removed from their physical environment. These insights may seem obvious to my readers, but, given how classicists tend to deal with Christianity (which can be described as a scarcely veiled contempt, at best), they are potentially revolutionary for our understanding of the Fathers, if enough people bothered to learn enough languages, history, literature and theology to employ this type of analysis. That is becoming less and less common

The second century apologists are Nasrallah's main concern. Her main argument is that we have to understand them, first of all, within the literary-intellectual currents of their time. That means, for apologists like Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, we need to understand the 'Second Sophistic' that (Roman-sponsored?) revival of self-conscious Hellenism in the 2nd century AD. This revival included an increased focus on rhetoric, grammar (especially Atticizing the language) and, ultimately, on philosophy. Nasrallah argues that the Christian apologists participated in the debates about the true paidaia (education, but more than education), philosophy and power, albeit from a critical stance. They, implicitly, questioned the Greek paidaia and, through it,the philosophical status of the Roman emperors because of their inherent injustice and their unwillingness to accept the 'true philosophy' of Christ. She also identifies a crisis of representation which goes along with these criticisms and blurred the boundaries between human and the divine. There is more to this discussion than my rather glib summary, but this is enough to change our view of the apologists to narrow-minded partisans of religion to participants in second-century 'culture wars'. I hesitate on using the term 'culture wars' here because of the risk of anachronism implied with our own rather different ones, but I find the idea of connecting the apologists to the intellectual currents of the time fascinating.

Possibly the most original aspect of this book, however, rests in Nasrallah's attempts to link the debates in which these apologists participated to the physical surroundings they found themselves in. In each chapter, Nasrallah links a given apologist, a non-Christian writer and a building/artifact together in order to explore an aspect of the debates mentioned above. So, for instance, we see Athenagoras' apology, Dio Cassius account of the emperor Commodus, and the statue of Commodus as Heracles (now in the Capitoline Museum) into a discussion of the hazy boundary between human and divine which Athenagoras critisized as a failure of philosophy by even Roman emperors. These comparisons are bold, but they usually work quite well. I admit that my 'inner historian' did grind his teeth at a few of the linkages of clearly anachronistic combinations. For example, the linkage of the Acts of the Apostles with Panhellion of Hadrian really annoyed me. Mind you, Nasrallah's point that Paul in the Acts of the Apostles was creating a kind of league of Christian churches which was similar to Hadrian's much later Hellenic leagues (to organize the imperial cult among other things?) is still well-taken and an interesting insight in the religious-political sphere.

Despite minor quibbles, this book deserves wide reading by those interested in early Christianity and by classicists. It bridges a divide which desperately needs a bridge and provides interesting insights into Christian and non-Christian intellectual world of the 2nd century.


1 comment:

Jim said...

"...scarcely veiled contemt..." So what is it do you think that causes this among classicists? Looking at the inevitable interplay between the Christian evolution and the Roman intellectual environment it is not what an outsider might expect.