Letting History Speak

A World Full of Godsby By Keith HopkinsPlume Books. 402p $14.00 (paper).

Early Christian history takes on a decidedly postmodern turn in this new-in-paperback work by the Cambridge classicist Keith Hopkins. In style reminiscent in parts of Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean (Christology in the form of a novel) and Dutch, Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan (where the author becomes a character in the story), Hopkins admits that he is preaching an experimental approach to religious history. It started as an attempt at collaborative history involving himself and four others, who collectively represented three countries, five systems of belief or unbelief and seven specialized academic disciplines ranging from Jewish history to patristics.

These different voices, he concluded, directly affect the way one looks at early Christian history. It is difficult to unlearn one’s religious background in particular, however much you try to gain a certain “objectivity.” So, starting from his own position of “indelibly Protestant” atheism, the author has tried to let his history speak with a variety of voices, often using a number of literary devices that orthodox scholarship might find disconcerting.

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We read, for example, the transcript of a British television documentary featuring Qumran Essenes and Jewish Christian preachers interviewed by the skeptical Jeffrey Axeman (a cross between David Frost and Jeremy Paxman), with commentary and interventions by, among others, a distinguished historian of religions (called, appropriately, Professor Pelikan) and the television crew. For those who think the harsh outbursts between Isaac the Essene and Justin the Preacher seem a bit much—a position mirrored by the character Meg, the coordinator of religious programming—there are detailed references to their positions in the respective Dead Sea Scrolls and the writings of Christian polemicists.

Dialogue and debate is central to much of the book. By using dramatic narrative as his literary technique, Hopkins not only presents a vivid view of the first Christian centuries, but also cuts through the sometimes daunting task of trying to represent the debates to modern readers in a manner not likely to induce sleep for all but the most dedicated or scholarly. After one such debate—between St. Augustine and Faust (a Manichaean bishop)—Hopkins excels by inventing a final “confession” of Augustine. Writing near the end of his life, Augustine asks God: Was I wrong? Was I wrong not to marry my mistress? Was I wrong to insist that there was only one way to you? Was I wrong in my harshness toward Pelagius? Hopkins writes an excellent pastiche of the Confessions that is both thought-provoking and quite moving.

Hopkins even introduces an element of science fiction into the book, involving two intrepid time travelers sent back to Pompeii, Egypt and Ephesus. James and Martha, aided by the latest technology in language translation, are expected to present a sense of the lived experience of the Roman Empire in early Christian times, noting in particular the religious and cultural pluralism in which the church emerged. On the way, they—and we—get a sense of a Roman society that was, to put it delicately, at times libidinally overzealous, a zeal that contributed in part to its Christian successors’ shift in the opposite direction.

These chapters of fictional history (not to be confused with historical fiction) are woven into Hopkins’s more conventional narrative and analysis of Christianity’s emergence out of Judaism into the Roman world amid a plurality of religions. He tries to approach all his subjects with an empathy that mixes with his own skepticism. But, remaining true to his insistence that religious history needs to be done in dialogue with many perspectives, he sets up (using the form of letters) a series of dialogues with others, including his time travelers, a German theologian in Heidelberg, a rabbi at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and an Anglican priest who writes from her rural parish outside Cambridge. These authors—real and imaginary—serve to challenge his perspective and invite the reader to take a more critical stance vis-à-vis the material Hopkins presents.

This is, in short, a new approach to doing history. While undoubtedly scholarly and thorough (with 47 pages of careful endnotes), the book’s narrative technique eschews scholarly rigidity. To do this is daring, because so often it can be done very badly. In the case of A World Full of Gods, for the most part it works.

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