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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gary Wills on Myths About Christendom

One of the most unsettling things to me about much of the writing coming from Alan Hirsch and a number of progressive Christian writers is their simplistic, cartoonish reading of Church history. You might recall that Hirsch and his coauthor Tim Catchim chose to respond to my criticisms of their book The Permanent Revolution by declaring my concerns reflective of "reactionary" thinking. I thought of this laughable charge while reading Gary Wills' important and substantive review of Peter Brown's new book Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and  the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Wills, one of America's leading historians, is hardly a "reactionary" Christian, but he is a deep student of history and he knows that what so many Christians accept as vital fact--namely, the notion that Christian history can simplistically be divided into pre- and post-Constantine--is rubbish in light of the actual historical record. While Wills' review is behind a subscriber wall at The New York Review of Books, the paragraph that I found most interesting is not. Wills is here describing three myths that he assumes most educated people have long since been "dislodged" of.

One myth was that the Roman Empire (but only in the West) “fell” overnight when barbarians invaded and brought it down. The light of classical times blinked out and we stumbled straightway into the Dark Ages. Myth two (without a neat chronological fit) was that Constantine in the fourth century took Christianity out of the martyrs’ arena into the seats of power, making the persecuted become persecutors. Myth three (again only approximately synchronous with the others) was that a primitive Christianity lost its purity and became rich in its own right. Thin apostles could get through a needle’s eye, but fat bishops (like camels) could not. Those beliefs, previously dislodged, have by now evaporated.

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