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Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of "Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd - 5th Centuries"

Before you pick up Empire Baptized it is important to know that it is really a sequel to Wes Howard-Brook's Come out My People!: God's Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. This does not mean that you will have to read Come out My People in order to understand or appreciate Empire Baptized—Howard-Brook provides a helpful summary of his necessary arguments in the introduction—but it does mean that you will most likely want to read Come out My People! by the time you finish Empire Baptized.

Most important for the purpose of reviewing the book, however, is Howard-Brook's big thesis: that the history of Jesus, Jesus' precursors, and Jesus' followers up through the present day can be modeled as a tension between what the author calls religion of empire and the religion of creation. This book is, effectively, a strong attempt to trace the development of that tension out of the first century and the writing of the Bible, up through the "Constantinian moment" wherein the Church largely found a way to make peace with the religion of empire and learned to serve more often than call out the Empires of the day. And taking that as the core project of the book, I want to say that Howard-Brook succeeds powerfully.

In the text, after meticulously setting up the theological, cultural, and political landscape of the church in the 2nd century the author (his analysis of Philo of Alexandria is particularly good) works though the "whose who" of the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Eusebius, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and finally Augustine)   centering on North Africa and Alexandria, situates them effectively within their own differing historical, cultural, and geographical contexts, and then applies his model to much of their work, identifying the ways in which they (most often) capitulate to the religion of empire or insist on the religion of creation. He does not go at all easily on his subjects so the book rigorously roots out evidences of capitulation to convenience, security, and apparent desire for acclaim in the authors. This is not a book to strengthen your love of the patristics.

If I have a critique of the book it has to do with structure and language. Howard-Brook takes a solidly scholarly approach to his language and argument and does so effectively. At the same time, there are ways in which his treatment of the subject is a little more on the popular than the scholarly level. He has clearly done the relevant research and acknowledges contemporary debates and contentious issues, however he does not usually explain why he finds a particular position compelling which leaves the book open to the charge (I think it would be a false charge) that he has chosen those conclusions which are most conducive to his thesis rather than those which recommend themselves on their merits. Of course the only alternative would have been to produce a scholarly tome which would have had trouble getting any popular readership. I find his project compelling enough that I would very much like to see him follow the model of Greg Boyd or NT Wright, or James K.A. Smith on this, producing a large, scholarly work and a companion popular work.

The book is at its strongest when the author is providing overview (Howard-Brook provides a number of synthetic insights which emerge naturally enough from his religions dialectic but which are far to easily missed without it) and in his analyses of Origen and Augustine. Possibly because those two theologians have been enjoying something of a renaissance in and reexamination respectively in Evangelical and Progressive Christians circles recently, Howard-Brook is able to bring significant nuance to nearly any readers reflex opinion of those writers. Here is a representative sample from his analysis of Augustine:
The consequences of Augustine's erudite eloquence in expressing what was already a widely held view cemented this perspective into longstanding Christian orthodoxy. To this day, even undergraduate students who identify as "atheist" or "agnostic" still largely respond to the question "what is the Christian purpose of life?" with some form of "to go to heaven when you die." It plainly isn't what the Jesus of the Gospels proclaimed, not what Christians in Augustine's time proclaimed when reciting the Lord's Prayer. But "Christianity" had long since stopped looking to the Jesus of the Gospels to determine "the Way"
My suspicion is that the way in which you react to that quote is likely representative of the way in which you will react to the book as a whole. For those who are really committed to an American Evangelical history of the Church and reading of the Bible, Empire Baptized will likely seem saturated with heretical premises and challenging, troubling evidence (like I said Howard-Brook has done his homework). Those who are intrigued or excited by the quote will find the book equally intriguing/exciting. If the quote bores you, you will not likely get much out of the book either.

For myself, while I don't agree with every premise or element of the book, I find Howard-Brook's religion dialectic really helpful and eagerly await future treatments of the great schism and the protestant reformation. I would love to read his thoughts on how much of the religion of empire made it into the Radical (Anabaptist) Reformation, into the Protestant Reformation, and through the Council of Trent. Before that though, I want to read a little more about where he finds the undying persistence of the religion of creation in the early church. This is a book which both satisfies and demands a further exploration of its own thesis.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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