On Fishing With Dynamite

There’s a book I’ve been reading on premodern Christian history, which came out sometime in the last few years. Looking at an earlier and mostly critical review, I actually came to this text thinking I would like it and hoping to write a more laudatory review. But this expectation went unmet, and I’ve been torn about reviewing it at all.

On one hand, the author is a fellow Christian writing a highly earnest Christian history for other Christians. What’s more, I have found other publications from this author intelligent and insightful, hence my initial optimism. One instinct, then, is just to let the thing lie. On the other side, the book’s flaws have been gnawing at me, not least in that I expect it will make intramural Christian dialogue and parenesis harder. So rather than take a public blowtorch to this book, I’m going remain deliberately vague on particulars while still pointing out what I see as the major structural cracks. With an eye to Christian tradition and a touch of good humor, then, let us call the author “Tertullian” and the book, De Pudicitia. I consider two aspects here: historical validity and moral exhortation.

De Pudicitia was, I speculate, trying to emulate Jesus and John Wayne, but with premodern Christianity as its target rather than American evangelicalism. Although Tertullian is not exactly a “specialist” in the eras most under scrutiny, he knows far more than the average layman or pastor, and most of the actual historical thinking succeeds. Especially for a reflection clearly addressing a more popular audience, Pudicitia applies social history quite effectively in some chapters to reconstruct the lives of its premodern Christians. Otherwise uniformed readers will learn some real history, and that’s truly commendable. The Christian experience between the New Testament and the Reformation could use a lot more fresh treatment of this sort.

Some historical interpretations do raise an eyebrow or two. Occasionally, Tertullian makes some sweeping and contestable claims where I think he owed his readers more circumspection. For example, when Tertullian turns to the Roman empire and what its subjects thought of it, readers learn that most of its materially wretched inhabitants resented the whole structure or simply shrugged at it; those readers may be forgiven for beginning to suppose Monty Python’s depiction of peasant life was not so far off the social reality after all. In other words, it reinforces stereotypes.

Now, among the relevant historians, one can indeed find different schools of thought on larger questions about the majority population’s political priors under Roman rule. Did the empire make its non-elites safer and wealthier? How violent was Roman society for the “little guy”? Did peasants buy into Roman political and legal ideals? What happened to these demographics in the wake of the fifth- and seventh-century crises? Did political events really matter much at all or was life basically unchanged for most folks in the transition to the Middle Ages? These are all good questions, with interesting evidence to be mustered for different answers.

Rather than go right for the moralizing punchline, I think Tertullian ought to have at least gestured toward this historical ambivalence, particularly when so much of the earliest Christian commentary took a “both-and” approach to the empire and its society. “Yes, plenty of bad stuff happens under Rome’s watch,” goes their typical response, “and God’s wrath is coming for that reason, and his own kingdom will replace it. But God’s providence also installed the emperor and his officials; they honor the just, punish the malefactor, and prevent the kind of senseless violence that happened in previous generations, like the Peloponnesian War. Thus, we should honor the emperor and pay his taxes.” Had Tertullian spotted this broad undercurrent in early Christian political theology, he might have also discerned an uncomfortable tension in his own reflections about today’s politics (more on this below). But more charitably, that would have required a longer marination in a more concentrated set of sources, so Pudicitia may be partially forgiven on this front.

A related assertion, much closer to the heart of the book, had me choking like Idris Elba on hot sauce. In fact, Tertullian himself marks it as a surprising revelation: Christianity’s political ascendancy had no meaningful effect on its adherents’ moral fibre. In one narrow sense, this is unquestionably true, going by Tertullian’s (sometimes puzzling) ethical definitions anyway. Yes, “bad” Christians existed well before Constantine or Theodosius I, all the way back to the New Testament (and the Old, for that matter). But I sense Pudicitia wants to say something bolder, that the rate or intensity of moral error was essentially the same before the fourth century as it was after. Certainly, Tertullian aims to deromanticize the earlier forms of Christianity and their supposed religious probity, as stated near the book’s outset.

While old Constantine has taken his historiographical lumps to a probably unfair degree, the fact remains he also created superbly conducive conditions for, shall we say, less rigorous Christians. This reality is all but universally acknowledged by scholarship on late antiquity and the later Roman empire, and not a few observers were already saying much the same thing within decades of Constantine’s death. It’s arguably one of the main reasons the Christian ascetic movement emerges in force when it does. In the larger story of Christian collusion with the empire’s existing norms, Tertullian also mostly sidesteps the beached whale in the room, which is frequently noted by the sources themselves: the ubiquitous problem of religious syncretism.

By contrast, Christianity was a far less comfortable identity before the empire’s Christianization, all in all. Official Roman persecution typically only occurred in spotty fashion, but you would have been fair game for other forms of unpleasant social exclusion and mistreatment. As Peter Heather observes at length in his new book Christendom, the church institutions also expected quite a lot from those who wanted to come aboard. Christian initiation arguably constituted one big fence to keep out the uncommitted. After Constantine, such a high bar had to come down, and we can see churchmen in the subsequent generations—Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Augustine—wrestling with the enormous institutional problems that followed. Thus, the more sectarian, radical, and separatist you like your Christianity today, the more you are probably on very solid historical grounds for admiring the pre-Constantinian church. Backsliding of the sort Tertullian highlights was probably never harder than in this period, though it surely still existed.

But far more fraught than any aspect of his history-craft itself is how Tertullian thinks the Christian past relates to the present. To wit, he routinely brings in contemporary “culture war” issues, reflecting on putative ethical lapses that occur as much in 2024 as 324. These items overwhelmingly tend, in the eyes of this reader, to affirm the concerns and moral framework of progressive evangelicals post-2016. Perhaps I missed the exceptions, but I don’t think any of the chosen issues are going to have a more right-wing reader nodding along with much enthusiasm. And this bias in itself is not a black mark: Christian scholars are well within their rights to do cultural criticism and use history as one plank in the platform. I even happen to share some of the underlying worries that animate Tertullian and have written on them myself, so not all of this line of critique comes from antithetical priors. The problem is that the historical parallels are baldly asserted and basically undeveloped. For the not-already-convinced reader, these perseverations will either distract or exasperate.

How so, you ask?

Consider the catfish, how they swim. Using sticks of dynamite, one may in theory hope to jolt these bottom-feeders out of their muddy depths and into the boat of enlightenment. And dynamite is more exhilarating, both to the angler and onlookers from the shore. But as for its effectiveness, the explosives are mainly just going to scare off most of the catfish; at your luckiest, you may kill one or two. Those fish that do end up in the boat will be other, more skittish species already prone to leaping out of the water—or were they already aboard and flopping around at the outset? To land the stubborn, barky catfish (yes, catfish do bark), you would actually need to do the slower, more tedious work of baiting with doughballs, setting the hook, and then reeling them in toward the awaiting net. That is, you would have to make an extended argument. If you continue to molest the catfish in this manner, the more passive members of the school will only migrate to deeper, muddier water. The more aggressive remainder may start rethinking their political theology.

Perhaps more than any other contentious subject, Christian attitudes toward the state and collectivism are Pudicitia’s explosives of choice. Here, Tertullian exposes himself to retort that his own assumptions have not undergone enough scrutiny and so themselves constitute the kind of conformity for which he frequently faults premodern Christians. When Tertullian abruptly declares that the modern state has inherited the charitable duties once overseen by churches—and ergo today’s (presumably right-wing?) Christians need to repent of their sinful opposition to that state-sponsored welfare—a resurrected ancient critic could defensibly point out that Tertullian himself stands in a comparatively recent but now hegemonic tradition. Left or Right, most politically engaged Americans want their preferred policies effected, particularly at the national level, particularly by the presidency. There are very few real federalists or libertarians left, for good or ill, though that rhetoric is occasionally whipped out when one side happens to find itself out of power. Even those pundits, policy specialists, and journalists who most vocally espouse small-government principles themselves disproportionately think about their world in terms of Washington D.C., not Columbus or Lansing, much less a small town. In America, alarmed classical liberals have noted this broad tendency in Western culture since at least the turn of the twentieth century. Few things, then, could be more world-conforming for Tertullian than demanding the enactment of his socio-political vision via the state while condemning skeptics for moral failings.

In Tertullian’s Neo-Social-Gospel approach to the state, there is the added irony that he thoroughly distrusts premodern political institutions and (t0 some extent) those Christians who invested in said institutions. Roman statism is bad even in its later Christian iterations, it seems, but the modern one with its social programs does the work of Christ, apparently. This ideological overconfidence is one example of how Tertullian seems to have read history without letting it seriously reshape any of his own culturally inherited priors. From the opening pages, he knows what Christian orthopraxy is and has always been, never bothering to define it or the canons by which we might know it. In turn, he cannot see tensions with any of his own prejudices, only the sinners past and present diverging from his rather murky ideals. And curiously, premodern Christian experience with sin only seems to anticipate the imagined evangelical living in the Bible Belt, not his more progressive brother living in a metropolis.

Put the intellectual problem another way. In a parallel universe, Tertullian might have written a similar book confidently asserting that large-scale government intervention is itself a moral blot precisely because most people today reflexively assume the national government should solve all their problems and impose their preferred way of life; that churches yielding their institutional and social responsibilities to the faceless Leviathan are abandoning their calling and bending the knee to Caesar; that they collude with or paper over nasty forms of social dysfunction and idolatry; that Constantine at least had the decency of giving money to the churches to do more charity themselves locally; Etc. If you reckon such a publication would be stealing several intellectual bases, you see my point.

Most of the contemporary issues Tertullian mentions are contentious in Christian circles not because one side is inherently wicked and stupid—though there is always some of that, too—but because these issues are hard and complicated, with decent arguments to be had on both sides as society tries to balance competing goods. Yet Pudicitia reflexively treats so many of these issues as the diaphora of sanctification.

Are we sure these issues aren’t more like meat sacrificed to idols? If not, how would we know? Can we be persuaded? Even if we stipulated to all of Tertullian’s ethical assumptions, Pudicitia would still fall flat as a piece of exhortation. Introducing one-sentence moral litmus tests will only have the choir applauding and—worse for the book’s stated purposes—have the “sinners” shuffling grouchily out the back toward their silos. If these questions are not like meat sacrificed to idols and do indeed affect one’s moral status, don’t we owe it to readers to make the extended case for why?

Perhaps Tertullian supposed the historical element itself somehow made or else strongly implied the necessary moral reasoning. If so, that supposition was incorrect: the book’s skeleton is missing not only all of the ligaments for that argument but also most of the musculature. In truth—and trying to conjure a publication’s genesis is always risky business—I tend to suspect Tertullian received bad advice from the publisher near the outset of the project. Because it would “speak to the moment” and lay closely enough within the author’s expertise, not nearly enough pushback came through to hone the book’s structure or its blunt heuristic of Christian orthopraxy. Comparing Pudicitia with Tertullian’ other writings, I sometimes felt as though his editor had asked for “more dynamite” late in the process to make the manuscript more appealing to its real intended readership: leftward leaning evangelicals. Audiences do love fireworks, after all. But for this particular argument with its highly specific moral anxieties, the editor should have encouraged Tertullian to minimize the explosives and instead to “put your net down on the right side of the boat.”


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