Peter Heather’s Christendom: Some Initial Thoughts Before Reading

Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably at least heard of Peter Heather’s Christendom: The Triumph of a Religion, AD 300–1300. I have purchased but not yet read any of the nearly 600-page-plus-back-matter publication, as I have been busy

  • grading
  • teaching primary sources in American history
  • finishing a different book on philosophical esotericism
  • recovering from multiple lymph-node-distending and efficiency-reducing colds (no, not Y. pestis, thank you for asking)

Needless to say, my late-summer, early-fall project of improving my Hebrew has also withered like the grass of the field, and my brain remembers it no more.

Back to Heather: I did manage to catch his podcast interview about the book with one of my old teachers, which you can listen to here. The intrigue with Heather writing a big book on early Christianity, as I think he even notes in the podcast, is that he is much more on the A. H. M. Jones-ian side of late ancient history than the Peter Brown-ian: he’s a notable historian of high politics, emperors, administration, armies, battles, barbarians, and such rather than the cultural-religious turn that has always permeated (and some would say oversaturated) the study of “late antiquity.” In a way, then, Heather is bringing a different analytical approach and fresh eyes to an older data set.

I for one look forward to reading what caught his attention. Still, I wanted to offer a few preliminary thoughts before reading the book as to what I expect to find.

From what I have gleaned in various places, including Heather’s other scholarship elsewhere, he broadly argues that Christianity succeeded and took the form it did because of its alliance(s) with the political realm. Constantine, I suspect, serves as the paradigmatic example. Convert the emperor or local potentate to the faith—or better yet, your specific iteration of the faith—and you’ve probably gone a long way indeed to ensuring that said faith will become the religion of the realm. The coming of Islam and conversion of erstwhile Christian elites proves the same point; the pattern repeats again and again across late antiquity and the Middle Ages. Part and parcel of this process, institutional or “official” Christianity is forced to make certain accommodations to reality. Finally, the actual religion ends up appearing quite superficial in many times and places, with severe geographical limitations and/or startling degrees of syncretism to be found in the broader populace.

The overall effect would be that what we imagine as premodern “Christendom” looks fairly flimsy, shallow, and contingent in the end: a half-baked project resulting more from political accidents than Providence or natural superiority qua religion. Consequently, this revision might embarrass certain modern Christians attracted to a particular triumphalist story of Western Civilization, and it would similarly undercut an ancillary declension narrative of modernity, the Enlightenment, secularism, etc.

Should my suspicions be borne out in Christendom, I simultaneously think it would be a welcome addition to the field and that its thesis should not especially bother historically conscientious Christians in the terms I just sketched above. Taking the second point first, particularly for Christians of a more Protestant bent, there is an already an intuition that not all or most of the period 300–1300 can truly constitute some sort of golden age for Christianity—otherwise why the need for the Reformation and Counter Reformation? More granularly, some Protestants (e.g., Baptists) might find that some parts of the story confirm their theological priors more than those of their magisterial brethren. Etc. It could depend significantly on one’s political theology and theory of history.

As to why this would be a useful contribution to the academic study of Christianity, frankly, I think scholars could use a little more bluntness and little less sympathetic euphemism for some of this era’s religious phenomena. But since this discussion likely pairs better with actual historical examples Heather highlights, I’ll develop this thought later in a more standard, post-read review—lymph nodes willing.


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