Coming Out Christian in a Roman World: A book review

Coming Out Christian in a Roman World: A book review May 29, 2015

Douglas Boin operates at the intersections of various movements. His book, “Coming Out Christian in the Roman World,” talks about how Christians in the Roman era were more or less closeted: they “passed” as Romans or they “covered” their Christian practices with other Roman practices (for example, they attended sacrifices to Roman gods).

51G7OzQjj4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Boin’s book also straddles genres; although it is on an academic topic–how Christians coexisted with pagan Romans and Greeks in the second through fifth centuries–it is written for a general audience.

This fascinating read shares an alternative history of early Christianity with the lay reader. In covering several centuries, it necessarily dips in and out at important events. At the same time, it provides deep context for Christianity as a movement.

The very first chapter, in fact, isn’t about Christianity at all. It covers a group of nobles who tried to overthrow the government in 63 BC. The group was caught and put on trial. Their most salient point of defense? They were operating under the belief that they were fulfilling a prophecy: the predictions of the Sibyl, an oracle who purportedly lived in a cave in the 500s BC and sold three books of cryptic poems to a king of Rome.

The fact that a Roman government would hear such an argument is telling; belief and politics were intertwined, and there was no one without the other.

This may seem mind-boggling to the modern American who claims to believe in “separation of church and state”–can you imagine President Obama reading through documents of questionable origin to find advice about how to deal with the new trade agreement?

Then again, our Pledge of Allegiance and dollar bill both allude to God–a specific monotheistic, Christian God.

The underlying message of much of the book is that beliefs inform our actions, no matter how unbelievable or downright ridiculous they might seem. “When people tell us why they acted as they did–for fear of demons, for example, or because they believe the world is about to end–we cannot afford to ignore their testimony,” Boin writes.

This understanding permeates Boin’s account of what it meant to be Christian in early times. This new group of believers was struggling to understand what their belief system entailed, and we cannot ignore the moments where they waffled about attending a pagan sacrifice or appeared to be embarrassed to go to church.

At first, Boin claims, there was not all-out persecution of Christ’s followers; in addition to the martyrs, who typically dominate accounts of the 100s and 200s AD, there were plenty of wealthy and middle-class Romans who adhered to Christian doctrine within the privacy of their own homes. They didn’t make a public display of their faith, but at the same time, they remodeled their homes to accommodate Christian gatherings and corresponded with Christians in other parts of the world. They were, essentially, underground.

Boin then challenges the standard understanding of the era of the Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor. In the 300s AD, Constantine worked with pagan leaders to create a very confusing middle ground–he did not pave a clear path for Christianity to dominate religion and culture. Instead, he compromised and worked with other Roman leaders to allow Christianity to become more acceptable in the public forum.

The mission of Boin’s book, to explain an unclear, often inscrutable period to readers unfamiliar with much of the academic writing about this era, occasionally becomes impossible when artifacts that seem to hide more than they explain. The Arch of Constantine, for example, is inscribed with an homage that “ascribe[s] the emperor’s success to ‘the inspiration of a divinity.'” The divinity is purposefully, frustratingly vague, and remains a mystery today–if Constantine was truly Christian, why not thank the Christian God?

The messiness of getting along with each other obscures our modern understanding of how Christians and pagans truly interacted. By compromising in public, these ancient Mediterraneans left us with a confusing record of what being Christian actually looked like. Was it all blood and martyrdom, or was there peaceful tolerance on both sides? How is it possible that there was something in the middle?

Boin tackles the question masterfully and broadens our understanding of early Christianity. If you think that the path to the Christian era, in which we delineate time with “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini,” was a straightforward march from persecution to acceptance, then I encourage you to pick up this book. It will confuse you in the best sense–and make you wonder what kind of record Christians are leaving now.

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