Monday, February 26, 2024

Book Review: Strange Religion by Nijay Gupta

I recently read Dr. Nijay K. Gupta's latest book, Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling. This book is a very readable account of what stood out about early Christians in the Roman Empire and set them apart from the cultural norms of the society that surrounded them. Gupta takes rigorously researched academic material and presents it in a way that is accessible to anyone interested in learning about early Christianity, with plenty of relatable analogies and illustrations that help the reader create a vivid mental picture of what was going on in the first century. 

The book consists of four major sections: Becoming Christian, What the First Christians Believed, How the First Christians Worshiped, and How the First Christians Lived.

Part 1, "Becoming Christian," starts out by discussing what Roman religion was like, involving both the Greco-Roman pantheon and the imperial cult. It was all about keeping the gods happy through proper execution of prescribed rituals, which Gupta likens at one point to paying protection money to the mob so Guido won't come around breaking kneecaps. In the Roman world, religion was not about a personal relationship with the deity, but rather "a corporate obligation that was fulfilled to ensure the welfare of the person, family, city, and state" (p. 13). Whereas Roman religion was about utilitarian practice and civic duty to maintain peace with the Olympians, Christians put much more emphasis on what they believed about God and his Son, Jesus Christ. In contrast to Roman religions, which had stone or metal statues of their gods and goddesses, Christians did not have visible images to which they rendered worship, but claimed that a Galilean craftsman was the incarnate image of the one supreme God (who, in His self-revelation to the Hebrew people, had forbidden the worship of physical images).

Part 2, "What the First Christians Believed," dives into the claims about God and Jesus Christ that the early Christians made. Jesus wasn't just one deity among many competing for attention in the marketplace of religions; He was the true, supreme Lord of creation, higher than any merely human ruler or any other spiritual power. Christians, unlike the Roman cults, did not rely on repeated blood sacrifices to maintain a good relationship with their God. Jesus, through His sacrifice of himself at Calvary, had provided the ultimate sacrifice, by which He himself became the point of connection between His follwers and the Almighty. Christians didn't have to go to a special place like a temple, or offer an animal, to commune with their God. Sacred space "followed them around like the dust-cloud around Peanuts' Pig-Pen" (p. 85). This was a revolution in religious thought. The Christian God, rather than indwelling a statue housed in a temple building, indwelled the followers of Christ, each believer being a walking, breathing temple/image where God's Spirit was present.

Part 3, "How the First Christians Worshiped," points out several differences between Christian worship and the worship of the Roman pantheon or the emperor. Followers of the Greek and Roman gods generally presented sacrifices in their temples on established festival days, or when they had a special petition related to family or business matters for which they wished to seek the gods' favor. Christians, on the other hand, met regularly in homes both to worship Christ and to learn more about His teachings (in this aspect of learning, Christians looked more like the philosophical schools than a Roman religio). Christians saw one another not only as fellow worshipers of a deity, but as brothers and sisters—as family who cared for one another and looked out for one another's well-being. Whereas in Roman religions, much had to do with status (with the position of priest at a temple often being purchased by a wealthy person to increase his social capital and prestige in the community), in Christian gatherings one could find the wealthier members of the group serving and sitting under the teaching of a slave who was more knowledgeable in the teachings of Jesus.

Part 4, "How the First Christians Lived," touches on both the similarities and differences between Christianity and the mystery religions that were populat among residents of the Roman Empire who sought a more personal, direct interaction with their respective deities. "In the mystery cults, one often grew closer ro the divine through giving in to overwhelming desires, like sex and drunkenness. Christians belileved they were called to the opposite" (p. 169). Gupta points out how the behaviour of the gods became a pattern for humans. Followers of the Greco-Roman gods could excuse their "me-first" behavior by pointing to the deities they worshiped. Christians, on the other hand, were to treat all people as equal, imitating the self-sacrificing example of the Lord Jesus, since every human being bore the image of the Creator, regardless of social, ecocomic, or educational status. The final chapter in this section points out that, even though Christians were markedly diffrerent from the society around them, they were not perfect. They could form factions based on their favorite teachers, allow the old rules of social order to creep into their communities and worship gatherings, and generally fall short of the ideal taught by Jesus and His Apostles. But the very fact that these lofty ideals existed was a major game-changer when compared to the traditions of the surrounding culture.

Strange Religion is a fantastic introduction to what made Christianity appear strange to the average Roman, and yet also strangely attractive to people who found no hope or fulfillment in the imperial cult or the worship of multiple deities who were little more than poorly behaved humans elevated to supernatural status.

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