Tuesday 27 February 2024

Book Review: Strange Religion by Nijay K. Gupta

The book is split into 4 sections, with 12 chapters, an introduction, and a short conclusion. There are end notes at the back. The 4 sections are: Becoming Christian, What the First Christians Believed, How the First Christians Worshipped, and How the First Christians Lived.

I reviewed an advance reader copy, meaning it wasn’t in its final form. My copy had no illustrations, just captions where the illustrations should go. So I cannot comment on their quality, though there were a good number of them and they’re placed to illustrate interesting aspects of the text.

The author used a decent number of quotes from ancient texts in addition to numerous Old and New Testament quotes. He often tied things together with modern examples which I found a bit jarring but might help a general audience better understand the thought process of ancient peoples.

The book has some great aims and asks some excellent questions. These are questions that cannot be fully answered, as sources are limited, but it was frustrating at times how short the discussion was. The author might give a few possible answers but little or sometimes no reasoning on why these answers should be considered.

For example, in the 3rd chapter he questions why Romans would join the new Christian church when it was so radically different from what they were used to. He mentions 4 possibilities: the intriguing idea of monotheism, the promise of eternal life, that the new faith blended religion, philosophy and morality in a way others didn’t, and the concept of loving everyone. He mentions these but has no follow-up discussion about them and simply ends the chapter. Also strange is the absence of Christianity’s idea of equality as one of those possibilities. Many early adopters of Christianity were rich upper class women (women whose houses were gifted to the church to become buildings of worship upon their deaths). While upper class women had more agency than many in ancient Rome, the Christian faith gave them power over belief in ways other religions denied them. The author does cover the stratification of Roman society and how Christians tried to upend that with their idea of everyone being treated equally within the church in a later chapter, but he never posits this as a reason why lower class individuals might have joined the church in the first place. Even in his conclusion, when he again considers the question of what made Christianity so compelling, he neglects to mention it in favour of purely spiritual answers.

Despite my desire to see more discussion, the book is excellent at giving a good idea of how differently ancient peoples thought about concepts like religion. It was very useful learning how Greeks and Romans worshipped. I also appreciated learning more about how early Christian practice was different from the Jewish faith it sprang from. I highlighted numerous passages in the book that I thought were worth reflecting on. Christianity has changed a lot from those early years, so it was interesting seeing what the first Christians believed and how they followed Christ.

Consider this a great introduction to the topic of how early Christians practiced and how their worship and thought patterns differed from those of the people around them. It’s a fairly short, easy to read book that will give you a lot to think about.

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