Empire Baptized

How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected: 2nd - 5th Centuries

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Wes Howard-Brook
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , August
     2016.
     320 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626981942.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his provocative and broadly-researched book, Empire Baptized, Wes Howard-Brook sets out to expand his prior thesis that the biblical message, culminating in Jesus of Nazareth, promotes a religion-of-creation in opposition to a religion-of-empire. This expansion builds upon the same theme described in detail in his previous book, Come Out, My People! (Orbis, 2010), and is summarized in the introduction. It is important that one carefully reads the introduction to understand the general narrative that threads together Howard-Brook’s reading of history.

The Hebrew Bible, according to Howard-Brook, is a conversation among God’s people concerning the superiority of either a religion-of-creation or a religion-of-empire. The former privileges God’s created world and the creatures that inhabit it, and the latter privileges the powerful in society and their desire to harness creation for their imperial ends. In the canonical gospels, Jesus enters that conversation and lays out—with the Apostle Paul—a vision of “a living network of wildly inclusive, vulnerable communities, grounded in the fullness of love and embodied truth” (296).

Howard-Brook takes this thesis and projects it into the early Christian era. In doing so, he shows that, due to the differences in cultural presuppositions between Jesus and prominent early Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the proto-orthodox movement slowly adopted a religion-of-empire, thus embracing an approach to God that had been rejected by Jesus.

While focusing his study on Alexandria and Carthage and their surrounding regions, the book attempts to cover a large swath of history ranging from Marcion’s reading of the Bible to Augustine’s “dangerous contribution” of just war theory. Roughly, 300 years are covered by Howard-Brook in the attempt to show that the early history and rise of Christianity was one that began to slowly privilege the religion-of-empire over the religion-of-creation.

The opposition of the religion-of-creation and the religion-of-empire is seen clearly in tables 1 and 2 (xiv, xvii). Both tables present a black and white picture of two hermetically sealed categories of religion: either one values creation or one pursues empire. And the pursuit of empire extends through the co-optation of imperial values that maintain power—such as misogyny, othering through heresiology, sexual renunciation and restriction, hierarchical patronage, just war, and so forth. Eventually, this trajectory of religion-of-empire becomes codified through Constantine and the official imperialization of Christianity

While provocative, thoughtful, and broadly-researched, Empire Baptized has several flaws that can keep the reader guessing and confused. First, while Howard-Brook’s extensive research cannot be denied, the vast majority of his analysis is based on a limited selection of secondary scholarship. And because he deals with such a wide range of topics and such a large period of history, his scholarship appears limited and lacks nuance. For example, his entire discussion on sexuality in the Roman world is dependent on the first 100 pages of Peter Brown’s The Body and Society (Columbia University Press, 1988). Also, he begins the book with the statement that the pervasive presence of the Roman Empire has not been “taken fully into account when considering the development of ‘Christianity’” (1), which makes one wonder how familiar Howard-Book is with the field of empire studies in both the New Testament and early Christianity. At times, the book reads like a bricolage of secondary scholarship on a variety of topics, almost exclusively dependent on the research of one or two authors per topic. The problem with this approach is that it makes complex issues appear simple.

Further, there are several instances where the author includes extraneous details that are not clearly connected to the thesis of the book or the purpose of the chapter. For example, there is a large paragraph on the development of the codex and a list of questions concerning Origen studies (83-84, 81), neither of which clearly contributes to the purpose of the book or chapter. Additionally, the reader finds several maps strewn throughout the book with no clear purpose. Map 1 (xxiii) is undated, and map 2 (42) has no clear relationship to the author’s point. This approach leaves the reader awash in interesting but unrelated information. I was frequently wondering how the information addressed in the book contributed to the thesis, and I rarely came away with a solid answer. Much of this information will be readily recognizable to the experienced scholar of early Christianity, but I would imagine that it would be overwhelming at times for a newcomer because it is not clearly tied to the thesis of the book.

Howard-Brook’s thesis and research is interesting and broad, but lacks nuance when interacting with complex topics due to his limited engagement with broader scholarship. While I ultimately came away unconvinced, Empire Baptized would serve well to introduce an undergraduate student to the setting of early Christian ideas, and also to problematize the narratives used to explain the rise of Christianity. By swinging the theoretical pendulum to the other side and claiming that the early church embraced what Jesus rejected, Howard-Brook forces the reader of early Christian sources to re-think the relationship between the proto-orthodox Christian movement and the message of Jesus in the gospel accounts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Stefan is a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Denver and Illiff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wes Howard-Brook teaches at Seattle University. He is the author of several Orbis books, including "Come Out, My People," Unveiling Empire, The Church Before Christianity, Becoming Children of God, and co-editor of The New Testament: Introducing the Way of Discipleship.

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