Holy War, Martyrdom, and Terror

Christianity, Violence, and the West

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Philippe Buc
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the ever-expanding field of books on religion and conflict, there are generally two competing tendencies: 1) to see modern forms of conflict as de novo and unlike previous iterations, and 2) to see religious violence as a transcultural phenomenon, which has analogues across sacred traditions. Author Phillippe Buc’s recent book is a surprising mixture of both of these approaches, deeply steeped in medieval history while finding surprising links to modern forms of religious violence and terror. This particular joining together of historical inquiry with transcultural phenomenology makes for an idiosyncratic book—one which should draw attention from scholars of various fields.

Buc’s work develops the thesis that the long shadow of Christian theology in the West has become inseparable from the cultures of violence and conflict which now inhabit the world. Theological ideas as diverse as exegetical practice, eschatology, power, and martyrdom have inflected the world with not simply historical relics of practice, but present modes of violence which vex a world convinced that religion is a thing of the past. To develop this thesis, Buc explores modes of violence—from the Jewish War (70 CE) to the Iraq War (2003)—via selected episodes as diverse as the Crusades, John Brown’s raid, the so-called “Wars of Religion,” and the French Revolution.

There are many, many moving parts to this book, as Buc explores the various historical threads which have contributed to our present world’s understanding of religion and war. Chapter 1 explores the ancient links to modern military campaigns, mapping George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq via colonial ideals of the sacral nature of warfare. Chapter 2 explores links between Christian exegesis and warfare, linking together medieval apocalyptism with the French Revolution’s rejection of religious violence; the teleological assumptions of the Crusades were, for Buc, the theological analogue to the secular version developed in the eighteenth century, both of which view war as socially purgative. Chapter 3 develops an understanding of modern terrorism vis-à-vis medieval attitudes toward demonic possession and madness, arguing for a typological link between the two. Chapter Four explores the long legacy of religious martyrdom, sensing a link between ancient Christian martyrdoms and more various contemporary depictions of religious violence through their common concern for purification by death. Chapter 5 suggests the manner in which the medieval legacies of purity and heresy set the stage thematically for various turns to theologically-inspired violence by non-state actors, as seen in European history—the Reformations and the work of Joan of Arc—among others. Chapter 6 develops the theme of liberty and coercion which evolves theologically in the ancient Christian world, and how this changes in more modern contexts, and chapter 7 brings the disparate chapters together in a “great moments” vision of this history, arguing for an eschatological vision of these moments which renew and recapitulate ancient themes in new and vibrant ways.

While this work certainly surpasses the transcultural theses of Mark Juergensmeyer—which tend to view all forms of religious violence as structurally similar—Buc’s work makes connections thematically between disparate historical events which are both daring, and at times, perplexing. The intellectual world of Europe is unquestionably linked to its Christian past, and to be sure, connecting disparate events such as the French Revolution and the Crusades opens up many new thematic vistas. But for those looking for a causal approach to history, the arguments may be less persuasive. As a theologian, I found the work refreshing both in scope and approach, but historians may render other judgments for the same reasons.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology and T. B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philippe Buc taught at Stanford University for two decades and is now Professor of Medieval History at the University of Vienna. He is author of several books, including The Dangers of Ritual: Between Early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory.



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