New Insight into the Apostles


In a new interview with Cassandra Farrin on the Westar Institute blog, Heidi Wendt discusses her forthcoming book At the Temple Gates. I for one–not that anyone asked–am intrigued. Wendt suggests a a new category, that of freelance religious expert, which cuts across the diverse and novel religious traditions and practices of the Roman Empire, and into which the earliest Christian missionary apostles, like Paul, may be placed. I look forward to exploring this in more depth when the book is released, but what I find in the interview has got me thinking–which is where that squeaking noise and smoke is coming from.

Says Wendt:

(M)any of our ancient sources for these religious experts depict them going door-to-door, purveying novel, often exotic religious skills and practices: special initiations, purifications, methods of divination, and the like. That being said, modern missionaries often, although not always, act on behalf an established religious entity, for example, a particular church or denomination. My use of the language “freelance” is intended to convey that many of the religious actors I include in my study were unaffiliated with any existing religious institution or well-defined tradition; rather, some sources depict them trying desperately to persuade would-be clients of their need for proprietary rites and other benefits that would not have been apparent prior to these interactions. While there are reasons to be skeptical of elements of these accounts—for instance, the Roman satirist Juvenal describes a litany of these figures preying on the “superstitions” of women while their husbands are out—sources such as the Pauline Epistles confirm that households were, in fact, a prominent venue for self-authorized specialists of many varieties.

This language caught my eye both because of its similarity to the intentionally non-institutional organization and rejection of a sponsoring-church model of the faith community I grew up with–who, by the way, I’m having the great joy of worshiping with again all summer after nearly 20 years–and because, albeit only for a few more weeks, I once again find myself, if not an expert, rather freelance, a minister without any defined ministees. (Full disclosure as regards my deep and abiding dorkdom: While reading this interview, I had “They Call Me the Wanderer” playing over and over in my head, only the word “wanderer” was replaced with “gyrovague.” Remind me to send that one in to Weird Al.)

Later she continues:

I imagine that a major point of interest the book raises will be the interactivity between early “Christian” experts and non-Christian contemporaries who also fit my definition of freelance expertise: magi, astrologers, diviners, initiators, and so forth, many of whom worked within particular ethnic or geographic idioms (Persian, Chaldean, Egyptian, Armenian, Greek, Judean, and so forth). Whereas there is a tendency among lay audiences and scholars alike to imagine Judaism and Christianity as somewhat exceptional in their ancient context, imagining some Judeans and Christians as freelance experts working within a broader class of religious activity that was not specific to either allows us to appreciate both the messiness of these categories, such as they existed in the first and second centuries, and also how much cross-pollination occurred among specialists of all varieties who competed for followers in part through the exchange or cooptation of ideas, discourses, techniques, and practices. This jack-of-all-trades ambition that many freelance experts pursued—to distinguish themselves from rivals while also satisfying in their own persons any number of sought-after religious benefits—helps to make sense of how heterogeneous, creative, and also mutually influential their respective religious programs might be.

Regarding the book’s importance for Christian audiences in particular, I would begin by saying that it offers a deep historicization of Christian origins that renders Paul, Justin, Irenaeus, and other “Christian” figures all the more intelligible in their Greco-Roman context. My experiences both in the classroom and, more recently, as a participant in Westar meetings have indicated that such a picture not only fascinates contemporary Christians, but also, for its indeterminacy, offers a welcome counter-narrative to overly rigid or dogmatic presentations of this history. A better appreciation of these religious actors in their historical context—really, a particular setting of religious activity within that context—might also result in an improved understanding of and new interpretive possibilities for problematic or discomfiting features of New Testament and other early Christian literature. Viewing Paul as a freelance expert among many such experts in Judean and other forms of religion reorients our picture of his activities, and also some of the content of his letters. His at times critical statements about Israel, the law, and notable Judean practices such as circumcision, for example, ring differently if we imagine Paul staking out positions vis-à-vis rival experts in Judean religion rather than re-negotiating a complicated relationship to Judaism. The same logic can be extended to second century figures such as Justin, who writes more forcefully against Judeans (or Judean experts) as he forges a concept of “Christian” religion that is distinct from Judea, and on the heels of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. As I argued in the paper I presented last fall, placing the composition of gospel literature in this general context—which will be the topic of my next book (see below for more)—may have similar consequences for the negative images of Jews/Judeans that occur in these writings.

Read the full interview here, and look for an August 18th release of At the Temple Gates..



Frying Chicken Little



To my mind, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is easily among the most important books written in the last 100 years. Concern that society is collapsing and a nostalgic longing for a return to past greatness is hardly new. Eusebius quotes St. Polycarp of Smyrna as moaning, in the second century AD: ” O good God, unto what times hast thou spared me?”

Pinker‘s magnum opus, Better Angels, argues convincingly that the present day is the absolute best time to be alive by almost every meaningful metric. While a more naive age of progressives tended to act as though social progress was inevitable and infallible–both to be rejected–to deny that progress is real and to contend that there was some past age of greatness is to embrace an illusion. That illusion can be quite dangerous as when certain democratic republics which shall remain nameless flirt openly with handing executive power over to a demagogue who openly aspires to tyranny, all in the name of making themselves great again.

The case presented by Pinker is compelling enough that, stripped of its mythology, I’m half-tempted to identify as a postmillennialist. This short conversation between Pinker and the Berggruen Institute is well worth checking out. Here’s a brief excerpt:


“I look into why the rate of violence has dropped, and the moral question -– what values ought we teach people to live by? Certainly, I agree with the principles, but it may be a bit unrealistic to think that every person on this Earth abides by a value such as that every life is equally sacrosanct. Looking back to explain to what we can attribute our increasingly humane development, part of it is the utilitarian calculation –- if there is incentive, regardless of morals, to stop fighting, then so be it.

“But what we are witnessing is more than that. A shift in the summum bonum, or the highest good, towards loose humanism, where life is better than death, education better than ignorance, health better than sickness, is what I believe we are seeing currently.”


Unity, Identity, and Idolatry

In the religious tradition in which I was raised, that of the churches of Christ, the dirtiest of all dirty words had way more than four letters. It was the dreaded d-word, “denomination.” This unease with denominationalism was rooted not in a spirit of cantankerous contrariness–you can’t blame that community for my own character flaws–but out of a noble conviction that Christian identity, unqualified by any denominational loyalty, should be the sole identifier of the disciple of Jesus Christ. From this perspective denominational labels and identities served to foster division in (or, more radically, from) the Body of Christ.

Whether it’s fair to say that this laudable commitment to being just Christians, rather than this or that type of Christians, made a lasting impact on me, it’s certainly something I’ve come to re-appreciate over the last several years. While I don’t quite share the same conscientious opposition to recognizing denominational identity that was the hallmark of my tradition, I’ve long since thought that the only noun a Christian ought to own is “Christian.” Denominational labels are at most adjectives. Confusing the adjective for a noun goes a long way toward sowing disunity among Christians.

I recently came across this short clip of Michael Kinnamon, a Disciple of Christ who then served as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, who made this same point quite vividly. He goes so far as to say–hyperbolically–that using denominational labels is idolatrous. Obviously, it’s not my contention that if one slips into common parlance and speaks of herself as a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, or a Mormon, she’s instantly the enemy of Christian unity. Still–not, mind you, that anyone asked me–I think it would be better to mentally drop the article and start thinking of our denominational labels only as adjectives: not a Methodist or a Lutheran or an Anglican, but as Methodist, or a Lutheran Christian, or a Christian who happens to be Anglican.

Yeah. I blog now.


Welcome to my brand spanking new weblog, “Please Disregard the Following,” wherein I’ll share thoughts on various and sundry things exactly once every so often, or your money back.

The last time I attempted to launch a blog was over six years ago. It was an astoundingly successful venture that thrived for over an entire week and almost made me a household name in my own house.

If you’re so inclined, you’re welcome to follow this blog on that Facebook that all the kids are using these days.