"A World Full of Gods: The Strange Triumph of Christianity," by Keith Hopkins. The Free Press. 416 pages. $26.
Reading "A World Full of Gods" is a confusing experience. Is it meant to be non-fiction or fiction? Is this imaginative but puzzling collection of various approaches to the beginnings of Christianity to be trusted? Or is it just a cynical post-modern attempt to keep the reader (assumed to be media-saturated and possessing a short attention span) placated and pacified? Is this book serious scholarly history or is it better added to the list of pot-boilers in the field of historical fiction?
At first, I am charmed. Two modern-day civilians travel back in time to Pompeii just before the eruption of Vesuvius. There are reports from Martha and James about what it feels like to "pass" as a native, with surprising revelations about public bathing, pagan processions, gladiator fights and the slave trade. This chapter is clever, brilliant and fascinating. Keith Hopkins has gathered primary source material to construct a three-dimensional experience. Under the guise of "letters" exchanged between the author and a friend, he is even able to critique his own approach.
The second chapter is a play within a play. The reader is given background information about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and then introduced to a television camera crew thrown back in time to 85 AD filming a documentary on the Qumran myth. After a quick move to a TV cutting room in 1998, sections of the film make their way into the foreground text interspersed with editorial banter. A particularly obtuse example of the scholarly voice is mocked as "obscure and boring," in contrast to this new, fun kind of history, more like an action-packed comic book (complete with romantic flirtations among the crew).
But here is where I become perplexed. The third chapter reverts to a serious discussion of "The Christian Revolution" and the ways in which this new movement represents a radical break with the Roman world and Judaism. Hopkins' vocabulary becomes more academic ("contumacious?"), and the book settles into "normal" history, albeit interspersed with critical correspondence from colleagues and friends, a return of the time travelers and outrageous stories from early apocryphal accounts of Christianity. In his introduction, Hopkins describes this book as "an experiment in how to write religious history." That it most certainly is.
So did I like it? Surprise. I loved it. Not at first. It took a while for me to trust Hopkins. Now that I look back at the experience of reading this playfully self-conscious history of the first three centuries of Christianity, I feel that Keith Hopkins is a great teacher.
Confessing that he is an "indelibly Protestant" atheist, he contends that antiquity cannot be reproduced without subjectivity. His unorthodox approach holds up the discourse of competing academic voices of the last century in a light-handed and creative way. In so doing, he reveals the limitations of the "historical critical method" and makes sense of my confused seminary education for the first time.
Early Christianity encompassed many "Christianities," with the image of Jesus changing with the times. Hopkins writes, "The important Jesus is the Jesus in believers' minds."
This is no religious tract or spiritual guide. Some readers may be uncomfortable with the earthy illustrations, both visual and literary. But to anyone who has waded through hermeneutics and form criticism, this will be happy reading. Enjoy!
Victoria R. Sirota, an Episcopal priest, is vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore and National Chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, as well as Visiting Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary's Seminary and University.