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Two recent books cry out to be reviewed together: Nadya Williams’s Cultural Christians in the Early Church: A Historical and Practical Introduction to Christians in the Greco-Roman World; and Nijay K. Gupta’s Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling. What I have to offer here is not a review (much as a range of such assessments from various angles and for various audiences is to be desired) but rather some ruminations occasioned by the conjunction of these two books.

Nadya Williams (whom I regard as a dear friend, though we’ve never met in person) recently quit her day job as a professor (her specialty was military history of the Greco-Roman world) to devote herself to homeschooling and her own writing. She is also doing valuable work presiding over coverage of books at the online site Current (headed up by the historians John Fea, Jay Green, and Eric Miller).

Published late last year by Zondervan Academic, Cultural Christians in the Early Church is an immensely wide-ranging book, drawing extensively on scholarship but also personal at times, written in a manner that deliberately blends the formal and the informal, intended to be accessible to what’s sometimes called “a general audience.” I found this style winsome, but it can also be jarring, as when a paragraph begins: “Roland Barthes, a distinguished twentieth-century French literary critic and philosopher. . . .” Readers familiar with Barthes will be irritated (he was not, of course, “a philosopher”); readers unacquainted with him will get no sense of his particular “flavor.”

Williams works on the premise that Christians across the centuries have tended to see “the early Church” in an excessively rosy light. She seeks to undercut this view with a wealth of examples showing how our fellow-believers in that era were in fact vulnerable to a wide range of “cultural sins.” But she doesn’t stop there. Indeed, while she is certainly interested in the history of the early Church for its own sake, what drives this book is her desire to show Christians today—Christians like me and you—how vulnerable we are to “cultural sins.” But what precisely are “cultural sins”?

“While cultural religion did not look the same in the ancient world as today,” Williams writes, “it ultimately functioned in similar ways. Cultural religion created identity without demanding excessive personal commitment.” Of course, there were plenty of exceptions—circumstances in which Christians were persecuted, even killed, because they would not abandon their “counter-cultural” convictions. And yet, Williams argues, this was the exception rather than the rule, even before Christianity was no longer legally prohibited.

Williams is interested in this history “for its own sake,” but she is quite forthright about its application to our present. This reached its nadir (for me) in a subsection near the end of the book, headed “Immigration, CRT, and War.” But whether or not you share her views about the application of this historical argument for contemporary American Christians, I think you will profit from reading Williams.

Gupta’s Strange Religion, published at the end of February by Brazos Press, sounds like the antithesis of Williams’s book. After all, Williams argues that (most of) the first Christians weren’t nearly as “weird, dangerous, and compelling” as we tend to assume. And yet Gupta, who is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and the author of many New Testament commentaries in addition to books for the general reader, endorsed Williams’s book, praising it as a “poignant and perceptive work of historical analysis.”

While Gupta’s book, like Williams’s, is written for the fabled “general audience,” it is shorter, much more colloquial, and more reliant on humor (often of the jokey variety) than Cultural Christians in the Early Church. It occurred to me that an event bringing the two writers together in conversation would be very interesting. Maybe such a public conversation has already been planned; it seems like a no-brainer. More ambitiously, this conversation could also include the scholar Georgia Frank, whose fascinating 2023 book Unfinished Christians: Ritual Objects and Silent Subjects in Late Antiquity “explores what we can know about the lived religion of ordinary, non-elite Christians in cities during the fourth through sixth centuries.”

Reading Williams and Gupta within a span of several months, and revisiting Frank’s book from last year, I thought about the ways in which “the early Church” has figured in various settings over the course of my own life. In the Baptist churches we attended when I was growing up, there was virtually nothing beyond the New Testament accounts, in which of course “the early Church” is shown, warts and all. In certain contexts, as I grew a bit older, I would encounter vague references to a supposed continuity between the early Church and the Baptists, who were said to have “recovered” or restored the purity of the gospel (no “saints,” heaven forbid; none of that foolishness). As I have explained before, I never learned Baptist history until I was no longer a Baptist.

From various sources over the decades—not least from our daughter Mary and son-in-law John, who became Catholic very soon after they were married and are the parents of our seven grandchildren—I have gained a deeper sense of Church history, including but not at all limited to the early Church. As an evangelical Christian, I feel a deep kinship with my fellow believers, Catholic and Orthodox and all the rest who share the faith that was kindled two thousand years ago. We know from the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament epistles, and other texts that “the Church” here or there has always fallen short of what God desires for us, but we look forward to the restoration of all things promised in Acts 3:21. May it be so.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books

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Image by Volkan Hatem licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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