Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book review: The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey

Catherine Nixey - The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World 
Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh

If there is a weakness in this book, it stems precisely from its Gibbonian roots. This is, fundamentally, a restatement of the Enlightenment view that the classical heritage was essentially benign and rational, and the advent of Christianity marked civilisation’s plunge into darkness...

A more critical review: "this is a book of biased polemic masquerading as historical analysis.."

The theologian,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption, which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.” Gibbon was a child of the European Enlightenment, and he viewed his task as a historian of early Christianity as a dispassionate, scientific one: to see things as they are, rather than as the pious would want them to be. The conclusions he reached were, perhaps inevitably, controversial in his day. The pre-Christian Roman empire, he believed, was characterised by “religious harmony”, and the Romans were interested more in good governance than in imposing religious orthodoxy on their many subjects. 

A distinctive feature of early Christianity, by contrast, was for Gibbon its “exclusive zeal for the truth of religion”, a blinkered, intolerant obsessiveness that succeeded by bullying and intimidation, and promoted a class of wide-eyed mystics. Indeed, Christian zealotry, was, he thought, ultimately responsible for the fall of the Roman empire, by creating citizens contemptuous of their public duty.

This spirit permeates Catherine Nixey’s book. In her view, the standard modern picture of the Roman empire’s conversion remains, even 200 years after Gibbon, glossed by Christian triumphalism. 
History, she believes, has given the Church an undeservedly easy ride. Pre-Christian Rome tends to be imagined as cruel, arbitrary and punitive; it is thought to be, in her fine phrase, “a chilly, nihilistic world”. Christianity, conversely, is painted as brave, principled, kind, inclusive and optimistic. The task she sets herself – her own melancholy duty – is to rip away this veneer and expose the error and corruption of the early Church.

This is also, however, a book for the 21st century. What concerned Gibbon was the clash between faith and reason; for Nixey, the clashes are physical ones. This is, fundamentally, a study of religious violence. Her cover displays a statue of Athena deliberately damaged: its eyes have been gouged and its nose smashed, and a cross has been etched into its forehead. The story of this defacement is told in her prologue and reprised in her final words. The events happened in Palmyra in the late fourth century, when some of the oasis city’s magnificent temples were repurposed as sites of Christian worship. Her choice to begin in Palmyra is, of course, a careful one. When she speaks of the destruction wrought on the architecture of the Syrian city by “bearded, black-robed zealots”, the reader thinks not of marauding fourth-century Christian fundamentalists but of television images from recent history. 

“There have been,” she writes, and “there still are … those who use monotheism and its weapons to terrible ends.” What is revealing about that last sentence is not the connection she draws between savage practices in Christian late antiquity and in the name of Islamic State but the phrase “monotheism and its weapons”. Many modern commentators like to speak of religious terrorism as a horrific distortion of religious truth; for Nixey, monotheism is always weaponised and waiting only for someone to pull the trigger… read more: