Heretics and Ethnographic Investigation in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. This post originally appeared on the blog in August 2016 and is reposted in advance of the author’s review panel Saturday, Nov. 18. Program details below. #AARSBL17


By Todd S. Berzon, author of Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

We are always organizing knowledge. We are always aggregating data in order to arrive at a clearer, more coherent, and more systematic understanding of the world around us. But what happens when there is simply too much information to be collected? What happens when efforts to organize vast amounts of material fall short or fail completely? What happens when the knowledge we meticulously collect simply overwhelms the system or model designed to make sense of it? What are the epistemological implications and challenges that emerge in the production of ethnography—the process of writing about the customs and habits of peoples and communities? Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity investigates these questions within the context of late antique Christianity (ca. 150–500 C.E.). It provides an analysis of the ways in which early Christian authors not only produced ethnography (literally “wrote people”) but they also how they openly negotiated the very possibility and desire of undertaking such a task. Focusing on late antique heresiological literature (orthodox catalogues about heretics), I outline the techniques Christian writers used to collect, organize, and polemicize ethnographic knowledge about their Christian world. I show how the rituals, doctrinal beliefs, customs, and historical origins of the heretics functioned to map and delimit not only the composition of the Christian world but also the world at large. It is the epistemological challenges produced by such classificatory efforts that I explore throughout the book.

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In the late antique world defined by remarkable religious and political change, heresiology illustrates the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of discovery and exploration. But just as Christians wrote their movement into the history of the world as the organizing principle of human difference through models of heretical growth and diffusion, they also codified a deep ambivalence about the literary or representative capacity of heresiological ethnography. I argue that heretics were highly unstable theoretical scaffolding through which Christian authors sought to make sense of the diverse and diversifying world around them. Knowledge about the heretics was necessary to assert orthodox theological dominance, but it was also highly dangerous. Heretical knowledge not only contaminated the ethnographer, but it also confused and in some sense overpowered the compiler because such knowledge was seemingly without limit. There was simply no end to the process of collecting knowledge about the heretics.

Indeed, Christian ethnography reveals not totalizing aspirations of authority—a projected ideology of total epistemological mastery—but a far less secure knowledge about the heretics specifically and the world generally: writing and knowing were endeavors fraught with conceptual fears and uncertainties. In fact, Christian authors explicitly contemplated the danger of investigating the natural and supernatural worlds. It is not simply that they struggle to classify the world around them, but that they openly discuss their failures to do just that. The heresiologists explicitly pondered the epistemological limits of ethnographic investigation, the representative capacity of language, and the unmanageability of ethnographic knowledge in texts. They know that there are limitations to what they can know about the heretics and that their efforts to produce a literary model to contain them is and always will be incomplete.

Discovery, travel, and expansion were not singularly triumphant endeavors, but rather highly perilous and disruptive efforts. The discoveries of new peoples (heretics, nations, islands, etc.) cemented intellectual unease and ethnographic fear. Precisely because the heresiologists gave ethnography into a distinctly theological texture, Classifying Christians points toward the enduring and potent legacy of Christianity in shaping the discourse of centuries of ethnographic investigation. By investigating the role ethnography played in mapping the theological landscape of the late antique world, my aim has been to refine discussions of emergent Christian discourses about heresy and human difference more broadly.


Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.

Join author Todd Berzon at SBL for a review panel of Classifying Christians
SBL Religious World of Late Antiquity Section
Saturday, Nov. 18
9:00 AM–11:30 AM
Hilton Boston Back Bay – Maverick A


Melania and Melania: Two Vexing Icons of Early Christianity

By Caroline T. Schroeder, co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


If you say the name Melania to your friends and family, what words come to their minds?  Wealth, fame for sure.  And perhaps recluse, devoted mother, though perhaps not devoted wife.

Tell them if they really want to read about a controversial and vexing Melania, they have two even more intense icons to choose from. Melania the Elder and her granddaughter Melania the Younger had wealth and fame to spare. Despite their ascetic commitments — even because of them — they were no recluses.  As two of the richest and most influential Christians in late antiquity, they traveled the Mediterranean, building institutions (monasteries and churches), patronizing important early Christian writers, and lobbying the imperial family.  True, Melania the Elder was once imprisoned, and Melania the Younger once sequestered herself in a tiny cell in her monastery.  Yet these moments of confinement, while telling, were not defining. Neither locked themselves behind the gates of their estates.  Instead both women were praised by late antique authors for their roles as architects of an emerging church.

Such influence did not put the Melanias beyond controversy, ancient or modern.  Although spiritual mothers to many of their fellow ascetics, neither dedicated their lives to the physical care of biological children.  Melania the Younger’s children died young, and her grandmother famously left her son behind in Rome to pursue her ascetic career.  Melania the Elder also ruffled the feathers of none other than the famous Jerome.  As several contributors to this book (Luckritz Marquis, Doerfler, Krawiec, and Darling Young) show us, this conflict with Jerome helped shape definitions of heresy and orthodoxy during the Origenist controversy and most certainly affected later Christian tradition’s memory of her.  Melania the Younger, her hagiographer tells us, went even so far as to interrupt and challenge Augustine, in what Susanna Drake calls a “curious case of scriptus interruptus” (171).  Jumping to the twentieth century, Melania the Younger “went viral” (as the kids say) when Cardinal Rampolla published her vita in 1905.  As Michael Penn recounts in the book, the story of the “richest woman in history” rebounded in the popular press. I find myself frequently returning to Elizabeth Castelli’s reading of the Melanias and “The Future of Sainthood.”  Castelli reminds us that these women’s ancient virtues remain provocations for modern readers.  For example, their status as slaveholders was an unquestioned part of their “birthright” in their own time, but one that disturbs the sensibilities of ours.

The work of my co-authors reminds me that we often see in the Melanias what we want to see.  They become ciphers for each interpreter’s own struggles with power and resistance.  Did Melania the Elder abandon her maternal duty or embrace a higher calling?  Was the patronage of Evagrius a dangerous slide into heresy or a courageous display of intellectual and political strength?  Is the swat of a hand a reminder of protocol or a refusal to perform on someone else’s terms?  Reading and writing about the Melanias in ways that reckon with these women as individual agents while simultaneously illuminating the social and discursive networks in which they operate requires tenacity, finesse, and scholarly self-reflection.  One of the privileges of editing this book was witnessing my co-authors write with such qualities, unearthing the many Melanias of history and legacy.  Many of us have learned (or, speaking for myself, have tried to learn) this kind of scholarship from the woman whose work inspires this volume:  Elizabeth A. Clark.  Clark was of course President of the North American Patristics Society and a founding editor of its journal,  the Journal of Early Christian Studies.  As Randall Styers writes in the afterword to the book, Clark’s scholarship has been “in the vanguard” of the field, “exerting enormous energy, creativity, and methodological innovation as she worked to remake the craft of late ancient history” and religion. (284)   Clark, too, is an architect of the field we have become. 

Early Christian studies is now a field that takes seriously theology and history while producing new critical theories of religion and gender, and one that does not shy away from examining its own history and politics.  And thus, we are thrilled that Melania, which wrestles with all of these theoretical threads, appears in our Society’s book series.


Caroline T. Schroeder is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of the Pacific and author of Monastic Bodies: Discipline and Salvation in Shenoute of Atripe. She is co-editor of Melania: Early Christianity through the Life of One Family with Catherine M. Chin, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of California, Davis and author of Grammar and Christianity in the Late Roman World.


Why Late Antiquity (and All History) Needs Twits

By Andrew S. Jacobs, author of Epiphanius of Cyprus: A Cultural Biography of Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


“What a twit.” So a wise colleague recently described Epiphanius of Cyprus (d. 403), the oft-maligned subject of my recent book.

At a conference in March, another prominent historian described Epiphanius as “the stupidest of all Church Fathers.”

In conversations with friends and fellow scholars while writing Epiphanius of Cyprus, I heard him called “horrible” and “a liar.”

To be sure, Epiphanius — monk, bishop, controversialist, and author of a massive, multi-volume encyclopedia of heresies characterized by invective, mendacity, and intolerance — was probably not a nice person. But the pages of history books are not populated by “nice guys”: so why the persistent distaste for Epiphanius? This scholarly aversion to Epiphanius is a puzzle I return to in the concluding chapter of Epiphanius of Cyprus, a puzzle compounded by Epiphanius’s undeniable prominence in his own day and time: a celebrity among monks and bishops, dismissed (or, at the least, marginalized) as a liar and twit by scholars today.

I have no interest in promoting Epiphanius’s intellect (although he probably wasn’t so much stupid as he was unphilosophical) and I have no interest in making us like him (he certainly wouldn’t care for me). But I do believe that history-writing is always to some extent an exercise in answering pressing issues in the present by reimagining traces of the past. We find certain persons, texts, and events “interesting” precisely because of our own interests (meaning both our engagements and our stakes). If Epiphanius seems not to fit into our histories, it is because he works against those interests.

What kind of past are we determined to create that has no room for Epiphanius? Why doesn’t our late antiquity have room for twits?

The writing of history, like any cultural production, is a story we want to tell about ourselves. Late antiquity — born in the colonial 19th century, nourished in the postcolonial 1950s, and matured in the multicultural 1970s — was a period of intellectual ferment, transformation, and rebirth, a Eurasian renaissance from which emerged new thinking, new arts, and new religions. It reversed the sneering disdain of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon. It claimed as its mascots the great thinkers and idea men (and, in more recent years, idea women), impresarios of change and authors of new worlds. It is entirely understandable that we would want to produce a late antiquity from which we might imagine a better present and future for ourselves.

History-writing, like all culture-making, is about inclusions and exclusions, about viewing our world with certain blinders. Epiphanius was perhaps a twit, certainly intolerant, absolutely dedicated to finding and rooting out “the other” from his orthodox empire. To exclude him from our culture-making forays into the past, however, is to leave ourselves open to all sorts of unpleasant surprises about the world we inhabit in the present. Epiphanius’s prominence in late antiquity was not, I argue, a fluke but rather the dark side of a new, transformative, diverse world being born. I am not calling for a return to Gibbon’s sneering condemnation of late antiquity, but rather a more clear-eyed appreciation of all of its shadows and nuances.

We may not like the twits of history, but without facing them head on we are disarming ourselves against them in the present and the future.


Andrew S. Jacobs is Professor of Religious Studies and Mary W. and J. Stanley Johnson Professor of Humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. He is the author of Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity and Christ Circumcised: A Study in Early Christian History and Difference.


Are Contemporary Political Movements Ancient “Heresies” in Disguise?

By Yonatan Moss, author of Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society, and Authority in Late Antiquity

This guest post is part of a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity, the official book series of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago for their annual conference. #NAPS2017


In 1959 the British historian of the Roman Empire, A. H. M. Jones, published an influential article entitled “Were Ancient Heresies Political or Social Movements in Disguise?”. Despite the interrogatory pose assumed in its title, Jones’s essay was more of a response than a question. It responded to the then regnant understanding among historians that the series of “heretical” movements that rocked the late ancient Roman imperial church were motivated by national aspirations and social grievances. Jones effectively showed that this was not at all the case. National and social concerns were, Jones argued, predominantly modern categories which the historians of his day had anachronistically imposed upon the theologically-minded inhabitants of the later Roman Empire.

My recent book, Incorruptible Bodies: Christology, Society and Authority in Late Antiquity, studies one of those late ancient “heresies” examined by Jones: the group now commonly referred to as the Miaphysite movement. The Miaphysites (from Greek mia-one, physis-nature) disputed the definition reached at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, according to which there are two natures, one human and one divine, in Christ. Contrary to the imperial administration’s enforcement of Chalcedon as official policy, millions of Christians from Egypt to Eastern Turkey continued to adhere to one-nature theology. They gradually established churches of their own, separate from the ecclesiastical structures of the Empire. Although these churches ultimately came to be known under the names of Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox, each with its own distinctive language of liturgy and theological expression, Jones was right to point out that initially, in the fifth-and-sixth centuries, these were not “national” movements. Several of the foundational figures of the Syrian Orthodox church, such as Severus of Antioch, one of the main actors in my book, spoke and wrote in Greek, rather than in Syriac. Contrary to a narrative popular in earlier scholarship, according to which Severus of Antioch strove to separate from the official, Chalcedonian church of the Empire, Incorruptible Bodies shows that he actually did everything he could to remain within the imperial church, seeking to win it over to his anti-Chalcedonian stance.

The lesson learned from Jones’s article, one which we historians find ourselves relearning time and again, is how not to project contemporary categories back onto the past. Yet, does this mean that no connections exist between the past and the present? Having published my book last year, as I now witness the political events unfolding in Washington, I see deep similarities between the two. I have come to realize how, rather than viewing the past through the prism of the present, we can do the reverse.

While contemporary American political controversies deal with very different concerns than those that plagued the churches of the later Roman Empire, both revolve around disagreements over the proper route to what may be called individual and collective “salvation,” whether that salvation is spiritual, moral or material. The dilemma that now plagues the Democratic Party (and which similarly occupied Republicans during the Obama administration), is structurally equivalent to the key question underlying the disputes among the sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian bishops analyzed in my book: how must one implement one’s vision of salvation when power lays in the hands of those whose views one considers “heretical” and obstacles to salvation? Does one insist on ideological purity, or does one try to change the system from within, either in the name of social unity or in the name of shorter-term gains? The range of answers offered within the Democratic Party mirrors the array of positions defended by the late ancient Miaphysites. But whereas the end of the current political debate is still open, we do know what course of action the Miaphysite movement ultimately decided on. What was this course of action? Readers of Incorruptible Bodies, whether or not they happen to be Democratic policy-makers, can find out for themselves.


Yonatan Moss is a scholar at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion.


Q & A with the Editor of Christianity in Late Antiquity

The Official Book Series of the North American Patristics Society

This Q & A is the first post in a blog series related to Christianity in Late Antiquity and published in conjunction with the conference of the North American Patristics Society, which meets May 25-27 in Chicago. Stay tuned for more guest contributions from authors in the series. #NAPS2017


Christianity in Late Antiquity presents outstanding new scholarship on late-ancient Christianity in its various cultural contexts. The series represents the full range of approaches to early Christianity practiced by scholars in North America and internationally, combining the best of theological analysis and institutional history with newer approaches in social history, material culture, liturgical studies, and gender studies. Its geographical and linguistic purview includes the Mediterranean world, North Africa, Northern Europe, Arabia, and the Levant.

As the North American Patristics Society convenes this week in Chicago, we asked editor Christopher Beeley to discuss the series, his own research, and how these titles will contribute to the field of early Christian studies.

What inspired you to develop the Christianity in Late Antiquity series?

Several years ago I noticed that something important was missing. The field of early Christian studies was growing in very creative ways in North America, both numerically and in terms of new perspectives, but there was no standard, general series at an American press that one would immediately think of. So I proposed to the North American Patristics Society—our main academic association—that we recreate the Society’s official book series, which once played a vital role, to reflect the full range of methodological approaches being practiced by North American scholars, and to launch a new initiative with a major American university press. That led to the conversion of the Patristic Monograph Series to the new Christianity in Late Antiquity (CLA) series with the University of California Press. There was much energy among the senior membership of NAPS as well as younger scholars, and we have since seen a great deal of interest in the series.

Can you tell us more about your research interests and areas of expertise?

My favorite thing about the early Christian studies scene in North America is that, while we certainly have our squabbles and debates, people of different and often overlapping methodological approaches work alongside one another in what are usually creative and mutually-beneficial ways. This has not always been the case in other academic associations, regrettably. The interdisciplinarity of NAPS and the conversation we enjoy is an incredible asset, and the new series reflects that. As the series editor I work with authors with very different interests.

I have studied and taught early Christianity for over twenty years, and I am interested in numerous aspects of the period. Thus far I have concentrated on the development of early Christian theology, spirituality, and biblical interpretation, and I pay close attention to the construction of authority by theologians and church councils, the way early Christian writers position themselves rhetorically, and their nearly constant concern for practical matters of individual and social ethics. I have learned a great deal from my colleagues working in similar and different areas, and I am glad to have received their responses to my work as well.

What sets the titles in Christianity in Late Antiquity apart from other books in the field?

What distinguishes CLA from the other outlets is the broad and integrative quality of the work it represents. We don’t simply publish works that represent a wide range of perspectives individually, but we aim to present books that integrate them in new and creative ways. The first two volumes do this in spades.

Yonatan Moss’ Incorruptible Bodies examines the sixth-century debate over the nature of Christ’s human body—in particular, whether is was incorruptible prior to the resurrection or not—but it does so by examining how that question gets played out in the social and political configurations surrounding the major players. There are both old-school historical dividends and new-school theoretical perspectives involved. Moss shows not only that Bishop Severus of Antioch, the great patriarch of the non-Chalcedonian church in Syria, preferred to remain in alliance with the emerging Byzantine empire, despite his opposition to the fractious Council of Chalcedon—a fact that has eluded previous scholars—but Moss also sheds light on how the ecclesial bodies of the rival communities around Severus show different social dynamics in relation to their stance on Christ’s body. It’s fascinating.

Andrew Jacobs’ brilliant new study of the fourth-century bishop and heresy-hunter Epiphanius of Cyprus likewise gives us new details of Epiphanius’ life and works along with a very contemporary new perspective on the phenomenon of his wide influence. By attending to ecclesiastical power structures and making use of modern celebrity studies, Jacobs accounts for Epiphanius’ amazing success at network-building while also giving serious attention to his biblical interpretation and dogmatic theology. The result is a whole new picture of an important early Christian bishop who is typically overlooked as a person in preference for the otherwise lost sources by other authors that he transmits.

Our third volume, Melania, a collection of studies of the influential aristocratic ascetics Melania the Elder and Melania the Younger and their family and friends, opens new doors in the study of late-ancient Christian spirituality and social history. And we have several new books currently in production of equal promise: on early Christian Syriac poetry, fourth-century Greek ascetical theology, early Christian historiography, and Latin inscriptions.

How do you see the series influencing scholarship in your field?

I expect CLA is going to influence the field of early Christian studies—in North America and internationally—by presenting the sort of pioneering integrative scholarship that North American scholars have come to be known for. While we continue to practice the more traditional modes of study, such as historical theology and institutional history, we bring to these subjects new questions and new forms of inquiry that will yield insight in multiple directions. As the largest society among our international peers, the North American Patristics Society and our associates are poised to give new shape to the field of early Christian studies, and to make important contributions in several others fields as well, from late-ancient history to systematic theology to cultural studies.


Christopher Beeley is Professor of Christian theology and history and modern Anglican tradition at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, and Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, which was the winner of a John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. An Episcopal priest, he has served parishes in Connecticut, Indiana, Texas, and Virginia, and he contributes to Berkeley Divinity School’s Anglican formation program.


Praying and Preying

by Aparecida Vilaça, author of Praying and Preying: Christianity in Indigenous Amazonia

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

9780520289147In 1986, when I arrived for the first time, the Negro river village, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, situated between 6 and 20 hours by boat from the city of Guajará-Mirim (depending on outboard motor size and river level), was inhabited by 350 agriculturists, hunters and gatherers with little access to manufactured goods. Although a health worker, a teacher, an agent of the National Indian Foundation and a missionary couple from the New Tribes Mission were also living among them, they seemed to be living a fairly, we could say, traditional life. They told me that they had been Christians throughout the 1970s, but had ‘abandoned God’ at the start of the 1980s. At the time four shamans were active there, curing people attacked by animal spirits and travelling to the subaquatic world where the dead lived.

This situation was transformed at the turn of the century when a revival occurred, accompanied by a new wave of conversions. According to some, the principal reason for the collective conversion was the fear that the world would end because of the USA’s response to the September 11th attacks, an event the Wari’ had been able to watch on the community television. When I arrived in January 2002, I was surprised by the changes. A house had been transformed into a church where various services were held each week. People came up to ask me whether the war had already reached Rio de Janeiro, my home town, and were eager for international news of the conflict. They said that if the end of the world caught them unprepared, still non-Christians, they would go directly to hell where they would spend eternity roasting like game animals.

Continue reading “Praying and Preying”


Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

by Kelsy Burke, author of Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

What are Christian sexuality websites and why did you want to study them?

Christian sexuality websites attempt to counter negative religious messages about sex—which are the messages we usually hear about in popular media and academic research—with ones that appear more sex-positive. Website creators and users believe that God created sexual intimacy to be enjoyed frequently and enthusiastically by straight, married, monogamous couples. There are bloggers who write about maneuvering various sexual positions and biblical passages they interpret to support sex practices like oral sex. There are message boards where members ask others for advice on a wide range of topics, like how to communicate an unusual sexual interest to a spouse or how to achieve orgasm. There are online stores that sell “marital enhancements,” like vibrators, lubricants, and fuzzy handcuffs.

These online spaces are endlessly surprising to me and as a sociologist, they offer important insight into sexuality and culture. Sex isn’t intuitive. Even though we often think of it as a private, personal and natural act, we actually come to understand and experience sex from implicit and explicit lessons taught by our social world. For website creators and users, Christian sexuality websites shape what sex is and should be. This online community is full of sexual possibilities and limits—encouraging sexual exploration and experimentation for those who are straight, married, and monogamous but condemning sex that takes place in any other context.

How can virtual ethnography add to our understanding of religion in the 21st century?

Certainly virtual ethnography offers a glimpse of religion that isn’t afforded to one studying church congregations. I interviewed housewives whose part-time online businesses sell sex toys and observed online discussions among evangelical men who enjoy wearing their wife’s undergarments, all in the name of Jesus. The stories found on Christian sexuality websites repeatedly challenge predominant evangelical sexual stereotypes.

These stories don’t just serve as provocative anecdotes, though. Collectively, they reveal the efforts of conservative Christianity to both maintain its distinction from broader secular culture while adapting to a changing world. Online dialogue allows laypeople to present sexuality in ways evangelical authors or preachers likely did not anticipate. One way to think about this is to imagine a city park. In the park, there are both paved sidewalks and what urban designers call “desire paths,” those trails that have been worn by people over time, determined by where they tend to walk. If the paved sidewalks are established religious authorities—the prescriptive rules found in Christian sex advice books or carefully drafted sermons—the desire paths are blogs, message boards, and online stores created and used by ordinary believers. At times, these paths run parallel to the sidewalks. At other times, they appear to go in an entirely different direction. Either way, they become a part of the landscape.

Religion and sexuality are often contentious issues in contemporary culture and politics. What does your book tell us about the relationship between the two?

One of the recurring themes in Christians under Covers is a contradictory religious logic about sexuality. Website creators and users overwhelmingly oppose sex outside of marriage and homosexuality, but they support a wide range of sex practices within monogamous, heterosexual marriages, like women’s pursuits of pleasure and even sex practices deemed “kinky” (like male anal play). Yet as Christian sexuality website users may push the boundaries of gender and sexual norms in their own marriages, they lose the ability to rely on those norms to justify heterosexuality as exclusively normal and natural. They write about sexuality in an era of legalized gay marriage in which monogamous, married lifestyles are not the sole territory of heterosexuals. Religion provides a foundation for heterosexuality, which has largely lost its other familiar attributes: gender, monogamy, and marriage. This may mean that religious conservatives will hold steadfast in their exclusive support for heterosexuality, or it may mean that they may gradually accept non-heterosexual practices and identities. Christian sexuality websites are one place where this future unfolds.


Kelsy Burke is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska – Lincoln.


Heretics and Ethnographic Investigation in Late Antiquity

by Todd S. Berzon, author of Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity

We are always organizing knowledge. We are always aggregating data in order to arrive at a clearer, more coherent, and more systematic understanding of the world around us. But what happens when there is simply too much information to be collected? What happens when efforts to organize vast amounts of material fall short or fail completely? What happens when the knowledge we meticulously collect simply overwhelms the system or model designed to make sense of it? What are the epistemological implications and challenges that emerge in the production of ethnography—the process of writing about the customs and habits of peoples and communities? Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity investigates these questions within the context of late antique Christianity (ca. 150–500 C.E.). It provides an analysis of the ways in which early Christian authors not only produced ethnography (literally “wrote people”) but they also how they openly negotiated the very possibility and desire of undertaking such a task. Focusing on late antique heresiological literature (orthodox catalogues about heretics), I outline the techniques Christian writers used to collect, organize, and polemicize ethnographic knowledge about their Christian world. I show how the rituals, doctrinal beliefs, customs, and historical origins of the heretics functioned to map and delimit not only the composition of the Christian world but also the world at large. It is the epistemological challenges produced by such classificatory efforts that I explore throughout the book.

9780520284265_Berzon

In the late antique world defined by remarkable religious and political change, heresiology illustrates the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of discovery and exploration. But just as Christians wrote their movement into the history of the world as the organizing principle of human difference through models of heretical growth and diffusion, they also codified a deep ambivalence about the literary or representative capacity of heresiological ethnography. I argue that heretics were highly unstable theoretical scaffolding through which Christian authors sought to make sense of the diverse and diversifying world around them. Knowledge about the heretics was necessary to assert orthodox theological dominance, but it was also highly dangerous. Heretical knowledge not only contaminated the ethnographer, but it also confused and in some sense overpowered the compiler because such knowledge was seemingly without limit. There was simply no end to the process of collecting knowledge about the heretics.

Indeed, Christian ethnography reveals not totalizing aspirations of authority—a projected ideology of total epistemological mastery—but a far less secure knowledge about the heretics specifically and the world generally: writing and knowing were endeavors fraught with conceptual fears and uncertainties. In fact, Christian authors explicitly contemplated the danger of investigating the natural and supernatural worlds. It is not simply that they struggle to classify the world around them, but that they openly discuss their failures to do just that. The heresiologists explicitly pondered the epistemological limits of ethnographic investigation, the representative capacity of language, and the unmanageability of ethnographic knowledge in texts. They know that there are limitations to what they can know about the heretics and that their efforts to produce a literary model to contain them is and always will be incomplete.

Discovery, travel, and expansion were not singularly triumphant endeavors, but rather highly perilous and disruptive efforts. The discoveries of new peoples (heretics, nations, islands, etc.) cemented intellectual unease and ethnographic fear. Precisely because the heresiologists gave ethnography into a distinctly theological texture, Classifying Christians points toward the enduring and potent legacy of Christianity in shaping the discourse of centuries of ethnographic investigation. By investigating the role ethnography played in mapping the theological landscape of the late antique world, my aim has been to refine discussions of emergent Christian discourses about heresy and human difference more broadly.


Todd S. Berzon is Assistant Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.


Kevin O’Neill interviewed on New Books in Latin American Studies

Kevin O’Neill, author of recently released Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala, spoke to Alejandra Bronfman on the New Books in Latin American Studies podcast last week.

New Books in Latin American Studies is part of the New Books Network, a collection of podcasts hosted by the Amherst College Library dedicated to public discourse and the discussion of new books by their authors.

Listen to the full interview here or on the New Books Network’s website, which also features Alejandra’s full review of the book.

9780520278493-1In their in-depth conversation, Kevin O’Neill touches upon a number of topics, from his path to the field of anthropology and his his research in Guatemala to his thoughts on the larger relationship between Christian institutions and gang violence and the role of “Mateo” as presented in his book.

“This is a finely hewn multi-sited ethnography as well as a moving account of the life of a single former gang member,” says Alejandra Bronfman on Secure the Soul. “At its core is a tension between the critique of programs that range from the absurd to the tragic, and a recognition that without those programs, former gang members in Guatemala would be relegated to the barest of bare lives.”


Interview with Matthew Engelke on God’s Agents

anthrocybib, The Anthropology of Christianity Bibliographic Blog, features an interview with Matthew Engelke, author of the new UC Press book, God’s Agents: Biblical Publicity in Contemporary England. The book is a study of how religion goes public in today’s world. Based on over three years of anthropological research, Matthew Engelke traces how a small group of socially committed Christians tackle the challenge of publicity within what they understand to be a largely secular culture.

Engelke discusses the inception of the project, his methodology, issues around ethnographic investigation, and much more. Here, he describes the book’s key contributions to the field:

I think for me one of the primary contributions is to the ethnography of the secular, actually.  Because so much of what the Bible Society staff were thinking about was faith in relation to the secular, to secularization as they understood it, to the idea of a secular state as they understood it, to the idea of a secular societyas they understood it. For me it’s putting some color into the picture that we have of the work on secularization and secularity within anthropology and the human sciences.  I want this to be a living, breathing account of how the different ways in which the secular shapes modern life get played out on a day-to-day basis.

Read the full interview at anthrocybib.