"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, October 13, 2017

Religion, Authority, and the State: Constantine and Beyond

Debates about religious freedom are by no means unique to the United States in these early years of the 21st century. So too debates about the legacy of Constantine are not new developments either. Two recent books shed light on both questions, giving them wide context.

The first, Religion, Authority, and the State: From Constantine to the Contemporary World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 249pp. is a collection edited by Leo Lefebure.With at least two chapters focusing on Slavic Orthodox debates around religious freedom, this book promises to be of interest to Eastern Christians.

The publisher further tells us about this book:
In commemoration of Constantine’s grant of freedom of religion to Christians, this wide-ranging volume examines the ambiguous legacy of this emperor in relation to the present world, discussing the perennial challenges of relations between religions and governments. The authors examine the new global ecumenical movement inspired by Pentecostals, the role of religion in the Irish Easter rebellion against the British, and the relation between religious freedom and government in the United States. Other essays debate the relation of Islam to the violence in Nigeria, the place of the family in church-state relations in the Philippines, the role of confessional identity in the political struggles in the Balkans, and the construction of Slavophile identity in nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox political theology. The volume also investigates the contrast between written constitutions and actual practice in the relations between governments and religions in Australia, Indonesia, and Egypt.  The case studies and surveys illuminate both specific contexts and also widespread currents in religion-state relations across the world.
The second study, by Kyle Smith, is Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia: Martyrdom and Religious Identity in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2016), 256pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
It is widely believed that the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity politicized religious allegiances, dividing the Christian Roman Empire from the Zoroastrian Sasanian Empire and leading to the persecution of Christians in Persia. This account, however, is based on Greek ecclesiastical histories and Syriac martyrdom narratives that date to centuries after the fact. In this groundbreaking study, Kyle Smith analyzes diverse Greek, Latin, and Syriac sources to show that there was not a single history of fourth-century Mesopotamia. By examining the conflicting hagiographical and historical evidence, Constantine and the Captive Christians of Persia presents an evocative and evolving portrait of the first Christian emperor, uncovering how Syriac Christians manipulated the image of their western Christian counterparts to fashion their own political and religious identities during this century of radical change.

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