"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).

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Christianizing Egypt

In February it will, impossibly, be 30 years (!) since I went to the World Council of Churches seventh general assembly in Canberra, Australia. It was there, as an impressionable 18-year-old finishing high-school, that I learned a big new word: syncretism. Many people were up in arms at an apparent outbreak of the same during the assembly, and there was even a contingent of tiresome whackos from (where else?) the American Bible belt protesting outside our worship tent most days, saying syncretists were going to go to hell. We found these people vaguely amusing.

But to grow up and out of such lurid fantasies is to realize that people are constantly borrowing from other cultures and traditions, no matter how much the fundamentalist freaks and the purity fetishists scream and whinge about it. As the late great Robert Taft said of liturgical history, "we're all mongrels" so, a fortiori, is this true for "religious" traditions more broadly still--and the histories of ethnic and nationalist groups as well. This is a lesson amply illustrated by histories of almost every time and place. One of my most favored examples comes from Juliet du Boulay's haunting book (discussed here), Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village.

Soon we will have an affordable version of another such book about another ancient Eastern Christian country: Egypt. First released in hardback in 2017, this book is set for paperback release in the middle of 2021: Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity by David Frankfurter (Princeton University Press, June 2021), 336pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us this:

How does a culture become Christian, especially one that is heir to such ancient traditions and spectacular monuments as Egypt? This book offers a new model for envisioning the process of Christianization by looking at the construction of Christianity in the various social and creative worlds active in Egyptian culture during late antiquity.

As David Frankfurter shows, members of these different social and creative worlds came to create different forms of Christianity according to their specific interests, their traditional idioms, and their sense of what the religion could offer. Reintroducing the term “syncretism” for the inevitable and continuous process by which a religion is acculturated, the book addresses the various formations of Egyptian Christianity that developed in the domestic sphere, the worlds of holy men and saints’ shrines, the work of craftsmen and artisans, the culture of monastic scribes, and the reimagination of the landscape itself, through processions, architecture, and the potent remains of the past.

Drawing on sermons and magical texts, saints’ lives and figurines, letters and amulets, and comparisons with Christianization elsewhere in the Roman empire and beyond, Christianizing Egypt reconceives religious change—from the “conversion” of hearts and minds to the selective incorporation and application of strategies for protection, authority, and efficacy, and for imagining the environment.

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