"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).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Trashing Heretics on Twitter and Facebook

Perhaps it is from a painfully personal awareness of the power of Twitter or Facebook to destroy reputations in a gratuitous and unjust fashion based as often as not on one's "friends" or those to whom one links or fails to link, but my students seem especially fascinated and engaged when I talk about how many early Christians--Origen of Alexandria or Evagrius of Pontus, to name perhaps the most prominent--could have been invoked, or alternately celebrated or trashed, often posthumously, on the basis of hearsay, the types of friends they kept or failed to keep, or the posthumous antics of their so-called friends and disciples invoking the master's name to promote various ideas and causes. To my mind, one of the clearest examples of this is Evagrius of Pontus, who has been under such a "glare of unwelcome light" (Anthony Blanche) and has been treated in lurid and hostile terms with what seems to me very thinly sourced and very ambiguous "evidence." Fortunately, Evagrius has come in for a wholly welcome re-examination by Augustine Casiday, as noted here in my interview with him. Now a new book looks at the whole phenomenon of how people were trashed with the label of "heretic": Geoffrey S. Smith, Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity (Oxford UP, 2014), 216pp.

About this book we are told:
Few literary innovations have exercised as much influence upon Christian attitudes toward internal diversity as has the practice of organizing the names and alleged misdeeds of rival teachers into heresy catalogues. For two millennia, followers of Jesus have employed the heresy catalogue as a powerful weapon in internal struggles for legitimacy, authority, and supremacy. Despite its enduring popularity and influence within the Christian tradition, the heresy catalogue remains an underappreciated polemical genre among historians of early Christianity.Guilt by Association explores the creation, publication, and circulation of heresy catalogues by second- and early third-century Christians. Polemicists made use of these religious blacklists, which include the names of heretical teachers along with summaries of their unsavory doctrines and nefarious misdeeds, in order to discredit opponents and advocate their expulsion from the "authentic" Christianity community. The heresy catalogue proved to be especially effective because it not only recast rival teachers as menacing adversaries, but also reinforced such characterizations by organizing otherwise unaffiliated teachers into coherent intellectual, social, and scholastic communities that are established and sustained by demonic powers. Geoffrey Smith focuses especially on the earliest Christian heresy catalogues, including those found within the works of Justin, Irenaeus, and Hegesippus, to shed new light upon the complex process through which early Christianity took shape.

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