Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Peter Leithart

A moment of praise for my theology professor, Peter Leithart. He has a library the size "of the state of Texas," which is not much of an exaggeration: floor to ceiling bookshelves on all four walls of his study are deep enough to stack books two deep and about fifteen feet at the tallest points, and are filled, along with books stacked up waist-high on the floor. He literally has a catalogue system like they do in public libraries. And he's read most all of them.

I have no idea how many books he's written, but they are many and their topics vary from a Solomonic approach to postmodernism to a magnificent "theological bricolage" against the corruptions and misconceptions in the Christian church to a lovely book on Jane Austen.

Anyway, here's an article of his.

History: Freeman’s Distortions

Two instances of Freeman’s distortions (these from The Closing of the Western Mind). First, he has a couple of pictures of the Riace warrior statue from Delphi, which “represents man at his most heroic, almost a god in his own right.” On the facing page he says “By the fourth century A.D., such confidence has faded and human beings have become overwhelmed by forces over which they have little control.” To illustrate, he reproduces Grunewald’s depiction of St Anthony (1515) and a twelfth century icon showing devils dragging souls to hell.

Freeman’s leaps and bounds leave me a little dizzy.

For starters, while there is certainly a difference between the Delphi statue and the depictions of Anthony, the difference is not the difference between hero and helpless victim. After all, Anthony was at war with those demons, and victorious. He is a different sort of hero, but not less heroic. Besides, it’s not entirely clear how paintings from the sixteenth and twelfth century respectively are supposed to provide evidence cocncerning the fourth century.

A second distortion: A page after the contrast of the Riace warrior and Anthony, Freeman includes a picture of the head of Constantine from the monumental statue now extant only in fragments, a photo of the arch of Constantine, and a medallion from about 330. He comments, “By the fourth century the emperor has become quasi-divine, as the monumental idealized head of Constantine . . . suggests.”

Well now. “By the fourth century“? Perhaps Freeman isn’t aware that Augustus was already more than quasi-divine, as were his successors. Perhaps he’s never heard of the cult of the emperor, or doesn’t realize that Christians were perseccuted for refusing to offer sacrifice to his genius.

Perhaps he really doesn’t know all this. Revealingly, the only entry for “persecution” in his index refers to a couple of pages describing Augustine’s views on the subject. But he does know. He mentions persecutions in his few pages on Diocletian, but insists that the Romans executed Christians very, very reluctantly, “only after every possible means of making him offer a token sacrifice to the state had been tried.” True enough; the Romans used every “means” they could find, like whipping and burning and flaying and pouring salt and vinegar in wounds. Those patient, patient Romans. Who can blame them?

But, if the emperor only became “quasi-divine” in the fourth century, implicitly with the ascendancy of Constantine, what was that “token sacrifice to the state” all about?

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, April 8, 2009 at 1:51 pm

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