BMCR 2008.03.27

Saving Shame: Martyrs, Saints, and Other Abject Subjects

, Saving shame : martyrs, saints, and other abject subjects. Divinations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. 1 online resource (xii, 193 pages).. ISBN 9780812201512 $45.00.

This book reexamines the role of shame in the development of a Christian cultural identity as established via the developing ascetic ideals of Christianity in the first seven centuries CE. Essentially, Burrus challenges the traditional thesis that in its early development, Christianity replaced public shame with private guilt as a model of social control and communal identity. Her rebuttal is that shame, rather than disappearing and being replaced by guilt, was transformed from a public to a private force in Christianity and then back to a public phenomenon that becomes the basis for both personal salvation and the conversion of non-believers. This was a very gradual transformation that began with Apostolic ideas of shame, the body, and salvation, which attempted to reconcile the public role of shame with the private notion of personal salvation. The basic idea that the human body served as a conduit between public shame and personal salvation was introduced in Apostolic literature and was then transferred to the phenomenon of martyrdom, which in turn influenced the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries. From there, these ideas were incorporated into the ascetic movements of late antiquity, where they culminated in notions of grace and salvation, which contained elements of both shame and guilt, that were passed on to Medieval and later Christian thought. In many ways this is an intensely personal book for Burrus, and she also tries to link the modern culture that seems to embrace shame as a method of social protest with the ascetic movements of the ancient and late antique Greco-Roman world.

The organization of the book is both chronological and thematic. Burrus starts with an examination of the Apocalypse of John (a late 1st/early 2nd century text) that she claims is a type of “proto-martyrdom” account. In this text the central images and characters are all female, and according to Burrus, represent an early Christian struggle to incorporate the shame of the human body into notions of spiritual salvation. The message that the author of the Apocalypse gets from his visions of the whore of Babylon, the conflicted and persecuted mother of the Lamb, and the virginal maiden of Jerusalem is that we cannot escape our shame of sin because we are fallen by nature; but by recognizing and embracing this shameful fact we can achieve grace through Christ. According to Burrus, all of these symbols also serve as an example of how early Christian thinkers were privatizing traditional notions of shame, which until this time had tended to be communal. To put it another way, prior to this strain of Christian thought, personal salvation was a public phenomenon that was linked to maintaining the mores of the community, and shame was a vehicle for keeping the citizens in line when they transgressed these values; for Christians, salvation was a more personal, private matter between the worshipper and God, but the early Apostolic literature had to put these concepts in the imagery of the public sphere that many of their converts and early worshippers would have understood.

Burrus then moves on to show how the nascent culture of martyrdom in Christianity adapted and adopted the ideas about shame and its role in salvation from Apostolic literature by examining four martyr stories from the second and third centuries that span the Greco-Roman world geographically. She does a good job of highlighting the role-reversal inherent in many martyr accounts. In the stories of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Blandina, and Vettius Epagathus, we see the martyrs becoming a type of gladiator, but not a gladiator representing traditional Greco-Roman mores, but rather an example of God’s grace here on earth. I would point out that this is an interesting parallel with the image of saints and monks as milites Christi that develop in the Late Antique period. Implicit in Burrus’s analysis of role reversal is support for the argument that Christian thinkers used elements of Greco-Roman culture and adapted them to a Christian framework, thus creating a radically new culture.

In chapter two, Burrus examines how the theology of Christology that developed in the first four centuries incorporated notions of shame inherent in the human condition. She begins with the Gospel of John and its theology of the τέλος of the λόγος being to become human in order to perfect humanity through an acknowledgement and transcendence of the human body’s inherent shamefulness. The ideas presented in John are then incorporated into Gnostic thought (the Apocryphon) and orthodox thinkers such as Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa, where they undergo a gradual transformation into what we today recognize as Nicene Orthodox Christology. Implicit in her analysis of this issue is that Christian identity is in a state of real flux during this time period, and that the theological arguments over the role of shame and public as opposed to private salvation reflect this identity struggle. There is a definite difference between the Christology of Terullian and Origen, for example, and Athanasius and Gregory that the author does not adequately explain. Burrus’s overall argument could have been made clearer if she had explicitly stated the historical context. In this instance, the crucial context to understanding her thesis lies in the conversion of Constantine and his acceptance of Christianity as a licit religion for society.

Chapter three presents one of Burrus’s more novel arguments, tying developments of Christology and martyrdom into the burgeoning ascetic movements of the late antique period. Traditional interpretations of late antique ascetic movements put the emphasis on subjecting the body to abjection in order to be free of the body and to transcend to the spiritual world in imitation of Christ. Using her interesting interpretations of John’s teleology of the λόγος and the subsequent appearance of John’s thought in the Christological debates of the second to fourth centuries, Burrus reexamines the underlying attitude of fourth to seventh century Christian ascetic ideology regarding the role of the body in salvation. She argues that embracing physical, human existence is a key to becoming closer to God and salvation. By acknowledging the inherent shame and weakness of the human condition, we are forced to confront and ultimately transcend our limitations in this form. In addition, in keeping with the imagery of spectacle that she has cultivated throughout the book, the body and our struggle with it becomes a stage for showing our devotion to God and our disdain for the temptations of this world. Among the sources she analyzes are Palladius’s Lausaic History, the career of Evagrius, and the anonymous fifth century Life of Syncletica.

Burrus closes the main body of her argument with a chapter that examines Augustine’s understanding of the role of confession in salvation, and how his understanding was transmitted to other late antique Christian theorists, most notably John Cassian. Using methodology derived from Derrida and Foucault, Burrus analyzes Augustine, Cassian, and the anonymous fifth century Life of Mary as commentaries on power relationships between elites and non-elites. In this type of analysis of Augustine, the power of God as seen through individual salvation via confession (which of course is centered on grappling with issues of shame and the body) can lead to the conversion of society, a very public act. Burrus needs to make this connection (public vs. private salvation) a bit more explicit, as to this point the shift from early public salvation to salvation as a private matter has seemed a bit confusing. Burrus then shows how Augustine’s ideas reach the public stage by linking them with the type of monasticism practiced by Cassian. For Cassian, an individual conversion based on confession is not valid unless shared with the public; the implied argument here is that those individuals who make their shame public become models that lead more people to convert, and the monastery is the new stage of spectacle showcasing Christian belief and paving the way for salvation of those who might otherwise be lost. According to Burrus, this strategy worked, and she turns to the fifth century Life of Mary as just one example of the widespread stories that show monasteries acting as very public examples of conversion via confession of shame.

In her conclusion, Burrus makes explicit how this study of the role of shame in the Christian ascetic ideals of the ancient and late-antique Greco-Roman worlds is not simply an exercise in scholarly self-indulgence. She feels that the lessons drawn from her analysis are very relevant to today’s culture. Explicitly she compares modern America with the late Roman empire—both are cultures that have grown too large to be governed by a shared, communal understanding of shame, yet at the same time this loss of a sense of shame is so powerful and pervasive that it crosses as well as establishes new cultural boundaries, and thus must be understood and harnessed. I laud Ms. Burrus for attempting to find a practical application for a seemingly “arcane” historical topic, though I do find it a bit ironic that she relies so heavily on a post-modern/ deconstructionist methodology to do so. By this I mean that the basic tenets of a deconstructionist methodology hold that in assessing ideas and events, scholars must ignore the historical context of said ideas and events and study these phenomena in and of themselves. A logical corollary to this type of approach is that there can then really be no universal truths or “practical” lessons to draw from studying ideas and events. Yet the opposite of this is precisely what Burrus argues about the evolution of shame; shame for Burrus is a universal ideal that transcends any particular historical contexts but that nevertheless has a universal application for any society.

One of the strengths of Burrus’s scholarship is her suggestion that early Christian thinkers relied heavily on the idea of spectacle (through martyrdom and monasticism) as a way for the transmission of Christian ideas to a Greco-Roman audience. In this area she builds upon recent scholarship by the likes of Alison Futrell that show how public spectacle becomes a vehicle for communication and consensus-building between elites and the masses. This aspect of Burrus’s study is an area that cries out for more in-depth study, particularly on the efficacy of martyrdom and monasticism as tools of conversion. In addition, Burrus builds upon another trend in recent scholarship that tends to see the relationship between Christian and “classical” culture as a gradual, symbiotic process, a much-needed reprieve from some of the more polemical, Christian vs. “pagan” scholarship that at times can dominate the field.

The biggest weakness of the book is that, by ignoring the basic historical contexts surrounding them, she does not explore the practical implications of the ideologies she uncovers. She could be more explicit, for example, on how and why the idea of shame underwent a transformation from the eremitic to the cenobitical forms of monasticism. Along the same lines, even though she prudently acknowledges the role that geographical location plays in the ideological development of shame and grace, there is still implied in her argument that there is a sameness or uniformity to Christian thought that did not necessarily exist at that time. Specifically, I wondered about the various heretical sects of Christian thought as I read. She mentions Gnosticism, but then downplays some really interesting differences between Gnostic and Orthodox ideology that deserve to be explored. On a final note, Burrus is a bit unclear on why the ideas of shame, the body, and salvation, which are so much a part of the Christian public identity in the Apostolic literature and martyrdom accounts, suddenly become private matters with an almost abstract, theological inclination beginning in the late second century, and then change back to a very public phenomenon during the late antique period. It is here that her lack of clarity in explicitly linking her findings to their historical contexts is most glaring.

In closing, Virginia Burrus has written a monograph that is a worthy addition to the scholarly corpus on Christian identity-formation in the Greco-Roman and late antique periods. I would not classify her findings as groundbreaking, but they certainly will give scholars pause to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions that we often bring to the study of this topic and period. Her work shows that there is still plenty of intellectual room to roam in the landscape of Greco-Roman and late antique Christian scholarship.