For CLR Forum readers attending the AALS Meeting in New Orleans this weekend, the annual Lumen Christi Conference on Christian Legal Thought will take place on Saturday, January 5. This year’s meeting will focus on a recent statement on the nature of law by Evangelical and Catholic scholars and will include speakers from non-Christian perspectives as well. Details are here.
Brown, “Through the Eye of a Needle”
As a break from grading exams over the last couple of weeks, I worked my way through Peter Brown’s immense new work, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West (Princeton 2012). Brown is the greatest living historian of late antiquity, and in this work he sets out to show how the Christian church gradually attracted the rich and powerful in the century or so following the conversion of Constantine. According to Brown, it was Christianity’s ability to attract the Roman super rich, rather than the moderately wealthy people who had made up the bulk of the pre-Constantinian church, that really “marks the turning point in the Christianization of Europe” — not the conversion of Constantine itself, which had little immediate effect on Roman society. It’s a useful lesson for law and religion scholars, who tend to assume, the way lawyers do, that official acts like Constantine’s are the most important force in social change. Brown’s erudition is incredible and the book offers many insights about late Roman culture and society. Many readers will love the immersion in the past — though, candidly, some might think Brown’s obsessive attention to detail occasionally detracts from the sweep of his narrative. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Jesus taught his followers that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Yet by the fall of Rome, the church was becoming rich beyond measure. Through the Eye of a Needle is a sweeping intellectual and social history of the vexing problem of wealth in Christianity in the waning days of the Roman Empire, written by the world’s foremost scholar of late antiquity.
Peter Brown examines the rise of the church through the lens of money and the challenges it posed to an institution that espoused the virtue of poverty and called avarice the root of all evil. Drawing on the writings of major Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome, Brown examines the controversies and changing attitudes toward money caused by the influx of new wealth into church coffers, and describes the spectacular acts of divestment by rich donors and their growing influence in an empire beset with crisis. He shows how the use of wealth for the care of the poor competed with older forms of philanthropy deeply rooted in the Roman world, and sheds light on the ordinary people who gave away their money in hopes of treasure in heaven.
Through the Eye of a Needle challenges the widely held notion that Christianity’s growing wealth sapped Rome of its ability to resist the barbarian invasions, and offers a fresh perspective on the social history of the church in late antiquity.
Bratt, “Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat”
Dutch neo-Calvinism has had a major, though understudied, impact on American thinking about church and state. And one can see the influence of one of neo-Calvinism’s greatest minds, Abraham Kuyper, in the “Souvereiniteit in Eigen Kring,” or “sphere sovereignty,” legal pluralist scholarship of writers like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Paul Horwitz, Richard Garnett, and, at perhaps a somewhat greater distance, Frederick Schauer. This full-scale biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans 2013), by James D. Bratt (Calvin College), will be of special interest to students of neo-Calvinist influence in contemporary political thought. The publisher’s description follows.
In this first full-scale English biography of Abraham Kuyper, the highly influential religious and political leader of Dutch Calvinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, historian James D. Bratt draws connections between the life and thought of Kuyper and current debates in America today. Bratt’s study covers Kuyper’s early years, his development as a person, his various leadership roles and spheres of influence, and the considerable ongoing impact of his ideas.
A convinced Calvinist and a distinctly modern public figure, Kuyper held a wide variety of roles over the course of his life — minister, newspaper editor, educational innovator, politician, religious reformer, and prime minister of the Netherlands (1901-1905). Kuyper’s life demonstrates how devotees of any faith can carry on a responsible public life in contention — and concert — with people of other convictions.
Scherer, “Beyond Church and State”
Secularism and “post-secularism” studies have been big over the last few years (just click on the “Secularism” tag below for a small sampling), and it looks like they will continue to attract scholarly attention in 2013. Here’s an interesting looking entry in the field, Beyond Church and State: Religion, Politics, and Democracy (Cambridge University Press 2013), by Matthew Scherer (Union College, New York). The publisher’s description follows.
Secularism is often imagined in Thomas Jefferson’s words as “a wall of separation between Church & State.” Religion, Politics, and Democracy moves past that standard picture to argue that secularism is a process that reshapes both religion and politics. Borrowing a term from religious traditions, the book goes further to argue that this process should be understood as a process of conversion. Matthew Scherer studies Saint Augustine, John Locke, John Rawls, Henri Bergson, and Stanley Cavell to present a more accurate picture of what secularism is, what it does, and how it can be reimagined to be more conducive to genuine democracy.