Metaphor and Its Limits – By Ellen Muehlberger

Ellen Muehlberger on Douglas Boin’s Coming Out Christian in the Roman World

Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, Bloomsbury, 2015, 224pp., $28
Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World, Bloomsbury, 2015, 224pp., $28

Douglas Boin starts his new book by revealing a secret about himself: though he is an archaeologist of the early Roman empire and has studied the history of Christian communities like that in the Roman port of Ostia, early Christians themselves make him “uncomfortable.” As a scholar trained to enjoy Homer, to take pleasure in the clever arguments of Roman senators, Boin finds Christians to be “an impenetrable clique, obstinately different,” even “pathological” for the “way they stick together as a group.” When presented with the grandeur of ancient Rome, he wonders, why would anyone choose to turn away from its ideals? Why would Christians be so willful and strident in their opposition to Rome’s beautiful life?

He admits that part of his prejudice was inspired by the way other historians have depicted early Christians and the story of Christianity’s rise. It is an improbable story: a small apocalyptic cult forms around the memory of an executed leader and, though that leader fails to reappear as promised, his followers over the course of four hundred years become an accepted religion and eventually the most dominant cultural force in the Roman Empire. The earliest explanation for this success was offered by Christians themselves, who thought that Christianity could not help but take over the world, because its divine truth so obviously surpassed the false, limp religions of Rome. The eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon avoided the question of religious truth when he offered a different explanation in his famous book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Christians succeeded in making the Roman Empire theirs because they simply refused any other outcome. Their intolerance of others, their insistence on a Christian-centered identity, and their zeal to convert their neighbors to this way of thinking was a powerful force — so powerful, the tragic narrative goes, that even the great idea of Rome, the eternal city, could not hold out against it. For Gibbon and the many historians who followed in his line of thinking, these strident Christians are the people who forced Roman religion and Roman culture out of favor, and they are the ones that make Boin “uneasy.”

Were such Christians the real force behind Christianity’s eventual dominance in the late ancient world? Boin’s answer in Coming Out Christian is “no.” There must have been other Christians, less opinionated and less visible, whose engagement with Roman culture was what led to Christianity’s success. It was because of them that co-emperors Licinius and Constantine issued a decree in 313 C.E. granting legitimacy to Christianity. These other Christians have not drawn the attention of historians in the way that more aggressive writers like Ignatius of Antioch or Tertullian have but, as Boin implores the reader on several occasions, “it’s time we listened to all of them.” To tune our ears to such Christians, we need to use as a metaphor the concept of coming out — in our time, the process of revealing one’s true sexual orientation (or, more recently, one’s true gender); as Boin applies it to the ancient world, the process of allowing one’s Christian identity to be seen by others.

Boin’s ambitions for this metaphor are grand, if signals from the start of Coming Out Christian are any indication. A quotation from John Lewis Gaddis, planted at the head of the book like a flag, tells us that in “science, history, and art,” any pursuit of new knowledge “depends on metaphor.” The introduction then casually mentions only two historians, who we follow as they walk among the ruins of ancient Rome, touching her material remains and explaining Christianity’s triumph over her. One is Edward Gibbon, the English historian I mentioned before and whose view the book rejects. The other is Boin himself. The claims to grandness grow louder outside the book, in the online ephemera meant to herald its arrival. In the week leading up to its release, Bloomsbury tweeted that the book “overturns centuries of misunderstanding.” In the week after its release, Boin published a teaser article at The Huffington Post (“How Christianity Really Started”) in which he claims that seeing the ancient world through the lens of coming out changes “virtually everything we have been taught about Christianity.”

Metaphors are excellent tools for comprehension, to be sure. Seeing a familiar pattern in what is unfamiliar is often the first step toward understanding something new; that pattern can be a handle to hold on to as we explore new and unpredictable territory. Metaphors are able to do this work because they are similar to the target to be explained, but they are by design not identical. Two things are compared, but the two are never a perfect match. Every metaphor comes with limits, places where it stops yielding information, and that is just a feature of the tool: no metaphor can truly account for the thing it is said to be like.

As Boin works through his narrative, the vocabulary of modern sexual orientation — its essentiality, its realization, and its revelation to others — is used to account for historical developments in early Christianity. The language of “coming out,” of “passing,” of “being closeted” is applied to ancient people without any analytical translation that could accommodate the long jump from the modern to the ancient world. Boin depicts the strident Christians who shouted their Christianity from the rooftops, demanding that others recognize them as “queer” and acquiesce to their rejection of normative Roman culture. But then there were “the quieter ones,” those who were Christian on the inside but lived “hyphenated lives,” understanding as they did that being Christian was a matter of “juggling” more than one identity and choosing when to reveal what and to whom. Though some had “public pride” about their identity as Christians, others “were still stepping gingerly around family and friends,” because as Christians, they “had not yet worked out their identity issues.” I cite all of these phrases from the first few chapters of the book in quick succession to give a sense of how much they determine the book’s approach. Instead of being a helpful handle to hold as we explore the complexities of ancient Christianity — a metaphor with acknowledged limitations — “coming out” and the history of gayness that the term imports provide both the vocabulary and the implicit framework for representing Christianity in the ancient world.

Every metaphor comes with limits, places where it stops yielding information, and that is just a feature of the tool: no metaphor can truly account for the thing it is said to be like.

One could think of all of these as just instances of the author being clever — oh, the satire, or even the camp, that lies latent in describing ancient Christians as if they were twentieth-century homosexuals! — but Boin clearly means to do more than just provoke. The concept of “coming out” is necessary to his argument, as it provides the solution to the unresolved historical problem that sits uncomfortably at the center of the book. That problem is simple: if quieter Christians did exist, they left very little evidence of their carefully-calibrated lives. In fact, evidence of Christianity of any sort, strident or respectable, is rather thin for the first three centuries of the common era. But, if there were masses of Christians who simply chose not to be public about their identities — that is, Christians were careful about when and whether they “came out” — then that problem goes away.

Consider this vignette. In chapter three, “The New Neighbors Who Moved In Next Door,” Boin wonders why, if the apostle Paul established a community of Christians at Corinth, there is no evidence (beyond the letters compiled in 1 and 2 Corinthians) that they ever existed. He reasons that it is not because the group was insignificant, or because Paul’s correspondents were members of a minor movement only beginning to conceive of itself as a unique entity, or because all such Corinthians were poor and thus unlikely to leave a material mark on the historical record. It is instead because

All of them, especially the wealthier ones, chose what to reveal about themselves — to their friends, to their neighbors (and consequently, to us) — so as not to attract unwarranted suspicion about who they were. Not all of Jesus’s followers were martyrs. Many of them lived in the closet, and that’s why we can’t find them.

The closet here has stopped being a metaphor and has become an earnest explanation of the lack of evidence for a Christian community in Corinth. Of course they were there, and they identified as Christians, but we cannot see them because they decided to conceal this identity and to blend in.

In this and in another chapter, “The Quieter Ones,” Boin marshals as much evidence as he can about this group of Christians: four named people, along with several nebulous groups, all of whom we know about because of the complaints that louder Christians made about them and their lukewarm ways. I think it is because Boin recognizes the thinness of this evidence that he adds two more chapters about other minority groups who gain political capital by engaging with, rather than rejecting, Roman ideals; for him, the devotees of the Egyptian goddess Isis as well as Jews both show how respectable, “quieter ones” may have gained influence in Roman society.

He may well be right. Non-strident Christians may have had a significant positive effect on the perceptions that non-Christians held about Christianity. But there is so little evidence for such a claim that it is almost impossible to discuss. And trying to locate these Christians by importing a modern set of terms as if they describe an ancient reality comes at a heavy cost. Trusting in the metaphor of coming out to explain the lack of evidence for the early Christian movement leads Boin to write in ways that make “Christian” out to be a fully realized identity that its users could deploy at will, for their own self-preservation, even as early as the first century; any other identity is less realized and can be discarded if the user does not need it any more. This is not, of course, an explicit claim of the book, but it is the freight that comes with the vocabulary of “coming out,” which is conventionally (though not uncontroversially) understood as a strategic revelation of the truth of one’s core self.

Readers become especially attuned to the burden of that freight when Boin speaks about how Christians deal with other identities they might have or use. In chapter two, he explains that in the second century, “Jesus’s followers were arguing over whether to identify as ‘Christians’ or to keep identifying as a Jewish group,” an observation which suggests that appearing Jewish was a consciously adopted ruse. Later in that same chapter, he tells the story of two soldiers in Spain who happened to be Christian yet participated in a small sacrifice for the emperor. Boin’s coming out metaphor forces a single perspective on these men and their actions: they were truly Christians but “found a way to tone down their identity to appear less threatening.” To pull this off meant one had to be a “skilled juggler, able to embrace Roman culture without any qualms about sacrificing the essentials of his faith.” The third chapter discusses a carved gem that depicts the crucifixion on one side and has names “conjured up from an underground world of hexes, curses, and spells” on the other. Such an object is not, in this model, evidence of a Christian practice that should expand our view of ancient Christianity. Rather it “shows us two Roman subcultures overlapping: the followers of Jesus and the practitioners of magic.”

But the followers of Jesus often were practitioners of what some people might call “magic.” They were also, many of them, what we would call Jewish; in a way, they were all Roman, too. How such identities came to be thought of as different and mutually exclusive is a fascinating story, but in this book, they are essentially different already. “Christian” is the only true and non-negotiable identity. If “Christian” appears to us to overlap with any other category we might apply to ancient society, it is only because the Christian involved has decided to “pass,” or to “build bridges,” to soften his real identity in order to appear as something safer. That is, the coming out metaphor perversely confirms the essentiality of “Christian” in the ancient world. It is deep, while other identities are just surface.

As conservative as this book is about this question of identity, it is even more conservative about the cause of Christianity’s political success. The process by which Christians gained a place in the Roman Empire peaks when the emperor Constantine “comes out Christian” himself. The story told here about Constantine follows closely the lines first traced by Constantine’s biographer, Eusebius. He was the first to speak of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity; he is the one who tells the story of the sign that appears in the sky and brings Constantine victory in battle; he is the first to interpret the declaration of 313 C.E. as a confirmation of Christianity’s ascendance; he is also the historian who preserves the speech known as the “Oration to the Saints,” which figures heavily in Boin’s reconstruction of Constantine’s coming out. But the matter of whether, when, and in what sense Constantine was Christian is not simple. The idea that a single person, even an emperor, can change an entire culture is controversial. The material evidence from Constantine’s reign strongly suggests that he had a far more complex relationship with Christianity than Eusebius’s triumphant narrative allows. And, when one looks closely, even Constantine’s motivations for issuing the 313 declaration with Licinius are maddeningly opaque.

As conservative as this book is about this question of identity, it is even more conservative about the cause of Christianity’s political success.

All such nuance is lost in the model of “coming out,” where Constantine is figured as a “an emperor who was openly Christian” and “a living sign that, at least for this one minority group in Rome, things could and did get better.” In this way, despite the fact that all sorts of non-Christian religious imagery and practice continued to be part of Roman culture under Constantine and after him, Boin reassures us that the emperor’s true identity can be known because Constantine himself had revealed it: “One thing’s for sure: it’s not as if Constantine was trying to pass as something he was not….[he] had come out Christian.”

Agape Feast. The Greek Chapel of the Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Agape Feast. The Greek Chapel of the Catacombe di Priscilla, Rome. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The limits of the coming out metaphor become even more clear when we think beyond the religious expression of a single person and begin to think of the rise of Christian tradition over time. Despite the intimate view of Constantine’s subjectivity that it seems to give us, the metaphor of coming out does not explain how the presence of closeted, moderate Christians in the first three centuries motivated Constantine to grant them the status of a legitimate religion. Did such Christians do their work behind the scenes, organizing deftly to change the emperor’s mind? Was Constantine impressed by their quiet, almost Roman, decorum? And what can account for the next hundred years after Constantine, in which emperors and other Christians really do convert their neighbors when they can and advocate the use of compulsion to do so?

The last two chapters of Coming Out Christian attempt to engage this phase of Christianity. They explain that the violence that ascendant Christians committed against other religions — indexed by the destruction of the synagogue at Callinicum in 388 and the Serapeum or Temple of Serapis in Alexandria in 391 — was the result of those too-strident Christians who insisted that militancy and intolerance were the only dispositions a true Christian could have toward others. Are such late antique Christians to be understood as insisting that all Christians should be out and proud, and thus as people who drag persistently moderate Christians out of the closet? And how, after so much change inaugurated by “the quiet ones” did the louder ones take over and force the public culture of the later empire — dominated by Christianity — to be one giant in-your-face pride parade? These last questions are absurd, of course, but they point to where the metaphor of coming out breaks down as an explanation of ancient religious change, particularly for the time immediately after Constantine.

All metaphors have their limits. What, then, is the harm if this one does not live up to its hype? In its reliance on a single, uncomplicated move — applying the language of a modern phenomenon to an ancient one — Coming Out Christian bears a resemblance to a genre of writing that, to my knowledge, has not yet been named but is ubiquitous, especially in new media journalism. This genre depends on the belief that subjects that appear difficult to understand are not, in reality, difficult at all. They simply require a shift in perspective, a tip, a tiny key to unlock them.

This genre treats all kinds of topics, from the very serious to the merely selfish: the list of lifehacks that promise to make airplane travel magically easy is, in a certain way, a cousin to the large x-ray screen that demonstrates the futility of racism, ageism, and homophobia to a beaming street audience; though they occupy a very different register, these are both distant relatives of the ad that promises to get rid of belly fat using one weird trick. In reality, air travel is boring and tiresome; bigotry is so deeply embedded in our culture that it cannot possibly be eradicated with one video, heartfelt though it is; and everyone wants to be rid of their gut, but the truth is that adult human beings have belly fat. Even though we know on some level that difficult problems never have easy answers, this genre of writing — call it tipsterism, new perspectivalism, or hackstoriography — is still very attractive. If it seems unfair to group Coming Out Christian with this kind of writing, I direct readers to the listicle Boin rendered from the book and posted to Buzzfeed in the run-up to the book’s release, titled “Six Things about Jesus’ Followers that Will Sound Familiar to the LBGT Community.” Its message is that if contemporary Christians who want to discriminate against LGBT people would only look at their past, they would see that they, too, were once discriminated against; for their part, LGBT readers can “savor the ultimate irony” of knowing this about early Christians even as some contemporary Christians seek to discriminate against them.

Even though we know on some level that difficult problems never have easy answers, this genre of writing — call it tipsterism, new perspectivalism, or hackstoriography — is still very attractive.

Writers want their work to be attractive, of course, but they also try to educate, to entice readers to consider ideas more ramified and complex than what they previously knew. Boin certainly aims to educate; it is clear he wants to guide a broad group of readers to a new understanding of early Christianity. But Coming Out Christian works against such an education because it falls prey to the convention of the genre I described. It trains its audience to see early Christians as a mysterious and special movement whose history — at first glance, disturbingly complex — is actually quite clear and comprehensible, if only one uses a certain, slightly improbable metaphor.

Because that metaphor is here applied without provisions, it takes away the hard, open-ended questions we as writers should be leading audiences to consider, like “What was a ‘Christian’ and when did people start thinking of themselves that way?” and “How and when was ‘Christian’ understood as different from ‘Jewish’ and ‘Roman’?” Or “Is what we call Christianity even a recognizable thing in the first few centuries?” and “Do emperors really change history, or are their actions just a convenient icon for much larger processes?” And the question undergirding all of these: “What answers can we possibly have for these questions given the fact that most of the evidence we would use to answer them survives because it was selected by later Christians, who had a particular narrative about how their religion came to be?”

The questions I’ve just raised are not simple, but they are important, whether one asks them only to understand the ancient world or also to gain insight on the modern world by comparison. None of these questions can even be contemplated in an intellectual project that depends on a metaphor to do the work of investigation, analysis, and persuasion. Seeing that something unfamiliar bears a familiar pattern is the first step in comprehension, but it should not be the last. When we invite readers to join in thinking about topics as significant as religion, identity, and political power, we can offer them deeper, more cautious, and even more strenuous exploration.