Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Travis W. Proctor's "Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture"

Travis W. Proctor is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University. His research has appeared in academic journals such as the Journal of Early Christian Studies, Harvard Theological Review, and Journal of Ecclesiastical History, as well as public venues including Religion Dispatches, The Bart Ehrman Blog, and the “Tell Me Something I Don't Know” podcast. His work has garnered numerous awards, including from the Society of Biblical Literature and the Research Center for International and Interdisciplinary Theology at Heidelberg University.

Proctor applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book analyzes the role of demons and ancient gender stereotypes in the early Christian writer Justin Martyr’s scathing critique of the rulers of the Roman Empire of his day (i.e., the Antonine Dynasty). I note that Justin, who wrote a “defense” of Christianity in the 2nd century CE, argues that the rulers are not the wise paragons of manly virtue that they portray themselves to be in their imperial propaganda, but the unwitting dupes of demons, the hidden evil forces that lurked in the ancient Christian cosmos. These demons, Justin argues, have tricked the Roman emperors into worshipping the wrong gods and into unjustly persecuting Christians.

This has significance, I argue, for Justin’s gendered portrayal of the emperors: he subverts their claims to idealized masculinity by portraying them as passive, weak, and foolish. Justin accomplishes this portrayal by associating the emperors with demons, which Justin depicts elsewhere as the epitome of irrationality and foolishness. Thus, Justin shapes the portrayal of his human opponents in and through a concomitant portrayal of nonhuman (demonic) entities.

“Justin’s criticisms of the Roman emperors,” I conclude, “emerge as part of his broader construction of an interconnected ecology of cosmic bodies, including those of God, humans, demons, and even plants and animals.”

The Page 99 Test works remarkably well for my book. While the details of most of the page are distinctive to this chapter – i.e., the detailed discussion of Justin Martyr and his ire at the Roman elite – the analysis and concluding summary encapsulate nicely the overarching argument of the book. By reading this page, the reader would get a good sense of my book’s general method and argument.

Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture uses case studies on New Testament gospels, early Christian apologists, and other early Christian writings to analyze how ancient Christians constructed particular bodily attributes or behaviors (e.g., sexual immorality, gluttony, non-Christian religious practice) as “demonic” in order to demarcate the proper nature and performance of Christian corporeality. The Gospel of Mark, for example, constructs demons as debilitated bodiless entities that desire to inhabit the idealized flesh-and-spirit bodies of humans, a plight which can only be remedied by the exorcistic performances of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers (Chapter One). Clement of Alexandria, on the other hand, argues that demons are animalistic and gluttonous creatures, and thus insists that Christians take up ascetic lifestyles to avoid such demonic habits (Chapter Four). Christians fashioned the contours of the human body, then, within and among other cosmic forces, a point important not only for Christian conceptions of embodiment, but for the materialization of the Christian body through ritual practice (e.g., exorcism, dietary regimes). In this way, Demonic Bodies stresses how the Christian body materialized as part of broader human-nonhuman ecologies.
Learn more about Demonic Bodies and the Dark Ecologies of Early Christian Culture at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue