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Briefly Reviewed: March 2019

The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles

By Robert Knapp

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 303

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Brian Welter

In The Dawn of Christianity, Robert Knapp, professor emeritus of classics at the University of California, Berkeley, examines everyday life from 200 B.C. to the end of the first century A.D., much like an anthropologist examining a long-lost civilization, and he looks at three general religious groups: Israelites/Jews, polytheists (everyone not under Yahweh’s covenant), and Christians. Members of all three groups had distinct beliefs, and their rituals aimed to manipulate the supernatural in order to ease life and reduce anxiety about the future.

A certain diversity within these three groups shows the depth of community and individual engagement with the supernatural. The Israelites tended to argue among themselves over how best to live out the covenant. Though most readers are already familiar with first-century Jewish divisions into Samaritans, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and “God-fearers” (those who attended synagogue and worshiped one God without becoming fully Judaized through, for instance, circumcision), Knapp has much to teach with his anthropological approach. Rather than sympathizing with one group, he analyzes what members sought from God and how belief led to interaction with the supernatural.

Polytheists comprise the second major group with a long and rich tradition. Knapp finds commonalities between them and the Jews. Polytheists aimed to win a god’s favor and protection and avoid divine wrath. They accomplished this by honoring the gods through ritual, making deals with vows and sacrifices, or begging through prayer. Divination helped ascertain the god’s will for the future. Knapp discusses how Fate and Fortune fit into wider practices.

Jesus entered history during a time when prophetic messages, miracles, and magic truly were a part of life. After Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the Apostles continued to use miracles to spread His message. Knapp’s greatest insights concern early Christianity’s evolution from a Jewish sect to its losing its connection to Jewish life with the Temple’s destruction in A.D. 70. No longer able to interact with other Jews at the Temple and needing to develop a coherent theology as Jesus’ promise of imminent return hadn’t transpired, Knapp writes, early Christians turned to polytheist philosophy and culture. This made jumping from traditional beliefs to Christianity much less dramatic for polytheists, as they no longer had to adopt too many Jewish customs.

Here and elsewhere, Knapp highlights the conservative nature of ancient polytheists. Christianity’s growing similarities to polytheism — in art, the use of relics, and miracles and prayers that appear to parallel ancient polytheist magical practices — brought it success.

Knapp is no theologian and never analyzes Christianity in terms of its truthfulness or morality. He thus fails to provide the sense of historical rupture that Christ’s presence, and then the Pentecost, brought to the world. Though he shows the “Jesus movement” as one among many first- and second-century religious groups, he never discusses how the power of the Gospel led to Christianity’s rapid growth. He sees Jews and polytheists falling for a resilient and adaptable movement that gets its big break when Roman Emperor Constantine grants the religion special status. This explanation is incomplete and hardly satisfying.

Nevertheless, Knapp’s familiarity with and reference to firsthand sources, including Celsus, Tertullian, the Old and New Testaments, and the Didache, livens the discussion as he lets the ancients speak for themselves. Ever the careful historian, Knapp reminds readers that these writers represented a thin slice of the ancient world, though he does show where their words reflected truths for other classes as well.

Knapp’s lack of theological engagement with Christian belief may be off-putting to many Christian readers, but in this secular age we’ll need to become accustomed to writings that treat Christ and His grace throughout the centuries as seemingly little more than a figment of our religious imagination. Christians currently face a pagan world very similar to the one Jesus and the early Christians confronted. Knowing this makes this book an engaging read.

To Catch A King: Charles II’s Great Escape

By Charles Spencer

Publisher: William Collins

Pages: 336

Price: $27.99

Review Author: James Baresel

You would be hard-pressed to find a more paradoxical individual than Charles II, crowned king of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1649. Charles was a deathbed convert to Catholicism who had long been of Catholic inclinations, had periodically attempted to suspend his three kingdoms’ legal restrictions on the practice of the Catholic faith, and had been uncompromising in support of the royal succession of his Catholic younger brother who was, in the absence of legitimate children, his immediate hereditary heir. Yet Charles also insisted on educating children of the royal family in the Church of England and largely abandoned falsely accused Catholics to the hysteria of the fabricated “Popish Plot.”

Charles II was an adept ruler who maintained monarchal control behind the often unpenetrated façade created by his lack of interest in the details of policy implementation and by the dissolute lifestyle he maintained until he knew his end was near. He was physically brave and at times a moral coward. A figure in many ways deserving censure but also sympathy, he serves as an exemplar of those who spend a lifetime in sin before arriving at almost last-minute penitence.

Much combined to incline Charles II toward Catholicism. His mother was a Roman Catholic. His father, Charles I, sympathetic to much of Baroque Catholicism, was an adherent to High Church Anglicanism and gave strong support to its Anglo-Catholic subdivision, which has provided the Church with distinguished converts such as St. Edmund Campion, Bl. John Henry Newman, Msgr. Ronald Knox, and our contemporaries recently reconciled to Catholicism in the Anglican ordinariates established by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

Other Catholics in Charles’s family included his wife, his favorite sister, his younger brother, and his younger brother’s two wives.

At age 16 Charles went into exile due to the success of the Calvinist-dominated parliamentarian rebellion in the English Civil War. He resided in Catholic countries for much of the 14 years that passed before monarchal rule was restored in Britain. Oddly enough, even his two favorite mistresses were Catholics.

It was an age when those who lived in flagrant violation of the Church’s moral doctrines for years at a time were willing to admit their sinfulness and hoped to repent at some point in the future rather than, as is now the fashion, manufacturing excuses that would have to be condemned as vacuous and insipid even if they were not unorthodox. For example, the two most prominent mistresses of Charles’s cousin, King Louis XIV of France, died as nuns who dedicated themselves to lives of severe penance for their earlier faults.

Among the more significant factors that predisposed Charles II to look favorably on the Church was the support she had given his father during the English Civil War and the role Catholics played in saving his own life from the forces of Oliver Cromwell following the Battle of Worcester, in which the last major royalist army was destroyed a year and a half after his father had been beheaded. The story of the battle, the young king’s escape, and the important contributions made to it by Catholics is the subject of To Catch a King by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana, and uncle of the royal dukes of Cambridge and Sussex. The book is highly readable and palpably respectful of the basic goodness and sincerity of both Catholics and royalists, despite the fact that its Protestant author appears, at an ideological level, inclined toward the parliamentarians of his country’s civil wars. And, despite the book’s title, its predominant emphasis is on the king and the attempt to save his life rather than on the search for him.

To Catch a King is divided into four sections, the second of which, together with the last chapter of the book, focuses on matters of particular interest to Catholics. The first section provides the context of Charles’s escape. From 1639 to 1660 the British Isles were divided by a series of over half a dozen related conflicts collectively known as the English Civil Wars (plural), or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Most famous among these is the English Civil War (singular), or the First Civil War of 1642-1646 (in fact a civil war in both England and Scotland), which pitted King Charles I against the parliamentarians, a minority of those who held seats in the two houses of parliament and rebelled to expand parliamentary power at the expense of royal authority. The Battle of Worcester was part of the Third Civil War of 1650-1651.

The escape of King Charles is, in history and in To Catch a King, rather neatly divided into two phases. In both he was aided by a different underground network: in the first by one erected to preserve the Catholic religion (the members of which were united in their opposition to the parliamentarians though sometimes ambivalent about the royalist alternative), and in the second by one erected to advance royalist politics (in a region where royalism was dominated by Anglicans).

Catholic networks were ideally suited to hide the young king from his enemies. Persecution over much of the previous century under Elizabeth Tudor and Charles’s own grandfather, James I, had led Catholics to become experts at secret travels and concealment of those wanted by the established powers. The “priest holes” created to protect Catholic clergy from martyrdom under Charles II’s recent predecessors were turned, without thought, to saving the life of the young monarch who, if he wished, could use the information he gained to accelerate their persecution the moment he was restored to rule.

To learn the story of the king’s escape is to learn the almost unbelievable depth of Catholic charity and loyalty, and the story of one of the most impressive networks of underground Catholicism to have existed between the end of the ancient Roman persecutions and those of the 20th century. The second phase of Charles’s escape is almost as fascinating.

Most of the last section of To Catch a King focuses on the subsequent lives of those who aided the king’s escape, but the last chapter provides an account of one of the most poignant stories of entry into the Catholic Church that I have ever encountered. No man had done more to save the young king’s life after the Battle of Worcester than Fr. John Huddleston. Charles was unable to officially repeal England’s laws against Catholicism without the approval of an unwilling parliament, so he appointed Fr. Huddleston to his wife’s household, the members of which were officially protected from those laws in consequence of her status, by birth, as a princess of Portugal’s royal House of Braganza. When the dying Charles expressed his desire to repent and become a Catholic, the only English-speaking priest who could be brought to him was Fr. Huddleston.


© 2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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