Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire

by Averil Cameron, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

Cameron writes a wonderful book, illustrating the Christian impact on the Roman Empire through words and ritual.  Culturally, the early church was ‘in the midst of an intense interest in discussion, the expression of ideas, Christianity . . . placed an extraordinary pressure on verbal formulation’ (p 19).  ‘Christians built themselves a new world. They did so partly through practise…. The evolution of a mode of living and a communal discipline . . . and partly through a discourse that was itself constantly brought under control and discipline’ (p. 21).  She examines the role of rhetoric (‘a totalizing discourse’), ‘how Christian discourse made its impact on society ‘at large, and how it was itself transformed and shaped the endeavour…a two way process in which both sides (the Roman world, Christian discourse) are changing’ (p. 43).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Cameron uses rhetoric not in a technical sense but as ‘characteristic means or way of experience (p 13), ‘denoting the manner and circumstances that promote persuasion’ (p. 20).  ‘Christian rhetoric increasingly moved into central areas of political discourse. . . .  Christian writers used and assimilated to their own purposes the rhetorical modes that had been the preserve of the educated elite’ (p 152).  Christianity came to be noted as ‘a religion of books’, and Christian discourse achieved the position of chief critic and arbiter of culture (p. 222).  Christians sought to legitimize their newly found political power and to ensure its transmission to future generations, and to share the stories, the lives of saints, stories that were a ‘repertoire of symbolic evocation’ (p. 84).  Christianity is a religion of books (Christians were the first to use primarily codices, bound sheets, not papyrus rolls) and rhetoric was the means of articulating a religion by its storytelling and its political analysis, and this book stresses the contribution of language to the church’s mission.  The church changed the shape of Roman culture by its attention to the foundation and possibility of language.