Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all. 

The Spice of Religion

BrakkeGnosticsI haven’t really forgotten about the Bible. It has been such an integral part of my life that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. Going into religious studies, however, I feared New Testament studies. You see, having gotten a taste of historical criticism with good old J, E, P, and D, I was afraid what might happen if I looked Q a little too closely in the face. We now know, however, that the New Testament was just as redacted as the “Old,” and that there wasn’t a single variety of Christianity, even in the first century. I just finished David Brakke’s The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual and Diversity in Early Christianity. Brakke admits right up front that some will see him as not being radical enough, but since middle-of-the-road is a comfortable place to be, I found his introduction in the realm of the little bear, just right. The old story, perhaps originating with Irenaeus of Lyon, is that Christianity began as a monolithic faith and then came along these spoil-sports like the Gnostics and soon nobody could keep the truth straight any more. This is, of course, an over-simplification.

Religions are constantly shifting. As Brakke points out, there was no definitive Christianity when Christianity was still Jewish. Paul never calls himself a Christian, and he was, by his own declaration, Jewish. His interpretation of Jesus varies greatly from that of the eponymous John, of Gospel and Epistle fame. No, there never was a single Christianity. Probably from the very beginning there were Gnostics too. And, again with Brakke, they would have supposed they were following what was to become Christianity as well. Same world, different worldviews. They were not sinister and plotting, any more than other varieties of Christians were sinister and plotting. They were trying to live out lives in accordance with what they thought life was all about.

It has become clear over the last several decades that Christianity never really did unify into a single belief system. Constantine certainly gave it his best shot, but Christianity had spread beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire already, and heterodoxy was rife. No account of Late Antiquity can be honest without noting all the fighting going on among true believers about who was a, well, true believer. Really. Tensions existed early between eastern and western brands of Christianity and schisms became as common as missals. Nobody was really able to put Christianity back together again. In fact, this Humpty Dumpty never was an uncracked egg. I’m afraid I’m taking liberties with Brakke here, but the basic truth remains. Christianity came in its own 57 varieties, most of which didn’t blend very well. The Gnostics come out looking pretty good. That is especially the case when the proto-orthodox start gathering stones. In such a case, it is perhaps time to read the Gnostic scriptures to get a little perspective.