Review: Jonathan Wright: "Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church"
Title: Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church
Author: Jonathan Wright
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Genre: Christian History
Jonathan Wright believes the majority of modern folks in the western world are less likely than ever to believe "religious heresy" exists as something worthy of pursuing. Belief in heresy, he says, is today's heresy; a theological no-no in a pluralistic society. Without lamenting the lack of literal witch hunts, Wright fears we might forget "the creative role that heresy has played" in the history of Christianity. "Oddly, heresy was one of the best things that ever happened to orthodox Christianity" (8). To keep the (metaphorical) flame of heresy alive, Wright "utilize[s] the history of heresy as an extraordinary prism. It shows us what happens when a fledgling, persecuted faith turns into a politically sanctioned, world-girdling religion; it takes us deep inside the engine rooms of Christian power; and, above all else, it reveals just how fascinating, supple, and boisterous Christianity has been" (12).
Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is a "primer" on the subject of religious-dynamism-through-heresy. Wright has a doctorate in history from Oxford University but wrote this book for a popular audience. Here he forgoes meticulous source-grinding in favor of an entertaining, sweeping narrative containing stories of various heretics and their followers from the time of the early Christian Church up until (approximately) Vatican II in the 1960s.
At the same time Wright hopes to dispatch some popular (though historically useful) myths. Above all he counters those who "construct a narrative of heresy populated by heroes and villains: the nasty, ingenuity-smiting church versus the plucky, freethinking heretics" (9). A closer look at the records, he says, cautions us against this simple vision of brave freethinkers who stood courageously against tyrannical ecclesiastical authorities. It prevents us from passing "Olympian judgments" on the past (296). By showing the historical situatedness of various heresies we might be more cautious with our own accusations.
Beginning with the growth of Gnosticism in the early Church the book follows various individuals and movements deemed heretical by the emerging consensus of Christian authority.
Today we're more ready to remember the "cruelties and crusades" depicting the worst excesses of religion in the face of heresy Wright notes, but we ought not forget the "cathedrals and cantatas" produced by heresy as well (294). While other better narratives on individual heretics may be available compared to his book, Wright indicates the motive behind his construction: "The history of Christian heresy should make us think long and hard about how human beings construct their belief systems and how they react to those with whom they disagree. It should make us interrogate our ways of analyzing that process. It should be a battlefield and no one should emerge unscathed, and that includes me" (295, emphasis Wright's). The excess, he notes, is not the whole story. "Confronting the past on its own terms is much more difficult, but a little humility goes a long way" (296).
Thus, because heresy is dynamic and can ultimately be constructive, Wright concludes the book with a call to embrace its existence: "We should have a few heretics and purveyors of orthodoxy in our lives, and we should relish the possibility of being a heretical or orthodox thorn in someone else's side...in the places that really matter" (302). "So yes, please, send in the heretics. Don't bother. They're here" (302). In this brave call I think Wright overlooks some of the real heartache felt by some of today's perceived heretics, as when a family breaks apart or a friend is lost. He also overlooks still-existent extremism that results in real violence in the world (although his story demonstrates how heresy and social/political considerations often go hand in hand—a welcome but unexplicated corrective to those who don't understand why a derogatory cartoon can spark violence). Wright calls for further comparative studies looking at Islam, Judaism, and an even deeper look at various Christianities (293). I would add that another study could explore how "heresy" has shifted to the university, workplace, and even the political sphere. His limited use of Mormonism—to juxtapose the American ideals of religious liberty with the reality of on-the-ground persecutions—shows the sometimes-problematic nature of such a sweeping, popular overview. After describing the Missouri extermination order he ends on an unfootnoted ominous phrase: "more tragic still, the Mormons themselves proved more than capable of inflicting violent outrages on their opponents" (275).
Above all, Wright's book of poignant tales, rafts of caveats, and confusing and difficult theological disagreements is a polemic against quiet conformity and authoritarian squashing. "What we should avoid [in thinking of heresy] is any concept of an ethically nourishing, millennia-long moral conflict in which individual freedom was pitted against authoritarian repression. The terms of such a narrative (and the outrage it provokes) are our own. If we adopt it, we run the risk of promoting an unhelpfully triumphalist perspective in which our moral assumptions (every bit as contingent and historically determined as those of our forebears) are mistaken for superior inevitabilities: stupid old them, we might say, and wonderfully evolved new us. This really won't do" (11-12).
If you're looking for an easy story of heroes and villains or good versus evil, you won't find it in Wright's book. You might find a little bit of both in yourself as you read, though. That's what really makes this book worth reading.